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By Lois Richer
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat a way to begin the second month of a new year.
"Okay, let me get this straight. My father wanted me to have the ranch, to keep the Double D running." Dani DeWitt waited for the lawyer's nod.
"Yes. Dermot made you his sole beneficiary."
"But a beneficiary of what?" She sagged into the high-backed leather chair as the full import of his meaning sunk in. "You just said the bank holds a mortgage on the property and that it's overdue."
"Actually it's quite a large mortgage. Your father recently renegotiated it."
"So how much do I owe on the place?"
Ephraim Thornbush enunciated the amount clearly and concisely, then folded his thin, long hands with their scrupulously clean and filed nails on top of the manila folder on his desk.
Dani could only stare at him while her mind tried to wrap itself around the latest in a series of unbelievable events. The only thing that brought order to this mess was when she focused on the man in front of her.
Mr. Thornbush's white hair lay in neat precise waves over his head. His black suit, perfectly tailored, showed no wrinkles, though it was past five o'clock on a Friday afternoon.
Dani glanced around the office. Not a speck of dust covered even one of the solid cherry surfaces. No half-empty coffee cup on his desk. Everything lay in its orderly arrangement, as it had for the past forty years.
Her father's lawyer abhorred untidiness in himself and his furnishings. He certainly wouldn't tolerate it in his legal practice. With Ephraim handling her father's estate, she knew every "i" was dotted, every "t" was crossed. There could be no mistake.
"I owe a fortune," she finally admitted, more to herself than to him. The massive amount of debt threatened to overwhelm her careful control. "I had no idea he was in so much financial trouble. Why didn't he tell me?"
Mr. Thornbush did not say a word, but there was a gleam in his steel-gray gaze that made her shift uncomfortably.
"All right, I was out of touch over Christmas and New Year's. I admit that. But I called. He was never there." Dani fought to control the guilt that waited to swamp her. "How could I know he was in the hospital?" she whispered. "How could I know he'd die?"
The steel softened to dove gray.
"There is no point in recriminations, Dani. What we must do now is make some decisions. I've delayed as much as possible while we located you. But the bank will not wait forever. They want assurances that they will get their money."
"But I don't have any money."
"I know." He picked up a pen, clicked it once, twice. Evidently he realized that the noise gave away his inner agitation, for he stopped fidgeting immediately and returned the pen to its holder.
"So what do I do now, Mr. Thornbush?" It hurt to ask that, stung her pride to know that she wasn't the strong independent woman she'd always thought herself. Coming back, especially now, only made her feel like a foolish girl who needed her daddy. And Daddy wasn't there. He never would be again.
"We could declare bankruptcy."
She jerked upward, her eyes narrowing.
"They'd take the land?"
He nodded. "Sell the cattle, your father's horses, machinery, anything that would bring in some money. The land would be auctioned off or they'd ask for bids. With the economy the way it is, I don't think they'd get top dollar."
"So not everyone would get their money back." She squinted at him. "You did say he owed more than the bank?"
"Your father had a few stocks, some bonds. He had me liquidate those just before he died. I paid off the local merchants. No one in Blessing will lose money because of your father, Dani. In fact, I doubt anyone even knows the seriousness of your situation."
"Thank goodness for that." At least she'd be spared the humiliation of having her hometown speculating about her any more than they already were.
Dani glanced at him. "Do you think that's what I should do?"
Mr. Thornbush did not answer immediately, which was, of itself, a most unusual thing, for he'd always been very quick to assess a situation. After all, he'd had two weeks since her father's death to think about it. She'd only learned of Dermot's passing on Monday, and about the ranch's fiscal nightmare just now.
"What is it? Is there something wrong?"
He shook his head. "Not wrong, exactly. It's simply that I believe your father wanted you to take over the ranch when you came home. Dermot didn't know when that would be, he certainly didn't expect that he wouldn't be here, but he often spoke of his intentions. I can't believe he would have wanted you to part with the land he loved so much, unless there was no other way."
"But there is no other way. Is there?"
"You could work it yourself. Cut back to the bare bones, run as tight a ship as you can while we try to find a way to appease the bank. Bankruptcy isn't in their best interest either, don't forget."
"Work it ... myself?" She blinked. "But -"
"From the day he arrived in Blessing, Dermot was my friend. He loved that land all his life. I know he raised you to love it too. Don't you owe him and yourself a chance to see if you can make a go of it? You did say you weren't going back to college." He raised one bushy eyebrow, and when she didn't respond, he continued. "Why not spend some time out there, think things over, decide what your heart wants?"
It struck her as odd to hear Ephraim speaking about her heart's desire, but over the years Dani had occasionally caught glimpses of the lawyer's softer side. And he had cared deeply for Dermot.
"Maybe you're right. Everything's mixed up, confused. I'm a little shocked by his death - and now this. Maybe time will help me make a decision." She stood, thrust out her hand. "Thank you very much. If there's no rush to make an immediate decision, I think I'll do as you say and think it over."
"And pray about it. Don't forget to pray."
"Yes, I'll pray, too. Maybe God will send a miracle."
A wisp of a smile twitched the corner of his mouth.
"Someone once told me that God's miracles are that He uses time and circumstance to teach us more about Himself. Think of this as a learning curve, Dani. Steep, maybe, but we learn best when we're in the valley."
Dani shook his hand gratefully.
"I've been away a while," she told him. "But not long enough to forget Winifred Blessing. I'm sure she's your source for that advice."
Ephraim Thornbush only smiled. "Feel free to drop by whenever you wish. I'll help however I can."
Excerpted from Heaven's Kiss by Lois Richer Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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