Releases December 1 on eHarlequin.com
Available December 2011 on eHarlequin.com (paper and e-book)
4.5 stars, Top Pick from Romantic Times!
As the second oldest son of the Atlanta Fortunes, Scott Fortune has dedicated his time and energy to the family’s telecommunications empire. However, while in Red Rock, Texas, for his baby sister Wendy’s wedding, a freak tornado strands him in the regional airport with a sassy little waitress whose frank, unvarnished take on life make him reassess what he really wants out of his own…and in large part what he really wants, is Christina Hastings.
But the last thing the cynical Christina needs is another rich boy looking at her like she’s some kind of curiosity, who’ll undoubtedly tire of her as soon as the novelty wears off. She is done with fairytales. Sure, Scott is the most thoughtful, generous man she’s ever known, and although she believes him when he says his life is now in Red Rock, believing in love for the long haul isn’t so easy…leaving Scott having to convince Christina not only that what he feels for her is the real deal, but that he is nothing without her by his side.
It’s the most crucial sales pitch he’ll ever make…
The woman’s scream pierced his brain, rudely dragging Scott back to consciousness. His heart pounding hard enough to hurt, he lay motionless, his eyes still closed, his ears still ringing, trying to regain his bearings…until she screamed again.
“For the love of all that’s holy, stop that.”
After a beat or two of blessed silence, he heard: “I thought you were dead.”
That raspy voice…ah. The waitress. “No. At least I don’t think so—” The last word ended in a cough; yanking his jacket collar over his mouth and nose, Scott opened his eyes. Panic cramped his chest: through the occasional shaft of dust-clogged light eking through the rubble, he realized he’d come damn close to being buried alive. He fumbled for his phone, only to realize it had apparently fallen out of his pocket. Damn.
“Um, are you okay?” she said. “I mean, c-can you help me? I’m stuck.”
Adrenaline spiked through him. “Hold on…” Debris clattered as Scott tried to heave himself upright, only getting as far as his knees when his right temple gave him hell. Flinching, he quickly brushed his fingers over the spot – no blood, thank God. “Where are you?”
“Close enough to think you were dead, obviously. I can see you, though. Kinda. Keep going, you’ll find me.”
“How long was I out?” he asked as he cautiously crept toward her.
“Not long. Couple minutes, maybe? You remember the tornado hitting?” she asked when he reached her, barely six feet away. Propped on her elbows, she lay back against what he assumed was the counter base, her legs imprisoned beneath a pile of rubble. Even through the haze he could see the grim set to her mouth.
“Yes,” Scott said quietly, knowing he’d never forget the wind’s brutal, relentless shrieking, like a million furious demons. “Guess I blacked out right after, though. Does it hurt?”
“I don’t think…no. Not really. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not. I can’t move, but at least I don’t feel like I’m being crushed. But something—” Grimacing, she strained to pull herself free; Scott’s hand shot to her shoulder, stopping her.
“Don’t move. Did you hear me?”
Not looking at him, she nodded. “Just…hurry.”
“That’s the plan,” he muttered as he snatched away the lighter stuff – wood lathing, plaster chunks, shards of glass. But despite having lifted weights for years, Scott was no match for the granite slab pinning her to the ground. He tried another angle, his back and shoulder muscles burning like a sonuvabitch, but no dice. Sitting back beside her, he punched out an exasperated breath. “Why the hell did they use granite for the counter?”
Her head fell back, her eyes shut. “And yet,” she said through faint, rapid breaths, “ no espresso maker. Go figure.”
More dust sifted down beside them, the sound like scurrying ants. “Call me crazy, but this seems like an odd time to crack jokes.”
“It’s that or s-scream again. D-deal.”
He groped for her hand in the dim light, found it; her fingers tightened around his, kicking his heart into overdrive. “Take some deeper breaths before you hyperventilate. There, that’s better,” he said when she complied, then gently squeezed her hand. “You scared?”
A snort preceded, “Yeah, fear is kinda my go-to emotion when I think I might die.”
“We’re not going to die.”
“Oh? Last I heard, Death couldn’t be bought off.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Her eyes opened as she shifted, clearly trying to suppress a wince. And shivering. “S-sorry. Today hasn’t gone exactly the way I thought it w-would…no, it’s okay, I’m fine,” she said when he let go to shrug off his jacket.
