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Authors: Penny Childs

Hearts On Fire

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Hearts on Fire

 

by:

 

Penny Childs

 

Chapter 1

 

 

    
“What a shitty day
for a funeral.”

     “Is there such a thing as
a good day for one?” JD cocked a dark brow toward his younger brother and
shoved his hands into the deep pockets of his long wool coat. Sleet pelted both
of them and the wind whipped, rattling the bare branches of trees together. The
sound brought to mind bones rattling and he could not help the shiver which
traced up his spine. JD had to agree with his brother’s assessment. It was a
shitty day. And their reason for standing out in the cold didn’t help matters
any. “Could always be worse. You could be the guest of honor,” he told him,
tilting his chin to the hole in the ground which had just received the polished
rosewood coffin.

     Josh considered his
brother’s words in silence for a moment. “Yeah. You have a point.” Turning the
collar of his sheepskin coat up against the wind he let his gaze wander to
their baby sister. Twenty-three and widow. He could hardly believe it. She hung
off their mother’s arm, tears streaming down her cheeks. She was going to be a
mess for a while, he knew. Losing a husband she’d had little more than a year
to a car accident had shaken her badly. And when one in the family was shaken
they all rallied together. “How long you gonna bunk at the ranch?” he asked.

     JD worked his jaw. “As
long as it takes, I guess. I can work from here if I have to.” He was looking
at his mother, his jaw still set. “Mom wants us to help move Julie back to the
ranch and settle whatever needs settling as far as the finances go.”

     “I can handle the move.
You deal with the legal crap.”

     “Julie says the move is
temporary.”

     “Does mom know that?”
Josh quipped.

     “Dunno. That’s between
her and Julie. I’m just the help.” Which he could have done from his condo in
Denver, but his mother had insisted he and his brother stay at the ranch. And
what Arlene MacGreggor wanted, Arlene MacGreggor got. No if, ands, or buts.

     “There’s Matt,” Josh told
him, watching as a tall rangy man in a Stetson and thick ski jacket headed
their way.

     JD managed a grin, seeing
his long-time friend coming his way. Sticking out his hand he shook with him.
“Matt. Long time no see.”

     “Yeah,” Matt agreed. “You
should stop by for coffee once in a blue moon. It’s no good meeting under these
circumstances.”

     He was right.

     “How’s Julie holding up?”

     “She’ll get by. She’s
moving back in with mom for a while.”

     Matt grimaced. He knew how
Julie and her mother fought sometimes. But he said, “It’s good she has someone
to lean on.” Lifting his hat he shoved his fingers through thick blonde hair
before setting it back down. “It’s a shame about Ken. He was a good guy.”

     JD nodded. Julie’s
husband had been a good kid. Star of the college football team, top of his
class and from a good family. And hand-picked for Julie by their mother. The
last he’d heard Julie and Ken had been trying for a baby as Arlene had thought
it time they started a family. Julie, though she argued with their mother more
often than not, always wound up bowing to her demands.
Just like the rest of
us,
he thought with a scowl, wondering for the umpteenth time what his own
life would have been like if he’d not bowed to her and married a woman he had
not loved. He shook himself out of it. It was ancient history and didn’t matter
anymore. The marriage had dissolved and the woman he loved… well, she’d moved
on.

     “JD?” Matt asked. “Wool
gathering?”

     He had been and he needed
to stop it. His father had always told him a man could learn from his past but
he couldn’t live in it. And he’d been right on the money there. “Just worried
about Julie. She’s taking this really hard.” He locked gazes with Matt. “You’re
still sure it was an accident, right?”

     Matt lifted his brows.
“What else could it have been, JD?” He took in a long breath. “You know I had
the state police come in on the investigation. They came to the same conclusion
my office did. Ken must have slammed on the brakes and jerked the wheel to
avoid something. On the ice he lost control of the car and it went through the
guard rail.” And over a seven hundred foot drop, he didn’t finish. The wreckage
had been horrific. There had been little left of the vehicle or the man who had
been driving it.

     “Sure wish I knew what he
tried to avoid hitting,” Josh was saying. “I mean everybody knows, a deer, dog,
or any other critter walks out in front of your car you hit ‘em rather than
wreck.”

     “Sure, everybody knows
that. But not everybody lives by it. If some animal ran out it may have just
been pure reflex.” A bad reflex. “The way those roads were that night all it
would have taken was a flinch.”

     JD gave a nod. “I know. I
wasn’t accusing you of not doing your job, Matt. I just wish his accident
didn’t seem so damn senseless. When a good kid with his whole future ahead of
him dies like that you hope there was a better reason for it than he just
flinched at the wrong moment.”

