Excerpt from Shadow Soldier
Aaron Ellis stared at the blinking cursor next to his bank account balance. It was one of the few things he used his computer for besides the occasional evening of watching free porn. The four-year old machine had been a splurge when he’d first returned from Afghanistan. Although refurbished, the computer had seen him through the first six months of his life after he was discharged from the Army.
He glanced around the minimally furnished, one-bedroom apartment. It had taken a leap of faith to move out of the garage apartment loaned to him by Matt Jeffries and into the newly constructed apartment building at the edge of town. When he’d first moved to Cattle Valley he wasn’t expecting to stay long, but over time he’d started to build relationships with the men at the fire station and his therapist, Dr Pritchard.
The account balance in front of him would barely cover the cost of the purchase he had in mind. To make it worse, it was an unnecessary extravagance.
The intricately carved headboard he’d spied through the window of Falling Limb Creations would eat away the rest of his meagre savings, but he hadn’t been able to think of anything else for three weeks. Since the moment he’d first spotted the handmade headboard, he’d made it a point to go by the store every chance he got to make sure no one else had bought it. He hadn’t allowed himself the luxury of going inside the shop. The thought of touching the soft-looking wood and not being able to own it was too much.
The responsible thing would be to wait until he saved enough to leave the cushion in his account that his grandmother had always insisted on. Aaron groaned as he ran his fingers through his short blond hair. Responsible was a label he’d been stuck with since the death of his parents when he was sixteen. Under the supervision of child services, Aaron had not only made funeral arrangements, but he’d been the one to pack up his family’s belongings and arrange for the sale of the house his mother and father had purchased only ten years earlier.
With enough money to help with bills and college, Aaron had left Virginia to live with his only living relative, his grandma Alice, in Urbana, Ohio. Life had been bearable for the first year, but one catastrophe after another had quickly eaten away Aaron’s savings. It wasn’t his grandma’s fault. At seventy-eight, Alice hadn’t been in good health when she’d been left with the task of raising Aaron. A series of strokes had left his grandma bed-ridden and in need of medical attention that her social security didn’t quite cover. Add in constant maintenance of her two-hundred-year old farmhouse and it didn’t take long to deplete Aaron’s college money.
I’m gonna do it, he thought and powered down his computer. For seven years, he’d done what he’d had to do. It was time he did what he wanted to do. Aaron grabbed his coat from off the back of the kitchen chair and left the apartment before he could talk himself out of it.
It was a quick five-minute drive to downtown Cattle Valley. Soon, he was parked in front of Falling Limb Creations. His heart sank as he stepped up to the front display window only to find out the headboard was gone. Aaron’s chest tightened as he realised he’d waited too long. It was just a piece of furniture, he tried to tell himself. So why did it feel like so much more?
A knock on the glass startled him, causing Aaron to drop his keys on the sidewalk. He bent and picked them up before coming face to face with the handsome man he’d seen through the window several times. Although he’d never officially met Deacon McConnell, his co-worker, Luke, often talked of his new friend. Deacon motioned Aaron inside.
Aaron shoved his keys into his pocket and opened the shop door. A small set of brass bells strung over the entrance welcomed Aaron into the amazing store.
“It’s not there,” Deacon said, leaning heavily on his cane.
“I see that,” Aaron acknowledged.
Deacon stared at Aaron for several moments. “Come with me.”
Aaron hesitated, but eventually followed Deacon to the back of the store into what appeared to be the workroom. The smell of wood wrapped around Aaron like a warm blanket, reminding him of the years spent chopping wood with his dad in Virginia.
“I’ve seen you admiring this, so I thought I’d put it back for you,” Deacon said, lifting a drop cloth off the coveted headboard.
Aaron reached out and touched the bluebells and violas carved into the woodland scene. “I can’t believe you did this for me,” he replied, without taking his eyes off the headboard. “How’d you know I’d decide to buy it?”
Deacon stepped up beside Aaron. “I saw it in your face the first time I noticed you admiring it. When you returned almost every other day, I figured you’d eventually be in. Turns out I was right.”
