The jealousy was overwhelming, and I hated myself for it. Heath was my best friend. Why couldn’t I just be happy for him?
I managed to avoid contact with Heath and Emma for the next three days. Every time I saw them walking down the hall, I turned and walked the other way. During meals, I purposely came down an hour later than normal, just to avoid them. My meals were always warm and ready for me, so I knew Mrs. Lockhart had instructed the servants to do so.
On New Year’s Eve, I couldn’t avoid them anymore. There was a countdown party that Mrs. Lockhart was making all of us attend, and it was the last event of the Cologne and Beauty Convention. Important people would be there, and since we still hadn’t sold the Lilting Lily yet, this was a critical marketing event.
In a jealous haze, I watched as Heath escorted Emma on his arm. She smiled at him, laughed at his jokes. Who would have known that socially awkward Emma could flirt? But there she was, flirting constantly with Heath.
How I wished the arm she held belonged to me. I couldn’t watch anymore, so I walked ahead, almost storming into the mansion, where the party had already started. Loud strains of violins echoed through the hallway to greet me. This mansion belonged to Mr. Cantin. The man had property all over the country, but this one had special significance. Rumors said Mike Cantin had exiled his reprobate son here because it was quiet and far enough away from city life. He’d hoped the isolation would act as a form of rehab to get his son’s life in order.
It was a pity people like Tom Cantin could find trouble even in the middle of an uncharted desert.
As soon as we’d been assigned to our table, I headed for the buffet table, thinking since I was being forced to attend a party where my best friend and the girl I liked flirted in front of my eyes, I might as well eat well. The dinner was self-serve. I filled my plate with food I knew to be the most expensive—king crab legs, sashimi, prime rib, even caviar, although I didn’t even like the stuff much. As I sat down and ate, already looking forward to my second plate, I noticed Heath, who was sitting across the table, also had filled his plate with the same expensive items as me. He was looking at me, almost defiantly. Then he started wolfing down his food at a faster pace than I was. So I ate just a bit faster, stuffed more food into my mouth.
He did the same.
Well then, if it was a competition he wanted, it was a competition he’d get. I could out-eat the guy any day.
We finished our first plates of food at the same time, and almost ran to the buffet table to restock on supplies. This was repeated about three times before I started to feel the effects. But then again, so was Heath.
“You two don’t look so hot,” Tony commented, trying to suppress a grin. Then he stood. “Well, I’m off for more food. Can’t believe they have chopped chicken livers and raw oysters.”
My stomach lurched at the mention of chicken livers and chewy raw oysters.
“I’ll go with you,” Stan said. “I want more corn and clam chowder. It’s so creamy and velvety. Kind of looks like vomit, if you think about it.”
I had to suppress a gag, and I heard Heath groan. Meanwhile, Tony and Stan high-fived each other and proceeded to the buffet table.
I needed a restroom. Now.
“You two are idiots,” Emma sighed. “There’s a restroom right there.” She pointed to an alcove that led to a larger hallway. “Please don’t puke in front of all the rich people.”
At the reference to puke, Heath and I stood at the same time and began to run. We made it just in time.
After I’d finished barfing out the contents of my stomach, I splashed some water on my face. Thankfully, I hadn’t ruined my entire suit, but a tiny smidgeon of puke had landed on my tie. I tried to clean it off, just as Heath came out of the stall, looking worse than me.
Our eyes met in the mirror, and a look of understanding was quickly exchanged. “It would be wise not to do that again,” I said.
“Agreed,” he replied. Then he closed his eyes, looking slightly queasy again.
“Maybe we should get you home.”
He slowly shook his head. “I just need to sit down.” He sat, with his back against the restroom wall. I slid down next to him, loosening my tie.
For awhile, neither of us spoke, but there was a lot that needed to be said. Neither of us wanted to start. But then Heath heaved a reluctant sigh and budged first. “I know you like her.”
I thought about denying it again, but that would be pointless. “I won’t steal her away from you, I promise.”
“I know you wouldn’t steal her away on purpose,” he said. Another quiet moment passed before he murmured something that was almost impossible to hear. “Maybe neither of us should have her.”
“Heath Renway, why would you say a thing like that?” I demanded to know.
“Because you’re my best friend, and we shouldn’t let a girl get between us. If all three of us were just friends, we wouldn’t have a problem.”
“I disagree,” I said. “We’d just be suppressing our feelings.”
“So what do we do now?”
I shrugged. “Just let things go on the way they are now, I guess. You and Emma are in a relationship, and I respect that. I won’t do anything to get in your way.”
We sat there a couple moments more before the restroom door swung open. I looked up to see Stan’s anxious face. “You two have to come help me,” he said. “Emma and I bumped into the Murdoves in the hall on our way to see how you were doing. They started talking about the lily. But then Tony caught up to us, and Mrs. Murdove went ballistic.”
Tony and Emma stood in the hallway, both looking very helpless as Veronica Murdove waggled her perfectly manicured finger at them. Her husband stood at her side, a vicious glare on his face.
“You little rat,” Veronica was yelling. “How dare you speak to me in that manner? And why are you at this party?”
