“WILLIAM DRAKE?” the harsh tone of a man’s voice asked.
“Yes,” Will answered cautiously.
“Are you Katrina Drake’s brother?”
The question startled him. “Is she okay? Is there something wrong? Has she been hurt?” As much as he disliked and distrusted his sister, he couldn’t handle hearing that she had been hurt or worse.
“She’s fine,” the man cut in quickly and not too gently. “Are you aware that she plans to marry Martin Hunter?” The man sounded very upset, but Will didn’t have a clue as to why.
“No, I haven’t spoken with my sister in quite some time,” Will said cautiously. “What does it have to do with you? Who are you?”
“She doesn’t know who she’s dealing with,” he said sharply. “If she thinks she can carry out this blackmail, then she’d better think again.” He was serious and angry. His voice had taken on a deep, threatening aspect.
“What are you talking about? What blackmail? What is she doing?” Will scrambled for clarification.
“Oh, don’t be coy with me, Mr. Drake. Katrina said that it was all your idea!” He was yelling now.
“My idea?” he yelled back. He was not going to be brought into this. Whatever his sister was up to had absolutely nothing to do with him. “I haven’t spoken to my sister in almost two years. After our parents died, we went our separate ways. So don’t you dare try to make me a party to this… whatever it is! If you have a problem with Katrina, then I suggest you take it up with her.” He was furious now. This man had no right to be shouting at him.
“You, my dear, had better speak with her before she does get hurt. She will marry Martin over my dead body.”
Will tried to lighten his attack but found it impossible. He felt that this man might be telling the truth, but that didn’t lessen his desire to have him take responsibility for the situation and therefore resolve it. “I don’t know what your problem is, and I don’t really care.”
With that, Will slammed the receiver down. How dare he speak to him like that? Will had nothing to do with it. The man had left him angry and upset but also cautiously curious as to what Katrina had been up to. He didn’t sound like someone Will would want to have as an enemy. I wouldn’t want to be in Katrina’s shoes right now, he thought. Apparently, the man wasn’t happy about Katrina’s impending wedding. But what is it to me? he wondered. He found that he was still staring at the phone long after he’d hung up. It didn’t matter; it was not his affair. Katrina was a big girl, and she was well able to take care of herself. “It isn’t my place to save her,” he thought out loud. “Katrina has survived for the last two years without my involvement in her life and she can continue to do so.”
William walked out onto the beach with his dog, Todd, a beautiful but intellectually challenged Labrador retriever. He needed to get some air after the upset of that phone call. He had no idea who the man even was, and yet, he left an impression that was hard to shake.
It was the threat in his tone that had put Will on edge. Rarely did anyone speak in a manner that left you knowing without a doubt that they were serious and capable of carrying out exactly what they said. This man, Will knew even without seeing, was serious and capable. How did he get my phone number? Why is he pulling me into this? Why did he call, and what does he expect from me? These thoughts ran through his mind as he watched a freighter out in the distance. “Katrina is not my responsibility,” he said out loud. “Her business is her own, and so are her enemies.”
He decided to stop thinking about Katrina and the man on the phone, and with a sigh of resolve looked out across the large expanse of Lake Superior. Standing there, surveying his life, he realized he had a comfortable existence. At age twenty-four, he owned his own home and seven wooded acres at Whitefish Point, not far from Lake Superior.
Will had lived on his own since graduating from high school. He’d decided that the University of Michigan was the best school for him, and so lived in a dorm room for the four years it took him to complete his degree in accounting. It was a decision that had haunted him ever since the car accident that took the life of his parents. Perhaps if he had stayed closer to home in East Lansing, he would have had more time to spend with them, but those were thoughts that inevitably lead to depression, so he pushed them aside. No one could recreate their past, so going forward was a person’s only option.
Will was left with only this piece of property from his parents’ estate. They had used it as a vacation getaway. Will would often escape to Whitefish Point and spend weekends and holidays here alone, which brought back depressing memories of time away from his parents, so again he pushed them away. Will considered himself an expert on pushing away anything that was uncomfortable or painful to think about. There were days when he had to nearly shut down emotionally in order to function; guilt and bitterness could be very crippling.
The rest of the estate, in its entirety, went to his younger sister, Katrina. She had inherited more than one million dollars along with all the other property. At the time, the obvious slight had made it tense and unsettling, but over the past two years, he had tried to understand his parents’ reasoning. His parents never fully accepted his sexuality and therefore chose Katrina over him. Will and his sister were never close, so after the funeral, they parted ways and hadn’t seen or spoken to each other since.
As he entered the back door, the telephone began to ring.
“Hello, Will!” To his shocked surprise came the shrill tones of his sister, Katrina. “Guess what?”
“What?” he answered, his voice sounding dry and wary.
“I’m getting married!” she squealed.
“Married?” Will sat down. “To whom?” He decided to play dumb and see what Katrina would tell him.
“Oh, Will, you’re not going to believe this.”
“Oh, I would believe almost anything where you are concerned,” Will cut in.
Hearing from Katrina after all this time and after all of their bitter fights, it just didn’t make much sense. Katrina was after something. She was never this nice unless she had to be.
