The whole kidnapping scandal was made public two days after I was released from the hospital. It was no longer a secret that I was Emmaline Lockhart, heiress to Splash and Spray, and that I had been kidnapped by my own mother, who was facing criminal charges in court with her boyfriend, Benjamin Lyons, and their co-conspirators, Wayne and Veronica Murdove.
A month after that, my mother, Ben Lyons, and the Murdoves appeared in court and were found guilty on all charges. During the trial, the Murdoves were also discovered to be involved in other business frauds and forgeries, and their company, Scentuous Secrets, went up for sale. Grandmother and Mr. Cantin were already planning to join forces to buy it, of course, and they were looking to hire a new manager to run the branch. Marcus told them he had the perfect man for the job, although I had no idea how he’d found someone.
It was also discovered that Veronica Murdove had another secret scandal in her past. She had a son named Anthony Mercer, and she was expected to provide financial support for him. So as a result, the Murdoves not only had prison time, but they also had to pay a hefty sum to Tony. Enough to support him through college anyway.
Because Benjamin Lyons also had to go to prison, The Bulk, or Ben, rather, was sent to Minnesota to live with his aunt on his maternal side. She was only required to take him in until his eighteenth birthday, which was just months away, but the news said she’d been fighting for custody for years and was so happy to have Ben that he was free to stay with her for as long as he needed. This was actually a blessing, in my opinion. Marcus said Ben had been abused by his father, and that was why he’d acted out by bullying other people. Hopefully he would change bit by bit under his aunt’s influence.
All of Orchid Beach kept up with the latest updates for as long as the trial lasted. It was the talk of the town and would be even months later. So it came as no surprise that when I went back to school, everyone was pretty much bowing at my feet. It was a nuisance, but there were only a few weeks left of school, and then I never had to go back again. The school had decided that I was too smart and could continue onto college. Colleges everywhere were fighting to get me, not only because I was the Lockhart heiress, but because I’d developed the Lilting Lily.
It was all very flattering, but I already knew where I wanted to go. I wanted to double major in business and plant biology at Columbia University. That way I could be with Marcus. The only problem now was convincing him to accept their offer. He was still thinking about the tuition money. I’d already told him since he’d made a deal with Grandmother, he should just take her money. I didn’t mind because now I knew he loved me.
“It’s the principle of the matter,” he’d said. Heath, Stan, and Tony weren’t going to need any of Grandmother’s money, even though they’d been part of the deal too, and Marcus refused to be the only one. Even if the other three did need some money, Marcus didn’t want to leech off Grandmother.
I was still trying to think of a way to convince him to take the money, but that was only one of my worries. My biggest concern at the moment was fast approaching. The speech I had to make in front of all the company’s members and Grandmother’s business associates was Friday morning, which happened to be tomorrow. We’d already had to postpone it by a month, due to the whole kidnapping scandal and my mother’s trial. But now there was no avoiding it.
It was already Thursday night, and I was rehearsing the speech to the boys for the thirtieth time. Once I finished, they broke out in applause.
“Marvelous,” Heath said.
“No longer sounding like a robot,” Tony grinned. “That’s a good thing.”
I sighed, still not completely satisfied. This was my last chance to practice. I scanned over my note cards once again.
“All right, that’s enough,” Stan called out.
Marcus walked up to me—the guy moved fast, even with on crutches—and grabbed the note cards away. “Hey!” I protested.
“Stan’s right,” he said firmly. “What you need to do now is relax. No more practicing. Go read some manga or something.”
As though I could concentrate on manga when the speech of my life was in—I looked at the clock—fourteen hours, twenty-three minutes, and seven seconds. But the four thieves were firm. They herded me into my room, despite my angry scowls, then dumped a pile of manga on my bed.
“Now read,” Marcus commanded. The boys were about to leave, but I called Marcus back. It was crazy, but manga no longer held my interest. Not when I was finally experiencing my own love story.
“I don’t feel like reading. Can’t you stay?” I made puppy eyes at him.
“Uh oh, I predict major smooching in the near future,” Tony said. “Guys, let’s get out of here and give the happy couple their privacy.”
Marcus propped his crutches against the nightstand before sitting on the side of my bed. He smoothed my hair back. The gesture made my heart race. I smoothed my hand across his chest and eyed his leg. “Does it still hurt?”
Both his rib and his leg had pretty much healed, but he still couldn’t apply too much pressure on his leg yet. “Nothing I can’t handle,” he said with that arrogant tilt of the head all males seemed to have. Then he grinned down at me. “But a kiss might make my leg heal faster.”
