Melting the Millionaire’s Heart
by Linda Morris
Special-needs teacher Kayla Johnston writes off any shot at New Year’s Eve romance when she’s summoned to a fundraising event for her school at the remote estate of a wealthy would-be-donor. But when a massive snowstorm hits and Kayla careens off the road, the sexy stranger who rescues her brings to mind cozy fireplaces and steamy midnight kisses…among other things.
Reclusive entrepreneur Ryan Langford may be missing his own fundraiser, but being marooned in a cabin with Kayla beats ducking a room full of people after his money any day. Too bad she’s so irritated with the ” gazillionaire” who ruined her New Year’s Eve that he feels like he has to lie about his identity. But when the sparks fly and they fall into each other’s arms, Ryan knows he’s made a big mistake. Will she be able to trust him once the snow melts and the truth comes out?
© 2012 Linda Morris
Kayla Johnston tore her gaze from the road just long enough to check the readout on her ringing cell. It was Carolyn. Surprise, surprise. Prying one white-knuckled hand off the wheel, she picked up.
“This had really better be important, Carolyn.”
Carolyn Hart, her best friend and teacher’s assistant at Horizons, meant well, but she needed a twelve-step program to break her addiction to cell phones.
“When are you going to get here? I told you Dr. Dunne was about to freak! What’s the hold-up?”
Kayla took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. “Are you kidding me? This snowstorm is so bad a yeti wouldn’t go out in it. And I can’t concentrate on driving because you’re calling me every five minutes to tell me I’m late, which I already know!”
“I know, I know, I’m being a pain, but you know how important this event is to Dr. Dunne. He’s beside himself because you’re not here.” After a pause, Carolyn’s voice dropped to a loud whisper. “Plus I’m getting a super-weird vibe from Steve. He’s here with Eve.”
“Of course he is. They’ve been dating for like six months now.” She put the phone on speaker and tossed it on the passenger seat.
Steve and Eve. Eve and Steve. Kayla’s ex-boyfriend and his rhyme-y new girlfriend, both staffers at Horizons, the private school for kids with special needs where Kayla taught third grade. Kayla had thought for a while that she and Steve had some long-term potential, but that was before he’d dumped her for someone hotter, blonder, and more interested in Pilates. Less interested in, say, Korean street tacos.
She would have preferred not to spend her New Year’s watching Steve and Eve climb all over each other, but she wished them well. She really did.
Just not too well.
“Yeah, but Steve and Eve are acting really weird. He won’t meet my eye, and she was actually nice to me.”
“Huh.” Eve, nice? “That is weird.” Still, she had better things to do right now than worry about her cretinous ex-boyfriend and his new love. Like, making it to the Langford estate in one piece, for starters. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. And Carolyn? Please don’t call me again while I’m on the road unless someone is on fire.”
Kayla ended the call and dropped the phone onto the passenger seat. The mix of freezing rain and snow had been growing steadily worse all evening. Carolyn’s weird vibes aside, she needed to focus on the drive if she didn’t want to slide off into a ditch.
She clutched the wheel and turned the wipers to their highest setting, peering through her windshield to the narrow twist of road she could see ahead. Her Corolla’s headlights illuminated nothing but snow, blacktop, and the yellow stripe she’d been steering by for the last ten minutes.
Driving in a snowstorm in the middle of nowhere wasn’t her idea of how to ring in the New Year, but Dr. Dunne, the headmaster of Horizons, had insisted, so here she was.
Ryan Langford, hotshot social media entrepreneur and newly minted gazillionaire, had decided to take an interest in special needs kids, probably at the behest of his PR person. Langford had been dangling a six-figure donation over their heads for months now, but before he made a final decision, he wanted to get to know the staff of Horizons better. Hence the New Year’s Eve event at his estate, hence her trek to the wilds of southern Indiana. She’d prefer to stay in the classroom and let PR handle the Langfords of the world—schmoozing with strangers had never been her cup of java—but the school really needed this donation. Carson Daly and the rest of Times Square would have to get along without her watching the ball drop on TV this year.
Her cell phone buzzed again. She groaned. “What now?” Tempted to ignore it, she relented after a moment. What if it truly was something important? Without taking her eyes off the road, she pawed the passenger seat until she found it and brought it in front of her eyes. Carolyn again, this time with two texts.
