The crusty old man was going to cause an uproar, and he was only sorry he wouldn’t be around to watch it.
He was about to pull the rug out from under his useless relatives, and oh, were they going to take a tumble. But it was high time someone in this miserable family righted a terrible wrong, high time indeed.
While he waited for the equipment to be set up, he cleared the clutter from his desk. His gnarled fingers stroked the smooth wood with as much tenderness and care as he had once given his mistresses when he touched them. The desk was old and scarred and as worn out as he was. He had made his fortune in this very room. With his phone glued to his ear, he had worked one lucrative deal after another. How many companies had he purchased in the past thirty years? How many more had he destroyed?
He stopped himself from daydreaming about his many victories. Now wasn’t the time. He crossed the room to the bar and poured himself a glass of water from the crystal decanter one of his business associates had given him years ago. After he took a sip, he carried the glass to the desk and placed it on a coaster near the corner. He looked around the paneled library and decided it was too dark for the cameras, so he rushed to turn on all the table lights.
“Are you ready?” he asked, impatience brimming in his tone. Pulling the chair out, he sat down, smoothed his hair, and adjusted his suit jacket so the collar wouldn’t stand up. He tugged on his tie as if that would loosen the tightness in his throat. “I’m going to prepare my thoughts now,” he said, his voice raspy from years of barking orders and smoking his cherished Cuban cigars.
He wanted a cigar now. There weren’t any in the house, though. He’d given up the habit ten years ago, but every once in a while when he was nervous he would get a sudden longing for one.
At the moment he was not only nervous but also a little fearful, which was an odd, almost unfamiliar, feeling for him. He was desperate to do the right thing before he died, which would be soon now, very soon. He owed at least that much to the MacKenna name.
The old-fashioned video camera with a VHS tape was positioned on a tripod facing the old man. The digital camera was being held up directly behind the video camera, and the eye was also focused on him.
He looked beyond the cameras. “I know you think digital is enough, and you’re probably right, but I still like the old way with the videotape. I don’t trust those discs, and so the videotape will be my backup. You nod,” he instructed, “when everything’s turned on, and I’ll begin.”
He picked up his glass, took a drink, and put it down. The pills those aggravating doctors forced on him made his mouth dry.
A few seconds later, all was ready, and he began.
“My name is Compton Thomas MacKenna. This is not my last will and testament because I’ve already taken care of all that. I changed my will some time ago. The original is in my safe-deposit box; a copy is in my file at the law firm I have employed for the past twenty years, and there is also another copy, which I assure you will rear its ugly head if for any reason the original and the attorney’s copy are misplaced or destroyed.
“I didn’t tell any of you about the new will or about the changes I made because I didn’t want to spend my last months being harassed, but now that the doctors have assured me the end is approaching and there is nothing more they can do, I want . . . no, I need,” he corrected, “to explain why I have done what I’ve done . . . though I’m not sure any of you will understand or care.
“I’m going to start my explanation with a brief history of the MacKenna family. My parents were born, raised, and buried in the Highlands of Scotland. My father owned quite a bit of land . . . quite a bit,” he repeated. He paused to clear his throat and take another drink of water before continuing. “When he died, the land came to my older brother, Robert Duncan the second, and to me equally. Robert and I traveled to the United States to complete our education, and both of us decided to stay. Years later Robert sold me his share of the land. With his inheritance, that made him a very wealthy man, and it made me the sole heir to the property called Glen MacKenna.
“I never married. I had neither the time nor the inclination. Robert married a woman I didn’t approve of, but unlike my brother, I didn’t threaten or carry on because he chose someone I didn’t like. Her name was Caroline . . . a social climber. She obviously married Robert for his money. She certainly never loved him. She did do her duty though and gave him two sons, Robert Duncan the third and Conal Thomas.
“And now to the heart of this history lesson. When my nephew Conal chose to marry a woman without social standing, his father disowned him. Robert had chosen someone else—a woman from an influential family—and he was outraged that his wishes were being ignored. Conal’s wife, Leah, was no better than a street beggar, but Conal didn’t seem to care about the money he would lose.” He let out a huff of disgust and said, “All Robert had left was his firstborn, a real yes-man who did whatever he was told to do.
“Over the years I lost track of Conal,” he continued. “Too busy,” he added as an excuse. “All I knew was that he’d moved to Silver Springs just outside of Charleston. But then I got word that he’d been killed in a car accident. I knew my brother wouldn’t go to the funeral . . . but I went. Not so much from a sense of obligation, I admit. I guess I was curious to see how Conal made out. I didn’t tell Leah or anyone I was there. Kept my distance. The church was packed with mourners. I even went to the cemetery and saw Leah with her three little girls, the youngest no more than a baby.” He stopped as though envisioning the scene. Not wanting to betray any hint of emotion that might cross his faded eyes, he looked away from the camera for a second. He straightened in his chair and resumed. “I saw what I went there to see. The MacKenna line would continue through Conal’s children . . . though it was a pity there weren’t any boys.
