Risk-Reward by Caitlyn Willows

riskreward

RISK-REWARD
by Caitlyn Willows
Romantic Suspense- BDSM
November 2016
Cover Artist – Valerie Tibbs
Loose Id www.loose-id.com
ISBN 978-1-68252-237-0

What Casey Sullivan wants Casey Sullivan gets. And she wants David Deacon back. But how can she convince the hard-charging district attorney that they are better together than they are apart? How can she convince him that they have the life experience now to overcome their past demons? Easy. By offering him a reward for every risk he dares to take.

Wanting her had to be a sin. Having her could mean her death. It was why Dave had walked away all those years ago, and why he’d avoided her since. Yet the universe clearly had plans of its own. Plans that pushed them together more and more as their respective careers soared. upping the game when that lure failed to tempt him by constantly throwing him in her path. He couldn’t resist any longer. A one-night stand to get her out of his system, that was his plan, until Casey grabbed him by the heart and reminded Dave that for every risk there is a reward.

But the demons of the past linger, reminding them both of a risk neither has ever been able to face. It’s hard to see a reward when all that exists is a fear that all the life experience in the world can’t seem to banish.

Buy Links:

Loose Id

Amazon

Excerpt:

Casey woke to an erection poking against her backside, David’s lips nibbling her neck, his hand wrapped around her breast, and his thumb flicking her nipple. Sunlight trickled through a part in the drapes. The bedside clock proclaimed it to be nine o’clock. Late for her, even on a Sunday morning. Her phone next to the clock agreed. It flashed a rainbow of colors announcing missed calls, texts, and messages. But she hadn’t fallen asleep until five, and not because of her lascivious bedmate.

“I presume you have a plan for my morning breath?” she mumbled. His smelled minty fresh. Cheater.

“I do.”

He rolled her facedown, pulled her to all fours, and plunged his cock inside her.

“Your foreplay is a little lacking. But I’ll allow it.” Casey wiggled her hips. “Make it quick. I need coffee.”

David nipped her shoulder. “And I need you.”

Hot fingers brushed over her belly and stopped over her swelling clit. She nestled her cheek into her pillow, riding his strokes to a quick, sweet orgasm that left them both out of breath. He dotted kisses down her spine before rolling free.

“Let me get rid of this thing, and the bathroom’s all yours.” He kissed her and left the bed. “There’s a carafe of coffee over there.” He pointed to the table and chairs across the room.

“You could have led with that when you woke me.” She crawled out of bed and stumbled for the coffee.

“I didn’t want you to come that quickly. Pour a cup for me, would you?”

“My pleasure.” Casey leaned over the table and filled the two mugs. The sweet ambrosia of coffee filled her senses. David had even remembered she liked half-and-half.

“All yours.”

She glanced up to find him knotting the belt on the white robe she’d given him downstairs. “What? No breakfast pastry?”

David laughed and landed a solid swat against her backside as he sank into the chair. She let out a yelp and jerked upright.

“You do know how to live dangerously, don’t you? Don’t start something you can’t finish.”

“Oh, I can finish it. After I’ve had my coffee.” He winked and blew the steam off his mug.

“We’ll see about that, mister.” Casey placed her palms on the armrests and leaned in. “I’d be willing to bet you don’t even realize what you have started.”

“You might be surprised.”

That lift to his eyebrow challenged her. “Indeed.” She pushed away and headed off to take care of her own needs.

Behind closed doors, her thoughts intruded. David had slept without issue, deeply and soundly. For all her talk about being able to protect herself, she’d been hypervigilant to his every sound and move. She’d pushed to have him back in her life, thinking it wouldn’t matter, that she had a handle on what had happened. Fear ruled the great and powerful Casey Sullivan instead. She was supposed to be the strong one. Hell, she was the strong one. Not this time. That she was vulnerable and human knocked her down more than a few pegs.

That long-ago night had played in her mind over and over. It had happened so fast. One minute she’d been sound asleep. His scream had awakened her a second before his hand had clamped around her throat. She’d clawed for freedom and thrashed around for a weapon—the bedside landline—and hit him as hard as she could. David had jolted awake on a “What the fuck?” Casey had rolled away and turned on the lights. Terror had filled his eyes. They’d fallen into each other’s arms, sobbing.

She glanced in the mirror and found tears trickling down her cheeks. David couldn’t see her like this. It would involve too much explaining. Telling him would cause her to lose him all over again, and that was the last thing she wanted. But to live like this, with this constant fear? Now she knew how David felt. He’d lived with it openly all this time while she’d buried her head in the sand.

