When Kate emerged from the bathroom at the Shell station, she felt sticky. It was overcast, warm, and very humid, which made it difficult to believe that a blizzard was engulfing half the country.
Joe was leaning against the front bumper. He’d removed his tie and stripped down to shirtsleeves, which he’d rolled up. His arms were crossed over his chest, and his biceps, Kate could not help noticing, were bulging against the fabric of his shirt. What did he do, spend every spare minute in a gym?
If a girl was going to be caught up in a catastrophe, it didn’t hurt to be caught up with a guy as handsome as Joe… Somebody. Even if he did exhibit some Typical Male-ish tendencies from time to time.
But he looked good with his dark hair and blue eyes, and Kate, out of habit, smiled at him. Joe seemed surprised by her smile for some reason, and his gaze flicked over her face… lingering a moment too long on her mouth. “All better?” he asked.
“Much. Are you ready?”
“Baby, I was ready an hour ago,” he said casually, and pushed off the bumper of the rental car.
“I’m just going to move my bag first,” Kate said as she walked to the passenger side of the car. “There’s not enough room for me and this.”
She reached down to the floorboard and attempted to lift the bag with two hands, but it was wedged in.
“Here, I’ll get it.”
She hadn’t heard Joe come up behind her and abruptly straightened up and twisted about, knocking into him when she did. Yep. His body was as hard as a turtle shell, just like she’d guessed. She blinked up at him as he reached around her and lifted the bag out. He tossed it onto the floor behind the front passenger seat. “What is in that thing, anyway?” he asked as he walked around the back of the car to the driver’s side.
“Work,” she said, sliding into the passenger seat.
Joe started the car. “What kind of work?”
“I am an editor,” Kate said proudly. “Well, assistant editor,” she amended. “But on track to be a full editor.”
“What, like books?”
No, like nursery rhymes. “Yes. Like books.”
He glanced at her and smiled wryly. “You don’t have to say it like I am one step above a cow on the food chain.”
“I didn’t say it like you were one step above a cow,” she said pertly, although she was aware that she had.
“What kind of books?” he asked.
Kate sat a little straighter in her seat as he pulled out of the parking lot. “Women’s fiction.”
“Women’s fiction,” he repeated carefully. “Would that be fiction about women?”
“It’s fiction about relationships. And love. That sort of thing.”
Joe gave her a dubious look. “You mean romance novels,” he said, as if he’d just figured out a complicated puzzle. “What do they call them? Bodice rippers.” He laughed.
“First of all, they are not only romance, and secondly, that is so ignorant,” Kate said. “It’s a cliché, and you wouldn’t say it if you actually bothered to read one.”
“What makes you think I haven’t read one?”
“Have you?” she demanded.
“No!” he said with a laugh as if that was ridiculous. “I don’t read,” he added. “I mean, tech manuals, yes. But not books.” He laughed again as if the mere suggestion was ludicrous. “Especially not books about relationships. I’d rather watch sports.”
“Do you know how primitive you sound right now?” Kate said.
“Why? Because I would rather watch sports than read about other people having sex?” He winked at her. “See, I don’t need to read about it.”
Kate rolled her eyes. “And what do you do, Mr. Never Cracked a Book?”
“Hey, I take issue with that,” he said with playful bravado. “I’ve cracked a few books in my time. I’m in technology, which—and this may surprise you—actually requires a fairly high level of reading comprehension. I create security systems for banks.”
“Knew it,” Kate said pertly.
“That you were probably in something like technology.”
“What’s that mean?” he asked. “Why did you think that?”
He looked so genuinely surprised that Kate couldn’t help but laugh. “Because you’re like an IT guy. You know.”
“No, I do not know,” he said waspishly. “I do not fit the stereotype, and frankly, I don’t know anyone in my field who does.”
“So now you are offended by stereotypes?” Kate laughed. “That figures.”
“You don’t like stereotypes. And I’m saying not all romance books fit the stereotype of bodice ripper, either.”
Joe grinned. “Okay. Touché. I won’t judge a bodice ripper by its cover until I read one. Who knows? It could happen.”
Kate laughed. “No, it couldn’t.”
Joe grinned, too—a warm, charming smile—and winked at her. “You’re probably right. But I will reserve judgment just the same.”
“Thank you,” she said graciously.
“So tell me something, Kate. What is it about IT guys that get such a bad rap? I think we’re kind of fun, actually.”
Kate didn’t get the chance to answer—her phone beeped. She picked it up and read the text message: Mom says air controller strike. Maybe good reason to call it off?
“What is the matter with her?” Kate demanded of no one, and dialed Lisa’s number.
“I knew you’d call,” Lisa said somberly.
“What the hell, Lisa?” Kate said sternly. “Why are you suddenly so unsure of everything? Just two weeks ago you were telling me that Kiefer was the best thing that ever happened to you. Are you going to tell me that now, after four years, in the space of two weeks he has gone from perfect to you wanting to call it off?”
