Read an Excerpt
Most of Elms Fork had turned out for Abe Collins’s funeral, Dillon Montgomery noted. Two hours ago, they’d spilled out of the largest church in town. There were so many flowers, it had taken two black vans to carry them to the cemetery. The slow procession of cars behind the hearse had been two miles long. Most of the businesses—except for the gas stations and a couple of restaurants—were closed in honor of a man who had made Elms Fork more than a dot on a map.
Muffled sniffles came from beside him. Feeling helpless, Dillon tightened his arm around his mother’s slim shoulders. She wasn’t a woman who cried easily. They both had reasons to hate and love the man being slowly lowered into his final resting place. Abe had stuck by Dillon’s mother when half the town and many of the employees at Collins Industry turned their backs on her because she’d been unwed and pregnant with Dillon.
Twenty-three years later, he’d fired Dillon and ordered him off the company’s property. At sixty-nine, standing six feet, he’d still been a man who could win against another man half his age and win. At twenty-two, brash and arrogant, Dillon might have taken him on if his mother, Abe’s secretary at the time, hadn’t come into the office when she’d heard them arguing.
“Dillon,” his mother said softly, bringing him back to the present, “I can’t believe he’s gone.”
Dillon patted her arm awkwardly. It was just him and his mother. He had no idea how to deal with her grief. She’d lost friends, of course, but none had affected her as much as Abe’s passing.
“I feel sorry for Samantha,” his mother continued. “She’ll have no one now.”
Her uncle and aunt certainly wouldn’t be there for her, Dillon thought. They were as selfish and snobbish as they came. Although Dillon didn’t associate with them, they probably hadn’t changed much in twelve years.
Dillon couldn’t see Samantha for the crush of people, the towering hats the women wore, but he could visualize her face—hurt and embarrassed after he’d rebuffed her awkward attempt to seduce him.
That had been twelve years ago. His mind shut down from going further. Those thoughts weren’t appropriate at a funeral. He hadn’t seen or heard from her since. “She’ll be fine.”
“I hope you’re right. Abe loved her so much,” his mother mused. “I’m glad she came before we lost him.”
Dillon wasn’t sure if his mother expected an answer or just wanted to talk. He’d come as soon as he’d heard The Old Man, as Abe was called behind his back, had died. Listening to the strong voice of the minister Dillon couldn’t think of one reason why Abe would have called him the day he’d died. Dillon had been in Canada working on a Lotus for the Formula One vintage car racing competition.
His mother had mentioned Abe’s heart attack when they’d talked the day before but said he was recovering at home. When the call came, Dillon had been in the middle of getting the car ready for a trial run and hadn’t been able to talk.
An hour later, when Dillon had been able to take a break, he’d called his mother to check on her. She was his and Abe’s only connection. Once he knew she was fine, he’d decided to call Abe later. When he’d called later that night, the housekeeper said Abe was dead. He’d taken the first flight he could get to be with his mother. He would regret for a long time that he hadn’t taken Abe’s call.
“Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.”
“Come on, Mama,” Dillon said, gently urging his mother toward the car parked a quarter of a mile away on the narrow two-lane road. There was no way they would get near Samantha to offer their condolences. His priority, as it had always been, was taking care of his mother.
* * *
They’d been at his mother’s home an hour when the phone rang. Dillon grabbed the receiver. His mother was watching a sappy Lifetime movie in the den. He hadn’t wanted to leave her, but the movie was making his eyes cross.
“May I speak with Dillon Montgomery and Marlene Montgomery?”
Dillon frowned at the strange wording. “Who is this?”
“Samuel Boswell, Abe Collins’ lawyer. Is this Mr. Montgomery?”
Dillon’s stocking feet came off the cushioned hassock, hitting the area rug beneath. “Yes.”
“Is Ms. Montgomery there as well?”
Dillon cut a look at his mother. He thought she was deep into the story, but obviously he’d been wrong. Sitting on the sofa across from him, she muted the sound on the built-in TV and watched him.
“Abe’s lawyer wants to speak to us.”
“Put him on the speaker,” she said, folding her hands in her lap.
Dillon hit the speaker. “We’re here.”
“Excellent. I’m sorry to disturb you at the time of your grief and appreciate you taking my call.”
