That Wilder Man
He is as dangerous as the flood waters of the Mississippi, threatening to sweep her away with his passion.
Re-issue. As teenagers, Max “Wildman” Wilder and his girlfriend Liza Jane had raised their share of hell–in town and in bed. Then Liza Jane betrayed him. Now richer and wiser, Max had come home. But he had no intention of giving Liza Jane another chance to break his heart.
To Elizabeth MacKenzie, a.k.a Liza Jane, Max hadn’t changed. He was still impetuous, daring and sexy as sin. And his flying in relief rations for the flood had also made him a hero. But she couldn’t blame him for his bitterness toward her. After all, she’d run off and married his best friend.
Six-point-nine-million dollars doled out over twenty years was around $226,000 a year, give or take a thousand, after Uncle Sam got his share.
Six years after he won the California lottery, Max Wilder still enjoyed watching curious folks go bug-eyed at the numbers. He had waited until that first check was in his hands before he had quit his piloting job of flying corporate execs around in private jets. Then he left Los Angeles behind and relocated to Phoenix. Sometimes, he still had a hard time adjusting to the scope of it all.
That’s not to say he didn’t like what the money could do. Like right now. If somebody had told him six years ago that one day he would be rich enough to fly emergency supplies to the Midwest for flood victims, he would’ve laughed them off the Learjet he piloted for Corporate-Air, the Los Angeles-based private airline and his employer at the time.
Yet here he was, sitting in the pilot’s seat of his own vintage Beech-17, hauling cases of rubber gloves and boots, flashlights and batteries, and a slew of other things needed by the disaster-relief agency. This trip to Texas was the last out-of-state run to cities where volunteers had accumulated donations. Max was bone-tired, but he didn’t mind. The job of white knight was a lot easier than he thought it would be. After the adrenaline high of his first mercy mission, he was hooked.
With the loud engines droning in his ears, Max gazed out his window at the Mississippi River. He was only a few miles from the convergence with the Missouri. No matter how many times he flew over the flooded areas, he would never get used to seeing the murky water spread out in all directions across the flat plain. It was as bad as the Great Flood of ʼ93 and a few others since then. Only this one looked as though it might be the granddaddy of them all, swallowing up more farmland, more small towns. He could make out dots of treetops and white farmhouses, some of the latter submerged to their roofs. In the middle of the watery landscape, Max spotted parallel green lines that looked more like toy railroad tracks than the original tree-lined riverbank.
It was a hell of a helpless feeling watching that river rise day after day, week after week, threatening the land his family had farmed for generations. Good thing none of them were around to see the devastation. They were gone—his grandparents, his old man, his mother.
The aerial view blurred from the moisture in Max’s eyes. With a shake of his head to clear his vision, he turned his attention back to flying, refusing to believe that his fuzzy eyesight sprang from any emotional response. Too many hours in the air had finally caught up with him. As soon as he delivered these supplies into Saint Louis, he was going to head back to Alton and hit the sack for at least three days straight.
He couldn’t let himself think about Johnny McKenzie. But the more he tried to block the memories of his friend, the more they hounded him. Somewhere in the deepest recesses his mind, Max had thought that someday, somehow, he would find it in his heart to forgive Johnny. He had always thought there would come a time when he would come home to Alton and bury the hatchet.
That time ran out two years earlier, when Max had gotten the news in a roundabout way that Johnny had been on the fatal flight of a commercial airline. Max had wanted to attend the funeral. He’d even made it as far as the United Methodist Church, only to pull up short at the sight of Liza Jane. Before she could spot him, he had ducked out of sight.
Liza Jane Brown . . . No, not Brown.
Her name had been McKenzie for too many years now, Max reminded himself. Liza Jane McKenzie. Damn, how the mere thought of her married name could still slug him in the gut, even after sixteen years.
Max glanced down at the instrument panel, then out the window at the waterscape below. In a few more minutes, he’d be landing in Saint Louis. Another hour and he’d be back in Alton where he could lay low at the old farmhouse until the next mercy mission. With any luck, he would avoid going any place he might bump into Liza Jane. He couldn’t allow himself to see her again. He couldn’t look down into her green eyes without letting her see the scars of hurt, of pain, of betrayal. He couldn’t risk asking the question that had haunted him for so long—why did you choose Johnny instead of me, Liza Jane?
