Steele could hear the screams coming from the room down the
hall. He knew those nightmares intimately, knew the demons that
visited him every time he closed his own eyes. He was a grown
man, hard and disciplined and well able to drink his way through
the night if necessary, but Jase was just a young teenager.
Guilt edged his anger as he made his way through the dark to
the boy's room. He should have done something, anything at all
to spare his half-brother the horrendous legacy of his own past.
In truth, he hadn't been in touch with
his father for years. It hadn't occurred to him the man would
remarry a much younger woman and produce another child, but
he should have considered the idea, not just dropped off the
face of the earth. Cole shoved open the bedroom door with the
flat of his hand. Jase was already fully awake, his eyes wide
with the terror of memories. Something twisted hard and painfully
in Cole's chest.
"I'm here, Jase," he announced
unnecessarily. He wasn't good at soothing the boy. He had been
born and bred in roughness and still had a difficult time with
being gentle. Worse, Jase barely knew him. He was asking the
teenager to trust him in spite of his reputation and the rumors
of attempted murder flying freely through the town. It was no
wonder the boy regarded him with some suspicion.
"I hate Christmas. Can't we just
make it go away?" Jase asked. He threw back the covers
and paced across the room, the same edgy tension in his young
teenage body that Cole had in abundance as a grown man. Jase
was tall and gangly, like a young colt, all arms and legs looking
a bit like a scarecrow in flannel pajamas. He had Cole's dark
hair, but his eyes must have been his mother's, as they were
a deep, rich brown. Right now, his eyes were wide with terror
and he turned away to hide his trembling.
Cole felt as if he were looking at himself
as a youngster, only Jase had poured himself into books and
Cole had become a hellion. Cole knew what it was like to hide
the bruises and the terror from the rest of the world. He had
grown up living in isolation and hiding and he still lived that
same way, but he would be damned if this child did the same.
"Did he shoot your dog for Christmas?"
Cole asked bluntly. "That's what he did for me the last
time I wanted to celebrate the holiday like my friends. I haven't
ever wanted a Christmas since. Well, that and he beat the holy
hell out of me, but that was insignificant next to the dog."
Jase faced him slowly. The horror was
still all too stark in his eyes. "I had a cat."
"I'll bet he said you weren't tough
enough and that only sissies needed pets and Christmas. He wanted
you to toughen up and be a man. Not get attached to anything."
Jase nodded, swallowing an obvious lump
in his throat. "He did a lot of things."
"You have burn marks? Scars from
cuts? He liked to whip me with a coat hanger. And when I didn't
cry, he took to using other things."
"I cried," Jase admitted.
"I did too, at first. He was a
mean son of bitch, Jase. I'm glad he's dead. He can't touch
you anymore. I'm not going to lie to you and tell you the nightmares
go away because I still have them. We both lived in hell and
he had too much money for anyone to want to believe us."
Cole rubbed his hands through his thick black hair. "He
was sick, Jase. I got out, changed my name thinking he'd never
find me, and stayed as far from him as I could possibly get.
That's no excuse. I should have kept tabs on him. Maybe I could
have gotten you away from him."
Jase shook his head. "He would
never have let me go."
"You know what they're all saying,
don't you? They want to think I had something to do with his
Jase nodded, his eyes suddenly wary.
"I've heard. Why did you come back?"
"I was named your guardian in his
will. It was the first I'd heard of you. I knew he must have
done the same thing to you and your mother that he did to me
and mine. I thought I could protect you, at least until you
were old enough to live on your own. I figured I was going to
be better as a guardian than anyone else the court might appoint
or that he had named if I didn't accept."
Dawn was creeping in through the huge
plate glass window. Cole watched the sun come up. It was cold
and the ground outside was covered with several feet of snow,
turning the hills into a carpet of sparkling crystals. "You
Cole managed a lazy shrug when he really
wanted to smash something. It was always there, that volcano
inside of him, dangerous and waiting to erupt. The thought of
his father, the time of year, it wasn't all that difficult to
bring rage to the surface. "I thought we'd go into town
and give them all something more to gossip about."
