“Blackthornes and Creeds are like oil and water,” Luke Creed told his brother Sam. “They just don’t mix.”
“If that were true, Mom wouldn’t have married a Blackthorne after Dad died, would she?” Sam replied as he stuffed his mouth full of blueberry pancakes.
“I take it back,” Luke said, pouring blueberry syrup over the newest batch of pancakes his sister-in-law had dropped onto his plate. “Oil and water don’t mix, but at least they can coexist in the same space.”
“Big brother is always right,” Sam said. “I — ”
Luke waved his fork to cut off his older brother. “Blackthornes and Creeds are more like gasoline and matches. Put them together and you end up with one helluva blaze.”
Too often in his youth, Luke had seen the deadly conflagration burn white hot, destroying without care or conscience. In the twelve years since his mother had married Jackson Blackthorne, Luke hadn’t forgotten or forgiven the devastation his family had suffered at Blackthorne hands. His father murdered, his brother crippled, their cattle infected with brucellosis, priceless cutting horses disappearing into thin air, with every disaster leading straight back to some Blackthorne.
Which was why Luke dreaded having lunch with his mother and stepfather today. These days, Blackthornes and Creeds were supposed to be one happy family.
Luke hadn’t bought into the fantasy.
He looked across the breakfast table at Sam, who would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair thanks to an “accident” on the high school football field that involved a Blackthorne. “How can you stand working with that Blackthorne bastard day in and day out?”
“At least I’m working out-of-doors. How can you stand working in a law office in the big city every day?” Sam replied.
It wasn’t easy for Luke, living in the city, but it beat the alternative — working for his stepfather — all to hell and back.
“We don’t see nearly enough of you since you moved to Houston,” Sam said. “Why don’t you come back here and work with me on the ranch?”
“You mean work for Blackjack,” Luke said bitterly. “He owns Three Oaks now.”
The two modern-day South Texas ranching families, one rich and powerful, the other poor and struggling, had been mortal enemies since the Civil War, fighting over a piece of land owned by the Creeds along Bitter Creek, a trickle of water that never ran dry, even in the driest years.
Generations of Blackthornes had killed and crippled generations of Creeds in an attempt to force them off that precious piece of land. But the Creeds had hung on. And Three Oaks had remained lodged, like a chicken bone in the throat, smack dab in the middle of the Blackthorne ranching empire, an eight-hundred-square-mile ranch named for that same Bitter Creek.
When widower Jackson Blackthorne had married widow Ren Creed, their marriage had united the two families — and the two pieces of land. With nothing left to fight over, the feud should have been over.
As far as Luke was concerned, there was too much bad blood between them to end the fight. When Luke had been given the chance to work at Three Oaks, he’d thrown the offer back in Blackjack’s face.
“No thanks,” he’d snarled. “My father hated you and so do I. Just stay the hell out of my life!”
“What is it you plan to do with your life?” Blackjack had challenged. “Let me help you, boy.”
At the time, Luke had been twenty years old, and the inconsequential boy had been an insult. He’d replied with a few choice words acquired over years spent working with cowhands who never used a longer word when a four-letter one would do.
His tirade had ended, “I don’t want a god damned thing from you. Ever.”
Easy words to say, but they’d left Luke without a direction for his life. He’d spent every day up to that point on the back of a horse — or a Harley.
Blackjack had done his best to make amends. He’d shared his wealth with the Creed kids. Along with his two older sisters Callie and Bay, and his older brother Sam, Luke had been given a trust fund that had made him a millionaire. Unlike them, he had no intention of ever touching Blackjack’s blood money.
“You have to stop fighting the inevitable,” Sam said, interrupting Luke’s rumination. “Mom loves him. He loves Mom.”
“I’ll never stop fighting those Blackthorne sonsofbitches,” Luke said through tight jaws.
“Have you looked at Mom lately?” Sam asked. “I mean, really looked at her?” Sam slipped an arm around his wife Emma’s waist, as she dropped another stack of pancakes onto his plate.
“Hey, I want some of those!” The male voice cracked halfway through the sentence and slid down an octave, and the twelve-year-old boy sitting across the table turned red, as the three adults exchanged surreptitious glances and hid grins at his adolescent discomfort.
