Enjoy an Excerpt from Steele Ridge: The Beginning

 

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Late January

If Jonah had to hear one more fucking word about who had authority over the truck’s radio dial, he would pull out Reid’s concealed carry and shoot all three of his brothers point-blank.

“It’s a ten-minute drive into Canyon Ridge,” Britt, the oldest, said in his calmest peacekeeper voice. “We could probably turn it off and, you know, talk to each other.”

Grif snorted a laugh. “You? Mr. I-live-in-a-cabin-in-the-woods wants to talk?” He hit the down button on the window and stuck his head out as if looking for a lightning bolt. Unbelievably, when he pulled his head back inside the cab, his hair still looked, as their sister Evie would call it, artfully tousled.

“It’s my truck and I say we listen to Merle Haggard.” Reid hit the button on his steering wheel to change the music from alternative to classic country.

“Y’all should know better than to try to negotiate with a primate,” Jonah said. “Besides, he’ll just keeping switching the station until we’re all suicidal.”

Reid grunted, reinforcing his image as a big gorilla of a guy. Granted, his size probably came in damn handy in his line of work.

They cruised down the North Carolina back road from their mom’s house toward the park where, thanks to Mother Nature and her generosity in granting them with above average temperatures, they’d be celebrating her sixtieth birthday. Up ahead, a vehicle tore out of a gravel side road, stirring up a billowing cloud of dust and shielding the make and model from view. A pair of faint brake lights appeared when the shithead fishtailed too close to the ditch.

“What the hell?” Jonah asked.

Reid’s face was serious, grim even. “You see that?” He pulled a Richard Petty and shot down the gravel drive.

“Son of a bitch.” Britt stretched over the front seat to peer out the windshield.

Jonah spotted the line of smoke trailing from a big building that had recently been built on the old Tupelo Farm, where the Tupelo family had raised hogs and Christmas trees for as long as anyone could remember. At least before the city bought their twenty thousand acres and built a state-of-the-art sportsman’s complex. And from what his mom said, that complex had cost the city twenty million dollars.

“We need to call nine-one-one,” Britt said, always the reasonable one.

“Already on it.” Phone in hand, Jonah tapped out the emergency number. But as they drove closer, he noticed no one was streaming out of the building. “Won’t the sprinklers and alarms go off? Where is everyone? Why aren’t they evacuating?”

“Everyone, who?” Britt said.

“Like the people who work there and the people who play there.”

“It’s empty.”

“On a Saturday?”

“On every day.”

Jonah braced himself against the dashboard as Reid shot into the lot and screeched to a stop a fair distance from the expansive glass and gray stone building. His truck was the only vehicle around.

“Dammit,” Jonah said, “we’re gonna have to do something about this fire.”

“No shit.” Reid piled out of the truck and everyone else followed. “Or did you think we’d just let it burn to the ground.”

“Maybe it’s not as bad as it looks,” Jonah offered up, even though he knew that was pure BS. They might need to pick up extra flowers for their mom before heading to the party though, because it was clear they would be late.

Grif looked down at his high-end khakis and hand-tailored shirt. “I hope to hell not.”

Reid, never missing a step toward the building even though he was limping slightly, cuffed Grif on the back of the head. “I’m sure you have a hundred other pair of those fancy duds in your closet back in LA, Pretty Boy.”

As they jogged closer to the building, it was clear someone had broken one of the front windows and that this thing was picking up steam. Flames were already licking their way up what looked like a reception desk.

Reid jabbed a finger at them. “You three stay out here, and I’ll—”

“No fucking way,” Jonah cut him off. He’d been underestimated his whole damn life, first by his big brothers, then by kids in school, and eventually the big game-development moguls in Seattle. But he’d damn well shown them all. “You’re screwed in the head if you think we’re going to let you go in there by yourself. You’ll get yourself killed on Mom’s big day and we’ll be the ones who have to tell her. Not enough flowers in the whole world to make up for that kinda news.”

“He’s right,” Britt said. “This looks like a four-man job to me.”

Reid’s face was a study in stubbornness, but Grif, using his master negotiator tone, said, “Do you want this fire put out?”

“Hell, yes.”

“Are you willing to wait for the firefighters to get out here?”

“Hell, no.”

Yeah, Jonah hadn’t expected anything else from his older brother. After all, Reid was all about anything that would get his adrenaline pumping. So Jonah gave his brothers a big ol’ grin and said, “Then let’s get in there and fight this bitch.”

