Chapter 1

 

 

THE PHONE rang, pulling Brighton McKenzie out of the zone. He huffed, wishing he’d remembered to turn the dang thing off. It figured that the brief time his leg decided to behave and let him sit still for more than an hour so he could actually be productive was when people would call. Brighton reached for the phone. He thought about not answering it, but that would mean a message and a voice mail lecture of some kind. It just wasn’t worth it.

“Hi, Aunt Vera,” he said with what enthusiasm he could muster, which wasn’t much.

“I have bad news,” she began, but he caught the hint of glee beneath her words. “Your Grandpa Ed passed away yesterday.” That explained it. Yes, she was delivering news that was supposed to be sad, so he heard the appropriate tone in her voice, but the excitement was too much for her to keep it at bay completely.

“Yesterday,” Brighton said softly. “You could have called.” His Grandpa Ed, his paternal grandfather, had been quite old, and his health had been failing, at least according to his dad’s sister, Aunt Vera.

“I didn’t want to disturb you. It was late. He apparently lay down for a nap and didn’t wake up. At least that’s what the ambulance people and doctors said. He wanted to be cremated, and we’ll spread his ashes at the farm he loved so much after a small memorial service.” Now she was really putting on a show. “I’ll call you later with all the arrangements.”

“Have you called Brianne?” His younger sister.

“I left a message for her to call me back,” Aunt Vera answered with barely disguised derision, which meant that she figured Brianne hadn’t picked up the phone on purpose for some reason. Their Aunt Vera looked for slights, and she never forgot a single one—real or imagined.

“I’m sure she’s busy. She’s graduating this weekend.” Brighton didn’t press it any further. His sister was brilliant, and Brighton was so proud of her he could burst. He’d helped her get her bachelor’s degree by working extra jobs, taking side website design projects to pay for it. When she’d gone on to graduate school, Aunt Vera and Uncle Raymond had thought that excessive and said she should get a job. Brighton had told her to follow her own path, which had led her to a fellowship at the University of Maryland. She’d majored in chemistry in college, and even at the undergraduate level she had shown brilliant insight. Now she was getting her master’s degree with honors, at the top of her class, and she’d had offers from half a dozen doctoral programs that wanted her badly enough to be willing to pay her tuition and provide her a teaching stipend. She had decided to stay at UM in College Park.

“All that schooling just so she can be better than us,” Aunt Vera said.

“She’s intelligent, and I want her to go as far as she possibly can.” Brianne deserved that. Hell, they both did, but Brighton’s life had taken a very different path, and his big dreams had been reduced and changed to just being able to walk and navigate through life without pain or being doped up on pills. “Please call me as soon as you know about the arrangements, and I’ll call Brianne and make sure she knows as well.”

“Okay,” his aunt said. “I have other calls to make, but I’ll talk to you soon.” She hung up, and Brighton placed his phone facedown on the desk next to him and tried to go back to work. His leg, of course, picked that moment to let him know it ruled his life. Brighton stood, stretching it, and then he grabbed his cane to walk around the living room of his small apartment. The pain and stiffness subsided, and Brighton sat back down, stretched out his leg, and then called his sister.

“What’s up?” Brianne said when she answered.

“I don’t mean to disturb you. I know you’re busy, but our Grandpa passed away yesterday.”

Brianne grew quiet. “Is that what Aunt Vera wanted?”

“Yeah,” Brighton answered softly. “He went in his sleep, and it seems to have been peaceful.”

“That’s all any of us can ask for, I guess,” Brianne said with a hitch in her voice. “I went out to see him last week, and he seemed just as active and energetic as usual.” She paused, and then Brighton heard her blow her nose. “I suppose that’s what he would have wanted—to be active up to the last and then go.”

“Exactly,” Brighton said, his throat closing slightly. “Do you remember him walking us around the yard on the pony?”

“Diablo? Yeah.” She chuckled. That pony was as gentle as could be, but for some reason Grandpa had named the poor thing Diablo. Grandpa had a sense of humor, but sometimes he was the only one who got it. “And he sat with you for hours in the hospital after the accident.”

