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The Ties That Bind

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The Ties That Bind Ginna Gray HarperCollins EUR WHERE THERE'S A WILL, THERE'S AWEDDING?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 herwould weave the ties that bind. Willa wore her pride like an iron cloak. But damned if she didnt 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. Zachs 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, theyd shared one mind-blowing kiss, but so what? She wasnt 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 youre going to collapse under the weight of that chip on your shoulder. If I dont 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 thats familiar to you, but if not, we hope youll 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. Ive been an avid reader ever since. Though Laurie Paige hasnt 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 months Something To Talk About. Dont miss the fun when a once-burned rancher discovers that the vivacious amnesiac hes helping turns out to be the missing Stockwell heiress in Jackie Merritts 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 Hagans 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 waysGinna also enjoys painting and needleworkshe 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, MontanaPopulation 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 fools errand, he muttered to himself. At the time hed agreed to this crazy plan hed been reeling from shock. If hed 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 wouldnt. He didnt break his word. Besides, Kate would give him a tongue-lashing that would blister his eardrums if he didnt 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 Hodies. Theyd 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 hed seen while traveling the rodeo circuitsmall, 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 Hodies Bar and Grill. Like many western watering holes, Hodies was a combination restaurant, pool hall and bar. It took a few seconds for Zachs 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 Matts penetrating gaze. More reserved than J.T., he merely nodded and said simply, Zach. Youre just in time to join us for lunch. No thanks. Ive already eaten. Ill just have a cup of coffee. Righting the upside-down crockery mug in front of him, Zach signaled to the waitress. You sure you dont want something to eat? This place doesnt look like much, I know, but the food is great. I had dinner here last night after I got in. No, Im good. How about He said he didnt 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 didnt 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, hed 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 hed been certain they were trying to pull some sort of con, and hed flatly refused to believe them. To be honest, he hadnt wanted to believe them. Kate was his familyall 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 necka 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 soit 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. Wellmaybe, 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 Matts was black, whereas J.T.s was a mahogany-brown. Zachs 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 Zachs eye, he had the look of a man who had seen too much of lifes 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, hed been an investigative reporter for a Houston newspaperan 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. Hed 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 wouldnt 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 cant get used to you being married to my sister, is all. Jeez, man, you make it sound like incest. Kates your adoptive sister. Youre 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 havent 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 its a fact, so were all just going to have to deal with it. True. Maybe itll be easier once we know more. Soon as we eat, well 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? Dont you? I just dont see the point. The point is to get some answers. Maybe meet our mother. Find out why she gave us up. Why bother? Look, Ive always known I was adopted, and its never bothered me. Why should it? No kid couldve asked for better parents than the Mahoneys. Ive 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 dont. The way I figured it, our mother gave us away, so why should we go searching for her? As far as Im concerned, the past is past. I say let it go. Matt looked at J.T. He has a point. J.T. snapped, Look, were entitled to some answers. At the very least, we should find out our familys medical history in case any of us ever has kids of our own. I guess youre right, Matt conceded. Anyway, Maude Ann and Kate would kill us all if we didnt see this through. Okay, fine. As soon as you two finish eating well 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! Youre Colleen Raffertys boy, arent you? Zach exchanged a quick look with Matt and J.T. Maybe. Maybe? You mean you dont know? No, maam. 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 meanyoure triplets? Yes, maam. 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, theres 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. Im Zach Mahoney, and these are my brothers, Matt Dolan and J.T. Conway. Three different names. Oh, thats 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 shes connected to the owners? I should say so. That ranch has been in Colleens 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 youll never meet, Im sorry to tell you. Does Colleen still live at the ranch? Oh, dear, Im 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 didnt 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 youll see the sign. She hesitated, gnawing at her bottom lip, looking from one to the other. Look, fellas, I feel its only fair to warn you, Seamus Rafferty is meaner than a snake. Hes not gonna take kindly to you showing up on his doorstep. Fact is, youll be lucky if he doesnt run you off at gun-point. We still have to give it a shot, J.T. said. Were 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 Im just pleased as punch that I got to meet Colleens boys. An I sure hope you get the answers you want, she added, but her expression said she didnt 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 hed always dreamed of owning. His mouth twisted. Yeah, right. In your dreams, Mahoney. If he saved his money until he was ninety, hed 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 hed ever seenand hed 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 Zachs 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 