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My life is a lie.
Savannah Slade stood before a mirror, staring at her own image as if she'd never seen it before. She knew the statistics: twenty-two years old, barely five feet four inches tall, shoulder-length white-blond hair and big blue eyes. She had a baby-doll look, but there was nothing babyish about her.
Her recently deceased father, Andrew Slade, had raised his daughters to be tough and self-sufficient, and she'd always considered herself that and more. But today she'd learned a devastating secret at the reading of his will. Andrew wasn't her father, and her sisters weren't really her sisters. The journal she was holding held even more secretssecrets that, if revealed, were going to shatter more people's lives than just her own.
She opened the journal that Coleman Rice, the family lawyer, had given her. Her hands were still shaking. Even though she'd already read the entire book twice over, she returned to the first line. No matter how startling the information, there was no mistaking the truth.
You are not my child, and my darling Hannah was not your mother. Your real mother's name was Chloe Stewart, and when I first met her in Miami, Florida, she was dying of cancer.
She backed up to her bed, then sat down with a thump, swallowed past the lump in her throat and continued to read.
She said she was not married to your father but his name was Gerald Stoss, oldest of twin boys born to Rupert Stoss, and the heir to a massive fortune. She claimed Gerald did not know of your existence until she learned she had inoperable cancer. After that, she contacted him for help. He was devastated to learn your mother was dying, but he assured her he would take care of you. In fact, bring you both into his home and care for her during her last days, and claim you as his rightful heir.
Savannah shivered. So she was a bastard child. Not unusual. If that had been the only revelation, this would have been a bit easier to accept. But such was not the case.
She laid the journal aside and walked to the windows overlooking the south side of the ranch, then leaned her forehead against the panes. If only she could close her eyes and wish this horror story away.
A hard wind suddenly whipped around the corner of the ranch house, reminding her that spring had yet to make a full-fledged appearance in Montana. The weather had been chilly ever since the funeral, and now, three days later, was still the same. The house was warm, the two-story rock-and-cedar structure a strong bulwark against the unforgiving winds that continued to blow. But Savannah garnered no comfort from the familiarity. The family home no longer represented safety to her, and she wondered if she would never know peace again.
Everything she and her sisters had known from as far back as she could remember was a liea convoluted fabrication of bits of their pasts that Andrew had woven into their lives with him.
She felt sick. According to the lawyer, each of them, at different phases of their lives, had been taken in by Andrew, but only after their respective mothers claimed that the girls' lives were in danger. At this point, Savannah was so shocked and angry at the entire revelation that it was difficult to grieve for Andrew's passing. She looked back at the bed and the journal she'd just abandoned. The sight of it taunted her. Unable to leave it alone, she sat down on the mattress, searched for the phrase that had left her speechless and read it again.
They said they would kill you, just like they'd killed your father.
Savannah's gut knotted as she scanned through the next two pages of information. What kind of a family had she been born into? If this story was true, she'd just gone from being the baby of the Slade family to the heir to a massive fortune first amassed in the early 1900s by Austrian immigrant Anton Stoss.
It was a long, convoluted story, but the bottom line was that, although she was illegitimate, inheritance in this case was not based on legal marriage. Instead, the heir of each generation would always be the eldest and firstborn. And even though her father had been a twin, he was the oldest by two minutes, which made him the heir, and since she was his only heir, the vast inheritance was supposedly hers.
According to the journal, when the family learned that Gerald had fathered a child with a woman who was dying of cancer, and that he intended to bring the woman and toddler into the family and claim the child as his heir, his twin, Joseph, had been furious. According to what Gerald had told Chloe, Joseph resented not being named a dual heirthat he'd lost the right by virtue of being born a mere two minutes later.
Savannah turned the page. Andrew's familiar handwriting jumped out at her.
Your mother, Chloe, belonged to the church in Miami, Florida, where I'd been asked to hold a revival. She was in the front row every night, her bald head wrapped in a scarf, her skin pale and ashen. You were but a two-year-old toddler, oblivious to the fact that your mother was dying. Your sister, Maria, was already with me and sat nearby on the same pew, so that I might keep a close eye on her. Every night, when your mother would stand and ask for healing, Maria would scoot over and play with you while we prayed for her.
Then the last night came. She arrived carrying not only you but a stuffed rabbit and a satchel. After the service, she waited until everyone else was gone before telling her story between harsh, choking sobs. My heart ached for her as her story unfolded, and it was then I began to realize that, once again, God had more in mind for me than just preaching His word. According to her, your father, whom she appeared to love deeply, had been killed that very day in a car accident. But it was the phone call she got later that changed her grief to fear. A man told her bluntly that if she tried to make a claim on the Stoss fortune on your behalf, you would meet the same fate your father had met. They said they would kill you, just like they'd killed your father.
After a long, involved conversation, she convinced me that she had no other options. I looked at you, sleeping peacefully in Maria's lap, and gave in to the inevitable. She gave me a letter entrusting you to my care. A copy of it is in the back of this journal, along with a copy of your birth certificate listing Gerald Stoss as your father. The originals of both documents are with my lawyer, Coleman Rice. Suffice it to say, by the time I left Miami, I had acquired another daughter.
Savannah closed the journal and set it aside. Before Andrew's abrupt and unexpected death, she'd known her place in the worldright here on the Triple S, a huge, sprawling ranch a few miles from Missoula, Montana.
Although she had not been out of college long, her affinity with numbers had led her to take over the ranch bookkeeping, as well as the breeding registrations for the horse and cattle operations, leaving the role of "woman of the house" to her oldest sister, Holly. Maria, her middle sister, had opted for working with the livestock as well as training the horses.
