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IN THE CROWDED AIRPORT car–rental area, Sophie Jones did the only thing she could think of to get out of the jam she was in.
"I have to get to San Antonio!" she yelled.
"Miss, could you please get down from the counter?" Sophie Jones ignored the car–rental clerk's plea, holding up a sign that said SAN ANTONIO and shouting as best she could over the din of disgruntled passengers. "I know somebody out there is headed to San Antonio. I'll pay for gas. I'll pay the rental fee. But I have to get to San Antonio by tomorrow morning. Anyone? Anyone?"
"I can't let you stand up here!" The clerk tugged at the hem of Sophie's skirt.
Sophie scanned the crowd. They were split into two groups: those who had gotten keys to the last of the rental vehicles, and those who, like her, were stranded here in Oklahoma, thanks to the airplane radar error that had grounded all flights in the Southwest. She noticed other people starting to write their own signs, and yelling for their own rides.
The clerk gave a more insistent tug. "I'll call security if I have to."
Sophie sighed, clambering down from the counter. "You have to have rented a car to somebody going to San Antonio," Sophie said, putting on a smile and trying to take the desperate tone out of her voice. "Couldn't you just point out the person going there, so I can plead my case?"
The clerk, a harried–looking woman in her forties, frowned. "I've rented out more cars this afternoon than I have in two months," she said. "You can't expect me to remember something like that."
But there was something in the woman's voice, and her expression, that suggested that shedid remember. Sophie felt a little surge of hope. "I'm in a terrible jam here, you have no idea. It would mean a lot to me," Sophie wheedled, now increasing the desperation, hoping to play on the woman's sense of decency. And it wasn't as if she were lying. She had possibly the most important meeting of her career, maybe of her life, the next morning in San Antonio.
Beg, borrow or steal, she was getting a ride to San Antonio no matter what.
The woman's eyes narrowed. Then she quickly looked over her shoulders. "It means a lot to you, huh?" Her voice was low, and Sophie had to strain to hear her. "How much is 'a lot'?"
Sophie paused, taken aback. Then she reached into her purse, pulling out a fifty–dollar bill and putting it on the counter.
The woman quickly took the money, tucking it away in a pocket. "See that tall guy, standing in line to get his car?"
Sophie looked over at the chaotic group of people waiting for the few remaining rentals. "Which one?"
The woman smiled. "The gorgeous one. You can't miss him."
Sophie suddenly realized who the woman was talking about. Easily six foot two, with slightly wavy blond hair, he had the kind of masculine beauty that reminded her of Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt. "Holy cow," Sophie whispered.
"He's going to San Antonio," the clerk said, with a little smile. "Him, I wouldn't forget."
"I can see why," Sophie agreed. "Okay. Thanks."
"Don't mention it," the clerk said, and Sophie knew it wasn't a mere pleasantry—the woman didn't want anyone to know she'd been bribed.
Sophie nodded, then took a deep breath. Gathering her luggage and presentation material, she awkwardly made her way to where the gorgeous guy was waiting patiently in line.
"I understand you're going to San Antonio," she said, without preamble. "I need to get there. I was hoping you'd be kind enough to let me share a ride with you."
The man's blue–gray eyes widened in surprise. "How did you know where I was going?" His voice had a Southern drawl, sweet and smooth, like aural caramel.
"Does it matter?" Sophie evaded. "That's where you're headed, right?"
He looked flustered. "Well, yes." "Then what difference does it make if you bring one more person with you?" Sophie asked reasonably, smiling with encouragement.
"Ordinarily, I'd love to help out," he said. "But I'm getting crammed into a compact car as it is, and I've got a lot of luggage. And I'll be honest with you. I'm coming off of a six–city sales trip, and I'm really in no mood for company."
Sophie gritted her teeth. She'd been traveling a lot, too, trying to get her family's fledgling company off the ground. It wasn't as if she were looking for a new best friend. In fact, the last thing she wanted was to make small talk with a stranger while driving six to ten hours. She kept the pleasant smile fixed on her face.
"I can tell you're a gentleman," she countered, deciding to play on his Southern background. "You'd never leave a lady stranded."
He sighed with irritation. "Like I said, ordinarily—" "I promise, I won't make a sound. You won't even know I'm there," she said, feeling a wave of despair that she fought to ignore. "It's incredibly important to me."
"I'm sure there are other people headed to San Antonio, who would love to help you out," he said gently.
"I'm truly sorry. Really."
Sophie felt tears sting her eyes. "Listen, can I tell you a story?" She dragged the luggage, keeping pace with him as the line inched forward. "A few years ago, my mother got fired from her job at a cosmetics company. It wasn't personal, just business, they said. I was working at a big firm at the time, and I was sick of seeing things that were done in the name of big business. My mother and sister decided to start their own little cosmetics company, and I quit my job to join them. It's been one of the most important decisions of my life."
