Sample text for Fireside / Susan Wiggs.


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LaGuardia Airport Concourse C Gate 21

The dark glasses didn't hide a thing, not really. When people saw someone in dark glasses on a cloudy day in the middle of winter, they assumed the wearer was hiding the fact that she'd been drinking, crying or fighting.

Or all of the above.

Under any number of circumstances, Kimberly van Dorn enjoyed being the center of attention. Last night, when she'd donned her couture gown with its scandalous slit up the side, turning heads had been the whole idea. She'd had no idea the evening would implode the way it had. How could she?

Now, at the end of a soul-flattening red-eye flight, she kept her shades on as the plane touched down and taxied to the Jetway. Coach. She never flew coach. Last night, however, first class had been sold out, personal comfort had taken a back seat to expediency, and she'd found herself in seat 29-E in the middle of the middle section of the plane, wedged between strangers. Sometimes the need to get away was more powerful than the need for legroom. Although her stiff legs this morning might argue that point.

Who the hell had designed coach class, anyway? She was convinced she had the imprint of her seatmate's ear on her shoulder. After his fourth beer, he kept falling asleep, his head lolling onto her. What was worse than a man with a lolling head?

A man with a lolling head and beer breath, she thought grimly, trying to shake off the torturous transcontinental night. But the memories lingered like the ache in her legs-the lolling guy with a snoring problem, and, on her other side, an impossibly chatty older gentleman, who talked for hours about his insomnia. And his bursitis. And his lousy son-in-law, his fondness for fried sweet potatoes and his dislike of the Jude Law movie Kim was pretending to watch in hopes of getting him to shut up.

No wonder she never flew coach. Yet the nightmare flight was not the worst thing that had happened to her lately. Far from it.

She stood in the aisle, waiting for the twenty-eight rows ahead of her to deplane. The process seemed endless as people rummaged in the overhead bins, gathering their things while talking on mobile phones.

She took out her phone, thumb hovering over the power button. She really ought to call her mother, let her know she was coming home. Not now, though, she thought, putting the phone away. She was too exhausted to make any sense. Besides, for all she knew, the thing had one of those tracking features, and she didn't feel like being tracked.

Now that she'd arrived, she wasn't in such a big hurry. In fact, she was utterly unprepared to face a dreary midwinter morning in New York. Ignoring the stares of other passengers, she tried to act as though traveling in an evening gown was a routine occurrence for her, and hoped people would just assume she was a victim of lost luggage.

If only it could be that simple.

Shuffling along the narrow aisle of the coach section, she definitely felt like a victim. In more ways than one.

She left behind a scattering of sequins in the aisle. There was a reason clothes like this were designated as "evening wear." The silk charmeuse dress, encrusted with sequins, was meant to be worn in the romantic semidarkness of a candlelit private club or southern California garden, lit by tiki torches. Not in the broad, unforgiving daylight of a Saturday morning.

It was funny, she thought, how even a couture gown from Shantung on Rodeo Drive managed to look tawdry in the morning light. Especially when combined with a side slit, bare legs and peep-toe spike heels with a crisscross ankle strap. Only last night, every detail had whispered class. Now her outfit screamed hooker. No wonder she was getting funny looks.

But last night, in the middle of everything, Kim hadn't been thinking about the morning. She'd just been thinking about getting away. It seemed as though a million years had passed since then, since she'd dressed so carefully, so filled with hope and optimism. Lloyd Johnson, star of the Lakers and the biggest client of the PR firm she worked for, was at the pinnacle of his career. More importantly for Kimberly, he'd found his dream house in Manhattan Beach. They planned to live there together. It was supposed to be her night, a moment of triumph, maybe even a life-changing occasion if Lloyd had decided to pop the question. Well, it had been life-changing, just not in the way she'd anticipated. She had sunk everything she had into her career as a sports publicist. And overnight, that had crumbled. She was Jerry Maguire without the triumphant ending.

