For this Mother’s Day Weekend, Walk in Beauty is free at Amazon. It is a searing, heartfelt tale of lost love and a secret child, the terrible mistakes we can all make, and the possibilities love offers to heal even the darkest of wounds. I love this book madly, for the Navajo aspects, and the lost child reunited with her father. Luke Bernali was one of the first characters to ever walk on to the screen of my imagination, although it was nearly a dozen years before I wrote his story. He was my companion for a long time.
The special starts Friday and ends Tuesday, so don’t miss your chance.
Jessie glanced out the front window. “It’s cloudy. Won’t it be awfully cold?”
“Not really,” Luke said. “We’ll bundle up and put an extra pair of socks on. It’s nice up there this time of year. Do you remember Cheyenne Canyon? Helen Hunt Falls?”
Jessie chuckled, thinking of her ragged copy of Ramona, Helen Hunt Jackson’s famous novel of a California woman and the Indian, Alessandro, she loved. Jessie had discovered a dusty copy in the library when she was fourteen and read it three times—just that year. She’d lost count of how many more times she’d picked up the beloved book. “How could I forget?”
Luke grinned, and his face was suddenly ten years younger. He’d often teased her about falling in love with him because she had loved Alessandro first.
And in a small way, it was true. The first time she had seen Luke, hammering nails into the frame of her father’s new study, she had been riveted. As he worked in the heat of a California afternoon, his long black hair braided and dark skin shimmering with sweat, he’d been the most singularly attractive man she’d ever seen. His back was bare and long and dark, his arms strong and hard-muscled. A red bandanna tied around his forehead kept the hair from his eyes. She stared at him through her bedroom window, her stomach tight, unable to believe he was real. He paused, wiping a forearm across his brow. And then he looked up.
Jessie, romantic and young, had thought with a painful pinch, Oh, it’s Alessandro! Her heart flipped when he gave her a slow, mocking, sexy smile…..
In the mountains….
“You forget, Jessie, I was your number-one fan a long time before anybody else realized how good you were.”
Her gaze didn’t stray, but he saw a flicker of something oddly stricken cross her face. “I didn’t forget.” With a little shrug, not looking at him, she said quietly, “I’m pretty sure there would have been no paintings at all if it hadn’t been for you.”
He touched her hand on his arm. “So tell me about them.”
She looked at him, then back toward the up sloping path. “Well, I just sold a group called ‘Canning Time.’ It’s kind of a historical feeling, I guess—the thirties. Four women doing all kinds of things in a kitchen—getting the fruit, washing it, laughing.”
“I’d really like to see them.”
Suddenly she seemed to realize how intimate they’d become, walking close on the snowy path, enveloped by the silence of the winter day. She snatched her hand back and slipped it deep into the pocket of her coat. His coat.
Luke let her retreat. In a moment, he heard her breathy hum start up again. This time, the song clicked in. “I’m On Fire.” Evidently, he wasn’t alone in remembering how it had been between them.
Biting back a grin, he started humming along, loud enough for her to hear. A bright pink splash of color flooded her cheeks. He nudged her gently, chuckling.
She bent her head, but said nothing.
They walked for a long time in the soft gray day. Jessie finally protested that she needed to rest, and they paused at the edge of a wide, high field, blanketed with unbroken snow. Giselle and Tasha raced into the snow, kicking up sprays and tumbling each other into it.
Luke felt the cold air and the brisk walk in his blood as a tingling glow. Next to him, Jessie leaned against a pine, laughing as she watched Giselle. “I should get her a dog,” she said. “I had no idea how much she liked them.”
“Tasha’s not just any dog. She’s the greatest dog I’ve ever had.”
“Really?” Jessie grinned up at him, cocking her head. A fall of hair rippled down her arms. “What about Boris?”
“Yeah, Boris was great, too.” He rubbed his cold nose with cold fingers, thinking of the shepherd that had accompanied him on his wanderings for ten years. Every night for three weeks after Jessie left him, Boris had paced the house and howled mournfully.
“What happened to him?”
“He was so big, his hips started to go. I had to have him put to sleep. He couldn’t walk anymore—I even had to carry him outside to do his business.”
She regarded him steadily, a softness of sympathy in her eyes. It struck him all at once that it was Jessie standing here next to him. She was smiling gently, as if she wanted to tell him she knew how hard that had been for him, that she knew he’d wept privately when he buried his dog. She was the only one he’d ever let close enough to see that weakness in him. Embarrassed, he glanced away.
Overhead, an enormous blue jay—a camp robber—claimed a branch. With a flurry of wings and noisy straightening, he harangued the intruders, screeching at them like a fishwife to get out of his territory. Jessie laughed.
“You still like those evil creatures?” Luke asked.
“Yes, I do.” She grinned. “They’re sassy and strong.”
Drawn by her grin, he stepped closer and then paused. All at once, the tumult of emotions that had risen at the surprises of the past day dropped away. Left in its place was a calm, sharp desire—a hunger that had never ceased, not in eight years; a need that still thrummed through him, like the eternal sound of drums in a heartbeat. He wanted her. Plain. Simple. Clear.