“He’s rich.” Katrina began to squeal again and giggle uncontrollably.
“Who is he?” Obvious question since Will believed he already knew his name.
“His name is Martin Hunter. He owns a huge ranch here in Montana. He has horses, cattle, sheep, and a string of businesses. He’s the wealthiest man I’ve ever known. We’re talking millions here, Will. Millions!” She screamed so loud that Will had to take the receiver away from his ear.
“I’m very happy for you,” he responded curtly. “Do you really need millions? I thought Mother and Father had left you plenty of money.” His bitterness was evident, but Katrina chose to ignore it.
“You can never have enough money,” Katrina stated coldly. “The reason I’m calling,” she added—Time to cut to the chase, Will thought bitterly—“is I’d like to have you at the wedding.” Silence ensued as Will tried to figure out why Katrina wanted him there. It wasn’t sibling love, he knew that for certain. He figured it had to have something to do with that angry man who called earlier. Will wanted to ask questions but really didn’t want to get any more involved than he already was.
“What’s the use of marrying a millionaire if you can’t show off to someone,” Katrina said, and Will started to laugh. Now that sounded more like the sister he knew and loathed.
“That’s a valid concern,” Will said sarcastically. “If one is going to the trouble of marrying someone for strictly monetary reasons, then they should have their friends and family close at hand to witness the event.”
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” Katrina whined. “I just want you here. You’re the only family I have.”
“Okay, sure,” Will said. “I’ll try to be there.” He had no intention whatsoever of attending that wedding. If Katrina was trying to blackmail some Montana rancher, there was no telling what would happen. Those people had the tendency to settle disputes the old-fashioned way: with fists and firearms.
“Thank you.” Katrina’s tone had softened considerably. “I’ll call you and let you know the exact date on Friday.” It might as well be the twelfth of never, Will thought, because I won’t be there.
WILL had just gotten home from work on the following day and was about to relax in front of the television, when his telephone started ringing. He never received this many calls, so he assumed it must be Katrina calling with the date of her wedding.
“Will?” It sounded like Katrina, but she sounded very different.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, although he was pretty sure he already knew.
“I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want to marry Martin Hunter,” Katrina blurted.
“Okay,” Will said and waited for her to continue. There were things he would like to have asked, but he decided that, for the sake of his own sanity, he really didn’t want to go there.
“Will, I need your help.” Katrina’s voice picked up a grave seriousness that grabbed Will’s attention. “They won’t let me go.”
“Who won’t?” He knew better than to get involved, but there was something about that man on the phone that he couldn’t get out of his mind. He was so furious at Will and Katrina. Could he possibly be carrying out some of the threats he had made on the phone? Will really didn’t want to be a part of any of this, but he also couldn’t just stand by and let Katrina be hurt or mistreated. Katrina was an awful person, self-centered and shallow, but the way that man exploded during their conversation, Will was naturally concerned as to how severe his retribution would be. He held very little regard for Katrina, but she was his little sister, and he couldn’t turn his back on her if she were truly in danger.
“Elijah Hunter won’t let me out of the contract I signed.”
“You signed a contract?” Will asked in disbelief. He couldn’t believe that Katrina would be that stupid.
“I have to marry Martin Hunter or pay them $500,000 for breach of contract.” Her voice quivered slightly as she finished.
“Who is Elijah Hunter?”
“Elijah is Martin’s older brother.” Will was fairly sure that he now knew the identity of the irate caller.
“Why don’t you want to marry Martin? I thought he was the catch of a lifetime. What changed your mind?” Will asked, confused. Yesterday, Katrina was practically squealing with excitement over her pending marriage.
“He’s not a millionaire. He’s wealthy but not as wealthy as I thought. All the money, the ranch, everything belongs to his brother. He just works for him, basically.” She sounded disappointed. “I’m not interested in a ranch hand. I will not marry a simple laborer,” she stated emphatically.
Will brought her back to the point of her call. “You said you needed my help. What is it you want me to do for you? You got the entire estate, remember? I hope you’re not asking me for a loan, because I don’t have it.”
“I need you to come here and talk to Elijah. You’re intelligent and levelheaded, he’ll talk to you.” She was whining again.
“I think I already had a talk with Elijah,” Will explained. “He called here yesterday. He blamed me for your behavior.” He paused, hoping that Katrina would admit to implicating him, but that was way too much to hope for. “I doubt that he would be interested in anything I have to say on the subject.”
“I know he called you,” Katrina stated. “He said that if I could convince you to come here, he would consider letting me out of the contract.”
“He told me that you would marry Martin over his dead body. So why is he now holding you to a contract that forces you to marry him? I don’t get it. This isn’t making any sense.” Will immediately sensed big trouble. “Mr. Hunter said that you were blackmailing them, is that true?”
“Sort of, I guess,” she hedged. “He wasn’t going to propose, even though I’d given him everything, if you know what I mean. He wasn’t going to marry me. So I pretended to be pregnant. That’s all I did.” She was minimizing, of course, but was sure she’d included enough of the truth to be believed. Martin wasn’t the first man she’d given everything to, but he was the first millionaire she’d been with. Or at least she thought he was a millionaire when she slept with him. As it turned out, she should have gone after Elijah and not his brother, but who knew?