Jase met Cole's eyes squarely. "They
say you killed the old man and that you're planning to kill
me next. Sixty-four million dollars is a lot of money, twice
as much as thirty-two."
do say that, don't they?" Cole said. "And don't forget
the ranch. It's worth twice that easily, maybe more with the
oil and gas deposits. I haven't actually checked into how much
yet." His eyes had gone ice-cold, a piercing blue stare
that impaled the boy. "What do you say, Jase? Because in
the end, you're the only one that counts as far as I'm concerned."
was silent a long time. "I say I'm glad you came back.
But I don't understand why he left us the money and the ranch
when he hated us both so much. It doesn't make any sense."
He looked around the enormous room, frowning. "I keep expecting
him to show up in the middle of the night. I'm afraid to open
my eyes because I know he's standing over the bed just waiting."
"With that smile." Cole's
voice was grim.
Jase nodded, a small shudder betraying
the fact he wasn't as calm as he tried to portray. "With
that smile." He looked at Cole. "What do you do when
the nightmares come?" He thudded his fist against his pillow.
Once. Twice. "I hate this time of year."
Cole felt a sharp pain in his chest
and the familiar churning in his gut. His own hand balled into
a fist, but he tamped down the smoldering anger and hung onto
control for the boy's sake. "I drink. I'm your guardian
so I have to say that's not allowed for you. At least not until
you're a hell of a lot older."
"No," Cole said grimly. Honestly.
"But it gets me through the night. Sometimes I go to the
workout room or the barn. I hung a heavy bag in both places
and I beat on them until my hands are raw and bloody. Other
times I take the wildest horse we have and go out into the mountains.
I run the hills, using the deer trails, anything to make me
so tired I can't think anymore."
"None of that works either, does
it?" Jase had tried physical activity as well, but he was
finding, talking quietly with his half-brother was helpful.
More helpful than anything else he'd tried. At least one person
believed him. And one person had gone through the same torment.
It created a bond in spite of the fact that ugly rumors surrounded
his tough, harder-than-nails half-brother.
Cole shook his head. "No, none
of it works, but it gets you through the night. One night at
a time. He's dead, Jase, and that's all that matters."
Jase took a deep breath. "Did you
"No, but I wish I had. I used to
lie awake at night and plan how I'd do it. That was before mom
died. Then I just wanted to get out." Cole studied the
boy's face. "Did you kill him?" His world narrowed
to the boy. Concentrated. Every nuance. Every expression, the
way he breathed. The flick of his eyes. The trembling of his
Jase shook his head. "I was too
afraid of him."
Cole let his breath out slowly. He had
stayed alive using his ability to read others and he was fairly
certain that Jase was telling the truth. Jase had been in the
house when someone had shot Brett Steele right there in his
own office. Watching Jase so closely, he wanted to believe that
the boy wasn't involved in Brett Steele's death. Cole wasn't
certain how he would have handled it had Jase admitted he'd
done it, and for a man in Cole's profession, that wasn't a good
"Cole, did he kill your mother?"
For the first time, Jase sounded like a child rather than a
fourteen year old trying to be a man. He sank down onto the
bed, his thin shoulders shaking. "I think he killed my
mother. They said she was drinking and went off the bridge,
but she never drank. Never. She was afraid to drink. She wanted
to know what was happening all the time. You know what he was
like, he'd be nice one minute and come after you the next."
Brett Steele had been as sadistic a
man as possible. It was Cole's belief that he had killed for
the sheer rush of having the power of life and death over anything,
human or animal. He enjoyed inflicting pain and he had tortured
his wives and children and every one of his employees. The ranch
was huge, a long way from help and once he had control over
those living on his lands, he never relinquished his hold over
them. Cole knew he'd been lucky to escape.
"It's possible. I think the old
man was capable of paying everyone off from coroners to police
officers. He had too much money and power for anyone to cross
him. It would be easy enough for a medical examiner to look
the other way if there was enough money in bribes. And if that
didn't work, there were always threats. We both know the old
man would not only use threats, but he'd carry them out. And
it was just one small boy asking questions."