Max is back.
Standing on the steps of the ancient McKenzie boardinghouse overlooking the swollen Mississippi, Elizabeth McKenzie couldn’t stop thinking of Max Wilder. Two weeks had passed since she’d heard the rumor her high-school boyfriend had returned to his parents’ boarded-up farmhouse. Apparently, he had built a makeshift runway on the deserted, muddy fields for an old cargo plane so he could fly emergency supplies into the flooded Midwest.
Max is back.
Each time the silent reminder popped into her head, she felt her heart plummet to her toes. Lord help her if she ran into him in town. What would she say? How would she react to him? Thankfully, he had kept pretty much to himself. Word was he had been gone most of the past week, anyway—which had made her rest a little easier. Not much, but a little.
With a tired sigh, she closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, trying in vain to rid herself of the dull ache in her head, as well as the picture of Max in her mind.
Max is back. And she couldn’t do a blessed thing about it except wait and wonder if their two worlds would collide.
She raised her head as Steve Walford took a red bandanna out of his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Furrowed eyebrows told her that his news wasn’t going to be good. “Number-three pump is almost out.”
“We managed to save this old building in two other floods, Steve,” she pleaded. “Isn’t there anything you can do this time?’’
“Doesn’t look good.” Steve stashed the bandanna. “Without that third pump the basement will flood for sure. When it does, the oil furnace and water heater will go out. Those people you got living here better evacuate to the Red Cross shelter at the high-school gym.”
Elizabeth appreciated his help. Steve had a knack of showing up whenever a crisis arose. Perhaps she depended on him a little too much. She could handle just about anything that life had thrown at her, but it was still nice to have his advice, his friendship. In his mid-forties and divorced, Steve had made it quite clear that he was interested in Elizabeth, a good ten years younger. But she couldn’t regard him with anything more than deep friendship.
She stood at the front steps with Steve and his cohort Tug Mazzey, another local business owner who was trying to help her save the old building from the rising river.
What they didn’t know and what she couldn’t tell them was that the seven women and their kids could not go to a crowded shelter where an ambitious news reporter might expose them on television. No one in town knew that the renovated McKenzie boardinghouse harbored women from the nearby Saint Louis area who had fled violent relationships.
“I’ll find another pump,” she said with more confidence than she felt.
Both men looked down at the groaning machine.
“You know it won’t be that simple,” Tug argued. “There’s none left within hundreds of miles up and down these rivers. Everyone’s fightin’ the same fight you are, hon. And they’re not getting the amount of volunteer help that they got before. You can’t expect folks to give up their own pumps and risk losing their homes just so you can save this old building.”
“It’s not just a building I’m trying to save, Tug.”
“We know,” Steve answered solemnly. “We know.”
Elizabeth looked out at the leaden skies and the slowly encroaching Mississippi. It had already laid claim to a parking lot across the street and was about to breach the four-foot embankment alongside the empty road. When it did, it would pass the watermark of previous floods. At least the traffic jam of sightseers was finally gone. The National Guard had positioned a barricade up the hill to keep away all but the property owners and designated volunteers working the pumps.
“Can you keep this thing running long enough for me to get a pump trucked down from Chicago?” she said.
“With bridges out, that’ll take longer than usual. More rain’s expected, too. Doubt you’ll get anything through in time.” Steve was the voice of reason, but Elizabeth couldn’t give up. Not yet.
“Let me worry about time,” she said. “Just tell me how much longer before the basement floods.”
Tug stroked his double chin in contemplation. “If you had a good mechanic and the right parts—two days, tops.”
“Are you saying you two can’t fix it?”
“We’ve tried everything,” Steve admitted. “My guess is you need somebody who knows engines like the back of his hand.”
“Yeah,” Tug added, eyeing Steve. “Somebody who could jerry-rig just about anything.”
“Max Wilder.” Elizabeth hadn’t realized she’d spoken his name aloud until Steve brightened and Tug looked confused. She held her breath, regretting her slip of the tongue.
“Of course! Wildman!” Grinning, Steve shook his head, as if reliving a distant memory. Surely, he didn’t know about her intimate relationship with Max. Or did he? she wondered. He turned to Tug, explaining that Wilder was a local hell-raiser quite a while back. “Worked as a mechanic after school. Damn good, too. That boy was a natural. Joined the military to become a pilot.” He looked at Elizabeth. “Weren’t you livin’ here back then? Before you moved to Chicago?”