Dillon rolled his eyes. Lawyers wasted so much time trying to make you know how important they were.
“Thank you, but what is the reason for your call?” his mother asked.
Dillon grinned. His mother was as straightforward as he was.
“The reading of Abe’s will is tomorrow morning at the Collins mansion. Abe requested you both be there.”
Dillon and his mother shared a look of surprise.
“I can’t imagine why,” Dillon said.
“What time?” his mother asked.
“Eleven sharp, Ms. Montgomery. Can I expect the both of you?” the lawyer asked.
“We’ll be there,” his mother said. “Is there anything else?”
“No, thank you. Good-bye.”
His mother came to her feet, hung up the receiver, and headed for the kitchen. Dillon followed, hoping she wasn’t going to cry again. “You all right?”
“Yes.” Using a potholder, she removed the baking dish with a rump roast from the warming oven. He’d wanted to eat when they returned from the cemetery, but since she wasn’t hungry, he’d pretended not to mind waiting.
Dillon grabbed the plates, set the table, and filled two glasses with iced sweet tea. His mother had picked at her food for the past two days. Today, that stopped.
“Abe and I settled our differences years ago.” She put the mashed potatoes in the microwave, then turned the gas burner on under the green beans. “I called the hospital when I heard about his heart attack, but was told only family members were allowed in his room. I spoke with Samantha once and asked her to tell him that I was praying for him.”
“He called me the day he died,” Dillon said quietly.
His mother placed her hand on his arm. “Perhaps he had a premonition he wasn’t going to make it, and wanted to make amends.”
Dillon lifted a dubious brow. “He’d choke first.”
Shaking her head, she turned at the ding of the microwave. “He was a hard man sometimes, but he was there when I was pregnant. I’m not sure if we would have made it otherwise.”
“And fired me when I wanted to make improvements on the turbo,” Dillon recalled, the incident no longer stinging. Because of that one event, he’d gone on to become a successful businessman with three garages for regular cars and a fourth for high-performance cars. He was also an in-demand mechanical consultant for vintage racing cars.
“You succeeded, as I always knew you would.”
She was probably the only one. She’d raised Dillon by herself. She’d never done anything but love and encourage him, even when the town called him a jailbird-in-waiting. He’d lived in the moment, doing as he pleased, and he’d done some crazy things.
One of those times he’d come home buzzed on illegal cheap booze and rammed his car into the garage. He recalled waking up to his mother’s tears, thankful he was all right, and the neighbors standing around sneering and predicting he’d kill himself one day and they just hoped he didn’t take them with him.
His mother had somehow gotten him inside, but he’d passed out on the living room floor. He’d come to when he heard her crying. She’d sat by him all night, scared he’d throw up and choke on his vomit. He finally realized he was hurting the only person who loved him completely. That was the last night he’d come home blind drunk. He’d been a senior in high school. He’d started hitting the books instead of the bottle, and he’d stopped chasing easy women.
His mother had saved him. There wasn’t a thing on God’s green earth that he wouldn’t do for her.
“You’re the strongest woman I know. You would have made it,” he finally said.
“Spoken like a son who loves his mother. Now sit down and eat. You have to be starving.” She filled his plate with beef, creamy potatoes, and green beans with real bacon bits. She placed a basket of soft rolls in front of him.
Dillon looked from his plate to her. Sighing, she picked up the plate he’d placed on the table for her and prepared her own plate. Seated, she said the blessing and picked up her fork. “I’m eating.”
“About time.” House rule: They both ate or they both went hungry. Dillon dug into his food with relish. He’d eaten in some of the finest, most expensive restaurants in the world, but his mother’s cooking beat them all.
“I wonder if there is someone to take care of Samantha. She sounded … alone and scared when we spoke briefly,” his mother mused. “I’m glad we’ll have a reason to see her tomorrow.”
Dillon said nothing. He wondered if Samantha remembered the searing kiss that had made him rock hard and ready. She’d had on a ruffled pink prom dress that stopped inches above her knees. She and her friends had tumbled out of a limo into the bar where he’d been drinking, trying to get over Abe’s firing him. He’d been in a foul mood.
Samantha hadn’t seemed to mind. She’d come on to him as soon as she’d seen him. If he hadn’t known she was half drunk and the reason she was trying to seduce him, he might have taken her up on her offer.