“I can’t believe that old pregnancy ploy is still being used. I thought you considered yourself a modern woman?” Will was appalled, but didn’t want it to show.
“Don’t be sarcastic with me. I need your help, Will.”
“Why does he want me to go there? Does he still believe I’m involved?” He paused and then added, “Does he still think this was all my idea?”
“He wants to have it out with you in person, I guess. I don’t know what he will do to me if you don’t come.” Katrina tried to be as pathetic as possible, saying Elijah had been adamant that she get her brother there or else. “Please, Will, do this for me. I need your help.”
Will relented. “I’ll see what I can do.” He hung up, wondering what on earth he was getting himself into as he went to bed.
Elijah’s obviously still blaming me for her stunt, he thought, as he lay in bed unable to sleep. If I go there and speak to him about it, he might let her out of the contract, or he might call the authorities and have us both hauled away in handcuffs. It definitely felt like a very bad idea, but he couldn’t just leave her there. She really sounded scared this time, and Katrina didn’t scare easily. If it got Katrina off his back and out of his life once and for all, then it might well be worth the trip. He laughed out loud at himself, and Todd jumped.
He patted his head. “It’s okay, boy, go back to sleep. I’m just losing my mind.”
“Katrina always gets what she wants,” he muttered and fell into a restless sleep.
IT WAS early morning when Will boarded the small plane in Billings that would take him to a remote airfield near the Hunter estate. There were only five people on board: three older women together, an older man by himself, and a young man, also alone. The older gentleman seated across from him attempted to engage him in conversation almost immediately after they boarded the plane.
“Where you headed?” he asked.
“To visit my sister.” Will didn’t maintain eye contact and hoped the man wouldn’t pursue it any further. He wasn’t in the mood to discuss this matter with a planeload of strangers. But, unfortunately, that wasn’t meant to be.
“She lives pretty far off the beaten track, doesn’t she?” The man smiled as he continued his idle questioning.
“She’s staying with friends.” Will knew it wasn’t exactly true, but didn’t know what else to say without telling more than he should. Will again tried to avoid eye contact and began reading a pamphlet, but the questions persisted.
“Who is she visiting? I know most of the folks in this area.”
“She’s staying with the Hunters.” The silence fell hard. He could feel the speculation circulating through the plane like a tornado. Before, everyone had been talking amongst themselves; now, everyone was listening to them. The plane was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
“Elijah Hunter?” the man asked, considerably taken aback by his statement.
“Yes, she’s staying with Elijah and Martin at their ranch.” Will again tried to end the conversation but the man was tenacious.
“Do you know the Hunters?” he asked, his eyes searching Will’s face as if he wasn’t sure how to proceed.
“No, I don’t know them at all.” His tone was a little sharp, but the man did not pick up on Will’s irritation.
“Elijah Hunter is a hard individual to get close to. He’s a self-made man, you know,” the old gentleman began without prompting. “He built that small ranch into an estate that is the largest in the county and one of the largest in the state.” He pondered a moment before continuing. “Elijah is a formidable man and not someone to trifle with, I’ll tell you that. Ask anyone who has dealt with him and they will tell you he can be as hard as a rock and as tough as nails.” He sounded as if he spoke from experience. “Martin, his brother, isn’t so bad. Martin can be reasoned with, and he has an even temper. Elijah is cold and unpleasant, every day of the year.” He paused for a few minutes. “Your sister must be very special. Elijah doesn’t usually tolerate guests.”
“Oh, she’s special, all right,” Will answered sarcastically.
The man rambled on for quite some time, or so it seemed. He explained that Elijah was very suspicious and even antagonistic with most people, strangers in particular. He’d had a long, hard life and it had taken him many years to achieve his present financial level. Will continued to nod appropriately throughout this conversation, which made it appear as if he were actually listening. There wasn’t anything that the man was telling him that he was at all interested in. He couldn’t care less how Elijah built his fortune or what his opinion of others were based on, but he continued to listen and nod. All that was expected of him was to meet with Elijah, see if he could be of any help to Katrina, and then leave. Will had no intention of remaining at the Hunter Ranch any longer than absolutely necessary. Besides, it seemed like the entire situation would be best handled legally. Katrina didn’t have $500,000 left and probably had little prospects for more, so what could they really do? If they couldn’t prove the blackmail angle, then all they had was breach of contract.
It seemed like days before the plane finally landed rather than the actual twenty minutes it took to arrive. Will was thankful to leave behind that prying old gentleman. The young man who sat directly behind them had also interjected a comment here and there throughout the course of the flight. He had informed Will that Elijah was thirty-four. He also told him that Elijah had taken custody of his brother at the age of eighteen; his brother was nine at the time. He didn’t elaborate as to the reason for this, which left Will wondering what had become of their parents. He didn’t care enough about it to ask.