“I know. And he held my hand after that last surgery when they thought they might have to take my leg altogether. He yelled at them for being quitters and said that since I wasn’t a quitter, they weren’t going to be either. I swear they saved my leg because of him.”

“Are you still in a lot of pain?” Brianne asked.

“It’s lessening. The doctors say they don’t understand why, but it is. I just have to remember not to sit for too long at one time.” He sighed. “Let’s talk about something else. Maybe this weekend if you have a few hours, we can take a ride out to the farm, say good-bye to him in our own way.” The words barely made it out of his mouth. Brighton wiped his eyes and swallowed hard.

“Yeah, let’s do that.” Her voice broke as well. “Graduation is Sunday. We could go out to the farm on Saturday. I still have a key to the house.” Brianne paused again. “You know Aunt Vera and Uncle Raymond will sell the place as soon as they possibly can.”

“I know,” Brighton said. Their aunt and uncle had been waiting for Grandpa Ed to pass away for years. The family farm, which Grandpa had lived on and worked to a small degree, was located in Ellicott City and was now surrounded by condominiums and housing developments. Grandpa hadn’t been interested in selling. The farm was his home—the only one he’d ever known. But his daughter, Vera, and her husband saw the place as a gold mine and their ticket to retirement. “Doesn’t matter, though. Not really.” Brighton swallowed because it did matter; he just couldn’t voice it, and it felt… easier for him not to explain. He figured Brianne understood, anyway. “We can’t change it.”

“No,” Brianne said. “Look, I still have to get some work done. I’ll call you as soon as I’m finished, and we can make plans for Saturday. Are you planning to come to the graduation ceremony? I’ll understand if it’s too much sitting for you.”

Brighton smiled. “Are you kidding? I’ll eat pain pills for hours to see you get this degree. You worked hard for it, and I’m so proud of you.”

“I wasn’t the only one who worked hard, and don’t think I could ever forget all you did for me.”

“It’s what Mom and Dad would have wanted.”

“No. They would have wanted both of us to be getting our master’s. They believed in education and the value of knowledge.”

“Then I’ll watch you get your degree for both of us.” He smiled because he was indeed very proud of her. “I’m content and happy in my own way. You’re the one with the grand ambitions. I’m pleased enough doing what I like and supporting myself.” That had been an accomplishment in itself. He had been afraid after the accident that not only would he never walk again, but he’d be dependent upon others for the rest of his life. And the thought of Aunt Vera taking care of him was too Baby Jane for words.

“I know you think you are, but you deserve to be truly happy.”

Brighton groaned.

“Come on. You need to get out more and have some fun. Meet some people.”

“Look who’s talking,” Brighton countered. “Maybe if you took your own advice, you’d meet someone, and I could marry you off.”

“Ha-ha,” she said. “I was thinking more along the lines that I could marry you off to some strong, handsome man, and then I wouldn’t have to worry about you being alone all the time.”

“Yeah. I think I’ll go out dancing Saturday night. I’ll be a huge hit until I whack someone with my cane or fall flat on my face. I could just stand at the bar and get plastered. That might be nice.” Like the guys at any of those clubs would look twice at a guy like him. He’d never been pretty or cute, and with the gimpy leg, well… that really added to his attractiveness… not!

“Quit being a sourpuss. I’m not saying to go out to the clubs. You never did that much—at least not as far as I know. But find a hobby, call your friends, go out for dinner. Anything but sitting around in your living room in your underwear in front of the computer all the time.”

Dammit. Brighton looked down and cringed but said nothing. He wasn’t going to tell her she was right. He did need to get dressed every once in a while.

“I’ll talk to you soon,” Brianne said.

“Okay. I’ll let you go kick some academic butt.” Brighton hung up and stared at his computer screen. He really wasn’t interested in going back to work, but he needed to get this job done. Brighton sighed and forced his mind back to the task at hand. He could let the sadness overwhelm him later.

After working for another two hours, he finished up the last detail and sent a note for his customer to take a look at the site. He hoped they would be pleased. Brighton stood, his leg stiff but quiet on the pain front. Forcing his joints to move, he made his way to the bathroom, stripped, and started the shower.

