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TO LUKE CHISUM, COMING HOME was like walking naked down Main Street. He felt exposed. Vulnerable. Everyone in the county knew every misdeed he'd ever done and they never missed a chance to remind him. He'd spent years running from his past, but the moment he stepped foot in River Bluff, Texas, he became dare-devil Luke, eighteen, wild and a little crazy.
The last thing he needed first thing this morning was a confrontation with the woman who more than anyone stirred memories of his misspent youthRebecca Lynn Parker. But there she was, standing on the sidewalk in front of the medical clinic. With a sigh, he swerved his truck into a parking spot.
The morning sun glistened off her auburn hair, a display of fiery waves and sparkling sunlight. As he reached to turn off the ignition, he was unable to look away. Not from her, not from a long list of regrets and recriminations.
She'd married, and her last name was Howard now. He'd never get used to that. The thought settled in his stomach like a pile of rusty nails. It had been his fault.
He'd had his chance with Becky and he'd blown itbig-time.
One of those reminders that followed him everywhere.
Like the scar across his side and the gash on his leg. He removed his keys, never taking his eyes off her. She barely resembled the young girl from their high school days. Then, her unmanageable curly hair had been usually pulled back into a fuzzy ponytail. She'd worn glasses, had never worn makeup and had a sprinkling of freckles across her nose. She hadn't been beautiful by any means, but she'd had a fresh, innocent appeal that even a foolish boy of eighteen could recognize.
Luke shifted uneasily in his seat.
Even though she was shy and quiet, everyone liked herincluding Luke. She'd helped him with his homework more times than he could remember. Being the sheriff's daughter kept her out of the dating scene, though. Sheriff Hubbard Parker got the message across to all the boys"Mess with my daughter and it's jail or hell, my choice." Everyone knew what jail meant but no one was sure what the hell part meant, and they weren't brave enough to find out.
One night as his high school Texas Hold 'Em poker buddies were playing and drinking, they talked about who they were going to take to an upcoming school dance. Jake, Brady and Cole already had dates. Luke had just broken up with Candace Spangler and decided he wasn't going.
The guys insisted he had to go, but he pointed out that all the girls had been paired up by now. Jake said he could ask Becky. Everyone laughed. Brady looked right at Luke and dared him. They all knew that baiting Luke got results.
Jake double dared him. Cole topped that with a triple dare.
Luke folded out of the round. "Y'all think I won't do it."
Brady called and won the hand. Shuffling the cards, Brady replied, "I don't think even you have enough guts." He dealt the hole cards around the table.
Luke picked up his two cards, not comfortable with his friends thinking he was afraid of the sheriff, even though he was. "I'll ask her."
Cole folded. "Well, Luke, you can be the first one to find out what jail or hell means. Or which comes first."
The guys laughed, but Luke had made up his mind. The next day he asked Becky and she accepted. The night of the dance he stood on the sheriff's front porch thinking he had more guts than common sense. The urge to run was strong.
The sheriff opened the door. He stood over six feet, and was broad and muscular. Luke was tall himself, but Hub Parker seemed like a giant. The gun on his hip reinforced Luke's urge to run. Then Becky came into the room. His fear quickly subsided. Her blue eyes sparkled and her warm smile welcomed him. For the first time he realized she was pretty. "Good night, Daddy." She stood on tiptoes to kiss her father's cheek.
The sheriff pointed a finger at Luke. "No speeding with my daughter in your truck." The growl in his voice reminded Luke of Mr. Bailey's junkyard dog.
"Yes, sir," Luke replied without taking a breath.
"And, Chisum, you have my daughter home by midnight or I'll come looking for you."
"Yes, sir." Luke backed out of the house knowing hell included a large dose of fear, just as he was experiencing at that moment.
He soon forgot about the sheriff. He kept an eye on his watch most of the night, though, but he and Becky had a good time. They danced, laughed and talked. He didn't do much talking with other girls, and he found he liked talking to Becky.
At eleven they left the dance and went to the Dairy Queen for a burger and fries. Then he took her home. He didn't kiss her because he knew the sheriff was on the other side of the door. But he'd wanted to.
The next Monday in school he couldn't wait to see her. Becky wore a perpetual smile and it was one of the things he liked about her. She was friendly, nice and sweet. That was why everyone called her Sweet Becky Lynn.
He never noticed those qualities in other girls. Hot and sexy were the qualities at the top of his list. A great personality wasn't required of his dates and neither was scintillating conversation. He had been such a puffed-up idiot in high school. But he hadn't been a complete loserat least he'd recognized all of Becky's good qualities.
They'd started dating and had become an item. The sheriff's place was next to the Chisum ranch, and he and Becky would meet on weekends by the pond on the Chisum property. The first time he kissed her was under the big live oak that hung partially out over the pond. They'd made love for the first time under that tree. Sweet Becky Lynn had taken on a whole new meaning for him.
Luke ran his hand over the steering wheel. How could something that started so perfectly go so wrong? Even as he asked himself the question, he knew the answer. Someone had told Becky about the dare. He was never quite sure who and it was just as well. He would probably have done them some bodily harm.
That time was forever imprinted in his memory. Becky had waited for him after gym class. She hadn't been smiling, her eyes had been red and she'd looked as if she'd been crying. He'd known something was wrong. A heavy feeling had settled in his gut.
When he walked up to her, she held out the chain with his senior ring he'd given her for her birthday.
"You don't have to pretend anymore. I know the truth." He stared down at the chain and ring in her hand, not making a move to take them. "What are you talking about?"
"You asked me out because your friends dared you. All the kids are laughing behind my back. I can't believe you'd do that. You made a fool of me."