He’d never forget her clinging to him, murmuring that she just wanted to forget. Well aware of her parents’ death two weeks earlier, he’d held her, then taken her home instead of to the motel as she’d suggested.
Once at the Collins mansion, he’d expected to find someone waiting for her. Or Abe with a shotgun. There hadn’t been anyone. His mother never went to bed until he was safely in his.
Samantha had the saddest look he’d ever seen when she’d looked over her shoulder at him, then closed the door of the mansion. He’d made sure no one took advantage of her, but he’d always felt as if he’d let her down—which was idiotic because they’d barely known each other.
Adjusting his position in the chair, he kept his head down. Women. You could never please them.
* * *
Five minutes before eleven, Dillon and his mother arrived at the Collins mansion—there was no other way to describe the magnificent Georgian structure. It was the only three-story house in the town and sat on five acres of manicured lawns with its own small lake and eight-hole golf course.
Dillon pulled up behind a late-model Mercedes and cut the motor of his Ferrari, one of four cars he owned. It was part of his image as the go-to guy for automotive problems of high-performance cars. The other part, he freely admitted, was showing Elms Fork that the guy they’d written off was wealthier and more successful than they’d ever be.
His mother smoothed her hand over the straight black skirt of her suit. It had a designer label, but she had selected it for comfort and style. And at his insistence. She’d done without when he was growing up so he wouldn’t have to. That was never going to happen again. Unlike Dillon, she had no desire to rub people’s noses in his success. That was okay. He’d do it for both of them.
He reached for her hand and found it steady, but her eyes were troubled. “You all right?”
She gave him the warm, loving smile that had bolstered him time and time again. “You know the only reason Abe wanted us here is because we’re in his will.”
“The thought had crossed my mind.” Dillon opened his door and came around to open his mother’s. Still slim and agile at fifty-seven, she gracefully swung her feet out and stood. At five foot four, she came up to the middle of his chest. She pushed strands of blackish-brown hair that brushed her shoulders off her cheek. She remained a beautiful woman. Many of his friends didn’t want to believe she was his mother when they met the first time.
“Maybe he wants me to restore his wife’s Mercedes. I understand it hasn’t been driven since she died.”
Marlene adjusted the hem of her short jacket. “She became ill the year Collins Industry took off. Abe would have given it all to have her well and by his side. Theirs was a love that everyone should have.”
Dillon caught his mother’s arm and started up the curved bricked steps. The kind of love that she probably had thought she had. Instead, Dillon’s father had deserted her. Times like these, Dillon wished he had ten seconds with A. J. Reed, his no-good father. But they’d made it without him.
One of the double twelve-foot oak doors opened. Dillon wasn’t prepared to see Samantha standing there. She was draped in a simple black dress and misery. Lips that had boldly promised to fulfill his every fantasy, trembled. Black gave a haunting, fragile quality to her beauty.
“Hello, Samantha. You probably don’t remember me. We spoke on the phone when Abe was in the hospital. I’m Marlene Montgomery, and this is my son, Dillon.”
Samantha’s startled eyes snapped to him the second his mother mentioned his name. He saw heat flush her cheeks. So she hadn’t forgotten.
* * *
Samantha simply stared. Dillon Montgomery was easily the handsomest and sexiest man she had ever seen. He was six feet two of mouthwatering temptation. Twelve years ago, she’d been miserable enough to throw herself at him and risk the fires of hell. If rumors were right, he was related to her.
His sensual mouth curved knowingly. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach. She was definitely flirting with fire for her sinful thoughts.
“Abe’s lawyer asked us to come,” his mother said in the lengthening silence.
Samantha flushed. What was the matter with her? At a time like this, no matter how enticing, she shouldn’t be ogling Dillon. “Please, come in.”
Perhaps it wasn’t a rumor after all that Dillon was Abe and Marlene’s son. Why else would they be there? Her grandfather’s lawyer said they were waiting on two other people. “We’re in Granddad’s study.”
“He loved you,” Marlene said as she entered the wide marble foyer. “I know he was glad you were able to be here with him.”
Samantha’s hand clenched on her damp handkerchief. “Thank you.”
“Samantha, we’re waiting. Bring them—” Evan Collins, in another of his tailored suits, this one gray pin-striped, stopped abruptly on seeing Dillon and Marlene. “What are you doing here?”
