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Fire and rain, p.1
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       Fire and Rain, p.1

           Elizabeth Lowell
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Fire and Rain


  ~ 1 ~

  What 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's 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.

  And him.

  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's 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.

  "Why?"

  "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's 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?"

  "Desperation."

  Grinning, Luke tucked in the shirt and followed Cash to the kitchen's 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's 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. "Anybody home?"

  Luke grunted. "Where's s the cake?"

  "Over there."

  "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."

  Luke glanced over at the sink. There was, indeed, a white substance in the sink. No bowl. Just sink.

  "Tell you what," Luke drawled. "Why don't I bring the cake over, mess it around a bit and then turn on the garbage disposal?"

  "I have candles," Cash said indignantly.

  "Stick them in the ice cream."

  "C'mon, hombre. Where's your sense of adventure? If we use the soup ladle for the icing, maybe we won't drip too much on the floor."

  Luke was dumping the first load of icing on the cake when he heard Carla's voice call from the front door. "Open up, big brother! My hands are full."

  "Happy birthday, sis," Cash said, opening the door. "Look who's here. He just happened to— watch it!"

  Luke had a glimpse of shocked, blue-green eyes, then Carla was grabbing frantically for the limp pizza box she had been in the process of handing over to Cash when she had spotted Luke.

  "Nice catch, schoolgirl," Luke drawled, watching Carla with a masculine hunger he would never admit, because there was nothing he would permit himself to do to assuage that hunger.

  Except look at her. He allowed himself to do that, his eyes cataloguing every feature. Sun-streaked chestnut hair, eyes like pieces of the sea, a body whose curves she never flaunted – but they were there just the same, a promise of heat that had made him ache since she was sixteen. With the ease of long practice, Luke shunted his thoughts aside concentrating on seeing Carla as what she was: his best friend's kid sister.

  "Pizza tastes better when you don't have to comb it out of the rug with your teeth," Luke pointed out.

  "I'll take your word for it," Carla said, as though it had been a day rather than almost a year since she had been this close to Luke. "I'm partial to plates and tables myself."

  "You used to be more adventurous."

  Luke saw the words slip past Carla's cool's tightly held surface and knew as clearly as if she had shouted it that she was remembering what had happened three years before, the night she had graduated from high school, stood in front of him and declared her love.

  Most nights Luke might have been able to smile and send Carla on her way feeling no more than a little embarrassed for her sweet declaration. But it hadn't been most other nights. It had been one of the nights when his elemental hu
nger for Cash's little sister had driven Luke to the temporary relief of straight Scotch. Instead of turning away from her, he had come to his feet, grabbed her and kissed her with every bit of the wild hunger in him. When she had tried to slow him down, to talk to him, he had lashed out.

  What did you think a man wanted from a woman who loves him, school girl? And there's the problem, isn't it? You're a girl mouthing woman's words and I'm a man on fire. Run, school girl. Run like hell and don't come back.

  Carla had taken Luke at his word. She had run and she hadn't come back. And he had locked himself up in the barn with his tools, transforming his yearnings into gleaming shapes of wood – chair and dresser, headboard and footboard, beautiful furnishings for the dream that could not come true.

  "Ah, well, live and learn," Carla said.

  "What have you learned, sunshine?" Luke asked. He saw the ripple of emotion in her clear eyes as he called her by the old nickname. But the emotion passed, and she was again watching him with the combination of distance and coolness that she had used on him whenever she couldn't avoid him.

  "I've learned that being adventurous is another name for being a fool," she said.

  Luke saw the tiny flinch she couldn't conceal and knew that he had hurt her. He hadn't really intended that. He had just wanted to see something besides aloofness and distance in her beautiful eyes.

  "You've got no corner on being a fool," Luke said calmly. "Seems like all I do lately is chase stubborn cows and eat bad food." He yawned and stretched his arms over his head, flattening his palms on the ceiling in order to fully stretch his body.