“I’m making another batch for you, Bronc,” Emma said as she crossed and tousled her son’s short, straight brown hair.
Luke noticed that Daniel Lucas Creed, better known as Bronc, had the same cowlick on his crown as Luke did. He tried not to notice that sort of thing, and if he did, he tried to ignore it. Bronc might be Luke’s biological son, the result of a one-night stand with Emma, but when Emma and Sam had fallen in love during Emma’s pregnancy and gotten married, the three of them had decided there was no reason to tell Bronc the truth.
Luke had been Uncle Luke to the boy from the day he’d first held the tiny wriggling baby in his large hands.
Luke had never regretted his decision. His brother was a great father, and because of complications from his accident, Sam couldn’t have kids of his own. And Emma and Sam were deeply, happily in love.
Luke had no son of his own, but he had two daughters, ten-year-old Brynne and six-year-old Midge, who lived with his ex-wife and her new husband in Houston. His daughters had been away at camp all summer. They were returning the following weekend, and he could hardly wait to see them.
“Are you going to stick around for Sunday lunch?” Sam asked.
Luke made a face. If he wanted to see his mother — and he did — it meant seeing his stepfather, since the two were inseparable. “Yeah. I’m staying.”
“Then how about riding the fence for me this morning? I can’t account for some cattle. I think there might be a break in the wire.”
In days gone by, the “break” in the three strands of barbed wire strung between cedar posts would have been made by wire cutters, and the cows and their unbranded calves would have strayed onto Blackthorne land — where the mavericks would have ended up with a Blackthorne brand on their sleek red hides.
Now that Bitter Creek and Three Oaks were all part of the same vast corporate entity, the Bitter Creek Cattle Company, that sort of high jinks didn’t make much sense.
“Sure,” Luke said. “Where do you want me to look?”
“The south pasture,” Sam said. “We’ve made some changes you should know about.”
The result of an endless infusion of Blackthorne money, Luke knew. He couldn’t help resenting the fact that his family had struggled so long and hard to hold onto Three Oaks, hating Blackthornes body and soul, and in the end the ranch had been lost because his mother had fallen in love with the enemy.
“We’ve put in more bump gates, so you can drive from one pasture to another without getting out of your truck,” Sam said.
Luke knew that was a big help to Sam, who could drive himself around, but would have had trouble getting in and out of his truck to open and close a lot of gates. Bump gates, which were nudged open by the grille of a truck and swung closed on a center pivot after the truck had gone through, were a good idea, a smart improvement when the foreman of the ranch was a paraplegic.
“I think I’d rather spend the morning on horseback,” Luke said, “if it’s all the same to you.”
Sam shrugged. “I can tell you where the cattle have gone missing. You can trailer your horse there and take off.”
Luke dropped his fork on his plate and said, “That was a great breakfast, Emma. If I eat one more flapjack I’m going to explode.”
“I could eat a few more, Mom,” Bronc said. “If it’s no trouble,” he said, catching his father’s surprised look.
“He’s a growing boy,” Luke said. All skinny arms and long legs, the same as Luke had been at that age.
“It’s no trouble at all,” Emma said to her son.
Luke shoved his chair back from the table. “Excuse me, folks. I’ll see you at the Homestead for lunch.”
Sam lived in the foreman’s house at Three Oaks, and Luke walked the short distance from Sam’s house to the stable, liking the feel of the sun on his face. He enjoyed the dryness of the air and the endless flat, grassy prairie, both a sharp contrast to the ever-present humidity and burgeoning humanity that defined Houston.
Luke attached a horse trailer to his Chevy truck — a ridiculous, gas-guzzling vehicle to have in Houston, considering the distance between his two-bedroom condo downtown and his ex-wife’s house in The Woodlands, a planned community north of the city.
But he couldn’t give up the truck any more than he could turn his back completely on Three Oaks and walk away. He kept his Harley in an old barn at Three Oaks filled with antiquated farm machinery and rode it when he came home for a visit.