“Abe’s lawyer asked us,” Dillon said with entirely too much satisfaction, Samantha thought. “Since you sound anxious to begin, I suggest we go into Abe’s study so Boswell can get started.”
“I don’t want you in my house.” Evan blocked their entrance.
Samantha’s gaze bounced from her angry uncle to Dillon, his easy smile gone, his black eyes narrowed.
“That’s not what Abe wanted and, as everyone in town knows, this was his house, not yours,” Dillon said.
Evan’s face flushed. Samantha had never heard anyone talk to her uncle that way.
“You must be Ms. Montgomery and Dillon.” Samuel Boswell, her grandfather’s lawyer, joined them, acting as if nothing were amiss. He was barely five feet, with a receding hairline and sharp, intelligent eyes behind his wire-framed eyeglasses. “I was hoping that was you.” He stuck out his hand. The handshakes were brief.
Samantha noted Dillon smirking at her uncle. Her uncle glowered back.
“Please follow me so we can begin,” the lawyer said.
Evan caught the lawyer’s arm. “Why are they here? I know what’s in Dad’s will, and they’re not in it.”
The man shifted uncomfortably in his shiny wing tips. “All your questions will be answered momentarily. Let’s go in.”
* * *
Ignoring Evan, Dillon caught his mother’s arm and Samantha’s without thinking. She looked as if she were at her breaking point. Living with her contentious uncle and aunt, Dillon understood why.
He found he wanted to comfort her as much as he did his mother. She had grown into a beautiful woman and was just as tempting now as she had been twelve years ago.
And just as off-limits. He never dated women from Elms Fork anymore. In the small town, people were too nosy and into everyone else’s business. Besides, there were only so many free women to choose from. He’d never traveled the same path, dated friends or their relatives. Plus, he didn’t want the woman bothering his mother when he moved on—and he always would.
Inside the study, Samantha stepped away from him, then she introduced him and his mother to those already seated. “This is Ms. Montgomery and her son, Dillon. Granddad wanted them here. This is my aunt Janice, and my cousins, Shelby and Ronald.”
Dillon nodded. His mother spoke, but the only response she got was a hostile glare from Janice and bored looks from Shelby and Ronald. Dillon ignored the speculative once-over from Shelby. He’d steered clear of her in high school for good reason. Too much drama and possessiveness for his taste.
Samantha flushed and turned to them again. “Can I get you anything?”
“They aren’t guests,” Evan snapped. “Sit down so we can get this over with.”
Dillon stiffened and was moving before he realized it. Someone needed to put a muzzle on Evan’s loud mouth. His mother’s hand on his arm stopped him.
“Thank you, Samantha. We’re fine.” His mother sank gracefully into a love seat, pulling a taut Dillon down next to her.
Twisting the handkerchief in her hand, Samantha took a seat in a high-backed chair near them. Dillon noted she hadn’t sat with her family. His mother had been right. She had no one.
“Now that everyone is here, we can proceed.” Samuel Boswell picked up several sheets of paper, adjusted his eyeglasses. “I had hoped, as we all did, that this day was many years away. Abe Collins was a good man.”
Marlene nodded. Samantha bit her lower lip. Dillon noted that no reaction came from the other family members.
“Abe made an unusual request in the reading of his will. There will be two readings with only the people involved. I’m meeting later with the house staff, several lifelong employees of Collins Industry, and the pastor of his church. He wanted family matters kept private.”
Translation. The shit was about to hit the fan, Dillon thought. Apparently Evan had the same thought. He glared at Samantha, then at Dillon and his mother.
Dillon grinned. This was about to get very interesting.
“‘I, Abraham Lincoln Collins, being of sound mind, do bequeath my home located at 1927 Pecan Place in Elms Fork to be equally divided between my son, Evan Emerson Collins, and my granddaughter Samantha Ann Collins.’”
Evan jerked upright and glared at Samantha. Since she was looking at the lawyer with a shocked expression on her face, she missed it entirely.
Boswell smiled kindly at her. “You. I believe his next statement explains better than I could. ‘I want Sammie, my baby girl, to always have a place to come home to, to know I loved her parents, and mourn their loss daily.’”
