Home > Freed (Steel Brothers Saga #18)

Freed (Steel Brothers Saga #18)
Author: Helen Hardt


Prologue

 

 

Ashley

 

 

I park the car, grab the backpack and Penny’s leash, and walk to the Syrah vineyards. The harvesting tools sit at the foot of one of the rows. About half of the Syrah has been harvested. I walk to the little shed Dale showed me that first night.

Of course the shed is locked. I didn’t expect it to be open. I don’t need Dale’s tent and sleeping bag. I won’t be here long.

But I need to be here. I need to be here with Penny. And with Dale.

I look toward the mountains, where the sun set an hour ago. Dale is somewhere up there. Alone.

He didn’t even take his dog.

“Let’s sit, girl.” I plunk onto the ground.

If I sit, if I touch this ground that he finds so hallowed, maybe I’ll understand why he left. Maybe I’ll understand that thing inside him that he can’t share with me.

Maybe…

Penny lies down next to me, and her body against mine is a warm comfort. I rub my arms to ease the chill.

Dale told me to bring a jacket that first night. Why didn’t I bring one tonight? The weather was warm today, but nights are a different story. At least I’m wearing long sleeves.

I grab the backpack and open it. I pull out a bottle of water and pour some into a bowl for Penny. She eagerly takes a drink. I take a drink from the bottle myself, letting the water coat my dry throat.

I won’t cry.

I’ve cried enough tears for Dale Steel.

I gave him all of me. My body, my heart, my soul.

I take another drink and then look up at the sky. So many stars! If possible, I think more are visible tonight than the first night here with Dale.

Except that I was so consumed by Dale that night… His enthralling red-wine voice. His blond perfection. His dark countenance.

I hardly noticed the stars.

Dale still consumes me, but at least I can see the stars now. They’re bright and dazzling, and they seem to twinkle. Ha! There’s truth in that song from my childhood, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

“You like those stars, Pen?”

She’s not looking at the stars, of course. Her eyes are closed, her head resting on my thigh. Such a sweet pup.

She loves her daddy. If I let her, would she lead me to Dale? How far into the mountains has he gone? I’ve no doubt Penny could find him, but I won’t put her through that. Who knows how long it would take? I’m not exactly a backwoods type of girl.

I sigh and pull the bottle of wine I packed out of the backpack. “Let’s have a toast,” I say to Penny.

I uncork the bottle and pour a glass.

“Something’s missing.” I pull the votive candle out of the pack. “Candlelight would be nice, don’t you think?”

Yeah, I’m talking to a dog. She seems to understand me though. She licks my hand at the mention of candlelight. I take that as agreement.

I strike a match and light the votive inside its crystal holder. Lovely. The candlelight flickers through the glass, casting diamonds on the ground and vines.

“If only I had a cigarette now,” I say to Penny. Then I force out a laugh. I don’t smoke. I’ve never smoked. Though I wouldn’t say no to a joint right about now. I gave that up years ago, but sometimes a little herb helps when your world is imploding.

This is a lovely place. Peaceful and tranquil, especially at night, when no one else is around. I understand why Dale finds solace here. What I don’t understand is why he won’t let me provide what he needs.

“What do you have that I don’t?” I ask the vines.

I stop then and I actually listen. As if I truly think they might answer me.

The only response I get is a soft breeze that makes me rub at my upper arms once more.

I sit for a few more minutes, waiting for the vines to say to me what they say to Dale when he’s here. To reveal those secrets that give him peace.

To reveal Dale to me.

But as they did the last time I came here, the vines stay silent. They keep Dale’s secrets.

I love him. I love him so damned much.

But I don’t know how to be with him. Clearly I’m not fulfilling his needs.

“Fuck this.” I stand, knocking over the votive holder. “Shit.” I quickly pick it up and blow out the candle. Then I let it cool for a few minutes before I throw it into the backpack. I pour my undrunk wine onto the ground, recork the bottle, and pack everything up.

“Let’s get out of here,” I say to Penny. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

I take hold of Penny’s leash and lead her back to the car.

Where we drive back to Dale’s…alone.

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

Dale

 

 

My second night alone in the wilderness, I awaken in the early morning, chills racking my body.

I wanted aloneness—complete aloneness—but at the moment, I wish I’d brought Penny along. While this may not be a three-dog night, it’s definitely a one-dog night.

I scramble out of my zero-degree bag and grab my flask of Peach Street. I love my wine, but backpacking and camping alone in the mountains necessitates something a little stronger for the occasional cold snap.

I unscrew the lid and take a drink.

Warm spice and smoke coat my throat. Yes, that’s better.

But then—

Everything races back.

My birth father. He’s dead now—gone on to a better place, if such a place actually exists. I never believed in hell, but I hope now more than ever that a place of eternal damnation exists for Floyd Jolly—a man who sold his two young sons into sexual slavery for five grand.

Five fucking grand.

I shake my head.

Five grand means nothing to me. It’s like twenty bucks to the average person. I have more money to my name than I could spend in five lifetimes.

But what if I didn’t?

Would I be desperate enough to…?

I shake my head vehemently as I screw the lid back on my flask. No one is here. No one can see me shaking my head. No one can see the look of utter disgust and nausea on my face or the bitter bile inside me as I think about what my birth father did.

Never.

Never would I be so desperate as to sell another human being—let alone a child of my body—into the horror that Donny and I lived through.

And we were two of the lucky ones.

Most either died during “training” or were sold to the highest bidder, never to be seen or heard from again.

Donny and I were rescued—rescued by Dad and Uncle Ryan.

Not only did Dad rescue us, he then adopted us. Brought us into his family. Made us Steels and heirs to a megafortune.

For so many years, I wondered why he did. Why he, a newlywed with a biological child on the way, would take in two broken little boys.

Only recently did I learn the truth.

Dad went through something similar. He didn’t go into detail when he told me, and I’m not sure I want him to. How can I imagine my father—my strong, loving, and generous father—enduring even a tenth of what Donny and I went through?

And when I have to think about Dad’s ordeal, I have to think about—

I have to think about the ugliest, most horrific thing I ever did in my young life. I was ten years old, and I—

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