Jase met his brother's stare directly.
"He killed your mother, didn't he?"
"Maybe. Probably." Cole needed
a drink. "Let's go into town and get breakfast."
"Okay." Jase pulled a pair
of jeans from the closet. They were neatly hung and immaculately
clean, just like everything else in the room. "Who do you
think killed him? If it wasn't either of us, someone else had
to have done it."
"He made a lot of enemies. He destroyed
businesses and seduced as many of his friend's wives as possible.
And if he killed any others, as I suspect he must have, someone
could have known and retaliated. He liked to hurt people, Jase.
It was inevitable."
"Were you surprised he left you
the money and guardianship over me?"
"Yes, at first. But later I thought
maybe it made sense. He wanted us to be like him. He had me
investigated and he found I spent time in jail. I think he believed
I was exactly like him. And the only other choice he had was
your Uncle and you know how much they despised one another."
Jase sighed. "Uncle Mike is just
as crazy as Dad was. All he talks about is sin and redemption.
He thinks I need to be exorcised."
Cole swore, a long string of curses.
"That's a load of crap, Jase. There's nothing wrong with
you." He needed motion, something to ride hard, it didn't
matter what it was. A horse, a motorcycle, a woman, anything
at all to take away the knots gathering in his stomach. "Let's
get out of here."
He turned away from the boy, a cold
anger lodged in his gut. He detested Christmas, detested everything
about it. No matter how much he didn't want the season to start,
it always came. He woke up drenched in sweat, vicious laughter
ringing in his ears. He could fight the demons most of the year,
but not when Christmas songs played on the radio and in every
store he entered. Not when every building and street displayed
decorations and people continually wished each other 'Merry
Christmas'. He didn't want that for Jase. He had to find a way
to give the boy back his life.
Counseling hadn't helped either one
of them. When no one believed a word you said, or worse, was
bought off, you didn't trust anyone anymore. If Cole never did
another thing right in his life, he was going to be the one
person Jase would know he could always trust. And he was going
to make certain the boy didn't turn out the way he had. Or the
way their father had.
"Cole," Jase paced along
side of him through the expanse of sprawling ranch house. The
floors were all gleaming wood, the ceilings open beamed and
high. Brett Steele had demanded the best of everything and he
got it. Cole couldn't fault him on his taste. "Why were
you in jail?"
Cole didn't break stride as he hurried
through the spacious house. At times he wanted to burn the thing
down. There was no warmth, no feeling and as hard as he'd tried
to turn the showpiece into a home for Jase, it remained cold
Outdoors it was biting cold. The frost turned the hills and
meadows into a world of sparkling crystal, dazzling the eyes,
but Cole simply ignored it, shoving his sunglasses onto his
face. He went past the huge garage housing dozens of cars---
all toys Brett had owned and rarely ever used--- to go to his
"I shouldn't have asked you,"
Jase muttered, slamming the door with unnecessary force. "I
paused, the key in the ignition. He glanced at the boy's flushed
face. "It isn't that, Jase. I don't mind you asking me
anything. I made up my mind I'd never lie to you about anything
and I'm not quite certain how to explain the jail time. Give
me a little time."
Jase nodded. "I don't mind that
you've been in jail, but it worries me because Uncle Mike says
he's going to take you to court and get custody of me. I'd spend
all my life on my knees, praying for my soul. I'd rather run
"He can't get you away from me,"
Cole promised, his voice grim. There was a hard edge to the
set of his mouth. He turned his piercing blue gaze directly
on his young half-brother. "The one thing I can promise
is I'll fight for you until they kill me, Jase." He was
implacable, the deadly ruthless stamp of determination clear
on his face. "No one is going to take you away from me.
You got that?"
Jase visibly relaxed. He nodded, a short
jerky gesture as he tried to keep his emotions under control.
