Gabe Jackson didn't like rushing and he didn't like being late. Thanks to the message he'd listened to an hour ago on his answering machine from Shelton, his younger brother, Gabe was both. And in one of the worst possible places--the crowded concourse of Newark Airport. Hurrying around a slow-moving family, Gabe passed Gate 17. Gate 23 was his destination.
A glance at his Rolex told him Flight 675 from Atlanta, Georgia, had landed ten minutes ago. There was no guarantee that Jessica Ames would still be waiting at the gate despite Shelton's instructions to meet her there.
Gabe blew out a disgusted sigh. Although he hadn't dated in months, it had been his experience that women generally did what they wanted, and although they could keep you waiting for hours, if the man were a single minute late, he'd have hell to pay. He was now eleven and counting.
He hurried past Gate 20, thinking it was a good thing he kept in shape by jogging every morning. The things he did for his only sibling.
Gabe certainly could have thought of a more pleasant way to meet his future sister-in-law for the first time. He hoped she wasn't snooty. More than a few of the rich young women he had met thought the world should bow at their well-shod feet.
Whatever the outcome of their meeting, he'd have more of a handle on why Shelton had given him that strange answer when Gabe asked when he had found time to fall in love or court a woman with his busy schedule.
Gate 23. Gabe quickly scanned the waiting area and saw only one woman alone. Her slim arms were wrapped tightly around her waist, and her eyes searched the crowd as anxiously as his did. His gaze skimmed past her, dismissing her completely.
Shelton liked his women sexy, elegant, and vibrant. The drab-looking woman had on a mud-brown suit that did nothing for her smooth, almond complexion. In fact, if she hadn't been standing where the sunlight poured through the windows on an unusually sunny October day in New Jersey, or hadn't looked so tense, he might not have noticed her at all. Talk about someone blending into the wall.
As seconds passed, Gabe's hope that Jessica Ames had patiently waited plummeted. Muttering under his breath, he turned to leave.
For some odd reason his gaze went back to the nondescript woman in brown. She was watching him, her lower lip tucked between her teeth. The moment he met her gaze, she glanced away in obvious embarrassment.
It had been so long since Gabe had encountered a shy woman that he simply stared. From the Louis Vuitton case at her feet, her handbag by the same designer, the long, brown cashmere coat slung carelessly on the back of a seat, it appeared she wasn't hurting for money.
Although someone should have told her that brown wasn't her color. Not even his mother wore deep pleated skirts to mid-calf. And her French roll-styled hair was definitely for a much older woman.
Poor thing, he thought. She must be waiting for someone to pick her up. She had apparently stayed put, whereas Jessica Ames had taken off to God knows where. He wasn't looking forward to tracking her down. Knowing he didn't have a choice, he went to find a phone to have her paged.
A short distance away, his steps slowed, then stopped completely as he recalled Shelton's answer to his question. "Some women don't require as much to woo and win, especially when there are other considerations and compensations to be considered."
Whirling, Gabe rushed back to Gate 23. The woman in brown hadn't moved. She waited, just as Shelton had said she would.
Gabe's certainty that she was Jessica Ames grew with each heartbeat, and so did his apprehension. He didn't like to think his brother was so cruel or so callous as to hurt any woman, but particularly one who seemed so vulnerable or ill-equipped to bounce back.
Gabe was a realist and he knew some people, unlike his devoted parents, married for reasons other than love, but he couldn't help wondering if she knew how Shelton felt or if he had pulled a fast one. It wasn't difficult to imagine his handsome, smooth-talking brother getting one over on this lusterless woman.
Although she wasn't Shelton's type, she had something else to attract his ambitious brother. If this was Jessica Ames, her father was senior partner of the prestigious Ames & Koch law firm based in Atlanta that he worked for. And Shelton wanted to become a full partner.
