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Fire And Rain
By Elizabeth Lowell
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat in hell am I doing here?
Luke looked in the mirror, swiped a last bit of axle grease off his chin and had no fast answers for his silent question. In fact, he had no answer at all as to why he had stayed on at Cash McQueen's apartment knowing that Carla McQueen was coming to dinner.
It wasn't unusual for Luke to drive the long miles between his ranch in Four Corners country and the city of Boulder in order to visit his friend Cash. It wasn't unusual for the two of them to take on some kind of repair work on Cash's balky Jeep. It wasn't unusual for the two of them to split a pizza and a six-pack afterward and catch up on mutual news.
It was damned unusual that Carla would appear in the same room with Luke MacKenzie.
Is that why Cash dodged my question about who Carla is dating? Luke asked his reflection in the mirror. Did she finally get over me and say yes to some nice city boy? And what business is it of mine if she did?
Even as he tried to tell himself that it was only natural that he have a big-brotherly concern for the little sister of his best friend, Luke knew that was only part of the truth. The rest of the truth was a steel spur digging into his self-esteem: three years ago he had wanted Carla so badly that he had sent her running for her life from the Rocking M.
With an effort, Luke forced aside the image of Carla's wide blue-green eyes and trembling lips and the soft heat of her body flowing over his. That image had come to too many of his dreams, waking or sleeping. But that wasn't what he wanted from her. It sure as hell wasn't what he would take from her. What he wanted, all he would accept, was a return to the days when they had shared the kind of companionship Luke hadn't known was possible with a woman.
It's been three years. Surely Carla's forgotten the whole thing by now. Surely she and Cash and I can be an almost family again, the way we used to be.
God, I've missed the sound of her laughter and the way her smile used to light up the whole house.
"Hey, Luke, are you taking root in there?"
"I'm still trying to get your Jeep out from under my fingernails," Luke retorted to Cash. "You ought to trade that damn thing for a dog and shoot the dog."
The bathroom door opened. Cash's big body filled the frame with little left over.
"Give me your shirt," Cash said.
"The Jeep drooled all down your spine."
Luke made a sound of disgust that Cash didn't take seriously. But then, neither did Luke.
"The things I do for you," Luke muttered.
With quick, deft movements he rinsed his hands, stripped off the black shirt and fired it at Cash's head. Another shirt came flying back at the same speed. Luke pulled it on with a small smile; the shirt fit as well as one of his own. Cash was the only man Luke knew whose clothes he could wear without feeling as though he were in a straitjacket.
"Much better," Cash said. "Can't have you looking like something the cat dragged in and didn't eat. What would Carla think?"
"She's seen me looking worse."
"Not on her twenty-first birthday. Hurry up. I can't decorate cake worth a damn."
"What makes you think I can?"
Grinning, Luke tucked in the shirt and followed Cash to the kitchen, feeling very much at home. In many ways Carla and Cash were as close to a real family as Luke had ever come. His mother, like his grandmother and great-grandmother before her, had hated the Rocking M. Even worse, his mother had feared the land and the wind as though they were alive and hunting her. Finally she had had a nervous breakdown. Her parents had swept in from the East Coast, picked up the pieces of their daughter and removed her from the Rocking M. They had also taken Luke's seven-year-old sister, whom he loved as he hadn't permitted himself to love anything since. Neither mother nor sister had ever been heard from since that day.
At thirteen, Luke had been left alone with a silent, hard-drinking father and a ranch whose demands were as endless as the land itself was beautiful. At nineteen he had inherited the Rocking M. At twenty he had hired Cash to do a resources survey of the ranch. Six months later Cash had shown up for the summer with his half sister, a sad-eyed waif whose attempts at smiles had broken Luke's heart. Perhaps it was the memory of his own little sister, perhaps it was Carla's haunting eyes, perhaps it was only his own need to protect and care for something more gentle than himself. Whatever the reason, Carla had slipped past defenses Luke didn't even know he had.
One day while riding a distant corner of the ranch, he had found a shard of ancient Anasazi pottery in September Canyon. He had given the piece of the past to Carla, trying to tell her that nothing is lost forever, that everyone is part of what came before and what will come after. Somehow she had understood all that he couldn't find words for, and she had cried for the first time since her parents had died. He had held her, feeling her trust as she gave herself to his strength and wept until she couldn't lift her head. And as he held her, he felt as though he himself were crying for all that he had lost when he had been about Carla's age.
"Yo, Luke," Cash said, snapping his fingers in front of the other man's whiskey-colored eyes.
Luke grunted. "Where's the cake?"
"I was afraid you were going to say that." Luke sighed as he looked at a lopsided chocolate heap that was charred on the sides and sticky in the middle.
"Hope you made a bucket of icing."
"It's in the sink."
Excerpted from Fire And Rain by Elizabeth Lowell Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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