“Tell me this is a prank.”
The windshield wipers flashed at full speed. 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 his last nerve. “Cindy’s snowed in at Tahoe.
You’re up. I’m not going to miss out on this interview 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
“Got it,” Steve all but snarled and reached over to
disconnect the phone.
“Good,” Bert said, getting in the last word.
Damn. This time, for his own sanity, he’d 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. 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. 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 a 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 ones 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 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 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’d called their impossible dream—becoming well-known in the art world.
Screw well-known. They’d reached the stratosphere. They 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 art from the best. To this day,
Steve could still feel the sensation of Kate guiding his hand for the perfect
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
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 snickered on that one. “So true.”
His phone rang. Steve glanced at the display to see Cindy’s
name on caller ID. He ignored her. 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. 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, then
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 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
“My parents have surprised us with a trip to Hawaii for the
Christmas holiday. 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 Cara and
Becca wanted to go on the trip, but he wasn’t going to let this pass without
his feelings being known.
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 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 thought
were long dead. 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 up her arm, 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
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?” he yelled. He had every right to do so.
There was only so much a man could take. He jerked his finger toward the
“That’s my son!”