He’d carved out a new life for himself as a lawyer for the largest firm in Texas, DeWitt & Blackthorne. The irony hadn’t escaped him that he was working for a firm that had been started by a Blackthorne and bore that hated name.
Slowly but surely over the past six years he’d spent at D&B, he’d earned a reputation as one of the best litigators in the state. In another year, he’d become a partner and have the financial security that he’d lived without all his life.
Luke had kept his promise to Blackjack. He’d never asked his stepfather for a thing. When he became a partner at D&B, his success would be complete, his independence assured. He could look Jackson Blackthorne in the eye and tell him, “Take your million-dollar trust fund and stick it where the sun don’t shine.”
Amy Hazeltine Nash urged the bay mare to a gallop and leaned forward, her face in the animal’s mane, urging her mount to even greater speed. Amy needed to escape. She wanted to run away from her problems to someplace like Tahiti, but since she was too responsible to do such a thing, riding hell-bent-for-leather was the next best thing. The speed was thrilling, the danger exciting, the escape, unfortunately, temporary.
The horse’s breathing was labored and foam flecked the animal’s neck. “Run, Lady,” she whispered in the mare’s ear. “Run!”
The terrain was nearly flat, dotted with an occasional mesquite and the red Santa Gertrudis cattle raised by Jackson Blackthorne and his wife Ren.
She’d borrowed a horse from the stable at Three Oaks and gone riding early this morning at the invitation of Ren, whom she’d met in town on Friday.
“What are you doing here?” Ren had said when they bumped into each other shopping for groceries in the H.E.B. “I thought you were living in Virginia.”
“I’m home to visit my mom and dad,” Amy said. It was the truth, but by no means the entire story.
“I hope you’ll come by and visit,” Ren said. “We’re expecting Luke this weekend.”
“I…” Amy felt awkward. Ren’s youngest son had been Amy’s boyfriend all through high school, and Amy had spent more time in Ren’s kitchen in those days than her own. But she’d dumped Luke when they were seniors and two years later married a much older man, an orthopedic surgeon, and moved to Virginia, where she’d spent the next eleven years. Last year, she’d moved back to Texas.
“How are your parents?” Ren asked.
“They’re fine,” Amy said. It was the answer she’d always given. Again, not the entire truth. Actually, not even close to the truth. Her mother was an agoraphobic. Amy hadn’t know what that was, growing up, only that her mother stayed at home. But agoraphobics were afraid of the outside world, and Amy’s mother never left the house.
Which meant that Amy had become responsible for a lot of chores that should have been her mother’s. Her father was patient with her mother, but it was plain to Amy that he pitied her. As Amy got older, and her mother — and father — remained so dependent on her, she began to fear that she’d be tied to her parents forever.
Looking back, Amy could see how Luke Creed, a rebellious troublemaker who didn’t follow anyone’s rules, would have appealed to her. Luke had the freedom Amy craved.
“Just leave,” Luke had told her when he’d found out her greatest fear.
“I can’t do that. They need me.”
“They’re grown-ups. They can take care of themselves,” he’d said.
It sounded right. It also sounded ruthless. Amy yearned to be as carefree as Luke. She settled for being his girlfriend. For her, getting on the back of his Harley without a helmet and riding around town, her long blond hair flying behind her, was about as much freedom as she was willing to allow herself.
That and letting Luke touch her.
She’d never realized how meek she was until she’d met Luke, who was brash beyond words. He’d flashed a grin at her, and she’d been excited and intrigued by having such a “bad boy” interested in her. Being with Luke, who was afraid of nothing, was thrilling after growing up with a mother who was afraid of everything.
In hindsight, Amy realized that Luke had been as scared as she was of the love budding between them. He’d just been better at hiding it behind laughing brown eyes and a cocky smile.
Their first physical contact had been more appropriate to kids half their age. He’d yanked her ponytail and flipped up the back of her skirt.
She’d straightened his collar and run her hand daringly across the few bits of beard sprouting on his face — not enough to shave, but enough to announce to the world that he was becoming a man.
“You’re someone I’d like to know better, Amelia Hazeltine,” he’d said, circling her like a tomcat on the prowl, exuding sexual energy that both frightened and excited her.
“How do you know my full name?” she’d asked.
