She's his odds-on favorite
Running for mayor of his Mississippi town wasn't even a twinkle in Peter Elliott's eye. But it could bring Cedar Grove's favorite son one step closer to his dream of building a youth center. He'd better watch out, though. Town councilwoman Nicole Montgomery has just thrown her hat into the ring.
The independent, smart-as-a-whip brunette is leagues away from the bookish girl Peter knew in high school. And he knows in his heart that Nicole would make a great mayor. So does his cousin Jake, who could be edging out Peter in his campaign to convince the love-wary beauty that he's the best candidate for her.
|File size:||363 KB|
Read an Excerpt
It had been Monday morning all day, and it was after three on the last day of November. Not even the soft music or small Christmas tree Peter Elliott's assistant had placed in the corner of his spacious Social Services office lessened the tension in the room.
Peter tented his fingers and searched for the most diplomatic way to say no to the man across from him. No matter what he came up with, Cal Sheridan would not be happy. He decided to go with direct.
"I appreciate that as a foster parent, you and your wife would like to take Logan, but I'm not separating the twins."
Sheridan locked his jaw in place. "It looks to me like it'd be better if at least one of the boys was in a decent home instead of the shelter."
A dull headache throbbed in Peter's head. Cal Sheridan had twenty years on him, but no one could make his blood pressure spike like this man, whether it was in Cal's capacity as truant officer for the city schools or voting against him on the Cedar Grove city council. "The shelter is not the abyss. Sarah Redding provides a warm and loving environment, and they've been with her for two years now. She's like a mother to them."
The fifty-four-year-old's face turned red. "I didn't say it wasn't a good place, but it's not the same as being in a family." His tone challenged Peter.
"But therein lies the problem." He stared Sheridan down. "The only family the twins have left is each other. Do you want to take that away from them? Especially at Christmastime?"
Sheridan's jaw softened, and he sighed. "Put that way, no, I suppose not. They're both good kids, but I've gotten closer to Logan working with him in the after-school program."
"I hope you'll continue working with him. Lucas, too. Until they came to Cedar Grove, they had it pretty rough." Cal knew that the twins' mother had died at the hands of their abusive father, who'd used his sons to deliver drugs. The two young boys had ended up in Cedar Grove when the state placed them in protective custody.
Cal ran his hand over the side of his face. "It's not that I don't want to take both of them, but little Emily needs a lot of care."
Peter nodded. Even though Cal was opinionated and set in his ways, the man had a good heart. After his two sons married and moved out, Cal and his wife had become foster parents. Just last year the state had placed an infant born with a cocaine addiction with the Sheridans.
Peter cocked his head. "Have you thought about taking Tyler Bennett? He's fifteen and extremely bright."
Cal shook his head. "Are you joking? I've seen that boy with my granddaughter a few times, and I don't like his attitude. In fact, he was just suspended from school today."
Peter stifled an inward groan. Sarah hadn't called and told him about that, yet. "How do you know?"
"I was in a meeting with the principal when Coach Dawson brought him into the office. Seems he unscrewed the pepper shaker at the teachers' table and ruined Dawson's lunch, not to mention the sneezing fit it caused."
Peter doodled on a paper on his desk. "You never did that?"
Cal averted his gaze, but didn't answer.
Peter crossed his arms. "When I was a freshman in high school, I remember hearing this legendseems like there were these senior boys who put the football coach's Jeep in the school lobby. If I'm not mistaken, that's when you were a senior. Know anything about that?" He knew very well Cal Sheridan was the ringleader.
Cal at least had the grace to grin. "That was then and this is now. Tyler's different, and I'm afraid if the boy doesn't change, he'll end up in juvie."
"You didn't end up there, and maybe with an understanding hand"
"Can't do it, Elliott. I have a granddaughter who's already defending him every time he does something. Sure don't want to give them even more opportunities to be together."
"Well, talk to your wife before you totally rule him out." Peter's phone buzzed, and he picked up the receiver. It was his secretary reminding him of an appointment with his grandfather's lawyer. He checked his watch as he replaced the receiver. If he didn't hurry, he'd be late. "I'm sorry, Cal, but I have a meeting. I'll walk out with you."
Peter grabbed his briefcase. "Seriously, give some thought to fostering Tyler. The boy is hurting after losing his mother and dad and his grandparents."
"I'll think about it."
"Think about something else, too. I want to start a youth center similar to a Boys and Girls Club, and I'll need your help tomorrow night with the city council."
"Youth center?" Cal rubbed the back of his neck. "You're talking big money that the city doesn't have."
That wasn't news to Peter. He sighed. If only his grandfather hadn't died two weeks ago, the money would not have been a problem, and he wouldn't be on his way to the reading of the will.