Excerpt from Alone in a Crowd
Sheriff Ryan Blackfeather stood on the small rise and watched his partner, Rio Adega cut down a dead tree. Cleaning up the park was a yearly event that his other partner, Nate Gills, took very seriously. Ryan, on the other hand, took the view of Rio’s ass in a tight pair of jeans serious. He reached down and subtly adjusted his hardening cock.
The park was full of people with good intentions, too bad Ryan couldn’t act on his. He smiled and shook his head. If he went any closer he’d have to arrest himself for indecent exposure. Later, he promised himself.
“You gonna just stand there, or are you going to come down here and help me?” Rio asked.
“I’m on duty.” Ryan pointed to his badge. “This gets me out of manual labour today.”
Rio wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his arm. “Funny how that happens, and here I thought you usually took Saturday’s off.”
“Pete wanted off to spend time with Brian and Ethan.” Ryan chuckled. He knew he wasn’t fooling Rio, but it was a good game. “I always put my deputies’ needs before my own.”
“Mmm hmm. Keep telling yourself that.”
“I will.” Ryan spotted a scrap of paper several feet away and walked over to pick it up. “Love you. Don’t work too hard.”
Bent over, his ass facing Ryan, Rio gathered a few of the sawed logs in his arms. “I wouldn’t have to if you weren’t such a dedicated lawman.”
Ryan was still chuckling as he walked off. Despite what Rio believed, he wasn’t afraid of hard work. He simply felt better being in a position where he could watch over the citizens he’d been hired to protect.
* * * *
Smokey Sharp watched Ezra James and Palmer Wynfield rake the previous fall’s leaves away from the edge of the pond. There was a time when he’d be right there, working alongside Ezra, but that was before Palmer, before he’d made one of the biggest mistakes of his life.
“No time like the present,” Smokey whispered. He took off his cowboy hat and walked closer to the water’s edge. Instead of announcing his presence, he waited. It was immediately obvious that Ezra’s relationship with Palmer agreed with him. Ezra looked younger without the massive beard he’d worn for years, and happier than Smokey had ever seen him.
Several moments later, Ezra glanced up. His initial reaction was a wide smile, but all too soon it was gone, replaced by a scowl. “What’re you doing in town?”
Palmer stopped raking and spun around to face Smokey. It was the moment of fear in Palmer’s eyes that hurt the most. Smokey took a deep breath, praying the words would come out the way he’d rehearsed. “I came back to apologise. To both of you,” he added. “I don’t expect either of you to forgive me, but I’d like to come home to Cattle Valley.”
Before he could say anything more, Palmer dropped his rake and took a step towards Smokey. “You don’t need our permission.” He shook his head. “I’m not as insecure as I used to be.”
“I don’t have any openings on the ranch,” Ezra said, moving to stand beside Palmer.
Smokey looked down at his boots. “I didn’t apologise because I wanted you to give me a job. I guess I just hoped...” He stuffed his hat back onto his head. It was obvious Ezra wasn’t planning to forgive him anytime soon. “Never mind.” He waved to the two men as he turned to leave. “See ya around.”
Smokey slowly walked back to his truck before his legs could give out. He hated himself for believing all could be forgiven. Real life wasn’t like the movies, it wasn’t as simple as apologising to the people you’d wronged. “It was stupid as fuck to come back here,” he mumbled as he climbed behind the wheel and slammed the door.
“You’re the last person I expected to see today.”
Smokey sat up straight and turned to find Sheriff Ryan Blackfeather leaning on his truck. The last time he’d had a run-in with Ryan it was just after he’d made the mistake of threatening Palmer. “Came back to apologise. I’m not looking for trouble.”
Arms crossed, Ryan continued to stare at Smokey. “Did it work?”
Breathing a sigh of relief, Smokey smiled and shook his head. “I doubt it, but at least I’m still alive.”
“So what now?”
That was the million-dollar question. “No idea. I lost my job up north when the old man died. His snot-nosed kid came in and sold the whole damn place to a developer. Gonna put up windmill generators. Know of anything around here?”
