K. Ford Adams ran his fingers along the edge of the massive wooden desk. Generations of Adamses had run an empire from this very spot, and now it was his turn—whether he wanted it or not. And, he definitely did not want.
His father was gone. Kenneth Adams had appeared in good health up until a few days ago when a heart attack had taken him from his family, his business, and his town, at the young age of fifty-eight.
Butte Plains, Texas, would miss the elder Adams. The third generation born and raised in the small town, Ken Adams had been loved and respected by everyone.
As the single-largest employer in Butte Plains, the town had been built around his family’s factory generations ago, so naturally, the employees would be curious about the person taking the helm. At least that’s what he told himself as he looked around at more than a century of memories cluttering the office. Nothing much had changed over the years. Each Adams to sit at the desk added their own achievements to the collection, but none had ever removed anything. Everything from a yellowed photograph of his great-grandfather breaking ground on the original building, to a plaque declaring his father as Employer of the Year in Butte Plains, an honor bestowed only one month ago, lined the walls. What would become of it all once he sold the business? All the memories would need to be packed away and, most likely, stored in the attic of the family mansion along with all the other junk collecting dust there.
He didn’t want to think about what would happen to the stuff once his mother passed. Three years her husband’s junior, Helen Ford Adams, hopefully, had many more years on earth. He’d leave worries of what to do with the house and its furnishings for later. He had enough things on his plate—like figuring the company’s value and finding a buyer. The sooner he converted the assets into cash to provide for his mother’s remaining years, the sooner he could return to his own life—and get the fuck out of Butte Plains. Again.
Nothing remained for him here. Never had been.
An image popped into his head—a woman dressed in a trim black suit, a smart hat complete with some sort of net veil shielding the left side of her tear-ravaged face as she listened to the preacher’s softly-spoken graveside prayer for Kenneth Adams’s eternal peace. She’d looked familiar, but then again, he’d once known everyone in this town. It could have been anyone from his past, though he couldn’t think of a single female with as much beauty and grace as the mystery woman possessed.
It didn’t matter if he knew her or not, her tears had been genuine, marking her as someone special in his book. Ford didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he had loved and respected the man. Ken Adams had been an excellent father, instilling values, passing on wisdom, and encouraging his son to follow his dreams, even if they took him away from Texas and the family business.
Ruthlessly shutting down thoughts of the mystery woman and how she knew his father, he turned his attention to the one modern thing in the office—a state-of-the-art computer. He remembered the day, a few years ago, when his father mentioned the new office manager had insisted he learn to work the computer system. The year before, all the company’s records had been converted to digital files, and this new employee had been determined to drag Ken into the present century. The man had gone along reluctantly, but, from later accounts, he’d taken to the new technology with an ease that spoke of his intelligence.
Since the desk dated back to a century before computers, Ford put the keyboard in his lap, and pushed the Enter key. A password prompt appeared on the flat-screen monitor. Ken Adams’s greatest weakness, if he had one, was his love for his wife and son. Every pass code, from the factory’s alarm system to the keypad for his home garage-door opener was one of two words. Ford smirked as he typed his mother’s name in the blank box.
“So much for security,” he mumbled as the blank screen gave way to a program his father had left open. Chuckling to himself, he swiped at tears blurring his vision. When his sight cleared, he leaned back in the chair and moved the next card on the deck to its appropriate place on the Solitaire board. He couldn’t stay in Butte Plains and run his father’s company, but he could finish this last game for the man who had taught him to balance work and play.
Following the touching graveside service for her boss, Becky Parker couldn’t bring herself to drive up to the family’s mansion for the traditional wake. She’d had about all the heartbreak she could stand for one day, and confronting K. Ford Adams today wouldn’t do anyone any good. Everyone she talked to seemed confident the heir would embrace the family mantle and come home to steer the helm of Adams Manufacturing. She knew he would not.
Ken Adams had spoken of Ford often, and with great affection, but he’d also known his son had no interest in the family business. Ford was an only child, so, following family tradition of passing down from father to son, the place had become his—whether he wanted it or not. Which meant the company would go on the auction block. Or worse—Ford could flat-out close the plant. Butte Plains was struggling enough. Closing the factory would be the last nail in the coffin lid for the small west Texas town she loved so much.
