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A Home of Her Own Brenda Novak When Lucky Caldwell was ten, her mother, Red–the best-known hooker in Dundee, Idaho–married Morris Caldwell, a wealthy and much older man.It didn't last, of course, but Morris's kindness was the highlight of Lucky's life. Mike Hill, Morris's grandson, doesn't feel too well-disposed toward Red or her kids. He believes they alienated Morris from his family. Even Morris's Victorian mansion, on the property next to the Hill ranch, wasn't inherited by one of his grandchildren. Instead the house went to Lucky, who left it sitting empty for years.Now that Red and Morris are both dead, Lucky has finally come back to Dundee. She plans to restore the derelict place–and to look for her real father, who has to be one of three men named in her mother's diary. That means Mike has a new neighbor. One he doesn't want to like… Praise for Brenda Novak’s “Dundee, Idaho” Stories: “A Family of Her Own is an emotionally charged, fast-paced read. I will definitely be awaiting Novak’s next book.” —RoundTableReviews.com “A Family of Her Own tells a story rich in internal and external conflict…. Novak also explores family dynamics, friendships and other relationships.” —Romance Reviews Today “Once again author Brenda Novak delivers a stunningly magical performance…. Novak’s fans will easily recognize her unforgettable style and characterizations from the first chapter.” —WordWeaving on A Family of Her Own “A powerful author, Brenda Novak is an expert at creating emotionally driven romances full of heat, sensual tension and conflict that not only satisfy her characters, but her readers as well….” —Writers Unlimited on A Husband of Her Own “Brenda Novak always writes a wonderful story, whether it’s her Superromances or her single-title books. I know when I pick up something she’s written that I’ll be totally satisfied. And I certainly wasn’t disappointed with this one.” —Old Book Barn Gazette on A Husband of Her Own “Brenda Novak has hooked me with her endearing characters and heart-tugging romance.” —EscapeToRomance.com on A Baby of Her Own “A one-sitting read! Kudos to Brenda Novak for an insightful and emotional story that tore at my heartstrings!” —The Best Reviews on A Baby of Her Own Dear Reader, Welcome back to the small town of Dundee, Idaho. If you’ve read the first three books in my series, you already know that Dundee is one of those places where family stands for something. It might not always be what we want it to stand for, but Dundee’s definitely a place where a person grows roots. Love the place or hate it, the mountains, the land, the town are in the blood of everyone who lives there. So far, Booker has turned his life around. Rebecca has married her childhood nemesis. And Delaney has given Conner the tether he needed so badly. So what about Mike Hill? Those of you familiar with Mike know what a good guy he is—and what a great catch. You also know he’s nearly forty and unmarried. It’s going to take a very special woman to bring this man to his knees. He finds her just about the time he gives up looking—and in a very unlikely place. I had a great time writing this story, especially because the inspiration for certain plot elements came from my own family background. I’ll leave you to guess which ones, but as you read, reserve a smile for those of us who truly understand the cliché “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I love to hear from readers. Please drop me a line at P.O. Box 3781, Citrus Heights, CA 95611, or visit my Web site at www.brendanovak.com, where you can e-mail me or check out excerpts of my books, research articles and win fabulous prizes. Until we visit Dundee again… Brenda Novak Brenda Novak A Home of Her Own To Tonya, my oldest sister. She let her friend offer me my first (and only) cigarette when I was eight years old and she was eighteen, then cried laughing when I nearly hacked to death. She locked me and my other siblings out when she baby-sat so she could bake cookies and eat them without us. She refused to let us cross the holy threshold of her room, where she entranced us (standing outside looking in) with such mysterious antics as burning incense and making bottle candles out of crayons. She also rocked me for hours when I was a baby, bathed me until I was old enough to bath myself, married young and let me stay with her almost every weekend, took the heat from my parents when I stupidly caused the loss of something important to the family, taught me how to cook and clean and decorate. You’ve been a friend, a sister, a mother to me, Tonya. For everything, I love you. CONTENTS CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN CHAPTER SEVENTEEN CHAPTER EIGHTEEN CHAPTER NINETEEN CHAPTER TWENTY CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE EPILOGUE CHAPTER ONE THE VACANT HOUSE LOOKED haunted. Large and imposing, with a full moon hanging directly behind, the old Victorian cast a grotesque shadow across the snow, and the windows shone like so many eyes. Ignoring the gooseflesh that prickled her arms, Lucky Caldwell stood on the ornate porch, braced against a chill wind as she pushed the heavy front door a little wider. She didn’t really want to venture inside now that it had grown so late. The house had sat empty long enough that rats, possums, raccoons or other crawling things could easily have taken over. Or maybe she’d find some mass murderer hiding in one of the rooms…. If she was anywhere else, she’d head into town and get a motel for the night. But as soon as even one person in Dundee spotted the distinctive strawberry-blond hair she’d inherited from her mother, word would spread all over town that she was back. And she didn’t want to alert anyone to her return just yet. She needed to get her bearings. Coming here was a risk, a huge risk, and she’d never been as lucky as her name. The floor creaked as she stepped across the threshold. Instinctively she reached for the light switch, but then paused. Somehow, waltzing inside and lighting up the place seemed too brazen. She didn’t belong here; she’d never belonged here. But she didn’t belong anywhere else, either. Marshalling her nerve, she flipped the light switch anyway. Nothing happened. The pace of life in Dundee was maddeningly slow but, evidently, not so slow that Mike Hill, executor of the Caldwell Family Trust, hadn’t gotten around to having the utility company shut off the electricity. Which, after six years, didn’t come as any big surprise. She’d inherited this rambling Victorian when Morris died and hadn’t been back since. During that time, she’d received a couple of calls from Fred Winston, the town’s only real estate agent and a man she remembered as wearing a cheap brown toupee. He’d told her the paint was peeling and the porch was sagging and asked if she wanted to sell. But she knew who wanted to buy and the answer had been and still was—no. At least not yet. She had unfinished business here in Idaho. She set her backpack on the dusty floor and searched for her flashlight. Unfortunately, it was already on when she found it and, judging by the weak beam, had been on for several hours. Lucky considered returning to her car for the extra set of batteries. She’d had to park out front because the roof on the garage had collapsed. But she was afraid she’d lose her nerve if she turned back now. Better to forge ahead…. She hefted her backpack to her shoulder, trained the dim light in front of her and left the door open in case she encountered something or someone she’d rather not meet. Entering the formal living room, she quickly swept the light around the perimeter. Nothing moved—but the familiarity of the place evoked bittersweet memories. As bad as her childhood had been, she’d been truly happy for a few short months while living in this house. Especially that first Christmas after her mother had married Morris. In the dark, cobwebby corner to her left, she could easily imagine the splendid tree that had once stood there, proudly bearing a thousand twinkling lights and an abundance of shiny gold balls. That was the first time her family had possessed enough money to buy a tree any taller than a token three or four feet. And to have it flocked with fake snow and decorated so elegantly was really an extravagance. Every year since she’d become an adult, Lucky bought as big a tree as her current abode would allow and always flocked it, on principle. But she’d been living off the money she’d inherited from Morris, which was barely enough to get by on, since she gave most of it away. In order to keep traveling, she’d had to cut down on expenses. The places she’d been renting, for a few months here and six weeks there, had low ceilings and generally weren’t the nicest. Which meant she’d never been able to duplicate the opulence of that damn tree. She wrinkled her nose at the musty smell and glanced back at the open door before moving deeper into the house. The moonlight filtered through the bare, thick-paned windows, painting silver squares on the hardwood floor and, together with the faint beam of her flashlight, made it possible for her to see. The Georgian-style staircase rose up in front of her. A large office with double doors jutted off to the right, along with what used to be an impressive library. Lucky waved a cobweb out of her way and poked her head into the library, then the office, relieved to find them both vacant of scurrying animals and—thank God—anything larger. She continued her search, pausing to listen carefully here and there, until she reached the kitchen and family room. Situated at the back of the house, they were more like one big room with floor-to-ceiling windows that curved into a semi-circle and looked out over the pond at the bottom of the hill. Unfortunately, most of the windows at the back were broken now. Bending to retrieve a small rock lying among the glittering shards of glass on the old stone floor, Lucky tossed it up and caught it again. So much had changed. Morris was dead. Her mother, too. Her brothers, Sean and Kyle, who were both older than she was, had sold the land they’d inherited and moved elsewhere. But the feeling of being unwelcome here, the resentment of this small community, seemed to linger. Lucky threw the rock away and watched it skitter across the floor. So much for the hope that coming back would be easier than she’d anticipated. Owning a house didn’t make it a home. Considering the state of the Victorian, she wondered whether she should sleep in her car. A metallic blue ’64 Mustang, it was fully restored and beautiful. But sitting out in her car would be as cramped as it was cold. She’d be better off inside. Despite the creepy feel of the place, she hadn’t seen anything more threatening than a few spiderwebs. Discarded trash here and there indicated that others had been inside the house since it had been closed up, but nothing showed recent activity. Her tension easing, Lucky delved into her backpack and retrieved her supplies. Ten tall fragrant candles. Three fire-starter logs. Matches. A jug of water. Trail mix. And barbecue-flavored sunflower seeds. Her suitcase, cleaning supplies and bedding were still out in the car. With its stone floor and broken windows, the kitchen was colder than the front of the house. But the family room portion had a wood-burning stove and provided the most natural light. Come morning, Lucky planned to make the place livable. For now—she blew on her hands to warm them—she just needed to get through the next six or seven hours. She lit the candles, then arranged them on the marble countertop. They created a dim, ethereal glow and gave off a comforting scent that helped dispel the dank odor of neglect. Building a fire didn’t take long, either, thanks to the starter logs. When Lucky was a senior in high school and Morris had divorced her mother and moved back in with his first wife, across town, where he’d lived the final few months of his life, Red had stripped the place bare. She took everything of value down to the drapes, the stained-glass window on the second-floor landing, even the expensive knobs on the cupboards. But, thankfully, she hadn’t bothered carting off the wood by the stove. Lucky used the last of the split logs to build up her fire, welcoming the infusion of heat and hoping it would last for a few hours. Then she moved gingerly back, her feet crunching over the broken glass from the windows, which was thickest by the stove, to watch the smoldering orange flames catch and grow. The fire seemed symbolic somehow—her first step, a beginning. But the settling noises of the old house reminded her that she still needed to explore the upstairs, just to be sure she was as alone as she thought she was. After tapping her failing flashlight, to no avail, she went outside to collect the sack she’d placed in the backseat of her car. She replaced the batteries, left the front door standing open again for reassurance, and climbed the stairs to the five bedrooms and three bathrooms she knew she’d find there. A dark spot on the landing showed water damage. Clearly, the wind and rain had pushed through a tear in the plastic her mother had used to cover the hole when she took the stained-glass window. Lucky frowned at the stain, disappointed that she hadn’t stood up to Red that day. Red hadn’t had any real use for the window. She’d stuck it in a closet