Carly Barnett’s lifelong dream was to be a journalist — tracking down leads, interviewing important people, making a difference. A job offer at Portland’s Oregonian Times seemed like an ideal place to start, until she learned exactly what she’d be doing. Writing an advice column for lonely hearts wasn’t quite what she’d envisioned, but it was a beginning.
Mark Holbrook did nothing to disguise his disdain for the new staff reporter — if you could call Carly’s column “reporting.” Still, he couldn’t deny his attraction to her. But that didn’t mean he’d take her advice — not even if she held the key to his own lonely heart.
He was a legend, and he was sitting right across the aisle from Carly Barnett. She wondered if she should speak to him and immediately began rehearsing possible scenarios in her mind.
First, she’d sort of bend toward him, then she’d lightly touch his arm. “Excuse me,” she would say, “but I’ve been following your career since high school and I just wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your work. It’s partly because of you that I decided to become a journalist.”
Too sappy, she concluded.
She could always look with dismay at the dinner on her fold-down tray and utter, “I beg your pardon, but would you happen to have any Grey Poupon?”
That idea wasn’t exactly spectacular, either. Carly hoped she’d be more imaginative once she was working at her new job with Portland’s Oregonian Times.
Covertly she studied Mark Holbrook as he wrote furiously on a yellow legal pad with his left hand, while ignoring the food the flight attendant had served earlier. He was tall, and younger than Carly would have expected, considering all his accomplishments — he was probably around thirty-two or thirty-three. He had nice brown hair and could have used a shave. Once he glanced at her, revealing expressive brown eyes, but he didn’t seem to see Carly at all. He was thinking.
Carly was deflated. After all, she’d been in the limelight herself, though in a very different way from Mr. Holbrook, and men usually noticed her.
She cleared her throat, and instantly his choirboy eyes focused on her.
“Hello,” he said with a megawatt smile that made the pit of Carly’s stomach jiggle.
She, who was used to being asked things like what she would do if she could run the world for a day, came up with nothing more impressive than, “”Hi. Don’t you like the food?”"
His eyes danced as he lifted the hard roll from his tray and took a deliberate bite.
Carly blushed slightly and thought to herself, Why didn’t I just lean across the aisle and cut his meat for him?
He had the temerity to laugh at her expression, and that brought the focus of her blue-green eyes back to his face. He was extending his hand. “Mark Holbrook,” he said cordially.
Carly had been schooled in deportment all her life, and she couldn’t overlook an offered hand. She shook it politely, a little stiffly, and said, “Carly Barnett.”
He was squinting at her. “You look sort of familiar. Are you an actress or something?”
Carly relaxed a bit. If she was going to recoil every time someone did something outrageous, she wouldn’t last long in the newspaper business. She gave him the smile that had stood her in such good stead during the pageant and afterward. “I was Miss United States four years ago.”
“That isn’t it,” Holbrook replied, dismissing the achievement so briskly that Carly was a little injured. “Have you been in a shaving-cream commercial or something?”
“I don’t shave, as a general rule,” Carly replied sweetly.
Holbrook chuckled, and it was a nice sound, masculine and easy. “So,” he said, “you’re a beauty queen.”
Carly’s smile faded, and she tossed her head in annoyance, making her chin-length blond curls bounce. “”I’m a reporter,”" she corrected him coolly. “Or at least I will be, as of Monday morning.”
He nodded. “On TV, of course.”
Carly heartily resented the inference that any job she might land would have to hinge on her looks. After all, she’d graduated from college with honors back in Kansas, and she’d even written a weekly column for her hometown newspaper. It wasn’t as though she didn’t have qualifications. “No,” she answered. “I’ve been hired by the Oregonian Times.“
Mr. Holbrook’s eyes were still dancing, even though his mouth had settled into a circumspect line. “I see. Well, that’s one of the best newspapers on the West Coast.”
“I know,” Carly informed him. “I understand it’s a rival to your paper.” The instant the words were out of her mouth, she regretted letting on that she knew who he was, but it was too late, so she just sat there, trying to look remote.
Holbrook’s grin flashed again. “You’re behind on your homework, Ms. Barnett,” he informed her. “I went to work for the Times two years ago.”
They’d be working together, if only for the same paper. While Carly was absorbing that discovery, the flight attendant came and collected their trays, and then they were separated by the beverage cart. When it rolled on by, Carly saw that Mr. Holbrook had an amber-colored drink in one hand.
She felt slightly superior with her tomato juice, but the sensation lasted only until she remembered that Holbrook had a Pulitzer to his credit, that he’d interviewed presidents and kings and some of the greatest movie stars who’d ever graced the silver screen. Because she held him in such high esteem, she was willing to allow for his arrogance.
He’d forgotten all about her, anyway. Now that his dinner tray was out of the way, he was writing on the yellow legal pad in earnest.
The plane began its descent into Portland soon after, and Carly obediently put her tray into the upright position and fastened her seat belt. She was nervous about flying in general and taking off and landing in particular, and she gripped the armrests so tightly that her knuckles ached. Even though she’d flown a lot, Carly had never gotten used to it, and she doubted that she ever would.
When the plane touched down and then bumped and jostled along the runway, moving at a furious pace, Carly closed her eyes tightly and awaited death.
“It’s going to be okay,” she heard a voice say, and she was startled into opening her eyes again.
Mark Holbrook was watching her with gentle amusement, and he reached across the aisle to grip her hand.