Originally published as Silhouette Desire #132 by Cathlyn McCoy.
Sweet passion remembered ... Why, after seven long years, did Luke Ford still have the power to hurt her? She'd left their marriage behind and tried to forget, succeeding beyond her wildest dreams as a caterer i New York. But Bonnie was home again, back in Georgia to orchestrate her sister's wedding to Luke's brother. Luke was a self-made tycoon now, more devastating than ever. Shamelessly she abandoned herself to him, her reason and common sense betrayed by passion. Luke wanted a second chance, but could she risk her heart again? Did she really have any choice?
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About the Author
Fran Baker is the author of seventeen bestselling novels and has edited one nonfiction book. She invites readers to visit her websites at FranBaker.com and DelphiBooks.us.
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Odd that a wedding should reunite them. Her younger sister and his little brother ... who'd have ever dreamed Luke and she would wind up shirttail relatives?
Bonnie Ford clenched her hands into tight fists and shoved them into the pockets of her white cotton chinos as she stamped across the meadow. She didn't want to feel this way--torn between family loyalty and her own anxieties about seeing her ex-husband after seven years. For her sister's sake she was trying to divide past from present, to separate bitter from sweet and share the nuptial excitement with a smile.
But it wasn't easy. Since Bonnie's arrival from New York last night, her sister had lionized Luke as if he were a candidate for sainthood and Santa Claus combined:
"Luke had a Waterford chandelier shipped from Ireland for our new house in Atlanta. Wait til you see it! And he promised he'd be our first dinner guest, too, once we're settled.
"Luke says I'm the best thing that ever happened to his family. He always wanted a sister, you know.
"Luke insisted we use his vacation home in the Bahamas for our honeymoon. While we're away, he's going to install a sunken marble tub in our bathroom.
"Luke just called from the gas station on the highway. He'll be here any minute!"
It was that last statement which had driven Bonnie out of the house. She hadn't excused herself or explained her rude reaction to Saint Luke's impending arrival. She'd simply escaped through the nearest exit
Macaroni spine! Bonnie berated herself, fully aware that she was merely postponing the inevitable.
Her sister had decided to hold the wedding in their childhood home, forty milesnorthwest of Atlanta. With both sets of parents deceased, Bonnie and Luke were doing double duty--standing as maid of honor and best man during their younger siblings' ceremony, then cohosting the small reception afterwards.
Triple damn! Didn't anyone back in that hectic marriage mill realize how awkward she felt about spending an entire week in his company? Especially after the horrible way they'd parted!
A chill trickled along her spine, and she tipped her face to the sun, seeking its warmth as she walked in yesterday's shadows. She'd vowed to work civilly with Luke, and she would, for her sister's sake. No one ever need know that the pain of their marriage still tormented her soul.
At the far edge of the meadow where she and Luke had laughed and played as children, Bonnie paused and drew a deep breath. Tiger lilies and doily-shaped Queen Anne's lace had overgrown their old baseball diamond. The waterfall over west had whittled a steeper slope into their favorite sliding rock, but the pool at ride's end still looked icy. From what she'd seen of it so far, Rebel's Ridge hadn't changed all that much since she'd fled it seven years ago.
But she had. The change was more than physical, though she'd certainly fulfilled the promise of beauty that had been hers as an adolescent. Bonnie's wide amber eyes reflected compassion as readily as they sparkled with amusement, because she'd seen her share of sorrow. A generous smile remedied her slightly crooked front teeth; a Limoges complexion made one overlook the few stubborn freckles sprinkled across the bridge of her slender nose. Her hair had deepened in color to spun autumn honey and was cut to softly frame her face. Lithe and leggy, she collected clothes and wore them with the flair befitting a successful New York City caterer.
While her southern drawl was less pronounced these days, Bonnie's voice retained a slow-molasses warmth which charmed her numerous clients and utterly frustrated her dates when she bid them a friendly but firm good night at the front door.
Luke had introduced her to love; his rejection, coupled with her body's own betrayal, had shattered her sense of self-worth as a woman. Since their divorce, she'd built a prosperous business from scratch but she'd avoided emotional investments with a once-burned determination that bordered on obsessive.
"Bonnie!" Her sister stood on the back porch, calling her home.
Luke was probably waiting there now to discuss the remaining details that needed attention before Saturday. Her stomach fluttered, and she knew she wasn't ready to face him just yet. Besides, she'd certainly done her fair share of waiting around for him during their pretense of a marriage.
