“No excuses,” it read. “The female population of Boston will just have to do without you for one weekend.” The words were emphasized by a bold capital C, and softened by the drawing of a tiny heart.
He couldn’t help laughing. The note was from his stepsister, Caitlin, who’d figured out years ago that the only way to handle her stepbrothers was to be every bit as tough as they were. Not that it was going to get her anywhere, this time.
An eighty-fifth birthday party for the old man? Yeah, it was a shocker. Not the party; Catie, sweetheart that she was, would surely want to do something nice to celebrate the event. It was the fact that Jonas was so old that caught him by surprise. Last time he’d seen him, a couple of years ago, his father had looked as tough and hard and lean as ever. He was ageless—except, he wasn’t. The invitation proved that. Still, Slade’s decision was definite. He wasn’t going to the party. No way. His life was crazy enough lately, without adding a weekend with dear old Dad to the mix.
Slade glanced at the clock. He had the feeling he wasn’t the only one looking at a birthday party invitation just about now…
His private phone rang, just as he reached for it.
“Slade, my man,” Travis drawled, “how you doin’?”
Slade smiled, picked up the vellum card and tilted back his chair.
“Well,” he said, in that same Texas drawl, “I was doin’ fine—until a messenger turned up at my door.”
Travis laughed. “That’s our Catie, efficient as always. She even took the time difference into consideration. I’ll bet Gage is lookin’ at this bombshell right about now, too.”
“I was just about to call you. That auction was the other night, wasn’t it?”
There was a tiny pause. “So?”
Slade’s eyebrows shot skyward. “Trav, my man, don’t be so testy.”
“I’m not being anything. I called to discuss this invitation.”
“What’s to discuss? I ain’t goin’.”
“I’ll just bet your high-priced architectural clients love that down-home talk.”
“They’re never lucky enough to hear it, and stop changing the subject. How’d the auction go?”
“It went. Somebody bought me.”
“Lucky lady. She have a name?”
“Alexandra. And that’s the end of the story.”
“How much did you go for? More than the dude from that other law firm? Was this Alexandra good-lookin’?”
“I went for enough, I beat the pants off the other guy, the lady was okay, if you like the type.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, sounds to me as if my big brother struck out for a change.”
“Think again, pal.”
“She’s there with you, huh?” Slade grinned. “Trav, you old dog, you.”
“Slade, do you think you could get your mind on something else?”
“You really want to talk about this birthday party, huh? Well, there’s nothing to talk about. I’m not going. I already told you that.”
“Jonas is coming up on eighty-five. It’s a milestone.”
“I don’t care if it’s a century stone. Why would any of us subject himself to a weekend of misery?”
“It won’t be so awful.”
“There’ll probably be a couple of hundred people there. The old boy won’t have the time to chew us up. Besides, I hate to disappoint Caitlin.”
“What’s with you, Trav? It almost sounds as if you’re lookin’ to get out of town.”
Travis cleared his throat. “It’s just—I wouldn’t mind a change of scene.”
“Woman trouble,” Slade said, and sighed.
“Yeah. I guess.”
“I might have known.”
“No way, kid. You couldn’t possibly know. Gage and I are the ones with experience. We’ve both been married, and don’t you forget it.”
Slade wondered what his brother would say if he told him that marriage wasn’t the only thing that gave a man woman trouble, but he knew better than to set himself up. Besides, he didn’t have “woman trouble.” A woman had to be part of your life to give you trouble, and Lara wasn’t even part of the scenery. He gave what he hoped would pass for a laugh, and told Travis he was trying to change the subject.
“Maybe. Trust me, kid. You don’t want to hear the details. Look, about this party—”
“Forget it,” Slade said firmly. “I’m sorry, but I’m not going. I really don’t have time to go back to Espada right now, okay?”
“That’s that, then. Heck, you’re too big for me to lock in the feed bin anymore.” The brothers chuckled, and then Travis cleared his throat. “Just do me a favor and stay on the line while I phone Gage.”
Slade leaned back, put his feet up again and crossed his booted ankles.
“And you just remember, two against one won’t do it anymore. Even if Gage says he’s going, with bells on, I’m not changing my mind.”
Slade whistled silently to himself while Travis punched in Gage’s number. Gage must have been sitting right next to the telephone, because he picked up right away.
“Baby,” he said gruffly, “Natalie, I love you so—”
Travis laughed. Slade did, too.
“I love you, too, precious,” Travis said in a falsetto, “but my husband’s starting to get suspicious.”
“Travis? Is that you?”
Slade grinned. “And me. How are you, bro?”
“I don’t believe this! What’s with you guys? Are you havin’ a reunion out there in California? Or are you both in Boston, livin’ it up in that mansion my little brother calls home?”
Travis chuckled. “This three-way brotherly phone call is comin’ to you courtesy of the marvels of modern-day science.”
“And it’s probably the only three-way ever done by telephone,” Slade said. The door to his office opened and Betsy entered with his mug of coffee. “Thank you, darlin,’” he said, without thinking, saw the look on her face and immediately regretted it.
Travis laughed in his ear. “Don’t you darlin’ me, pal, or I’ll fly straight to that fancy-pants mansion and beat you up the way I used to, when you were twelve and I was thirteen.”
“Uh-huh. You an’ who else, Mr. Attorney?”
“Me an’ Gage. ’Course, it’ll have to wait until the sun gets up in the sky apiece, so my brain starts workin’ right.”
All three brothers laughed. Slade took a sip of his coffee and sat back. He felt better than he had in days.
“Okay, guys,” Travis said briskly, “I wish we could avoid the topic but it’s time for a reality check.”
“The invitation,” Slade said. “I agree.”
“You got yours, too?” Gage said.
“Was there ever any doubt? It arrived, bright and early.” He chuckled. “Bad timing, right, Travis? I mean, yours must have interrupted you and your, ah, your guest.”
“Oh, yeah,” Travis said lightly, “it did. There’s nothing like being awakened with an invitation to purgatory when you’re, ah, otherwise involved.”
Slade laughed. “The man leads a tough life.”
“I’d expect some compassion from you, kid,” Travis said with a smile in his voice. “None from Gage, of course. He gave up his freedom years ago. How’s my girl, by the way? You still treating her right, or is she about ready to use that pretty head of hers and ditch you for me?”
Slade’s brows lifted. Gage’s answer had seemed strained. Travis must have thought so, too.
“Yeah,” Slade added. “Gage? Is everything okay? You don’t sound…”
“Listen, maybe you guys can horse around all day,” Gage snapped, “but I’ve got things to do.”
Silence hummed over the lines. Something was wrong, Slade thought, but he knew better than to try to pump Gage for answers. They were all cut
from the same cloth. You shared your problems if and when you wanted. Otherwise, not even torture could make you talk.
“Right,” he said briskly. “Well, then. Trav already laid out the agenda. We need to decide what we’re going to do about this command performance the old man’s got planned for the middle of the month.”
“Ignore it,” Gage said firmly. “I’ve got—”