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Reeking of whiskey, cigar smoke and some fast woman's cheap perfume, Darius Colton barely resembled the dignified patriarch Damien Colton remembered from his youth. Glaring at his prodigal son with red-rimmed eyes, Darius's upper lip curled in derision as he pondered Damien's question.
It was a question that deserved to be answered. Cursing his bad timing, Damien elaborated. "I'd like to see the bank statements for my account."
"Are you questioning my word?" Darius snarled, his consonants slightly slurred.
"No." Damien crossed his arms. "But that money should have been earning interest the entire time I was in prison. Now you're telling me there's nothing left?"
"That's exactly what I'm telling you, boy." With a dismissive smile, Darius turned away, only to glance back over his shoulder. "You've got nothing."
Damien checked his rising temper, one of the many neat tricks he'd learned while incarcerated. Who knew it would serve him so well here in the outside world?
He kept his voice level. "I never signed anything authorizing youor anyone elseto touch that money. I need an explanation. Hell, I deserve an explanation."
In response, his sixty-year-old, white-haired father let loose with a string of curses vile enough to make a sailor blush. Darius's face went red, then purple as he glared at his son with rage-filled eyes.
So much anger. So much hate.
Fists clenched, Damien waited it out. When Darius finally ran out of steam, Damien stepped back. "We'll talk about this again when you're sober," he said. "As soon as possible."
In the act of pouring another glass of Scotch, Darius turned on him so fast the expensive liquor sloshed all over his sleeve. He didn't appear to notice or care, so intent was he on giving his son what the Colton kids used to call the death stare. If looks could kill
"You will not mention this to me again. The subject is closed."
"Later," Damien insisted. "I promise you we will discuss this later." He'd been saying this for months now. Enough was enough.
Though Damien halfway believed if he persisted, Darius would haul off and slug him, he'd been through hell and back already. Since the day he'd been set free and the prison gates had disgorged him, he'd known that no event life might have in store for him could ever be as heinous as the day he'd been convicted of a crime he hadn't committed.
So Darius blustering and trying to tell him that he'd somehow lost a three-million-dollar inheritance didn't even compare. Especially since Damien didn't believe a word his dear old father said. He needed to talk to his brothers. And Maisie, he amended silently. All of them.
And quickly. Though he'd been home for three whole months, he hadn't seen this coming. When had the old man become so.unstable and deceitful? Something had to be wrong. Darius didn't need his son's moneyhe had enough of his own. But why lie? Round and round Damien's mind went, trying to adjust to what had just happened. Darius couldn't have stolen his inheritance. The money had to be here somewhere. All Damien had to do was find it.
Watching as his father, whiskey glass in hand, staggered from his office to the master bedroom suites, Damien was left frustrated and empty-handed, wishing he could punch something.
Gradually, sounds from the great room penetrated his consciousness. Christmas carols, rustling and clinking and talking and laughter. He remembered nowthe family was gathering for the annual Colton family Christmas-tree-decorating ceremony.
When he'd been in prison he'd dreamt of this event. Now, he wasn't even sure he'd bother to attend. He really just wanted to head out to the barn and saddle up Duncan, his favorite quarter horse gelding, and ride out to the back pastures. As a matter of fact
"Damien!" His sister Maisie, grinning like a gleeful small child, bounced into the room. "Come on! Hurry! Wes and Duke are bringing in the tree. Finn's getting the stand ready and checking the lights. Even Perry, Brand and Joan are here along with their families! It's picture-postcard perfect. Everyone wanted to be a part of decorating for your first Christmas back with the family!"
And just like that, Maisie had deftly lobbed the ball in his court. Now he had no choice but to join the others.
Nodding, he allowed her to grab his hand and lead him into the great room. Even with almost the entire family gathered, the huge room was cozy rather than crowded. A fire roared in the massive stone fireplace and box after box of glittering ornaments were spread all over the huge oak coffee table, along with numerous strands of white lights. The place looked like a scene from a holiday magazine. Homey, folksy and warm.
And he felt completely out of place.
As Damien entered, Maisie's teenaged son Jeremy threw open the back door, letting in a gust of cold air. "Here they are!" he shouted, grinning broadly.
