The Ties That Bind Ginna Gray Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR WHERE THERE'S A WILL, THERE'S A…WEDDING?When ruggedly sexy cowboy Zach Mahoney set foot on her beloved ranch, feisty Willa Simmons saw red. How dare her stepfather's will dictate that she, this mesmerizing stranger and his long-lost brothers all inherit the Rocking R?Infuriated at Zach's commanding ways, unnerved by his raw masculinity and secretly, scandalously drawn to his potent magnetism, Willa obstinately vowed to defy the formidable loner at every turn. But when danger loomed, his powerful broad shoulders protected her. His brotherly brood rallied around. And her aching heart slowly awakened to the power of love. Aghast, Willa began wishing that the will that had undone her…would weave the ties that bind. Willa wore her pride like an iron cloak. But damned if she didn’t look fantastic. She had obviously just washed her hair, and the scent of jasmine drifting from it had nearly driven him wild. Usually she wore her hair in a braid or pulled back with a clip. Tonight that glorious ebony mane hung loose and arrow straight almost to her waist. Zach’s fingers itched to dive into that thick mass, feel it warm against his skin, slithering through his fingers. Mahoney, what the hell are you doing fantasizing about Willa Simmons? There was no way he was getting involved with that little spitfire. Sure, they’d shared one mind-blowing kiss, but so what? She wasn’t his type. He preferred women who were sweet and gentle and domestic. Not temperamental tomboys. Zach watched Willa disappear into the upstairs hallway. “Damn prickly woman. One of these days you’re going to collapse under the weight of that chip on your shoulder. If I don’t break through it first, that is.” Dear Reader, May marks the celebration of “Get Caught Reading,” a national campaign the Association of American Publishers created to promote the sheer joy of reading. “Get Caught Reading” may be a phrase that’s familiar to you, but if not, we hope you’ll familiarize yourself with it by picking up the wonderful selections that Silhouette Special Edition has to offer…. Former NASA engineer Laurie Paige says that when she was young, she checked out The Little Engine That Could from the library fifty times. “I read it every week,” Laurie recalls. “I was so astounded that the library would lend books to me for free. I’ve been an avid reader ever since.” Though Laurie Paige hasn’t checked out her favorite childhood storybook for a while, she now participates in several local literacy fund-raisers and reads to young children in her community. Laurie is also a prolific writer, with nearly forty published Silhouette titles, including this month’s Something To Talk About. Don’t miss the fun when a once-burned rancher discovers that the vivacious amnesiac he’s helping turns out to be the missing Stockwell heiress in Jackie Merritt’s The Cattleman and the Virgin Heiress. And be sure to catch all of THE CALAMITY JANES, five friends sharing the struggles and celebrations of life, starting with Do You Take This Rebel? by Sherryl Woods. And what happens when Willa and Zach learn they both inherited the same ranch? Find out in The Ties That Bind by Ginna Gray. Be sure to see who will finish first in Patricia Hagan’s Race to the Altar. And Judith Lyons pens a highly emotional tale with Lt. Kent: Lone Wolf. So this May, make time for books. Remember how fun it is to browse a bookstore, hold a book in your hands and discover new worlds on the printed page. Best, Karen Taylor Richman Senior Editor The Ties That Bind Ginna Gray www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) GINNA GRAY A native Houstonian, Ginna Gray admits that, since childhood, she has been a compulsive reader as well as a head-in-the-clouds dreamer. Long accustomed to expressing her creativity in tangible ways—Ginna also enjoys painting and needlework—she finally decided to try putting her fantasies and wild imaginations down on paper. The result? The mother of two now spends eight hours a day as a full-time writer. Contents Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Prologue Welcome to Clear Water, Montana—Population 1,474 Scanning the sign at the edge of town, Zach Mahoney grimaced. “What the devil are you doing, Mahoney? You should be halfway to Sedona by now, not wasting time on a fool’s errand,” he muttered to himself. At the time he’d agreed to this crazy plan he’d been reeling from shock. If he’d been thinking straight he would have told J.T. and Matt to count him out. Hell, he had a good mind to turn his rig around and head for Sedona, and the devil take it. Zach ground his teeth, knowing he wouldn’t. He didn’t break his word. Besides, Kate would give him a tongue-lashing that would blister his eardrums if he didn’t see this thing through. His sister, like most women, got emotional when it came to family. The two-lane highway ran through the center of town, and past the Mountain Shadows Motel on the northern edge. Zach parked his motor home in front of the motel and climbed out. Inside, he learned from the desk clerk that J.T. and Matt were having lunch across the street at a place called Hodie’s. They’d left a message for him to join them there. Back out on the sidewalk Zach paused to replace his hat and look around. Clear Water nestled in a north/south valley with rolling foothills to the east and the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the west. Other than the spectacular setting, the place was typical of hundreds of other western towns he’d seen while traveling the rodeo circuit—small, sleepy and rugged, a dot of what passed for civilization in a land of incomparable wild beauty. Though it was April, snow still covered the mountains. They glittered a blinding white in the bright sunshine, and the breeze that swept down their rugged slopes held a bite. Tugging the rolled brim of his Stetson lower over his eyes, Zach huddled deeper into his coat and headed across the street toward Hodie’s Bar and Grill. Like many western “watering holes,” Hodie’s was a combination restaurant, pool hall and bar. It took a few seconds for Zach’s eyes to adjust to the dimness inside, but when they did he homed in on the two men in a corner booth and headed in that direction. J.T. was the first to spot him. “Hey, Zach, you made it. Good to see you, bro. Have a seat,” he offered, sliding over to make room. The appellation jarred Zach, but his expression remained carefully impassive. He hung his hat and coat on the brass hook attached to the end of the booth and slid onto the bench seat. Across the table he met Matt’s penetrating gaze. More reserved than J.T., he merely nodded and said simply, “Zach.” “You’re just in time to join us for lunch.” “No thanks. I’ve already eaten. I’ll just have a cup of coffee.” Righting the upside-down crockery mug in front of him, Zach signaled to the waitress. “You sure you don’t want something to eat? This place doesn’t look like much, I know, but the food is great. I had dinner here last night after I got in.” “No, I’m good.” “How about—” “He said he didn’t want anything,” Matt growled. “Let him be.” “Hey, I was just being friendly. Something you should try once in a while, bro.” Matt gave him a laser look. Unfazed, J.T. grinned back. Zach took a sip of coffee. The brew scalded his tongue, but drinking it gave him an excuse to remain silent and observe. No matter how hard he tried, he still had difficulty accepting that he and these two men were brothers. It just didn’t seem possible. Which, he supposed, was normal, given the circumstances. Hell, until six weeks ago, when J.T. and Matt had tracked him down and broken the news to him, he’d had no idea he even had brothers. Learning at age thirty-five that he was one of a set of triplets had been a shocker. At first he’d been certain they were trying to pull some sort of con, and he’d flatly refused to believe them. To be honest, he hadn’t wanted to believe them. Kate was his family—all the family he needed. However, there was proof. Most conclusive of which was the odd irregular-cut wedge of flat silver that each wore on a chain around his neck—a token from a birth mother none of them could remember. Unconsciously, Zach raised his hand and rubbed his through his shirt. The three jagged, pie-shaped wedges fit together perfectly to form a silver medallion. When whole, etched on one side was an R with a curved line under it, on the other side, in block print were the words, Rocking R Ranch and a post office box in Clear Water, Montana. Beneath the address were the words, “Your Heritage.” Whoever she was, for whatever reason, the woman who had given each of them life had left this fragile link to one another and to their past. Even so…it was still difficult to believe that they were related. They seemed to be as different in every way as any three men could be. Other than all being six feet two inches tall and having the same general build, they looked nothing alike. Well…maybe, if you looked hard enough, you could see a slight resemblance between J.T. and Matt. They both had vivid blue eyes and dark hair, but Matt’s was black, whereas J.T.’s was a mahogany-brown. Zach’s own hair was the color of pale wheat, and if he spent too much time in the sunshine without a hat it bleached almost white, and his eyes were green. The differences between the three of them went deeper than looks, though. Their personalities were nothing at all alike. A former detective with the Houston police, Matt was tough and taciturn. To Zach’s eye, he had the look of a man who had seen too much of life’s seamy side to have any illusions left. On the surface, J.T. appeared to be a lightweight. Movie-star handsome, charming to the ladies and amiable, he seemed to take little seriously. Before quitting his job to try his hand at novel writing, he’d been an investigative reporter for a Houston newspaper—an occupation that had often put him at odds with Matt. It did, however, require intelligence, talent and tenacity, and that made Zach wonder just how much of J.T.’s affability was a clever ploy he used to put people at ease to gain their trust. He’d read J.T.’s first manuscript, and it was gut-wrenching, insightful and hard-hitting, hardly the work of a shallow playboy. “By the way, Kate sends her love.” Zach turned his head and fixed J.T. with an unwavering look. “How is she?” “Terrific. And happy. Did you think she wouldn’t be?” Zach let the question hang between them for several seconds, his eyes narrowing, searching J.T.’s face for the truth. To his credit, J.T. met the stare without flinching. At last Zach shrugged, which was as close to an apology as he intended