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Three things occurred to Catherine Harris as she jerked out of a dead sleep.
One, she was stark naked in Luke Van Buren's bed.
Two, he was about to enter his bedroom.
Three, he wasn't alone. A woman's throaty laughter mingled with Luke's deep baritone in the hallway.
Luke wasn't supposed to be back in San Francisco for a couple more days. Catherine tried not to panic. Suddenly years of planning didn't seem like nearly enough time.
She leaned up on one elbow, squinted into the darkness and remembered she'd thrown her bra over the clock to block the red LCD light. Catherine flopped back on the pillow, several options, none of them viable, flashed through her sleep-fogged brain. Hiding under the bed while bedsprings bounced was too hideous to contemplate. As was the picture of the fire department rescuing her from the ledge outside Luke's bedroom window, twenty-two stories above the street.
She heard a soft thud. A shoe? The sound of her own rapid pulse did nothing to block out the next thump. The swish of clothing. An impatient sigh. A hungry kiss pressed to bare flesh. Framed in the open doorway, barely discernable, was Luke's white shirt, which the woman's hands were rapidly removing. Catherine saw it flutter to the carpet. Heard a click.
Oh, God. His belt buckle?
"Speak up, Catherine," she whispered.
There was the distinct rasp of a zipper.
The sound of a juicy kiss.
"Oh, Luke!" The woman giggled. Then there was more rustling, more heated murmurs, breathy sighs. Catherine's cheeks flamed, blood pounding in her ears. Anticipating the fireworks to come, she felt hysterical laughter bubbling up in her throat.
"Make love to me, Luke. Oh, yes I adore when you touch me yes. Mmm. Oh, yes."
Oh, no. Catherine tried to slither out of the way before the woman flopped onto the bed. Too late.
The weight of two full-grown adults squashed the air out of Catherine's lungs. Grunting, she tried to wriggle out from under, but couldn't get any traction on the satin sheets.
The woman rolled to the side, shot to her feet and let out a bloodcurdling scream. With a thump and a curse, Luke landed on the floor beside the bed.
"What in God's name"
"There's someone in your bed!" the woman shrieked. Catherine heard Luke get to his feet, then fumble for the switch on the bedside lamp. Showtime.
She sat up, tucked the slithery sheet under her armpits and tried her best to appear nonchalant. Chances were she looked like the wild woman of Borneo. She hadn't braided her hair before she'd gone to bed; it frothed about her bare shoulders, tickling the tops of her breasts. The bedside light snapped on just as she blew a particularly stubborn hank out of her eyes. As she squinted in the brightness, her gaze clashed with a pair of narrowed gray-green eyes boring a hole into the middle of her forehead.
"Catherine." Luke zipped his pants, then raked his fingers through his disheveled dark hair. His broad, hairy chest expanded with the ragged, frustrated breath he dragged into his lungs.
Reluctantly she tore her gaze from his splendidly naked chest and waited for the dragon to roar. He appeared twice as tall as six foot three, and three times as irritated as he'd been when she'd backed his new sports car into the mailbox years ago.
"I might have known." He plucked her bra off the clock. "Yours?" The black sports bra hung like a limp piece of licorice in his large, well-shaped hand.
Catherine leaned forward just enough to take the bra without losing her grip on the safely tucked sheet. "Thanks." The brush of his fingers sent an electrical charge up her arm. She cleared her throat, then decided to live dangerously and fluttered her eyelashes at him. "Does this mean I have to get dressed now, honey?"
Catherine gave his friend a wide smile, which the woman didn't reciprocate. Drop-dead gorgeous in a little black number hardly wider than a belt, she had long legs and an ample bosom, displayed to advantage in the skimpy dress. Expensive, high-maintenance, honey-colored hair cascaded seductively over one shoulder. Catherine sighed. Another pocket Venus. Without a sense of humor. Figured.
Into the tension-laced atmosphere, Catherine asked brightly, "Is it your birthday?"
"What is she talking about?" the blonde demanded, hand splayed across her chest to hold up her dress. Keeping her eyes firmly fixed on Catherine, she turned her back so Luke could zip her. The twin lines between her plucked-to-a-fare-thee-well eyebrows would become permanent in short order if she persisted in scowling like that. The woman had the kind of looks that would go rapidly downhill the moment gravity took over, and a slight overbite that made her, in Catherine's opinion, look a little like a hamster she'd once owned. She also had the same mean-eyed look Scamper used to give just before he gnawed her finger.
Narrow-eyed, Luke scrutinized her. "What are you up to?"
Catherine opened her eyes so wide her lashes tickled her eyebrows. "Didn't you bring her home to play, Luke, sweetums?"
"Catherine " he warned.
She gave him an apologetic little smile, filled with as much sincerity as she could muster, and spoke normally. "I thought you were out of town. Honestly, I wouldn't have"
"Who the hell is she?" the woman demanded, slipping her dainty feet back into high-heeled mules, her mouth unattractively pouty.