Don’t freak out. Found out what’s up with Steve and Eve. I thought you’d want to know.
Really? Carolyn was bothering her with this, again? Her ex acting weird did not qualify as an emergency in her book. They were done. Who cared what he and Eve got up to?
They got married. Flew to Jamaica over break and had a wedding on the beach.
“What?” she yelled at her phone’s screen, staring in disbelief at the words. “Are you kidding me?” As she tried to take in what she’d read, a flicker of movement on the road caught her eye. She looked up just in time to see a raccoon directly in the path of her car, one paw poised delicately in the air, looking at her, eyes wide with alarm. Kayla screamed and slammed on the brakes.
Bad idea. The rear end fishtailed. The car skidded out of control. She threw down the phone and grabbed the wheel with both hands. Steer in the direction of the skid. Steer in the direction of—
All practical thoughts flew from her head as the car spun. With a sickening squeal, the wheels left the pavement. For a few horrifying seconds, her world listed crazily as the car dipped to one side. Oh, God, she was going to die! And she’d never even gone skydiving or read Ulysses, or any of those other dumb things people always put on their bucket lists.
The seatbelt caught her hard between her breasts as everything finally jerked to a stop.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, one hand over her pounding heart. Oh, God. Apparently, despite her expectations, she hadn’t died. She opened her eyes and took inventory. The car had nearly overturned onto the passenger side. Miraculously, other than the discomfort of the seatbelt cutting off circulation to half of her torso, she didn’t feel any pain.
The rush of adrenaline that hit her when the car had careened out of control still sizzled in her veins, making her antsy. She had to get out of this car. She struggled with the buckle and finally unfastened it. The belt snapped back into the holster, nearly scraping her left boob off in the process. When the strap slipped away, gravity took over. Her body slumped against the console between the seats. She winced as the gearshift dug into her ribs.
She shut off the engine and cursed as everything went dark. Without headlights, she couldn’t see a thing. Turning the key in the ignition just enough to switch the lights back on, she found her purse and switched the engine off again. She shifted and pushed hard to open the driver’s side door, bracing her foot on the console to boost herself up. No way would she be able to drive the car out of the ditch: It was halfway on its side. Shutting her eyes for a moment, she breathed deep and willed her frenzied heartbeat back to normal. Keep it together, Kayla. Her head and shoulders were through the door when her cell phone buzzed.
She froze. Damn, someone really ought to take Carolyn’s texting privileges away from her. She was worse than any thirteen-year-old. Her phone wasn’t in her purse. Where was it? Kayla caught sight of the lit display on the passenger side floor. She scrambled for it and checked the screen.
You okay? Are you freaked out?
Now she asked. She couldn’t have waited to break the bad news until she’d been off the road? To be fair, though, Carolyn had only wanted to give her a heads-up before she had to confront Steve and Eve face to face.
She stuck the phone in her purse and climbed out of the tilted car. Out of the ditch, she retrieved her phone and tapped out a message, muffling a curse as her trembling fingers struggled to type on the tiny keyboard. “Come on, Kayla,” she muttered. “Don’t lose it now.”
Her breath fogged in the icy night air.
Had an accident, she texted. Car is a wreck. I’m fine though.
It didn’t take long for her phone to ring.
“Oh, my God, did you crash because I told you about Steve?” Carolyn wailed. “I’m so sorry! Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine. And the accident wasn’t your fault. It was Steve’s.”
“Yes! Blame it on him, the jerk. Steve the Skeeve.”
Carolyn and Kayla had taken to calling him that in the brutal weeks after the breakup, when she’d had to continue to see him at work every day while smiling and being civil, pretending to Dr. Dunne and all their coworkers that Steve and Eve hadn’t totally humiliated her.
“So, this means I’ll be even later than I thought. How’s Dr. Dunne?”
It was a stupid question. A huge donor had beckoned and she wasn’t there to kiss his ring. How did she expect Dr. Dunne to be?
“Um, yeah. You don’t want to know. Langford’s not here yet. His flight’s late and Dunne’s going nuts. Can’t wait to get his hands on the money.”
Perversely, this cheered her up a little. At least she wasn’t the only one running late.
“Where are you? I’ll send somebody out to find you.”
