The Fire Within

Eva Keane

 

Chapter One

Sophie Hayes carefully nursed her bad mood into a lively rage as she sent her gleaming nineteen sixty-seven MG convertible around the last hairpin bend on the approach to her family’s mountain cabin. Having anticipated a fun-filled Christmas spent showering her nephews with gifts, she had only that morning discovered her plans to visit the farm were in disarray, forcing her to instead opt for the solitude of her family’s alpine retreat.

And as though to add to her lousy disposition, the weather had changed for the worse. Clouds blackened the evening sky and were accompanied by a wind that whipped at her jet-black hair. When she had departed Melbourne earlier that afternoon, the blue skies had been endless, but the storm front had moved through quickly until it shrouded Mount Evelyn in mist and obscured her vision of the road.

The mountain was like a second home to Sophie, and she was familiar with its eccentric weather patterns. The ominous low-pressure system was not about to dissipate any time soon. Despite it being close to Christmas and the height of summer, she knew violent storms and snow were a real possibility in the Alpine regions of Australia, even at this time of the year. She glanced and grimaced; a storm would be particularly unwelcome with the soft top down on her vintage sports car.

Anxious to get under cover before the heavens unleashed their fury, she increased pressure on the accelerator, but instead of hearing the familiar purr of the engine and the accompanying surge of power, the small car lost intensity. Frantically she willed it forward, urging it by easing out the choke and patting the dashboard, but the whirr of the motor slowed until it became a pitiful wailing as though her treasured little car refused to brazen out the coming squall. It spluttered and coughed before dying altogether, leaving the polished machine stranded unceremoniously in the middle of the road.

“Come on little guy,” she pleaded, simultaneously turning the key in the ignition. There was a small hiss and the sound of a halfhearted spark, but the engine steadfastly refused to turn over.

She raised her face to the sky in exasperation.

“What more could possibly go wrong today?”

A response came in the form of a heavy raindrop that landed squarely on her pale forehead and trickled down the silky length of her black tresses. It was the kind of raindrop that promised more. She clenched the steering wheel and vehemently muttered an oath.

“This is all your fault, Lucas Rhys!”

It was pelting sheets by the time Sophie had placed the car in neutral, rolled it out of harm’s way and raised its roof. Her already snug jeans and white t-shirt quickly became saturated and clung to her body so tightly she almost hoped no one would come along to rescue her from the predicament, to see her embarrassing state of exposure. She consoled herself that the cabin was close, although it remained out of view, hidden just less than a mile up the road by the swirling mist and a swathe of snow gums. With one last regretful look at her car, she hoisted her bags over her shoulder and began the uncomfortable uphill trudge in the rain.

“Of all the Christmases to stuff up my plans, you conceited, selfish troll,” she bit out with each arduous step.

A small rock lay in the middle of the road, and she paused in her tirade to give it a satisfying kick.

“It should be you getting stuck in this Godforsaken storm.”

Water coursed down her clothing, forming rivulets down her t-shirt and bra and seemingly sneaking its way to every dry part of her body. The wind lashed angrily at her, drowning out other sounds and chilling her nose and ears until they felt burnt. The strong head wind made her progress agonizingly slow, until she barely stumbled along, her limbs numb with cold and her eyes blinded by the driving rain. Every decade or so the mountain experienced a freak cold snap in summer, but this was building to be the worst she had experienced.

When she finally reached the cabin she stumbled the last few steps, grateful to reach her destination; knowing her chilled legs were close to giving way. She clutched the handrail of the porch and under the partial cover fumbled for her keys.

She had only just managed to raise them triumphantly from her purse when the first bolt of lightning struck the ridge above the cabin with a calamitous boom, lighting up the skyline and casting the building into harsh relief. She struggled to get the key in the lock when the second earsplitting bolt hit a snow gum lower on the ridge, the impact shaking the ground. Temporarily blinded, her other senses took over. Fearfully she recognized the sound of splitting wood in the distance. Swiftly, she buried the key in the lock, but her motions were accompanied by the ominous creaking of a tree falling. She rattled it furiously, and it seemed to take an eternity until it finally released the catch. Sophie flung herself inside just in time to hear the muffled sound of the tree hitting the ground atop the ridge.

She leaned back against the door, eyes closed, and breathed a sigh of relief at reaching the safety of the cabin. However, had her eyes been open, she would have noticed the evident signs of habitation and would have chosen to take her chances in the storm.