of the mobile home she’d moved into when she remarried. But Lucky wasn’t sure, even now, that it would’ve done any good to fight her mother. Red had been determined to take absolutely everything she could loosely interpret as “furniture”—because that was all she’d been awarded in the divorce, and she wasn’t happy that ten years of marriage to one of Dundee’s wealthiest old ranchers hadn’t netted her more. The door downstairs slammed shut, and Lucky bit back a startled scream. “Hello?” she called, pressing a hand to her chest. All she heard was the keening of the wind through the eaves outside. She gripped the flashlight more tightly, her heart pounding as she listened for footsteps. She heard nothing but couldn’t help imagining ghosts. She certainly wouldn’t blame Morris if he’d decided to stick around and haunt this old place. After everything he’d done for her mother, for the whole family, he’d been treated pretty shabbily in the end. It had been his first wife who’d come through and nursed him once his health turned. But Morris had been a good man. Certainly he had better things to do in the afterlife, Lucky thought wryly. Chances were far greater that Red would be the one rattling chains and roaming the grounds…. “There’s not much left here, Mother,” she muttered as chills rolled down her spine. “You took everything except the Sheetrock and the two-by-fours.” Silence settled on the house like a fresh layer of dust as Lucky leaned over the banister and shone her flashlight into the corners below. She saw bird droppings, an old rug that looked as if it had been chewed on one end, a broken chair. Lucky’s brothers, who’d stayed in Dundee a little longer than she had, once told her that Morris had never returned to the place or fixed it up after Red moved out—and they were obviously right. Finding nothing of particular concern, Lucky walked slowly on, still apprehensive as the plastic flapped noisily behind her. She discovered bed rails in two of the bedrooms, an old mattress with no bed rails in a third. The master had a large sitting area, which had been lovely. But the mirrored doors on the closets and the mirror over the vanity were now cracked. Graffiti covered the walls. Bitch! Whore! Killer! May you rot in hell! A searing pain in Lucky’s stomach—her ulcer acting up—made her feel as though she’d swallowed acid. She forced herself to turn away from those nasty words and concentrate on practical matters. That was the trick, wasn’t it? To grow a thick skin like her brothers and not let her mother’s legacy of shame and embarrassment bother her? There was so much else to think about, so much work to be done. She glared over her shoulder at the graffiti. Maybe she’d start by painting. After a few months, when she had the place fixed up, she’d finally sell out and put Dundee behind her forever. Just as soon as she found what she was looking for. MIKE HILL BROUGHT his Cadillac Escalade to an abrupt stop in the center of the road and squinted at the property next to his ranch. He couldn’t tell for sure, but a light seemed to be burning in the big Victorian. From the dim glow, he guessed it might be candles. Kids in these parts loved to visit his grandfather’s old mansion. Occasionally, they broke in to make out or to vandalize it. On Halloween, he’d caught a group of teenagers trying to spook themselves by holding a séance, although they were too drunk to take anything seriously. He knew this because he’d done his best to scare the hell out of them so they’d think twice about coming back, and they’d simply laughed and fallen over each other as they piled out. He grinned at the memory. Mike didn’t mind a bit of fun and games; he’d never been a saint himself. But he was afraid some poor kid would accidentally burn the place down, possibly injuring someone in the process. And he couldn’t bear the thought of losing the house. Mike had grown up spending his weekends there, with Grandpa Caldwell. He loved the old Victorian, had always been told he’d inherit it one day. That hadn’t happened. Instead, his grandfather had left all his grandchildren equal shares in a large ranch located in eastern Utah, which they’d since sold. But whether the house belonged to him or not, Mike couldn’t stand by and allow it to be destroyed. Shoving the transmission into Reverse, he made a quick, three-point turn and started bouncing down the long, rutted drive to the house. A set of car tracks cut through the crusty, week-old snow, confirming that at least one other vehicle had recently passed this way. The tracks led to a vintage Mustang parked behind the silly fountain Red had bought and placed in the front yard. Mike didn’t recognize the car as belonging to any of the young people he knew—and in a town of only 1,400 people, most folks knew each other. But it could easily belong to someone from a neighboring town. Grabbing the cowboy hat sitting on the passenger seat and jamming it on his head, he parked behind the Mustang and stomped the snow off his boots as he approached the door. He listened but didn’t hear any noise coming from inside—no music or voices—so he doubted anyone was tearing up the place. More likely it was a pair of young lovers borrowing the old mattress he’d seen in one of the upstairs bedrooms. He scratched under his jaw. He really didn’t want to walk in on something like that. But there was the issue of the candles. And he felt fairly confident that if a couple had to drive all the way out here for privacy, there was a mother somewhere who’d thank him for rousting them out. “Damn kids.” He tried the door and found it unlocked. Probably the boy had climbed through a window around back and let his girlfriend in the front door. That was how they usually did it. Rusty hinges protested as he poked his head inside, but a rich vanilla scent greeted him immediately. The light came from the kitchen. Heat seemed to emanate from that part of the house, as well. Evidently someone was trying to make things cozy…. “Hello?” Mike banged on the door as he entered. “If you’re undressed, cover up. I’m comin’ in.” He heard rustling at the back of the house. Then a flashlight snapped on and the beam hit him right in the face, blinding him before he could take another step. “Stop right there!” He put up a hand to block the light. “Or?” “Or…I’ll shoot.” He could tell by the voice that it was a woman. He had no idea where her boyfriend might be, but she seemed to be alone for the moment. “You have a gun?” he said incredulously. “What do you think?” Mike couldn’t remember anyone ever being shot in Dundee—unless it was in some kind of hunting accident. But he supposed anything was possible. “What kind of gun?” “Does it matter?” “Just curious.” He was still trying to protect his eyes. “One that’ll put a hole in you,” she said. “Happy?” “Not particularly.” The quaver in her voice told him she was probably lying about the gun, which he’d suspected from the beginning. He could understand why she’d feel a bit intimidated with a six-foot-two, two-hundred-and-ten-pound stranger barging in on her. What bothered him was the light—that and the question of why she was there. “Who are you?” “I could ask the same of you,” she said warily. “Mike Hill. I own the ranch next door.” Mike had grown up in these parts. Most everyone knew his family. But if she recognized his name, she didn’t say so. “What are you doing here, Mr. Hill?” “Do you mind?” He scowled at the light as she stepped closer. “You’re the one who walked in uninvited.” She had to be alone, or he would’ve heard someone else by now. “I came to tell you that you’d better put out those candles and hightail it out of here before I call the police. You’re trespassing on private property.” “Is it your property?” she asked. “It should be.” “But it’s not, is it?” He didn’t like her tone. The fact that he’d lost the house, of which he had so many fond childhood memories, to a gold digger and her children still bothered him. The fact that he’d been robbed of the time he could’ve spent with his grandfather in the last ten years of Morris Caldwell’s life rankled even more. “What happens here is none of your business,” she went on briskly. “Please go.” Mike had no intention of leaving. No one was going to chase him out of his grandfather’s house—especially with nothing more threatening than a flashlight. “Get that damn light out of my eyes.” “Or?” she said, coming back at him with his own line. Mike welcomed the challenge. “Or I’ll take it away from you.” “Then I’ll—” “Shoot? You don’t even have a gun. If you did, you wouldn’t need to blind me.” She hesitated, but Mike didn’t give her a chance to decide, just in case he was wrong about the gun. With two quick steps, he caught her around the waist and pressed her up against the closest wall. The flashlight fell and rolled away as he pinned her hands to the side. But he’d moved her close enough to the light in the kitchen that he could just make out a straining chest covered by an overlarge sweatshirt, a pale oval face and a thick halo of long curly hair that appeared to be blond. She was young, all right, but older than he’d thought. Certainly not a teenager. She looked small, perfect, porcelain—like an angel. But the glint in her luminous eyes had nothing to do with innocence and everything to do with red-hot fury. She began to raise her knee, but he managed to maintain his hold on her and protect his groin at the same time. “Let go of me you, son of—!” “Whoa, calm down, little lady!” He used his body weight to press her more firmly against the wall so she wouldn’t try to knee him again. “Little lady?” She was breathing so hard he could feel every intake of breath. “I suppose you think that kind of condescending bullshit passes for manners out here, huh, cowboy?” Mike cocked an eyebrow at her. “My manners are a hell of a lot better than anything I’ve seen from you,” he snapped. “I’m not the one who came barging into your house!” That took him aback. “What?” “You heard me. Whether you think this place should belong to you or not, I own it, so let me go.” Mike didn’t budge. The last time he’d seen Lucky Caldwell she’d been a pudgy eighteen-year-old with more than her share of acne. She’d worn her reddish hair in a tight ponytail and waited for the school bus out front every morning, hugging her books to her chest and glaring daggers at him whenever he drove by. “I don’t believe you,” he said. “Rumor had it that my mother tried to poison him. Actually, she gave him too much insulin, which she claimed was an accident, but he divorced her and cut her out of his will. Would I know that if I was just some squatter?” “Pretty much everybody knows that,” he pointed out, trying to see her more clearly. “At least around here.” “Okay, you bought the land next door from Morris when I was ten and you were about twenty-five. Josh was a couple of years younger. You and he started a stud service with a black stallion that had a white star on his forehead and white socks.” At his surprised silence she added grudgingly, “That horse was beautiful. I used to bring him sugar cubes and apples.” Slowly, Mike let go of her and eased away, wondering why his stallion hadn’t keeled over if she’d been feeding it from her evil mother’s pantry. Now that he could see her a little better, he couldn’t help noticing that she wasn’t wearing anything, other than maybe a pair of panties, beneath that baggy sweatshirt. The hem hit her almost at midthigh; bare, shapely legs extended from there. “It’s cold. Where’re your pants?” he asked. “In case you haven’t noticed, it’s late. I happened to be in my sleeping bag when you so kindly broke into my house and ruined my night. Forgive me for not dressing more modestly.” With that biting edge to her voice, he could tell she still had plenty of spunk. But she’d certainly changed in other ways. Mostly, she’d grown up. Although she had large breasts, especially for such a small woman, the fat had melted away, and her hair was long and curly and tumbled almost to her waist. With the light from the kitchen acting like a halo behind her, he could now see that it was more red than blond. Mike restrained a whistle and couldn’t help wondering whether she would’ve looked that good six years ago if she hadn’t pulled her hair back every day. If so, she might have commanded a little more positive attention from the boys in town. As it was, she hadn’t been especially attractive. Nor, with her unpleasant personality, did she have anything else to recommend her. “Why didn’t you tell me it was you?” he asked. Her hands curled into fists. “Maybe I appreciate my privacy.” More likely she enjoyed being caustic. He remembered Lucky clinging to Morris’s arm the day Morris had invited Mike over to meet his new wife and children. Because of his grandparents’ divorce and the quick second wedding, it had been a difficult year for Mike’s whole family, but particularly for Mike, since he’d always been closest to his grandpa. Everyone else had refused to acknowledge Morris’s invitation to come to the house, but Mike had shown up, hoping that everything he’d been hearing was a lie, or at least not as bad as it seemed. He’d thought he knew his grandpa. He’d thought his grandpa would never change. But Morris had been swept away by the excitement of his new relationship and was never the same after falling in love with Red. Mike had known there was indeed trouble in Eden when Morris hugged