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Authors: Jennifer Blake

Luke

BOOK: Luke
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“You should have someone check your windows, too.”

“Do you see a security problem?” April stepped out onto the porch, then moved to join Luke on the walk. She scanned the house's wide, graceful facade.

“I doubt half your window locks would keep out a two-year-old,” he answered.

The glance she gave him was scathing. “You're just saying that to scare me.”

“Think so? You want to go back inside and lock up, then see how long it takes me to get to you?”

“No, thank you!” April couldn't prevent the gooseflesh that pebbled the surface of her skin.

“You're afraid. Admit it.”

She shook her head but couldn't quite manage a complete denial.

“I could stick around awhile, at least until you're sure your caller isn't going to pay a visit. You could forget I was on the place.”

Forget he was there? Not likely!

Jennifer Blake will “…thoroughly please.”

—Publishers Weekly

Also available from MIRA Books and
JENNIFER BLAKE

GARDEN OF SCANDAL

KANE

SOUTHERN GENTLEMEN

(with Emilie Richards)

JENNIFER BLAKE
LUKE

LUKE
1

A
pril Halstead gripped the phone so hard her knuckles ached. She stared at the book-lined walls of her office with her cane syrup brown eyes wide in disbelief. The words pouring into her ear were crude and vulgar. The radio control booth through which they were being funneled amplified the obscene threat they contained.

This wasn't supposed to happen, not on a live talk radio interview via phone with hundreds of thousands of people listening in. It was like a public assault.

April's heart beat with sickening jolts as she fought the urge to slam down the receiver. She couldn't do it. She was the featured guest on this early morning radio show that reached most of south central Louisiana. She should say something, anything, to stop the tirade, but her mind was blank.

A sharp click sounded as the radio host in his studio miles away broke the caller's connection. “I apologize for that incident, Ms. Halstead,” he said in well-rounded, professional tones. “It takes a determined caller to get past our screening, but some crank manages it now and then—one of the perils of a live show. I was taken by surprise, I'll admit.
That reaction is not what you'd expect during a show about love and romance with one of Louisiana's best-known romance novelists. Certainly, it's not the kind of thing a reader would look for in your books. Am I right about that?”

“Absolutely right,” April answered. For a split second, she allowed herself to wonder if the show host had let the caller rant those few extra moments just to create a lead for that question. The idea sent a spurt of annoyance through her that helped settle her jangled nerves. “I prefer to concentrate on the dynamics of the male-female relationship—the most important relationship that exists among human beings.”

The host wasn't about to touch that claim. “Interesting,” he commented. Then he went on quickly, “So, just how do you go about constructing a romance novel? Where do you get your ideas?”

“They come from everywhere, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, sometimes just a comment overheard at the grocery store.” April reeled off the rest of the response she'd given a thousand times during more than nine years of interviews since her first book had hit the bestseller lists. Her usual feeling about such stock questions was resignation, but now she was happy to be able to supply an answer that didn't require fast thinking. The talk session continued with the host's semiembarrassed jocularity for the intimate nature of romance writing and reluctant admiration for someone who had managed to sell several million books. There were, thankfully, no more surprises.

Minutes later, April said her routine thanks for
the radio host's interest and hung up the phone. She clasped her hands tightly together on her desktop to still their shaking. Squeezing her eyes shut, she breathed deep in an effort at composure. The interview was a jumble in her mind other than the first one or two questions. She had no idea whether it had gone well or been a complete flop.

The pressure inside her brain made her feel sick. The urge to jump up and pace while cursing and screaming was so strong she barely subdued it. What held her back was the fear that once she started, she might not be able to stop.

She didn't like phone interviews, even if they could be done from the comfort of her own home while wearing her scruffiest jeans and sweatshirt. They were much too impersonal and it was hard to judge the purpose and direction of questions without visual clues. The call-in radio shows were the worst since it was impossible to guess what people were like or what they might say. Still, she'd never before fielded an obscene call while on the air. That kind of cheap shot was upsetting in the privacy of her home, much less with half the state listening.