Cole wasn't certain if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
Maybe the boy needed to cry his eyes out. Cole never had. He
would never give his father the satisfaction, even when the
bastard had nearly killed him.
It was a long way to the nearest town.
There had been numerous guards before, supposedly for security,
but Cole knew better. Brett had needed his own private world,
a realm he could rule with an iron fist. The first thing Cole
had done was to fire all of the ranch hands, the security force
and the housekeeper. If he could have had them prosecuted for
their participation in Brett's sadistic depravities he would
have. Jase needed to feel safe. And Cole needed to feel as if
he could provide the right atmosphere for the boy. They had
interviewed the new ranch hands together and they were still
looking for a housekeeper.
"You, know, Jase, you never picked
out one of the horses to use," Cole said.
Jase leaned forward to fiddle with the
radio. The cab was flooded with country music, but all with
Christmas themes. Jase hastily went through the stations and
finally gave up in exasperation. Just the sound of the music
put them both visibly on edge. "I don't care which one
I ride," Jase said and turned his head to stare out the
window at the passing scenery. His voice was deliberately careless.
"You must have a favorite you prefer
to ride," Cole persisted. "I've seen you bring the
big Bay, Celtic High, a carrot every now and then." The
boy had spent a little time each day, brushing the horse and
whispering to it, but he never rode the Bay.
Jase's expression closed down instantly,
his eyes wary. "I don't care about any of them," he
Cole frowned as he slipped a CD into
the player. "You know what the old man was all about, don't
you, Jase? He didn't want his sons to feel affection or loyalty
to anything or anyone. Not our mothers, not friends and not
animals. He killed the animals in front of us to teach us a
lesson. He destroyed the families of our friends to do the same
thing. He got rid of our mothers to isolate us, to make us wholly
dependent on him. He didn't want you to ever feel emotion, especially
affection or love for anything or anyone else. If he succeeded
in doing that to you, he won. You can't let him win. Choose
a horse and let yourself care for it. We'll get a dog if you
want a dog, or another cat. Anything at all, but let yourself
feel something and when he visits you in your nightmares, tell
him to go to hell."
"You didn't do that," Jase
pointed out. "You don't have a dog. You haven't had a dog
in all the years you've been away. And you never got married.
I'll bet you never lived with a woman. You have one night stands
and that's about it because you won't let anyone into your life."
It was a shrewd guess, but he was certain he was right.
Cole counted silently to ten. He was
psychoanalyzing Jase, but he damned well didn't want the boy
to turn the spotlight back on him. "It's a hell of a way
to live, Jase. You don't want to use me for an example. I know
all the things you shouldn't do and not many you should. But
cutting yourself off from every living thing takes its toll.
Don't let him do that to you. Start small if you want. Just
choose one of the horses and we'll go riding together in the
Jase was silent, his face averted, but
Cole knew he was weighing the matter carefully. It meant trusting
Cole further than Jase was willing to go. Cole was a big question
mark to everyone, Jase especially. Cole couldn't blame the boy.
He knew what he was like. Tough and ruthless with no back-up
in him. His reputation was that of a vicious, merciless fighter,
a man born and bred in violence. It wasn't like he knew how
to make all the soft, kind gestures that the kid needed, but
he could protect Jase.
"Just think about it," he
said to close the subject. Time was on his side. If he could
give Jase back his life, he would forgive himself for not bringing
the old man down as he should have years ago. Jase had had his
mother, a woman with love and laughter in her heart. More than
likely Brett had killed her because he couldn't turn Jase away
from her. Jase's mother must have left some legacy of love behind.
Cole had no one. His mother had been
just the opposite. She'd had a child because Brett demanded
she have one, but she went back to her model thin figure and
her cocaine as soon as possible, leaving her son in the hands
of her brutal husband. In the end, she'd died of an overdose.
Cole had always suspected his father had had something to do
with her death. It was interesting to him that Jase suspected
Brett of the same thing.
few snowflakes drifted down from the sky adding to the feel
of the season they both were trying so hard to avoid. Jase kicked
at the floorboard of the truck, a small sign of aggression,
and then glanced apologetically at Cole.
