Gracie stood in the shut down
“Mom,” Gracie said into the phone.
“And then your grandma Willis will throw a fit, do-you-hear-me, a fit if you aren’t there to help her with the rice pudding and don’t even start me on your sister—”
“Mom,” Gracie said, louder this time and clutched her cell phone tighter, moving against the wall to get herself out of the way of the mob of angry holiday travelers. The heel of her boot caught on the rolly-thing of her suitcase and she stumbled back. “Mom, really, hush for a minute.”
But her mom kept on going and Gracie pictured her whirling around the kitchen, mixing this and that, shoving a baking sheet into the oven, taking stuff from the fridge, talking the entire time.
“You sister is eight months pregnant, eight Gracie, and she needs you now more than ever. Don’t you go disappointing her just ‘cause your plane’s been delayed a few minutes.”
“Try days, Mom. The whole Southeast’s shut down from this ice storm.”
“It’s Georgia, Gracie. There are no ice storms in
“There are too, Mom, but not many which is why everyone is freaking out.”
Her mother continued as if Gracie hadn’t spoken at all. “I’ve never known anything to stop you when you’re determined. So you get your little butt down to the Hertz counter and get yourself a car.”
Gracie stood on tiptoe and peered over the heads of those in front of her in line. “I’m there and I’m just warning you, it’ll take a miracle to get a car now. There’s at least ten people in front of me.”
“You’ll be fine,” her mom said and there was a clatter of a pan hitting the floor. “Oh fudge!” she yelled and then said, “have to go. We’re all counting on you. Forget about Tony and come home for Christmas.”
The line went dead.
Gracie sighed because she had managed to forget about Tony what with her mad dash to the airport and frustrating three hour wait before rushing to the rental car station. She shoved the phone in her coat pocket, hiking her large tote higher on her shoulder. The line moved up and she shuffled forward, keeping close to the mother and twin toddlers in front of her because people were line jumping left and right and she really, really, really didn’t feel like arguing with strangers today.
“Shit,” Gracie muttered and threw a dark look over her shoulder at the guy who laughed. Something about him tugged with familiarity but she didn’t have time for him or anyone else right now. She needed to concentrate all her efforts on getting a car and getting out to
Mind over matter Gracie girl, her dad’s voice echoed in her head and she focused on the black and yellow Hertz sign swinging above the reception desk, compliments of the blasts of hot air placed strategically throughout the airport. A really bad version of “Here Comes Santa Claus” sputtered through the overhead speakers and Gracie lifted her hair off her neck, eyes still on that sign and stumbled forward again, muttering under her breath, “I will get a car, I will get a car, I will get a car.”
“That’s the spirit,” the guy behind her said.
She ignored him and continued to mutter. “Mom will cut out your heart with toenail clippers if you miss Christmas. You will get a car and you will get to
“Sounds like a nice woman.”
“She is,” Gracie aimed over her shoulder, “now be quiet and let me focus.”
“Interesting technique, ask you shall receive, right? Maybe I should try that.”
Gracie spun on heel and thought oh shit. Yup, she knew he looked familiar because his face had been staring at her from the front of every gossip magazine in the airport. His guitar case slung across his back, she had no doubt it was Kale Sims, Ladies and Gentlemen, in the flesh. He wore an Atlanta Brave hat pulled low over his eyes and the collar on his wool coat turned up but she knew it was him. Still, she didn’t have time for the country star, no matter how attractive he was with all that chocolate brown hair covered by his hat and green eyes. She was a sucker for green eyes and right now she hated being a sucker for anything.
So she said, “Please let this man stop talking to me so I can concentrate on getting a car so my mom won’t find her way here and murder me with a beauty product while I sleep.”
He winked at her. “Who’re you talking to?”
“Santa Claus,” she snapped and pushed forward with the rest of the line. She was going to get a car, she knew it, and she was going to forget that she had just been really bitchy to the biggest thing to hit country music radio since Garth Brooks and
“Does it really work for you?”
Gracie drew in a breath, reminded herself to be nice because it’s Christmas and smiled over her shoulder. “Fifty-fifty,” she said. More like ten-ninety but she wasn’t going to tell him that, he’d be smug and she hated smug on a man.
“Well hope it works for us both, I gotta get out of here.”
“Me too,” she muttered and her heart rate tripled as the woman and her two children moved away from the counter. The lady behind the counter aimed a tired look at Gracie and held out her hand for Gracie’s drivers license. She looked up as Gracie fumbled for her wallet. Her heavily lined eyes widened and her sparkly red lips stretched into a wide smile. She looked like an elf with her pointed ears and rosy cheeks. Gracie blinked in the light of the woman’s expression until she realized it wasn’t for her.
“Why I know who you are,” the woman, whose nametag read Della, drawled.
Gracie literally felt the heat of Kale Sims’ smile boring into her skull. “Do you now?”
