Her stomach felt like she'd swallowed a big box of the very worst flavors in Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans. Angela Lewis closed her eyes and halted on the disembarkment ramp, causing several passengers to mutter rudely as they shoved past her. The roiling in her middle worsened. Little if any sleep last night, nothing to eat today, reading on the plane to keep herself from thinking too much about what in the world she was doing coming home...
Airsickness. Ugh. At least Keri and Joshua would be waiting for her at Baggage Claim instead of her family or anyone from the Lewis Ranch.
Keri...what am I going to do about her resignation?
Angela shook off her thought. She'd have to face it, but not today. Not until after she returned to La Crosse, Wisconsin. Besides, she was thrilled Keri and Joshua were engaged. She, along with Dandy, the crotchety, loveable old foreman on her family's ranch, had gone to the trouble of matchmaking for just this reason--to see Keri and Joshua happy at long last.
Angela took a few slow, deep breaths, trying to fight her nausea. Then she forced herself forward. The Lubbock International Airport was crowded. The weather through the plane windows had looked gorgeous with the sun shining brightly, the day unseasonably warm, according to the pilot, at seventy-three degrees. Because of her sickness, the warmth only made her feel feverish now. Back in La Crosse that morning, light snow had been falling. It was hard to believe she'd been in the same country just hours ago.
Jostled about by those who apparently didn't have time to be polite, Angela was thrust into Baggage Claim, already filled to capacity with passengers and loved ones. She huddled into the nearest space against the wall and spent another long minute trying to talk her stomach into calming down. When she couldn't, she accepted her best bet was to find Keri and Joshua and get out of the dizzy airport.
The last person she expected to be coming toward her was Kiowa Mackenzie. Dressed in comfortably worn jeans, a denim work shirt under a light jacket, and his old Resistol suede felt cowboy hat and boots, he took her breath away.
The many faces of Ki. Today the tall, muscular cowboy I remember he was growing into by the time I left home; last time I saw him, the sharp, sexy businessman.
His skin was as tan as it would be if he'd spent the last few months in Miami instead of overcast Renton, Washington, a small city south of Seattle, where she knew he'd been at Christmas. He'd been working on a major upgrade of a wastewater treatment plant. He and his brother Wings, or "Mac" as everyone called him, co-owned Mackenzie Environment & Infrastructure, an engineering firm. Los Angeles marked the headquarters of their successful business. Both he and Mac had extensive experience and schooling in engineering and wastewater treatment. They traveled all over the United States, spending a few months on each project, more if there were problems. Angela knew that part of what Ki loved about his career came down to the fact that he wasn't always doing the same thing. While his permanent location was situated in the dinky little ranch town of Fever, Texas she and the two brothers had grown up in, he returned only a few times a year.
And I haven't been home since--
Deep grooves surrounded his smiling mouth, scattering her thoughts and drawing her own lips up against her will. She recalled their greeting last time he flew into La Crosse to see her.
"What are you doing here?"
"It's Christmas. I was hoping to take you to dinner."
"To... You came here from Washington for dinner?"
He chuckled. "You act like that's out-of-the-ordinary."
No, that wasn't strange for Ki. No matter where his projects ended up, he came to see her in Wisconsin often. When he couldn't visit, he called her four or five times a week.
I don't know what I'd do if he didn't. I live for those phone calls. Those visits. He goes straight to my head every single time with all his flirting. And those hello and goodbye kisses...
Even as she opened her arms for his expected hug, she asked, "What are you doing here, Ki? Keri and Joshua were supposed to meet me."
"I convinced them to let me do it. Do you mind?"
She drew back slightly. "Of course not. Never."
He enveloped her again, and she closed her eyes, breathing in the familiar, intoxicating scent of his cologne. Why did his arms always feel so right? During those three-hour-long phone conversations with him, she imagined herself in his arms, growing warm and drowsy against his chest.
Just like all those times, the memory of his kiss shattered the comforting aspects of being swallowed up in his strong embrace. He never kissed her the way he should, the way she told himself he ought to. She often teased him about how he lost that ingrained gentleman quality of his when he said hello or goodbye. When he eased away now, she stopped breathing altogether--forgot how--with his gaze hungry on her lips. Heat raced through her veins, straight to her nerve endings, in anticipation.
Unfortunately, her churning stomach couldn't be denied even with the intense desire she knew she shouldn't feel for this childhood friend who meant more to her than any other.
"You don't look so good, angel," he murmured, cradling his cool hand against her burning cheek. "I'd say you look white as a ghost if you weren't green."
She grinned uneasily. "Airsickness. I've never had it, but I've been around others who have. I need to get out of here."
"I've got Dramamine back at my apartment."
He leaned forward and dropped a kiss on her mouth, reminding her of the deep, forget-my-own-name kiss he would have given her if she wasn't sick. "Stay here out of traffic. I'll get your luggage."