Colleens 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 mans 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 youre selling, Im not interested, so get the hell off my property. As he spoke the old mans 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 mans expression grew even harder, and his eyes narrowed with pure hatred when his gaze settled on J.T. Soshe whelped three of you, did she? Maria made a distressed sound, which drew the old mans 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 brothers, Matt Dolan and J.T. Conway. Were here because I know who you are, the old man snapped. No matter what you call yourselves, youre still Colleens 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. Youre the image of her. So Ive been told. Seamus turned his attention on Matt. Now, youyou dont favor either of them. Youre just a mutt mixture of both. He looked down at Matts cane, and his mouth curled with contempt. Got a gimp leg, I see. Not much use to anyone, are you? Matts jaw tightened and his piercing blue eyes flamed. Zach made a subtle shift, placing himself between Matt and the old man. Were looking for some information. Were hoping you can help us. Seamus Raffertys hard stare swung to Zach and held for an interminable time. Finally he snapped, Come in. I dont 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 Seamuss 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 threeand 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. Whats 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 wed find our mother, but we learned in town that she left here years ago, J.T. said. Were hoping that you can tell us how we can get in touch with her. Seamus snorted. You expect me to believe thats all you want? Do you take me for a fool? I dont think you want me to answer that. Matts quiet comment gleaned a dagger stare from Seamus, but J.T. hurried on. I dont know what you think were after, but I assure you, we did come here to look for our mother. You cant assure me of anything. I dont 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, its 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 were trying to find our mother. Or, failing that, to at least learn what we can about her. We were hoping you could help us. Youre barking up the wrong tree. I got nothing to say. That ungrateful girl has been dead to me since the day she confessed that shed 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 didnt, the old man snapped. And I wouldnt stand for it today, either. Ill 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. Lets cut the crap. I know damned well you didnt come here looking for your tramp of a mother. You came hoping to get your hands on this ranch. Well, Im telling you that just aint gonna happen. The Rocking R isnt going to fall into the hands of Mike Reardons by-blows. He thumped the desktop with the side of his fist. By heaven, Ill give the place away before Ill let that happen. Thats it. Im outta here. I told you two this was a bad idea. Zach headed toward the door. Hes right. Cmon. We dont have to take this. Using his cane, Matt levered himself to his feet and followed. Zach snatched open the door and strode outand 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 coots sneering facegrandfather or no. Seamus, is something wrong? the woman asked as Matt and J.T. trooped past in Zachs wake. Who are those men? Neither Zach nor his brothers waited around to hear the old mans 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 thats 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 dont 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 Im out of here, Zach said. As soon as we get back to town, Im 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 womans 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 womans face. I She shook her head, then cast a quick look over her shoulder and thrust the shirt-size box into Zachs hands. You take this, se?or. La se?orita sent it to me over thirty years ago. What is it? Her diario. How you sayjournal. 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 hed 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 Zachs 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 Matts 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 dont you start? Matt sat on the edge of the other bed, and Zach settled into one of the rooms 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 beautifula female version of the face he saw in the mirror each daythe 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 Zachs nape and forearms stood on end. No wonder the waitress at Hodies 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, were ready, J.T. said, and Matt nodded agreement. Zach cleared his throat and turned to the first entry. September 21st. Im so scared. Im on my way to Houston, but I dont know what Ill do if my mothers aunt Clara wont take me in. Shes elderly, and I barely know her, but other than Daddy shes 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, Im too late. I arrived at Aunt Claras 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 aunts guest room. A lady was here with me. She introduced herself as Dr. Chloe Nesbitt and said she had been my aunts 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 Claras 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, Im alone in a strange town where I know no one, I have no job, no money, no training other than ranch work and Im expecting a child in five months! What am I going to do? September 23rd. I cant believe it! Just when things look hopeless, a miracle has happened. Dr. Nesbitt returned this morning with Reverend Clayton and my aunts attorney, Mr. Lloyd Thomas. Mr. Thomas said that as my aunts only kin, I will inherit her entire estate! It isnt a great fortunea modest savings and this small house, is allbut its a roof over my head, and if Im 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 Colleens 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 Zachs 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 theyre born. He thinks that would be bestfor them, and for me. Perhaps hes right. I dont know. But, God help me, I cant. I just cant. 