The airfield, to his relief, had a car-rental service. He chose a small, compact Ford Focus. Katrina had given him directions to the ranch, but Will wasn’t very good at finding his way in unfamiliar territory. As he drove on with nothing in sight except fields and fences, trepidation and slight nausea began to rise in his stomach. I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t be getting involved. What the fuck am I doing? His thoughts began to wander back to the initial phone call from Elijah and that follow-up call from Katrina.
Her initial call was simply to brag, and her second was to ask for help. Elijah’s call was much more intriguing, and though it embarrassed Will to admit it, that was part of the reason—or maybe all of the reason—he had agreed to come. Will wanted to meet Elijah face to face. He wanted to see if he was as intimidating in person as he was on the telephone. Elijah had needed to blow up at someone, Will supposed, and it just happened to be him.
But Will wasn’t about to be the fall guy for Katrina’s mistakes, and that was why he had hung up on Elijah. It probably irritated the hell out of him that Will had the audacity to end the call so unceremoniously. He obviously considered himself lord and master and wasn’t used to being cut off. That is most likely why he wants this showdown, demanding to see me in person. Will smiled to himself at the thought of Elijah’s ridiculous accusations. How dare he accuse me of concocting Katrina’s whole scheme, the nerve of some people. Will wondered how Elijah handled the news of Katrina’s pregnancy and how the contract came into play. He knew he should have asked Katrina more questions when she called that second time, but the statement that Elijah would only consider releasing Katrina if Will would come to the ranch and speak with him personally had been completely unexpected and bewildering. Trying to figure why Elijah would force him to the ranch was foremost in his mind. It was probably just a power play.
Will’s thoughts continued to run in this general direction until suddenly, he heard a loud bang, and the car pulled hard to the left. “Damn!” he declared hotly. “Not a flat tire.” He pulled off the road as far as he could and got out to survey the damage. Flat tires were nothing new to him, and he was more than able to change it, but he would certainly get filthy in the process. He’d dressed carefully that morning in a white cotton shirt with the top button undone and dark blue slacks. His medium-length blond hair was styled to perfection. Would his look, so thoughtfully put together this morning, survive a tire change on a dusty road? Probably not, but his choices were limited, so he carefully removed his jacket and placed it in the backseat. That way, if he made a mess of his shirt, he could attempt to cover it up with a clean jacket.
He had the car jacked and was in the process of attempting to loosen the nuts when he heard a car approaching from behind. It was a large, black car with tinted windows. There was more than enough room for them to have passed him on the right, but instead they pulled up behind his vehicle and stopped. Will stood up, brushed the dust off of his pants, and ran his fingers through his hair, which was now sticking to his face in sweaty tendrils. A very tall, dark man exited the vehicle. Although Will always considered himself rather tall, this man made him feel small as he looked up at him. His clothing was dark—black pants, gray shirt, black jacket, and black boots. His face was partially hidden by a black hat, like a cowboy hat, but not exactly. He removed the hat, laying it on the roof of Will’s car, and ran his right hand through his short black hair. Will could now see radiant blue eyes that stared down at him with humor and… was that a little superiority or condescension he saw there? The man suddenly smiled at Will, and he found himself drawn into the man’s gaze, and before he could stop himself, he smiled back.
“May I help you?” the man asked. His voice was deep and quiet. Will was surprised and a little appalled at his own reaction to his presence. Why was he feeling so breathless and why was his heart racing? If only the man had ignored him and just kept going, were Will’s thoughts as he struggled to respond.
“No, I can handle this, thank you,” he stated, breathless yet firm, but it was as if the man hadn’t even heard him. He casually took the tools from his hands, pinning Will with his gaze as he did so. It was a challenge that he did not question or resist. Something told him it would be useless. Will continued to back up as the man moved toward him until he was gradually and completely edged out of the way.
Without another word, the man began changing the flat tire. The lug nut which Will had been struggling with for some time came off with ease under his pressure. He completed the job in silence, but as he finished tightening the last lug nut and began lowering the jack, he asked, “Where are you going?” The silence had been intense from the moment he began working. Will had been staring at him, watching him work quickly and easily with minimum effort, and his sudden question startled him. He stared at Will, and he was no longer smiling.
“The Hunter ranch.” He considered telling the man to mind his own business, but something told him that would not be a good idea. Just stay cordial and get this over with, he told himself. “My sister is there,” he added without any forethought.
The man didn’t seem surprised, unlike the people on the plane. He simply nodded and put the tools back into Will’s trunk.
“You’re going in the wrong direction,” he stated casually. Although he said very little, his eyes never seemed to leave Will as he studied him. The scrutiny made Will very uncomfortable, although he tried unsuccessfully to hide it. Will took a tentative step toward him while pulling the slip of paper from his pocket that had Katrina’s directions scrawled on it. He showed it to him. “I’m trying to follow this map, but I can’t seem to understand it. Maybe you could help me?” he asked, hopeful that the man would correct any problems in it. Will wasn’t ready for the flash of awareness that shot through him when the man reached out and brushed the hair back from his face. The gesture was friendly, but the touch of the man’s fingers on his face lingered for a very long time. A slight smile touched his lips at Will’s reaction and quickly, without comment, he took the paper from him and corrected it.
