Thursday, June 11, 2015

Chapter Four Montoya Olive Oil

UPDATE: Unlikely Merger is NOW available! We will offer
the book FREE on Kindle July 1-July 5, 2015!

How are you liking the story so far? Found any heroes worthy of your vote? Here are links to the previous chapters, in case you're joining us for the first time.

Unlikely Merger: Chapter One
Unlikely Merger: Chapter Two
Unlikely Merger: Chapter Three

Chapter Four
Montoya Olive Oil, San Diego, CA

“This trip could not come at a better time. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m done with snow.” Mercy let the drapes fall closed on her office window.
“Our ski bunny? Tired of snow?” Madeline’s silvery bob bounced as she laughed.
“It’s March. I’m ready for spring. Seventy-two degrees and sunny sounds heavenly right now.” She plopped into her chair. “What’s the company again?”
Madeline flipped through the folder. “Montoya Olive Oil. Been in business since ... 1990. Looking for an investment. Owner E. M. Montoya, family owned and operated. Profits have steadily increased since 1993.”
“Sounds straightforward enough.”
“Plenty of beaches out there. Maybe you should take your swimsuit.”
Mercy groaned. “Stop.”
“What? I’m just saying if it’s so ‘straightforward,’ you should have time to check out the beach.”
Yeah, sure, that’s all she was saying.
“Course, you’ll need someone to show you the best places to swim or surf or whatever it is they do on the beach.”
There it was. She chuckled. “Leave me alone, Madeline.”


Mercy retrieved her luggage from the carousel. Now, where was the driver she’d been told would be waiting for her?
A deeply tanned man with thick, dark hair touching the collar of his polo stood near the exit doors. He held an iPad with her name in thick lettering.
This part never got any easier. She stuck out her hand. “I’m Mercy.”
He grasped her palm and smiled. “Hello. I’m Ric.” Folding the cover over his tablet, he tucked it under his arm and took her bag. “Have you been to San Diego before?”
“I’ve never traveled this far west.” Outside, the afternoon sun’s warmth—so welcome after Denver’s cold—energized her. She shed her bulky coat.
They reached his car and he stowed her bag in the trunk, and then opened the passenger door for her. Odd for a driver. Still, she slipped into the seat, and he slid behind the wheel and started the engine.
“So do you work for the Montoyas? Or are you a full-time driver?”
After a momentary frown, a slight smile pulled up one side of his mouth. “I work there. Is there something you’d like to know before we arrive?”
“I’m not spying on them or anything. I’ve got plenty of information on the company. But tell me, do you like working there? Do the owners treat you—everyone—well?”
He grinned. “I think so. But maybe you should ask some of the others.”
Ten minutes later, Ric pulled into a parking lot fronting a busy, touristy village with Spanish-style stores and abundant palm trees. “This is Old Town, home to our most profitable store.” They left the lot and then strolled down the road past shops selling everything from trinkets to expensive jewelry. The spicy aroma of Mexican food filled the air.
“How long have you been with the Montoyas?”
White teeth against his caramel skin brightened his smile. “A long time. Since before I started working.”
Before? What did that mean?
He pulled open a glass door. “Here we are.”
She gasped as she stepped onto the stone-tiled floor of an old-world Spanish villa. “This is exquisite.” Wooden shelves showed off green bottles, jars wrapped with twine, and artfully arranged gift boxes. Hand-painted olive trees decorated plaster walls.
A young woman with her hair in a ponytail, three earrings in each ear, and toting a clipboard in her hand approached. “Señor Montoya?” She held out a pen.
Ric turned. “Yes?”
Wait … Mercy fished the folder from her tote. The paperwork said the owner was an E. M. Montoya …
The girl scampered away, and he faced Mercy again.
“Mr. Montoya? You said your name is Ric. So who is E. M.?”
“I am. My name is Enrique Miguel. ‘Ric’ is short for Enrique.”
You’re the owner?” Her voice sounded breathless to her own ears.
He nodded, dark eyes twinkling.
Her cheeks heated. She’d checked the website before she came, but there were no pictures. Still, she should have known this before she arrived. Somehow. “And I thought ... Oh, I’m so embarrassed.”
A dimple appeared as his smile widened. “Don’t be. We told you we’d send a driver, but he called in sick.”
He knew. And he’d let her humiliate herself. “You could have told me.”
“I know but it was so amusing watching you ask me about … me.”
She narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms.
He winced and raised his hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
Let him squirm a minute.
He stepped back.
She grinned. “All right. I forgive you.”
After letting out a breath he laughed softly, a delightful sound she could stand to hear more. He gestured toward the back of the shop. “Come on. I’ll show you the rest of the store. Then I’ll get you settled in your hotel. We can discuss my plans and the finances over dinner, and tomorrow I’ll take you to the ranch if that’s all right with you.”
She’d have to remind herself to concentrate on the numbers with those broad shoulders, chocolate eyes and that gorgeous dimpled smile sitting across from her. But Daddy sent her out here for facts, not romance, despite Madeline’s hopes. And Mercy wouldn’t let him down.


