Cole Steele could hear the screams coming from the room down the hall. He knew those nightmares intimately, because the demons also 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, 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 that his father would remarry a much younger woman and produce another child, but he should have considered the possibility, not just dropped off the face of the earth. Cole shoved open the bedroom door. Jase was already fully awake, his eyes wide with the terror of his 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 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 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 way, but he would be damned if this boy would endure 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. He also 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 never would have let me go."
"You know what they're all saying, don't you? They think I had something to do with his death."
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 didn't know you existed until five months ago. 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're old enough to live on your own. I figured I would be a better guardian than anyone else the court might appoint or that our father 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 hungry?"
"Are you cooking?"
Cole managed a lazy shrug even though he really wanted to smash something. It was always there, that volcano inside him, 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."
"They 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."
Jase 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 that he wasn't as calm as he tried to seem. "With that smile." He looked at Cole. "What do you do when the nightmares come?" He punched his fist into 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 on to 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."
"Does it work?"
"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 hurt. 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 that 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 ugly rumors that 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 kill him?"
"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?" He concentrated his gaze on the boy. Every nuance. Every expression, the way he breathed. The flick of his eyes. The trembling of his hands.
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. 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 if Jase had admitted he'd done it, and for a man in Cole's profession, that wasn't a good thing.
"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 drove 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 a sadistic man. 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'd 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 it. 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 didn't make idle threats; he'd carry them out."
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 friends' wives as possible. And if he killed anyone else, as I suspect he must have, someone could have known and retaliated. He liked to hurt people, Jase. It was inevitable that he would die a violent death."
"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 found I spent time in jail. I think he believed I was exactly like him. And the only other choice of a guardian 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 to move, to ride something 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 of them. When no one believed a word you said, or worse, was bought off, you learned to stop trusting people. 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.
The brothers walked through the 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.
"Cole," Jase asked, "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 in it, and as hard as he'd tried to turn the showpiece into a home for Jase, it remained cold and barren.
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 that housed dozens of cars -- all toys Brett Steele had owned and rarely ever used -- to go to his own pickup.
"I shouldn't have asked you," Jase muttered, slamming the door with unnecessary force. "I hate questions."
Cole 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 minute."
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. If I lived with him, I'd spend all my life on my knees, praying for my soul. I'd rather run away."
"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 good or bad. 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 at the ranch when his father was alive, 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 a country Christmas tune. Jase hastily went through the stations, but all he could find was Christmas music and he finally gave up in exasperation. "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 preference," 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 repeated.
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 our friendships to accomplish the same thing. He got rid of our mothers to isolate us, to make us wholly dependent on him. He didn't want you ever to 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. Any kind of pet you want, but let yourself feel something, and when our father 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.
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 as a role model. 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 mornings."
Jase was silent, his face averted, but Cole knew he was weighing the matter carefully. It meant trusting Cole further than perhaps 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 backup 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 done 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 of Jase's. His mother had had a child because Brett demanded she have one, but she went back to her model-thin figure and 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 that Jase suspected the same thing of his own mother's death.
A few snowflakes drifted down from the sky, adding to the atmosphere of the season they both were trying so hard to avoid. Jase kicked at the floorboard of the truck, a small sign of aggression, 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 Jase 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 cookies 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. 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.
"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 the Christmas season was almost over. A couple more weeks, and he would have made it through another December. If doing the Christmas thing could give the kid back his life, Cole would find a way to get through it.
The town was fairly big and offered a variety of late-night and early-morning 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 out.
"You forgot your jacket," he said.
"No, I didn't. I hate the thing," Jase said.
Cole didn't bother to ask him why. He already knew the answer and vowed to buy the kid a whole new wardrobe immediately. He pushed open the door to the diner, stepping back to allow Jase to enter first. 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 across 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 learned to survive the nightmare he'd been born into.
"You're 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 see that boy until 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.
Cole recognized Randy Smythe from the local agriculture store. Before he could decide whether to 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 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 mean anything. You're jealous of the man's money and the fact that he has the reputation of being able to 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?"
The laughter rose 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 carefree sound teased all of Cole's senses, made him very aware of his body and its needs. "I'll see you all later. I have work to do."
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. She stopped short, raising 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 in the ribs.
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.
The woman 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."
"Was 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."
Copyright © 2004 by Christine Feehan