I thought about Heath’s answer for days after that. How could I just be Emma when Marcus didn’t even want to see Emma? When we met in the hallways at school, he completely brushed past without a word. He stopped coming to our lessons, and the other thieves had to cover for him so Grandmother wouldn’t find out. During dinner, he wouldn’t even glance in my direction, and as soon as he finished eating, he retreated back into his room.
Each time he ignored me, I felt a piece of my heart crumble into dust. Not literally, of course, since I would have died from heart failure. But the pain might as well have been literal. And I certainly felt like I was dying a bit day by day.
One night, I lay in bed, tired but too restless to sleep. My mind was active, thinking about Marcus and wondering how long he would continue to ignore me. I thought about how I’d tried saying good morning at breakfast, and how he’d pretended not to hear me and then left for school without waiting for the rest of us.
I missed those days when we’d gone to school together, bickering about some stupid topic like favorite breakfast cereals or if four leaf clovers really existed. Conversation had come so easily back then. He’d fire at me, and I’d fire right back, and nothing was censored. And Tony and Stan would laugh at our banter, take sides with me, while Heath would try to act as peacemaker by changing the topic.
But these days, Marcus left first, while Heath went to school directly from the Cantin mansion, which left Tony and Stan to walk with me. And they tried to crack jokes to make me smile, but it wasn’t the same. I could tell they wished things could just go back to normal too.
Why couldn’t we just go back to those days? Before I’d discovered Mr. Cantin was Heath’s grandfather? Before Marcus had discovered that his mother was back and hiding in the same city?
I just wanted to tell someone how I felt. I was tired of bottling it up and trying not to let anyone worry. I couldn’t tell Heath; he was too busy with his grandfather’s company. I couldn’t tell Tony or Stan. They were already worried enough as it was.
I wanted to tell Marcus how I felt. To hear him tell me to stop bottling it inside and just let it out. I wanted him to tell me to shout out to the heavens and across the mountaintops and declare all that I felt in my heart. To tell him how sorry I was that he was hurting. To tell him to stop being a huge idiot and just go talk to his mother already. To tell him I still wouldn’t have told him about his mom if I could do things over again. To tell him why I wouldn’t. Because his mother wasn’t ready to confront him or his father. Because I didn’t want her to run away again if I forced her too soon, and I knew how much he wanted to see her, despite his contrary statements. Because I wanted him to have a family again and be happy.
Because I loved him. I loved him. And not in that phony Hollywood romance kind of way. Not in that oh my gosh, he’s so hot, high school crush kind of way. I loved him because he was my friend. He was arrogant and pig-headed and entirely too confident for his own good. But he was also selfless and protective and loyal, and I sometimes saw how vulnerable he could be too.
Suddenly, I jolted out of bed. The urge to tell him all of this was just too much. But the reality still was that he refused to talk to me. So I pulled out a sheet of paper and a pen and started writing. An old-fashioned letter was the only way to convey my thoughts. If I sent him an e-mail, he might just throw it in with the spam.
But if I left him a letter, he might think twice. There was something about a letter that told someone you cared long enough to pen out the words. Every tiny little flourish, vulnerable and plain to see. The subtle nuances of your unique handwriting, all bared, unlike the uniformity of the typed word. A tear might fall from your eyes, smudging a word or two, conveying sadness or pure joy.
I poured my emotions into the letter, and when I was done, I snuck downstairs and outside into the garden. I knew exactly what flower I wanted. I followed the sweet, clean scent, not overbearing but fresh and innocent. The white of the gardenias stood out in the darkness like individual moonbeams.
I inhaled the fragrance before looking at the blossoms. I found one without a smidgeon of soot marring the perfect petals. The gardenia seemed to be Marcus’s and my flower. I’d given him one before, and he’d given me a music box decorated by a gardenia print. But the meaning of the gardenia had escaped my notice.