Although he loved his brother, who was five years younger, Gabe wasn't blind to his many faults. He was a climber, in society and business. He wanted to succeed and he was well on his way to doing so by being in charge of opening a new branch of the firm in New York. If Gabe didn't miss his guess, the woman standing several feet away was an integral part of Shelton's plan in obtaining that partnership.
Besides, Gabe thought, if Shelton really loved her, he'd have been there to meet her after six weeks' absence. He'd kiss her breathless, then whisk her off someplace where they could be alone. He wouldn't have been so thoughtless as to leave a message on Gabe's answering machine, then be out of his office and unavailable. It was almost as if she were an afterthought.
Same old Shelton. Always thinking what he had to do or saywas more important than what anyone else did. He couldn't have chosen a better career than corporate law. He'd do well swimming with the sharks. Gabe had once swum the same dangerous waters until he took a hard look at his life and hadn't liked what he saw.
Pushing away the memory, he walked up to the woman. All he could hope for was that she knew what she was letting herself in for. "Excuse me, are you Jessica Ames?"
She jerked her head toward him, her eyes widening. He was surprised at how beautiful they were despite being rimmed by the ugliest brown frames he had ever seen. Obviously she had noticed him watching her before and she took a hesitant step back.
Belatedly Gabe remembered the aviator shades he had forgotten to remove, and slipped them on top of his head.
There wasn't much else he could do to reassure her. The closely cropped beard and mustache, his mother was fond of telling him, made him look like a hoodlum.
He smiled in reassurance. "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. I'm Gabe Jackson, Shelton's brother. He couldn't make it."
Jessica glanced from the large, blunt-tipped fingers on the hand extended toward her, then back to the broad-shouldered mocha-skinned man in front of her. He wore a gently worn black leather bomber jacket, paint-splattered jeans, and a smile that probably let him get away with anything he wanted.
He looked wholly dangerous in a way only a woman could understand. It didn't take much imagination on her part to see him astride a big motorcycle, his hands gripping the handlebars as he revved the motor, daring fate, daring a woman to climb on behind him.
He frowned, deepening the grooves in his forehead. "You are Jessica Ames, aren't you?"
Hastily she extended her hand. It wasn't like her to be so whimsical. "Yes. I'm sorry. It's just that I was expecting Shelton, and you don't look anything like him."
The grin returned. White teeth flashed in his darkly handsomeface. "So he likes to point out." He reached for her train case. "I know this isn't all you brought for two weeks in New York."
Picking up her long coat, she tried to smile, hoping he didn't remember her staring at him. At least he couldn't possibly know she had been speculating on the color of his eyes. Black, deep and velvet and as lethal as the rest of him. "The rest of my luggage is at baggage claim."
"For a while I thought you might be there, too, or wandering around the airport."
She shook her head. "No matter how much I travel, airports tend to make me nervous. That's why I wanted to meet Shelton at Newark Airport, since passengers coming into LaGuardia or Kennedy can only be met by the public at the baggage claim area."
"Smart thinking." Gabe's hand closed lightly over her elbow. "Let's go get the rest of your luggage."
She fell into step beside him, noting he was several inches taller than Shelton and broader, but moved with an easy strength in paint-splattered athletic shoes. Shelton favored Bally as his footwear of choice. "Is Shelton meeting me at my aunt's apartment?"
Gabe assisted her onto the gliding steps before answering. "Afraid not. He'll be tied up until late tonight."
"Oh," she answered and looked away.
Gabe glanced down at the slender woman by his side. She had to be unhappy that Shelton wasn't anxious to see her. "He's pretty busy opening the new office."
"I know. My father is quite proud of him."
"How about you?"
Her head came up, surprise clearly evident on her face, as if she hadn't expected the question. "Of course."
Gabe nodded. "You just wish it didn't keep him away from you so much."
She focused ahead. "Shelton's work is very important to him."
It was on the tip of Gabe's tongue to ask if she was important to Shelton when they reached the end of the walkway. Continuing tothe baggage claim area, it occurred to him that Jessica didn't act like a woman anxious to see her man. From the stiffness of her body next to his he knew she was still tense, and for some reason he didn't think it was totally due to the busy airport.
