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Lenora Collingsworth smoothed her ash-blond locks and noticed the new smattering of gray. At fifty-six, a few gray hairs were to be expected, but that didn't mean she had to like them. She liked the chaos that was contributing to their arrival even less.
She looked down and let her gaze linger on the picture of her late husband, marveling as always that she missed him after all these years. Things would be different if Randolph were still alive. He'd take the reins of control of his family company from his ailing father. The transition would be flawless and uncomplicated, with no one questioning his authority.
But Randolph wasn't here, and Lenora was seriously concerned that all hell was about to break loose in the Collingsworth clan. Not that either of her daughters would want any part of running the empire. Her youngest daughter, Jaime, avoided responsibility at any cost, sure it would lead to her immediate demise as a free spirit. And her older daughter, Becky, was far too busy holding a grudge against her estranged husband and trying to raise her twin seven-year-old sons to concern herself with business affairs.
Lenora's four sons were a different story. Langston, Matt, Bart and Zach each held their staunchly individual views of how Collingsworth Oil and the ranch itself should be run. Now, with their grandfather both mentally and physically incapacitated, she was afraid those differences would tear apart her close-knit family.
She turned at a rap on her bedroom door. "The old fart's here," Jaime announced, opening the door and stepping just near enough that Lenora could see that her skimpy blue shorts fit low on the hips, revealing lots of skin between themand the white blouse tied just below her breasts. "He said he's ready to start the meeting when you are."
"Thanks. Tell him I'll be right down." Nigel Slattery was not only the family attorney but an old and very dependable family friend.
"Don't hurry. Becky went upstairs to change clothes and she's not down yet."
"Speaking of changing clothes, you could exchange those shorts for a skirt or a pair of jeans. This is a business meeting, Jaime."
"It's in our dining room. Besides, a bunch of us are going down to the lake when we finish up here. Don't count on me for dinner. We'll be back late."
As usual. Late to bed and late to rise was Jaime's preferred lifestyle. She had changed majors so often that it had taken her six years to get a four-year degree in sociology, and then she had spent a year traveling in Europe to find herself before she started on a career. She was twenty-five now and the only job she'd pursued with any enthusiasm or longevity was spending the remainder of the trust from her late great-grandfather that she'd received on her twenty-first birthday.
Lenora took a last sip from her glass of iced tea and straightened the front of her denim skirt and white blouse before walking into the hall. Loud voices and boisterous laughter rang in her ears as she descended the winding staircase to the first floor. Her four sons would already be sitting around the massive oak table that overlooked the giant oaks that Jeremiah had planted the year he'd built the house for his wife.
The table, like the house itself, had been built to withstand the hot south-Texas summers and the hurricanes that blew in from the Gulf of Mexico. But it was the winds of change that threatened now, and Lenora wasn't sure even the Collingsworth blood that ran through all her children's veins could withstand that.
Langston was the first to his feet when she stepped through the door, and she noted that her older son had already taken over his grandfather's seat at the head of the table. She wondered what his brothers thought about that.
He kissed her on the cheek. "We thought for a minute you'd run out on the meeting."
"Now why would I do that?"
Matt pulled out her usual chair at the other end of the table. "Maybe because you hate business discussions."
"I like discussions. I don't like arguments."
"We never argue," Bart teased. "We just have heated dialogue until these guys come around to seeing things my way."
"Like that last brainstorm you had about inviting students from A&M out to run the spring roundup and branding," Matt said. "Was it my fault they sent us coeds who got sick every time the iron touched the thick hide of a cow?"
"Hey, don't knock that experiment," Zach said. "I managed a few dates with that hot blonde before she decided to transfer back to UCLA and become an actress instead of a large-animal vet."
"Yep, little brother," Langston said. "You scared off another one."
Zach grinned. "Too much man for her."
Nigel Slattery ignored the brotherly camaraderie, opened his briefcase and laid a sheaf of papers on the table in front of him. "What's the latest word on Jeremiah?"
"The doctors claim he's progressing physically," Lenora said, "but he still just lies there staring into space. He shows no signs of recognizing any of us."
"Then he's obviously in no condition to continue as CEO of Collingsworth Enterprises, so I guess we should get started."
"Right," Jaime said. "Let's see what kind of little surprise Gramps has planned for us this time. He's probably decided we should go out and make our own fortune and given us thirty days to vacate the ranch."
"Not funny," Matt said. "In fact, I don't see why we have to bother with this at all. Langston and I are the oldest. By rights he should head the oil company as he's doing now and I should manage the ranch. We don't need a CEO over us."
"Whoa!" Bart said. "I don't know what age has to do with anything, and last time I checked we were co managing the ranch."
"Sure. I wasn't trying to exclude you," Matt said.
"Couldn't do it without you." "Nice that you know that."
"Aren't you guys forgetting there's a fourth brother?" Zach said. "You know, the good-looking one."
Langston picked up a pen and scribbled on a notepad as if he were making notes. "I've got you covered, little brother. How's president of chasing women?"
