Authors: Lynn Emery
“We shall all greatly miss our dear brother. He leftâ¦
Nicole stared around the boardroom. The atmosphere reeked of thinlyâ¦
Lunch went better than Nicole expected. By the time they'dâ¦
Nicole glanced at him sideways. Marcus was so all business.
Nicole glanced around the lobby of Caldwell Protection Agency. Sheâ¦
Marcus smiled to himself as he headed to his office.
Two days later Marcus made a valiant attempt to loosenâ¦
Marcus hit the button of his cell phone. He tossedâ¦
Marcus rocked back and forth in his chair. His mindâ¦
Nicole tried to concentrate on Jesse's report. Russell didn't help,â¦
“Those meetings went so well it's downright scary. We're hot!”
Marcus stared down at the dark hair a breath awayâ¦
Nicole smiled when she opened her front door. Her motherâ¦
Nicole stared at the report. Jesse wore a grim expression.
Nicole dressed in a sheer pink tunic blouse, hot pinkâ¦
Nicole gazed through the car windows at a world she'dâ¦
Nicole walked around the conference table. “Hello, Detective Tyler. Weâ¦
“Loose ends drive me nuts.” Dayna twisted an ink penâ¦
Marcus hesitated, then pushed the button. Chimes played a tuneâ¦
Aliyah leaned close to Russell. “I think they need toâ¦
The board members left the conference room with sober expressions.
Nicole willed her hands to loosen their tight grip onâ¦
The nightmare continued the next day. Nicole sat in herâ¦
“That's tough about Nicole. Black folks like her look atâ¦
“You're sure it was him?” Kelli Caldwell crossed her longâ¦
“It's all a lie.” Shaun paced the concrete floor stainedâ¦
e shall all greatly miss our dear brother. He left behind loving family and a host of friends.”
“You're at the wrong funeral, Rev,” Nicole muttered. She slid to the left to avoid a jab from her mother's elbow.
She gazed at her least favorite great-uncle, the late Hosea Summers. Dressed in a thousand-dollar black pinstriped suit, he lay in a fancy, gunmetal gray slate coffin with real brass trim.
In accordance with his wishes, the family had brought Uncle Hosea home to Lafayette Parish for his final rest. Nicole's mother and father had arranged the services at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Uncle Hosea had always said he didn't want to be buried in Houston, Texas. He mostly got what he wanted. Great Uncle Hosea's pet name for Nicole had been “That smart-mouthed rug rat.” He'd rattle off the words in that gruff steel pad voice that made her want to kick his shins. Which she did regularly from age three to fifteen. Enough was enough. She caught Reverend Paine's eye, then tapped her wristwatch.
Reverend Paine stammered, then rumbled on a few seconds longer and ended with a prayer. The organist did her job with a mournful version of “Nearer My God to Thee.” The large extended Summers family filed by to pay their last respects with dutifully serious expressions.
At six feet two, Stanton Summers was still a commanding physical presence despite his sixty years. Nicole had inherited his stature and her mother's temperament. Nicole's father was the only mourner who seemed genuinely touched. He stood at the casket, while the rest filed by with only cursory glances. Nicole joined him. She tried to work up some bit of sentimentality, failed, and gave a mental shrug.
“Come on, Daddy.” Nicole tugged at his arm.
“Unc was a pain in the ass most of the time, but he was a hell of a businessman. He would have been pleased with the turnout,” Stanton said as he looked around.
“Yeah, he could insult everyone at once,” Nicole joked. She followed his gaze at their colorful assortment of relatives. “Maybe I should carry on his legacy. I know exactly what he'd say about Aunt Cora's latest husband. Then there's Cousin Elton. Heâ”
“Behave, Nikki,” Stanton broke in with a frown. “Anyway, Uncle Hosea lived and died the way he wanted.”
“Slumped over a thick financial report. The king was in his counting house, counting out his money,” Nicole said, repeating an old nursery rhyme her great-grandfather sang to her as a toddler.
“Hell of a businessman,” Stanton repeated, missing the sarcasm of Nicole's response.
A couple came up to offer condolences just then. While they talked to her father, Nicole's attention wandered. Slowly the large room had filled with people from the service. Many had come in late only to make an appearance. A tall man with
wide shoulders walked in a side door behind a woman with twin five-year-old boys. His steel gray suit molded to his well-developed body like only fine silk-blend fabric could. The newcomer had skin the color of mink, expressive cocoa brown eyes, and a full mouth that could inspire hot fantasies. He wore a solemn expression in keeping with the occasion and still looked absolutely drop-dead sexy.
“All the good ones are taken,” Nicole said, low.
“What?” Stanton stopped talking to the couple and glanced at her.