“Follow this and you’ll get there.” The man handed it back to him. Will was careful not to touch him as he took the map. He had no idea what was happening, but Will did know that he’d never been so acutely aware of someone in his entire life. He took the note from the man’s muscular hands; they were strong, capable. Will’s eyes also took in the fit of his shirt across his chest. He had to force himself to look the man in the eyes and stop taking inventory. It startled him to see the intensity with which the man regarded him.
“Thank you, sir,” he said sincerely, “for the map and the tire change.” As he watched the man walk back to his car, Will’s inventory continued. His jeans fit in all the right places. The man was in very good shape and walked with an extremely confident swagger. Will wondered lustfully, for a moment, what he would look like without his well-fitting clothing.
“You’re welcome,” he answered without turning around. His response pulled Will from his disturbing thoughts and he blushed. Thankfully the man didn’t see it. He got into his car and pulled away, passing Will and continuing out of sight.
That was intense, he thought as he, too, got into his car and drove away in the same direction. “I wonder who he is?” he said out loud after realizing he hadn’t introduced himself. Will hadn’t found himself that attracted to someone in a long time. No, I’ve never been that attracted to anyone, he corrected himself. Even his one and only boyfriend of two and a half years hadn’t brought out these sensations. George had been a kind and loving man, but there had been nothing really between them. After those years of trying to build a feeling other than friendship with him, Will finally broke it off. To his dismay, George hadn’t seemed all that upset about it and within two weeks had found himself a boy toy.
This man was something completely different. Will doubted that the stranger would walk away so graciously from a breakup. The man struck him as someone used to getting exactly what he wanted. But then again, he considered, who in their right mind would dump him? He was compelling and handsome, his eyes so blue….
“Oh Jesus, get a hold of yourself,” he stated aloud, exasperated with the direction of his thoughts as he shifted the front of his pants uncomfortably. He probably has a wife and a whole herd of children back at the ranch. He again forced himself to shake off whatever it was that had possessed him and focus on the problem at hand. He needed to concentrate his thoughts on Katrina and the Hunters. Elijah, in particular. What is expected of me? Why does he want me here? What’s in it for Katrina? He kept his thoughts under strict control, and it wasn’t long before he came upon the ranch in question. He was met with an enormous, iron entrance gate that arched over the roadway. Will couldn’t see anything of the ranch beyond it, but he knew it was the right place once he saw, written in heavy black letters on the gateway, the name “HUNTER.”
No one was around, and the gate was open, so he decided to proceed. Will drove several miles onto the property before he came to yet another, less formidable gate. Behind it he could see a large, sprawling group of buildings of varying sizes. He was shocked by the immense size of the ranch, which seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. A huge main house, barns, outbuildings, and smaller homes covered probably several acres or more. The sight of it brought on an apprehension that caused him to stop and stare for a while. There were no neighbors within sight and therefore no visible means of escape. A man in jeans and a work shirt standing near the gate came over to speak with him. Will rolled down the window, and the man leaned into it in order to speak to him. He smelled of grass and fresh air.
“Go right on in, sir. They’re expecting you.” He registered Will’s surprise, so he added, “It’s okay, go ahead.” He smiled warmly and waved him onward.
“They’re expecting me?” he questioned out loud to himself. How can that be? No one knows that I was planning to arrive today. Katrina didn’t even know. He thought that perhaps the ranch hand at the gate had gotten him confused with someone else until he saw the large, black car parked in the shade near the main house. So that’s why they’re expecting me, he thought knowingly, Mr. Tire Change must have come directly here to tell them that I was on my way. So much for the element of surprise—they were ready and waiting.
He pulled the car up toward the end of the drive and stopped. The same anxiety that had gripped him earlier came on again. He sat in the car and took several deep breaths before he was able to gather his nerves and head toward the house. Will slowly approached the massive pair of oak doors, which were on the other side of the endless stone porch. Before he could knock, the doors swung open and an older woman, probably mid-sixties, was there to greet him. She was short and stocky, but had a pleasant face and a friendly smile.
“Good afternoon, sir. Come right in.” She led him into what looked to be a small living room. “Wait here while I get Mr. Hunter for you.” She smiled at Will and then quickly left the room.
“Thank you,” Will mumbled to her retreating back. This is too weird. She didn’t even ask what I was here for. She just knew. He scanned the room for somewhere to sit and saw a plain straight-back chair by the large window on the east side of the room. He sat down and waited. “This doesn’t feel good,” he mumbled under his breath. After awhile, his eyes wandered to the large window, and he noticed that it gave a full view of the horse yard. A beautiful, black horse was currently being led about by a young man. Will was so engrossed in watching the large, graceful animal that he didn’t hear the man entering the room until he was standing directly over him.
“I just purchased him for breeding. Magnificent, isn’t he?”
