By Lora Leigh
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2011 Lora Leigh
All rights reserved.
Cambria at thirteen
It would have been amusing, if it hadn't had the potential to be so dangerous.
Jaymi Flannigan Kramer watched as her younger sister, Cami, sneaked another shy look at Rafer Callahan, one of Corbin County's three bad boys and the man Jaymi's deceased husband had claimed as a blood brother.
He was also the man she was sleeping with, but that wasn't as important as the fact that he was her best friend. And he knew, just as well as she did, that sleeping with him was her attempt to stay close to the husband who was forever gone. He had been Tye's best friend, his blood brother, and the only man she knew who even came close to her soul mate.
She turned her gaze away from Cami and Rafe and let it sweep over the crowd attending the Saturday night social.
Jaymi loved the name of the county's weekly street party and dance that had become a tradition of almost-required attendance. The mayor and city officials pushed the weekend socials the way some towns pushed voting, sports arenas, and political agendas. Wholeheartedly.
Corbin County and its seat, Sweetrock, promoted their drug awareness and "Children First" agenda with the same passion and strength. They had adopted the slogan more than a generation before and made certain everyone knew they meant it.
Friday after school the community center opened and any child enrolled in school from Head Start to college was welcome. BYOSB — Bring Your Own Sleeping Bag — was the rule. But there were so many donated bags that it really wasn't necessary.
City officials, employees, and any and all teachers, from tenured to substitute, were required to give one weekend per month to chaperone the social as well as the community center.
Families donated the food and drinks that were prepared in the community center's kitchen, and parents who didn't stay around to help chaperone were forced to sign a legal release stating that if they left their children, at any time, in the care of the county's volunteers, the parents rescinded all rights or legal abilities to sue in the event of accident.
However all manner of ills could befall anyone who chose not to participate. Permits could get lost or delayed, mail could be misplaced, utility workers could move at a much slower pace, and just forget getting out of that speeding ticket. And that was nothing compared to what local business owners could do.
City Hall had begun the socials, and their commitment to providing something entertaining and supervised for the county's youth had been sustained for over twenty years. It had grown to the point that if that commitment lapsed in any way, then newspapers and radio stations found the phenomenon strange enough to report it.
Corbin County had found that the key to keeping their youth away from delinquency or drugs was to give them something to do. And it was still working.
Parents and teens mingled in the dance area, while the younger children played games or watched supervised videos.
Parents took the few hours' break to dance, socialize, and build not just friendships but also those all-important ties that sustained a community.
But there were undercurrents. Undercurrents existed in any town. It wasn't all sweetness and light. For Corbin County, those undercurrents seemed to swirl most viciously around Rafer Callahan and his cousins, Logan and Crowe. The three disowned grandchildren of Corbin County's founding and most influential families.
Crowe, Logan, and Rafer Callahan were each the son of a reigning princess of one of those founding families and the Callahan brother she had married.
Many said those three unions were born of the murders of the brothers' parents. The couples had died in a suspicious accident on a mountain road. Within days of their deaths the Rafferty, Corbin, and Roberts patriarchs had arrived at the court house with a bill of sale and proof of purchase of the extensive Callahan lands bought by the three men. When their sons Samuel, David, and Benjamin returned from the military to a pittance amount for prime land, they turned their attention to the daughters of these families.
The Callahan brothers had acquired more than they had ever lost when they married those daughters. At least for a few years. Until a freak blizzard had swept through the Colorado mountains. The storm had surprised the three couples who were returning from Denver that night. Slick roads, high winds, and near-zero visibility had sent their SUV careening over a mountain cliff, killing them, as well as a single infant daughter, instantly.
And it had left three orphans whom those influential families had opted to disown and attempt to rob of the inheritances their mothers had left to them. Property, cash, trust funds, and a multitude of stocks and bonds that totaled into the millions. At last rumored count, it was close to $40 million among the three cousins. Funds that were still frozen and in litigation ten years after the death of their parents.
If it hadn't been for Rafe Callahan's uncle Clyde Ramsey, the boys wouldn't have had a chance of surviving or fighting for what was theirs.
But the same city officials and reigning families who sponsored, pushed for, and fought for the weekend attendance at the socials also put just as much energy into ostracizing the Callahan cousins.
And the reasons why just simply didn't make sense.
Why would the Raffertys, Robertses, and Corbins turn on the only heirs their daughters had left? Wouldn't it have made more sense to draw the orphans to their hearts, care for the boys, love them, or at least give them the illusion of love, and steal their inheritance once they were older?
