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Adam Dalton pulled up behind a line of cars, pickup trucks and the Harley that blocked the driveway in front of the rambling ranch house. Judging from the number of vehicles, he'd guess all four of his half brothers and one half sister had also shown up for the reading of the will.
He'd never met any of his half siblings. The only reason he knew most of them existed was because their names and relationship were all listed in the letter he'd gotten inviting him to the ranch for this dubious occasion.
The legacy of Reuben Jackson Dalton.
R.J., the father he hadn't seen in twenty-seven years. All he knew of his biological father had come from his mother, Jerri, wife number three. If she'd ever said anything good about R.J., Adam didn't recall it.
But she must have loved him oncebefore she'd put him completely out of her life. She'd even lied about his being alive for yearswhich was strange in its own right, since she was normally a stickler for the truth.
She'd divorced R.J. when Adam was four years old.
He didn't remember a lot about that, but he did remember crying when they'd driven away from the ranch.
His mother had married again when Adam was eleven and Doug Abbott had become Adam's father in every way that mattered until he'd been killed in an early-morning pileup in a dense fog when Adam was eighteen. In his heart and mind, his father had died that day.
Still, Adam had always wondered about R.J. But from the time he was old enough to remember asking about him, his mother had told him R.J. had died soon after their divorce. He could tell she didn't like talking about him, so he'd eventually quit bringing up the subject.
Adam was twenty-one and leaving for his first tour of duty as a U.S. Marine before she admitted that R.J. was alive. Even then it was clear she hoped Adam wouldn't get in touch with him. She cautioned him that R. J. Dalton was nothing but trouble and had never cared anything about him or anyone else.
Nonetheless, Adam had thought about visiting R.J. then. He'd even gone so far as to get into his truck and start toward the ranch. He'd changed his mind before he'd reached the turnoff at Oak Grove. If R.J. had wanted him in his life, he'd have come looking for him. Adam would have been easy to find.
That's why the letter requesting his presence for the reading of the will had come as such a shock. He hadn't even heard that R.J. had died.
Oddly, Adam felt a twinge of loss as he opened the door to his truck and planted his feet on the hard earth. He wasn't sure if it was for R.J. or just for what might have been had R.J. ever been a real father to him.
But being overlooked by R.J. was only a precursor to the rejection that had come later. Hadley O'Sullivan had seen to that.
While he'd been fighting for his life from injuries sustained in an ambush on a craggy mountainside in Afghanistan, she'd found a replacement lover. She'd married him and given birth to twins before Adam was even out of rehab. Apparently Hadley, like R.J., figured Adam was easy to forget.
All in the past, he reminded himself as he climbed the wide wooden steps to the house. The clamor of voices coming from behind the closed doors promised that this was not a friendly meeting. Dread punched him in the gut. He didn't need this.
His phone rang as he turned the doorknob. He checked the caller ID. It was his mother, no doubt wanting to know how the gathering of the clan was going. He ignored the call and turned his phone to vibrate.
Right now he just wanted to get the will reading over and done with. He'd expected nothing from R.J. while the man was alive. He didn't expect any more now, so how bad could the meeting be?
As soon as he took a seat, Attorney Conroe Phipps called the meeting to order and had the siblings introduce themselves. And then the fun started.
Phipps used his laser to point out each preposterous detail as he went over the requirements to receive a share of RJ.'s estate. The jolts came hard and fast, similar to an emotional earthquake with countless aftershocks.
Adam scanned the room, briefly studying each of his half siblings. They were clearly as stunned as he was.
Jade, the only female of the group, was kicking her crossed leg with a ferocity that made him think she was about to propel into orbit. Even Cannon, the rodeo cowboy of the group and the one person Adam thought might have been more receptive to the terms of the will, wore an expression that looked as if he'd been kicked by a bull.
No one was smiling. Adam himself swallowed a few curses along the way. He figured there would be time to vent his protests and frustrations once the long-winded attorney finished his spiel.
"To sum it up," Phipps said as he put down his laser, "in order to collect your share of the estate, you have to not only live on the ranch but take an active role in its operations for one full year."
Questions and arguments started flying with everybody talking at once. Phipps's only response to the chaos was a look of snide satisfaction, as if the uproar was exactly what he'd expected and possibly hoped for.
"I have a successful career. Do you honestly expect me to give that up to play cowboy?"
"How can we possibly all live here at once? It's a big house, but not that big."
"How much money are we talking about? Is there any oil involved?"
"If there's nothing but the ranch, why can't we just sell it and split the money? This much land so close to Dallas should be worth a small fortune."
"My mother was right. R. J. Dalton was nuts. I say we get our own attorney and prove he was mentally incompetent. There's no way I'm living out here in the middle of nowhere."
That last complaint had come from Jade who had stopped kicking and was now standing with her hands firmly planted on her hips.
Phipps clapped his hands loudly to get everyone's attention. "I know you have lots of questions, so I'm going to turn this meeting over to the man whom the money currently belongs to and whose last will and testament seem to be causing you so much distress."
He grinned and nodded toward a door that was opening behind him. "Come in, R.J., and meet your loving and appreciative family."