“No, don’t do that,” she begged. “You really don’t need to—”
“Hang on. I’ll tell Dr. Dunne about your wreck.”
“Wait, don’t!” Kayla cried, but it was too late. Rustling indicated Carolyn had pulled the phone away from her ear. After a minute, she came back on the line. “I think he’s organizing a search party.”
“No!” she barked. “Don’t let him. I’ll be fine. I can walk from here. Don’t send Dunne!”
Her phone chimed a low battery warning. Crap. What else could go wrong? Kayla rubbed a spot in the center of her forehead where tension had started to gather. Being late for the get-together was bad enough in her boss’s eyes. If Dunne had to send out a search party to find her, she’d never hear the end of it.
“Are you sure?” Carolyn asked, her doubt apparent.
“I’m sure. Look, I’ve got to go. My phone’s battery is low and I don’t want to waste it. I’ll be there soon as I can, okay?”
She looked back at the sad wreck. Her Toyota listed like a frat boy on dollar beer night. The dim light of the moon didn’t reveal much damage to the chassis, but she’d need to call a tow truck tomorrow to get it out of that ditch.
She trudged up to the road, pulling the collar of her wool coat tighter against a blast of wind. If she remembered right, she had a mile or so to go along this road to the gatehouse of the Langford estate. A long walk in this weather, but doable.
A gatehouse. Who had a gatehouse nowadays anyway? Bill Gates? Unlikely. He was too busy helping underprivileged kids in Africa. Warren Buffet? No way. She’d heard he couldn’t even be bothered to buy a new tie every once in a while. Donald Trump?
Yeah, Donald Trump had a gatehouse. Donald Trump and Ryan Langford, just a couple of humble guys with vast estates and gatehouses.
Twenty minutes later, she wished she’d chosen a more practical outfit. She wouldn’t have worn heeled leather boots, a short skirt, and a silky blouse if she’d known she’d be hiking across frozen tundra. Her main goal had been to look hot. That way, when she showed up alone, Steve and Eve would think it was by choice, not because she couldn’t get a date.
Yeah, right. She wasn’t hot. She was so un-hot, it was almost funny. Matter of fact, she was freezing. Wind whistled through her tights and up her skirt. Her face was frozen. Her boots were killing her. Even worse, this long trek gave her plenty of time to think about her ex-boyfriend, now somebody else’s husband.
Tears welled and she wiped them away. She wasn’t crying. The cold wind must be making her eyes water. Yeah, that was it. She certainly didn’t care that her lying, sneaking ex-boyfriend had just married his girlfriend of six months—six months!—after claiming he’d had no interest in marrying, ever.
She obviously just needed to get inside and get warmed up, maybe have a cocktail to settle her nerves. Things would look brighter when she wasn’t numb from the waist down.
The whole situation was almost enough to make her want to call Dr. Dunne and tell him to get that search party ready.
She lowered her head against the wind and trudged along. The snow fell harder than ever. Flakes caught and melted in her lashes, blurring her vision. The weather forecasters had blown this one—they’d warned of only a few inches of snow, but at least seven or eight had accumulated on the ground already, with no end in sight. Every step in her high-heeled boots was harder than the last. She wiped her runny nose with the back of her gloved hand.
Her eyeballs were going to freeze if she didn’t get inside soon. She fumbled in her purse for her cell phone. Forget her pride. So what if Dr. Dunne read her the riot act for calling him out in weather like this? She needed to warm up and fast. Please don’t let the phone be dead. To her relief, it came to life with a click of a button. She’d just begun to dial Carolyn when the sound of an engine made her turn. The headlights cutting through the darkness in the still night reminded her of a scene out of a horror movie she’d seen once. Yikes. She wanted out of this weather, but did she dare flag the driver down? Getting into a car with a stranger was a dumb idea.
On the other hand, dying of hypothermia because she’d seen one too many PSAs about Stranger Danger as a kid struck her as even dumber.
She gripped the cell phone in her purse, considering. If the driver looked like a pervert, she’d call Carolyn really fast. But he probably wouldn’t be a pervert. What kind of perverts went trolling for victims in snowstorms at night? Only stupid ones. She could escape a stupid pervert, surely.
The car drew nearer, and she could make out that the headlights belonged to a newer-looking dark sedan. It pulled to a stop and the passenger window rolled down.