to get. “I just can’t get used to you being married to my sister, is all.” “Jeez, man, you make it sound like incest. Kate’s your adoptive sister. You’re not related by blood.” “Yeah, well, we grew up together. She seems a damn sight more like kin than you do.” Matt snorted. “I can sympathize with you there. My last eleven years as a cop, back when J.T. was a reporter, he was a constant thorn in my side. Imagine what a kick in the head it was for me when I found out that he was my brother. The two of us made the connection seven months ago and I still haven’t gotten used to the idea.” “Hey, it was no thrill for me, either,” J.T. fired back, his perpetual good humor for once slipping. “But it’s a fact, so we’re all just going to have to deal with it.” “True. Maybe it’ll be easier once we know more. Soon as we eat, we’ll get directions to the Rocking R Ranch.” Zach frowned. “Are you two sure you want to do this?” Matt gave him a sharp look, his coffee mug poised halfway to his mouth. “Why? Don’t you?” “I just don’t see the point.” “The point is to get some answers. Maybe meet our mother. Find out why she gave us up.” “Why bother? Look, I’ve always known I was adopted, and it’s never bothered me. Why should it? No kid could’ve asked for better parents than the Mahoneys. I’ve sure as hell never felt deprived or been haunted by nightmares, or even felt any curiosity about my biological parents. Maybe you two have some unresolved issues, but I don’t. The way I figured it, our mother gave us away, so why should we go searching for her? As far as I’m concerned, the past is past. I say let it go.” Matt looked at J.T. “He has a point.” J.T. snapped, “Look, we’re entitled to some answers. At the very least, we should find out our family’s medical history in case any of us ever has kids of our own.” “I guess you’re right,” Matt conceded. “Anyway, Maude Ann and Kate would kill us all if we didn’t see this through.” “Okay, fine. As soon as you two finish eating we’ll go out to the ranch and get this over with. I wanta be outta here by morning. I got two days to get to my next rodeo.” The waitress, a plump, fiftyish woman, bustled up to the table. “Here you go, fellas. Anything else I can ge—” Her breezy chatter ended abruptly when she glanced at Zach. Her jaw dropped almost to her chest. “Oh, my stars! You’re Colleen Rafferty’s boy, aren’t you?” Zach exchanged a quick look with Matt and J.T. “Maybe.” “Maybe? You mean you don’t know?” “No, ma’am. I was adopted when I was two. All three of us were.” “All three of you?” Her gaze bounced from one man to the other. “You mean…you’re triplets?” “Yes, ma’am.” “Oh, my stars.” “Actually, we came here looking for our birth mother. We have information that she might be from around here,” J.T. said. “Maybe you could help us.” “Well, boys, there’s not a doubt in my mind that your mother is Colleen Rafferty. She had a very distinctive face.” She smiled at Zach. “You, young man, are the spitting image of her. And I oughta know. Colleen and I were best friends. By the way, my name is Jan Prescott.” “Nice to meet you, Ms. Prescott. I’m Zach Mahoney, and these are my brothers, Matt Dolan and J.T. Conway.” “Three different names. Oh, that’s just so sad.” “So her name was Rafferty,” Matt said. “Can we assume that has something to do with the Rocking R Ranch? And that she’s connected to the owners?” “I should say so. That ranch has been in Colleen’s family for four generations. Her great-great-grandfather, Ransom Patrick Rafferty, was one of the first settlers around these parts. For the last fifty years or so the ranch has belonged to her daddy, Seamus Rafferty.” Jan Prescott sniffed. “A meaner old coot you’ll never meet, I’m sorry to tell you.” “Does Colleen still live at the ranch?” “Oh, dear, I’m afraid not. Colleen lit out of here close to thirty-six years ago, as I recall. Just boarded a bus one day without a word to anyone, not even me. No one around these parts has seen hide nor hair of her since. “The rumor going around at the time was that she was pregnant. Back in those days that was a disgrace. I didn’t believe it. Gave a few folks a good dressing-down for even suggesting it. But, seeing as how you boys are here, looks like it was true.” “Could you give us directions to the Rocking R?” Matt asked. “Sure. Just follow the highway north about ten miles and you’ll see the sign.” She hesitated, gnawing at her bottom lip, looking from one to the other. “Look, fellas, I feel it’s only fair to warn you, Seamus Rafferty is meaner than a snake. He’s not gonna take kindly to you showing up on his doorstep. Fact is, you’ll be lucky if he doesn’t run you off at gun-point.” “We still have to give it a shot,” J.T. said. “We’re not here to cause trouble,” Matt added. “All we want is some information.” “Yeah, well, good luck getting it. Regardless of how it turns out, though, I want you to know that I’m just pleased as punch that I got to meet Colleen’s boys. An’ I sure hope you get the answers you want,” she added, but her expression said she didn’t think much of their chances. After turning in at the ranch entrance they drove several more miles without seeing anything but rich, rolling grassland on either side of the SUV. The land rose and dipped in undulating waves, stretching out as far as the eye could see to the east, north and south and to the base of the mountains to the west. Patches of snow still dotted the winter-brown pastures, but in protected spots green shoots poked up to brave the chill. Here and there stands of pine and spruce broke up the rolling landscape. Placid cattle grazed on either side of the narrow dirt road. Now this was prime ranch land, Zach thought. Exactly the kind of spread he’d always dreamed of owning. His mouth twisted. Yeah, right. In your dreams, Mahoney. If he saved his money until he was ninety, he’d never have enough to purchase a place even a fraction the size of this one. The road went down a long incline into a wide, gently rolling valley. At its center sat the ranch house, a sturdy, sprawling, two story structure made of logs and stone. The logs were stained dark brown, the shutters and trim painted cream. A wide porch spanned the considerable width of the house, front and back. It had the look of permanence, as though it had been sitting there for a hundred years or more. A couple hundred yards or so behind the house, cowboys worked in and around a maze of corrals and the gargantuan barn. Beyond that a bunkhouse, several open-sided hay barns and other outbuildings, which Zach knew probably housed tractors and cattle trailers and other ranch equipment, were scattered around. It was as fine a setup as he’d ever seen…and he’d darn near sell his soul to own it. A Border collie lay sleeping in a patch of sunshine on the porch. When Matt drove up to the front of the house the animal sprang to her feet and streaked down the steps, barking furiously. Zach, Matt and J.T. climbed out of the SUV, and the dog continued to growl. Following Zach’s lead, they let her sniff their hands. When she was satisfied, the men went up the walk and climbed the steps, the Collie trotting along beside them, tail wagging. Their knock was answered by an elderly Hispanic woman. “?S?, se?ors?” Her face went slack with shock and she clasped her face between her palms. “?Aiee! ?Madre de Dios! It is you! Se?orita Colleen’s muchachos!” Before any of them could respond the woman surged forward, hugging first one, then the other, weeping and babbling in an incoherent mix of English and Spanish. “Dammit to hell, Maria! What in tarnation are you caterwauling about!” a male voice inside the house bellowed. Boot heels hammered across the foyer an instant before a gray-haired man appeared in the doorway. Backing up a step, Maria wrung her hands, her worried gaze bouncing back and forth between the four males. The old man’s weathered skin resembled aged leather. He was shorter than Zach and his brothers by about two inches and lean to the point of boniness, but he looked as tough as a pine knot. “Whoever you are and whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested, so get the hell off my property.” As he spoke the old man’s gaze skimmed over them, then did a double take, flashing back to Zach. His faded blue eyes narrowed and sharpened as recognition dawned. He stared for the space of three heartbeats before switching to the other two men. Zach would not have thought it possible, but the old man’s expression grew even harder, and his eyes narrowed with pure hatred when his gaze settled on J.T. “So…she whelped three of you, did she?” Maria made a distressed sound, which drew the old man’s attention. “Get back to your duties, woman. This is no business of yours.” “Are you Seamus Rafferty?” “That I am.” His flinty stare returned to J.T. “My name is Zach Mahoney. These are my brother’s, Matt Dolan and J.T. Conway. We’re here because—” “I know who you are,” the old man snapped. “No matter what you call yourselves, you’re still Colleen’s bastards.” He jabbed a bony forefinger at the end of J.T.’s nose. “This one is a dead ringer for Mike Reardon, the sorry, no-good saddle tramp who seduced my daughter. And you.” He turned his head and looked at Zach. “You’re the image of her.” “So I’ve been told.” Seamus turned his attention on Matt. “Now, you—you don’t favor either of them. You’re just a mutt mixture of both.” He looked down at Matt’s cane, and his mouth curled with contempt. “Got a gimp leg, I see. Not much use to anyone, are you?” Matt’s jaw tightened and his piercing blue eyes flamed. Zach made a subtle shift, placing himself between Matt and the old man. “We’re looking for some information. We’re hoping you can help us.” Seamus Rafferty’s hard stare swung to Zach and held for an interminable time. Finally he snapped, “Come in. I don’t conduct business on the porch.” He stomped back inside, leaving them no choice but to follow. As they walked through the entry hall a young woman dressed in snug-fitting jeans and a Western-style shirt and boots descended the stairs. She was small and wand slim. At first glance Zach took her for a teenager, but drawing nearer he realized she was in her mid-twenties. Her skin was ivory, her eyes blue, her hair black. The thick mane hung down her back almost to her waist, arrow straight and as shiny as polished ebony. Though she appeared to wear no makeup she had the kind of delicate beauty that took your breath away. Zach wondered who she was. Another of Seamus’s grandchildren, perhaps? Or a late-in-life child? Or perhaps his wife? The last thought was so distasteful Zach dismissed it immediately. The woman came to a halt on the bottom stair as they walked by, but even