I began touring the floral shops on Friday morning. I’d never been so nervous in my life. It was the first time I was on my own on one of Grandmother’s weekend tests. Only Porter was with me, but he was just driving. I had to go into the shops all by myself.
The owners all treated me with respect, but I knew it was only because I was a Lockhart, granddaughter of their boss, so it wasn’t like they could terrorize me, especially if they wanted to keep their jobs.
I introduced myself using a speech I’d practiced for hours. It sounded horribly rehearsed and trite, and I messed up by stuttering many times. The shop owners were patient with me, but I knew they were only putting up a front.
Inside, they were probably all disappointed to finally meet the heiress of Splash and Spray only to discover she wasn’t at all like they’d pictured.
By the time we got to our last visit, I was exhausted and grateful that this was almost over, especially when I read the name of the last floral shop I’d have to visit. It was Ms. Daphne’s nursery.
The main office wasn’t too busy, with this being a holiday weekend. The bell jingled as I opened the door, and the smell of fresh tea leaves instantly occupied my nose. The tall woman with coffee-colored hair who’d helped me last time greeted me from behind the counter.
“Oh, hello again,” she said. I was surprised she recognized me.
“H-hello,” I said and silently cursed at myself for stuttering yet again. Today had to be a record for that. “Is Ms. Daphne here?”
“Yes she is, dear. But she’s helping a customer somewhere in the back. Let me go get her. In the mean time, feel free to browse around.”
As the woman disappeared into the back area, I walked around the gift shop, enjoying that I finally could have some quiet alone time after such a horrid day. I admired the little garden trinkets on the shelves. There were pretty painted flower pots and kitchen window decorations—figurines of little ducks and rabbits, and tiny signs painted with the names of herbs and flowers that could be used to set in the soil of a newly planted garden.
I stopped to admire a dainty tea set, with tiny fruits painted on it, and the bell at the front door tinkled lightly, barely registering in my head.
And just as I was wondering how much the set cost, I heard a dreaded voice right behind my head.
I whirled my head around, heart pounding, and stared right into the face of The Bulk.
“W-what are you doing here?”
“Tracking you down,” he replied with a suspicious grin. “Didn’t think I was just gonna let ya off the hook, didya?”
That was exactly what I’d hoped. This past month had been strangely quiet and devoid of any activity on The Bulk’s part. I thought he had learned his lesson from Marcus, but I should have known it wasn’t the end. It never was in manga. The bully never bothered the protagonist until she was alone, and then he struck. And this month, the four thieves hadn’t left me alone for a moment in the public realm, until now. The Bulk must have been biding his time, stalking me and waiting.
“What d-do you want from me?” I cursed myself for showing my fear by stuttering.
“Well Emma Hartley, if that’s really your name, me and Dad’ve been doin’ some research after Old Cantin fired him,” he said.
“Dad and I,” I couldn’t quite resist the urge to correct his grammar and cursed myself again. But I couldn’t help it. I was beginning to realize that my quirks showed more whenever I was nervous, and The Bulk was making me very nervous. Then it registered that The Bulk said his dad had been fired. Which could only mean he was looking for revenge. I gulped, feeling sick to the stomach.
“That senior kid that dumped soda on ya was right,” he smirked. “It really is hot bein’ corrected by a smart know-it-all moll doll.”
“Get to your point,” I interrupted, not interested in the screwed-up fantasies built in his head.
“Oh yeah, so Dad found a list of all the florist associates of Lockhart, and not one of ‘em was named Hartley. And then I just so happened to be walkin’ down the street today, when I see you getting’ dropped off from a limo. This is all very suspicious activity, Miss Emma. All very strange indeed.” He stalked closer to me, and I backed up, almost knocking over a pair of china salt and pepper shakers shaped like garden gnomes. “Ya see, I have this theory. I think you must’ve lied to me. I think your real mother is Lydia Lockhart, and you’ve been masquerading as Emma Hartley all this time.”
“Excuse me, what are you doing?” An accusing female voice broke into the air, but it was so welcoming that I could have cried. I looked behind The Bulk’s shoulder and saw the cashier lady from earlier. “I understand teenage hormones can be overwhelming, but we don’t tolerate—”
“This is my mother,” I said in a loud voice, drowning out the rest of the woman’s sentence. I slid under The Bulk’s arm and quickly hugged the woman’s side. “See? I wasn’t lying to you. Her name is Evelyn Hartley. And she’s the co-owner of this nursery. You couldn’t find her name because the nursery’s under Daphne Barnes.”