She finally reached the front of the aircraft, murmuring a thank-you to the flight attendants as she passed. It wasn't their fault the flight had been so miserable, and they'd been up all night, too. Then, just as she stepped onto the Jetway, the security doors opened and a ground-crew guy in a jumpsuit and earphones blew in on a gust of frigid wind.

The arctic air slapped her like a physical assault, tearing at the silk dress and skimming over her bare legs. She gasped aloud and gathered a fringed wrap-the only outerwear she had-around her bare shoulders, clutching it in one fist, her jewel-encrusted peacock evening bag in the other.

Sweet, merciful Lord. She had forgotten this-the East Coast cold that simply had no rival anywhere in California. She grabbed her long red hair but was too late. It had already been blown into a terrifying bouffant, and she was fairly sure she'd lost an earring. Lovely.

Holding her head high, she emerged from the Jetway and entered the terminal, walking at a normal, unhurried pace, though she wanted to collapse. The red-soled Louboutins with their three-inch heels, which had looked so fabulous with the single-shoulder sheath, now felt hideous on her feet.

Silently cursing the couture shoes and clutching the silk wrap around her, she scanned the concourse for an open shop to buy something to wear on the last leg of the trip, to the town of Avalon up in the Catskills, where her mother now lived. Last night, there had been no time to grab anything, even if she had been thinking straight. She'd made the flight with moments to spare.

To her dismay, all the kiosks and shops along the way were still closed; never had she craved a pair of flip-flops and an I ♥ NY T-shirt more. It was a long walk to the commuter concourse, especially in these heels.

She passed people in warm winter clothes, probably heading up to the mountains for a weekend of fun. She pretended not to notice the looks of speculation, the comments whispered behind snugly gloved hands. Ordinarily, other people's opinions were her first concern. But not today. She was too tired to care what people were saying about her.

Across the way stood a guy, leaning with his foot propped against the wall, staring at her. Okay, so a lot of guys were staring at her, since she was dressed like an escapee from a Hooters convention. He was easily six foot five and had long hair, and he wore cargo pants and an army surplus parka with wolf fur around the hood.

She was an idiot for not being able to ignore him. Men were her downfall; she should know better. And-please, Lord, no-with a leisurely air, he pushed away from the wall and seemed to be ambling toward her. Kim had never been much of a student of literature, but as he advanced on her, she found herself remembering a phrase coined by Dorothy Parker-What fresh hell is this?

More quickly than was prudent in the skinny heels, she headed for the moving walkway, wishing it could be a magic carpet, whisking her away from her troubles. She stepped aboard-and felt one of her heels sink down between the grooves of the walkway. Gritting her teeth, she tried to tug her foot free. As she did so, the other heel sank into another groove.

And just when she thought the day could not get any worse, it did.

Bo Crutcher sized up the redhead in the high heels at the gate across the way. She'd arrived on the red-eye from L.A. He was waiting for a different arrival, a red-eye from Houston. The sign over the gate was flashing Delayed.

The L.A. redhead was exactly his type-tall and slender, amazing hair and big tits, slutty clothes. He loved that in a woman. She was glaring daggers at him, but since he had time to kill, he welcomed any distraction. She was all of Bo's favorite things in one package-tequila shots and Dreamsicles, Stanley Clarke riffs and the most perfect throw of a baseball, the one that could never be touched by any batter ever born. She had one of the world's perfect asses and a face like a goddess in a Renaissance painting. Unforgettable.

At the moment, he had no business checking her out, but she was hard to ignore. He studied her the way an art afficionado might check out a painting of Botticelli's Venus. Bo had never understood how an artist could sit there and paint a picture of a naked woman. How the hell could the guy concentrate in the presence of a nude model?

As though attuned to his inappropriate thoughts, the redhead sped toward the moving sidewalk in the middle of the concourse, her heels clicking with disapproval.

