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Gavin Cooper paced the length of the airless office, the old wooden floors creaking beneath his feet, and blew out a frustrated breath. Everything about his father’s death had been drawn out: the illness, the funeral arrangements, even the removal of his hospital bed and equipment from the home. He and his two younger brothers already knew what was in the will, so why the big production now? What he wouldn’t give to, for once, be able to sign a paper without a meeting. But that was reality when your father, Jack Cooper, left behind a hugely successful guacamole company, an incredible legacy of generosity and innovation, and a giant hole in your heart.
“I thought the thing with people having to be present for the reading of a will was only true on television. What is taking him so long?”
His youngest brother, Gage, leaned back in his chair. “It’s pretty sad that I came in from Houston and still managed to get here before Rodney. He’d better not be billing us for this time.”
Grayson, the middle brother, glanced at the grandfather clock dominating the corner of the office and fiddled with his shiny blue tie. “Rodney couldn’t have picked a worse day to keep us waiting.” His knee bounced up and down, like he might pop out of the chair at any moment. “There was a refrigeration glitch at the plant last night, and with all the panic, I was on a conference call with the foreman all morning. I had to cut him off before everything was settled so I could be here on time, so I’m sure there will be an even bigger mess waiting for me when I finally get back to the office.”
“Avocado emergency at Guac Olé. What else is new?” Gage teased Grayson. “Of all days to have trouble at the plant, it would have to be today, huh? It’s kind of crappy that you have to start dealing with these things right before you take over the company. Dad would’ve gotten a kick out of testing you like that.”
Jack Cooper would’ve been right at home in Rodney’s office, kicking back and shooting the shit, giving half-useful advice and cracking up over his own jokes. Gavin would give anything for the chance to sit around wasting time with his dad, but that was impossible, and his patience was wearing thin. It was time to wrap this up and start living the life Dad had prepared them for. Gavin had already moved into the family home his dad was leaving to him so he could care for their dad during his long illness, but until it belonged to him legally on paper, it wouldn’t feel like it was his. Gage had moved to Houston, but he was adept at delegating and would have no trouble handling the oil-rich land their father was leaving him. Grayson had lived and breathed guacamole from the time he was old enough to draw a paycheck; he loved his job as CEO at the company their father had built from nothing and was primed to finally take the helm at Guac Olé. He’d basically been running the place for months already.
Rodney Rodgers, their longtime family attorney, pushed through the door in a rush of blustering apologies and excuses, his secretary trailing behind with a teetering stack of folders and a cup of coffee. Rodney took his seat with an audible sigh, thanking and dismissing her with a smile after she deposited his items on the desk. Gavin noticed that, despite the somber reason for their meeting, Gage’s eyes followed the secretary and her figure highlighted by the tight pencil skirt she wore as she left the room. Rodney leaned back and retrieved a cardboard box bearing their last name from the credenza behind him and tapped the top. “I’m so sorry to keep you boys waiting. Jimmy Crowder’s cows got out early this morning and held up traffic. You know how it is.”
Gavin nodded. The last time the Crowder cows got out they’d meandered halfway across town and into the Prentice family’s peach orchard, where they’d managed to eat half the fallen and low-hanging fruit before Mr. Crowder had gotten around to wrangling them. The poor old man had been so convinced that the fruit was fermented and his cows would get drunk that Gavin had stuck around until the last one was safely back behind the fence. Seemed like a lifetime ago now, though it couldn’t have been more than a year or two.
After spending the last several months saying goodbye to his father, returning to normal life was a challenge. He’d resumed his regular work hours at his veterinary clinic and had finally gone back to his evening workouts with Grayson at the gym. When Dad had lost his appetite, Gavin had stopped cooking at home and started hitting the drive-through more often than not. The extra pounds he’d packed on were becoming noticeable, and he wasn’t ready to admit defeat and end up the only Cooper man with love handles.
“Now that I’m finally here, let’s get started.” Rodney opened a manila file folder holding notes and documents and took the lid off the cardboard box. “Jack was so proud of you boys, and he wanted you to know that. Ordinarily, I’d simply notify the heirs and send them the paperwork, but your father asked me to personally make sure that you receive the things he left for you and that you’re all clear about the inheritance. Gavin, he wanted you to empty out his safe-deposit box.”
