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The dark mound of dirt in the Slade family cemetery marked the final resting place of family patriarch Andrew Slade. Flowers that had been placed on the grave three days earlier were already shriveled from the chill Montana spring. He had been buried beside his loving wife, Hannah, on the Montana ranch that had been his solace, and no amount of weeping or praying could change the fact that he was dead. Although, if that had been possible, he would already have been resurrected.
His three daughters had been blindsided by his passing and were still dealing with the devastation.
The doctor called it an aneurysm.
His daughters called it a tragedy.
But they'd been raised to endure, and even though their hearts were broken, they were tending to business, just as they'd been taught.
At the age of twenty-four years, Maria Slade was not the oldest, but she'd always been the leader, and today she was doing her best to keep her sisters' emotions intact.
All three still lived on the property. Maria was the one who thrived outdoors, who had ridden the ranch with her father and their foreman, Bud, and was also her father's best friend. She came alive outdoors, could rope and ride as well as any hired hand, and had recently taken up training horses as her chosen profession.
Savannah was the youngest, but a whiz with math. She kept the books, both for the ranch and its horse and cattle breeding program, without a hitch.
Holly was the homemaker. When Hannah died, she'd stepped into the breach and kept the cupboards full and the house spotless, and had hosted their annual barbeque as if she'd been born to the job.
Within the hour, they would be going to Missoula for the reading of the will. It marked the finality of their father's passing, and for that reason alone, Andrew's daughters were dragging their heels.
Because Maria had always taken the lead, she was rushing to get ready, knowing it would be her responsibility to get everyone and everything in place so they could leave.
She glanced at herself in the mirror, giving her appearance one last appraisal. Dark hair brushed. Brown slacks, jade-colored blouse and suede jacketsubdued enough for the occasion but still comfortable for the chill of the day. Chocolate-brown boots in case of rain.
She squinted, testing to see if that would hide the fact that her eyes were still red from a morning bout of weeping, and then sighed. Why hide the fact that she was grieving? Everyone knew it. Taking a deep breath, she pivoted sharply on one heel and stalked out of the room.
As she was going down the hall, she heard the front door open, then close with a thud. That would be Bud coming to tell them he'd brought the car around. Bud's diligence over the past few days had helped them through many rough patches. She knew he was grieving for their father as deeply as they were. He and Andrew had been good friends long before Bud had come to work at the ranch, and working together all these years had only deepened the tie.
As she reached Savannah's door, she knocked sharply and called out, "Bud's here. We need to go."
"Coming," Savannah answered.
Maria moved down the hall to the last door and repeated the process.
"Holly! Bud's here."
The door opened immediately.
"I'm ready," Holly said, and fell into step beside her sister. A moment later, a door opened behind them and Savannah ran to catch up.
They entered the living room in tandem, their shoulders stiff, their chins raised as if bracing for another blow.
Bud was waiting for them. "The wind is sharp and it looks like rain. You might want to get some rain gear."
"We aren't made of sugar. We won't melt," Maria muttered.
Savannah stifled a sob and reached for Maria's hand.
Holly's chin quivered. "That's what Dad always said."
"Don't say I didn't warn you," Bud muttered, then spun on his heel and opened the door for them.
As the women grabbed their coats from the hall closet, they cast guilty glances at the firm set of his jaw. Maria reminded herself again that Bud was grieving, too.
"Sorry," she said, and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek as she walked past.
He hugged her back as an apology for his gruffness. "No need to apologize, sugar. We're all pretty raw."
Savannah laid her hand briefly on his forearm and gave it a squeeze.
Holly's gaze locked on his as she passed, then she blinked and turned away.
No one spoke as they got settled, and Bud put the car in gear and drove away from the ranch. It was too reminiscent of the feelings they'd had on the way to Andrew Slade's funeral. To add credence to Bud's warning, it began to rain before they got to the cattle guard at the end of the driveway.
Cattle stood in bunches with their heads down, their hindquarters turned toward the blowing rain. Andrew's quarter horse, Red, was tossing his head and neighing sharply as he circled the corral in a trot. He'd been acting up ever since Andrew's death. They had all been around animals long enough to know that the horse knew its master was gone and was as lost as the rest of them were.
Despite the rain that had begun to fall, the ranch hands who were fixing a break in the fence took off their hats as the car passed by them
honoring the family and the man who had been their boss. They were concerned, too, but for different reasons. They didn't know what would be happening to the Triple S. Would they still have jobs when this day was over?
A lone buzzard had perched on the crossbar over the entrance gate, waiting for a lull between gusts of the sharp north wind before taking flight. The intermittent sprinkle of accompanying moisture was more sleet than rain, a fitting reflection of the mood of the people inside the car as it passed beneath the buzzard's perch. The rattling sound of the car passing over the cattle guard sent the bird into the air, and as the car disappeared from sight, so did the ungainly scavenger.
Coleman Rice kept glancing at the clock and then back at the stack of paperwork on his desk as he paced his office. The Slade family was due to arrive at any moment, and he was dreading what was to come. In all his years as an attorney, Andrew Slade's will was certainly the most shocking he'd ever encountered. The information was so volatile that he had no idea how the women were going to react. He smoothed the hair down on both sides of his head and straightened his jacket just as he heard a commotion in the outer office. They were here.
He took a deep breath and unconsciously threw back his shoulders, as if bracing for what was to come. The door opened.
