Wild Hearts, book five of the DiCarlo Brides series, by Heather Tullis

Chapter 1

May 23

Delphinium Gifford Lawrence walked into the law office and greeted her father’s estate attorney. Her stomach tightened from nerves as she caught sight of all of the other women seated in a row for the reading of the will. She recognized Cami and Lana—the two daughters her father had raised with his wife. The ones he’d admitted to the world were his. Unlike herself. She didn’t know who the other three women were, though she’d noticed them at her father’s funeral the previous day. She wondered why they had been included in the reading of the will.

Cami and Lana, short for Camellia and Lantana, were both auburn haired and held the same polish Delphi often chafed under, though she wore it well enough when she wanted to present a professional image—which seemed to be all of the time lately. To their left were two blonds and a brunette. Delphi slid into the open seat between Lana and the blond with the straight fall of hair that must reach nearly to her butt. It was easy to envy hair like that, even as Delphi was grateful not to have to care for it.

Alex, the attorney who had contacted her about the funeral, moved to the front of the group, tugged a little at his navy blue suit jacket and began. “I’m glad you could all make it, though I’m sorry for the reason you’re here. I’m Alexander Checketts, the executor of George Marlin DiCarlos’s estate. Because all of you were important to George, he remembered you in his will. As you’ll be able to tell when you hear the terms, this was a very recent revision.”

“Aren’t there a lot of other bequests in the will? Friends, employees?” Cami swept her eyes over the other women, the doubt in her eyes said she didn’t think they belonged there.

“They will all be contacted separately, but this portion of the will concerns each of you equally, and your father and I felt it best to present it to you without the others around.” He picked up the legal forms and began to read the stultifying legalese.

When he reached the bequests, he studied the women. “I’m going to skip over the little things he wanted given to others, though I’d be happy to provide copies of the will to anyone who would like to check it. I’ll go straight to the part concerning all of you.”

All of you? What did that mean? He’d said the will concerned them all equally. The thought sent a niggle of premonition into Delphi’s mind, but she tried to ignore it. No way. She didn’t look at the others, wanting to appear unconcerned. She couldn’t shake her suspicions, though.

“To my daughters, Camellia DiCarlo, Sage Parker, Rosemary Keogh, Lantana DiCarlo, Delphinium Gifford and Jonquil Chestnut, I leave my latest resort.”

Shock shuddered through Delphi. His daughters? They were all his daughters? Her instant of suspicion hadn’t softened the blow at all. She looked left and right, catching the faces of the women beside her. They seemed equally surprised.

Alex went on to talk about how they were all required to take jobs at their father’s newest five-star resort, opening it for business that fall and living together in the same house. Delphi felt stunned as she tried to put the pieces all in order. How could he ask this of her—now when she was finally feeling settled in life with a good job and a boyfriend she, well, liked a lot, anyway.

His next words had her blood boiling.

“As I now own all of your places of employment, or the buildings in which they reside, my directions will ensure you are all out of work if you choose to defy me.”

A worse betrayal than Delphi had ever known before slammed into her and afraid she might not keep control of her emotions, she stood. “Who needs his money or his job? I can find a job on my own.” She headed for the door.

“Delphi, come back and listen to the rest,” Alex protested. “There will be time for dramatic gestures later.”

She turned and glared at him. “I like my life the way it is. If it wasn’t good enough for him, it was his problem.” She stalked out, slamming the door behind her.

She didn’t quite make it to the taxi before hot tears stung her eyes and left wet trails on her cheeks. How could her father do this to her? To all of them? He always said that he loved them, that his girls were his number one priority—and many times he’d managed to make her feel that it was true—but apparently he lied. She’d always felt like she wasn’t quite as good as Cami and Lana because he’d never admitted publicly that he had other daughters. This wasn’t the fifties for heaven’s sake. Why had he felt the need to keep it all secret? His wife had been gone for several years, died from some terminal illness, and he still had to keep it a secret.