He smiled, the act making him look even more handsome, if possible. "That sounds nice," he said. "Still, I don't see…"
"There's a trade show in San Antonio," she said. "We're showing there."
"I'm sure missing one day won't mean that much," he said.
"You don't understand," she spat, frustrated. "I've got a huge meeting tomorrow morning. It could mean the difference between success and bankruptcy. I have to get to San Antonio."
He stared at her, and she held the handle of her roller bag in a death grip. "Lots of people are stuck here," he pointed out. "The radar blackout has been on the news. I'm sure whoever you're meeting with will understand and reschedule."
Sophie laughed. "Unfortunately, I get the feeling that this is my one and only chance. You don't know the person I'm meeting with."
He got up to the front of the line, and took his keys. "If they're that unreasonable," he said, jingling the keys, "maybe you shouldn't be doing business with them at all."
Sophie bit her lip. She'd thought the same thing, since the whole point in starting the company was to get away from that kind of corporate cutthroat attitude. Still, their little brand was floundering, and this would be a huge boost.
"They're one of the biggest retailers in the country," she said. "High end… I'm sure this doesn't mean anything to you, but it's an unbelievable opportunity. Mrs. Marion doesn't wait for anybody. If I don't get there, she's going to think we're not serious." She put a hand on his sleeve. "I'll pay for the rental. I'll pay you for the ride. I'll even do all the driving. But please, please…let me share your car."
He studied her face for a long moment, and she held her breath.
"Shoot. I'm not made out of stone," he drawled, and she felt relief flood through her system. Impulsively, she hugged him.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," she breathed, dancing despite her exhaustion. "You are a saint. You're an angel."
"My mama would've kicked my butt if she found out I'd left a woman stuck somewhere, anyway," he said, and Sophie laughed. "So, this Mrs. Marion is going to be impressed that you did whatever it took to make your meeting, huh? She sounds sort of…" He paused, as if searching for a word. "High maintenance," he finished.
Sophie laughed again as they headed for the car. It was tiny, as he'd said. She felt bad for him, having to accordion his tall frame into the small automobile for the next six hours. "She's that," Sophie agreed. "But she knows that a deal with Marion & Co. is huge, and the fact that she's considering us… I can't even tell you how unbelievable the opportunity is. I really appreciate this."
"You can put your stuff in the trunk," he said. "I have to go get the rest of my bags and things."
"Oh, wait," she said, stopping him before he turned away. "What's your name? I don't even know who I should be thanking."
"Mark," he said, holding out a hand and smiling that mind–blowing smile. "Mark McMann."
She smiled in return. His hand felt warm and firm, and for a second, she forgot all about the trip, and the meeting, and basked in the glow of his attention. "I'm Sophie," she said. "Sophie Jones."
He winked at her. "Be right back."
Sophie quickly packed her luggage and materials into the small compartment, feeling a little guilty at how much room it took up. She'd make it up to Mark, she told herself. The guy was being so nice. Maybe she'd take him out to dinner, thank him properly.
Going out to dinner with a guy that good–looking would hardly be a hardship, she thought with a smile.
Mark returned after a few minutes. "I'll try to wedge most of my stuff in the back," he said, rolling a small dolly's worth of boxes and luggage up to the car.
"Good grief," Sophie said. No wonder he didn't want company. They were going to be crammed like sardines in the tiny car. It was going to be an uncomfortable ride. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Again, I wouldn't want to make a lady do my heavy lifting, either," he said, with a quicksilver grin. "This'll only take a minute."
"I don't mind…"
Sophie's voice trailed off as she saw the logo on the boxes. It was distinctive, a set of three Ts in a swirling script.
Trimera. She'd know that logo anywhere. He saw where she was looking, but didn't say anything. He simply packed the rest of the boxes in the car.
He works for Trimera, she realized, the relief ebbing away slowly. Trimera, one of the biggest cosmetics companies in the business. The same company, in fact, that had fired her mother.
No wonder he's going to San Antonio. He's going to the same trade show. And he's pretending not to realize we're competitors!
"Okay, all set," he said, in that same pleasant voice.
She nodded, getting in the car.
And of course, he decided to give me a ride…after I told him about the Marion & Co. meeting.
He got in the driver's seat, smiling at her. "Well, we might as well get to know each other. It'll be a long trip."
She nodded, smiling back at him even though the last thing she wanted to do was smile. "Why don't you tell me about this company of yours?" he asked, his voice elaborately casual. He didn't even look at her when he asked, simply concentrated on the road as if his life depended on it. "It sounds great."
Had she called him an angel? The guy was a devil–a handsome, smooth–talking, sneaky devil.
And for the next six hours, she was stuck with him.