Authors: Cynthia D'Alba
For Emily Milholen Reynolds. Without your legal help, the story wouldn’t exist. A great big thanks for all your legal research. To Carol Graham. A lifelong friend who brings joy and sunshine into my life. Here’s your story. To Phillip. Thanks for pushing me to write, helping around the house and fixing the lawn mowers every time I break one. My life wouldn’t be the same without you. And to my fabulous, wonderful, couldn’t-do-without editor, Heidi Moore. You always make my work stronger, tighter and sexier. Bless you for finding all those plot holes I need to fill in.
Dr. Caroline Graham stood at the side of Angus Fitzgerald’s casket, her oversized sunglasses protecting her eyes from an unrelenting Texas sun. Her gold charm bracelet clanked on the dark-grained wood as she rested her hand gently on the glossy lid. Her heart ached with a soul-deep sadness.
Until she’d moved to Whispering Springs, Texas eighteen months ago, she hadn’t been close to her great-uncle Angus. She’d have never moved here without the encouragement—or should she say demand?—of his sister, Mamie Fitzgerald Bridges—her grandmother. Now she couldn’t imagine not seeing his scruffy face and hearing his gruff voice every day.
“I’m sorry I didn’t spend more time with you through the years, but I’m so glad we had these last months together. Mamie would have been here today if she could. She sends her love.” She sniffed and wiped at the tears. “She said to tell you to prepare to get your ass kicked in checkers as soon as she joins you.” She sniffed again. “I have to be honest, Uncle Angus. I hope that’s a long time away. I’m not ready to lose her too.”
A hand landed softly on her shoulder. She turned her head to look into a pair of blue Montgomery eyes. Kathryn Colleen Montgomery, aka KC, squeezed Caroline’s shoulder.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” KC said.
Caroline wiped her cheeks free of tears with a handkerchief. “Thanks, KC. You’ve been a good friend to Angus and me. I know how much he thought of you.”
KC hugged her. “I loved the old coot.”
Caroline laughed softly. “I know. So did I.” She pulled out of KC’s embrace to lay her hand on his casket again. She gave a sad chuckle. “I’ll miss his cranky rants about all the politicians and—”
“Their thieving ways,” KC finished.
Both women smiled.
“Yeah, I’ll miss those too,” KC said.
Caroline dabbed at her nose and then turned to lay a single long-stemmed orange rose on his coffin. “Rest in peace,” she whispered. “You deserve it. Tell Great-Aunt Bernice I’m sorry I never got to meet her.”
She stepped back and turned toward the gravediggers standing respectively to the side. “Thank you for waiting. I’m done.”
The men moved in to finish the job of lowering the coffin into the ground and replacing the dirt.
“Are you sure we have to meet today?” Caroline asked as she and KC stepped away to give the gravediggers room to work. “Reading Uncle Angus’s will so soon after his funeral seems so…I don’t know…ghoulish.”
KC nodded. “That was his request, but it doesn’t have to be right this second. Take a break, go home and get some rest. You can come to my office later this afternoon if that works better for you.”
She shook her head. “No, let’s just get it done.”
“Okay then. I’ll meet you at the office.”
KC turned, her leather-tooled cowboy boots grinding in the loose gravel near the grave site, her long skirt whipping around her ankles as she marched toward her battered truck.
After blowing one last kiss toward the grave of her late great-uncle who’d welcomed her with open arms, Caroline left the cemetery. The entire Montgomery clan stood in a cluster in the parking lot. She returned their waves as she drove past. Her stomach clenched when Travis Montgomery removed his hat and dipped his head toward her.
She’d been to the Bar M ranch for dinner on numerous occasions. The entire Montgomery family around a food-laden table with raucous conversations and sibling spats was an eye-opening experience.
The concept of a large family who enjoyed being together and weren’t afraid of being affectionate in public was an enigma to her. She’d always wanted to be in a family like that, or thought she did. Not that she hadn’t been raised in a loving home, because she had. Her parents, foreign missionaries, had worked in third-world countries through most of her life. Her maternal grandmother had raised her and loved her, but growing up, Caroline had wondered what it would be like to sit at a long table filled with family.
Dinners with the Montgomery clan always left her pondering if being a family member would feel different than being a visitor at that table. She’d never know.
The drive back to KC’s law office in Whispering Springs took only fifteen minutes. She parked in front of a red-brick building sporting a gold plaque to the right of the door that identified the structure as
Montgomery and Montgomery, Attorneys-at-Law
She touched up her lipstick in the rearview mirror then slid from the car into the late July Texas heat.
A quick glance at the Bank of Whispering Springs clock and temperature sign made her utter an unladylike cuss word. One hundred and three, and it wasn’t yet ten a.m. Everybody said things are bigger in Texas. She’d just never dreamed that would include the sweat rings under her arms.
Today would be another deadly day for heat strokes for sure. She feared the start of August tomorrow would only exacerbate the hot weather.
Dr. Lydia Henson, the other doctor in the Whispering Springs Medical Clinic, had assured Caroline the clinic could do without her today, even reiterating that at Angus’s funeral. Caroline hated leaving her medical partner short-handed.
However, whether they fit her schedule or not, some things had to be dealt with today, like a will she really didn’t want to hear.
Stepping into the law office reception area brought a sigh to her lips. The cool air was a welcome reprieve from the outside furnace heat.
Five more months and she was gone from this hellhole.