Lucky close and introduced her as “his new girl.” “This one’s a little doll,” he’d said, but the moment he turned his back, Lucky stuck out her tongue at Mike and ran away. Mike blinked, wondering what had brought Lucky back to Dundee. After Red died, his mother had finally stopped talking about how “that woman” and “those children” had stolen Morris’s love, as well as his money, then abandoned him when he was old and sick. Those who’d really loved him had taken care of him that last year. She’d also quit telling Mike, every chance she got, that it was Red who’d caused his grandmother to die shortly after Morris did. The doctors say it was heart failure. Of course it was. Her heart broke when she found out about Daddy’s affair. Mother was never the same after she left him and moved to town. Eventually, the scandal had slipped into the background and Mike hated to see it resurrected. “Are you here to stay?” he asked. When Lucky threw back her shoulders and brought up her chin, he knew he hadn’t done a very good job of concealing his hope for a negative answer. But then, he couldn’t imagine her expecting anyone to be happy about her return, his family least of all. “I might stay for a while,” she said. “You don’t have any problem with that, do you?” He had a problem with it, all right, but he’d already done all he could about Lucky. As soon as he’d learned that his grandfather had never legally adopted her and her brothers, as they’d all believed, he’d sued her for the house. And lost. Then he’d tried to buy it from her, several times. But she’d refused to sell. Bottom line, Lucky legally owned the place his grandfather had always promised to him; she could stay as long as she liked. “What you do is your decision, of course,” he said, his tone as curt and formal as hers. “My thoughts exactly.” She clasped her hands in front of her. “Now, if you don’t mind, it’s late, I’m nearly naked, and it’s cold.” He leaned sideways to gaze through the short hallway to the kitchen. Aside from the candles and the crackle of a fire, she didn’t seem to have many comforts in there. Surely, staying in such a barren, filthy place had to be miserable, especially for a young woman. But he didn’t want her to be too comfortable, did he? Then she might prolong her visit. “Is there anything else?” she asked when he hesitated. Letting his breath seep slowly between his lips, he stooped to retrieve his hat, which had fallen off when he’d “disarmed” her. “No.” She stalked to the front door and yanked it open. If she’d been anyone else, he would’ve said something neighborly, something like, “If you need anything, I’m right next door.” Because she was a woman, and young and alone, he had a tough time not saying it. But she wasn’t just any woman. She was the daughter of the most selfish, grasping woman he’d ever met. “Good night,” he said coldly and walked out, carrying his hat. If Lucky had turned out as much like Red as he suspected, she could certainly take care of herself. CHAPTER TWO LUCKY COULDN’T SLEEP. Her presence had been discovered by Morris’s first family. Already. Before she could even settle in and begin her research. She didn’t peg Mike Hill as much of a gossip, but he was loyal to his family. Now that he’d seen her, he was sure to mention it to his mother, who would mention it to her sister and brothers, and so on until half the town rose up against her. After all, practically everyone in Dundee was a friend or relative of the original Caldwells. Not that Mike or any of the people in his circle could do anything about her return—except make it unpleasant. Morris had seen to that. Considering what he believed her mother had tried to do to him, Lucky couldn’t understand why he’d still loved her and why he’d provided for her, especially so well. He’d left her brothers each a sizeable chunk of land, but he’d given her a little more than anyone else when he bequeathed her the house and a living allowance. Besides being grateful, she still missed him terribly. He was the best man she’d ever known, one of the few who had room in his heart for a fat, ugly little girl. Ironically, Mike, one of her greatest rivals, reminded her of the man she’d loved so dearly. There was something about the way he carried himself, the way he smiled. Not that he’d ever smiled at her. When she was a teenager, she used to daydream that the rugged cowboy next door would strike up a conversation, but she couldn’t remember his even acknowledging her. Which was probably why she’d become so determined to get a reaction out of him. She’d even flashed him one day while he was riding past on a horse and she was swimming in the pond. She’d doubted he could ignore that—and had felt mildly exultant when an expression of displeasure had flickered across his face. Pulling her knees to her chest, she tried to shut out the terrible craving she’d always felt for any crumb of approval or acceptance—especially when it came to Morris’s first family—and concentrated on staying warm. She was tempted to leave this house, leave Dundee. But the list of names she’d found in her mother’s journal was reason enough to stay. AFTER A MISERABLE night’s sleep, Mike stared at the phone, wondering whether or not he should call his mother. It was possible that Lucky didn’t plan on staying for any length of time. She moved around a lot. He knew because he was in charge of mailing off the monthly check she received from Morris’s trust, and she was forever sending him a new address. If she saw this as a stopover, if she was only going to move on in a few days, mentioning her sudden return would upset his mother, his entire family, for nothing. But if Lucky was going to stick around, it’d be better to give everyone some warning. He’d called his brother, Josh, already, but Josh was in Hawaii with Rebecca and Mike hadn’t been able to reach him. “Mike?” Mike glanced toward the door. Plump, fifty-year-old Rose Hilman, who handled the accounting, had just poked her head into his office. “Yes?” “Gabe Holbrook is here to see you.” Forgetting about his mother, his brother and Lucky Caldwell, Mike sat taller in surprise. He’d grown up with Gabe. They’d been best friends since they were kids, but ever since the accident, Gabe rarely came around. “Send him in,” he said. As Mike waited, he felt a surge of guilt and remorse. Over the past few months he hadn’t made enough of an effort to see Gabe. The man had had a tough two years, the worst imaginable, but he’d become so remote and moody, it was difficult to connect with him anymore. There didn’t seem to be anything safe to talk about. The subjects they used to enjoy—football, rodeo, women—had all become painful reminders of Gabe’s loss. Mike stood as Gabe wheeled himself into the room, slightly heartened that his friend looked so healthy. A long-sleeved T-shirt covered the corded muscles in his broad shoulders and arms, which bunched as he forced his chair over the thick pile of the carpet. Obviously he’d been lifting weights. His face was leaner and harsher in some respects, but he possessed the same thick-lashed blue eyes and wavy black hair that had always made him a favorite with women. At least he’d been a favorite before the accident…. “Gabe, good to see you, man.” Mike rounded his desk to shake hands. Gabe’s grip was firm. “It’s been a while.” Too long, and Mike knew it. If only the sight of Gabe in that damn wheelchair didn’t make him feel so…heartsick. He shoved his hands in his pockets, because he suddenly didn’t know what else to do with them, and sat on the edge of the desk. “You look good, buddy. You must be drinking more of that wheatgrass juice you made me taste last time I came up to the cabin.” It had probably been two months since that visit, but if Gabe resented the neglect, he didn’t let on. “There’re more vitamins and minerals in a tablespoon of wheatgrass juice than—” “I know—a whole grocery sack of fresh vegetables,” Mike broke in, chuckling. “And I still couldn’t force it down.” Gabe’s eyes swept over him. “From what I can see, you’re doing okay without it. For an old guy.” Two years younger, Gabe had skipped a couple of grades in school and always teased him about his age. “Forty’s right around the corner,” Mike said, “and you’re not the only one who won’t let me forget it. Josh has been giving me hell for months. So what brings you out to the ranch on such an ugly day?” Gabe’s eyes cut to the window, where snow was falling so thickly Mike could barely make out the barn. “The roads aren’t impassable yet. But your driveway could use some shoveling. How do you expect a cripple like me to get around?” The way he tried to make light of his situation made Mike more uncomfortable. Gabe’s body had been his whole life. Now he was a broken man, could never be fixed, and was living out in the hills like some kind of hermit. “You seem to get anywhere you want,” he said, which was true. If Gabe didn’t go out much, it wasn’t because he couldn’t. He shrugged. “I manage. Especially when I have a good reason.” “Sounds like something’s up.” “I wanted to tell you that my dad’s running for Congress in the next election.” “Really?” Mike nearly stood at this news, but remained sitting on the corner of his desk to lessen the height difference between them. He hated towering above Gabe when Gabe was really taller by a couple of inches. “That’s great. He’s got the background for it. He’s been a state senator for…what? Nine years now?” “Ten, but it’ll still be a tough race. Butch Boyle’s been in office forever.” “An incumbent is always difficult to beat. But your father’s well respected in this state. I think he has a good chance.” “We need some new blood in there. Butch’s been in Washington so long I don’t think he remembers he’s from Idaho.” Mike had to agree. He’d never been impressed with Congressman Boyle. But Mike would’ve supported Gabe even if Gabe had just announced that his father was running for President of the United States. This was the first sense of purpose he’d felt in his friend since the car accident. “Fund-raising’s critical,” Gabe continued. “That’s the other reason I’m here. I was hoping you’d help me.” “If you’re asking me to contribute, you know I will.” Mike leaned over and shuffled through some papers on his desk, looking for his checkbook, but Gabe’s voice stopped him. “I was hoping you’d be willing to do a little more than give me a donation.” Mike raised his eyebrows. “What, for instance?” “I’d like you to put together a committee. I want to meet with Conner Armstrong and the rest of the investors in the Running Y Resort, and Josh and your uncles and a few other folks in town.” “You don’t need me for that.” “Actually, I do. I’m not sure they’ll take an ex-football player seriously enough.” Mike suspected Gabe meant they might not take a crippled ex-football player seriously enough. No one thought Gabe any less of a man now than he was before, but Mike didn’t bother trying to convince Gabe of that. He knew from experience that Gabe wouldn’t listen. “Boise is where the money’s at, not here.” “Boise is split between the two congressional districts. We’ve got the more conservative part, which we’ll probably lose to Boyle,” Gabe said. “As far as grassroots efforts go, we’re going to have to do what we can here and up in the panhandle.” Mike rubbed his chin. He’d shaved when he got up this morning, but he could already feel the whiskers that would create a shadow across his jaw by dinnertime. “What kind of money are we talking?” “Half a million, at least. I’m sure Boyle can easily raise that much, what with Political Action Committees and donations from the timber industry.” “We can’t raise half a million from private individuals, no matter how successful our grassroots efforts are,” Mike said. “We live in a state that’s nearly half-rural.” “I realize that. But there are other avenues.” “Like…” “The American Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Teamsters Union…” “You’ve been doing your homework.” Gabe gave him a rare smile. “Damn right.” Mike considered the request. Maybe getting involved in Garth Holbrook’s campaign would give him and Gabe something in common again, help them both adjust to who and what Gabe was now. “Sure,” he said. “Josh is out of town with Rebecca for a few days, an early Christmas present. But I’ll set up an appointment with him, Conner and the other Running Y investors as soon as he gets back.” LUCKY LEANED against the wall of her old bedroom and rubbed an itch on her forehead with the back of her hand. She’d been knocking down cobwebs and sweeping out the house all morning and didn’t want to touch her face with her fingers. The physical exertion of cleaning helped her stay warm, so she’d kept at it while waiting for the snow to let up. But it was already noon and the weather didn’t seem likely to change any time soon. If she wasn’t careful she could get stranded out here another night. She was determined not to let that happen, but she didn’t have too many options. There wasn’t any cell phone service because of the surrounding mountains. She was fifteen miles from town and didn’t have anything remotely resembling a shovel with which to dig her car out of the snow. And Mike Hill was her only neighbor. Mike Hill… God, she couldn’t ask him for help! He’d always resented her, and she’d— She’d nothing. Most of the time, she didn’t even exist for him. It was better to pretend he’d never existed for