“I am so sorry for your loss, Miss Carlisle.” Unaware of Emily’s anxiety, the executor of her aunt’s estate clutched her hands. Aunt Millie’s attorney, Stephen M. Whitney, was a kind older man, and his sincerity meant a lot to her right now. It didn’t dissuade her much from wanting to jump up and run straight out of the room—she needed fresh air and a moment to think about all that was happening. If he was aware of the hurricane of emotions twisting her insides, he didn’t show it. Surprised by the strength of his grip, Emily lifted her gaze to the solicitor’s faded gray eyes, set in an aged-wrinkled face.
“Thank you, Mr. Whitney.”
“I will miss your aunt terribly,” the lawyer confessed. “She was a kind woman, and for many years, she’d been a wonderful friend to this old man.” Stephen Whitney’s Adam’s apple moved up and down in what reminded her of an egret’s neck.
Mr. Whitney’s confession caught Emily off guard. Although Millie had many friends, why this surprised her, she couldn’t say. Her aunt—independent, smart, creative, kindhearted, and always busy. Books were her pride and joy, so much so, she dedicated an entire room on the second floor to them. Floor-to-ceiling shelves, a well-used oak teacher’s desk covered with notepads and scraps of paper, and a soft floral sofa turned the bedroom into her personal library. The inviting space where Millie had written a series of children’s adventure books was untouched by time. Emily’s lips curved into a small smile, remembering the occasions when Millie had invited her to read a chapter of her newest work. Seven years old, she’d felt important, curled up on the sofa and discussing the book’s characters with her aunt. It was Emily’s dream to grow up to be just like her.
“Sixty-five, and spunky as a Welsh Terrier… well, it was such a dreadful way to go.” Though the attorney had spoken just above a whisper, the crack in his voice had snapped Emily’s head out of cozy memories. He was talking about her aunt’s death.
Yes, it has been horrible, and thanks for the reminder, bringing up the grief she’d tried so hard to keep at bay. Not to mention, was there really a pleasant way to die? whispered in her mind, but Emily clamped her lips together before the words slipped from her mouth.
Aunt Millie had collapsed in her driveway. Hours later, the mail carrier, dropping off a package, found her passed out in the gravel with Bentley lying next to her, guarding her. Blocked arteries, the doctor had said, caused a massive heart attack, damaging a large portion of Millie’s heart. Emily had often wondered what would have happened if the mail lady had found her earlier, getting Millie to the hospital sooner? Thinking of her aunt lying in the drive, unable to summon help, tore at her soul, and she wasn’t about to let the attorney rip the Band-Aid from the wound.
A slight pause in conversation made Emily think he’d wanted to say more. Whitney cleared his throat, assuming an animated tone, he smiled and continued, “Millie loved those animals. I’ll tell ya, this nice lady could turn on a grape—when it came to the subject of animal abuse, one could watch her spit nails defending those critters.”
“Yes.” Emily smiled back at the spitting nail image. “Rescue dogs were important to her.”
The lawyer squeezed Emily’s hands, “A warrior in the fight for animal rights.”
Through the puddles flooding her eyes, Emily held her smile. “She was.”
Stephen Whitney tilted his head, keeping her hands in his. Emily wished he’d let her go. Suspecting, he mourned her aunt, she didn’t have the heart to break away.
“The last time she came to see me, she showed me a picture of Bentley, saying she was fostering him, but by the proud look on her face, I just knew she’d adopt him. I’m so happy he’ll be safe with you.”
The lump in Emily’s throat tightened. “Thank you for your kind words, it means the world to hear.” Her voice carried low as she gently removed her hands from his clasp. “Aunt Millie was like a second mom to me, Mr. Whitney. I assure you, Bentley will always be safe with me.”
“That’s good to know, Miss Carmichael. We’ll be in touch. In the meantime, call me if you have questions.”