Luke strode to the highboy against the far wall, then glanced over his shoulder. "Cat Harris. Elizabeth Wy-rech." He jerked open a drawer, yanked out a sage-green cotton sweater and pulled it over his head. It did wonderful things to his eyes.
"Hi." Catherine didn't offer her hand, for the sheet was in danger of slithering into her lap. "Look, you don't have to run off. Does she, Luke? I mean"
"Cut it out, Catherine," Luke said, clearly not amused. "Explain to Elizabeth who you are, then shut up."
Catherine stared at him. "Everything? Are you sure? Doesn't she know you get bored with just one lady in your be"
"A ménage à trois? This is really sick, Luke." Elizabeth scooped up her purse and held it in front of her like a shield. "I'm calling a cab."
"She's my sister, for God's sake!"
"Oh, really?" No matter how beautiful, the woman had a nasty mind and an ugly sneer. Catherine narrowed her eyes at her. Elizabeth narrowed hers back.
"You have different last names."
"Different mothers," Luke said.
"Different fathers," Catherine said at the same time.
"She's my stepsister!" Luke strode across the room and wrapped his strong fingers around Catherine's clenched jaw. "Siblings. Right, Cat?" His hand moved her head up and down to acknowledge the statement.
"Right." Catherine gave Elizabeth the Wretch a tight smile and pretended that arrow hadn't pierced her heart. "His sister."
"That's even sicker," Elizabeth said coldly before storming out of the bedroom.
Catherine gripped the sheet tighter, a hard knot in her throat. She couldn't drag her eyes away from Luke, and her face flamed hotly enough for her to damn her pale skin. His sister.
From six years old she'd dreamed, wished, prayed he'd accept her as family. When she'd been older that wish had come true. But by then sister was no longer the relationship she craved.
Usually pragmatic and sensible, Catherine had made a gigantic leap of faith in coming to Luke. This was not an auspicious start to her plan.
"I'll take Liz home and be back in twenty minutes."
"I'll be here." If she didn't take a cowardly leap from the balcony first.
He turned when he got to the door and glanced back. "Don't go to sleep. We're going to talk. Tonight."
Did they have to? She checked his eyes. Absolutely.
"Be dressed when I get back."
"Aye, aye, Captain." Catherine saluted. The satin sheet glided like water over her naked skin, baring one breast.
She froze and stared at Luke. White-knuckled, he gripped the doorknob. A beat later he slammed the bedroom door behind him.
I'm in deep, deep trouble here, Luke thought on his circuitous, I-need-more-time-to-think-about-this drive home an hour later. How in heaven's name was he ever going to be able to forget the sight of Cat's bare b His fingers tightened on the steering wheel. Oh, man
His dad had married Cat's mother nineteen years ago. So there wasn't a drop of familial blood between them. Thank God. But Luke could never forget what a mean, nasty jerk he'd been to Catherine for years. It had taken even more years before he'd been forced to realize just what his cruelty was costing her, and he'd sworn to himself he would always love and protect her to make up for the years he'd done just the opposite.
The way he now felt didn't negate the promises he'd made.
He'd sworn to his dad, just before he'd died, that he would take care of Catherine. More important, he'd made Cat a promise to be her big brother. He'd assured her he would always be there for her. To protect her, to keep her safe, to have him to depend on, for anything and everything. Luke considered these promises sacrosanct, unshakable and nonnegotiable.
Too bad his libido wasn't as ethical as his brain. He reluctantly turned his decrepit Jaguar into the basement parking lot beneath his building. Just because his feelings had changed dramatically was no reason to disillusion her. He had to remember that to Cat he was no more than her big brother. Her safe, dependable big brother. End of story.
Her face still hot, Catherine speedily dressed the second the front door closed behind Luke and what's-her-name. Her goal had seemed so simple and straightforward back home in Beaverton. Get Luke to see her as a desirable woman and act on it. Of course, she hadn't planned on him seeing her naked in his bed. At least not yet!
Catherine padded into the living room and flung herself into the squishy black leather chair she'd bought Luke with every penny of her savings when he and their friend Nick had gone off to New York to become architects. The chair smelled like Luke. She snuggled her cheek against the skin-smooth leather and closed her eyes. She'd thought of little else but him for years. She could do this. She would do this.
Perhaps it wasn't so bad, after all, that Luke had had a sneak preview .
Wearing jeans and one of his old Pratt Institute sweatshirts, Cat's five-foot-ten frame was curled up in the big black leather armchair in the corner of the living room when Luke returned.
Thank God she's dressed, he thought, and thank God she's tamed that hair. Catherine Anne Harris had the reddest, wildest, most touchable hair he'd ever seen. It had a life of its own.