"Maybe we should have opted for
a workout instead," Cole said.
"I'm always hungry," Jase
admitted. "We can work out after we eat. Who came up with
the idea of Christmas anyway? It's a dumb idea giving presents
out when it isn't your birthday. And it can't be good for the
environment to cut down all the trees."
Cole stayed silent, letting the boy
talk, grateful the boy was finally comfortable enough to talk
to him at all.
"Mom loved Christmas. She used
to sneak me little gifts. She'd hide them in my room. He always
had spies though, and they'd tell him. He always punished her,
but she'd do it anyway. I knew she'd be punished and she knew
it too, but she'd still sneak me presents." Jase rolled
down the window, letting the crisp, cold air into the truck.
"She sang me Christmas songs. And once, when he was away
on a trip, we baked together. She loved it. We both knew the
housekeeper would tell him, but at the time, we didn't care."
Cole cleared his throat. The idea of
trying to celebrate Christmas made him ill, but the kid wanted
it. Maybe even needed it, but had no clue that was what his
nervous chatter was all about. Cole hoped he could pull it off.
The idea had his stomach churning and bile actually rose in
his throat. There were no happy memories from his childhood
to offset the things his father had done.
"We tried to get away from him,
but he always found us," Jase continued.
"He's dead, Jase," Cole repeated.
He took a deep breath and took the plunge, feeling as if he
was leaping off a steep cliff. "If we want to bring a giant
tree into his home and decorate it, we can. There's not a damn
thing he can do about it."
"He might have let her go if she
hadn't wanted to take me with her."
Cole heard the tears in the boy's voice,
but the kid didn't shed them. Silently he cursed wishing for
inspiration, for all the right things to say. "Your mother
was an extraordinary woman, Jase, and there aren't that many
in the world. She cared about you, not the money or the prestige
of being Mrs. Brett Steele. She fought for you and she tried
to give you a life in spite of the old man. I wish I'd had the
chance to meet her."
Jase didn't reply, but closed his eyes, resting his head back
against the seat. He could still remember the sound of his mother's
voice. The way she smelled. Her smile. He rubbed his head. Mostly
he remembered the sound of her screams when his father punished
her for some indiscretion. Her own, or Jase's.
"I'll think about the Christmas
thing, Cole. I kind of like the idea of decorating the house
when he always forbade it."
Cole didn't reply. It had been a very long few weeks, but it
was almost over. A couple more weeks and he would have made
it through one more December. If doing the Christmas thing could
give the kid back his life, Cole would find a way to get through
The town was fairly good-sized and offered
a variety of late night and early dining. Cole chose a diner
he was familiar with and parked the truck in the parking lot.
To his dismay, it was already filled with cars. Unfolding his
large frame, he slid from the truck, waiting for Jase to get
"You forgot your jacket,"
"No, I didn't. I hate the thing,"
Cole didn't bother to ask him why. He
already knew the answer and made a mental note to burn the kid's
clothes and buy him a whole new wardrobe immediately. He pushed
open the door to the diner, stepping back to allow Jase to enter
Jase took two steps into the entryway and stopped abruptly behind
the high wall of fake ivy. "They're talking about you,
Cole," he whispered. "Let's get out of here."
The voices were loud enough to carry
through the small restaurant. Cole stood still, his hand on
the boy's shoulder to steady him. Jase would have to learn to
live with gossip, just as he'd had to survive the nightmare
he'd been born into.
wrong, Randy. Cole Steele murdered his father and he's going
to murder that boy. He wants the money. He never came around
here to even see that boy until after his daddy died."
"He was in jail, Jim, he couldn't
very well go visiting his relatives," a second male voice
pointed out with a laugh.
recognized Randy Smythe from the local agriculture store. Before
he could decide on whether he should get Jase out of there or
show the boy just how hypocritical the local storeowners could
be, a third voice chimed in.