Let him sit and stew awhile, she decided, turning instinctively to climb the wooded hill where she and Luke had loved away that incredibly innocent spring before their elopement. Inside the tree-shaded circle, Bonnie leaned against a hickory trunk and felt the bark scraping her back as it had when they'd first embraced. Like an old friend who hasn't forgotten, the peach-blossom breeze sighed a welcome.
"Bonnie!" Her sister's voice reached her ears easily, but she ignored it and closed her eyes, recapturing those stolen moments of her youth.
Luke Ford had been her idol long before he'd become her lover. Five years older than she, he'd spent endless summer hours improving her batting stance, instructing her in the sneaky art of the spitball, stealing her heart even as he'd taught her to steal second base. It was Luke who'd shown her how to noodle catfish along the banks of Tucker's Creek; who'd helped her through algebra; who'd sampled her mudpies, then later eaten every bite of her burnt mistakes when she was first learning to cook.
During her senior year in high school, their relationship took a dramatic turn. When his father died, Luke dropped out of college a semester before graduation and hired on at the nearby marble quarry. Bonnie had been the first to recognize how much he hated the dead-end labor, how disappointed he was that he hadn't found work in the construction field. He hadn't complained; she'd simply sensed it.
Because Luke's salary went toward helping his mother and little brother, and because he was too proud to let Bonnie finance their weekend fun from her allowance, dating became a test of their young and healthy imaginations.
In January and February, rather than attending the picture show in town, they had roasted popcorn in her parents' fireplace and watched old movies on television. Hamburgers on the grill in March and April had tasted much better than anything served at the local drive-in. Warm weather had enticed them outdoors for leisurely walks in the woods behind Bonnie's house, for home-packed picnics in what had become their circle.
It happened as naturally as rivers flow downstream, as gently as the meadowlark's fluting lullaby. Having carried a man's load all winter, Luke needed a woman. Having adored him all her life, Bonnie found a remarkable satisfaction in learning his loving ways. She knew for certain that she was pregnant a week before she turned eighteen, and they eloped the morning after her birthday.
"Bonnie!" Her sister's voice held an urgency that escaped her, because she was trapped in another time.
She'd lost the baby early into her fourth month; he lost his job the following month when the quarry declared bankruptcy. From there, it was a downhill slide to divorce court
Depressed about her miscarriage, bored with "playing house," Bonnie spent all her time in the kitchen testing new recipes and preparing elaborate meals that her meat-and-potatoes man refused to eat. Unable to find another job, Luke stopped coming home at the end of the day and began hanging out until all hours with his similarly unemployed buddies.
Their arguments escalated in both frequency and volume; even their bedroom became a battleground. One night, she had followed him to the local bar and caught him dancing with a flaming redhead who'd wrapped herself around him like a sweet potato vine. Cut to the quick, Bonnie had yanked off the ring Luke had slipped on her finger in a preacher's study, flung the plain gold band in his surprised face, then driven straight to her parents' house.
He had not contested the divorce or appeared in court. And Bonnie had been left to mourn the loss of their baby and the death of their marriage, blaming herself for both as if it were her due. A week after the judge dissolved their vows, Bonnie received a check in the mail for half their meager mutual property. She'd promptly cashed it and caught the first northbound bus. Luke's tomboy had cried a woman's tears all the way to New York City, the farthest she could run and still afford the cooking classes which would launch her career.
The leaves rustled in his wake as Luke stepped out of her past from the heavy hickory limbs and bending pine boughs shading the circle they'd once considered sacred.
"Who says you can't come home again?" he quipped.
"Pigeons do it all the time."
For a split second, Bonnie was tempted to run once more. She didn't want to see him again! But renewing her resolve to get through this week as graciously as possible, she opened her eyes and looked directly at him. "Hello, Luke."
He was every inch the man she'd foreseen in her first and only lover. Crinkles fanned from the corners of his brown eyes toward his temples. Time had darkened the wind-blown hair framing his roughly cut features. His chest was wider, his shoulders broader, yet his masculine physique was as taut and lean as ever. Overall, maturity fit him as neatly as the faded jeans defining his long, muscular legs.
"Darlene and Dave were about ready to turn the bloodhounds loose on your trail." That lopsided grin, so endearing in the boy, was dazzling in the man. "I told them I had a hunch I could find you."
Bonnie stiffened defensively. It was foolish to feel caught, but she did. Her escape plan had backfired. Or had it? By climbing the hill rather than heading home, hadn't she practically invited Luke to follow?