Elizabeth nodded numbly, remembering those days all too easily. When Max had left to become an air force pilot, he was supposed to have come back for her. But their lives had taken a different course. She’d heard a few years ago that he’d won a big state lottery. It was hard to believe that Wildman was now worth millions.
“Good thing you mentioned him.” Steve interrupted her thoughts. “I’d forgotten he was back. Making himself pretty scarce with all those relief flights he’s been running. Sure surprised to hear about it, too. Don’t recall him being the white-hat type.”
“Definitely not,” murmured Elizabeth, trying to imagine Max as a Lone Ranger riding to the rescue. It was no good. Max was more suited to a black hat and dangerous smile. Unless he was paid a king’s ransom, he was never known to do anything without personal benefit.
“Money changes people.” Steve shrugged. “He can afford to play hero. And I bet he’d jump at the chance to fix that old pump for you.”
She doubted it. If he had even the faintest memory of his days in Alton, he wouldn’t want to lay eyes on her again, let alone help her save the old boardinghouse.
Elizabeth spoke more for the men’s benefit than her own. She knew the odds were against her, but . . . “Do you really think that pump could be made to last long enough to get a new one?”
“Wouldn’t hurt to ask,” Tug said.
“Looks like you don’t have any other choice.” Steve crossed his arms over his sweat-stained work shirt, looking at her optimistically.
“I better get cleaned up before I go begging for favors,” answered Elizabeth as she glanced down at her own soiled jeans and T-shirt.
“Good luck,” offered Tug.
“Thanks.” She tried to rustle up a smile as she said goodbye. Walking to her car, she felt the butterflies in her stomach take flight.
Max was back.
And she needed him.
Max left his boots in the mudroom of the farmhouse and walked into the kitchen, where he rummaged through his mom’s old Harvester refrigerator for something to eat. The lack of a microwave whittled down his immediate choices to an apple and a beer. He chose the beer.
Leaving the aluminum cap on the yellow Formica next to the sink, he wandered through the dining room and stopped in the doorway to the living room. Familiar furniture sat right where it always had, most of it draped with faded floral sheets. Max had uncovered only the old man’s brown recliner, the maple end table next to it and the television. He didn’t need much else while he was living here. Except maybe some fresh air. The sky-high humidity had managed to seep into the closed-up room, suffocating him with the moist, musty smell of a dead house.
He swigged the ice-cold beer, welcoming the chill in his throat. Crossing the worn-out carpet, he rolled the chilled bottle over his forehead, wetting his skin. The pale green drapes were open, but dingy sheers hung in all four windows. He was lifting the sash of the last one when he spotted the mud-splattered sedan turning left into the driveway.
“Real-estate brokers,” he muttered to himself, taking another pull on the longneck. Too tired to deal with another agent pressuring him to list the farm, he stepped aside to avoid being seen by the woman emerging from the car parked in the shade of a tree at the end of the concrete walk. With one finger, he drew back the sheer curtain a fraction of an inch to peer at her. Though her door blocked most of his view, he noticed white sandals and slender ankles. They looked sexy as hell, but he couldn’t imagine what possessed a woman to wear strappy little sandals while driving around the muddiest roads on the map. Given any other circumstances, Max would’ve welcomed the opportunity to pursue an attractive woman. But the pretty package didn’t change the fact that she was undoubtedly after a listing. Nobody but a real-estate agent would bother to drive clear out to the farm. And he was in no mood to be seduced into selling his folks’ place.
Late-afternoon sunlight silhouetted the visitor. Something about her seemed familiar. A sense of unease settled in his gut. She paused at the opening in the white picket fence, where the gate hung open with morning glories twined around it. Her long skirt and white blouse made him think of old photographs in the family album that had been painted in soft pastels. Her dark blond hair was loosely pinned up off her shoulders. Her hands reached up and removed a pair of sunglasses.
“I’ll be damned.” His awestruck whisper hung in the heavy air.
She hesitated, then slid the glasses back into place and started toward the house. He ducked behind the drape.
Hearing light footsteps on the wooden porch steps, he glanced down at his socks. One big toe poked through a hole. The cuffs of his jeans were caked with dried mud. His light blue T-shirt had engine grease streaked across the front.