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 cant give them up. I love them. And they are all I have left of Mike. Zachs throat grew so tight he had difficulty forming the words. He thrust the diary into Matts hands. Here. Its 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. Im 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 churchs day care center. The pay isnt much, but Reverend Clayton says I can bring the babies to the center. That means I wont have to be separated from them or have the expense of child care. The reverend is such a good man. I dont 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. Ill write more later when Im 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 wasnt 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 shed already been through, she sure didnt 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 didnt 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 cant afford to be sick. My babies need me. On top of that, I have no idea how Ill pay for the treatment, but without it Ill surely die. What will become of the boys if that happens? Daddy wont have them. Even if he would, I dont 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 Claras 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 couldnt 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 Im sure they will all be wonderful parents, but I cant 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 Im so weak now and in so much pain that I can barely get out of bed some days. I worry that Im not giving them proper care. January 15th. Well, Ive done it. Ive 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 theres just one more entry. After that there are just blank pages. Go ahead. Lets 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 dont 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 Petes sake. He had no memories of her. Until hed seen that photograph he hadnt even known what she looked like. Why did it bother him so much to learn that she was dead? Well, thats 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 heres one mean side-winder, one of the handlers cautioned. Zach nodded, studying the furious bronc with satisfaction. Hellbent was a good draw. Zach knew if he could hang on for the count hed finish in the money. Maybe even in first place. Ignoring the canned music and the announcers 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 horses 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. Zachs hat went flying on the third buck. In rhythm with the violent movements, he raked his blunted spurs over the horses 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 Hellbents 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. Zachs thigh muscles began to quiver from the strain of gripping the horses 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 riders arm and shoulder, lunged from the saddle and swung to the ground. What a great ride! Lets 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 hipa 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. Zachs mouth took on a wry twist. Yeah, and theres a reason for that, Mahoney, he thought. By age thirty-six theyre either too busted up to compete or theyve 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 hed won the top purse in the bronc riding event. Maybe even Best All Around, as well, but he wouldnt know that for an hour or so when all the events were over. Hed 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, its J.T. Surprise darted through him. He hadnt heard directly from either of his brothers since theyd they parted company in Clear Water, Montana, nine months ago. No matter how much Kate and Matts wife, Maude Ann, might wish otherwise, the brotherly connection just wasnt there. Yeah, whats 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 havent 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? Whats going on? Youre not going to believe this. The letters are from Seamus Raffertys attorney, Edward Manning, notifying us of the old mans death and that were beneficiaries in his will. Youve got to be kidding. Nope. The old coot passed away yesterday. I called the law firm and talked to Edward Manning. Hes 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. Im not going to that old devils funeral. I understand how you feel. That was Matts 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 couldnt remember. Damn. He didnt need this. AlthoughJ.T. did have a point. He sighed. All right. Ill 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 Turners 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 coffins silver handles, and Willas eyes narrowed. Her hands curled into fists. Its your fault that theyre here. Damn you, Seamus. How could you? Amen, the reverend intoned, and everyone in the sparse band of mourners echoed the wordall except Seamuss 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 mans 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 hed 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 Seamuss 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 housekeepers. Cmon, Maria. Lets 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 hed had to chase after her it didnt 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. Willas gaze shot past him to Seamuss 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 Colleens 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. Lets get this over with. The sooner they get their windfall, the sooner theyll leave. All the parties named in Seamuss 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 Mahoneysomething she couldnt quite put her finger onthat 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 wasnt as handsome as J.T., nor did he have Matts 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 supposedif 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. Willas 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 Im late. I had to take an urgent call. He sat at Seamuss desk, snapped open his briefcase, and withdrew a legal-looking document. If everyone is ready, Ill 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 cant be! Seamus wouldnt leave the ranch to them. He swore over and over that he wouldnt! Im sorry, Willa, but its true, Edward said. Seamus wasnt happy about it. However, despite his threats, in the end he couldnt 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, youre 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. Thats outrageous! I wont do it! Willa declared. If you dontif 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? Thats correct. Edward met Matts hard stare. I know what youre thinkingthats a lot of power for one man. Youre 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 wouldnt hear of it. Seamus was a difficult man, as Im 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 hed 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. Lets 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 purposeto find our mother. Failing that, we were hoping to get some information about her. Thats all. Willas 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 wasnt going to work, you left in a huff. Thats not true. Oh, right. Im supposed to believe you? I