She’d thought it was out of respect for her mother and ‘father’—the man her mother had been married to for years before Delphi’s birth. A man who hadn’t been able to have children of his own, and probably wouldn’t have liked them any more than he had liked Delphi, even if he’d believed they were his flesh and blood.

They’d put together a pretty picture for society so her mother could be on every committee known to man and act like the perfect wife and mother, but the reality had been something far less. And now everyone would find out that she’d had an affair with George DiCarlo nearly thirty years earlier. Zelda Gifford had actually forbade her daughter from attending the funeral—not that the declaration had stopped Delphi. Zelda was afraid someone would figure it out, or that rumors would start, though how anyone would have put it all together now when George had managed to keep two phone calls a week and six visits per year a secret for almost three decades, Delphi didn’t know.

George had always supported her hopes and dreams, even if they hadn’t lined up with his expectations, but this was another matter entirely. He wanted her to help run this resort as his acknowledged daughter and live with five other women she didn’t know, though their faces all seemed familiar. She didn’t know why, though, unless it was the random feature their father’s genes had stamped onto their faces. Cami, she would have recognized anywhere, of course. She’d spent an entire year in the same dorm building, watching her and wishing she had the guts to tell Cami the truth—that they were half-sisters. Back then Cami had been an upperclassman, uninterested in the life of a lowly freshman.

“Where to, Miss?” the cab driver asked.

“The DiCarlo Hotel.” George had arranged for her to be put up in one of his hotels for the funeral—Delphi wondered if they were all staying there. Feeling trapped and a little claustrophobic, she wanted to go home tonight, but her ticket wasn’t until morning and she didn’t want to go standby at the airport. Not when she had work that needed to be done, one way or another. The peace and quiet of her hotel room would be almost as good as her condo in New York.

She dashed away the tears and sucked in a deep breath of Chicago smog. She was too messed up to know what she should do, what was right, but she was tempted to tell Alex where he could take her inheritance—no matter that it would be nine-figures—and go back to her old life. Except her father had made that impossible too.

She didn’t want to start over.

She paid the cabbie and strode into the motel with a brisk step. She’d go to her room, start that whirlpool tub going with a big dollop of bubble bath, and take a nice, relaxing soak. Then she’d figure out what to do next.

break

A few hours later Delphi was sending emails to vendors to verify orders before the next weekend’s weddings when someone knocked on her hotel room door. She glanced up and considered ignoring them—they’d go away eventually, right? Then she decided to practice the good manners her mother had pounded into her for the past twenty-eight years.

She wasn’t surprised to find Alex standing in the hall, carrying a large manila envelope. He looked worn out, but kept his face as smoothly impassive as ever. “What do you want? I believe I made my opinion about my father’s will clear earlier.” So maybe good manners weren’t going to be as evident as they should. She was emotionally wrung out and it was all she could do to keep from taking out her frustration on him.

“Can you give me five minutes?”

Alex seemed like the kind of man who didn’t back down easily, so Delphi gestured him into the luxurious room that overlooked downtown Chicago. “Five minutes is all I have.”

“Your father spoke of how successful you are in the wedding planning business,” Alex acknowledged. “He said you work for one of the most reputable companies in New York.”

“Which obviously means I’m not fulfilling my potential and must move to a tiny mountain town instead where I can do better,” she said dryly.

Alex smiled. “I didn’t always understand his thinking, either. But there’s a letter in the envelope from him that might help explain a thing or two. And even if you decide not to accept the contract and inheritance, there will still be stacks of paperwork to sign. Refusing an inheritance is a nightmare. You should at least look over the terms closer and think about it overnight before making a firm decision. His machinations are going to force you to switch jobs anyway. You might as well consider this offer.”

She took the envelope because if she didn’t, he’d probably leave it on the desk, and possibly mess up her organized chaos. “I’m really mad at him right now.”

“I can’t blame you, but whether he was right or wrong, he believed he was making the right choice and that this would make your life better—at least by the end of your time in Colorado.” He let a few seconds pass in silence before tagging on. “You know he loved you.”