The broken doorbell emitted a pathetic, abbreviated dink. He peeled off one sock and let it drop to the floor, then hopped to the door as he yanked at the second sock. When Liza Jane pressed the button again, he balled up the holey sock and tossed it across the room toward the first one, but it fell short, landing on the lampshade.
Disgruntled with his poor shot, he pulled open the heavy oak door.
Elizabeth smiled brightly. Too brightly, she knew. But she couldn’t stop herself, any more than she could stop the flutter of starlings that had taken flight in her stomach.
The years vanished as she gazed at Max standing behind the screen door with his black hair a little too long and those dark blue eyes staring right into her. She felt sixteen all over again. Her mouth dried up. Her thoughts scrambled. Worst of all, her body tensed with the same sexual electricity she had felt with the eighteen-year-old “Wildman” Wilder.
“Hi, Max.” She dipped her head and removed her big sunglasses again. “It’s me.”
She held her breath, waiting to see if he would slam the door on her. His narrowed eyes studied her from head to toe and back again. Then he said her name in a soft whisper that took her back to drive-in movies and haylofts. “Liza Jane . . .”
She nodded, afraid to trust her voice.
“You’ve changed,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief.
“And I haven’t been called Liza Jane in years.”
“Is it Elizabeth-the-Classical-Actress?” He remembered the way she had once rattled off her dream as if it was one long name.
“You shortened it.”
She smiled modestly. “We had great aspirations, didn’t we? At least you attained yours—becoming a pilot.”
Max felt a knife twist in his stomach when she mentioned aspirations. He had enlisted in the air force, expecting to go on to flight school while she majored in drama in college. But the summer after her high-school graduation, she started talking marriage and babies. He thought they were both too damn young. Then one day he got her letter, telling him she had married Johnny and moved to Chicago. His folks never filled him in on any details, which was fine with him.
“How have you been?” she asked nervously.
“Not bad.” Remaining in the doorway, he didn’t bother to invite her into the empty house. She’d probably come to satisfy her curiosity about her ex-boyfriend. Once she realized that a few million bucks hadn’t changed him from being a grease monkey, she would hightail it back home. Just as well. He didn’t need her around here dredging up memories. “How about you? I was going to try and get into town to say hello when I had a chance.”
It was a lie, but he couldn’t exactly tell her that he’d been avoiding her like the plague.
“I guess you couldn’t know—”
“He died, Max. Two years ago.”
“I heard,” he admitted quietly. Sensing the sadness in her voice was like having a fist slam into his chest. Max hated the man for stealing Liza Jane, but he’d never thought the jerk would up and die on her. “I . . . uh, read about it in the Phoenix paper.”
She shook her head, then glanced down at her feet, as if mustering up courage from beneath the peeling floorboards of the porch. When she looked up again, her full lips curved into a weak smile, but her eyes were bright with unshed tears. “Plane crash. Ironic, huh?”
She turned and gazed out at the horizon, hugging her arms as if a chill had somehow gripped her in the midst of the muggy heat. “You were the one who was the reckless kid playing daredevil pilot. You were the one I was afraid was going to die in a plane crash. After everything that has happened, I’m not too crazy about flying anymore. I can’t imagine that you do it every day without any fear whatsoever.”
Max was surprised by her confession. She still thought about him? She even worried about his flying? All this time he’d been wondering about her, wishing things had turned out differently, dreaming of her in his life. But he had assumed she’d forgotten all about him.
“I guess it is a bit ironic, at that.” The old screen door squeaked as he stepped out onto the porch and stood behind her, watching the sky grow darker. He didn’t know what to say about Johnny. Despite their close friendship, there had always been a childhood rivalry between the two of them. Johnny had always come in second to Max. Until Liza Jane. The true irony was that Johnny was gone and his widow was now standing here on the front porch with Max. His friend had lost out again.
“I’m sorry about Johnny,” he offered honestly.
She pivoted around and looked up at him. A tear had run down the side of her cheek, leaving a glistening wet line. The last time he’d seen her cry was at the end of his Christmas leave all those years ago. She hadn’t wanted him to go back to Germany without her. But this time she wasn’t crying for him. She was crying for another man, the man she’d lost just two years ago.