Stephen Whitney, the perfect gentleman, escorted Emily to the door. On the bustling street outside the attorney’s office, she paused and took a deep breath, but the hot and sticky air did nothing to wipe the fog from her head. The sky had turned nearly black. Bolts of lightning zigzagged across bloated, ominous-looking clouds, followed by the heavy rumble of thunder.
Having lived in Upstate New York for the past twenty-one years, she wasn’t used to the unbearable humidity of this August heat. Like most homes in Sackets Harbor, her apartment didn’t even have a/c—not that she’d missed it. Throwing open all the windows, the lake breeze usually kept her comfortable. Since she worked from home, she’d placed her desk facing the window where she could catch a glimpse of the water. When her neck stiffened from being hunched over the computer for hours to finish a graphic design project, she’d stroll through the park and to the shoreline. After two weeks in Kentucky, the humidity of the August heat still took her breath away.
The air picked up speed, furiously pushing aside everything in its way. Emily leaned into the wind, hurrying along as the first fat drops splotched the sidewalk. She spotted a corner bistro, and without a second to spare, she ducked inside for shelter.
Muted chatter greeted her inside the rustic wood and stone foyer. Apparently, others had had the same idea. A group of about seven men and women shuffled around the hostess stand, waiting to be seated. To her left, an older couple sat on a wooden bench, holding hands, the woman smiling at something her partner said. How sweet, Emily thought, and her heart squeezed. One day, would she be that lucky?
The line moved quickly, and within minutes the hostess beamed a mile-wide smile at Emily. “Will someone be joining you?”
“Just me,” Emily answered, returning the young woman’s smile while inwardly gritting her teeth. Why do people have to point out the obvious? She was all alone now and didn’t need to be reminded of her situation.
From a wooden bucket hanging on the wall, the hostess lifted a prepared set of silverware. “Follow me, please.”
Stepping through the high arch separating the foyer from the dining area, Emily’s gaze swept over the same wood and stone interior that carried through from the foyer. The cozy charm reminded her of the Sacket’s Harbor Brewing Company back in New York. Already, the place was packed, and Emily realized she’d snagged a seat not a minute too soon. Conversations rose all around, glasses clinked, dishes clattered, and from the bar, a burst of laughter sailed through the air. As a server passed by, the rich aroma of a savory broth drifting from his tray. French onion soup, one of her favorites, but today, the steam curling from the cups didn’t spell out her name.
At a corner table next to a window, the hostess placed the menu and silverware onto the distressed tabletop while Emily pulled out a chair. “Your waitress will be right with you,” she smiled, her gleaming teeth worthy of a toothpaste commercial. Gosh, each visit to Aunt Millie’s reminded her how friendly everyone was around here. Not that New Yorkers weren’t, it was just… different—must be all that sweet tea everyone slurps by the gallon.
When the hostess left, Emily’s gaze floated to two ladies chit-chatting a couple of tables away. Mother and daughter, she guessed by their similar facial features and their age-gap. With a sideways glance, she absorbed the duo’s relaxed way of talking to each other. Were they catching up? Discussing something important? From the younger woman’s face easing into a beaming smile, Emily assumed they were just enjoying each other’s company. Regret riddled her thoughts. Why hadn’t she visited her aunt more often?
Emily just wanted to wait out the thunderstorm. She really didn’t feel like eating anything, but when the waitress stopped at the table to take her order, she found Emily undecided.
“Hon, have you had our Hot Brown before?”
“I just saw it, but no, I haven’t.” Emily’s forehead creased as she scanned the menu, wrestling with a decision.
“Sweetie, it’s our special… to die for,” the waitress said, kissing her fingertips while raising her eyes to the ceiling. “A bed of toasted bread, sliced turkey, bacon, and a heap of Mornay sauce, broiled until golden brown—how can you go wrong?”
At the enthusiastic endorsement of the dish, Emily ordered the local favorite. “And a glass of water, please.”
“Your food will be out shortly,” the waitress promised when she returned with a tall glass.
The noises within the dining room faded from Emily’s conscience as thoughts of her aunt anguished her mind—had it already been more than a week since her funeral?