Gavin leaned forward and took the envelope the attorney offered, opening it to find a small safe-deposit box key and some paperwork. “Sure, no problem.”
Rodney looked into the cardboard box and pulled out a larger, decorative key. “Gage, this one is for you.”
Gage took the key and turned over the attached white note card. Son, the key to everything is happiness.
“Happiness and 24 percent of Guac Olé, I guess,” Rodney said with a soft laugh. “He signed over almost one-quarter of the company to you, which I believe you were expecting.”
“And the land, right?” Gage closed his fist around the key.
Rodney scanned the documents on his desk, his brow furrowed. “No, no land. If you’re referring to the property at 12332 Pine Ramble Drive, that now belongs to a Miss Charlotte Wilkinson.”
“Charlotte Wilkinson? Why the hell would he give my land to her?” Gage sounded more perplexed than angry, and Gavin searched his memory for any Charlottes his dad might have known. The only one he knew of was a horrible environmental scientist who had been making his brother’s life miserable, butting heads with him over email on several of the plans for his oil company’s drilling sites. Gage had been promised the land for as long as he could remember—the land and the oil there played a major role in his future plans. His father changing course at the last moment, without telling any of them, made no sense.
“And this one is for you.” Rodney handed Grayson a small, enameled strawberry charm attached to a white note card that matched Gage’s.
“Son, what’s sweeter than success?” Grayson read aloud. He turned the little strawberry over in his palm. “And half of Guac Olé, right? I know there’s got to be paperwork involved. I set aside this time today so I could handle everything.”
Rodney stared at the papers in front of him as though he wished he could hide under them. “That’s it. I’m sorry.”
“What do you mean, ‘that’s it’? Dad promised me half of Guac Olé. Gage and Gavin are going to sell me their shares, and then I’ll own the company I’ve poured my whole life into. Look again, Rodney.” Grayson sounded panicked, and Gavin didn’t blame him. His entire future was riding on the assumption that he’d inherit the company; there was no plan B.
Rodney pushed his glasses up his nose and sniffed. “Mr. Cooper left the 52 percent of Guac Olé not willed to Gage and Gavin to Rebecca Nash. And I’m afraid Gage and Gavin will have to wait twelve months before they’re eligible to sell their shares to you.” His words were almost a whisper.
“The only Rebecca Nash I know is a floor supervisor in the factory… There’s no way he would leave her half the damn company. Is this some kind of horrible joke?” Grayson balled his fists, looking like he wanted to leap across the desk and take his frustration out on their mild-mannered attorney.
“I’m not sure if it makes any difference, but he did stipulate that you retain your position as CEO if you so desire. Regardless of who actually owns the company, you are still essentially in charge. He knew how much the company means to you, and he firmly believed in your ability to lead the business going forward.” Rodney chanced a smile, probably hoping to diffuse the anger in the office with this small piece of good news.
“Are you serious? No, it doesn’t make any difference. This is not what we discussed, and it’s not what we were promised. I don’t want to be CEO of a company someone else owns. You can’t honestly tell me that you didn’t know we’d have a problem with these changes. You know what used to be in the will, and you didn’t think to ask him why he suddenly wanted to change everything? What exactly is going on here, Rodney?”
“I’m sorry. I know this is an unpleasant surprise, and I’ll admit that it did seem odd at the time. However, your father didn’t explain his reasons to me, and he was well within his rights to do as he pleased without my input. He simply asked me to carry out his wishes.” Rodney took a pair of reading glasses out of the box and slid them across his desk to Gavin. “He left these for you.”
It took everything Gavin had to resist crushing them in his hand as he grabbed them and read the attached card, unable to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. “Son, look to the past to see your future. Dad didn’t even wear glasses. What the hell does this mean?”
He had a sinking feeling he would soon find out that the house his father promised him now belonged to some random woman. There was no way he would be the only one lucky enough to get what he was expecting. The surprise would be who would be getting the house. Like his brothers, Gavin had made plans based on the assumption that his father would follow through on his promise. The home’s historical aspects would be lovingly restored and maintained, and future generations of Coopers would be raised there. He hadn’t ever considered the possibility that wouldn’t happen—he and Dad had talked about it numerous times, agreeing that he would keep it in the family as the only brother sincerely interested in marriage and children.