so she was still not eye-level with Zach. He realized that she could be no more than five feet two or three—and that her eyes were not blue at all, but a startling violet. He thought surely Seamus would stop and introduce them, but the old man stomped past the stairs without so much as a glance in her direction. “Seamus?” she called after him. “What’s going on?” The husky contralto coming from such a small, delicate woman surprised Zach, but he was given no opportunity to contemplate its sexy quality. “This has nothing to do with you, Willie. Go on about your own business girl, and keep your nose out of mine.” He led them into a walnut-paneled office, took a seat behind a massive desk, then motioned impatiently to the leather sofa and chairs by the fire. When they were seated he glared at them. “Well?” “We came here hoping we’d find our mother, but we learned in town that she left here years ago,” J.T. said. “We’re hoping that you can tell us how we can get in touch with her.” Seamus snorted. “You expect me to believe that’s all you want? Do you take me for a fool?” “I don’t think you want me to answer that.” Matt’s quiet comment gleaned a dagger stare from Seamus, but J.T. hurried on. “I don’t know what you think we’re after, but I assure you, we did come here to look for our mother.” “You can’t assure me of anything. I don’t trust you any more than I trusted that no-good daddy of yours.” A muscle in J.T.’s cheek began to tic and his smiled slipped a bit. “Nevertheless, it’s true. We were adopted by different families, and until late last summer, none of us knew the other existed. Matt and I made the initial connection by accident.” “With these,” Matt said, pulling his medallion piece out from beneath his shirt and whipping it off over his head. Zach and J.T. quickly followed suit. Gathering the three pie-shaped wedges, Zach rose and laid them on the desk in front of Seamus. With one finger, he slid the pieces of silver together into a perfect fit. The old man leaned over, scowling as he read the inscription. “J.T. located Zach a few months ago,” Matt continued. “Now we’re trying to find our mother. Or, failing that, to at least learn what we can about her. We were hoping you could help us.” “You’re barking up the wrong tree. I got nothing to say. That ungrateful girl has been dead to me since the day she confessed that she’d gotten herself knocked up. I threw her out and told her to never come back.” “For getting pregnant?” J.T. looked dumbfounded. “Women have babies out of wedlock all the time. Some are even planned.” “Not thirty-six years ago they didn’t,” the old man snapped. “And I wouldn’t stand for it today, either. I’ll have no harlots or bastards in my family.” “How about her belongings?” Matt inquired. “She must have left something here. Could we take a look at those?” “Burned it all years ago.” Seamus put his hands flat on the desktop and levered himself to his feet. “Let’s cut the crap. I know damned well you didn’t come here looking for your tramp of a mother. You came hoping to get your hands on this ranch. Well, I’m telling you that just ain’t gonna happen. The Rocking R isn’t going to fall into the hands of Mike Reardon’s by-blows.” He thumped the desktop with the side of his fist. “By heaven, I’ll give the place away before I’ll let that happen.” “That’s it. I’m outta here. I told you two this was a bad idea.” Zach headed toward the door. “He’s right. C’mon. We don’t have to take this.” Using his cane, Matt levered himself to his feet and followed. Zach snatched open the door and strode out—and barreled into the young woman they had seen a few moments before. She hit his chest with an “Oof!” and bounced off. “Damn.” Zach grabbed her shoulders to keep her from falling, set her aside with a terse, “Excuse me, miss,” and continued on toward the entrance. He had a fleeting impression of startled violet eyes and skin like ivory silk, but beyond that he paid her no mind. He was too intent on getting the hell away from Seamus Rafferty before he lost his temper and planted his fist right in the old coot’s sneering face—grandfather or no. “Seamus, is something wrong?” the woman asked as Matt and J.T. trooped past in Zach’s wake. “Who are those men?” Neither Zach nor his brothers waited around to hear the old man’s answer. “Of all the foul-tempered, suspicious, spiteful old bastards!” Matt snarled the instant they gained the front porch. “Yeah, Gramps is a bit of a disappointment.” “If that’s supposed to be funny—” “Knock it off, both of you.” Zach fixed his brothers with a hard look. “We gave it our best shot and got nowhere. Now can we just drop this whole thing and forget about the past?” “Suits me.” “I don’t think we ought to give up,” J.T. argued. Matt spat out an expletive and rolled his eyes. “Look, you do what you want, but I’m out of here,” Zach said. “As soon as we get back to town, I’m heading for Sedona.” “?Pssst! ?Se?ors! ?Se?ors!” As one, they turned to see the woman Seamus had called Maria peeking nervously from around a forsythia at the corner of the house. “I must speak with you, por favor. Es muy importante.” The brothers exchanged a brief look and moved down the porch to the woman’s hiding place. “Yes?” Clutching a flat cardboard box to her breasts, Maria glanced around nervously. “You wish to know about Se?orita Colleen, s?? Sus madre?” “Yes,” J.T. replied. “Do you know where she is?” A stricken expression flashed over the woman’s face. “I…” She shook her head, then cast a quick look over her shoulder and thrust the shirt-size box into Zach’s hands. “You take this, se?or. La se?orita sent it to me over thirty years ago.” “What is it?” “Her diario. How you say…journal. Also a photograph that I hid from Se?or Rafferty so he would not burn it. Se?orita Colleen, she beg me not to tell her padre I have the journal.” Matt snorted. “She probably knew he’d destroy it, like he did the rest of her stuff.” Maria nodded. “S?, it is so. La se?orita, she want me to keep the diario safe and give it to her muchachos if you ever come here. I am an old woman. I begin to think you will not come while I still live.” A door slammed at the back of the house and Seamus bellowed, “Dammit, Maria! Where the hell are you?” She jumped guiltily. “I must go.” Grasping Zach’s arm, she urged, “Por favor. Read the diario. All your questions, they will be answered.” “To save time, I think we should read it out loud,” Zach suggested when he and his brothers entered Matt’s motel room a short while later. “Good idea.” J.T. stretched out on one of the double beds and laced his fingers together behind his head. “Why don’t you start?” Matt sat on the edge of the other bed, and Zach settled into one of the room’s two chairs. Almost reverently, he lifted the cover off the box and found himself staring at a photograph of a young girl of about eighteen. She was more striking than beautiful—a female version of the face he saw in the mirror each day—the same blond hair and green eyes, the same thin, straight nose, sharp cheekbones and strong jaw. Her mouth was a bit fuller and softer than his own, but the shape was identical. It was eerie, looking at that face. The short hairs on Zach’s nape and forearms stood on end. No wonder the waitress at Hodie’s had been so shocked. And why Seamus had known instantly who they were. While his brothers studied the photograph, Zach lifted the diary out of the box. The cheap vinyl cover was cracked and split and the pages felt brittle, the edges brown with age. He looked at Matt and J.T. and cocked one eyebrow. “You ready?” An edgy awareness that they were about to uncover their past pulsed in the air. “Yeah, we’re ready,” J.T. said, and Matt nodded agreement. Zach cleared his throat and turned to the first entry. “‘September 21st. I’m so scared. I’m on my way to Houston, but I don’t know what I’ll do if my mother’s aunt Clara won’t take me in. She’s elderly, and I barely know her, but other than Daddy she’s my only living relative. She never had children of her own, and when she came to the ranch for a visit a few years ago she was kind to me and urged me to come stay with her for as long as I liked. I just pray the invitation will still be open after I tell her about my condition. “‘September 22nd. Heaven help me, I’m too late. I arrived at Aunt Clara’s this afternoon and found her house full of people. They had just come from her funeral. “‘I got hysterical, and I must have fainted. A while ago I woke up and found myself lying on a bed in my aunt’s guest room. A lady was here with me. She introduced herself as Dr. Chloe Nesbitt and said she had been my aunt’s doctor and friend. Then she asked if I was pregnant. “‘When I finally bawled out my story, Dr. Nesbitt was very kind. She said she would talk to Aunt Clara’s pastor about my situation. In the meantime, she was sure that I could stay here, at least until the estate is settled. She told me to get some rest and not to worry. “‘How can I not worry? My darling Mike is dead, Daddy has tossed me out, I’m alone in a strange town where I know no one, I have no job, no money, no training other than ranch work and I’m expecting a child in five months! What am I going to do? “‘September 23rd. I can’t believe it! Just when things look hopeless, a miracle has happened. Dr. Nesbitt returned this morning with Reverend Clayton and my aunt’s attorney, Mr. Lloyd Thomas. Mr. Thomas said that as my aunt’s only kin, I will inherit her entire estate! It isn’t a great fortune—a modest savings and this small house, is all—but it’s a roof over my head, and if I’m careful, the money will see me through until the baby is born and I can get a job. Bless you, Aunt Clara.’” For the next hour Zach read from the diary. It told of Colleen’s struggle to make the money last, her fear of living alone for the first time in her life, of being in a strange place, her shock and joy when she found out she was expecting triplets, and her worries over how she could support herself and three babies. Underlying it all was a desperate loneliness that colored every word and wrung Zach’s heart. Reverend Clayton and Dr. Nesbitt figured prominently in the entries over the next few months. The doctor saw Colleen through her pregnancy, and the reverend and others in his congregation took a special interest in her, offering spiritual guidance and practical assistance and advice. “‘January 24th. Reverend Clayton is urging me to put my babies up for adoption as soon as they’re born. He thinks that would be best—for them, and for me. Perhaps he’s right. I don’t know. But, God help me, I can’t. I just can’t. I love them so much already. Every time I feel them move, my heart overflows. I cannot bear to give