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Usually nothing much unnerved Audrey Faith Thomas, except for the time six months ago when her big brother was bucked off Old Stormy at an Amarillo rodeo and broke his back. He was tossed eight feet in the air and landed with a solid smack to the ground. Casey's injury was severe enough to have Audrey quitting veterinary school last semester to nurse him back to health.
Audrey shuddered at the memory and thanked the Almighty that Casey was alive and well and bossy as ever. But as she sat behind the wheel of her truck driving toward her fate, the fear coursing through her veins had nothing to do with Casey's disastrous five-second ride and resulting retirement from the rodeo. This fear was much different. It scared her silly and made her doubt herself. It made her want to turn her Chevy pickup truck around and go home to Reno and forget all about showing up at Sunset Ranch unannounced.
To face Lucas Slade.
The man she'd seduced and then abandoned in the middle of the night.
Audrey swallowed hard and tried to reconcile her behavior. It wasn't working. She still couldn't believe what she'd done and after repeating her motives a thousand times in her head, nothing much had changed.
Last month, after an argument and a three-week standoff with her brother, she'd left her Reno home and ventured to his Lake Tahoe cabin to make amends. He'd been right about the boyfriend she'd just dumped, and she'd needed Casey's strong shoulder to cry on. But once she'd arrived, Casey was fast asleep on the couch and the last person she'd expected to find sleeping in the guest room, on her bed, was Luke Sladethe man of her fantasies, the one she'd measured every other man against. Luke was the guy she'd crushed on during her teen years while traveling the rodeo circuit with Caseythe guy who'd treated her with kindness and the same sort of brotherly love that Casey had.
Seeing him sent all rational thoughts flying out the window. This was her chance. She wouldn't let her prudish upbringing interfere with what she needed. His right arm was in a soft cast. That hadn't stopped her from edging closer.
Luke's eyelids had parted and two partially opened slits of warm blue honed in on her. "Come closer," he'd rasped in the darkened room. She'd taken that as an invitation to climb into bed with him, the consequences be damned. That night, her heart and soul, as well as her body, had been involved.
Well she'd gotten a lot more than a shoulder to cry on, and it had been glorious and amazing and out and out wonderful. How could it not be? She'd been secretly in love with her brother's good buddy for years.
Audrey sent Jewel, the orange tabby sleeping in the travel carrier next to her, an apologetic glance. "It wasn't like he was some random guy. It was Luke," she told the cat as if that explained it all. Her cat, who hadn't been much company on the drive, opened her eyes and gave her a stare before returning to cat dreamland. Audrey focused her attention back on the winding two-lane road, a shortcut through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Sunset Ranch.
Audrey lowered the brim of her bright pink ball cap, shading her eyes from the glaring sun, and reached back to straighten out her ponytail. Coming through the mountain pass, she made the turn off the interstate and drove a little farther. As her gaze roamed the road, she recognized wisps of tall grass, purple wildflowers and white fences signifying the manicured property surrounding Sunset Lodge. The upscale dudelike resort adjacent to the ranch was another of the Slades' prosperous enterprises. Once she passed the lodge, the ranch would be half a mile down the road.
"We're almost there," she told her sleepy cat.
Audrey couldn't relax like the mellow feline beside her. Her fingers curled tightly around the steering wheel and as her doubt and fear doubled, her heart pounded hard in her chest.
She should've stayed with Luke that night. She should've been brave enough to face him in the morning. But every time those thoughts popped into her head, she had images of Casey waking up and finding her in bed with his good buddy. There was no doubt in her mind that Casey would've gone ballistic, asking no questions and taking no prisoners. She'd come to the conclusion that leaving Luke and the cabin had been the only way.
And it was a good thing her brother slept like the dead and hadn't had a clue she'd had a booty call with his best friend.
Two days later, once she'd gotten the nerve to call her brother, she'd learned the reason for Luke's visit. He'd been trampled by a horse in an awful accident. His arm had been broken along with three ribs. He'd come to Casey's Lake Tahoe cabin to recuperate.
Now, she would finally come face-to-face with Luke. She'd confront him about the night they'd shared and confess her love for him, if it came down to that. She wondered if he thought her easy, a one-night stand and a woman who didn't know her own mind. What had he thought about her abandoning him that night?
She would soon find out. She drove deeper onto Slade land and the gates came into view. Overhead, a wrought-iron emblem depicting the sun setting on the horizon marked the east entrance to Sunset Ranch. She slowed the truck to a near crawl, losing some of her nerve.
