“Go home, Liza Jane.” The spring on the screen door complained as he flung the door open and stepped into the house.
Elizabeth caught the edge of the wooden frame before the door banged shut. “I don’t mean . . . That is, I came to ask for your help. To fix a water pump.”
He slowly turned around. “Your house?”
“No. It’s the—the McKenzie building.” She silently swore at her tangled tongue. The brick boardinghouse had been in John’s family for generations. Her marital connection was one more reminder of her betrayal, of the pain she had caused him. Sensing the escalating tension between them, she launched into a hasty explanation. “Steve Walford and Tug Mazzey have about given up trying to keep the water out of the basement. We all agreed you’re the only one who could patch it up long enough for me to find a new one.”
He folded his arms across his chest. “Let me get this straight . . . you’re trying to get me to save a dilapidated old building that belonged to Johnny? Now ain’t that sweet. No thanks.”
Max left her standing there, strode toward the stairs and took them two at a time. She could hardly be angry at his predictable reaction. But she couldn’t give up without a fight. It had always been that way with Max and her. She knew if she wheedled and cajoled, she could talk him into anything. Well, not exactly. Not marriage and babies. A flicker of regret darkened her thoughts before she mentally shoved it aside.
“Where are you going?” she asked through the screen door. “I’m not finished—”
“I’m going to take a shower,” he called back over his shoulder, before disappearing around the corner.
Elizabeth walked inside, determined to wait in his living room until he came back downstairs. She glanced around at the shrouded furniture. Memories washed over her of Mr. Wilder molded into his favorite chair, watching TV. Harry could be a tough old man when it came to disciplining Max, but he had quite a soft side when it came to his wife, Martha. In their household, Elizabeth had known a special kind of love—strong and sturdy. Not like her own home, where cozy appearances masked the private lives of parents who displayed no affection toward each other or their only child. How many nights had she dreamed of marrying into Max’s family, of one day making this house her home? She had imagined the children that would fill the rooms with laughter and love.
But it never happened.
She knew seeing Max again would be rough. But she was willing to risk it. She didn’t anticipate other ghosts of their past coming back to haunt her, as well. Tears welled in her eyes at what could have been, what should have been. Realizing the direction of her thoughts, she silently reminded herself of John and their two children. If things had gone differently, she would not have Brodie or Annie in her life now. It was time to stop the if-onlys. The past was behind her. She had to keep her mind on the road ahead.
Determined to solve her immediate problem with the water pump, she dashed up the stairs and knocked on the door of the bathroom “Max!” she hollered over the sound of the shower.
When Max didn’t respond, she knocked louder. “I’m not leaving until you give me a chance to explain.”
“Call me on the phone. Tomorrow.”
“This can’t wait until tomorrow.”
“I’m too tired, Liza Jane.”
“It won’t take that long, I swear.”
“Please, Max . . .”
When the water was shut off, Elizabeth heard raindrops slapping the window at the end of the hall darkened by the arrival of the storm. A long, low rumble vibrated through the house.
“I heard you, dammit.” As the bathroom door opened, a roll of thunder barreled across the fields, making the walls around them reverberate with the sound.
Max was very nearly naked. Water dripped from his jet-black hair and ran in rivulets down the sprinkling of black hair on his chest. The familiar tattoo on his upper arm drew her attention, reminding her of the careless whim of two young lovers. He had the Tasmanian Devil with his nickname under it. She had planned to have “Wildman” etched above her left breast, over her heart, but he talked her out of it which secretly bothered her. They were going to be together forever. Why would he object to his name on her permanently? Unless he didn’t feel the same way about her. Disappointed he had balked at her suggestion of inking her name on his bicep, she accepted his choice for her—the tiny rosebud on her right butt cheek, discreetly hidden for his eyes only. At the time, she wondered why he wanted her to hide the symbol of their love from the world. Now, she was relieved it was hidden. Not even her kids knew about it. But it would always be a reminder of Max.
His hand clasped a blue bath towel draped around his hips. The evidence of his arousal was obvious. Elizabeth swallowed hard and looked away, startled by her own flood of desire.
“What did you expect when you started that begging routine on me again, Liza Jane? Or did you forget what it used to do to me?”
“I did forget, Max.” She had indeed forgotten their provocative adolescent game. She put her palms up and backed away, her lower lip tucked between her teeth, trying to mask a sheepish grin. “I swear I didn’t mean for you . . . that is—”
She bumped into the opposite wall and a lightning flash made her jump.
Max closed the small space between them. He braced his free hand on the faded, cabbage rose wallpaper, blocking her escape. When he dropped his mouth to hers, she let out a muffled squeak of surprise. But as his tongue slipped between her lips, he heard her soft moan, just before a deafening clap of thunder charged the air.
He wanted her.
