“Father,” Slade said politely, “it’s good to see you.”
Jonas grinned. “Bull patties.”
Bull patties, indeed, Slade thought.
Some things, at least, never changed.
* * *
By the time Travis arrived, Slade was feeling almost his old self again.
He wasn’t so sure about Trav, who almost snapped his head off when he made a joke about Travis being knee-deep in blondes.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Travis demanded, in a way that had once meant they were going to end up rolling around on the ground while they pummeled each other.
That, at least, had changed. Instead of decking him, Travis sighed, mumbled an apology and they laughed it off. Travis did, anyway. Slade just pretended to. Something was eating at his older brother, something female, probably, but Travis didn’t want to talk about it. Well, that was understandable. What was the sense in discussing the problems you had with women when there was no logical way to solve them? Women were like crossword puzzles with some of the clues missing. Just when you thought you had a handle on figuring them out, you realized you didn’t.
Gage arrived next and that was another shock, finding out that Natalie had left him. What was happening to the old Los Lobos pack, anyway? Still, they ended up laughing and joking, surviving a session with the old man that made it clear Travis was right when he’d figured Jonas was thinking about who would inherit Espada. The thing was, none of them wanted it. Catie did, and she deserved it, but the old s.o.b. couldn’t get past the fact that she wasn’t a Baron by birth.
“Lucky Catie,” Slade muttered as he, Gage and Travis all trooped out to the old barn, and up to the hayloft.
After a while, their mood lightened. It was like old times, sitting around and joking about this and that. A guy named Grant Landon joined them. He was the old man’s lawyer but Gage knew him, from a long time back. Landon turned out to be okay—and damned if he didn’t have problems with his wife, just like Gage.
What was it, Slade wondered, as he dressed for Jonas’s birthday party, that made women so damned difficult to understand?
Natalie, walking out on Gage? Slade shook his head as he did the studs on his dress shirt. And from what the Landon guy said, the odds on his marriage hitting the rocks had been every bit as unbelievable.
Slade picked up his tie, drew it around his neck and turned toward the mirror.
Travis, at least, wasn’t in trouble half as deep. He had something on his mind, all right, and it probably was a woman, but it had to be temporary. No way Trav would get himself seriously involved again, considering what he’d gone through the first time.
Hell, Slade thought, leaning closer to the mirror and frowning as he tried to get the bow tie right, nobody who’d grown up in the Baron household would get into a serious relationship, not unless he was nuts. Except for Gage, that was, and even so, look at the mess he was in now.
“Dammit,” Slade said.
The tie just wouldn’t lie right. One end was too long, the other too short. He could go down the hall, to Catie’s room, ask her to fix it. She knew how to do bows. Women usually did. What about Lara? Could she tie a bow? Had she ever tied one for her ex-husband? He’d never asked her the guy’s name, or what he did…
Or what was the color of his hair, or his eyes.
“Dammitall,” Slade snarled. He yanked the tie off, jammed it into his pocket, threw open the door and went downstairs, to join the party.
* * *
Two hours later, he was having a wonderful time. That was what he told himself, anyway. If he said it often enough, he figured it just might turn out to be true.
It was what he told Catie, when she danced by in the arms of that old snake, cousin Leighton, and what he told Leighton’s son, Gray, who was about as unlike his old man as it was possible to be. It was what he said to Marta, too, when he kissed her cheek and told her she was the most beautiful woman in the room.
“That’s a charming lie,” his stepmother said, smiling back at him, “but, coming from the best-looking man here, I’ll treasure it.” She looped her arm through his. “Why aren’t you dancing? Every female over the age of puberty has her eye on you, just waiting for you to be so kind as to break her heart.”
Slade laughed. “I promise, I’ll do my best to oblige. What about you? How come my father let you out of his sight?”
Marta smiled as she took a flute of champagne from a passing waiter.
“You know Jonas. He’s gone off somewhere for a bit of chitchat with some of his cronies.” She sipped some of the wine, then looked up at him again. “Is everything all right?”