 

 

    
The weather was crap.
Not a good night for driving. But drive she would. She had to get out of town
and get out of town fast. But first, a phone call. Tossing her overnight bag next
to the door she turned and surveyed her surroundings. For the last time. She
was out of here. Finally out of here. The money she’d hidden away this time
would keep her comfortable for years to come. Maybe on some sweet little
tropical island. She’d be warm and tan. And she’d get herself a warm, tan pool
boy too. Oh, yeah. Tall, dark and ready to please his mistress.

     “God, what a fucking
haul,” she whispered to herself. Finally. The con of cons. Pulling the cell
phone from her back pocket she dialed and waited, wondering if she’d get dumped
into voicemail by her highness. “C’mon little miss Lizzy. Answer your damn
phone for a change.”

     “Katy?” the sleepy voice on
the other end of the line asked.

     “Lizzy, holy crap, you
actually answered for me.” She took an excited breath. “I need a favor.”

     “Of course you do,” Lizzy
answered, her voice dry, no longer sleepy. “How much do you need this time?”

     Katy laughed. “I don’t
need money from you this time, sis. I’m beyond that now. Way beyond. In fact, I
could probably loan
you
money.”

     “Yeah. Right. Or pay me
back all the money I’ve loaned you over the years.”

     “That’s why I’m calling.
Well, one reason. I will pay you back. I just need a place to crash for a few
days while I make some arrangements.”

     “Arrangements? What kind
of arrangements?” The pause was long. “Oh, God, what have you done?”

     “Don’t worry about it.”

     “Have you broken the
law?”

     Katy smiled and looked
out the front window nervously.
I’m sure I’ve broken several laws,
she
thought. Her gut told her she needed to move. Now. And her gut was not
something she tended to ignore. It had been refined after years of trial and
error. “Of course I haven’t broken the law!” she lied, going for wounded
sister. “Look, are you going to let me crash at your place or not?” She could
literally hear her big sister frown over the phone line. “Lizzy, c’mon. This is
your one and only baby sister asking for some help.”

     “You’re not being sought
by the police or some angry person you’ve bilked out of their life savings, are
you?”

     Years of working her
sister would come in handy now. “Damnit, Lizzie. Just forget it.” She nearly
hung up but stopped when she heard her sister say, “Wait! Okay. You can come.
Sean would love to see you anyway.” Katy breathed a sigh of relief. Stage one
of her getaway plan was a go.

     “When were you planning
on getting here?”

     “I’m gonna leave right
now. I can be there in a few hours.”

     “In the middle of the
night? Now you really do have me worried.”

     “Don’t worry. You know
I’m a night owl. If’s it’s not okay I can crash at a motel until morning.” She
knew damn well her sis wouldn’t make her do that. Not Saint Lizzie.

     “No, don’t do that. You
know where I hide the spare key. Just let yourself in. The guest room is always
ready for you.”

     Katy’s grin came again.
She hung up with her sister and twirled around the room, looking at everything
for the last time. The. Last. Time. She did a little dance and whooped loudly. This
place had been her prison for far too long. Since she’d been a kid. No more.
Let Lizzy have it if she wanted it. Snatching up her bag, purse and car keys
she yanked open the front door. And let out a startled scream as snow and wind
blasted in the open door past him. What the fuck was
he
doing here?

     “Well, well, well. Looks
like I got here just in time. Going somewhere?” he asked, his eyes traveling to
the bags she held.

     Heart hammering in her
chest she shook her head. “Ju… just out for a while,” she stammered.

     “With a suitcase?” He
didn’t ask to come in, just walked toward her, using his bulk to push her
aside. Once in he reached behind her and slammed the front door shut. “
Out
for a while,
” he repeated in a mocking, sing-song tone. “Now why don’t I
believe you?” He shook his head and leaned in toward her, showing his teeth,
his nose just bare inches from hers. “Nah. It looks like you’re getting ready
to skedaddle on out of here. And in the middle of the night, too. What kind of
person packs up and leaves in the middle of the night?” The question was
rhetorical and he didn’t give her the opportunity to answer. “The kind of
person who’s done something very naughty and has to run, that’s the kind.”

     Swallowing hard she
hugged her purse to her chest. This was not good. Not good at all. She’d
expected him to find out what she’d done, but not this quickly. “I’m just
running to the store for some things. I take a bag with me in this weather. You
know, in case my car breaks down or I go in a ditch and can’t make it home.”

     He reached out and ran a
finger down her cheek, his lips curving into a smile, his eyes ice cold. “Liar.
You were gonna take it all and split, weren’t you? And I don’t blame you. Not a
bit. Not after what you’ve done.” He chuckled and clucked his tongue at her.
“Took a lot of balls, what you did, I’ll give you that. And you almost got away
with it. Almost.”

