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In twenty-seven years, Tess Spencer hadn't ever felt like she truly belonged anywhere, and it took only one look at the snow-covered perfection of Bell River Ranch to know she didn't belong here, either.
So what if the women who owned it were technically her "family"? She didn't know them-hadn't even heard of them until two months ago, when, on her deathbed, her mother had dropped the bombshell about Tess's paternity.
The Wright sisters didn't know Tess, either. Not even that she existed.
And they probably never would.
She'd left Los Angeles, where she'd lived all her life, and she'd come to Silverdell thinking she might, just might, tell them. That had been her mother's dying wish-to leave a safety net for the only child she was leaving too soon. In Tess's imagination, introducing herself to Rowena, Brianna and Penelope Wright had seemed possible. Terrifying, but possible.
But now that Tess saw the beautiful ranch, nestled in its rolling winter landscape like a warm brown egg in a silver-white fairy nest..
How could she tell these elegant, successful strangers-her "sisters"-anything? According to Tess's mother, the three women seemed to be decent people. They'd known plenty of heartache as well as privilege. They probably wouldn't even be terribly shocked to learn about Tess. Their dad, Johnny Wright, had done a lot worse in his life than take a mistress and father one secret illegitimate baby.
Eighteen years ago, he had killed his wife. Their mother.
Tragic, but still. Soaring Greek tragedy and low, dirty squalor weren't the same problems. Tess Spencer and the legitimate Wright sisters didn't speak the same language. One was a struggling, divorced massage therapist who had lived in crummy apartments all her life, hand to mouth-and that was on a good day. On bad days, she went hungry. The Wrights were landowners, Colorado heiresses who, in spite of their childhood calamity, had always possessed every tree, rock, building and animal they could see.
The gap between their worlds was as wide as the gap between earthlings and martians.
Besides, though they might not be shocked to meet a secret sister, they would undoubtedly be dismayed. Obviously Bell River Ranch was working very hard to leave its scandalous past behind. Nothing proclaimed civilized and unsullied more than this well-kept, orderly cluster of buildings with sweet blue smoke curling out of chimneys and sunshine sparkling off pristine windows.
"Sorry, Mom," Tess muttered as she parked the car beside the charming wood-and-glass building that housed the spa. "A bastard of Johnny Wright would be about as welcome here as a hole in a lifeboat."
She killed the engine and regrouped. Okay, no thrilled surprise family reunion. She'd always known that was greeting-card schlock, anyhow, not real life.
But that didn't mean she couldn't work here. Work was something Tess knew how to do-and she desperately needed a good job. Her mother's illness had cleaned her out emotionally, and the divorce from Craig had done the same financially.
All the Wright sisters had to do was hire her. That shouldn't be hard to pull off. She was a damn good massage therapist with extensive training, enthusiastic recommendations and five years of experience. Hire her, pay her, maybe appreciate her talents a little, and she wouldn't ask for anything more.
Well, she admitted as she got out of the car, she'd satisfy her curiosity about her birth father at the same time, of course. But that wouldn't cost anyone anything.
"Hi," she said as she opened the door to the spa. She was greeted by soft harp music, and the aroma of expensive lotions mixing with the sharp, piney scent of new construction. The spa had obviously been added quite recently, no expenses spared.
"Good morning," the young blonde goddess behind the streamlined wooden reception desk said. She gave Tess the official "serenity" smile known to any spa employee. Cool, unflappable, full of grace.
You can be a goddess, too, the look was designed to whisper to the client. A few procedures, a small fee
Tess felt like applauding. A fabulous, incredibly subtle sales pitch. But all wasted. The goddess obviously hadn't yet figured out that Tess wasn't a paying client.
A real client, a late-middle-aged woman in crisp navy blue pants and starched white shirt, sat in the waiting room, perched on the edge of one of the stylish armchairs. She'd been reading a celebrity magazine, but glanced up sharply when Tess entered.
"You haven't forgotten me, have you? My appointment was five minutes ago." The woman's voice was as crisp as her clothes, but held an undercurrent of chronic dissatisfaction. Her frown had been so immediate, and the vertical lines between her eyebrows were so firmly grooved, that Tess had to assume scowling was her instinctive reaction to almost anything.
A fussbudget. Tess smiled-her own inner spa employee taking over-though she didn't expect the scowl to go away, and it didn't. She'd encountered clients like this, and she knew how hopeless it was. These people wouldn't ever relax, not if massaged for a week with angel feathers.
"Of course not, Mrs. Fillmore," the goddess purred, unfazed. "How could we ever forget you?"