After several moments, Ryan pulled out his wallet and withdrew a card. “Nate has a friend who just leased three hundred acres from the city to farm.” He handed Smokey the card. “Give him a call. Tell him I referred you.”
Smokey stared at the expensively embossed business card. Second Chance Ranch, Robert Ogden, Owner. “You’d do that?”
“Make no mistake, I didn’t approve of what you did to Wyn, but I know you were a damn good foreman for Ezra.” He gestured to the card. “Give Oggie a call.”
“Thanks.” Smokey started his truck. “See you around, Sheriff.” He waited for Ryan to step back before pulling out of the parking lot. He tossed the card in the seat beside him, more depressed than ever. He’d love to work on a ranch again, but his health was declining rapidly, and it wouldn’t be right to apply for a job based on the kind of foreman he once was.
Smokey drove through town and pulled into the grocery store parking lot. Elliott Simmons was the only loose end he had left on his road to redemption. He couldn’t make people forgive him, but he couldn’t let that stop him from trying.
Elliott had reached out to him after Ezra kicked him off the ranch, had even offered physical comfort to help ease Smokey’s broken heart, and he’d repaid him by drinking himself into oblivion every night. It wasn’t Elliott’s fault. Smokey had always been a drinker. It was only natural for him to crawl into a bottle of whisky and live there for the better part of a year and a half. Unfortunately, Elliott had paid the price.
Smokey got out of the truck and slammed the door harder than needed. He took a deep breath before entering the grocery store and was immediately met by Jeff, Elliott’s teenage son. “Hey.”
“Mr Sharp,” Jeff said in surprise. “I didn’t know you were back in town.”
“Just drove in a few hours ago. Is your dad here?”
“He’s in the back.” Jeff set the box he was holding on the floor. “He missed you, you know?”
Smokey didn’t, as a matter-of-fact, he couldn’t imagine Elliott had given him a second thought after throwing his drunk ass out. “No, but it’s nice to hear.” He took a second look at the growing man in front of him. “I’m sorry if I scared you back then, but I promise I’m sober now.”
“Don’t tell me, tell Dad.” Jeff picked the box up and smiled. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Thanks, you too.” Smokey walked towards the back of the store feeling lighter than he had in a very long time. He entered the storeroom and prayed Elliott would be as kind as the son he’d raised. “Hey.”
Elliott glanced up from his clipboard. “Hey,” he returned, an expression of shock on his dark brown face. He took several steps, putting him directly in front of Smokey. “You’re back.”
Staring down into his old friend’s dark eyes, Smokey realised how much he hated himself for disappointing Elliott. “I came to tell you how sorry I am for what happened between us.”
“Don’t do that. I’m sorry about how it ended, but not all the memories are bad ones.” Elliott reached up and brushed Smokey’s cheek with his hand. “I’ve missed you.”
“I don’t know why you would, but I’ll take it.” Smokey leaned into Elliott’s touch. If only he could go back and live his life over. Maybe he would’ve fallen in love with Elliott before Ezra managed to get under his skin. A lump of regret formed in his throat, prompting him to pull away. “I should probably let you get back to work.”
“You staying in town?”
There were two places to stay in Cattle Valley, the lodge or the B&B, and both were too expensive for Smokey’s limited funds. “I have a lead on a job, but I’m not sure how much help I can offer the guy.” He looked down at his hands. According to the doctor, the rheumatoid arthritis that was quickly crippling him was an inherited disease that could be marginally managed but not cured. As if his mother abandoning him as a child wasn’t enough, he would forever endure a constant reminder of the slut who’d loved men and drugs more than her own son.
Elliott glanced at Smokey’s gnarled fingers. “I think you have more to offer than you give yourself credit for.”
Excerpt from Second Chances
Drake Smith ended his call moments before his boss, Asa Montgomery, walked into his office. "Shane Rendell called. He came across a bootleg copy of DX12 on the internet."
Asa stopped in his tracks and narrowed his eyes. "How’s that possible?"
