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Excerpt - High-Stakes Inheritance by Susan Sleeman

High-Stakes Inheritance
by
Susan Sleeman


Despite the threatening warning, Mia Blackburn won't let anyone scare her from the rustic resort she inherits from her beloved uncle. But when a fire traps her in a burning barn, she fears that she won't get out alive. Just in time her ex-boyfriend volunteer firefighter Ryan Morgan rescues her from the deadly blaze. He had once broken her heart, yet she still has feelings for him. With Ryan insisting on keeping a close eye on her, Mia feels safer—and closer to Ryan than ever before. Yet the threats haven't stopped, and soon Mia's high-stakes inheritance includes a murder—and Mia could be the next victim.

Excerpt of chapter one:

Pinetree will never be yours. Leave Logan Lake now or you will pay.

Mia Blackburn stared at the cutout magazine letters glued to stark white paper.

Was this some kind of a joke? Did someone really plan to hurt her for honoring her late uncle's wishes? To meet the terms of his will, she had agreed to live at Pinetree for the next year in order to inherit the resort. Yet nothing about the idyllic Oregon setting and worn cabins would garner this kind of threat.

With trembling hands, she flipped the envelope and searched for clues. The hate mail held a postmark from three days ago right here in the Logan Lake Post Office.

She rubbed a finger over the neat rows of shiny magazine letters. Anger seemed to leap from the page.

Her mouth went dry, and her throat tightened, nearly cutting off her air.

Only one person harbored such bitter feelings for her. Her father. And knowing him, he'd lurk in the shadows to see her reaction to his threat.

The space seemed to darken with her thoughts.

Was he here, in the room watching her? Or would he be outside on Main Street, sitting in his Cadillac, drumming his fingers on the wheel as he did whenever he grew impatient?

The jarring clang of the front door bells ended her thoughts. She snapped her head up to see who entered.

Not her father, but just as bad. Maybe worse.

"Ryan." Her ex-boyfriend's name whispered out like a desperate plea for help as he strolled lazily into the space.

His warm expression and greetings spoke to his love of this small town and its people. He'd changed little since she'd last seen him at high school graduation. He was dressed in worn jeans, rugged boots and an army-green T-shirt that confirmed he hadn't quit working out. Curly russet hair had been cut short emphasizing his skin bronzed from the summer.

As if feeling her gaze, he turned in her direction. Recognition widened his piercing blue eyes. "Mia, is that you?" he called out with genuine fondness as if they'd parted best friends. He headed her way, giving her a quick once-over on the way. When his eyes returned to her face, appreciation radiated from his expression much like it had when they dated in high school.

"I almost didn't recognize you with the new look." He reached out to lift a strand of her shoulder-length hair she'd straightened and dyed.

His touch shot a frisson of alarm through her far greater than the letter had. She searched for a reply, but gaped instead. He directed a counseling program that leased cabins at Pine-tree in the off-season so she'd expected them to cross paths. However, she didn't count on freezing in place when she saw him again.

"I remember that look." His trademark crooked grin lit his face. "Got it every time I messed up."

This was too much. He was here…in front of her. The guy who'd hurt her like every man in her life except Uncle Wally. And she wasn't ready with the quick, witty comebacks she'd often visualized in her mind.

"You okay?" he asked.

"I'm fine." Fine? She wasn't fine. How was she going to get out of this situation?

She took a step back and focused on the waffle pattern in his T-shirt. This wasn't any better than peering into his eyes. The material stretched taut across his chest. A chest where she'd rested and received comfort after battles with her father.

"I'm sorry to hear about Wally," he said, filling the awkward space and bringing her gaze to his face. "I remember as a kid how I'd count down the days until he left Atlanta and came up here for the summer." A soft smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. "All the kids around here loved his camp. Takes a special person to give so much time and money to help underprivileged kids like he did. I'm gonna miss him."

"Me, too," she managed.

Who was this woman taking over her body? Since their tumultuous breakup, she'd often visualized the strong woman she'd become, standing up to Ryan and releasing pent-up anger from the wounds he'd inflicted. Never did she see herself shying away like a terrified mouse.