With every piece of Louis Vuitton luggage Gabe pulled off the conveyor, Jessica's irritation and embarrassment grew. She had tried to tell her mother that she didn't need that much, but Henrietta Ames had been insistent. She even had the maid include Jessica's makeup case, which she hadn't opened in months.
Her mother wanted to make sure she was prepared when Shelton took her out. Jessica had tried to tell her that wasn't likely to happen.
She knew Shelton's priority was opening the new branch of the law firm in New York. His interest in Jessica had been fleeting at best. He had been kind enough to take her out several times during the two months he was in Atlanta, but it hadn't even begun to get serious.
Her parents believed differently. All they thought she had to do was accept Shelton's invitation to come to New York, and she'd have a big diamond engagement ring on her finger when she returned home.
Shelton might be "fond" of her, as he often told her parents, but his heart belonged to the law office. She knew that. Most of what he talked about when they were together was the law firm and how much he admired her father. It was embarrassing the way her parents started throwing hints about what a fine catch he was. As if he were the last chance for their dull only child to snag a man.
Jessica was aware she wasn't attractive or athletic, and no matter what she wore, she tended to look dowdy. She had reconciled herself to that long ago. She didn't mind being nondescript or being by herself. She was used to both.
She valued her work at the women's shelter, and in January shewas returning to graduate school to work on her Master's in Education with an emphasis on counseling. She knew where she was going and it didn't include marrying someone who was "fond" of her, no matter what pressure her parents put on her.
Reminding her mother that Shelton's calls had been infrequent and hurried since he returned to New York hadn't dimmed her hopes of an engagement. She had simply had the maid take more clothes out of the closet. The wife of a corporate lawyer had to understand that business sometimes had to come first, but that in no way meant he didn't love his wife and family.
Jessica hadn't said another word. To do so would have shown her own doubts about how much her father loved his family. If that was how love was shown, she wanted no part of it. Only no one was listening.
"Five pieces. I'd say you came prepared," Gabe told her.
Jessica came out of her musing and flushed. If anyone knew how little Shelton thought of her or how unnecessary the mountain of baggage was, it was the man standing easily in front of her, his hands on his trim waist, a teasing smile on his mobile lips. She moistened her own.
There was no reason for her to notice his mouth. "You've been very kind. I can get a skycap and take care of things from here. Thank you."
Gabe stared at the small hand extended toward his, noted the unpolished oval nails, then lifted his gaze to Jessica's plain face. The smile was forced. "I hope you aren't going to insult me by suggesting I leave you."
Her hand wavered. "You must be busy."
"Not that busy." The moment the words were out of his mouth, hers tightened. "I'm self-employed. I make my own schedule," he quickly explained.
"Need any help with those bags?" asked a hopeful skycap, his hand wrapped around the handle of a luggage carrier.
"Thanks," Gabe said, grateful for the intervention, and he tookJessica's extended hand. He accepted the slight leap in his pulse rate due to nerves, and the slight jerk in her hand due to the same thing.
She lifted those large, solemn brown eyes to him. "I don't want to be a nuisance. I don't mind renting a car or grabbing a cab to Manhattan."
"I do. Driving in New York takes skill, nerve, and practice. A weekday is no time to start developing any of those. And taking a cab unless necessary is sheer lunacy," Gabe said, leading her toward the exit, wondering where the crazy urge to hug her to him and reassure her that she wasn't a bother had come from.
"I may have been wrong about something," Jessica said, following him out the door.
"You and Shelton are alike in some ways."
Gabe felt annoyance sweep through him, and without slowing his stride, glanced down at her. There was no way he'd stoop to what his baby brother was planning to do, or treat a woman the way he had. "How?"
"Once you make up your mind about something, nothing else matters."
Gabe simply kept walking. He didn't think she had given him a compliment.