Heartbreakers by Caitlyn Willows



by Caitlyn Willows
Erotica – Contemporary (BDSM, Menage)
April 2017
Cover Art – Scott Carpenter

Talented, good-looking, and wildly successful, they’re the rockers every girl wants and every man craves to be. But success comes with its own price. Everyone wants a piece of the Tristan brothers but Brian, Paul, Caz, and Nick stick tight to guard themselves from the vagaries of the world. Who better to sneak under their defenses than four little heartbreakers made just for them?

What About Love? – A secret weekend, a loved denied—secrets of the heart are hard to bear alone.

Brian Tristan and Lexy Claremont parted by mutual agreement after a hot and heavy weekend neither would ever forget. An agreement each regretted the moment it was made. Imagine their shock when they learn they are still married, a revelation made on the heels of an announcement Lexy never wanted to hear, one that has both of them asking, “What about love?” and discovering someone else had a secret agenda of their own by keeping them apart.

Crazy On You – Soon after Paul Tristan laid eyes on Ceci Powers, he knew she was the one. Too bad she was his brother’s girlfriend. A good brother steps aside, and Paul always does the right thing even if it kills him.

The fire between Ceci Powers and Brian Tristan died as quickly as it was lit. In its place was a wanting so fierce, a love so intense, she could barely stand the ache. How can she leave one brother for another?

It takes a little bit of fate and a bawdy challenge to get Mr. Missionary and Ms. Vanilla moving. But a hard nudge is sometimes all someone needs to “go crazy on you.”

If Looks Could Kill – Caz Tristan and Brooke Hansen have made no secret of the fact they rub each other the wrong way. All the world knows if looks could kill, they would have done each other in years ago. Unfortunately for Caz, his brothers have out-voted him in their bid to hire Brooke as the new manager for Mesquite. Now, forced to work together, Caz admits he lacks control where Brooke is concerned, and if there’s one thing Caz prides himself on, it’s his control.

As a power player in a man’s world Brooke learned long ago she had to have bigger brass ones than the big boys with whom she was forced to play ball. Control was never more important and she’s taken the motto “Never Let Them See You Sweat” to heart in the boardroom. But in the bedroom it’s a completely different matter. Behind closed doors Brooke would love nothing more than to give complete control over to a trusted lover. Never did she realize the one man who could do all that and more for her is the very man she’s shared daggers with over the years.

Yes…if looks could kill… But then, looks can be deceiving.

How Can I Refuse – The concept was simple—go undercover to a sex club to find a killer. The execution was a bit trickier for Gaby Keating. She turned to the one person who could help her—her father, attorney Marvin Keating, one of the “movers and shakers” in that community. His refusal falls on deaf ears as they both knew it would. Gaby didn’t get to be where she is as a police officer by playing it safe. But that’s just what Marvin intends she do. His world, his rules, his associates who will prepare Gaby for the assignment…and go with her.

Nick Tristan’s voice has always been magic to her ears. Gaby can’t count the times she’s rocked out listening to Mesquite. But never in her wildest imagination did she ever except to find magic in his fingers or between the bodies of two gorgeous men. In fact…how could she possible refuse?

Note: The stories in Heartbreakers were previously released as standalone titles but have been combined in a convenient set.



Paul held Ceci as close as he dared, rubbing what he hoped were soothing circles on her back, muttering words of comfort. She clung to him, head against his shoulder. He’d envisioned her in his arms for too long. His cock responded accordingly. Paul tried his best not to let her feel his erection. She might not be with Brian anymore, but she was still hands-off to him because of that previous relationship. A good brother didn’t sleep with his brother’s ex. It wasn’t done. While his brain understood that, his heart and body firmly disagreed. He’d betrayed Brian simply by lusting after her. It was the guilt he’d carried around since he first realized how much he wanted her eight months before.

They’d bonded over plans for decorating this beautiful house. His brothers couldn’t have cared less about the place. Paul loved it at first sight. He and Ceci had fallen into an easy rapport over plans. He couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment his feelings latched onto her. Maybe it was the scent of her as they’d leaned over each other’s shoulder looking at fabric. Or that time they’d touched hands when picking out drapes. Or any of a hundred situations that put them within each other’s grasp. He’d thought touring would get her out of his system. Wrong. It made him crave her all the more. And she belonged to Brian. Or had…until today. Now she was free—a decision mutually agreed upon by her and Brian. Still the brother code kept him from going after her. And if it didn’t put some distance between him and Ceci right now, Paul was going to violate that code big time.