“I’m wearing a sweater. You’re not. So no arguments. Can you sit up a little more?” Nodding, she did, at least enough for him to wrap the jacket around her shoulders, tug her slippery blond braid free.
“Anytime.” Elbowing aside the first stirrings of alarm, Scott glanced around. “This is…surreal.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Especially as I can’t recall ever seeing a tornado around here before. Further north and west, sure. But…” Her eyes lifted. “I think…I’m gonna pretend this is all a dream. And any minute I’ll wake up and…it’ll be over.”
“Sounds like a plan.” He inched a little closer. “I’m Scott, by the way.”
“I know.” Her eyes drifted closed again. “Heard you on your cell phone.”
“Speaking of which, mine’s gone AWOL. Do you have one?”
“Sure thing. In my purse.”
“Which is where?”
She almost laughed. A sound that, under other circumstances, he would have found extremely appealing. “Around here somewhere. And you need to be quiet now.”
Scott angled his head to see into her face. Her eyes were still shut. “You didn’t tell me your name.”
“Christina. Hastings. Now hush.”
“What…what are you doing?”
“Praying. Trying to, anyway.”
“You really think that’ll help?”
“We’ll never find out if you keep talking, will we?”
A damp draught shunted through their little cave. “Is your head okay?”
“And that better not be you thinking I’m off my nut because I’m praying.”
He did, but he wasn’t about to say that. “Not at all. But if your head got hit, you might have a concussion. So you shouldn’t close your eyes in case you fall asleep.”
“Oh. No. Head’s fine. Well, no worse than usual—”
A muffled sound from outside made Scott jump. Holy hell. How could he have forgotten—?
The initial shock sloughed off, he jolted to his knees again to claw at the wall of debris barely three feet away separating him from the others. “Blake! Mike!” He yanked at a chunk of drywall, sending plaster dust and small chunks of heaven knew what sifting down on them. “Dad! Can you hear me—?”
“For heaven’s sake, stop!” Christina snapped behind him. “You want to bring whatever’s left up there down on our heads?”
“No, but….damn it!” Terror erupting at his chest, he stared into the darkness quickly swallowing up what might as well have been a mountain. “Most of my family’s out there. Somewhere.”
“It’ll be okay,” she murmured, although he wasn’t sure if the reassurance was aimed at him or she was trying to talk herself down off the ledge. Scott duckwalked back to where she lay, planting his butt on the floor beside her and listening to the unremitting drip, drip, drip of rain somewhere above them.
“You sure about that?”
A beat passed before she said, “Somebody’s bound to know what happened, where we are. It might take a while, but…we’ll be okay.”
He could barely see her now, but that first image when he’d looked up from his phone earlier and actually noticed her was indelibly etched into his brain: the sass and intelligence in those enormous blue eyes, the barely repressed humor – at his expense, no doubt – behind her smile. “For somebody convinced a minute ago we were about to die, you seem amazingly calm now.”
“I had my moment. It’s over. Or I could be in shock. Hard to tell.”
“Or maybe you did get beaned.”
Her soft laugh melted something inside him. ”Or maybe I did.”
Crazy. Most women he knew would be in hysterics by now. And Christina’s hair and skin had to be as caked with plaster dust as his, her eyes and mouth as gritty. Not to mention she couldn’t have been more than five-two, five-three tops. And yet—
“You’re tougher than you look.”
“So I’ve been told.” More distorted sounds from the other side of the wall snagged his attention; he crawled over, shouting. “We’re in here! Can anybody hear me? Javier! Is that you?”
“You’re wasting your energy, you realize.”
His head swung back to her. “I can’t sit here and do nothing.”
“Looks like you don’t have much of a choice.”
“Doing nothing is not a choice.”
“We’re not doing nothing. We’re waiting.” She paused. “And trusting.”
“Ah. That praying thing again, right?”
He sensed more than saw her shrug before she said, “Tell me about them. Your family.”
“Maybe it’ll keep us distracted?”
Scott’s gut contracted. “You are in pain.”
“Let’s just say I’ll never complain about cramps again.”
Honestly. “Do you always say whatever pops into your head?”
