~THE TWILIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS: CHAPTER ONE~
Last Updated: November 21, 2016 01:02:06
twilight before Christmas
and all through the lands
a thing has occurred that was not of my hand
"Don't say it. Don't say it. Don't say it," Danny
Granite muttered the mantra under his breath as he sat in
the truck watching his older brother carefully selecting hydro-organic
tomatoes from Old Man Mars' fruit stand. Danny glanced at
the keys, assuring himself the truck was running and all that
his brother had to do was leap in and gun it. He leaned out
the window, gave a half-hearted wave to the elderly man and
scowled at his brother. "Get a move on, Matt. I'm starving
Matt grimaced at him and then smiled with smooth charm at
the old man. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Mars," he said
cheerfully as he handed over several bills and lifted the
bag of tomatoes. "Less than two weeks before Christmas.
I'm looking forward to the pageant this year."
Danny groaned. A black scowl settled over Old Man Mars' face.
His craggy brows drew together in a straight, thick line.
He grunted in disgust and spat on the ground.
The smile on Matt's face widened into a boyish grin as he
hurried around the bed of the pick-up truck to yank open the
driver side door. Almost before settling into his seat, he
cranked up the radio so that Jingle Bells blared loudly from the speakers.
"You'd better move it, Matt," Dan muttered nervously,
looking out the window, back toward the fruit stand. "He's
arming himself. You just had to wish him a Merry Christmas,
didn't you? You know he hates that pageant. And you know very
well playing that music is adding insult to injury!"
The first tomato came hurtling towards the back window of
the truck as Matt hit the gas and the truck leapt forward,
fishtailing, tires throwing dirt into the air. The tomato
landed with deadly accuracy splattering juice, seed and pulp
across the back window. Several more missiles hit the tailgate
as they tore out of the parking lot and raced down the street.
Danny scowled at his brother. "You just had to wish him
merry Christmas. Everyone knows he hates Christmas. He kicked
the shepherd last year during the midnight pageant. Now he'll
be more ornery than ever. If you'd just avoided the word we
might have gone unscathed this year, but now he'll have to
Matt's massive shoulders shook as he laughed. "As I recall
you played the shepherd last year. He didn't hurt you that
bad, Danny boy. A little kick on the shin is good for you.
It builds character."
"You only think it's funny because it wasn't your shin."
Danny rubbed his leg as if it still hurt nearly a year later.
"You need to toughen up," Matt pointed out. He took
the highway, a thin ribbon of a road, twisting and turning
along the cliffs above the ocean. It was impossible to go
fast on the switchbacks although Matt knew the road well.
He maneuvered around a sharp curve, setting up for the next
sharp turn. It ran uphill and nearly doubled back. The mountain
swelled on his right, a high bank grown over with emerald
green grasses and breath-taking colors from the explosion
of wild flowers. On his left, a narrow ribbon of a trail meandered
along the cliffs to drop away to the wide expanse of blue
ocean with its white caps and booming waves.
"Oh, my God! That's Kate Drake," Danny said gleefully,
pointing to a woman on a horse, riding along the narrow trail
on the side of the road.
"That can't be her." Matt hastily rolled down his
window and craned his neck, gawking unashamedly. He could
only see the back of the rider, who was dressed all in white
and had thick chestnut hair that flamed red in the sunshine.
His heart pounded. His mouth went dry. Only Kate Drake could
get away with wearing white and riding a horse so close to
the side of the road. It had to be her. He slowed the truck
to get a better look as he went by, turning down the radio
at the same time.
"Matt! Watch where you're going," Danny yelled,
bracing himself as the truck flew off the road and rolled
straight into the grass-covered bank. It halted abruptly.
Both men were slammed back in their seats and held prisoner
by their seatbelts.
"Damn!" Matt roared. He turned to his brother. "Are
you all right?"
"No, I'm not all right, you big lug, you ran us off the
road gawking at Kate Drake again. I hurt everywhere. I need
a neck brace and I think I might have broken my little finger."
Danny held up his hand, gripping his wrist and emitting groans
"Oh shut up," Matt said rudely.
"Matthew Granite. Good heavens, are you hurt? I have
a cell phone and can go out to the bluff and call for help."