In the middle of the Montoya grove, rows of twisting trunks seemed to extend forever. Limbs, bursting with silvery leaves, reached for the sky. She lifted her hands and turned her face upward like an eight-year-old girl in a meadow.
She must look like an idiot. Maybe her cheeks weren’t as red as they felt.
Either Ric hadn’t noticed, or he was too much of a gentleman to comment. “These are our California Mission Olive trees. We have several varieties, but these are the ones we are the most proud of and thankful for.”
“Why is that?” She fingered a leaf.
“Olives were brought to San Diego by the Spanish missionaries in 1769, and they’ve been grown in California ever since. They’re the only variety unique to the United States, and they can be harvested much later than other varieties.”
“These are your employees?” She pointed to the men and women on ladders and under the trees.
“Yes. They’re all legal, in case you’re wondering.”
“I wasn’t.”
“They’re full-time and have full benefits. I pay them very well, but most of them send the majority of their pay back home to their families in Mexico or South America, so they still live on a pittance.”
Her heart ached. “What will they do after the harvest is over?”
“After the pressing, blending and bottling, there will be pruning and irrigation. Then we make soaps, lotions and scrubs from what is left. Nothing is wasted.” He scanned the grove of workers. “There’s always more to be done. And if there isn’t, I’ll find something. They’ll be taken care of. Did not Jesus command us to be generous, ready to share with those in need?”
Nothing more attractive than a man who knew—and practiced—God’s Word. “Yes, He did. ‘As you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.’”
His dark eyes sparkled. “Exactly.” He approached a nearby tree and selected a few olives. Palm flat, he held his hand out to her.
Picking a round, glossy one, she rolled it between her thumb and forefinger, studying it. “Where’s the red stuff?”
He blinked. “Umm ... well ...”
“I’m kidding.”
He exhaled, obviously relieved she wasn’t that naïve.
She brought the fruit to her lips.
Ric’s eyes grew as wide as the fruit in her hands. “No!” He reached for it but he was too late. He pulled his hand back into a fist, held near his chin.
Rude. “What was that for?” A nice crunch morphed into the most horrible bitterness. Hand at her throat, she choked. She spit the fruit out, gagging. He must think her awful, but the taste ... even when the olive was gone her tongue was coated with it.
Ric rested his hand on her back, the other lightly grasping her arm as she doubled over. “Are you all right?”
She straightened, eyes watering.
Twin creases appeared between his brows. “You can’t eat olives straight from the tree.”
“Y-You can’t? But they look just like the ones in the jars.”
He shook his head. “They have to be cured first.”
Wonderful. She’d plastered wet, black blobs all over his shirt. Could she feel any stupider? “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to spit all over you.”
“It’s all right. How would you know?” He wiped a tear from her cheek with his thumb. Then he quickly let go and stepped back, swiping at his shirt. “You’re not the first.”
Really? Her shoulders relaxed.
“Of course, the others were children ...” He grinned and winked.
She rolled her eyes. “You had to ruin it, didn’t you?”
Chuckling, he nodded toward his car. “I have some water if you want.”
The disgusting taste persisted. “That would be great.”
They wandered through the rows, a pungent, fruity scent wafting on a gentle breeze. He retrieved a bottle from the back seat for her.
After a long drink, she turned to him. “So tell me more about the ranch.”
“My family has lived near here for many generations. The first Montoyas came from Mexico with the missionaries. We’ve always had some sort of ranch or farm. But water is a serious issue here in Southern California. You know the 70’s song, ‘It Never Rains in California’?”
“I’ve heard it.”
“It rains, but rarely. Good for tourists, bad for farmers. But olives need very little water, so we planted young trees in 1990.”
She loved hearing him talk. Loved the way he said his name, with a long O, instead of like Monica. Loved his passion for his ranch, and the people on it. In a world full of businesses out to make as much money as quickly as possible, his tender heart was refreshing.
Too bad he lived so far away.