The hot water felt amazing, especially on his leg. Brighton washed and then stood under the water, letting it soothe his knee and hip. Eventually he had to get out, so he turned off the water and carefully stepped out of the shower. The last thing he needed was to fall and hurt himself. He’d done that once and had no intention of doing it again, thank you very much. He dried off and went to his room, where he dressed. He had just finished up and was debating starting a new project when his phone rang again. Brighton wasn’t particularly keen to speak with his aunt, but he picked up the phone. The display showed a number he didn’t recognize.

“Hello,” he said tentatively, expecting some telemarketer. He hated those people.

“Good afternoon, is this Mr. Brighton McKenzie?”

“Yes.”

“Excellent. I’m Arthur Granger, and I was your grandfather’s attorney. I’m also in possession of his will, and as you’re named in it, I’d like to meet with you. Edward was old-fashioned and specified that we read the will to all the beneficiaries after his death. I know it’s usually not done that way these days, but it was his wish. Can you and your sister Brianne be available this time tomorrow? I left her a message, but she hasn’t returned it.”

“She’s graduating with her master’s degree this weekend, so she’s very busy. But I’ll check with her and let you know if there’s a problem.”

“That will be fine,” he said and gave Brighton the address and time. “Do you need transportation? Your grandfather said at the time he made the will that you sometimes have trouble getting around. I can have a car sent.”

“If she can come, then Brianne will give me a ride.” Brighton felt helpless. “Thank you.” He remained polite and kept the frustration out of his voice.

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow at two.” The lawyer disconnected, and Brighton called his sister again. He explained what was happening, and she confirmed that she could be done by noon. She would come by, they could have a quick lunch, and then go to the lawyer’s office. Neither of them speculated about what could be in the will for them. There was no need. Neither of them wanted anything from their grandfather other than to have him back in their lives.

 

 

THE FOLLOWING afternoon, Wednesday, Brianne rushed into his apartment in Laurel. “I got here as fast as I could.”

“I wasn’t expecting you for another half hour. Did you get everything done?” Brighton said as he walked over to greet her, leaning on his cane.

“I thought you said things were better?” she said with a glower, her hands on her hips the exact way their mother had done when they were children and she thought she had caught one of them in a lie.

“There’s less pain, and I can get around a little better. Don’t try that look on me, little sister.” He headed for the door. “Let’s go eat so we can find out what this nonsense with the lawyer is all about.”

They left, and Brianne drove him to a nearby pizza restaurant that had the world’s best pizza, made in coal-fired ovens. He loved the stuff, and Brianne humored him. Once they were done, he handed her the piece of paper with the address on it. She programmed it into the GPS, and they were off. It took about twenty minutes to find the lawyer’s office, and they arrived and got out of the car as their aunt and uncle did the same.

“You got a call as well?” Aunt Vera said. “That’s nice of Daddy to remember the two of you.” The smile seemed genuine. She embraced them both, as did their uncle, and then they headed inside.

Aunt Vera took charge, and soon they were all ushered into a rather nice conference room. The lawyer came in with a folder, made introductions, and then motioned for them all to sit.

“I’m bound by Edward McKenzie’s wishes in these matters. He asked me to read the will to all of you. With the exception of the legalities, he dictated the will himself, so it’s very much in his own words. I’ll skip the legal portions and come to the heart of the matter, if you’re all agreeable.”

They all nodded, and Brighton shifted in the chair, his leg aching. He rubbed it to soothe it.

Mr. Granger opened the file. “The last will and testament of Edward McKenzie,” he said ceremoniously and then began to read.

“To start with I’d like to deal with my daughter Vera Westbridge. Vera, honey, I know you and that man you married are counting on the proceeds of the farm for your retirement. Well, I got to tell you, nobody gave me anything. I worked my entire life on that land, and no one is going to use it so they can sit on their butt in Florida or some other place and bake their brains out. It’s time you did for yourself, so I’m leaving you fifty thousand dollars. It’s not enough to retire on, but that’s life. You need to stand on your own two feet, so I’m giving you a shove.”