her, either. Deciding there wasn’t anything she could do until it stopped snowing, she headed downstairs for her suitcase so she could hang up a few of her nicer clothes. She’d packed carefully, filling her bags to maximum capacity just in case she stayed awhile, but her belongings were no longer neat and tidy. After Mike had left last night, she had trouble getting warm again and she’d rummaged through them, searching for layers. Shoving her clothes back inside her biggest suitcase, she sat on the lid to close it, then pulled it over to the stairs and started hoisting it up one step at a time. “Come on,” she grumbled as she strained to keep moving. She made the first curve of the stairs and rounded the second, but the corner of her suitcase hit a spindle, nearly jerking it from her grasp, and the latch gave way. With a curse, Lucky watched in frustration as everything spilled down the stairs. “That’s it, I give up,” she said, and dropped the suitcase, too. It banged its way along, hitting the wall and the railing several times before finally crashing to the floor. Sinking onto a step near the top, she glowered at the wreckage. What was another mess? She was already alone in a house with no utilities, stranded by a terrible storm…. I should leave Dundee as soon as the storm lifts. That thought had been drifting in and out of her mind all morning. She’d already put this place behind her once, along with its ghosts and memories. Why had she bothered to come back? The black journal that had fallen out of her suitcase, along with everything else, served as a quick reminder. Studying what she could see of the fanning yellowed pages, she wondered once again whether reading it had been a mistake. Would finding her father really make any difference? She had no idea. Her brothers hadn’t grown up with their father, but they knew his name. According to Red, he’d been a handsome young man named Carter Jones, who’d spent two years in Dundee before breaking her heart and following the rodeo circuit. Except for the money he’d occasionally sent when he was working, they’d never heard from him again. Her brothers didn’t seem to have a problem with that, but she was different. She’d grown up without knowing so much as a name. Until now. Suddenly, she had three possible candidates. She’d come here with the goal of narrowing it down to one. And why not? What better things did she have to do? She’d been traveling from place to place, volunteering at hospitals and food banks and shelters for six years—ever since she’d graduated from high school. There really wasn’t anywhere left to go, at least anywhere she’d find the peace she’d been seeking in her volunteer work. This small town hated her for being who she was, but it held all the secrets she needed to gain some perspective on her life. With a sigh, she retrieved the journal. Maybe returning to Dundee wasn’t a mistake, but she should’ve waited for spring. She might have waited, except that she’d wanted to be here for Christmas. The memory of that one holiday, her first in this house, had tempted her back. She chuckled sadly. God, she was still trying to relive it. How pathetic… Stepping past the shoes and underwear on the stairs, she went back to her mother’s bedroom to confront the vulgar graffiti on the wall. This room, those words, brought back so much of what she’d experienced when she lived here. Her friends’ parents’ disapproving glances and hushed words: Julie’s brought home that Caldwell girl again. We need to have a talk with her…. Lucky’ll turn out to be just like her mother, you wait and see…. We’re law-abiding, churchgoing folk. We can’t have that kind of influence in this house. The suggestive whispers of the boys in school: Is your hair that red everywhere? Let’s go behind the bleachers and take a look…. With a mother like yours, you ought to know all the tricks. All the tricks? Growing up, Lucky had known more about sex than she should have, but certainly not from her own experience. Sliding down the wall to the bare floorboards, she opened the weathered book she’d found when she finally went through the boxes her brothers had sent her after Red’s funeral. The list of male names scrawled in her mother’s hand brought back fragments of memory Lucky had tried for years to suppress. Men, coming in and out of their ramshackle trailer while Lucky was small, ruffling her hair or handing her a shiny quarter. Men moaning behind the closed door of her mother’s bedroom. Despite the terrible cold, sweat gathered on Lucky’s top lip. She wanted to burn the journal, obliterate the proof. But she couldn’t. Dave Small, Eugene Thompson and Garth Holbrook were all listed as having “visited” her mother twenty-five years ago, right around the time a man would’ve had to visit Red for Lucky to be born. Unless Red was seeing someone she didn’t write down, which seemed unlikely given her scrupulous records, one of these men was probably her father…. Lucky recognized Dave Small’s name, and Garth Holbrook’s, too. Both had been prominent citizens of Dundee, giving her some hope that she could identify with or admire her father at least a little more than she did her mother. They might have visited a prostitute several times, but Lucky knew from watching Red that being faithful wasn’t easy for a lot of people. It was even possible that they hadn’t been married when they’d associated with her mother. She thumbed forward to the blank pages that represented the year Morris had come into their lives. He’d put a stop to the male parade going through Red’s trailer. For a while, anyway. Until Red forgot what it was like to scratch for a living and grew bored with being an old man’s wife. Then, while Morris was away on his many business trips, everything had started up again. Only now her mother didn’t keep a list, the men didn’t leave any money, and Lucky was old enough to have a clearer understanding of what was really going on when her mother said she needed to speak to Mr. So-and-So alone for a few minutes. Briefly, Lucky closed her eyes, shaking her head at all the times she’d begged Red not to risk their newfound security. As Lucky grew older, Red had quit pretending that Lucky didn’t know the truth and started threatening her instead. You say anything, Lucky Star Caldwell, and I’ll kick your ass right out of this house. Her mother’s voice came to her so clearly, so distinctly, that Lucky glanced up, toward the entrance of the room. But she saw nothing—nothing except herself as a young, insecure girl, peeking into the room in response to her mother’s shrill call, “Bring me some damn aspirin.” When things at home became unbearable, Lucky would sneak over to the Hill brothers’ barn to be with their beautiful horses. There, for an hour or two at a time, she managed to forget the sick feeling that, by her silence, she was betraying Morris as badly as her mother was. Or the knowledge that, even if she’d had her mother’s permission to tell what she knew, which she most certainly did not, she wouldn’t have breathed a word of it because she couldn’t bear the thought of Morris disappearing from her own life. Snapping the book closed, Lucky climbed to her feet. She’d tried so hard to distance herself from all that. Once she’d graduated from high school, she’d left Dundee and never looked back. Even when Morris had died and her brothers sent word of her inheritance. Even when, two years later, her mother had a stroke and passed away. Even when Mike Hill contested the will, forcing her to hire an attorney. She’d let the attorney go to court for her and when it was all over, she’d simply petitioned Mike, as executor of Morris’s estate, for the check he was supposed to send her each month and left the house to rot. Until now. Now she realized she could never run far enough from the past and she’d come back do something about the house. But first she had to ask Mike for a favor before she froze to death. She doubted he was going to be very happy about it. CHAPTER THREE LUCKY SHIFTED from one foot to the other as she stood at Mike’s door. He might be chief among her rivals, but he was also one of the handsomest men she’d ever known and, without running water in the house, she hadn’t even been able to shower. She was soaked and shivering from wading through snow, and her nose and cheeks felt so raw she was sure they were bright pink. Pink had never been a good color on her; pink wasn’t good for most redheads. But at this point, Mike Hill was her only option. No one else lived nearby. A middle-aged woman came to the door. Her brown hair, full of gray streaks, was pulled into a bun with a pencil jammed through it. “You don’t have to stand out in the cold, honey. This part of the house is only offices. You can come in.” “Th-thanks.” Lucky was so cold she could barely speak. “You’re going to catch pneumonia if you don’t get out of those wet clothes and put on something dry as soon as possible,” the woman said, her gaze traveling over Lucky’s soaked jeans. Lucky blinked the last vestiges of snow from her eyelashes and managed a smile. “I’m f-fine. Is Mr. Hill around?” “Which one?” “Mike.” “He’s in his office. Can I tell him who’s looking for him?” Lucky hesitated to state her name. She didn’t want to send shock waves through the community just yet. But Mike already knew she was back, which pretty much ruined her low-profile return. “Lucky Caldwell.” The woman’s eyebrows shot up to her hairline. “Did you say Lucky?” Lucky clenched her jaw and nodded. Her hands, feet and nose burned as they thawed, but the prickling sensation was the least of her worries. How was Mike going to react to having her appear at his office? “You’ve grown up,” the woman said. “I didn’t recognize you.” Lucky didn’t recognize her, either, and it must’ve shown because the other woman frowned. “I’m Polly Simpson—Mrs. Simpson to you, at least in the old days. I used to work in the attendance office at Dundee High, remember?” “Oh, of course,” Lucky said. But she still couldn’t recall Polly Simpson’s face. Probably because she’d never missed a day of school in her life. School had been her refuge. She’d rarely visited the attendance office and had probably only passed Mrs. Simpson in the halls. “I’ll tell Mike you’re here.” “Wait.” Lucky caught her arm. “Is there a Mrs. Hill I could talk to?” “If you mean Josh’s wife, she’s out of town. Mike’s not married.” “Still?” Mrs. Simpson chuckled. “Still. Do you want me to get him?” Evidently, she had no better choice. “Yeah.” With a final curious glance, Polly headed the other way, her panty hose rubbing as she walked. A moment later, she poked her head out of a room at the end of the hall and waved. “Mike says you can come on back.” Lucky quickly removed her boots because the caked-on snow was beginning to melt and create puddles on the plastic protecting the entryway carpet. But when she saw her feet, she wished she hadn’t been so polite. There was a hole in her sock, which made her look like the white trash everyone here already thought she was. “Miss Caldwell?” Lucky straightened. “I’m coming.” Ignoring the hole, along with the wetness of her jeans and her generally haggard appearance, she refused to acknowledge the curious stares of the office personnel and walked down the hall as if she and Mike had been friends for years. Mike had a large office with a mahogany desk, four soft leather chairs, a wet bar in one corner and several horse pictures hanging on the walls. Huge windows revealed the storm, but Lucky knew that on a clear day, they’d show the barn and the beauty of the land sweeping away from the house. “Lucky.” Mike stood. Cool curiosity filled his hazel eyes, but he didn’t come to meet her, and he didn’t smile. “Is there something I can do for you?” Lucky resented having to ask him for a favor, even a small one. But unless she wanted to turn into a Popsicle by morning, she had to. “I was hoping you wouldn’t mind letting me use your phone.” “Of course not.” He paused briefly, studying her, and she stood completely still, forcing herself to bear the weight of his gaze. She had no doubt that he wouldn’t like what he saw. She’d lost a lot of weight since she’d lived here, but her hair color was too light to be the rich auburn everyone seemed to admire, and her skin was too pale. “You’re soaked,” he said. “Don’t tell me you walked over here.” She didn’t want him to know how desperate she was for the basics in life, so she shrugged carelessly. “It’s only half a mile or so.” “It’s storming.” “I guess I could’ve dug my car out of the snow, but the closest thing I have to a shovel is a broom.” She chuckled, hoping to elicit a smile from him and ease the tension between them, but it didn’t work. “In that case, I think you made the right choice.” He brushed past her as he dragged a chair across the carpet to a small table in the corner, where there was a phone. As he swept by, Lucky caught the scent she’d noticed last night. Mike had been in his midtwenties when she was growing up, fifteen years her senior, but she’d always respected him—almost idolized him. And now that she could see him more clearly, she decided he’d changed for the better. Where he’d once been tall and lanky, he was well-muscled and perfectly proportioned. Faint laugh lines bracketed his eyes and mouth, and the skin of his face, hands and neck showed how often he worked outdoors. She liked Mike’s rugged virility, his light eyes and brown