Authors: Elizabeth Lowell
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Adult, #Western
Forcing herself to let out the breath she had been holding, Mariah MacKenzie fumbled with the brass door knocker, failed to hang on to it, and curled her trembling fingers into a fist.
Fifteen years is a long time. I should have telephoned. What if my brother doesn't remember me?
What if he throws me off the ranch? Where will I go then?
Using her knuckles, Mariah rapped lightly on the door frame of the ranch house. The sound echoed like thunder, but there was no response. She lifted her hand again. This time she managed to hold on to the horseshoe-shaped knocker long enough to deliver several staccato raps.
"Keep your shirt on! I'm coming!"
The voice was deep, impatient, unmistakably masculine. Mariah's heartbeat doubled even as she nervously took a backward step away from the door. A few instants later she was glad she had retreated.
The man who appeared filled the doorway. Literally. Mariah started to say her brother's name, only to find that her mouth was too dry to speak. She retreated again, unable to think, unable to breathe.
Cash McQueen frowned as he stared down at the slender girl who was backing away from him so quickly he was afraid she would fall off the porch. That would be a pity. It had been years since he had seen such an appealing female. Long legs, elegant breasts, big golden eyes, tousled hair that was the color of bittersweet chocolate, and an aura of vulnerability that slid past his hard-earned defenses.
"Can I help you?" Cash asked, trying to soften the edges of his deep voice. There was nothing he could do to gentle the rest of his appearance. He was big and he was strong and no amount of smiling could change those facts. Women usually didn't mind, but this one looked on the edge of bolting.
"My car b-boiled," Mariah said, the only thing she could think of.
"The whole thing?"
Cash's gentle voice and wry question drew a hesitant smile from Mariah. She stopped inching backward and shook her head. "Just the part that held water."
A smile changed Cash's face from forbidding to handsome. He walked out of the house and onto the front porch. Clenching her hands together, Mariah looked up at the big man who must be her brother. He had unruly, thick hair that was a gleaming chestnut brown where it wasn't streaked pale gold by the sun.
He was muscular rather than soft. He looked like a man who was accustomed to using his body for hard physical work. His eyebrows were wickedly arched, darker than his hair, and his eyes were—
The wrong color.
"I beg your pardon?" Cash asked, frowning.
Mariah flushed, realizing that she had spoken aloud.
"I'm – that is – I thought this was the Rocking M," she managed to stammer.
All other emotions gave way to dismay as Mariah understood that the unthinkable had happened: the MacKenzie ranch had been sold to strangers.
Of the many possibilities she had imagined, this had not been among them. All her plans for coming back to the lost home of her dreams, all her half-formed hopes of pursuing a lost mine over the landscape of her ancestors, all her anticipation of being reunited with the older brother whose love had been the bright core of her childhood; all that was gone. And there was nothing to take its place except a new understanding of just how alone she was.
"Are you all right?" Cash asked, concerned by her sudden pallor, wanting to fold her into his arms and give her comfort.
he asked himself sardonically.
Well, that too, I suppose. God, but that is one sexy woman looking like she is about to faint at my feet.
A big, callused hand closed around Mariah's upper arm, both steadying her and making her tremble. She looked up – way up – into eyes that were a dark, smoky blue, yet as clear as a mountain lake in twilight. And, like a lake, the luminous surface concealed depths of shadow.
"Sit down, honey. You look a little pale around the edges," Cash said, urging her toward the old-fashioned porch swing. He seated her with a restrained strength that allowed no opposition. "I'll get you some water. Unless you'd like something with more kick?"
"No. I'm fine," Mariah said, but she made no move to stand up again. Her legs wouldn't have cooperated. Without thinking, she wrapped her fingers around a powerful, hairy wrist. "Did Luke MacKenzie – did the former owner leave a forwarding address?"
"Last time I checked, Luke was still the owner of the Rocking M, along with Tennessee Blackthorn."
Relief swept through Mariah. She smiled with blinding brilliance. "Are you Mr. Blackthorn?"
"No, I'm Cash McQueen," he said, smiling in return, wondering what she would do if he sat next to her and pulled her into his lap. "Sure you don't want some water or brandy?"
"I don't understand. Do you work here?"
"No. I'm visiting my sister, Luke's wife."
"Luke is married?"
Until Cash's eyes narrowed, Mariah didn't realize how dismayed she sounded. He looked at her with cool speculation in his eyes, a coolness that made her realize just how warm he had been before.
"Is Luke's marriage some kind of problem for you?" Cash asked.
Dark blue eyes watched Mariah with a curiosity that was suddenly more predatory than sensual. She knew beyond a doubt that any threat to his sister's marriage would be taken head-on by the big man who was watching her the way a hawk watched a careless field mouse.
"No problem," Mariah said faintly, fighting the tears that came from nowhere to strangle her voice. She felt her uncertain self-control fragmenting and was too tired to care. "I should have guessed he would be married by now."
"Who are you?"
The question was as blunt as the rock hammer hanging from a loop on Cash's wide leather belt. The cold steel tool looked softer than his narrowed eyes. The almost overwhelming sense of being close to hard, barely restrained masculinity increased the more Mariah looked at Cash – wide, muscular shoulders, flat waist, lean hips, long legs whose power was hinted at with each supple shift of his weight. Cash was violently male, yet his hand on her arm had been gentle. Keeping that in mind, she tried to smile up at him as she explained why she was no threat to his sister's marriage.
"I'm Mariah MacKenzie. Luke's sister." Still trying to smile, Mariah held out her hand as she said, "Pleased to meet you, Mr. McQueen."
"Cash." The answer was automatic, as was his taking of Mariah's hand. "You're Luke's sister?"
