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Home at Last Chance
By Hope Ramsay
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 1, 2011. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Table of Contents
A Preview of Last Chance Beauty Queen
Tulane Rhodes leaned forward in his seat and scowled at Sarah Murray out of a pair of greeny-gray eyes. "You painted my car sissy pink and put a bunny on its hood. How do you expect me to feel?" he snarled.
Sarah breathed in the scent of leather upholstery and corporate money. The National Brands Learjet had been placed at her disposal. She had about an hour—the time it took to fly from Martinsville, Virginia, to Columbia, South Carolina—in which to take charge of this angry man. She wasn't sure she could do it even if she had a hundred years, but she was going to give it her best shot. Her career depended upon it.
She squared her shoulders inside her black power suit. "Pink is the official color of the Cottontail Disposable Diaper brand," Sarah said. Her mother would be proud of her calm, controlled tone. Mother always said a proper Boston lady didn't raise her voice, but used quiet logic instead. Sarah really didn't want to be her mother, but right now, it was the best strategy she could muster.
Sarah continued ticking off points on her fingers. "Also, the car in question doesn't belong to you. It belongs to Jim Ferguson Racing. And I'm sure I don't have to point out that Mr. Ferguson is not happy with you right now. National Brands paid Mr. Ferguson millions of dollars for the privilege of painting that car pink. As part of the sponsorship deal, you—as Mr. Ferguson's driver—have a responsibility to show up at personal appearances. If you had shown up at your appearances last week, National Brands wouldn't have felt the need to send me here to do your advance work."
"To bully me, you mean," Tulane said as he settled back into his seat and crossed his arms over his chest. His biceps twitched. He was angry.
And huge. Tulane Rhodes filled the reclining seat with six feet and two hundred pounds of South Carolina good ol' boy. He possessed all the classic markers of his kind—a broad drawl and buzz-cut hair that framed an angular face with too many sun-induced laugh lines and crow's-feet. A well-worn Alabama T-shirt stretched across his broad shoulders. And a battered Atlanta Braves baseball cap topped off the ensemble. Maybe if Tulane had worn a blue blazer or a Nike golf shirt with khakis, he might have overcome the stereotype. But he hadn't, and he didn't.
Sarah was in trouble. This man was dangerous, and angry, and likely to run her over at 200 miles an hour if he ever found out that she was the reason he was driving a pink stock car. He was also wickedly handsome, had a reputation for being a bad boy, and those green eyes of his had the unsettling effect of making her feel as if her panties were on fire.
She needed to concentrate on the task at hand, but she had no idea where to begin. So she borrowed a page from Grandmother Howland's handbook. She gave Tulane Rhodes the Look.
When given with the proper stare and just the right lift of an eyebrow, the Look could turn someone to stone in about one second flat. Grandmother Howland, who had been a devoted librarian and churchwoman, could lift her eyebrow perfectly and command silence, just like that.
"I am not a bully, Mr. Rhodes. I expect you to be an adult about this," Sarah said in a soft voice that she tried to invest with all the proper venom of her grandmother.
Tulane cracked the smallest of smiles. Lines bunched up around his eyes while his lower lip stretched into a sexy curve that displayed a couple of dimples. The mental image of Grandmother faded.
"Ma'am, pardon my asking, but you got something stuck up that butt of yours?"
"I beg your pardon?" The Look vanished.
"Well, you were grimacing, you know? You looked like you had gas pains or something. I guess it was just a passing thing, huh?" His smile broadened.
The man was onto her. Her black suit hadn't hidden her good-girl nature, apparently. Sarah had no other weapons at her beck and call so she forged ahead, just like Grandmother would have done.
"I would appreciate it if you would refrain from using such vulgar language. I must remind you that you will be the spokesperson for Cottontail Disposable Diapers, a family product with a wholesome image," Sarah said.
"Well, I'm not the wholesome family man you're looking for." Tulane broke eye contact and ducked down to stare out the window to his left. The jet had just taxied to the end of the runway, and the engines revved in anticipation of takeoff. The glare from the window highlighted the pulsing tendons in his jaw.