“Thanks for coming by to say hi,” he said, then nodded to the ominous sky. “It looks like a storm’s blowing in. You better get on back.”
She allowed herself a small chuckle. “Those were the same words you used to say when I’d come by that old filling station where you worked.”
“I recall you weren’t much for listening to my advice . . . or your daddy’s threats.”
Back in those days, Max had been every father’s worst nightmare—a hot-tempered eighteen-year-old whose nickname, Wildman, said it all. Max had paid no attention to the younger Liza Jane until the night he had another fight with his girlfriend. He was nursing his bruised ego and Liza Jane was too damn eager to console him. In hindsight, he never should have got that six-pack of Bud. After drinking a can, she changed from the chubby, freckle-faced sixteen-year-old into a hot, voluptuous seductress. Something in his gut had warned him she was a virgin, but she sure as hell didn’t act like one. She was more than any hormone-driven teenage guy could imagine. He never meant for things to go as far as they did. That night was only the beginning. Right or wrong, he couldn’t stop going back to her.
But there’d been something more between them, something other than great sex. He couldn’t exactly name it or even admit to it. All he knew at the time was that he couldn’t breathe without Liza Jane Brown. Liza Jane was his, and his only.
Or so he’d thought.
Right up until the day she’d married his best friend.
He yanked his thoughts back from the past and glared at her. “I hate to cut this short, but—”
“I need you, Max.”
Max stared at her for a long moment.
“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.
Holding her close, Max squeezed his eyes shut, wishing there was someone around to kick his butt for doing this to her. It was his fault she was crying. Even though she’d betrayed him, he still felt overwhelmed with guilt. Through his own stupidity, he’d made her feel rejected, pushed aside. He couldn’t blame her for hating him. She should be slugging his chest and calling him a bastard, not clinging to him and crying as if she blamed herself.
After a couple of minutes, he escorted her to the cab of his Ford truck, then went back to her car for her purse. As he tossed it onto the seat next to his hat, she thanked him.
“No need.” He closed the door and started the engine, looking over at her. Strands of damp hair clung to her neck and the side her face. Her wet white blouse had become almost transparent, revealing a white lace bra and the outline of her nipples.
Mentally cursing the immediate tightening in his jeans, he trained his eyes on the instrument panel, shoved the gearshift into reverse and backed the truck away from her car.
On the road, he searched for something to say to take his mind off their little mistake upstairs. “You’ve changed your hair—it’s a lot darker.”
She sniffed, taking a tissue from her purse. “No more bottles of peroxide.”
“I thought it was your natural color.”
“Surprise,” she said in a flat tone.
She was skinnier now, too. While she had slimmed down considerably during their three years together, she had dropped so much more weight she appeared fragile.
He figured a compliment might cheer her up. “You’re . . . a lot thinner.”
With a strained smile, she shifted uncomfortably. “Thanks,” she said, then looked out her window. Obviously, he figured wrong. He only succeeded in making her self-conscious.
Max turned on the radio and fiddled with the dial until he found a Garth Brooks song. She glanced at the dial, then at his black cowboy hat lying on the seat.
“What happened to Metallica?” she asked.
“Guess I’ve changed a little, too.” He tried to relax, but the awkward conversation only reminded him of the days when they had been able to talk nonstop—especially Liza Jane. She could fill in gaps with just about any topic under the sun. He’d teased her that sex was his way of getting a few minutes of peace and quiet, though they’d both managed to make a lot of noise even then. Damn, they’d been great together.
“The truck smells new,” she observed.
“Picked it up at Roberts Motors the day after I got back. Still haven’t figured how I’m going to get it back to Arizona . . .”
“I heard you won a lottery a few years ago.” She picked up his hat and smoothed the black felt brim. Max remembered when she had sat next to him and slid that same hand up and down his thigh. “Must be nice.”
Better than nice, he thought, recalling the sexual undercurrent of their past together. Then he answered her comment about the money. “It has its perks. But I wish my dad would’ve let me spend some of it on him before he died last year.”
“I’m sorry about Harry. Martha, too, even though she’s been gone for some time.”
“Yeah . . . well, thanks.” As another shower pelted the truck, they barreled down the raised highway, which was a good fifteen feet above a flooded field. “How’re your folks?”