“I’ll bet you weren’t invited,” Murdove added. “Party crashing, more like it. Where’s security when you need it?” He looked over his shoulder, summoning, “Security!”
But then I saw a change in Emma’s face. Her wilted shoulders suddenly propped up with confidence, and her downcast eyes sparked with defiance. She walked to place herself directly in front of Tony.
“There’s no need for that,” she said. “We’re both on the guest list, as friends of Mr. Cantin. Tony is part of my team. I’d thought you would remember that from the last time we met.” Although her tone was still cordial, there was a hint of sarcasm and ice that made Murdove hesitate. It was the first time I’d seen the man look a little uncertain of himself.
“Miss Hartley, I want to make it clear that we bear you no grudge,” Murdove said. “I just thought that you would have dismissed him after his outrageous slander regarding my wife. I hope you will not let this…um…situation… affect our negotiations regarding the Lilting Lily.”
“Yes, Miss Hartley,” Mrs. Murdove agreed. Her hideously ugly glower had suddenly become a sickeningly sweet beam. “You’ve done fabulous work. The Lilting Lily smells like heaven. When we develop our perfume, I’m considering naming it after you.” Talk about sycophantic. They really wanted the lily, it seemed. My own heart was torn. On one hand, I knew they’d make a sweet deal. But on the other hand, I didn’t want Emma to sell her lily to such horrible people. But the decision was in her hands.
She faced them down, looking calm and menacing at the same time. “I will never sell my lily to mean, deprecating phonies, especially to a woman who would abandon her son for wealth.”
My jaw dropped. I’d never seen Emma stand up to anyone before, except me. She was usually so afraid of people.
“I have no reason to doubt my colleague’s words,” Emma continued. “Tony’s never been anything less than honest. Which leads me to conclude that you are the one at fault, Mrs. Murdove. And at our first encounter, I witnessed first hand how condescending you can be. You looked at me, as the old English saying goes, as though I was not fit to hold a candelabra to you.” I saw the Murdoves blink at this unfamiliar expression, which should have gone not fit to hold a candle, but eventually their confusion died as fury won out. Emma had gotten her point across. “I will never sell my precious lily to a greedy snob like you, Mrs. Murdove.”
The Murdoves were speechless for now, too angry for words, and Emma apparently had no desire to wait for them to recover their voices. She gestured to us. “Let’s go, boys.” We followed her, also at a loss for words. She halted one more time, and we stopped too, wondering what else she had forgotten to say. She turned her head to look at Mr. Murdove. “A word of advice. Wake up before it’s too late and learn to protect yourself. My father almost lost everything because he fell in love with a pretty face that turned out to be nothing but a frivolous gold digger.”
And then she marched on.
When we were out of sight of the Murdoves, Emma wobbled. I made a move to catch her, but Heath beat me to it, reminding me they were a couple. That fact had been put far from my mind during Emma’s stellar performance. I tried not to glower.
“That was so awesome,” Stan said. “I don’t think any of us would have been able to do that.”
“I was shaking,” Emma admitted. “But it had to be done. She deserved every word.”
Tony knelt by Emma. He was shaking too, and I could see a glimmer of tears on his cheeks. “I can’t believe you sacrificed the deal for me.”
“You’re more important than a stupid deal,” Emma said. “It would have been like selling my soul to the devil. Besides, we have other offers. Nothing to worry about.”
Tony leaned over to hug her. “You don’t know how much I wanted to tell her off. Thanks for sticking up for me.”
“No need for thanks. I know it doesn’t make things suck any less, but at least someone told that woman she was wrong.”
“Do you think it’ll be all right though?” Tony looked worried. “They looked really angry. I hope they don’t plot some sort of revenge.”
“I’d like to see them try,” Emma scoffed. “The Lockharts are twenty times richer and more powerful than them.”
She sounded entirely confident of this, but somehow I had a horrible feeling inside my chest. I just hoped she was right.
By the end of the night, I still hadn’t successfully made any deals to sell my lily. But it was all right. I’d already come to the decision to sell it to Mr. Cantin, if he still wanted it. If not, then I would just have to fail Grandmother’s test.
I had plans to meet Mr. Cantin before I went home tonight. I had a sample of Heath’s DNA in my purse. I’d finally been able to acquire some of his hair yesterday by carefully picking through his comb. Mr. Cantin wanted it as soon as possible, so it didn’t come as a surprise when the man himself appeared at our table, introduced himself to the four thieves, and requested a private word with me. But the four thieves didn’t know what I knew and naturally believed the worst. They instantly came to my defense.
“Why do you want to talk to her alone?” Heath demanded to know. I saw Mr. Cantin regard him carefully, and I realized this was the first time the two of them had met personally. Cantin was trying hard to mask his many emotions—hope, joy, pain—and I was the only one who could see through this front.
“If this is about the Murdoves, it’s all my fault,” Marcus said, completely oblivious to what was going on in Cantin’s head. Hard to believe the four thieves were my social skills teachers when they couldn’t read such obvious emotions on Cantin’s face. Then again, I shouldn’t blame them. They didn’t know Heath was Cantin’s grandson.
