They were lucky to be on the same flight, Joe figured, even if they couldn’t sit together. He could see just the top of Kate’s head above a middle seat a few rows ahead of him and wondered if she’d begun her attack on the armrest yet. Every once in a while, she would sit up, turn around, and smile at him. She had happy eyes, he thought. Big, green, happy eyes. He wouldn’t mind starting every day with big, green, happy eyes.
It seemed ridiculously unfair that Joe would meet a girl like Kate just as he was about to take the biggest step in his career. If he believed in fate, he would be calling it a few choice names right now.
They landed without a hitch in Seattle, but Joe could hear the guy behind him on the phone as they taxied to the gate. He was irate that the next leg of his flight had been canceled. Weather or air traffic, Joe didn’t know. He was thankful he was at last where he needed to be. Disaster had been averted; he would meet the boss from Switzerland and begin his new job.
He didn’t feel quite as excited about it as he had forty-eight hours ago.
Kate was waiting for him in the passenger ramp, the pink raft propped up beside her. She smiled brightly at him when she saw him and caught his hand. “Wait,” she said as he tried to move forward, and pulled him to the side.
“Okay,” she said, “Listen. My family is tight. Really tight. So tight they can be a little overbearing,” she said with a charming wince. “And I don’t bring guys home a lot. Maybe never. So…” She shrugged.
Joe smiled at her angst. “Kate, it’s okay,” he said. “I can handle them.” He picked up her garment bag, tossed it over his shoulder, and took her hand in his.
“So here we go,” Kate said, looking down at their clasped hands as they made their way up the passenger ramp.
“Here we go, two people who have been brought together by an epic travel meltdown.”
Kate smiled. But her smile didn’t seem quite as bright as it had earlier this morning, when she’d been so deliciously naked in his bed. Families had a way of doing that to a person.
At the baggage claim area, the little scream of happiness Joe heard turned out to be for Kate. He turned just in time to see an older woman who looked like Kate barreling right toward them, a couple of guys and another woman with her.
“Oh thank God, you made it!” the woman shouted, and threw her arms around Kate, squeezing her tightly, weaving back and forth. Then she suddenly put Kate at arm’s length. “Where’s the dress?”
“Right there,” Kate said, pointing at Joe. Joe wondered how anyone in Seattle could have missed the arrival of the dress. “Mom,” Kate said, “this is Joe Firretti.”
“And the dress,” Joe added, holding up the pink raft.
“Oh, thank God again,” the woman said, her shoulders dropping with relief.
“This is my mom, Sandra,” Kate said. “And my dad, James. And my brother Colton and my sister Cassidy.”
“With a C,” the young woman said.
“Pleasure,” he said to them all, and he was still smiling when Kate’s mother moved. Joe thought she meant to take the dress from him. But instead, she threw her arms around him.
“Thank you so much for bringing my baby home,” she said, sounding almost tearful.
“He didn’t bring me home,” Kate said. “We were on the same flight, and we were both coming to Seattle.”
“Don’t try and downplay it, Katie-Kate,” her mother said, beaming up at Joe. “We owe this young man a debt of gratitude.”
“We’ll pay him later, Sandra,” Mr. Preston said, and clapped Joe on the shoulder as if they were old friends. “You didn’t take any liberties with my little girl, did you, son?”
“Dad!” Kate cried, clearly mortified.
Mr. Preston squeezed Joe’s shoulder and laughed. “Kidding! Come on, let’s go. I told Glen I’d help him get the bar set up.”
“And we have hair and makeup this afternoon,” Mrs. Preston added. “Come on, Joe, we’ve made up a cot for you in the library.”
“That’s not necessary,” he said quickly, holding up a hand. “I’ve got a reservation—”
“Nonsense!” Mrs. Preston said firmly. “You will come with us. We have plenty of room, and after what you did for Kate, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Just call the hotel and tell them you’ll be there tomorrow.”
“What makes you think he did it all?” Kate asked. “It’s not like we mushed across the country.”
“Don’t be a sourpuss,” Mr. Preston said cheerfully, and grabbed her tote bag, handing it to Colton.
Kate looked helplessly at Joe. “See?”
He winked at her. He liked the Prestons. He liked them a lot.
The Prestons lived in the Queen Anne district of Seattle, an area of old and well-loved homes. The Preston house was a rambling turn-of-the-century, five-bedroom, three-bath home with wood floors and dark window casings and a view of Lake Union. It was charming and a little quirky, just like Kate.
As they pulled into the drive, people rushed from the house, shouting for Kate, embracing her as she emerged. One would think she’d spent forty days in the desert instead of two days traveling across country.
She glanced back at him more than once, her expression apologetic. “They’re nuts!” she insisted.
“They love you,” he said as they were swept along on a wave into the house.