If it hadn’t been for wanting to spend some time with Uncle Angus, she’d have never signed such an extended-temporary-practice contract here. The medical-staffing agency she used for her bookings usually found her employment where she filled in for vacationing or absent physicians from one to six months. This past two years had been her longest in a single locality since she’d finished her residency.
She had always been flexible about locations when considering work assignments, but after her first summer in Texas heat, she’d made sure her next employment contract was somewhere cooler. Come January, she was off to Montana for two months. It might be frozen tundra during the winters, but she was absolutely melting in the heat down here.
“Good morning,” a chipper middle-age woman said from behind a desk. “May I help you?”
“Yes, please. I have an appointment with KC Montgomery.”
“Oh, yes, Dr. Graham. I am so sorry about your loss. Angus Fitzgerald was quite a character. We’ll all miss him.”
Caroline acknowledged the expression of sympathy with a nod. “Thank you.”
The receptionist gestured to the seating area. “Would you have a seat please? KC just got back to the office and said to tell you she needed about five minutes. Would you like some water? A Coke? I’d offer you coffee, but from the pink of your cheeks, I think you’d rather something colder. Am I right?”
Caroline smiled. She wouldn’t miss the Texas heat, but she’d sure miss the Southern hospitality. “Something cold would be wonderful. Water, please.”
“No problem. Have a seat. I’ll be right back.”
The woman returned with a bottle of spring water. “Here you go,” she said holding out the green bottle.
Caroline gave her a grateful smile. “Thank you.” She took the water with an internal sigh of relief, cracked the cap and took a long drink. The cold water stung as it slid down her dry throat and splashed into her empty stomach.
Caroline took a seat and pulled out her phone to check messages. Lydia had promised to text her if there were any problems that required Caroline to head back to the clinic before the afternoon slate of patients. No emergency texts, no urgent emails. No rescue from having to hear Angus’s will.
“Caroline. C’mon back. Sorry to keep you waiting.”
Caroline looked up and smiled. KC’s face was pulled into what Caroline called her
face, sober and serious.
“Not a problem, KC,” she said and stood. “The wait was just long enough to drink some water.”
“Caroline.” A deep voice boomed down the hall. Jason Montgomery, the second half of Montgomery and Montgomery Law Offices, took long strides toward her. “I didn’t realize Angus Fitzgerald was your uncle. I am so sorry for your loss.” He gave her a friendly hug.
She wrapped her arms around him to return his bear hug. “Thank you, Jason. I don’t think anyone knew but KC. Angus wanted it that way.”
She and Jason had met eighteen months ago when she first arrived in Whispering Springs. With his outgoing personality and take-no-prisoners approach to life, she’d developed an immediate fondness for the man. He and Lydia, her medical partner, had recently become engaged. She’d never met a pair so perfectly matched.
After collecting her purse from the floor, Caroline followed KC through the door to her office. Her travel charm bracelet jingled against the plastic water bottle. Her stomach rolled with a tsunami of acid waves. She did not want to do this today…or tomorrow…or ever really. Talking about Uncle Angus’s estate made the reality of his death all the more painful.
“Have a seat.” KC gestured toward one of the chairs in front of her desk. She dropped heavily into a large leather desk chair and leaned back. “That was some going away funeral for Angus.”
Caroline nodded. “I bet he would have been surprised at how many people showed.”
“Probably not. The Fitzgeralds have been fixtures in this community since its founding.”
“Along with the Montgomerys?”
KC nodded. “Yep. Our two families go back a long way. Speaking of our families, I noticed that little tip of the head from Travis as you left.”
Caroline’s heart leapt at the mention of his name. Behind her bellybutton, her insides twittered. “Oh? Did Travis tip his head?” She fought to make her voice nonchalant.
KC snorted. “Yeah, right. Like you didn’t see it.”
“I’m sure he was just being respectful.”
“Yes, that’s probably it.” KC sighed. “I’m sorry we have to do this today, but Angus wanted his estate closed as quickly as possible.”
Caroline blew out a long breath. “I know,” she said with a shake of her head. “I don’t know what the rush is but…” She shrugged. “Go ahead.”
KC opened the manila folder in front of her. “Okay with you if I skip reading the whereas and wherefores and go to the bequeaths?”
She smiled. “Cut to the chase. Got it.” She looked back at the papers on her desk. “Okay, the bequeaths. Your Uncle—”
“Great-uncle,” she corrected.
“Right. Anyway, you are aware that he left you as executor of his estate, right?”
Caroline shook her head. “No, I didn’t know. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do as an executor.”
Damn it, Angus
. Caroline felt the emotional punch to her gut.
KC looked up from the papers on her desk. Her eyes held such a depth of sympathy and compassion Caroline almost burst into tears again.
“Your great-uncle loved you very much. The last time we spoke, he told me how thankful he was that you’d been here with him. I knew Angus my whole life. You brought out a side of him I’d never seen. My parents said that was the old Angus, the one they knew before his wife died. You were good for him.”
Her vision blurred. The dam holding back her tears fractured. A large tear rolled from the corner of her eye. KC pushed a box of tissues across the desk.
“The will is quite simple and straight forward. I don’t foresee any challenges or problems to closing the estate promptly.” She smiled. “Trust me, Caroline. I’m a great lawyer. All the T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted. You’ll do fine as executor, and I’ll be here every step of the way, okay?”
After blowing her nose, Caroline pasted on a watery smile. “Thanks.” She waved toward the papers on the desk. “Go on. Let me know what Uncle Angus had to say.” Her stomach rolled with nervous energy. She wanted this done and over as quickly as possible.