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"Due to inclement weather conditions, all flights for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport have been canceled until further notice. Please see your airline service agent for further assistance."
Ellen Davis suppressed a groan as the airport public address system repeated the grim news that had her, and eighty gazil-lion other holiday travelers, standing in line to rent a car two days before Christmas.
Next in line to speak to the car rental agent, she refused to give in to the frustration and aggravation gnawing at her. Everyone was tense and grumpy because of the inconvenient weather, but if it killed her, she'd maintain the pleasant holiday cheer that those around her seemed to have forgotten.
The tall man in front of her took the key to his rental and the folder of papers he was handed and stepped aside. Ellen moved to the counter while he glanced over and signed his rental agreement.
"I need whatever you have left. I'm not picky as long as it has wheels and can get me to Spokane by tonight," she told the frazzled woman behind the desk.
From the corner of her eye, she noticed the tall man glance up at her. While the rental agent tapped her computer keys, Ellen cast him a polite glance, caught his eye and smiled.
Dark-haired, lean and oh-so-handsome in his suede bomber jacket and faded jeans, he returned a lopsided grin and continued to watch her. Ellen's stomach did a jittery dance under his perusal.
"Looks like we have a Taurus or—"
Ellen turned her attention back to the rental agent when she spoke, conscious of the man's lingering gaze. "I'll take it."
"Or for just ten more dollars I can put you ina—"
Darkness swallowed the room.
With a flicker and a collective groan from the horde of weary travelers, the power blinked out. Halogen emergency lighting struggled on throughout the terminal, casting the reservation lobby in a surreal dim glow.
Ellen squelched the flutter of panic that tickled her gut. Soon she'd have a car, and with luck, she could still make her sister's wedding rehearsal dinner tonight if—
"I'm sorry, ma'am." The agent frowned and banged her keyboard. "I lost my computer when the power failed. I can't access our database."
"So just give me the Taurus you mentioned. That's fine." She tapped her toe nervously, anxious to simply get on the road before the freak snowstorm pounding Seattle got any worse.
"I can't do that. Without the computer, I can't rent anything else today."
"Excuse me? You just said you had a Taurus." Hearing the tension that had crept into her voice, Ellen gritted her teeth so hard her jaw ached. She battled down the rising stress and tried again. "Can't you do the paperwork by hand? You know you have the car, so—"
The woman was already shaking her head, her expression hard and unsympathetic.
The agent's apparent lack of concern for her predicament and the plight of the other stranded travelers frayed Ellen's last nerve.
"Then how am I supposed to get to Spokane? Do you have any idea how upset Trixie will be if I miss her wedding?" Her voice trembled, and tears of frustration and disappointment tightened Ellen's throat.
The car rental agent gave her a bored look. "That's not my problem."
Ellen saw red. Forget patience and holiday cheer and a spirit of cooperation during a crisis. She was ready to climb over the counter and throttle the rude woman.
"What?" she snapped. Her hands shook as she struggled for a calming breath.
Down the corridor, an alarm blared, and the grumble of the crowd behind her spoke for the growing unrest in the airport.
"Excuse me." A warm, steady hand gripped her elbow, and Ellen pivoted to face the handsome man… who'd gotten the last car before the airport lost power. "Did you say you were going to a wedding? In Spokane?"
Ellen knitted her brow. "I— Well, yeah. How'd you—"
"Trixie Davis and Sean O'Banion?"
She blinked, stunned. "Yes. Why?"
A broad dentist-perfect grin spread across his face. "I'll be damned. Me, too. Would you like to ride with me?"
A startled laugh hiccupped from her throat. "You're going to Trixie and Sean's wedding, too?"
He held out his hand. "Zach Kallen. Sean's best man."
Ellen gaped. "No way!"
"Way." He smiled again, a dimple pocking his cheek, and her pulse danced.
Exhaling the knot of oxygen that had been logjammed in her chest since the airport closure was announced, she nodded. "If it's not too much trouble, yes. Please. I don't think I'm going to get there any other way."
Zach gathered his backpack and slung it over a shoulder.
"Then follow me. I'd like to get over the mountains before they close the highway."