dont think so. Believe whatever you want. It makes no difference to me. Nor does it change anything. Its just not fair, she raged. Your entire lives you spent less than an hour with Seamus. Ive lived here since I was seven years old. She thumbed her chest. Im the one who worked this ranch every day for the past twenty years, not you three. Im 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. Im the one who put up with his bad temper and maliciousness. If you hadnt shown up here, he would have left the ranch to me like he promised. Uh, Willie. Edwards expression was a mixture of pity and chagrin. Im afraid youre 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 shed been hit in the stomach with a battering ram. Butbut he always said Id inherit the ranch someday. He said I deserved it because I was the only one who cared, the only one whod stuck around. He promised! Why would he say that if he didnt 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 meanare you saying that I would have had to leave the ranch? Im 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 theyd 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. Ill challenge the will. Other people heard Seamus promise me the ranch. Maria, for one. Thats your right, of course. But you should know it will be expensive and it could take years. In my opinion, in the end youd lose. Im telling you this as a friend, Willie, not as your stepfathers 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 dont have a choice, but we do, Zach said. Oh, please. She shot him a look of patent disbelief. Surely you dont 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 Seamuss death. Thats right, Matt snapped. I say to hell with it. And Seamus. Ill be damned if Ill let that old tyrant dictate to me how and where I live my life. I agree, J.T. chimed in. Zach nodded. Ill 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 wed be giving up? I dont 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 years 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 firms 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 isnt much time. We need to talk it over before we make a decision, Zach said. Of course. I understand. Well, I dont, Willa snapped. What is the matter with you people? You cant seriously be thinking of refusing? No one throws away a chance like this. Miss Simmons, if we do this, its 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 dont you sit down. I dont 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 Ill 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. Im sorry about that. I do hope youll 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 doesnt seem so now, but shes really a nice person and normally quite good-natured and easy to get along with. We understand. Shes upset, and apparently with good reason. Matt rolled his eyes at his wifes comment. Spoken like a psychiatrist. You ask me, shes a spoiled brat. Thats not fair, Maude Ann protested. From the sound of it, Seamus has been stringing that poor girl along for years. You dont know the half of it, Edward said. Now, if youll excuse me, I really must be going. Its a long way to Bozeman. When youve reached a decision, give me a call. If Im 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. Uhits true that the Rocking R Ranch is a sizable inheritance, but I feel I must warn you, if you decide to stay youll 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 wont be a piece of cake. Zach didnt need anyone to tell him about the hardships and perils of ranching. He knew them firsthand. In college hed earned degrees in ranch management and business and before going out on the rodeo circuit hed 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 wed 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, hes probably laughing himself silly right now. Hes got us in a bind, thats 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, Im afraid Im going to have to be the bad guy. Maudie and I cant 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 cant ask Kate to give up the Alpine Rose, either. Her parents spent years restoring that house and shes 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 wont rob her of her home. Before you two start making any noble sacrifices, dont you think you should ask Kate and me what we think? Maude Anns right. What kind of wife would I be if I stood in the way of your inheritance? Besides, I wouldnt have to sell the bed-and-breakfast. Im sure I could hire someone to run it for me. And while its true that I love the Colorado mountains, have you looked around? Its 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 theres no reason why I cant continue to work with abused children. Im 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. StillI dont 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. Were talking about a complete change in lifestyle and careers, Matt argued. I dont 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 didnt really know one another. A year ago they had made contact again, but a lifetime apart had created a chasm between them that they couldnt seem to breech. Kate said they didnt 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 its not as though itll be forever. Lets not forget that were talking about a fortune here. And regardless of what Willa Simmons thinks, we are the rightful heirs. Wed 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. Youve 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. Id put up with anything, even Ms. Simmons, to own a part of this place, but I dont 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. Im sure Seamus figured if he threw us together wed be at one anothers throats inside of a week. But one way or another, we wont know unless we try. One thing is certain, though. Its what Colleen would have wanted us to do. Chapter Two Sadies furious barking and the sound of vehicles approaching caught Willas 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 vehiclesa pickup loaded with boxes, three SUVs towing rented moving trailers and a minivanpull into the ranch yard at the back of the house. Instantly her whole body tightened. Pete Brewster left the tack hed been repairing and came to stand beside her. Looks like theys 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 Willas 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 tmorra since the funeral. Oh, there was never any doubt theyd make the deadline, Willa muttered. Im sure they couldnt wait to get here and claim the lions 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 hadnta accepted the inheritance, youd 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. Hed 