Kate's voice was everything he remembered. Soft. Melodic.
Meant for long nights and satin sheets. Matt turned his head
to look at her. To drink her in. It had been four long years
since he's last spoken with her. She stood beside his truck,
reins looped in her hand, her large green eyes anxious. He
couldn't help but notice she had the most beautiful skin.
Flawless. Perfect. It looked so soft he wanted to stroke his
finger down her cheek just to see if she was real.
"I'm fine, Kate." It was a miracle he found his
voice. His tongue seemed to stick to the roof of his mouth.
"I must have tried to take the turn a little too fast."
A snort of derision came from Danny's side of the truck. "You
were driving like a turtle. You just weren't looking where
you were going."
The toe of Matt's boot landed solidly against his brother's
shin and Danny let out a hair-raising yowl.
"No wonder Old Man Mars wanted to kick you last year,"
Matt muttered under his breath.
"Daniel? Are you hurt?" Kate sounded anxious, but
her fascinating lower lip quivered as if close to laughter.
Determined to get her away from his brother, Matt hastily
shoved the door open with more force than necessary. The door
thumped soundly against Kate's legs. She jumped back, the
horse half-reared, and Danny, damn him, laughed like the hyena
Matt groaned. It never failed. He was a decorated U.S. Army
Ranger, had been in the service for years, running covert
missions where his life depended on his physical skills and
his cool demeanor, yet he always managed to feel clumsy and
rough in front of Kate. He unfolded his large frame, towering
over her, feeling like a giant. Kate was always perfect. Poised.
Articulate. Graceful. There she was looking beautiful dressed
all in white with her hair attractively wind blown. She was
the only person in the world who could make him loose his
cool and raise his temperature at the same time just by smiling.
"Is Danny really hurt?" Kate asked, turning her
head slightly while she tried to calm the nervous horse.
It gave Matt a great view of her figure. He drank her in,
his hungry gaze drifting over her soft curves. He'd always
loved watching her walk away from him. Nobody moved in the
same sexy way she did. She looked so proper yet she had that
come-on walk and the bedroom eyes and that glorious hair a
man would want to feel sliding over his skin all night long.
He just managed to stifle a groan. How had he not known, sensed that Kate was back in town. His radar must be failing him.
"Danny's fine, Kate," Matt assured her.
She sent him a quick smile over her shoulder, her eyes sparkling
at him. "Just how many accidents have you been in, Matt?
It seems that on the rare occasions I've seen you, over the
last few years, your poor vehicle has been crunched."
It was true, but it was her fault. Kate Drake acted as some
sort of catalyst for strange behavior. He was good at everything. Everything. Unless Kate
was around, then he could barely manage to speak properly.
The horse moved restlessly demanding Kate's immediate attention,
giving Matt time to realize his jeans and blue chambray work
shirt were streaked with dirt, sawdust and a powdery cement
mixture in complete contrast to her immaculate white attire.
He took the opportunity to slap the dust from his clothing,
sending up a gray cloud that enveloped Kate as she turned
back toward him. She coughed delicately, fluttering her long
feathery lashes to keep the dust from stinging her eyes. Another
derisive hoot came from Danny's direction.
Matt sent his brother a look that promised instant death before
turning back to Kate. "I had no idea you were in town.
The town gossips let me down." Inez at the grocery store
had mentioned Sarah was in town, as well as Hannah and Abigail,
three of her six sisters, but Inez hadn't said a word about
"Sarah came back for a visit and you know how my family
is, we get together as often as possible." She shrugged,
a simple enough gesture, but on her it was damned sexy. "I've
been in London doing research for my latest thriller."
She laughed softly. The sound played right down his spine
and did interesting things to his body. "London fog is
always so perfect for a scary setting. Before that it was
Borneo." Kate traveled the world, researching and writing
her best-selling novels and murder mysteries. She was so beautiful
it hurt to look at her, so sophisticated he felt primitive
in her presence. She was so sexy he always had the desire
to turn caveman and toss her over his shoulder and carry her
off to his private lair. "Sarah's engaged to Damon Wilder."
She tilted her head slightly and patted the horse's neck again.