“Then a kiss you shall have,” I said. I leaned over to give him a quick peck on the cheek, but he had other ideas. At the last moment, he turned his head, and my lips slid from his cheek to his mouth. The kiss started out light, then slowly deepened, until my head was swirling, and my hands were trembling. When we finally broke off, I fought to catch my breath. This was probably only our third kiss. With Grandmother always in the house, there was only so much kissing we could do, but that made moments like this all the more special.
“Wow,” he breathed out, and I knew he was just as affected as me. All I could do was stare at him, wishing he would do that again. “Looks like it worked,” he smirked cheekily.
“I was trying to make you forget about tomorrow’s speech.”
And just like that, the nerves were back. He laughed as I gave him a glower. “Want me to make you forget again?”
“Not necessary,” I said, pretending to be peeved. I tried to turn away, but he wouldn’t let me. He grabbed me from behind, and forced us both down to lay across the covers.
“Marcus, your rib,” I protested breathlessly, trying to ease my weight off of him. But he wouldn’t let me go.
“You’re too light to do any damage. Just let me hold you awhile. Your grandma’s probably going to come in anytime to tell me to keep my hands to myself, so let me enjoy this while it lasts.”
I giggled, holding still and basking in his warmth. “You know she likes you.”
“Maybe, but she also knows I’m a hormonal teenage boy.” I felt him lift his shoulders in a shrug. “So I don’t blame her from protecting her precious granddaughter. Good thing we’ll have more privacy when we go off to college together.”
For a second, I didn’t move, wondering if I’d heard correctly. Then the words really sunk in, and I lifted my eyes to his. “Does this mean you’ve decided to go?”
“Yes,” he said, putting on a mock scowl. “You’re just too convincing an argument. How could I pass a chance to spend college life with this?” He roughed up my hair fondly.
“So you’ll take Grandmother’s money?”
“Who said anything about that?” He shook his head. “I’m not touching your grandma’s money. I’ll work part time to pay some by myself, and as for the rest, I’ll take out loans. When I get a real job after we graduate, I’ll be able to pay it back. It’ll be a struggle, yes, but I’m determined to put myself through school without burdening anyone else, including your grandma.”
“But it’s not a burden.”
“Emma,” he sighed. “Tons of people put themselves through school. I can do it too. I’ve already decided. It’s just something I’ve got to do. Understand?”
I didn’t really understand, but if Marcus had made that decision, I had to respect it. It was part of his own growing-up experience, I supposed. It didn’t matter though. The important thing was we’d be together, and I could always talk him into accepting some of my money later, using my powers of persuasion.
Which I very much wanted to use right now. Slowly, I inched my lips closer to his.
But he must have read my intent because he laughed before I could seal the deal. “Afraid that’s not going to work, sweetie. But I do admit, I’ll enjoy all your attempts at convincing me otherwise. Not now though,” he looked quickly at the door. “I keep thinking your grandma’s gonna walk in any minute, and we can’t be making out when she does. I don’t want to die.”
“Fine, I’ll behave.” I burrowed my head closer into him, closing my eyes. Neither of us spoke anymore, enjoying the silence and each other. Deciding a nap might be nice, I drifted to sleep.
Some time must have passed because the next thing I knew, my eyelids were rudely forced open by a high-pitched scream. I sat up, almost bumping heads with Marcus, who was still in bed next to me.
I blinked up at the maid, whose mouth was still hanging open from her scream. “What’s wrong Kylie?”
Her shaky hand pointed to Marcus. “What’s he doing in your bed?”
Still groggy from sleep, I had no idea what she was going on about. Thankfully, Marcus clarified the issue. “I think she’s wondering why we’re in bed together.” He looked to the window, where the sunshine was streaming through in bright torrents. “I guess we slept together the whole night.”
“You what?” Kylie looked like she was about to throw up. “Mrs. Lockhart’s gonna kill me.”
“No, no, it’s not what you think,” I said. “We just slept.”
“A teenage couple in bed, and all you did was sleep?” She stared distrustfully at us. “You expect me to believe that?”
“It’s the truth,” I protested. “And we didn’t intend to sleep the whole night through. I thought someone would wake us up.”
Now the maid flushed guiltily. “Mrs. Lockhart checked in on you, saw you were sleeping, and told me to wake you in an hour to brush your teeth and get into bed properly. But I was in a hurry to get home to see my son, and I forgot.”
If Grandmother had checked in on me, she must have seen Marcus asleep in my bed and not said anything. There was nothing to worry about then, as long as she didn’t find out we’d slept in the same bed the whole night through. Even if she did find out though, we were innocent. But I didn’t want to take the chance and provoke Grandmother’s wrath. “I won’t tell, if you don’t,” I told Kylie.
