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The lawyer's office at the firm of Drake, Alcott and Whittaker was too crowded for Sage Lassiter's tastes. He much preferred being out on his ranch, in the cold, crisp air of a Wyoming spring. Still, he had no choice but to attend the reading of his adoptive father's will.
J.D. Lassiter had been dead only a couple of weeks and Sage was having a hard time coming to grips with it. Hell, he would have bet money that J.D. was far too stubborn to actually die. And now that he had, Sage was forced to live with the knowledge that now he would never have the chance to straighten things out between himself and the man who had raised him. Just like J.D. to go ahead and do something whether anyone else was ready for it or not. The old man had, once again, gotten the last word.
Sage couldn't have said when the tension between him and J.D. had taken root, but he remembered it as an always-there kind of feeling. Nothing tangible. Nothing that he could point to and say: There. That was it. The beginning of the end. Instead, it was a slow disintegration of whatever might have been between them and it was beyond too late to think about it now. Old hurts, old resentments had no place in this room and nowhere to go even if he had let them take the forefront in his mind.
"You look like you want to hit something." His younger brother Dylan's voice came in a whisper.
Shooting him a hard look, Sage shook his head. "No, just can't really take in that we're here."
"I know." Dylan pushed his brown hair off his forehead and gave a quick look around the room before turning back to Sage. "Still can't quite believe J.D.'s gone."
"I was just thinking the same thing." He shifted, folded his arms across his chest and said, "I'm worried about Marlene."
Dylan followed his gaze.
Marlene Lassiter had stepped in as surrogate mother to Sage, Dylan and Angelica after Ellie Lassiter died during childbirth with Angie. She'd been married to J.D.'s brother Charles, and when she was widowed, she'd come home to Wyoming to live on Big Blue, the Lassiter ranch. She'd been nurturer, friend and trusted confidante for too many years to count.
"She'll be okay, eventually," Dylan said, then winced as they watched Marlene hold a sodden tissue to her mouth as if trying to stifle a wail of agony.
"Hope you're right," Sage muttered, uncomfortable seeing Marlene in pain and knowing there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.
Marlene's son, Chance Lassiter, sat to one side of her, his arm thrown protectively around her shoulders. He wore a leather jacket tossed on over a long-sleeved white shirt. Dark blue jeans and boots completed the outfit, and the gray Stetson he was never without was balanced on one knee. He was a cowboy down to his bones and the manager of J.D.'s thirty-thousand-acre ranch, Big Blue.
"You have any idea what the bequests are?" Dylan asked. "Couldn't get a thing out of Walter."
"Not surprising," Sage remarked with a sardonic twist of his lips. Walter Drake was not only J.D.'s lawyer, but practically his clone. Two more stubborn, secretive men he'd never met. Walter had made calls to all of them, simply telling them when and where to show up and not once hinting at what was in J.D.'s will. Logan Whittaker, another partner in the firm, was also working on J.D.'s will but he hadn't been any more forthcoming than Walter.
Sage wasn't expecting a damn thing for himself. And it wasn't as if he needed money. He'd built his own fortune, starting off in college by investing in one of his friends' brilliant ideas. When that paid off, he invested in other dreamers, and along the way he'd amassed millions. More than enough to make him completely independent of the Lassiter legacy. In fact, he was surprised he had been asked to be here at all. Long ago, he'd distanced himself from the Lassiters to make his own way, and he and J.D. hadn't exactly been close.
"Have you talked to Angelica since this all happened?" Dylan frowned and glanced to where their sister sat beside her fiancé, Evan McCain, her head on his shoulder.
"Not for long." Sage frowned, too, and thought about the sister he and Dylan loved so much. Her muchanticipated wedding had been postponed because of their father's death and who knew when it would happen now. Angelica's big brown eyes were red rimmed from crying and there were lavender shadows beneath those eyes that told Sage she wasn't sleeping much. "I went to see her a couple of days ago, hoping I could talk to her, but all she did was bawl." His scowl deepened. "Hate seeing her like that, but I don't know what the hell we can do for her."
"Not much really," Dylan agreed. "I saw her yesterday, but she didn't want to talk about what happened. Evan told me she's not sleeping, hardly eating. She's taking this really hard, Sage."