“Moved to Florida five years ago. I haven’t seen them since John’s funeral, when I moved back to Alton.”
“Ask them,” she said, putting the hat back on the seat cushion.
Like him, Liza Jane was an only child. And, like him, her teenage years hadn’t been easy ones. But that’s where the similarities ended. His parents had been farmers. Hers were displaced city people who never quite settled into the rural life. They’d expected her to marry a notch or two above the level of a guy like Max Wilder.
He remembered her old man threatening to kill Max if his little girl got in trouble. What Mr. Brown didn’t know was that sweet little Liza Jane had a hidden wild streak as wide as the Ol’ Miss itself. That was one of the things Max loved about her. But there had been something desperate and lonely in her eyes when she looked at him. Something she’d wanted from him that he couldn’t give. Not until it was too late, anyway. All these years later, he finally understood why she’d wanted a family of her own—she was searching for a love that was missing in her own home, with her own parents. He thought of her with Johnny and their two kids, then realized she’d gotten what she’d wanted. Max could see that now.
“I didn’t mean to dig up ill feelings about your folks,” he offered apologetically. “I guess I was pretty lucky with mine. Took me years to appreciate them, though. I sure was no Boy Scout.”
“Your parents thought the sun rose and set on you. Your mother used to say you were just sowing wild oats. She was certain you’d settle down sooner or later.”
“Too late for them to see it, though.”
“Is that why you’re here, Max? Are you somehow trying to make up for your less-than-shining past?”
“Naw . . . that thought never crossed my mind. I can’t change the past, no matter how much I might want to.” He paused, realizing the blatant implication of his words, then quickly went on. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. But I think I’ve learned some lessons, grown up a bit and maybe even matured. I thought it was time to let my lucky lottery money do some good for somebody other than just me.”
“Money changes people.”
“Occasionally for the better.” Uncomfortable talking about himself, he changed the subject. “I was wondering what brought you back to Alton.”
Max took his attention off the road long enough to glance at her. She looked over, saw him watching her and quickly averted her gaze.
“John’s mother,” she finally answered. “She invited me to live with her.”
“Couldn’t you make it on your own?”
“That’s not why I came home, Max. Bernice was distraught. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child.”
Max heard the tenderness in her voice. Liza Jane had always held a soft spot in her heart for kids. She loved babies. Wanted a dozen of them. Then it dawned on him that he’d almost made love to her earlier without a single thought of protection. If he hadn’t stopped, certainly she would’ve said something about birth control. Wouldn’t she?
“You’ve gotten awfully quiet all of a sudden.”
“I was thinkin’.”
After a moment of silence, she prompted, “About . . .?”
The accelerated rhythm of his heart kept time with the windshield wipers slapping back and forth. “About what happened upstairs.”
“Can we forget about that?” she pleaded, closing her eyes and tilting her head against the back window of the truck, her face flushed with embarrassment. Returning his attention back to the road Max wished there was something he could say to make her realize he hadn’t meant to humiliate her.
“I have one last thing to say on the subject, then I won’t bring it up again.” He pressed on without giving her a chance to object. “I said I wanted you, but I don’t think you believe me.” He paused, waiting for her response. When none came, he interpreted her silence as agreement. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want you, Liza Jane. I just wasn’t prepared . . . that is, I didn’t plan—”
“Neither did I.”
He held up his hand. “That’s exactly my point. You could have gotten pregnant.”
“Not likely,” she murmured, though he doubted she intended to be heard.
“Are you on birth control?”
“I don’t sleep around.”
“I’m not implying any such thing. I was just asking.”
“Why would I use birth control with John gone?”
“Then why are you so sure?”
“Medical reasons, okay?”
Max suddenly thought of all the possibilities and settled on the worst one of all. The roar of the water in the wheel wells was drowned out by the rush of blood to his brain.
He had to force the question out of his mouth. “Are you sick?”
Elizabeth watched his knuckles tighten around the steering wheel, his face turn pale.
“It’s not cancer,” she said, touched by the expression of relief that immediately washed over his rugged features. He didn’t need to know that her female functions had stopped operating the past six months. “If I could conceive—which I can’t—I wouldn’t put myself at risk. I haven’t forgotten how you feel about children. I certainly heard it often enough—you did not want to be a father.”