“It’s on that debate trophy in the glass case on the second floor,” he said. “And on the honor roll posted by the principal’s office. And in the program for the fall play.”
“You saw the play?”
“You were good,” he said. “You’re good at everything.”
“Not everything,” she said, embarrassed by the praise. Especially since she participated in everything at school because it gave her an excuse not to be home.
“You’re talented,” he said. “And smart. And pretty.”
“Thank you,” she said, thoroughly flustered.
“Wanta go out with me?”
She hadn’t understood why a boy with Luke Creed’s reputation would want to go out with a “good girl” like her.
“I don’t put out,” she said, staring him in the eye.
“I’m only asking you to the movies.”
She saw the flush high on his cheekbones, the flicker of anger in his eyes. She’d insulted him. She would never purposely have hurt anyone’s feelings. She was too sensitive to the flaws in her own family. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Going to a movie sounds like fun.”
She liked the smile that reappeared on his face, the twinkle that returned to his eyes.
“Great!” He hooted and hollered in a way that should have embarrassed her, because everybody on the school grounds turned to look. She found herself smiling back at him instead.
The first time he’d kissed her, they’d been sitting in the balcony of Bitter Creek’s one movie theater. He’d leaned over in the dark, whispered, “Amy,” and when she’d turned toward him, he’d kissed her. On the nose.
They’d both laughed self-consciously. Their eyes had caught in the flickering light from the screen, and he’d lowered his head again, and their lips had caught, and held.
Amy had forgotten to breathe. She broke the kiss when she felt like she was going to die from want of air, gasping, her chest aching. Other parts of her body ached too, which she found strange and frightening. “Luke,” she whispered. “Luke.”
She hadn’t known how to tell him what she was feeling. Unable to ask him for what she wanted, but desperately needing…something.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said in a gruff voice.
When he took her hand to pull her out of her seat, she realized he was trembling. Her legs threatened to buckle and she sat back down. And tugged on his hand to pull him down beside her.
“I don’t want to leave,” she said.
“Shut up!” an angry voice whispered behind them.
Luke rose and tugged on her hand again. Amy glanced over her shoulder at the angry patron and rose to follow him.
He hurried her down the balcony stairs, only waiting until they were outside in the dark to press her against the side of the brick building. His hands cupped her face, and his eyes were dark and mysterious in the moonlight.
“Amy,” he said. “Oh, baby.”
He kissed her again, only their lips touching, and she felt something tighten deep inside her.
“I want to…”
“What?” she said.
“I want to put my tongue in your mouth.”
“I heard it feels good.”
“You’ve never done it before?”
He shook his head. “But I want to. With you.”
Amy made a face. She’d been watching movie stars kiss her whole life and had wanted to be on the receiving end of one of those romantic embraces. But his tongue? In her mouth?
“If you don’t like it, I can stop,” Luke said. “Come on, Amy, take a chance for once. Don’t be such a scaredy-cat.”
It was the name-calling that made her take the risk. Scaredy-cat. She wasn’t ever going to be afraid like her mother. “All right,” she told him. “Go ahead. But if I don’t like it — ”
“I’ll stop,” he promised her.
His thumb caught on the pulse at her throat, and she knew he must have felt it racing. He grinned, then said, “Here goes nothing.”
She closed her eyes and waited. She felt something wet on her lips and jerked backward.
“I haven’t done anything yet,” he protested. “Come back here.”
She closed her eyes again and forced herself to relax. This time, she let herself enjoy the feel of his soft, wet tongue caressing her closed lips from one side to the other. To her surprise, her body quivered.
Luke slid an arm around her waist and said, “Put your hands around my neck.”
She obeyed him, sliding her arms up around his neck and into his hair. That brought her small breasts into contact with his chest, which was surprisingly muscular.
He lowered his head again, his mouth closing over hers, his tongue gently seeking entrance, probing at the seam of her lips. “You have to open up for me, baby,” he murmured.
Amy sighed in resignation and barely parted her lips. She felt his tongue slide into her mouth and recede. And felt another surprising quiver of excitement. Her hands tightened around his neck, and she leaned her body against his, waiting for the next intrusion. She could feel the texture of his tongue and taste him — he tasted good, like buttery popcorn and Coke.