He focused instead on this latest news—that Brian had married someone years ago and never bothered to tell them. Talk about breaking the brother code. How could Brian not have mentioned her? Their parents were going to freak. It was a wonder they hadn’t called yet.

“Damn him!” The words exploded from his mouth.

Ceci lifted her head from his shoulder, fingers flexed against his chest. A little closer and her palms would cup his nipples. A little lower and her fingers would be able to toy with his hard flesh. The knowledge shot down to his groin, adding more substance to the cock already hard beyond capacity. An erection swelled down one leg of his jeans. That was what he got for going commando. He placed his hands over hers, intending to move them. Instead, he pressed them flat, stealing the sensation he longed for and trying not to show how much it devastated him that he couldn’t have it honestly.

Tears glistened in her sea-green eyes and spiked her long lashes. Mouth parted, lips moist and full. It mystified him again why Brian could not be all over her all the time. How Brian could drift away from her the way he had, when Paul ached for a glimpse of her, held his breath for the sound of her voice, the kiss of her constant laughter, the light in her eyes.

“Don’t,” she said. “You heard him. He thought Howie had handled all the paperwork for the annulment. It was a wild, crazy weekend ten years ago.”

“But he didn’t tell us.”

“Do you tell him every detail of your sex life?”

Ceci had him there. They weren’t teenagers anymore. Sharing sex tales had ended in high school. But it pissed him off that Ceci was defending Brian. Where was her outrage, her fury? True, she had broken the engagement, indicating she’d made that decision before news of Brian’s marriage had come out. Maybe she was relieved. If so, why had she let him pull her into his arms to comfort her? Why was she crying?

She pressed closer, angling her hips a whisper away from his. Too close for Paul’s fragile control. Her body heat poured over his pelvis. His cock pulsed with a life all its own, demanding he thrust forward and cover those last few millimeters between them.

“Paul, I…”

He braced his hands on her hips and gently set some distance between them before he gave in to the urge to grind his cock against her. All he wanted to do was yank her back and kiss her, haul that cute black-and-white sundress to her waist and wedge her against the nearest wall while he showed her what loving a woman was all about.

She slid her hands over his shoulders, reclaiming the distance he needed. Paul’s resolve started to crumble. It would be so easy to take advantage of the moment, so easy to swoop in and have her, to know what it felt like to be wrapped in her arms and buried in her heat. And lose her completely because of it. Because if he made love to her once, Paul knew it would never be enough. One of them would have to go, and since he’d be the one at fault…

He grabbed her fingers and took a small step away, holding her hands between them for a shield against his emotions and the aching cock that so wanted to throw caution to the wind and go for it.

“Women like Alexandria Claremont are a dime a dozen. I’m surprised she hasn’t tried to ride the Mesquite gravy train long before now.” He snorted. “She obviously didn’t realize their marriage was still valid or she would have. Ms. Claremont won’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell. I swear to you I’m going to find out everything I can about that woman. This is one fight Alexandria Claremont won’t want.”

Ceci held on tight when he tried to walk away. “Paul, don’t do this. Let Brian handle it. It’s a relief actually. We both agreed. You heard that.”

“You’re crying your eyes out and you call that relief?”

Ceci’s eyes widened at his shout. Paul bit back an apology. If it helped keep them apart, that could only be a good thing at this point. Right?

“I’m going to fix it this. I swear it, or die trying.”

He strode into the house before he caved, before he spread her on the nearest chaise lounge and made his dreams come true. Before he told her how very much he loved her.

* * * *

The chaise’s padded cushion whistled with Ceci’s weight as she sank into it. Normally, that sound resulted in bawdy fart jokes from the Tristan brothers. No one was laughing today, especially her. How in the world had she let things go this far?

What little fire she and Brian had between them had fizzled after two months. She should have ended it then but didn’t because doing so meant stepping away from their lives and returning to the shadows to do the redecorating job she’d been hired to do. She couldn’t bear the idea of never being able to hang out with them. Worse, she wouldn’t be able to see Paul.