And Bo was left to remember his purpose. This was not the way he had planned to spend his weekend. He should be home, sleeping off a big night at the Hilltop Tavern. Torres had fought Bledsoe in the match of the year, and Bo had ponied up a thousand bucks for a satellite feed to the bar. He'd anticipated staying up late, drawing beer after beer for the patrons and friends, cheering for the underdog on the 60-inch plasma screen that had put the bar in debt and drawn the wrath of his boss, Maggie Lynn. It was shaping up to be a damn fine night, any way you looked at it.

Except it hadn't gone that way. His plans fell apart when he checked his voice mail, receiving the most unexpected phone call of his life. At that point, he'd been obliged to drop everything and drive as fast as he dared from Avalon, deep in the Catskills, down to New York City in order to meet the flight from Houston.

Now, standing at Gate 22-C in the terminal, he was sweating bullets made of grade-A panic. And he had another half hour to kill. He glanced around, focused again on the redhead, now gliding away on the automatic sidewalk. She seemed to be having a little trouble with her shoes, though. She was bent over, apparently trying to unbuckle the straps.

Realizing she was stuck, he hurried over, stepped aboard the walkway and sprinted to her side. "You look like you could use a hand, ma'am," he said.

She continued struggling with the strap of her high heel. Not one but both heels appeared to be stuck. He looked around wildly for a moment, seeking an emergency switch. Seeing nothing, he bent down, put his hand around one of her ankles and yanked her foot free. She gave a yelp of surprise and panic.

"Get away from me," she said. "I mean it, back off-"

"In a minute." The other shoe wouldn't give, and they'd nearly reached the end of the walkway. She was risking serious injury now. He gave her foot a final tug, freeing it with a lurch and the distinct sound of tearing fabric. He grabbed her to keep her from falling, lifting her off her feet as he strode to the end of the walkway. He stepped off, with his arms full of pissed-off redhead. He set her down and backed off, holding up his hands with palms out to show her he meant no harm.

He should have known better than to expect gratitude. Should have let her fall on her ass or get sucked through the conveyer belt like a cartoon character. Still, he couldn't help but notice she had a face like a goddess in a museum sculpture. He wondered what color her eyes were behind the sunglasses.

Then he spotted her small, fancy handbag on the floor and stooped to pick it up, a fresh chance at chivalry.

"Ma'am." With a small flourish, he handed her the bag. "Nice peacock," he said. "She has no peer, that Judith Leiber."

The comment seemed to further disorient her. It always surprised women when he showed off his knowledge of designers. Some assumed he was queer. What it really meant was that he loved women and studied their likes and dislikes with the thoroughness of a cultural anthropologist.

The redhead snatched the purse from him.

"Can I buy you a drink?" He nodded toward a bar across the way, open for business and plenty busy despite the ungodly hour.

She stared at him as if he had frogs coming out of his mouth. "Certainly not."

"Just thought I'd ask." He kept his smile in place. Sometimes they played hard to get to make sure he meant business. "Rough night?"

A small, tight smile curved her very pretty mouth. "I'm sorry," she said, "but clearly you've mistaken me for someone else." She spoke with a precise, prep-school diction he found sexy. "Someone who has the slightest bit of interest in talking to you." With that, she turned and left, the torn seam of her dress offering him a glimpse of long, slender leg.

"You're welcome," he muttered, staring at her ass as she walked away.

Strike one, he thought. It was for the best, anyway. He wasn't here for flirting. He had a busy day ahead of him.

After the redhead disappeared at the end of the concourse, he was forced to deal with the reality of being here. He paced back and forth, eyeing the gate like a gladiator awaiting an onslaught of hungry lions. The thick gray door was still firmly closed. He'd already annoyed the gate agent by flashing his security pass and asking four different times when the flight would arrive.

He glanced at the clock. Still twenty minutes to go.


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Fathers and sons -- Fiction.
Baseball players -- Fiction.
Public relations consultants -- Fiction.