Book promotion in general tore her nerves to shreds. Why writers were expected to excel at it was a great mystery. Most were natural introverts; April had begun writing years ago at least in part because putting words on paper was easier than speaking them aloud. She'd learned to do media interviews because they were part of the job, but getting psyched up for them was always a major effort. It amazed her when someone told her she was good
at the promo business since she couldn't see it herself.

She'd been expecting to be revealed as a fraud for some time. Maybe that day had come. It would be about right. Nothing else in her life was going as it should just now.

The doorbell shrilled. April jumped and inhaled with a sharp sound. Before she could force herself to move, it pealed again, an impatient summons from the antique brass pull at the front door of the old Louisiana mansion. She slid from her desk chair and went to see who was visiting at this early hour.

A man stood on her front porch with his hands on his hips and a frown on his face. As she peered through the lace curtain over the door's sidelights, she could see his hair shining with blue-black luster, his eyes like rain-wet obsidian. His copper-tinged features might have been taken from a painting of some noble Native American. Tall in a rangy fashion, he was as handsome as the devil incarnate and as careless of that fact as he was of nearly everything else that had a name.

Luke Benedict.

Luke-de-la-Nuit, some called him, or Nighttime Luke. Easily the most irritating man in the town of Turn-Coupe—or in all of Tunica Parish for that matter—he had a positive genius for showing up when he wasn't wanted. Such as now.

April leaned her head against the thick oak of the old door and closed her eyes. This was too much. She had a phone nut on her hands and Martin, her ex-husband, was trying to worm his way back into her good graces. Her newest book had received a
devastating review, and that had led to writer's block over her work in progress. On top of all this, her white elephant of a house needed repair work. The absolute last thing she needed was to deal with Luke Benedict.

Luke's knuckles thudded on the opposite side of the wood directly above her head. April sighed and raked her fingers back through the golden brown length of her hair. Then she jerked the door open.

“Are you all right?” Luke demanded. “I was listening to the interview on the Jeep radio when that creep came on.”

Of course he'd been listening, she thought with exasperation. It could have happened no other way. “I'm fine,” she said with a dismissive gesture. “You can go on about your business.”

He ignored the suggestion as if she hadn't spoken. “You know the guy? He sound familiar?”

“No to both questions.” That was not the exact truth, but she wasn't about to give Luke anything he might use as a lever to pry into her affairs. Someone with a similar voice had called a week ago, waking her at three in the morning. At least she thought the voice was similar, though the caller had said little that time. Still, it was accepted wisdom that heavy breathers weren't usually dangerous, wasn't it?

“What set him off? Any idea?”

“I expect he's just a few bricks shy of a load. Really, it's no big deal.”

Luke's gaze moved over the oval of her face as if noting her paleness and the fine lines of strain around her wide-set eyes. “Right. I know radio sta
tions have a second or two of time delay built into the broadcast so they can cut off a caller like that before he goes too far. You probably heard more than the listeners did. Was there no clue where he might have called from?”

“I think it was a cell phone. Look—”

“You should call Roan.”

Roan was the sheriff of Tunica Parish as well as a member of the huge and far-reaching Benedict clan that formed a tight enclave around Horseshoe Lake where April's house was set. Everyone always called Roan.

“What is he supposed to do, tell me that? I have no name to give him, no description, no motive, nothing.”

“The radio station must have gotten some kind of information from the guy before they let him on.”

“No doubt, but what do you the think the chances are that it's accurate?”

Luke was silent a moment, watching her while a muscle clenched in his jaw. When he spoke again, his voice was rough. “He threatened you—I got that much, even if I didn't catch all the words. It should be a matter of record. Call Roan.”

“I don't have time to waste complaining about something that can't be fixed! I have a book to write, a deadline to meet. Besides, you're blowing this all out of proportion. Whoever the guy may have been, he was just getting his kicks out of the situation. If it doesn't bother me, I don't see why it should bother you.”

“You're not bothered, huh?”

She shook back her hair as she gave him a stiff smile. “Not in the least.”

“Just one of those things, right? No sweat.”

“Exactly,” she agreed, refusing to back down in spite of the sarcasm in his voice.

“Then why,” he said as he stepped over the threshold and snatched her hands in his own, “are your fingers like ice and your lips so blue you look like you ought to be in bed?”