The suddenness of his words, spoken so close, made Will jump to his feet and swing around abruptly. He was surprised and embarrassed to see the same dark man who had changed his tire standing there, towering over him. He acknowledged Will’s shock and smiled, but it wasn’t a particularly friendly smile. He demonstrated a reserve and distrust that hadn’t existed out on the road. He’d obviously sized him up and found him wanting, Will considered as he watched the man reach out his hand. “Elijah Hunter,” he introduced himself. “I’m very pleased to meet you, William.”
Will tried to gather his thoughts, but they refused to come together and form a sentence. He simply stood there for several seconds, staring at him and holding his hand. Finally, he snapped out of it and, very much embarrassed, released his hand. Elijah looked mildly amused.
“Where is… Katrina?” Will asked. He’d come so far with purpose and intent, and here he was, reduced to a quivering idiot. Why does he make me feel so inadequate? Why can’t I put it… him… away like every other unmanageable or unpleasant feeling? Will quickly averted his eyes when Elijah tilted his head in a puzzled manner. He was studying him again, like he had before. He was continually weighing and measuring. Will didn’t like it, but there was nothing he could do about it at present.
“She’s not here,” Elijah said softly and then asked, “would you like to sit down?” He led Will over to a large sofa with a gentle hand on his arm. Will was so caught up in his nearness and touch that he almost missed the “she’s not here” statement.
“Where did she go?” Will asked, perplexed by his casual manner. “I thought there was a big problem. I thought I was supposed to come here to help her. I thought you were holding her to a contract that she signed, some sort of marriage contract.” He moved away from Elijah on the sofa when he realized Elijah’s proximity wasn’t doing anything for his thought processes.
“Didn’t she tell you?” he said with what looked to be a hateful grin. Will didn’t appreciate whatever game he was playing. His back stiffened, as did his features.
“Tell me what?” Will wasn’t amused. He turned to regard him with the most derisive stare he could produce, although it seemed to have little or no effect on him.
Elijah stood and walked over to a small bar. He poured Will a brandy and brought it to him.
“Here,” he stated, “I think you’re going to need this.”
Will’s previous infatuation with the man was disappearing and was being replaced by a growing fear. It took all of his control not to let it show. His stomach tensed as he accepted the brandy. Elijah sat back down beside him and put his left hand over Will’s as it rested on his thigh. He wished he had the nerve to pull his hand away but he didn’t want to antagonize Elijah just yet. Will would hear what he had to say, and then he would react. He pulled his strength together again and met Elijah’s eyes.
“Katrina left about half an hour ago,” Elijah began. His voice was deep and clear, as if he were a lawyer advising his client. “Norman drove her to town. You probably passed them on the road.” Will remembered a dark blue sedan with an older man at the wheel and someone in the backseat. He hadn’t paid them much attention. If he had been able to see them, then Katrina certainly could have seen him. He wondered why Katrina hadn’t stopped. If she were no longer being held here by the Hunters, then there was no reason for this visit. Elijah seemed to sense that his thoughts had drifted; he squeezed Will’s hand to recapture his attention. “I allowed Katrina to leave because she said that you were arriving to take her place. After I met you on the road and found out that she was telling the truth, I returned and released your sister to go home and try and come up with the money or a good lawyer. She left immediately.”
Will was floored by his declaration. “I’m not here to take her place.” Will tried to stand up, but Elijah kept him seated. It was then that he took a full swallow of the brandy. “What do you mean? Katrina asked me to come here and speak with you, that’s all. I’m not taking on her problems,” Will stated emphatically.
“Oh, but you are,” he said too smoothly. “She said that this entire scheme was your idea. You persuaded her to go after a rich husband and to secure that husband by any means. You’re as guilty as she is.” His eyes narrowed as they scrutinized him closely. “No morals, no integrity, no class. What kind of man are you?”
That was enough. Will jumped to his feet and turned on him brutally. “I’m the kind of man who isn’t going to sit here and listen to your wounded-male attacks on my character. You do not know me; you don’t know the first thing about me. If you are so naïve that you believe the lies that my sister has been spreading, then I think you got exactly what you deserved.” He stormed toward the archway that led to the front door. Before reaching it, he swung around to regard him once more. He was sitting on the sofa watching him with the coldest of expressions. “She obviously played you both for fools, and judging by what I’ve seen, I doubt it was very difficult.” He had to get in the last sarcastic remark. He just couldn’t let it go. Before he could reach the front door, Elijah was on him. He grabbed Will’s arm and jerked him back against him. The shock of Elijah’s hands on his suddenly overly sensitized skin and being roughly slammed against his chest disoriented him for a moment. Fear spread through him. Will stared up at him with all the indignation he could muster
“Where do you think you’re going?” Elijah spat out, his anger evident in his grip and his tone. Will tried to pull away from him, but Elijah held him firmly. Will could feel his breath against his cheek and the thudding of his heart against his chest. Will also sensed an unwelcome reaction to their closeness. His own heart was beating as rapidly, and he felt the same stirring in his groin that plagued him after their first meeting. Just breathe, he told himself as he tried to mask the growing tightness in his trousers and calm himself.