Della bent forward over the counter, revealing copious amounts of cleavage and crooked a long finger at him. A dirty elf, Gracie amended. He stepped around her, nudging her gently with his hip and Gracie stumbled sideways.
“You’re Kale Sims.”
“And you’re Della,” Kale said and Gracie groaned because this was going to be bad. The country star placed his baseball hat over Gracie’s wallet and winked at Della. Apparently he’d forego his disguise in favor of getting what he needed. Gracie didn’t blame him but neither did she appreciate it.
“Have a car for me, ma’am?”
Della’s smiled widened and Gracie rolled her eyes. “Sure do, last one in fact.”
“Hey!” Gracie yelled.
Kale and Dirty Elf looked at her and Gracie flushed. “It’s my car.”
“Della here was talking to me,” Kale said, a little uptilt to his grin. Like he was challenging her or something.
Assmuch? Gracie thought and stepped up to accept the challenge. She’d had just about enough of men walking all over her in the past two days. Today was going to be different. Today she was getting the hell out of
“Della here,” Gracie growled in what she thought of as a fairly good impersonation of Mr. Big Shot Country Star, “has my drivers license. And I bet Della here doesn’t want me to call her manager. Do you Della?”
The tips of Della’s elf ears burned red. “You wouldn’t,” she hissed.
That was it. Those were the words that sent Gracie Proctor over the edge.
She swatted the Braves hat off the counter and pointed her finger at Dirty Elf. “Hey. Don’t tell me what I would or would not do. It’s Christmas. I really don’t want to be mean and get you fired but I’m going to
Della paled a little. “Got it. Credit card.”
Behind them Kale Sims sighed. “I had high hopes for you, Della. Good play,” he said to Gracie and ambled away to lean against a pillar, baseball hat firmly back in place. The rest of the line dispersed amid grumbles and a few threats about the mistreatment of customers.
Dirty Elf Della swiped Gracie’s card and eyed Kale over the rim of her computer screen. Her Santa-red nails clicked angrily across the keyboard.
“That’ll be six hundred ninety-five dollars and eighty-three cents.”
“He was leaving, you know?” Gracie said and slumped against the counter, trying to commiserate while her heart rate tripled because she really didn’t have the cash to cover the rental. “But now that he’s stuck here, maybe you could offer to show him around or something.”
Della scowled at Gracie, then brightened when the computer let out an indignant beep.
“Decline!” she squealed.
“What!” Gracie straightened. Damn it, she must have blown her limit shipping her family’s Christmas gifts. That was before she came home to find Tony sexing it up with his law partner in their living room. If he’d had the good sense to get caught sooner, she could have saved herself the hassle of USPS at Christmas. Dumbass.
“Oh Mr. Sims,” Della trilled. “If you’ll step over here please.”
“No.” Gracie pulled herself together in time to jam her body between the counter and the cowboy. She tried not to notice that he stood a good head taller than she and had really wide shoulders. Oh, and a rock hard chest. She knew this because it was currently pressed against hers. She shoved him away. “No, wait, I have another card.”
She flipped over her wallet and dug the into the little pocket behind her check book. Her emergency card. The one with a paltry fifteen hundred dollar limit. She never thought she’d have to use it but these past two days witnessed a lot of things she thought would never happen. And it was Christmas. She slapped the card to the counter as Kale heaved a sigh and went away.
Della rolled her eyes, swiped the card, then handed Gracie all the forms. Nine hundred dollars later because of added insurance due to the weather, and a brand new Rand McNally map sporting a jaunty silver bow, the car was hers.
Which left her with exactly six hundred dollars for gas, food, and lodging.
“Merry Christmas,” Della muttered as she handed over the keys.
Gracie managed a civil nod, then wheeled her suitcase around and headed for the sliding doors and out into the ice. Ice in
Gracie entered the Hertz parking lot and her heart took a nose dive.
She spent the last of her credit on that thing. A forest green Mini Cooper, with a snowball’s chance in hell of making it over the
“It’s a beauty, isn’t it?”
She whipped around at the sound if his voice and her twenty dollar Payless boots slipped on the ice. She windmilled to the left, then the right, fighting for balance, and caught herself on the wheelie suitcase.
Kale Sims, damn his black soul, laughed.
“Aren’t you country boys suppose to help damsels in distress and all that crap?” she grumbled. Then, “What are you doing here? Did you follow me? I am NOT giving you my car.” She yanked herself upright, marched to the Mini, and jammed the unlock button on the keychain. Nothing happened. She took careful aim and hit the button once, twice, groaned as she hit it a third time and … nothing.
Gracie inserted the car key between her fingers and turned around. She knew she watched too much Forensic Files but a girl couldn’t be too careful.
“What do you want?” she asked slowly.