hair, the aura about him that said he’d been around awhile and knew how to handle life. But last night was the first time she’d ever gotten close enough to connect a specific scent to him. He smelled like the outdoors, like a wintry forest…. “Sit down and make yourself comfortable,” he said, but she knew his words were only a polite facade. She shook her head. “I won’t sit, I’m too wet.” He frowned at her soaked feet as if he’d missed them in his earlier perusal—and seemed to zero in on the hole in her sock. Her toes curled before he motioned her into the chair again. “I’m not worried about you getting anything wet.” Clearing her throat, she did as he suggested so she could leave as soon as possible. “Um, do you happen to have a phone book I could use?” He leaned into the hall and asked someone to bring him a phone book. “Can I get you a cup of coffee?” he asked, turning back. Lucky longed for hot coffee. Without electricity, she couldn’t brew any for herself. But she wasn’t going to press her welcome long enough to drink it. She didn’t want to take anything more from Mike than absolutely necessary. “No, I’m fine.” He opened his mouth to speak again but Polly Simpson interrupted with the phone book, which he immediately passed to her. “Thanks,” she mumbled and tried to get her burning fingers to work well enough to turn the flimsy pages. Mike shoved his hands into the pockets of his Wranglers and leaned against the doorjamb, then seemed to think twice about hanging around to watch. “I’m gonna grab a cup of coffee,” he muttered and left, and Lucky breathed a sigh of relief to find herself alone. It took her nearly fifteen minutes to get through to the power company, and an additional five to reach the other utility companies, but when she finally hung up with her third customer service representative of the day, she had promises that the electricity and phone service would be restored at 215 White Rock Road. She just didn’t know exactly when. She’d been told it would happen after the storm, but the storm could last another day or two. “All set?” Mike reappeared almost the second she closed the phone book. Lucky took the question to mean that he was as anxious for her to leave as she was to go. “Yes. Thank you.” She stood and headed for the door, but knew she’d be stupid not to ask Mike if she could borrow a shovel. If she didn’t get power and water today, she’d have to dig out and drive to town. She was down to a small bag of sunflower seeds for food, only half a gallon of water and no more firewood. Cursing herself for not being better prepared for the harsh Idaho winter, she paused on her way out. “I’m sorry to bother you again, but would it be possible to borrow a shovel? I won’t need it for more than a couple of days.” He’d already started working on his computer. He glanced up—and hesitated long enough that she regretted asking. “If you don’t have an extra one, I understand,” she said. “No, that’s not it. I’m sure I can find something.” Getting up, he came around the desk and led her through the offices. When they reached the outside door, he told her he’d be right back. She put on her cold, wet boots while he disappeared into the private part of the house. By the time he returned, she was dressed and ready to go, and he was carrying a fair-size snow shovel. “Here you are.” “Thanks. I’ll get it back to you as soon as I can,” she told him and ducked out into the storm. She thought he said, “There’s no rush,” but the wind had kicked up so much, she could scarcely hear him. LUCKY SPENT the next several hours shoveling snow in a veritable blizzard. The work warmed her body but did little for her fingers and toes. Soon her jeans were stiff with ice. She had to stop every few minutes to go inside, take off her boots and stick her frozen feet in her heavy sleeping bag in an effort to warm them. As the temperature dropped and the sky darkened, she considered heading back to Mike’s. It was getting harder and harder to wield that darn shovel, but she had too much pride to beg him for any more favors. She’d get by on her own, like always. She just needed to figure out a way to reach town. The shovel scraped the gravel of the drive as she jammed it through the snow for what felt like the millionth time. Her back and arms ached, protesting the strain as she tossed a scoop off to the side before digging in again. Who would’ve thought clearing the driveway could take so long? She slumped against the car and tried to catch her breath. Shading her eyes against the flakes still blowing around her, she squinted toward the road. She had at least twenty feet to go. “I had to pretend I was coming home for Christmas, had to see the old place in winter,” she grumbled, longing for the cup of coffee she’d refused earlier and a hot bath. She imagined slipping into a steaming tub and promised herself she’d do exactly that—as soon as she had some hot water to do it with. After another fifteen minutes of sheer determination, she finally threw the shovel down and, completely winded, wiped her nose with the back of her gloved hand. She wasn’t making enough progress, and it was getting too dark to see. Tramping into the house, she flipped the first light switch she found, praying that her electricity had been restored. As hungry as she was, she could get by without food for one more night if only she had heat. Nothing happened. Dejected, she yanked off the hood of her coat and went to the kitchen to ransack her backpack. She was hoping to find an energy bar or something else she might have missed, but discovered nothing more than a few gum wrappers and crumbs. To make matters worse, her jug of water contained only a few ounces. What was she going to do? She needed to finish clearing the drive and get out of here. But she couldn’t go back to shoveling…. Returning to the living room, she stared through the large front window at what she’d achieved so far. Maybe she could drive out. It was worth a try, wasn’t it? Encouraged by visions of a hot meal and a cozy motel room, she grabbed her purse and hurried outside again. But she had trouble starting the car, and even after she got the darn engine running, she didn’t make it more than ten feet before her tires spun out. “Come on!” She shifted the transmission into Drive. No luck. She gave the Mustang a quick shot of gas and reversed. Nothing. She was stuck—at least until morning. Letting her shoulders slump, she hammered her forehead on the steering wheel. What had she been thinking, coming back to Dundee at Christmastime? She, of all people, knew there was no Santa Claus. AS THE WIND TOSSED tree branches and snowflakes against the house, Mike stared at the ceiling of his room. He was exhausted and wanted to sleep, but this was one of the worst storms he’d seen in years and much as he wanted to forget Lucky, he couldn’t do it. He kept picturing her, small and cold with her toe poking through that hole in her sock, and he kept feeling guilty that he hadn’t sent over one of his men to shovel her drive. If she’d been anyone else, he would’ve done it in an instant. But she wasn’t anybody else. She was Red’s daughter, and she wasn’t as sweet as she looked. He remembered her sticking her tongue out at him and decided he’d done the right thing. She’d been living on his grandfather’s money since she turned ten. The physical labor had probably done her some good. Unless she’d never managed to get her car out of that long drive. Maybe she was sitting over at the house right now, freezing to death…. He thought of the broken windows and the snow drifting inside. If she’d needed anything, she would’ve come back to the ranch, he told himself. She’d been over once—and he’d been nice enough. But he wasn’t absolutely convinced she’d return. He could tell she’d had a difficult time appearing on his doorstep in the first place. Punching his pillow, he rolled over. Mike had made sure his horses were safe in their stalls, each covered with a thick blanket, but he was letting a woman stay alone in a house that had no heat? Not just any woman, he reminded himself. Lucky Caldwell. Lucky didn’t count. Besides, if she was cold, she’d build a fire. She’d built one last night, hadn’t she? A fire would keep her warm. He wasn’t going to lose any more sleep over the little brat who’d replaced him in his own grandfather’s eyes. Lucky wasn’t his responsibility, and he didn’t want anything more to do with her. Work…he needed to think about work. With Josh gone he’d have plenty to do come morning. He had clients to call, payroll to sign— The image of Lucky pressed between him and the wall, her eyes wide with alarm, flashed through his mind. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered and kicked off the covers. Evidently, it didn’t matter who she was. His conscience wouldn’t let him rest until he made sure she was okay. MIKE HAD a four-wheel-drive, and one of his men had shoveled his driveway as late as five o’clock, but in this storm, the risk of getting stuck was still high. He decided it’d be better to take one of the snowmobiles he kept out back. Grabbing the heavy-duty flashlight he used to check the horses, he bundled up in a heavy sheepskin coat and lined leather gloves, pulled on his cowboy boots and shoved his hat low on his head. Then he stalked outside and toward the shed. He’d be soaked and miserable by the time he got home…. The high whine of the snowmobile’s engine sounded oddly subdued in the storm’s bluster. The headlight barely cut the dark, but Mike knew the lay of the land. He’d been riding snowmobiles out here since he was five years old—back when both his grandparents were still alive and together and he came to stay with them so often. As he shot over the snow, icy flakes clicked against his windshield, stung his unprotected face and threatened to rid him of his hat. But it wasn’t long before he was climbing the hill to his grandfather’s house—Lucky’s house now—feeling quite confident he’d find her gone. No one would stay around in a storm like this, he thought. Until he saw her car stuck halfway between the house and the road and knew she’d tried to go somewhere. She just hadn’t made it. The tone of the snowmobile’s engine lowered by at least an octave as the hill grew steeper. He compensated by giving it more gas. He couldn’t see any lights inside the Victorian, which concerned him. He hadn’t really expected the utilities to be restored yet, not in a storm like this, but he assumed Lucky would light some candles or start a fire. Maybe she’d fallen asleep, and the fire and candles had gone out. Worry seeped through him, along with the cold, as he came to a stop next to an area that had obviously been shoveled fairly recently. He should’ve helped her. If she was in any kind of trouble, he knew he’d feel responsible. The snow came above his knees as he climbed off, grabbed his flashlight and made his way toward the porch. Only this time when he reached the door, he found it locked. “Lucky?” He banged on the thick wood, but received no answer. “Lucky, are you in there?” Where else could she be? She seemed stubborn, but she wasn’t stubborn enough to try walking the fifteen miles to town, was she? God, he hoped not. If she’d done that, he was pretty certain he’d find her lying frozen in the snow. His flashlight made a bright circle in the swirling flakes as he waded through the side yard. When he got to the back, he found that door locked, too, but easily slipped his hand through one of the broken windows to undo the safety latch. The kitchen was barely warmer than the outdoors. She’d been wet when he saw her just after noon. Did she know enough to get out of those clothes? Did she have others? He had no idea what she’d brought with her or how well prepared she was for weather like this, but if what he’d seen so far was any indication, she sure as hell didn’t have much of a plan. He trained his flashlight on the room around him. Lucky had cleaned in this part of the house, but he didn’t see her sleeping here. “Lucky?” No answer. His heart pounded as he jogged into the living room, library, office. Empty. Damn! Taking the stairs two at a time, he headed directly to the master bedroom. “Lucky? It’s Mike.” Nothing. His heart started to pound harder. “Lucky?” “G-go away.” The sound of her shaky voice brought both relief and more concern. He stopped abruptly and swung around, searching for her. She wasn’t in the master bedroom, but she was close, definitely upstairs. “Are you okay?” he called, hoping she’d answer him again. “I s-said, g-go away!” She was in the second bedroom. He strode purposefully down the hall and opened the door to find a round lump in the bottom of a sleeping bag on the dirty old mattress he’d noticed on previous visits to the house. “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked, worry putting an edge on his words. “Wh-what do you mean?” Her teeth were chattering so badly he could hardly understand her, especially through the sleeping bag. “You don’t have any heat in here.” “Not l-late-breaking news.” “You should’ve come back to the ranch.” “Because I’d b-be so w-welcome?” She finally poked her head out and, unless he imagined it, she looked blue around the mouth. In any case, her eyes seemed too large for the rest of her face, reminding him how young she was. Twenty-four. He’d barely graduated from college at twenty-four. “Because you could freeze to death over here,” he