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"I CAN'T MAKE UP MY MIND. Shall I have the scones with clotted cream--and ooooh, look at those strawberries...but the triple-chocolate layer cake is calling my name."
My friend Pepper Rossi was studying the three-tiered dessert caddie the waitress had just delivered as if the fate of the world depended on her decision.
I felt equally serious about the decision that I had made. After plotting and planning for the last three days, I'd come to San Francisco to run it by Pepper.
Nerves knotted in my stomach. But I managed to keep my hand steady as I lifted the silver teapot and filled Pepper's cup and then my own. I'd always run my plans by her when we were roommates in college.
Of course, those days were well behind us now that we were established career women. I had a job as a writer for a successful Los Angeles based soap opera, Secrets, and Pepper worked as a P.I. at Rossi Investigations, her brothers' up-and-coming security firm in San Francisco. Recently, she'd met the man of her dreams, Cole Buchanan, an ex-CIA agent who also worked for her brothers. From the glow on her face whenever she mentioned him, it was a match made in heaven.
Even more recently than that, I'd engaged Pepper in her professional capacity to do a job for me. Hiring a P.I. was a first for me. But then life was throwing me one surprise after another lately.
Pepper's hand was still hovering over the dessert caddie. "Take the cake," I urged her. "You know you're not going to be able to resist it." Pepper was a fellow chocoholic.
"You're sure?" she asked.
"If it's as good as it looks, we'll ask the waitress to bring another."
There was a time when indulging in chocolate hadgone a long way toward helping me to deal with life's ups and downs. But it had lost some of its therapeutic value since the day five weeks ago when my whole world had shifted on its axis. That's when I'd received an anonymous letter telling me that I was adopted.
Up until that moment, I'd led a rather uneventful existence--if you discount the broken collarbone I'd suffered at age eleven when my horse Dandelion's Pride and I had parted company during a jump. I'd believed my parents were John and Marsha Ashby, both successful neurosurgeons in Chicago.
I was sure the letter was a prank, but my curiosity had kicked in and I'd phoned my parents. Mom and Dad had both gotten on the line in one of our typical "conference" calls. As busy and dedicated doctors, they'd always thought it more time efficient if they talked to me together. When I'd told them about the letter, I'd expected them to laugh and deny it, to reassure me that I was indeed their biological daughter and then get back to their busy lives.
But they hadn't laughed and they hadn't denied it. Instead, there'd been this long silence on the other end of the line. With my stomach clenched, I'd pushed for more information, and they'd finally confessed to the fact that they'd adopted me and they gave me the name of the private agency they'd used.
The moment I'd hung up I'd called Pepper and asked her to trace my biological family. A week ago, she'd sent me the information that had given me the first clue to my real past. She hadn't been able to locate my biological mother. Her search had dead-ended when she found the adoption papers for me--and my twin sister, who'd been raised as the only daughter of James and Elizabeth McKenzie on their horse ranch near San Diego.
My first rather giddy reaction when I'd received the news was that this would make a great story line for Secrets. Twins separated at birth. My head writer was going to love me. Mallory Carstairs, the bad-girl diva of the show, was currently in a coma, and now she could awake to find she had a twin sister....
Then I'd reined in my overactive imagination for a reality check. I wasn't a character on a soap opera. I was ordinary, nothing-ever-happens-to-me Brooke Ashby.
Except I had a twin sister I'd never met--an heiress who'd been missing for five weeks.
I watched Pepper slice into the chocolate cake. I'd let her enjoy one bite before I told her my plan. My head writer had been thrilled when I'd told her what I was going to do and she'd been more than willing to give me some time off. But I was sure that Pepper wasn't going to be equally happy with me.
I watched with envy as she savored that first bite.
Then as she scooped up a second, I took a fortifying sip of tea and said, "I'm going to the McKenzie ranch and masquerade as my sister."
The cake froze just inches from Pepper's open mouth, before her fork dropped with a clatter. "You're what?"
Pepper's voice was loud enough to make the elegantly dressed lady at a nearby table aim a frown in our direction. High tea at the sedate St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco was not the place for loud voices.
I cleared my throat and spoke around the little bubble of panic that had lodged in my throat. "Don't worry. I've plotted it all out. I'm going to the McKenzie ranch posing as my twin sister, Cameron McKenzie."
"Your missing twin sister. Didn't you read the report I sent you? She disappeared five weeks ago. No one knows where she is."
I'd read the report over and over again, trying to glean every detail I could about my newly discovered twin. I tried a confident smile. "If she weren't missing, I wouldn't be able to take her place."
Pepper leaned forward, this time keeping her voice low. "Brooke, you can't be serious about this. Five weeks is a long time. If there was foul play involved in her disappearance, then you could be putting yourself in danger."
Pepper's words had my stomach performing that little "flip" it had been doing ever since I'd first learned that my sister was missing. I set down my teacup. "I knew it. You do think something's happened to her, don't you?"
Pepper raised both hands. "I didn't say that. The family hasn't filed a missing persons report. They say she's gone off like this before in a temper or on a whim. They claim not to be concerned."