Tess glanced at the goddess/receptionist. Was she imagining things, or did Blondie's placid voice have an undercurrent of irony?
"I'm Tess Spencer," Tess said. "I have an appointment with Rowena Wright."
"Ah." The young woman looked relieved behind that perfect smile. She wasn't quite as cool and impenetrable as Tess had first thought. She actually said a lot with those blue eyes. "Good to meet you, Tess. I'm Bree. I'm sure Rowena will be here any minute, but-"
"Cancel the search-and-rescue team. I'm here!" Behind Tess, the door blew open with a swoosh of clean, frosty air. "I'm so sorry I'm late, Bree. Don't shoot me. It's insane at the house. Absolutely insane!"
Tess turned to see a willowy young woman shaking snow from a tangle of long, black hair. The flakes fell to the floor, adding to the crusty crystals left by the tread of her expensive boots. When she finished, she raked back her hair with one hand and lifted her face.
Tess stopped breathing for a second-not because the newcomer was beautiful, though she was absolutely that. When you worked with a pampered, well-heeled clientele, you got accustomed to physical beauty. This woman took Tess's breath away with her sheer radiating vitality. And those green eyes-they seemed lit from behind, alive in an almost otherworldly way, like a forest animal, or a fairy.
It had to be Rowena. Or at least one of the other Wright sisters, since the blonde was Bree. Brianna, the middle sister.
Yes, this new woman was Rowena-and she was maybe seven months pregnant, her belly the one rounded spot on an otherwise lean, athletic frame.
Tess had done her homework. Most of the stories she'd found had been either archived ones about Johnny Wright's murder case, in which most papers had been too delicate to print photos of the motherless daughters, or business stories about the opening of Bell River Ranch and its implications for Silverdell's economy, also short on pictures.
She hadn't been surprised. Why should women who had been through a public scandal at such a tender age seek publicity?
Still, she knew the basic facts. Rowena was the eldest, and the only one with gypsy-black hair. The youngest was Penelope, and the one picture of her as a child showed a honey-brown fall of hair half-hiding a sweet, timid face.
Rowena was obviously the pack leader. Her air of authority was unmistakable. It showed in her indifference to how she tracked slush into the pristine space, in her willingness to bluster into Serenity Central and never be cowed for a second.
Rowena was living proof that everything Tess had been thinking was true. Tess Spencer, the hard-scrabbling itinerant employee with a chip on her shoulder the size of Colorado, had nothing in common with the poised, ebullient Wright sisters.
"You must be Tess!" Rowena turned the amazing green eyes toward her, and her smile deepened, projecting warmth in spite of the chill that still clung to her gold sweater and cords. "I'm Rowena! I'm so sorry I'm late. Gawd, why do I keep saying that? I couldn't help it, really I couldn't. Some meddling fool called the health inspector, and now I'm going to have to dance him around, proving we're not serving ptomaine every night for dinner."
"Ro." Bree pursed her lips, though her eyes had an inner light that hinted at repressed laughter.
"You know you're saying this stuff out loud, right? And everyone can hear you?"
"I can't hear her," a male voice called out from behind the reception area. "And I'm not planning a lawsuit as we speak."
Rowena and Brianna burst into laughter. "You'd better not be, Jude," Rowena said merrily, raising her voice a little to be sure the invisible man could hear her. "What would be the point? You know firsthand how broke we are. In fact, if you get paid this week, you'll be lucky!"
"Ro." Bree shook her head, giving the starchy client a meaningful glance. "Again. You said that out loud."
Ro gave the woman a look of her own. "Oh, we don't have any secrets at Bell River. Silverdell's too small a town for secrets, isn't it, Mrs. Fillmore?"
Tess raised her eyebrows. Again, the subtext of irony. These two didn't like Mrs. Fillmore one bit. She wondered if the feeling was mutual, but the scowl on Mrs. Fillmore's face was too firmly entrenched to be sure it meant anything.
"Indeed," the woman said, pinching her nose with a sniff. "Too small, and sadly too addicted to petty gossiping." She twisted her wrist to look at her watch. "Rowena, my masseuse is ten minutes late."
Tess bristled. No one said masseuse anymore. It had been used too often as a substitute for activities a lot less professional.
"Your massage therapist is Ashley today, Mrs. Fillmore."
One point for Rowena, who had corrected Mrs. Fillmore without making an issue of it.
"And?" Mrs. Fillmore seemed to find Rowena's explanation inadequate.
"You know Ashley always gives everyone a little extra attention if they need it." Rowena smiled warmly. "That's why you always ask for her, I'm sure."
