“Tell me this is a prank.”
The windshield wipers flashed at full speed, and they still weren’t fast enough for Steve to see the road clearly. Few things freaked him out more than being caught in a blinding rainstorm on the freeway. A rainstorm that was turning colder by the minute and promised a rare, low-elevation snow for Southern California. He’d spent five hours on the road already, trying to get home, all thanks to a big rig jackknifed on the I-10 that had taken out ten cars with it. He’d been late getting his column in as a result. Now this
? It had to be a joke. His editor couldn’t be that cruel.
“Do I sound like I’m joking, Jackson?” Bert Madison’s cigarette-induced rasp roughened with the increased volume in his voice. The sound reverberated inside the car—aided in part by the hands-free setting on Steve’s phone—and grated against Steve’s last nerve. “Cindy’s snowed in at Tahoe. You’re up. I’m not going to miss out on this interview just because my sports editor is too snooty to talk art.”
“What about my column?” Steve tried not to shout. He detested losing control. It gave the other person too much power.
“I’ll delay the run for you as long as I can. This has priority. The Tremaynes have always been reclusive as hell. This is a one-time deal. I’ve texted you the address.”
“I start vacation tomorrow.” Two weeks of precious time he got to spend with his daughters.
“Not if you don’t get this done. You get your ass up that mountain and do your job, or you won’t have a job to take vacation from. Got it?”
“Got it,” Steve all but snarled and reached over to disconnect the phone.
“Good,” Bert said, getting in the last word.
This time, for his own sanity, he had really wanted to have the last word. He clutched the steering wheel to keep from slamming his fist into the console. He refused to let Bert get the better of him, though. He had enough to worry about as it was.
His cell announced the arrival of Bert’s text. He needed to pull off the freeway in order to program the address into his car’s GPS. He’d be lucky if he wasn’t killed when he tried to merge back on. The traffic and the road conditions were getting to be a son of a bitch. He snorted. That’d be one way to get out of the interview. Considering how his last couple of days had gone, it’d be a mercy killing. Someone needed to put him out of his misery.
He took the next exit and pulled into an ampm convenience store. He could use the facilities, grab a cup of coffee, top off his gas tank, and be on his way—still irritated but somewhat refreshed. Steve handled his personal needs first, then returned to his car to punch the address into the GPS while he filled up the car. Idyllwild. The exit was five miles east of his location. Nothing said danger like traveling a winding mountain road in a snowstorm without chains on the tires. Because as cold as it was down here, Steve knew it’d be snowing up there.
As if he’d willed it, fat snowflakes started to fall. Maybe he’d get lucky, and the Highway Patrol would close the road to Idyllwild. Bert couldn’t fault him for that.
Back again on the freeway, Steve ran a list of questions through his mind. It wasn’t difficult to come up with something a hell of a lot better than what Cindy Oswald had planned. She’d been dancing through the office at the opportunity to interview Edward and Catherine Tremayne. Everyone knew the questions she wanted to ask—and they were the stupidest things he’d ever heard. Outdoing her wasn’t going to be a problem. He knew how to work people, get them to let down their guard and open up. Now all he had to do was let down his own guard, get this done, and get out.
Everyone in the office had gotten a constant rundown of the Tremaynes as Cindy had dug into their background and lives. Research that had made Steve more and more nervous with every passing day. So far he’d been safe. But now? He was screwed.
He snorted. It was possible Eddy and Kate didn’t remember him. After all, fifteen years had gone by since that crazy spring. Four months of heaven that had turned into hell—at least for him. He’d changed, filled out from the lean, mean marine he’d been back then. His hair was longer with hints of gray sneaking through the dark brown. Seeing it in the mirror made him feel old. According to his daughters, he was
old, out of touch, and didn’t know anything. He was forty, not twenty-five. Beaten down by the life choices he’d made. Still suffering. Still bitter. Still lonely as hell.
Fifteen years was a long time. Eddy and Kate had fulfilled what they called their impossible dream—becoming well-known in the art world. Screw well-known. They’d reached the stratosphere. They even had five children ranging from ages fourteen down to six, as Cindy had proclaimed ad nauseam. She’d longed to see if the fruit had fallen far from the tree. Steve knew about their success, despite his efforts to stay away from that world. He hadn’t known about the kids. Finding out had tweaked something inside—sadness, curiosity, hunger for what he’d given up.