"Good question." Drake stood and walked around the desk. "As far as I know, there are only a handful of people who even know of its existence. Shane’s gonna use his hacking skills to track the sonofabitch."
"Shit!" Asa swore, running his fingers over his thinning hair. "It’s not even ready. If the public gets hold of an inferior copy..."
"Yeah, it’ll ruin us before we even launch," Drake said, finishing Asa’s sentence.
Throwing his hands up, Asa shook his head. "Okay, well, it’s just money, right?"
Drake knew DX12 meant more than money to Asa, but he nodded in agreement. "Don’t worry, sir, we’ll find the leak."
Shane came running into the office, skidding to a stop in front of Drake. "We’ve got a problem."
Drake glanced from Shane to Asa. "You remember Shane, don’t you, Asa?"
Shane jumped as if he were completely unaware of Asa’s presence in the office. "Oh, sorry, sir."
"What’s the problem?" Asa asked, grinning at the young hacker they’d recruited right out of high school.
"DX12 has already been downloaded two thousand and twenty-six times," Shane said. "I managed to break the link, but it’s out there, and someone else will put it back up if they haven’t already."
Asa turned to Drake. "Ideas?"
Shane pulled nervously at his eyebrow for several moments. "I don’t know. I need more time to look at the version uploaded. The biggest question is why would someone do it in the first place. Everyone who’s been working on the project knows it’s not ready, so why do it?"
"Sabotage." The thought of being betrayed by someone they all trusted cut Drake like a knife.
Asa shook his head vehemently. "No, I refuse to believe one of our own would do this."
Drake shut Shane down before he could say anything. His job was to protect Asa, and if that meant shielding him from the ugly truth, so be it. "Shane, see if you can find anything on the uploaded copy. I’ll dig into the personnel records this weekend and see if I can find anyone on the team who’s questionable."
Drake turned his attention to Asa. "Let us worry about this until we can bring you something concrete to act on. In the meantime, go enjoy the Fall Festival with Mario."
"How am I supposed to do that? Hell, half—if not more—of my employees will be there. You expect me to just smile and shake hands with someone who’s trying to ruin me?" Asa argued.
Drake put his hand on Asa’s shoulder. "No, I expect you to go and enjoy being with Mario and your friends. If there’s someone out there who’s trying to hurt you, I’ll deal with them." Asa was the closest thing to a friend Drake had ever known, and he refused to let him down.
"Call me the minute you find something," Asa ordered.
"Will do." Drake glanced at Shane. It was obvious by Shane’s disappointed expression that he, too, had planned to attend the festival. He decided to cut the young man some slack. "Can you have something by Monday?"
Shane brightened. "Yes, sir."
Drake accompanied Shane and Asa out of the office before walking to his bare-bones apartment on the first floor of the building. He dug out his keys and unlocked the row of deadbolts that secured his home. It didn’t matter to him that the locks were pointless in a building as secure as he’d made Montgomery Enterprises. They kept his apartment safe from ridicule, from the prying eyes of those who would judge him.
Hungry, he entered the kitchen. Opening the cupboard, Drake shook his head. "Shit." He’d eaten the last can of soup the previous night. A quick search of the refrigerator yielded nothing but condiments and a stale loaf of bread.
With a groan of frustration, he turned back and retraced his steps through the living room. He pulled his black leather coat out of the closet and shrugged it on as he stared at his mother’s picture that hung on the wall. Not a day went by that he didn’t miss his best friend.
"I know. I know," he told the photograph. "I should eat more vegetables so I can grow big and strong." Drake grinned, grabbing his keys from his mom’s cut crystal bowl beside the door.
Drake unlocked his apartment and left the building through the back door and into the parking lot. His car was right outside in a reserved space. The sexy black Porsche Cayman gleamed in the overhead security light, drawing his appreciation. With a satisfied smile, Drake ran the back of his hand over the smooth, cold metal of the hood as he rounded to the driver’s door.
Buckling himself into the low-slung sports car, he fired up the powerful engine and let it purr for several seconds. His mom would’ve loved the car—its low profile perfect for her to get in and out of. For him, it wasn’t as comfortable as a larger sedan might have been, but as always, his decisions had been based on what would put a smile on his mom’s face.