“I’m going home,” Will stated with considerably less bravado. “I have nothing to do with this. I only came here to see if I could help Katrina. I am not a party to any of this, and you have no right to keep me here.” His gaze faltered slightly under the dark look in Elijah’s eyes, and he focused instead on the top button of his shirt. He should have known that Elijah wasn’t the type of man who would sit back and take cruel sarcasm, but then he never was a very good judge of people. “I don’t even know exactly what it is that Katrina did to you and your brother.”
Elijah tilted Will’s head up with a finger under his chin. Will managed to hold Eli’s gaze this time. To look away now would be total defeat. He struggled to hold his tongue; he was angry, not stupid. Pushing Elijah any further at this point was not a good idea, so he remained silent. He was a very powerful man. His hands held Will immobile with virtually no effort. He pondered the realization that Elijah felt as good as he looked. Standing there, pressed against him, he could feel all the solid muscle that lay beneath his clothing. Elijah could easily restrain him for as long as he pleased.
“Your sister pretended to be pregnant because my brother refused her marriage proposal.” He spoke softly, but with great force and meaning. “What could he do? He’s an honorable man. Believing that she was indeed carrying his child, he agreed to marry her. She demanded that Martin sign a contract promising her the marriage would take place within the year. She wanted to be married before the baby was born, she said.” He sneered unpleasantly. “If he refused to sign, she said she would run away and have their child in secret, and he would never see her or the baby.”
His expression of repressed anger and disgust remained as he related the rest of the story. “I knew that Katrina’s only motivation in this was money. She thought Martin was rich, and she wanted a piece of it. I told her that if Martin were to sign, then I wanted her to sign also. It was the exact same contract. It stated that if she refused to marry Martin then I could hold her in breach of contract. This breach would cost her $500,000. It was the same amount she wanted from Martin if he reneged on his agreement. I thought it was only fair.” He smiled, but it wasn’t a kind smile. “It was only after she found out that Martin’s riches were minimal at best that she decided to try and back out. She told him that she wasn’t pregnant, and that it had all been nothing but a money-making scheme concocted by her brother William.”
Will’s face went pale, and he mumbled under his breath, “God, I hate my sister.” Elijah continued to stare at him silently and hold him in place. After a few minutes of this tense nonverbal exchange, he released Will slowly and stepped back, his eyes never leaving his face.
“What do you plan to do?” Will asked and then became more specific. “Why are you treating me like this? I haven’t spoken to my sister in nearly two years, until last Friday when she called to tell me she was getting married and then called me back to beg for my help. I have done nothing to either you or your brother.” Will kept his voice as calm as possible and maintained his eye contact. He knew that was important. If he was to convince him of his innocence, then he had to be able to see him. Eli remained silent for a long moment. He was again studying Will, taking his measure.
“I think we would do better to discuss this in private,” he said, more amicably than Will expected. He approached him, and with a gentle hand on his back, led Will down the hall to a dark room on the right. Eli went in first and switched on the lights. There were heavy curtains over the windows that blocked out the daylight and made the room darker than necessary. At first glance, it looked to be a very masculine room. There was a leather sofa and chair, a heavy wooden desk, and a thick, dark green carpet that blended with the thick, dark green drapes on the windows behind the desk. There were many books lining every wall, and a couple business machines: a fax, computer, and a copier. There weren’t any frills here, but it was a handsome room.
Eli directed him to sit on the sofa, and seated himself immediately in front of him on the carved oak table. He positioned his legs on either side of Will’s, pinning him to the spot. To Will’s dismay, he realized that their legs would touch if he moved to one side or the other more than a fraction of an inch, so he concentrated on sitting very still.
“Katrina asked to be allowed to leave the ranch in order to go and raise the money needed to release her from the contract. I told her that the only way I would let her go was if you took her place.” Will attempted to speak, but Eli cut him off. “She told me you were on your way. When I met you on the road, I assumed you were coming here to take her place, so when I returned to the ranch, I allowed her to go.”
“But I’m not… I didn’t….” He couldn’t get his words or thoughts together.
“Katrina couldn’t get out of here fast enough. I thought she would stay to speak with you, but apparently she wanted to leave before you found out she’d set you up.” Eli smiled again, more friendly this time.
“I’m not staying,” Will stated firmly and attempted to stand, but it was impossible considering the way they were seated. “Legally, you cannot keep me here.”
“Let me explain something to you, William.” Eli grew very cold with the tone and the look he was now giving Will. “I plan on going after Katrina legally if she doesn’t carry out the marriage as planned or if she doesn’t come up with the money. I realize that she has little or no assets. From what I have learned, she inherited quite a lot when your parents died, but she has gone through it rapidly. On the other hand, I have the right to go after any of her late father’s holdings that remain.” His eyes hardened as he studied Will’s reactions and expressions. Eli couldn’t read him this time. Will sat rigid and seemed to be trying to disconnect.
“My father has no holdings,” he answered in a monotone. “Everything he owned went to Katrina and it’s all gone.” Did he detect sadness in Will’s voice? Is this sadness for the loss of his father or the loss of his property? he wondered.
“There is one thing that still has Ronald Drake’s name attached to it,” Eli said snidely.