Oh, I knew what it meant, but I hadn’t thought it mattered since people gave away flowers all the time without caring about the meaning. As flower connoisseur, I should have known better. There was always a truthful meaning in flowers.
The gardenia meant secret love. All this time, I’d been harboring a secret love for Marcus and hadn’t known it until now. And even now, this secret love seemed to be unrequited. It was such a fitting flower that I could have laughed.
If Marcus took the time to research the meaning, he’d know my feelings for him right away, without even having to read my letter. All I had to do was anxiously await his response.
The first thing to greet me when I opened my locker was another flower. I recognized this one at least. A white gardenia. It stared back at me in mockery. That flower was supposed to be sacred—the flower shared between Emma and me. But now my mom was using it to try to convey another one of her stupid messages. And Emma had let her.
I thought I’d made it clear that I didn’t want any more flowers from Maggie Lew, especially when they were delivered via Emmaline Lockhart.
I saw the letter attached to the gardenia and snorted out loud in disdain. So a simple flower wasn’t enough to get my mom’s message across this time. Most likely the letter was filled with a thousand apologies, not that I cared. If Mom were really sincere, she’d come to me directly. And if Emma were really sorry, she would know better than to continue doing Mom’s dirty work for her.
I slammed my locker shut with a loud bang, unable to look at the flower a moment longer.
“Whoa, emo again today? And first period hasn’t even started yet.” Heath’s face popped up as soon as I’d closed my locker. “What’s wrong this time?”
“My mom sent a gardenia this time,” I grumbled. “And Emma went along with her again. I wish they’d stop.”
Heath was quiet for a moment, his expression growing a little troubled.
“Did you happen to read the note that was attached to it?” he asked.
“Don’t want to,” I said. “It’s probably just a bunch of nonsense and I’m sorry’s that I don’t want to read right now.”
“If you’re gonna tell me to read it and accept that bull shit of an apology, save your breath,” I told him in a low growl. “I’m not in the mood for one of your lectures.”
Heath sighed, and for a second I thought he might attempt a lecture anyway. But to my relief, he let it slide. “That’s not the reason I came by. I just wanted to say hi because I probably won’t see you again until next week.”
“My grandpa’s making me sit in on some meeting every day, and I’m supposed to go home after second period today for intense training.”
“Why’d he even bother making you come to school then?”
My best friend gave a helpless shrug, looking far too tired and burdened for a seventeen year-old. Then the bell rang, and we parted. As I walked to class, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through Heath’s head. He never complained, but if I could guess, I’d say he was frustrated. Finding out Old Cantin was his grandpa had turned his life upside-down, and not all for the best. Now Heath was so busy learning about the company that he didn’t have time to draw. I wondered if Cantin even knew about Heath’s talent in art. And most of all, would Cantin even allow Heath to go to art school if he was supposed to take over The Fragrance Stop?
Life had been so much simpler when we didn’t have family to complicate things.
After school the next day, I still hadn’t received any acknowledgement that Marcus had seen my letter or the gardenia. I knew he must have though. I’d snuck both into his locker early this morning.
Anxiety had me pacing the wall outside the library, where I usually met the four thieves after school. Recently though, Marcus had been making up excuses to stay late after school—either going to different club activities and staying until dinner time or meeting up with his chemistry teacher after school to get extra help. Since he was getting an A in that class, we all knew it was just an excuse to get out of walking home with the rest of us. An excuse to avoid me.
I really hoped the letter would change all that.
Finally, I saw Tony and Stan emerge from the hallway, and my heart fell. Marcus wasn’t with them. The gardenia hadn’t made any difference.
“Emma, you forgot to bring your tracking device again, didn’t you?” Tony commented.
I made a face, remembering that it was at home on my desk where I’d tossed it the other day. Grandmother kept nagging at me to bring it, but since I was always forgetting, she kept bothering the four thieves, making sure they followed me wherever I went. I didn’t know why, but Grandmother was being very overprotective these days. “Did she leave you another message?”