“Who is that?” Nicole nodded toward the man.
“Emelda Ourso and her boys,” Stanton replied. “Jeff must be parking the car.” He turned back and resumed his conversation.
Nicole tugged at his arm to get his attention. “Isn't the guy standing there her husband?”
Her father followed her gaze. “No. You remember Jeff. He went to school with your sister.”
“Please tell me he's not my cousin.”
“Jeff?” Stanton blinked at her.
.” Nicole jerked her head again at the handsome man.
“He looks familiar, but he's not a relative.” Stanton's attention was diverted when two more people came up and started talking to him.
“Hmm, now there's good news,” she said.
Nicole stole glances at the man from time to time. He moved with the grace of a trained athlete. She watched him sign the guest book provided by Robertson's Funeral Directors. His broad nose gave him a royal look, like Nicole's notion of a Nubian prince. While she mused at her own girlhood dream, he lifted his fine face and gazed straight at her. After a formal, polite smile, her prince moved on.
“Thanks for coming.” Stanton shook hands with the two men and accepted a peck on the cheek from a woman. When they left, he turned back to Nicole. “How are you holding up, sugar?”
“Better now,” she murmured, still watching the man.
Her prince walked through the door leading back into the sanctuary of the church. She was considering following him when her father's voice brought her up short.
“Life goes on. Uncle Hosea really cared about the family.”
“Okay, I'll take your word for it.”
“His own children were a big disappointment.” Stanton bit off further comment when the subjects of his assessment walked in.
“Maybe they won't notice us.” Nicole took an intense interest in the tips of her shoes. Her cousins Jolene and Russell Summers marched toward them.
“Hello, Uncle Stanton,” Russell said. “Terrible day.”
“Yes, I'll miss Daddy so much.” His sister gave a delicate sniff.
“Hmm.” Nicole eyed them both. Her father put a warning hand on her arm.
“If there's anything I can do to help with the company, let me know,” Stanton said in an earnest tone.
“Thanks, Uncle Stanton. I'll call you if necessary. Of course, I know the business inside out.”
Nicole pursed her lips to suppress a wisecrack. Jolene and Russell would probably drink a toast with expensive champagne to celebrate later on. They'd clashed with their irascible father for years over money. Russell had wanted control of the business, something Uncle Hosea had said would happen over his dead body. Well, Russell's wish had finally come true.
The pretense around Nicole was wearing thin. Nicole
glanced around for her prince. He provided the only source of pleasant distraction, yet he seemed to have vanished. Nicole's brother, Terrell, strolled up. At thirty-seven, he was a handsome copy of her father.
“These little meatballs are tasty.” Terrell polished off three speared on a long toothpick. He patted his mouth with a napkin.
“Glad somebody is having a good time,” Nicole said with a sour expression.
Terrell smiled as he finished chewing. He took a drink from his glass of ginger ale. “Might as well. Uncle Hosea wasn't sentimental. He'd appreciate us having only the best food at his funeral.”
Nicole's grandmother and Stanton's mother, Lillian Mayveaux Summers, wore a dark blue suit with gold tone buttons. A matching hat with a half veil along the front and soft feathers wrapped around the rim completed the ensemble. At seventy-six she walked slowly but without faltering.
“What in heaven's name is going on? Francine is rolling out a large television. This is hardly the time to watch soap operas.” Mother Lillian huffed in irritation.
Francine, one of seven lawyers in the family, wore a tight-lipped expression. She directed one of her three teenage sons pushing a thirty-two-inch set into the room. Nicole went to her.
“What's up?” she asked her older cousin.
“You heard the expression about stuff hitting the fan?” Francine whispered. “Well, stand back, 'cause you're about to get a big splatter.”
“You better believe it. Excuse me everyone.” Francine waited until the murmur of voices died down. “Uncle Hosea left instructions with an attorney, Phil Waserstein, to deliver
this tape to me along with his last will. Naturally the latter is only to be shared with family affected. He did want this tape played now.”
“Now? This is disgraceful!” Mother Lillian frowned at her great-niece. “Francine, I should think you'd know better.”
“Grandmother, as a lawyer it's my legal and ethical duty to comply with legal instructions.” Francine pressed a button on the remote.
Russell pushed his way through a knot of people. “I have his will.”
“Another will? That's impossible,” Jolene spluttered, her eyes glittering with outrage.
“I think the tape will explain everything. Here we go,” Francine muttered as an aside to Nicole.
The tape came on with music from a vintage Miles Davis recording. The music faded away. Uncle Hosea sat in his favorite leather chair. He was in his library at home. Wearing a relaxed expression, Uncle Hosea nodded once and crossed his legs. Every silver hair in place, he was dressed in one of his favorite thousand-dollar black silk suits.