“Goddamn it,” she muttered, frantically flicking away tears. “Stop your fucking crying. Casey Sullivan does not cry.” Apparently this Casey Sullivan did and was making up for lost time.

She spun away from the mirror and charged into the shower stall. The glass door banged closed behind her. She twisted on the double showerheads and sank onto the marble bench set in the wall between them. Palms pressed into her eyes, she doubled over and let her agony out. Her dreams of a happily-ever-after with David taunted her. She’d been so cocky and sure of herself, never for one second imagining she was vulnerable.

“Oh, baby, what’s wrong?”

Casey jerked her head up. David shrugged off the robe and stepped into the shower. He reached for her, or she reached for him, or… Hell, she didn’t know. She’d been so lost in her agony she hadn’t even heard him walk in. Now that he was here, she didn’t want to let go. Ever.

David took the seat and cradled her on his lap. He soothed her with soft words and gentle caresses. It made her cry all the more. Not once did he press her for information. Maybe on some level, he already knew.

“Come on.” He kissed her forehead. “Let’s get you cleaned up and out of here before the hot water runs out.”

There was little chance of that. Still, she let him care for her—washing her and her hair, turning the water off, towel drying her, even combing the tangles from her hair. Her love. Her man. Her heart and soul. And the one thing that scared her half to death. She’d been a fine one to talk counseling when she hadn’t done the same for herself. She hadn’t thought it mattered. She was wrong.

“Into the robe.”

David guided her arms through the sleeves, tied the rob shut, and then put his own robe back on before scooping her into his arms and carrying her back to the seating area. After sitting in his chair, he cradled her on his lap and handed her the mug of coffee. “If it’s too cold, I’ll dump it and pour you a new one.”

Casey sipped. It was too cold. “No, it’s perfect.” You’re perfect. I’ve missed you so much. I love you.

“Did I hurt you last night?” He brushed his hand over her thigh.

“No. You slept very well.”

“But you didn’t.”

“No.”

“Because you were afraid I’d attack you.”

“Yes.” Damn, she couldn’t look him in the eye. This wasn’t a conversation she wanted to have. It would mean they were truly over. He’d never be back. Everything was lost.

Under the circumstances, isn’t that for the best?

Her heart screamed no while logic said yes.

“I guess even having kick-ass martial-art skills isn’t enough to chase the fear away, is it?” He reached for his mug.

Casey used the distraction to slip into the chair next to him. “I wasn’t expecting it,” she freely admitted.

“I can understand that. We talk about having control, but the fear is always in control. At least that’s how it is for me.”

She drained her mug and reached over him to set it on the table. “What do we do about it?”

David put his mug aside as well and pulled her astride his lap. “I don’t know.”

At least he hadn’t said I told you so. He brushed his thumbs against her sides. Judging from that worry line between his eyebrows, his thoughts were elsewhere. She could feel his walls going up and didn’t know how to stop that, or if she wanted to.

“I hate doubting my instincts.” Casey curled her fingers over his shoulders.

“Which ones? The ones that insisted you lure me to your bed, or the ones telling you that you’ve put yourself in a potentially lethal situation? Before you answer”—he pressed his index finger over her lips—“I have a war inside me too right now. One part of me says this was a big mistake. The other one…” He cupped her head to his shoulder. “I need time to think. You need some sleep.”

In other words, he was leaving. It tore her heart into itty-bitty pieces. She raised her head and kissed him, long and sweet, saying good-bye and begging him to stay at the same time. When their lips parted, he patted her on the butt and lifted her from his lap and onto the cushion.

“Take the Cherokee.” She tucked her feet under her and poured another mug of coffee. “I’ll arrange to get it later.”

“Thanks.”

He dressed quietly and efficiently. Casey drank her fill of him while she could. She felt like a coward, letting him go this way. Another alien concept. She was the one in charge, the one with the answers, the one who made everything all right.

David’s last act was to drape his jacket and tie over his arm. All told, it had taken him less than five minutes to prepare to walk out of her life again. He looked devastatingly handsome with his white shirt open at the collar. Temptation urged her to lick the hollow of his throat. That would lead to her unbuttoning the shirt, exploring his chest, cupping his crotch, dragging him back to bed. It was David who took action, though, bracing his hands on the armrests as he leaned in to kiss her good-bye. It started as a gentle touch of lips, then he thrust his tongue inside and deepened the kiss.