“Only five,” Tony replied.
“And seven for me, and eleven for Marcus,” Stan said. “She told all of us to make sure we don’t take our eyes off you. I wonder why she’s been so jumpy recently.” He shrugged it off. “Anyway, let’s go home.”
“What about Marcus?” I asked, although I already knew the answer.
“He has a club meeting,” Stan replied, casting me a look of concern. “And then chemistry tutoring. He told us not to wait for him.”
“I guess he’s still not talking to me,” I sighed.
“Or maybe he really does need help in chemistry,” Tony piped in. “Don’t take it personally.”
I knew they were only trying to make me feel better, but we all knew the truth. Marcus hated me. He wasn’t going to forgive me. “I’m fine,” I said, forcing a smile so they would stop worrying. “Let’s go home.”
On the bus ride home, I fixed my gaze on the seat in front of me, and my mind started to wander. Marcus had rejected my apology and my love. I wanted to sob. But then the thought came over me…why should I feel bad? Marcus was an idiot, and I was even more of an idiot for letting him bother me. I couldn’t help that he was being a stubborn jerk.
I shook my head and willed myself to stop thinking about him. If he rejected me, then I didn’t need him. I still had other friends. I had Tony and Stan and Heath. And they all sided with me on this.
So take that, Marcus.
As I made the decision to toss out all thoughts of the imbecile, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked over to see Stan nodding his head to a seat several rows ahead of us. “Emma, don’t you think that the back of that guy’s head looks familiar?”
The guy to whom Stan was referring did indeed look familiar from the back. He had soft, curling golden hair that was just a little longer than the current styles. The tilt of his head was bent, exposing the graceful muscles of his neck. It looked like he was focused on something he held in front of him—a book, or…a sketch.
“Heath!” Stan and I said together.
Tony poked his head between us to get a closer look. “That does look like Heath. But what’s he doing here? He’s supposed to be at a meeting with the old man.”
The three of us got up and made our way up front. Heath must have felt us staring at him because he looked up, and then his expression grew a little guilty. “Oh, hi guys.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked. “Aren’t you supposed to be observing a meeting?”
“Oh, I ran away.”
“You what?” The three of us chimed together.
He nervously adjusted the pencil in his hand and then started chewing on its tip. “Not forever. Just for today.”
Thankfully, the bus was only a quarter full. I slid into the empty seat next to him, and Tony and Stan took the row in front of us, turning in the seat to face us. “Did something happen between the old man and you?” Tony asked.
“Not really.” Heath sighed, as we gave him looks of doubt. “All right, maybe. I just got tired of all these schedules and meetings and training. I haven’t touched a pencil for drawing purposes in weeks. I just wanted some time to draw today, so I hopped on the bus to hide.” He gestured to the sketch in his lap. “Not the greatest idea ever. Hard to hold my hand steady with all the bumps in the road, but at least it’s something.”
After a bit more prying, we found out that Heath had been on the bus for hours now, already taking six trips downtown and back. The bus driver had been kind enough to let him stay until his shift was over, but Heath hadn’t noticed when the shifts changed and the second driver allowed him to continue the ride.
“I was gonna get off before you guys got on, but I guess time got away from me,” he said.
It was so out of character for Heath to pull a stunt like this that I found myself gawking from the shock. He must have been very desperate to have run away for the day. Poor Heath. I’d thought that by reuniting him with his grandfather, he would have a better life. I’d thought he’d want to be his grandfather’s heir, but I should have realized that was the opposite of the truth. Especially when art meant everything to Heath. But now he was being forced to take over the company instead of pursue his dream of going to art school.
“Did you tell the old man that you don’t want to be his heir and you want to be an artist instead?” Stan asked.
Heath gave him a pointed look. “And crush his own dreams? Just a few months ago, he believed he would have to sell his company because he had no heir, and now you want me to tell him he still has no heir because I don’t want the job? He’s been going on and on about how proud he is of me, and how great I’ll be. I can’t tell him. I just can’t.”