Outside, the rain drummed against the window. She turned her gaze to the old-fashioned pane set deep into the thick stone wall. Fat raindrops rolled slowly over the imperfections of the antique glass—a mirror image of her sadness. The deep well of the sill flashed a memory of the reading nook under her window in Millie’s home. Nestling atop the thick cushion with a sketchbook on her knees, it had been one of her favorite spots to create colorful drawings. It’s where her career as a graphic designer started—drawing Baxter, the cat, the landscape outside the window, and fantasy images of princesses in illustrious castles.
Mom, Aunt Millie, and stepdad, Bill, made up her small family, but Bill insisted they were not just family, but her super fans. He’d framed one of her drawings and hung it on the hallway wall. “I’m keeping this forever because one day our princess will be a famous artist,” he’d said and winked.
“She’s getting it from her aunt,” Millie had laughed, and mom smiled, saying, “That’s my artsy, little girl.” Remembering the moment warmed her insides all over again.
When Mom had married Bill, Emily secretly wished for a baby sister or brother. If only that had happened. It would be a great comfort to share the grief of Millie’s loss with family. Instead, she was on her own. A fast-moving cancer had claimed her mom’s body three years ago, and her death had cut Bill to the quick. Once a strong-willed soldier in great physical shape, Bill numbed his pain with whiskey and beer. Emily never suspected the secret bingeing he’d kept hidden so well. Adding prescription sleeping aids to the mix surely hadn’t been intentional, but either way, the combination had been fatal. Then ten days ago, she’d buried her aunt.
“Here you go, hun. Be careful, the plate is blazing hot.”
“Oh,” Emily startled when the Southern lilt had disrupted her introspection. “Thank you. It looks delicious.” She smiled, taking a glimpse at the scalding plate. Oh gosh, the open turkey creation bubbling under a layer of cheese did look delicious. Hopefully, she would be able to eat more than a few bites.
“Enjoy, hun,” the waitress drawled and left Emily alone with her thoughts.
Waiting for her dish to cool, Emily’s lips curved into a small smile. Little had changed over the last years since the Army reassigned Bill to New York, and they’d moved to Fort Drum. The same woods and pastures still surrounded the house at the edge of Oak Creek, only now she found herself as the new owner of the ancient farmhouse. Aunt Millie had left her entire estate to Emily. What was she going to do with it? She wouldn’t sell, but she couldn’t leave it vacant either. Maybe lease it out?
Tormented with indecision, Emily took a heavy breath.
My sweet girl, Emily. The farmhouse is yours to do as you please, but I hope you decide to make Oak Creek your home. You always loved roaming through the pastures and chasing my two mutts to the pond. Remember that? You were about six or seven. With all my heart, I hope you will be happy here once again.
In her will, Millie had expressed her wish for Emily to move into the timeworn farmhouse, but she’d just moved from Syracuse to Sackets Harbor eight months ago, and making another big move seemed so daunting. Granted, the tiny village was even more rural than Oak Creek, but it was the balm healing her shredded heart. She’d always been a bit of a loner, never having many friends, and the few she’d left behind became fewer with the physical distance. In her new town, she’d met a handful of lovely people, like Danielle, the owner of the gift shop by the lake, who’d become a good friend. Though Danielle was a talker and would tell her life story in an hour, they weren’t close enough to share secrets. Content with her quiet life at the edge of the lake, she’d miss her job and being close to the water if she relocated to Oak Creek. Well, two years ago, she left the corporate nine-to-five grind, and Savvy Design, LLC was born. Every day, she thanked heaven for the freedom of working from home. Her computer would power up from anywhere.
So much to think about. Her stomach clenched, and her eyes watered as the emotions she was trying to push away resurfaced. Emily tore her gaze away from the window, unrolled her napkin, and dabbed the cloth to the dampness about to spring from her lashes. Two tables away, she caught the mother-daughter duo’s curious glances. Nope, she wouldn’t cry. Picking up her silverware, Emily carved out a small piece from the steaming dish tickling her senses. At the mouthwatering aroma of fried bacon rising from between thick slices of Texas toast, her stomach growled—an audible reminder she’d skipped breakfast this morning. Too nervous to eat before meeting the estate attorney, she’d only downed two cups of coffee.
