Awakened (Steel Brothers Saga #16) - Helen Hardt

Prologue

Dale

I walk alone at night, the moonlight cascading off the grapes nearly ready for harvest.

Harvest is my favorite time. The Syrah crop looks phenomenal this year. We won’t have to supplement by purchasing extra grapes from California.

This year’s Syrah will be pure. One hundred percent Steel grapes grown on the western slope of Colorado.

The mountains shine to the east, their snowcapped peaks silvery under the harvest moon.

Such beauty.

Such peace.

Almost.

I’ll never fully be at peace, but here, in the darkness and among the vineyards, I come close.

I reach out and pull a grape off a cluster. It’s small, the size of a marble, and the deepest purple in color.

There’s beauty in the life of a grape, beginning with bud break in early spring and ending after harvest in autumn, when the leaves fall to the ground. The vines are dormant during the winter months.

Perhaps why I dislike winter. I’m not myself during the cold weather. I grow with the vines.

The nearly black grape sits in my palm. These vineyards were planted over eighty years ago, and seventy-five years ago, Steel Acres released its first wines.

This year marks our diamond anniversary, and the first year we’ll be producing an old-vine Syrah, among other varietals.

Old vine.

These vines have mesmerized me since I came to the ranch twenty-five years ago, a lost and broken boy of ten.

Since then, I’ve spent time here, strolling among the vines, watching their metamorphosis each year. My uncle Ryan Steel, our master winemaker, took me under his wing when I was twelve. As I grew, he taught me. When neither of his daughters showed any interest in the business, he made me his protégé.

When Uncle Ryan retires at the end of this season, I’ll be the master winemaker.

Me.

Dale Robertson Steel.

Lost and broken and never master of anything.

I pop the grape into my mouth. Its thick skin releases the tannins onto my tongue, drying it out. But then the sweet flesh—sweeter than any table grape—dances along my taste buds. Two seeds emerge from the pulp, and I spit them onto the ground.

Wine grapes aren’t meant to be eaten, of course, but I’ve always had a taste for them and never fail to sample from each vineyard during harvest.

This one—the Syrah—is my favorite.

It produces a dark-red wine laced with flavors of blackberries, licorice, the most bitter chocolate, and black pepper.

All darkness.

And in its darkness, I find myself.

Chapter One

Ashley

“You’ll be working with my uncle Ryan—you met him—and my oldest brother, Dale,” Diana says during our drive from California to Snow Creek, Colorado.

“Right. The adopted one.”

“Yeah. My parents adopted him and Donny when Mom was pregnant with me. That’s why they’re so much older than Bree and me.”

“I hate to ask,” I say, “but why would your parents adopt two kids when they were already pregnant?”

“The boys’ natural mother committed suicide, and they never knew their father. I’m not exactly sure how my parents got involved.”

“You never asked?”

She shakes her head. “It never mattered to me. They’re my big brothers in every way that counts. I love them.”

I’ve seen photos of Diana with her brothers and younger sister, Brianna. Dee and Bree—cute, huh?—are dark-haired and dark-eyed, like their father, Talon Steel, while the brothers are blond and green-eyed.

And definitely male model material.

Donny, the younger, has dark-blond hair, but Dale, the older, is more honey blond.

I’m looking very forward to meeting them both.

“Ash…”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t count on adding my brothers to the notches on your bedpost.”

I roll my eyes. “I wouldn’t do that.”

“Ash…”

“Okay,” I admit. “Maybe I would. Is it a sin to like sex?”

“Of course not. I like it myself, though not as much as you seem to.”

I’m not ashamed of my rich sex life. Diana knows this. “It’s an adventure. Each man is different.”

“I know, but it’s still just sex. What is sex without love?”

She doesn’t get it, and I don’t expect her to. I get more from sex than the average woman because of my synesthesia. I’ve tried to explain it to her and countless others, but how can I when their sounds don’t have colors and their emotions don’t have flavors? How do I explain the gorgeous gold of a Mozart opera or the neon pink of rock and roll? Non-synesthetes don’t get it.

So yeah, I have a lot of sex. I like one-nighters. It’s part of who I am. But I’m always careful. A disease or unwanted pregnancy would put a definite kink in my plans to become a master sommelier.

I met Diana a month ago at UCLA, where she just finished

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