The pain in her eyes was almost more than he could take. He should have told her the truth long ago, but it didn't seem important. They loved each otherthat was all that mattered. Or so his young mind had thought.
"Okay. The first date was a dare." She flinched at his admission and he realized he was about to lose something vital to his existence. "But after that I asked you out because I wanted to."
"I don't believe you. I bet you and your poker buddies had fun laughing about gullible Becky, easy, gullible Becky." She threw the chain at his chest and it fell to the concrete. "I don't want to ever see you again." Turning abruptly, she ran to her car.
"Becky," he shouted. As he made to go after her, he stepped on his ring. He bent and picked it up.
Brady, Jake and Cole came out of the gym. They stared at Luke, who was blankly examining the chain in his hand.
"What happened?" Brady asked.
Luke glared at his friends. "Who told her?"
Jake frowned. "What?"
"Someone told Becky about the dare." Collectively, they took a step backward, shaking their heads in denial.
"Man, that's bad," Cole said.
"Why haven't you told her before now?" Brady asked.
"Shut up." Luke sprinted for his truck, cursing himself for being so stupid. He had to make Becky understand.
When he drove into Becky's yard, he saw her car and knew she was home. The sheriff's patrol car was there, too, but that didn't deter Luke. He had to see Becky.
The sheriff opened the door before Luke reached it, and closed it behind himself. "Go home, Chisum. You're not welcome here." The deep growl in his voice would have frightened a sane person, but not Luke.
"I want to see Becky." He stepped onto the porch, determined to bypass the sheriff. The next thing he knew, the sheriff's fist connected with his jaw like a nine-pound hammer, sending him flying backward to the yard. He lay flat on his back staring up at a blurry sky, the fictional Tweety Bird circling his dazed head.
That was his first taste of hell.
The sheriff's bulky frame stood over him. "Stay away from my daughter or I'll kill you, Chisum. Now get off this property."
Somehow Luke made it home. His jaw ached for a week, but he never gave up on seeing Becky. As many times as he tried to talk to her, though, each time she refused to listen. He began to see a side of her he didn't likeher stubborn side. So he said to hell with her. If she could forget him so easily, then she didn't really love him.
When she started dating Danny Howard he thought he'd die, and he knew he had to get out of River Bluff as soon as he could.
His second taste of hell.
He joined the army and said goodbye to his family, who were in shock at his sudden decision. He spent sixteen years serving his country, rising to the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4. He flew a Black Hawk helicopter. His latest mission in Iraq had been rescuing wounded soldiers and flying them to safety and aid. His fellow soldiers called him the Texas Ace because he was from Texas and when he was free for any length of time he was playing poker.
His last rescue had almost killed him. A soldier was down behind enemy lines, and Luke and a medic flew in late at night to retrieve him. On the way back, the copter was detected and insurgents fired at them. Luke knew the Hawk was hit and he fought to control the unstable aircraft. They were losing altitude, and Luke smelled smoke and fuel and knew they were going down fast. Struggling with the controls, he was determined to land the Hawk. He was never quite sure how he did it, but the helicopter bumped hard, skidded on the ground and spun to a stop. He jumped from the cockpit, helped the medic with the now unconscious soldier and the three of them bolted for safety. They made it about twenty yards when the helicopter exploded.
He woke up in a base hospital and was then flown to Walter Reed in Washington. After many tests he was diagnosed with a severe concussion, dislocated shoulder, broken ribs, multiple cuts, burns and bruises. One doctor told him he was one lucky son of a bitch. Although the medic and the other soldier were alive, too, the soldier had lost a foot, the medic an arm.
In the days that followed, the medical team discovered Luke had other complications. He had an inner-ear disturbance and some vision problems. After several weeks, the inner-ear trouble was corrected and his wounds healed, but he had trouble seeing certain colors. His vision had to be perfect for him to fly. The doctor said he'd served his time and recommended an honorable medical discharge.
Luke fought it. He wasn't ready to leave the army or to go home. Then he thought of his father's stroke and knew he was needed at Great Oaks.
In the six months he'd been back, he'd seen Becky several times and she'd always been polite. But when she looked at him, the blue daggers of her eyes could be classified as lethal weapons. He thought they could get beyond what had happened in high school, but he supposed some things just never changed. At least Becky hadn't; she still hated him.
He usually gave her her space.
Today wasn't one of those days. He climbed out of his truck and headed toward her. She was rummaging in her purse, looking for something. In high school they'd spent a lot of time looking for her glasses, her keys and her books. She was always misplacing things. Seemed that hadn't changed, either.
"Hi, Sweet Bec."
"Morning, Luke." She kept digging in her purse, not sparing him a glance.
"Did you lose something?"
"No. I did not lose anything." She threw the strap over her shoulder, car keys in her hand. "And please don't call me Sweet Bec."
Sweet Bec had been his pet name for her and it had slipped out. Or maybe he just wanted to annoy her. Her eyes met his and Luke thought if looks could kill, he would be dead. He hooked his thumbs into the pockets of his jeans. "Why? Does it make you remember?"
"Don't flatter yourself." Her hand touched her hair, the only sign he made her nervous. The stylish short cut came below her ears and her fuzzy curls had been tamed. He wasn't sure if she'd had them straightened or whatever women did to their hair. The fetching freckles across her nose were no longer visible. Neither were her glasses. Evidently she now wore contacts and makeup.
She looked different, older and definitely more mature. For a moment he was nostalgic for the young Becky who'd constantly pushed her glasses up her nose and who could light up his life with just her smile. He wondered if she'd forgotten how to smile.
Had he been the cause of its demise?