Tears seeped down Samantha’s cheeks. Dillon didn’t expect her family to try to comfort her, and he wasn’t disappointed. His mother rose, pulled a nearby chair closer to sit next to Samantha, then gave her a fresh tissue and curved her arm around her trembling shoulders.
Dillon had countless reasons to be proud of his mother, but this was one of the proudest.
“‘To ensure she has the funds to maintain the house and grounds, I’m leaving her all of my assets, including cash, stocks, annuities, and bonds, in an irrevocable trust.’”
“What?” Evan came to his feet. “That can’t be true.” He crossed the spacious room, and reached for the will.
Samuel drew the papers to his chest. “Mr. Collins, please take a seat. I’m not finished.”
Heaving with fury, Evan didn’t move. “When was this will written?”
“The day your father was released from the hospital.”
“Then that explains it,” Evan announced with a dismissive shove of his hand at the will. “His lack of oxygen after his first heart attack must have affected his brain. He wasn’t himself.”
“Abe was seen by a psychiatrist less than an hour before he changed his will, which was witnessed by his doctor and his private duty nurse.”
“Checkmate,” Dillon said, and laughed. “This is really getting interesting.”
Evan pivoted and snapped. “You think this is funny?”
“No, I think it’s sad,” Dillon said slowly.
“Please, Mr. Collins, take a seat so I can finish.”
Evan retook his seat. The lawyer flashed a worried look at him, adjusted his glasses. “‘To Marlene Montgomery, the most efficient secretary a man could ask for, but just as importantly, a kindhearted woman who forgave when she didn’t have to, I bequeath the sum of two hundred and forty thousand dollars—the salary she would have earned if she hadn’t quit when I fired her son. I paid for my rashness ten times over. You were irreplaceable and I was too stubborn to ask you to come back. I know Dillon can take care of you, but I’d like for you to have the money to do something fun and then come by the grave site and tell me.’”
Although tears rolled down her cheeks, Marlene smiled.
Dillon started to rise and go to her, but she waved her hand to indicate she was all right. He noted that her other hand was wrapped around Samantha’s. He couldn’t tell who was holding whom.
The lawyer cleared his throat. “‘Collins Industry was founded on a vision and succeeded because of hard work and determination. I want to leave my company in the hands of people who will value it just as much and work tirelessly for it to succeed. Therefore I leave joint ownership of Collins Industry to Samantha Collins and Dillon Montgomery—if they agree to jointly run the company for five years.’”
Dillon was stunned. There was no other way to describe his reaction.
Evan was on his feet again. “That’s bullshit! Collins Industry is mine! I don’t care what some quack psychiatrist said, Daddy must have been senile. He wouldn’t have left the company to an outsider.”
“Uncle Evan,” Samantha said quietly when he stopped to take a breath, “Granddad asked me the day we lost him to consider taking over the company.” She looked across the room at Dillon. “He mentioned there was another person he wanted to help.”
“If there was another person, it was me,” Evan said. “There must have been some mistake in drawing up the will.”
Boswell looked offended. “There was no mistake.”
“Mr. Boswell is right,” Samantha said. “Granddad said I would be working with someone else. Don’t think harshly of him,” she rushed to say at her uncle’s angry expression. “He was worried. The company is in trouble. He wanted to save it, and he thought Dillon and I could pull it off. I think that’s why he put off his surgery.”
Hands on his hips, her uncle snorted dismissively. “And how do you propose to do that? I’ve been here, helping run the company while you’ve been off playing and drawing the money from my brother’s trust fund. You have no clue how to run Collins Industry. Dillon has even less. More importantly, Daddy fired him.”
On an apparent roll, Evan swung to Dillon. “Just because Daddy was feeling sentimental that he never claimed his bastard is no reason—”
Dillon shot out of his seat like a bullet. He grabbed Evan by the collar of his tailor-made white shirt and drew back his fist.
“Dillon,” his mother called, catching his arm with both hands. “Stop it.”
Dillon’s chest heaved with barely controlled rage. “Bastard” was the one word that he would never take easily. He was called that too many times growing up, taunted, not allowed to associate with the “good kids” because his mother wasn’t married when she had him. Abe wasn’t his father, but Dillon had no intention of telling the loudmouthed Evan.
“Dillon, please.” His mother’s voice trembled.