She could make a U-turn, head home and no one would be the wiser.
Behind her, a driver in a feed truck packed with hay bales laid his hand on the horn startling her out of her reverie. She took it as an omen. Drive on. Head toward your destiny, whatever it may be.
She did just that, and a few minutes later, holding her breath and feigning bravado, Audrey parked her truck, grabbed the cat carrier and knocked on Luke's door.
When the door opened, she faced Lucas Slade. A gasp caught in her throat and she swallowed it down with one gulp. She drank in the sight of him, and her heart stirred restlessly, like all the other times she'd been in Luke's company. She was hopeless.
Sunlight played in his dark blond hair and touched his face on a day when he hadn't shaved. Rugged, appealing and so handsome she could cry. He stood a full head taller than she did. As a young girl, she'd thought if she could catch up to his height it would put her on even footing with him on other levels. It had been a silly whim that had never materialized. Luke was tall; she stood at average height. Five years separated their ages, which had seemed like an aeon to a teenager with a crush.
A little dumbfounded, she stared at him, not wanting to blow it by blurting out the wrong thing. She held her tongue and waited for him to say something.
His brows drew together. "That you under that hat, Audrey Faith?"
Heavens, she'd forgotten about the darn hat. She nodded and lifted the brim a little.
A big smile lit his face and sparkled in his eyes. "Well, come here."
He didn't wait for her to move. He stepped forward with his arms outstretched. At that moment, all of her fears were put to rest. He was glad to see her. Lord, have mercy.
But when she expected to be swept into an embrace and kissed the way he'd kissed her in the cabin, he bypassed her lips completely. Instead, her face was smothered by his shoulder as he gave her a big welcoming bear hug. There was no doubt about the affection there, or in the two brotherly pats to her shoulders, either, before he took a step back to look at her.
"What brings you out to Sunset Ranch?" His gaze whipped over her shoulder. "Did Casey drive out with you, too?"
"Oh, uh no. Casey isn't with me."
"Okay," he said with a nod. "Well then, come inside, out of the heat. And bring whatever pet you've rescued with you."
She'd forgotten about the tabby in the carrier she'd set down on the porch. "H-her name is Jewel. She was hit by a car two months ago and was in shock for a while. Now she gets separation anxiety if I leave her for too long."
Luke gave the cat a better look through the carrrier's mesh window. "She made the trip from Reno with you?"
Her pulse quickened as his blue-eyed gaze returned to hers. She nodded.
"Lucky cat. I bet you're giving her the royal treatment. You always were great with animals."
She stood there, bewildered by Luke's reaction. He didn't make any acknowledgment about seeing her again. Or about that night that had rocked her world. He didn't seem angry, hurt, relieved or much of anything. She hadn't known exactly what to expect when she got here, but his civility clearly wasn't it.
Her feet wouldn't move, and her hesitation didn't faze him. He simply lifted the handle of the cat carrier and swung it along as he walked toward the parlor.
Audrey grabbed hold of her mind, and followed behind.
"You're a sight for sore eyes, Audrey Faith," he said over his shoulder.
So was he. Her throat constricted as she recalled the dreams she'd had of him for the past four weeks. Now she was here with him in the flesh. "I like to be called Audrey now. I dropped the Faith a few years ago."
Luke chuckled, and it was deep and rich and full of raw sensuality, just like she'd remembered. Of course, back when she was a teen, she didn't know much about sensuality. She only knew that she loved the sound of his laughter. "All right, Audrey," he said, softlike.
Mercy. Her belly warmed from the delicious way he said her name.
Audrey gave herself a mental shake as she walked behind him into the house. She managed to keep her eyes trained off his perfect butt fitted into Wranglers. Instead, she concentrated on Luke's dark blond hair that reached past his collar to curl at his shoulders. The strands were much longer now. She remembered threading her fingers through those thick, healthy locks. How she yearned to do it again.
That entire night seemed like a surreal dream.
Luke set the cat carrier down on the sofa and turned to face her. "It's really good to see you, Audrey. It's been a long time."
How long was a long time? She'd seen him one month ago.
"Same here," she said. This wasn't how she'd expected this conversation to go. In her wildest imaginings, Luke would have been thrilled to see her. He would have whisked her off to his bedroom, claiming undying love and demanding that she never leave his side again. In the worst-case scenario, Luke would've scolded her for having unprotected sex with him and then running off in the middle of the night.