Too flustered to reason it out right now, she averted her head to hide her confusion and shrugged indifferently. "I took a walk, thinking you might appreciate a few minutes alone with the kids."
"Hell, they're not interested in anything but each other these days." His understanding laugh flowed as richly and warmly as buttered rum. "Outside of 'Hi, Luke; Bonnie went out the back door,' they hardly noticed me."
"I know what you mean." Smiling indulgently, she dared a glance in his direction. Maybe she'd worried unnecessarily about this meeting. "I've felt a bit like excess baggage myself since I arrived."
He took a cigarette and a monogrammed gold lighter from the pocket of his chambray shirt "I'm sure the only reason that Darlene started hollering for you to come home was so I'd quit taking Dave's attention away from her."
Their friendly remarks paved the way for a congenial discussion about the wedding. Amazed by their affability after the bitterness that had marred their marriage, Bonnie relaxed somewhat as they talked. In a short period of time, they'd efficiently divided the remaining duties, settling the question of who was in charge of what.
"Enough about Dave and Darlene," Luke decreed, leaning against the tree trunk opposite her as if he intended to stay for a while. "Tell me about Bonnie."
She tensed again. With their present alliance still so tenuous, it hardly made sense to rehash those awful days and lonely nights she'd spent restructuring her life. Keep it light, she decided, forcing a smile that didn't feel the least bit natural. "There isn't much to tell, frankly. It's your typical small-town-girl-makes-good kind of story--grade-B movie material all the way."
"I've probably got most of it memorized," he admitted. "Darlene corners anybody who'll stand still long enough to listen while she brags about her big sister." He chuckled. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear she was part magpie."
"Thanks a bunch!" Bonnie faked a huffy tone. "For your information, buster, she sounds like a broken record when she talks about you."
"How so?" he prompted.
She smiled, this time genuinely. "Every week or ten days she seems compelled to call--collect, mind you--and regale me with the details of each new project your construction firm has landed."
"Remind me to give her a raise," he drawled, "retroactive to her first bout of boasting."
"What about my phone bills?" she teased.
With a sudden, disturbing intensity his gaze raked from her stylish leather sandals, over her chic silk tunic, to her neat, fashionably cut hair. "I'm sure you can afford an occasional telephone call."
Unnerved by his cynical observation, Bonnie realized they'd lingered long enough. The fact that she could obviously provide for herself was probably an insult to his manhood, especially in light of the way they'd struggled to make ends meet before their divorce. She glanced at her slim gold watch, dropping a subtle hint.
"We whipped some pretty improbable odds for a pair of poor 'crackers,' didn't we?" he challenged curtly.
"I suppose so." Standing proudly, she returned his regard. She'd botched marriage and motherhood. Damned if she'd apologize for making a go of her career! "Luke and Bonnie, the proverbial long shots, hit pay dirt."
He laughed mirthlessly. "The good life," he mocked. "It sure beats the stuffing out of that shanty-town existence we led back when, doesn't it?"
"I suppose so," she repeated softly, disheartened to hear him describe their marriage in such derogatory terms. How he must have hated her then! Tears stung her amber eyes, and she blinked to keep them at bay. Was he deliberately trying to spoil the fresh start they'd made today? Or were they both bedeviled by some of the same old ghosts?
It struck Bonnie in a jolting burst of clarity that she had returned to their loving circle on purpose, hoping to begin releasing her hold on yesterday. But rather than making peace with the past, as she'd planned, she found herself reliving it.
Luke dropped his cigarette and crushed it under the toe of his boot. Fascinated by the rippling interplay of his muscles, Bonnie fought the treachery of her emotions and lost. Lord, she'd almost forgotten what a genuinely big man he was! Her heart hammered in alarm as she recognized the purely physical nature of her response, but logic proved a poor match for passion. Apprehension shimmied through her while she wrestled with her own desires more fiercely than she'd ever battled with her ex-husband.
He must have sensed her turmoil, silent though it was. Luke looked up, his dark gaze scanning her delicately troubled features as he, too, seemed to wage a private war with himself.
How long they stood there, not speaking yet visually devouring each other, Bonnie couldn't say. She only knew that the tension mounted so fast, it crackled like a live wire dropped in water.
"We'd better head back to the house," he suggested tersely. His mouth slanted in a thin smile. "Otherwise, Darlene and Dave will think we've lost our way."
Vaguely disappointed and very confused, Bonnie nodded. She'd survived the skirmish, but the victory felt inexplicably hollow. She turned to leave, then paused beneath a pine bough and glanced back at him.