“That’s some love, not admitting he knew me for all of these years. Even if he did call regularly and visit as often as he could. Now I understand why it wasn’t more—keeping up with six daughters and still maintaining an active social life and business dealings must have been so exhausting.” She lifted her gaze to his. “I used to believe it was all because of my mom and father,” she never called her mom’s husband ‘dad.’ “I didn’t know about any of those other girls, either, and I would have heard if they were common knowledge. It was all about him and his wishes.” The thought burned inside her, though she hadn’t felt guilty at laying it all at her mother’s feet until now—if it had been entirely Zelda’s choice, her true father would still have been a secret. But wills had to filed in court, right? So the truth would come out.

“He definitely wasn’t perfect,” Alex admitted. “But he did love you and worry about you. The envelope contains a copy of the will in its entirety, the contract for Juniper Ridge in case you decide to take the deal and your father’s letter. Take a little while tonight to look them over. You might find it’s not as bad a deal as you think.”

“Thanks.” Her voice was flat, and exuded her insincerity.

“Good night, Mrs. Lawrence. I’ll be in touch.”

He backed out of the room and she tasted the bitterness of her title in her mouth. It had been years since anyone had called her Mrs. Lawrence. An ache pierced through her as she thought of her former husband, Fallon, and of losing him to flu and heart problems at such a young age. The pain was stronger this week as the feelings of losing him were twisted together with the pain of losing George—the man who, she had to admit, really did try to be the best father he could, considering the constraints they had all been under.

Delphi dumped the contents of the envelope on the bed. A white envelope landed on top, her name scrawled in George’s familiar handwriting. She hesitated for a moment before picking it up, removing the paper and starting to read.

Dear Delphinium,

I know you’re going to be maddest of all of my girls, but of everyone, you need this change of scene the most. I’ve worried about you since Fallon’s funeral. You moved ahead, creating a new life for yourself, but I think you never managed to truly put that part of your past behind you. Maybe that’s partly my fault for not being there for you like you needed through everything.

I want you to know that I have full trust that you’ll do amazing things with your life. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you have to toe the line and do what society expects of you. You’re more than enough all by yourself. Please, use this year away from the pressures of life in New York to decide what you really want. What’s really important.

And please, let your heart open again. The men you’ve been dating recently aren’t right for you, and you know it. Be willing to take a chance or two if the right guy comes along. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that Fallon would have wanted you to move on. Remember him because he will always be an important part of you, but you’re young, and he wouldn’t have wanted you to be alone forever.

I couldn’t be prouder of you, sweet girl. I love you more than I can say. Take care, Delphi. And believe in yourself.

Love always, Dad

Tears spilled down her cheeks again and she pushed them back. The loving way he wrote to her only underscored what she missed out on because he was too chicken to admit she was his daughter while he was alive. When she picked up the will and contract to read them a few minutes later, she promised herself that she’d do so with an open mind. She’d always sought her father’s approval. Apparently even his death wouldn’t change that.

She did a double-take at the amount of money she would inherit if she complied with his wishes. Still it took reading his letter three more times and a nearly sleepless night before she signed the contract.

 

Chapter 2

July 28

Delphi got out of her car on the narrow mountain road and sighed in relief as she saw the lettering on the window of Jeremy’s Litster’s photography studio. She’d found the right place—not a sure thing in this twisty, crazy town, but another sign said it was closed. She checked her watch. “Looks like punctuality is going to be a problem.” She was right on time for her appointment, so if Jeremy showed up in the next couple of minutes, she wouldn’t hold it against him.

She still hadn’t fully come to terms with her decision to bow to the demands in her father’s will and move to Colorado, but that didn’t mean she shouldn’t act like a professional. She just had to make it through her thirteen-month sentence in Juniper Ridge, Colorado and she could do anything she wanted with her inheritance—whether it was to return to New York to continue as a wedding planner, or not. After spending the past couple of days in one house with all of her half-sisters, Vienna was sounding better every minute. Not that she could stand to be idle that long. All she wanted was to choose her own destiny and this was definitely not her choice.