"You are so full of it, Jim Begley,"
a female voice interrupted the obvious argument between the
two men. "You come in here every morning grousing about
Cole Steele. He was cleared as a suspect a long time ago and
given guardianship of his half-brother, as he should have been.
You're angry because your bar buddies lost their cushy jobs
so you're helping to spread the malicious gossip they started.
The entire lot of you sound like a bunch of sour old biddies."
The woman never raised her voice. In
fact, it was soft and low and harmonious. Cole felt the tone
strumming inside of him, vibrating and spreading heat. There
was something magical in the voice, more magical than the fact
that she was sticking up for him. His fingers tightened involuntarily
on Jase's shoulder. It was the first time he could ever remember
anyone sticking up for him.
"He was in jail, Maia," Jim
Begley reiterated, his voice almost placating.
"So were a lot of people who didn't
belong there, Jim. And a lot people who should have been in
jail never were. That doesn't say anything. You're jealous of
the money and the fact that the man can get just about any woman
he wants and you can't."
A roar of laughter went up. Cole expected
Begley to get angry with the woman, but surprisingly, he didn't.
"Aw, Maia, don't go getting all mad at me. You aren't going
to do anything, are you? You wouldn't put a hex on my
On me, would you?"
laughter increased and this time the woman joined in. The sound
of her voice was like music. Cole had never had such a reaction
to any woman and he hadn't even seen her.
"You just never know about me,
now do you, Jim?" She teased, obviously not angry with
the man. "It's Christmas, the best time of the year. Do
you think you could stop spreading rumors and just wait for
the facts? Give the man a chance. You all want his money. You
all agree the town needs him, yet you're so quick to condemn
him. Isn't that the littlest bit hypocritical?"
Cole was shocked that the woman could
wield so much power, driving her point home without ever raising
her voice. And strangely, they were all listening to her. Who
was she and why were these usually rough men hanging on her
every word, trying to please her? He found himself very curious
about a total stranger-a woman at that.
"Okay, okay," Jim said. "I
surrender, Maia. I'll never mention Cole Steele again if that
will make you happy. Just don't get mad at me."
Maia laughed again, the sound carefree.
It teased Cole's every sense, made him very aware of his body
and its needs. "I'll see you all later. I have work to
Cole felt his body tense. She was coming
around the ivy to the entrance. Cole's breath caught in his
throat. She was on the shorter side, but curvy, filling out
her jeans nicely. A sweater molded her breasts into a tempting
invitation. She had a wealth of dark, very straight hair, as
shiny as a raven's wing, pulled into a careless ponytail. Her
face was exotic, the bone structure delicate, reminding him
of a pixie.
She swung her head back, her wide smile
fading as she saw them standing there. Maia stopped short, lifting
her eyes to Cole's. He actually hunched a little, feeling the
impact in his belly. Little hammers began to trip in his head
and his body reacted with an urgent and very elemental demand.
A man could drown in her eyes, get lost, or just plain lose
every demon he had. Her eyes were large, heavily lashed and
some color other than blue, turquoise maybe, a mixture of blue
and green that was vivid and alive and so darned beautiful he
ached inside just looking at her.
Jase nudged him, digging his thumb into
Cole reacted immediately. "Sorry ma'am." But he didn't
move. "I'm Cole Steele. This is my brother, Jase."
Jase jerked under his hand, reacting
to being acknowledged as a brother.
Maia nodded at Cole and flashed a smile
at Jase as she stepped around them to push open the door.
"Holy cow," Jase murmured.
"Did you see that smile?" He glanced up at Cole. "Yeah,
you saw it all right."
I staring?" Cole asked.
"You looked like you might have
her for breakfast," Jase answered. "You can look really
intimidating, Cole. Scary."
Cole almost followed the woman, but at the boy's comment he
turned back. "Am I scary to you, Jase?"
The boy shrugged. "Sometimes. I'm
getting used to you. I've never seen you smile. Ever."
Cole raised his eyebrow. "I can't
remember actually smiling. Maybe I'll have to practice. You
can work with me."
"Don't you smile at women?"
"I don't have to."