It was more than a house, more than their home. It was everything to Gavin, and for it to belong to anyone else simply wasn’t right. Gavin fixed Rodney with a look he hoped was expectant rather than hostile and challenging. Might as well get it over with so they could figure out what to do next. “And the house? Does it belong to me or not?”
Shrinking against the leather of his chair, Rodney said, “He left it to Macy Young. I’m sorry, Gavin. I know you guys are all surprised and angry.”
“Macy Young?” His voice filled the small office, but he didn’t care. To stop himself from screaming at the attorney, he pinched the bridge of his nose and focused on the languidly turning ceiling fan for a moment while he reined in his anger. “Is this a joke, Rodney? Seriously? Macy freaking Young?” He hadn’t seen her in years and hated being reminded of her. Hearing her name flooded him with all the anger, irritation, and disappointment she had brought to his life.
Through every year of high school, he and Macy had competed in the race to be at the top of their class, and, during their senior year, valedictorian. It had been a competition he’d thought was good-natured, and, at the very least, fair. He’d loved her quick wit, brilliant mind, and exceptional talent. For every advanced class he’d taken, she’d been sitting in the front row, acing the tests without breaking a sweat. For the longest time, he couldn’t even be mad because she’d always been gracious about beating him. Her brains, wit, and beauty had proven intoxicating enough to make him forget sometimes they were rivals, and he’d developed some very non-academic feelings toward her.
He’d been close to asking her out, to finally see if his crush on her was reciprocated, when his best friend and Macy’s singing partner, Tori Wilde, had begged him to try to forget his feelings. She’d been afraid a failed romance between her two closest friends would ruin her relationships with both of them, and maybe she was right. Macy and Tori were both great singers, but together, they were a juggernaut, and they’d teamed up in high school to create an amazing duo. They’d dominated every contest they’d entered, making every other singer look like amateurs. Tori had worried that if things didn’t work out between Gavin and Macy, it would affect their music. So he’d kept his feelings a secret, reasoning that crushes would come and go, but his friendship with Tori was sacred.
No sooner had he agreed to put thoughts of romance on the back burner than Macy had managed to pull out ahead of him with last-minute extra credit from singing in a fine arts program. She’d slipped the extra credit in too close to the end of the grading period for him to protest her class standing or find his own way to pull ahead, and he’d had to watch helplessly as she’d taken first place in their class. As far as he was concerned, singing with a friend, whether representing the school or not, should not have counted enough to defeat his perfect grades in math and science classes. Unfortunately, the administration had seen things differently, since Macy had had the same impeccable math and science records. But in his teen mind, her victory had been ill-won, souring him on her in the end. Of course, it didn’t change anything. It didn’t stop him from getting into the college he wanted to attend or from having a successful veterinary practice. He could’ve happily gone the rest of his life without seeing her again, though. His problem with Macy Young ran much deeper than their high school rivalry. Some things were better left in the past.
“No, it’s not a joke. I’ve notified her and the other women, and I’m afraid it’s a done deal. Everything’s in order, and it’s settled.” Rodney closed the folder and sat back in his chair to sip his water slowly, no doubt stalling to collect his thoughts. “He also left you 24 percent of Guac Olé, though, which you may have expected. You can do whatever you like with them once twelve months have passed.”
“Okay, is there any reason I can’t buy the house from Macy?”
Rodney cringed. “I’m sorry. There is a stipulation in the will that Ms. Young may not sell the home for twelve months. She doesn’t necessarily have to reside in the house, but she can’t unload it just yet.”
“Surely she’s not planning on moving here. She lives and works in Nashville, and having the house sit vacant for a year is a horrible idea. There’s got to be something you can do to fix this.”
“I’m afraid there’s not. It’s a done deal, and all completely legal. I wish I could be more helpful.” Rodney flipped a paper clip absentmindedly in his hand. “Don’t worry about the house sitting vacant and falling into disrepair. He’s provided for the taxes, utilities, and maintenance in the event that Ms. Young does not wish to immediately reside on the premises, and she will be able to rent out the house if she wants. I’m sure she won’t leave it sitting empty.”
It was a done deal. Just like when she’d edged past him in the race to valedictorian. Once again, Macy would have what he wanted, what he’d been certain was his, and there was nothing he could do about it. The house was handed to her, just like so many other things in her life.