She looked thankful to hear that.
“Where’s Betsy?” I asked, wondering why Kylie was here in her place. Betsy was the one who usually called me up and helped me dress.
“She’s at Splash and Spray,” Kylie said. “Mrs. Lockhart invited her to hear your speech today. I was instructed to prepare you for the event in her place. We’d better hurry, it’s almost 9:30.”
Marcus and I spoke at once. “9:30?”
Kylie noticed our alarm and realized she’d made a mistake again. “Don’t tell me it starts at 10,” she groaned. “I swear I thought it was 11.”
Marcus was already heading out the door, and I was scrambling for the bathroom. Why was it that I was always getting into these kind of messes?
I’d never even gotten ready for school as quickly as I did now. It was a good thing Kylie was a whiz at applying makeup, unlike her skills as a maid, and somehow she managed to pretty up my face while I threw on my dress.
By the time Marcus and I arrived at Splash and Spray, we were ten minutes late. Not a good first impression, but at least we weren’t half an hour tardy. Thankfully, Grandmother was on stage first, introducing me to the audience members and buying some time. Her eyes darted in my direction, and she managed to send me a disapproving glare, even while maintaining such graceful stage presence. Remarkable. I hoped I could do that someday.
As Grandmother finally welcomed me to the stage, Marcus sent me forward with a kiss. “You’ll do great,” he whispered.
I swallowed down my nerves, took a deep breath, and marched forward, head tilted upward with confidence. As I took the podium, I stared at the audience, fighting to maintain calm. There were so many people, and most of them I’d never seen before. What if they wanted to see me fail? Their faces looked so severe and punishing.
But then my eyes collided with Tony’s, and he grinned at me, flashing a thumbs up. Next to him was Stan, also gazing at me with pride. Then Heath, looking even more anxious than I felt. And finally, Marcus, looking confident and reassuring. His steadfast eyes were focused on my face. And then I realized, sure, there were people who would always be critical and live to see me fail. But who cared about them?
The people who really mattered were right there with me, and they were the ones I would live for. I smiled at the audience and began.
“Hello friends and partners of Splash and Spray. I’m Emmaline Lockhart, granddaughter of Penelope Lockhart. I know that for some of you, this is the first time you’ve seen my face. Until recent events, my picture never even appeared in public. I remained hidden from view ever since I was eight years old, when my father tragically passed away in a car accident. I only came out of hiding when Grandmother made me attend some social event, but even then, I disguised my identity under the pseudonym, Emma Hartley.
“There have been many rumors as to where I have been hiding and why Grandmother would choose to keep me away from the public view. Truthfully, it had nothing to do with Grandmother and everything to do with my own preference. So today, I’m here to clarify some of the rumors and prove to you that I am perfectly competent to inherit this company from my grandmother when the time comes.”
I smiled prettily at some journalist who rushed to sneak a quick shot of my face as I spoke.
“I’ve heard all sorts of stories about my whereabouts. Some believe I’m a vampire, who can only come out at night to avoid exposure to the sun. Others say I have some terminal illness and have to remain bedridden. And, this happens to be my favorite, I’ve heard I might even have died long ago and am now haunting Lockhart mansion. I hope the fact that I’m standing here right now disproves those fanciful rumors, which were probably started by someone who watches too many gothic horror films.”
That earned some laughs.
“Here’s the truth. The reason I hid myself from the world and why my grandmother allowed me is because I was incredibly socially awkward. I was scared of people and what people would think of me. You see, until just a few months ago, I was horrible at reading facial emotions and far too often told the truth too bluntly to hurt someone’s feelings unintentionally. I couldn’t even understand a joke or distinguish an idiom from a literal statement. For example, when I first met one of my best friends, we hated each other. I told him I despised him, and he said I wasn’t exactly a walk in the park either. My response was, ‘How can I be a walk in the park? I’m a person.’ This was just one example of how literally I interpreted everything. Not exactly pleasant for the person trying to converse with me.”
I saw Marcus smile, as he remembered saying that to me.
“I’ve always been a mess at social events, and I often received horrified looks and ridiculing stares whenever I referred to a plant by its scientific name or repeated something I’d read in a book word for word in an effort to educate the other party. Eventually, I gave up on talking to other people all together. I retreated into my books and manga, living life vicariously through the main characters of stories. If I needed to talk to someone to release my emotions, I talked to my plants and flowers. The only people I conversed with were Grandmother, my butler, my private tutor, and my nursemaid.