I doubted Cantin even knew that Heath was a talent in art. He was too excited making plans for his grandson to listen to the dreams his grandson had for himself. And Heath wasn’t one to speak up. He always let other people run the show because he was too nice. It was what made him sweet, and yet it was also his greatest flaw.
This was my fault. I’d been the one to recognize the similarity of genetics between Cantin and Heath. If I hadn’t alerted Cantin of that fact, Heath would still be on his way to art school. So I had to fix it. I had to talk to Mr. Cantin.
I observed my friends, waiting for the right moment. They were entirely absorbed in the conversation, as Tony and Stan wracked their brains, trying to find a solution for Heath’s dilemma. Someone pulled on the bus cord, signaling for a stop. The opportunity had arrived. Sliding out of my seat quietly, I started forward. The boys were still too engrossed in thought to glance my way, and I’d been quiet enough not to be noticed. Even though the four thieves had taught me to change, I still had been a wallflower for the better part of my life, so I had too much practice slipping away unnoticed.
Thankfully, I knew exactly where I was. After getting lost that first time, I’d made sure to memorize all the bus routes and the city map. The street was Maize Boulevard, and all I had to do to get to Lilac Hills was to hop on the 430 bus. As I waited at the stop, I wondered how long it would take for the thieves to notice I was gone.
It took as long as the bus did. As I embarked, my phone started ringing.
I took a seat before answering. “Where are you?” Heath sounded annoyed.
“On a bus,” I said. “As are you.”
“Don’t play games, Emma. I don’t have time or energy to worry about you.”
“Then don’t,” I replied. “I have an errand to run. So you three just run along home, and I’ll be back in an hour or two.”
“I can take care of myself. I’m not the same person I was when I pulled this trick on you the first time.” And then without waiting for a reply, I hung up.
I knew I was being rather cruel for leaving without a word. But I hadn’t wanted to tell Heath where I was going. He wouldn’t have let me go. He’d made it clear that he didn’t want anyone to tell his grandfather that he didn’t want to be the heir. But I’d had enough with secrets and non-communicative silences. Why couldn’t people just talk to each other? It would avoid so many problems.
If Maggie had just told her husband that she’d had an addiction to online poker and had run up a debt, they could have solved the problem together, and avoided the whole fifteen year mess. If I had just told Heath that I thought I’d found his grandfather, then we might have avoided the whole Heath-me-Marcus triangle disaster, and I would have realized I liked Marcus sooner. And if Maggie had just decided to talk to Marcus instead of having everyone lie for her, Marcus wouldn’t be mad at me right now.
I marched right up to the entrance of the Cantin estate. The gatekeeper gave me a quick glance and then went back to reading his newspaper. Without looking up, he said, “Name?”
“I’m Emmaline Lockhart, here to see Mr. Cantin.”
As soon as the words were out, I winced, realizing I’d forgotten to use my alias.
But the gatekeeper still continued reading. “Sure you are. And I’m Mike Cantin himself.” He scoffed, but finally took a peek at me over his paper. “Everyone knows the Lockhart girl is locked away in her mansion, wasting away from a terminal disease.”
Shoot, he didn’t believe me. I really hadn’t thought this through.
“Wait a minute,” the gatekeeper shook a finger at me and squinted. “I know who you are. You’re the girl who was dating the young master…Emma Hartley.” He frowned, as he quickly folded his newspaper. “Why were you trying to impersonate the Lockhart girl?”
“I was just…cracking a joke?” I hoped he wouldn’t try to pursue the issue.
“Riigghhtt,” he drawled, shaking his head as though wondering what Heath could possibly see in me. “You should have said you were Miss Hartley sooner. Mr. Heath’s missing, and the whole house is in chaos looking for him. If you know where he is, Mr. Cantin would be very appreciative.”