“Relax boys,” Mr. Cantin told them. “Emma’s not in trouble. I only want to talk to her about the lily. I’d like to work out a deal, as I’ve told Emma before. Isn’t that right dear?”
“Yes,” I said. The four thieves turned to me in surprise, clearly wondering why I hadn’t mentioned it earlier. “Sorry, I forgot to tell you.” Then I excused myself, heading off with Mr. Cantin.
He brought me upstairs, away from the party, and into what looked to be a library. Gesturing me to sit, he made himself comfortable on the wing chair.
“Now have you made a decision?” he asked.
“I have,” I said. “If you’re still interested, I’d like to sell you the lily.”
He frowned. “Why would you think I’m not still interested?”
“Well,” I replied, “when you confirm that Heath is your grandson, naturally he’ll be the heir to your company. There wouldn’t be a need for you to merge with Lockhart any longer, so you’d need to rethink your decision to buy the Lilting Lily.”
He shook his head. “No need to rethink. I still want to purchase it. I believe your lily is a good investment, even if Fragrance Stop doesn’t merge with Splash and Spray. I still hope our two companies can work together to form a new product using your lily.” Then he slightly pulled up in his chair. I sensed a sort of tension in his posture. “Now, did you bring it?”
The subject change was abrupt, but I assumed he was referring to Heath’s DNA sample. “Of course,” I said, reaching into my purse. “Sorry, I tried for the cheek cells, but it was too difficult, so I had to settle for hair follicles.”
“That works,” he said. “But even without the DNA test, I can see why you believe Heath is my grandson. He really does have the Cantin resemblance. Looks exactly like Tom, only gentler, and he has my eyes.” For a second, his eyes became watery, but he swallowed hard and was able to regain his composure. “I’m sorry, I—”
A creak at the door alerted us that someone was there, milliseconds before the four thieves stormed in, Heath leading the way. At that instant, I knew they’d followed us, probably concerned about my well-being, and had eavesdropped on the entire conversation.
“What are you talking about?” he demanded to know. “What do you mean I’m your grandson?” His eyes were solely focused on Mr. Cantin’s face. He looked half-crazed and wild.
“Heath, calm down,” I said.
His gaze swung to meet mine. “And you, how are you involved in all of this?” I winced at the sharp bite in his tone. He was angry with me.
“Sit down, Heath,” Cantin said. “Let us explain.”
Heath made no movement to sit until Marcus finally nudged him. “Do as he says, Heath. We all want to hear what they both have to say.” His eyes met mine, and the fury in them made me take a step back. It felt horrible that Heath was mad, but to also be subject to Marcus’s anger made my heart clench with almost unbearable intensity. But I still believed I did nothing wrong. I couldn’t have told them my theory that Heath was the heir to Fragrance Stop, not without Mr. Cantin’s consent. I just hoped they understood that once we told them our story.
Within the next half hour, Mr. Cantin had related the story of his grandson’s birth, and I saw Heath’s facial muscles clench as he connected the similarities to his own birth. As Cantin drew to a close, no one spoke.
And then, a murmur from Heath. “Are you sure there hasn’t been a mistake?”
“Emma pointed out that it’s rare for someone to have heterochromia, and yet, both of us do,” Mr. Cantin said. “Not only that, but you look like a Cantin, and the story of my grandson’s birth matches up with your story of being found in a dumpster. I had Emma bring me a sample of your DNA, but even without the test, I’m about 98 percent certain you are my grandson.”
Heath heaved a loud sigh, as though blowing out a windstorm of emotions, and said, “All this time I thought my mother didn’t want me, but it turned out the culprit was the man who fathered me. At least now I’ve been able to clear her name in my heart.”
“And do you blame me?” The words hung in the air as soon as Mr. Cantin spoke them. He held his breath.
“No.” Heath shook his head and met Cantin’s gaze. “I’ve long ago stopped blaming anyone. I have the answers to questions I believed would never be possible to answer, but it doesn’t change what’s already been done.”
“Then,” Cantin looked at Heath, hope shining in his face, “Is it at all possible for me to hug you?”
At Heath’s nod, the grandfather embraced the grandson, and the rest of us took it as a cue to give them some privacy.
Outside the room, the thieves turned to me. “You knew about this all along?” Stan said, still shocked by the turn of events.
I tilted my head slightly, giving affirmation. “I recognized the genetic similarities and made a hypothesis.”
“Heath seems to be taking it well,” Tony commented. “He’s seemed to have accepted it without much of a fight. If it were me, I probably would have locked myself in my room for days from the shock. But then again, Heath is always calm and accepting of whatever life throws his way.”
“On the outside at least,” Marcus said. He looked anxious. “Knowing Heath, he just doesn’t want to make anyone worry, including the man who just claimed to be his grandfather. But on the inside, I know he’s probably screaming. Because if that DNA test confirms that he’s a Cantin, it means life as he knows it will never be the same.”
“But it means he’ll be a rich kid and heir to Fragrance Stop,” Stan protested. “That’s all good.”
“Whether that’s good,” Marcus murmured, “is yet to be determined.”