“Tonight’s the night! Watch Q-6 as we follow our Valentine’s Day couple on their big date. Stay tuned for romance on your news station.” Leah clicked off the TV at the end of the promo spot, her heart pounding with a heady combination of anticipation and sheer terror. Tonight was the night, and in a matter of minutes, Officer James Rourk would be arriving to whisk her off for a night of magic and memories … to quote an earlier spot. The reporter who was covering the story for Q-6 smiled at her. “Now remember, we want you to have a good time tonight. Just relax and forget we’re even there.”
Leah blinked at the blinding light from the camera. “Yeah, right,” she said, doing her best to remain cooperative. The reporter and cameraman seemed as eager as proud parents with a new camcorder to record every detail of the dream date. Which, though it hadn’t even started yet, was beginning to feel more like a nightmare.
The knock at the door put an end to her fretting. She hurried to answer it, the reporter and cameraman in hot pursuit. She opened the door, the polite smile she’d pinned to her lips disappearing at the sight of the man standing on her doorstep.
He was taller than she remembered, and devastatingly handsome in a tuxedo. The midnight-blue of the jacket brought out the color of his eyes, while the shirt’s pleated front emphasized the width of his chest, making him look more masculine and appealing than ever.
If he was offended by her staring at him, he gave no indication, but offered her a slow smile along with a single red rose. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
His low voice calmed her. All too aware of the camera’s presence, she accepted the flower. “Thank you,” she said, wondering if she should kiss him or something. “Uh … would you like to come in?”
James glanced at the reporter and cameraman, his eyebrow lifting derisively. “No thanks,” he said, thinking there was only so far he was willing to go, even for charity. “Are you ready to leave?”
Leah retrieved her coat and they hurried out front where a stretch limo and more reporters were waiting. Less than 20 minutes later they were downtown at the Ridpath Hotel, riding the elevator to the rooftop Ankeny’s restaurant that viewers of the TV station had picked as the most romantic spot in Spokane.
“Is this your first time here?” he asked, his hand resting on the small of her back as the hostess escorted them to a table overlooking the lights of the city.
“No, I was here a few months ago,” she answered, doing her best to ignore the camera. “How about you?”
“Let’s hold off on the getacquainted chatter,” the reporter interrupted, her smile as perky as ever. “We’ll want some footage of you ordering, and it would really help, officer, if you could think of something flirty to say to Miss Conroy.”
James gave a mute nod, his face hurting from the effort to keep smiling. This is for the kids, he told himself, noting the look of pained embarrassment in Leah’s dark brown eyes. Knowing she was as uncomfortable with this three-ring circus as he was helped, and for the first time since putting on the rented tuxedo, he relaxed. Maybe tonight wouldn’t be the disaster he’d been anticipating, he thought, feeling a surge of optimism. After all, how bad could it get?
If there was a purgatory, she was in it, Leah thought, following the reporter’s instructions and pretending to laugh at one of James’ remarks. She was an intensely private person, and she could feel the weight of every pair of eyes resting on her as she struggled to swallow her Chicken Marsala.
And it wasn’t just the other people in the restaurant she had to worry about. The reporter had said thousands of people were expected to tune in, and that knowledge killed any enjoyment she might have otherwise found in James Rourk’s company.
The torture continued through the meal, and into the lounge where the cameraman shot film of them dancing together. Finally, much to Leah’s great relief, they were in the limo and on the way back to her home.
“I’m glad you convinced the news crew to let us ride home alone,” she said, giving James a grateful look. “How’d you do it?”
“I told them if they didn’t back off and give us some privacy, I’d tell the limo driver to take us up to Rimrock, and we’d give the late news some sizzle they’d never forget.” James closed his eyes and leaned back against the plush seat.
Her shocked gasp had him opening an eye. “Relax,” he drawled, turning his head to look out the window. “I was only kidding, but it worked. What more could you want?”
Plenty, Leah thought, but was too tired to debate the matter. The date from hell was almost at an end, and she felt the least she owed her escort was a word of thanks. She was well aware the evening would have been far worse had it not been for him. She drew a deep breath.
“Officer Rourk, I’d like to thank-” “Stop the car!” James interrupted, pounding on the partition that separated the back seat from the driver. “Stop now!”
Leah shook her head in confusion. She’d had some dates end badly, but she’d never had a man bail out of a moving car just to escape her.
“Call 911,” he instructed, already pushing his door open as the car jerked to a stop. “Tell them there’s a robbery in progress at the convenience store at Third and Maple, and that an officer requests back-up.” And then he was gone, leaving Leah gaping after him in dismay.
MEMO: Tuesday: The day after. See the author’s profile under the headline “Slow start did not discourage ‘regency’ writer.”
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