     “No. I—”

     The fingers which had
just caressed her so gently were suddenly around her throat, squeezing just
enough to let her know he meant business. “That the money?” he asked,
indicating the overnight bag which she’d dropped near her feet.

     She shook her head. There
was no point in playing dumb or lying to him. He knew about the money. “No.
Just some stuff. Clothes,” she croaked through her constricted larynx.

     He let up on her throat,
stroking her rabbit fast pulse with the pad of his thumb. “I know you have it.
I saw her give it to you. Now where is it?”

     She had to think fast.
Because there was one thing she knew for damn sure. Whether she gave him the
money or didn’t, he was going to kill her tonight. And he would get away with
it. There wasn’t a doubt in her mind he would get away with it. Guys like him
always did.

 

Chapter 2

 

 

 

    
“Aunt Katy is coming
for a visit?” Sean perked up at this bit of news, chewing his strawberry pop
tart with a grin.

     Lizzy frowned behind the
rim of her coffee cup. She knew her son loved his aunt Katy and she knew why.
Because Katy was a damn kid herself. Aunt Katy was fun. More fun than his
boring old mom. Katy laughed in the face of responsibility. She never made Sean
follow the rules. “Yes. As a matter of fact she should have been here last
night. But when I checked the room she’d not been in bed yet.” Which wasn’t
really worrisome at this point. Katy had a habit of being late. Or of just not
showing up at all. She also always had a basketful of excuses. What it normally
boiled down to was something more exciting than her sister and nephew came
along. Something more profitable.

     Sean’s happy grin turned
to a look of seriousness. “You think she’s okay? The weather was bad last
night.” Which was why he was still sitting at the kitchen counter in his
pajamas at seven-thirty in the morning. School had been cancelled for the day.

     “I think she probably
stopped at a motel on the way.”
And didn’t bother to extend the courtesy of
leaving me a message,
Lizzie thought sourly. So like Katy. “She’ll probably
stroll in this afternoon with all kinds of stories to tell about her bad
drive.”
And about whatever this latest scheme of hers is.

     “How long is she
staying?”

     “A few days, I guess.”
The late night phone call still bothered her, though she should be used to them
by now. Her sister didn’t live by conventional hours. And she didn’t live a
conventional life. Lizzie knew her sister sometimes – no, most of the time –
fell on the wrong side of the law. She lived in that gray area. And she stole
from people sometimes. Not at gun or knife point, but with con tactics Lizzie
knew she’d learned from their step-father Grady. There were so many times she’d
wanted to wash her hands of her sister. But she just couldn’t do it. Because
deep down she knew Katy was a good person. She just didn’t know how to let that
person take the lead.

     “Are you going to work
today?” Sean asked, hopping down from his tall chair and taking his paper plate
to the garbage. His dark hair fell over his brow and he looked up at her from
under his bangs, his expression hopeful.

     “No. I’ll stay here
today. I didn’t have anything pressing.” She gave him a smile and sipped her
coffee. “Sorry, kiddo, you’ll just have to put up with your mom today.” At twelve
she’d left him home alone a handful of times for a few hours at a time. So far
he’d done well but she just wasn’t ready to leave him alone for an entire day.

     He must of read her mind,
frowning, he told her, “I’m not a baby, you know.”

     “I do know that.” And
sometimes it broke her heart that he wasn’t her little baby boy anymore. Gone
were the days when he wanted her to kiss the scrapes on his knees or make hot
chocolate with him.

     “I can stay by myself.”

     His big blue eyes held a
mixture of boy and man. And for a moment they reminded her so much of his
father she nearly lost her breath. The way his dark hair fell over his forehead
and the way it made her want to sweep it back for him made her heart ache in a
way she very rarely allowed. “Hey, maybe I want to play hooky today,” she told
him, rubbing the top of his head playfully before heading for the coffee pot
for a refill.

     “You never play hooky,”
Sean told her.

     “Today I am.” She’d
already called Brian and worked it out, shifting her appointments to next week.
A three day weekend sounded absolutely great for a change. And she knew she
needed the break, she’d been working much too much lately.

     “Can I watch cartoons?”

     “Yes.”

     “And play video games?”

     Laughing, she told him,
“Of course. What good is playing hooky without cartoons and video games? And
we’ll eat lunch in the living room on the TV trays. Maybe we’ll even make some
popcorn later and watch a movie.”

     He thought this over.
Watching a movie with his mom? He frowned a little, the corner of his mouth
turning down.

    
Just like his father,
she thought again. Every day he acted and looked more like the man.

     “An action movie, mom.
Not some girly movie with lots of kissing and stuff.”