Covered in a light dusting of snow, Damien's twin brother Duke appeared, half carrying, half dragging the bottom of a huge spruce tree. Wes Colton held up the top part of the tree, laughing and looking for his fiancée, Lily Masterson, who was helping Duke's fiancée, Susan Kelley, organize ornaments. Even Finn Colton had driven in from town. Their youngest brother had gotten engaged to Rachel Grant, who was helping him check the light strands.
It was, Damien thought sourly, a regular love fest in here. Damien couldn't help but notice how the three outside women took pains to try and include Maisie in their little group. To his surprise, Maisie seemed to be eating it up. A genuine smile of pure happiness lit up her face and put a sparkle in her aquamarine eyes.
Happy and festive, a perfect combination. Christmas carols played and there was homemade wassail simmering in a slow cooker on a table, along with various other goodies: Christmas cookies and fudge, dip and chips, and ribbon candy. Had they gone overboard for him? Damien wondered. Or was this the normal holiday celebration here at the Colton ranch these days?
Either way, they wanted to include him. He knew he should feel touched, but instead he only felt empty. Everyone had paired off, it seemed. Everyone except Da-mien. Oh, and their stepmother, Sharon, who appeared to be single-mindedly focused on drinking an entire bottle of wine by herself. No one seemed to notice or mind Darius Colton's absence.
Wes, Duke and Finn lifted the huge tree into the stand while the women oohed and aahed. The children, belonging to various branches of the Coltons in town, chased each other and laughed. Damien took a step back, intent on beating a swift exit, but Maisie saw what he was up to.
"Come on." Grabbing his hand, she pulled him closer to the tree. "I'm sure the guys need your help, right boys?"
Amid a chorus of agreement, she left him, bouncing over to help the women with the ornaments. As he helped secure the tree in the stand, Damien felt his twin's gaze on him, though he refused to meet it.
This was no good. He planned to make a quick retreat as soon as humanly possible.
"What, not feeling too Christmassy?" His brother Wes, the town sheriff, punched him lightly in the shoulder. At Damien's questioning look, he shrugged. "It's written all over your face."
"Yeah, well it's been a long time." Damien's voice sounded raspy. Eyeing each of his brothers, he couldn't help but wonder if Darius had stolen their inheritance, too.
Underneath the sparkle and tinsel, there was something rotten and foul here on the Colton ranch.
"I've got to go," he told Duke, once the tree stood tall and straight and ready for the lights.
"Where to?" Glancing at his watch, his twin grimaced.
"I thought I'd ride out and check fences in the high pasture."
"Now? It's dark and snowing. That can wait for the morning."
Feeling increasingly uncomfortable, Damien tugged the collar of his shirt. "I've got to get out of here."
Instantly, Duke's teasing smile faded. "Are you all right?" he asked, low-voiced. "You're looking a little green."
"Green?" Damien scowled. He forced himself not to bolt. "I'll be fine as soon as I get some fresh air."
Duke nodded, but Damien knew his twin didn't understand. How could he, when he'd spent his entire life enveloped in the love of his family? It was Damien who was different, Damien who was the outsider.
A few steps and Damien stood in the foyer. Already, the sense of constriction had eased somewhat. But not enough. Since it was late and dark and snowing, instead of going for a ride, he'd head into town for a beer. His favorite watering hole, the Corner Bar, would be quiet and soothing.
The short drive took longer, due to the snow. But at least the streets were mostly deserted and his four-wheel-drive pickup handled the snow with ease. He parked, noting only two other vehicles in the lot.
Stepping into the Corner Bar, he glanced around the place appreciatively. Dark and quiet and mercifully short on holiday decorations, it was exactly what he needed after the festive frenzy at the family ranch.
Stepping up to the long, polished mahogany bar, he captured a barstool. "Kind of empty tonight."
"Sure is." Without being asked, Jake, the bartender, brought him a tall Coors Light.
"Business slow during the holidays?" Damien asked, taking a long drink, enjoying the light foamy head.
"Yeah, you're my only drinking customer," Jake said, wiping at the bar counter with a rag that once might have been white and now was a cross between gray and yellow. "Except for her, and all she's drinking is a Shirley Temple."
He pointed and for the first time Damien realized he wasn't entirely alone in the place as he'd first supposed. Eve Kelley, her skin glowing softly in the dim light, occupied the corner booth, which sat mostly in shadows. With her head bent over a notebook, her long blond hair hung in silky curtains on each side of her face.
