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Jill Shalvis

The Rancher's Surrender

A book in the Way Out West series, 1999

Prologue

Zoe Martin squeezed her foster sisters' hands tightly, but only because she thought Delia or Maddie might be scared of the dark.

She wasn't scared, she was scared of nothing. Nothing at all.

A cricket burst into melody, and she nearly leaped out of her skin.

Delia and Maddie scooted closer, until they were practically in one another's laps, reminding Zoe she wasn't alone. They were all the same age: the quiet withdrawn Maddie, the bossy Delia, and herself. And they were all very different. But the three of them had pledged to be sisters forever, and that was all that mattered now.

Cranking her neck back, Zoe stared at the city sky littered with fog and pollution, and forgot her six-year-old bravado. Forgot that her eyes burned from lack of sleep due to bad dreams, her cheek burned from where she'd been smacked by an older child in their group home, one of the bullies.

She forgot everything but what she and Delia and Maddie had crept out here for-their dream.

As they huddled on the damp grass, holding on to one another, she stared at the faint stars and offered up her one and only wish-that they would be kept together, forever.

* * *

One thousand miles away in Idaho, Constance Freeman hung up the phone and sighed deeply with painful regret. If her heart felt as though it were cracking open, she knew it was no one's fault but her own.

She'd let her son get away, though that wasn't what tore at her now, for he'd been mean, dishonest and selfish. A bad seed.

What she regretted with all her heart was that he'd gone without telling her the one thing she so desperately needed to know.

Where her young granddaughter had been taken. For six years, since the birth of the child, Constance had been begging her son for information. Cruelly, he'd withheld it, saying only that his ex-girlfriend, the child's mother, had vanished. And so had the child. Tracing her was difficult, for her son hadn't married the girl's mother, and Constance had no idea what the mother's name was. Heaven only knew what name was on the birth certificate.

But Constance would find her, she vowed with renewed determination. She'd search everywhere if she had to, spend every last penny she had. It would be worth it.

She'd find that child and shower her with all the love and attention Constance was so certain she wasn't getting now.

She'd leave that child her legacy, though she knew others might not see it as a legacy so much as a burden. Certainly her own son had felt that way.

But Constance's ranch, Triple M, was her one true love, and she wouldn't be happy until she knew she'd taken care of both its future, and her granddaughter's.

Chapter 1

Twenty years later

In the dark night the mountains rose like giants. Three giants. And excitement ripped through Zoe so that she could barely contain herself as she parked.

'We're here!' she cried, leaping out of the car first. Not because she was the oldest; she wasn't. They were all close enough to the same age that it didn't matter.

But Maddie-the-Worrywart had pretended to fall asleep in the back seat on the long ride from the airport, and Delia-the-Know-It-All still couldn't believe what they'd done.

And Zoe was so thrilled to be at Triple M Ranch, she couldn't stand it. Her dreams were about to come true, after a lifetime of uncertainty and nowhere to belong, she was home.

Everyone that mattered to her was in the car. And she wanted them to be as happy. 'Come on, you two,' she whispered in the absolute darkness, her feet crunching in the dirt beneath her as she turned and peered back into the open rental car. 'Let's go.'

'It's… black out there' came Maddie's hushed reply. Her pale, sleepy face popped up from the back seat. Rumpled and tired as she was, her creamy skin glowed and her sable hair curled around her face, giving her the look of a precious china doll.

'Yes, night is usually pretty black,' Zoe agreed with a little laugh. 'Come on.'

'Darker than Los Angeles,' Delia decided, speaking from the front passenger seat and peering out into the night. She flipped back a blond tress. 'I can't believe we've done this. I bet there's not a Thai takeout within three hundred miles.'

'Well, it's not every day we just inherit a ranch,' Zoe pointed out. 'We couldn't not come.'

'We could have waited for daylight.' The face that usually inspired grown men to beg for attention now creased in stubbornness, a look that Zoe knew all too well. Delia wasn't budging for anything less than a shopping spree.

'Oh, and I suppose you have money for a hotel room.' Suddenly willing to stall, Zoe clung to the side of the car, because after all, her sisters were right… it was pretty dark.

And the fact that they were here at all, in the middle of the Idaho wilderness, one thousand miles away from their comforting city of Los Angeles, was mostly her fault.

'We'll be fine,' Maddie said, her voice quiet. 'We're together, that's all that matters.'

'We could have stayed together at the airport hotel until morning,' Delia pointed out calmly. 'Might have been a whole lot smarter than rushing out to the middle of the boondocks without even the moon for company. And I bet the hotel had a hot tub.'

If there was something Zoe had a hard time with, it was taking the blame, especially when she was in the wrong. Because their ranch supposedly came with two trucks, they had sold her car and Delia's. Maddie hadn't owned one. They'd flown into Boise from L.A., and then rented a car to take them to the ranch one hundred and fifty miles away, excited and hopeful about their future.

Zoe had always wanted a truck, but there hadn't been much reason for one in L.A., not to mention cost. Because of that, her secret fantasy of driving a truck and owning a horse had never materialized.

Until now.

'You know we're on a tight budget,' she said with more defense than was necessary, but she was out on a limb and couldn't afford to fail. 'And anyway, I don't see the difference between arriving at our new property now or in the morning.'

'In the morning it would have been light.'

An owl hooted, or at least it sounded like an owl. Zoe hugged the car door to her side, glancing warily over her shoulder. Man, the night was noisy here. Water rushed nearby, which she knew to be the Salmon River. Crickets blared. She could hear the sound of trees rustling in the wind.

Something howled.

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