Elizabeth Lowell

Fire and Rain


Who, in hell am I doing here?

Luke looked in the mirror, swiped a last bit of axle grease off his chin and had no fast answers for his silent question. In fact, he had no answer at all as to why he had stayed on at Cash McQueen’s apartment knowing that Carla McQueen was coming to dinner.

It wasn’t unusual for Luke to drive the long miles between his ranch in Four Corners country and the city of Boulder in order to visit his friend Cash. It wasn’t unusual for the two of them to take on some kind of repair work on Cash’s balky Jeep. It wasn’t unusual for the two of them to split a pizza and a six-pack afterward and catch up on mutual news.

It was damned unusual that Carla would appear in the same room with Luke MacKenzie.

Is that why Cash dodged my question about who Carla is dating? Luke asked his reflection in the mirror. Did she finally get over me and say yes tosome nice city boy? And what business is it of mine if she did?

Even as he tried to tell himself that it was only natural that he have a big-brotherly concern for the little sister of his best friend, Luke knew that was only part of the truth. The rest of the truth was a steel spur digging into his self-esteem: three years ago he had wanted Carla so badly that he had sent her running for her life from the Rocking M.

And him.

With an effort, Luke forced aside the image of Carla’s wide blue-green eyes and trembling lips and the soft heat of her body flowing over his. That image had come to too many of his dreams, waking or sleeping. But that wasn’t what he wanted from her. It sure as hell wasn’t what he would take from her. What he wanted, all he would accept, was a return to the days when they had shared the kind of companionship Luke hadn’t known was possible with a woman.

It’s been three years. Surely Carla’s forgotten the whole thing by now. Surely she and Cash and I can be an almost family again, the way we used to be.

God, I’ve missed the sound of her laughter and the way her smile used to light up the whole house.

"Hey, Luke, are you taking root in there?"

"I’m still trying to get your Jeep out from under my fingernails," Luke retorted to Cash. "You ought to trade that damn thing for a dog and shoot the dog."

The bathroom door opened. Cash’s big body filled the frame with little left over.

"Give me your shirt," Cash said.


"The Jeep drooled all down your spine."

Luke made a sound of disgust that Cash didn’t take seriously. But then, neither did Luke.

"The things I do for you," Luke muttered.

With quick, deft movements he rinsed his hands, stripped off the black shirt and fired it at Cash’s head. Another shirt came flying back at the same speed. Luke pulled it on with a small smile; the shirt fit as well as one of his own. Cash was the only man Luke knew whose clothes he could wear without feeling as though he were in a straitjacket.

"Much better," Cash said. "Can’t have you looking like something the cat dragged in and didn’t eat What would Carla think?"

"She’s seen me looking worse."

"Not on her twenty-first birthday. Hurry up. I can’t decorate cake worth a damn."

"What makes you think I can?"


Grinning, Luke tucked in the shirt and followed Cash to the kitchen, feeling very much at home. In many ways Carla and Cash were as close to a real family as Luke had ever come. His mother, like his grandmother and great-grandmother before her, had hated the Rocking M. Even worse, his mother had feared the land and the wind as though they were alive and hunting her. Finally she had had a nervous breakdown. Her parents had swept in from the East Coast, picked up the pieces of their daughter and removed her from the Rocking M. They had also taken Luke’s seven-year-old sister, whom he loved as he hadn’t permitted himself to love anything since. Neither mother nor sister had ever been heard from since that day.

At thirteen, Luke had been left alone with a silent, hard-drinking father and a ranch whose demands were as endless as the land itself was beautiful. At nineteen he had inherited the Rocking M. At twenty he had hired Cash to do a resources survey of the ranch. Six months later Cash had shown up for the summer with his half sister, a sad-eyed waif whose attempts at smiles had broken Luke’s heart Perhaps it was the memory of his own little sister, perhaps it was Carla’s haunting eyes, perhaps it was only his own need to protect and care for something more gentle than himself. Whatever the reason, Carla had slipped past defenses Luke didn’t even know he had.

One day while riding a distant corner of the ranch, he had found a shard of ancient Anasazi pottery in September Canyon. He had given the piece of the past to Carla, trying to tell her that nothing is lost forever, that everyone is part of what came before and what will come after. Somehow she had understood all that he couldn’t find words for, and she had cried for the first time since her parents had died. He had held her, feeling her trust as she gave herself to his strength and wept until she couldn’t lift her head. And as he held her, he felt as though he himself were crying for all that he had lost when he had been about Carla’s age.

"Yo, Luke," Cash said, snapping his fingers in front of the other man’s whiskey-colored eyes. "Anybody home?"

Luke grunted. "Where’s the cake?"

"Over there."

"I was afraid you were going to say that." Luke sighed as he looked at a lopsided chocolate heap that was charred on the sides and sticky in the middle. "Hope you made a bucket of icing."

"It’s in the sink."

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

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

"I have candles," Cash said indignantly.

"Stick them in the ice cream."

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

Luke was dumping the first load of icing on the cake when he heard Carla’s voice call from the front door.

"Open up, big brother! My hands are full."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You used to be more adventurous."

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

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

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

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

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

"What have you learned, sunshine?" Luke asked.

He saw the ripple of emotion in her clear eyes as he called her by the old nickname. But the emotion passed, and she was again watching him with the combination of distance and coolness that she had used on him whenever she couldn’t avoid him.

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

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