He shifted his gaze. "I know diddly about diapers. On the other hand, I did read something about National Brands making some real fine rubbers. You want to paint my car with a logo for condoms, I'm right there with you. I'm willing to talk about safe sex any day of the week. In fact, I try to practice safe sex every day of the week. But diapers? Uh-uh. Way I figure it, a diaper bunny is about the shittiest thing you could put on Jim Ferguson's Cup car."
Sarah could feel her cheeks coloring at Tulane's use of profanity. When was she going to get over this? She was twenty-five years old, a graduate of Harvard University, and she wanted to be like Deidre Montgomery, National Brands' vice president of marketing—a woman totally fluent in business profanity. How could Sarah ever achieve success in business if she couldn't get over her strict upbringing?
"Don't sputter, now," Tulane said, as if he could read her most intimate thoughts. "I hate it when a woman starts sputtering in outrage. It always reminds me of Miz Lillian Bray, the chairwoman of the Christ Church Ladies Auxiliary back home in Last Chance, South Carolina. You cuss in front of her and you're liable to end up serving endless hours as an altar boy." He looked out the window again. The Learjet was rolling, and the engines pressed Sarah back into her seat. With a roar, the little jet sped down the runway, rotated nose up, and surged into the sky. The ground dropped beneath them, providing a view of the spring-green vistas of the Virginia countryside.
Sarah studied the man for a long moment, trying to imagine him as an altar boy. She failed. Her experiences with altar boys had been far-reaching and entirely unsatisfying.
"Mr. Rhodes, I think it would be helpful if you considered me to be just like Miss Lillian. Just remember that my reports back to headquarters will make or break your career." Oh boy, she was so lame—like she really had that kind of authority or power. He was in trouble, but not that much trouble.
He gave her a smarmy look that started at her chest, came up to her face, and went back down, as if he realized she had overreached. She should have resented that gaze, but it made her feel oddly titillated and strangely alive. She didn't think any man had ever looked at her quite like that, as if she were a fat slice of Boston cream pie.
"If you don't mind my saying so," Tulane said, "you are a whole lot younger than Lillian Bray. And, for the record, you sure don't have her skill when it comes to the Look either."
Sarah opened her mouth and shut it again. How on earth did he know about the Look?
"You were about to say something?"
Just how had this conversation taken this strange turn? "Mr. Rhodes, I need you to remember you are now a spokesperson for Cottontail Disposable Diapers. You have to be a role model. Why don't we spend our time more profitably by going through our schedule for the next couple of days?"
He settled back into the brown leather seat and tipped his baseball hat down over his eyes. "Honey, you can yammer all you want, but I was up late last night going over car setups with my crew chief, and I thought I'd get a little shut-eye before you have me officiating at diaper-changing contests."
"Mr. Rhodes, those events are designed to build traffic at the store."
Tulane opened one eye and angled his head. "Oh, really? I thought it was just for the fun of it."
"Uh-huh. Look, lady, I don't want to be here. I don't want to go to Value Mart and put on a pink shirt with a bunny logo and sign autographs for people who are laughing at me. I'm only here because ya'll bullied Jim Ferguson and he told me to be here or else. So you could do me a huge favor and just hush up." His head slapped back on the seat, and his eye shut.
That was it—Sarah's career was officially over.
Tulane tried not to concentrate too hard on the high-pitched white noise of the jet engines. Their revs were not quite matched, and that sent a little harmonic buzz through the cabin that made his skin crawl.
He hated flying. He could never admit this or the entire world would laugh at him. A man who drove cars 200 miles an hour should not be afraid of flying. He took a deep breath, trying to counter his fear.
Maybe he should worry about losing his ride. That was a real and tangible fear. He was deep in Jim Ferguson's doghouse, and if he didn't straighten up and fly right, he might be out of a job.
The plane hit a serious bump in the sky, and every nerve ending in his body fried. He concentrated on relaxing the tense muscles in his jaw and thought about the little bitty woman National Brands had sent down to take charge of him. Sarah Murray was a bona fide nice girl. All by its lonesome, this made her immediately irresistible.