I told him that I did happen to know, and if he would be so kind as to allow me to speak with Mr. Cantin, I’d be happy to tell him where Heath was.
Ten minutes later, I was shown to a drawing room and instructed to wait for Mr. Cantin. Thinking I might have to wait awhile, I sighed and plopped onto the sofa, but no sooner had I done so when Mr. Cantin burst through the door, looking so flushed and frantic that the thought briefly flickered through my head that I hoped he’d taken his blood pressure medicine.
“Where is he?” Cantin demanded to know right off, without so much as a greeting. But one couldn’t blame the poor grandfather in these circumstances, so I decided to forgive him.
“Riding circles on the bus,” I said. “When we found him there on our way home from school, he’d already made six trips downtown.”
Mr. Cantin stopped in his tracks and simply stared. “The bus? What the hell was he doing on the bus? All this time, I’ve been so worried, and he’s been riding loops on the goddamn bus?”
He was obviously getting more emotional by the second, or he would have censored his language in front of me. I had to calm him down before he collapsed from heart failure. “Mr. Cantin, please sit down.” I took his arm and slowly nudged him to the armchair. Thankfully, he obeyed without a fuss.
“Emma, what’s wrong with the boy? Was he trying to run away? Was I putting too much pressure on him?” He gazed at me with such distraught eyes that it broke my heart to tell him the truth. But that was the whole reason I was here, and I didn’t intend to fail at my mission.
“He was just trying to have some time to himself,” I said. “To draw.”
“Draw?” From the surprised look he gave me, I was certain now that he’d never known that his grandson loved art.
“Heath is an extremely talented artist,” I explained. “With all the changes going on though, he’s hardly had the time to draw, and he missed it. So he hopped on the bus.”
“I didn’t even know he liked art,” Cantin said, looking amazed. “Was he afraid I’d get mad if he told me?”
I fidgeted with my hands nervously. It was time to just tell the truth. “Not quite. Truthfully, his dream is to attend art school, not become the heir to The Fragrance Stop. But Heath knows you’re excited that you no longer have to sell the company when you retire, and he didn’t want to destroy your dreams. That’s why he didn’t tell you.”
Mr. Cantin kept shaking his head and mumbling repeatedly that Heath should have just told him. I took this as a good sign and asked if he was willing to let Heath continue on to art school instead of forcing him to take over the company.
“If Heath had just come and talked to me, I would have told him to follow his own dream,” Mr. Cantin said. “Perfumes are my passion, and I made something of it. So why would I ever stop him from pursuing his own passion? That silly boy.”
I was relieved by the answer, but still a little concerned about the future of The Fragrance Stop. “What will happen to the company then?”
“Same thing I intended to do to begin with,” he said. “Merge with Splash and Spray.”
“But are you sure you want to do that?” I frowned. “You were so happy when you found out you had an heir to take over.”
“I was happy because I had a grandson, not an heir,” Cantin clarified, “And Miss Emma, I know you believe my decision to merge with Splash and Spray is only because I feel I have no other choice, but that’s not true. I don’t need an heir who is blood-related to me.” He smiled, looking solemnly into my eyes. “When our companies merge, you’ll be in charge of both my legacy and your grandmother’s one day, and I’m well content with that.” He paused, a twinkle forming in his eye. “Now, am I correct in assuming flowers and fragrances are your passion? You don’t want to go to art school too, do you?”
It took me a moment to realize he was only making an attempt at humor, but I answered anyway. “I live for flowers, sir. I’ve always dreamed of creating the perfect fragrance from the perfect flower, just like my grandparents and my father did.”
Cantin nodded approvingly. “I can see the zeal burning in your eyes whenever you talk about flowers and fragrances. It’s the same look I had, the same look your grandparents had. So that’s how I know you’ll be the best choice to be the head of both The Fragrance Stop and Splash and Spray. I believe in you.”