Wedding jitters was the official story that the family had put out. Always a bit headstrong, Cameron had simply gone away to "settle her nerves" about her upcoming wedding to Sloan Campbell. According to what Pepper had discovered, Sloan Campbell, the orphaned son of a man who'd once run the McKenzie stables, had been raised on the ranch but had left five years earlier to make his own fortune in the world as a horse trainer. He'd been quite successful, too. In May, one of his horses had won the Kentucky Derby. That was where he and Cameron had run into one another again, and it had apparently been love at second sight. One of the press clippings had termed it a "perfect match" for McKenzie Enterprises. Sloan was the expert when it came to horses, and Cameron was proving to be very talented at bringing in new business.
I drew out the report that Pepper had sent me and placed it on the table between us. I had lots of questions about the marriage and about Sloan Campbell. When someone disappears, it's always the husband or the fiancé who's the prime suspect.
"When Sloan marries Cameron--if the wedding actually takes place next month--they jointly inherit both the McKenzie land and the business." The business being a multimillion-dollar horse breeding and training facility that James McKenzie and his father and grandfather before him had established and built. "Why jointly? Why not leave the whole thing to his only daughter?"
"My thought exactly," Pepper said. "So I checked into it and discovered that James McKenzie is a patriarch in the true sense of the word. In spite of the fact that he's survived into the twenty-first century, he has the antiquated idea that a woman can't run the ranch on her own."
I tapped my finger on the report. "My sister sounds pretty competent."
"I agree. But the McKenzies seem to be a stubborn lot, and she hasn't been able to convince her father of that. And there may be more involved from a business standpoint. Bringing back Sloan Campbell was a real coup. After his horse won the Derby, he could have pretty much written his ticket in terms of job offers. But from what I've been able to dig up, he wasn't going to work for anyone else. He was going to use the nest egg he's been saving up for the past few years to buy a ranch and build his own business. That was probably his goal when he left and went out on his own five years ago. I'm figuring a deal where he gets half of the McKenzie Ranch--an already established place--was a powerful lure."
"But even if Cameron only comes into half the estate, there are millions involved and she's missing. Any way you look at it, there's a motive for foul play."
"Which is why I don't want you to go there pretending to be her," Pepper said. "If you're curious, why not just go as yourself?"
"I thought of that. But I'd just be a stranger. They could serve me tea and then brush me off."
Pepper reached over and took my hand in hers. "This is a sister you didn't even know existed until I sent you that report. If you're worried about her, Cole and I can look into this further."
"They don't have to talk to you, either. But if I go there posing as Cameron, there's no way they can brush me off. I'll have a chance to see things and learn things as an insider. And I have a plan all plotted out."
Pepper shook her head. "This isn't a story line for your soap opera. You know you have a tendency to leap into things before you look."
I took another fortifying sip of tea. My parents would have been in full agreement with her. As long as I could remember, I'd been cursed with an Alice In Wonderland-like curiosity. It was probably one of the reasons I became a writer. It wasn't that great a leap from wondering what's going to happen next to inventing what's going to happen next.
"I know I can pull it off. I've studied all the photographs you sent me in the file plus a few I've dug up on my own. From what I can see, Cameron and I are identical twins." We both had that Miranda from Sex and the City red hair. Of course, I wore mine in a braid down my back so I wouldn't have to fuss with it. Cameron, on the other hand, wore hers in one of those chic shoulder-length styles that I'd always admired.
"All I have to do is shorten my hair a bit," I assured Pepper. This was the part of the plan that was clear in my mind. I'd even made an appointment with a hairdresser.
"You're going to need more than a haircut to pull this off."
Exactly. That was why I had come to San Francisco. I was going to need more, and Pepper had the power to provide all of it. I just had to get her on my side. I wasn't worried, not really. Hadn't I been cocaptain of the debate team at the small private college Pepper and I had attended? The only problem was that Pepper had been the other cocaptain and her strength had always been rebuttal. "I'll need a little help from you, of course. But I know that I can pass for her."
"For how long?" Pepper asked. "A few photos and the information I gave you won't be enough. Someone is bound to figure out you're a phony."
"I told you I have a plan."
"You always do." Pepper's frown deepened. "But sometimes they don't work out."
I could tell she was thinking of the time I had the great idea about slipping away from the dorm and going to a frat party at the neighboring state school. My plan had included donning disguises, climbing out of our dorm window via sheets we had knotted together, and "borrowing" our resident advisor's car. It would have worked if we hadn't had a flat tire and the local sheriff hadn't stopped to help us out.
Pepper squeezed my hand. "Look, I know that this has been a shock to you--first finding out that you're adopted and then learning that you have an identical twin."
This was another reason why I'd driven up to San Francisco to talk to Pepper. Yes, I needed her help, but I also needed someone besides my parents to talk to. Mom and Dad were busy. They'd always been busy. Not that they hadn't loved me and been proud of me. They had. But...
"What can I do to talk you out of this?"
I met her eyes steadily. "You can't. I don't believe that Cameron's disappearance is due to the fact that she needed time away to 'settle her nerves.'I have this feeling that something's wrong and that she needs my help."
Pepper's brows shot up. "A feeling? Are you talking about some special twin ESP?"