After dinner, we spent the rest of the night decorating for Christmas, which was only three days away. Emma played out a few Christmas carols on the piano, while Stan sang out loud. Heath, Tony, and I decorated the top of our tree, while Mrs. Lockhart and my grandparents decorated the bottom. Marlin and the rest of the servants wrapped garlands and strings of lights around the staircases and mantles.
I was happy to see that Tony’s good humor was beginning to be restored. He’d even tried cracking a joke or two. Everyone was in a jovial mood, eager for the big day to arrive. For me, it was the first Christmas that actually felt like Christmas. And I would have enjoyed it a little bit more, if there wasn’t still a weight hanging over me.
I knew I was being more quiet than usual. I was still thinking about the earlier discussion I’d had with Emma and Tony about our mothers.
I kept wondering what life would be like if my mom hadn’t left. Would my family have had normal Christmases every year, filled with laughter and joy? Or would Mom have still abandoned us eventually? And how would I react if she suddenly appeared in front of me and begged forgiveness?
Over the years, I’d kept telling myself that if I ever saw her again, I’d completely turn my back on her. I told myself this because it felt like the justified thing to do. She’d turned her back on us, so I would do the same to her. But I didn’t want to hear the truth of what my heart wanted me to do—that I wanted to see her and talk to her again. It made me feel guilty because I shouldn’t want to see her again. So I’d always tried to think of Mom as little as possible.
Only Emma kept bringing the subject up. Ever since Thanksgiving, she’d been talking about her own mom, asking me what I would do if I saw my mom again. And then Tony’s mom reappeared, and the whole subject was brought back yet again. It was like God was no longer allowing me to avoid the topic and wanted me to face it head on.
After everyone had gone to bed that night, I quietly got out of bed with a flashlight and a tiny photo album that Nai-nai took with our family wherever we went. I sat at the corner window of the parlor, looking through the pictures. They were mostly baby pictures of me, but also had pictures of my parents. I lingered over the pictures of my mother’s face. I had no real recollection of her in my memory; the pictures were my only link.
I didn’t know how much time had passed when a sudden flash of ghostly light came from the stairs. I looked up to see Emma’s dark figure, gliding down the staircase with another flashlight. She jumped when she saw me, and I knew my presence had scared her.
I apologized quietly, and she came to sit by me. “Why are you reading in the dark?”
“Didn’t want to wake anyone with the light.”
She looked down to see what I was reading. “What’s that?”
I handed it to her and shined the flashlight on it. “Nai-nai always takes it with her wherever we go. She’s overly sentimental sometimes.”
“You were so cute,” she said, looking through the pictures. “What happened?”
I knew she meant it as a joke, but I wasn’t in the mood to laugh.
Emma looked at the next couple of pages, all pictures of my mother holding me. Occasionally, my father was in the background. My mom looked so normal, so much like a loving, doting mother that it was hard to imagine she’d abandoned her family.
I sighed, long and hard. “You said sometimes we’ll never know the whys. But that can’t stop me from asking them,” I said. “I want to know why she left and never came back to make things right.” I pointed to the picture in shaky jerks, not knowing why I was suddenly revealing so much to Emma, but not able to stop myself. “That doesn’t look like a woman who would abandon her son and her husband after getting them into half a million bucks in debt. So why?”
Emma looked at me, opened her mouth, and shut it. It was clear she had no idea how to respond.
“No offense Emma,” I said, “But your mother was always a bitch, and I have a feeling the same can be said of Tony’s mom. But my mother, everything said about her was good until she left. My father adored her. All her friends loved her. My grandparents said she was nice and sweet. Not someone who would abandon her family.”
“Everyone makes mistakes,” she finally said, handing me back the album. “She messed up, and she probably knows it. Maybe she’s scared to come back because she doesn’t think any of you will forgive her.”
“She’s right to think that.” My hand curled tightly around the flashlight until my knuckles turned a ghostly white. “I shouldn’t forgive her. I shouldn’t even want to speak to her.”
“And yet you do.” She sensed those unsaid words, and I was amazed. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Because I suddenly knew she knew exactly how I felt. That sometimes she wished she could talk to her mother, even after all the grief Lydia Lockhart had put her through. And that Emma also felt guilty for feeling this way. Guilty because her grandmother had raised her all these years, and yet she still longed to see her mother again.