The low rumble of a motorcycle reached her ears and she turned toward it, soaking up the late-July sunshine as it hit her face. At least the weather wasn’t nearly as humid and oppressive here in summer as it could be in New York.

A gray and charcoal-colored bullet bike came to a stop at the curb, the BMW sports model made her salivate. The lean, black-leather-clad man straddling it wasn’t hard to look at either, she decided when he removed the helmet to show a shock of sun-bleached hair and brown eyes. It wasn’t the kind of face women swooned over, but the planes and angles of his jaw were definitely appealing. He wore blue jeans and a button-down shirt in deep blue under his weathered black leather jacket. A sharp contrast to her Ralph Lauren skirt suit, which was a blush pink today.

“You must be Delphinium,” he said as he got off the bike. His eyes flicked over her, caution in his face.

“Call me Delphi.” She crossed to him with a hand out. Their gazes met and she was intrigued by the punch of attraction. “So you’re Jeremy Litster?” Better and better. As DiCarlo Resort’s events coordinator she’d be spending lots of time in this man’s company in the future—if his work passed muster.

His hand surrounded hers with warm firmness, though he didn’t return her smile of pleasure at the meeting. “Guilty as charged. Sorry about not being here when you arrived.” He tucked his helmet under his arm and turned toward the studio. “I usually arrive early for appointments.”

“Good to know.” Delphi wondered if he was blowing cold or if it was her imagination. And she’d see for herself in the future how punctual he generally was.

They walked in and she studied the warm red tone of the wall behind the counter which contrasted against the off-mustard color of the others. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. If Jeremy had done the decorating, he had a good eye. And, she decided, if the portraits on the walls were any indication of his skill, that good eye extended to his creativity behind the camera as well. “Nice pics. No wonder Dad insisted I come to you to work with our clients. You have quite an eye. I might bring you in for some publicity shots before we open.” She looked over her shoulder and smiled at him. “I love finding someone who knows their stuff.”

He deposited the helmet under the counter and turned to her, his hands on his hips and a bit of a sneer on his mouth. “Just to clear the air,” he said, “I’m not looking for marriage, no matter how much money your father left you.”

Stymied by his declaration, she shifted her whole body to stare at him. “I don’t recall proposing.” What was with the men in this area? Just because Cami, her older sister—well, half-sister—seemed happy to hook up with Jeremy’s best friend practically at first sight didn’t mean Delphi was looking for love. She still had a boyfriend back home.

“I saw the way you looked at me when I pulled up.” He slid his hands into his pockets and crossed to her. “And I know plenty about your family agenda.” He stopped about a foot away from her, challenging her to deny it.

His arrogance floored her, and made her want to make him squirm, so she decided to give it her best shot. “I was looking at your bike. That’s the BMW S1000RR, isn’t it? Do you race? Because I can’t imagine why else you’d own a bike that’s been known to clock in the 180 mile-per-hour range. And what do you think of the rain setting? Have you had a chance to try it out yet?” What she wouldn’t do to get a chance to drive a bike like that. She’d kept her old Yamaha mostly for sentimental value. It was ready to be replaced, when she decided she could stand to let it go. Right now it would still feel too much like letting Fallon go, so couldn’t do that yet.

Jeremy blinked a few times in surprise and when he answered, his words were a little halting. “Yeah, the rain setting comes in handy on these windy mountain roads. And I’ve been known to join a race or two.”

Feeling triumphant at managing to take him by surprise, she smirked. “It’s a hot ride.”

“Yeah.”

“And for your information,” she said with as much ice as she could gather, still fuming about the way he’d acted. “Your bike is way hotter than you are.” She gave him two heartbeats to absorb that before she gestured to the counter. “Now that we’ve got that out of the way, are you going to show me your portfolio or not?”

His shock lasted only a second more before he appeared to shake it off and moved to grab a big binder. “Of course. That’s what you’re here for.”

“Yes. It is.” Delphi didn’t think she imagined his gratitude for the change of subject. She decided to be the bigger person and focus on work. For now. There would be plenty more chances to make him squirm in the future.