Drake pulled out of the parking lot and headed into town. Grocery shopping was one of his least favourite things to do, but until Elliott’s store started delivering, he had little choice. On the drive past the park where the festival seemed to be in full swing, Drake turned up the classical music coming from the stereo speakers, trying to drown out the sounds of camaraderie and laughter.
Excerpt from Finding Absolution
A sense of pride filled Van Duggins as his student, Kai Hachiya, accepted his first place trophy and cheque. It was Kai’s third win in four surfing tournaments, and Van was beginning to think he was no longer needed.
“Did Kai talk to you about Wyoming?” Quade Madison, Kai’s partner, asked.
“He mentioned it.” Van glanced at Quade. He hated to admit it, but he’d grown to really like the guy, and Kai definitely surfed better with Quade around. Unfortunately, liking Quade and following him and Kai to Cattle Valley didn’t go hand in hand. Never in his life had he been landlocked. The mere thought of not being able to see the brilliant blue of the ocean made Van’s stomach turn. “Not my idea of a vacation,” he mumbled.
“Maybe not, but you won’t know until you try it,” Quade replied.
“I won’t be able to breathe,” Van countered.
“You don’t have to worry about that, they have air in Wyoming, too.” Quade laughed and slapped Van on the back. “It would mean a lot to Kai if you joined us.”
“Funny, Kai told me it would mean a lot to you.” Van smiled. “So what’s the real reason you want me to go to this festival in the middle of nowhere?”
Quade took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “I’m proud of Cattle Valley. I guess I’d just like to share it with you.”
Van had prepared an excuse to get out of the planned vacation, but he couldn’t get the words out of his mouth. Quade had been nothing but supportive of Kai’s training and career, and had rarely asked for anything in exchange. “I’ll have to leave right after the carnival or whatever it is.”
Quade chuckled. “Don’t act so thrilled.” He bumped shoulders with Van. “You probably won’t admit it afterwards, but you’re going to love the rodeo.”
Van grunted in reply.
“I’m starving,” Kai announced as he finally joined them. “I’ve got an interview in an hour, but I thought we could get something to eat first.”
“You aced everyone,” Van congratulated Kai.
Kai grinned. “I almost clucked on that last wave, but I remembered what you taught me and hit the lip perfectly.”
There wasn’t much that he hadn’t taught Kai, and the kid never forgot a single lesson. Before long Van would become obsolete to the man he’d grown close to. However, there was still one thing the beach rat had refused to get through his thick skull. “Language,” he warned. How many times had he explained to Kai that he hated slang?
“Sorry.” Kai broke away from Quade and wrapped his arms around Van. “I couldn’t have won without you.”
Van hugged Kai back. They both knew the truth, but the words were nice to hear. “You’d better get something to eat while you can.” He released Kai and took a step back.
“Aren’t you coming with us?” Quade asked.
Van turned his attention to the ocean. “I think I’ll go home and catch some waves while I still can.” He winked at Kai. “Not many of those in Wyoming.”
Kai’s handsome face lit up like Van had just given him the world. “Really? You’re coming with us?”
“I’ve decided I can’t go to my grave without seeing a rodeo.” Van settled his sunglasses down over his eyes. “When do we leave?”
“Wednesday,” Kai replied. “I booked you a seat just in case.”
With a nod and a wave, Van walked to his Jeep. He untied the leather thong that held his shoulder-length hair at the nape of his neck and headed out of the parking lot. Driving along the coast with the ocean breeze in his face always made him feel free. He’d spent the first eight years of his life in a depressing apartment on Central Park West in Manhattan with a mother who had little use for him outside the money she received monthly from his father.
Van had grown up believing his dad was a rich son of a bitch who cared nothing for him. It wasn’t until his mother had been invited to Europe for the summer with her newest lover and had informed Van that he’d be shipped off to Oahu to stay with his father that he’d met the man for the first time.
