Read an Excerpt
Dr. Luke Phillips leaned his big silver Harley into the curve, racing the wind, and sometimes winning. It was the only pleasure he allowed himself.
He'd left the interstate behind somewhere south of Flagstaff, Arizona, preferring the solitude of this twolane road to nowhere. Flowering cacti, the brutal sun and red rock kept him company. Dry red dust peppered his face and arms. He tasted its grit.
At the moment he'd sell his soul for the sight of a shade tree-or what passed for shade in this part of the country. Not that his soul was worth a whole hell of a lot these days.
He'd left who and what he was behind in Chicago forever.
Then a short distance ahead he spotted a small sliver of shade produced by one scrawny pine tree. He coasted the bike to a stop at the side of the road and dismounted.
Soon he'd have to consider traveling at night and sleeping by day. The afternoon sun could be relentless, even dangerous to the uninitiated. And he supposed he was that, despite the deep tan the last thousand miles or so had given him.
He sprinted across the dry bed of an arroyo and scaled the rocky mesa, intent on reaching that shade tree. A twenty-minute power nap and he'd be as good as new.
But a short distance from the tree he paused, finding the scenery had just improved-in the form of one very feminine, denim-clad fanny raised to the sky. The woman was leaning out over the edge of the rocky ledge, reaching for something a distant grasp away, oblivious to his approach behind her.
He wondered if the view from the front was half as intriguing. His gaze remained riveted on her, his breath caught halfway to his lungs as she leaned out farther over the lip ofthe rock.
One stiff breeze could send her over the side.
He stood stock-still, not wanting to startle her into taking a misguided plunge. He didn't mean to gape, but since any sudden movement could bring on disaster, what else did he have to do with his time?
Time-he had plenty of that.
The entire remainder of his life, in fact. He wasn't going back to Chicago. There was nothing there for him anymore. The medical center and trauma unit would do well without him. They had good doctors, the best.
Luke should know.
He'd been one of them himself-until two months ago.
A knot formed in his throat, but he fought it down, fought down the damning memories, as well. Life went on. It just went on without him now.
But that was the way Luke wanted it.
He didn't know how many miles he'd ridden, how many highways he'd taken. All he knew was that not one of them had brought him the solace he desired, the amnesia for his soul.
The unrelenting sun beat down, making him eager for that quick siesta in the shade, but he didn't dare move until the woman with the provocative fanny quit her trapeze act and righted herself. Besides, did he want to miss that first glimpse of her when she got up from her knees and turned around?
He wondered if her eyes were brown and earthy. Or maybe the azure-blue of the Arizona sky overhead. He imagined high cheekbones caressed by the sun, lips that curved gracefully into a smile, or maybe a feminine pout.
Just then she inched back from the mesa's precarious edge and stood up. Her hair was dark and silken and tumbled over one shoulder in a long, loose braid. In her right hand she held a plant, its roots dangling with red soil and rock, small reddish blossoms sprouting in profusion, protected by pale, spiny leaves.
"You risked your life for a damned flower?"
She spun around to face him.
He'd been wrong. Her eyes were green-and at the moment, wide with surprise at the sight of a stranger in front of her.
She obviously hadn't expected to find company out here in the middle of solitude. She drew the flower closer to her body, clutching it as if she expected he might snatch it from her.
Her frame was slight, her legs long and straight, the kind of legs that could make any red-blooded male dream of them wrapped around him during a night of hot passion.
His hands could span her tiny waist and cup the modest fullness of her high, firm breasts. The sun had given color to the tip of her nose, and a smudge of red dirt decorated the tip of her fighting chin. She nervously moistened her full, lower lip and eyed him warily.
"I didn't mean to startle you," he said gently. He didn't want her to bolt like a frightened deer. He'd be happy to go on looking at her until this time tomorrow.
Or a month from tomorrow.
One thing he was certain of, they didn't grow women this earthy back in Chicago. Maybe it was something in the water.
Or the red dust.
She seemed to be one with the land, comfortable with it, mistress of it, and he found he liked that.