His dark green eyes—so not the eyes of a serial killer—flicked down to the keys in her hands. He took a slow step back, then another quicker one. His guitar case thumped against his heels and his feet scissored back and forth. She couldn’t help the quick grin—which he returned. Damn he could melt the ice with that smile.
“I need a ride.”
She frowned at him. “Don’t you have like, people, or something that can help you out? Where’s your manager? Your band?”
Something flickered across his face and his eyes turned serious. “Where I’m going I need to go alone. So. Please.”
“Ah, so he can beg,” she snarked then scrunched her eyes together in dismay. It wasn’t right to take out her really bad day—scratch that, month, year, life on a stranger. Especially at Christmas.
“It’s O.K.,” he said ruefully. “I deserved that.”
“Does it ever work?”
She waggled the keys at him. “You know, the celebrity thing. I mean, do you play that card a lot?”
His lips quirked at the corners. “I’m not above it,” he admitted and she gave him props for honesty. “Works about fifty-fifty.”
Her own smile inched up a little. He really was charming. “So never.”
“I’d say I have more luck than your mind over matter deal but nah, I don’t like using it.”
She considered him then, really let herself look him over. Tall, yes, and typical in tight jeans, gray Nautica sweater, black wool coat, and boots. But not typical in the smile that seemed real, warm. And dear God, help, just for her.
A blast of cold air whipped through the lot and up the back of her coat like a warning. She didn’t need that smile.
“Well,” Gracie said brightly. “Good bye.”
Kale dodged around her and blocked the car door. “You have to go through
“I know that,” she lied.
Truthfully she had no clear idea of how to get to
“Look, I know I’m a stranger and you’d be taking a huge risk letting me ride along with you.” He whipped off his hat and ran an impatient hand through his hair. “You can trust me. I need help.”
Funnily enough, she did trust him. Trusting him would probably wind her up on a Lifetime movie but there was something about him that prompted her to give him a little more time to make his case.
The cold wind was back.
Gracie scowled. “A chick? Not a family?”
He set his guitar case on the ground and leaned back against the car, crossed one boot over the other.
“Just a girl.”
Then it hit her. Of course, Jessica Woodson. That’s what all the gossip magazines were reporting. Kale’s old duet partner, Jessica, claimed he’d fathered a little boy and was demanding Kale step up and take responsibility.
Gracie forced a bright smile to cover what could be an awkward moment. She wouldn’t want someone prying into her life like that so she added a teasing note.
“No mom or dad, brother? Dog? Little sister? Waiting for you at home or something?”
His eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled at her and she knew she’d done the right thing by sidestepping that mess. “Were you picturing that Folgers commercial when the older brother sneaks in on Christmas morning?”
Oh God, how did he know that? She loved that commercial, teared up every time it came on.
“No. Do you really think I am going to drive your ass all the way to
“Oh. You don’t like that word? O.K., fine. I need to go see my old partner. Tell me you know what this is about so I don’t have to explain it.”
She looked away because she didn’t like the pained look on his face. “Yeah.”
“I have money.”
Gracie nudged her suitcase so that it knocked on his boots. “Move.”
“I’ll pay for the gas.”
It’d be good if he’d pay for food and hotel too but she wasn’t about to suggest it.
She frowned at him and squirmed a little inside her really thin boots.
“That’s a lot,” she said slowly because she was really considering what he offered and really thinking her mother would kill her if she found out. But she had to get home. She had to. She just wasn’t sure she could do it on her own.
As if seeking her weakness, he cocked his head to the side, sent her a wily grin. “I’m a good driver. And I won’t talk if you don’t want me to.”
That she didn’t believe. But she also didn’t believe she’d end up in a ditch somewhere come Christmas morning. Still, the look he was giving her, like he knew her every thought, sent shards of irritation through her so she frowned harder.
“Fine. Get in.”
He whooped—actually whooped—and skidded around the car to the trunk. She followed at a slower pace, looked at the dead key remote in her hand and then tossed it at him. She had too much to think about now to waste time on figuring out how to get all their stuff in the tiny car. Like how she was going to explain to her family that she was driving cross country in a rented Christmas Tree green Mini with Country music’s biggest bad boy. A grin tugged at the corners of her mouth. Shelly surely would have a fit of jealousy over it. And that gave Gracie a little bit of satisfaction. It would be nice, just once, to be the one someone was jealous of. She left Kale with her luggage and skated around to the passenger side.
He opened the driver’s door and slung his guitar into the backseat, then hit the button to slide the seat all the way back. And then proceeded to jam his tall frame inside. Gracie bit back a giggle when his knees hit the bottom of the steering wheel. He swore under his breath, threw the hat in the backseat beside his guitar and cranked the car. They both let out a sighs of relief when it actually started.
“Do you think it’ll make it over the
Kale tapped his long fingers on the steering wheel. “We’re about to find out. Hold on to your hat, darlin’.”