“Depends on the situation. This definitely qualifies. Besides…” She shifted slightly. “Either we’re gonna die, in which case we’ll never see each other again. Or we’ll be rescued – which would definitely be my preference – and you’ll go back to Atlanta, and we’ll still never see each other again. Either way I’m not too worried about making a good impression.”
Except you are, Scott thought, startled, thinking if he had to be trapped in a pile of rubble with anybody, he could have done far worse than this smart-mouthed, cool as a cucumber little bit of a thing with her soft, raspy voice and even softer blue eyes.
“So talk,” she said. “How many of you are there, exactly…?”
* * *
He made her laugh.
And, bless him, forget. As much as she could, she supposed, given the situation. But considering their initial encounter, not to mention the frown lines he’d probably been working on since kindergarten, the last thing Christina had expected was for the man to have a sense of humor.
Not that she couldn’t hear weightier threads lacing the stories about growing up with five siblings, despite Scott’s obvious discretion at how he presented his family to a complete stranger. Even so, when, for instance, he told her some silly story about him and his older brother Mike setting up competing lemonade stands across the street from each other when they were kids, she could hear the frustration – and hurt – underlying his words, that Mike couldn’t let an opportunity pass to one-up his younger brother…and that their father had praised eleven-year-old Mike for his ingenuity at besting Scott, who’d only been in the third grade at the time.
She was also guessing Scott had been busting his buns trying to win his father’s approval ever since. Not that Scott would ever admit as much – certainly not to Christina, at least – but nobody knew better than she did what it was like to yearn for a parent’s attention and respect.
His obvious loyalty – and genuine affection – was honorable. But good Lord, if half of what he’d said was true this family took the concept of sibling rivalry to new heights, not only not discouraging competition but fostering it, pitting the kids against each other to make them stronger. More fierce. And yet from what she could tell they all loved each other, even if those bonds were mainly forged by their mutual interest in FortuneSouth’s success.
It was enough to almost make her grateful she was an only child.
“So what do y’all do for fun?”
It was almost totally dark by now. And cold. Cold enough that they leaned into each other for warmth. And comfort. The pain in her leg and foot had settled into a dull but constant ache. As had the fear, which was almost like a third person in the space.
“It’s not a trick question, you know.”
“More than you might think,” Scott muttered, then parried, “What do you do for…fun?”
“I asked you first.”
He blew out a heavy sigh, his breath warm in her hair. “Okay…we…go to a lot of charity events.” His accent was pure Southern privileged, his voice pure man, all low and rumbly. A delicious, and deadly, combination. “Dinners, that sort of thing.”
“For pity’s sake – I said fun, Scott. Or do you need me to define the word?”
“How would you define it?”
“Well…fun is something that makes you feel good. Makes you happy. Makes you glad to simply be alive.”
She thought. “Goin’ to the state fair and eating your weight in fried food. And cotton candy. Tossing burgers on the grill on a summer night, sittin’ around and chewing the fat with friends. Driving to nowhere with the top down, stopping wherever you feel like it. Sittin’ on the steps and watching fireflies. What?”
“Apparently your definition of ‘fun’ doesn’t include the word ‘exciting.’”
“I said, it just has to make you feel good.”
“So…is that your life? In a nutshell? Going to the fair and chowing down on burgers and watching fireflies?”
After a long moment, she said, “I said that’s how I define fun. I didn’t necessarily say that was my life. Not right now, anyway.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“No, it’s okay. I’m just…I’m kind of…focused on other things right now.” When he got real quiet, she said, “What are you thinking about?”
“That I’ve never been to a state fair.”
“It’s true. But also…that I can’t remember the last time I felt good about doing something that didn’t involve improving the bottom line.”
“And that is too sad for words.”
“There’s nothing wrong with making money, Christina. FortuneSouth provides jobs for thousands of people—”
“Oh, don’t go getting defensive, I never said there was anything wrong with making money. But you have to admit there’s something off about only getting your jollies from work.”
Another pause. Then: “I don’t only get my jollies from work.”
“Lord, I can practically hear your brows waggling. And that doesn’t count,” she said when he laughed.
“Not that it can’t be fun, don’t get me wrong. But it’s so…trite.”