Instead she sighed calmly, allowing the tension to flow from her body, all the while oblivious to the near naked man standing before her at the foot of the stairs. Had her eyes been open, her face would no doubt have mirrored Lucas Rhys’ dumbstruck expression as he beheld Sophie Hayes for the first time in eight years.

*

Lucas froze at the base of the stairs. His dark brown eyes widened in shock as he took in the drenched woman before him, her eyes closed tightly as she released a heavy sigh.

As a film director, he had a reputation for his coolly imperturbable demeanor and uncanny ability to find creative solutions to daily problems on film sets, both in and out of the studio. His people skills were just as definite; no tirade from supercilious actors proved too great, no hysterics from self-absorbed leading actresses too vexing. He was notorious for regarding those who aggravated him with crossed arms and an almost imperceptible rise of one eyebrow that stopped the wise in their tracks. He rarely needed to exert his authority because he exuded a more subtle power; his domain, his decision.

It seemed like all the oxygen evacuated his lungs at once, leaving him feeling winded.

He would have known her anywhere. Although her hair hung in bedraggled strands down her back, he knew it would shine blue-black when it was dry. The only change was the faint touch of a long fringe, swept to the side. When she laughed it would fall back in waves exposing her exquisite facial structure, but when she wanted to hide her expression she would allow the hair to slip forward like a shield.

His gaze dropped lower, and he instantly regretted the impulse as he experienced a feeling close to pain through his gut. Her jeans sat low, exposing an inch of flat navel and impressively toned waist.

Evidently, his prayers that she had put on 50 pounds in the last few years had gone unanswered. And Goddammit, every killer curve was exactly the same. Her white t-shirt molded to her body and provided a tantalizing view of a delicate white bra underneath. The generous rise of her breasts rose over their cups, and thrusting decisively against the fabric of her silky white bra and cotton t-shirt as beacons to the cold were—

*

A man’s deep groan startled Sophie out of her reverie.

Her blue eyes snapped open and locked with narrowed black slits, the unexpectedness of the encounter throwing her into shock.

Lucas Rhys.

Her lips parted. She lowered her eyelids, but when she reopened them the picture remained the same.

Lucas Rhys was here in the cabin, when her mother had only this morning clearly stated he would be visiting the Hayes’ family farm at Sheer Peaks. Unable to move, or even breathe, she stared. He was clad only in a white towel, wrapped haphazardly around his waist as though he had only moments before emerged from the shower, his hawk-like gaze pinned her with an accusing stare. She gulped hard.

He had changed. Gone was the clean-cut school captain. He wore his dark hair slightly longer, and it was wet and curled at the ends. He looked like he had not shaved for a couple of days. Almost absentmindedly, she noted he had always boasted a virile and slightly untamed quality that had screamed “challenge” to the girls at their high school and then later at his university, but now the touch of unshaven roughness lent him an added potency. His dark eyes still flashed so dark they appeared black, and now they blazed with a cynicism he had lacked eight years ago. He stood tall and lean, bronzed and muscular. Dangerously good looking. Dangerous full stop.

It seemed like an eternity until Lucas, clearly aggravated, ran his hand angrily through his wet wavy hair and broke their eye contact.

“Lucas,” she breathed and instantly cursed the revealing huskiness that hinted at her vulnerability in his presence.

She opened her mouth to say something—anything—to cover her disconcertment, but her voice had stopped working; a consequence of the fact that she could not seem to prevent her eyes wandering over him, mesmerized by the ripple of muscles in his stomach as he shifted weight. Finally, they fell to the white towel wrapped carelessly around his waist that did nothing to hide his long, powerful legs, brown with exposure to the sun.

A blaze of color exploded in her icy cheeks. She had ogled him. Openly ogled Lucas Rhys for pity’s sake!

“What the—,” for the first time in her memory he seemed lost for words and her barely disguised interest seemed to disgust him. Mortified at her behavior, she watched helplessly as he spun on his heel. His knuckles whitened where he gripped the banister and she heard his quick intake of breath.

“Dammit, you’re not meant to be here. I swear you must take joy in tormenting me.”

The words snapped Sophie out of her befuddled state. Suddenly she was infused with anger. It was his abrupt change of plans that had left her with little option but to avoid Sheer Peaks! But before Sophie could collect herself to demand her own explanation at his presence, Lucas’ cold voice echoed around the entrance hall.