But this conversation was just plain strange.
"I'm glad you came for a visit," Luke said, gesturing for her to take a seat.
She sat down next to the cat carrier. Luke took a seat across from her in a buttercup-colored wing chair trimmed with round bronzed studs. "You look great."
She didn't think so. When she'd dressed this morning, she'd picked the best her neglected wardrobe had to offer, plaid blouse, baggy jeans and her too-long hair tucked into a baseball cap. She'd been meaning to get a stylish cut but that obviously hadn't happened. The ball cap and casual clothes were Audrey As Usual. "Thanks, so do you. Are you feeling better?"
"I've got no complaints. My arm's good as new now." His arm had been encumbered with a cast when they made love, but that hadn't stopped him from making her die a thousand pleasant deaths that night.
"What've you been up to?" he asked, being polite.
"I, uh Luke?" She hated to sound desperate, but Luke was avoiding the whole I-jumped-your-bones-in-the-middle-of-the-night subject.
His eyes softened and his voice registered sympathy. "What's up, honey? You have another fight with Casey? Is he still being a bear?"
She leaned back against the seat cushion, rattled. Was he being deliberately obtuse? Surely he had to know why she'd come this distance to visit him.
Luke was a wealthy horse breeder now. Along with his brothers, he owned the biggest ranch in three counties. He had a lot on his mind, and it humbled her to think he remembered her troubles with Casey. It had been years since Audrey had complained to Luke about her brother's overprotective, overbearing nature. She would confide in Luke, because he was the only one who'd really listened to her and treated her as an equal rather than a silly girl with years of growing up to do.
"We still argue," she said, "but it's different now."
"How so?" He seemed genuinely interested.
"He can't ground me anymore, so I really let him have it."
Luke laughed again. "I bet you do."
Audrey forced a smile. She didn't get any of this. Luke acted as if they hadn't been intimate, hadn't steamed up the sheets on that guest-room bed. Was making love to a woman such an everyday occurrence to him that Luke thought nothing of it? Just casual sex with a onetime friend? "Casey knows I'm a big girl now. He doesn't lord over me like he used to."
She wanted to make it clear to Luke that Casey didn't play into the equation. What happened between the two of them wasn't any of her big brother's business.
"So he finally cut the apron strings?"
"He's getting there. It's better than it was."
Luke nodded, and they stared at each other. "Can I get you something cold to drink?"
"No I'm just fine."
"Okay." He nodded once again and then she caught him glancing at his watch.
"Am I keeping you from something?"
"Nope," he said, sitting up straighter in his seat, giving her his full attention. Luke was the best fibber on the planet. On the rodeo circuit, he used to tell white lies all the time to make people feel better.
Yes, Mrs. Jenkins, your strawberry-rhubarb pie is the best in the county.
Jonathan, you just need another year practicing with that fiddle before you make it to the Grand Ole Opry.
No, Audrey Faith, you're not keeping me from anything important.
Audrey knew it was now or never. She had to speak with Luke about that night. She couldn't leave things the way they were without clearing the air.
"I actually do have a reason for being here, Luke," she said softly. "I think you know why, but if you're going to make me say it."
Luke's forehead wrinkled as he gave it some thought. Then it hit him. "Ah Audrey." He raised his hand to stop her. " Say no more. I should've guessed the second I saw you standing on the doorstep."
Relieved, Audrey let her stiff shoulders relax. Finally, they would get things out in the open.
"You heard about the wrangler job at the ranch," he said. "Casey must've told you I was shorthanded. Come to think about it, there's no one better to help me settle down my pain-in-the-ass, hardheaded stallion. I should have thought of hiring you myself, but we haven't talked in years, so it didn't cross my mind. The truth is, I need to get Tribute in line. He's a big challenge. Casey tells me you're not going back to vet school until the fall?"
Blood drained from her face and a shudder of dread coursed through her body. Her devastation would be visible any second now. She couldn't let that happen.
Get a grip, Audrey. Hang on.
She was finally getting the picture. It was murky at best. "I, uh y-yes, that's my plan," she managed.
She wished she'd chickened out instead of coming here. She could have done a quick one-eighty on the highway and headed straight back to Reno. Because the murkiness was clearing and the image left underneath was nightmarishly ugly.
We haven't talked in years.