Ellen gathered her purse and wiggled through the press of bodies clogging the lobby in front of the rental desk. Aggravation and desperation were written on the faces of the people still waiting to find a way to reach their loved ones for the holidays. When she caught up to Zach, she gave him another appreciative smile. "Thank you. You're my hero."
He shrugged. "It only makes sense to share a ride if we're headed the same place."
"Just the same…you're a lifesaver." She jogged to keep pace with his long-legged strides and gave the dim corridor an uneasy glance. The watery gray light that seeped through the large windows along the terminal did little to dispel the pervading gloom the snowstorm and power outage cast.
They passed a large Christmas tree in the airport lobby as they headed outside. The darkened strands of lights and shifting shadows filled Ellen with a hollow ache. Twinkling lights brought life and beauty to a Christmas tree. Without the strings of lights ablaze, the tree seemed lonesome, dead and dreary. She prayed this holiday weekend, and especially Trixie's wedding, didn't fall victim to the snowstorm like the tree, losing their sparkle and joy. Already the blackout and bad weather threatened to ruin the occasion for Ellen.
"I don't know what I'd do if I missed my sister's wedding," she said breathlessly, trying to keep up with Zach. "We've been dreaming of this day since we were old enough to dress our Barbies in white dresses and practice writing Mrs. in front of our names."
Zach tossed a disgruntled look over his shoulder. "Been on the husband hunt awhile, have you?"
"I didn't say that. You make us sound desperate or calculating. But most girls dream of a fairy-tale wedding to the man they love long before they know who that special someone will be. And Trixie and I have put hours into planning her wedding. If I miss it—"
"You won't." He gave her an even look, full of assurance. "I'll get us there one way or another."
His confidence calmed a few of the jitters dancing along her nerves. As they stalked past the luggage carousels, she sent the conveyers a longing glance. "I guess snagging my luggage is out of the question, since I checked it through to Spokane."
"Which is why I always carry my bag with me." Zach patted the backpack on his shoulder and gave her a self-satisfied grin.
"A carry-on wouldn't have worked for me. I was packing for a week, including the wedding and all that entailed. My bag weighed a ton." Ellen dodged a frazzled-looking family and sent the mother a sympathetic smile. Getting stranded in a powerless airport this close to Christmas had to be a parenting nightmare.
Zach slowed his pace momentarily, allowing Ellen to catch up. "Never fear. Your suitcase will be sent on as soon as the airport reopens and flights resume."
She pulled a face, unconvinced. "I can hope. That won't help me for the next day or two, though."
When they stepped out of the terminal and headed into the parking garage in search of the rental car, a blast of wintry wind slammed into them. The chill sank all the way to her marrow.
Without the security lights, the lower levels of the parking garage were as dark and cold as a tomb. Only the occasional moan of the storm winds in the rafters broke the eerie stillness. As if, because of the blackout and the snowstorm, all of Seattle had fallen into a deathlike slumber. A chill raced through Ellen, wholly unrelated to the ice pellets peppering the streets or the arctic wind whipping through the rental level of the parking lot.
Picking up her pace, she inched closer to Zach's solid build. In his wake, the scent of leather and pine filled the air, and Ellen inhaled the heady aromas. In addition to his chiseled features and startlingly blue eyes, Zach walked with a confident, loose-limbed stride that exuded strength—and perhaps a tad of arrogance.
When a skittering sound rustled in the shadows, another uneasy jitter crawled up Ellen's spine. She determinedly focused on Zach's sexy walk and broad shoulders rather than the biting cold, the dark garage and the nip of foreboding the nasty weather stirred in her.
While she was lost in thoughts of her companion's snug jeans, her foot hit an unexpected patch of ice. She grabbed for the bumper of the nearest car to catch herself—triggering the shrieking wail of the car's security alarm. With a gasp, Ellen jerked away, her nerves jumping. Again her feet skidded on the slick ice. This time, Zach appeared at her side in a heartbeat, catching her under her arms and hauling her up against the solid wall of his chest.
Ellen sank her fingers into the warm suede of his coat and raised an embarrassed grin. "Oops," she shouted over the loud alarm.
He quirked an eyebrow but didn't release her. She made no move to pull away, either. The wide span of his hand at the small of her back, anchoring her close to his sturdy frame, suffused her with a sense of safety and comfort when so much else had gone wrong today.