Holding her breath, she bent down and peered inside…into the most gorgeous set of blue eyes she’d ever seen. The rest of his face wasn’t bad either: sculpted features with a dusting of dark stubble that gave him a ski bum air.
“You need some help?” His low voice did nothing to cure her case of insta-lust. If he was a pervert, he was the best-looking one she’d ever seen.
“Yes,” she breathed, forgetting all her pervert-related worries. “I was on my way to an event at the Langford estate, but I had a little slide-off back there.”
“Really? The Langford estate?” He seemed more surprised at that bit of information than she would have expected, so she rushed on to explain.
“I’m late for an event there, actually. It’s kind of important that I get there soon.” She bit her lip. Would it be too forward to just come right out and ask for a ride to the main house? “I don’t suppose you’re going that way?”
He flashed a white smile that contrasted brightly against the dark stubble on his chin. Somewhere south of her navel, her body pulsed in reaction.
“As a matter of fact, I’m not.”
“Oh.” Her hopes of hopping into Mr. Sexypants’s car for a quick ride to the Langford estate fizzled. Surely he wouldn’t leave her standing on the side of the road during a blizzard. Would it be rude to ask him to take her to the main house at Langford anyway?
“No, I’m not. Guy on the radio just said that the state troopers declared a snow emergency throughout the county.” He nodded at the dash. “Any civilians on the road will be arrested. But you’re in luck. I’m headed just down the road a bit. I’ll take you with me to wait out the storm if you want.” He gestured down the road, which told her nothing because it was pitch black except for snowflakes dancing in the narrow beam of his headlights. “Hop in.”
“Ummm—” she stalled, wondering what to do. A short ride to the Langford estate she could’ve handled, but waiting out the storm at his house? Was she supposed to say, No, you might be a pervert, so I’ll just stand here on the side of the road until I turn into a Creamsicle, which won’t be long now, if the lack of feeling in my knees is any indication.
She might not have the greatest social skills in the world where men were concerned, but even she knew that would be…odd. So instead, she settled for, “That’s very nice of you to offer, but my friends are expecting me at Langford’s. They’ll be worried if I don’t show.”
“So call ‘em. They’ll understand. Nobody with a brain would stay out in this weather.” He paused and then flashed that killer grin again. “No offense.”
“None taken.” She’d pretty much already decided she’d been an idiot tonight. She couldn’t fault him for agreeing.
He held out his cell phone. How bad could he be? Serial killers didn’t offer their cell phones to their potential victims. Why waste minutes on somebody you were just going to off? “Still, I’d rather just get to my destination. Maybe I can walk. How far is it to the Langford estate?”
He looked thoughtful for a moment. “I’d say ten miles to the gatehouse. In the other direction from where you’re heading, though.”
She stared. “What?”
“You’re headed away from the house. You’ve got ten miles to the gatehouse alone, and then a long way up the drive from there. Sure you won’t take me up on it?”
Oh, my God. True, she’d never been good at navigation, but she’d been so careful to Google driving directions before she left her apartment in Indianapolis. And she’d been on the right track, she knew it, until…the accident. The car had spun and slid crazily, and she’d been frazzled from the crash and Carolyn’s announcement. She must have gotten disoriented, so turned around that when she set off, she’d gone in the wrong direction.
Brilliant. She’d truly screwed up this time.
Dr. Dunne would just have to suck up without her. Even keeping her job wasn’t worth losing her life and limb to frostbite, which would happen if she didn’t get her butt inside, pronto. “Okay, thanks. I’ll just text my friend first to let her know where I am.”
“Sure. Get in and get warm while you do it.”
She accepted gladly and pulled out her phone.
Caught a ride with a nice guy. Going to wait out the storm with him. Don’t worry! Be there ASAP.
“Mind if I give her your number just in case?” she asked him. “My cell’s nearly dead.”
“Sure.” He recited a number. She typed it in and hit Send.
In mere seconds, Carolyn’s response came through.
WTH? Is he hot?
She glanced discreetly at her rescuer, at his wavy brown, just-a-little-too-long hair above the collar of his jacket, and his leather-clad hands firm on the wheel.
She clicked Send. A second later, with a sad chime, the battery on her phone died.