“No! Sort of,” Lisa moaned. “I don’t know, Kate—I just have this bad feeling that he doesn’t really want to marry me.”
“Why? Why why why?” Kate asked angrily.
“Okay, like the other day,” Lisa said. “I was trying to get him to help me with the drink menu for the rehearsal dinner. I mean, it’s his responsibility, but do you think he has taken charge? Nooo. So I said, okay, this has to get done, and I sat down with him, and I said, ‘I’m going to help you, but we have to decide what we are serving. Do you like wine?’ And he was like, ‘I guess,’ and I said, ‘Okay, what about liquor? Are we serving liquor? Because I don’t want everyone getting wasted before my wedding day, which means you, by the way—’”
“Me?” Kate exclaimed.
“No, no, not you. Kiefer. I said that to Kiefer, because you know how he is, Kate. You know. So anyway, he wouldn’t make any decisions at all and he finally said, ‘Why don’t you do it, Lisa? You’ve made up your mind.’ I mean, he was totally abdicating to me, like he has the whole way with this wedding. He wouldn’t help me decide about the church, or the flowers, or how big or small the guest list was. He just tells me to do it and then goes off and watches basketball. What does that say to you? It says to me he doesn’t really want to get married.”
“Wow,” Kate said. “Yes, I agree he could be just a little more supportive of you. After all, this is his wedding, too,” she said. “But it sounds to me like he’s just being childish about it, and not that he doesn’t want to marry you. If he didn’t want to marry you, he’s the kind of guy who would tell you, don’t you think?” Kate looked to Joe for confirmation. He gave her an affirmative nod.
“I don’t know,” Lisa said.
“Well, I do. You’re overreacting. Just relax. Pick the drinks for the rehearsal dinner. Tell Kiefer you guys need to talk about things—”
Joe suddenly shook his head, quite adamantly.
“But later. Much later,” Kate added, and Joe nodded. “Right now, just focus on the wedding and how long you’ve been planning it, and how gorgeous you are going to be.”
That seemed to appease Lisa. “You’re right. It is going to be beautiful, isn’t it? And I am going to be gorgeous. Did you just love the centerpieces? I can’t wait to see you in that dress, Kate.”
Kate rolled her eyes heavenward.
“Just be careful with it. That taffeta really wrinkles.”
“I know,” Kate said patiently.
“So when is your flight out?”
“Ah…” Kate quickly debated telling Lisa the truth. She rubbed the nape of her neck. “I’m not sure yet. They are rerouting a lot of people. But I’ll let you know. So listen, I have to run—”
“I just hope you get out before the air traffic controller strike, because that is the last thing I need to deal with,” Lisa said. “I cannot be without my maid of honor. I’d just as soon reschedule.”
Lord. “You won’t have to do that,” Kate said as confidently as she could manage. “Do you still have that spa package I gave you? Did you schedule that massage?”
“No. But that is a great idea,” Lisa said absently. “Yeah, I think I’ll do that.”
“Great. So listen, I better see about this flight. I’ll call you later?”
She said good-bye and looked at Joe.
“See about what flight?”
“Trust me, it was the right thing to do,” Kate said with a flick of her wrist. “Why are guys so damned insensitive?”
“Why are women so damned sensitive?” he easily countered. “What is it now?”
“Kiefer—that’s my cousin’s fiancé—is not helping,” Kate said, and related the story of Lisa and Kiefer to Joe, from how long they’d been together, to Kiefer’s grand proposal with Christmas lights and a high school chorus, to the last-minute wedding jitters and unwillingness to help.
Joe listened with a frown of concentration. When she’d finished, he said, “Wow.”
“I know, right?” Kate said. “He’s really being a jerk.”
“I was thinking she was the jerk,” Joe said.
Kate blinked. “Lisa? Lisa is doing everything!”
“And that’s your problem right there,” Joe said. “She’s so caught up in this wedding and it being perfect that she isn’t letting him do anything. He doesn’t have any ownership in it. It’s like he’s been cut out.”
“That’s what I think—he’s being childish.”
“I didn’t say that,” Joe said. “I think he’s just being a guy.”
“A guy,” she repeated with a bit of derision in her voice.
“Yes. A guy,” he repeated firmly.
“So… you don’t think he’s having second thoughts?”
“Nah,” Joe scoffed. “First of all, he wouldn’t have asked her to marry him if he didn’t love her. Second, he is doing what he thinks he should be doing—giving her everything he thinks she wants. If he didn’t want in, he would say so.”
That almost made sense to Kate. “You sound like you’ve been down this path before.”
“Me?” He laughed. “Hardly. But my brother has. Twice to be exact, and both women were totally eaten up with the wedding instead of the marriage.”
Kate scarcely heard the last bit. She was focused on the hardly. “Why do you say it that way?” she asked him.
“Hardly. You said hardly, like it was so out of the realm of possibility for you. Are you opposed to marriage?”
He gave her a bemused smile. “How on earth did you get that from what I just said? I’m not opposed to marriage. I don’t think it’s for me, but I’m not opposed to it.”