Leftover love had nothing to do with it. Sex with Liza Jane had always been downright incredible. Wild. Explosive. He wanted her one last time, to remind her what it was like between them, to make her regret leaving him. He wanted her to say she’d made a mistake, that she should have waited for him instead of marrying Johnny.
Feeling the light pressure of her hands against his chest, he lifted his head and gazed into green eyes full of confusion.
She whispered, “We shouldn’t.”
Her breathing was as ragged as his. It was wrong to extract his perverse idea of revenge, and he knew it. Yet he kissed her again, deeper and harder. The taste of her made him hunger for more. Her heart pounded against his chest. He knew he should stop, but he couldn’t. With Liza Jane, he never could stop the fire once it started to blaze out of control.
“Max . . . don’t . . .” Even as she spoke, her hands crept under his arms to his back. Her fingers dug into his wet skin. He moved his hand from the wall and cupped her face. Deep inside his chest he felt his bitterness melt away. Holding her and touching her again had taken away all the pain.
“Leave,” he pleaded, no longer willing to punish her for the past. “Leave while you still can.”
“You already did once before,” he reminded her, trying to force her to make the right decision for both of them. Then, God help him, he nuzzled the soft indention between her shoulder and neck. Her skin was damp from perspiration, tasted of salt and smelled of her own familiar scent. His mind flashed images of her lying beneath him. Tanned body. Bikini lines. Milky-white breasts.
His kisses moved up to the sensitive spot behind her ear. The scent of her perfume made him harder still.
The towel around his waist dropped to the floor as she curled one leg around his, sliding her heel up the back of his calf. Somehow, somewhere along the way, she had slipped out of her sandals. He didn’t know when, and right now, he didn’t care.
A bright flash accompanied the loud crack of a tree struck by lightning. Max watched the storm raging in her green eyes.
“Don’t hate me,” she breathed, “for what I did to you.”
“I don’t. Not anymore.” How could he tell her that his hatred had dissolved the moment she touched him? How could he explain that he needed her in more ways than he could ever say, more than his body could convey?
His lips brushed across hers once, twice, until she took control. Her teeth nibbled his lip, then her tongue darted into his mouth. Her hands skimmed down his back and cupped his buttocks, pulling him closer as the storm unleashed its fury.
Amidst the lightning and the thunder, he wanted nothing more than to thrust himself inside her and blast through the dark clouds of their past, flying higher, beyond the memory of teenage ecstasy in the back seat of a Dodge.
But something stopped him. A force he couldn’t understand held him back.
As he buried his face in her neck, he held her tightly. He knew it could have been just like their first time—hungry, hot and wild. And, just like their first time, he would have felt guilty as hell afterward. They weren’t kids groping and pawing and rushing before anyone caught them.
He wanted her back more than ever. But not this way.
“I’m sorry, Liza Jane.”
Elizabeth felt a certain despair as he stepped away from her. The warmth and intimacy of being held in his arms brought back the sweeter memories of their tempestuous relationship. In her starry-eyed adolescence, she believed that great sex was equal to unconditional love. For a moment, she had fallen for it again. How could she have let her guard down so easily?
She let the wall support her, certain her legs would give way if she tried to stand on her own. As thunder rolled outside, she thought she would never hear that driving force of nature without recalling this unabashed longing for Max to drive himself deep inside her. Despite her humiliation, she couldn’t lie to herself. Her body ached for fulfillment. In those few minutes, she had felt more alive than she had in two years.
In the last several years, an inner voice mocked.
No, that’s not true!
She had loved John with all her heart. He had been a good man, a good husband. Then why did she throw herself at Max within moments of seeing him again? What if he’d shown up three years ago, when John was still alive? Would this have happened then?
Closing her eyes, she bowed her head. “I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have driven out here.”
“No, you needed me,” he said softly, tilting her chin up with the crook of his finger.
“Not like this.” She turned her head aside, unable to look at him. She stepped around him and went into the bathroom. Before closing the door, she hesitated, her back to him. “I didn’t intend for this to happen.”
“Neither did I, kid,” Max muttered as he scooped up the towel and headed for his bedroom. “Neither did I.”
* * *
When Max heard Liza Jane coming out of the bathroom several minutes later, he had already dressed and wandered downstairs. Although the intensely humid heat had let up somewhat due to the rain, the sticky warmth still smothered him. His cotton work shirt was already damp from perspiration. His beer was warm and flat, but he didn’t give a damn. He took a drink anyway, grimaced and slugged down another mouthful.
He watched her descend the stairs. She had found her sandals and fixed the mess he’d made of her hair. Putting down his bottle of beer, he strode toward the bottom step.
“Can I get you something to drink?” he asked, knowing he didn’t have anything to offer but a glass of water, knowing he should just let her go out the front door without another word.
