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Jennifer Faulkner's knees buckled. Clutching her portable phone with a white-knuckled hand, she sank into the nearest chair in disbelief.
"Including Cottonwood Farm." The Montana attorney's Western twang resonated in her ear. "And your grandfather's recent lottery winnings. He left all he had to you."
But Jennifer didn't see at all. For the last ten years, her grandfather had wanted nothing to do with her. He'd ordered her off the farm after her grandmother's death. Why had he made her the sole beneficiary of his estate?
"There would have been a hefty inheritance tax," the lawyer continued, "but your grandfather anticipated that and put the money in a trust for you, one worth over a million dollars."
"A million dollars," Jennifer murmured, while her mind reeled with shock.
She didn't want the money. She wanted Gramma Dolly and Grandpa Henry, alive. She longed for the warm cozy kitchen of Cottonwood Farm outside Jester in southeast Montana, where she'd spent all her holidays and vacations as a child while her jet-setting parents traveled the globe. But even a million dollars couldn't bring her beloved grandparents back.
"Ms. Faulkner? Are you still there?"
"Sorry. What were you saying?"
"It would help if you'd come out here and look over the farm. And I have papers for you to sign. My office is in Pine Run, the county seat, just southwest of Jester. Are you familiar with the town?"
"I was, ten years ago."
"Hasn't changed," the attorney said with a laugh. "My office is directly across from the entrance to the courthouse."
"And your name again, please?" In her shock, she'd forgotten it.
"Durham. Hank Durham."
She couldn't help smiling. In Montana, even lawyers had names like rodeo riders.
"When can I expect you?" the lawyer asked.
She swallowed hard against her rising nostalgia. "I have to make some plans. I'll let you know."
Jennifer clicked off the phone and sank deeper into her chair. The day had certainly taken an unexpected turn. When she'd awakened this morning with wind-blown snow howling between the Chicago high-rises on the street where she lived, she'd known instantly she couldn't face another day as administrative assistant to Brad Harrison at Lake Investment Consultants. She'd called in sick, planning to use the day to write her resignation letter.
So Hank Durham's revelation couldn't have come at a better time. She was ready to move on and leave Chicago behind. She glanced around the tiny apartment with its rented furniture. Moving would be easy. Except for the terra-cotta saucer filled with fragrant paperwhites, the framed photograph of her grandparents on their fortieth wedding anniversary and the translucent, highly polished moss agate Luke McNeil had given her that special summer ten years ago, nothing else in the apartment besides her clothes belonged to her.
The man had broken her heart and now his memory often stalked her waking hours and sometimes haunted her dreams, even after an entire decade without her laying eyes on him or hearing his voice. But what did she expect? How could she forget a man she'd loved for twenty-three years, ever since he'd saved her life when she was five years old?
Closing her eyes, she could see the high prairie that ran between the Faulkner and McNeil farms, could feel the warm summer breeze that had rippled the thick blue grama grass and sent yellow and pink wildflowers bobbing on that long-ago June afternoon, could smell the prairie coneflowers dancing in the wind.
"Race you to the creek," Vickie McNeil, Luke's younger sister had called. "Loser has to slop the hogs."
Jennifer loved the McNeil piglets, but she hated the big sows and shivered with fear whenever she was near them. Vickie's challenge put wings on her feet. Jennifer's sneakers pounded the packed-earth path that led to the creek and the footbridge. The sun baked her face, and the sound of Vickie gaining on her spurred her faster. Her momentum carried her onto the rustic log bridge where spray from the creek, swollen over its banks with snowmelt, slicked the surface. Before she could slow down, she found herself pitching headfirst into the swiftly moving stream.
She didn't know how to swim, and even if she had, she was no match for the raging current.
The last sound she heard before the freezing water closed over her head was Vickie's panicked scream.
Then, miraculously, strong hands grasped her arms and yanked her to the surface.
"Kinda cold for a swim, short stuff." Ten-year-old Luke's voice was teasing, but worry etched his face as he dragged her onto the bank next to his fishing pole and creel.
"I fell." She bit her lip, holding back tears. Luke McNeil was her hero, and she didn't want to embarrass herself further in front of him. Her good intentions, however, ended up on the creek bed, along with the creek water she'd swallowed. Mortified at throwing up, she sat shivering in her wet clothes.
"Hell, Jenny, your knee's bleeding like a stuck pig." Luke yanked a rag from his fishing creel, dipped it in the creek, then wrung out the excess water. He sponged the blood from her leg with the same gentleness she'd often seen him display with a newborn foal or a sick calf. "You must have banged it on a rock when you went under."
"I heard you, Luke McNeil. Hell's a bad word, and Mama's gonna wash your mouth out with soap." Vickie stood beside him with her hands on her hips, outrage mixed with concern as she craned her neck, peering over Luke's shoulder to inspect Jennifer's injury.
"She won't know if you don't tell her. Besides, now you've said it, too."
Excerpted from Surprise Inheritance by Charlotte Douglas Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted May 27, 2011
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