"Eve Kelley," he mused, wondering why the girl who'd been the most popular in town was all alone.
"Yeah." Leaning forward, the other man groused. "She's been here an hour and she's not even drinking alcohol. That's her second Shirley Temple."
Intrigued, Damien studied her, wondering why she'd come to a bar yet didn't drink? A problem with alcohol? She'd certainly been a party girl back in the day. Back when he'd been a senior in high school, he and she had heated up the front seat of his Ford F150. She'd been pretty and popular and since she was a few years ahead of him in school, way out of his league.
Eve had been the only one in town who'd written him a letter while he'd been in prison. Though he'd never acknowledged it, he'd always wondered why.
"I'm going to join her," Damien told the bartender.
Though the other man didn't comment, he shook his head in disapproval. He probably thought, as did most of the people in Honey Creek, Montana, that Damien was tainted.
Crossing the room to where she sat, he willed her to look up and smile, or stare or something. Anything other than recoil in horror and disgust. Though he'd been back home almost three months, he could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who didn't act as though he was a leper.
He made it all the way to her table without her noticing.
"Enjoying your Shirley Temple?"
When she did raise her head and meet his gaze, he saw her eyes were still the same long-lashed, sapphire blue he remembered.
"It's a seven and seven," she said, making him wonder why she bothered to lie. What did she care what he thought?
"Mind if I join you?"
A flash of surprise crossed her face, and then she lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "Suit yourself."
He slid into the booth across from her, taking another long drink of his beer. "Good. I missed that while I was in prison."
Stirring her drink absently, she nodded. "I imagine there are quite a few things you missed, aren't there?"
Since she asked the question with a very real curiosity, he felt himself beginning to relax for the first time in what felt like ages. When he'd been in prison, he would have slugged anyone who tried to tell him it'd be a hundred times more tense back home than in the joint, but in reality he thought more about running away than anything else. Except sex. He thought about that a lot. Especially now. Eve Kelley, with her long blond hair and T-shirt, instantly made him think of sex.
No doubt she wouldn't appreciate knowing that, so he kept his mouth shut, giving her a nod for an answer.
Leaning forward, she studied him. Her full lips parted, making him want to groan out loud. "What did you miss the most?"
A flash of anger passed and he answered truthfully.
"The feel of a woman, soft and warm, under me, wrapped around me."
Her face flamed, amusing him. But to give her credit, she didn't look away. "I guess I sort of asked for that, didn't I? "
"No, actually you didn't." Chagrined, he offered her a conciliatory smile. "I'm sorry. I think sometimes I've forgotten how to act in public."
"I guess that's understandable."
Finishing his beer, he signaled for another one. The bartender brought it instantly, setting it on the table without comment and removing the empty glass.
"My turn." He leaned forward. "Tell me, Eve Kelley. What are you doing all alone in a bar, nursing a Shirley Temple, with a snowstorm threatening?"
"I needed to get away." For a moment, stark desperation flashed in her expressive eyes, an emotion he could definitely relate to.
"Holidays aren't all they're cracked up to be, are they?"
She shook her head, sending her large hoop earrings swinging in that mass of long straight hair.
Glancing at her left hand and seeing no ring, he took another drink. "I'm guessing you're not married?"
"Never married. I guess I just didn't meet the right person." She sighed. "I've never really minded before, but the holidays can be tough on anyone, and it's worse when you're nearly forty and still alone. My mother is now on a matchmaker tangent. She's determined to marry me off or die trying."
Her voice contained such disgust, he had to laugh.
Watching him, her lovely blue eyes widened. "You should do that more often," she said softly. "It suits you."
"Makes me look less frightening," he replied, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice. "Isn't that what you mean?"
Now she was the one who laughed and when she did, her face went from pretty to drop-dead stunningly beautiful. He watched as the flickering light danced over her creamy skin, the hollows of her cheeks, the slender line of her throat, and ached. Damn, he'd been too long without a woman.
Talking to her had been a mistake.
Yet he couldn't make himself leave this train wreck.
"You aren't frightening. Not to me," she said softly. "I forgot how funny you are. At least you kept your sense of humor."