He’d left his dreams behind the day he’d walked away from Eddy and Kate. He’d shoved it all into a dark corner of his soul and refused to acknowledge it had ever existed. Whenever someone talked about art, he put up his shields. Or tried to. Past and present were about to collide. Steve sighed. He wondered what would be left of him afterward.
Damn, I was a fool.
How many times had he told himself that? Too many. He’d lost everything dear to him and was still paying the price. His ex-wife saw to that on a near-daily basis.
Great. Now he had a headache to go with his frustration. Bert would have a shit hemorrhage if he learned how well versed Steve was to interview the Tremaynes. Hell, he’d learned about art from the best. To this day, Steve could still feel the sensation of Kate guiding his hand for the perfect stroke.
An image that had nothing to do with painting caused shivers to run up and down his spine. Yeah, they’d done that too. Things he’d never imagined he wanted. Things he’d never done again. Things he’d been sure would send him straight to hell. Too late he’d realized hell was the one he’d made for himself.
He hit the exit for Idyllwild and mentally crossed his fingers that access up the mountain would be denied. Luck wasn’t on his side. His heart pounded with every mile the car crawled up the winding road. The snow grew heavier. There was no turning back now. Plunging over the side had its appeal. That would end a lot of his problems.
Or create new ones.
He snorted on that one. “So true.”
His phone rang. Steve glanced at the display to see Cindy’s name on caller ID. He ignored her. He knew she’d be calling to tell him how she
wanted the interview conducted. As far as he was concerned, she should have kept her ass in Palm Springs. Everyone knew one hell of a storm had been predicted. If the interview meant as much to her as she’d claimed, she would have foregone the trip to Tahoe with her boyfriend of the moment.
GPS ordered him to turn left in one mile. A cold sweat swept over his body. He could play this off. Pretend he didn’t remember them even if they remembered him. Cruel, but wasn’t it for the best? That dark corner next to his heart disagreed. In fact, it actually hurt. Hurt enough that he wondered if he was having a heart attack.
He made a turn onto a steep incline. Snow was thicker here. He saw what looked like an alpine lodge ahead. Lights beckoned from inside large picture windows that were dotted with strings of Christmas lights outside and had wreaths centered on each pane. A trickle of smoke from the brick chimney told him there was a fire going to chase away the chill. That reminded him of hot cocoa. Plush cushions.
An erection filled his jeans. Steve grasped it and tried to maneuver it into a more comfortable position. A deer darted across the road. He jerked the wheel to keep from hitting it and plowed into a drift on the shoulder, barely missing the tree in front of him. Well, damn. At least his erection had subsided. His racing heart let him know he was still alive. Snow curved over the front of the car; he was undeniably stuck. Nevertheless, he put the gear into Reverse and tried to back up and get back onto the road. His tires spun, digging him in deeper.
He sighed. Fate really wasn’t on his side today.
Steve stuck his leather portfolio into his laptop case and grabbed his coat and put it on. Hat and gloves would have been nice too, but he hadn’t anticipated needing them. After all, he’d expected to be in Palm Desert three hours ago, safe and snug in his home. He stuffed his keys and phone into his coat pocket, flipped up the collar, zipped up, and opened the door. It refused to budge. He smacked his head against his seat.
His phone rang. Caller ID revealed it was his ex. His gut told him to ignore it. Experience reminded him, though, that she’d only use his evasion as leverage. Besides, something could have happened to Cara or Becca.
“Yes, Patricia.” Calling her Patty had been forbidden ten years ago.
“I wanted to let you know my parents are taking the family to Hawaii for the Christmas holiday. So you won’t be able to have the girls after all.” She hung up before he could say a word. Not that it would do him any good. A trip to Hawaii would trump time with Dad any day. Most things did. Patricia had done an excellent job of driving a wedge between him and his daughters. He’d deal with her later. He wouldn’t stand in the way if that was what Cara and Becca wanted, but he wasn’t going to let this pass without his feelings being known.
“Fuck it.” He rolled down the window and crawled out, landing face-first in the snow. After dusting himself off, he rolled the window up as far as he could, then dragged his arm back through. The edge of the window caught his watch and pulled it off his wrist. He listened to it clunk to the space between the door and the seat.
