“Welcome aboard!” The flight attendant smiled. “Going home to Texas…?”
“Not voluntarily,” Garrett Lockhart muttered under his breath as he made his way through the aircraft to his seat in the fourth row.
It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate spending time with his family, he acknowledged, stowing his bag in the bulkhead and stuffing his six-foot-five-inch body into the first class seat next to the window. He did.
It’s just that he didn’t want them weighing in on what his next step should be. Or what he should do with his inheritance. The decision was hard enough. Should he sell out or stay and build a life in Laramie, as his late father had wanted?
Re-enlist and take the considerable promotion being offered?
Or take a civilian post that would allow him to pursue his dreams?
He had twenty-nine days to decide.
And an unspecified but pressing family crisis to handle in the meantime.
And an expensive-looking blonde in a white power suit who’d been sizing him up from a distance, ever since he arrived at the gate…
He’d noticed her, too. Hard not to with that delicately gorgeous face, a mane of long, silky hair brushing against her shoulders, and a smoking-hot body that just wouldn’t quit.
Two years ago….before Leanne…he might have taken her up on her invitation…
But his failed engagement had taught him too well. He wasn’t interested in any woman hell-bent on climbing her way to the top.
He wanted a partner who understood what was important in life. Not a woman who couldn’t stop doing business even long enough to board a plane. She’d been talking on her cell phone nonstop and was still on it as she stepped into the cabin. With a thousand-watt smile aimed his way, oblivious to the three backpack-clad college boys queued up like dominoes behind her, she continued on down the aisle, checking her ticket for her seat assignment as she walked.
Phone to her ear, one hand trying to retract the telescoping handle of her suitcase while still managing the equally roomy carryall over her shoulder, she said, “….have to go…Yes, yes. I’ll call you as soon as I land in Dallas. Not to worry.” She laughed softly, charmingly, while shooting him another glance and lifting her suitcase with one hand into the overhead compartment. “I always do…”
Annoyed, he turned his attention to the tarmac and was watching bags being loaded into the cargo hold when, in the aisle behind him, commotion suddenly erupted.
“If you-all will just wait until I can—ouch!” He heard the pretty blonde stumble toward him, yelping as her expensive leather carryall tumbled off her shoulder and crashed onto his lap. Her elbow landed hard against his skull, just above his ear, while a pair of sumptuous breasts burrowed into his face. Only the quick defensive movement of his right arm kept the lady exec’s head from smashing into the wall above the airplane window.
However, nothing could be done to stop the off-kilter weight of her from sprawling inelegantly across his thighs, while the trio of impatient college kids responsible for her abrupt exit from the aisle continued unapologetically toward the rear of the plane. She lifted her head, regarding him with a stunned expression as their eyes met. Heat swept her pretty face. He inhaled a whiff of vanilla and—lavender, maybe? All he knew for sure, he thought, as he heard her moan softly in dismay and felt his own body harden in response, was that everything about this woman was incredibly sexy.
“Ma’am?” he rasped, trying not to think what it would be like to have this sweet-smelling bundle of femininity beneath him in bed. Never mind just how long it had been…
With effort, he called on every ounce of military reserve he had, sucked in a breath and looked straight into her wide, emerald-green eyes. “Are you all right?”
THIS, HOPE WINSLOW thought with an embarrassed grimace, was not how her day was supposed to go. Seven months out of the workplace might have left her a little rusty. But completely without social skills or enough balance to stay on her feet no matter how hard she’d been shoved?
Furthermore, it wasn’t as if she had wanted to take that last call from the client. She’d had no choice. She needed the income and acclaim this job was going to bring in, and like it or not, high-paying clients required high-level hand-holding. Plus, she had a soft spot in her heart for this current one…and that made any of Lucille’s requests difficult to resist.
But her quarry—the guy she had accidentally fallen on—would likely not understand any of that.
Resolved to retain whatever small amount of dignity she had left, Hope forced another small—apologetic—smile, inhaled deeply, then put her left hand down on the armrest beneath the window and shoved herself upright. Only it wasn’t an armrest, she swiftly found out. There wasn’t one there. It was the rock-hard denim-clad upper thigh of the man who’d caught her in his arms.
Mortified, she plucked her fingers away before they encountered anything else untoward. Then she promptly lost her balance, fell again and had the point of her elbow land where her hand had been.
Her gallant seatmate let out an oomph and looked alarmed. With good reason, Hope thought.
Another inch to the left and…!