Casey bunched her robe in her fist and fought the moan welling up in her throat. He pulled away on a sharp gasp and butted his forehead to hers.

“I’ll call you. Okay?”

Somehow she managed to nod. He drew in a sigh as he stood, stared into her eyes for a couple of heartbeats, then walked away. Casey strained her ears for his passage through the house but heard nothing. The place was acoustically perfect. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Fifteen.

Finally she unfolded herself from her nest. Her phone rested on the nightstand. She’d lose herself in work, practice schooling her expression to neutral the next time their paths crossed in the course of business. Crawling into bed, she scrolled through the list of missed calls first. Connie, of course. They spoke at least twice a day. He’d called five times and left a CALL ME RIGHT NOW! text. She didn’t know whether to be alarmed or annoyed. Annoyed won out. Conrad Baxter might be a killer in the boardroom and dripping money, but he could also be one hell of a drama queen. Casey didn’t think she had the patience to deal with it right now. She had her own problems.

She heaved a sigh. Who better to tell her troubles to than Connie? He’d laid the world at her feet, helped her be all she was, and she him. He and Seth were her best friends and confidantes. Whatever meltdown he was having, he could damn well wait while she dumped her stuff on him for a change.

“Well, well, well,” he chortled when she called.

“Long night, angel?” Seth added.

Damn it all, they had her on speaker.

“You called?” she replied.

Laughter burst over the phone.

“Distant and snotty,” Connie said. “I love it.”

“Don’t play coy with us.”

She could almost see Seth wagging his finger.

“You and lover boy made the paper,” Seth said.

“Political section. Lovely night shot. A hot embrace. Captioned Lawyers In Love?” Connie added.

Fuck! “In the Times?”

“Oh yes,” they replied.

“Is he still there? Have we overstepped? Was it all you—”

“Stop it, Connie. Everything is all fucked up!” Her tears welled up again.

“Then spill all, darling. Need us there? We’ll head out right now.”

Suddenly, she was too spent emotionally to share confidences. “Not now. I’ve got work to do.” And a newspaper to grab from the driveway. She’d have to call David and warn him. There’d be fallout of some kind, even if it was only teasing. The district attorney hooking up with the people’s advocate was big gossip.

“I want to meet him,” Connie said, all humor vacant from his voice. “And if he doesn’t already know about us, you need to tell him before someone else does.”

He didn’t know. Enlightening him now was unnecessary. It was over. Even if David was able to overcome his fear, he wouldn’t be able to overcome hers. “Please. He hasn’t bothered to check on me in all these years, he certainly doesn’t need to be privy to our secrets now. It was a one-night stand, nothing more.”

“The picture says differently, angel,” Seth softly replied. “I’ll send you a snap of it.”

“Heat of the moment,” she snapped. “The moment’s over.”

My Salvation by Caitlyn Willows

MySalvation_medium

MY SALVATION
by Caitlyn Willows
Erotica – Short Paranormal
April 2014 (previously released in November 2006
Cover Art © 2014 Lacey Savage

A traffic accident took away Aaron’s salvation, his fiancée Melinda. Lost and grief-stricken, he plunged back into his former days, drowning his grief in mindless parties and drunken debauchery, until a random accident of his own threatens his very soul. Trapped at the crossroads of heaven and hell, he finds himself in limbo, waiting for the Powers That Be to determine his fate. Now, as his soul hovers between eternal bliss and endless damnation, Melinda returns from the grave to help him earn his salvation once more.

Buy link:

Amazon

REVIEWS

FIVE HEARTS! Beautiful, amazing, enthralling-I cannot think of enough words to describe this magnificent short story! I found myself intrigued and aroused-my, oh my Melinda and Aaron had erotic sex. They pulled me along with them in their graphic sex. Then there were the parts of plot where I just wanted to cry. Ms. Willows has an unbelievable ability to wring emotion out of her readers. Melinda, who is dead and Aaron, who wishes to be dead are surprisingly well described for a short story. The plot flows absolutely seamlessly, even when twists come in the story. I cannot remember a story ending which I have enjoyed more. Brava, Ms. Willows! ~Marcy Arbitman, The Romance Studio

4.5 BLUE RIBBONS! Caitlyn Willows takes us on a fascinating journey of self-discovery with this short tale. I could have easily cried for Aaron, his beloved Melinda and the life that they should have had together. It’s very easy to understand his disappointment and how simple it would be to slip into his old ways after such a loss. At the same time, you get the feeling that Melinda may have physically died but she never truly left him in spirit. Ms. Willows brings us the life after death experience in a beautiful heart-touching way that readers won’t soon forget. ~Chrissy Dionne, Romance Junkies