“I told you I wasn’t ready to be a father. There’s a hell of a lot of difference. And I wasn’t ready to be married, either. But you couldn’t wait. You had to be Mrs. Somebody, so you ran off with Johnny.”
“That’s not how it happened,” she said softly.
“Refresh my memory then, Liza Jane. That Christmas I was home on leave, we spent half our time parked on some remote back road. When I got back to Germany, I thought long and hard about us. Just when I’d decided to come back in the summer with an engagement ring, I ended up getting your polite little letter about you and Johnny.”
Elizabeth winced inwardly at the cold rendition of his side of the story. From his perspective, she was the ultimate spoiled brat who had stabbed him in the back.
The elevation of the road gradually dropped. Max cussed loudly and downshifted to a crawl as the truck entered a pool of standing water that had seeped through sandbags. A handful of drenched volunteers were filling more canvas sacks and stacking them higher. The scene sobered her. While those people worked in the rain to save their fields, she and Max were comfortably dry in the shelter of the truck cab, hashing out past history, opening old wounds. She had nearly forgotten that their verbal sparring matches had been as passionate as the sex. But she didn’t have the energy to keep up with Max anymore.
She stared straight ahead. “Yes, Max. That’s how it was,” she lied with quiet bitterness. Receiving no rebuttal from him, she sensed her sudden acquiescence had stunned him into silence. They rode the rest of the way into Alton without further word.
Pulling up to one of the barricades downtown, Max rolled down his window, letting in the steady drizzle as the guard in fatigues and a green rain poncho walked up to the truck. He looked too young to be out of high school, let alone in uniform. When the young man politely requested some identification of residency and explanation for entering the restricted area, Liza Jane moved the cowboy hat to the dashboard and slid across the seat, offering her driver’s license. She leaned against Max in order to talk through his window. The warmth of her breasts against his arm stoked the smoldering embers left over from the fire they’d started at the house. As usual with Liza Jane, all it took was the slightest touch—innocent or not—to set him off.
Repressing the urge to shift uncomfortably in his seat, he caught sight of the kid ogling Liza Jane’s cleavage with more than just puppy-dog eyes. Max also didn’t like the way she encouraged the guard with her bright smile.
He turned his head and whispered a grumpy command in her ear. “Say goodbye, dammit.”
As the guard removed the yellow plastic ribbon and let them pass, Liza Jane asked, “What was that all about?”
“I’m dead tired,” Max complained, wondering if he would have had the energy to make love to Liza Jane at the farmhouse. “I want to get this machine of yours fixed and get home so I can sleep for a week.”
He drove a block, turned left and descended the hill toward the McKenzie building on the bottom corner. The lower street was almost underwater. At the intersection, a long plank walk with safety rails accessed the Alton Queen Riverboat, a floating casino that remained open, though permanently docked until after the floods. Nothing bigger than a canoe was allowed to run on the river. The saturated levees and fragile sandbags could not withstand the destructive wakes of larger watercraft.
Max parked the pickup against the curb alongside the brick building, put on his hat and opened the truck door. He started around the hood toward the passenger door, but Elizabeth grabbed her purse and slid out before he reached her. She hurried past him, stopping abruptly at the wide stream running down the gutter.
Without a word, Max gently swept her off her feet and waded through in his cowboy boots.
“Damn-fool sandals,” he muttered, walking through the water.
“My tennis shoes were wet from traipsing around the basement.” She refused to admit that she had secretly wanted to impress him.
After he deposited her on the other side, she murmured her appreciation before she continued down the sidewalk. Max acted as if his courtesy was standard treatment for any woman who was nuts enough to wear sandals. Perhaps that was exactly why it was so unnerving to have noticed the flexing muscles of his arms where she had placed her hands for balance, or to feel the lingering warmth of his fingers on her rib cage beneath the swell of her breasts.
At the corner, Elizabeth dashed up the front steps, waving to Tug Mazzey, who was standing under an umbrella by a pump near the other end of the building. She entered the front door, followed closely by Max. In the foyer, Steve Walford was talking with Bernice McKenzie, John’s mother.
The slim, graying older woman turned from her conversation and welcomed Elizabeth with a maternal smile. When her gaze dropped to the damp blouse and long skirt, her eyes expressed concern. “Why on earth are you wearing such good clothes in this rain? Where are your jeans? And your boots? Land sakes, child, you’re soaked.”
