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Would it be her?
The closed red door taunted Luke Montgomery. Told him that after nearly ten years searching, the likelihood of Julie Smith actually being Daisy Buckhorn, welcoming him into her home, was nil.
Sleek and sophisticated, the San Francisco building filled with pricey lofts had been a challenge just to enter. Assuming the uniformed doorman wouldn't like unannounced guests, Luke had waited for a distraction before slipping into the stairwell. Four flights later and here he stood, palms sweating just as they had on prom night too many years ago.
Damn Dallas Buckhorn for asking him to perform this task for the family. Dallas hadn't wanted to upset his mother with what could be another fruitless lead. And Luke couldn't say no to his best friend.
Forcing a breath, Luke rapped on the cool, enameled surface, willing his pulse to slow.
Regardless of who answered, he had nothing at stake.
Even if by miracle Daisy did greet him with a warm smile, for what she'd donevanishing with nothing more than a cryptic notehe'd long since stopped worrying for her safety, raging at her audacity or crying over his pain. Indifference had become second nature to Luke.
He raised his hand to knock again when the door opened, and there she stood. Ten years older. Steal-your-breath gorgeous. Expression morphing from shock to pleasure to fear, she visibly trembled. Her green eyes pooled with tears. She clutched her white robe tight at the throat. "Oh, my God Luke?"
"Surprise," he said in a deadpan tone.
In typical Daisy defiance, she raised her chin.
"Do you have any idea what your abrupt exit did to your mom and brothers?"
"They're all fine," she argued. "The web makes it easy enough to check in."
"Then why haven't youchecked in? For pity's sake, Daisy, you couldn't even be bothered to attend your own father's funeral?"
"Could we please not do this here?" she asked, her gaze darting up and down the empty hall.
"Is that an invitation?"
"Take it how you want." She left him standing in the doorway in favor of curling up on a white sectional, tugging a red blanket over her legs. On a chrome-and-glass coffee table were a half-dozen wadded tissues, an empty carton of orange sherbet and a pile of manila folders.
Closing the door behind him, Luke cautiously, almost reverently, entered her space. The soaring ceiling allowed for massive windows overlooking a Golden Gate view. Cherry floors warmed otherwise stark furnishings. Alongside a plasma-screen TV stood an Xbox 360 and a haphazard pile of games he wouldn't have guessed her to be playing. "You've done well for yourself."
She shrugged. "Most days I'd agree."
"And others?" He sat in a white leather armchair opposite her.
"Regardless of what you might think, I" She sneezed. "Bless you."
Shoulders sagging, for a split second she showed vulnerability. "Thanks."
"You all right?" Leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees, he noted her flushed complexion.
Nodding, she said, "It's just a cold. I should be at work, but my boss sent me home."
"Greedy," she said with a wry smile. "We've got a killer court date approaching and Barb wants me in top form."
Hands clasped, he nodded. "Understandable." He cut the awkward silence by asking what was foremost on his mindaside from why she'd ever left. "So By power of deduction, I'm guessing you're an attorney and the pristine state of this place tells me no kids. How about a husband?"
"Right on all counts."
Why, he couldn't say, but Daisy's answer left Luke shaky with relief. There would never be another chance for them, but in the same respect, the teenage boy in him didn't want her with anyone else.
She asked, "You still horse-whispering?" He nodded.
Muted traffic noise from five stories below filled a vacuum of discomfort. "Look." she said. "Look." he said.
After sharing nervous laughs, Luke said, "Ladies first."
She forced a breath, which led to a coughing fit. "Still like tea with honey?"
Coughing, she nodded. "But I've spent so much time at work, I don't have either."
"Figures," he said under his breath, already headed for the door. "Stay put, Julie Smith. I'll be right back."
Once Luke left the loft, every bone in Daisy's body screamed for her to run, but the sad truth was that she lacked the energyphysically, but most especially, emotionally. Ten years' hiding had taken a toll. With Kolt safely at day camp, and then soccer and then sharing dinner with his best friend, now seemed as good a time as any to deal with the truth. At least part of it.