"Have you met him?"
"No, but everyone is talking about it. No one expected
Sarah to get married."
Matt watched the way the sunlight kissed her hair, turning
the silky strands into a blazing mass of temptation. His gaze
followed her hand stroking the horse's neck and he noted the
absence of a ring with relief.
Danny cleared his throat. He leaned out the driver's side.
"You're drooling, bro." He whispered it in an overloud
Without missing a beat, Matt kicked the door closed. "Are
you going to be staying very long this visit?" He held
his breath waiting for her answer. To make matters worse,
Danny snickered. Matt sent up a silent vow that their parents
would have one less child to fuss over before the day was
"I've actually decided to stay and make Sea Haven my
home base. I bought the old mill up on the cliffs above Sea
Lion Cove. I'm planning on renovating the mill into a bookstore
and coffee shop, and to modernize the house so I can live
in it. I'm tired of wandering and I'm ready to come home again."
Kate smiled. She had perfect teeth to go with her perfect
skin. Matt found himself staring at her while the earth shook
beneath his feet. He stood there, grinning at the thought
of Kate living in their hometown permanently.
A shadow swept across the sky, black threads swirling and
boiling, a dark cauldron of clouds blotting out the sun. A
seagull shrieked once. Then the entire flock of birds overhead
took up the warning cry. Matt was so caught up in Kate's smile,
he didn't realize the ground was really rolling and it wasn't
just her amazing effect on him. The horse backed dangerously
close to the road, tossing its head in fright, nearly dragging
Kate from her feet. Matt swiftly reached past her and gathered
the reins in one hand to steady the animal. He swept his other
arm around Kate's waist, anchoring her smaller body to his,
to keep her from falling as a jagged crack opened several
feet from them, and spread rapidly along the ground heading right
for Kate's feet. Matt lifted her up and away from the gaping
hole, dragging her back several feet, horse in tow, away from
the spreading crack. It was only a few inches wide but it
was several inches deep, very long and ran up the side of
"You all right, Danny?" He called to his brother.
"Yeah, I'm fine. That was a big one."
Kate clung to Matt, her small hands clutching at his shoulders.
He heard the sharp intake of her breath that belied her calm
demeanor, but she didn't cry out. The ground settled and Matt
allowed her feet to touch the path, but he retained his hold
on her. She was incredibly warm, soft and smelled of fresh
flowers. He leaned over her, inhaling her fragrance, his chin
brushing the top of her head. "You okay, Kate?"
Appearing as serene as ever, Kate murmured soothingly to the
horse. Nothing ruffled her. Not earthquakes and certainly
not Matthew Granite. "Yes, of course, it was just a little
earthquake." She glanced up at the boiling clouds with
a small frown of puzzlement.
"It was a fairly good one. And the ground opened damn
near at your feet."
Kate continued to pat the horse's neck, seemingly unaware
that Matt was still holding her, caging her body between his
and the animal. He could see her hands tremble as she struggled
to maintain composure and it made him admire her all the more.
She lifted her face to the wind. "I love the sea breeze.
The minute I feel it on my face, I feel as if I'm home."
Matt cleared his throat. Kate had a beautiful profile. Her
hair was swept up in some fancy knot showing off her long,
graceful neck. When she turned, her breasts thrust against
the thin shirt, full and round and so enticing it was all
he could do to keep from leaning down and putting his mouth
over the clinging white fabric. He tried to move, to step
away from her, but he was drawn to her. Mesmerized by her.
She'd always reminded him of a ballerina with her elegant
lines and soft feminine curves. His lungs burned for air and
there was a strange roaring in his head. It took three tries
opening his mouth before a coherent word came out. "If
you're really serious about renovation, Kate, it just so happens
my family's in the construction business."
She turned the full power of her huge eyes on him. "I
do recall all of you are builders. That's always struck me
as a wonderful occupation." She reached out and took
his hands. He had big hands, rough and callused, whereas her
hands were soft and small. "I always loved your hands,
Matthew. When I was a young girl I remember wishing I had
your capable hands." Her words, as much as her touch
sent little flames licking along his skin.
Matt was certain he heard a snort and probably a snicker coming
from the direction of his younger brother.