So what? Even if she pulled herself together, this wasn't the time or place to get into their botched romance. Small towns had big ears and the last thing she needed was gossip about her served as the entrée on dinner tables tonight. She'd had enough of that in high school when she'd sparked the local gossip by rebelling against her father's rigid control, skipping school and partying all hours of the night.

Her best option was to cut this short. "If you'll excuse me, I really need to get out to Pinetree and unpack."

In search of car keys, she used her hip to shift her leather purse closer as she transferred the threatening letter to the other hand already bulging with envelopes. Shaking fingers fumbled and upset the pile, sending it crashing to the floor.

"Let me help." He dropped down and reached for the alarming letter.

No. He didn't need to see the warning.

She lunged toward the page, but his hand whispered softly over hers and snatched up the paper. While he scanned the message, she slid the avalanche of envelopes into a stack.

"What's this?" His head lifted and deep crevices of concern burrowed into his face. "You can't seriously be thinking about going out there after receiving such a threat? We have to report this to the police, and you need to stay somewhere safe until they figure out who sent the letter."

How dare he express concern for her after the trauma he'd caused in her life!

She snatched the page from his hands. "Don't worry. Someone is just playing a practical joke."

Ignoring his confused expression, she bolted past him and into the crisp October morning. She didn't need Ryan worrying about or trying to take care of her. She'd been self-sufficient for years, and she didn't need a man—especially not this man—telling her what to do. She'd be fine.

"Mia, wait," he called after her. "You could be in danger."

Danger, ha! Talking to him was more dangerous than a vague warning. He'd hurt her once. She wasn't going to give him the chance to do it again.

Ryan watched as Mia charged away. After her reaction, his first instinct was to run in the other direction. Why bring up their past? Why not let things lie as they had for the last ten years?

Because her eyes seared him, that's why. Not with the guilt he deserved but with a vulnerability that tugged at his need to help a woman in distress. Now she was charging away from him into danger. He couldn't let that happen.

He rushed after the click-clack of the skyscraper shoes she wore echoing down the street and into the sweet, tantalizing fragrance lingering behind.

Had his tomboy taken to wearing perfume?

She'd definitely given up the ratty jeans and slogan- boasting T-shirts she used to favor. Today, tailored blue jeans and a leather blazer emphasized her long, lanky body. Perfect on the current Mia who'd traded her mass of red curls for a sleek style that gleamed in the brilliant sunlight. Her hands shook as she inserted a key into the door of a sweet, red Mustang, but she still managed to climb into the car in record speed.

A car that would take her straight to Pinetree. She may not want anything to do with him, but he wouldn't let her race into danger just to spite him. He breathed deep to control rising emotions and stopped next to the car. She ignored him and lowered the convertible roof.

When the top cleared, he planted his hands on the door frame. "I get that you're still mad at me, Mia, but don't do something foolish just to get away from me."

She sat, rigid and unresponsive.

He leaned into her space. "Just give me a minute and then if you still want to go, I'll back off."

Her head slowly rose, and a shimmering strand of hair blew into her face. It would take some time for him to get used to her new look. Not that he didn't like it. Layered hair curved softly around her face, giving her a sophisticated appearance that was all too appealing.

He reached up to tuck the stray strand behind her ear, but she beat him to it and fixed tired eyes on his face.

"You have exactly one minute." She tapped her jeweled watch with a brightly painted nail.

The anguish in her gaze almost stopped his words. Almost. But he had to keep her safe. "It's crazy to go to Pinetree, sw—, Mia." She didn't seem to notice his near use of sweetheart, or maybe she didn't remember or even care that he'd always called her that in high school. "You never know what the sender of this letter intends to do."

"I'm pretty sure it's from my father. You know how melodramatic he can get. If I leave town during the year, Pinetree defaults to David. So—"

"Wait. David gets Pinetree if you leave?" Ryan's tone pierced through the air. "It's got to be worth a bundle for the lakefront location. Seems like David is the logical person to want you to leave."

"I didn't say I was certain about my father. David is a possibility, but I doubt it." She sighed and closed her eyes for a moment as if she was humoring him. "David's firm handles Pinetree's finances so I've talked to him about the transition a couple of times in the last week. He said even though he was the older sibling, I deserved Pinetree because I was so much closer to Uncle Wally."

