A Cowgirl's Secret - By Laura Marie Altom
Would it be her?
The closed red door taunted Luke Montgomery. Told him that after nearly ten years searching, the likelihood of Julie Smith actually being Daisy Buckhorn, welcoming him into her home, was nil.
Sleek and sophisticated, the San Francisco building filled with pricey lofts had been a challenge just to enter. Assuming the uniformed doorman wouldn’t like unannounced guests, Luke had waited for a distraction before slipping into the stairwell. Four flights later and here he stood, palms sweating just as they had on prom night too many years ago.
Damn Dallas Buckhorn for asking him to perform this task for the family. Dallas hadn’t wanted to upset his mother with what could be another fruitless lead. And Luke couldn’t say no to his best friend.
Forcing a breath, Luke rapped on the cool, enameled surface, willing his pulse to slow.
Regardless of who answered, he had nothing at stake.
Even if by miracle Daisy did greet him with a warm smile, for what she’d done—vanishing with nothing more than a cryptic note—he’d long since stopped worrying for her safety, raging at her audacity or crying over his pain. Indifference had become second nature to Luke.
He raised his hand to knock again when the door opened, and there she stood. Ten years older. Steal-your-breath gorgeous. Expression morphing from shock to pleasure to fear, she visibly trembled. Her green eyes pooled with tears. She clutched her white robe tight at the throat. “Oh, my God…Luke?”
“Surprise,” he said in a deadpan tone.
In typical Daisy defiance, she raised her chin.
“Do you have any idea what your abrupt exit did to your mom and brothers?”
“They’re all fine,” she argued. “The web makes it easy enough to check in.”
“Then why haven’t you—checked in? For pity’s sake, Daisy, you couldn’t even be bothered to attend your own father’s funeral?”
“Could we please not do this here?” she asked, her gaze darting up and down the empty hall.
“Is that an invitation?”
“Take it how you want.” She left him standing in the doorway in favor of curling up on a white sectional, tugging a red blanket over her legs. On a chrome-and-glass coffee table were a half-dozen wadded tissues, an empty carton of orange sherbet and a pile of manila folders.
Closing the door behind him, Luke cautiously, almost reverently, entered her space. The soaring ceiling allowed for massive windows overlooking a Golden Gate view. Cherry floors warmed otherwise stark furnishings. Alongside a plasma-screen TV stood an Xbox 360 and a haphazard pile of games he wouldn’t have guessed her to be playing. “You’ve done well for yourself.”
She shrugged. “Most days I’d agree.”
“And others?” He sat in a white leather armchair opposite her.
“Regardless of what you might think, I—” She sneezed.
Shoulders sagging, for a split second she showed vulnerability. “Thanks.”
“You all right?” Leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees, he noted her flushed complexion.
Nodding, she said, “It’s just a cold. I should be at work, but my boss sent me home.”
“Greedy,” she said with a wry smile. “We’ve got a killer court date approaching and Barb wants me in top form.”
Hands clasped, he nodded. “Understandable.” He cut the awkward silence by asking what was foremost on his mind—aside from why she’d ever left. “So… By power of deduction, I’m guessing you’re an attorney and the pristine state of this place tells me no kids. How about a husband?”
“Right on all counts.”
Why, he couldn’t say, but Daisy’s answer left Luke shaky with relief. There would never be another chance for them, but in the same respect, the teenage boy in him didn’t want her with anyone else.
She asked, “You still horse-whispering?”
Muted traffic noise from five stories below filled a vacuum of discomfort.
“Look…” she said.
“Look…” he said.
After sharing nervous laughs, Luke said, “Ladies first.”
She forced a breath, which led to a coughing fit.
“Still like tea with honey?”
Coughing, she nodded. “But I’ve spent so much time at work, I don’t have either.”
“Figures,” he said under his breath, already headed for the door. “Stay put, Julie Smith. I’ll be right back.”
ONCE LUKE LEFT THE LOFT, every bone in Daisy’s body screamed for her to run, but the sad truth was that she lacked the energy—physically, but most especially, emotionally. Ten years’ hiding had taken a toll. With Kolt safely at day camp, and then soccer and then sharing dinner with his best friend, now seemed as good a time as any to deal with the truth.
At least part of it.
The entirety, Daisy feared, she might never be ready to tackle. Which was why for now,