Authors: Lisa Jackson
“Don’t blame her. Lots of famous people need to get away.”
Maggie had felt her twin growing further and further away, more distant as the months had passed, but she had been dealing with her own problems and had expected that Mary Theresa would eventually land on her feet again. It had always happened in the past.
But this time it’s different.
She couldn’t tell Becca the truth—well, not all of it; not until she was certain of what had happened herself.
“It’s freezing in here,” Becca complained, and Maggie adjusted the thermostat. True, winter was just around the corner, and as the Jeep climbed higher into the mountains, the temperature dropped. Not surprising since the heater, which needed fixing, was down to two settings—hot as Hades, or cold as death. Take your pick. She opted for Hades as Becca seemed to think she was in danger of contracting frostbite.
“So you were telling me why the Thane guy’s hanging out?” she asked, opening one eye and staring at Maggie, whose hands clenched over the steering wheel. “He and Marquise were divorced a long time ago.”
“I guess he’s just concerned about her.” Maggie nodded, preferring not to dwell on Thane or his reasons for being in Idaho.
“I didn’t think you liked him.”
“I don’t.” At least that wasn’t a lie. At a fork in the road, she angled south. The terrain was rugged, high bluffs that were sheer and dark in the night. “He just thought I might be able to tell him where Mary—Marquise is.”
“Why?” she asked thoughtfully. “Is he still in love with her?”
Undoubtedly. Aren’t they all?
“I don’t know,” she said instead, and refused to acknowledge the ache in her heart when she remembered his betrayal, denied the hot sting of Mary Theresa’s deceit.
“But he’s waitin’ for us at the house?”
“I think so. He was going to cool down the horses and lock them away.”
Becca yawned and sighed. “Is he gonna spend the night?”
Maggie took in a sharp, quick breath. “No.” She was emphatic.
Maggie thought sarcastically and one she wasn’t going to dwell upon. Come hell or high water, Thane Walker wasn’t going to spend the night under her roof.
Thane patted Diablo on his spotted rump, then switched off the lights of the barn and walked into the night. Clouds had gathered over the moon, and the wind had picked up, bringing with it the first swirling flakes of snow. Hiking his collar around his neck, Thane stared at the little cabin Maggie called home and wished he were anywhere else on earth. Seeing her again had been a mistake—a big one. But it was too late to second-guess himself. Too late for a lot of things.
He paused at his truck, reached into the breast pocket of his jacket, and found a crumpled pack of cigarettes. There was one Marlboro left, his last smoke if he chose to give in and light up. He’d been cutting down over a couple of months, determined that the carton of filter tips he’d purchased at the end of September would be his last. This lone cigarette was all that was left.
Seeing Maggie again, touching her, smelling that special scent that lingered on his skin, had brought back memories he’d tried like hell to repress.
He’d failed. Miserably. Once the dam on his recollections had started to crack, there had been no stopping the torrent of emotions and images that crashed through his brain. He remembered the first time he’d set eyes on her, a smart aleck of a high-school girl in cutoff jeans, cotton blouse, and freckles. Her eyes had been wide and green, her cheekbones high, her smile as bright as any he’d ever seen.
And she hadn’t given him the time of day.
He’d sensed there was more to her than met the eye, a restless sadness that she’d tried like hell to keep hidden. She’d been a challenge, the first woman he’d had to pursue in years.
He’d been in lust from the first time she’d turned her back on him and, with a careless toss of mahogany-colored curls in a sassy ponytail, walked away. Things hadn’t changed all that much since then.
After being with her today, he’d half convinced himself that tonight was the night he needed that final smoky shot of nicotine, but he tucked his last little crutch back into its dilapidated home and shoved the pack back into his pocket. No doubt he’d need a smoke later.
He checked his watch and figured he had at least an hour before Maggie arrived. Maybe two. Feeling cold snow hit the back of his neck, he headed for the porch and kicked off his boots. He opened the door and ignored a warning growl from the crippled old shepherd lying on a rag rug near an antique rocker. “I’m not gonna hurt anything,” he told the dog.