But why turn on them at all? Why try to destroy three kids who simply didn't know what the hell was going on or why their families had disowned them to begin with?
It was a question that Jaymi hadn't really thought much of herself until lately. It was simply accepted. She had accepted it all her life, just as everyone else in the town had.
As their mutual friend Jack Townsend had said the other night when she had asked him about the past, there were just things they had accepted as kids but had learned better than to believe as adults.
But because of his father's demands and a county's blind obedience to the three founding families, Jack had been forced to take his friendship with the Callahans into the shadows. It was either that or watch his parents' garage slowly go bankrupt.
That was how it worked in Corbin County. The county was one of the last holdouts to an archaic community. It was ruled by the financial power of three families whose focus on the destruction of their own flesh and blood was becoming a shadowed, silent feud. That feud had the potential to tear families apart in not too many more years.
Whether the Corbins, Rafferys, and Robertses liked it or not, Corbin County was growing. New blood was coming in. Technology was making the world a much smaller place, and Corbin County would be forced to change with it. Whether any of them liked it or not.
Besides, there were more important things in the world to worry about than these three young men. Men who had been unfortunate enough to have been born to an inheritance their families didn't want them to have.
"Did you hear about Amy Jefferson?" Jaymi heard the question posed several tables over by one of the women who had volunteered to chaperone that weekend.
Amy, the daughter of Colorado's state representative, had been found raped, tortured, and murdered. Another victim of a serial killer's hunger.
"Poor thing," Sara Keane, the wife of the pharmacist Jaymi worked for, said. "They said they found her in her car on the road at the base of Crowe Mountain. She was a mess, too. She had suffered badly the state police reported."
That mountain belonged to Crowe Callahan and it was part of the inheritance he was still fighting the three families over. A mountain that had been in the Corbin family since before the county had first been created that went to the oldest child of the family, and if that child was a daughter, all that was required was that she have a child herself. And all the better if he were a son and carried the "Crowe" name. Bloodline was more important than name to the great-grandmother who had set the trust in motion. Bloodlines, and the family name that originated centuries before.
But the implications of the state representative's daughter dying at the base of the mountain wasn't lost on Jaymi. There were already those more than eager to pin those murders on the Callahan cousins.
She slid a look to Rafe to see him laughing with Logan. Cami had wandered away from the table, as she was prone to do lately, as though she couldn't bear to be around Rafe for long. At the same time, she would catch little glimpses of him as if to be certain he was still there.
Teenage hormones, Jaymi thought sadly, weren't being kind to her sister, and they boded ill for Cami's future. A fascination such as the one she was showing for Rafe would only end up breaking her young heart, one way or the other.
It wasn't as though Cami had a lot to hold on to in her young life. She had Jaymi, and sometimes, if their father wasn't around, Cami had their mother. Unfortunately, their father was around much too often. Cami could do nothing right in his eyes. Just as Jaymi could do nothing wrong. And to preserve the peace in the house, Margaret Flannigan did whatever it took to pacify her confrontational husband. And that meant ignoring her youngest child.
Even the knowledge that his elder daughter was fucking the town's ostracized bad boy wasn't enough to tarnish Jaymi in Mark Flannigan's eyes. As he explained it, grief had overtaken her and Jaymi was temporarily trying to find her husband after his death, in the arms of his best friend. And Rafe Callahan was taking advantage of it. "After all, wasn't that what a Callahan was best known for?" was what her father was prone to say.
Mark wasn't a father to his younger daughter, and that often seared Jaymi with guilt. She didn't understand why, but she suspected. Cami would have been conceived during the year their mother was estranged from her husband. And Jaymi had always wondered.
"Do you think they were involved in it?" Jaymi heard Sara ask, and she knew who "they" were.
"Well, the FBI released their profile on the killer," the other woman stated. "And they 'did' say they believed it was at least two men acting in accordance. I wouldn't doubt it was three," she concluded with an air of knowing importance.
At that moment, Jaymi's cell phone began vibrating in her jacket pocket, causing her to flinch in fear.
Glancing at Rafe, she saw him and Logan talking to Cami, teasing her as they tried to draw her back to the group.
Pulling the cell phone free, Jaymi glanced at the number before moving a few steps away, then flipping the phone open. She didn't know her caller's identity, but the "unknown" caller was familiar.
"Go to hell!" she hissed into the line as she answered the call.
"My hell is a daily adventure into a torment created by man who is full of infinite cruelty and self-absorbed awareness. A hell created by Callahans. Do you really want me to show you my hell, Jaymi?"
She knew that voice.