Peter turned into his grandfather's tree-lined drive. He'd always loved the way the magnolias stood sentry at the old home. He parked in front of the Tudor-style house and walked to the front door where magnolia and pine boughs formed a huge Christmas wreath.
He was glad the tradition continued even though his grandfather wasn't there. The housekeeper ushered him into the foyer.
"They've gathered in the den," she said.
"Thank you, Millie. How are you?"
She sniffed. "Tolerable."
He patted her on the shoulder. "It's going to be okay, Millie. I'm sure grandfather made provision for you and Gunner to remain here."
"I'm not worried about that. I just miss the old buzzard."
Peter laughed out loud. Millie and his grandfather had been at odds ever since Peter could remember, but each of them would defend the other against the world.
"How's your momma?" Millie asked. "Is she still in Georgia with your grandmother?"
He nodded. "She sounds good when I talk to her, and my grandmother has almost recovered from her surgery. Mother should be coming home soon."
But not in time to be here today. He glanced toward the den, not looking forward to the next hour.
When Peter entered the room, he nodded to his grandfather's attorney, Robert Corbett, and then spoke to his aunt Amelia before he took a seat in one of the wingback chairs. His cousin Jake had commandeered his grandfather's leather recliner.
"Now that everyone is present we can begin," Corbett said. "First I want you to understand that although the will is in Richard's wording, it is legal."
Heads nodded and he began. "To my daughter, Amelia, and my daughter-in-law, Deborah, I leave half of my personal property to be divided equally between you, except for the house. That goes solely to my daughter. Robert will put all the hereby and wherewiths in later if they are needed."
His grandfather's verbiage sounded strange in the lawyer's hushed tones. Peter glanced at his cousin, then his aunt, fearing they might resent Grandfather leaving so much to his daughter-in-law. But no frowns appeared.
Peter hadn't expected to receive the house. In fact, he didn't expect to receive much of anything. He was here because his mother had delegated him to represent the family at the reading of the will since she couldn't come.
Robert Corbett continued, "The other half goes to my two grandsons with the exception of the following bequeaths."
Peter blinked back his surprise. Sitting across from him, Jake did the same thing. Even though Peter and his grandfather had put their past differences behind them, he hadn't expected to be left a quarter of the estate.
Not that he ever wanted any of Richard Elliott's money, but he had wanted his approvalsomething he wasn't sure he had until now. That's what a will wasa person's final judgment of his heirs. He took in a satisfied breath and released it.
The attorney went on to list the few people his grandfather had left personal items to, including Millie and Gunner. They would remain in their little cottage behind the main house along with a nice pension.
While the attorney searched his papers, a mantel clock chimed four times. Peter slipped his grandfather's pocket watch out and flipped it open. Four o'clock. Right on the money.
He closed the watch and ran his thumb over the smooth case, remembering how his grandfather had given it to him after he'd won a race against Jake, using less than honorable tactics. But instead of admonishing Peter, he'd simply said that winning wasn't everything, and he hoped the watch would remind him of that. It was a lesson Peter wasn't sure he'd learned yet.
He would deeply miss his grandfather, miss the long talks even though they usually disagreed, miss the challenges, and even the contests his grandfather came up with.
And Peter would miss sitting with him in his walnut-paneled den. Correction. The house now belonged to his aunt, something his cousin already seemed comfortable with as he leaned back in the leather chair and propped his ankle across his knee.
Jake, like Peter, had taken his lanky, six-foot-one frame from the Elliott side of the family. Height and blue eyes were the only physical traits he and Jake shared. Jake had more of the Irish in him from the O'Neils, with his dark hair and somewhat darker complexion, than Peter who had the fairer Scottish coloring and blond hair. But they both had the Elliott competitive spirit.
The attorney cleared his throat. "Now, to the business end."
Amelia stood. "Is there any need for me to stay for this?"
Corbett looked up. "No, it deals with the two grandsons," he said. "If you wish to leave while we conduct this part of the will, you are welcome to do so."
She glanced at Jake, her eyes questioning him.
Color flooded his face. "I can handle this, Mother."
"Good. I have a house to show at four-thirty." She kissed her son and hugged Peter. "Come to dinner later this week."
"Thank you, Aunt Amelia," he said. "Let me know which night."
He'd always liked his auntshe'd had fun games for them to play when they were growing up and never tried to get him and Jake to compete against each other. In fact, she'd tried to get her father to stop his games. To no avail.
After the door closed behind Amelia, Robert Corbett shifted his gaze back to the document while Jake maintained an air of indifference, and Peter studied the dark red carpet.
He didn't understand why Corbett said this part of the will dealt with him and Jake. Jake, he understood. His cousin was already operations manager at the furniture factory, and it was only natural that he would step into his grandfather's shoes.