The awareness struck Will like a slap in the face. He couldn’t possibly mean that he would try to take his home. He’d left his father’s name on the title out of sentimental reasons and now it seemed it would be the means by which Mr. Hunter would exact his revenge on Katrina. This can’t be happening. Eli saw the change in Will’s demeanor as he immediately jumped to defend what was rightfully his.
“Are you threatening to take my home? You have no right to…. You can’t be serious?” He felt the panic rising. Again he tried to stand, and again Eli held him to his seat. Will flashed him a scowl that would have crippled lesser men, but he did not react.
“You are here as collateral,” he explained. “Katrina has until the end of the month, the thirty-first, to decide her course of action. Either she pays the money, marries Martin, or hires a lawyer. As of the thirty-first, I enforce the contract. Your being here simply buys her time and hopefully secures my interests.”
“What you are saying is, regardless of whether I stay or not, it has no bearing on you taking my home if Katrina breaches the contract. So what is the point of me staying?” he said with the edge of panic still evident in his voice. “I can tell you now, without having to wait ’til the thirty-first, that Katrina is never coming back, and you certainly will never see a dime of that $500,000.”
“If you stay until the thirty-first and Katrina returns as agreed, I may feel magnanimous enough to let you both go.” Eli didn’t smile.
“Katrina isn’t coming back.” Katrina rarely cleaned up a mess once she made it. She was a runner. Katrina would never darken this doorstep again.
“If Katrina never returns, then the collateral is forfeit.”
“Yes? What does that mean?” Will asked dryly.
“It means that I get to keep you and your home at Whitefish Point.” He laughed at the look of shock and alarm on Will’s face. Will believed Eli was joking, but a part of him cringed at the thought of being his sister’s collateral. Katrina had taken everything and now she’d managed to take Will’s home and freedom as well.
“This won’t do at all,” Will said sharply. “Why would you want to keep me here? You obviously despise Katrina, and I’m sure your judgment of me isn’t far from the same. Why would you want me around? Is it simply because I don’t want to be here? Anyway, you can’t keep me, holding me against my will is against the law.”
Elijah regarded Will for a long time before answering. “I want someone to take responsibility. Regardless of your current relationship, you are her brother and therefore you will be the one to take responsibility.” His words were clear and accusatory. “Now, come,” he stated abruptly. “I will see to your comfort. I promise you will be well cared-for during your stay.”
Before Will could speak, Eli had taken him by the upper arm and was now leading him out of the study. It was a gesture that seemed rather controlling, but Will knew better than to resist. He wasn’t going to be reasoned with, so Will would just have to find a way out. Somehow he would have to get away from here. All Elijah was holding over Will were his home and land. Is it really important enough to forfeit my home over? He would stay, for now, but at the slightest sign of anything derogatory or off-color directed toward him, he would leave. His home was important, but so was his self-respect.
“Where are you taking me?” he asked curtly.
“To your room.” Eli took him up the main staircase that led to the second and third floors. Will was so bowled over by his audacity and need to control that all he could do was follow. “I’ve taken the liberty of having your luggage taken from your car and placed in one of my guest rooms. Dinner is at seven. Lunch is on your own, and if you would care to have breakfast with me, I eat at 6:00 a.m.”
As they reached the second-floor landing, Will pulled away from him. “I don’t want to stay here,” he said. “I don’t want to cause trouble for you. I’m gay, and you’re a very respectable man in a small town. What will your neighbors think of us staying here together?” He was hoping to appeal to his morals or maybe his need to maintain a good reputation. “I can stay at the bed and breakfast by the airport, and I give you my word I will not to leave before the thirty-first.” He was pleading and he knew it, but his options were running thin. “I will check in with you daily, I promise.” Will had to get out of here. One month with him and his Katrina-hating brother… how was he to get through without saying the wrong thing? Will had a sharp tongue, and when provoked would let loose comments that were rarely helpful.
Elijah started to laugh. It was a low, thunderous sound. “Your virtue, my dear, is safe with me. And personally, I don’t concern myself with what my neighbors think.”
Will stiffened at Eli’s remark. He didn’t for a second think that Eli would want anything to do with him in that sense. He wasn’t the kind of guy that men went crazy over, but to have him state it so clearly and cruelly was a little painful. It cut him deeper than he had expected.
“I wasn’t implying that anything would happen,” he bit out. “But it is obvious that people around here don’t need to necessarily know the truth in order to make up their minds about the reputations of others. I’d hate to have the townsfolk burning me at the stake for my sexual proclivities.”
Eli listened, but made no comment on his statement. “Come,” he said as he took Will’s arm and guided him down the hallway.
He left him in one of the bedrooms and told Will he would collect him in about an hour for dinner. Will knew that he was trapped, for a while anyway. His discomfort over staying waned a little when he took in the splendor of the room he had been given. This bedroom, like everything else in this house, was stunning. The bed looked to be antique, large, and comfy. It had a down comforter and nearly a million pillows. The room also had its own private bathroom. There was a large enamel-inlay desk, a wardrobe, a sofa, a chair, and it just went on and on. Will took his one suitcase and arranged a few of his things. He wasn’t planning on staying long, if at all, so there was no need to unpack.