Read an Excerpt
Cody Dillard was accustomed to being on the receiving end of admiring glances from women of all ages. He was tall and lean with an easy smile and eyes so deep blue that he'd been asked more than once if the color was his or tinted contacts. He'd been a high school junior and a wannabe athlete when his body had suddenly taken on the hard planes of manhood and his head had finally caught up with his earsappendages that had caused him no end of teasing as a kid.
Basically shy and introverted by nature, as a kid Cody had not been sure popularity and admiration were much better than the old teasing and snickers. But as a grown man, he actually enjoyed the attention. He had learned that he could make some grandmother's day by returning her glance with a smile that bypassed the younger women around her. Cody was all about finding ways to lighten people's load. That was how he had decided to honor the lives of his mother and brothertwo souls who had filled the world with laughter, joy and generosity of spirit during their far-too-brief stay on earth.
Too often he saw people rushing around, their faces set into hard frowns or exhausted blank stares as if they knew they needed to get somewhere but were not sure what they would do once they arrived at their destination. Cody understood that, better than most who enjoyed the many blessings of life might guess. Even now, five years later, Cody fought every day not to surrender to his griefand his guilt.
He ambled through O'Hare Airport where no one ambledeverand focused on individuals hurrying past him. A businessman, cell phone to ear, brushed past. He was juggling a carry-on bag, laptop and shopping bag with presents for the kiddies back home judging by the teddy bear that had just fallen unnoticed to the floor. Cody picked up the bear and hurried to catch up with the man. He watched the man's expression go from annoyance at the interruption to appreciation. The man mouthed "thank you" as he turned so Cody could stuff the bear back in the bag.
Cody saw a security officer eyeing him suspiciously. Understanding that his leisurely stroll might be perfectly normal to him but stood out in a madhouse like O'Hare, Cody realized he'd better relieve the man's suspicions.
"Excuse me, Officer," he said. "I'm meeting someone coming in on the flight from D.C. Since I don't have a ticket and can't meet her at the gate, what do you suggest?"
The officer continued to check him out as he gathered information. Cody explained that he'd never actually met the woman he was meeting and was operating from a description provided by her aunt. Of course, Cody knew exactly what he needed to do, but asking the bored security guard for help gave the man purpose and an identity in the mad rush of the airport.
"If I were in your shoes," the officer said, "I'd find out where the luggage is coming downstairs, make a sign with her name on it and wait by the carousel. You could also have her paged ."
Just then the public address system activated and the security guard paused as he and Cody both listened to the garbled message. The words were effectively drowned out by the multiple conversations and competing announcements of flights boarding around them.
"Or not," the security guard added when the announcement ended. He grinned. "I'd go for the sign and baggage claim."
Cody thanked him and ambled off.
"Hey, buddy," the guard called, and a number of peopleassuming troublestopped to gawk, wondering what Cody had done. Cody turned and the guard took an empty cardboard box from the candy kiosk vendor and waved it at him. "For your sign. She's got a marker, too," he added, nodding at the young woman managing the stand.
Cody grinned and retraced his steps, nodding to the gawkers on his way and causing one woman of a certain age to blush scarlet when he actually winked at her. "That's really nice of you," he said to the guard and candy vendor.
"What's her name?" The girl sat poised to write with a large red marker.
"Better just use first initial and last name," the guard instructed as the girl wrote the name in bold script letters. She quickly added a border of flowers and vines and handed the finished work to Cody.
"Thanks. I really appreciate the help," he said and continued down the corridor following the signs directing him to Baggage Claim.
Bethany Taft was having definite second thoughts about her latest decision. She was explaining all that to her best friend, Grace Marlowe, as the plane taxied for what seemed like the approximate distance that Grace had driven taking Bethany to the airport in Washington earlier.
"This was a mistake on so many levels," she said, cupping one hand around the receiver of her cell phone and her mouth to keep her seatmate from overhearing and commenting on her conversation. The man had introduced himself as a lobbyist for the pork industry. Just after takeoff, he had insisted they put the center chair arm up to give them more room and then proceeded to take over every inch of space that Bethany left available as she pressed closer and closer to the wall of the plane.
"Give it a chance," Grace replied. "Just remember what this is going to mean to your aunt Erika."
Grace had always been good at finding the core of an issue and, of course, the core of this particular issue was that Bethany's favorite aunta spinster for all of her sixty yearswas now engaged to be married to Ian Dillard, widower and nationally known businessman. Erika had insisted that only Bethany could help her plan the wedding and the multitude of events leading up to it.
"You did such a terrific job for me," Grace reminded her now. "No wonder Erika wants you to move in with her for the next several months while the two of you put this thing together. Besides it's good for you to get awaymeet new people ."
Get on with your life now that Nick's gone.
Grace was a professional matchmaker by trade. Sheand the rest of Bethany's circle of friends and familyhad been extremely concerned about Bethany's change in outlook this past year. They understood that the sudden and unexpected death of her fiancé, Nick, a year earlier would have been enough to stun even the sunniest of soulswhich Bethany had certainly been. But lately everyone had urged Bethany to move on Nick would want that, they assured her.
"Did you set me up?" she asked Grace now. "Did you and Erika"
"You're rambling," Grace interrupted. "I didn't even know your aunt, a woman I have met exactly three times, was seeing anyone, much less engaged to be married."