The entirety, Daisy feared, she might never be ready to tackle. Which was why for now, she gathered a few of her son's stray adventure books, action figures and clothes, placing them in his room, before closing his bedroom door.
She showered then dressed in black yoga pants and a green T-shirt from her law firm's softball team. She blew-dry her long hair. All of the actions were ordinary enough, yet her limbs felt heavy and drugged. Beyond cold symptoms, secrets that had haunted her for far too long clung to her shoulders. On how many New Year's Eves had she promised herself to face her fears? To once and for all not only reunite with her family, but tell the uncensored truth of why she'd left.
Outside, July fog had settled over the usually expansive view, cocooning her in a false sense of security. Of all of the people who'd come in and out of her life, Luke had meant the most. He'd been hardest to leave and stood to be hurt most by her revelations.
While she stood staring out at the grayness, the loft door opened behind her. Luke had long ago imprinted himself upon her soul. So much so that even now, she knew the strong cadence of his walk without turning around.
"I grabbed Popsicles, tea, honey, lemons and chicken-soup fixings. Park your behind on the sofa and I'll get down to the business of nursing you."
"Why are you doing this?" Facing him, she rubbed her hands up her bare arms to ward off a sudden chill. "I know I hurt youdeeplyyet there you stand, loading my freezer with treats and acting as if you don't have a million questions."
"First, fixing is what I do for a living. Second, I figure when you're ready, you'll talk. Until then" he rummaged beneath her kitchen island, found a saucepan then filled it with water "might as well give myself something to do."
For as long as she could remember, Daisy had wanted to escape her hometown of Weed Gulch, Oklahoma.
Luke, however, loved nothing more than the solace of wind-swayed prairie grasses. When she'd known him, he'd been more comfortable in the company of horses and dogs than people. Was he still the same?
"Thank you. For the groceries, I mean. And cooking."
"Sure." He lit the gas burner beneath her tea water.
Sitting on a stool at the granite bar, she asked, "How did you find me?"
"Didn't." He took a mug from the cabinet alongside the sink. "Your mom's had a P.I. on retainer ever since you left. When your dad died, she put the matter in Dallas's hands. Most leads he handles, but this one, he didn't have time for. Asked me to handle it."
It. As if all she'd become to her family was an imposition. An obligation they felt honor-bound to see through. Could she blame them? As an eighteen-year-old with the entirety of her trust fund at her disposal, the only thing that'd mattered was getting the hell out of Dodge with her sanity intact. In retrospect, maybe she should've done things differently. What was that old saying?
If foresight was as good as hindsight, we'd be better off by a damned sight.
Daisy looked up to find Luke bearing a fragrant cup of tea. She took a cautious sip of the steaming brew, relishing the soothing honey on her raw throat. "Delicious. I can't remember the last time I've had this."
Leaning against the counter, crossing his jeans-clad legs at the ankles, he snorted. "Used to be you never slowed long enough to be trusted with hot liquids. I remember you as a wild thing. Driven by some unseen force I never understood." True.
Extensive counseling had long since quieted internal screams. But what happened now? She'd lived under the assumption that she'd never again need to deal with the devil. She missed her mother. Her brothers. But once they heard the truth of why she'd left, would they even want to see her? Or would they blame her for what that monster had done?
"Not gonna lie," Luke said, starting on the soup by filling a Dutch oven with water. "Dallas is expecting my call. I'm supposed to tell him you're found. If you'd like, I can also tell him you'd prefer to remain lost."
"Is that what I am to you?" Wrapping cold fingers around the warm mug, she searched for the right way to explain that only after she'd left Weed Gulch had she felt even a fraction of sanity. "Just some lost soul, wandering? Looking for a home? Because if that is what you think, you're wrong. I've clawed my way out of hell to forge a great life, and"
"Cut the theatrics. Buckhorn Ranch has every conceivable luxury. I'd hardly equate it with hell."
Shifting on the stool, she snapped, "That's because you don't know what I went through."