"I think you've held onto her long enough, bro,"
Danny called. "The ground stopped pitching a few minutes
Matt was too much of a gentleman to point out to his brother
that Kate was holding his hands. Looking down at her, he saw
faint color steal under her skin. Reluctantly, he let go of
Kate, stepping away from her. The wind tugged at tendrils
of her hair, but it only made her look more alluring. "Sorry,
Kate. This is the first time in a while we've had an earthquake
shake us up so hard." He raked his fingers through his
dark hair in agitation, searching for something brilliant
to say to keep her there. His mind was blank. Totally blank.
Kate turned back to her horse. He began to feel desperate.
He was a grown man, hard-working, some said brilliant when
it came to designing and most women quite frankly threw themselves
at him, but Kate calmly gathered the reins of her horse, no
weak knees, completely unaffected by his presence. He wiped
the sweat suddenly beading on his forehead, leaving a smear
of dirt behind.
"Kate." It came out softly.
Danny stuck his head out the window on the driver's side.
"Do you want a little help with the old mill, Kate? Matt
actually is fairly decent at that sort of thing. He obviously
can't drive and he can't talk, but he's hell on wheels with
Kate's eyes lit up. "I would love that, Matthew, but
I really wouldn't want to presume on our friendship. It would
have to be a business arrangement."
Matt hadn't realized she thought of them as friends. Kate
rarely spoke to him, other than their strange, brief conversations
when they chanced running into one another during her high
school years. He felt himself relax into the idea of being
friends with her. Every cell in his body went on alert when
she was near him, it always happened that way, even when she
was a teenager and he was in his first years of college. He
had wanted to feel protective around her and he did, but mostly
he felt he had to protect her from his own attraction to her.
That had been distasteful to a man like Matt. He had taken
his secret fantasies of her to every foreign country. She
had shared his days and nights in the jungles and deserts,
in the worst of situations, and she had gotten him home. Now,
a full-grown man who had fought wars and had more than enough
experiences to give him confidence, he found he could speak
easily and naturally to any other woman. Kate simply made
him tongue-tied. He'd take friendship with her. At least it
was a start. "Tell me when you want me to take a look,
Kate, and I'll arrange my schedule accordingly. Being my own
boss has its advantages."
"Then I'm going to take advantage of your generous offer
and ask if you could go out there with me tomorrow afternoon.
Do you think you can manage it that soon? I wouldn't ask but
I'm trying to get this project off the ground as soon as possible."
"It sounds great. I'll pick you up at the cliff house
around four. You are staying there with your sisters, aren't
Kate nodded and turned to watch the sheriff cruise up behind
the pick-up truck. Matt watched her face, mainly because he
couldn't tear his gaze away from her. Her smile was gracious,
friendly even, but he was aware even before he turned his
head that the man getting out of the sheriff's cruiser, was
Jonas Harrington. It occurred to him that he knew Kate far
too well, her every expression. And that meant he had spent
too much time watching her. Kate was smiling, but she had
stiffened just that little bit. She always did that around
Jonas. All of her sisters did. For the first time he wondered
why Kate reacted that way.
"Well, Kate, I see you caused another accident,"
Jonas said in greeting. He shook Matt's hand and clapped him
on the back.
"The Drake sisters have a tendency to wreak havoc everywhere
they go." He winked at Matt.
Kate simply lifted an eyebrow. "You've been saying that
since we were children."
Jonas leaned over to brush a casual kiss along Kate's cheek.
Something black and lethal whose existence Matt didn't want
to recognize moved inside of him like a dark shadow. He put
a blatantly possessive hand on Kate's back.
Jonas ignored Matt's body language. "I'll still be making
the same accusation when you're all in your eighties, Kate.
Where is everyone?" He looked around as if expecting
her sisters to appear galloping over the mountaintop.
"You look a little nervous, Jonas," Danny observed
from the safety of the truck. "What'd you do this time?
Arrest Hannah and throw her beautiful butt in jail on some
trumped up charge?"
He subsided when Kate turned the full power of her gaze on
him. The wind rushed up from the sea, bringing the scent and
feel of the ocean. "I had no idea you were so interested
in my sister's anatomy, Danny."