Ceci buried her face in her hands. Paul’s was the face she searched for, the smile she sought, the one whose presence she missed the most when the guys were gone. The more time she let lapse, the bigger the hole she’d dug for herself grew. All because her stupid heart wanted a man she couldn’t have. Or rather, shouldn’t have. How could she explain to Paul that her tears had nothing to do with Brian? She cried for the loss of Paul from her life.

The guys were tight. They had that all-for-one sibling code—blood-thicker-than-water stuff. Which was great for a family, great for them as a group. That unity had helped them weather all the crazy ups and downs in this business. It sucked for her. Tristans always stuck together. No one ever came between the brothers, especially a woman. Hell, they’d even bought this huge house together—a place she and Paul had spent hours working on.

Ceci jerked her head up at the slam of the studio door. It was most likely Paul. She’d never seen any of the guys this upset before, but then a secret wife would do that. She prayed it wouldn’t drive a wedge between the brothers.

No, that was what she was doing, more or less. Her agony now was a result of her silence. Of not breaking it off with Brian when she realized two months in that nothing more than friendship and sometimes nice sex could exist between them. She’d stayed with him for the wrong reasons. Had she acted then, perhaps time and distance would have gotten her the man she really wanted.

She swiped the tears from her cheeks. Her makeup was a mess. She didn’t need a mirror to tell her that.

Ceci pushed herself to her feet and hurried inside. She’d dumped her purse somewhere between the front door and the den—the brothers’ favorite room in this sprawling house, after the recording studio behind the pool house. She retraced her steps and found her black hobo purse right where she’d left it just inside the den. Luck was with her. Caz and Nick weren’t in the room. It looked like Howie had taken off too, which was just as well since the brothers were furious with the man.

She snagged her purse and sank into Paul’s big recliner. His scent wafted around her, wrapping her in the comfort she longed to feel in his arms. She tucked her legs under her and nestled deep into the soft blue cushion. There were dozens of other things she should be doing instead of wallowing in self-pity. After all, she had a job to finish. Or would she even have that now that she and Brian had mutually decided to end it? Oh hell, she hadn’t considered that. She’d been too worried that she’d never see Paul again.

Ceci plunged her hand into the depths of the bag to find her cell phone. She needed to make sure she and Brian were still good, still friends.

Nerves crawled over her skin. Hope deflated when the call went to voice mail. He would have flown to Vegas and had the device turned off. Fine. She’d wait him out, providing he’d return her call and not delete the voice mail unheard. If that happened, she’d keep trying until he finally answered. She burrowed deeper and swiped the last remnants of tears from her face. Mascara and eyeliner blackened her fingers. God, Paul had seen her like this. Great image. Too late to unring that bell.

Ceci hopped to her feet and hurried to the nearest bathroom down the hall. The silence in the house haunted her. As if the place were holding its breath for what would happen next. That was how she felt, locked in perpetual wait mode, afraid to think beyond what she needed to do next. If she thought further than that, Ceci would start dwelling on the ramifications of her actions—never seeing Paul again. Those fears had stymied her in the past. She couldn’t allow them to do so again.

She shut herself in the bathroom and leaned against the door to steady her nerves. The brothers had designated this as her bathroom. Shades of black-and-pink Victorian designs embellished the room. No Tristan male dared cross the threshold. Makeup, curling iron and rollers, blower dryer, and various other necessities of feminine life filled the drawers in the vanity. Plush towels were stacked in the linen closet. Bath oils, bubbles, and soaps lined the shelf around a tub made for relaxing. Magazines and paperbacks were within easy reach. Her place, her nest. Her sanctuary in a household overrun with testosterone.

She’d also taken over the walk-in closet across the hall for clothes, shoes, whatever. Paul had moved a chest of drawers in there for her use as well. The place was huge. She could have fit a twin bed in there if she’d wanted. From what she recalled of the Realtor’s rambling accolades about the house, it had once been used as a dressing room for the bathroom opposite it. Ceci had wasted no time claiming it as hers. Crazy that she’d done so. Crazy that they’d let her when Paul suggested it.