My grandparents had raised me. I should be more appreciative. They should be enough family for me. I shouldn’t still want my mother.
Her eyes met mine, and our gazes locked. Suddenly, I didn’t want to talk about my mother any longer. But I also didn’t want Emma to leave. So I said the first thing that came to mind, just so she wouldn’t go. “Thank you for the Christmas tree. You managed to cheer Tony up a lot.”
“I’m glad he’s feeling better, but that tree was meant for you too. Nobody should go through life without a single Christmas tree.” She attempted a smile to make the mood lighter. “I hope you enjoyed decorating it.”
I didn’t return the smile. Instead, I continued staring at her wonderingly. How could this girl, who couldn’t even identify facial expressions a few months ago, manage to say exactly the right thing to me right now?
“What?” she asked.
I didn’t answer, didn’t even hear her. She had me completely mesmerized without having lifted a finger. The urge to kiss her was overwhelming. I leaned in, and her eyes widened, as she began to realize my intent. When she didn’t move away, I took that as consent.
I swore I could hear both our hearts pounding, as well as the fluttering butterflies going wild in our stomachs. I edged just a bit closer, and so did she. And then…
The lights went on. Both of us jerked back as though scalded.
“What are you two doing in the dark?” Heath came down the stairs, eyeing us suspiciously.
“N-nothing,” I said, standing up quickly. My cheeks were flaming, more from guilt than from embarrassment. Because I knew Heath liked her.
“Sure doesn’t look like nothing,” he accused.
“What are you doing up?” I glared back, starting to wonder if he was trying to embarrass us on purpose.
“Getting a drink of water. But I couldn’t see, which was why I turned on the lights.” Heath raised an eyebrow. “I hope I didn’t disturb anything. Perhaps a midnight rendezvous?”
Emma didn’t wait further for Heath to insinuate anything more. “I’m tired. Good night.” And then she fled, a telltale blush painted on her cheeks.
Heath remained standing where he was, staring me down, but I refused to be intimidated by anyone, even him. “Tell me the truth, Marcus. What were you two doing?”
“We were talking.”
“Talking with your lips fused to hers?”
“We were not kissing,” I said. “You clearly need to have your eyes checked. There’s nothing going on between Emma and me.”
His eyes grew wide and hopeful. “Really? And you’re not interested in her? Because if you’re not, then I’m going to make a move.”
There it was, Heath’s confession finally out in the open. And for the life of me, I couldn’t tell him the truth. That I got jealous of every male who even glanced in Emma’s direction. Because I didn’t want Heath to get hurt. At least I still had my family, a home, and a little money saved for my education. But Heath had nothing, and he deserved everything.
So all I could say was, “Go for it.”
I lingered in bed until the last possible moment. I didn’t think I had the courage to face Marcus. He’d almost kissed me last night. And I’d almost kissed him back. What was I doing?
I was being unfaithful. I was supposed to have feelings for Heath, and there I’d been, almost kissing his best friend. Maybe the problem was that I hadn’t worked hard enough to distance myself from Marcus and to develop stronger feelings for Heath. Yes, that must be it. Having settled on the core problem, I resolved to work on it for the rest of this vacation. It could be my New Year’s resolution. To make myself be more attracted to Heath.
My stomach’s grumbling complaint finally drove me out of bed and to the kitchen in search of breakfast. At least I knew everyone else had already eaten, so hopefully I wouldn’t bump into Marcus.
Fortune rained down on me, as I discovered nobody was home except one young maid, trying to earn some extra cash, and me. All the other servants, including Marlin, had taken a couple days off to go home and visit their families.
It was Christmas Eve, so the convention was on a three day hiatus, and Grandmother finally had time on her hands. She’d gone last-minute Christmas shopping with Mr. and Mrs. Lew. As for the four thieves, they had taken to the slopes for snowboarding.
It was time to take advantage of this long-coveted solitude and read some manga.
After a quick breakfast of toast, I sunk onto a sofa with a pile of The Ugly Duckling of Heir High School and began to read. I’d just gotten to a poignant moment when Mina meets up with her abusive mother again, when Kylie, the maid, burst into my room, completely hysterical. At the sight of me, she burst into tears.