Eyeing the cozy cabin with its five small rooms and yellowed pine walls, he pulled a pair of gloves from his back pocket, stretched them over his fingers, and steeled his jaw. Without second-guessing himself, he stole down the short hallway to Maggie’s bedroom.
At the doorway he paused, felt a tiny jab of guilt, then tossed it aside as he entered. The room was cramped with its double bed, dresser and a desk shoved under the corner windows.
The scent of Maggie’s perfume lingered in the air and he had to remind himself that he was on a mission; he couldn’t be distracted. According to the old alarm clock sitting on a bedside table, he had just long enough to do what he had to.
Before all hell broke loose.
Thane was waiting on the porch swing. Huddled in a sheepskin jacket, one booted heel propped on the opposite jeans-clad knee, he glowered into the night, rocking, the swing gently swaying as the wind cut across the valley. Barkley, turncoat that he was, lay docilely near the door.
Maggie braced herself as she cut the engine. She switched off headlights and radio and told herself that her nerves were shot because of Becca’s accident and Mary Theresa’s disappearance. It had nothing to do with Thane and his innate, earthy sexuality. Nothing. She was just tired. There wasn’t a thing about the man that got to her. She was being a fool. Thane Walker was only a man, and a lying one at that.
Slowly he climbed to his feet, and his silhouette was cast in stark relief against the porch light. All male. And dangerous. Long legs covered by low-slung battered jeans, and a chest that was wide enough to be interesting without a lot of extra weight.
His physique was the last thing she should notice.
“It’s been too long,” she muttered. Too many months without a man.
“What?” Becca roused.
“Nothing, honey. We’re home.” Pocketing her keys, she touched Becca on the shoulder and looked away from the dark sensuality of a man she didn’t trust, a man who’d stolen her heart only to break it.
Becca blinked and rubbed the sleep from her eyes as snowflakes hit the windshield, collecting on the wipers. She looked at the cabin, lights glowing warmly in the cold night, then rolled her eyes expressively. “Terrific.”
“I’ll get the crutches.”
“Don’t need ’em.”
“Of course you do.” Shouldering open the door, Maggie ducked her head against the flurries of snow and dashed to the back of the Jeep. Over the noise of the wind, she heard Thane’s boot steps steadily approaching, gravel crunching. Stupidly, her heart began to pound. “Get a grip,” she admonished.
Don’t even think about him.
“How is she?” he asked, pulling the crutches from the cargo space.
“She’ll be okay. The doctor thinks it’s just a sprain. Not a bad one at that.”
“Good.” He actually seemed relieved. As if he cared. What a joke. Maggie wasn’t going to fall into that particular trap. Not when Thane Walker was involved. But as she slammed the Jeep’s cargo door closed, she caught a glimpse of him helping Becca out of the Jeep. Rather than force her to use the crutches, he lifted her off her feet and, sheltering her body against the cold, carried her swiftly across the snow-dusted lot to the house. A twinge of unwelcome forgiveness tugged at her heart.
“Don’t be fooled,” she warned herself, as she grabbed the crutches he’d left propped against a fender, then jogged to the porch where Thane, hugging Becca tight, waited until she opened the door. He carried Becca inside.
Barkley’s back end was wiggling crazily, and he, on his three good legs, trotted through the closing door a minute before Maggie snagged the handle and walked inside too. “Traitor,” she said to the dog, and old Barkley didn’t even have the decency to look abashed. “Fine watchdog you turned out to be.”
Once inside, she motioned toward the hallway. “She should go right to bed…” Maggie began to instruct, but Thane was already hauling Becca in the right direction.
Still toting the damned crutches, Maggie marched into the bedroom and watched Thane place her daughter on the single bed tucked into the corner of the chaos Becca unhappily called home. She thawed a little as she saw how tenderly he laid Becca on the old quilt, but she reminded herself that whatever Thane was doing, it was all an act. He was here with a purpose, and it had something to do with Mary Theresa.
Dread assailed Maggie once again.
Where was she? What was that horrible, painful plea she’d heard earlier? Had Mary Theresa tried to contact her, or had it all been in her head, a great blip in the universe, a coincidence that she’d heard from her sister after months of silence?