Nodding, he told his brother, "She and the old man were so close, of course she's taking it hard. Not to mention, J.D. collapsing at her rehearsal dinner adds a whole new level of misery. We've just got to make sure she gets past this. We'll tag team her. One of us going to see her at least every other day "
"Oh," Dylan said, chuckling, "Evan will love having us around all the time."
"He's the one so hell-bent on marrying into the Las-siter family," Sage pointed out wryly. "If he takes one of us, he gets all of us. Best he figures that out now anyway."
"True." Dylan nodded then sat back in his chair. "Okay, then. We'll keep an eye on Angelica."
Dylan kept talking, now about his plans for the restaurant he was opening, but Sage had stopped listening. Instead, he watched Colleen Falkner, J.D.'s private nurse, slip quietly into the room, then make her way to the front, where she took a seat beside Marlene. The older woman gave her a watery smile of welcome and took her hand in a firm grip.
Sage narrowed his gaze on Colleen and felt a hard jolt of awareness leap to life inside him-just as it had the night of the rehearsal dinner. The same night J.D. died.
That night, he'd really noticed her for the first time. They'd met in passing of course, but on that particular night, there had been something different about her. Something that tugged at him. Maybe it had been seeing her long, amazing hair loose, cascading down her back in beautiful shimmering waves. Maybe it had been the short red dress and the black heels and the way they'd made her legs look a mile long. All he knew for sure was when he'd caught her eye from across the room, he'd felt a connection snap into place between them. He had started toward her, determined to talk to her-then J.D.'s heart attack had changed everything.
She wasn't wearing party clothes today, though. Instead, she wore baggy slacks, a sapphire-blue pullover sweater and her long, dark blond hair was pulled back into a braid that hung down between her shoulder blades. She had wide blue eyes that were bright with unshed tears and a full, rich mouth that tempted a man to taste it.
If he hadn't seen her in a figure-skimming red dress at the party-a dress that remained etched into his memory-Sage never would have guessed at the curves she kept so well hidden beneath her armor of wool and cotton.
He hadn't had much interaction with Colleen, since he and J.D. hadn't exactly been on the best of terms, so Sage didn't spend much time on Big Blue. But that night at the party, she'd intrigued him. Not only was she beautiful, but when J.D. collapsed, she had sprung into action, shouting orders like a general and taking charge until the paramedics showed up.
She had been devoted to J.D., had earned the family's affections-as evidenced by the way Marlene reached out to take the woman's hand-yet through it all had remained a bit of a mystery. Where was she from? Why had she taken a job working for a grumpy old man on a remote, if luxurious, ranch? And why the hell did he care?
"Colleen do something to you?"
He glanced at Dylan. "What?"
"Well, you're staring at her hard enough to set her hair on fire. What's up?"
Irritated to have been caught out, Sage muttered, "Shut up."
"Ah. Good answer." Dylan just smiled, shook his head and leaned forward to ask Chance something.
Sage let his gaze slide carefully back to Colleen. She bent her head to whisper something to Marlene, and he watched that long, silky braid slide across her shoulder, baring the nape of her neck. Soft blond curls brushed against her skin and he suddenly had the urge to touch her. To stroke that skin, to slide his fingers through her hair, to- He cut that thought off as fast as he could and scowled to himself.
The only possible reason she had for being here was if she was mentioned in J.D.'s will. Sure, J.D. had needed a nurse over his last few months, with his health failing, but such a beautiful one? Was that why she'd taken the job of caring for the old man? Had she been hoping for a nice payoff someday? Maybe he should spend a little time looking into Colleen Falkner, he thought. Do some checking. Make sure-
"You're looking at her again," Dylan pointed out.
Glaring at his brother and ignoring the smile on the man's face, Sage grumbled, "Don't you have something else to do?"
"Not at the moment."
"I just think it's interesting how fascinated you seem to be by Colleen."
"I'm not fascinated." Much. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair and told himself to stop thinking about her. How could the woman have gotten to him so easily? Hell, he hadn't even really talked to her.
"Not what it looks like from where I'm sitting."