  "Get a cook," Carla said, walking past Luke to the kitchen.

  As he lowered his arms, his fingertips accidentally brushed over her arm and her glossy, shoulder-length hair. The short-sleeved blouse she wore couldn't conceal the sudden ripple of goose bumps, helpless response to his touch.

  "I've had six cooks in the past twenty months," Luke said. "Not a one of them could hold a candle to you. I've missed all those dinners when you and Cash and I would sit and talk about everything and nothing, and then Cash and I would fight over who got the biggest piece of whatever pie you'd made that day. Those were good times, sunshine."

  Carla's hands gripped the pizza box too tightly. She slapped the box onto the counter and began transferring slices to a baking sheet.

  "Bet you don't miss doing the dishes afterward," she said.

  "The conversation was worth it," Luke said simply.

  "Oh, no you don't," Cash said.

  "I don't what?" Luke asked.

  "You don't come sniffing around looking to make Carla your cook for the summer, leaving me with a can opener for company."

  Luke smiled slowly. "Hell of an idea, Cash. Sunshine, would you—"

  "Nope," Carla said quickly, interrupting.

  "Why not?"

  Ignoring him, Carla bent over the open stove and positioned the limp pizza as though it were a gear in a Swiss watch.

  "Why not?" Luke pressed.

  "Cash would starve, that's why," she said.

  "Slander! I can cook as well as the next man," Cash said.

  "Sure," she retorted, "as long as the next man is Luke MacKenzie."

  Before either man could speak, Carla spotted the brown-and-white mess at the end of the counter. Cautiously she dipped her finger in a thin white puddle that had formed on the tile next to the battered cake. Luke's eyes followed the tip of her tongue as she tasted the goo on her finger.

  "Too sweet for gravy or paint," she said after a moment, giving Cash a teasing sideways glance. She stirred the puddle with her fingertip, noted that the white stuck to everything except the brown mound it had been poured over, and smiled. "I do believe my brother has invented a fairly tasty form of library paste."

  Luke snickered.

  "Slander," Cash said, trying not to smile. "Is that why you turned down my kind offer to cook and insisted on bringing pizza instead?"

  "Bingo," Carla said.

  "Which reminds me, how much do I owe you for the pizza?"

  "A hundred dollars."

  Carla's tone was so casual that it took a few instants for the amount to sink in.

  Cash did a double take and asked, "What's on that pizza – beluga caviar?"

  "Pepperoni and mushrooms. I included the birthday present I knew you'd be too busy chasing rocks to get for me."

  "Oh. What did I get you?"

  "A few more weeks with Fred."

  "Fred?" Luke said before he could stop himself. "Who the hell is Fred?"

  ~ 2 ~

  "Fred's a what," Carla said.

  "Huh?"

  "Now you're getting the idea," she murmured.

  Luke's eyes narrowed.

  "Fred's her baby," Cash added unhelpfully.

  "Do tell," Luke retorted. "And soon, I hope."

  Carla fought against the smile she felt stealing over her lips, but couldn't stifle it any more than she could prevent the helpless yearning that went through her when Luke smiled approvingly at her in return. He hadn't changed. He was still tall, powerful, intense. His very dark brown hair set off his amber eyes, making them look gold in certain kinds of light. The trace of beard shadow beneath his high cheekbones perfectly suited his hard-jawed Slavic features.

  For a moment it felt as though time had turned back upon itself, touching again the years before she had mistaken Luke's affectionate tolerance for a very different kind of love. Longing swept through her, a futile wish that she had been different three years ago, or he had been; but she hadn't, and he hadn't, and the memories still shook her. She saw Luke as she had seen him that night, a huge, looming presence, his eyes a golden blaze of reflected firelight. The width of his shoulders had blocked out the world when he bent down and swept her up in an embrace.