Another sigh launched her off the door and to the mirror. The damage to her makeup was worse than Ceci expected. She washed her face and left it at that. God only knew how many more tears she’d shed today. Fear and anxiety were the boss of her today. No makeup was better than smudged and runny.

Somewhat revived, she walked back to the den, kicked off her wedge sandals, and tucked into Paul’s chair once again. It felt like heaven to sink into its depths. The only thing missing was him. She should leave. After all, she’d done what she came here to do—end the engagement. If she couldn’t focus on her work, she had no business remaining, but she couldn’t make herself leave, either.

“So are the three of you just about done dancing around each other?”

Ceci jumped at the sound of Caz’s voice. Instinct made her check to make sure her dress wasn’t gaping. He hovered in the doorway, making the space look insignificant. He was no larger than his brothers at six feet, but his personality always made him seem bigger. He stared at her with those Tristan brown eyes. The brothers could have been quads, they looked so much alike. The difference was in their personalities, and the bear in this brother had been poked.

“What do you mean?” She tucked her dress down over her knees.

Caz stalked toward her. “You know damn well what I mean. Nick and I have watched the three of you play this game for almost a year. It’s ridiculous. Brian avoids you. You avoid Brian. Paul makes cow eyes at you. You giggle over Paul and use every excuse to be near or touch him. You and Brian don’t want to be together, and neither of you had the balls to speak up until today. You and Paul want each other so much I can smell it, and neither of you has the balls to speak up.”

He was over her now, fists braced on the arms of the chair, nailing her in place with his presence, those eyes.

“Paul respects—”

“Bullshit,” he spat out. “He’s chicken. And stupid. The signs are clear enough if he’d open his fucking eyes and look. He can’t see past the fact Brian had you first. It wouldn’t matter to me, sweetheart. If I wanted you, I’d come after you. I thought of it a couple of times just to throw a scare into Paul and get him moving.”

“You did?” Ceci didn’t know how she felt about that news.

“I did,” he said with a smile. “I would have too, if I didn’t find you too vanilla for me.”

Ceci glared up at him. “I am not vanilla.”

Caz’s grin widened. “You are too.”

“Am not.”

He cocked his head to one side. “Really? Prove it.” He jerked his head toward the door. “Go get your man. Someone’s got to make a move. Might as well be you. Do it, sweetheart. Go out there and go crazy on him.”

Heat rushed her from head to toe. Ceci knew a blush went along with it. She stared at Caz, saw the continuing challenge in his eyes, and didn’t know what the hell to do.

“I…I…” She shook her head. “Not until I talk to Brian.”

“Need permission?”

His smirk pissed her off. “No. A clear conscience. The brother code and all.”

“And that, dear Ceci, is why we all love you. Some of us much more than others.” He pushed back and walked away, but only got as far as the door before he looked back. “Don’t dawdle. Nick and I are sick and tired of the facade. We’re prepared to take matters into our own hands if we have to.”



Christmas and You by Caitlyn Willows


by Caitlyn Willows
Contemporary – Erotic Romance – Menage (M/F/M) (M/M/F)
December 2015
Cover Artist – Scott Carpenter

Get in and get out before the emotions remind Steve of what he walked out on fifteen years ago. Fate wastes little time putting its own plan into action, adding a little knife-twist to the heart to let him know he really screwed up.

Kate and Eddy imagined and dreaded Steve walking back into their lives. Now it’s happened. All they can do is deal with the fallout. They’d loved Steve enough to give him what he asked for. Clearly he’s suffered as much, if not more, from his decree as they did.

The aura that pulled them together in the first place draws them close once more. Snowbound, they rediscover what they’ve missed. There’s no denying the magic and love are still there. Dreams for a future war with reality when Steve is offered the job opportunity of a lifetime, in a town three hours away.

Kate fears they are losing him all over again. Eddy knows Steve must make his own choice, no matter how much it hurts. Being fearless made all Kate and Eddy’s dreams come true. Steve’s never been fearless. Now it’s going to cost him the ones he loves all over again.



“Tell me this is a prank.”

The windshield wipers flashed at full speed, and they still weren’t fast enough for Steve to see the road clearly. Few things freaked him out more than being caught in a blinding rainstorm on the freeway. A rainstorm that was turning colder by the minute and promised a rare, low-elevation snow for Southern California. He’d spent five hours on the road already, trying to get home, all thanks to a big rig jackknifed on the I-10 that had taken out ten cars with it. He’d been late getting his column in as a result. Now this? It had to be a joke. His editor couldn’t be that cruel.