Scott barked out a laugh. “Point to you.”
She felt him shift beside her. “You remind me a little of my youngest sister. Wendy.”
“The one your parents sent out here because she was about to drive ‘em up a wall?”
“The very one.”
“Is Wendy your favorite?”
“Yes. But don’t you dare tell her that. Or anyone else.”
“Your secret’s safe with me.” Christina thought a moment, then said, “I’m very flattered, then.”
Scott chuckled. “So tell me about your family.”
Yeah, he would ask that. “Not a whole lot to tell. My father jumped ship when I was a toddler, never to be seen again, and my mother…we’re not real close.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
“No brothers or sisters?”
“Nope. But I do have a dog…ohmigosh!”
“I can’t believe I forgot! I have a dog. And I have no idea if he’s okay—”
Feeling her eyes burn, Christina pressed a hand to her mouth. Not being dead yet, she figured she was ahead of the game, but suddenly not having any idea how her baby was made her sick to her stomach.
“What’s his name?” Scott said gently.
She lowered her hand. “G-gumbo. ’Cause when God made him he tossed whatever parts He had on hand into a bowl, and Gumbo was the result. Although he gets called Dumbo a lot, too,” she said on a shaky little laugh. “Dog’s dumber than a load of bricks, I swear. But he’s mine, and I love him, and—”
The tears came whether she wanted them to or not. The shock came when Scott slipped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her head to his chest. Not saying anything, just holding her close.
Then her stomach rumbled. “How long do you suppose we’ve been here?”
“I have no idea. It’s been dark for a while, though.”
She listened. “Rain’s stopped.”
“Yep. In fact, there must be a full moon.”
Christina blinked, noticed the silvery light here and there delineating the scene. “Oh, yeah.” She sighed. “I’d kill for a burger and fries right now.”
Another of those low chuckles preceded, “You and me, both.”
“While we have the light…there’s a refrigerated case, if you can get to it, with food, such as it is. And water and stuff.”
“Be right back.”
He disappeared; for several minutes she heard scuffling, some cursing. Then a surprised, “I’ll be damned. I found my phone. Although…crap. No service. But…hold on…”
A minute later he returned with a couple of sandwiches, two bottles of water and that little box. “The case was pretty banged up,” he said, sitting beside her again. “But still cold. I have no idea what I got, though.”
“Ask me if I care,” she said, grabbing one of the sandwiches and ripping off the cellophane. “So what’s in the box?”
“Heaven. Or so I’m told.”
“Yep. After she started working at Red, Wendy discovered she had a talent for making desserts. So she gave all of us a sampling of some of her creations.” He turned on his phone, the feeble light illuminating the contents of the box enough for Christina to see several kinds of cookies, some sort of bar thing and a Napoleon-like pastry. “Help yourself, I’m not big on sweets. But you better believe I wouldn’t tell Wendy that.”
The sandwich gone, Christina hesitated, then selected something that melted in her mouth. Butter and chocolate and caramel and maybe some kind of liqueur? It was the fanciest thing she’d ever tasted in her life, given that, for her, a “splurge” was buying real Oreos instead of the Walmart fakeouts. Which she wasn’t about to tell Scott.
“That was amazing,” was all she said, then closed the lid on the box.
“Please. I mean it. Take what you want.”
Like she’d ever been able to do that in her entire life. “No, it’s okay, I’m good.”
Their meal done, they sat in silence for a little while, digesting what had happened to them – well, at least that’s what Christina was doing – as well as their food. Outside, the wind had picked up enough to whistle through the jagged orifices left in the wake of the destruction. Close by, something periodically scraped against the wall on the far side of what used to be the snack bar.
Scott cleared his throat. “I think we need to keep talking—”
“Yeah, I think you’re right. Absolutely.” Then she yawned. “If I can stay awake. I think the adrenaline’s gone.”
“I’ve been better. Been worse, too.”
He pulled her close again. “Lay your head on my chest.”
“One, you already have. And two, I cannot tell you how little I’m in the mood for arguments right now. And I’m cold, too. So just do it, dammit.”
All righty, then. Although, even before her cheek made contact with his soft, soft sweater – and the hard, hard muscles underneath, Christina knew she was doomed.
Whether they made it out alive or not.