Fireside (Lakeshore Chronicles #5)
Harlequin MIRA (July 2012)
Originally published in 2009
La Guardia Airport Concourse C Gate 21
The dark glasses didn’t hide a thing, not really. When people saw someone in dark glasses on a cloudy day in the middle of winter, they assumed the wearer was hiding the fact that she’d been drinking, crying or fighting. Or all of the above.
Under any number of circumstances, Kimberly van Dorn enjoyed being the center of attention. Last night, when she’d donned her couture gown with its scandalous slit up the side, turning heads had been the whole idea. She’d had no idea the evening would implode the way it had. How could she?
Now, at the end of a soul-flattening red-eye flight, she kept her shades on as the plane touched down and taxied to the Jetway. Coach. She never flew coach. Last night, however, first class had been sold out, personal comfort had taken a backseat to expediency, and she’d found herself in seat 29-E in the middle of the middle section of the plane, wedged between strangers. Sometimes the need to get away was more powerful than the need for legroom. Although her stiff legs this morning might argue that point.
Who the hell had designed coach class, anyway? She was convinced she had the imprint of her seatmate’s ear on her shoulder. After his fourth beer, he kept falling asleep, his head lolling onto her. What was worse than a man with a lolling head?
A man with a lolling head and beer breath, she thought grimly, trying to shake off the torturous transcontinental night. But the memories lingered like the ache in her legs—the lolling guy with a snoring problem, and, on her other side, an impossibly chatty older gentleman, who talked for hours about his insomnia. And his bursitis. And his lousy son-in-law, his fondness for fried sweet potatoes and his dislike of the Jude Law movie Kim was pretending to watch in hopes of getting him to shut up.
No wonder she never flew coach. Yet the nightmare flight was not the worst thing that had happened to her lately. Far from it.
She stood in the aisle, waiting for the twenty-eight rows ahead of her to deplane. The process seemed endless as people rummaged in the overhead bins, gathering their things while talking on mobile phones.
She took out her phone, thumb hovering over the power button. She really ought to call her mother, let her know she was coming home. Not now, though, she thought, putting the phone away. She was too exhausted to make any sense. Besides, for all she knew, the thing had one of those tracking features, and she didn’t feel like being tracked.
Now that she’d arrived, she wasn’t in such a big hurry. In fact, she was utterly unprepared to face a dreary midwinter morning in New York. Ignoring the stares of other passengers, she tried to act as though traveling in an evening gown was a routine occurrence for her, and hoped people would just assume she was a victim of lost luggage.
If only it could be that simple.
Shuffling along the narrow aisle of the coach section, she definitely felt like a victim. In more ways than one.
She left behind a scattering of sequins in the aisle. There was a reason clothes like this were designated as “evening wear.” The silk charmeuse dress, encrusted with sequins, was meant to be worn in the romantic semidarkness of a candlelit private club or Southern California garden, lit by tiki torches. Not in the broad, unforgiving daylight of a Saturday morning.
It was funny, she thought, how even a couture gown from Shantung on Rodeo Drive managed to look tawdry in the morning light. Especially when combined with a side slit, bare legs and peep-toe spike heels with a crisscross ankle strap. Only last night, every detail had whispered class. Now her outfit screamed hooker. No wonder she was getting funny looks.
But last night, in the middle of everything, Kim hadn’t been thinking about the morning. She’d just been thinking about getting away. It seemed as though a million years had passed since then, since she’d dressed so carefully, so filled with hope and optimism. Lloyd Johnson, star of the Lakers and the biggest client of the PR firm she worked for, was at the pinnacle of his career.
More importantly for Kimberly, he’d found his dream house in Manhattan Beach. They planned to live there together. It was supposed to be her night, a moment of triumph, maybe even a life-changing occasion if Lloyd had decided to pop the question. Well, it had been life-changing, just not in the way she’d anticipated. She had sunk everything she had into her career as a sports publicist. And overnight, that had crumbled. She was Jerry Maguire without the triumphant ending.
She finally reached the front of the aircraft, murmuring a thank-you to the flight attendants as she passed. It wasn’t their fault the flight had been so miserable, and they’d been up all night, too. Then, just as she stepped onto the Jetway, the security doors opened and a ground-crew guy in a jumpsuit and earphones blew in on a gust of frigid wind.
The arctic air slapped her like a physical assault, tearing at the silk dress and skimming over her bare legs. She gasped aloud and gathered a fringed wrap—the only outerwear she had—around her bare shoulders, clutching it in one fist, her jewelencrusted peacock evening bag in the other.
Sweet, merciful Lord. She had forgotten this—the East Coast cold that simply had no rival anywhere in California. She grabbed her long red hair but was too late. It had already been blown into a terrifying bouffant, and she was fairly sure she’d lost an earring. Lovely.
Holding her head high, she emerged from the Jet-way and entered the terminal, walking at a normal, unhurried pace, though she wanted to collapse. The red-soled Louboutins with their three-inch heels, which had looked so fabulous with the single-shoulder sheath, now felt hideous on her feet.
Silently cursing the couture shoes and clutching the silk wrap around her, she scanned the concourse for an open shop to buy something to wear on the last leg of the trip, to the town of Avalon up in the Catskills, where her mother now lived. Last night, there had been no time to grab anything, even if she had been thinking straight. She’d made the flight with moments to spare.
To her dismay, all the kiosks and shops along the way were still closed; never had she craved a pair of flip-flops and an I V NY T-shirt more. It was a long walk to the commuter concourse, especially in these heels.
She passed people in warm winter clothes, probably heading up to the mountains for a weekend of fun. She pretended not to notice the looks of speculation, the comments whispered behind snugly gloved hands. Ordinarily, other people’s opinions were her first concern. But not today. She was too tired to care what people were saying about her.
Across the way stood a guy, leaning with his foot propped against the wall, staring at her. Okay, so a lot of guys were staring at her, since she was dressed like an escapee from a Hooters convention. He was easily six foot five and had long hair, and he wore cargo pants and an army surplus parka with wolf fur around the hood.
She was an idiot for not being able to ignore him. Men were her downfall; she should know better. And—please, Lord, no—with a leisurely air, he pushed away from the wall and seemed to be ambling toward her. Kim had never been much of a student of literature, but as he advanced on her, she found herself remembering a phrase coined by Dorothy Parker—What fresh hell is this?
More quickly than was prudent in the skinny heels, she headed for the moving walkway, wishing it could be a magic carpet, whisking her away from her troubles. She stepped aboard—and felt one of her heels sink down between the grooves of the walkway. Gritting her teeth, she tried to tug her foot free. As she did so, the other heel sank into another groove.
And just when she thought the day could not get any worse, it did.