Goose bumps rose on her arms as she stacked the crutches in a corner near the bookcase, then opened a wicker chest and pulled out a couple of extra pillows which she used to prop up Becca’s foot. As if sensing mother and daughter should be alone, Thane winked at Becca, whistled to the dog, and slipped out of the room.
“Can I get you anything?” Maggie asked, pulling on the edges of the antique quilt that she’d bought at an estate sale years before. On the table, Becca’s lava lamp was glowing an undulating blue.
“Nah.” Becca’s eyes were beginning to close. Posters of teen idols adorned the walls, and the scatter rugs on the floor were covered with makeup, CDs, magazines and stuffed animals left over from her younger years.
“Not even some hot cocoa?” Maggie hovered over the bed. She was caught between wanting to push the wet strands of hair from her daughter’s eyes and knowing it was best to leave her alone. She had a tendency to over-mother. Becca hated it. “Or I’ve got some of that stew—it’s a little burned, but…”
Rolling her eyes, Becca sighed loudly. “I said I didn’t want
Maggie got the message. “Look, I was just trying to help, okay? I’ll get the ice pack and bring it back. If you need anything else, just let me know.”
Becca didn’t respond, and Maggie held her tongue rather than lash out. Lately she and her daughter had been involved in some kind of struggle she didn’t understand. Of course Becca blamed her for uprooting her in the middle of her last year of junior high and bringing her to some “gawd-awful middle-of-nowhere place where only losers lived.” Well, too bad. Moving here was just what the doctor ordered. At least in Maggie’s opinion.
Mentally counting to ten, and then on to twenty when she hadn’t cooled off, she walked briskly out of Becca’s room, down the short hallway to the kitchen where she found a Ziploc bag and some hand towels. Ancient pipes creaked as she turned on the hot water, waited and waited until it was steaming. Grabbing a hammer from the odds-and-ends drawer, she placed ice cubes in a plastic bag and beat them into tiny shards.
Thane, with the old shepherd on his heels, had walked outside again and returned with an armload of firewood. The shoulders of his jacket were dark with melting snow, his hair wet as well. She tried not to notice and continued whacking at the bag of ice.
“Jesus Christ, Maggie, it’s dead already.” He dropped the firewood into a basket near the hearth.
“Very funny.” She wasn’t amused and slammed the plastic bag with the hammer one more time for good measure. As he opened the damper and stacked kindling over a hefty backlog, she dumped the crushed ice into the pack and carried it, along with the warm washcloths down the hallway. Becca’s face was turned toward the wall and she was feigning sleep, even going so far as pretending to snore.
“This might be a little cold,” Maggie said, undeterred by her daughter’s act. Gently, she placed the ice bag on Becca’s leg.
“Ouch.” Becca jumped. Her eyes shot open. “Can’t you just leave me alone?”
“The doctor said that—”
“I don’t care. I
want that, okay?”
“No. It’s not okay, Rebecca,” Maggie said, reverting to her daughter’s given name as she always did when she was angry. “Leave it on. And here are some cloths to clean up with.” She left the warm, wet rags on a paper bag on the nightstand.
“God, Mom, give me a break, will ya?”
“Just do what the doctor said, okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah.” Becca closed her eyes again, and Maggie, rather than be drawn into an argument that neither one of them would win, straightened and turned out the light. Her head was beginning to pound in earnest. Drawing a deep breath, she headed to the living room to face Thane.
The old saying that if it wasn’t one thing, it was another certainly seemed to be raging tonight.
In the living room, the fire was crackling. Golden light played on the old pine walls, making them seem even more yellow than before, and the scent of burning wood filled the small rooms.
In the few months she’d been here, Maggie had come to love this little cottage nestled at the foot of these craggy northern Idaho hills. A part of her realized that she’d run away from her problems, that eventually they would catch up with her, but for now, she felt safe and secure thousands of miles from L.A. Safe from the accusations. Safe from the pain and guilt that sometimes stole into this private place and hid, deep in the shadows, ready to attack her when she least expected it.
Thane, hands in his back pockets, hitched his chin toward the hallway. “How’d it go?”