"I haven't thanked you yet for helping Darlene."
"It was nothing." He dismissed her gratitude with a shrug.
"Well, I worried terribly about her after mama died, but she was dating Dave and refused to come live with me." A faint note of sadness marbled her voice. It hurt to admit her younger sister had found the happiness that had eluded her. She cleared her throat. "When you hired her as office manager for your construction company, it took a real load off my mind."
"I like Darlene." Luke's husky tone wrapped Bonnie in a velvet chain of memories she desperately wanted to forget. "She reminds me of a girl I used to know."
A dizzying sense of déjà vu enveloped them, and Bonnie's eyes flared wide as she faced what she'd feared most about coming home. They had grown up and fashioned successful professional lives from the ashes of their personal failure. But neither time nor distance had dulled this need for one another. If anything, absence had only intensified it.
"Do you feel it?" he demanded abruptly.
"Yes." But it was a reluctant admission.
Luke came toward her, bridging the careful gap they'd kept between them.
Bonnie hesitated, torn between instinct and indecision. It would be so easy to meet him halfway and mold herself to his hard male contours. And so easy to repeat their tragic mistakes. She stood her ground. "Stay away from me, Luke."
For all it accomplished, she might just as well have whistled into the wind. There was little haste but plenty of purpose in his stride as he closed the distance between them.
"The whole time we've been talking, I've been loving you in my mind."
"Stop it," she ordered softly.
"I'm half-crazy, wondering if you still taste sweeter than candy, whether you--"
"Still put perfume between your breasts."
His gaze slid suggestively to the front of her blouse. As though he'd touched them, as if they remembered the feathery caress of his fingertips, her nipples tightened and strained against the silk fabric. Resenting the fact that he still possessed the power to arouse her, she folded her arms across her chest and whirled away from him.
"It's no use, darling." He stood behind her and gripped her shoulders, fitting his lean torso to her soft curves. "You can't hide from love."
"Love?" The pain of his betrayal quivered in her voice. "You wouldn't recognize love if it sprouted wings and flew into your face!"
"Call it what you will--"
"It's defined as lust in my dictionary!"
The heat of him warmed the whole length of her. Luke pressed his cheek against her hair while his strong hands deftly massaged the stiffness from her shoulders. Bonnie knew she had to stop this now, before the fire in her veins blazed completely out of control.
"You want me as much as I want you," he whispered.
"No," she protested.
As his hands glided down her arms, his mouth explored the sloping hollow where her neck met her shoulders. "I feel it in the way you're trembling, Bonnie."
She spun around, catching him off-guard. Flattening her palms against his solid chest, she pushed him backwards. He'd left her no choice--she had to hurt him. It was strictly a matter of self-preservation.
"Don't flatter yourself," she snapped. "Haven't you ever heard the expression, trembling with rage? Just remembering why I divorced you, that's exactly what I'm doing."
His dark gaze drifted to the front of her blouse again, taking in the hardened tips of her breasts.
The more he hated her, the safer she was--she simply couldn't afford another emotional risk. Bonnie let him have it with a deliberate cruelty that sickened her.
"And don't attach any great importance to my physical reaction," she warned. "I still crave corn pone on occasion, too, but I'm certainly not interested in a steady diet of it."
Luke's glare confirmed she'd hit her target, but Bonnie took no pride in her accuracy.
"If you think you sound sophisticated, think again," he advised. "Leading a man on, then disappointing him, is nothing but a juvenile trick"
"You came on to me!" she reminded hotly.
"You weren't fighting me off."
She winced at the truth in his words. "I was confused," she admitted. "For a minute, I..." How could she tell him she was hurting, too? She couldn't. "I've learned some hard lessons in seven years, Luke--the most important one being the difference between love and lust. If you--"
"Considering that that wasn't love we felt just a minute ago, it wasn't a bad substitute," he said caustically.
Even knowing she deserved his sarcasm, she was hurt by the remark "You haven't changed a bit! All you want is an instant replay of the past: Luke scores and Bonnie pays the penalty."
"Spoken like a true martyr," he scorned. "If I recall correctly, we shared the satisfaction as equally as we did the suffering."
"You'd better see a doctor," she retorted, "because your memory seems to be fading real fast."
Bonnie reeled away from him again, her throat constricting painfully as she was harshly reminded of the baby she'd lost. Deep inside, she had never stopped blaming herself, wondering what she'd done to cause the miscarriage. She drew a bracing breath of air even as the tears spilled freely down her cheeks.