Out of respect for the other workers’ grief over losing a beloved friend and employer, Becky had thus far kept her Negative Nellie thoughts to herself. But if she came face-to-face with Ford in the mood she was in, she didn’t think she’d be capable of keeping her mouth shut. She’d been brought up better than to cause a scene at a wake, so she’d wait until she had Ford alone before she told him what she thought of a man who would turn his back on his neighbors.
Steering her car in the opposite direction of the Adams’s home, she headed toward the one place she knew she’d be alone today—her office. The plant had been shut down so all the employees could attend the services, but she still had work to do. Payday was coming up, and she needed to figure out how to go about transferring funds into the payroll account. There would be legal wrangling to get it done since Ken had always handled money transfers himself. Ford could probably do it, but she didn’t want to bother him yet. It might be days—weeks—before he decided to see about disposing of his responsibility, and the factory workers couldn’t wait until he got his shit together to be paid.
She absolutely refused to believe this paycheck might be the last any of them would receive from Adams Manufacturing.
Pulling into the vacant parking lot, she eyed the barren planter boxes dividing the rows. The daffodils would be poking their heads up soon, followed closely by the tulips and those other flowers she could never remember the name of. She made a mental note to contact the landscaper and see about having fresh mulch put down before the weeds got out of hand. She parked in her usual spot, extricated her purse from beneath the hat she’d worn to the funeral then exited the car. Approaching the front door, she froze. The seam between the double-glass doors sat off-kilter. Certain she’d secured it the night before, she glanced over her shoulder. Someone had unlocked the door, but her car was the only vehicle in the lot.
Had one of the other workers come by and forgotten to lock up when they left? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time the building had been left open. Everyone in town knew there wasn’t anything worth stealing in the place, no money, and very little with any resale value—so not worth the trouble if a person meant to make an easy buck. The real, but very small, threat was vandalism. The machinery inside had all been custom built to do what it needed to do. Replacing any part would take time and money. Wholesale destruction would put them out of business. Becky made a mental note to remind everyone with a key to make sure they locked up next time then reached for the door handle. No need courting disaster, especially since disaster already loomed over their heads in the form of one K. Ford Adams.
After locking the door behind her, she made her way through the silent lobby to the hallway leading to the executive offices. She turned the corner, stopping cold at the sight of light shining from the open doorway at the end of the hallway. From Ken Adams’s office. Only one person—besides her—had the right to be in the boss’s office, and he was receiving mourners at his mother’s home across town.
Who the hell would invade a man’s office on the day of his funeral? Remembering the empty parking lot, she sighed. Whoever it is, they’re gone. Might as well see what damage they’ve done.
Stopping in her office next to Mr. Adams’s, Becky noted nothing out of place. Her computer sat in its usual place. If they’d burgled, they’d done a piss-poor job of it. Leaving her purse, she rounded the corner into the adjacent office and came to an abrupt halt.
“Holy crap!” Her hand flew to her chest to calm her runaway heart.
The last person she’d expected to see sat behind the ancient desk. At her exclamation, he glanced her way then tossed the keyboard on the blotter and leaned back in Mr. Adams’s chair. Other than catching a glimpse of him at the funeral, she hadn’t seen the younger Adams in over a decade, but she’d recognize him anywhere. Ford was the spitting image of his father, and—holy cow—sexy as hell. Her image of him as Ebenezer Scrooge faded fast. “Ford,” she gasped. “I mean, Mr. Adams. What are you doing here?”
He scrubbed at his face with both hands in a gesture that spoke to the strain he must be under. Dropping his hands to the desktop, he glanced around the room. No matter what he decided to do with the company, the man had just lost his father and it showed in the lines bracketing his eyes and mouth. Her heart softened toward him. “In case you haven’t heard, I’m the new owner.”
“Yes. Of course.” She willed her breathing to even out. “I meant…. I assumed you’d be at the house.”
“I could only take about five minutes, then I had to get away.” He gestured absently. “Figured no one else would be here.”