Aunt Vera gasped and looked at Uncle Raymond, her mouth hanging open like a startled fish. She didn’t move or breathe for a long time and then burst into tears.

Mr. Granger continued, “There’s no use crying. It isn’t going to do you no good because there’s no one around to hear it who cares. You always turned on the waterworks when you wanted something, and most everyone gave in. Well, now I’m dead, so I don’t care how much you cry.” It appeared to Brighton that Mr. Granger was getting a little kick out of this, but he was too good a lawyer to say anything or let it show on his face.

“After all I did for him. His own daughter, and he did this to me.” She sniffled, and Uncle Raymond did his best to soothe her. However, that didn’t last long as the realization of what was about to happen sank in. Her expression darkened, and she glowered at Brianne and Brighton.

“For my granddaughter, Brianne McKenzie. Dear, you never needed anything from anyone. You have a firm head on your shoulders, and I know you’ll go far. I leave you fifty thousand dollars to do with as you see fit. I hope you continue with your schooling and change the world.” Mr. Granger looked up from where he was reading and smiled at Brianne, who seemed very pleased and excited. That would go a long way to ensuring a good start for her.

Brighton breathed a slight sigh of relief.

“For my other grandchildren, I leave ten thousand dollars each. I’m not specifically naming them, but they include Vera and Raymond’s children. Granger will ensure they each get their share. Now to my grandson, Brighton McKenzie. Brighton, I leave you the rest of my estate, including the farm, its contents, and any other money, on the provision that you live there for at least two years, at which point everything is yours. You are free to sell the farm, but if you do so within the first two years, the proceeds will be split evenly among yourself, Brianne, and my daughter Vera.” The lawyer paused, and Brighton gasped as the weight of what was happening fell on him. Brighton was so shocked he barely had the ability to draw air. “After your parents were killed by the drunk driver, you stepped up and raised your sister almost on your own. You had help from your aunt and uncle as well as myself, but by and large you did what needed to be done, fighting all of us sometimes to make sure you could do what you thought was right. I know we had some really whooping matches, but I was never mad at you. You stood up to all of us, and that makes you a man. You also put your own life on hold and worked as hard as you could to see to it that Brianne got through school.”

Brighton looked to Brianne. He had never talked about what he’d done for her. That had been between them.

“Your grandfather knew a great deal about you,” Mr. Granger said. “He was very intelligent and observant, and he seemed to know what was going on within his family.”

“So he gets the farm? He can’t even walk very well. How is he supposed to take care of it?” Aunt Vera said.

Brighton opened his mouth to argue, but Mr. Granger cleared his throat and returned to the will. “Now I know that my daughter Vera will try to persuade you to simply sell the land so she can get her hands on the money, and you are free to do that if you wish, but it is my hope that you will live on the farm and let it become part of you. That land has been in our family since Colonial times, longer than this country has existed. Listen to your own heart and make up your own mind.” Mr. Granger stopped. “The rest of the will contains stipulations should any of the recipients not survive him and so on. They do not pertain to you at this time.”

His aunt practically jumped to her feet. “I want a copy of this will so I can have my attorney look at it. Daddy gave me a copy of his will three years ago, and it was nothing like this.”

“This will was executed six months ago and was registered with the court at that time. You will, of course, be provided with a copy, and you may have whoever you wish look at it, but there is little you can do to alter any of the provisions. Mr. McKenzie was very specific about his intentions and why he wished to divide his assets the way he did. Nothing more is necessary.”

Aunt Vera fumed for a while and then got up to leave, dragging Uncle Raymond behind her. She was obviously furious, and he appeared broken and fit to be tied.

“So what do I do now?” Brighton asked Mr. Granger.

“The will needs to be probated, and then the property will officially revert to you, but in the meantime I suggest you take up residence there and get on with your life. Your grandfather was… anxious that the farm remain in the family. He said his original intention was to leave it to your father.”

“But why me?” Brighton asked and turned to Brianne.

“Because someone should do something nice for you,” Brianne told him. “You deserve it, and I think Grandpa knew that.”