Even as Cash asked the question, his senses registered the soft, cool skin of Mariah's hand, the silken smoothness of her wrist when his grip shifted, and the racing of her pulse beneath his fingertips. Hardly able to believe what he had heard, he looked again into Mariah's eyes. Only then did he realize that he had been so struck by her sexual appeal that he had overlooked her resemblance to Luke. He, too, had tawny topaz eyes and hair so brown it was almost black.
But Mariah's resemblance to her brother ended there. All five feet, eight inches of her was very definitely female. Beneath the worn jeans and faded college T-shirt were the kinds of curves that made a man's hands feel both empty and hungry to be filled. Cash remembered the smooth resilience of her arm when he had steadied her, and then he remembered the warmth beneath the soft skin.
"What in hell brings you back to the Rocking M after all these years?"
There was no way for Mariah to explain to Cash her inchoate longings for a lost home, a lost family, a lost childhood. Each time she opened her mouth to try, no words came.
"I just wanted to – to see my brother," she said finally.
Cash glanced at his wrist. His new black metal watch told the time around the globe, was guaranteed to work up to a hundred and eighty feet underwater and in temperatures down to forty below zero. It was his third such watch in less than a year. So far, it was still telling time. But then, he hadn't been out prospecting yet. The repeated shock of rock hammer or pickax on granite had done in the other watches. That, and panning for gold in the Rocking M's icy mountain creeks.
"Luke won't be in from the north range until dinner, and probably not even then," Cash said. "Carla is in Cortez shopping with Logan. They aren't due back until late tomorrow, which means that unless the Blackthorns get in early from Boulder, there won't be anyone to cook dinner except me. That's why I don't expect Luke back. Neither one of us would walk across a room to eat the other's cooking."
Mariah tried to sort out the spate of names and information, but had little success. In the end she hung on to the only words that mattered: Luke wouldn't be back for several hours. After waiting and hoping and dreaming for so many years, the hours she had left to wait seemed like an eternity. She was tired, discouraged and so sad that it was all she could do not to put her head on Cash's strong shoulder and cry. Her feelings were irrational, but then so was her whole hopeful journey back to the landscape of her childhood and her dreams.
It will be all right. Everything will work out fine. All I have to do is hang on and wait just a little longer. Luke will be here and he'll remember me and I'll remember him and everything will be all right.
Despite the familiar litany of reassurance Mariah spoke in the silence of her mind, the tears that had been making her throat raspy began to burn behind her eyelids. Knowing it was foolish, unable to help herself, she looked out across the ranch yard to MacKenzie Ridge and fought not to cry.
"Until then, someone had better go take a look at your car," Cash continued. "How far back down the road did it quit?"
He had to repeat the question twice before Mariah's wide golden eyes focused on him.
"I don't know."
The huskiness of Mariah's voice told Cash that she was fighting tears. A nearly tangible sadness was reflected in her tawny eyes, a sadness that was underlined by the vulnerable line of her mouth.
Yet even as sympathy stirred strongly inside Cash, bitter experience told him that the chances were slim and none that Mariah was one-tenth as vulnerable as she looked sitting on the porch swing, her fingers interlaced too tightly in her lap. Helpless women always found some strong, willing, stupid man to take care of them.
Someone like Cash McQueen.
Mariah looked up at Cash, her eyes wide with unshed tears and an unconscious appeal for understanding.
"I guess I'll wait here until…" Mariah's voice faded at the sudden hardening of Cash's expression.
"Don't you think your time would be better spent trying to fix your car?" Cash asked. "Or were you planning on letting the nearest man take care of it for you?"
The brusque tone of Cash's voice made Mariah flinch. She searched his eyes but saw none of the warmth that had been there before she had told him who she was.
"I hadn't thought about it," she admitted. "I didn't think about anything but getting here."
Cash grunted. "Well, you're here."
His tone made it clear that he was less than delighted by her presence. Fighting tears and a feeling of being set adrift, Mariah told herself that it was silly to let a stranger's disapproval upset her. She looked out toward the barn, blinked rapidly, and finally focused on the building. Its silhouette triggered childhood memories, Luke playing hide-and-seek with her, catching her and lifting her laughing and squirming over his head.
"Yes, I'm here," Mariah said huskily.
"And your car isn't."
"No." She banished the last of the memories and faced the big man who was watching her without pleasure. "I'll need something to carry water."
"There's a plastic water can in the barn."
"Is there a car I could drive?"
Cash shook his head.
Mariah thought of the long walk she had just made and was on the edge of suggesting that she wait for her brother's return before she tried to cope with her car. Cash's coolly appraising look put an end to that idea. She had received that look too many times from her stepfather, a man who took pleasure only in her failures.
"Good thing I wore my walking shoes," Mariah said with forced cheerfulness.
Cash muttered something beneath his breath, then added, "Stay here. I'll take care of it for you."
"Thank you, but that's not necessary. I can—"
"The hell you can," he interrupted abruptly. "You wouldn't get a hundred yards carrying two gallons of water. Even if you did, you wouldn't know what to do once you got there, would you?"
Before Mariah could think of a suitable retort, Cash stepped off the porch and began crossing the yard with long, powerful strides. He vanished behind the barn. A few minutes later he reappeared. He was driving a battered Jeep. As he passed the porch she realized that he didn't mean to stop for her.
"Wait!" Mariah called out, leaping up, sending the swing gyrating. "I'm going with you!"
"Why?" Cash asked, watching with disfavor as Mariah ran up to the Jeep.
"To drive the car back, of course."
"I'll tow it in."
It was too late. Mariah was scrambling into the lumpy passenger seat. Without a word Cash gunned the Jeep out of the yard and headed toward the dirt road that was the Rocking M's sole connection to the outer world.