She wasn't going to take "no" from anyone anymore, especially not her late husband's rude business partner. Determined to provide for her two children and prove she wasn't the weak woman her husband had convinced everybody she was, Laura Manning moved her family to tiny Rosewood, Texas, to take over his share in the real-estate firm.
Who was Paul Russell to tell her she couldn't do it? Having survived her husband's mental abuse, Laura knew she could do anything, no matter what the handsome Texan said. Especially since her familyand her heartwere at stake.
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To Love Again
By Bonnie Winn
Steeple HillCopyright © 2007 Bonnie Winn
All right reserved.
"I'm terribly sorry, Mrs. Manning, but I'm afraid there's little you can do, other than bring an action against the trust." Tom Baldwin, the lawyer Laura had contacted, looked at her kindly, his sympathetic tone releasing the tears that lurked close to the surface.
"Sue my own children?" Laura reached for a tissue.
"That's not an option."
"Perhaps the executor will be open to your plans." Laura grasped her purse, needing to cling to something, anything. The world had turned on end since the reading of the will and she wasn't sure what was real anymore. Most of their acquaintances assumed Jerry's death would have affected her this way. But they didn't know him like she did. To them he was the engaging charmer, the great, outgoing guy who'd been a football star in high school and college. And she'd been the shy loner he'd chosen to marry. Few had understood the match, but plenty of girls had envied her. Because Jerry was "the man."
Jerry's only stroke of bad luck was colon cancer, undetected until it was too late. But he had enough time to dictate the terms of his will. Six weeks from diagnosis to death.
She had wondered if the diagnosis would change him, but not even a death sentence could reverse whatever propelled his meanness. For her, his death couldn't negate fourteen years of emotional abuse, of being worn down,of always being afraid that his temper would blow. And he'd seen to it that she had to ask Paul, a virtual stranger, permission for nearly everything.
"Mrs. Manning?" Baldwin's quiet voice prodded her.
"I'm sorry." She wiped her eyes. "I have no idea how the executor will feel."
Baldwin frowned. "Really? Wasn't he your husband's partner?"
"Yes. But I only met him a few times."
"Not if you had known Jerry. He didn't include me in anything related to the business. All I really know about Paul is that he was Jerry's college friend and that he lives in a small town in the hill country."
And two days earlier, as soon as the will had been read, Paul had left, telling her to talk to Jerry's lawyer about her concerns. He'd mentioned something about a sick sister and apologized to the Mannings for his abrupt departure.
"You and Jerry didn't go to college together?"
"No, I'm four years younger. I met him when I was a high school senior." She'd been too young and gullible, anxious to get away from her equally abusive parents. Trapped in the cycle of demoralizing emotional abuse. Why her? "Anyway, Jerry and Paul go way back."
"But you had no idea that Jerry had given him such extensive control?" "No." She stared at the framed law degrees on the wall, not reading them. "He told me he'd had a new will drawn up because of the complexities of the business."
Baldwin peered at the thick sheaf of papers. "He's left Russell in charge of everything from determining the amount of your allowance to where your children can attend school."
She leaned forward, her knees pressing the desk. "Can I fight that?"
"Yes. But I warn you, it will be expensive."
And where would she get the money?
"Surely half the house is mine because of community property?"
Baldwin nodded. "Yes. But unless you can buy out your children's half, you can't sell it. Any of the assets you wish to claim, remember, will necessitate litigation. And again, that will be expensive."
Her throat closed. For fourteen years Jerry had bullied her, had killed almost everything that she was. And he was still doing it from the grave.
Tom Baldwin wasn't an unfeeling man. "Talk to Paul Russell," he urged. "Surely he'll see that this document was drawn up in haste, by a man who wasn't seeing clearly. Death makes people do crazy things."
Not in this case. This move was one hundred percent pure Jerry.
Paul jogged the remaining three blocks of his run, slowing as he came to Main Street. He turned at Borbey House, inhaling the smell of pies baking in Annie Warren's kitchen. He groaned. The Sorenson bakery was in the next block. They were probably baking cinnamon buns. It was what he deserved for putting his office right smack in the middle of them both.
His cell phone rang. Since it was still early, he considered ignoring it as he decided between pie and pastry, but by habit he flipped open the phone, slowing to a walk.
It took him a few moments to realize who was calling and why. As he did, his mood soured. "Laura, slow down. It's clear to me from Jerry's will that he didn't act in haste, that he knew exactly what he wanted."
Her voice was plaintive. "What about what I want for my children?"
