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Elly inhaled the crisp morning air, felt it warm as it flowed into her lungs. Nothing better than a ride on a clear November morning to make her feel alive. She pulled her horse, Pepper, to a halt at the top of a ridge beyond the Cottonwood Ranch's homestead.
"Surveying your domain, Princess Cody?" asked her best friend, Janie Hansen, as she stopped beside Elly.
Elly thought she heard an edge of some unfamiliar emotionresentment?in Janie's voice. But when she turned and saw no visible evidence on Janie's face, she dismissed it as a product of less-than-restful sleep the night before. The race to the National Finals Rodeo was beginning to stress her out.
Elly laughed. "Yeah, I'm already plotting my takeover of the rest of Wyoming." She steepled her fingers and squinted as if devising an evil plan of domination.
The fact was that everything within her view, with the exception of the far peaks of the Rockies to the west, was Cody land, had been for years even before her birth. The Cottonwood was home to snowcapped mountains, lush valleys, waterways of various sizes, and seemingly endless stretches of rangeland dotted with cattle, horses and natural gas wells.
She loved it all, every square foot, but adding to the substantial acreage wasn't at the top of her to-do list. Winning the national barrel-racing championship was firmly entrenched in that spot. She wanted to make it to the NFR in Las Vegas so much that lately she'd been having odd dreams about competing on a course set up in the middle of a glitzy casino while showgirls cheered off to the sides.
"Well, let me know when you're amassing your minions," Janie said as she urged Chica, her palomino, into a slow walk. "I'm always in the market for more work."
Even after all the years they'd known each other, Elly experienced a pang of guilt that she'd been born into wealth while Janie well, hadn't. But she didn't show how she felt because Janie was nothing if not proud. Besides, Janie was a hard worker and good at saving her moneywith an occasional splurge.
Elly wondered sometimes if Janie let herself make those splurges only to keep her sanity in a never-ending cycle of work. Just thinking about the hours Janie put in working at the Feed and Grain, helping Dr. Bill with his vet practice, studying for her veterinary classes, riding in rodeo competitions and caring for her mother made Elly marvel that her friend even stayed upright.
Elly urged Pepper to keep pace with Chica. "So, we're due for a girls' weekend. Any ideas where you want to go?"
They tossed out ideasa spa day in Jackson, window-shopping and dinner in Casper, a movie marathon complete with all the junk food they could consume during the rest of their trip back down to the barn. But something about Janie's halfhearted contributions to the discussion worried Elly.
"Is something wrong?"
It took Janie a moment to shake her head. "Just tired."
The breeze kicked up as they dismounted. "Have to say a trip to Miami is sounding good to me right now," Janie said as she flipped up the lamb's-wool collar on her denim jacket.
"I'll check on airfares this afternoon," Elly joked as she led Pepper to the open doorway of the barn, even though she knew Janie couldn't afford to part with the money or the time away from home. "Want to come in for some coffee?"
"Sounds good, but I've got to get going." Janie opened the back of her aging horse trailer with a screech of metal and guided Chica inside. "Got to get to work an hour earlier than normal. Ruth's got to take Leslie to a doctor's appointment in Sheridan."
Ruth and Leslie Pearsoll owned the Markton Feed and Grain, where Janie had worked since she was sixteen.
Janie laughed, sounding more like herself. "He says it's just 'routine maintenance' like for anything that has a lot of miles on it." Her affection for her employer was apparent in her amused smile.
The Pearsolls had always treated Janie as if she were their own daughter, especially after their son, Troy, had been killed in a rodeo accident six years ago. And with an alcoholic father and a mom slowly descending into dementia, Janie had needed the Pearsolls as much more than employers. The Pearsolls were good people who judged others on their own merits, not on the size of their bank accounts. The same couldn't be said of all of Markton's residents.
Janie closed and latched the trailer, then shivered when a gust of wind buffeted her and rattled the metal of the trailer's sides. "Yep, the beach definitely sounds good. Talk to you later."