said. “And my place is your only real alternative.” “Too ironic, d-don’t you think? M-me asking you to p-put me up?” “I would’ve done it,” he said. “Not h-happily. D-don’t think your m-mother would approve of that much ch-charity where I’m concerned.” He didn’t want to talk about charity right now, not when he’d ignored her needs the way he had. “That’s another matter. Come on.” “What are you t-talking about?” “You’re going home with me.” “N-no, I’m not.” She ducked back inside the sleeping bag. “It’ll b-be morning soon. I’ll d-dig my car out and—” “Like you did today?” he said. “D-didn’t get an early enough st-start,” she grumbled. “It’s hard w-work.” “Something you’re not accustomed to, I’m sure.” With all the money he sent her from Morris’s trust, she didn’t need a job and he doubted she’d ever had one. “P-pardon me?” “You can’t keep a job when you move every few weeks.” “Who are you t-to sit in j-judgment of me? You and your family th-think you’re so much b-better.” “That’s bullshit,” he said. “You don’t know me or my family. I passed you on the road a few times when you were a kid. That’s it.” “Not quite.” “There’s more?” “Only s-something I’ve been t-trying to forget.” “What could that be?” She didn’t answer, and it was too darn cold to coax her. “Are you coming or not?” The fact that she’d already curled up again didn’t seem hopeful. He considered his options. He could leave her here and send someone to dig her out in the morning. But then he’d go home, feel guilty and have to come back. Or he could take her with him. Problem was, he didn’t know which he’d regret more…. “If you want a hot meal and a warm bed you’ll cooperate,” he said. “I d-don’t remember asking you—” “Look, we’ve never been friends. I know that. But for tonight, let’s forget about the past and pretend we just met, okay? Simple enough?” “That’s m-mighty noble of you, M-Mike, but I’m sure I’ll l-live without your help.” Mike wasn’t so sure. She obviously didn’t realize she could be in real danger. “You’re freezing, Lucky.” “My problem, n-not yours.” True. He’d tried to tell himself as much, but…“Are you going to make me do this the hard way?” he asked. “The hard way?” She began to crawl out again, but he knew she’d only continue to argue, so he made a quick decision. Closing off the top of her sleeping bag before she could emerge, he slung her over his shoulder like a burlap sack filled with rocks and marched into the hall. LUCKY YELPED as she banged into Mike’s back. “What are you doing? Leave me alone! Put me down! You egotistical, spoiled, self-righteous son of a—” “All the traveling you’ve done in the past six years certainly hasn’t improved your personality,” he broke in dryly. Adrenaline finally loosened her tongue. “Kiss my ass, Mr. Hill. You and your whole family can go to—Ouch…” he’d started down the stairs, which made her bump against him with every step “…to hell—ow!—because I don’t care who you are or what you—ouch!—have, you’re no better than I am!” “Grown up angry, have we?” His breathing became labored as he reached what she thought had to be the front door. She tried to slug him or kick him, but she couldn’t do anything through the thickness of the bag. She couldn’t even tell him off properly, which was probably why he was chuckling. “I can’t breathe in here,” she said. “Let me out!” “You were breathing in there just fine before I arrived. As a matter of fact, that bag might be the only reason you’re still breathing. So relax. You’ll be fine.” “I don’t want to relax!” “You’ll thank me in the morning.” “For kidnapping me?” “I doubt feeding you and keeping you warm for one night qualifies as kidnapping.” Keeping her warm for the night? When she was sixteen and visiting his horses, she accidentally saw Mike kissing Lindsey Carpenter in the barn. She’d replayed that scene in her mind a thousand times, but when she imagined it, she got to be the woman moaning softly as Mike held her against him. For a girl with a mother like Red, a girl who’d learned too much too soon, it was quite an epiphany to see something so sweet and gentle going on between a man and a woman. Watching Mike that day had mesmerized her. The memory of it still did. But the fact that being kept warm by him in exactly the same way appealed to her only added to her humiliation. She’d wanted to slip into town and fix up the house while quietly searching for her father. A simple plan. If only she’d known to expect the worst blizzard of the century. Then she wouldn’t be going home with Mike Hill—in a bag! Mike’s boots thudded on the porch, telling her they’d moved outside, and the bumping started again as he descended more stairs. He slowed then, which meant he was probably wading through snow. “This is ridiculous,” she cried. He set her down on something small and narrow, something she couldn’t see or identify. “What is this? Where are we?” “Hold still.” She continued to struggle until he let her head out of the top of the bag. The snow immediately lashed her cheeks, but now she could see that she was on a snowmobile and Mike was behind her. “Sit tight, unless you feel like flying off at thirty miles an hour,” he said. “I’m going back in the house,” she said, but before she could move, his arms clamped more tightly around her and she heard his voice, low in her ear. “Lucky, that’s enough!” She paused, shivering and breathing hard as the wind whipped at her hair. Why he was doing this? What did he care if she froze to death? “You’re going to be fine,” he said, more gently. The thumping of her heart seemed to echo in her ears. He didn’t understand. Of course he wouldn’t. She’d bet her life he’d never fantasized about her once. “How do I know that?” she said tentatively. “Because I’ve got you.” That was the problem. “And if I refuse to go?” “Trust me.” More frightening words had never been spoken. Because she instinctively knew he was going to take care of her, at least for tonight. CHAPTER FOUR “I WANT IT HOT. Hot, hot, hot,” Lucky said, hugging herself and shivering as Mike adjusted the knobs on the tub. Hot? Mike struggled to keep his eyes from straying to her bare legs. He’d told her to go ahead and get undressed while he drew her bath, but she’d been quicker at it than he’d expected. Now she was out of the spare bedroom she’d changed in and standing next to him wearing nothing but a towel—and he wasn’t too cold to notice. Clearing his throat, he ran his hand under the faucet again. “You should bring your body temperature up slowly. This water’s lukewarm. Once you get used to it, add some more warm water, then more until you feel normal.” “Isn’t that for people who have frostbite?” she said, her teeth chattering. “You’re pale and shaky. I’m just being cautious.” “Okay, okay.” She was so eager to get in, it looked as if she’d drop her towel before he could leave the room—which reminded him of that day eight years ago when he’d ridden past the lake while she was swimming. She’d called his name, unhooked the front clasp of her bikini top and flashed him. Out of nowhere. They hadn’t spoken in years. She was so young at the time, he’d felt only perturbed; more than anything, it had been an act of defiance. But he was pretty sure he wouldn’t mind if she flashed him again now that she was an adult. She might not be his favorite person, but he couldn’t deny that she’d turned into an incredible beauty. And the fact that she didn’t seem to be aware of her own good looks made her all the more alluring…. “I’ll have some sweats ready for you to wear when you get out,” he said. “Thanks.” She stepped to the side so he could get past her and immediately focused her attention on the bath. He allowed himself a quick glance over his shoulder at her bare back as she started to lower the towel, then closed the door behind him. LUCKY COULD SMELL FOOD—wonderful, glorious food! If not for the scent of bacon and—she sniffed again—eggs and onions, she might never have gotten out of her warm bath. Just as Mike had promised, Lucky found a pair of sweats sitting on a chair in the bedroom she’d used earlier. But donning Mike’s clothes seemed rather personal, considering who they both were, and his sweats were way too big for her. She decided to pull on one of the layers of clothes she’d peeled off before getting into the tub. She thought it might help her remember that she needed to keep up her defenses, that Mike was not her friend. “There you are,” he said as she entered a large country kitchen with wood paneling and flooring and a table that could seat at least twelve people. His eyes flicked over her stocking-clad feet, faded jeans and burgundy sweater; if he noticed that she’d chosen not to wear his sweats, he didn’t comment. “Hungry?” She was famished but also leery of his sudden hospitality. “You didn’t have to cook,” she said. “What have you had to eat?” “Some trail mix, an energy bar and sunflower seeds.” “That’s it? Since when?” “Noon yesterday.” “God, you must be starving.” He motioned to the table. “Sit down. It’s almost ready.” She looked around as she made her way to the table, feeling as though she’d just infiltrated the enemy camp. She’d often wondered what Mike’s place would be like. While hiding in the barn, she’d seen people come and go from here, imagined it’d be rustic and comfortable, and she wasn’t disappointed. In a word, his house was quality, yet nothing seemed ostentatious or even new. The kitchen, with its big circular rug, white cabinets and stainless steel appliances—indeed the whole house—was simple, masculine, lived-in and clean. “Where are your brothers these days?” Mike asked as he put a heaping plate of bacon, scrambled eggs and hash browns with onions in front of her. “Sean is married and living in Seattle.” “Ketchup?” She nodded and reached for the bottle. “And Kyle?” “Kyle’s married, too, and living in Spokane,” she said, keeping her focus on the ketchup she was squeezing onto her potatoes. “They both wound up in Washington? What took them there?” “It wasn’t here.” He capped the ketchup for her, then watched her eat, which made her so nervous she could hardly taste her food. At least the potatoes she shoveled down stopped the hunger pangs. “Why didn’t you follow them?” he asked after a few moments. “To Washington?” “Yeah.” She’d always been an outsider, in one way or another, and that held true even with her brothers. They were male, closer in age, less sensitive, and had the same father. They’d weathered their childhood by sheltering together while she’d forged on alone. For whatever reason, the quiet closeness and understanding they shared seemed to exclude her. “I don’t know,” she said. “I visit them once in a while, though.” “You seem to visit lots of places. You just never stay for long.” She thought she heard censure in his tone and couldn’t help bristling. “Maybe I like to travel,” she said flippantly. But it was a lie. She hated the lack of direction in her life, the temporary nature of everything she did. She just didn’t fit in anywhere, had nothing to cling to. What else could she do? Mike, on the other hand, had no reason to leave Dundee. He had family here, a thriving business, many friends, respect. He had a home. Silence fell and she looked up to find him watching her closely. “What?” “I wasn’t criticizing you.” She swallowed a mouthful of eggs. “What were you doing?” “I guess I was asking why you haven’t settled down.” “I’m…still young.” She searched for a more credible reason, but she had difficulty coming up with one. Bottom line, Morris’s money was both a blessing and a curse. Because she didn’t have to earn a living, she didn’t need to keep a job or go to school, two major activities that kept other people from rambling around the way she did. “And…I like to travel.” He leaned back and crossed his booted feet. “You mentioned that.” “Right. Well…” She shrugged. “No men in your life?” “Aren’t you going to eat?” “Is that an attempt to dodge my question?” “What do you think?” “I think moving so often must be hell on your love life.” “Then I guess it’s a good thing I’m not seeing anyone right now.” She’d never really had a serious relationship. She ended up comparing all the men she met to a cowboy she’d once seen kissing a woman in a barn—the same cowboy who was feeding her right now. “That surprises me.” She played with her toast. “Why?” He didn’t answer right away. When she glanced up, she could tell that the tenor of the conversation had changed. “Isn’t it obvious?” he said. Unless she was mistaken, she read appreciation in his eyes—the same kind of appreciation she saw when she crossed a crowded nightclub and a man at the bar turned to watch her. Maybe Mike didn’t like her, but he found her attractive. The chubby, ugly girl who’d mooned over him all those years had finally caught his eye…. Lucky’s heart started to pound at the realization, and she put down her fork. Their eyes met, and he gave her a sexy grin that went to her head quicker than a whole bottle of champagne. Oh, God! He was flirting with her. On one level, she knew she shouldn’t be surprised. A lot of men tried to pick her up. The fact that she was so aloof, that she protected herself too well to let anyone close, seemed to draw them. They liked the challenge—but the idea of responding to any of them left her cold. That wasn’t the case tonight. But this was Mike Hill. His entire family would hate him just for being seen with her. And a man with Mike’s good looks, sharp mind