Seeing her naked in his bed with that electrified mane, like living flame gone berserk, had almost given him a coronary. He wasn't quite so tempted to bury his hands in it when she had it scraped back in her usual French braid. And if he concentrated very hard for the next three or four hundred years, he might forget how the light had sculpted, in shadows and highlights, the satin sheets on Cat's naked body. And the sight of one plump, perfect, pale freckled breast. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and sauntered into the living room.
"Hi." Cat sat up and rubbed sleepy hazel eyes, her cheeks flushed under a generous sprinkling of cinnamon-colored freckles. She pulled her bare feet up and wrapped her arms around her knees. Even her slender toes had cinnamon dots.
There was a short, strained silence. "She seems like a nice woman," Cat commented, offering a hopeful smile. Luke was caught by the humor in her eyes and the lushness of her wide, soft mouth.
He shook his head. "Not particularly." He sat on the edge of the coffee table facing her. Thank God she had no inkling how much it cost him to sit this close and not jump her bones.
Cat frowned. "I don't get it. If you don't like her, what were you doing sleeping with her?"
"A, I hadn't slept with her. Yet. B, I like Elizabeth just fine. C, don't change the subject. Not that you aren't welcome, Catwoman, but what are you doing here?" he asked mildly.
"I thought you'd gone to New York this week." She rested her chin on her bent knees. "What did you tell her?"
"I told her you have a warped sense of the ridiculous, but that basically you're harmless." About as harmless as dropping a centerfold into a maximum-security prison block.
"I was embarrassed. It was awkward for all of us. I guess I made it worse by trying to joke about it. I'm sorry to have put you in an uncomfortable position, Luke. Really. If you want me to call her"
"There's no need, Cat. Don't worry about it." Elizabeth had the sensitivity of a newt. Anyone else would have seen Catherine's embarrassment. "I came home from New York early."
She wasn't wearing a bra. He could see her full breasts move gently as she shifted. He frowned. "Don't distract me, answer the question. What are you doing here?"
Cat yawned, then rubbed the tip of her nose with her palm. "I was in a rut in Oregon. I needed a change, so here I am."
"You aren't going to stop day trading, are you?" Luke asked, horrified. Self-taught, Cat had become a market wizard. She enjoyed the challenge of figuring out which stocks were about to go up, and buying and selling them on the same day to immediately profit on the stock's rise in value. This enabled Cat to multiply her money many times over the course of a day. Plus she'd been able to do it from home, on her own computer, while she took care of his dad. With her canny knowledge of the stock market, and uncanny intuition, she'd made a bundle of money trading stocks for Luke over the years. If it wasn't for her, he and Nick would never have been able to afford to open their own architectural business so soon. The business was doing well enough to afford them the luxury of owning their own building.
The woman had a mind like a steel trap and the Midas touch. There were several of his dad's old cronies whose money she'd parlayed into small fortunes, just for the fun of it.
"Don't worry. I brought my computer. Your future fortune is still safe in my hands."
"Thank God. You can set up camp at Van Buren and Stratton if you like. There's a spare office on the second floor you can use." The thought of being with Catherine Harris 24/7 terrified him. He wondered where he could find large amounts of saltpeter.
"You don't have to sound so unenthusiastic," Cat laughed. "No, thank you, it would never work. We all know each other too well. You're too much of a slob, and Nick and I would goof around and I'd never get any work done. If you don't mind, I'll work from here for a while."
"Sure." Cat would be here every night when he got home. A curse and a blessing.
"Did I mess up a beautiful relationship?" she asked suddenly.
Luke easily followed the non sequitur. Cat was nothing if not tenacious. "Probably not."
"Will you see her again?"
"More than likely."
"She could have given the situation the benefit of the doubt, you know." Cat nibbled her bottom lip. He wished to hell she wouldn't do that. "A little sense of humor would have gone a long way." She sighed gustily. "Okay, it was stupid, and I'm really, really sorry."
Ah, Cat's innate sense of honor and fair play. "No harm done. Don't worry about it."
"Do you mind if I stay here until I find a place of my own?"
Don't offer, he thought. Do not, the hell, offer. "No, not at all. I wouldn't have given you a key if I minded your comings and goings." He paused, then scowled, alarmed that his eyes kept dropping to her chest. "I told you when I came home for the funeral that you'd be welcome anytime. Why didn't you tell me you weren't happy there?"
Cat sighed. "Luke. How old am I?"
"Try twenty-six, I've always been seven years younger than you. How come you never remember?" She shifted back in his chair, clearly uncomfortable under his close scrutiny. She'd always been a prickly little thing. "Life was passing me by. I want to stretch my wings a bit."
"I know, honey." He reached out and covered her hand. Cat had nursed his father for the five years preceding his death eight months ago. Luke had frequently envied Cat and his father's close relationship. Now Luke was all Cat had left. Her flaky mother didn't count.