“Dear God, help me.” Mercy breathed a prayer as they stood before the door of the Montoyas’s sprawling two-story adobe home.
“Don’t worry. He will.” Her heart warmed at Ric’s smile—and his faith. Faith she could use right now.
Why had she agreed to this insanity? She was not ready for this.
“I’ll introduce you to everyone, but don’t feel like you have to remember all their names. It’s not everyone. Just lunch with the family. All right?” Ric opened the door. There were at least a dozen people inside.
This was a small gathering?
“Mercy, this is my mother, Isabél, and my father, Rodrigo.” 
Mercy extended her hand, but Isabél pulled her into a warm, rose-scented embrace and kissed her cheek. Rodrigo followed suit.
“This is my abuela, my grandmother.” He led her to an easy chair, where he bent to kiss the older woman. “Buenas noches, Abuelita.” 
She grasped Mercy’s hand in both of hers and smiled broadly. “Welcome.”
“This is Roberto.We call him Beto.” A shorter, slighter version of Ric nodded. “His wife Alicia with Teodoro.”
“Hello.” Mercy offered a smile.
Beto flashed a quick and insincere smile in return, and left the room. Had she somehow offended him?
Ric continued with two more sisters and their families, all the adults enthusiastically greeting her.
What was with all the kissing?
“Tío! Tío!” A little girl with a mop of dark curls cascading down her back ran into the room and straight for Ric.
He scooped her up and clutched her to his chest. “Angelina! Preciosa! Did you miss me?”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed. “Of course. You’re my favorite uncle.”
Isabél clapped her hands. “All right, the food is getting cold.” She herded everyone to the dining room and a table that easily seated twenty. Pictures of family covered the walls. A huge kitchen connected via an arched doorway.
Ric pulled out a chair for Mercy and then sat beside her.
Rodrigo blessed the meal. Several heaping platters already waited, and Isabél brought out more as they were passed around.  
The colors, aromas, and constant chatter of a dozen conversations at once were almost disorienting. This was nothing like the quiet dinners each night with just Dad. And yet the love and connection among the family was palpable. To be part of something like that ...
“You have not tried my enchiladas.” Isabél passed her yet another steaming, cheese-covered platter.
Marcy held it, trying to figure out how she could stuff another bite into her already full stomach.
Ric took the dish and set it down. He leaned closer, his breath warm on her cheek. “Don’t worry. You don’t actually have to try everything, no matter what she says.”
With the food disappearing, Beto placed his arms on the table across from her. “So, Mercy, who will you bring in to run our company after you fire us all?” 
His words slammed into her like a punch in the gut.
“Beto!” Rodrigo glared.
No one had warned her that anyone was against Lacewell’s involvement. Guarding her features, she reminded herself not to take this personally. Which was hard, seeing as how she was the only representative of LL here at the moment.
With measured movements, she set down her fork and folded her hands in her lap. She caught Beto’s gaze. “Lacewell Limited buys or invests in companies that are successful. Ninety-nine percent of the time they are profitable precisely because of the people there.”
Ric slipped his arm across the back of her chair. Though he didn’t touch her, she drew strength from what felt like a protective gesture. 
“Until a few hours ago, I thought you could pick an olive from a tree and eat it.” She waited until the laughter died down. “Now, why would I bring in people like me, who know nothing about raising olives, especially your Mission Olives, when you’ve done such a spectacular job?” 
She glanced at Isabél and Rodrigo before turning to Beto again. “I don’t have the final say, but my father sent me here because he trusts my judgment. I think an investment by Lacewell could give Montoya Olive Oil the boost it needs to grow into the vision Ric has for it. But if we’re not wanted ...”
Rodrigo cleared his throat. “Montoya Oil is owned by all of us. But as the oldest, Ric is president. He makes the decisions. And he has our unqualified support.”
Beto looked to Ric and back to her.
Mercy held her breath as he pushed his chair back and slowly stood. He extended his hand. “I apologize. We’d be honored to have you at Montoya Olive Oil.”
Breathing a sigh of relief, she took his hand and smiled. “Thank you.”
“All right, time for flan.” Isabél stood to cheers from the children. Grabbing handfuls of platters, she headed for the kitchen. 
One of Ric’s sisters stepped between him and Mercy and placed an infant in his arms. “Ric, would you hold him so I can help Mamá?”
Mercy touched the babe’s cheek. “He’s adorable. What’s his name again?”
“Aurelio.” The infant squirmed, and Ric held him closer. The baby instantly calmed. 
“You’re very good at that.” 
“I have lots of nieces and nephews, as you can see.”
She watched the children running through the dining room and around the table. “I don’t have any. I’m an only child.”
His mouth dropped open. He looked at her like she’d just admitted she was an alien from Jupiter.
Plates of flan arrived, sparing her the necessity of coming up with further comment she didn’t have. Slices of the custardy dessert, covered with a caramel sauce, were distributed and devoured.
Mercy swallowed the last of her flan and then sat back. “Oh, I think I just gained ten pounds.”
Ric smiled and tilted his head. “Do you want to get out of here? You look a little shell-shocked.”
He could see that? “We won’t offend anyone?”
“I’ll tell them we have business to discuss.” His gaze held hers.
Right now she’d go anywhere with him.