She took his measure, too, assessing his strong-built body, the width of his square shoulders, then glanced quickly in the direction he'd come, spotting the big Harley he'd left by the side of the road.
"I stopped to find some shade," he explained, not entirely sure why he was doing so.
Her eyes darted back to him, roaming over his windburned face, settling finally on his mouth curved in a crooked half smile he hoped passed for friendly and nonthreatening.
It seemed to.
She gave a soft, returning smile. "There's not much shade around here. You have to find it where you can."
Her voice was low, soft, innocent-and it did dangerous things to his libido.
Luke didn't reply, only continued to watch her with steady deliberation, taking in her earthy beauty, her quiet ways-and liking what he saw.
Just then she reached for the brightly woven basket at her feet and dropped the flower into it, a basket he noticed contained other plants and what looked like a jumble of old roots and bark.
"I-I should go," she said finally. "Goodbye. Enjoy your shade."
She glanced up, and her gaze locked with his, one feminine brow raised questioningly.
He didn't want her to leave, disappearing from his life as if she'd been nothing more than a mirage in the desert. "You didn't answer my question-what's so special about a flower you have to lean out over the edge to dig up?"
She glanced down at the basket she held and toyed with a delicate bloom. "It's not really a flower. It's wild germander, an herb-and rare in this part of the high country."
"And rare makes it special enough to risk falling off the side of a mesa?"
He thought he saw a shadow of pain cross her delicate features. Luke knew about pain, both personally and professionally, knew how it ate at a man's soul.
She pinched off a blossom and raised it to her nose, sniffing its scent. "It's special for its-medicinal value," she said, then her chin rose. "I really do have to go."
She took a step, but again Luke stopped her. "What's your name?"
She hesitated as if trying to decide if it were proper to introduce herself to a man she met on a mesa in the middle of nowhere. After a moment trust won out. She gave him a slight smile. "Mariah," she said.
"Mariah." He repeated it after her, liking its lilt, its music. It would slide easily off a man's tongue during a night of lovemaking. "I'm Luke," he offered. "Luke Phillips."
He deliberately didn't mention the doctor part. He wasn't sure he could claim the right-or that he wanted to. All his finely honed skills had failed him the one night they had mattered the most.
Now they were of no use to him. "Hello, Luke Phillips," she answered. There was a slight hesitancy to her soft voice, something he could understand, given the circumstances.
But there was something quiet, serene, about her. Something that gave him peace somehow. Was it a part of who she was? Or something she had perfected? Whichever, he liked that about her-and wished he could find some for himself.
"Tell me about its medicinal value, this-this wild germander."
Mariah Cade studied the man in front of her. She wasn't afraid of him-though she had been at first. Just a little. Or maybe she'd just been surprised at seeing him. She seldom ran across another living soul when she was out gathering her herbs.
It was her quiet time-time to take stock of her life, perhaps wish things could be different, better. Better for Callie. She'd do anything to find the right herbs for her daughter, whether they grew on the side of a mesa or the far side of the moon.
She considered how best to answer the man, whose very shadow dwarfed her with its size. He had shoulders as wide as a mountain, a broad, densely muscled chest, lean hips and a strength, a potent masculinity that emanated from him like shimmers of heat off the desert plain.
His face commanded a woman's attention, with its strong Nordic features that hinted at a ruthless Viking or two in his ancestry-steel-blue eyes, a straight proud nose, square chin and a mane of brown hair, tipped blond by the sun. His skin, too, showed the kiss of sunshine, his body glistening like gold dust.
"It's an herb with many uses," she said, not sure she wanted to reveal more to this stranger. Perhaps she was protecting Callie, perhaps herself.
She hadn't missed the smile that had played at the edges of his mouth, a smile that played there now, as if he might be mocking her and her simplistic ways.
She ran a finger down a long entwined root, secure in her knowledge that this would help Callie, which was the important thing. The only thing, she thought as her daughter's bright smile flickered through her mind.
Callie was her life, had been from the moment she'd been conceived. They were bound together as tightly as two people could be. "Plants can cure," she said, her voice low and wispy.
"And sometimes they bring peace and calm."