“Let me help you,” he drawled, his voice a smooth Texas-accented rumble. With one hand hooked around her waist and the other around her shoulders, he lifted her quickly and skillfully to her feet, then turned and lowered her so her bottom landed squarely in her own seat. That done, he handed her the leather carryall she’d inadvertently assaulted him with.
Hope knew she should say something. If only to make her later job easier.
And she would have, if the sea-blue eyes she’d been staring into hadn’t been so mesmerizing. She liked his hair, too. So dark and thick and…touchable…
The pictures she had seen of him and his siblings hadn’t done him justice. Or indicated just how big and broad shouldered he was. Enough to make her own five-eleven frame feel dainty….
And heaven knew that didn’t happen every day. Even in Texas.
“Ma’am?” he prodded again, less patiently.
Clearly he was expecting some response to ease the unabashed sexual tension that had sprung up between them, so she tore her eyes from the way his black knit polo shirt molded the sinewy contours of his chest and taut abs, and said the first thing that came into her mind. “Thank you for your assistance just now. And for your service. To our country, I mean.”
His dark brow furrowed. His lips—so firm and sensual—thinned. Shoulders flexing, he studied her with breathtaking intent, then asked, “How’d you know I was in the military?”
IT WAS A simple question, Garrett thought.
One that shouldn’t have required any dissembling.
But dissembling was precisely what his seatmate appeared to be doing as she discreetly tugged the skirt of her elegant white business suit lower on her shapely thighs, then leaned forward to place her bag beneath the seat in front of her, as per preflight requirements.
“Um…your hair,” she said finally.
Oh, yeah. Military cut. Made sense.
“Well, that and the duffel in the overhead.” She glanced at the passengers seated across the aisle, a young mother and a child with a Dora the Explorer backpack. The rest of the luggage stored above them was pink. Whereas his, he knew, was army green.
Point made, she sat back and drew the safety restraint across her lap, once again drawing his attention where it definitely should not be. “So, how long have you been in the military?” she asked pleasantly.
He watched as she fit the metal buckle into the clasp, drew it taut. Was there any part of her not delectable? he wondered. Any inch of her he did not want? “Eight years.” And why was it suddenly so hard to get the words out?
She wet her lips. Suddenly sounding a little hoarse, too, she inquired, “And what do you do?”
“I’m a physician.”
She pursed her lips in a way that had him wondering what it would be like to kiss her. “Which must make you a….?”
Not just kiss her. Make love to her. Hot, wild, passionate love, he thought, drinking in the soft, womanly scent of her. “Captain,” he said.
She extended a hand. It was as velvety soft as it looked, her grip warm and firm. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Captain…?”
He let her go reluctantly, the awareness he’d felt when she’d landed in his lap returning, full force. “Lockhart. Garrett Lockhart.”
Her expression turned even more welcoming. She studied him intently. “I’m Hope Winslow.”
Okay, so maybe his first impression of her hadn’t been on point. Even if she wasn’t his type, there were worse ways to pass the time than sitting next to a charming, gorgeous woman. And she was gorgeous, Garrett reflected, feeling a little unsettled and a lot attracted as the plane backed away from the gate and the flight attendants went through the safety instructions.
Tall enough to fit nicely against him. With legs that were made for high heels and curves that just wouldn’t quit pushing against the taut fabric of her sleek summer suit. Honey-blond hair as straight and silky as spun gold brushed her shoulders and long bangs fell to frame her oval face. Her features were elegant, her bow-shaped lips soft, pink and full, her emerald eyes radiating wit and keen intelligence.
He doubted there was anything she set her mind to that she didn’t get. Her ringless left hand said she was single.
It was too bad he wasn’t in the market for a high-maintenance, high-powered career woman.
“So what do you do for a living?” he asked, after the flight attendant had come by to deliver bowls of warmed nuts and take their drink orders. Milk for her, coffee for him.
She picked out an almond. Then a pecan. “I’m in scandal management.”
Okay, he could see that.
She seemed like the type who could take a highly emotional, probably volatile situation and boil it down to something manageable. “I recently started my own firm.” She reached into a pocket of her carryall and plucked out a business card. Winslow Strategies. Crisis Management by the Very Best. It had her name featured prominently, printed in the same memorable green as her eyes, and a Dallas address.
He started to hand it back. She gestured for him to keep it, so he slipped it into the pocket of his shirt. “Business good?”
She gestured affably, looking reluctant to be too specific. “There’s always someone in trouble.”
I’ll bet. “But to have to hire someone to get yourself out of it?” He couldn’t keep the contempt from his voice.
“People hire lawyers all the time when they find themselves in a tight spot.”