His secretary, Milly, announced unnecessarily, "The Slade family is here."
Coleman walked toward them, his hand extended.
I'm sorry to be seeing you under these circumstance. Please come in."
He had chairs arranged in a semicircle around the front of his desk, with a small, flat-screen TV on the bookshelf behind his chair.
"Take a seat," he said, gesturing toward the setting he'd arranged.
Bud seated the women, then took the last chair for himself. Once they had settled, Coleman got down to business.
"As you know
we're here today to read the last will and testament of Andrew Slade. It's brief and to the point, so I'll read it first. And then there's a video Andrew recorded for the four of you to see."
"Oh, no," Savannah muttered.
Maria took her hand. Holly took the other. The sisters sat quietly, bound by love and circumstance, while Bud looked as if he were wishing for this morning to be over.
"The dispersal of the property is straightforward," Coleman said, and proceeded to read through the where-ases and wherefores.
Maria began losing focus. Then she heard the lawyer clear his throat and tuned back in.
"The ranch will be left in equal parts to my daughters, Holly, Maria and Savannah, and to my treasured friend and foreman, Robert Tate."
Bud gasped. "No. That's not right. I didn't expect
he shouldn't have
it belongs to the"
"Hush, Bud," Maria said sharply. "It is right. He did the exact right thing. We're family. All four of usand we can't run the place without you."
Bud sat back, clearly stunned by the news.
Coleman held up his hand. "Let me finish."
The room got quiet.
"Besides the property and monies
there's the message Andrew left. Ladies, I will preface it by saying. it has nothing to do with what you've inheritedbut it has everything to do with the rest of your lives."
The sisters glanced at each other, then at Bud.
He shrugged, as if to say he knew nothing about this. "Should I leave?" he asked.
Once again, Maria took charge. "No. You stay." Then she softened her voice as she added, "Please."
Bud nodded, then settled back in his seat, and they all watched as the lawyer slipped a disc into the player, hit a button, then left the room.
Andrew Slade's face appeared on the screen at the same time the door closed.
Breaths caught in unison, then they all exhaled softly as they braced themselves for whatever he had to say.
"Hello, my daughters. Obviously, if you're seeing this, I have passed on. Know that, while I am sorry to be leaving you behind, my faith in God and the knowledge that I will be with my beloved Hannah again is, for me, a cause to rejoice. However, what I have to say to you is something I've dreaded your entire lives, and I'm ashamed to say I chose the easy way out and left it for you to hear after my passing."
Unconsciously, the sisters leaned into each other. Maria noticed as Bud almost unconsciously slid an arm behind Holly's chair, as if bracing her against what was clearly going to be bad news. There was a muscle jerking at the side of Andrew's jaw as he faced the camera, which told her that her father had been under stress when he recorded his message. But she could not have imagined, in her wildest dreams, the words that came out of his mouth.
"My darling daughters.you need to know that I am not really your father. Hannah was not really your mother, nor were any of you ever legally adopted."
Shock spread across all three women's faces.
"What the hell?" Bud muttered, unable to believe what he was hearing.
"There is more," Andrew added. "You are not sisters."
Maria gasped. Holly moaned. Savannah began to weep.
Bud's arm tightened around Holly's shoulders.
The sisters looked at each other in mute disbelief, then Maria gently squeezed one of Savannah's hands as Holly did the same to the other.
"We are sistersin every way that counts," Maria said sharply.
Andrew's voice drew their focus back to the screen.
"By now, I suspect your grief at my passing has turned to shock
even anger. I understand. But what you three need to understand is.I believed with every fiber of my being that, as I was following my calling as an evangelical preacher, God led me to each of you at a time when you needed me most. There are journals that I've left with Coleman, one for each of you. Everything I know about your past is in there, along with why your mothers put you in my care.
"Maria, you were the first one. You were born Mary Blake, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Your mother had a hard life. She was, for lack of a better word, an escort at the time of her death. You were four years old when you witnessed her murder. As she lay dying, she begged me to take you and hide you. The details as to how it all happened are in your journal. To my knowledge, her murder was never solved.
"Savannah, you are actually Sarah Stewart from Miami, Florida, and the second child to be given to me. Your mother was dying of cancer and had come to my tent meetings to pray for healing. By then, Maria had been with me for nearly six months. You were barely two. You and Maria hit it off immediately when your mother came to hear me preach, and she saw the bond between you two. On the last night of the revival, she came to me in a panic. She and your father were not married, but he had never denied you, and he played an important role in your life. According to her, he was also a member of a very rich, powerful local family. When she learned she had inoperable cancer, he had stepped up and promised he would take you into the family, and he had informed them of his plans. The night she came to me, she was sobbing uncontrollably. Your father had been killed in a car accident early that morning, and already she had received a threat on your life. Aware that she had only weeks to live and no one else to whom she could turn, she begged me to take you and raise you with Maria. So I did. It was then that I began to understand I was being led down this path by a power greater than my own.
"Holly, you are my oldest, but you came to me last. You were born Harriet Mackey and were five when you and your mother showed up at a revival I was holding in St. Louis, Missouri. She seemed troubled, but I thought nothing of it. At one time or another, we are all troubled by something or someone. On the fourth and last night of the revival, I thought everyone was gone from the church. Maria and Savannah had gone to sleep in the pastor's office, and I was going to get them when your mother showed up at the door with you and a suitcase.