“Do I sound like I’m joking, Jackson?” Bert Madison’s cigarette-induced rasp roughened with the increased volume in his voice. The sound reverberated inside the car—aided in part by the hands-free setting on Steve’s phone—and grated against Steve’s last nerve. “Cindy’s snowed in at Tahoe. You’re up. I’m not going to miss out on this interview just because my sports editor is too snooty to talk art.”

“What about my column?” Steve tried not to shout. He detested losing control. It gave the other person too much power.

“I’ll delay the run for you as long as I can. This has priority. The Tremaynes have always been reclusive as hell. This is a one-time deal. I’ve texted you the address.”

“I start vacation tomorrow.” Two weeks of precious time he got to spend with his daughters.

“Not if you don’t get this done. You get your ass up that mountain and do your job, or you won’t have a job to take vacation from. Got it?”

“Got it,” Steve all but snarled and reached over to disconnect the phone.

“Good,” Bert said, getting in the last word.

Damn. This time, for his own sanity, he had really wanted to have the last word. He clutched the steering wheel to keep from slamming his fist into the console. He refused to let Bert get the better of him, though. He had enough to worry about as it was.

His cell announced the arrival of Bert’s text. He needed to pull off the freeway in order to program the address into his car’s GPS. He’d be lucky if he wasn’t killed when he tried to merge back on. The traffic and the road conditions were getting to be a son of a bitch. He snorted. That’d be one way to get out of the interview. Considering how his last couple of days had gone, it’d be a mercy killing. Someone needed to put him out of his misery.

He took the next exit and pulled into an ampm convenience store. He could use the facilities, grab a cup of coffee, top off his gas tank, and be on his way—still irritated but somewhat refreshed. Steve handled his personal needs first, then returned to his car to punch the address into the GPS while he filled up the car. Idyllwild. The exit was five miles east of his location. Nothing said danger like traveling a winding mountain road in a snowstorm without chains on the tires. Because as cold as it was down here, Steve knew it’d be snowing up there.

As if he’d willed it, fat snowflakes started to fall. Maybe he’d get lucky, and the Highway Patrol would close the road to Idyllwild. Bert couldn’t fault him for that.

Back again on the freeway, Steve ran a list of questions through his mind. It wasn’t difficult to come up with something a hell of a lot better than what Cindy Oswald had planned. She’d been dancing through the office at the opportunity to interview Edward and Catherine Tremayne. Everyone knew the questions she wanted to ask—and they were the stupidest things he’d ever heard. Outdoing her wasn’t going to be a problem. He knew how to work people, get them to let down their guard and open up. Now all he had to do was let down his own guard, get this done, and get out.

Everyone in the office had gotten a constant rundown of the Tremaynes as Cindy had dug into their background and lives. Research that had made Steve more and more nervous with every passing day. So far he’d been safe. But now? He was screwed.

He snorted. It was possible Eddy and Kate didn’t remember him. After all, fifteen years had gone by since that crazy spring. Four months of heaven that had turned into hell—at least for him. He’d changed, filled out from the lean, mean marine he’d been back then. His hair was longer with hints of gray sneaking through the dark brown. Seeing it in the mirror made him feel old. According to his daughters, he was old, out of touch, and didn’t know anything. He was forty, not twenty-five. Beaten down by the life choices he’d made. Still suffering. Still bitter. Still lonely as hell.

Fifteen years was a long time. Eddy and Kate had fulfilled what they called their impossible dream—becoming well-known in the art world. Screw well-known. They’d reached the stratosphere. They even had five children ranging from ages fourteen down to six, as Cindy had proclaimed ad nauseam. She’d longed to see if the fruit had fallen far from the tree. Steve knew about their success, despite his efforts to stay away from that world. He hadn’t known about the kids. Finding out had tweaked something inside—sadness, curiosity, hunger for what he’d given up.

He’d left his dreams behind the day he’d walked away from Eddy and Kate. He’d shoved it all into a dark corner of his soul and refused to acknowledge it had ever existed. Whenever someone talked about art, he put up his shields. Or tried to. Past and present were about to collide. Steve sighed. He wondered what would be left of him afterward.