Imagining that line worked on a lot of very wealthy people, he sipped his coffee. “Not the same thing.”
She turned slightly toward him, tilting her head. “It sort of is,” she said, her voice a little too tight. “Words can hurt. Or mislead. Or falsely indict. So can actions.” She paused to sip her milk and let her words sink in, then set her glass down on the tray. “It’s important when in the midst of a potentially life-altering, and especially life-damaging event, to have someone on your side who isn’t emotionally involved, calling the shots and orchestrating everything behind the scenes.”
Her exceptional calmness rankled; he couldn’t say why. “Creating a publicly acceptable narrative,” he reiterated.
She lifted a delicate hand, gesturing amiably. “I prefer to think of it as a compelling explanation that will allow others to empathize with you. And, if not exactly approve of or condone, at least understand.”
“And therefore let your client off the hook,” he said grimly, reflecting on another time. Another situation. And another woman whose actions he resented to this day. “Whether they deserve to be spared any accountability for what they’ve done or not.”
Taken aback, Hope Winslow squinted at him. “Are you speaking personally?”
Hell, yes, it had been personal! Being cheated on and then backed into a corner always was. Not that he regretted protecting the innocent bystanders in the situation. They’d done nothing to deserve having their names dragged through the mud.
“I’m guessing that’s a yes,” she said.
The silence stretched between them, awkward now. She continued to look him up and down, asking finally, “Are you always this black and white in your thinking, Captain Lockhart?”
His turn to shrug. He finished what was left of his coffee. “About some things, yeah.” He set the cup down with a thud. The flight attendant appeared with a refill.
When they were alone again, Hope continued curiously, “Is that why you chose the military as a career?”
It was part of it. The rest was more personal. “Both my grandfathers served our country.” His dad had passed on the opportunity. He and one of his four siblings had not.
“And…?” she prodded.
He exhaled, not above admitting that honor was everything to him. “There’s not a lot of room for error—or gray areas—in the military. It’s either right or it’s wrong.” Simple. Basic. Necessary. Unlike the way he’d grown up.
She stared at him. “And you think what I do is wrong.”
“I wouldn’t have put it that way,” Garrett said.
A delicate pale brow arched. “But you think it, don’t you?”
Wishing she hadn’t put him on the spot, he returned her sharp, assessing gaze. “You’re right. I do.”
“Well, that’s too bad, Captain.” Hope Winslow took a deep breath that lifted her opulent breasts. “Because your mother, Lucille Lockhart, has hired me to represent your entire family, as well as the Lockhart Foundation.”
He took a moment to let the blonde’s announcement sink in. Feeling as if he had just taken a sucker punch to the gut, he grumbled, “So the way you kept checking me out before we boarded, the fact we’re both seated in first class on this flight, side by side, was no accident.”
“Lucille said you’d be difficult. I needed to talk with you before we landed and I wanted to get started early. And to that end…”
She finished her milk, put her tray away, retrieved her carryall from beneath the seat and took out a computer tablet. She brought up a screen titled Talking Points for Lockhart Foundation Crisis and set it in front of him. “I want you to memorize these.”
One hand on the cup, lest it spill, he stared at her. “You have got to be kidding me.”
The hell of it was, she wasn’t. “There’s a press conference later today,” she informed him crisply, suddenly all business. “We need you to be ready.”
This was like a replay of his past, only in a more formal venue. He hadn’t played those games then, and he certainly wasn’t getting sucked into them now. “No.”
Hope leaned closer, her green eyes narrowing. “You have to be there.” Her tone said the request was nonnegotiable.
His mood had been grim when he got on the plane. It was fire and brimstone now. No wonder his mother hadn’t wanted to be specific when she’d sent out that vague but somewhat hysterical SOS and let him know he was needed in Dallas ASAP.
He worked his jaw back and forth. “Why? I don’t have anything to do with the family charity.”
“You’re on the board of directors.”
Which basically did nothing but meet a couple times a year and greenlight—by voice vote—everything the CEO and CFO requested. “So are my mother and all my siblings.”
“All of whom have been asked to participate and follow the plan.” Hope paused, even more purposefully. “Your mother needs you to stand beside her.”
Garrett imagined that was so. Lucille had been vulnerable since his dad’s death. Knowing how much his parents had loved each other, that they’d been together for over forty years, he imagined the loss his mom felt was even more palpable than his own.
But there were limits as to what he would do. In this situation or any other. “And I will,” he promised tautly. “Just not like a puppet on a string. And certainly not in any scripted way in front of any microphones.”