“You’re not mad?”

“That Grandpa left you the farm? Hardly. I’m not interested in it, and if you can make something of the farm, more power to you. The money he left will mean I can continue the work on my PhD without interruption.”

Wait, he thought everything was all set for her. “What are you saying? I thought….”

“I know what you thought. I lied. You would have moved heaven and earth to make sure I got that degree, but you’ve done enough for me. I’ll stand on my own two feet now as long as you do the same.” She smiled and stood before pulling him into a hug. “You’ll get no animosity from me, big brother.” Brianne looked toward the door. “I wish I could say the same about our other relatives.”

“Aunt Vera wants what she wants, and she always pushed the men in her life to get it for her. I guess Grandpa wised up.”

“So you’ll be keeping the farm?” Mr. Granger asked.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Brighton slowly got to his feet. “It isn’t like I can take care of a farm. I can hardly get around some days, so taking care of even the few animals Grandpa still had will be beyond me.” Brighton swallowed hard. “And what am I supposed to do for money? The place is going to take more of it than I have. It needs work.”

“Your grandfather specified that you received the remainder of his estate. He left approximately a quarter million in cash after other estimated expenses. After the other bequests, that leaves approximately $130,000. So you will have the cash to maintain the farm should you choose to.”

Jesus. He’d had no idea. Brighton leaned on the conference table to steady himself. It was a lot of money, though he knew on a farm that wouldn’t last very long. But it would buy him some time and maybe the ability to hire some help, especially if he gave up his apartment and lived in the house so he could save expenses. At least he hoped so. “I have no idea where to begin. I visited Grandpa whenever I could, but I never lived there. I used to feed some of the animals, and when I was younger I rode the pony, but I don’t know anything about running a farm.” Brighton was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed. “Maybe I better have some time to think about things.”

“I think that would be a good idea. And if there’s anything you need, please don’t hesitate to call.” Mr. Granger gathered his papers into the file folder, stood, and got ready to leave the room. “I understand this is a big decision, and I have to admit that I didn’t know your grandfather very well. My father was his attorney for years, and after he passed away, I took over. I met with your grandfather just a few times to update his will. But I can say that he impressed me as a man who knew his own mind and cared deeply about both of you. He also….” Mr. Granger paused. “I use words for a living, but I’m having trouble explaining what I want to say. Your grandfather loved that land. It was a part of him as much as his arms and legs. He knew his daughter would sell. He said she was never happy there, even as a child.”

“What are you saying?” Brighton asked.

“That your grandfather left you the farm for a reason. He didn’t confide in me what that reason was. But it’s more than just keeping it in the family, I feel that. Maybe he said something to you at some point.”

Brighton tried to think if there was anything. He shook his head. “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome.” Mr. Granger waited for them to leave the conference room and escorted them out to the lobby area. “I suspect you’re going to need some help.”

“Yes.” Brighton looked down at his bad leg. “I can stand for an hour at most, and sitting in one place for any length of time is painful. So there isn’t much I can do at the farm.” He was downright helpless when it came to anything physical. His balance was poor as well, which only added to his fear of falling.

“I have this cousin,” Mr. Granger began. “He’s from the wild side… well, let me just say that the family hasn’t had a lot to do with him over the past few years. He left home when he was eighteen and roamed around the country. The last place we know he worked is some ranch in Montana. He doesn’t talk much. Never has.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “People used to think he was slow, but I think he’s just quiet and maybe a little shy. He needs a job, and I could see if he’s interested in helping you out with the farm. He’s not a stranger to hard work, and he has done ranch work, so he understands that kind of thing.” He seemed uncomfortable. “You don’t need to feel obligated to hire him in any way, of course. I haven’t spent any time around Tanner in a long time. But it wouldn’t hurt for you to talk to him.”

Brighton nodded. “Send him by or have him give me a call. I’m not sure what I’m going to need, but help is a definite.” He shook Mr. Granger’s hand and then followed Brianne out of the office and to the car.

“Where do you want to go?” she asked, sitting in the driver’s seat without starting the engine.