“I’m going to put some clothes on. I suggest you do the same. After that, you’ve got about three minutes to explain exactly why I shouldn’t bundle you straight back into that toy you call a car.”

He jogged up the stairs without so much as a glance back.

Sophie shivered as another streak of lightning cracked in the night sky behind her. She wondered uncertainly which of the two storm fronts was the lesser evil—the one that raged outside, or the inevitable clash with Lucas that had been brewing for the last eight years.

* * * *

Sophie studied her watch, which was fogging with steam. She had already spent fifteen minutes soaking but she knew Lucas would be brooding downstairs; she could practically hear his pacing through the floorboards. Every minute she lagged would make the ultimate confrontation more unbearable but she was yet to regain control of her runaway nerves and the warmth of the bath was far preferably to his icy countenance.

Eight years ago she had vowed to erase all trace of Lucas from her life. Her choice of career as a public relations officer with a human rights organization had been specifically chosen to keep her away from all aspects of the film industry. She lived in Melbourne, while her brothers and Lucas resided in Sydney, where they based their production company. Even family holidays had been craftily timed to guarantee their paths never crossed, all the while ensuring her family remained oblivious to her careful social engineering around the long time family friend.

Of course, Lucas was her brothers’ best friend so she had seen him at a distance at both of her brothers’ weddings, but had assiduously avoided a direct meeting. Each of her brothers had been too anxious on their big days to even notice, her father was generally oblivious to situational undercurrents and, for a refreshing change, her mother was too harried being the mother-of-the-grooms to worry about Sophie.

Sophie knew she could not put off a meeting forever, but she had planned to be in control when it happened. She had wanted to exchange pleasantries in the cool tone she had perfected for exactly that moment, and then walk away as if she were blissfully unaware of any tension.

Now all her well-laid plans had been reduced to naught. She had not been cool, pleasant or charming. Her entrance had not even been stylish. Over the years she had envisioned alighting from her chic sports car clad in the trendiest fashions sourced from Melbourne’s Chapel Street and sending a casual wave in Lucas’ direction while she in turn hugged her family. Instead she had been gob smacked by his near naked form.

Sophie cringed. It had taken about an hour to pry her agape jaw from floor. So much for acting like the cool, calm twenty-six-year-old she had become. Her reaction was more like the horrified theatrics of a teenager, she thought ruefully.

Even worse, when she had finally fled to the bathroom she had been horrified to see her reflection in the wall length mirror.

“Humiliating,” she muttered, covering her face with her hands at the thought of her wet clothing was plastered to her body.

“No wonder he looked disgusted. I may as well have been taking part in a wet t-shirt contest.”

She groaned out loud. Her thin t-shirt, which had been perfect for hot summer weather she was expecting, had proved completely inadequate for the sudden squall. It was transparent by the time she had escaped the storm, and exposed the silky, white concoction beneath. Her jeans, heavy with water, sat so low that the top of her matching knickers was also on display.

Despite the delicious heat of the bath she shivered. She knew Lucas would be waiting impatiently downstairs but her nerves were still frazzled. She needed a few more minutes to calm herself in the bath and consider his unexpected presence.

The situation was more puzzling because her mother, Lindsay, had made Lucas’ plans for Christmas quite clear during their last telephone conversation; he had declined use of the cabin and would be home instead at the Hayes’ midland property for Christmas, where Sophie had originally planned to spend the holiday period. Shocked by the announcement, Sophie had promptly rescinded her plans to stay at the family home and instead requested access to the seemingly vacant mountain retreat, claiming she needed to finish some desperately needed reports. Lindsay was clearly disappointed at Sophie’s sudden about-face, but she seemed unaware that her daughter’s absence would solely be due to Lucas’ presence at the farm.

Or had she?

But then why had her mother failed to update Sophie that Lucas had reverted to the original plan? Sophie closed her eyes and breathed a little deeper. She leant back in the steamy haze, vowing to erase all thought of Lucas from her mind for the next few minutes and let the water sap the tension from her taut muscles.

Perhaps it was the heat from the bath, or a side effect of her body dealing with shock, but it did not take long before she slipped into a heavy sleep. However, it was not a peaceful repose, instead her rebellious sub-consciousness plagued her with the same cursed dream that had destroyed countless nights for the last eight years and seared the memory of Lucas Rhys onto her very soul.

 

 

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