Emily chewed slowly, savoring the mingling flavors. That’s when it really hit her—she owned Millie’s entire estate. That meant all of her assets, too. As the consequences of the realization slammed into her, she swallowed, sending food down the wrong way. Choking and sputtering, with blood rushing to her face, she jerked the napkin to her mouth.
“Hon, are you all right?” The waitress appeared from nowhere, topping off Emily’s water, looking prepared to perform the Heimlich maneuver if necessary.
“I’m fine, thank you.” Quickly recovering from the embarrassing fit, Emily took a few shallow sips, hoping that the rest of the patrons weren’t staring. When she caught the mother and daughter eyeing her with concern, she touched a hand to her chest and sent a warm smile, letting them know she was all right now.
At the attorney’s office, the disclosure of Millie’s will had left her stunned. Her spinning mind somehow refused to grasp the implications of her aunt’s testament. Millie’s farmhouse, a vast amount of cash, stocks—all together worth nearly two million bucks—would soon be transferred into Emily’s name. Because of her aunt’s will, at age twenty-eight, Emily would become a financially independent woman.
Her thoughts muddled. Millie had been a frugal woman, cutting coupons to save a quarter. Her home was comfortable in a 70s sitcom décor. It badly needed upgrading, but Aunt Millie hadn’t seen the urgency to do so.
Convinced her aunt spent all her savings on travels, church tithes, and animal rescue donations, Emily had never nudged her to freshen up the interior or hinted at the outdated kitchen appliances. It was obvious Millie had saved it all for her to do with as she pleased after she was gone. The idea brought tears to Emily’s eyes once again.
Dear God, this was too overwhelming. She didn’t want to think about any of it—the money, the home, Oak Creek, her apartment, and her car in Upstate New York. She’d deal with it later, after the hurricane inside her head stopped, and the fog had lifted from her mind.
Deciding to concentrate on her meal, Emily picked up the knife and fork she’d dropped onto her plate and cut another piece of toast, but childhood memories of living in the rambling old house chased her mind like tumbleweeds chased by the wind.
“Can I get you anything else, hon?” The waitress stopped by the table as Emily finished her food.
“Oh, gosh no, I’m stuffed.” She flattened a palm to her belly, surprised at having finished the whole thing. “Thank you. It looks like the rain has let up, so I’ll take the check when it’s ready… I had better get going.”
“Busy day? Are you passing through or new to town?” The waitress, who Emily now noted her pin and her name, Trudy, was reaching around in her large apron pocket, presumably for her bill.
Not wanting to get into any large conversations, Emily kept her answer noncommittal, “Visiting for now. Thank you,” she said as she set a ten-dollar tip on the table. “This is for you.”
“Why, thank you, sweetie,” Trudy said, “I hope you have a lovely day.” As she cleared away the last of the dishes, Emily reapplied her lip gloss and readied herself to step outside.
She wanted to take her time to decide about her future. A lot has transpired, and she needed to think about what she wanted in life. While she’d waited out the storm, a plan had begun brewing, making her insides flutter with excitement. She pushed to her feet, grabbed her purse sitting on the next chair, and collecting the check from the table, headed toward the long wooden bar where an old-fashioned cash register rested.
Emily settled her bill and stepped out onto the sidewalk. It still drizzled, but the thunderstorm had rinsed the air. Her lungs expanded with a refreshingly deep breath, and just that fast, she’d reached a decision. Childhood memories had opened her heart to moving back to Kentucky and into the home that held some of her happiest moments.
Tilting her head, she faced the sunless sky. “Thank you, Aunt Millie. I’ll take great care of your home. Bentley and I will miss you so much!” As the light rain gently kissed her face, Emily smiled.
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