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 wasnt around. Hed also given her backside a wallop a few times when hed thought she deserved it. Willas temper didnt faze Pete. Yes, wellthats what makes it so galling. That and the fact that they have no to right to this place. Well, now, I dont rightly know as how Id agree with you there, Willie, seeing as how theys old Seamuss grandsons, wrong side of the blanket or no. Youd best accept it, girl. Blood counts fer a lot, specially to a feller like Seamus. So Ive discovered. She tapped one booted foot against the hard-packed ground, simmering inside. Maybe they have the legal right, but they dont deserve it. Theyve never put in so much as a days 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 couldnt 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 dont believe it! Look at all those children! One, two, threewhy theres five of them. Looks like it, Pete agreed. Just what we need, Willa mumbled. A bunch of chattering kids underfoot. Theyll 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 everthing 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 wasnt 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 Seamuss 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 wasnt one of theirs. All the Rocking R pickups were silver-gray. Willa couldnt 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 wasnt around to object anymore, Id drop by and see if youd like to go out tomorrow night. Willa barely stifled a groan. She might have known. Eight months ago shed made the mistake of going out with Lennie. It had been only one date, and she never would have accepted that if Seamus hadnt 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 hadnt 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 Lennies 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 shed 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 shed defied him and agreed to meet Lennie in town for dinner. Shed been ruing that rare act of rebellion ever since. It had taken no more than five minutes in Lennies company for her to realize that she still could not abide the man, but he was too conceited to notice. Ever since that night, hed been acting proprietorial toward her whenever they bumped into each other in town. Shed even heard that hed 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 werent for Seamus, they would be. So far, nothing she said made the slightest difference. Lennie reached for the door handle, but Willa stopped him. Dont 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 Im not going out with you. Will you get it through that thick head of yours that Im not interested? Lennie hooked his left elbow over the window frame and gave her a coaxing look. Aw, cmon, Willie. Seamus kept you on a short lead from the time you turned fourteen and developed knockers. Its past time you kicked up your heels, babe. Dont call me babe, Willa snapped. And trust me, if I ever decide to kick up my heels, it wont be with you. Willa heard the back door open and close, and when Lennie glanced in that direction his cocky smile collapsed. Whos 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. Thats 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 Colleens bastards, huh. Everybody in town in talking about them. Is he married? No, just Matt and J.T. Lennies scowl deepened. I dont like it. Dont like what? Him living in the house with you. What? You dont have the right to like or dislike anything that goes on here, Lennie Dawson. She could have saved her breath. Damn that Seamus. Dont you see what that scheming old devil was up to? He figured hed 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 wouldnt 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. Thats a lie! I dont believe you. Believe it or not, its 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 youre the honey that sweetens the trap. Thats 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 hurtand 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 Zachs 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 didnt know which stung the mostLennies disgusting insinuations, or having Zach come to her aid. No. Theres no problem. Mr. Dawson was just leaving. Lennies 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 Zachs 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. Im going. He twisted the key in the ignition and the truck roared to life. Youre obviously too emotional to discuss this rationally. When youve calmed down, think about what I said. Youll see that Im right. Dont 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 childs. 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 hadnt 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. Ive 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 dont need your help. I dont need anything from you. She spun away and stomped back to the barn. Watching her, Zach shook his head. Thats where youre 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 angerup to a point. She felt cheated and ill-used, and who could blame her? In her place, hed 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 couldnt 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 wouldnt be easy, but hed 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 shed so desperately wanted, but he had accepted her as his stepdaughter and assumed responsibility for her, honoring that obligation even after her mothers 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? Hed 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 wouldve thought he was doing her a favor. Well, if that was Seamuss plan, its doomed to failure, she swore. By heaven, I wont be anyones brood mare. Men! she spat, earning another wary look from Pete. Though shed paced the barns 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 dont 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 Willas side, took oil and cloth from her and set them aside, then cupped her elbow with his gnarled hand. Cmon, Willie, he said gently, steering her toward the door. You cant avoid them folks forever, so you might as well go on inside. Marias bound to have dinner ready by now. An from the smells coming from the cookhouse, Cookies got the mens grub ready, too. Willa sighed, knowing that Pete was right. All right, Im going. Im going, she mumbled. Outside twilight had fallen. She murmured good-night to Pete and headed toward the house on leaden feet. Shed rather take a whipping than sit down to a meal with those people. . . , (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39924618&lfrom=390579938) . Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, , , , PayPal, WebMoney, ., QIWI , .
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