He licked his lip. “You’re a blue jay,” he said, touching the array of bracelets on her wrist and then the earrings winking through her hair.
Earlier, she had kept up walls of fear between them when he stood this close. Now there was nothing, only Luke and Jessie the way they’d always been. Before she could protest, he bent and brushed a kiss over her cold lips.
The contact sent a zinging rush over his nerves. In the tiny second it took, he felt the slight dryness of her chapped lips and a hint of the warm moisture beyond. Her hair brushed his cheek, and her chin jutted up a little so she could meet him halfway.
He lifted his eyes to meet her surprised gaze. A snowflake caught on her cheek and he brushed at it, feeling his heart thump and his soul swell a little from the headiness of finding something lost. In her eyes he caught a flicker of pain and fierce desire. He winked.
Before she could protest, he quickly stepped away and joined his daughter in the snow.
* * *
The walk back took much less time. Jessie felt oddly free and calm as they hiked down. She and Luke didn’t speak, but she felt his kiss lingering between them, not quite a promise, not fierce enough to be a threat. He seemed as content as she to simply be quiet.
Back at the truck, Giselle begged to be allowed to ride in the rear with Tasha. Jessie frowned, and Luke shook his head firmly. “Nope—there are tools and all kinds of other junk back there right now. Maybe another time.”
Exhausted by the long walk and her romp with Tasha, Giselle looked mutinous. Jessie recognized the expression and stepped forward to gather her into a hug before she fell to pieces. “I think,” she said to Luke over her daughter’s head, “we have one very tired young lady here.”
He returned her smile. “I’ve got some stew at the house. Some lunch and a nap and she’ll be fine.”
“I really think we need to go back to the hotel.”
“Why would you want to pay good money to eat at a bad restaurant when you can eat my home cooking for nothing?” he said lightly, opening the bed to let Tasha into the truck. “If you want to go back to the hotel after lunch, I’ll take you.”
Holding her daughter close to her chest, Jessie looked at him. His black, glossy hair was tousled from his play in the snow, and the wind had stung dusky color into his high cheekbones. Tasha leapt into the truck and turned to give an adoring, thankful lick to her master’s chin. Luke scrubbed her ruff, smiling fondly.
It was so easy for Luke, Jessie thought. He just opened up and loved things—dogs and cats and cloudy days and little girls. So easy. And they all loved him right back.
Just as Jessie had.
Her silence stretched a long time. Luke seemed to sense her gaze and he turned. Across the snowy ground, with a child of their making and a cold wind between them, they looked at each other. His strongly chiseled face was grave. She hoped hers showed nothing, but was afraid he could still read her all too well.
“Hotel or rabbit stew?” he asked at last.
Jessie couldn’t repress the chuckle that rose in her throat. “You didn’t tell me it was rabbit.”
He slammed the doors closed on the back of the truck and winked. “Tastes just like chicken,” he said, tongue-in-cheek.
Jessie inclined her head, thinking with relish of his fragrant stews. “It’s been a long time.”
“Is that a yes?”
She nodded. “I guess it is.”
He grinned, and the expression gave his eyes a devilishly sexy tilt. “Will you show me how to make Mrs. O’Brien’s biscuits?”
“I don’t know,” she said, pretending reluctance. “Maybe her biscuits are one of those things that just needs a woman’s touch.”
“Maybe. It’s worth a try, eh?”
Giselle fell asleep before they had driven out of the canyon. She slumped against Jessie’s shoulder. “I am definitely buying this child a dog,” Jessie said quietly. “Tasha wore her out—and believe me, that’s no small feat. She’s like that battery—she just keeps going and going and going…”
Luke glanced at the girl. “She’s out cold now.” He shook his head and signaled to join the main street out of the canyon. “She’s so much like Marcia, it’s almost eerie.”
“I guess you’ll want her to meet Giselle.”
A strange expression flickered over his face. “Mmm.”
He touched his jaw, shifted the truck and glanced in the rearview mirror. “I, uh, already made arrangements. She’ll be here this afternoon sometime.”
“You had no right do that without my permission.”
“I know.” He sighed. “I’m sorry. I did it last night when I was feeling so blown away. If you want me to take you to the hotel now, I will. Marcia doesn’t know it’s you guys—I just told her there was somebody I wanted her to meet.”
Jessie stared at him, holding the warm weight of her child against her, and suddenly realized it was not only Jessie who was upset by all this. Luke, too, had to grapple with the demons of the past. “No,” she said. “It’ll be all right.”
He gave her a grateful smile and reached over to touch her hand. “Thanks, Jessie.”
All at once she realized how much she had relaxed in his company. He was so damned easy to be around, so easy to talk to. He never seemed to expect anyone to be anything except just what they were.
Alarmed, she moved her hand gently from his and saw a ripple of hurt cross his features. Pressing her lips together, she resolutely turned her face to the window. “It’s only fair.”
His voice sounded tired as he said, “Fair doesn’t have much to do with any of this.”
“No,” she agreed softly. “I guess it doesn’t.”