She shook her head, her gaze only lifting high enough to touch the first button on his shirt. “I’m fine.”
Liza Jane was under his skin already, and he couldn’t do a damn thing about it but stand there asking dumb questions.
“I’ll follow you into town and take a look at that pump you were talking about. It’s the least I can do.”
Her head jerked up. “For turning me down?” She paused on the second step, her narrowed eyes level with his. “You did us both a big favor, Max. Don’t feel you’re obligated to make amends for it.”
Her clipped words matched her stiff steps down the last two stairs. He grabbed her arm as she passed by and gently pulled her around to face him.
“What I did up there . . .” He searched for the right words, but he had never been one to explain himself. He just did what he chose, and if people didn’t understand him, that was their problem. But it was different now with Liza Jane. “I turned you down because I want you.”
Confusion shadowed her green eyes.
“Just let me fix the water pump so I won’t feel so damn guilty for hurting your feelings.”
She sighed heavily. “Believe it or not, you that you did not hurt my feelings. If anything, I’m feeling foolish for letting myself get carried away. It felt good to be held in a man’s arms again, to be kissed again, to feel something again. But the last thing I want or need is to go back to the past. In fact, I should thank you for keeping me from making a big mistake.”
He experienced a flash of jealousy over being a substitute for Johnny. “Are you finished?”
“No.” Elizabeth looked down to his thumb rubbing the sleeve of her blouse, his warmth penetrating the cotton material. Extracting her arm from his grasp, she looked him straight in the eyes, daring him to find a trace of emotion for him still left in her heart. “I wouldn’t have come here if it wasn’t my last chance to save the McKenzie building. I still need that water pump fixed—whether or not I like your reason for helping me.”
“I’ll get my boots on.”
“I’ll be in my car.” Leaving him standing at the bottom of the stairs, she walked outside, silently berating herself for going upstairs, for forgetting how she used to goad him, for letting him kiss her senseless.
She dashed through the rain and scrambled into the driver’s seat without getting too wet. The raw force of the thunderstorm had swept through, leaving the soil saturated beyond capacity. The land didn’t need any more water.
And she didn’t need any more of Max Wilder.
Waiting for him to bring his own car around to follow her into town, she stared at the drops that fell from the branches of the tree and landed on her windshield. The life she had built with John would not be washed away as if it had never existed. John had cherished her. Not Max.
The vivid memory of her first night with Max always stirred up feelings of self-recrimination, twisting her insides until she had to press her fist to her gut to stop the pain. She had been a love-struck kid of sixteen, willing to do anything to get Max. Elizabeth remembered the shameless flirtation of a naive girl who did not know enough to understand she was in over her head until it was too late. She soothed his bruised ego and mistook sex for love. Only when he’d called her by his girlfriend’s name did Liza Jane realize her mistake. She was a substitute for the girl he really wanted. She couldn’t blame him for taking advantage of her. Not after she threw herself at him.
More than her innocence had been lost that night. Sending Max back to his first lover would have been the best solution to regaining her self-respect. But she loved “Wildman” too much to let go.
Elizabeth wondered what would have happened to her relationship with Max if John hadn’t been there for her, if she hadn’t married him. Even though she did not have the wildly passionate sex with John, he made her feel safe and secure.
Since his death, she had tried to maintain her self-sufficiency, to maintain the feeling of security she had with John. Now Max was a threat to that security. But trying to stop him was like trying to hold back the raging river with a few sandbags.
A black, late-model pickup pulled out from behind the farmhouse with Max behind the wheel. She reached for the keys she had left in the ignition and gave them a twist. Nothing happened.
“Come on,” she coaxed, giving it another try. Silence. “I don’t need this. Not now.”
During the last several weeks of mounting tension over the water level and levee breaks, not once had she broken into tears or a tirade. Too many people depended upon her—her two children, John’s mother, the women and children at the shelter. Seeing Max, however, did not help matters. The uncooperative car was an insignificant problem, yet it magnified her frustration.
She tried again without any luck. “No . . .” After months of being strong, she cursed the sobs that finally broke through. Damn the car. Damn the rain.
“And damn you, John, for dying on me.” Cleansing tears poured out the frustration and fear she had held back for ages.
Her door flew open. “What’s the prob—” Max leaned down beside her. “Liza Jane? What’s wrong?”
“It—it won’t start,” she answered between gulps of air, knowing how foolish it must seem to cry over a dead battery. She covered her face with her hands. When he gently took her wrist, she let him pull her out of the car. Under the protective boughs of the old oak tree, she leaned into him as his arms wrapped around her and held her tight.
It felt so soothing when he rubbed her back. When his lips pressed against the top of her head, the warmth of his breath seeped through her skull. Yet she continued to cry.
She didn’t want to want him as much as she did.
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