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Spike Ridley rolled her eyes as she stood at the airport gate, waiting for her plane to Dallas, headed back to Sweetgrass Springs.
At the service desk, everything had screeched to a halt at the approach of one tall, golden man who held them all in thrall. The sheer amount of hair flipping and cooing aimed his direction created its own breeze.
She didn’t follow football, but she had lived in Texas for months now, where practically everyone did. Anyway, the blue eyes, butterscotch hair and striking features of legendary Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tate Ransom appeared on magazine covers and news stories frequently.
The man at the center of the show lounged against the podium, all aw shucks fake modesty, secure in his nearly six and a half feet of gorgeousness and lean muscle, as though the fawning was simply his due.
She jerked her gaze away, every cell tensed, desperate to get this trip done. To figure out where to go next and who to be, now that the center of her life had collapsed.
Some would call her lucky; after today, Spike was a rich woman. All that had been required was the death of the one person in the world she’d always been able to count on. Her grandmother Dorothea Ridley, mother of Spike’s long-dead and beloved dad, had been Spike’s lifelong defense against her appearances-are-everything patrician mother, Elaine Ridley Rossman. How her parents had ever hooked up in the first place was beyond her.
“Phoebe,” Elaine had sighed this morning, as always refusing to use anything but Spike’s birth name, “enough of your little rebellion. It’s time for you to take your proper place in our world.”
Your world, Mother. Not mine. Wearing it would be like donning a coat of barbed wire. She’d never fit in the tony Connecticut milieu her mother inhabited with such dignity. Had never wanted to.
Spike’s years working in hot kitchens with temperamental chefs and bitchy waitstaff had long ago toughened her. She’d been on her own since she was a teen, save for the knowledge that her Grams was always in her corner.
But now Grams was gone. Hated tears prickled, and she ruthlessly forced them not to fall.
When boarding was called, she nearly forgot she would be in the new frontier of first class seating. Because, yeah, she was loaded now. Her grandmother’s legal team had made the travel arrangements; she was an heiress, her future wide open.
All it had taken was to lose the one safe place she’d ever known.
She grabbed her backpack, heavy with the mixing bowls she’d carefully packed, the one precious item she’d taken with her from the house she now owned, and waited for her turn to be called.
To no one’s surprise, Golden Boy was getting special treatment, being cleared to board before everyone else, including the disabled and the valorous.
To her great surprise, however, he declined. Even helped carry the bag of one old lady in a wheelchair. The woman had been sitting silently, only a vacant, lost expression on her face.
But Golden Boy’s bent head and quiet chatter had the old woman smiling as they entered the jetway.
When Spike had her turn and entered the plane, she saw that Golden Boy was entering her row.
She stifled a groan. All that mattered was getting this trip over.
Thank the stars boarding was beginning. If he had to talk to one more person about The Hit or the injustice of that blown call that cost his team the championship, Tate Ransom couldn’t guarantee what he’d say. The season was over, and he didn’t want to rehash falling short on what was to be the perfect season anymore.
He picked up the headphones that would give him a chance to hide and turned to enter his first-class row. Someone jostled him, and he turned too quickly on his beat-up left knee. His headphones went flying, and he heard a sickening crunch.
“Crap,” swore the Goth teenager behind him. She looked over her shoulder at the man behind her. “Thanks for shoving me.”
“You stopped too quick. Not my fault you broke your headphones.”
“They’re not mine.” She pointed at Tate. “They’re his.”
The man glanced up, and his sour expression flipped to awe. “Oh, wow. Tate Ransom.” He looked sick. “These are yours? Oh, man, I’m really sorry.”
“What?” The girl spluttered. “You’re sorry now but didn’t care when you thought they were mine?” She glanced up at Tate and frowned. “Are you supposed to be somebody?”
“You don’t know who he is?” The guy behind her goggled. “That’s Tate Ransom, the Cowboys’ quarterback.”
“Rodeo guys need a quarterback?” Green eyes widened.
Tate’s lips twitched.
“The Dallas Cowboys. Don’t you—” The other passenger’s glance scanned her head-to-toe black, lime green streaks in her messy dyed-black ponytail, then dismissed her. “Of course you don’t follow football.”
“Because I have a brain, you mean?”
The man was so outraged Tate thought he might burst a blood vessel. Meanwhile the line was stacking up.
Tate summoned the patience he’d hoped to abandon for the next few hours. “No worries.” He bent to pick up the pieces of his headphones just as she bent, too. Her skull collided with his with an audible crack.