Turning down a dirt driveway, Van returned to the small cottage hidden behind years of brush and trees. The house his father had owned and the only place in the world Van had found true love and acceptance.
It had become clear on his first visit to Oahu that his father wasn’t the rich man he’d thought him to be. Instead, Jimmy Duggins had worked two jobs, grown his own food and lived in a house that had barely been more than a shack at the time in order to pay the large sum of child support Van’s mom had demanded.
Smiling at the memory of his dad’s broad grin the first time they’d met, Van parked in front of the house. He’d done a few renovations since he’d first set eyes on the beach shack, but the hanging wind chimes and folk art were one hundred per cent original. Christ, he missed that man. Everyone on the island had called Van’s father Jimmy Jam, and despite working two jobs, the seasoned surfer had taken the time to teach Van everything he knew about the island, the ocean and what it meant to be a man.
“I’m going to Wyoming,” Van said to the house. At his father’s request, Van had cremated his dad’s body after he’d passed and sprinkled the ashes around the yard and on the beach, making the whole damn place his forever. “Did you ever think you’d see me at a rodeo?” Van had refused to admit it to Quade, but the more he thought about going to the competition the more excited he became.
Van got out of the Jeep and headed straight to the back of the house. He stripped out of his clothes and grabbed a pair of board shorts from the clothesline. The true beauty in the shack’s location was the isolation, something he’d grown to crave when he was away from it.
The row of surfboards that leaned against the house like ancient warriors were a daily reminder of his past. He ran a hand over the pale yellow board his father had favoured before taking a moment to stand in front of the expensive board his ex-student and lover, Blain Hardesty, had given him as a thank you.
Blain. Van wrapped his arms around the longboard and rested his cheek against its smooth surface. Not a day went by that he didn’t miss Blain. Many in the surfing community still blamed Van for Blain’s death, and there were days when he agreed with them. The day before the tournament, Van had been forced to tell Blain he wasn’t good enough to perform the Duggin’s Slide, a manoeuvre Van had made famous when he’d competed on the circuit. A huge fight had erupted between them and Blain had stormed off to the bar. When Blain had arrived for the tournament, he was still suffering the effects of the alcohol he’d poured down his throat. When Van tried to argue that Blain was in no shape to surf, he’d been summarily fired and told he was a washed-up surfer who didn’t want to share the limelight. Hurt and angry, Van had let loose a steady stream of profanities before storming off.
Van gasped for air as the memories threatened to choke him. Blain had died eight years earlier and there still wasn’t a night when Van didn’t reach for the younger man in his sleep.
Hell, maybe he could use some time away from the water, the memories. He released his hold on the longboard and tucked the ugliest board in the bunch under his arm. His father had given him the competition board when he’d realised Van’s potential.
Van jogged to the water. He paddled out and turned his board to face the shack. The solitude his home offered had always done a better job of calming him than all the expensive shrinks he’d gone to after the tragedy that had taken Blain’s life. He wondered what would ground him in a town without an ocean.
Excerpt from Fingerprints and Muddy Feet
Nate Gills tossed another kernel of popcorn in the air for his partner, Ryan Blackfeather, to catch in his mouth. He loved lazy Sunday nights indulging in trash TV with his partners. “I think Kim’s by far the hottest one,” he sighed.
“You’re kidding, right?” Rio scoffed, tousling Nate’s hair. Rio was the only person who could get away with mussing Nate’s perfectly sculpted locks. “Were you not sitting right beside me when Brody went almost an entire episode without a shirt?”
Nate rolled over and licked a path up Rio’s bare chest. “I’m in girl mode. You can’t compare Brody to Kim. That’s cheating.”
“Why the hell would you be in girl mode? Last time I checked, you were a man.” Rio reached for Nate’s cock. “Yep, still there.”
Ryan groaned and reached for the popcorn bowl. “Why do we have to play ‘who’s the hottest’ on every show we watch?”
Nate stretched out and tickled Ryan’s balls with his toes. “Would it help if I said you were the hottest?”
“No,” Rio answered, squeezing Nate’s cock. “I’m the hottest.”
