Lisa took the news about Kate’s delay with a lot of whining, wailing, and “How am I going to do this without you?”
Kate talked her neurotic cousin off the ledge. She made her understand that she was only missing a dinner, not a major event. It was one meal. Not a huge loss—besides the dress, it was not even a small loss. Lisa said she understood. She even seemed to agree with Kate.
But not fifteen minutes after Kate had hung up, her mother called.
“When are you going to be here?” her mother demanded with a slightly accusatory tone.
“Mom, seriously. I am on a train to Phoenix. A train! I started on a plane, then a car, and now I am on a TRAIN. I am doing the best I can.”
“Well, I didn’t say you weren’t,” her mother sniffed. “It just seems like you could have rented a car or something.”
“Mom, do you know where Texas is? It is very far away from Seattle. You can’t drive from Texas to Washington in a blizzard!”
She must have been speaking with agitation, because Joe put his broad hand on her knee and squeezed reassuringly.
“Oh, I know,” her mother said wearily. “I was just hoping. We’ll all be sick if you miss the wedding, and Lisa doesn’t need any distractions. I’ve always said that girl is too high strung for her own good.”
“I won’t miss the wedding,” Kate said firmly. “We are almost to Phoenix, and we hear they are bringing scabs in.”
“Strikebreakers,” Joe offered. He had removed his coat again and loosened his collar. His hair, thick and dark brown, looked as if he’d dragged his fingers through it a dozen times. And he had a very sexy shadow of a beard that Kate had to tell herself not to stare at.
“Who is that?” her mother demanded, jarring Kate back to the present.
“Joe! Who’s Joe?”
“He was on my flight. We’re both trying to get to Seattle.”
“Oh. You should invite him to the wedding,” her mother said cheerfully, as if Kate and Joe were sitting in a café sipping mimosas. She’d never heard of Joe until this moment and was inviting him to a major family event. Her family was crazy.
“Oh my god,” her mother said suddenly. “Here comes your aunt. I wonder what the crisis is now,” she muttered irritably. “You’d think Lisa was the first woman to ever get married. Katie, sweetheart, keep us posted. We’ll hold the wedding for you if necessary!”
“Mom, you can’t hold the wedding,” Kate said, but her mother had already signed off.
Kate clicked off, made a sound of severe frustration, and Joe laughed.
“Your family sounds as crazy as mine.”
“I think I’ve got you beat,” Kate said. “Where is your family, anyway?”
“Scattered,” he said. “My brother is in Paris—”
“Married to a Frenchwoman. My dad and sister are in Connecticut and my mom in Illinois. Yours?”
“All in Seattle,” Kate said. “My aunt and uncle—Lisa’s parents—live right around the corner. It’s like some weird religious-sect compound, everyone always back and forth.” Joe laughed, but he had no idea how tied up in each other’s business they all were.
“So while you were assuring your mother you’re not just playing hooky, I was digging for news. It looks as if the major airports, like Phoenix, will have enough controllers to get a few flights off the ground.”
Kate gasped. “Really? You mean we might really get to Seattle?”
“If we can book a flight,” he said. “I’m going to make a call. I’ve got a kick-ass travel agent.”
He punched in the number and then said, “Hey, Brenda. It’s Joe.” And he smiled. It was a very easy, very sexy smile, and Kate imagined it could melt the false eyelashes off a woman. “Remember that trip we booked to Seattle? Well, I’ve run into a little trouble…”
Fifteen minutes later, Kate sat with her arms folded tightly across her, mildly annoyed at the number of times Joe chuckled. If he was going to book a flight, she didn’t see why he didn’t just book it instead of chatting on and on with Brenda, whoever she was, who was probably old enough to be his mother.
“Okay, we’ll book Kate onto that flight,” he said. “Hold on.” He covered his phone. “What’s your last name, anyway?”
“Preston,” he said into the phone. “Just put it on my account. And yeah, I’ll take the next one.”
“What next one? You’re not flying with me?” Kate asked.
Joe grabbed her hand and wrapped his fingers around hers, holding it against his rock-hard thigh. “Great. Thanks, Brenda. I owe you those Maroon 5 tickets.”
Rats. Maroon 5 was not a grandma band.
Joe clicked off and beamed at Kate, squeezing her hand. “You’re booked on the last seat of that flight tonight, Kate Preston.”
She gasped. “Are you kidding?”
“Would I kid about something like that? Yes, for real.”
“What about you?”
“I’m going tomorrow. But I don’t have to be there until Monday. You needed to be there yesterday.”
He was smiling. He was happy to have arranged it. Kate made herself smile. “Thank you. I owe you. Again.”
“Not to worry,” he said. He looked at her strangely. “What’s the matter? I thought you’d be happy.”
“I am,” she said, nodding adamantly. “I just…” Really like you. Sorta don’t want this to end. Want to write a sitcom about two people who meet on a plane…
Kate looked away from his silvery blue eyes. “You know what? I don’t think that tuna-fish sandwich was a good idea.”
He laughed. “It was a horrible idea. I’m going to book a hotel room. After that, I’ll take you on in Words with Friends if you’re up to it.”
Kate jerked her gaze to him. “Oh, I’m up to it,” she said, digging out her phone. “I am so up to it.”
The hours, she was sad to note, flew by as they played Words with Friends until Joe lost juice in his phone. By that time, they were nearing the Phoenix station, slightly ahead of schedule. Joe had taken care of everything, including transport to the airport, and refused all of her efforts to repay him.
They arrived at the airport in a transport van—Joe, Kate, their bags, and a crumpled pink garment bag. Kate didn’t have the heart to look at the bridesmaid dress now. She could see that one side of it wasn’t as poufy as it had been starting out and shuddered to think what else had happened in there.
Joe got out with her, helped her with her bags. “So,” he said, shoving his hands through his hair. “I guess this is it.”
“I guess so,” Kate said. She tried to smile. “I don’t know your last name,” she said.
“Firretti,” he said.
“Firretti,” she repeated, savoring the name a moment. “It sounds so…”
“Intelligent?” he offered.
Kate laughed. “I was going to say sporty.”
“So… you’re moving to Seattle.”
“I am. And you’re staying in New York.”
“Yeah,” she said softly.
Joe touched her cheek with his knuckle. “I have to say, although you suck at navigating, I can’t imagine a better partner in this little jaunt across the country.”
That made Kate feel warm and tingly all over. “And I should say that although you’re a terrible armrest hog, I’m really glad you ended up next to me.”
Joe stroked her cheek, touched her earlobe, then reluctantly dropped his hand. “Take care, Kate. Call me if you need anything.”
“Okay… but your phone is dead.”
“Right. I’m going to charge it at the airport Hilton,” he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “In about thirty minutes, it will be good to go. So, call me if something comes up.”
“Okay,” she said weakly. “You should call me, too. I can give you some tips about Seattle if you need them.”
“I’ll do that,” he promised.
There was nothing left to say. Kate smiled ruefully.
Joe sighed, took her elbow in hand, and leaned forward to kiss her cheek. “Take care, Kate. But go now, or you’ll miss your flight.” He picked up her bag and put it on her shoulder.
“Thanks,” she said. “Seriously, Joe Firretti, thanks for everything.” She picked up the garment bag, pulled the stem of her suitcase. “Bye.”
Kate started walking, moving through the glass doors into cool, slightly fetid air. When the doors closed behind her, she glanced back.
Joe was still standing there, watching her. He lifted his hand.
So did Kate. She smiled again, then turned away, walking on, feeling exhausted, a little queasy, and indescribably sad.