Each time he called she tried to keep him talking longer, tried to figure out who he was. Because she knew that voice, had heard it before, and often. But not often enough to place it without seeing his face at the same time.
"Why would you care?" she asked, watching the crowd and trying to spot anyone with a cell phone. Anyone who could be making the call.
She saw no one.
She saw several teenagers texting. The Realtor Dave Stone was laughing into his phone, but he had a high, nasal tone, not a gentle saddened voice that echoed with grief.
"Why do I care?" the caller sighed. "There are so many reasons. I like you, Jaymi. You're different than ... Well, than most women, who lower themselves to fuck those bastards, I guess." He paused as though he had said more than he intended to. "Don't push me. Get your sister and walk away from him, Jaymi. Cut those ties now, before you force me to cut them for you."
Jaymi glanced over at Rafe again. He, Logan, and Crowe were gently flirting with Cami, as she giggled and watched Rafe with complete female adoration.
"I'll ask you again, why do you care?"
There was a moment of silence.
"Because I have to care," he finally said sadly. "If I don't, who else will? Who else will keep them from destroying families, lives, and morals, if not I?"
"They're just men," she whispered painfully, realizing in that moment what the Callahans had faced all their lives. "Not monsters."
"But they attract the monsters," he said, with grave certainty as though he truly believed monsters existed. "This is your last chance, Jaymi. I won't tell you again. End this illicit relationship or I'll end it for you."
It was what he had said.
"End this illicit relationship."
Who had she heard say that before? It stuck in her mind, the words and that grave, pain-ridden voice.
Who had called her relationship with Rafe illicit?
She swallowed tightly, feeling that knowledge at the very edge of her memory.
The knowledge of who it was was getting closer. She could feel it. And when she remembered she would make damned sure the whole county knew who he was. Moving back to the small group, Jaymi couldn't help but feel a flare of regret for the lives Rafe and his cousins lived. Always aware they were unwanted.
"Jay, you okay?" Rafe slid behind her, his arms going around her waist as she watched her sister from the corners of her eyes.
Jaymi watched as Cami turned away as Rafe came behind Jaymi, Cami's head lowering until Logan drew her attention once again.
Meeting Logan's gaze, Jaymi caught the little wink he directed her way, as well as the compassion she saw in his eyes toward Cami and her obvious affection for Rafe.
She could see Cami's devotion to Rafe also, as well as her tender emotions and the conflict raging inside her. Jaymi knew that Cami loved her. They were as close as mother and daughter at times, but lately, with this crush Cami had on her sister's lover, she found that though the bond wasn't straining, it was changing. That frightened Jaymi for reasons she couldn't explain. She had already lost the man she had called her soul mate since she was thirteen years old. She couldn't lose Cami as well, even in that small way. It would destroy her.
"I'm fine," she told him as he kissed her cheek. "What are you doing flirting with my baby sister? Don't you know she already has a terrible crush on you?"
He was only twenty himself. Hell, she was a cradle robber. She was twenty-five and she should be sleeping with a man her age rather than the young man her husband had called his blood brother. But Rafe had always seemed much older than his age, and far more experienced in life, which he was. It was easy to see why her husband had all but adopted him after meeting him years before.
Tye had been part Native American, raised by his Navajo grandfather, and had been completely loyal to the mocking, sarcastic, often-brooding young man he'd met years before in the middle of the forest while he'd been hunting. Ten years older than Rafe, but infinitely wiser, Jaymi always thought, Tye had taken the young man under his wing and they had formed a bond even death couldn't destroy.
Rafe sighed at her shoulder. "That girl confuses me."
Jaymi knew at that moment that she would be breaking their relationship off soon after all. Very soon. More than likely before the night was over. She couldn't bear to hurt Cami, and this crush she had on Rafe was causing Jaymi to break her young sister's heart.
Jaymi remembered clearly too, the first time she had seen her husband. She had been fourteen and he had been a worldly-wise twenty. Within weeks he'd laughed at her and said the same thing: she confused him. She had told him that was just because he was a boy and she was the girl who loved him.
"And why does she confuse you?" Jaymi asked, though she knew the answer, or a variation of it, that Rafe would give.
"Hell if I know, sweetie," he grunted. "She's got the oddest look in her eyes. Like she's a hundred years old and the secrets she knows break her heart."
Wow. She had expected the hell-if-he-knew part, but she hadn't expected him to acknowledge in even such a small way the fact that Cami was becoming a young woman. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Midnight Sins by Lora Leigh. Copyright © 2011 Lora Leigh. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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