"Then maybe you should sit somewhere else." He wasn't fascinated. He was interested. Attracted. There was a difference.
Dylan laughed shortly. True to form, Sage's younger brother was almost impossible to insult. He was easygoing, charming and sometimes Sage thought his younger brother had gotten all the patience in the family. But he was also stubborn and once he got his teeth into something, he rarely let it go.
Like now, for example.
"She's single," Dylan said.
"I'm just sayin'," his brother continued, "maybe you could leave your ranch once in a while. Have an actual date. Maybe with Colleen."
Sage drew his head back and stared at his brother. "Are you running a dating service I don't know about?"
"Fine," Dylan muttered, sitting back in his chair. "Have it your way. Be a hermit. End up becoming the weird old guy who lives alone on an isolated ranch."
"I'm not a hermit."
"Yeah? When's the last time you had a woman?" Frowning, Sage said, "Not that it's any of your business, but I get plenty of women."
"One-night stands? Nice."
Sage preferred one-night stands. He didn't do commitment, and spending time with women who felt the same way avoided a lot of unnecessary hassle. If his brother wanted to look for more in his life, he was welcome to. As for Sage, he liked his life just the way it was. He came and went as he pleased. When he wanted a woman, he went and found one. When he wanted to be left the hell alone, he had that, too.
"Now that you mention it," he said quietly, "I haven't noticed you busy developing any serious relationships, either."
Dylan shrugged, folded his arms across his chest and said, "We're not talking about me."
"Yeah, well, we're done talking about me, too."
Then the office door opened, and lawyer Walter Drake stepped inside and announced, "All here?" He swept the room with a sharp-eyed gaze and nodded to himself. "Good. Then we can get started."
"I don't know if I'm ready for this," Dylan grumbled.
Sage was more than ready. He wanted this day done and finished so he could get back to his ranch.
After settling himself behind a wide oak desk, Walter, an older man who looked like the stereotypical image of an "old family retainer"-handsome, gray haired and impeccably dressed-picked up a stack of papers and straightened them unnecessarily. That shuffle of paper and the rattle of the window panes as a cold wind gusted against it were the only sounds in the room. It was as if everyone had taken a breath and held it.
Walter was clearly enjoying his moment in the spotlight. Every eye in the room was on him. Once again, his gaze moved over the people gathered there and when he finally came to Angelica, he gave her a sad, sympathetic smile before speaking to the room. "I know how hard this is on all of you, so I'll be as brief as possible."
Sage would be grateful.
"As you all know, J.D. and I knew each other for more than thirty years." Walter paused, smiled to himself and added, "He was a stubborn man, but a proud one, and I want you all to know that he took great care with his will. He remade it just a few months ago because he wanted to be sure to do the right thing by all of you."
Scraping one hand across his face, Sage shifted in the uncomfortable chair. He flicked a quick glance out the window and saw dark clouds rushing across the sky. April in Wyoming, he mused. It could be sunny in the morning and snowing by afternoon. And right now, it looked as though a storm was headed their way. Which only fed the urge to get back to his ranch before the bad weather hit.
"There are a lot of smaller provisions made to people J.D. thought well of over the years," Walter was saying. "I won't be reading them aloud today. Nor will I make mention of other estate business that will be handled separately."
Sage frowned thoughtfully and shifted his gaze to Walter. Handled separately? Why? What was the lawyer trying to hide? For that matter, what had J.D. been trying to hide? He braced his elbows on his thighs and leaned forward, keeping his gaze fixed on Walter as if the man was about to saw a woman in half. Or pull a dove from a magic hat.
"That part of the will is, at this time, not to be shared with the family."
"Why not?" Sage's question shattered the stillness left in the wake of Walter's startling statement.
The older man met Sage's gaze squarely. "Those were J.D.'s wishes."
"How do we know that?" An insulting question and he knew it, but Sage didn't stop himself. He didn't like secrets.
Dylan jammed his elbow into Sage's side, but he didn't so much as flinch. Just kept staring at the lawyer waiting for an answer.
"Because I tell you so," Walter said, stiffening in insult.
"C'mon, Sage," Dylan muttered. "Let it go for now."