Peter would be surprised if he were mentioned at all, since his grandfather never got over his spurning the family business to gallivant around the world and then choose a government career.
"The reins to Elliott Manufacturing will pass to the winner of the following contest."
Peter jerked his head up. "What?"
"What?" Jake's indifference evaporated as he echoed the question.
Corbett peered over his glasses. "I assume your questions reflect surprise rather than an inability to hear or understand, so I will continue rather than repeat myself."
He resumed reading. "I can hear both of you squawking about right now, but it will do you no good. At the time of this writing, Robert will attest to the soundness of my mind."
Peter and Jake exchanged glances, and Peter knew his cousin was thinking the same thing he was. Not another one of Grandfather's crazy contests. For as long as Peter could remember, Richard Elliott loved to pit his two grandsons against each other. "Iron sharpens iron," he'd always said. Trouble was, it sometimes sharpened it to a nub.
"I tried to talk him out of this, but he would not be dissuaded." Corbett placed the will on the desk and handed each of them an envelope. "The terms of the contest are laid out in these papers. If you will take your"
"Is this some kind of joke?" Jake asked.
"I can assure you, Mr. O'Neil, it is not a joke. Your grandfather put a lot of time and thought into this. It was his belief that the director of Elliott Manufacturing needs all of the skills this contest will require. Now, I will give you a minute to look over the instructions and terms."
Peter opened his envelope and slid out the papers. As far as he was concerned, the contest was over. He had no desire to run the company and would gladly cede the directorship to Jake.
He liked his life just the way it was, much preferring his involvement with the children's shelter and his job as head of the Department of Human Services in Cedar Grove to running a furniture manufacturing business. And he looked forward to starting the teenage community center he'd mentioned to Cal. Getting it approved by the city council and obtaining the funds needed to run it was all the challenge he wanted.
Peter skimmed the papers and abruptly stopped, frowning.
A half million dollars. He blinked and looked again. No, he'd seen right. He raised his gaze to the lawyer, who sat with his hands clasped together on the desk, his face unreadable. Peter sneaked a glance at Jake. His wide eyes indicated he'd seen the figure, too.
"Now, if you are ready, I'll go over the broad points of the contest. You can read the fine print later at your convenience. You are welcome to make notes on the papers I gave you."
Without waiting for an answer, he began reading.
"Okay, boys, you both know that for several years, it's been in my heart to start two things in Cedar Grove. A place for senior citizens to meet and another one for teenagers. A year ago I purchased a building that would be suitable to house either of these projects. I'm assigning the youth project to Peter and the senior citizen project to Jake.
"You have ninety days to form a nonprofit organization and to come up with a five-year business plan, as well as obtain approval and backing from the city, which will include twenty-five thousand dollars a year to help run the operation. The rest of the money to run it will come from the half million dollars the winner receives. Whichever one of you is the first to get approval gets the building and the half million dollars. He also becomes CEO of Elliott Manufacturing.
"However, in obtaining city backing, neither this contest nor the subsequent funding can be mentioned. If the city doesn't believe in the project enough to invest in it, you don't have their support.
"As for a director for your project, it can't be either of you. If you can't get someone to volunteer to head it initially, you haven't done your job. Whichever of you wins will then have the pleasure of hiring a director."
Jake leaned forward. "I don't think it's fair that Peter has the advantage of being on the city council."
Peter snorted. "That's no advantage when I have two people who almost always vote against me, no matter what it is."
Getting this project through wouldn't be a slam dunk. He could probably count on two other members to vote his way, and the mayor if there was a tie. Then there was Cal and his crony, George Bivensthe two picked apart any proposal presented to the city council that didn't come from either of them. That left G. Nicole Montgomery.
While she didn't always vote against him, she asked hard financial questions. Which shouldn't surprise him, since she was the bookkeeper in her dad's small family-run company. Of the six council members, Nicole was the one who focused more on the money aspect of a project. Everything would have to be in order, and the numbers would have to add up, for her to vote for it.
If he couldn't sell her on the city spending twenty-five thousand dollars a year, she would sway the other members to vote against the proposal. Even the ones who usually voted with him.
"It's still not fair," Jake shot back. "And I don't think you should vote when I present my proposal to the board meeting."
"Didn't plan to. Or on mine, either," Peter replied. He turned to Corbett. "When do the ninety days start?"
"And who will run the company until the winner is declared?" Jake asked.
"The ninety days starts now, and Jake will continue to run the day-to-day operations."
Corbett took two letter-sized envelopes from his briefcase. "This is from your grandfather and to be read in private."
Peter took the envelope, and his breath hitched at his grandfather's large, flowing scrawl. It was hard to believe he was really gone.