“Here, dude, a beer,” someone said, shoving a bottle into his hand. It wasn’t even noon. But Joe wasn’t turning down a beer. He’d just taken a sip when he heard a woman shout from the top of the stairs. Everyone paused and looked up. “Kaaaaate!” the woman cried as she flew down the stairs.
The bride, Joe realized, had appeared.
She grabbed Kate, hopping up and down, babbling about backup maids of honor. “The dress,” she said.
“In the car,” Kate said quickly.
Why that should make the bride cry, Joe had no idea, but she burst into tears, and as he stood, dumbfounded, he watched Kate, Lisa, and little sister Cassidy with a C race upstairs.
“Get used to it,” one man said to Joe. “This is the family you’re marrying into.”
“Not me,” Joe said quickly.
The man squinted at him. “You’re not Kiefer? Who are you, then?”
“Joe.” At the man’s blank look, Joe couldn’t help but laugh. “I’m the guy who was sitting next to Kate when the plane was diverted to Dallas.”
The man looked confused. “Huh?”
Joe grinned and took a swig of beer. It was going to be an interesting day. “Is there anything to eat?” he asked.
“Are you serious? J. J. made his ribs. You like ribs?”
“Love ’em,” Joe said, and followed the man to the back of the house where he supposed he would find J. J. and his ribs.
When Kate pulled the peach monstrosity from the bag, Lisa sank onto Cassidy’s bed with a crushed expression. “It’s ruined.”
“No, no, not ruined,” Kate said quickly. “Right, Cassidy? We can steam out these wrinkles, and the sash, well… maybe I just go without the sash.”
“The sash makes the dress,” Lisa said morosely.
“Okay. It’s all okay, Lisa,” Kate said, thinking frantically.
“What’s that?” Cassidy asked, peering closely at the hem.
So did Kate. There was a yellowish, brownish stain that looked a little like mustard spreading across several inches of the hem. How had that happened?
“Oh my god!” Lisa cried.
“No one is going to see that!” Kate said, a little loudly. “And besides, everyone is going to be looking at you, anyway. It’s okay!”
Lisa sniffed. She examined the wrinkled dress. One half was less poufy than the other. Lisa forced a smile. “At least you’re here without weird stains, right? That’s the important thing. Now I have all the people I love with me.” She hugged Kate tightly for a moment. “And Joe is so cute!” she added as she let her go.
“He’s gorgeous,” Cassidy agreed. “Is he your boyfriend?”
“No!” Kate said instantly, and then flushed. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she smiled nervously. She couldn’t help it.
“What’s that smile?” Lisa asked, poking her.
“No smile,” Kate said, still smiling. “This is not a smile.”
Lisa suddenly gasped and sank down on the bed. “Ohmigod, did you guys do it?”
“Lisa!” Kate cried and looked at her kid sister.
“Well, did you?” Cassidy demanded. “I mean, he’s so cute, and you haven’t had a boyfriend in forever.”
“That,” she said, pointing at Cassidy, “that is not true.”
“You sure haven’t had a good boyfriend,” Lisa agreed. “And you obviously like Joe.”
“Yeah,” Kate said, her smile fading. “But he’s moving to Seattle.”
“No way!” Cassidy exclaimed.
“That’s great!” Lisa said. “You can get a job here! It would be so great if you came back! We miss you so much!”
“I can’t come back, Lisa. I have always wanted to be in publishing, and I have a great job.”
“Joe and Kiefer could be friends,” Lisa continued.
“They haven’t even met,” Kate pointed out.
“But they will!” Lisa said excitedly. “I just want you to be as happy as I am, Katie-Kate. I want you to know what I feel for Kief.”
Kate snorted. “Do you know how ridiculous you sound right now? Just yesterday you wanted to call it off.”
“You did?” Cassidy asked.
“Not really,” Lisa said with a flick of her wrist, as if yesterday had never happened. “I never would have done it because I love Kiefer too much. And I’m going to whip him into shape.”
Kate and Cassidy laughed outright.
“Seriously,” Lisa said, ignoring their laughter, “I know what a great guy Kiefer is. And it’s like I told you: great guys come around once in a lifetime.” She looked meaningfully at Kate.
That’s what Kate was afraid of.
She was relieved when her mother burst into the room and had a fit over her dress. “Well, I have my work cut out for me this afternoon, don’t I?” she sighed as she examined the sash. “In the meantime, you girls are going to be late to the hairdresser! Lori is outside waiting for you.”
“What about Joe?” Kate asked as Cassidy and Lisa gathered their purses.
“Don’t worry about him,” her mother said as she busily inspected the gown. “He’s out back with your father and your Uncle Glen looking at rototillers.”
Kate gasped. “Mom, no!”
“He’ll be fine! He looked really interested,” her mother insisted, and began to herd them out the door. “Right now, you have bigger things to worry about. If we don’t get Lisa married today, we may never have another opportunity.”
“Hey!” Lisa protested, but Kate’s mother had already pushed her out the door.