“But we’ve seen the will. Dad went through everything with us.” Grayson’s angry voice filled the room. “We’ve been promised these things for most of our lives, and we’ve seen it in black and white.”
“He made the modifications about two months before he passed away.” Rodney gave them an apologetic look, although Gavin knew he was dying for the Cooper men to leave his office.
“Two months? That seems suspicious, don’t you think?” Gage spoke up. “He was so sick toward the end. There’s got to be some reason he did this.”
“And some way we can reverse it,” Grayson said.
“Your father’s doctor provided verification that he was competent to make these changes.” Dad’s attorney, damn him, had an answer to block every turn.
When Gavin wasn’t working or sleeping, he’d spent every free moment caring for his father during his final months, and as much as it hurt to lose the house he’d been dreaming of, he knew his father had been of sound mind until the very end. He had been weak and in almost constant pain, but always lucid and as sharp as ever.
In the time that the cancer had slowly chipped away at his once-vibrant father’s life, Gavin had developed a deeper appreciation for their home and the family Jack had raised in it. Forced to tend to three boys alone after his wife had died, Jack had risen to the occasion with an enthusiasm and dedication Gavin would always admire. Their home had been a haven, a soft place to fall, and the heart of their family.
“What can we do about this?” Gavin asked. Asking the same question repeatedly wasn’t getting him anywhere, but the shock was too great. Losing the house was bad enough. Losing it to Macy was unthinkable. Surely, any minute now, Rodney would realize that he’d read the wrong file or misunderstood something. This simply couldn’t be the last word.
“Nothing, I’m afraid. Your father was completely of sound mind and not under any duress when he made these changes. Everything is legal and indisputable. I’m sorry things didn’t work out the way you expected.”
The way you expected? The understatement of the year. Not only were the will’s contents unexpected, they were unbelievable.
“So just like that, we’re done?” Grayson was almost shouting. Gavin couldn’t blame him. His younger brother had received nothing in return for his years of dedication to the company, a betrayal he wouldn’t take lightly. “This isn’t a case of things not working out the way we expected. This is a serious betrayal and three huge broken promises. We’re talking about our very legacy being doled out to strangers. This can’t be final.”
“It is, and I’m sorry.” Rodney spread his hands apologetically, but he glanced at the door, likely ready to move on to his next appointment. For an attorney, he seemed awfully uncomfortable with the awkward exchange. Gavin thought Rodney would’ve had more experience with these situations. Surely, they weren’t the first people to be surprised by what their loved ones didn’t leave them in their wills.
Rodney clearly wasn’t going to be any help. Maybe if he checked out his father’s safe-deposit box, he’d find some answers. He stood and tucked the envelope holding the key into his pocket. “All right, then. Maybe there’s a clue in the safe-deposit box to explain all of this. Thanks for your help, Rodney.”
“Let us know what you find. I’ll be at the office, though I don’t know why I even care,” Grayson said. “I can’t imagine I’ll actually get anything done today.”
“Nobody would blame you if you blew off the rest of the day.” Gavin clapped his brother on the back. “I should probably book a hotel room while we sort this out.”
“You can always stay with me, but I don’t think we should give up just yet. You shouldn’t have to move out of your house without notice.”
“Thanks. I might take you up on that. Or maybe I’ll wait and see what happens.” Gavin checked his watch as they got to the door. “I’ve got just enough time to head to the bank before I need to go to the office. I’ll catch up with y’all later.”
“Let’s meet for drinks tonight before I go home, okay?” Gage would head back to Houston now that the inheritance was sorted out. Anything they did to change it could be done over the phone and through email. “I want to know what’s in the safe-deposit box, and if it’s anything like this morning’s news, it’ll go down better with a few beers.”
“That sounds great. See you at Silver Spurs around eight or so? We can have dinner and maybe I’ll have some answers.” Gavin would have time to close up the clinic and get cleaned up before meeting his brothers for the much-needed drinks and debriefing.
The three paused in the parking lot, squinting in the bright late-morning sun.
“That sounds perfect—see you tonight.” Gage opened the door to his shiny sports car and dropped onto the leather seat.
“Keep your fingers crossed.” Gavin opened his truck door and climbed in.
End of Excerpt