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Sabrina Merritt counted at least a dozen photographers waiting for her to exit the gate area at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. They all had their lenses trained on her legs, which two days ago had been labeled "chunky" by beauty pageant pundits.
Great. It had been humiliating enough seeing close-ups of her thighs on national television. Now the local media, the papers read by everyone who mattered to her, were about to jump on the bandwagon.
"Sabrina, this way," one of the photographers called.
She ignored him, certain that if she so much as met anyone's eyes, the smile she'd rehearsed in her compact mirror as the plane taxied to the gate would fall off her face. Seven months as Miss Georgia had made her thick-skinned about personal criticism. But to be slammed so publicly, just when she needed people to take her seriously, and over something so meaningless to anyone but herself as her legs
Glassy-eyed, she scanned the crowd, in search of her good friend Tyler, who'd said he would meet her. Darn it, he'd promised.
Then she saw the lone man beyond the media group. Not Tyler.
The way he leaned his tall frame against a pillar might appear nonchalant, but the rigidity of his shoulders and the thumbs hooked in the pockets of his jeans proclaimed I know what I want and no one's going to stop me.
That was Jake, all right.
Was he here to gloat? Sabrina lifted her chin. She was strong and capable, even if nobody else had figured that out yet. She tapped a finger against her cheek and announced, "I'm up here, folks."
A sheepish laugh rippled through the photographers. They tilted theircameras higherbut not before they'd snapped their shots of her thighs.
Concealing her legs beneath a long, filmy sunshine-yellow sundress didn't seem to have lessened anyone's interest in them. Sabrina quashed the urge to spread her hands protectively over the delicate fabric.
She'd flown home to Atlanta a day ahead of her official schedule, in the hope of eluding the media. How stupidly naive. If Jake had been the one facing a media meltdown, he'd have anticipated this hoo-ha and prepared a speech.
"Sabrina, you're the first Miss Georgia in two decades to be eliminated from the Miss U.S.A. Pageant in the first round." A female TV reporter oozed fake sympathy.
"Good grief, is that right?" That fact, along with every other mortifying detail of her failure, had been endlessly recycled in the media over the past few days.
Presumably for the benefit of the one person in some remote corner of Alaska who hadn't yet heard about her chunky thighs.
A couple of the men caught the gleam in Sabrina's eyes and laughed. Their reaction disconcerted their female colleague, who snapped, "How does that make you feel?" Then the woman recovered her TV manners and lowered her voice to radiate puzzled concern. "Do you think your thighs were the real problem, or are the rumors of interpersonal differences between you and another contestant true?"
In other words, was Sabrina's body or her personality the bigger loser? Her insides quivered, an outright betrayal of her resolution to get tough on herself. Although she'd learned to handle snarky comments since she'd won the Miss Georgia crown, nothing in her existence to dateher pampered existence, as Jake called ithad equipped her to deal with the irrational hostility that insisted her legs had somehow let the state down.
She put a hand to the orchid she'd tucked behind her left ear as she left her dressing room in Vegas. The deep pink flower contrasted nicely with her blond hair and her yellow dressbut so much for the hope it would distract attention from her legs. Dammit, where was Tyler? She wanted to throw her jacket over her head and flee, even though she'd hate for Jake to see her running away.
Behind the reporters, Jake straightened and stepped forward. Sabrina frownedthen, as a camera flashed, hastily raised her eyebrows to smooth her forehead. With her luck, she'd end up in tomorrow's Journal-Constitution looking like a bad-tempered shrew. With fat thighs.
Mentally, she continued to frown at Jake. No one should look that good under fluorescent lighting. His skin had a healthy tan, and when he smiled, his teeth gleamed white.
She did a double take. Jake, smiling at me?
Sure, it looked as if he was gritting his teethdefinitely smiling, and definitely at her. He was going to rescue her, she realized, which was even more bizarre.
"Sabrina." Jake's deep, commanding voice swung the crowd in his direction.