“Grandmother saw how unhealthy this was and finally decided to step in last summer. She hired four tutors to educate me in social etiquette. I was required to attend public school at Orchid High with my tutors, and again, I used my pseudonym, Emma Hartley, so people wouldn’t treat me differently. After school, my tutors helped me to learn how to converse like a normal person and how to better read emotions. Most importantly, though, they helped me build my self-confidence.
“It is only after months of working on with them on my self-confidence that I am able to finally stand in front of you today, as the real Emmaline Lockhart, no longer in hiding, but willing to face the world.”
And that was the main gist of my speech. I went on to talk about what I’d learned this past year and how I’d overcome my fear of rejection and my fear of people. The whole time, my hands were shaking, and I felt a tremble in my voice, but my eyes were focused on my friends sitting in the front row. I realized that the words flowing out of my mouth had long ago ceased to exist as mere words, memorized and rehearsed, but bursts of feelings, streaming in rays of light from my heart. The audience was no longer there, and I only saw Marcus, Heath, Tony, Stan, and Grandmother. I was speaking to them, a message of love and appreciation for how they’d helped draw me out of my turtle shell.
Finally, I began my concluding statements, talking about my future plans with the company. My goal was to study hard in college so I could come back and finally work in the company, learning all I could from everyone listening to me today. Then I thanked them for coming and quietly removed myself from the stage as Grandmother came back to answer questions.
It was over. The speech I had dreaded this entire past year was over. And yet, the journey was still ongoing. Overcoming all my quirks was a learning process, and I would never be that perfect model of an heiress, graceful and fashionable and poised. But I was smart and capable, and I didn’t need to be the perfect model. Because I was Emmaline Lockhart.
At the luncheon held afterwards, people flocked to greet me. Some were phony, some genuine, some I couldn’t read at all. But it didn’t matter. My eyes scanned the crowd for Marcus and the other thieves.
Finally, I saw them moving towards me, bouquets of flowers in their hands. I laughed when I saw what flowers they held. First up was Tony, who bowed gallantly. “These are for you, my lady. Thank you for being you.” He had a bouquet of sunflowers, bright and charming, the flower I’d given him in thanks for rescuing me from getting an egg thrown at my head.
“Fennel flowers to congratulate you, my lady, for a most excellent speech,” Stan said. I gathered his bouquet, my arms getting very full. But it was a good feeling.
“And yellow roses for my best gal pal,” Heath beamed, piling his bouquet into my arms.
“I believe the boyfriend gets the privilege of being last but not least,” Tony commented.
Marcus wore such a broad grin that I was half afraid his mouth would burst at the seams. He kissed the top of my head and attempted a hug, which was a little impossible due to the myriad of flowers in my arms. “You did great.” Then he handed me my prize. “Red roses, just as promised.”
The bouquet was almost as big as me. A look of contentment passed between us, and I could feel the love radiating between us.
My four thieves. We were all going our separate ways to different schools, except Marcus and me, but we would be friends for life.
This chapter of our lives began with a rose, and it was now closing with a rose. But there were more chapters to be lived, and still plenty more flowers to be shared.
- *Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for the second story of The Heirs of Orchid High. This one’s called The Guest Who Grew a Lie.
Adam Gables fears few things in life: Santa Claus, spiders, and the color red.
Oh right, he also should fear his grandfather, the current title-holder to Gables Company, a billion dollar empire that owns Gables Park theme parks worldwide and a list of properties that could fill a novel. Adam doesn’t have any interest in the company or the money, but he’s the heir and doesn’t have the guts to disobey.
Or does he? Gramps is away on business, so Adam sneaks off to live on his own for one year to prove himself.
Only things turn out horribly wrong. In two months, he’s fired from six jobs, thanks to his severe OCD, and finds himself on the street. If that isn’t bad enough, he passes out from heat stroke, only to discover that a couple has taken him into their home, believing he’s homeless. It’s a mistake he intends on correcting until the couple’s beautiful daughter walks in. Adam decides to stay after all.
Jasmine Carwarner doesn’t trust the boy her parents brought home. No hobo she’s seen dresses in Armani. But she has no say in the matter. Her parents have been housing the homeless without her consent for years, even knowing how scared she is that one will abduct her again.
She’s determined to ignore him, but what she doesn’t expect is Adam’s persistence to win her over. Despite herself, she finds herself falling under his spell. But she has a secret she’s afraid will disgust him.
As they both uncover each other’s secrets, they also find a connection in their past, which might link Adam’s severe OCD with Jasmine’s traumatizing secret. The question is will the truth really set them free? Or will it only sever the bond of their friendship, leaving them as mortal enemies?