"So tell me. What are we talking? A few adolescent fights with your mom? Having to do chores? Homework?" Removing the whole chicken from the package, he rinsed it under running water. "Wish I could say I feel sorry for you, but nothing justifies the pain you've caused your family for the past ten years. Nothing."
He'd commandeered her cutting board and a knife. If he chopped any harder on the carrots for the soup, he'd slice through the counter.
Forcing a breath, she hopped off the stool, rounding the bar to pause alongside him, placing her hand over his. Ignoring the instant jolt of awareness that after all those years was apparently alive and well, she said, "Please stop."
"I can't. I'm so freakin' pissed." Chop, chop, chop. "Putting aside the hurt you caused your mom, what about me, Daisy? Do you have any idea how many nights I stared at my ceiling? Wondering if you were even aliveand if so, what horrible things might've happened to you?"
Throat aching from the effort of holding back tears, she managed to whisper, "That's what I need to explain." She cleared her throat. "What youno one understands is that right there in the supposed safety of my home, I lived out the sometimes daily nightmare of those things. The kinds of issues no one wants to talk about, or if they do, it's only in shocked whispers."
Putting down the knife to face her, he said, "You're scaring me. What the hell happened that was so bad you couldn't even share the burden with me?"
"I was" Her mouth went dry as summer sun-scorched Buckhorn Ranch land. She tried speaking, but the words wouldn't come. She'd told her therapist about it. Her boss and best friend, Barb. Even a few of her old sorority sisters knew. So why couldn't she tell the one man she'd ever truly loved?
Pulse racing, she struggled past waves of fear.
Ten years later, Daisy still deeply cared what Luke thought of her. It didn't matter that Julie Smith had been named one of San Francisco's top ten young attorneys. Julie having graduated with honors didn't do a thing for Daisy, either. Julie owned this fabulous loft. Julie lived a charmed life. Julie was an amazing mother to her son. Poor little Daisy Buckhorn had been gone for a long, long time and that was just the way Julie liked it.
Abandoning his busywork, Luke locked his gaze with hers before taking her by the hand, guiding her toward the couch.
"You're burning up with fever," he noted once they'd both sat down. "From just touching your hand it's easy enough to tell. As soon as you spill this apparent deep, dark secret, I want you to take a couple of ibuprofen and go to bed."
Repositioning, he winced before pulling an action figure out from beneath him. Holding it up for inspection, he asked, "Closet toy fanatic?" His stab at lightening the mood proved an epic failure. Tears stung her eyes again.
Squeezing her fingers, he urged, "Come on. There's not a thing you could tell me I won't be able to handle."
Daisy longed for Luke's reaction to her secret to be swift and wholly in her favor. She wanted outrage to send him jumping up from the sofa to return to Weed Gulch that second to beat the old coot black and blue. That's what she wanted, but since no words escaped her tight throat, she, instead, sat ramrod-straight, deathly still save for clenching her hands.
"Well?" he urged. "Now's as good a time as any to say somethinganythingto convince me you had a plausible reason to almost destroy every soul who's ever loved you."
Tears fell, but though her cheeks were damp, her dry mouth refused to speak.
"I don't owe you squat, but unlike you, I'm going to at least have the decency to tell you up front that all the tears in the world aren't going to change my mind. Putting my feelings aside, your leaving damn near killed your mother. Who knows, maybe it even contributed to your daddy's death. You've got a lot of nerve"
"Stop!" Not knowing what she'd survived, he had no right to make such hurtful claims. Taking a tissue from the coffee table to dab her eyes and cheeks, she summoned the same strength that'd gotten her this far and pointed toward the door. "Get out. Report to Dallas I'm alive and well and thank him for his concern, but no matter how much I miss all of my family and friends, I'm never going back."
His jaw hard, Luke stood. The cold stare he leveled at her chilled her to her core.
Tell him! her conscience screamed.
Tell him how everyone's favorite ranch hand, the kind and lovable family friend, Henry Pohl, had molested her nine ways to Sunday. Don't leave out the parts where he'd threatened to kill her family if she told, or how the abuse had been a daily occurrence until she'd been strong enough to fight him off physically.