Mouths flew open, including Adam's, as an older, gray-haired man with ruddy, weathered skin and an eagle tattoo on his wrinkled right arm sauntered into the room.
Apparently R. J. Dalton was still very much alive. If there was any grief in the room after this, Adam figured R.J. would be the one dishing it out.
R.J. took his place at the front of the room and eyeballed each of his offspring in turn. He recognized all of them from current pictures he'd had his neighbor and former private investigator Meghan Lambert locate for him.
A few of his adult children showed a slight resemblance to him. Most didn't. But the most surprising thing was that they'd all shown up today and none had bolted and run yet even though they had no idea how much he was really worth.
"Guess you're surprised to see me here," he said, purposely exaggerating his Texas drawl. "Didn't see why I should send a corpse in my place and miss all the fun. But don't worry. According to my friendly neurosurgeon, I'll be lucky if I see the new year ring in."
To his children's credit, no one cheered at that pronouncement. But that could be because they were still in shock that he wasn't already dead as they'd been led to believe.
"I know it's only eleven in the morning, but this is Texas. There's beer, coffee and some of the best dadgum barbecue this side of the Mississippi River in the kitchen."
"The kitchen we're all supposed to share for a year," someone grumbled.
"There's nothing in the will about sharing living quarters. There's a bunkhouse, a horse barn and a drafty old foreman's cabin on the property. I have to warn you, though, the cabin's starting to lean and the bunkhouse needs a new roof."
"And I suppose the horse barn is full of dead horses?" Jade quipped.
"Wrong. I got ten of the best damn thoroughbreds in the county and eight other good riding horses. I'm sure your mothers have told you that I've got a head as hard as a frozen wheel hub. That's all true. However I'm open to questions or just to chat. But I can assure you that the rules aren't going to change. So basically all you have to do is make up your mind. Do you want to be cut in or cut out?"
"To start, I think you should at least give us a ballpark figure as to the stakes we're talking about," Adam said.
"I reckon that's fair. We're talking about four hundred acres of prime ranchland that includes the house, outbuildings, about two hundred head of cattle and the horses I've already mentioned."
"What about cash and investments?" one of the guys asked.
"I'm worth about eight million dollarsgive or take a few thousand."
Someone gave a low whistle. R.J. didn't see who, but he could tell from the way they all sat up a little straighter in their chairs that he had their attention.
R.J. saw no reason to mention that most of the money had come from the one gamble in his life that had actually paid off for hima one-dollar lottery ticket purchased from the truck stop in Oak Grove.
He winked and managed a smile. "I'm glad you all came and hopefully we might even discover we like or can at least tolerate each other. Now who wants a beer?"
The others followed R.J. to the kitchen. Adam stepped outside to clear his head.
So this is what it felt like to be bought. Was that what R.J. had done to his mother, insisted she dance to his tune or leave the party? Adam wondered how much it had been worth to the man to get rid of her and Adam.
He expected it was a sizable amount, enough to ease R.J.'s guilt if he'd had any. Even before Adam's mother had remarried, they'd lived in a nice house in an exclusive neighborhood and as far as he knew, there had never been any money worries. His mother still lived in that house.
His phone vibrated. This time he took the call. "Hello, Mom. What's the matter? Can't wait to hear about R.J.'s latest tricks?"
"Did you hear the AMBER Alert the Houston police issued a couple of hours ago?" Her voice was shaking so hard he could barely understand her.
"Twin girls were kidnapped from their grandmother's home in a Dallas subdivision during the night."
"Is this someone you know?"
"The grandmother is Janice O'Sullivan, Adam. It was Hadley's children who were kidnapped."
His heart bucked and knocked against his chest wall. He fumbled for words while he tried to get his mind around the news. "How did that happen?"
"I have no idea. The only details released were a description of the girls and the area where they were kidnapped."
"Then how do you know the missing girls are Had-ley's daughters?"
"My friend Crystal just called. Her daughter's husband is on the Dallas police force and was one of the first responders to the 911 call. He talked to Hadley. She's frantic."
"I know you two had a bitter breakup, son, but her daughters are missing. I think you should go over there and see if you can help."
"She has the Dallas police and maybe even the FBI. I'm sure they don't need me."
"But you're a decorated marine."
"We didn't handle child abductions in Afghanistan, Mom. Besides there's no reason to think Hadley or her husband would appreciate my interference."
"There was no husband around when Crystal's son-in-law talked to her. She was by herself."
"Where was her mother?"
"Janice is in the hospital. She's having surgery this morning. That's why Hadley and the girls are in town. And now her girls have been kidnapped. Hadley can't face this all alone."
"She has a husband."
"But he's not with her now and who knows how long it will take him to get to Dallas. I don't even know where they live. But you're here, Adam. At least talk to her. You've always helped anyone in trouble."
But this wasn't anyone. This was the woman whose image he'd held on to through hell and back only to learn she'd married someone else and borne his children.
The woman he'd spent the past few years trying to erase from his heart and mind.
But Hadley was alone and no doubt terrified, her children in the hands of an abductor. His heart pounded as adrenaline exploded inside him.
She might kick him out when he got there, but not going to her wasn't even an option. Eight million or eighty million dollars on the line, it made no difference.
He was out of here.