Mercy kicked off her shoes and tossed them on the car floor. The beach spread out before them like a shimmering blanket, reflecting the last of the sun’s rays as it made its way home for the night.
“It’s too cold to swim this time of year, but we can walk on the sand.” Ric pointed west. “The sun should be setting in about an hour, and the sunsets are more beautiful here than anywhere else on earth.”
“And have you been everywhere else on earth?”
He chuckled. “No.”
She grinned. “The sunsets in the Caribbean were pretty spectacular.”
“I would put my sunsets up against any in the Caribbean.”
“We’ll see.”
They walked along the beach for half an hour, talking more about their businesses, their travels and their faith. The warm sand squished between her toes, and an occasional salty wave sprinkled her skin.
“We should turn back before it gets too late,” Ric said.
She cast him a sideways glance. She was leaving tomorrow morning. This was her last chance. “Can I ask you something?”
“About me or the company?”
“How about one of each?” One she needed to know; the other she wanted to know.
He shrugged. “All right.”
“What is most important to you about Montoya Olives?”
“Taking care of my people. My family and my employees.”
The perfect answer.
“And your question about me?”
“Well, you’re about the same age as I am, and I’m asked this a lot. Why aren’t you married? You’re handsome, successful, a really nice guy ...”
He laughed.
“I’m sorry ... that came out wrong.” Could she just sink into the sand now?
He grinned at her. “Sounded good to me. Anyway, the practical answer is I’ve been concentrating on the business. Now I have a great company to leave all my nieces and nephews, but I’m alone.”
He walked silently a few moments. “But I guess the bigger answer is that God has not shown me yet the person I should spend my life with.”
She knew the feeling.
When the sun began its final descent, Ric pointed to a green bench on the boardwalk. “Let’s sit so we can judge the sunset.”
She settled on the bench, making sure nothing blocked her view. Ric sat next to her. It was funny how comfortable she felt with him after only a day and a half—in some ways. In others, he kept her decidedly off balance.
He shifted to face her, leaning against the seatback. “You seemed a little out of place back at my house. That was a lot of people for you, wasn’t it?”
She jabbed her finger in his chest. “You said that was a small gathering!”
He raised his hands in surrender. “It was! We didn’t have the cousins, aunts, and uncles. There’s usually twice or three times that many.”
The thought made her almost dizzy. “And what was all the kissing? They don’t even know me.”
“Mexican custom. That’s just how we greet everyone.” His eyes softened. “What was it like growing up as an only child? With just your dad, mom, and you?”
Pain pricked her heart, even after all these years. “My mom passed away when I was seven.”
“I’m sorry. That must have been terribly difficult, losing your mom so young.”
“Yes, but Daddy ... Daddy helped me learn to trust God, even then. There was still a hole, but my aunt and uncle were there, too, and Madeline. She’s like another aunt.”
He smiled, a tender smile she hadn’t seen before. “Well, they did an excellent job of raising you to be a godly, beautiful woman.”
“Thanks. I enjoyed your family. It was a tad overwhelming, but it was nice feeling like part of a big family for a few hours. Thanks for sharing that with me.”
“My pleasure, trust me.” Something flashed across his face, she wasn’t sure what, and he pulled his gaze away. He settled against the bench, his elbows along the back. “Ahh, the sun is setting. Now, watch the colors. You’ll see that I’m right.”
The nerve endings in her core exploded. Whether because of the man beside her or the beauty in front of her, she didn’t know. But she’d better regain control of her emotions.


In Mercy’s hotel lobby, Ric handed her a bottle of olive oil. Montoya Spring Harvest Mission Olive Oil.
“Our best. Pressed last week.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Tomorrow I have a meeting downtown. So, unfortunately for me, our driver will take you to the airport.”
Too bad.
Leaning near, he pressed a soft kiss to her cheek. He whispered, “Mexican custom” before he pulled back. He walked backward a couple steps and raised a hand. “Adios.”
Did the custom include a kiss when you parted ways? No one else had done that. She smiled, running her fingers over the Montoya label, and waited until his broad-shouldered form disappeared into the San Diego night.

A Dozen ApologiesAvailable on Kindle

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