[A] heart-wrenching story that is sure to pull heavily on your emotions. There were moments where I was teary eyed, instances where I shook my head in shame and times where my spine was tingling with heated passion. My Salvation was so engrossing that I read it in one setting. I could easily see the love shared between Melinda and Aaron. Their chemistry was very passionate and expanded across time. There is not much more I can say without giving away the plot; however, I took great pleasure in reading Melinda and Aaron’s story and I am sure once you discover My Salvation you will enjoy it also. ~Nikita Steele, Joyfully Reviewed

EXCERPT

Aaron Crane hoisted the bottle of Absolut to his lips and chugged it. He’d passed the buzz-stage quite some time ago, yet he still maintained a death grip around the neck. The vodka dulled the pain in his heart, filled the void in his soul, and faded the memories that assaulted him even in his dreams.

“Are you taking a leak or what?” Joe Sanchez hollered back.

“Keep your panties on,” Aaron yelled back.

He heard the other three snicker in response, most probably because Aaron had used the word “panties” rather than for the insult he’d intended. God, they really were an immature bunch. None of them had evolved beyond the mentality of a college freshman. Fun was belching contests, seeing who could piss the farthest, and laying down quarter bets of whatever game was on TV, while they scratched their balls and scarfed pizza. Aaron was the only one of the bunch who held a steady job. If he kept partying with these guys, he’d be standing behind them in the unemployment line, and he knew it. Insurance companies liked their claims adjusters alert and attentive, not to mention timely, and he’d been none of those lately. Hungover, emaciated, and perpetually tardy were more likely descriptions.

And yet, in his grief, Aaron had chosen to return to this comfort zone rather than setting out on his own. The more time he spent with these four, the more he disliked them…and himself. But then, he’d hated life and himself since the night Melinda died. The only thing he wanted was to be dead, too. That’s how he felt inside—dead.

He tossed back another drink. Who the hell got the bright idea to stop off in the middle of the desert? They were halfway to Vegas. Why the fucking side-trip?

“Screw it.”

Aaron sank to the nearest boulder and stared across a landscape silvered with the light of a full moon. A warm breeze washed over him. They’d made love under a moon like this once, with only the wind as their blanket. Melinda had wrapped her legs around his. They’d clutched each other as closely as two people could as they soared to the stars watching over them.

He’d loved everything about her from the moment they’d met—her beauty, her goodness, her laughter, her mind. Melinda made him want to be a better person. Hell, he had become a better person, shrugging off his errant ways to be the man she’d want. She was his salvation. Everything he’d dreamed of had seemed to fall in his lap once she’d beamed her smile over him. Paths Aaron never knew existed opened. The world, the future, was golden.

The day he proposed they’d scoured the Internet for the perfect honeymoon spot. There was really only one choice—Desirata. Melinda had read about the idyllic island chain in a travel magazine; a tropical paradise where all a person’s needs were met. It was off the beaten tourist path, exclusive, private—visitation was granted on a person’s needs, not their wealth. Melinda filled out the application, her eyes shining the whole time.

“I know they’ll accept us,” she’d said.

Aaron didn’t care where they went. As long as they were together, he’d give her the world if he could. What better place to start than on a white sand beach perched on the edge of a crystal blue-green ocean?

And just like that…she was ripped away from him. All because some fool blabbering on a cell phone ran a stop light at sixty miles per hour. She’d died clutching the envelope containing the Desirata application.

Grief had torn him in two. He’d tried so hard and for what? To bury the woman he loved? It was all for nothing. In the end, that’s all he had…nothing.

Aaron had quickly reverted to his previous ways, hoping to drown out the unrelenting pain that haunted him day and night. He hated life, hated the four rowdy friends who couldn’t wait to pull him back into their fold. Where once he’d found some measure of joy in the constant partying, now it was merely an escape from the horrors of an unjust world.

He closed his eyes as the breeze brushed over him, lifting the hairs on his arms. His mind drifted with the sensation, imagining Melinda was here with him, gently dancing her fingers against his skin. She’d kiss her way down his throat, while she toyed his nipples into hard dots meant for suckling. While her lips played there, her hands would wander to his cock, stroking, kneading…

Aaron clutched at the erection that burst to life. “Not now…please.”

