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For Lila, Forever
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The words “For Lila, forever” adorned the front of the envelope in blue ink, the handwriting all too familiar. But it didn’t matter what it said. I didn’t have the heart to open it.
We couldn’t be together.
Not after everything …
Leaving Rose Crossing, Maine was one of the most painful moments of my life—or at least it was until the day I came face-to-face with Thayer Ainsworth again.
After a decade of searching, he’s found me, and he wants to know why I quit my housemaid job and left his family’s island estate without so much as a goodbye. But I’m bound by a devastating secret much bigger than the two of us, and telling him the truth has consequences.
Looking into the eyes of the only man I’ve ever loved, I tell him the only thing I’m allowed to: never contact me again. And when he’s gone, I sit down and finally open his letter.
Only it isn’t a letter at all.
And it changes everything.
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“Where … are … they?” My lungs burn after sprinting from The Lila Cottage to my grandfather’s house where I stormed into his study, a man on a mission.
“Thayer.” He rises from his leather chair, a cordial smile on his face as he dog-ears his Architectural Digest magazine and rests it on a coffee table. “What a pleasant surprise. Wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow. Come on in. Have a seat.”
He waves me over, but I remain planted. I won’t rest, I won’t make myself at home until I know why the Hilliards are nowhere to be found.
The boat dropped me off at the dock a half hour ago, and as I made my way to the main house, I couldn’t help but notice from a distance that The Hilliard Cottage looked … off. And then I realized there were no flowers. Junie always plants flowers at the end of April, and it’s the middle of May. Also there were weeds growing out of the old flower beds. Ed never would’ve allowed that to happen. Curious—and concerned—I made my way to their cottage, only to find the front door unlocked and the place looking different from the last time I was there.
I made my way from room to room, and it only took me a minute to realize all the family photos that Ed and Junie had were gone. In their place were the faces of smiling and posing strangers. I went to the main bedroom next, only to find the closet half-filled with women’s clothes, not so much as a hint of anything a man would wear. When I went to Lila’s old room next, I found it stripped to the bones. Not a picture. Not a book. Not a single article of clothing on the dresser.
The Hilliards were gone.
I left their cottage and sprinted to the abandoned cottage. I know Lila—she wouldn’t have left without an explanation. I was positive I’d find a note somewhere in the house, and I tore the place up looking for it only to come up empty handed—except for the notes I’d written and hidden for her before I left.
She didn’t find a single one, never had a chance to read them.
Granddad rises from his chair, the corners of his lips turning down. “I’m not sure why that’s any of your business.” And then he chuckles. “Or why you’re so visibly upset.” Walking toward me, he places a hand on my shoulder. “Let’s head to the kitchen. I’ll have Bernice prepare a snack for you. I’m sure you’re hungry after your travels.”
He ushers me out of his study. “The new help.”
“Where are the Hilliards?” I ask as we walk.
He chuffs through his nose, taking his time answering. “They retired, Thayer. That’s what people do when they reach a certain age.”
I exhale, the tension in my shoulders dissipating in small increments. Retirement makes sense. They were in their early sixties last I knew, and they’d been caring for the family’s island off the coast of Maine since before I was born. Junie did the cooking and the cleaning and Ed tended the garden, maintained the landscaping, combed the private beaches, and kept up the boats and three main houses all twelve months of the year.
“They moved to the mainland then?” I ask.
“I haven’t the slightest. I sent them on their way last fall and haven’t heard from them since. For all I know they’re living their golden years in sunny Florida, or perhaps they made their way to Arizona. I believe Junie has a sister there. Either way, they’re having themselves a time, I’m sure of it.”
His nonchalance is nothing short of concerning.
Ed and Junie were like family. They’d been around for decades. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t stay in touch—or that my know-it-all grandfather wouldn’t have so much as a clue as to where they went. That coupled with the fact that Lila didn’t so much as leave a goodbye letter tells me that he’s not giving me all the facts.
I follow him to the kitchen where a middle-aged woman with gray-brown hair stands at the sink, washing dishes by hand. She’s shorter and thinner than Junie, her hair straight and cut blunt at her shoulders. There’s a permanent scowl etched on her face. She doesn’t light the room like Junie did.
“Bernice, this is my eldest grandson, Thayer,” Grandfather says.
The woman glances over her shoulder, offering a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it half-smile and a nod, her yellow-gloved hands still deep in the dirty dishwater.
“Very nice to meet you,” she says, her back toward us. “I’ve heard so much about you. Your grandfather tells me you’re pre-law at Yale?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say.
“Just finished his second year.” Grandfather beams from ear to ear. It thrills him to no end that I’ve chosen to follow in his collegiate footsteps. “Anyway, he’s made quite the jaunt today and my boy is starving. Would you mind preparing him a sandwich?”