I sat up, alarmed. I’d never seen a maid cry before, much less a girl who was older than me. Then again, Kylie was only, at most, five years older than me. Maybe she was the type to get emotional when it was that time of month. It might also be that she wasn’t used to her job yet, since she’d only been with us for a month.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her, hoping to be of assistance. I wasn’t too great at comforting people, but maybe I could reassure her that Grandmother wouldn’t fire her if she’d made a mistake in her chores.
It took her a while to make a cohesive sentence, but when I handed her a tissue and awkwardly tried to give her a side hug, her sobbing ceased just enough for her words to be understandable. “Miss Emma, I tried to tell him your grandma wasn’t home, but he just barged past me. He said if I didn’t get your grandmother to see him right away, he’d tell her I was an incompetent maid and have her fire me, and I tried calling her, but she wasn’t answering her phone.” Kylie broke into tears again. “Miss Emma, I can’t afford to lose this job. I have a two year-old at home, and I’m trying to take classes at the same time.”
“Kylie, calm down,” I said. “No one’s going to fire you. Whoever this man is has no authority to do that, and I’m sure Grandmother won’t listen to him.”
“But she will,” Kylie wailed. “He’s a powerful man, and he’s your grandma’s friend.”
Grandmother’s friend? Which friend of hers would barge into our house and scare the poor maid? “Any chance you’ll tell me the identity of this mysterious man?”
“Mr. Cantin,” she said with a hint of exasperation that I hadn’t already guessed this already. She stayed quiet for a second and gestured towards the door. “Listen, Miss Emma. He’s at it again.”
Sure enough, I could hear the man’s angry tirade all the way from here. He was going off about how he’d never seen such incompetence from the household staff and didn’t understand why it was taking so long to see Grandmother.
“He thinks I’m lying about your grandma not being home,” Kylie said. “I don’t know what to do.” The poor thing was wailing desperately. It seemed I had to do something about this whole situation.
“I’ll go meet him,” I said. “Just continue with your work, and don’t worry about it.”
This was easier said than done.
I’d never met Mr. Cantin in person before, so I was very nervous. I’d heard so many horrible stories about the man that my legs actually wobbled as I walked down the stairs.
Like everyone else, he didn’t know I was Penelope Lockhart’s granddaughter, so I had to keep the charade, which only made this worse. If he did know I was Emmaline Lockhart, he might ease up on the temper. But because I was only Emma Hartley, I didn’t know how he’d react.
He was pacing the parlor when I entered, and at first, I hid behind the door, just to calm my nerves. He looked so intimidating, standing a little over six feet tall. Marcus had commented the other day that Mr. Cantin seemed more pleasant than rumors said. I didn’t know how Marcus could get that idea. Then again, Marcus wasn’t Mr. Sunshine himself. And according to Grandmother, Mr. Cantin could be very congenial at public appearances, like at the convention where we’d seen him, but to people he didn’t yet trust, he could be ruthless.
I took a deep breath, raised my shoulders, and walked in. “Good morning, Mr. Cantin.”
His supercilious gaze lifted across the room, honing in on me. “You are not Penny.”
Good observation, I wanted to say, but of course I didn’t. “Mrs. Lockhart isn’t here right now. But she left me in charge. Any business you have with her can be dealt through me.” My legs felt like giving in any second now, but I clenched my fists, urging myself to stand strong.
He made a snort of unbelief. “I doubt that. You’re only a child. The only child Penny would trust with her company would be her own granddaughter. And I’m certain you’re not her.”
I almost died right then and there, wondering if he’d uncovered the truth, but then he made another scoff. “Of course you’re not. Penny’s weak-willed granddaughter won’t even come out of the house. That girl’s probably scared of her own shadow.”
A spark of fury ignited, just as it did whenever Marcus insulted me. Weak-willed? “For your information, Mr. Cantin, I happen to be acquainted with Emmaline Lockhart. And she is definitely not afraid of her shadow. That would be ridiculous since a shadow is only one’s silhouette which occurs because one is obstructing the light from reaching that particular area.”