Amy had an analytical mind, and she wanted to dissect the experience. But she was starting to feel things she’d never felt. Heat and need and desire. His tongue was moving in and out of her mouth, teasing the back of her upper lip and then receding. She sucked on it, to keep it where it was, and heard Luke gasp.
They broke the kiss and stared at one another with glazed eyes. “What’s wrong?” she said.
“What did you do?”
“I don’t know.”
“You sucked on my tongue,” he accused.
“No, it felt good. Do it again.”
Before she could protest, he was kissing her again, his tongue in her mouth, and she sucked on it, like she had before, and felt his body tense beneath her hands.
He broke the kiss again and laid his brow against hers. “Oh, God, Amy. Does this feel as good to you as it does to me?”
In response, Amy simply caught him by the ears and pulled his head down to kiss him. She found his lips closed and ran her tongue along the seam, as he’d done to her. And heard him groan.
It was almost a sound of pain, but she knew she wasn’t hurting him. She pressed her tongue against his lips, seeking entrance, and he opened to her. Amy’s tongue slid inside his mouth and he clasped her tight, his tongue dueling with hers, as they each sought to pleasure the other.
They were both breathing hard by the time they broke the kiss. Amy’s knees were threatening to buckle again, and her breasts ached. “We better stop this,” she said.
“Why?” Luke said. “You like it, don’t you?”
“That’s not the point.”
“That’s precisely the point,” Luke said. “If it feels good, do it.”
“Some people have to think of consequences,” Amy said.
“To hell with consequences,” Luke said, reaching for her.
Amy broke free. “If you want to be my boyfriend, Luke Creed, you will learn to consider consequences.”
Luke had grinned at her. “Does that mean you’re going to be my girlfriend?”
Amy realized what she’d done. Partnered up with someone wild and irresponsible, someone who flouted the rules at every turn. It sounded wonderful. “Yes,” she said. “It does.”
She’d kissed him again and used her tongue and enjoyed every long, delicious minute of it.
They’d spent the next four years as inseparable companions, but they’d never consummated the relationship.
Until prom night.
The mare had slowed, and Amy realized the animal was laboring to breathe and reined her to a stop. She felt as enervated as the mare, who stood on shaky legs, waiting for Amy to direct her where to go.
Amy slid out of the saddle and leaned against the mare, feeling the tears sting her nose and well in her eyes.
God, she was such a fool. She’d wanted someone responsible. Someone reliable. Someone she could count on to stand by her when times got tough. She’d been so sure Luke would never be that man. So she’d married Carl Nash.
And stayed with him for eleven long years, as much a captive as her mother had ever been. Her marriage had ended a year ago. She was free, back in Bitter Creek to visit her parents. Her mother, who still lived within the same four walls. And her father, who still patiently pitied her.
Amy’s blond hair was too short for a ponytail these days and she pulled off her Stetson and set it on the saddle horn, then lifted the hair off her nape with both hands, so the breeze could reach the sweat and cool her. She was standing like that, eyes closed, when she heard hoofbeats.
“Hey!” a voice called out to her. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. It really is you.”
Amy felt her heart speed at the sight of Luke. It was as though her thoughts had conjured him. She quickly dropped her hands and self-consciously wiped her palms against the thighs of her jeans. “What a nice surprise,” she said with a smile.
She felt her smile widen and didn’t try to stop it. She was glad to see him. He was a piece of her past that had been mostly good. For four years, Luke had been her best friend, someone she could tell anything.
But what they’d shared had happened a lifetime ago, when they’d been kids. She couldn’t expect things to be the same. She’d certainly changed. He must have, too.
He was dressed much as she was, in a worn Western shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. She hadn’t spoken to him since the night of her engagement party, when he’d come to her and begged her not to marry Carl Nash.
“You look good,” she said. His brown hair was too long, as usual, down over his ears and his collar. His body was still lean, but his shoulders were broader than they’d been when he was a younger man, and his forearms, where the shirt was rolled up, looked sinewy and strong. His hands were large, but they’d always been big. They just seemed to fit his body better now.