She fell back, and he barely caught her before she took a tumble. She felt light as a fairy in his hands.
A flight attendant made her way through the crowd. “Is this person bothering you, Mr. Ransom?” She looked at the male passenger. “If you’ll take your seat, please, sir, we need to board the plane quickly.” Then she turned to the girl. “Please go to your seat, miss.” She was already looking at Tate. “I’m very sorry, Mr. Ransom.”
The teen didn’t budge, arms wrapped around her backpack. The male passenger didn’t move, either.
“The line’s backing up, dude.” She might be tiny, but she sure didn’t lack for attitude.
“Go on,” muttered the male passenger. “Head for your row.”
“This is my row,” she replied.
The man’s eyebrows flew, and Tate’s followed suit. “No. It isn’t.” He seldom flew commercial, but when he did, his assistant booked the whole row for privacy’s sake.
“No?” Incredulous green eyes met his. “You don’t own the plane.”
“I don’t share rows.” He had to be alone. Had to be ready for what he would face. Coach was in trouble.
Coach Lloyd Stanley was the closest thing to a father he’d had. He owed the old man everything for seeing beyond a twelve-year-old’s bravado into the scared kid beneath. No family, no home, no future.
But Coach had spotted something in him no one else ever had. He’d built a man from a scared, rebellious boy, and in the process, he’d made Tate’s entire life possible, this charmed existence he led.
Coach couldn’t be dying.
The girl hadn’t budged, one slender brow lifted. She held out her phone and its boarding pass.
The flight attendant blinked. “Oh, dear.” She turned to Tate. “She’s right.”
He could tell that in one quick glimpse at her screen. “Listen—” he read quickly “— Phoebe Ridley, I’ll pay you double your ticket price if you’ll move—”
“No. And it’s Spike.”
“Miss, would you come with me, and we’ll straighten out—”
Head shake. “Nope.” Her mouth wobbled, quickly straightened, and he realized she looked as exhausted as he felt.
“Folks, we really need to get this plane loaded,” came the captain’s voice over the intercom.
“Just…sit down, then.” Tate closed his eyes and struggled for patience. None of this mattered. Only getting back to Coach in time did.
“Mr. Ransom, I’m so sorry. We’ll comp your flight for having to share your row. Would you like a drink?”
He shook his head and dropped into his own seat.
“What about me?” Goth Tinkerbell asked. “Do I get comped for having to sit with the arrogant jock?”
Another flight attendant approached. “Jenny, the captain wants you. I’ll take over with Mr. Ransom.” She turned to him. “I’m Sheri, Mr. Ransom,” she all but purred. “I’ll be taking care of you today. What can I get you?” Her eyes said the menu was extensive. And could be more so.
“I’ll take a vodka tonic,” said the surly teen.
Tate’s head whipped toward her. “You’re underage.”
She snorted. “I’m twenty-eight.”
Tate blinked. “No way.”
“I’ll need to see ID,” said Sheri. “What would you like, Mr. Ransom?”
“Just water.” And peace and quiet.
Phoebe settled into the seat beside him.
“It’s not Phoebe. I’m Spike.”
“Of course you are.”
“Look, I guess you’re supposed to be important, based on all the suck-ups around here, but to me you’re just another traveler, and I don’t want to be here, I just want this trip done. This seat was arranged for me. You stay over there, and I’ll stay away from you. And if you need some stupid headphones, take my earbuds.” Eyes snapping, she held out a pair.
He shook his head, turned away and closed his eyes. “Just don’t talk to me, all right?”
She snorted. “Trust me, that won’t be a problem.”
But for the slightest instant he thought he saw another flash of vulnerability. Surely not from Miss Snarky. He chalked it up to his own exhaustion, the after-effects of a blown game that cost the Cowboys their season, topped by the news that the only person in this world who really cared about him was dying.
“Fine,” she echoed, slipped in the rejected earbuds and stared ahead.
Fine. Good. He pinched the bridge of his nose and wondered how to make the miles pass faster.
Spike could tell that the flight attendant didn’t think she belonged in first class. Mostly, Spike agreed, but probably not for the same reason.
The Goth look she was actually getting a little tired of…all that and more pointed to someone who ought to be hitchhiking or on a bus, she was sure.
She’d rather be anywhere but here.
Because Grams was gone.
The tears she’d been fighting for days rushed to her eyes and spilled over her cheeks.
Her seatmate recoiled. “No—” He snapped his fingers and pointed. “Stop that. No crying.”
Spike wanted away from him, from everything, more than she’d wanted anything in a long time.
