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Jared Johnson drove his black SUV out of the basement parking garage of Clover Valley Luxury Apartments onto the street and saw Elise McDermott standing on the corner in the pouring rain. Suitcase, diaper bag and small boxlike container on the sidewalk beside her feet, she held her baby in a carrier, which she protectively sheltered with her umbrella.
But the storm was relentless and Jared suspected it wouldn't take more than a minute or two before Elise and her baby would be soaking wet. Angry with her for standing in the rain with a baby, when she could be in their building lobby, he stopped his SUV and hit the button that lowered the passenger side window.
Leaning across his seat, he yelled, "What the hell are you doing out in this storm with a baby!"
"I'm waiting for a taxi to take me to the bus station."
With the window down he could hear the heavy California rain as it pounded his windshield, roof and hood. Obviously thinking he'd yelled to be heard over the noise and not out of anger, she stepped closer. Her pretty green eyes were dull with worry. Her thick, curly red hair danced around her in the wind.
"But I've been waiting a while. And the schedule I have has the bus leaving in a little over an hour. If I miss it I won't get to North Carolina in time to do everything I need to do before Christmas. Do you think my taxi forgot me?"
"Yes!" Guilt stabbed him. She wasn't standing in the rain like a ninny with no place to go. It sounded as if she was on her way home for the holiday. To her real home. Not a condo she was house-sitting as she'd been for the past six months for Michael Feeney while he was in Europe. And her taxi had forgotten her. She wasn't ascatterbrain. He had to stop jumping to the conclusion that everybody who did anything out of the realm of what he considered normal was somehow wrong.
Annoyed with himself, he sighed and glanced at his watch before he shoved his gearshift into Park. He was way too early for his flight anyway.
He jumped out of his SUV and rounded the hood. He knew from experience there was only one way to deal with his guilt. Penance.
"How about if I give you a ride to the bus station?"
Elise McDermott stared at dark-haired, gray-eyed, absolutely gorgeous Jared Johnson. He wore an expensive raincoat over a dark suit, white shirt and tie, and was currently getting drenched because he didn't have an umbrella. When she agreed to house-sit for Michael Feeney, Michael had told her Jared was the person to call if anything happened while he was away. He'd laughingly said Jared was grouchy but once he got over being disturbed, he would always come through, if only out of guilt. Jared had probably offered her a ride because he'd felt bad about yelling at her.
"I'd love a ride, but you're obviously on your way somewhere and I don't want to be any trouble."
He reached for her suitcase. "No trouble."
She put her hand over his on the handle. "I'm serious. You were going somewhere and I don't like to be a bother." He might want to make up for yelling at her, but he didn't have to. Being alone and pregnant she'd learned to stand on her own two feet. She didn't need to be coddled. "I'll call another cab."
"I'm on my way to the airport. But I'm early. Way too early. You'll be doing me a favor if you let me make the side trip to the bus station. I won't have to sit in the airport lounge for three hours."
Before she could argue any further, he pulled on the suitcase, easily wrestling it away from her. "Come on."
She opened her mouth to stop him, but the wind caught her umbrella and she couldn't hold it. The rush of air jerked the handle out of her grip and it took off like a kite.
He nodded at the baby seat. "You buckle her in," he said, shouting over the noise of the storm as he began walking to the rear of the SUV. "I'll put these in the back."
She shook her head. Lord, he was persistentand she was getting drenched. Since he was offering to do what she'd have to pay a cab to do, she supposed she'd be foolish to argue.
By the time he had her gear stowed, she was almost done with the baby. She clicked the final strap, shut the back door and settled into the passenger seat of his SUV. He slid behind the steering wheel and closed the door. Suddenly it was blessedly dry and quiet.
He hit the buttons to activate the heater and she glanced at all bells and whistles in his obviously expensive vehicle. "Wow. It's so quiet in here."
"That's one of the car's selling points. It's quiet."
"Yeah, quiet and wonderful. Holy cow. This must have cost a chunk of change."
"It's nothing compared to the things my clients drive."
"It might be nothing compared to your clients' rides" According to the building rumor mill, the guy in the penthouseas Jared was known to most of the residentswas the attorney for several recording artists, one recording studio and a few movie stars, so she didn't doubt his clients drove incredibly fancy cars. "But compared to the rest of us, you're sitting pretty."
Her praise seemed to make him uncomfortable and he shifted on his seat. His jaw tightened. "I wasn't always well-off."
Because she didn'tknow him, had only seen him a few times in the lobby waiting for the elevator to his penthouse, she had no idea why he'd be upset to have money. But since she'd never see him again, it didn't matter. He was who he was. Rich. She was who she wasa single mom without an extra cent to spare. Six years ago when her mother died she'd left North Carolina with her boyfriend Patrick with big dreams, but she'd ended up supporting him. When she'd gotten pregnant he'd left as if his feet were on fire. She and Jared Johnson had nothing in common and there was no sense pretending they did by making mindless small talk.
She settled into the bucket seat and closed her eyes.
Besides, she had a few things to think about. She was returning to North Carolina, but not the small town she grew up in. She'd inherited her grandmother's house in the town right beside it. She was going to the hometown of her father. The guy who had left her mom. The guy she didn't even know. And she wasn't sure whether the good people of Four Corners, North Carolina, would welcome her with open arms, or treat her like the plague. She only knew the grandmother she'd never met had left her a piece of property. A place she could sell, hopefully for enough money to buy a home to raise her baby.
The same grandmother who hadn't even wanted to meet her, hadn't acknowledged her as her kin, had given her her first break in life.
And she'd be a fool not to take it.