Just like that. A potential governor of Georgia obviously held sway over a dumped beauty queen. Now she understood why he was herehe'd seen the opportunity for some free publicity for his election campaign and was cashing in on her thighs.
She took advantage of the distraction to glare at him. Then he arrived at her side, and his presence sucked up all available oxygen, leaving her in a vacuum of awareness. Darn it, she hated that he could still do that to her.
He tugged her heavy carry-on bag off her shoulder. "Are you okay?"
Sabrina blinked at his concern. Before she could reply, he turned to the reporters, who by now were firing questions, and held up a hand.
"If you folks bought into the garbage dished out about Sabrina at the Miss U.S.A. Pageant," Jake said, "then shame on you."
Huh? Sabrina's mouth dropped open. Shouldn't he be speechifying about the Georgia school system or some other political hot potato?
"Some of you" he pointed to the reporter from the Journal-Constitution and an interviewer from Good Morning Atlanta "went on record six months ago as saying Sabrina Merritt is the most beautiful Miss Georgia ever. Now you're letting a bunch of Yankees tell you otherwise?"
A murmur rose among the shuffling reporters.
The Yankee quip was well judgedSabrina wished she'd thought of it herself. Because this wasn't Jake's fight. Ironic that the very time she was determined to stand her ground, the man least likely to defend her had an attack of chivalry. "Jake, you don't have to"
"Take it from me," Jake told the crowd, now swelled by curious travelers and airport personnel, "Sabrina Merritt is a beautiful person inside and out."
Sabrina's famous thighs almost gave way; she steadied herself by clutching at the nearest immovable object. Jake. Through the soft, worn cotton of his casual shirt, she felt the strength of muscle in his forearm.
Jake's gaze flickered, but he kept his focus on the spectators, where a smattering of clapping had broken out. "And," he said in a voice that brooked no argument, "she has amazing legs."
He would know. An unwelcome tide of memory swamped Sabrina. But Jake didn't appear to be in the thrall of their shared history. He bestowed his most charming smile on the photographers. "That's all, folks." To Sabrina, he said in a low voice, "Let's get out of here."
"He's not here, I'm your chauffeur."
"I need to" A glance at the reporters told her no one wanted to hear her stand up for herself. All the interest was in Jake, who was already shepherding her through the crowd. "I haven't picked up my suitcase," she protested.
"I'll have one of my staff get it."
His black Alfa Romeo was parked right outside the terminal, where only taxis and rental-car shuttles were allowed. Jake paid off the guy minding the Alfa, then held the door open for Sabrina. He jerked his head at her to get in.
"A prospective governor shouldn't park illegally," she said.
"You think that's what'll lose me the primary?" he asked with an irony she didn't understand.
She slid into the car, and a minute later Jake was maneuvering through the stop-start terminal traffic with his usual controlled flair. Sabrina didn't realize she was holding her breath until they passed the Welcome to Atlanta sign on the airport periphery and she let it out.
Jake glanced over at her. "Your skirt's too long."
"Are you kidding? Those guys wanted to make mincemeat out of my thighs." Ugh, the words conjured an unpleasant image; Sabrina squirmed in her seat. "You can't blame me for covering up."
"Avoidance doesn't work. Confronting challenges head-on is the only way to win the respect of the media."
It wasn't the media's respect she needed at this stage, though it might help with her new job. "I was about to confront those reporters when you butted in."
He raised his eyebrows. "A simple thank-you will suffice."
"I can fight my own battles," she said, striving for a dignity that would put Jake in his place. His place being out of her life.
He snorted. "If you're trying to tell me you're no longer Daddy's helpless little princess "
Her fingers curled in her lap. "Did you see my father at the airport?" she demanded. "You know, given half a chance, he would have been there, browbeating those guys. I can get past this on my own."
"Why break the habit of a lifetime now?" Visibly, Jake bit down on further criticism. Which wasn't like him. He was the one person who didn't pull his punches with her.