And she was easy on the eye. Some pretty impressive curves lurked under that black suit. She had killer eyes, too, of a shade not quite brown and not quite green. Her eyes kind of scrunched up when she smiled, and her freckled face was adorable when she blushed. Someone up in New York either had a sense of humor or knew exactly the kind of nursemaid to send in his direction. He really couldn't be nasty to a nice girl like that.
The plane buffeted sideways. Tulane opened his eyes. Sarah was studying him with a calculating look on her face. He needed to act fast, before she figured out he was a sissy when it came to planes. That would be too much to bear. He usually bloodied the noses of the bullies who crossed his path, but he was going to have to charm this woman.
He hauled in a big breath. "I reckon I owe you an apology."
He didn't sound real sincere, but she smiled up at him with a toothy grin that hit him like the g-forces on turn two at Bristol Speedway. The plane skipped around the sky.
"So I couldn't help but notice that you come from up north." Oh brother. How the heck was he supposed to get around this little bitty obstacle with a line like that? His body flushed hot.
"I've lived in Boston most of my life. I moved to New York right after graduation from Harvard to take the job with National Brands."
"So did your folks come over on the Mayflower or something?" he asked.
Sarah's eyes flashed with annoyance. "Everyone asks that question. As a matter of fact, my mother's family did come over on the Mayflower."
"And your daddy's family, too?" With his luck, her daddy was a governor or something. That would make her not only a cute bully, but a well-connected one.
"Dad's from Wyoming."
She nodded. The plane bumped. Tulane clutched the armrests. She noticed, but said nothing. Good.
"And what about you, Mr. Rhodes?"
He relaxed his death grip and reached for his Southern charm. "Well, I reckon you know all about me, ma'am."
"I know you grew up in a small town in South Carolina with a peculiar name. Your mother is a hairdresser and your father is a mechanic?"
He tried not to cringe. He wasn't about to make his daddy a national laughingstock by telling the truth about him. He'd been protecting Daddy's honor all his life, so he'd lied through his teeth in that bogus bio. He needed to change the subject. Now.
"So tell me," Tulane said, "how'd a nice girl like you get into the business of advancing celebrity athletes like me?"
"Mr. Rhodes, I hardly think—"
"Better fasten up back there," came the disembodied voice of the pilot. "We're going to have to weave our way through a few thunderstorms."
Just then, the plane took another hit from turbulent air. The clouds outside the window were turning an unsettling shade of gray. Tulane battled his fear by tightening his seatbelt.
He turned back toward Sarah. She didn't seem to be all that worried about falling out of the sky or being struck by lightning.
She leaned forward, as if nothing untoward was happening. "What I was about to say is that I hardly think driving a stock car makes you an athlete. An entertainer perhaps. Certainly a daredevil, but not an athlete."
"Trust me, it's a sport," he said through his locked teeth.
"It's entertainment. And besides, you just go around in circles for five hundred miles, so it's not very entertaining entertainment. That probably explains why it's the fastest-growing phenomenon in the entertainment industry."
"Look here, you name me one other sport where a man goes out and risks his life every time he performs." And every time he has to fly to another city.
She smirked. "Bull riding."
"Bull riding. Not only do bull riders have to hang on to a raging bull, but they take their lives in their hands every time they enter the ring."
"Yeah, well, I reckon you'd never catch a bull rider in pink."
Her eyes widened, like she knew some great big secret. "You might be surprised what bull riders wear."
"And just exactly what do you know about bull riding?"
"My father rode bulls for a living. He was pretty good at it, too. I saw some pictures of him all dressed up in fringe and sequins—purple ones."
"You're kidding me, right?"
"Why would I kid you about that?"
A flash came from outside the fuselage, followed by a crack of thunder, and it felt as if God were trying to strike one of them dead. "Shit," Tulane said aloud.
The red crawled up Sarah's neck, but otherwise she seemed unperturbed by the thunderstorm.
"How did a bull rider produce such a prissy little daughter?" Tulane asked.
"You think I'm prissy?" Sarah sat even straighter in her chair and looked down her nose. She resembled a twelve-year-old trying to be outraged.
"Yes, ma'am," he drawled, forgetting about the black cloud beyond the window.