Dillon cut a look at his mother. While he’d been called bastard, she’d been called much worse. She wasn’t turning loose of his hand. He’d walk through burning coals before he hurt her. “Apologize to my mother.”
Dillon’s fist tightened, cutting off the flow of oxygen, then relaxed only marginally. “Do it!”
“I apologize, Marlene,” Evan said with a nasty sneer on his face.
Dillon shoved Evan distastefully away from him before he hit him anyway. Evan staggered, then straightened. His face promised retribution. “I’ll have you arrested for assault.”
“Go ahead and try,” Dillon told him, noting that Evan’s family had stood but none had tried to help him. “I’ll put my lawyers against yours any day. I was provoked. You’re lucky my mother was here or you’d be picking your teeth up off the floor.”
“Come on, Dillon. Sit down.” His mother tugged his arm.
“Cross that line again and nothing will save you.” He finally allowed his mother to lead him back to the love seat he’d been seated on.
Samantha felt helpless and miserable. This wasn’t what her grandfather wanted. “Uncle Evan, what we don’t know, you can teach us. The company is slowly dying. If that happens, the employees and town will lose as well. Together we can make Collins Industry a top contender with turbo engines again.”
“The company is fine!” Evan shouted, his chest heaving. “I’ll get an injunction if I have to! I’ll sue! I’ll lock the doors!”
“Perhaps I should finish,” the lawyer said quietly. “If you start any legal proceedings to contest the will, your salary at Collins Industry will be frozen until the case is settled. If you’ll recall, Abe left all of his personal assets—with the exception of the house, which you and your niece own jointly—to Ms. Collins. If you want to fight this, you’ll do it with your personal funds. Since Abe was deemed sane by a notable psychologist, the case could take months, especially if Mr. Montgomery and Ms. Collins decide to fight.”
“I’ll fight,” Dillon promised, for the hell of it. He planned to sign over the company before the day was over.
Boswell cleared his throat. “However, if you accept the will, Mr. Collins, you’re to remain as vice president with your salary.”
“That’s blackmail,” said Janice, his wife, coming to stand by her husband. “Do something, Evan! What will people say when they find out?”
“That—” Dillon stopped abruptly as his mother shook her head. He leaned back in the seat.
“Abe knew it wouldn’t be easy, but he hoped you’d come to see that the company needs to change or it won’t survive,” the lawyer said.
“I see all right. And all of you can go to hell!” Evan stormed from the room with his wife on his heels.
“Is there any mention of his other grandchildren?” Shelby asked.
“No, I’m sorry.” Boswell slowly shook his head. “Just Samantha Collins.”
“So am I.” Shelby stood and left the room. Her brother followed.
Samantha’s emotions had never been so chaotic. She wasn’t sure about working with Dillon, but she didn’t have a choice. He still looked as if he’d like to rip someone apart. She liked things orderly and calm, nonthreatening. They wouldn’t be that way with Dillon. Then, there was this attraction she couldn’t control.
She flexed her toes in her black heels. If she didn’t want them hanging over a very hot fire, she’d do well to remember that Dillon could be related to her.
“Dillon, I’m not sure what your schedule is like,” she ventured. “I’m available anytime you’d like to meet tomorrow to discuss our next step in running the company.”
He aimed that laser-sharp gaze at her. It was all she could do not to shrink back in her chair.
“You don’t think I’m going to go along with this farce, do you?”
“Farce? Granddad left half of the company to you because he believed in you,” she returned, anger creeping into her voice.
“Yeah.” Dillon laughed without humor. “A company he took great pleasure in firing me from. I have no intention of helping Collins Industry. I have my own life. I wish you well.” He approached the desk the lawyer sat behind and braced his hands on top.
“Draw up the papers, and I’ll sign over my half of the company to her.”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible.” Boswell folded his hands on top of the will. “Abe took into account that you might not be amenable to this initially.”
“He was right.” Dillon straightened. “If you can’t do it, my lawyers can.”
“Mr. Montgomery, it’s not a matter of can’t. Abe’s will specifically stipulates that neither you nor his granddaughter can sell or give away your half of the company for five years. Whether you want to or not, you’re half owner of Collins.”
“We’ll just see about that.”
Turning, he took his mother’s arm and walked away, leaving Samantha and the lawyer staring after him.
Copyright © 2013 by Francis Ray