Damn, I was a fool.

How many times had he told himself that? Too many. He’d lost everything dear to him and was still paying the price. His ex-wife saw to that on a near-daily basis.

Great. Now he had a headache to go with his frustration. Bert would have a shit hemorrhage if he learned how well versed Steve was to interview the Tremaynes. Hell, he’d learned about art from the best. To this day, Steve could still feel the sensation of Kate guiding his hand for the perfect stroke.

An image that had nothing to do with painting caused shivers to run up and down his spine. Yeah, they’d done that too. Things he’d never imagined he wanted. Things he’d never done again. Things he’d been sure would send him straight to hell. Too late he’d realized hell was the one he’d made for himself.

He hit the exit for Idyllwild and mentally crossed his fingers that access up the mountain would be denied. Luck wasn’t on his side. His heart pounded with every mile the car crawled up the winding road. The snow grew heavier. There was no turning back now. Plunging over the side had its appeal. That would end a lot of his problems.

Or create new ones.

He snorted on that one. “So true.”

His phone rang. Steve glanced at the display to see Cindy’s name on caller ID. He ignored her. He knew she’d be calling to tell him how she wanted the interview conducted. As far as he was concerned, she should have kept her ass in Palm Springs. Everyone knew one hell of a storm had been predicted. If the interview meant as much to her as she’d claimed, she would have foregone the trip to Tahoe with her boyfriend of the moment.

GPS ordered him to turn left in one mile. A cold sweat swept over his body. He could play this off. Pretend he didn’t remember them even if they remembered him. Cruel, but wasn’t it for the best? That dark corner next to his heart disagreed. In fact, it actually hurt. Hurt enough that he wondered if he was having a heart attack.

He made a turn onto a steep incline. Snow was thicker here. He saw what looked like an alpine lodge ahead. Lights beckoned from inside large picture windows that were dotted with strings of Christmas lights outside and had wreaths centered on each pane. A trickle of smoke from the brick chimney told him there was a fire going to chase away the chill. That reminded him of hot cocoa. Plush cushions.

An erection filled his jeans. Steve grasped it and tried to maneuver it into a more comfortable position. A deer darted across the road. He jerked the wheel to keep from hitting it and plowed into a drift on the shoulder, barely missing the tree in front of him. Well, damn. At least his erection had subsided. His racing heart let him know he was still alive. Snow curved over the front of the car; he was undeniably stuck. Nevertheless, he put the gear into Reverse and tried to back up and get back onto the road. His tires spun, digging him in deeper.

He sighed. Fate really wasn’t on his side today.

Steve stuck his leather portfolio into his laptop case and grabbed his coat and put it on. Hat and gloves would have been nice too, but he hadn’t anticipated needing them. After all, he’d expected to be in Palm Desert three hours ago, safe and snug in his home. He stuffed his keys and phone into his coat pocket, flipped up the collar, zipped up, and opened the door. It refused to budge. He smacked his head against his seat.

“Now what?”

His phone rang. Caller ID revealed it was his ex. His gut told him to ignore it. Experience reminded him, though, that she’d only use his evasion as leverage. Besides, something could have happened to Cara or Becca.

“Yes, Patricia.” Calling her Patty had been forbidden ten years ago.

“I wanted to let you know my parents are taking the family to Hawaii for the Christmas holiday. So you won’t be able to have the girls after all.” She hung up before he could say a word. Not that it would do him any good. A trip to Hawaii would trump time with Dad any day. Most things did. Patricia had done an excellent job of driving a wedge between him and his daughters. He’d deal with her later. He wouldn’t stand in the way if that was what Cara and Becca wanted, but he wasn’t going to let this pass without his feelings being known.

“Fuck it.” He rolled down the window and crawled out, landing face-first in the snow. After dusting himself off, he rolled the window up as far as he could, then dragged his arm back through. The edge of the window caught his watch and pulled it off his wrist. He listened to it clunk to the space between the door and the seat.