Her eyes sparked with ire. "I am a lady, Mr. Rhodes, not a priss. I realize this distinction is probably lost on a person such as yourself."
"You don't like being prissy, do you?"
"I'm not prissy. I'm a businesswoman. I have a job to do, and I'd appreciate it if you would—"
"Like hell," he said.
The blush staining her neck started to crawl up her cheeks.
"See? I say the word 'hell' and you light up like a neon Budweiser sign. Honey, hell isn't even a really bad cuss word. NASCAR wouldn't even dock me points or fine me if I said that word in a TV interview."
"I don't think it's necessary for us to have a full discourse on profanity, Mr. Rhodes."
"If you want to learn how to cuss, I can sure teach you how. Believe it or not, I have been fully briefed on the Federal Communications Commission's list of seven dirty words that are never to be said over the airwaves. Would you like me to help you learn them? We could start with the filthiest one on the list. By the way, it's f—"
"Don't say it, please." Sarah closed her eyes, but her face glowed. She didn't appear to be angry. She looked turned on and hot. Tulane suddenly knew exactly how to handle this particular nice girl that the folks in New York had sent to keep him in line.
"Okay, I won't say that word, although it almost escaped my lips a while ago when that lightning hit."
"I'm not surprised." She opened her eyes and gazed up at him. Yup, she was like every nice girl he'd ever met. A naughty spirit lurked deep inside her, yearning to be free. And wasn't it fun to play dirty with a nice girl?
"Okay, forget the FCC," Tulane said with a smirk. "Let's start with something easier, like taking the name of the Lord in vain. People these days hardly think that's cussing."
"I'm surprised you would want to chance such a thing, given the way you've been clutching the arms of your seat."
Uh-oh. He didn't like that. If she ever told anyone that he was afraid of heights, he'd be laughed at from one end of America to the other. What in the world was he going to do about that?
One answer came immediately to mind as he studied her nice-girl pearls and pumps. It would be easy to compromise her integrity.
He launched his attack. "I have no idea what you're talking about. But why don't we just move to the really easy cuss words, like 'hell'? No one considers that a cuss word anymore. C'mon, girl, just say it once for me."
Sarah angled her chin up and something naughty ignited in her eyes. Tulane breathed a little easier. This might be fun.
"The hell I will," she said, and then her face turned beet red.
And just at that moment, a ray of sunshine came cascading through the window, lighting up her red hair like fire and making her look like a demonic angel. Tulane's pulse rate climbed, but for the moment it had nothing to do with his fear of flying.
Sarah kept counting way past twenty as she paced back and forth across the gray linoleum of the Columbia Metropolitan Airport's General Aviation Terminal. The heels of her not-so-sensible pumps clicked against the floor like a ticking time bomb. She pressed her cell phone to one ear while she kept one eye on that infuriating man.
Tulane Rhodes sprawled in an athletic fashion across several of the terminal's plastic seats. He'd squared the baseball cap on his head, and the brim shaded those come-hither eyes of his. He was clearly happier on the ground than in the air. She wondered how she might actually use that little tidbit of inside information to control him.
Like that was ever going to happen.
Steve Phelps's assistant came on the line and gave her the bad news: There had been a screwup, and their scheduled limousine pickup had been inadvertently canceled.
Sarah knew that this screwup had been intentional, on purpose, and fomented by Steve, so that Sarah would fail to get Tulane to his personal appearance on time.
Steve wanted her gone from National Brands as quickly as possible. This explained why Steve, who was in charge of the NASCAR program, had ordered her out of the research department and onto the corporate jet.
This assignment might be beyond Sarah's experience, but she was not going to fail. "Oh hell," she muttered as she ended the call with Steve's less-than-helpful assistant.
As if on cue, Tulane licked his long index finger and drew an imaginary chalk line in the air. "That was real nice, honey, but in situations like this you probably want to really let it fly, you know?" Tulane said from his relaxed position on the bench. "There's nothing like yelling the f-word right out loud when things get screwed up." He launched an impossibly sexy smile that didn't show any teeth. "Go on. Do it. It might be real fun."