Becky nodded. She could relate. When her father passed, she’d hated every minute of the wake. If she’d been able to find a way to escape, she would have. She gave Ford props for doing what he needed rather than bowing to antiquated traditions.
She tossed aside her plan to get a head start on the payroll situation. She’d leave him to deal with his grief. “Oh. Well. I’ll go, then. Didn’t mean to interrupt.” She took a step backward. “Becky Jean?” He unfolded from the chair.
She didn’t remember him being so tall—over six feet, she guessed. He’d shed his black suit coat and rolled up the sleeves of his white dress shirt. A black-and-silver striped tie hung loose, drawing her attention to the triangle of golden skin his open collar exposed. Her mouth watered. An image flashed in her brain of her slowly licking him there.
Becky licked her lips instead then bit her lower lip, just to be on the safe side. If she remembered right, Ford had been sort of nerdy in high school. There’s nothing nerdy about him now. Not. One. Damn. Thing. God, what is wrong with me? She hadn’t had much experience with instant lust, but she knew it when she felt it. And boy, did she feel it from the roots of her hair to the tips of her toes—and in every erogenous zone in between. Even if the man hadn’t been her new boss, he’d still just lost his father—a man he loved. She couldn’t think of a single thing more inappropriate than lusting after Ford. Drawing a mental line, she shoved her wayward thoughts behind it.
“Don’t go.” Her body responded to the baritone command, freezing in place, melting at the core. “It is Becky Jean, isn’t it?”
“Um… it’s just Becky now.”
Though his eyes still looked sad, his smile appeared genuine. “I knew I recognized you! Saw you at the service.” His smile dimmed. “Thanks for coming, by the way.”
“It was the least I could do.” She meant the comment with every fiber of her being. She’d started with the company in high school, working afternoons and weekends boxing products for shipment in order to save for college. As an undergrad, she’d spent her summers on the assembly line, a jump in pay she needed to continue funding her degree. A week after her college graduation, her father had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Her family needed her. And with her brother, Colin, a sophomore in high school, she’d had no choice but to put off looking for a job in marketing in a big city. She’d returned home, and to the assembly line to help pay her father’s staggering medical bills. Soon after, Ken Adams learned about her situation and offered her the job of office manager. The pay hadn’t been enough, but it went a long way to easing her family’s burden. In her eyes, Ken Adams had been a saint, and she would not let her attraction to his son get in the way of doing what she could to keep his factory open.
“Hey. What are you doing here anyway?” he asked.
God, even the way his eyebrows knit together was sexy. Snap out of it, Beck. Now. “I… uh…. Payroll has to go out this week. I thought I’d… you know, get the ball rolling.”
“You work here.”
“I manage the office.”
He turned his gaze to the desktop. He flicked the keyboard keys with his index finger. “You’re the one who got Dad on the computer.”
She counted bringing the elder Adams into the twenty-first century as one of her major accomplishments. Remembering the struggle, she smiled. “Guilty as charged.”
When Ford returned his gaze to her, pain clouded his eyes, but a tiny smile lifted one side of his mouth. “I tried for years to get him online. I’m grateful you managed to convince him. We kept in touch via Skype and email.”
“I didn’t know about the Skype.”
Ford shrugged and went back to flicking the keys. “Doesn’t matter.”
But it clearly did. He sat, turning his attention to the computer monitor. He seemed to shrink right before her eyes. “I’ll look into the account situation at the bank. I’m guessing money needs to be transferred into the payroll account?”
“Yes. By day after tomorrow.”
“I’ll take care of it.” His voice rumbled with conviction and dismissal.
“Thanks.” She backed out of the doorway. He looked as if the world rested on his shoulders. “It can wait until tomorrow.”
“I’m sure it can, but I need something to do.”
“Okay. Well.” She bit her lip again. “I’ll be in my office. If you need anything.”
He glanced at her, appreciation shining past the pain. “Thanks, Becky Jean.”
He’d come here to escape the sympathy of others, but she got the oddest impression he still needed to hear it. “He was a good man. Lots of people are going to miss him.” His Adam’s apple bobbed. He dipped his chin, acknowledging her comment then turned his focus to the computer screen. Becky slipped into her office, leaving him to deal with his grief in his own way.
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