He stuffed his hands in his coat pockets and trudged up the road to the house. It couldn’t have been more than five hundred yards. Red-and-white-striped north poles marked the path leading to the deep-set porch. Green garland draped between them blinked merrily with multicolored lights. He focused on the tiny beacons, trying his best to ignore the cold slicing through him. It didn’t help. By the time he’d trudged up the steps, he was too cold to stomp the snow off his sneakers. Shivers racked his body, his teeth hurt from clenching his jaw, and he was fairly certain icicles had formed on his nose. He briefly considered banging his head on the door so he wouldn’t have to pull his hands from his pocket. The huge pine wreath covering the door made that impossible. Then he spied the sign RING BELL ONCE, THEN RING AGAIN with an arrow pointing to the cowbell next to the door. Another sign below it said, BECAUSE YOU CAN NEVER HAVE TOO MUCH COWBELL. Snickering, he pulled the attached rope twice. The interior door swung open.

His breath caught. Light silhouetted a body he’d know anywhere. His heart skipped a beat, then thumped against his ribs. Steve watched Kate’s sage-green eyes widen with recognition. Her lips parted in surprise. She wore her long brown hair down. A sweater and leggings revealed that her skinny lines had developed into nice, full curves. A killer figure, thanks in part, he was sure, to having birthed five children. She shoved open the glass door. Eddy’s voice filtered his way.

“That was Mom. CHP just closed the road to vehicles without chains. She’s taking the kids to her house. They aren’t getting any snow in Hemet at all, just rain.”

He appeared from around the corner and jerked to a stop. Surprise turned to something Steve couldn’t define. A cross between amusement and disgust, maybe. He’d filled out too, and Steve felt some measure of contentment in seeing a little gray sprinkled through his wavy dark hair.

Eddy crossed his arms over his broad chest and rocked back on his feet. “Well, look what the cat dragged in.”

“Are you going to let me in, or do I freeze to death out here?” Steve’s voice shook from the chill, ruining his attempt to act like a badass.

“If you’re giving me a choice…” Eddy stared him down.

“I’m freezing my balls off out here.” And rapidly losing what little restraint he had. Seeing Kate and Eddy did things to him Steve had never imagined. Memories crashed into him, reminding him of so many things he couldn’t keep track of them all, and making him want every one of them.

“Looks like the choice is yours.” Hate blazed from Eddy’s eyes. “Freeze them off out there, or I can cut them off in here.”

“Both of you, stop it.” Kate spit the words out, low and deadly, and stepped to one side. “The reporter will be here any minute. The last thing she needs to see is us bickering.”

“In this weather?” Eddy jerked his head toward the door. “She’d be stupid to try. I don’t know whether to be overjoyed or pissed. The last thing I wanted was a fucking reporter—”

She jerked her arm up, cutting him off. “Yes, you’ve made yourself abundantly clear. It’s good for the art program. Suck it up. She would have called if she wasn’t coming.”

Steve couldn’t believe they were keeping him standing there while they hashed this out. As for Cindy not calling, that was par for the course. “Hello? Freezing here. And, by the way, I am the fucking reporter.”

That news dropped their jaws. Steve took advantage of their surprise and shoved his way inside. He was instantly struck by the homey charm in the main room. Golds and greens helped set off the knotty-pine walls. Furnishings were grouped with the focus mainly on the flat-screen TV, but they’d also tried to take advantage of the fireplace. A tall, fully bedecked Christmas tree greeted him from the corner. Presents were scattered beneath. It was a harsh reminder of the Christmas denied him with his girls.

Kate shut the door, finally cutting off the cold air. Warmth called to him from the left. Cheery flames danced in the brick fireplace. He headed for it, not caring how much snow he left behind him.

Eddy muttered a barely audible shit. Neither of them moved. Steve stopped before the fire and stretched out his hands. Warmth seeped in. He pulled in a breath and stripped his coat off. Seven stockings hung with care from the mantel caught his attention. He read their names—Eddy, Kate, Kyle, Jamie, Lauren, Charlotte, Lizzie. Pine garland interlaced with tall red candles filled the mantel. His gaze wandered upward to the huge family photo above. His turn for jaw-dropping shock. He whipped around. They stood rooted in place near the door.

“What the fuck?” Yeah, he yelled. He had every right to do so. There was only so much a man could take. He jerked his finger toward the portrait.

“That’s my son!”