and impressive accomplishments wasn’t single at forty without being hard to catch. Especially in Dundee, where life was all about getting married and having babies. Obviously, he had commitment issues. She had problems, too: deep down she was still the same little girl who secretly worshipped him. She had to be careful, play it safe. Otherwise an already difficult visit to her hometown might become intolerable. “It’s late,” she said, looking away. “We’d better go to bed.” He stood and gathered up her dishes. “Right. You can have the spare room you changed in before your bath.” “Thank you. I appreciate everything you’ve done.” She knew she sounded stilted, but formality seemed the most natural way to distance herself from Mike. She was warm and full. Now she’d crawl into the guest bed and forget that she was even in Mike’s house. All she had to do was fall asleep. But when she did lie down, sleep wouldn’t come. AS SOON AS LUCKY HEADED down the hall, Mike finished cleaning the kitchen, then flipped on the television. He’d been so tired earlier, when he’d had to drag himself out of bed to check on her. But, strangely enough, now that she was here he didn’t feel tired anymore. He suspected he knew the reason. He hadn’t liked the girl who’d left Dundee, but he was sure attracted to the woman who’d returned. Attracted was the key word, he told himself. What he felt was primitive male instinct. Once the storm blew over and he sent the little prodigal to her own house, his life would get back to normal, and normal meant he had to work tomorrow. LUCKY HEARD Mike pass her room. Sleep…Sleep, damn it! She squeezed her eyes shut and forced them to stay that way, but a few minutes later, she realized it was no use. She kept picturing Mike kissing Lindsey Carpenter in the barn and thinking that tonight it could have been her. After growing up with Red, she’d decided that it was important to save herself. But for what? For more offers from strange men who didn’t appeal to her? Was she a fool not to take advantage of the opportunity to be with Mike? When was she ever going to be in his house again? In the future she doubted he’d so much as wave and say hello. Regardless of what occurred, they’d probably both pretend this night had never happened. So, why not do what she really wanted and then start pretending? MIKE HEARD his bedroom door open and lifted his head in surprise. He lived alone. The woman who did the cooking and cleaning took weekends off. Which left only one possibility. Squinting to make out the shadowy figure standing in his doorway, he swallowed hard. Sure enough, it was Lucky. And when she didn’t say anything, he had a funny feeling he knew what she wanted. “Is something wrong?” he asked, hoping he could get her a glass of water or another blanket. He’d tried to make her smile earlier—but this…this was a little more than he’d bargained for. “No.” She sounded uncertain. He might’ve supposed that she was frightened or insecure, but he reminded himself that Lucky couldn’t be either. Not with the way she looked, and not at twenty-four. He knew he should scare her away, but with every heartbeat it became more difficult. He leaned on his elbows to get a better glimpse of her and felt his pulse go crazy. She wore the sweatshirt he’d set out for her earlier. But, like last night when he’d pressed her against the wall, she didn’t have anything on underneath it, except maybe a pair of panties. The thought of her panties didn’t help him hang on to his sanity. He had to say something that would cause her to withdraw immediately, before his desire took control. But if he rebuffed her, he’d humiliate her. If he didn’t rebuff her… He let his breath hiss out between his teeth. He could barely think above the racket his heart seemed to be making. If he didn’t send her away it was probably no big deal, he told himself. She’d been raised by the town’s most notorious hooker. Showing up in a man’s bedroom probably wasn’t anything new for her. And maybe he wanted her here, but it wasn’t as if he’d invited her. “Can’t you sleep?” he said, stalling. “No.” Briefly, he tried to summon the self-control to send her back to her own room. But the overabundance of testosterone suddenly flooding through his body muddied his thoughts, made him reckless. Any resolve he’d managed to muster fled the instant he imagined how embarrassed she’d be if he were to turn her away. Somehow it was easier to give in to what he really wanted if he looked at it as some sort of kindness. “Are you still cold?” More stalling on his part. She nodded but didn’t ask for a blanket. Neither did she apologize for interrupting him and duck out of the room. There was no mistake. She was making him an offer and, heaven help him, he didn’t think he could say no. It was the temerity of her stance that was his undoing. He wanted to take her in his arms, reassure her that she’d read his signals correctly. “Want me to keep you warm?” he asked and lifted the blankets. Because he’d turned up the heat for her sake, he wasn’t wearing anything except his boxer briefs. If this wasn’t what he thought it was, she’d certainly turn back now. But she didn’t. She came toward him. When she reached the edge of his bed, she quickly pulled off the sweatshirt and dropped it on the floor. Then for a few seconds she stood in front of him wearing only a pair of lacy white panties. The sheer beauty of the woman she’d become stole his breath. It had been a long time since he’d made love, too long. Yet, oddly enough, he hadn’t realized it had been much too long until now. “You’re gorgeous,” he whispered. She shook her head, but he couldn’t believe she or anyone else could disagree with him on that, and he wasn’t really looking at her face anymore. He let his gaze drift appreciatively over the rest of her while making one last feeble effort to talk himself out of making this mistake. He’d pretty much given up dating. He couldn’t seem to fall in love like everyone else. But he missed having an active sex life and, mistake or no, he wasn’t about to reject Lucky now that she was standing next to him almost naked…. A MOMENT OF ABSOLUTE PANIC nearly sent Lucky running from the room. But the memory of that kiss she’d witnessed in the barn calmed her fears and prodded her to take what she wanted. This was Mike Hill. As indifferent as he’d been toward her in the past, he was a decent man and treated everyone else well. He’d be gentle, even with her. And maybe he’d make her feel like someone who mattered, someone like Lindsey Carpenter or one of the other women who belonged in Dundee. For a few moments, she might even feel as if she belonged with him…. He immediately urged her into bed with him, and she felt his bare skin against her breasts as his hands slid up and down her back. “Jeez, you are cold.” His body was as hard and sinewy as it looked, but it was the evidence of his arousal that sent sparks through Lucky’s veins. She’d done that to him. The little girl he’d never acknowledged. The belligerent teen who’d gotten nothing but a frown when she’d unclasped her bikini top. “You…you feel good,” she said before she could stop herself. She thought she saw his teeth flash in a grin. “You said you wanted me to make it hot, right?” He nuzzled her neck, kissed the indentation below her earlobe. “Hot, hot, hot?” The bath…She remembered, even though she could scarcely think for all the sensations bombarding her brain. Warm flesh. Hard muscle. Crisp sheets. The scent of clean male. “That’s what I said,” she whispered, breathless with the excitement and daring of what she was doing. She’d never initiated a sexual encounter in her life, and she’d actually had the nerve to approach Mike Hill. “Then—” he rubbed his lips across her cheek “—let’s see what I can do.” She turned her head, wanting him to give her the long, slow kiss he’d given Lindsey in the barn—the long, slow kiss she’d been waiting for all her life. But he didn’t seem very interested in her mouth. He relieved her of her panties. Then his tongue and his hands worked such seductive magic, she almost forgot about kissing him, at least in such a soulful way. He soon had her writhing and moaning, bursting with need and the absolute certainty that nothing he was doing to her could hurt, whether it was her first time or not. She wanted Mike too badly; she wanted what his fingers promised. But when he put on the condom he took from the nightstand near the bed and answered her eagerness with a powerful thrust, that illusion shattered. She stiffened as she tried to absorb the sudden shock of the pain, and he froze. “What is it?” he asked. She tried to catch her breath so she could speak, but the desire she’d felt only a moment earlier was fading fast, and she wanted to cry. This wasn’t like the scene in the barn. This meant nothing to Mike except physical release. She was doing exactly what her mother had done so many times. Only she’d sold herself for nothing…. “I’m…I’m fine,” she managed to say. “Lucky?” She could sense his bewilderment. “Are you, um, finished?” she asked when he didn’t move. “Am I finished?” he repeated as though it was the oddest question in the world. “It’s…it’s okay if you’re not. I…I’ll wait. I’m okay with waiting.” She figured it was the right thing to do, since it was her fault they’d come this far. Whatever regrets she had she’d deal with later, on her own. She couldn’t blame him for her own error in judgment. She’d visited his room, not the other way around. He remained hesitant. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing.” “I hurt you.” “No, I…It…felt great. Really.” God, she couldn’t wait until morning, when she could go back to her rambling, lonely house and never see him again. The anguish of her mistake stabbed into her heart just as he stabbed into her body. I’m such a fool. What did I think this would do? What did I think it would change? Suddenly, he cursed and withdrew. His displeasure stung like a slap in the face. For all his indifference, she’d never seen him lose his temper before. But she’d made him angry. She’d screwed this up so badly. “I’m sorry. I did it wrong,” she said. “I didn’t know. I—Is it too late? I don’t mind if…if you want try again.” “You’re kidding, right?” Her emotions were so scrambled she wasn’t sure if she was kidding or not, but she realized it was too late to smooth over her blunder. Blinking against the tears stinging her eyes, she scrambled to get out of his bed. He buried his head under a pillow while she struggled to get free of the sheets. “Please tell me this wasn’t your first time,” he said, his voice muffled. She couldn’t answer. She had to get out. She’d ruined it. It was her fault, not his. She’d understood the rules when she came in here. She’d known from the beginning that she meant nothing to him. She’d just thought—she didn’t know what she’d thought. She’d just wanted to live the dream once. That was all. Finally free of the bedding, she leapt to the carpet, but he caught her arm before she could go anywhere. “Why didn’t you tell me?” “I…I didn’t think it would matter,” she said, then yanked away from him and ran to her own room where she put on several layers of clothes and curled into a tight ball beneath the covers, trying to make herself as small as possible. She was shaking so badly she didn’t think she’d ever stop, and she wanted to cry. But the tears that had seemed so close a moment before suddenly wouldn’t fall. CHAPTER FIVE AFTER LUCKY LEFT his room, Mike groaned. Never in a million years would he have guessed that she was a virgin. She was younger than he was by a good stretch—too young for him, really. But she was certainly old enough to know what she was doing when she came to his room. With Red as her mother, she must’ve learned more about sex by the age of ten than most girls knew at fifteen. She could cuss like a sailor. She’d rambled around the whole United States. She had a body most men would die for. How did a woman like that get to be twenty-four without ever having sex? And why the hell didn’t she tell him? He would’ve been gentler with her. From the abandon of her response, from the signals she’d been giving him, he’d thought she was ready. Had he known the reality of the situation, he would’ve made sure— Had he known, he probably wouldn’t have touched her. He’d welcomed her into his bed only because he assumed she’d take their lovemaking in stride—and maybe, after going to all the trouble of rescuing her, he felt somewhat deserving of a small reward. But this…He cringed. This was different. She’d been miserable, and he’d been miserable, and…and what had he expected? This was Lucky Caldwell. Of course getting involved with her would result in regret. He sulked for several minutes, but then had to admit that there was more to what he felt than sexual frustration and disappointment. Now he could no longer believe that she was exactly like her mother and had therefore earned his derision. Besides her lack of sexual experience, he’d seen something vulnerable and sweet, even giving, beneath Lucky’s tough-girl attitude. He’d hurt her and disappointed her—deeply, he suspected—and yet she’d worried about being a generous partner. I’m sorry…I did it wrong…Is it too late? The contrast between the two images he now held of her troubled him—but only because he was dwelling on a situation better forgotten. It was for the best that their lovemaking had turned out the