Andrew's best friend, thirty-nine-year-old Robert TateBud to the familyheld the job of foreman. And now, after the reading of the will, Bud also held equal ownership in the Triple S.
This had been her world, but if she was to follow her curiosity and instincts, it was the world she was about to abandon.
Savannah put on her coat and scarf, and began searching for her car keys. There was one person she had to face with this news before she left for Miami, and he wasn't going to like what she had to say. Telling her childhood sweetheart and almost-fiance, Judd Holyfield, that she was leaving Montana wasn't going to be easy. When she left her room, her purse was on her shoulder and her car keys in her hand.
"Hey, honey, where are you going?"
Savannah paused in midstride. Ever since Andrew's death, Bud had taken his duty as foreman beyond the bunkhouse to the big house. She should have known she would never make it out of the house without Bud finding out.
"I'm going to Judd's."
Bud eyed the frown lines between Savannah's eyebrows and knew she was dealing with more than grief.
"Does he know what's happened?"
"What are you going to tell him?"
Her chin jutted. "That the woman he thinks he loves is a fraud, then see how it goes."
Bud frowned. "You know him better than that, or at least you should. That's not going to make a damn bit of difference to him."
"I know, but it still has to be said, and he's not going to like the fact that I'm leaving Montana."
"So take him with you."
She shifted angrily. "I may be the smallest Slade on the place, but I don't need a babysitter. Size is a state of mind. I can be as tough and as tall as I need to be."
Bud loved these women more than he had a right to, hated that the family was coming apart and didn't know how to pull them back into the fold.
"I know, honey. I didn't mean to imply you were helpless. I worry, okay? But damn it, Savannah, Andrew took you in because you were in danger. Even though you've grown up, there's a strong possibility that the danger still existsmaybe more than ever."
"I know that, but right now, the only danger I'm about to be in is with Judd. Say a prayer for me. I'll see you later."
Bud flinched at the sound of the closing door, mumbled a quiet prayer for the family, then grabbed his jacket and Stetson and headed for the stables. At least the horses still needed him, which was more than he could say for Andrew's daughters.
"Hey, boss! Look out!"
Judd Holyfield reacted to the warning and yanked the reins of his cutting horse just in time to keep from being gored by the horns of an angry mama cow. The rangy brindle was pissed that they'd separated her from her baby and was pitching a royal fit. "Hurry up and get a band on that calf!" Judd yelled, keeping his rope taut and the cow at bay.
The little bull bawled as the cowboys upended it. While one cowboy held the calf down, another grabbed the bander and deftly slipped a short thick rubber band over the creature's small downy sac before letting him go free. The thick rubber band would slowly stop circulation, which would eventually cause the anatomy in question to shrivel up and drop off. It was bloodless and a far less painful method of castration than the old method of cutting had been, but it had to be done when the calf was small or it wouldn't work. As soon as the calf was set free, Judd loosened the tension on his rope and slipped it off the horns of the mama cow in question. She bellowed loudly, which brought her baby running, and off they trotted.
"That's the last one," Judd said as he reined in his horse.
"Hey, boss, looks like you've got company."
Judd turned in the saddle. When he recognized Savannah's car, he frowned. She was driving fast, which meant something was wrong.
"Three of you clean up here, then take a load of hay over to the back forty and feed the yearlings. Pete, take my horse to the barn. Brush her down good, and then make sure she has food and water. I'll be back later."
He dismounted, handed over the reins and started toward the house. He was there by the time she pulled up and parked, and he could tell by the look on her face that she wasn't happy. As she got out of the car, her body language worried him even more.
What the hell happened?
"Hi, sugar." He opened his arms. She walked into his embrace without a word, burying her face against his chest. "What's wrong?"
"We need to talk."
Everything had been turned upside down since Andrew's sudden death, and he assumed this was more of the same.
"Let's go inside. I have a fire going in the den and some chili I could heat up. Are you hungry?"
Savannah shrugged. It was after three, and she realized they'd all skipped lunch, which wasn't so surprising, considering what had been happening.
"I guess. Are you?"
He grinned as they walked up the steps and into the house. "Remember who you're talking to."
Savannah smiled, trying to keep up with his humor. "Right. Sure, I'll eat with you."
The busywork of heating chili, filling bowls and making coffee dispelled some of Savannah's nervousness. By the time they sat down, the butterflies in her stomach were barely fluttering. After all, this was Judd. She'd loved him forever. She knew her unexpected news wouldn't affect him nearly as much as the fact that she intended to leave Montana, and still without committing to an engagement.
By the time they sat down, Judd was the one who was anxious. He'd never seen Savannah like this. He waited until she'd taken a bite before he followed suit. They ate in silence. Finally she shoved her bowl aside and leaned her elbows on the table.
"We got a big shock during the reading of the will."
Judd frowned. He'd known that was happening this morning, but no one had been expecting any surprises. "What kind of shock?"
Savannah clutched her hands together to keep them from shaking.
"Andrew wasn't my real father."
It was the last thing he had expected her to say. "You're kidding!"
"I wish. But that's not all. None of the three of us are real sisters."
A tear rolled out of her eye and down her cheek. The sight of it cut Judd to the bone.
"Savannah sweetheart, I'm so sorry." He got out of his chair and quickly circled the table, pulling her up and into his arms. "So you guys were adopted. That's not such a big deal, is it?"
"If only that were the case," Savannah said. "But we were never adopted. Not legally. It's all a big complicated mess, but he left each of us a journal explaining how we came to live with him and what happened to our real parents. Remember he used to be an evangelical preacher? And that he traveled all over the States holding revivals?"
"Yes, I knew he'd done that when he was younger. Why?"