     “Of course not. The more
stuff that gets blown up the better.”

     Now he grinned. Maybe it
wouldn’t be such a bad day after all. “And when Aunt Katy gets here she can
play Mortal Kombat with me!” He nodded solemnly. “I better go practice. She’s
good
.”

    
Because she never grew
up,
Lizzie thought. But she smiled anyway. Because no matter what her
sister had done it would still be good to see her again.

 

 

    
Arlene studied her
youngest
child with worry. Since Ken’s death last week she’d been so quiet.
So withdrawn. Not like her at all. She didn’t even argue when her mother suggested
she eat or sleep. She hadn’t even argued about moving back to the ranch. “Cook
has put together lunch,” she told Julie. “Your brothers are over to Josh’s
ranch taking care of things, so it’s just us girls. I suppose that will give us
a little time together.”

     Julie’s slumped shoulders
tightened as she turned away from the window and the swirling snow beyond it.
She’d been hoping her mother would just leave her alone today. “I’m really not
very hungry.”

     Now that was her girl.
Always contrary. “Nonsense. You’re nothing but a shadow. I know a lady has to
watch her figure, but she mustn’t get too thin either. A man likes a woman with
some substance.” She regretted the words as soon as they were out of her mouth,
as soon as she saw Julie’s face blanch.

     Flinching a little, Julie
said, “Well, I’m not in the market for man at the moment, mother.”

     “I know that and I’m
sorry I said it. I wasn’t trying to be callous.”

     The problem was her
mother didn’t have to try to be callous, overbearing or a snob. She just was.
With all of her children. Josh was really the only one who didn’t kowtow to
her. JD had. And she had too. She’d married Ken, hadn’t she, when she hadn’t
even loved him? And that was the worst of it. What everyone else thought was
intense grief was really guilt. Sure, she’d liked Ken all right, but she hadn’t
loved him. Hadn’t felt that spark for him, that fire for him she read about in
her magazines and romance novels.

     “You’re young, Julie,
you’ll bounce back. Unlike me. I lost your father too late in life to think of
starting over.”

     She’d been about to tell
her mother she was also in no mood to discuss starting over or anything else
when her phone vibrated in her back pocket. Saved by the bell? She yanked it
out and looked at it, knowing without glancing up that her mother was scowling
at her. “I have to take this,” she told her. “I’ll be along for lunch in a
minute.” Carefully, into the phone she said, “Hello.”

     Arlene stared at her
daughter for another moment, then, shaking her head, walked out of the room,
leaving her to what she assumed was one of her friends calling to cheer her up.

     “Can you talk?”

     His voice soothed her
frazzled nerves when she knew it should do no such thing. “I can now,” she said
as her mother shut the tall double doors behind herself as she left the room.

     “Are you okay?”

     The gentleness in his
voice filled her with longing. She wished she could be in his arms. Oh how she
wished. She’d wanted nothing more than to stay in his warm embrace at the
funeral. But it wouldn’t have been proper, so she’d had to step away from him. Now
all she wanted was to listen to his voice, no matter how wrong it was. He would
make everything okay. He would quiet all her pains. “I’m okay.” But he
shouldn’t be calling her anymore. She shouldn’t want him to call her anymore.
She’d told him it was over. Her guilt was just too great to go on with him.
What kind of woman carried on an affair after her husband had been killed in an
accident?

     “You looked so hurt
yesterday. I wanted to keep hold of you.”

     She felt her knees go
weak and her insides turn to jelly. She also felt that spike of guilt. For it
was this which had caused her husband’s death a week ago. Ken had been so very
angry with her he’d driven when he shouldn’t have.

     “Jules, I want to see you
again. Soon. I want to make sure you’re okay.”

     “I… I can’t do that. I
just can’t.” Tears threatened. For the husband she’d betrayed and lost and for
the man she must now turn away. The man she truly loved.

     “Don’t say that. Please.”

     But so much had happened.
So much. “It’s too much right now. If anyone were to find out about us… it
would look bad.” The big house was silent as a tomb. The ticking of the
grandfather clock in the corner the only sound. A reminder her mother was
waiting for her. And Arlene did not like to be kept waiting. “I have to go. My
mother is waiting for me.”

     “No one will find out,
Jules. I swear. Just please, let me see you.”

     She thought of him, so
strong, so tall and rugged. She thought of his eyes, how alive they were as
they made love. How his hands would race over her as though he couldn’t get
enough. And the way he took complete command, demanding yet patient. The fact
he was begging to see her did her in.     “Yes. Okay. But you have to be very
careful.”

     He chuckled then. “Oh, I
know I do. But it will be worth it, you’ll see.”

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