* * *

Britt Steele’s protective instincts flared to life. The past five minutes had set off shrieking warning bells in his head. The hightailing vehicle, the burning building bankrupting the town, the broken front window, and now his brothers were about to enter the fray with no personal protective equipment and no way of knowing what other surprises lay inside.

“The sprinkler system’s failed,” Britt said.

Reid’s head swung back and forth like a curious owl’s as he studied the three-by-three gaping hole with Etch-a-Sketch lines of cracked glass zigzagging out in all directions. “So has the alarm system.”

“If we bust out the rest of that window, we can hop through and hit the flames with fire extinguishers.” Grif jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “There’re leftover cinder blocks in that pile of construction debris. One of those should do the trick since it was probably what the first guy used.”

Glass shattered, and Britt whipped around to see the three-by-three hole was now large enough for his little brother Jonah to crawl through.

“Guess you were right about the cinder blocks,” Britt said.

Reid grinned. “I didn’t know the Baby Billionaire had it in him.”

“Then you haven’t been paying attention,” Britt said. “Half the stuff you get in trouble for with Mom is the billionaire’s handiwork.”

“Are you shittin’ me, Tarzan?”

Britt hated the nickname. Not that he’d admit the fact to his dipshit brother.

“Let’s get in there before I forget there’s a fire and kick your ass.”

“The electricity is out,” Jonah said.

“Probably a tripped breaker,” Britt said. “Reid, Grif—fire extinguishers?”

The two of them looked around, scanning the walls and the hallway just beyond the reception area. Then Grif started running. “Found one.”

“Jonah,” Britt said, “let’s find the electrical panel. If the extinguishers don’t work, we need the sprinkler system operational.”

“Basement?”

“Most likely. I got a chance to see the plans for this place during the conceptual phase. Let’s hope it hasn’t changed much.”

Like an explorer following a treasure map, Britt used the design layout still embedded in his mind to navigate the hallways. He had a knack for remembering the smallest detail and hoped his gift didn’t let him down now, when he needed it most.

He paused at the door adjacent to the staff restrooms, felt the door for heat just in case, and found it room temperature. He ripped it open and a well of darkness yawned before them. Without a word, he and Jonah took out their cell phones and clicked on the flashlights.

“Who do you think set the fire?” Jonah asked.

“Probably bored drunk teenagers.”

“I never committed arson as a teenager.”

“That’s because you were a vampire. You actually would’ve had to leave your room—and computer—to commit a crime.”

“Not necessarily. Tons of havoc can be wreaked with the touch of a keyboard.” Jonah’s hazel eyes danced.

A familiar weight wrapped around Britt’s chest and squeezed. “Don’t we know it.”

“Sorry, Britt. It was a stupid thing to say.”

“My fault, not yours.” He released a hollow chuckle. “Now you know why I spend my time working alone or walking the woods.”

Britt made his way to the electrical panel and found the breaker labeled Reception Area. The switch was set to ON. He looked at all the switches. None of them had tripped to neutral.

“It’s not the breaker. The electricity is off.”

“Thanks for pointing out the obvious, genius.”

“No, I mean the electricity is off. As in no power running into the building. It’s turned off, completely.”

“Who would turn off the building’s juice?”

“Would have to be the city. Only the property owner can shut it down.”

“Maybe the city didn’t pay their electric bill.”

“There’s that, too.”

“Come on. Let’s go make sure Reid’s using an extinguisher rather than an accelerant.”

* * *

While Britt and the Baby Billionaire searched for how the hell to get the sprinklers working, Reid stood in the vacant lobby, eyes scanning the giant circular reception desk. Beside him, Grif let out a low whistle at the growing flames quickly engulfing the desk and carpeting. And, hell, good thing the place was empty or this fire would be a whole lot nastier. The lack of furniture helped.

Aside from the now toasted desk.

And the fire extinguisher mounted behind it.

He hustled to the wall, his right knee groaning from the damned brace hidden under his jeans. “Hey, Louis Vuitton, you gonna hold that fire extinguisher or use it?”

Ignoring the dig about his clothes, Grif got to work reading the instructions on the fire extinguisher—God help us all—as Reid snagged the one from the wall, pulled the pin, and—whoosh—unleashed that baby. A cloud of fine yellow powder shot free as he doused the whipping flames.

Hot damn.

And yeah, if this was the only action Reid had to look forward to after a knee injury blew his Green Beret career out of the universe, well, he had big problems.

Twenty feet to Reid’s right, Grif hit the lever on his extinguisher and more yellow powder flew. His brother’s face lit up and Reid grinned, knowing all too well the adrenaline rush, the battle high, had fired his older brother’s system.