His eyes, the color of sun-ripened tobacco, looked world-weary. That wasn’t new either. But he seemed more adept at hiding his feelings than he’d been all those years ago.
“I heard you were coming for a visit,” she said.
“That’s funny. No one said a word to me about you being here.”
She laughed at the indignation in his voice. “I didn’t think our paths would cross.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Your mom invited me to come riding when I had some free time.” She shrugged. “I had some today.”
“Where’s your husband?”
“In Virginia.” She had no desire to tell him about her marriage — or how ignominiously it had ended.
She could feel his eyes caressing her. He shouldn’t be looking at a woman he believed was married with eyes so full of need.
“How are you?” she asked.
“Fine. You look like hell.”
She laughed again. “Thanks. I see you’re still incorrigibly honest when tact would serve you better.”
“You look exhausted,” he said. “What have you been doing with yourself?”
“I keep busy,” she said evasively.
“You nearly ran that horse into the ground. Exorcising demons?” he asked.
“Could be.” She retrieved her hat from the saddle horn and set it low on her forehead.
“Where are you going in such a hurry?” he asked.
“I’ve got a luncheon engagement. I need to get back.”
“Me, too,” Luke said. “Back at the homestead. We can ride together.”
Amy realized suddenly that Ren had known Luke would be at lunch when she’d invited Amy to join them, but she could see no way to escape the obligation. “Fine,” she said, as she stepped back into the saddle. “You talk, I’ll listen.”
“What do you want to hear?” Luke asked.
“I know about your divorce,” she said. “How are your kids?”
“I don’t get to see enough of them,” Luke said. “I heard you have a daughter the same age as my eldest.”
“Yes. Her name’s Honor. She’s the light of my life.”
“How are your parents?”
“They’re fine,” she said. “I’d ask you about your mother, but I expect I know that better than you, since you haven’t seen her yet.”
“How do you know that?” Luke asked.
“I spoke with her this morning when I was saddling up at the stable at Three Oaks. She invited me back for lunch.”
“I see. So we’ll be having lunch together,” Luke said, eyeing her speculatively. “Did you trailer your horse out here?”
“I rode the whole way.”
“I’ve got a trailer that can take both horses,” Luke said. “Your mare looks like she’d appreciate the ride.”
Amy patted Lady’s neck and said, “You’re right about that. Sure. Why not?”
It didn’t take them long to reach Luke’s truck and load their horses onto the trailer. On the way back to the Homestead at Three Oaks Amy said, “Your mother is very proud of you.”
“I’ve joined the establishment.”
“I have to admit I never expected that of you.”
Luke glanced at her and said, “Looks like you gave up on me too soon.”
“Maybe I did,” she said in a soft voice.
He hit the brakes hard and shoved the gearshift into park. The horses snorted their displeasure as they shifted to keep their balance in the trailer. “Are you happy with him?” he demanded.
Amy stared at Luke with stricken eyes.
He grabbed her arms and turned her to face him. “Because all you have to do is say the word, and I’ll be standing at your door, asking for another chance. Losing you was the biggest mistake — ”
She put her hand over his mouth. “Don’t say things you don’t mean. We’re different people now, Luke. I’ve gone on with my life and so have you. We can’t go back. It’s too late.”
His thumb caressed the pulse in her wrist, which was jumping crazily. She pulled her hand free and clutched it against the ache in her chest.
His fingertip caught her chin and tipped it up. “I’m only thirty-two, Amy. So are you. I’d say that gives us plenty of time for a second try. Just say the word.”
It took all the strength Amy had to turn away from him. “The word is no.”
She heard him swear, low and viciously, before he manhandled the truck into gear and hit the accelerator. The horses whinnied at the sudden lurch of the trailer, and Luke swore again and eased his foot off the gas. He kept his eyes straight ahead as the truck and trailer headed down the dirt road at a more reasonable pace.
Amy watched Luke from the corner of her eye and felt a surge of longing and regret. She could ride across the Texas plains all day at a gallop, but Amy knew, deep in her heart, that she’d turned out every bit as afraid to reach out and grab for life as her agoraphobic mother.