“Not quite.” Elizabeth chuckled, accustomed to the good-natured mothering. “I was almost dry before we had to run through a few sprinkles to get in here. Five more minutes in this heat and I’ll be wishing I was wet again.”
When Bernice spotted Max, the twinkle in her pale blue eyes vanished. An expression of stunned surprise, then a kind and gentle smile crept over her face.
“Mom . . . Steve,” Elizabeth began, stepping to one side. “You two remember Max Wilder, don’t you?”
Steve immediately leaned forward with a quick handshake. “Good to see you again, Max. Congratulations, by the way—nine million, wasn’t it?”
“Six-point-nine,” Max corrected with a self-conscious grin.
Steve whistled appreciatively. “One big chunk or yearly payments?”
“One big chunk,” Max answered without the swaggering pride Elizabeth would have expected from him in his younger days.
“I heard you bought yourself a place in Arizona and one helluva an antique plane. Sure is great of you to come back to help the homefolks out.”
“Glad to do it.”
Bernice said to Max, “I’ve been wondering if you’d ever get around to coming to see me since you got back.”
There was a moment’s hesitation as the two studied each other. Then Max awkwardly extended his hand in greeting. “Hello, Mrs. McKenzie.”
“You’ve never called me Mrs. McKenzie, so don’t go starting it now.” Ignoring his gesture, she opened her arms in welcome.
Max stepped into her embrace, giving her a tight squeeze before he released her. Elizabeth felt her chest tighten at the emotional reunion of her husband’s mother and his best friend.
“I’m sorry about Johnny,” he offered.
“Thank you.” Bernice paused, gazing at him with a question in her eyes. “I didn’t know how to let you know. I wish you could’ve come to the funeral.”
“I . . .” He cleared his throat, then simply said, “Me, too.”
She patted his arm. “I’m so glad you finally had a minute to stop by.”
“Actually, I dragged Max into town to fix the water pump,” Elizabeth said.
“She didn’t need to drag me,” he protested.
Bernice glanced from one to the other, then settled her gaze on Elizabeth. “You weren’t grocery shopping?”
Steve spoke up. “After Tug and I did all we could with that old pump, Elizabeth went out to ask if Wilder might be able to help. I thought sure I told you, ma’am. My apologies.”
Mrs. McKenzie’s expression of concern evaporated, replaced by a casual gesture of dismissal. “I’m acting like a fretful old mother hen. With this flood and all, I tend to worry too much about which bridge or levee might go next.” She turned to Elizabeth. “I guess I was a bit surprised to hear you’d gone clear out to the Wilders’ farm by yourself.”
Elizabeth felt the tension seep from her muscles, relieved to learn her mother-in-law had been concerned about the long drive, not the reunion with Max. And yet she was unable to alleviate her guilty feelings.
It was only a kiss, Elizabeth reasoned with herself. But she knew all too well that she had been willing to take it far beyond that seductive kiss.
Mentally closing the door on that particular memory, she quickly offered to take Max outside so he could get started on the pump.
Steve stepped forward. “I’ll do it, Elizabeth. No sense in you getting wet a second time today. I’d feel bad if you were sick in bed with a cold when I plan to take you out to dinner tomorrow night.”
Caught between the possessiveness in her friend’s eyes and Max’s curious observation, she was in no position to correct any false assumptions by either of them. “I’ve always done my share of work, just like everyone else around here,” she argued. “Damp clothes haven’t stopped me so far. And they’re not about to now. Come on, Max.”
As she turned to leave, he rested his palm on her shoulder. “He’s right, Liza Jane. Stay inside. Besides, I could use a good, strong cup of coffee.”
Elizabeth didn’t appreciate his firm command any more than she liked his open display of concern. It wasn’t like Max—the old Max, anyway. There was a time she’d longed for any public acknowledgment of his feelings. But that time had passed. Ignoring her own belated sense of pleasure, she decided against any further protest. Clearly, both men preferred to handle the situation without her help.
Hiding her disappointment, she sighed heavily and waved at the door with a flip of her hand. “Go for it, gentlemen. Us womenfolk will just stoke the fire and keep the hearth warm for y’all.”
Her humorous attempt at sarcasm brought a chuckle from Steve. But Max only gave her a cocky grin and a wink that made her heart hammer.