“The same as always. I’m an ogre of a mother, can’t possibly understand her, and she’s just a poor victim.” The minute the words were out, she cringed. Just because her nerves were frayed, she didn’t need to be bad-mouthing her only child, the reason she found a way to get up each and every morning. “Sorry. That’s not what I meant. She’s in a lot of pain, and she’s trying to sleep.”
“And giving you a bad time?”
She bristled inwardly. It was one thing for her to complain about Becca, another thing entirely for an outsider to make a deprecating comment. “It goes with the territory. I can handle it.”
“Can you?” He didn’t seem convinced, but she ignored the silent questions in his eyes and walked to the telephone. By rote, she dialed Mary Theresa’s number and again was connected with the answering machine. Her stomach clenched when she heard her sister’s recording. She drummed her fingers on the receiver. At the tone, she said, “Hi, M.T., it’s Maggie again.” Leaning a hip against the small table where the phone rested, she bit the corner of her lip and glanced up at Thane, who was watching her every movement. As she turned her back for a bit of privacy, she said, “Look, Mary Theresa, I know I called earlier, but I’m worried. Call me back as soon as you get in, okay?” She rattled off her telephone number again, then slowly hung up, her fingers lingering on the receiver as if she expected the phone to jangle at any second.
“She’s not gonna call back.”
Facing him again, Maggie said, “She will.”
She has to
. Maggie couldn’t comprehend, wouldn’t give a second’s thought to the horrid idea that something had happened to her sister. “It might be a while, but she’ll call.” She wasn’t going to think of the other alternative and opened a cupboard to pull down a can of coffee. Shaking the grounds into the basket of the coffeemaker she felt the same dark fear that had attacked her in the barn earlier today start to stalk her all over again.
“I hope you’re right.” He adjusted the screen in front of the fireplace, then dusted his hands together and unbuttoned his jacket.
“You planning on staying?” she asked, suddenly nervous as she filled the coffee carafe with water.
“For a while.” As if he’d lived here all his life, he tossed his jacket over the screen.
Maggie was instantly wary, her muscles tense. She glanced at him over her shoulder and sloshed some of the water onto the counter.
The man made her so jittery, it was ludicrous. “How long is ‘a while?’”
His eyes glinted, and a corner of his mouth lifted. “Don’t worry, Maggie, your virtue is safe with me.”
She gasped, nearly sputtered out some kind of lame reply, and bit her tongue until she had control of it. “Still the same charmer you always were, aren’t you, Thane?” she mocked, snapping on the coffeemaker, then swiping up the spill with a sponge.
“I try.” His smile widened into a familiar sexy grin that she wanted to slap off his face. The same cocky, self-assured expression that had won as many hearts as it had broken.
“Well, it won’t work on me.”
“No?” he asked, one eyebrow lifting as if he sensed a dare.
“No.” She was firm.
“Good. That’ll make things easier.” His gaze swept the mantel, lingered for a while on the photos of Becca growing up, of the framed picture of the two sisters back to back, then stopped short on the only wedding picture that Maggie displayed, one of her and Dean, smiling happily at each other, she in her ivory-colored dress, her veil falling off, her fingers around the nosegay of baby’s breath and pink roses, Dean’s tuxedo tie loosened, his eyes full of life—a spark that had extinguished early on.
Without comment, Thane took a seat in a worn wing-backed chair and propped one heel on the ottoman as the coffee began to perk.
His smile slowly disappeared and he stared at her with an intensity that made her want to squirm. She wrung the sponge over the sink as he said, “I have a favor to ask of you.”
“Shoot.” She was ready to say “no,” to deny him anything he might want from her, because she knew deep in her soul he wasn’t a man to be trusted, wasn’t a person she wanted anything to do with. “What is it?”
“I want you to drive back to Denver with me.” Eyes never leaving hers, he nodded slowly. “I think I might need you as a character witness.”
If he hadn’t been so deadly earnest, she would have laughed. “You’re kidding, right?” she said.
A character witness for
“I’ve never been more serious in my life.”
In an instant she believed him. The expression on his face was determined: his jaw set, his eyes steady, his lips blade-thin and unforgiving. Not a hint of the man who had joked just a few seconds before.