"How can you be sure he meant what he said? Maybe he was covering up his true feelings."

"His tone was sincere. Plus, he's never done anything in the past to hurt me, but Dad…" She released another sigh. "He's a different story. He always thought David was more deserving of everything, so why not this?" Her words were strong, but her voice trembled at the mention of her father and brother.

Ryan wanted to stroke her hair in comfort as he used to do after one of her father's many rampages, but he had no right. He'd seen to that.

He fisted his hands and searched for the words that would keep her away from Pinetree. But what could he say to make her see the danger she could be in?

Perhaps he had to paint a dire picture. "You may be right about the letter coming from your dad, but are you willing to risk your life on it?"

She recoiled as if he'd slapped her. "Your minute is up."

She fired up the car, and he reluctantly stepped back. He didn't know why she'd reacted so strongly but he did know he'd failed her again. Was he destined to fail her at every turn? He shook his head and watched her back out of the space.

At least this time he had God to turn to. He never disappointed anyone.

Ryan focused on the impressive stand of Douglas firs in the distance.

Lord, please keep Mia safe. And if it is your will, let her see my sincere desire to apologize for how I hurt her and help her to forgive me for what I did.

At the screech of tires, his head snapped back, and he watched the car shoot down the street. Despite the ache her resentment left behind, the familiar sight brought a brief smile. Mia might dress all prissy and girly now, but she remembered how to drive like a guy.

Oh, yeah, she'd always been a little spitfire. Rebelling against her father. Getting into trouble left and right. Calming down some the year they were together. Taking up again when they split up to show everyone she didn't need him.

And she didn't need him. Not now, anyway. He'd hurt her by how he'd handled the breakup, that was for sure, and he wanted to fix it. Now more than ever. Seeing her dredged up the horrible day they'd parted, and he needed to explain why he had to end things as he had. To seek her forgiveness so he could put this to rest.

Instincts and the desire to do the right thing with Mia told him to jump in his truck and follow her to Pinetree, but the threatening message urged him to go see Russ, his brother and chief of police. He could talk with Mia later, but not if the person behind the letter made good on his threat and harmed her in the process.

Leave Logan Lake now or you will pay…

The barn, dry from a typical rainless summer, flared in oranges and reds as if a meteor had streaked from the sky and plunged into the building.

Had he done this? Had he really made good on the threat?

Dense smoke clung to Pinetree's sign and surrounding treetops like cotton candy on a stick. The air was laden with fumes, not the sort of pleasant scents drifting from a campfire, but serious gusts of blackness settling into the open car and irritating her breathing.

Heart beating erratically, Mia remembered the advice of the 911 operator she'd just called. She should move to a safe location and wait for the fire department to arrive. But what if Uncle Wally still kept horses in the barn? If they were trapped she couldn't sit here and listen to them cry out. She had to try to rescue them. She kicked off her heels and scrambled from the car.

Listening for cries of distress, she ran the length of the barn and circled the backside. Embers shot into the air. Explosions—bullet-like pings—struck the walls. The heat and caustic air seared her lungs. Howling screams from the consuming fire eased and the heat receded a bit, allowing her to inch closer to the acrid smoke seeping through cracks in the walls.

What was that? A whimper. Quiet. Muffled. Her imagination?

She stopped and leaned closer to a window, panting from exertion and the thickened air.

There it was again. A terrified mewl. A kitten or maybe a small child.

With a large rock, she shattered the window. Blistering heat whooshed out sending her lurching back. She ripped off her jacket and held it in front of her face.

"Is someone there?" she called, and swiped thick sweat from her forehead.

"Help!" The voice was tiny and high, fragile like a porcelain doll.

Who in the world was in there?

Jacket over her fingers, Mia cleared the largest shards of glass and plunged her head through the opening. Her eyes instantly watered, her nose stung.

"Where are you?" she barked through drying lips, and squinted against the bitter smoke.

A petite tear-stained face peeked from a cave of hay bales. Mia guessed the innocent child to be under ten and terrified.

"Don't be afraid." Ignoring the abrasive air and drawing in labored breaths, Mia lowered her jacket and offered a comforting smile as she scanned the space.

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