Another sniff. Mrs. Fillmore looked down without answering, turning the pages of her magazine, as if intensely interested in the paparazzi photo spread.
How exactly that differed from petty gossip, Tess couldn't say. But she didn't have the job yet, and she couldn't be snarky with the clients. Luckily, she rarely wanted to. Once she got her hands on a person, even a person like Mrs. Fillmore-
Tess was a tactile person. She thought, and heard, and spoke, and even learned, through her hands. It was her talent. Really, her only talent. If she'd had a choice, she would have chosen something far more lucrative, like computer programming or rocket science.
But she hadn't had a choice. All she had was the ability to learn about a person by touching their skin, working their body. By hearing the tension in their muscles and the strain in their joints. By knowing which pressure points they responded to, what made their blood flow more easily, what drained the unhappiness from their faces.
Once she worked on someone, she understood them in a new way, and the urge to judge, or mock, or take down a peg simply vanished.
"I'm not worried about the health inspector, really," Rowena went on, indicating to both Brianna and Tess in her explanation. "There's nothing to find, so he can dig away. Whoever phoned is just causing trouble for the fun of it. The real problem is that I will have to dance him around, which means I won't be available for the working massage, Tess. We'll have to find someone else for you to work on."
Rowena turned a hopeful gaze toward her sister, who shook her head implacably. "Sorry," Bree said. "Much as I'd love to let someone work out these kinks, I've got nine eight-year-olds waiting to take a sleigh ride to see Santa in downtown Silverdell."
Rowena made a raspberry of annoyance. "Drat. Forgot about that. Really, next year we are going to have to close from Thanksgiving to New Year's, like we planned. Won't that be heavenly? I'll sleep the whole time." She gave Tess a rueful glance. "This year, we can't afford to close a single minute.
Which is why we're interviewing four days before Christmas, in case you thought that was nuts."
Tess smiled neutrally. She had been part of startups before, and she knew the first couple of years were insane, and very touch-and-go, financially. Rowena might be optimistic to think they'd be on solid footing in twelve months.
Besides, Tess couldn't bring herself to think about Christmas this year. Her mother had died two months ago, and the jingling bells and twinkling lights all over town were a jarring reminder of what she'd lost.
She didn't intend to celebrate any holidays for a while. The only toast she'd raise this year was to a new beginning and an entirely new life.
"I'm glad you were," she said, "since four days before Christmas just happened to be when I was looking for a job."
Rowena accepted that logic with a nod, then turned to Bree. "What about Becky? Can't she take over?"
"Nope. She's leading Pilates. We'd have a mutiny if we canceled Pilates."
"Mark? He's good with kids!"
"Good with kids?" Brianna laughed. "Are you kidding? Mark threatened to tie Alec to a tree yesterday if he didn't stop putting snowballs down Ellen's back."
"So?" Rowena grinned. "I threaten to tie Alec to a tree every day."
"Well, you're his stepmother. I think it's written in the job description."
"Hey," Tess interrupted, finally realizing that if she waited for an opening she'd be here all day. "It's okay. Really. I can come back tomorrow."
Rowena shook her head. "No, that's silly. I need you to start tomorrow, if everything works out. With Devon leaving in a week, there's hardly any time to get you up to speed."
Rowena chewed on her lower lip, narrowing her eyes with fierce determination. "There has to be a way there must be someone." Her eyes opened wide. "Mrs. Fillmore! Is there any chance you would be willing to let Tess do your massage today? She has excellent credentials, and we need some feedback on a working massage, so that-"
"No." The older woman folded her magazine tightly, the paper crackling under the force of her fingers.
Rowena frowned. "Of course it would be a complimentary session, as you'd be doing us a favor. And if for any reason it wasn't satisfactory, we could ask Ashley to-"
"No." For a minute it seemed Mrs. Fillmore wasn't going to elaborate, and would let the rejection hang there like a slap in the face. But apparently she realized how rude it sounded and bent a little.
"My sciatica is acting up today. Ashley is the only one who knows how to give me any relief. I'm sorry, but I just can't take chances with a.. " She paused, wrinkling her nose slightly. "A beginner."
Heat flooded Tess's face. Beginner was insulting enough, given that she had three degrees and five years of experience. But she had, in her intuitive way, "heard" all the other words that Mrs. Fillmore had considered saying. A nobody. A stranger. A loser. An urchin. A child.
It struck a nerve. Tess was always being taken for younger than she was. She was only five-three. She'd always been too thin, the kind of thin that broadcast the years of going to bed hungry when her mother got laid off. The kind of thin that made her breasts look ridiculous.