What would she have done if Zach hadn' t been standing in line with her, hadn't offered to share the rental car? She'd be stranded here in a city with no power while her sister walked down the aisle. Shoving the dreary thought aside, she squared her shoulders.
He arched one dark eyebrow and gave her a measuring glance that sent a tickling warmth to her belly. "You okay? Got your land legs back?"
"Yeah, thanks." Even though standing snuggled securely in Zach's arms had tremendous appeal, she stepped back.
His expression sobered. "A guy at the gate had a radio, and I heard him tell his friend the authorities were trying to keep I-90 through Snoqualmie Pass open as long as possible. But if the storm doesn't ease up, the interstate could be closed soon. Even if the roads are open, driving will be tricky."
Zach's warning revived the knot of anxiety that sat in her chest.
"Then I guess we need to hurry if we are going to reach Spokane in time to help Trix and Sean celebrate their marriage." When Zach's face grew dark, Ellen hesitated. "What is it, Zach?"
"You may be going to celebrate with your sister, but my rush has nothing to do with revelry. I'm going to Spokane to save Sean from making a big mistake. I'm going to stop the wedding."
Excuse me?" The stunned expression Ellen gave him was almost comical. Almost.
Except that Zach was dead serious about saving his best friend from an ill-advised commitment. He turned without answering her and continued down the unlit row of cars, squinting into the darkness to find his rental.
"Zach, wait!" The clatter of Ellen's high heels on the cement— what had she been thinking with that shoe choice in weather like this?—echoed off the garage walls as she hurried to follow him.
"I know you want to debate my reasons for going to the wedding," he said without breaking stride, "but can we do it in the car? The storm won't hold off while we argue over the wisdom of this wedding."
Spotting the white sedan in the correctly numbered parking spot, Zach pulled out the key fob and clicked off the door locks. He tossed his backpack on the rear seat, then opened the passenger side door for Ellen.
She stopped at the rear bumper and braced a hand on her hip. Even in the dark garage, he could tell her glare shot daggers. "Stop the wedding? Are you insane? You said you were Sean's best man!"
"And as such, it is my job to look out for his best interests. In my opinion, that means convincing him not to say, I do." He motioned for her to get in the car.
She didn't budge. "Trixie is what's best for Sean. They're in love!"
Zach sighed. "Can we debate that point on the road? Time's wasting."
Ellen marched closer and stuck her face in his. A sweet, floral scent swirled around him, teasing his nose. Her eyes flashed with green fire, and her ivory skin flushed with ire. "I won't let you do this to my sister. You're—"
Zach kissed her. Just a quick smack on the mouth, but it served his purpose. He derailed her argument, stopped her talking. He'd taken one look at the pout in her plump, raspberry lips and given in to the impulse.
Ellen blinked at him, a stunned, quizzical dent in her brow.
"Get in, please. We'll talk as we drive."
She drew an unsteady breath and released it slowly, her wary gaze taking stock of him. Finally she ducked her head and climbed in the front seat. As Zach rounded the front bumper, he cut a side glance through the windshield in time to see her press her fingers to her lips. As if her mouth still tingled from his kiss.
He squashed the urge to imitate her gesture, though the effect of that short, tactical kiss still sizzled through his system. The taste and feel of her lips rocked him to his core.
Steady, boy. You need your best game on to tackle these icy roads. Don't let a tempting bridesmaid distract you from the task at hand.
Zach pulled out of the parking garage and into the pinging snow and sleet that had brought all of Seattle to a halt and knocked out power. Until the storm cleared and the utility company could get the lights back on, Seattle was in for a messy, inconvenient Christmas holiday.
He gritted his teeth as the front tires of the Malibu he'd rented lost traction for a moment. Thanks to the storm tracking from Seattle across the Cascade Mountains, he faced a tedious, treacherous drive to Spokane.
"Do we have snow tires?" Ellen cast a dubious gaze at the dark clouds that spit icy precipitation. Her face reflected the same concerns churning through him.
"Doubt it. They're generally not needed in Seattle, so rental companies don't put out the bucks."
He took the steep driveway of the parking garage slowly and merged onto the main access road leading away from the airport. Traffic was almost nonexistent.
Anyone with a brain was hunkered down at home rather than tackling the icy roads.