Elly waved as she led Pepper into the barn to feed and groom her. She smoothed her hand along Pepper's sleek, black neck. "Don't worry, girl. Hopefully, next month we'll both get a little warm weather."
In Las Vegas, home to the National Finals Rodeo. The finish line for a dream Elly had been chasing around barrels for years.
"I'll give you a bit of rest, girl, but we're practicing hard this afternoon."
While Pepper enjoyed a little downtime, Elly had work to do. Every member of the Cody family had some aspect of the ranch to run, and her contribution as PR guru demanded time in front of the computer answering e-mails, updating the ranch's Web site and posting daily entries on the Cottonwood Chronicles blog. The blog had made her friends around the world and garnered her media coverage for the ranch and its diversified businesses. She was the go-to girl for booking tours of the ranch, too.
She beat clumps of frosty mud off her scuffed boots before stepping up onto the front porch of the old homestead house she shared with her oldest brother, Jesse. The way her brothers had been finding love and moving out lately, she wondered if she might have the place all to herself soon. Lately, that had been more appealing. Ever since Jesse's good friend Nicki Sable had married Mark Hansen, his chief bull-riding rival, Jesse had been in a nasty mood.
Despite the way Cupid was finding his way around the ranch, it was hard to imagine Jesse taking a break from work long enough to hook up with anyone. Sometimes she wondered if he still mourned Laurie, his last serious girlfriend, whom he'd lost to cancer. Laurie had been great, but Jesse needed to move on at some point.
Thinking she'd have a couple of hours of quiet to work on Web site updates, Elly was surprised to hear voices coming from the small office when she stepped inside the front door. She hung her jacket on the coat tree in the corner and walked toward the sounds of conversation.
Jesse normally conducted ranch business at the ranch's official office in the converted bunkhouse, so she was surprised to see a man in a suit sitting opposite him. She paused outside the open door, drawing her brother's attention. He stiffened and glanced back at his guest just as the man turned to face her.
Visitors came and went every day, but it'd been a long timemaybe neversince someone that good-looking had set foot on the Cottonwood. Both men stood, allowing her to more fully appreciate the stranger's height, light brown hair and eyes so dark that they reminded her of some luscious chocolates an online friend had sent her from Paris.
"Elly, I thought you were out riding with Janie," Jesse said. He sounded like he wished she still were. It took a moment for that realization to sink in because Elly suddenly had a hard time focusing on anything besides the stranger in the room.
She mentally shook herself, then managed to form words quickly enough that she didn't appear as if she'd taken too many hooves to the head. "I was. We both had work, though."
Elly forced herself to look at Jesse, whose glances back and forth between her and the other man made her brother look oddly uncomfortable. What the heck was going on?
He exhaled and nodded at the visitor. "You remember Will Jackson."
Will Jackson? She looked back at the man and saw nothing of the kid she used to know before he and his gigantic brain had gone off to college when he was sixteen. But when he smiled, something about the shape of it and the crinkle around his eyes revealed a spark of the boy she and Janie used to call Billy the Kid. Damn, but Billy the Kid Jackson had grown up to be Droolworthy-Hot Jackson.
A little laugh escaped her. "Will, huh? I wouldn't have known you if I'd passed you on the street."
"And you look exactly the same." Was that a note of appreciation in his voice or her neglected libido's imagination?
He extended his hand, and she took it. Firm, and with some surprising calluses for a man in a suit. She liked that. She fought the urge to give him a hug. Never had she been jittery or awkward around him when they'd been younger, but both of those feelings assaulted her now. He was the same person, right? Just sexier. Janie was going to swallow her tongue when she saw him.
He kept the handshake brief, as if he wanted to keep physical contact to a minimum.
"So, what brings you out here?" And why was he dressed in a spiffy, charcoal-gray suit complete with ice blue tie?