  The first instants had been pure bliss, the culmination of years and years of dreaming; and then his arms had tightened and tightened and tightened until she couldn't breathe. His mouth had become rough and demanding, forcing hers to open, giving her a kiss that was as hard and adult as the male body grinding intimately against hers. She had been confused, completely at a loss, and finally a little frightened. It wasn't how she had envisioned Luke's response to her declaration of love – where was the tenderness, the joy, the sweetness of knowing you loved and were loved in return?

  With an effort, Carla banished the agonizing memories and answered Luke's question. "Fred is my truck."

  "Tell him the truth," advised Cash. "Fred is a battered, bewildered, dwarf four-by-four that does its best to play with the big boys. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten a call and had to go and winch Carla out of some damned mud hole. Next time it happens I've got half a mind to make you go and get her, Luke. After all, it's your fault that she's barreling all over the Four Corners chasing ancient shadows."

  Luke's intent, golden eyes fixed on Cash. "It is?"

  "Damned straight. If you hadn't given her that shard of Anasazi pottery you found somewhere up in September Canyon, she never would have become interested in archaeology. If she weren't interested in archaeology, she wouldn't have been off running after old bones with her professors every summer and most vacations."

  "I thought it was boys that girls chased," Luke said, fixing Carla with enigmatic golden eyes.

  "I gave up chasing boys right after I graduated from high school," Carla said flatly. "And stop trying to change the subject," she continued, turning to Cash, changing the subject herself. "You owe me fourteen bucks for the pizza."

  "And eighty-six bucks for truck repairs?"

  She smiled slightly and shook her head. "No, but I wouldn't turn down a hug."

  Cash engulfed Carla in a hug. Though she was five foot seven, the top of her head barely brushed Cash's chin. He lifted her and swung her around. When he set her down again, she was almost on Luke's feet. There was barely room for her to breathe. Luke was the same height as her brother, six foot three, and weighed within a pound or two of Cash's one ninety-six
. That was probably one of the reasons the two men got along so well – they were built on the same scale. Big.

  Without warning, Luke's long fingers tilted Carla's chin, forcing her to meet his eyes.

  "Are you really all grown-up now, sunshine?"

  The old nickname and the searching intensity of Luke's eyes took Carla's breath away, making speech impossible.

  "Hey, that reminds me," Cash said. "It's been months since I've played killer poker."

  "Not surprising," Luke retorted, releasing Carla with the speed of a man passing a hot potato on to its final destination. "It's been months since you've found an out-of-state sucker who doesn't know why Alexander McQueen is called 'Cash.'"

  "Lucky at cards, unlucky at love."

  Luke snorted. "I'll shuffle. Carla can deal. You open the champagne I brought."

  "Champagne?" Carla asked, stunned.

  She looked up into Luke's eyes. He was still standing close to her, so close that she could sense the heat of his big body. She hadn't sensed anyone's presence so acutely in years.

  Three years, to be exact.

  Luke's slow smile as he looked down at Carla made something stir and shimmer to life deep within her.

  "Champagne," he confirmed, his voice deep. "You only turn twenty-one once. It should be special."

  By the time the cards were shuffled, cut and dealt, Carla was sipping from a glass of golden champagne, which fizzed and sizzled softly over her lips and tongue. She hardly noticed the alcohol, for her blood was already sparkling from the memory of Luke's fingers on her skin.

  Are you really all grown-up now?

  The implications of that question scattered Carla's attention, making her lose at cards more rapidly than usual. Before Luke poured her a second glass of champagne, she had lost her original stake – six dollars. She handed over the last of her nickels. Without rancor, for it had been Cash rather than Luke who had won the lion's share of the pots. Long ago, Carla had decided that Cash must have made a deal with the devil in exchange for luck at cards.

  By the time Luke poured Carla a third glass of champagne, the pizza was reduced to grease spots on the paper plates, and it had become clear to everyone that Cash's luck was running as high as ever. Luke was down to three dollars from his original six, and Carla had traded seven days' worth of home-cooked meals for fifty cents each and promptly had lost every penny.

 
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