"Come on, Kate, she's gorgeous, every man's interested
in Hannah's anatomy," Danny pointed out, unrepentant.
"And if she doesn't want them to look, what is she doing
allowing every photographer from here to hell and back to
take pictures of her?" Jonas demanded. "And just
for your information, I wouldn't have to trump up charges
if I wanted to arrest Hannah," he added with a black
scowl. "I ought to run her in for indecent exposure.
That glitzy magazine in Inez's store has her on the cover
"She is not naked. She's wearing a swimsuit, Jonas, with
a sarong over it." Kate sounded as calm as ever but Matt
noted that her hand tightened on the reins of her horse until
her knuckles turned white. He moved even closer to her, inserting
himself between her and the sheriff.
"She might try a decent one piece and maybe a robe that
went down to her ankles or something. And does she have to
strike that stupid pose just to make everyone stare
Jonas broke off as the wind gusted again, howling this time,
bringing whispers in the swirling chaos of leaves and droplets
of seawater. His hat was swept from his head and carried away
from the group. The wind shifted direction, rushing back to
the ocean, retreating in much the same manner as a wave from
the shore. The sudden breeze took the hat with it, sailing
it over the cliffs and into the choppy water below.
Jonas spun around and looked toward the large house set up
on the cliffs in the distance. "Damn it, Hannah. That's
the third hat I've lost since you've been home." He shouted
the words into the vortex of the wind.
There was a small silence. Matt cleared his throat. "Jonas.
I don't think she can hear you from here."
Jonas glared at him. "She can hear me. Can't she, Kate?
She knows exactly what I'm saying. You tell her this isn't
funny anymore. She can stop with her little wind games."
"You believe all the things people say about the Drake
sisters, don't you, Jonas?" Danny said. He imitated the
opening theme of The Twilight Zone.
Matt stared down at Kate's hand. The reins were trembling.
He covered her hand with his own, steadying the leather reins
she was clenching. "I'll be happy to come look at the
mill tomorrow, Kate. Would you like a leg up?"
"Thanks, Matthew. I'd appreciate it."
He didn't bother with cupping his hands together to assist
her into the saddle. He simply lifted her. He was tall and
strong and it was easy to swing her onto the horse. She settled
into the saddle as if born there. Elegant. Refined. As close
to perfection as any dream he could conjure up and just as
far out of reach. "I'll see you then. Say hello to your
sisters for me."
"I'll do that, Matthew, and you give my best to your
parents. It was nice to see you, Danny." Her cool gaze
swept over Jonas. "I'm sure you'll be by the house, Jonas."
Jonas shrugged. "I take my job seriously, Kate."
Matt watched her ride away, waiting until a curve in the road
took her out of sight before turning on the sheriff. "What
the hell was that all about?"
"You know all seven of the Drake women drive me crazy
half the time," Jonas said. "I've told you all the
trouble they get up to. You're always grilling me about them.
Well," He grinned evilly as he indicated the truck. "Isn't
this the third accident you've had with Kate in the vicinity?
You should know what I mean."
Jonas had grown up with Matt Granite, had gone through school,
joined the Army, the Rangers and fought side by side with
him. He knew how Matt felt about Kate. It was no secret. Matt
wasn't very good at hiding his feelings from his family and
friends, especially since Jonas had gotten out of the service
two years before Matt and Matt continually interrogated him
for all information regarding Kate's whereabouts and marital
status. Matt had been home three years now, but had spent
all his leave working with his brothers and father in their
family business. And waiting for Kate to come home.
Danny snickered. "You were there back in his college
days, Jonas, when he drove Dad's truck into the creek bed
and hung it up on a rock. Wasn't Kate about three at the time?"