Angela leaned back against the wall, her eyes glued to the man who'd infused her childhood with confidence. His crush on her had been outrageous, sweet...a complete whirlwind of happiness. Tempering his incurable flirtations, his charm seduced her even now. She could come up with a million reasons why she wasn't the right woman for him, why he deserved so much better than a shell of the person she was as a teenager, the whole woman she was meant to be now... and wasn't. The fact that he'd just turned thirty-five and she'd been thirty-nine for a long time was one good excuse--one as good as any.
She admired his patience as he watched for her suitcase to come around the carousel, the way he tipped his old cowboy hat back. She loved those blondish-brown curls at his neck, the baby blue eyes that checked on her frequently as he waited. Why did her chest feel so heavy if it was her stomach that was in chaos? She worried she'd cry when he came back to her with her heavy suitcase. With his free hand, he drew her tenderly against his side, obviously to shelter her against the bustling traffic all around them as they made their way out of the airport.
They boarded the shuttle bus to the parking lot.
"How you feeling?" he asked when they found a seat together.
"Is it possible to want to sleep and throw up at the same time?" she murmured.
His arm already around her, he pressed her head to his shoulder, stroking her hair. "I'll get you somewhere you can do both."
Instinctive laughter burst out of her, and she groaned at the commotion the act caused her insides. "I'm really glad you're here, Ki. You make me feel comforted, cherished and taken care of all at the same time."
"Wow, three out of four what's all at the same time. And at least one how."
Confused, she looked up at him. "What?"
His grin was just a little crooked--something she loved every time it set her heart to racing. "Nothing. You've never been airsick before?"
"You're talking about someone who's climbed Argentine Patagonia's mile-high sheer faces and granite spires that stretch thirteen thousand feel into the sky; navigated treacherous Guatemalan jungles; explored Egyptian archeological digs with a field school and nearly got buried in a cave-in; and jumped out of a plane flying 13,500 feet above the earth, falling at a rate of a hundred and twenty-five miles per hour... Ugh, why did I have to remember that, of all things?" Angela prided herself on a healthy lifestyle filled with adventure that covered her deepest, unshakable fears. "Save yourself, Ki. Drop me off at a hotel and you can miss the 'action'." The motion of the bus was making her feel like she would hurl at any moment.
"You remember last time you came home?"
His parents' funeral.
Angela and Ki had grown up in a circle of cooperative ranches. The one they lived on was the Lewis Ranch. Ki's father had been a ranch hand there throughout his childhood. The ranch was jointly owned by Angela's father, his younger brother--Joshua's father--and their sister Crystal, who'd married the cowboy who got her pregnant. The entanglement lasted all of a month. When Crystal's son Shawn was a teenager, she left him with her brothers and moved to La Crosse, Wisconsin. Crystal had long since taken up travel as a career, and she rarely came home now--not even for weddings and funerals.
And I inadvertently followed in Aunt Crystal's footsteps. But how could I have not come home for Ki when his parents were killed in that plane crash, even if I could never come home for myself?
Angela squeezed her arms around Ki's waist, and he nodded, looking down at her. "Just returning the favor for the way you took care of me, angel."
"That was different," she murmured, her gaze locked with his soft one in the shadow of the brim of his hat.
"I needed you. I couldn't have survived without you there for me. There's nothing I wouldn't do for you, Angela Butterfly Lewis. Just ask me, and I'm yours."
The fierceness in his voice reminded her of the only other man who called her by her embarrassing middle name.
Daddy who always called me his beautiful butterfly. Daddy who sided with my husband when Mason destroyed my faith, confidence and ability to trust anyone else to love me. But how can I blame Daddy when I never told him what Mason did?
Still, she hadn't been able to return home for her father, nor for her own good. Home--where the jagged pieces of herself were scattered beyond retrieval. She'd been grateful when Dandy asked her not to come home for his funeral. He'd wanted her to remember him as he was. Dandy had realized she wasn't ready to face her past then.
But for Ki she had returned.
And, whether or not I'm ready now, I'm home.
Against her better judgment, she'd be Keri's Maid of Honor on the Valentine's Day wedding, which would take place on the Lewis family ranch. I'll never get through it. Not without...
"You'll be busy as the Best Man. How can I ask you to be there for me, Ki?"
The back of his free hand brushed her cheek, his thumb lingering on her bottom lip. "You don't have to ask me, angel. I'm still yours. Always yours."
His words evoked the memory of his words when he was only thirteen. "I'm gonna marry you, Angela Butterfly Lewis. You mark my words good, honey. Someday I'm gonna marry you, right here on your daddy's ranch. Don't matter if you're ninety-four and I'm just comin' into my golden years. Someday you're gonna love me the way I love you. For always."
Shaky as she felt, Angela couldn't prevent herself from smiling. Kiowa Mackenzie hadn't changed one iota in almost thirty years. He was still chasing her like a jackrabbit with a one-track mind, and she still couldn't decide whether to set him loose for some other nice girl... or to let him catch her.