“Co-owner?” the woman blinked, looking entirely bewildered.
I tried to beg her with my eyes, winking frantically. Hopefully she didn’t think I had some nervous tick.
“Oh—oh yes,” she said, catching on to my utmost relief. “I’m Evelyn, the co-owner here. And you, young man, had better leave at once. I don’t know what you think my daughter was lying about, but I have a strict dating policy in my house, and that policy is there is to be no dating at all.” She put up a hand, fingers bending to palms twice. “So ta-ta and ciao, mister.”
The Bulk stared at the woman so sullenly that for a moment, I thought he might completely disregard her authority, but then finally, he picked up his feet and trudged out the door. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’m so sorry,” I told the lady. “He’s this mean kid at school, and I didn’t know what else to do.”
“I understand,” she replied with a smile. “Unwanted attention from a hormone-crazed boy. I’m happy I was able to help. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you Ms. Daphne’s on her way out. Your name’s Emma Hartley, right?”
I’d known it was highly improbable that she knew I was Emmaline Lockhart, but I wasn’t worried if she did know. After all, that was the reason for my visit.
“Actually,” I began to correct, “I’m Emmaline—”
“Miss Lockhart!” the elderly owner came swinging out from the back room, her arms open wide as she came to give me a hearty hug.
I returned to hug wholeheartedly. And then I heard the other woman gasp from behind us, and both Ms. Daphne and I turned to see her as white as a specter.
“You’re Emmaline Lockhart?” she whispered, and now she looked as though she were actually seeing a ghost. “How did he come to know you?”
My brow furled, trying to puzzle out what she meant by that. How did who come to know me?
But Ms. Daphne was already talking. “Emma, this is my assistant manager, Ms. Marigold Banks. You met her last time, but I didn’t get to make the introductions.”
The name jilted me forcibly, and it all suddenly made sense. I’d recognized the woman’s piercing, deep, dark, almond-shaped eyes the first time I’d met her because they were the same ones Marcus had.
“Mrs. Lew,” I breathed out. I was staring directly into the face of Maggie Lew.
We sat at one of the tables in the café, and since there wasn’t much business this late in the afternoon, I was sure we wouldn’t be bothered. Although I was supposed to be talking business with Ms. Daphne, that was far from our topic of discussion right now. Marigold’s, or Maggie’s, secret was out, and I demanded to know her whole story.
I listened as she explained how she’d been so depressed that she turned to gambling to soothe her pain. At first she’d won just enough to want to play more, but after awhile, she started losing. A small debt became a little bigger until it was insurmountable. She was too scared to tell her husband or in-laws, so she ran away, intending to hide. For months, she was homeless and lived in her car. Then one day, she passed out on the street, and that was where Ms. Daphne found her.
Ms. Daphne sensed something was wrong the moment she saw Maggie, who said her name was Marigold. The older woman knew Maggie was hiding something, but she didn’t ask any questions, just gave her a job and a place to stay. Eventually, Ms. Daphne discovered Maggie’s addiction to gambling, and she helped Maggie quit. Maggie had been living with Ms. Daphne ever since.
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t tell your family where you are,” I challenged. I felt a spark of anger as I gazed at this woman who’d left her family broke and selfishly run away. “The captain asked me to help him find you.”
“Please don’t tell them where I am,” she begged. “I’m too ashamed to see them again.”
“I hope you know how irresponsibly you’ve acted,” I replied curtly. “You ran away after putting your family in debt. You abandoned your husband and your child. Marcus had to live without his mother. Do you know what that feels like?”
I didn’t realize I was shouting until Ms. Daphne placed a hand on my shoulder. It was only then that I knew how much I was really affected by this. Because of my own mother’s abandonment.
Maggie was beginning to cry, but I could feel no sympathy.
Ms. Daphne felt compelled to speak in Maggie’s defense. “Miss Emma, I never knew Marigold’s secret. But she’s a hard worker and a good person who knows she’s made a huge mistake. I believe she’s sorry.”