them up, to have them whisked away from me the second they are born and never get to see their sweet faces, never get to hold them. No. No, I can’t give them up. I love them. And they are all I have left of Mike.’” Zach’s throat grew so tight he had difficulty forming the words. He thrust the diary into Matt’s hands. “Here. It’s your turn,” he said in a gruff voice. Matt swung his legs up onto the bed and leaned back against a mound of pillows and continued. “‘February 7th. I’m the mother of three beautiful, healthy boys! They arrived yesterday, two weeks early, but Dr. Nesbitt says they are all doing fine. I have named them Matthew Ryan, Zachariah Aiden and Jedediah Tiernan.’” “Jedediah Tiernan!” Matt hooted. “No wonder you go by J.T.” “Stuff it, Dolan.” “Do you two mind? Could we just get on with this?” “Okay, okay.” Picking up where he left off, Matt continued. “‘February 9th. Reverend Clayton came by during visiting hours. He offered me a job working in the church’s day care center. The pay isn’t much, but Reverend Clayton says I can bring the babies to the center. That means I won’t have to be separated from them or have the expense of child care. The reverend is such a good man. I don’t know what I would do without his help and support. “‘February 10th. The first day home with the boys. I had no idea babies were so much work. I’ll write more later when I’m not so exhausted.’” The entry was typical of the ones during the following year. A picture began to emerge of a young girl struggling to support and nurture three babies alone. To make ends meet she took in ironing in the evenings and on weekends, often working late into the night. A few weeks before their first birthday Colleen began to mention that she wasn’t feeling well. By the end of February her boss at the day care center insisted that she see a doctor, in case she had something contagious. Then came the entry that stunned Zach and his brothers. “‘March 5th. I have advanced ovarian cancer.’” “Ah, hell,” Zach swore and raked a hand through his hair. “Yeah,” J.T. agreed in a subdued tone. “After all she’d already been through, she sure didn’t deserve that.” Swinging his legs over the side, Matt sat on the edge of the bed. “Funny. That possibility never occurred to me. I always assumed she gave me away because she didn’t want me.” “Deep down, I think we all did,” Zach said quietly. “We were too young to understand anything else.” Matt thought that over, then nodded and resumed reading. “‘Dear Lord, what am I going to do? I can’t afford to be sick. My babies need me. On top of that, I have no idea how I’ll pay for the treatment, but without it I’ll surely die. What will become of the boys if that happens? Daddy won’t have them. Even if he would, I don’t want my boys to grow up under his iron-fisted rule or to bear the brunt of his hatred for their father. God help me. And them. “‘March 6th. I started treatment today. Feel even worse. Nausea is awful.’” For the next eight months the entries were about the treatment and the ghastly side effects. And her growing financial worries. Within weeks she could no longer work. It was all she could manage to take care of her three toddlers. Left with no alternative, she was forced to go on welfare. Despite aggressive treatment, her condition continued to worsen, and in December, after nine months of struggle, Colleen accepted the inevitable and wrote of her decision to ask Reverend Clayton help her find homes for her sons. “‘November 23rd. Reverend Clayton and Mr. Thomas, Aunt Clara’s attorney, are handling the adoptions. I would like to interview the prospective couples myself, but the family court judge will not allow it. Even though these are private adoptions he demands complete anonymity on both sides, and afterward the adoption records will be sealed. “‘The reverend and Mr. Thomas have tried but they couldn’t find a family willing to take three two-year-olds so it appears the boys will have to go to different couples. Oh, how I hate to think of them being separated. They are not only losing me, but each other, as well. But what choice do I have? “‘January 10th. Reverend Clayton has selected three couples. I trust his judgment and I’m sure they will all be wonderful parents, but I can’t quite bring myself to commit to them. It shreds my heart just to think about handing my babies over to strangers and never seeing them again. For the boys’ sake, though, I have to stop being selfish. They are typical rambunctious toddlers, and I’m so weak now and in so much pain that I can barely get out of bed some days. I worry that I’m not giving them proper care. “‘January 15th. Well, I’ve done it. I’ve agreed to the adoptions and signed all the papers. Reverend Clayton had the medallion made and cut, like I asked him, and all the couples have agreed to give them to the boys when they are older. I just hope that someday it will help them find one another again.’” Matt turned the page, scanned it, then flipped over several more before turning back. “Looks like there’s just one more entry. After that there are just blank pages.” “Go ahead. Let’s hear it,” J.T. said. “‘February 24th. Today was the worst day of my life. I gave my babies away. Two social workers came and took them. I cuddled and kissed them for the last time, and I think they knew something was wrong. As they were being carried out they screamed and cried and held their arms out to me, calling ‘Mommie! Mommie!’ It broke my heart. Dear Lord, it hurts. It hurts so much I don’t think I can bear it. I want to die. Without my babies I have nothing to live for. Please, God. Please. Let me die now. Please.’” Matt exhaled a long sigh and slowly closed the journal. A heavy silence hung in the room. Colleen Rafferty was dead. The rush of disappointment and grief took Zach by surprise. For Pete’s sake. He had no memories of her. Until he’d seen that photograph he hadn’t even known what she looked like. Why did it bother him so much to learn that she was dead? “Well, that’s it. Now we know,” J.T. said finally. Zach gave a little snort. “Yeah. Now we know. For all the good it did us.” Chapter One The horse snorted and danced in the narrow chute. His ears lay back flat to his head and his eyes rolled, showing white all around. “Better watch ’im, Zach. This here’s one mean side-winder,” one of the handler’s cautioned. Zach nodded, studying the furious bronc with satisfaction. Hellbent was a good draw. Zach knew if he could hang on for the count he’d finish in the money. Maybe even in first place. Ignoring the canned music and the announcer’s deep baritone blaring from the speakers, the crowd cheering on the contestant in the ring, he kept a wary eye on the fractious animal and eased down from his perch on the side of the chute and into the saddle. Immediately he felt the horse’s muscles bunch. Squeezing his knees tighter, he wound the reins around his left hand. “Up next in the chute, from Gold Fever, Colorado, is Zach Mahoney.” A cheer went up, and Hellbent tried to rear, hammering the gate with his hooves. “Zach is— Whoa! Watch out there, Zach. You got yourself a mean one today.” Between them, Zach and the handlers subdued the horse, but he felt the animal quiver with rage and knew he was in for a wild ride. He tugged his Stetson down more snugly on his head. Wrapping the reins tighter around his gloved hand, he adjusted his position and paused to gather his focus. When he was ready, he raised his right hand. The gate flew open and Hellbent leaped out into the arena, eleven hundred pounds of bucking, snorting fury, his massive body arching and twisting and spinning. Zach’s hat went flying on the third buck. In rhythm with the violent movements, he raked his blunted spurs over the horse’s shoulders and kept his right hand high in the air while his upper body flopped back and forth in the saddle like a rag doll. Every time Hellbent’s front hooves hit the ground Zach felt the jarring impact shoot up his spine all the way to the top of his head. The crowd in the stands became a blur as the horse spun and pitched and did everything in his power to dislodge him. Never had eight seconds seemed so long. Zach’s thigh muscles began to quiver from the strain of gripping the horse’s flanks, but he gritted his teeth and hung on. After what seemed like forever, in his peripheral vision he saw a pickup rider move in, and an instant later the horn blared, signaling the end of the ride. Zach grabbed the pickup rider’s arm and shoulder, lunged from the saddle and swung to the ground. “What a great ride! Let’s give Zach a big hand, folks,” the announcer urged. While the crowd clapped and cheered and the pickup riders caught Hellbent and led him away, Zach scooped up his hat, gave it three hard knocks against his pant leg to remove the dust, set it back on his head and ambled for the pens, doing his best to not limp. With each step pain shot through his left leg and hip—a nasty little memento from the enraged bull that had given him a toss four days ago. Damn. He was getting too old for this. Most of the cowboys on the rodeo circuit were in their twenties. Some were even in their teens. Zach’s mouth took on a wry twist. Yeah, and there’s a reason for that, Mahoney, he thought. By age thirty-six they’re either too busted up to compete or they’ve wised up. Not until Zach reached the exit gate did he allow himself to look over his shoulder and check his score. Yes! The ride had put him in the lead. Not bad for an old man. By the time he made his way through the clutch of riders and handlers and accepted their congratulations, the last contestant was picking himself up out of the dirt, and Zach knew he’d won the top purse in the bronc riding event. Maybe even Best All Around, as well, but he wouldn’t know that for an hour or so when all the events were over. He’d come back then for the finale, but in the meantime he was going to his RV to apply heat to his aching hip and leg. After retrieving his saddle and bridle, Zach slung them over his shoulder and headed back to his motor home in the camping area behind the rodeo arena. Halfway there a man in a FedEx uniform intercepted him with an overnight letter. Zach frowned. Who the devil would be sending him a registered letter? He turned the envelope this way and that, but the return address was too faint to make out in the dim light of the parking lot. When he stepped into the RV his cell phone was ringing. Zach dumped the saddle and bridle just inside the door, tossed his Stetson on the sofa and snatched it up. “Yeah, Mahoney here.” “Zach, it’s J.T.” Surprise darted through him. He hadn’t heard directly from either of his brothers since they’d they parted company