Suddenly the SUV was so quiet Jared could hear his own breathing. This was a bad idea. Elise was virtually a stranger and here they were, trapped in a car for at least twenty minutes, with nothing to talk about. He fixed his eyes on the road, occasionally glancing at the shops lining the street, then he saw the Christmas tree in front of Meg's Memory Mart, growing in a pot big enough to accommodate a four-foot fir, covered in blinking lights and tinsel. His heart caught. His breath shivered.
He shifted on the seat, struggling to rein in a flood of memories. He had to get a hold of himself now, before his plane landed in New York. If he didn't, his pain would be infinitely worse when he got to the city where every damned thing on every damned street would remind him of the absolutely perfect life he'd lost. He couldn't cancel his trip. After five years of his finding excuses not to come home, his parents had threatened to come to California with their friend "the shrink" if he backed out this year. They didn't think it was natural for him to stay away as long as he had. They thought he was just a little bit crazy. He had to show them he was okay.
Even if he wasn't a hundred percent sure he was.
Blocking that last thought, he fixed his mind on upcoming contract negotiations for one of his clients, and the rest of the drive to the bus station passed in silence. He pulled up to the curb and Elise eagerly jumped out when he stopped the car. He climbed out of his side of the vehicle and headed for the back of the SUV.
"Here," he said, grabbing her suitcase before she could. "I'll get these. You get the baby."
"That's okay. I can handle it."
"I'm sure you can. But I've got plenty of time. Think of this as part of the way I'm wasting those three hours before my flight."
She rolled her eyes but strode to the side of his vehicle, letting him unload her things. He added her six-pack-size cooler and diaper bag to the suitcase he already had, and walked to the passenger's side of the SUV where she was getting her baby from the backseat.
She arranged the baby carrier in her right hand and motioned for him to slide the straps for the diaper bag and cooler to her shoulder. "I'll take those."
She wasn't going to let him help her into the bus station? That was ridiculous. She could barely carry all these things.
Still, rather than argue, he said, "Okay," and slid the bag and cooler in place before setting the suitcase at her feet for her to take. Then he surprised her by removing the baby carrier handle from her right hand. "I'll take the baby."
"I'm sure you are, but I'm happy to hold her while you get your tickets."
"I know. Fine. But I have time and I can use it to save you the trouble of juggling the baby while you buy your bus tickets."
"You know, you wouldn't have to pay penance for the guilt you feel when you yell at people if you'd simply stop yelling at people."
It surprised him that she caught on to the guilt and penance thing he had going and that unexpectedly struck him as funny. Despite himself, he smiled. "Why do you think I usually just don't talk to people?"
"I thought you were a snob."
That made him out-and-out laugh. She gave him a strange look, but turned away and marched into the bus station. He followed, glancing down at the baby in the carrier. "Hey, Molly."
The chubby, curly-haired baby grinned at him, her toothless gums exposed, spit bubbles forming at the corner of her mouth. With her pale red hair, she looked adorable in her little pink one-piece outfit, bundled in blankets.
He strode to a bench seat, pleased Molly wasn't giving him any trouble. But when Elise got in line, the baby began to fuss and then to cry. Two people took places behind Elise, putting her out of reach for assistance.
Cursing, he sat and began unbuckling the straps confining the unhappy baby. Passengers on the other benches around him turned and gave him pointed looks, letting him know how little they appreciated a crying baby in their midst.
"Hush, now. I'm going as fast as I can."
The last snap popped and he pulled Molly from her seat. She immediately stopped crying and grinned toothlessly at him.
"Oh, I get it. You did that on purpose, didn't you? Made me think you were going to make a scene when you only wanted me to pick you up?"
She cooed and her grin widened.
"Stop being cute. I'm immune."
His stern voice caused her face to pucker as if she were about to cry again and, not wanting to risk the wrath of the waiting passengers, Jared rose to walk with her.
Pacing back and forth seemed to amuse her enough that she looked around curiously. Jared relaxed. Knowing he had to keep moving, he meandered to the large screen that displayed the schedules. He scanned until he saw the one for North Carolina and his mouth fell open.
It would take Elise eight days to get to North Carolina? He glanced at the people milling around the bus station. Eight days on a moving vehicle with the people currently giving him beady-eyed stares, obviously not at all pleased to see that they'd be traveling with a baby? Oh, Lord. Elise was in trouble.
He glanced at the screen again to be sure he'd seen correctly and he had. Eight long days to get to North Carolina. The bus had to be taking routes that would allow it to drop other passengers along the way. Driving himself, he'd traveled from New York City to Los Angeles in five days.
He frowned. He had driven it in five days. If he were to drive Elise, that would cut her trip nearly in half and get her out of the bus filled with passengers who didn't want her. On top of that, those five days of driving would delay his arrival. He wouldn't have to spend three weeks in a city that only reminded him of what he lost. He'd have a delay in seeing, hearing, smelling things in New York that would remind him of better days. Perfect days. The perfect life that slipped through his fingers. And then he could cut another five days off because he'd have to drive back to L.A.
He shook his head in bemusement. As good as that sounded, it was a bad idea. Not only was Elise going to North Carolina, hundreds of miles south of New York City, but how would he explain it to his parents? Out of the blue he'd decided to drive a neighbor the whole way to North Carolina for the holidays? Then for sure they'd think he was insane.
He watched Elise step out of the line, holding her ticket and for a second he envied her. Relief showed on her face, but of course, that mood wouldn't last. Once the busload of passengers got fed up with her and her baby, she'd be miserable.
But he couldn't simply offer her a ride. Even if they agreed to find a bus station for her in whatever city their paths separated, he still had to have a reason for driving instead of flyingone that didn't sound like an obvious stall tactic to his parents.
Elise walked up to him and opened her arms for her baby. "What happened?"
"Ah, she bullied you into picking her up."