way it had; he and Lucky didn’t have any business touching each other. With another curse, he got out of bed, kicked aside the sweatshirt she’d left behind and threw on his clothes. This night was so screwed up he was going to forget it was night and go to work. He wouldn’t think about Lucky again…. But his footsteps slowed as he neared her room, and he couldn’t help poking his head inside, just to make sure she was all right. “Lucky?” he said softly. She didn’t respond. He could see her curled up beneath the blankets, but he couldn’t hear her crying or anything. She must’ve gone to sleep. Wishing that made him feel better somehow, he closed her door and went outside to check on the horses. MIKE WAS COOKING again. Lucky could smell the food, but she didn’t want to get out of bed. She didn’t want to face him. She felt incredibly stupid for ever believing that one night in his arms could change anything in her world. And she knew he had to be asking himself why he’d shown any interest in her. Going into his room had been as big a gaffe as flashing him—only more humiliating because this time she’d been hoping for a positive reaction. She rubbed her temples to ease the pounding in her head as she tried to convince herself that last night’s embarrassment didn’t matter. He’d never liked her to begin with, so she hadn’t lost anything. Except a pair of panties. She felt uncomfortable without her underwear, but she wasn’t going back to his bedroom for any reason. Getting up, she dressed and made the bed as perfectly as she could, wishing she could erase any trace of herself. The urge to leave town obsessed her. She wanted to get in her car and simply drive away. But she’d left Morris’s house vacant too long already, and the promise of those names in her mother’s journal held her fast. Besides, she might’ve been naive and foolish to do what she did, but she wouldn’t be a coward about it now. After using her finger and a little toothpaste to brush her teeth, she raked her fingers through her unruly hair, which had reached almost wild dimensions, took a deep breath, and walked down the hall to the kitchen. Mike didn’t turn at the sound of her approach. She thought he hadn’t heard her until he spoke. “Morning.” Her nails curled into her palms. “Morning,” she said. “Coffee?” She hesitated. It felt so odd letting him take care of her. She hated the complexity it added to their relationship, hated the grudging appreciation that was getting mixed up with the resentment and everything else. But she didn’t have much choice. She could drink his coffee or she could go without. Providing for herself wasn’t an option at the moment. “Please.” He filled a cup and set it on the table, where a pitcher of cream and a bowl of sugar waited. “Breakfast is coming right up.” She was hungry, but she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep the food down. Her ulcer was aching, burning. She shouldn’t have stopped taking her medication. “Smells good.” He flipped the pancakes on the griddle, then leaned against the counter. She could feel his attention on her but refused to meet his eyes in case he wanted to initiate a conversation that went deeper than, “One pancake or two?” Unfortunately, that didn’t stop him. “So…” he said with just enough emphasis to warn her that she wouldn’t like what he was about to say. Ignoring his lead-in, she crossed to the window, distraught to see that the storm still raged. “Are you going to explain what happened last night?” he asked. She kept her back to him. “I don’t want to talk about it.” “You should’ve told me you never had sex with anyone.” “It doesn’t matter.” “It does matter. A guy should know when he needs to…to take a little extra care and—” She didn’t want to hear this. “You’re going to burn the pancakes if you’re not careful.” “How do you know? You’ve barely even glanced in this direction.” “I can smell them.” “I don’t care about the pancakes. I’m trying to tell you that—” She held up her hand. “I know what you’re trying to tell me. I was an idiot last night. I get it. But it’s not your problem. And I don’t need your advice because I won’t ever be in that position again. A girl can only lose her virginity once, remember?” When he didn’t respond she turned to see why, and found him looking stricken instead of mollified. “It didn’t have to be that bad,” he finally said. “It couldn’t have been any different,” she said flatly. “Anyway, I was wondering if maybe I could get a ride into town.” He frowned. “What’s the matter, Lucky? You itchin’ to run again?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “What is it you keep running from?” “Go to hell.” “Is it that you’re afraid?” She tried to throw him off with sarcasm. “Do you always analyze your bed partners?” “Only when something happens that I don’t understand.” “Forget about it,” she said. “Why, so you don’t have to face the truth?” “What truth? You rolled on top of me last night for a few seconds. That doesn’t mean you know anything about me.” “That wasn’t exactly what happened. First, you came into my room and asked for what you got. And maybe I know more than you think. At least I know what your actions tell me.” “And what do they tell you?” “You stay in one place for only a few weeks or months and leave about the time most other people begin to form friendships and put down roots. I’m guessing you do that because you’re terrified of growing close to anyone, of maintaining a relationship.” “If you’re applying that to this situation, we don’t even have a relationship.” “With me it’s something else.” She cocked a challenging eyebrow at him. “I think you’re afraid that if you stay, we might end up in bed again—and next time you might like it.” He’d hit a little too close to the truth, and she couldn’t bear for him to know it, so she shot him a withering “as if” look. “There’s no danger of that. I may not have the best judgment in the world, but I generally don’t make the same mistake twice.” A muscle twitched in his cheek at the insult. She thought he might come back at her with something equally hurtful and much truer: Who’d want you anyway? But he didn’t. “We can’t take the snowmobiles into town because the roads’ll be plowed once we hit Third,” he said, “but we can try to get you out of here in the truck.” LUCKY GRABBED Mike’s arm as they passed the Victorian. “Wait—aren’t you going to stop?” He gave her an incredulous look, and she let go. “We’re in the middle of a blizzard. If I stop, there’s a greater chance of getting stuck.” “But I need a pair of my own shoes and money to pay for a motel room.” The wipers struggled against the snow and ice although he’d done his best to scrape the windshield clean. “My boots will keep your feet dry,” Mike said. “And I’ll front the money for the motel and lend you some cash.” “But the house isn’t secure with all those broken windows.” He redirected the heat blasting through the vents so it wouldn’t hit him dead on. He was warm enough with his big coat. “You’re afraid of getting robbed?” “Maybe.” “Whatever you’re afraid of losing, you can afford to replace.” He slanted her a brooding glance. “I should know. I send you your check every month, remember?” After last night, and the conversation that had followed this morning, Mike wanted to punish Lucky. For returning to Dundee. For destroying his peace of mind. If he couldn’t achieve some kind of resolution or come to grips with what had happened, he at least wanted to vent his displeasure. But Lucky had become so aloof and withdrawn over the past hour that, predictably, she didn’t react, which only frustrated him further. “What I want can’t be replaced,” she said stubbornly. “Why not?” She didn’t answer his question, giving him the impression that she wouldn’t even if he pressed her. “And there’s no need to risk my ID and credit cards,” she added. He drew a deep, calming breath. He rarely had to struggle to get along with anyone, especially a woman. But Lucky had always been trouble. “Are you going to let me out?” she asked. “I’m thinking about it.” “I’ll jump if you don’t.” She opened her door. Because they were only traveling a few miles an hour and the snow looked deceptively soft, he believed she just might try it. With a grimace, he applied the brakes. “Make it quick. I have to stay in the middle of the road because the snow’s too deep on the sides.” She hopped out and hunched against the wind as she made her way to the Victorian. A few minutes later, she appeared with a little bag, probably filled with toiletries, her purse and a black book tucked under her coat. “That’s what you wanted?” he said, eyeing the book curiously as she climbed in. She slipped it farther under her coat, out of sight, and bent over to brush the snow off her jeans before closing the door. “Thanks for stopping.” Her tone let him know that she didn’t plan to explain. With a sigh, he managed to get the truck moving again, but the going was slow and tedious and they drove several minutes without speaking. “Why’d you come back, Lucky?” he asked, finally breaking the silence. Lucky knew better than to answer that question honestly. She might have grown up in Dundee, but she was sure Dave Small, Eugene Thompson and Garth Holbrook, if they were still around, had more friends here than she did. Some people might not appreciate her digging around in their pasts. She turned to stare out the window. “There’s something I have to do.” “What?” “Nothing that concerns you.” “Or my family?” She laughed bitterly. “Or your precious family.” “Will you be staying long?” “I don’t know. A few weeks—” she shrugged “—maybe a few months.” “And then you’ll be gone again?” “And then I’ll be gone.” The tension in his jaw seemed to ease with this news, which didn’t make her feel any better. “What about the house?” he asked. She studied his profile. “What about it?” “Are you planning to leave it empty?” “Maybe.” She’d promised herself that once she found her father, she’d sell out and put Dundee behind her forever. But she wasn’t sure she could let the Victorian go. It had come to represent the only love she’d ever known. Morris was associated with that place, along with all her childhood hopes and dreams, which was why she’d hung on to it for so long. “You know you don’t give a damn about the house or anyone here in Dundee,” Mike said. She said nothing. “So why are you being so obstinate? Why not sell it to me and forget about it?” He believed she’d refused his purchase offers just to spite him. In all honesty, Lucky knew her feelings toward Mike had played a part, but there was more to it than that. Morris’s Victorian meant a great deal to her because she’d never had a real home. But if Mike’s family wouldn’t relinquish their emotional claim to the property, she could never feel good about living there. So what was she hanging on to? The memory of a man Mike and his family felt they had first “dibs” on? Childhood dreams of warmth and belonging that would never come true? She thought of that kiss she’d witnessed in the barn, and juxtaposed it to the reality of last night. Mike had finally broken through her defenses when it came to selling the house, but she had too much pride to let him know she was ready to give it up without a fight. Lifting her chin, she met his gaze squarely. “How much are you willing to pay?” He scowled. “I’ve already offered you twice as much as you could get from anyone else. How greedy can you be?” How much were her dreams worth? “I don’t know,” she said. “But somehow I always seem to be asking for too much.” MIKE DIDN’T FEEL like driving back to the ranch. The roads had to be nearly impassable by now and were only getting worse, making his decision to stop in at Jerry’s café a risky one. But he didn’t care. He wasn’t the unruffled, conservative guy he’d been just yesterday. He was restless and edgy and— The bell over the entrance jingled. Brooding, Mike glanced up from his coffee to see Gabe roll in and wasn’t sure whether he was excited to see his old friend or not. He decided he wasn’t. Gabe had seemed more like himself when he visited the ranch yesterday, but Mike didn’t want the added pressure of trying to maintain their strained relationship right now. He was still too annoyed about what had happened with Lucky. But he waved anyway. He could hardly go unnoticed. He was the only one in the diner besides Judy, the waitress, and Harry, the cook. “What are you doing in town in the middle of such a bad storm?” Gabe asked as he wheeled closer. Too grumpy to bother smiling, Mike propped an arm on the back of the booth and watched his friend. “I was wondering the same about you.” “I had a meeting with the mayor yesterday and stayed too long. Haven’t been able to make it home since.” Gabe remained in his chair instead of hauling himself out and sliding around the booth as Mike had seen him do before, when the restaurant was busy. “Too much snow?” Gabe nodded. “Considering that you bought the most remote piece of land you could find, I’m not surprised.” He took a sip of his coffee. “Did you stay at your folks’ place last night?” “I did. My father and I sat up talking politics.” He smiled faintly as though he’d enjoyed it, and Mike was glad that Gabe had at least remained close to his father. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/brenda-novak-2/a-home-of-her-own/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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