in Clear Water, Montana, nine months ago. No matter how much Kate and Matt’s wife, Maude Ann, might wish otherwise, the brotherly connection just wasn’t there. “Yeah, what’s up?” “Have you gotten an overnight letter from the Manning and Manning law firm yet?” Zach checked out the return address on the envelope he still held. “It just came. I haven’t had a chance to open it yet. How did you know about it?” “Because Matt and I each received the same letter a couple of hours ago.” “Oh? What’s going on?” “You’re not going to believe this. The letters are from Seamus Rafferty’s attorney, Edward Manning, notifying us of the old man’s death and that we’re beneficiaries in his will.” “You’ve got to be kidding.” “Nope. The old coot passed away yesterday. I called the law firm and talked to Edward Manning. He’s waiting to hear from us before scheduling the funeral so he can allow plenty of time for us to get there.” “The hell you say. I’m not going to that old devil’s funeral.” “I understand how you feel. That was Matt’s first reaction. Mine, too. But the Rocking R meant a lot to Colleen. She obviously felt it was our heritage. If Seamus leaves us so much as one square foot of the place, we owe it to her to accept it.” Zach rubbed the back of his neck and looked up at the ceiling, torn between resentment and a nagging sense of obligation and loyalty to the mother he couldn’t remember. Damn. He didn’t need this. Although…J.T. did have a point. He sighed. “All right. I’ll go.” The January wind swooping down the snowy mountain slopes cut to the bone, causing several people to huddle deeper in their coats and shiver. Gray clouds scudded overhead, heavy with the threat of more snow to come. The dank smell of freshly dug, frozen earth hung in the air. From the nearby stand of pines came the raucous cawing of a raven, and in the valley the cattle lowed mournfully, as though aware of the event taking place in the small family cemetery on the slope above the ranch house. “Dear Lord, we commit unto your keeping the soul of Seamus Patrick Rafferty.” The minister picked up a handful of dirt and dropped the frozen clods onto the coffin. “Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. May God have mercy on your soul.” Clutching his Bible to his chest, he lowered his head. “Let us pray.” Reverend Turner’s dolorous voice droned on, but Willa Simmons barely heard him. She was too angry and upset. Refusing to look at the three men standing shoulder to shoulder on the opposite side of the grave, she kept her gaze focused on the casket. They had no right to be there. No right at all. The sun glinted off one of the coffin’s silver handles, and Willa’s eyes narrowed. Her hands curled into fists. It’s your fault that they’re here. Damn you, Seamus. How could you? “Amen,” the reverend intoned, and everyone in the sparse band of mourners echoed the word—all except Seamus’s three grandsons. They stood stony-faced and dry-eyed, as they had throughout the service. Zach Mahoney, Matt and Maude Ann Dolan, J.T. and Kate Conway, Edward Manning, Maria and the ranch hands and herself were the only ones there. A pitiful turn-out for a man’s funeral, Willa thought. It was sad, but Seamus had only himself to blame. Over the years, with the exception of Harold Manning and his son Edward, Seamus had alienated every friend he’d ever had and all of his neighbors and acquaintances around Clear Water. For an awkward moment the cowboys stood with their hats in their hands and shifted from one foot to the other, looking from Willa to Seamus’s grandsons, trying to decide to whom they should offer condolences first. Edward solved the dilemma for them by turning to Willa with a murmured word of sympathy before skirting around the grave to speak to the three brothers and the wives of the two who were married. The reverend did the same, and the relieved hands quickly followed their example. After muttering a few words, each man wasted no time heading down the hill to the bunkhouse, eager to escape the unpleasant duty and shed his Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. When the last cowboy sidled away, Willa slipped her arm through the housekeeper’s. “C’mon, Maria. Let’s go.” “But, Willie, you have not spoken with the se?ors.” “Nor do I intend to.” Unable to resist, Willa glared at the brothers before heading for the gate in the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the cemetery. “Willie? Hold on.” Edward called. The housekeeper turned to wait for the attorney to catch up, leaving Willa no choice but to do the same. Impeccably dressed as always in a custom-tailored suit, silk shirt and tie, and a cashmere overcoat, Edward looked painfully out of place on the ranch. He was huffing by the time he reached them. Exertion and the biting cold had chaffed his cheeks to a ruddy hue and his styled brown hair was windblown. However, if he was annoyed that he’d had to chase after her it didn’t show. His face held only sympathy and tenderness when he took her hand and patted it. “Willie, I know this is rushing things, but since everyone involved is here, I was wondering if we could go ahead with the reading of the will? I have an early appointment in Bozeman tomorrow.” Willa’s gaze shot past him to Seamus’s grandsons and the two women. Resentment flooded her. She had been shocked to learn only the day before that her stepfather had rewritten his will to include Colleen’s sons. Willa had no doubt that Seamus had left each of them a sum of money merely to ease his conscience. Still, just thinking about it made her bristle. “By all means. Let’s get this over with. The sooner they get their windfall, the sooner they’ll leave.” All the parties named in Seamus’s will had gathered in the study when Willa arrived, including Maria, Pete Brewster and Bud Langston, the ranch foreman. Only Edward was missing. Willa took a seat in one of the fireside chairs. Everyone was seated except Zach Mahoney. He stood to one side, by the built-in bookshelves, a little apart from the others, with his suit coat thrust back on either side and his hands in his trouser pockets. While his brothers and their wives talked quietly among themselves, Zach kept silent and waited and watched. Willa eyed him askance, her mouth tightening. She resented all of the interlopers, but especially this one. There was something about Zach Mahoney—something she couldn’t quite put her finger on—that made her edgy and set her temper to simmering. They had barely exchanged half a dozen words, but whenever she was near him her body seemed to hum as though a low-voltage current of electricity were running through her. Surreptitiously, Willa studied him for a clue to what triggered the reaction, but his chiseled face revealed nothing. Zach wasn’t as handsome as J.T., nor did he have Matt’s street-tough appeal, rather he had the weathered ruggedness typical of a Westerner. Even dressed in a suit and tie as he was now, it was apparent in the way he held himself, that loose-limbed walk, and most of all, that aura of quiet strength and self-reliance that radiated from him. Squint lines etched fan patterns at the outer edges of his eyes and deeper ones ran from his nose to the corners of his mouth. Thick, wheat-colored hair created a startling contrast to his tanned skin. A strong, square jaw, straight nose, well-defined lips and cheekbones sharp enough to cut combined to create a face that had a certain masculine appeal, Willa supposed—if you liked those sorts of rough-hewn looks in a man. As though he felt her inspection, Zach turned his head, and their gazes locked. The hum of electricity coursing through her body became a jolt. Determined to not let him fluster her, she ground her teeth to keep from shivering and stared back into those deep-set green eyes. They glittered like gems in his sun-scorched face, giving him the sharp, dangerous look of a hungry wolf. Willa’s heart began to pound and her mouth grew dry, but she could not look away. To her relief, the spell was broken when Edward came striding into the room. “Sorry I’m late. I had to take an urgent call.” He sat at Seamus’s desk, snapped open his briefcase, and withdrew a legal-looking document. “If everyone is ready, I’ll begin.” Edward slipped on a pair of reading glasses and picked up the document. “I, Seamus Patrick Rafferty, being of sound mind…” The first few pages consisted of the usual convoluted legalese, the upshot of which was several small bequests to the University of Montana and a few charitable organizations. Maria, Pete and Bud were each to receive a modest lump sum and a guaranteed pension when they decided to retire, plus the right to remain on the ranch for life in one of the cottages scattered about the property, if they so chose. Turning another page, Edward glanced over his glasses at Willa and the three brothers and cleared his throat. “To my grandsons, Matthew Ryan Dolan, Zachariah Aiden Mahoney and Jedediah Tiernan Conway, and to my stepdaughter, Willa Grace Simmons, I bequeath the remainder of my estate, including the Rocking R Ranch and all its assets, to be shared equally among them.” “What?” Willa shot out of the chair like a bullet. Shaking with fury, she felt the color drain out of her face. “That can’t be! Seamus wouldn’t leave the ranch to them. He swore over and over that he wouldn’t!” “I’m sorry, Willa, but it’s true,” Edward said. “Seamus wasn’t happy about it. However, despite his threats, in the end he couldn’t bear to let the ranch slip out of the family.” Willa opened her mouth to continue, but Edward stopped her. “Before any of you say anything else, you should know there are conditions attached.” “‘Conditions’?” Willa repeated in a voice bordering on hysteria. “Yes. And I feel I must warn you, you’re not going to like them.” “Uh-oh, here it comes,” J.T. drawled. “Yeah,” Matt agreed. “I knew there had to be a catch.” “Exactly what are these conditions?” Zach spoke quietly, never taking his eyes from the attorney. “You must all live here in this house and work the ranch together for a period of one year.” “That’s outrageous! I won’t do it!” Willa declared. “If you don’t—if any of you refuses to accept the conditions, or leaves before the year is up, then none of you inherits. The ranch and all its assets will be sold in a sealed-bid auction. The money from the sale will be held in a trust fund, from which each of you will receive the sum of ten thousand dollars a year. The remainder of the profits from the fund will go to a number of western universities that offer agricultural and ranching studies.” “Who will be the executor of the trust?” Matt made no effort to hide the suspicion in his voice. “I will.” “And the