Nate’s phone began to ring, interrupting the clever comeback he was forming. He wiggled out of Rio’s grasp and snagged the cell off the bedside table. “Hello?”
“Turn on the news,” Joseph, Nate’s long-time friend, instructed.
“Just do it,” Joseph replied.
Nate grabbed the remote away from Ryan and turned to one of the twenty-four-hour news channels. The ticker at the bottom of the screen captured his full attention. He caught the name of his brother and felt like he couldn’t breathe.
“Who is it?” Ryan asked, sitting up.
Nate ignored his partner and turned up the volume, waiting for more information.
“A small aircraft carrying Maryland State Representative Robert Gilloume, an up-and-coming figure in the Republican Party and the son of Senator William Gilloume, crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania at five-fifty-four this evening. Mr Gilloume, his wife, Laura, and the plane’s pilot, John McKenzie, were all confirmed dead at the scene.”
Nate turned off the television when a helicopter flying overhead began to show footage of the fiery crash scene.
“Nate?” Joseph said.
“Thanks for calling. I’ll talk to you later.” Nate hung up on his friend before dropping the phone to the mattress. He looked from Rio to Ryan. Although they both knew he had a younger brother, Nate never spoke of him. “I need to go to Baltimore.”
“We’ll go with you,” Ryan offered, pulling Nate into an embrace.
Nate’s natural instinct was to decline the offer. Subjecting Ryan and Rio to his parents wasn’t something he thought he’d ever do, but he couldn’t let his baby brother be buried without him there.
“Thanks,” Nate finally said. He gave each of his men a quick kiss before climbing out of bed.
Although he hadn’t seen his brother since he’d snuck into Robby’s high school graduation, Robby’s wife had sent Christmas cards for the last few years. Nate entered the closet and retrieved the box that contained everything he had of his past life as Senator William Gilloume’s son. He withdrew the previous year’s card. It was one of those photograph cards that everyone seemed to be sending lately. He left the closet and handed the card to Rio. “That’s my brother, Robby, his wife, Laura, and their kids.” He tapped the photograph. “Will was seven in this picture, but he’s eight now, and Hannah’s now twelve.” He sat on the side of the bed as Rio studied the card before handing it to Ryan. “What’s going to happen to them?”
“Depends on whether or not Robby and Laura had a will, but most likely, they’ll go to the nearest relative. Do you know if Laura had family?” Ryan asked.
Nate shook his head. “The first Christmas card she sent contained a brief letter. It said she’d discovered where I was by one of those magazine stories written after the grandstand collapse. She didn’t have my address, but she knew I was mayor, so she sent it to city hall.” Although he didn’t really know Laura, he wished he had. The woman had definitely been resourceful. “In the letter, she said she’d always wished for family and the fact that Robby could disown his own brother pained her. Laura gave me a way to know my niece and nephew, and I’ll never forget that.”
Rio’s dark eyes narrowed. “Why didn’t you share these cards with us before?”
Nate shrugged. “I loved getting those pictures. It made me feel like I was still a member of the family, and as long as I kept that fantasy to myself, no one could make me believe otherwise.”
Rio brushed his lips across Nate’s temple before kissing it. “I’m sorry that you felt we would take that away from you.”
“You don’t have to be sorry. To be honest, it was one of those secrets that I kept for purely selfish reasons,” Nate explained. “My heart wanted to believe my brother missed me, even though my head knew better. Laura was the one who sought me out, not Robby.” The truth finally hit home. If it had been left up to Robby, Nate wouldn’t have the cards. He’d pretended for a while that Robby knew Laura was reaching out to him. That for some reason Robby couldn’t contact Nate himself for fear of what their father would do, but the truth was, Robby was either an asshole or too far under the Senator’s thumb. Brother or not, maybe Robby didn’t love me at all. Nate pushed away the thought and turned back to the card.
“What’re you saying?” Ryan asked.
“Nothing. Just that I’m going to Baltimore to pay my respects to Laura. Whether or not they let me into Robby’s funeral, they can’t keep me out of Laura’s.”