“I am sorry,” Maggie said. “More than you’ll ever know. I miss my family, but I’m too ashamed to face them after what I’ve done. All I can do is try to secretly help my husband repay my debt. So please just let me do that, and don’t tell them where I am.”
I shook my head furiously. “What they need most is you, not your money.”
“They’re better off without me,” the woman replied. “I know Marcus is, at least. He looks happy enough with his friends, and that’s all that matters.”
And then I realized something else. “You’ve been spying on him. For how long?”
She looked away guiltily. “Just recently. After the two of you visited the shop last time. I know I don’t have the right to see him ever again, but I just can’t help it.”
“Then why can’t you go back to them?”
“Because I just can’t,” she cried desperately. “I can’t face them after everything I’ve done. Besides, even if my husband wants me back, Marcus would never accept me. And I would never be able to endure that rejection from my own son.” As soon as she said this last bit, she burst into tears.
Ms. Daphne gestured to me, taking me aside. “Miss Emma, I know you have the best intentions, but you can’t force Mari—I mean Maggie to reunite with her family if she’s not ready. If we push her, she might end up trying to run away again.”
“But Captain Lew—”
“I know what he asked of you,” she said. “But now I’m asking you to give Maggie time. I’m sure eventually she’ll come around.”
“After another fifteen years?” I replied sarcastically.
The old woman sighed. “I’ll talk to her. The trick is that she cannot be forced. So please, Miss Emma, as a favor to me, don’t tell anyone she’s here.”
I stared into Ms. Daphne’s pleading face and sighed. “All right,” I agreed.
Ms. Daphne had a point, after all. I’d tracked down the missing woman for Captain Lew, and I definitely didn’t want her to disappear again. I thought maybe Maggie’s problem was that she hadn’t yet forgiven herself, so she didn’t think her family could forgive her either. Maybe the key was to see if Marcus had it in him to forgive his mom. If he did, then I could tell Maggie that her son wouldn’t reject her if she went back.
Before I left Ms. Daphne’s, Maggie came up to me, holding up a tiny bundle of pink Paeonia, or peonies. “I’d like to ask you a favor, Emma,” she said, looking at me expectantly. “I’d like you to secretly give this to Marcus.”
“Shame and bashfulness,” I declared.
She cast her eyes downward. “I feel too ashamed to see him right now, but part of me still wants to talk to him, to tell him how sorry I am, and how much I love him. But please don’t tell him it’s from me. If you can, don’t even let him see you give it to him.”
I sighed, realizing how important this was to her. I promised her I’d do my best.
But now I had a new problem on my hands. How was going to give Marcus these flowers without making him suspicious?
There were pink flowers in my locker. I stared at them, wondering what was up. Who’d put them there?
“Hey man,” Heath said, coming up behind me. “Whoa, what are those? They look like peonies. Who gave ‘em to you?”
“No idea,” I replied.
“Well, if you’re curious, they mean bashful.”
Heath was like a walking flower dictionary, almost as bad as Emma. “Well, why would someone put them in my locker?”
Heath shrugged. “Maybe it’s from a secret admirer, and she’s too bashful to tell you she has a crush on you in person.”
Who in the world would have a crush on me? I stopped short, suddenly thinking about that Halloween night, when Emma had given me a gardenia but told me she would give me a flower with a real meaning later. Was it possible these peonies were from her?
I spotted Emma walking through the hall and stopped her. She seemed strangely nervous to see me.
“Emma, do you know anything about these?” I held up the peonies. “They were in my locker.”
She sent out a rather nervous peal of laughter. “Why would I know what a bundle of Paeonia is doing in your locker?” Her eyes darted this way and that, anywhere but at me. Very suspicious.
“I just thought maybe they were from you, considering you’re the only one I know who communicates through flowers.”
“No, no,” she shook her head frantically. “I can safely say those are not from me.”
I narrowed my eyes, trying to judge if she was telling the truth. She was looking directly into my eyes now, and it seemed she wasn’t lying. And thinking about it now, I didn’t think she’d give me a flower that meant bashful, unless she really did harbor a secret crush on me. Since there was no way that was possible, I’d have to trust her on this one.
Maybe some other girl in the school liked to communicate with flowers. I shrugged it off. I’d find out the truth sooner or later.