I must have said this much louder than I’d intended because Mr. Cantin was now regarding me as though I were some new specimen he’d just discovered in the rain forest. His gaze drifted to something behind me for just a second before returning to my face.
And then he let out a bark of laughter. “No, you’re definitely not Emmaline Lockhart. At least you seem to have some spunk in you.”
I was still a little put off, since I was Emmaline Lockhart, but since he wasn’t supposed to know that, I let it go.
“Wait a minute, I’ve seen you somewhere.” His brow crinkled, as he made a show of trying to remember. “You’re that girl at the party. Emma Hartley. The girl who grew the Lilting Lily.” His face immediately brightened.
“Yes, Emma Hartley,” I said, trying to sound sure of myself. “That’s exactly who I am. Anyway, as I said, Mrs. Lockhart isn’t here. But I’ll be sure to tell her you came by, as soon as she returns.”
I hoped that would be the end of this discussion, but Mr. Cantin wasn’t of the same mind. “That’s all right,” he said. “I’d rather talk to you.”
“Why?” I gazed at him warily.
“Because the reason for my visit has to do with you,” he said. “I originally wanted to discuss this matter with Penny, but that was before I knew you’d be here.” He smile a little sheepishly. “And I do apologize for seeming like an ogre. I think I may have scared the maid, but that was only after she almost closed the door in my face. Several times as a matter of fact.”
Oh Kylie, I thought with a sigh. She’d probably been scared out of her wits to see Cantin at our door. “Well, Mr. Cantin, what would you like to discuss?”
“Miss Hartley, you cannot possibly even think of selling the Lilting Lily to Murdove.”
I blinked twice, in wonder that he’d been so upfront all at once.
“Murdove is a fool,” he continued. “He refuses to see what everyone else does—that his wife is only out for his money. He’s about to sign his entire company over to her. If you sell them that lily, it might mean your own ruin. I want you to sell it to me instead.”
Again, I could only stare at him speechless.
“I can offer you a higher price,” he said. “I know the Cantins and the Lockharts have been rivals for years, but I think it’s about time we put away that rivalry and join forces to create a phenomenal product using the Lilting Lily.”
I finally rediscovered my voice. “And may I ask why you have this sudden change of heart? From what Gr—Mrs. Lockhart tells me, you’d do anything to rise above Lockhart, save sending spies into our company. How do we know we can trust you?”
His expression was extremely sober. “Because I want this to be the first step to merging our two companies. I’m getting old, and I have no one to take over the company when I’m gone. While I disliked your grandfather, I’ve always been fond of your grandmother, and I trust her with my life’s work.”
“But Grandmother isn’t getting any younger either,” I blurted, then stopped short, placing my hands over my mouth. How had he guessed?
Mr. Cantin continued as though nothing had happened. “Even though Penny is getting on in years, at least she has a granddaughter she can trust, from what I’ve been observing. I retract my earlier statement. Emmaline Lockhart has more spunk in her than I thought.” He grinned.
I was still roiling from having been discovered. What had given me away?
Then I caught a reflection of what was behind me in the glass of the china cabinet that stood behind Mr. Cantin. On the wall in back of me was a portrait of Grandmother and me, taken only a year ago. There was no mistaking that I was the girl in the picture.
Grandmother had specifically asked the servants to remove all portraits if we had guests coming over, but since Mr. Cantin had surprised us, Kylie probably had forgotten to do so before she opened the door for him.
“Miss Emmaline, you look as though you’ve swallowed a nail,” Cantin commented. “It can’t be that bad that I’ve discovered your secret. Don’t know why Penny made you cover up your identity in the first place, but don’t worry, I won’t tell. It’s not my concern anyway. I just want to make sure you don’t sell your prized lily to Murdove and at least consider my proposal.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “There is no way I’m selling the lily to Murdove and his lying wife.” And that was for personal reasons. I wouldn’t give Tony’s mother my lily even if she tortured me on a bed of rusty spikes. “I wouldn’t consider striking any business deal with someone who would abandon their own flesh and blood.”
He nodded in understanding. “Oh yes, I saw that scene your friend caused at the party two days ago. He alleged that Mrs. Murdove was his mother. You should tell your friend he’s delusional if he thinks he can get anything out of the Murdoves.”