"So the fact that a couple of weeks ago you suggested that perhaps if I got away for a while"
"Pure coincidence," Grace assured her. "Or perhaps God's handiwork?"
Bethany did not reply. God was not part of her life these days. Grace might not like it, but did not push the point. Bethany appreciated her friend's willingness to accept for now that Bethany had chosen to cope with Nick's tragic death on her own.
Turning her attention back to the conversation, she was glad to note that Grace had changed the subject. "Any sign of a gate yet?"
Bethany peered out the window. "We seem to be taking the grand tour as the pilot decides which one to choose. It's raining," she reported. "Another bad sign."
"Or it could just be raining," Grace replied with a laugh. "Give it a chance, Bethany. It means so much to Erika and why not immerse yourself in somebody else's life and happiness for a while?"
"While I try to unearth a life and happiness for myself?"
"You said it, I didn't," Grace said just as the plane finally stopped at a gate and the announcement came on about checking overhead bins, et cetera.
"We're here. I'll call you later, okay?"
Bethany clicked the phone off. Next to her the lobbyist had begun to stir. "What can I get you, little lady?" he asked as he struggled up from the seat and into the narrow aisle. He popped the overhead bin across from their seat. "This and the jacket, right?"
Bethany nodded as he wrestled her overstuffed carry-on out of the tight space while she bent to retrieve the large bag disguised as her purse that she had pushed under the seat in front of her. "You carry it all with you," he commented with a tight smile as he dropped the bag heavily to the floor with obvious relief. "Smart woman."
Bethany favored him with a radiant smile as she slid across the seat and stood in the space he'd made for her in the aisle. Then to forestall any further conversation, she flicked open her cell again. She had three text messages. The first from her motheran address she wanted Bethany to be sure and give Erika. The second was from Grace. It read simply, Call any timeI'm here. The third was from her Aunt Erika.
Change of plans, sweetie. Ian's son, Cody, will meet your flightprobably at baggage. He'll find youI gave him a full description. Ciao!
Erika had casually dropped the name of Ian's son before in the context of his being a major hottie, not to mention a brilliant businessman just like his father, andby the waysingle. Bethany groaned, closed the phone and shouldered her purse, makeup essentials, plus everything she couldn't stuff in the suitcase bag as the masses pushed forward up the jetway and into the chaotic terminal.
She followed the signs, passed through the security exit and glanced around. Not a soul seemed to be waiting to meet and greet unless she wanted to count the twenty-something guy holding a huge bouquet of red roses. He was a good four inches shorter than she was without her platform espadrilles.
"Couldn't be," Bethany muttered, but she made eye contact and the guy lit up like the sky over the Potomac on the Fourth of July. Bethany took a deep breath, plastered a smile on her face and started forward as she considered how she would manage to get through O'Hare carrying that bouquet without looking as though she were a candidate for Miss America.
Just then she heard an earsplitting squeal from just behind her left shoulder and a girl she recognized from her plane raced past her and into the waiting arms of the red rose guy. He swung her round and round and neither of them seemed to notice the cascade of rose petals that fell to the carpet to be trampled by the hordes as they made their way past the young couple.
Bethany stood frozen for an instant, unable to take her eyes off the couple. In the year since Nick's death she had thought she was making progress. Then she would see a couple, madly in love, like these two. When had she last known that kind of unadulterated joy? The truth was that with Nick's work that often involved traveling and her work, they had really not spent the kind of intense time together that some couples enjoyed. They had been the best of friends for years before becoming romantically involved. They had always assumed that once they were married there would be a lifetime for them to create memories.
They had even assumed that they had plenty of time to set a date and plan their wedding. They had been in love with the romance of being in love, but Nick had also been determined to achieve certain career milestones before settling down.
Bethany was tempted to go over to the couple and warn them, urge them not to take this gift for granted.
Then someone jostled her from behind, gave her an irritated frown and by the time she readjusted her luggage, the couple was lost in the crowd. Bethany flicked open her phone and hit speed dial for Grace.
"I'm being met by sonny-boy," she said without preamble.
"Really? What's he like?"
"To hear Aunt Erika tell it, he's Adonis come to earth, but since he's not here, I couldn't really say," she muttered.
"Well, usually when Dad is being met somewhere, the driver stations himself at baggage claim."
Grace's father was a United States senator and no doubt used to the protocol of drivers and such. "What if I didn't check luggage?" Bethany thought it was a perfectly logical question and was not at all amused when Grace burst out laughing and couldn't seem to stop.
"You?" she gasped. "Without luggage?"
"All right. It was a reasonable questionfor most people." She surprised Grace as well as herself by seeing the humor in the idea of Bethany Taft traveling with anything less than the contents of a full closet.
"Well, at least you're still in fairly decent spirits," Grace commented. "Now don't take out your doubts about this whole thing on Ian's son. What's his name again?"
"If you like that sort of man-of-the-prairie thing. Okay, so here's the escalator to baggage. Descending now into the bowels of O'Hare. Looking around, not sure what for. What do you think a Cody looks like?"
"What does his father look like?"
"Haven't had the pleasure. Oh, my stars!" Bethany almost dropped the phone as she spotted the man holding a hand-lettered sign with a floral border and her name on it.
"Bethany? What happened? Bethany?"
"I'll call you back," Bethany whispered, not sure why she found that necessary since practically everyone surrounding her was jabbering away on their cell phones and oblivious to her and the incredibly gorgeous man holding the sign and grinning up at her.