In his present state, relief wouldn’t be possible. He was too drunk. The fact he had a hard-on at all was a shock. But with memories of Melinda assaulting him, his dick refused to obey the rules. All he could think about was how great her lips felt around him, how tight her hot pussy felt when he was inside, and how painfully lonely the world was with her gone.

Emotion clogged Aaron’s throat. Tears welled up behind his eyelids. Hand shaking, he lifted the bottle to his lips. A sudden gust of wind knocked him off-balance. Arms flailing, he toppled backward. The vodka bottle shattered against the boulder.

Aaron sat on the hard cushion of sand. Moonlight glinted off the shards of glass. Fear welled up inside him. He needed the forgetfulness in that bottle. The pain in his heart was too much to bear without it.

He hugged his knees to his chest. That’s when he noticed the blood. His hand was cut and he hadn’t—still didn’t—felt a thing. Heartache was more than he could bear, but a cut like this…nothing. It was really bleeding, too.

Wonder if it needs stitches? In his fogged brain he tried to calculate the distance to the nearest hospital. A coyote’s howl nearby snapped him upright. He was just pondering whether they could scent blood like a shark when he heard Joe stomping back his way.

“What the fuck, man. You comin’ or not?”

“I fell. Jesus, cut me some fuckin’ slack.”

Aaron shoved himself to his feet. He staggered there for a second or two, then followed Joe. At least the hard-on was gone. He glanced down to make sure and stumbled over his feet, nearly plowing into the other man.

Joe caught his shoulder to steady him. “You okay? Jeez, what happened to your hand?”

Aaron pulled away when he reached for it. “Bottle broke. It’s just a cut. It’ll stop bleeding soon. What was so all-fired important that we had to stop in the middle of nowhere?”

“Check it out.” He motioned to where the other three stood, just beyond a sign that read, “Government Facility. Restricted Area. No Trespassing.”

What little morality Aaron had remaining reared its head. He pulled Joe back. “Are you nuts? This is a restricted area. You’re going to have us thrown in jail.”

“Like we’re gonna get caught way out here. And since when did a little something like rules stop you?” He trudged onward.

Aaron followed reluctantly behind. God only knew where they were. Visions of Area 51 gendarmes swooping down on them filled his head. They weren’t in that area, were they? He’d paid no attention to the direction in which Joe had driven. His only interest had been in reaching the bottom of the bottle.

“What is it?” he asked as he crept forward. Please don’t let it be an alien, his drunken brain whined.

“Take a look.” Joe pointed to six rectangular boxes. They looked like—

“Are those caskets?” Aaron asked.

“Sure enough.” He actually sounded proud of the discovery. “I found them the last time I came through. I was looking for a place to take a leak and there they were. Suppose it’s a desert cemetery someone dug up?”

Aaron frowned. They were old coffins, nothing more than pine boxes. But they didn’t have the aged look he would have associated with a desert cemetery. Still…it was night. “Where are the bodies that were inside?”

“Ewww…” Joe adopted a spooky voice. “Maybe it’s a vampire lair.”

“Shut the fuck up, idiot. Let’s get out of here.” He turned to go.

“Scaredy-cat. I’ll pay you fifty bucks to lay down in one.”

The other three snickered—their comment on everything.

So, that’s what this was all about. Aaron tossed up his hands. “Whatever. I’ll play your stupid game.” Anything to get out of here and on the road. The bleeding hadn’t stopped. He really needed to find a hospital.

He staggered over to the nearest coffin. A wave of dizziness overwhelmed him. Shaking his head to clear it, Aaron hoisted himself inside and stretched out.

“Satisfied?” he asked. “Pay up.” But he couldn’t move. Weakness overwhelmed him.

I’ll just close my eyes for a minute.

His mind slipped into the limbo stage of twilight sleep. Soon the nightmares would take him and there was nothing Aaron could do to stop them. He drifted on a sea of nothingness. Two tunnels lay ahead—one dark, one light—and there he hovered, waiting…waiting…waiting.

 

Christmas and You by Caitlyn Willows

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CHRISTMAS AND YOU
by Caitlyn Willows
Contemporary – Erotic Romance – Menage (M/F/M) (M/M/F)
December 2015
Cover Artist – Scott Carpenter
Loose Id www.loose-id.com
ISBN 978-1-68252-048-2

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.

Buy links:

Loose Id

Amazon

Excerpt:

“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.

“Whatever.”

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!”