He stuffed his hands in his coat pockets and trudged up the road to the house. It couldn’t have been more than five hundred yards. Red-and-white-striped north poles marked the path leading to the deep-set porch. Green garland draped between them blinked merrily with multicolored lights. He focused on the tiny beacons, trying his best to ignore the cold slicing through him. It didn’t help. By the time he’d trudged up the steps, he was too cold to stomp the snow off his sneakers. Shivers racked his body, his teeth hurt from clenching his jaw, and he was fairly certain icicles had formed on his nose. He briefly considered banging his head on the door so he wouldn’t have to pull his hands from his pocket. The huge pine wreath covering the door made that impossible. Then he spied the sign RING BELL ONCE, THEN RING AGAIN
with an arrow pointing to the cowbell next to the door. Another sign below it said, BECAUSE YOU CAN NEVER HAVE TOO MUCH COWBELL
. Snickering, he pulled the attached rope twice. The interior door swung open.
His breath caught. Light silhouetted a body he’d know anywhere. His heart skipped a beat, then thumped against his ribs. Steve watched Kate’s sage-green eyes widen with recognition. Her lips parted in surprise. She wore her long brown hair down. A sweater and leggings revealed that her skinny lines had developed into nice, full curves. A killer figure, thanks in part, he was sure, to having birthed five children. She shoved open the glass door. Eddy’s voice filtered his way.
“That was Mom. CHP just closed the road to vehicles without chains. She’s taking the kids to her house. They aren’t getting any snow in Hemet at all, just rain.”
He appeared from around the corner and jerked to a stop. Surprise turned to something Steve couldn’t define. A cross between amusement and disgust, maybe. He’d filled out too, and Steve felt some measure of contentment in seeing a little gray sprinkled through his wavy dark hair.
Eddy crossed his arms over his broad chest and rocked back on his feet. “Well, look what the cat dragged in.”
“Are you going to let me in, or do I freeze to death out here?” Steve’s voice shook from the chill, ruining his attempt to act like a badass.
“If you’re giving me a choice…” Eddy stared him down.
“I’m freezing my balls off out here.” And rapidly losing what little restraint he had. Seeing Kate and Eddy did things to him Steve had never imagined. Memories crashed into him, reminding him of so many things he couldn’t keep track of them all, and making him want every one of them.
“Looks like the choice is yours.” Hate blazed from Eddy’s eyes. “Freeze them off out there, or I can cut them off in here.”
“Both of you, stop it.” Kate spit the words out, low and deadly, and stepped to one side. “The reporter will be here any minute. The last thing she needs to see is us bickering.”
“In this weather?” Eddy jerked his head toward the door. “She’d be stupid to try. I don’t know whether to be overjoyed or pissed. The last thing I wanted was a fucking reporter—”
She jerked her arm up, cutting him off. “Yes, you’ve made yourself abundantly clear. It’s good for the art program. Suck it up. She would have called if she wasn’t coming.”
Steve couldn’t believe they were keeping him standing there while they hashed this out. As for Cindy not calling, that was par for the course. “Hello? Freezing here. And, by the way, I
am the fucking reporter.”
That news dropped their jaws. Steve took advantage of their surprise and shoved his way inside. He was instantly struck by the homey charm in the main room. Golds and greens helped set off the knotty-pine walls. Furnishings were grouped with the focus mainly on the flat-screen TV, but they’d also tried to take advantage of the fireplace. A tall, fully bedecked Christmas tree greeted him from the corner. Presents were scattered beneath. It was a harsh reminder of the Christmas denied him with his girls.
Kate shut the door, finally cutting off the cold air. Warmth called to him from the left. Cheery flames danced in the brick fireplace. He headed for it, not caring how much snow he left behind him.
Eddy muttered a barely audible shit
. Neither of them moved. Steve stopped before the fire and stretched out his hands. Warmth seeped in. He pulled in a breath and stripped his coat off. Seven stockings hung with care from the mantel caught his attention. He read their names—Eddy, Kate, Kyle, Jamie, Lauren, Charlotte, Lizzie.
Pine garland interlaced with tall red candles filled the mantel. His gaze wandered upward to the huge family photo above. His turn for jaw-dropping shock. He whipped around. They stood rooted in place near the door.
“What the fuck?” Yeah, he yelled. He had every right to do so. There was only so much a man could take. He jerked his finger toward the portrait.
“That’s my son!”