Except for Grams to be alive. And her mother to leave her alone.
People filed past on the way to their seats, everyone frowning.
“Sorry, Tate. Woman trouble?” asked one.
Her seatmate turned on that charming smile he summoned like breathing. “If I can handle the Packer D-line,” he drawled, “Pretty sure I’m good to handle one little girl.”
Spike saw red.
But around her she saw no sympathy. She turned a withering tone at her nemesis. “This is how you handle women?”
The line stalled, and every eye was on them.
A teenage boy looked honestly shocked. “That’s Tate Ransom. Everyone loves him. He’s going to win the Super Bowl next year, right, Tate?” Worship shone in the boy’s gaze.
“Well, now, it’s a team sport, you know. But my guys are the best. I’m just lucky to be able to contribute.”
Smiles and sighs abounded.
“You seriously believe that crap?” she demanded of the dazzled. “It’s football, not brain surgery. And these guys learn that humility BS in media training.” She’d certainly dealt with enough pro athletes, superstars of all stripes, in her tenure in two of Manhattan’s finest restaurants. Her pastries had been in high demand at any number of galas for the glittering social set.
Socialites did love their jock escorts.
This jock spoke up. “I know you folks are eager to get to Dallas, so we’ll behave ourselves and quit distracting you. Have a good trip, you hear?”
“Cowboys gonna kick some butt next year, baby!” crowed one fan.
“Good Lord willin’ and creek don’t rise,” Tate drawled. “I’ll do my best to help out my teammates.”
“Awww…” But nobody moved away.
Spike ground her teeth. She might as well not have spoken for all the response she got. It was the captain asking for cooperation to finish boarding that finally spurred them on.
“Look—” he began.
“Let’s just don’t talk, okay?” She clenched her teeth so hard she thought they might crack. “I know all about your kind. Only thing worse than a prima donna is a prima donna jock.”
Yet another attendant leaned past Spike to beam at her seatmate as she handed him the water he’d requested. “I just wanted to be sure you know you can also ask for me if you need anything, Mr. Ransom.”
The eyelash flutter nearly blew Spike back against her seat.
“Call me Tate, Helen. And thank you. I don’t think my companion got her drink, though.”
One quick flick, then the woman’s gaze locked on him again. “Uh, sure. Ms. Ridley? Phoebe Ridley, right?” Her tone could freeze ice cubes in hell.
“Spike.” Her jaw clenched.
“My name is Spike.”
She might as well not have bothered as he spoke again. “Please be sure Phoebe has whatever she needs, all right?”
“What she needs is to find an empty seat,” Spike volunteered.
Abruptly she had the woman’s full attention. “Just let me see about the final count. Then we can get to know each other better, Tate.” Breathy smile of blinding white.
“Great.” Spike started to rise—
Only to find that hand grabbing the back of her skirt, pulling her back down.
“Sorry, but we got off on the wrong foot, and I’d feel terrible about sending her away. Thank you for the offer, though.” His were the dulcet tones of a man whose daily existence included women dropping their panties right and left on command.
“Oh, anytime, Tate.” The breathy reply stirred Spike’s hair. “Whatever you need, just speak up.” She brightened, leaning over Spike to get closer to him. “I’ll be checking in on you during the flight.”
Spike made a gagging noise.
The attendant straightened and frowned.
The man beside her rushed to soothe. “I appreciate that. And I know Phoebe does, too. She’s just…well, it happens sometimes. I don’t get why some people feel intimidated by me.” A negligent lift of his shoulder and a slight duck of his head expressed his utter bafflement at the idea.
She darted a laser glare at him and opened her mouth to argue.
He beat her to it. “Now, Phoebe, honey…I know you’re not used to the idea yet, but I think we might have something going here.”
Spike couldn’t help her gasp. “You are insane. And stop calling me Phoebe.”
“Oh, now, sugar…don’t think I’m not attracted. But any man who wants to call himself a gentleman knows the first requirement is to treat women carefully, right, Helen?”
“Oh, Tate, if only more men were like you…”
“Where’s the airsick bag?” Spike muttered.
Another attendant called Helen away and urged the final passengers to grab their seats.
He flashed a grin that she was sure most women would fall for. Then he settled back into his seat.
She only rolled her eyes and resolved to ignore him the rest of the flight.
But she had to admit that aggravation felt better than the smothering blanket of grief. The absolute lack of direction she felt, now that the one person in the world who loved her was gone.
Maybe Mr. Ego was good for something after all.
She plugged in her earbuds and lost herself in the music.