“Home to hide,” Brighton answered honestly. “But since you’re here, let’s go out to the farm and have a look around.” He got as comfortable as he could and fastened his seat belt. Brianne started the engine, and the air-conditioning began to banish the sauna feel from the car. “What are you going to do with the money?”

“What Grandpa said.”

Brighton turned toward her. “What’s all this about needing money and not telling me?”

“I don’t need money. But I exaggerated the fellowship benefits just a little. They’ll pay for most things, like the classes and the dissertation credits, but the stipend isn’t enough to live on, even if I exist entirely on ramen. So the money will make sure I can complete the degree in the next three or so years. I don’t want to take forever.” They pulled to a stop at a light. “I know you’d make sure I had what I needed, and you’d pay for it without thinking about it. But I don’t want you to. It’s time you had a life of your own, and you can’t do that if you’re still supporting me. I need to be on my own, and you need to let me.” The light turned green, and they moved forward.

“I do have my own life.”

“You sit home, work, watch television, work, talk to me on the phone, work, sleep, go nowhere, work, baby your knee and leg, work…. I think you’re getting my point.”

“I work,” he grumbled.

“You work hard, and you’ve used all that you’ve earned for me. From now on I’ll take care of me, and you can get a life. You’re a landowner now. There will be people beating a path to your door.”

“Please, you make it sound like we live in Elizabethan England.”

“You just need to make the land pay. And it can. The land is good—it always has been—and I don’t think Grandpa did much with it lately, so it’s been sitting, which is good for replenishment. You just need to figure it out.”

“It would be easier to sell it,” Brighton said, looking out the window at the passing houses and shopping centers.

“Don’t you dare,” Brianne scolded sharply. “Yes, Aunt Vera and Uncle Raymond took us in after Mama and Daddy were killed, but they did it out of obligation, and they never let either of us forget it. They treated Mick, Tim, and Jill as though they were royalty and us as though we were the bastard stepchildren.” Brighton gasped softly. “Don’t sound so surprised. I know you took the worst of their anger and resentment to try to shield me from it. But I have eyes, and I’m not dumb.” She slowed and made the last turn. “You’re an amazing big brother, and I want you to do what will make you happy.”

“Thanks.” Brighton didn’t know what else to say. “I think I’m a little overwhelmed.”

Brianne slowed the car at the farm and turned into the familiar drive, then pulled up to the house. “What’s going on?”

Aunt Vera’s car was parked beside the house. “Pull right up behind them,” Brighton said.

Brianne turned to him with one of her evil grins. She did as he asked, stopping within an inch of their bumper. Aunt Vera and Uncle Raymond weren’t going anywhere unless they tried to drive over them or went right through the garage. Brighton got out, and Brianne did the same. They looked up as Aunt Vera and Uncle Raymond came around the corner, each carrying a box.

“I suggest you turn around and put that back,” Brianne snapped.

“But these are things Daddy wanted me to have,” Aunt Vera began.

“If he did, they would have been in the will. The farm and all the contents were left to Brighton.” She stormed up to them already under a full head of steam. “That’s all Brighton’s, and I know my brother—if you had asked, he would have thought about it and probably given you what you wanted, but as it is I think you’ve blown that chance.”

Aunt Vera lifted the box, and Brighton could see she was getting ready to drop it. “We’ll see about that,” she said.

“Don’t you dare,” Brianne threatened and stepped forward. She snatched the box, turned around, and shoved it at Brighton. He dropped his cane and managed to stay on his feet as he took it.

“After all we did for you!” Uncle Raymond sputtered. There were many times when Brighton wondered if he could speak at all. It turned out he just rarely got a word in edgewise.

“Like what?” Brianne said. “We were kids who had lost our parents, and you treated us as an obligation. We needed support, understanding, and care, but what we got was demands and sarcasm. Or else you ignored us. You made us feel unwelcome the entire time we lived with you, and during that time what there was of our parents’ estate—”

“We used that to benefit you,” Aunt Vera said.

“No, you used it to take trips to Disney World and deigned to take the two of us along. I know what you did and how you made us feel, but all that&rs