"All I remember is that when I needed my husband's support the most, he was busy drowning his sorrows in a beer mug and dancing his sadness away in a damned roadhouse."
"If you'd been more of a wife--"
"Says the model husband?"
The silence thickened with other accusations that didn't bear repeating.
"I'm sorry, Bonnie." Luke's voice was filled with regret. "I know it's probably too late, but believe me when I say I never meant to hurt you.
She nodded, wordlessly accepting the apology she'd never dreamed she'd hear. Bonnie turned around and was shocked by the bitterness she saw in his dark eyes. Ashamed of her part in provoking the fight, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I'm sorry, too."
"If I'd known then what I know now, I wouldn't have let it happen." Luke looked so miserable, it wrenched her . "I was older; I could have controlled things if I'd tried."
"It wasn't all your fault," she qualified with a watery smile. "I could have said no, if I'd wanted to."
"Listen. I don't want to spoil the wedding," he said. "If my hanging around all week means you'll be uncomfortable, I'll head back to Atlanta and stay put until Saturday." He lifted an eyebrow, leaving the final decision to her. "Hell, I see Darlene and Dave every day; this is your first visit in years. Say the word and I'll disappear."
How could she deny him the pleasure of helping prepare for the ceremony that he was partially financing? With a bemused expression, she shook her head. "You're not worming your way out of shelling walnuts for the wedding cake that easily."
His smile would have charmed the stripes off a skunk.
"Why don't we declare a truce?" she proposed. "We won't talk about the past--that'll be off-limits. And the wedding folderol should keep us too busy to fight"
"Agreed." Luke proffered his hand, then promptly withdrew it. "Before we shake, though, I have to ask one question on the forbidden subject."
She eyed him warily, then nodded.
"For the reception, are you baking that fantastic chocolate cake I used to love so much?"
"Yes; it's Darlene's favorite."
"Are the walnuts I'm supposed to shell going into that creamy fudge frosting you were always asking me to help you stir?"
"That's two questions." Bonnie was stymied by his sudden interest in what she planned to serve. They'd already agreed that the food for the reception was her responsibility.
"Humor me," he urged with that effective lopsided grin and an innocent shrug of those wide shoulders. "I'm getting to the point as quickly as I can."
"Yes." She sighed and tapped her foot impatiently.
"The walnuts are going into the fudge frosting."
The wicked gleam in his eyes should have warned her. Without touching her, Luke leaned over and placed his mouth a whisper away from her ear, as if the trees could hear. "Remember what we used to do with the extra fudge?"
His question bolted through her like white lightning. After their first erotic episode with the sweet, creamy chocolate, she'd made a habit of stirring up a batch-and-a-half every time. Just in case. Bonnie refused him the satisfaction of a verbal answer, but her scarlet cheeks confirmed that she did, indeed, remember.
"Cease fire!" he proclaimed. Luke grabbed her hand and pumped it, then draped his arm around her shoulders. "Come on," he encouraged with a friendly squeeze, "I'll walk you home."
She shot him an appraising amber glance. "Go on without me," she insisted. "I'll be along in a bit."
"Hey, are you all right?" His embrace tightened slightly.
"I'm fine," she asserted in a falsely cheerful voice. "This is my last chance for a little peace and quiet before the wedding, and I intend to take advantage of it."
In truth, she needed the solitude to sort through the newly tangled mess of her emotions. She waited, thinking he'd take the hint. When he didn't, she shrugged out of his brotherly embrace.
"Scoot!" she ordered. "Before I forget I'm a lady and give you a shove."
"I'm going. I'm going." Luke raised his hands in mock fear and did a ludicrous reverse goosestep. Just before he ducked under the pine boughs and disappeared, he veered dangerously close to violating their recent treaty. "If you do forget you're a lady, I'll be more than happy to remind you." He winked. "Curing amnesia is my specialty."
"I'll just bet," she replied skeptically.
When she was certain he'd gone, Bonnie released an exhausted sigh. The next week stretched ahead of her like a long, wearying journey down the same old road. There had always been an element of the extreme in their relationship--love or hate, laughter or tears, hugging or hurting. It was probably downright foolish of her to believe they could straddle the middle line, even for a few days.
Her glance strayed around their circle. Things hadn't changed as much as she'd hoped--he was virile; she was vulnerable. If that wasn't a recipe for trouble, she'd trade her wooden spoons and copper pans for a wedge of humble pie.