He was right, of course, but she couldn't let her lips form that word or say it out loud. She hated herself for that inability. So many of her problems would be solved if she could learn how to be like Deidre or some of the other women at National Brands. Maybe if she were that sort of hard woman, she could hurry Tulane along to one of the rental car agencies. With the weather delay and Steve's apparent sabotage, they needed to rent a car, and fast.
Sarah took a deep, calming breath. She could manage this situation.
"Well," she said to the man draped over the bench, "if Mohammed won't go to the mountain, then I guess we'll have to get the mountain to move." She braced her hands on her hips.
"Am I Mohammed or the mountain?" he asked, tipping back the brim of his dirty baseball cap.
"The mountain. God knows you're big enough. Isn't there some kind of weight penalty for race teams with large drivers?"
"I'm just long, honey, but I don't weigh much. You stick around me, and you'll find that out, sooner or later."
The blood heated her cheeks, and that appeared to amuse him. No doubt, in grade school he'd been like Georgie Porgie, kissing all the girls and making them cry.
"If you're suggesting that you and I will become intimate, the chances of that ever happening in this lifetime are nonexistent."
Tulane clutched his chest. "Man, you are one coldhearted woman. Can't you see I'm trying my best to get on your good side? And trust me, honey, you got several real nice sides hiding under that man-tailored suit you're wearing."
"Mr. Rhodes, you"—she pointed her finger, even though it was appallingly rude—"are trying to get me in trouble. So just stop with the lewd remarks, salacious suggestions, and offers to impugn my integrity. Grab your bags and get the lead out. We've got to go rent a car."
"Wow, how many three-dollar words do you know? I'm impressed."
"Mr. Rhodes, time is flying, and if I don't get you to Orangeburg on schedule, I will get into trouble."
"Oh. Well. I don't want to get you into any trouble." He settled deeper into the chair.
She had to control her temper. She counted to ten and tried hard not to grind her teeth. "Please get your bags," she finally said quietly. "We don't have much time."
"You mean I have to get up?"
"Yes," she ground out.
"You mean I have to carry my own bags?"
"Didn't I just ask you to get your bags?" For goodness' sake, she sounded just like Mother. How awful.
"Well, hell," Tulane drawled, "what does National Brands pay you for, anyway? I thought an advance man was supposed to carry baggage, sort of like a Pullman porter. I thought an advance man was supposed to have all the details worked out."
"Are you suggesting that we've got a problem because I'm not a man, Mr. Rhodes?"
"I sure do wish you would call me Tulane. And no, we don't have a problem because you're a woman, but jeez, I have a reputation to maintain, you know, and you seem to be impervious to my many charms."
"Pick up your bags," Sarah said in a hard tone of voice that betrayed her fury. "We're heading for the rental car shuttle. And if I hear one more whine out of you, I'll call up USA Today and tell them lies about you." She turned on her heels and started walking away, her shoes making a lethal sound against the tile floor.
"What kind of lies?" he asked from behind.
"I'll tell them you're a sissy who's afraid of flying, enjoys wearing pink, and is ready to come out of the closet." She turned away before he could see the color rising to her cheeks. She felt a rush of satisfaction. Finally, she was acting the part of a tough businesswoman.
And her gambit worked. Tulane got up, picked up his duffel bag, and followed her out of the terminal.
"Please tell me that was a joke," he said as he caught up to her.
Well, wasn't that interesting? The man was actually worried about what people thought of him. Maybe she could control him, after all.
Thirty minutes later, Sarah knew that controlling Tulane was an impossibility. The man was incorrigible and immature.
And his chest was really ripped. She had watched him change his shirt and pants in the rearview mirror as she navigated a rented Camry onto the highway. He was now dressed in the official pink golf shirt bearing the logo for Cottontail Disposable Diapers.
"Honey, you can go faster," Tulane said as he leaned forward from the back seat and spoke directly into Sarah's ear. "I should have known you would drive like some kind of granny. Have you always been this uptight?"
A delicious flush of gooseflesh prickled her skin. "In case you haven't noticed, there is heavy traffic, and the speed limit is sixty," she said.