“Don’t shoot me with that crap. Do you even know what you’re doing?”

At that, Grif laughed. “I read the instructions. It’s not that complicated, you flaming asshole. Pun intended.”

Side by side, they stayed with it, knocking down the fire while Reid worked on the desk and Grif concentrated on the flames crawling across the carpet. They needed to get this shit under control.

Fast.

Britt and Jonah, fire extinguishers in hand, appeared at the end of the hallway.

“Good idea,” Reid said. “Work it from that end. If we don’t get that carpet out, the whole place’ll go up.”

Britt and Jonah unleashed the mother of all fire extinguisher sprays and Reid let out a whoop. Frickin’ wicked. Something about it, the partnership, the working together,  reminded him that spending time with his brothers, no matter the reason, wasn’t a bad thing.

The flames died down, slowly relenting as more of the fine powder pounded them. Still spraying, Reid took a second to check the window behind him, the one with the hole in it. A cinder block sat on the floor and, if Reid guessed right, some kind of fire-inducing element—a Molotov cocktail, maybe—had been launched through the broken window.

Britt, Jonah, and Grif released the handles on their fire extinguishers, and everything grew eerily quiet.

“Son of a bitch,” Grif said.

“What happened?”

“My shoes.” He stared down at his feet. “Fucking mess.”

Good old Grif. His hoity-toity sports agent brother had spent way too much time out in California with all those models and slick athletes.

“Dumbass,” Reid said, slapping him on the back. “You’ve gone soft on me. I should tie your ass to the bumper of my truck and drag you around some. Scrape all that pretty off you.”

Grif eyed him, his gaze shooting over the jeans and T-shirt and black biker boots he’d taken to wearing whenever he wasn’t in uniform. Which was now permanent.  Goddammit.

“Hey,” Grif said. “We’re on our way to our mother’s birthday party. It wouldn’t kill you to put some effort into your clothing choices.”

“Pfft. Mama doesn’t need me in church clothes to know I love her.” He smiled at his brother. “She knows.”

“Plus, now we stink. I hope you’re happy.”

Happy? That was debatable. But Reid didn’t put too much stock into that word. What the hell did that even mean? Are you happy? When? Right now? Putting out this fire, doing some good, yeah, that made him happy. Washing out of the Army, sitting around their hometown trying to figure out what the hell he’d do with his life?

Not so much.

Sirens wailed and two fire trucks and an ambulance screamed up the long drive of the property. Maggie—Mags—his cousin on his mom’s side and the sheriff of Canyon Ridge, trailed behind, her cruiser kicking up dust as she hauled ass.

“Well, they’re a little late,” Grif cracked.

“Yeah, but they’ll have to hose this shit down. Douse any hot spots.”

Jonah and Britt disappeared. Most likely they’d gone out the emergency exit at the other end of the hallway. Grif and Reid backed up, made room for the firefighters, then slipped out the door behind them. Maggie hopped out of her cruiser, slammed the door and—ooohhh-eeee—when his cousin got mad, look out.

“She’s pissed,” Grif said.

Really? Hadn’t noticed. “Yep.”

Mags rounded the front of her cruiser, her uniform pants and shirt sporting more than a few wrinkles. Being the sheriff meant working Saturdays. And any other damned day if required.

She faced them down, eyeballing each of them. “What the hell happened?”

“No idea,” Grif said. “We were on our way to Mom’s party and saw the smoke. Stopped to check it out. The desk and part of the carpet were burning when we pulled up.”

Mags glanced at the building, the broken window, and the firefighters now hosing the place down.

“Window’s broken,” Reid said.

“I see that. Did you see anything on the floor? An accelerant of some kind?”

They both shook their heads. “But,” Reid said, “I was focused on the fire. And Grif’s clothes getting trashed.”

“Oh, fuck you,” Grif said.

Mags rolled her eyes. “Don’t start. Did you see anything else?”

“Shit,” Reid said.

“What?”

He turned to Grif. “Remember the vehicle tearing out of the drive?”

Mags cocked her head. “What vehicle? Did you recognize it?”

Reid thought back, pictured it in his mind. Too much dust to recognize the make and model. Based on the height, probably a car or one of those midget SUVs. “Could’ve been a car, or maybe a small SUV.”

His cousin stared up at the building, shook her head. “I hate this place. Nothing but a pain in the butt since they broke ground. Now we’re wasting emergency resources on it. Damned thing is slowly sinking us.”

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