"Works for me as long as it pays well. But if Mom is going to insist I drive to Houston and spend my days cooped up in an office, I expect to be more than a flunky."
Lenora studied her children as Nigel shuffled papers. Her sons had all inherited their father's good looks, all with his dark hair and eyes, classic nose and strong jaw line. Langston was a tough businessman, used to playing hardball with the movers and shakers in the oil business. He was far more sophisticated than the rest of her sons, and when he was dressed in one of his expensive suits as he was tonight, she found it hard to believe his roots were here on the ranch. That worried her. As did his recent engagement, which had seemed to come from out of the blue.
Her girls looked far more like her side of the family. Becky's hair was blond, streaked by hours spent in the sun with her boys. Jaime was a strawberry-blonde. Both were petite with fair skin and sky-blue eyes. The similarities ended there. If she hadn't given birth to both of them in this very house, she'd have sworn there had been a mixup at the hospital. Becky was athletic and a perfectionist, as unforgiving of shortcomings in others as she was in herself. Jaime was—Jaime.
Nigel cleared his throat. "I've made copies for all of you, but I thought I'd read it to you first."
"We can all read," Langston said. "I know that. I just want to get it all said and done before you start complaining."
"I told you," Jaime said. "We'll be homeless by morning. Guess we'll have to move in that fancy penthouse with you, Langston."
"Celeste would love that," Zach said.
"How about we leave Celeste out of this?"
Lenora would love to second that, but she counted it good fortune enough that Langston's fiancée hadn't pushed her way into the night's meeting.
"I'll just skip to the meat of the matter," Nigel said. He waited until the room was dead-quiet before he started to read the chosen parts of what appeared to be a multi-paged document.
"My six grandchildren will one day inherit the Collingsworth fortune. I hope at that time they will be ready to assume full responsibility for running Jack's Bluff Ranch and Collingsworth Oil Company in a manner that would honor the land and the Collingsworth name."
Jaime's cell phone rang. She tugged it from the pocket of her shorts and was about to answer when Bart reached over and quietly slipped it from her fingers. She made a face at him but didn't protest further when he turned it off and handed it back to her.
Nigel looked to Lenora and something in the look multiplied tenfold the fear she'd been harboring. He took a drink from the glass of water at his elbow and adjusted his glasses.
"My grandchildren are clearly not ready to assume full responsibility yet."
"What the hell does that mean?" Matt said, glancing around the room for backup. "If he's thinking of bringing in some stranger to take over Jack's Bluff, it's not going to fly."
"Let him finish," Langston said, but his tone had taken on a wary edge.
"For that reason," Nigel said, pausing to look each of the Collingsworth siblings in the eye. "I feel it prudent to appoint my daughter-in-law, Lenora Collingsworth as acting CEO of Collingsworth Enterprises and assign her the final say in all major decisions affecting Collingsworth Oil and Jack's Bluff Ranch."
Langston pushed back from the table. "If this is some kind of joke, it isn't funny."
"Right," Bart said. "Gramps surely doesn't expect me to consult with Mom about improving beef production."
"Mom has no experience in the business realm," Matt said. "Running an oil company or a ranch is a far cry from chairing a committee for the symphony or raising funds for the homeless."
Becky threw up her hands. "It's ridiculous. What will people say if Mom goes back to work at her age? The boys need her here. We all need her here."
Jaime was laughing too hard to say anything. Lenora fumed. She didn't want the added responsibility any more than they wanted her to have it, but it wasn't as if she was as old or as incapable as they made her out to be. They'd been born choking on a Collingsworth silver spoon. She hadn't. She'd gotten her first job at sixteen, though she had to admit working at a fastfood restaurant in Galveston hadn't prepared her for a CEO position.
"This is ludicrous," Langston said. "Gramps was clearly out of his head when he had that drawn up. I'll make the decisions at Collingsworth Oil."
"And I'll continue to run the ranch as I see fit," Matt said.
Bart pushed his chair back from the table and stood. "Don't you mean as we see fit?"
Langston pushed up the sleeve of his pale gray dress shirt and looked at his watch. "I have to get back to Houston for a dinner engagement at eight, but I'll check my calendar tomorrow and call a meeting of the four of us to decide how to set up the new scheme of operations."
"The four of us?" Becky questioned. "There are six grandchildren."
"Why call a meeting?" Matt asked. "We're all here right now. I'm sure that Celeste can eat dinner on her own one night."
Acid pooled in Lenora's stomach, and she felt the old familiar ache that twenty-one years of loneliness hadn't erased. She needed Randolph here beside her. But he wasn't here, and she wouldn't see her family destroyed.
She stood and waited until she had everyone's attention. "I appreciate your concerns, but as of tonight, and until Jeremiah is well enough to take over again, I am the acting CEO of Collingsworth Enterprises. And I do not intend to hold the position in name only."
The shock of all six of her children was palpable. Nigel smiled. And Lenora feared she'd just made the biggest mistake of her life.