“With someone to warm me up, I suppose?” She tugged at her fingers, trying to free herself. The heat of his hands, the strength of his grasp and the sense of power that radiated from him through it, made her feel weak in the knees. She had to fight off the urge to lean into his bountiful protection and the safety he represented, if only for an instant.

“I didn't say that,” he answered with a slow smile curling a corner of his mouth. “But if you're looking for a volunteer…”

“No!”

He released her abruptly, his humor vanishing. “I didn't think so. But don't try to con me by telling me you're not afraid, either. You're scared spitless, so why not admit it.”

The description touched her on the raw, perhaps because it was so true. She reached instinctively for her ultimate defensive weapon: words, sharp-edged and lethal words. “Shall I wring my hands and cry prettily while begging you to save me? That may be feminine as all get-out, but it's also useless and old-fashioned. Rescue, I seem to remember, was never your strong suit.”

“God, April.”

The disbelief that laced his whisper was as vivid as the pain in his eyes. He fell back a half step while dusky red stained his skin.

Regret touched April for the blow she'd dealt with her quick tongue. She hadn't realized he could be hurt quite so deeply by that slanting reference to past events. At the same time, she'd opened a shared wound that was never mentioned between them, had not been in thirteen long years. To acknowledge the error, however, would give that long-ago incident more power than it deserved. She stared at him without reply.

His face tightened. “Right. But if you'll remember, honey, I didn't offer to ride to the rescue. That's Roan's job.”

It was also the only real suggestion Luke had made. Rattled by the earlier call as well as the man in front of her, she had turned it into something else, something personal. That was a major mistake. Though they went back a long way together, she and Luke, there was nothing personal whatsoever between them, not any more.

For the briefest of seconds, she recalled a velvety summer twilight with the lavender-rose of sunset spilling in a watercolor wash across the stillness of the lake. The whisper of a breeze coming over the water. Two young bodies entwined, hot and breathless in discovery, on a crumpled quilt beside the remains of a picnic. A portable tape player pouring out the strains of
Afternoon of a Faun.

To this day, she couldn't stand to listen to Debussy. Nor could she stand to think of it now.

She grasped the door's edge, preparing to close
it in defiance of all the tenets of hospitality instilled in childhood, hospitality that insisted that a person offering aid and comfort should at least be invited inside. “I don't need anyone's help,” she said, her voice as steady as she could make it.

He put out his hand to hold the door open. “Oh, we're clear on that. You'd rather be raped by some weirdo than let me set foot in your house, much less in your life. Got it. You don't need me, or anyone else. Only what the hell are you going to do all alone in this huge old place if somebody comes after you? A whole army could march in the back way and you'd never hear. Do you have even a pistol in the house?”

“For what, target practice at a stray roach? I prefer less noisy pest control.”

He stared at her an instant, then his face changed as comprehension rose in his eyes. “A gun is just a weapon,” he said quietly. “It doesn't kill by itself.”

Not many people could follow her serpentine thought processes or catch her more oblique references. That Luke could when he made the effort had been one of the strong points of their relationship years ago. She'd forgotten that. The meeting of minds left a disturbing feeling of intimacy. Her voice carried acid rejection of that sensation when she spoke. “I'll remember you said so next time I put flowers on my mother's grave.”

“And what will you remember when somebody puts a knife to your throat?”

She lifted a hand to her neck, then let it drop
again in an abrupt movement. “What would you like me to think about? That you warned me?”

“What I'd like,” he said deliberately, “is to know you're safe. I'd like to know that nothing I did a thousand years ago turned you into the kind of recluse who winds up alone in a decrepit mansion, dying in a pool of her own blood because she's too afraid of living to let anybody get near enough to help.”

The words were like blows and she felt every one. With a grim smile, she said, “You give yourself too much credit. My ex-husband deserves the major part. Not to mention an ex-publisher and a critic or two.”

“At least you admit the possibility. That's something.”

“Is it? Avoiding pain can be an intelligent decision.”

“It's a cop-out,” he declared. “Being alive is a painful business, but the alternative isn't very exciting.”

“I don't need excitement.”

BOOK: Luke
10.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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