“Hello, there. I hope you're eating well and enjoying my funeral. Isn't technology wonderful? I feel like we're right in the same room. Well, maybe we are. I could be standing right next to you, Lillian.”
Mother Lillian jumped but recovered quickly. “I never liked my brother-in-law's sense of humor.”
“Still can't take a joke, I see.” Uncle Hosea gave a gruff laugh. His expression turned serious. “Now to business. I won't bore you with the details of my last will and testament. That I preferred putting on paper, all nice and ironclad, Russell and Jolene.”
“This is humiliating.” Jolene bristled when Francine waved at her to be quiet.
Uncle Hosea folded his hands in his lap. “For my dear children and business competitors, the good news is I'm dead. I left a hefty estate behind. I sold off my insurance agency, most of the real estate holdings, and a few other odds and ends for a healthy profit.” Uncle Hosea grinned widely.
“The bad news is my children won't get as much as they hoped for and my competitors won't get off so easy. Don't worry, Russell and Jolene. You'll be very comfortable. No doubt you still won't be satisfied. Tough! Thank God I won't be around to hear your whining. As for my security firm, I'm leaving it in the hands of someone with as much guts and killer instinct as I haveâor had, I should say. Go get 'em, Nicole. Have fun, kids.”
Uncle Hosea lifted a heavy tumbler of amber liquid and drank deeply. After a sigh, he reached over and picked up a long cigar. He lit it and puffed smoke rings.
“Ain't this the life?” He laughed heartily. “Goodbye, everyone. It's been a real pleasure getting on your nerves all these years.”
He gave a jaunty wave as the picture faded and the tape ended. There was stunned silence for several minutes. Mother Lillian spoke first.
“He wasn't supposed to drink or smoke.” She scowled at the screen. Several relatives giggled, then stopped when she glared at them.
“Uncle Hosea was a proud man who had always been active. He couldn't stand the thought of ending his days feeble and dependent on others,” Stanton put in. “That's why he traveled and enjoyed himself in the last two years.”
“You mean he made a fool of himself with women half his age,” Mother Lillian put in. “Disgusting!”
Uncle Hosea had always preferred much younger women. Jolene and Russell were in their late thirties. Their mother,
one of Uncle Hosea's three ex-wives, had been thirty years younger than him when they married.
“Mother, please. This isn't the place for such talk.” Stanton shot a look of censure at her. His mother puckered her lips in annoyance but said nothing more. “Uncle Hosea chose the way he wanted to live.”
“We all know how much he liked control,” Nicole said. She crossed her arms. “What's this got to do with me?”
“Nothing. Russell and I are his only legal heirs,” Jolene said in brisk voice.
“Not according to the last will,” Francine replied.
“Are you saying he's leaving money to Nicole?” Russell's eyes narrowed to slits.
“We'll meet later, but Nicole is now an heir.” Francine wore a frown that said she fervently wanted to be anywhere else.
“How much?” Jolene said, cutting to the chase.
“Not hereâ” Francine raised a hand.
“How much?” Jolene repeated with a glare.
Francine sighed deeply. “I don't think we should talk about it now.” She glanced around.
Nicole leaned close to her. “Obviously the oldâ”
“Ahem!” Reverend Paine's brows drew together as he gazed at her.
She started over. “Obviously Uncle Hosea meant for us to discuss it now. He wouldn't have sent this little bombshell from the great beyond otherwise.”
“Let's go somewhere a little more private.” Francine looked at the minister.
“This way.” Reverend Paine led them to smaller rooms used for Bible study and Sunday school classes.
Jolene and Russell marched ahead of them all. Terrell followed with Stanton, Analine, and Mother Lillian. No one sat down in the blue folding chairs arranged in a circle. For sev
eral minutes there was only a lot of angry staring and tense silence. Francine finally joined them.
“Sorry, I had to make sure I got the tape. Reverend Paine and our cousin Darcus will take care of greeting people.”
“Fine, fine.” Russell waved at her with impatience. “What is going on?”
“The bottom line is your dad left the Summers Security, LLC toâ¦” Francine took a deep breath and squared her shoulders as though bracing for a strong wind. “Nicole.”
“What!” Stanton and Terrell yelled in unison.
“That's ridiculous!” Nicole's mother sat down hard and fanned her face.
“No way. I'm not taking over a group of crossing guards! Forget it.” Nicole shook her head until her shoulder-length hair bounced.
“You sure can forget it!” Russell said. “My father isn't going to get away with this. I put up with his bad temper and disrespect for years. I poured my blood into that company.”
“He included provisions that exclude almost all of your inheritance if you fight the will,” Francine replied.