sealed-bid auction? Will you handle that, as well?” “That’s correct.” Edward met Matt’s hard stare. “I know what you’re thinking—that’s a lot of power for one man. You’re right. Normally a board of trustees would oversee a fund of this size and handle the auction, as well. I tried to get your grandfather to set things up that way, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Seamus was a difficult man, as I’m sure you discovered.” “Say we comply with these conditions. What happens at the end of the year?” Zach asked. “At that time, if any of you wants out, you may sell your share of the ranch to one or more of the others, but no one else.” “I should have expected something like this,” Willa railed. “Seamus always was manipulative and controlling. I just never thought he’d go this far.” Seething, she paced to the window with quick, jerky steps, then made a frustrated sound and swung around. “This is intolerable!” Enraged almost beyond bearing, Willa turned the full force of her fury on the brothers, addressing them directly for the first time. “This is all your fault.” “Now wait just a darned minute,” Matt began, but Zach raised his hand and silenced him. He stared at Willa. His face was impassive but those eyes glittered in his tanned face like green ice. “Let’s get something straight right now, Ms. Simmons. Whatever devious reasons Seamus had for making us his heirs, my brothers and I did nothing to influence his decision. We came here last year for one purpose—to find our mother. Failing that, we were hoping to get some information about her. That’s all.” Willa’s chin came up at a challenging angle. “Not according to Seamus. He said you were three greedy opportunists, just like your father had been, and that you came here hoping to get your hands on this ranch. When you found out your scheme wasn’t going to work, you left in a huff.” “That’s not true.” “Oh, right. I’m supposed to believe you? I don’t think so.” “Believe whatever you want. It makes no difference to me. Nor does it change anything.” “It’s just not fair,” she raged. “Your entire lives you spent less than an hour with Seamus. I’ve lived here since I was seven years old.” She thumbed her chest. “I’m the one who worked this ranch every day for the past twenty years, not you three. I’m the one who was here for Seamus. When he got too old to ride a horse, I relayed his orders to the foreman and the men and worked right alongside them. I’m the one who put up with his bad temper and maliciousness. If you hadn’t shown up here, he would have left the ranch to me like he promised.” “Uh, Willie.” Edward’s expression was a mixture of pity and chagrin. “I’m afraid you’re wrong about that.” “What?” Willa stared at him with a blank look. “What do you mean?” “Before Seamus changed his will to include his grandsons, all he was going to leave you was a few thousand dollars. The only reason he gave you a share of the ranch in this will was to irritate them.” Willa swayed and gripped the back of a chair for support. She felt as though she’d been hit in the stomach with a battering ram. “But…but he always said I’d inherit the ranch someday. He said I deserved it because I was the only one who cared, the only one who’d stuck around. He promised! Why would he say that if he didn’t mean it?” “Probably to keep you here. You were a big help to him and he depended on you. As you said, he was good at manipulation. Once he was gone, though, you would no longer be needed.” Another wave of shock slammed into her, and her hold tightened on the chair back, whitening her knuckles. “You mean…are you saying that I would have had to leave the ranch?” “I’m afraid so,” Edward said gently. “The Rocking R would have been sold in a closed-bid auction, just as it will be if any of you refuses to abide by the conditions.” And she would have been left out in the cold. Willa closed her eyes. She knew that later, when the hurt was not so fresh, anger would resurface and come to her rescue, but at that moment all she wanted was to curl up in a tight ball and wail out her misery until she was nothing but a hollow shell. The pain was so great she forgot for a moment where she was, and with whom. Then she opened her eyes and cringed when her gaze fell on the brothers. The knowledge that she had meant so little to Seamus was devastating enough, but having that revealed in front of these men compounded her humiliation. They had the grace to avoid looking at her, but somehow that oblique act of compassion made her feel worse than if they’d gloated, as she had expected them to do. Gathering her tattered pride around her like a cloak, Willa lifted her chin, squared her shoulders and pulled herself up to her full five feet three inches. Ignoring the others, she turned to the attorney. “I’ll challenge the will. Other people heard Seamus promise me the ranch. Maria, for one.” “That’s your right, of course. But you should know it will be expensive and it could take years. In my opinion, in the end you’d lose. I’m telling you this as a friend, Willie, not as your stepfather’s attorney. Trust me, the will is air-tight.” “I see.” Her full mouth folded into a bitter line. “Then I guess I have no choice but to accept the conditions.” “Maybe you don’t have a choice, but we do,” Zach said. “Oh, please.” She shot him a look of patent disbelief. “Surely you don’t expect me to believe that you would actually turn down the bequest. Yeah, right.” “This may come as a shock to you, Ms. Simmons, but we had lives of our own prior to Seamus’s death.” “That’s right,” Matt snapped. “I say to hell with it. And Seamus. I’ll be damned if I’ll let that old tyrant dictate to me how and where I live my life.” “I agree,” J.T. chimed in. Zach nodded. “I’ll admit, that was my first knee-jerk reaction, as well.” “You fools!” Fear that she might actually lose all claim to the ranch wiped away every other consideration. “Do you city slickers have any idea what such a rash decision would cost all of us? What we’d be giving up? I don’t like what Seamus has done any better than you, but only an idiot would toss away a fortune of this size. Tell them, Edward.” The attorney rattled off the appraised value of the ranch and last year’s revenues. Matt let out a low whistle, but J.T. was more vocal. “Holy cow! This place is worth a freakin’ fortune!” “The Rocking R is one of the largest ranches in this part of the country, and our firm’s most important client.” Edward paused. “You have exactly two weeks from today, both to make up your minds and to do whatever you need to do and move in. Once you do that, the year begins.” “Mmm. Two weeks isn’t much time. We need to talk it over before we make a decision,” Zach said. “Of course. I understand.” “Well, I don’t,” Willa snapped. “What is the matter with you people? You can’t seriously be thinking of refusing? No one throws away a chance like this.” “Miss Simmons, if we do this, it’s going to change all of our lives. Yours included. The least we can do is talk it over calmly and take a vote. So why don’t you sit down.” “I don’t need to talk it over. I can give you my vote right now. I detest the very idea of sharing the Rocking R with you people, but this is my home, and I’ll do whatever I have to to keep it. Even if that means putting up with a bunch of greenhorn freeloaders.” She stormed out and slammed the door behind her. Edward winced. “I’m sorry about that. I do hope you’ll excuse Willie.” Standing, he slipped his reading glasses into a leather case and put them and the will into his briefcase and snapped it shut. “I know it doesn’t seem so now, but she’s really a nice person and normally quite good-natured and easy to get along with.” “We understand. She’s upset, and apparently with good reason.” Matt rolled his eyes at his wife’s comment. “Spoken like a psychiatrist. You ask me, she’s a spoiled brat.” “That’s not fair,” Maude Ann protested. “From the sound of it, Seamus has been stringing that poor girl along for years.” “You don’t know the half of it,” Edward said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really must be going. It’s a long way to Bozeman. When you’ve reached a decision, give me a call. If I’m not at my office you can reach me on my cell phone,” he said, handing each of them his business card. He turned to leave, then hesitated. “Uh…it’s true that the Rocking R Ranch is a sizable inheritance, but I feel I must warn you, if you decide to stay you’ll earn every penny you get from it. Running a ranch this size is far from easy, and nothing is guaranteed. A poor calf crop, a string of bad luck, a few slaps from Mother Nature can hurt even a place this size. It won’t be a piece of cake.” Zach didn’t need anyone to tell him about the hardships and perils of ranching. He knew them firsthand. In college he’d earned degrees in ranch management and business and before going out on the rodeo circuit he’d been general manager of the Carter Cattle Company, better known as the Triple C, a huge spread near Ridgeway, Colorado. Zach, however, saw no need to mention that to the attorney. “Well, this is certainly an unexpected turn of events,” Kate said when Edward had gone. “From what you told Maude Ann and me about Seamus, I thought we’d attend a funeral, then go home with five dollars or some such slap-in-the-face bequest.” “Yeah, we all did,” Matt agreed. “I wonder what made the old man change his mind?” “My guess is, during our first visit here he somehow picked up on the strain between us,” Zach said. “The old coot probably took sadistic delight in that. Like Manning said, he cooked up this whole thing to stir up trouble and make claiming the inheritance as difficult as possible.” “Right,” J.T. agreed. “Wherever he is, he’s probably laughing himself silly right now.” “He’s got us in a bind, that’s certain. If just one of us refuses to go along with the conditions, we all lose.” Matt swept the others with a regretful look. “Much as I hate to, I’m afraid I’m going to have to be the bad guy. Maudie and I can’t just abandon Henley Haven and pick up and move here. The kids we foster need her care.” “Yeah, well, if it makes you feel any better, I can’t ask Kate to give up the Alpine Rose, either. Her parents spent years restoring that house and she’s turned it into a profitable business. Added to that, she grew up in Gold Fever. It makes no difference to me where I live. I can write anywhere, but I won’t rob her of her home.” “Before you two start making any noble sacrifices, don’t you think you should ask Kate and me what we think?” “Maude Ann’s right. What kind of wife would I be if I stood in the way of your inheritance? Besides, I wouldn’t have to sell the bed-and-breakfast. I’m sure I