A look passed between Will and Jesse, one she couldn't quite pin down. Secretive, maybe.
Jesse rounded his desk. "Thanks for coming by, Will. I'll be in touch." He seemed way too eager to get Will away from her, and she doubted it was part of his and her other three brothers' ongoing efforts to keep her safe from anyone with a Y chromosome. The Cody gauntlet of Jesse, Walker, Dex and Dusty.
"What's going on, Jesse?"
Elly rolled her eyes. Twenty-five years he'd known her, and still he hadn't figured out that she could always tell when he was lying. But those years had also taught her that once he made up his mind not to say something, it took drastic measures to loosen his tongue.
She took a step forward, placing herself between Will and Jesse but facing Will. "Why all the mystery?"
Some of Will's new look of confidence slipped at her question, and she saw a hint of the unsure boy he used to beeven though she had to look up at him now.
Jesse sighed heavily behind her. "Will's an attorney now. I hired him."
Elly held Will's dark gaze for a moment more before leaning back on the front of the desk and facing her brother. "Something going on with the drilling operation?"
When Jesse didn't elaborate and she noticed the tight way he held his jaw, a kernel of concern formed in her stomach. "What's wrong?"
Jesse ran his hand through his hair. "You have to keep this quiet. You can't breathe a word to Mom or Dad."
"Jesse," she said more firmly.
A wave of fatigue seemed to descend on him, causing his shoulders to slump. He made his way back to his big, leather desk chair and sank into it.
Elly turned to face him again, but she didn't sit. Instead, she crossed her arms and waited for an answer.
Jesse stared at nothing for a few seconds before meeting her eyes. "Mark Hansen may be Dad's son."
"What?" She stared at him, thinking she'd surely misheard. His words made absolutely no sensedespite murmured rumors throughout the years. "That's ridiculous."
"I've hired Will to look into how it could affect the family should Mark make a paternity claim."
"Why? It's not true. Where did you get this crazy idea?"
"He didn't deny it."
"Dad," Jesse said, his voice strained.
Elly dropped into the leather chair behind her, shock robbing her of the strength to stand. "I don't understand."
Will reclaimed his seat in the other guest chair. "We don't have incontrovertible proof. There are a lot of questions to be answered."
Elly let the words sink in but didn't look at Will. Instead, she held her brother's gaze. "I don't understand why I can't say anything to Mom and Dad. I want to know what's going on."
"Because they don't know that I've contacted Will, and they don't need to. It's my responsibility to make sure any and all threats to this family are dealt with."
"You sound like some sort of cowboy crime boss," she said.
"I'm not the bad guy here."
She didn't want to think of her father as a bad guy, either. Or Mark. He'd always been kind of like another older brotherkidding her, helping Janie and her out of scrapes, watching out for her welfare.
That thought stopped her. Even the idea that he actually was her brother no, she couldn't go there. Couldn't think about what that would mean her father had done. He was the ultimate family man, who put family and legacy before everything.
"Has Mark said anything?"
"No, not to me anyway."
"Then why is this an issue?"
"I have my reasons."
Elly redirected her attention to Will. "No offense to you, but this is a total waste of time and money."
He glanced at Jesse.
"It has to be done, Elly," Jesse said.
She shot him a frustrated look. "Why?"
"Because I overheard Mom and Dad talking, the morning of Nicki and Mark's wedding. At the very least, Dad had an affair with Abigail Hansen."
Elly shot out of her chair, circled behind it and gripped the back until her knuckles whitened. "This is insane." She couldn't even look at Will as anger and embarrassment heated her cheeks.
"The rumors have been around for years, but that's all I thought they were. I even threatened to punch more than one person I heard spreading them." He sighed, sounding as tired as if he'd been up for three days straight. "Lately, the rumors have increased. Then I heard An affair did happen, and the timing leaves Mark's paternity in question."
"Did you ask Dad, point blank?"
"I confronted him. He refused to talk about it. Mom, too."