"Just because the speed limit says sixty doesn't mean you have to keep the speedometer right at that mark. No one goes the speed limit if they can help it. You can pass that truck."
He pointed over her shoulder. Sarah eyed the big eighteen-wheeler. "Not on the left, I can't. The traffic is slower in that lane."
"On the right, honey. Take the high side if they won't give you the low side."
"Never mind. Look, dig deep and punch the gas. It'll give you a thrill. And I have this notion that you need a few thrills in your life besides checking me out in the rearview mirror while I change clothes."
"I did no such thing, Mr. Rhodes," she said, and the blush gave away her lie.
He snorted. "Oh, yes, you most certainly did. I'm starting to think that hiding out under that black suit is a woman who'd like to live a little more dangerously. And I would be obliged if you'd call me Tulane."
"I have no wish to live dangerously, Tulane. I am a sensible woman." She said the words without much conviction. After all, hadn't she turned down the safe job in Boston for the marketing job in New York with National Brands? That had not been a sensible decision, as Mother had pointed out on many, many occasions. Mother was always right.
He leaned forward a little farther until his lips were mere millimeters from her ear. He smelled like sunshine and good 'ol boy—a heady and intoxicating mix that made her a little light-headed.
"Honey," he whispered, "we got a baby race to officiate. Either you pull over and let me drive, or you put this thing in gear and pass that truck. I know you can do it. Just think of that bull-riding daddy of yours and punch the gas and feel the thrill. C'mon, baby, do it. You know you want to."
Her right foot inched forward. The engine revved, and the Camry strained forward. She checked her rearview mirror, but Tulane preempted her by checking the lane to the right. "You're clear, honey," he said. She gritted her teeth and pulled out around the truck, passing on the right.
She flexed her hands on the wheel as the full force of the car's engine pressed her into the seat.
"Okay, now pull over to the left and get around that van," Tulane directed. She stopped thinking and did what he told her to do. She crossed three lanes of traffic and passed the van on the left, where the road was less congested, her focus fixed on the road before her.
"God, this is fun," she whispered.
"All right, y'all, are you ready?" Tulane said into the microphone. He stood on the sweltering blacktop of the Value Mart in Orangeburg, South Carolina, while he strolled down a line of makeshift baby-changing tables that had been set up under a tent.
Someone in New York had to have their head examined. This was pitiful and embarrassing. He stared down the lane of changing tables manned mostly by women. This was also a symptom of something seriously wrong with his sport and his country. The corporations were taking over. They were trying to tame the good ol' boys. They were trying to appeal to women.
At least there was one guy competing. Tulane strolled over to him and sniffed his baby daughter. Ewwweee, that kid was ripe. Tulane shook his head and leaned in to the young man. "Son, I'd say your young 'un needs more than a new set of tires. I'd say she needs a major rear-end adjustment there, if you catch my drift. You sure you're up to this?"
The young man nodded. "I'm not about to let a bunch of women show me up," he said.
Me neither. Tulane nodded and grinned. "You show 'em, you hear?"
Tulane turned back to the lineup of contestants. "All right, ya'll, listen up." The contestants assumed positions of readiness as he waved a green flag over his head. He felt like an idiot.
- "Witty, touching, and absolutely delightful - this story has heart!"—JoAnn Ross, New York Times bestselling author of The Homecoming on Welcome to Last Chance
- "Welcome to Last Chance is an impressive start to a charming new series, featuring quirky characters you won't soon forget."—Barbara Freethy, USA Today bestselling author of At Hidden Falls
- "Last Chance, South Carolina, is a caring community filled with the promise of hope. Come for a visit!"—Lori Wilde, USA Today bestselling author of The Welcome Home Garden Club
- "Full of small town charm and southern heat, Welcome to Last Chance is humorous, heartwarming and sexy. I couldn't put it down!"—Robin Wells, author of Still the One
- "Hope Ramsay delivers with this sweet and sassy story of small town love, friendship, and the ties that bind."—Lisa Dale, author of Simple Wishes on Welcome to Last Chance
- On Sale
- Sep 1, 2011
- Page Count
- 352 pages