could hire someone to run it for me. And while it’s true that I love the Colorado mountains, have you looked around? It’s not too shabby here, either.” “The same applies to Henley Haven,” Maude Ann stated emphatically. “I can get another psychiatrist to take over for me, and Jane will stay on. And there’s no reason why I can’t continue to work with abused children. I’m sure there are some here in Montana who need my help.” “But what about our own kids? They—” “Will love it here,” Maude Ann insisted before Matt could finish. “Can you think of a better place to raise five rambunctious children than on a ranch? Or to shelter others? The wide-open spaces will be good for them. And the drier climate will be good for your leg.” Matt frowned at the mention of his disability. It had been seventeen months since he taken that bullet that had ended his career as a detective with the Houston Police Department and left him with a permanent limp. “Still…I don’t know.” According to J.T., Matt had become more flexible since marrying Maude Ann, but it was still his first instinct to resist change of any kind. Watching him, Zach could see the struggle going on inside his taciturn brother. “We’re talking about a complete change in lifestyle and careers,” Matt argued. “I don’t know anything about ranching. Neither does J.T.” “No, but Zach does,” J.T. said in a thoughtful voice, beginning to warm to the idea. “And you and I can learn.” “Maybe. Still, we all have to live together in this house,” Matt said. And that, Zach thought, was the real crux of the problem. He, J.T. and Matt might be brothers, but they didn’t really know one another. A year ago they had made contact again, but a lifetime apart had created a chasm between them that they couldn’t seem to breech. Kate said they didn’t try, and maybe that was true. At best, their relationship was distant, with currents of disquiet and wariness, even an undefined resentment running just below the surface, making them guarded with one another. For whatever reason, the fact remained that they were strangers. “It will be awkward, I guess,” J.T. agreed. “But it’s not as though it’ll be forever. Let’s not forget that we’re talking about a fortune here. And regardless of what Willa Simmons thinks, we are the rightful heirs. We’d be fools to turn it down. Surely we can manage to rub along together for a year. At the end of that time if anyone is miserable, they can sell out.” Matt looked at Zach. “You’ve sure been quiet. What do you think?” “I think I should stay out of this discussion and let the four of you decide. All of you know that owning a ranch is my dream. I’d put up with anything, even Ms. Simmons, to own a part of this place, but I don’t think it would be fair for me to try to influence you.” “Yeah, but do you think we could live and work together for a whole year?” “Maybe. Maybe not. I’m sure Seamus figured if he threw us together we’d be at one another’s throats inside of a week. But one way or another, we won’t know unless we try. One thing is certain, though. It’s what Colleen would have wanted us to do.” Chapter Two Sadie’s furious barking and the sound of vehicles approaching caught Willa’s attention. Tossing aside the curry brush, she gave her horse an absent pat and walked over to the barn door, arriving just in time to see a caravan of vehicles—a pickup loaded with boxes, three SUVs towing rented moving trailers and a minivan—pull into the ranch yard at the back of the house. Instantly her whole body tightened. Pete Brewster left the tack he’d been repairing and came to stand beside her. “Looks like they’s here.” Gritting her teeth, Willa folded her arms and narrowed her eyes. She watched Zach hop out of the pickup cab and go over to one of the SUVs and say something to Kate as she climbed from behind the wheel. “Made it just in time,” the old man continued, undaunted by Willa’s hostile silence. He paused to squirt a stream of tobacco juice into the ground to one side of the door, then added, “Be two weeks t’morra since the funeral.” “Oh, there was never any doubt they’d make the deadline,” Willa muttered. “I’m sure they couldn’t wait to get here and claim the lion’s share of the ranch.” “’Pears to me you oughta be glad ’bout that, ’stead of standin’ there looking like you just swallered a lemon. The way I heard it, if they hadn’t’a accepted the inheritance, you’d be out on your ear.” Willa glared at the old man, but he paid no attention. With a huff she returned her gaze to the line of vehicles. Pete had worked on the Rocking R for almost sixty years, even before Seamus had inherited the ranch. He’d taught her to ride and rope and brand, how to string barbed wire, build a campfire, inoculate and castrate cattle and the other myriad skills that ranch life entailed, skills Seamus either had not had the time, patience or inclination to teach her. When Willa had been a child Pete had been the one who bandaged her cuts and scrapes and dried her tears if her mother or Maria wasn’t around. He’d also given her backside a wallop a few times when he’d thought she deserved it. Willa’s temper didn’t faze Pete. “Yes, well…that’s what makes it so galling. That and the fact that they have no to right to this place.” “Well, now, I don’t rightly know as how I’d agree with you there, Willie, seeing as how they’s old Seamus’s grandsons, wrong side of the blanket or no. You’d best accept it, girl. Blood counts fer a lot, ’specially to a feller like Seamus.” “So I’ve discovered.” She tapped one booted foot against the hard-packed ground, simmering inside. “Maybe they have the legal right, but they don’t deserve it. They’ve never put in so much as a day’s work on this ranch. While I was pouring my blood, sweat and tears into the place all those years, where were they? When Seamus needed them, where were they? They never bothered to call him or write to him or come for a visit their whole lives. Then, when he was so old it was obvious he couldn’t last much longer, they showed up with their greedy hands out.” “You know that fer sure an’ certain, do ya?” Pete rolled his cud of tobacco to his other cheek and slanted her a glinty look out of the corner of his eye. “Seamus said— Good grief! I don’t believe it! Look at all those children! One, two, three—why there’s five of them.” “Looks like it,” Pete agreed. “Just what we need,” Willa mumbled. “A bunch of chattering kids underfoot. They’ll be nothing but a nuisance.” “Oh, I dunno ’bout that. When you was no bigger than a button you tagged after me or Seamus all the time, soakin’ up ever’thing like a sponge. Tell you the truth, I plum enjoyed it. Ya ask me, havin’ younguns around sorta brings a place to life.” Willa made a noncommittal sound. It wasn’t so much the children who worried her, it was the adults, the five strangers with whom she would have to share her home. Her gaze zeroed in on Zach again. That one in particular bothered her. Just watching him, even from that distance, made her edgy and irritable. What was it about the man? Willa watched as Maria bustled out the kitchen door onto the back porch, wiping her hands on her apron. The elderly housekeeper hurried down the gravel walkway and greeted the adults effusively then made a big fuss over the children. She could see that Matt was having a difficult time persuading the oldest boy to leave the horses in the corral, but after a brief exchange the sulky child climbed down off the corral fence and stomped after the others. Everyone disappeared inside, and Willa turned to go back into the barn but she stopped when she spotted a red pickup cresting the rise at the top of the road. Visitors to the Rocking R were rare enough that Willa experienced a dart of surprise. Thanks to Seamus’s rotten disposition, with the exception of his grandsons, about the only outsiders who ever set foot on the property were George Pierce, the local veterinarian, and Edward Manning. Shading her eyes with her hand, she squinted against the glare of the sun and watched the truck descend the road into the valley. It wasn’t one of theirs. All the Rocking R pickups were silver-gray. Willa couldn’t see who was behind the wheel, but the truck looked vaguely familiar. Who in the world…? Recognition came with a jolt. Before the shock wore off, her legs were moving. By the time the truck came to a stop in the ranch yard behind the line of parked vehicles she was there to meet it. “What are you doing here, Lennie?” she demanded, making no effort to hide the irritation in her voice. Not that it mattered. Lennard Dawson was much too self-involved to notice. The man had the sensitivity of a stump. He flashed what he fancied to be a killer grin. “Why, I came to see you, gorgeous. I figured since Seamus wasn’t around to object anymore, I’d drop by and see if you’d like to go out tomorrow night.” Willa barely stifled a groan. She might have known. Eight months ago she’d made the mistake of going out with Lennie. It had been only one date, and she never would have accepted that if Seamus hadn’t butted in and forbidden her to go. Lennie was handsome and as the only child and heir of another local rancher he was probably the most eligible bachelor in that part of Montana. The trouble was, he knew it. Willa hadn’t liked him when they were kids, and in her opinion he had not improved with age. In addition, there had been bad blood between Seamus and Lennie’s father, Henry Dawson, for years. Over what, Willa had no idea, as Seamus had refused to discuss the matter, but for that reason alone, had he given her the chance, she would have refused the invitation without a qualm. Her entire life she’d gone out on only a few dates, and never twice with the same man. Somehow Seamus had managed to run off every male who had ever shown an interest in her. That night his high-handedness had been the last straw, and for once she’d defied him and agreed to meet Lennie in town for dinner. She’d been ruing that rare act of rebellion ever since. It had taken no more than five minutes in Lennie’s company for her to realize that she still could not abide the man, but he was too conceited to notice. Ever since that night, he’d been acting proprietorial toward her whenever they bumped into each other in town. She’d even heard that he’d been telling people they were a couple. Willa had taken him to task at the first opportunity, but Lennie had just laughed and brushed aside her ire, saying if it weren’t for Seamus, they would be. So far, nothing she said made the slightest difference. Lennie reached for the door handle, but Willa stopped him. “Don’t bother getting out. My answer is no.” “Look, we could drive over to Bozeman and take in a movie. Or just go out to dinner