“Why do women always ask that question?” Slade dredged up what he hoped was an easy smile. “First Catie asks me if I’m okay, now you.” He put his hand over Marta’s. “Yes. I’m fine. I’ve just been busy lately, flying back and forth from one job to another.”
“I didn’t mean to pry, Slade. It’s just that you looked…Well, never mind.” Marta laughed gently. “You’re right. We women can be impossible. We look for trouble even when there isn’t any, your father says.”
“Well, for once I agree with him.” Slade looked past his stepmother, to a little knot of men crowded together. “What’s going on over there? Looks like a football huddle.”
Marta swung around, followed his gaze and laughed.
“It’s my daughters. They’re in the center of that—what did you call it? A huddle?”
“Your daughters? I haven’t seen them in years. Three cute little girls, as I recall. Sam, and Mandy, and Carrie.”
Marta’s eyes twinkled. “These days, you can only call them that on pain of death. It’s Samantha. Amanda. And Carin, if you please. Come on. Let me take you over.”
She drew him toward the little crowd and it parted reluctantly, revealing three young women beautiful enough to make a man’s heart stop.
“Girls, this is Jonas’s youngest son, Slade. I don’t know if you recall meeting him before, so let me introduce you. Slade, this is Samantha.”
Samantha was a redhead. “Hi,” she said, and flashed a dimpled smile.
Amanda was blond. “Hello,” she said, and offered a smile that was intriguingly cool.
“And this is Carin, my eldest daughter.”
Carin was brunette and businesslike. “Nice to meet you,” she said, and stuck out her hand.
“Well, well, well,” Slade said, and smiled, and for the first time he thought maybe, just maybe, he really might start to enjoy the evening.
He tried. Marta’s daughters tried, too. But as lovely as the trio of sisters were, there was no chemistry. One by one, they drifted away, with Carin the last to leave.
“Whoever she is,” she said gently, “you have to forget about her.”
Slade thought of looking baffled, of offering a denial. In the end, he nodded, jammed his hands deep into his trouser pockets and said that was great advice, if only he could figure out a way to take it.
He danced with one gorgeous woman after another. He had another conversation with Gray and made plans to get together for dinner the next time they were both in New York. He ate canapés and drank champagne and, at last, weary of keeping a smile plastered to his face, he went outside, down to the lowest level of the three decks that fell like a waterfall from the rear of the house to the gardens, found a shadowed corner and a quiet bench and sat down.
Maybe out here, with the quiet of the night around him, he could sort out what was happening to his life…but the smell of expensive cigar smoke intruded.
Slade frowned and rose to his feet. “Father?”
Jonas’s deep chuckle sounded from the darkness to his left. “The Havana gave me away, huh?”
Slade turned and looked at his father. Jonas was leaning his elbows on the deck railing, the cigar clamped between his teeth.
“I thought you were in the house. Marta said you were closeted with some of your cronies.”
r /> “I was.” The older man took the cigar from his mouth, sniffed it appreciatively, then bit down lightly on it again. “What’re you doin’ out here, boy? Don’t you like all that fancy stuff goin’ on inside?”
Slade smiled and leaned his elbows on the railing alongside Jonas.
“It’s one fine party,” he said.
“It is that. But you know Catie. She takes it into her head to do somethin’, she does it right.”
“She loves you.” Slade looked at his father and arched one dark eyebrow. “Despite your best attempts to convince her otherwise.”
Jonas nodded. “Almost as if she were my own flesh and blood.”
“Flesh and blood doesn’t count for everything, Father.”
“It does, when you get to the point where you can stand on the road and see clear to the end of it.”
Slade laughed. “You’ll outlive all of us.”
“I won’t outlive Espada, that’s for certain, which is why it’s got to go to somebody who’s a Baron.”
“Catie’s better than a Baron. She loves you, and she loves this place.”
“You think I’m stupid?” Jonas waved his hand to ward off any protest. “I know all that.”