Matt took a deep breath. He couldn't kill his brother in front
of the sheriff, even if it was Jonas. The time he had wrecked
his father's truck, driving it without permission, Kate had
been about fifteen, far too young for a college man to be
looking at her and he was still embarrassed that his brothers
and Jonas had known why he wrecked. Of course he knew the
Drake sisters, everyone in town knew them, but he'd never looked at them. Not in a fascinated, physical,
male way. Until he saw Kate standing in a creek bed picking
blackberries with the sun kissing her hair and her large sea
green eyes looking back at him. The second time he'd wrecked
a vehicle, was four years earlier. Matt had been home on leave
and he'd been so busy looking at Kate going by with her sisters,
just walking along the sidewalk, he'd failed to realize he
was parked in front of a cement hump and had high-sided his
mother's car on it. Ignoring the entire subject he moved around
the truck to inspect the damage. "I think I can get the
truck out without a tow."
"I see you upset old man Mars," Jonas pointed to
the tomato smears on the rear window.
"You know Matt, he just had to wish the old man a merry
Christmas." Danny shoved open the door. "He likes
to stir the old geezer up right before the pageant. He does
it every year. The time Mom made me play the little drummer
boy, Mars broke my drumsticks into ten pieces and threw them
on the ground and then jumped up and down on them. All my
brothers got a kick out of that but I've been traumatized
ever since. I have nightmares about being stomped on by him."
Jonas laughed. "Mars is a strange old man, but he's harmless
enough. And he gives away most of his produce to the people
who need it. He takes it to some of the single moms in town
and some of the elderly couples. And I know he feeds the Ruttermyer
boy, the one with Down Syndrome who works at odd jobs for
everyone. He persuaded Donna to give the boy a room right
next to her gift shop. I know he helps that boy with his bills."
"Yeah, deep down he's a good man," Matt agreed.
A slow grin spread over his face. "He just hates Christmas."
He nodded toward the other side of the truck and the other
two men went to the front to scrape away the mud and dirt
and push until they separated the bumper from the embankment.
"I didn't appreciate you saying anything to Kate about
her and her sisters being different, Jonas." Matt said
it a low voice, but Jonas and he had been friends since they
were boys and Jonas recognized the warning tone.
"I'm not going to pretend they're like everyone else,
Matt, not even for you," Jonas snapped. "The Drakes
are special. They have gifts and they use themselves up for
everyone else without a thought for themselves or their own
safety. I'm going to watch out for them whether they like
or it not. Sarah Drake nearly got herself killed a few weeks
ago. Hannah and Kate and Abbey were with her and also might
have been killed."
Matt felt the words as a blow somewhere in the vicinity of
his gut. His heart did a curious somersaulting dive in his
chest. "I heard about Sarah, but I hadn't heard the others
were there. What happened?"
"To make a long story short, Wilder had people trail
him here. They wanted information only he could give them.
He designed our national defense system and the government
wanted him protected at all costs. Fortunately Sarah was from
Sea Haven so it was natural enough to send her in to guard
him. These people got their hands on him once before, killed
his assistant right in front of him and tortured him. That's
why he uses a cane when he walks. They broke into the Drake's
house when he was there, armed to the teeth and were willing
to kill them all to get what they wanted." The hiss of
anger in Jonas' voice deepened.
"No one said a word about Kate being in the house at
the same time. I knew Sarah was guarding Damon Wilder and
that he was a defense expert in some kind of trouble, but
" Matt trailed off as he looked back toward the
house on the cliff. It was covered in Christmas lights. Beside
it was a tall full Douglas fir tree, completely decorated
and flashing lights even before the sun went down. When he
looked toward the house he felt a sense of peace. Of rightness.
The Drake sisters were the town's treasures. He looked away
from the cliff toward the old Mill. It was farther up the
road, built over Sea Lion Cove. A strange cloud formation
hung over the small inlet and spread slowly toward land. The
shape captured his imagination, a yawning black mouth, jaws
opening wide, heading straight for them.
"All of them were nearly murdered," Jonas said.
His eyes went flat and cold. "The Drakes take on far
too much and everyone just expects them to do it without thinking
of the cost to them."
"I never thought of it like that, Jonas. Now that you
mention it, I've seen them all drained of energy after helping
out the way they do." Matt didn't take his eyes from
the sky. He watched a sea gull veer frantically from the path
of the slow moving cloud, braking sharply in midair, wings
flapping strongly in agitation. Wisps of fog began to rise
from the sea and drift toward shore.
"Maybe we all should pay more attention to what's happening
with them," he murmured softly, more to himself than
to the others.