"I don't mean any disrespect, but my friend chose me to be his executor and I have to act on his behalf." My friend who's now gone. Leaving a gaping hole in both the business and what had been an eighteen-year friendship. Jerry had been like an older brother, first taking him under his wing at the University of Texas.
Jerry hadn't treated him like the small town hick some others had, instead drawing him into his group of friends. Grateful, Paul had been eager to go into partnership with him after graduation. It seemed hard to believe he had been such a vital, strong man only a short time ago.
"What about the company?" she was asking.
He stopped walking, bending at the waist to stretch.
"What about it?"
"Jerry was your partner. I'm prepared to take his place."
"Excuse me?" Paul was glad she couldn't see his face.
"I said I'm prepared to take his place."
"You want to work in the firm?" He wiped the sweat from his neck. "Yes."
Paul stretched his right leg. "I don't remember Jerry ever talking about you helping with the deals."
"Well!I didn't exactly. That doesn't mean I can't learn."
"And who's supposed to teach you?"
"You. I know I don't have my agent's license yet, but I can take classes toward that. It's the investment part of the business I need to learn and there's not a school for that."
"You want me to teach you?" He switched legs, stretching the left. "That's not a good idea."
"I'm sure you mean well, but it would be more helpful to all concerned if you concentrate on raising your kids." He started walking, anxious to end the call. Jerry hadn't said anything, but Paul suspected his friend must have had reason to worry about Laura to have left him as executor instead of his wife. He had promised Jerry he would watch out for the children. Jerry hadn't asked the same for Laura.
"That's not what I want."
"And Jerry didn't want to die young, but we don't all get what we want." He exhaled, trying not to be harsh with her. "Sorry to rush, but I'm on my way to the office. Bye." Not waiting for a reply, he clicked off. His appetite ruined, he jogged the rest of the way to his office, waving to Ethan Warren who was climbing into his car, no doubt on his way to the school.
The phone was ringing as Paul entered. Turning on the lights, he crossed to the desk that faced the entrance. Breathless, he grabbed the phone. "Distinctive Properties."
"I wasn't finished."
It was her.
"Paul, like it or not, we're stuck with each other because of Jerry's will. I want to work in the company. It was half Jerry's, so why shouldn't I?"
Paul glanced around his small office, imagining sharing any part of it. Since he contracted out the majority of his work, he'd never needed a large space for employees. And he'd always been partial to the Victorian building. He kept the furnishings spareone extra desk, two chairs, a few lamps. He considered it more important for the office to fit his work instead of making it a showplace. "Your allowance is reasonable. You don't need to work. A lot of women would be happy not to leave their kids to go to a job."
"I want!Iâ€¦" Her voice trailed off.
Listening, he heard muffled sounds. "Mrs. Manning? Laura? Are you there?"
It took a moment. "Yes." "You don't even know what you're asking to get into. This is a tough industry. Flipping property is even worse than selling homesyou know, traditional real estate. Buying investment houses, then renovating on a tight schedule and reselling them to make a quick profit is like chasing sharks. It only sounds like fun." She didn't laugh. That didn't surprise him. He had never heard her laugh, she had looked unhappy every time he'd ever seen her. "It's stressful and risky, you have to know what you're doing all the time. If you mess up, you not only lose your own shirt, but your investors', as well. It's not the place for the weakhearted. I know you've had a lot to take in lately." He eased into his well-used wooden chair and put his feet up on the scarred desk. "Maybe I was too abrupt with you earlier. But, this isn't something you want to do. Trust me. You're going to have your hands full with the kids, keeping up with your house."
"You don't understand" "What's to understand? Jerry just died.You're confused."
"I'm not confused."
Paul rubbed his eyes. "Laura, maybe you can talk to a therapist or"
"I don't need a therapist."
His other line rang. "I'm sorry but I have to take another call."
He had always understood the initial attraction Jerry must have felt for her. Tall, slim, glossy dark hair, haunting green eyes. But she always acted downtrodden. He likened her to a whipped dog. And he never could figure out why. Jerry was a great guy and treated her like a queen. But then some women, like his ex-fiancée, only thought about money. Maybe Jerry's beautiful home wasn't as big as she wanted. Maybe she wanted one in the exclusive River Oaks area of town where the millionaires lived.
And personality wasn't the only thing she lacked. Her husband had just died and she hadn't expressed a shred of grief.
Excerpted from To Love Again by Bonnie Winn Copyright © 2007 by Bonnie Winn. Excerpted by permission.
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