“As for my brother’s other son . . . Robert the third . . . he indulged him . . . taught him to be useless. He didn’t allow him to have ambition, and in return my brother lived long enough to watch his firstborn drink himself into an early grave.
“The sin of excess has been passed down to the next generation. I have watched Robert’s grandsons squander their inheritance and, even worse, defile the MacKenna name. Bryce, the oldest, is following in his father’s footsteps. He married a good woman, Vanessa, but she couldn’t save him from his vices. Like his father, he’s a drunk. He has sold all of his stocks and cashed in his bonds and has gone through every dollar. He spent a good deal on alcohol and women, and only God knows what he did with the rest.
“And then there’s Roger. He’s been the most elusive— disappearing for weeks at a time—but it didn’t take my sources long to track him down and find out what he’s been up to. It appears Roger has turned to gambling for his amusement. According to the reports, last year alone he lost over four hundred thousand. Four hundred thousand.” The old man shook his head and continued as though the words left a foul taste. “What’s worse, he’s been dealing with mobsters like Johnny Jackman. Just having the MacKenna name associated with a thug like Jackman makes my stomach turn.
“Ewan, the youngest, can’t or won’t control his temper. If it were not for his high-priced and very clever attorneys, he would be in prison now. Two years ago he nearly beat a man to death.
“I am disgusted with all of them. They are useless men who have contributed nothing to this world.” The old man pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his brow.
“When those worthless doctors told me I would be here for only a few more months, I decided to take stock.” He turned and opened the side drawer and withdrew a thick black folder. He opened it in the center of the desk and stacked his hands on top of it. “I’ve had an investigator do some checking for me. I wanted to know how Conal’s children turned out. I must admit I had low expectations. I assumed, after Conal’s death, Leah and her girls would have been living hand to mouth. I also assumed none of them would have gone beyond high school . . . if that. I was wrong on both counts. There was enough of a settlement from the insurance company after Conal’s accident that Leah could stay in their house with the children. She took a secretarial position at a girls’ private school. The pay was meager—I don’t suppose Leah was capable of much more—but there was a trade-off. All three of her daughters attended the private lower school and upper school, their tuition waived.” He nodded approval and said, “Conal evidently had taught her the value of a proper education.”
He glanced over the report in the folder. “It seems that all three of them are hard workers. Not a slacker among them,” he added with emphasis. “The oldest, Kiera, received a full scholarship to a good university and graduated with honors. She received another scholarship to medical school and is doing exceptionally well. The middle girl, Kate, is the entrepreneur in the family. She, too, received a full scholarship to one of the finest universities in the east and also graduated with honors. She started a business while she was still in school, and today her company is growing and on its way to being very successful.” He looked back at the camera. “It appears she is most like me.”
“Isabel, the youngest, is certainly intelligent as well, but her true talent is her voice. I understand she is quite gifted.” He tapped the report with his index finger. “Isabel plans to study music and history at the university, and it is her desire to one day go to Scotland to meet her distant relatives.” He nodded. “This news pleases me considerably.
“And now to the changes in my will.” The corners of his mouth lifted slightly in an almost imperceptible, devious smile. It faded as he continued. “Bryce and Roger and Ewan will each receive one hundred thousand dollars in cash immediately. It is my hope that the money will be spent on rehabilitation, but I doubt that will happen. Vanessa will also receive one hundred thousand, and she will get this house. She deserves at least that much for having put up with Bryce these past years. She has brought respect to the MacKenna name through her work with charities and the art community, so I don’t see any sense in punishing her for her choice of husbands.
“Now to the other MacKennas. I’ve signed over all my treasury bonds to Kiera. The maturity dates are outlined in the will. Isabel, a history buff like me, will receive Glen MacKenna. There are stipulations that go along with it, of course, and she will be apprised of these in due time. This is all they are to receive from me, but I believe I have been more than generous.”
His breathing became labored and he stopped to take another drink of water, emptying the glass before he finished speaking.
“Finally, to the bulk of my estate, my assets calculated to be worth eighty million dollars. This is the accumulation of my life’s work and it will be passed on to my blood relations, but I’ll be damned if I’ll just hand it over to my depraved nephews, and so it will go to Kate MacKenna. She is the most driven of the whole lot and, like me, knows the value of money. If she chooses this legacy, it’s all hers.
“I trust that she will not squander it.”
Excerpted from Slow Burn by Julie Garwood. Copyright © 2005 by Julie Garwood. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.