and see what happens after,” he said with a suggestive wiggle of his eyebrows. “Nothing is going to happen, because I’m not going out with you. Will you get it through that thick head of yours that I’m not interested?” Lennie hooked his left elbow over the window frame and gave her a coaxing look. “Aw, c’mon, Willie. Seamus kept you on a short lead from the time you turned fourteen and developed knockers. It’s past time you kicked up your heels, babe.” “Don’t call me babe,” Willa snapped. “And trust me, if I ever decide to kick up my heels, it won’t be with you.” Willa heard the back door open and close, and when Lennie glanced in that direction his cocky smile collapsed. “Who’s that?” he demanded, scowling. She looked over her shoulder in time to see Zach lope down the porch steps and head for his pickup. He glanced in her direction and nodded, but otherwise ignored them and began untying the ropes securing the boxes in the truck bed. “That’s Zach Mahoney, one of the new owners of the Rocking R,” she said, unable to hide her resentment. “He and his brothers and their families arrived just a few minutes ago.” “One of Colleen’s bastards, huh. Everybody in town in talking about them. Is he married?” “No, just Matt and J.T.” Lennie’s scowl deepened. “I don’t like it.” “Don’t like what?” “Him living in the house with you.” “What? You don’t have the right to like or dislike anything that goes on here, Lennie Dawson.” She could have saved her breath. “Damn that Seamus. Don’t you see what that scheming old devil was up to? He figured he’d throw you and his bastard grandson together and let nature take its course.” “Seamus may have been autocratic about a lot of things, but he wouldn’t go so far as to pick out a husband for me.” “Why not? He tried to force Colleen to marry my old man. He and Seamus even shook hands on a deal. Dad would marry Colleen and take over the ranch when Seamus kicked the bucket.” “That’s a lie! I don’t believe you.” “Believe it or not, it’s true. Hell, Willie, the old coot was a control freak. It bugged the hell outta him that Colleen escaped, so he dangled the ranch in front of her bastards to rein them in. And you’re the honey that sweetens the trap. That’s the only reason he bothered to include you in his last will.” The statement hit her like a slap in the face. Willa trembled with anger and hurt…and uncertainty. “Get out of here!” she stormed. “Get off this ranch this minute.” “Willa?” Her head snapped around, and she realized that her raised voice had drawn Zach’s attention. He tossed the rope he had just wound into a neat coil onto the tailgate of his truck and took a couple of steps in their direction. “Is there a problem?” She didn’t know which stung the most—Lennie’s disgusting insinuations, or having Zach come to her aid. “No. There’s no problem. Mr. Dawson was just leaving.” Lennie’s mouth tightened and his face flamed an angry red. Clearly he did not take kindly to being dismissed. He stared at Willa for a long time, his gaze flickering now and then to the other man. Though Zach’s stance was deceptively casual and loose there was no doubt that he was braced for trouble. “Dammit, Willa—” “Goodbye, Lennie.” A muscle twitched in his cheek. He swore and reached for the door handle again but hesitated when Zach moved closer. “All right, all right. I’m going.” He twisted the key in the ignition and the truck roared to life. “You’re obviously too emotional to discuss this rationally. When you’ve calmed down, think about what I said. You’ll see that I’m right.” “Don’t hold your breath.” Lennie stomped on the accelerator and the pickup fish-tailed as he spun it into a U-turn. Gunning the engine, he tore out of the ranch yard, his tires rudely kicking up dirt and gravel. Watching the truck shoot up the road at breakneck speed, Willa experienced an odd mixture of fury and disquiet. Lennie was a hothead. She and everyone else around Clear Water had witnessed his temper many times, but she had paid no more attention to his tantrums than she would a small child’s. This time, though, she had seen something wild and dangerous simmering in his eyes, and that glimpse had sent an icy trickle down her spine. It galled her to admit it, but she was certain if Zach hadn’t been there Lennie would not have let her order him off the ranch. “Was that guy giving you a hard time, or was that just a lovers’ quarrel?” The question made her jump, and she was even more startled to realize that Zach now stood just behind her left shoulder. Willa was shorter than most men, but he seemed to tower over her, topping her five foot three inches by almost a foot. She was suddenly, uncomfortably aware of his broad shoulders and lean, muscular build, that raw masculinity that surrounded him like an aura, and her nerves began to jitter. She stepped away and gave him a cool look. “Neither. Lennie Dawson is a neighbor. His father owns the Bar-D, the ranch that borders us to the east. I’ve known him since I was six.” “Mmm,” Zach replied, watching the red pickup disappear over the crest of the hill. “Has he always had a bad temper?” Willa stiffened, and immediately her anger with Lennie transferred to Zach. “Look, I can handle Lennie. In the future just mind your own business.” Zach shrugged. “Fine by me. I was just trying to help.” “I don’t need your help. I don’t need anything from you.” She spun away and stomped back to the barn. Watching her, Zach shook his head. That’s where you’re wrong, lady, he thought. You need me, all right. Like it or not, you need me and J.T. and Matt to hold on to this place. Everything about the woman radiated anger, from those snapping violet eyes to her rigid spine to the defiant set of her jaw. Though on the small side, she was beautifully proportioned, and her leggy stride ate up the ground. Today all that ebony hair was confined in one long braid as thick as his wrist, which bounced and swayed against her backside with each furious step. He could understand her anger—up to a point. She felt cheated and ill-used, and who could blame her? In her place, he’d feel the same. Seamus had strung her along with false promises, and after putting up with his foul temper and rigid control for most of her life, losing three-quarters of the Rocking R to strangers, never mind that they were the rightful heirs, had to have been a low blow. Discovering that without them she would have lost it all must have been even more galling. Hell, he couldn’t blame her for resenting them. Seamus was the real villain in all this, but the old bastard was gone, and her fury needed a live target. Okay, he could live with that for a while. It wouldn’t be easy, but he’d cut her some slack. At least until the raw hurt eased enough for her to gain a little perspective and look at the situation fairly. Willa entered the barn muttering a litany of colorful epithets aimed at Zach, Lennie, Seamus and men in general. Sitting on a nail keg in the sunshine spilling in through the open double doors, Pete cast her a cautious glance, then wisely went back to stitching the saddlebag he was repairing. “How dare Lennie accuse Seamus of using me to further his own agenda,” she snarled as she paced to the far end of the barn. “How dare he! Idiot. Jerk. Hopeless Neanderthal!” True, Seamus may not have loved her as his own flesh and blood, as she’d so desperately wanted, but he had accepted her as his stepdaughter and assumed responsibility for her, honoring that obligation even after her mother’s death. Willa had been only fifteen at the time. Seamus could have shipped her off to live with distant relatives, but he had not been a man to shirk his duty. Still, the sad truth was, Seamus had been perfectly capable of scheming to make a match between her and Zach. Was that why he had made her a beneficiary in his last will? So propinquity could do its work? He’d clearly had no intention of leaving her any portion of the ranch until after his grandsons showed up. Seamus may have resented Zach and his brothers, but they had the Rafferty blood that had been so important to him and she had the experience and dedication and love for the Rocking R. If her stepfather had gotten it into his head that a marriage between her and Zach would benefit the ranch, he would have schemed and manipulated to make it happen. In all things, Seamus had always been so absolutely certain that his way was the right way that he would not have considered such a maneuver wrong. Or insulting to her. Willa snorted. He probably would’ve thought he was doing her a favor. “Well, if that was Seamus’s plan, it’s doomed to failure,” she swore. “By heaven, I won’t be anyone’s brood mare. “Men!” she spat, earning another wary look from Pete. Though she’d paced the barn’s cavernous length three times, fury still bubbled inside her. Finally she picked up a pitchfork and attacked the stalls, even though they had been mucked out only that morning. She worked steadily for a couple of hours, until her shoulders ached and the muscles in her arms quivered from the strain. After the stalls were clean and spread with fresh hay she filled the feed and water troughs in the corrals as well as those inside the barn. Occasionally, through the open doors, she glimpsed Zach and his brothers and the children retrieving things from their vehicles and toting them into the house. When Willa could find nothing else to do she fetched a can of neatsfoot oil and a soft chamois from the tack room and started applying the lubricant to her saddle. “I just oiled that saddle two days ago,” Pete growled, never taking his gaze from his work. “It don’t need it again.” Pete had gotten too old to ride and he refused to retire, so Seamus had put him in charge of the tack room, and he guarded his domain with the fierceness of a stock dog with his herd. “It looked a little dry,” Willa said defiantly, and continued to rub the leather. Pete stood and hung the bridle on a nail. He crossed the barn to Willa’s side, took oil and cloth from her and set them aside, then cupped her elbow with his gnarled hand. “C’mon, Willie,” he said gently, steering her toward the door. “You can’t avoid them folks forever, so you might as well go on inside. Maria’s bound to have dinner ready by now. An’ from the smells coming from the cookhouse, Cookie’s got the men’s grub ready, too.” Willa sighed, knowing that Pete was right. “All right, I’m going. I’m going,” she mumbled. Outside twilight had fallen. She murmured good-night to Pete and headed toward the house on leaden feet. She’d rather take a whipping than sit down to a meal with those people. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39924618&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.