“Tony wasn’t lying,” I defended. “And he doesn’t want their money.”
“I wasn’t implying that he was a liar,” said Cantin. “I believe Veronica Murdove capable of such a thing as abandoning her child. She’s cut of the same cloth as my own son, I’m sorry to say. All the more reason not to sell the lily to the Murdoves.”
As I thought of another reply, I looked at his face, really looked at it this time. He seemed sincere. At least his eyes seemed to reflect sincerity. And then I noticed the color of those eyes and couldn’t help but take a sharp breath. Because he had different colored irises. Heterochromia. The left eye was green, and the right was a shade of gray that appeared almost violet.
Exactly like Heath.
It was such a rare genetic trait that I was amazed to have seen it twice in my life among people I knew, which was the reason for my surprise. And as I looked at Cantin’s profile, a suspicion began to form.
From the light blond hair to the height to the high brow and full nose, Heath and Mr. Cantin had to be related. There was no other explanation for all the genetic similarities.
I barely stopped myself from blurting out the assertion. Instead, I did my best to compose myself. A few months ago, I probably would have asked the man straight out, but now I knew that if I accused him of having thrown Heath into a dumpster, the discussion would be over before it began. Besides, there was a possibility he didn’t even know Heath existed. A matter this serious had to be dealt with more subtly.
“I’ll think about it,” I said. “But Mr. Cantin, your company is an empire, and merging our two companies is a big step. Are you sure you’ve thought this through? There has to be someone to whom you may pass your legacy when you retire.”
“Like I said, I can’t trust anyone. My chief staff are all out for the money. They know I have no one to take over the company, and they’re just waiting for me to die so they can fight for power. When that happens, Fragrance Stop won’t survive.”
I saw a little window of opportunity and grasped it. “Maybe your staff only cares for the power and money, but if there was a family member—”
“I have no family.” His gruff voice had returned, and he looked at me sharply. “Certainly you’ve already heard that my reckless, rotten son got himself killed. And even if he were alive, I would rather hand my company to Veronica Murdove than leave it in his hands.”
“And what if you had a grandson? A responsible, level-headed grandson?”
His expression changed to one of sadness. “I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
“Why not?” I insisted.
He sighed wearily. “Let me tell you a story, Miss Lockhart. One that nobody knows, not even your grandmother. My son once impregnated a young girl, only seventeen. But he knew I would insist that he marry her, make things right, which he didn’t want to do. So you know what he did?” Cantin let out a humorless laugh that sounded more like a sob. “He hid the girl until she gave birth and hired someone to get rid of the child.”
I listened in horror as Cantin told me how his son had threatened the poor girl that if she told a soul, he would hunt her down. But the young mother cared more about her son than for her own life.
Bleeding and still trying to recover from giving birth, she managed to run away from where she was being held captive and went to Mr. Cantin, begging for help, and he finally learned the whole story.
“She died two days later from infections. And I couldn’t bear the scandal, or turn my son into the police, so I paid everyone involved to keep it a secret. Three months later, my son got himself killed by driving drunk.”
“D-did you ever find out what happened to the child?” My heart pounded in anticipation. So far, Heath was a possible candidate. He’d been found in a dumpster with his umbilical cord still attached, after all.
“We found the hoodlum my son hired,” Cantin said. “He confessed to leaving the baby in a dumpster outside a restaurant, but when we went there, the trash had already been taken.”
And there it was. Heath was a match. I stopped breathing for several seconds before regaining composure.
“At first I’d hoped the child might still be alive,” he said, with another jerky sob. “Someone might have found the baby and took him to the hospital. I tried looking for him for years. But when there were claims that this kid or that one was my son’s by-blow, all of them false, I eventually gave up.”
At this point, I knew I had to speak up. There was no way I was going to hide what I knew. “Mr. Cantin, what if I told you I think I know your grandson?”
“Miss Lockhart, please don’t joke around.” He looked at me severely.
“I’m not joking,” I declared. “It’s all in the probability of genetics. You see, congenital heterochromia is an inherited autosomal dominant trait.”
And when he stared at me in disbelief, I spilled out Heath’s story, beginning with the first time I’d seen his eyes.