“Why not?” she asked curiously. It was funny, but she’d had the same feeling about herself.
“I don’t know,” he said with a shrug. “I guess I’ve just never felt like I wanted to spend the rest of my waking days with one person.”
“A guy like you?” she asked disbelievingly. She would think he’d have his pick of women.
“Who, an IT nerd?” he asked with a chuckle.
“No. A handsome man. A gentleman. I would think you had lots of girlfriends.”
“Handsome, huh?” He grinned. “Yeah, I’ve had a few girlfriends along the way.”
“But not one that you felt that way about.”
“No,” he said, and looked at her curiously. “Why? Is that so strange?”
Something about that made Kate feel a little uncomfortable, but she wasn’t certain why. “Maybe you’re too busy partying,” she said.
“What?” Joe laughed. “Where did that come from?”
“Because this morning, you smelled slightly of alcohol. And you looked really hungover.”
Joe’s eyes widened with surprise.
“Dark circles, your hair messed up—”
“Okay, okay,” he said, and laughed. “So maybe I had a few too many last night. But it’s not what you think, kiddo. I happened to be the person of honor at a going-away party.”
“Really?” she said, doubly curious now. “Why? Where are you going?”
“Seattle, remember?” He grinned at her. “I’m on my way to a new job. The kind of job that comes around once in a lifetime.”
“Congratulations!” she said, and ignored the tiny niggle of disappointment she felt.
“Thanks.” He smiled happily. “So what about you?”
“I’m from Seattle. But now I live in New York.”
“No, I mean the marriage thing. Have you ever gotten close?”
“Umm… no,” she admitted. “Never.”
“Okay. That’s surprising, too.”
Kate could feel herself blushing. “Not really.”
“Yes it is. You’re very pretty,” he said, and Kate felt the heat began to creep into her cheeks. “And you’re smart. And, bonus points, you’re a trouper.”
“I am?” she asked, absurdly pleased by that compliment.
“So far,” he said laughingly. “So why hasn’t someone snatched you up?”
“Oh, come on—”
“No, really,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many women I meet who can’t hang. Or maybe they can hang, but they can’t talk.” He shook his head. “It’s disappointing, you know? You take a woman out to dinner, and she’s hot, and then you discover she can’t carry on an intelligent conversation.”
“Are you kidding?” Kate asked. “What about being on the other side of the table? How many guys have I gone out with and then found out they are unread and uninterested in anything but sports scores?” She realized she’d just described what she knew of him and looked at him in horror.
But Joe laughed. “Touché, madam, touché. But you haven’t answered the question. Why haven’t you settled down?”
Kate smiled wryly. “I guess because I never felt that way about anyone, either. But unlike you, I didn’t have a string of boyfriends to
“Now that’s just too hard to believe,” Joe said. “I’d think there’d be a line around the block, your poor navigation skills notwithstanding.”
Kate laughed softly, but her cheeks were burning with self-consciousness. And pleasure. “At least I’m not an armrest hog,” she said.
“Oh no, you’re not going to pin that on me,” Joe laughed. “You are horrible with the armrest.”
“Everyone knows the middle seat gets the armrest!”
“I have never heard anything so ridiculous in my life,” he scoffed. “You’ve got some wacky ideas floating behind those pretty green eyes, Kate.”
She couldn’t help it—she laughed.
“So how do you become an assistant editor?” he asked.
“You read a lot. And majoring in English helped. How do you become an IT guy?”
“You start by taking computers apart to see if you can put them back together.”
Kate could picture a mop-top boy doing just that. “What is it about boys, always wanting to take things apart?”
“Sexist,” he playfully accused her. “My sister is the one who showed me how. Why do girls always read a lot?”
“It’s in our DNA. It so happens that there are more women book lovers than men.”
“Include more sports scores and more men would read,” he offered, smiling at Kate’s laughter. “But the real question is, how do we get more women to deconstruct computers?”
“Good question,” Kate said. “Computers are like cars. They should just work. No one wants to know how.”
For the remainder of the drive to Houston, they argued playfully about the differences between men and women, and about who had the wherewithal to get to Seattle first.
As they entered the outskirts of Houston, rain began to fall. By the time they made their way across town to Houston’s Intercontinental Airport, the rain had turned into a deluge. “You don’t think this rain will delay flights even more, do you?” Kate asked, peering up at the sky as they dropped the rental car off.
“No, not at all,” Joe said with a roll of his eyes. He grabbed Kate’s bags.
“You don’t have to do that,” she said.
“I know,” he said with a wink. “Come on, get that pink life raft and let’s go find a flight out of here.”
They crowded onto the shuttle, Kate with the garment bag on her back, Joe with her shoulder bag slung over his shoulder and cases in each hand. They ignored the looks of everyone who eyed her pink bag with disdain, then piled into the terminal with everyone else.
And into pandemonium.
“What the hell?” Joe said absently as they looked around.
A man standing just in front of them turned around. “The air traffic controllers just went on strike,” he said.