"Why were you at the airport instead of Tyler?" she asked.
Typical Jake, keeping information to himself, treating her as if she was an infant. And not a very smart one at that. Sabrina feigned a gasp of horror. "You've gone over to the dark side!"
At his impatient look, she elaborated. "You came to save me from those reportersyou've joined the Coddle Sabrina Merritt League."
He rolled his eyes. "Never going to happen, sweetheart."
The sweetheart hovered between them. Sabrina tried to think of a smart comment. Then the hard line of Jake's mouth curved in something that might have been a grimace, but just might have been
"What's with the weird smile?" she asked. "That's the second one today."
Immediately, his lips resumed their granite set. "Tyler said I had to be nice," he admitted.
Tyler was Jake's cousin. He'd managed to stay close friends with both of them, despite the rift between Jake and Sabrina. She pffed. "I don't need Tyler championing my cause, and I don't need you grinning at me."
"My smile is my best feature," Jake said. "Seventy percent of voters think so." Again, that ironic tone.
"A hundred percent of this voter doesn't agree." She laced her fingers in her lap. "I count on you being nasty."
They lapsed into a moment's silence as he passed a moving truck. "I'm not nasty."
"Mean, then," she amended. "I rely on you not to handle me with kid gloves. So don't go screwing up my world any more than it already is." She folded her arms and looked out her window at the light industrial area they were passing through.
"So you don't need your dad, you don't need Tyler. Do they know you're flying solo?" He sounded curious rather than sarcastic.
"They'll figure it out when they see the changes I'm making." She twisted to face Jake. "Being Miss Georgia has been an empowering experience."
Another snortshe should have known better than to trust his interest.
"That's what you said on TV," he said, "in Las Vegas."
She pounced. "So you were watching."
The color that rose above the collar of his striped shirt was some compensation.
"I figured it was a line to impress the judges," he said.
Sabrina contemplated how, if that had been her strategy, it had been a dismal failure. "Your defense of me at the airport was very touching," she said, the memory of her humiliation stinging afresh.
"Don't take it personally, I just told the truth. You do have great legs." He turned on the radio, tuned in to a current-affairs show. He'd had enough of this conversation, so apparently it was over.
Sabrina hit the off button; Jake's head jerked in her direction. "I meant," she said, "the bit where you said I'm beautiful inside and out."
His lips clamped together, then parted just enough for him to mutter, "I got carried away with my own rhetoric."
"A common pitfall for politicians."
No reply. Just the jump of a muscle in his cheek as he returned his focus to the road.
The buzz of her cell phone had Sabrina rummaging through her purse. One glance at the display and she stuffed the phone back into the jumble of makeup and tissues.
"Reporter?" Jake asked.
"Don't you want to remind him how you don't need him anymore?"
"He'll soon see that." Her dad's impeccable sources would have reached him in Dallas where he was playing golf this weekend. He would know she was back and would be intent on shielding her, comforting her. Yet he would deny with his last breath that he had no respect for his youngest daughterplenty of love, but no faith in her capabilities. Why had she let him, and everyone else, get away with that attitude for so long?
Sabrina realized Jake had taken a turn away from the direction of Buckhead, the exclusive area of Atlanta where they'd both grownup. "Hey, where are you going?"
Her heart jolted, the way it had the first time he'd said those words to her, years ago. "Excuse me?" That came out high, panicky. Because no way could he be planning on doing what they'd done back then. Could he?
"I want to talk to you."
Talk. Sabrina's pulse slowed. Thank goodness he couldn't read her mind.
"Without the risk of one of your sisters barging in," Jake added.
Sabrina swallowed, licked her lips. "You and I don't talk."
Technically, they talked often. Their families were close friends, they met at so many social occasions, it would be impossible to maintain the level of hostility that had consumed them five years ago.
To ease those social connections, they'd fallen into a kind of barbed banter that let them express their dislike in a way that didn't discomfit other people. Everyone knew their history, no one expected them to be pals.