The words “For Lila, forever” adorned the front of the envelope in blue ink, the handwriting all too familiar. But it didn’t matter what it said. I didn’t have the heart to open it.
We couldn’t be together.
Not after everything …
Leaving Rose Crossing, Maine was one of the most painful moments of my life—or at least it was until the day I came face-to-face with Thayer Ainsworth again.
After a decade of searching, he’s found me, and he wants to know why I quit my housemaid job and left his family’s island estate without so much as a goodbye. But I’m bound by a devastating secret much bigger than the two of us, and telling him the truth has consequences.
Looking into the eyes of the only man I’ve ever loved, I tell him the only thing I’m allowed to: never contact me again. And when he’s gone, I sit down and finally open his letter.
Only it isn’t a letter at all.
It changes everything.
“Where … are … they?” My lungs burn after sprinting from The Lila Cottage to my grandfather’s house where I stormed into his study, a man on a mission.
“Thayer.” He rises from his leather chair, a cordial smile on his face as he dog-ears his Architectural Digest magazine and rests it on a coffee table. “What a pleasant surprise. Wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow. Come on in. Have a seat.”
He waves me over, but I remain planted. I won’t rest, I won’t make myself at home until I know why the Hilliards are nowhere to be found.
The boat dropped me off at the dock a half hour ago, and as I made my way to the main house, I couldn’t help but notice from a distance that The Hilliard Cottage looked … off. And then I realized there were no flowers. Junie always plants flowers at the end of April, and it’s the middle of May. Also there were weeds growing out of the old flower beds. Ed never would’ve allowed that to happen. Curious—and concerned—I made my way to their cottage, only to find the front door unlocked and the place looking different from the last time I was there.
I made my way from room to room, and it only took me a minute to realize all the family photos that Ed and Junie had were gone. In their place were the faces of smiling and posing strangers. I went to the main bedroom next, only to find the closet half-filled with women’s clothes, not so much as a hint of anything a man would wear. When I went to Lila’s old room next, I found it stripped to the bones. Not a picture. Not a book. Not a single article of clothing on the dresser.
The Hilliards were gone.
I left their cottage and sprinted to the abandoned cottage. I know Lila—she wouldn’t have left without an explanation. I was positive I’d find a note somewhere in the house, and I tore the place up looking for it only to come up empty handed—except for the notes I’d written and hidden for her before I left.
She didn’t find a single one, never had a chance to read them.
Granddad rises from his chair, the corners of his lips turning down. “I’m not sure why that’s any of your business.” And then he chuckles. “Or why you’re so visibly upset.” Walking toward me, he places a hand on my shoulder. “Let’s head to the kitchen. I’ll have Bernice prepare a snack for you. I’m sure you’re hungry after your travels.”
He ushers me out of his study. “The new help.”
“Where are the Hilliards?” I ask as we walk.
He chuffs through his nose, taking his time answering. “They retired, Thayer. That’s what people do when they reach a certain age.”
I exhale, the tension in my shoulders dissipating in small increments. Retirement makes sense. They were in their early sixties last I knew, and they’d been caring for the family’s island off the coast of Maine since before I was born. Junie did the cooking and the cleaning and Ed tended the garden, maintained the landscaping, combed the private beaches, and kept up the boats and three main houses all twelve months of the year.
“They moved to the mainland then?” I ask.
“I haven’t the slightest. I sent them on their way last fall and haven’t heard from them since. For all I know they’re living their golden years in sunny Florida, or perhaps they made their way to Arizona. I believe Junie has a sister there. Either way, they’re having themselves a time, I’m sure of it.”
His nonchalance is nothing short of concerning.
Ed and Junie were like family. They’d been around for decades. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t stay in touch—or that my know-it-all grandfather wouldn’t have so much as a clue as to where they went. That coupled with the fact that Lila didn’t so much as leave a goodbye letter tells me that he’s not giving me all the facts.
I follow him to the kitchen where a middle-aged woman with gray-brown hair stands at the sink, washing dishes by hand. She’s shorter and thinner than Junie, her hair straight and cut blunt at her shoulders. There’s a permanent scowl etched on her face. She doesn’t light the room like Junie did.
“Bernice, this is my eldest grandson, Thayer,” Grandfather says.
The woman glances over her shoulder, offering a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it half-smile and a nod, her yellow-gloved hands still deep in the dirty dishwater.
“Very nice to meet you,” she says, her back toward us. “I’ve heard so much about you. Your grandfather tells me you’re pre-law at Yale?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say.
“Just finished his second year.” Grandfather beams from ear to ear. It thrills him to no end that I’ve chosen to follow in his collegiate footsteps. “Anyway, he’s made quite the jaunt today and my boy is starving. Would you mind preparing him a sandwich?”
“It’s fine. I’m not hungry,” I say.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” He puffs his chest and follows with a pompous chuff. “You just drove several hours and then you ferried in.”
I drove four straight hours from New Haven, not stopping once, because all I could think about was getting here—to Lila, Ed and Junie’s granddaughter. And then I waited two hours for a ferry that took three hours to get me here because of all the other island stops we made.
Mile after mile, the thought of seeing Lila kept me going. The sheer excitement and anticipation of being together again was all the distraction I needed.
I daydreamed about sneaking up behind her and wrapping my arms around her waist.
I pictured her sweet smile and her sparkling amber-green eyes.
I felt her hands on my face and her hair between my fingers as I stole her away and claimed her pink lips with a kiss behind the boathouse.
“How can I find them?” I ask my grandfather.
His thick brows knit. “Who, Thayer? I’m afraid you’re going to have to be a bit more specific.”
He’s playing dumb. I know better than to buy into his act.
“The Hilliards,” I say, without naming Lila specifically.
“And what reason on God’s green earth would you have to contact them?” my grandfather asks. “They’re retired. I’m sure we’re the last people they want to hear from.”
“They were a big part of my childhood. I considered them family,” I say. “It’d just be nice to be able to keep in touch is all. Would’ve been nice to know the last time I saw them was going to be … the last time.”
Granddad hooks a hand on my shoulder and gives it a squeeze.
“You’re too sentimental, boy. Just like your mother. Speaking of which, she’ll be here in two days. The rest of the crew should be here by the weekend. Say, I was going to get the ol’ ketch out and go for a sail this afternoon. You’ll join me.” In true Howard Bertram fashion, he isn’t asking.
“If you don’t mind, I think I’m going to pass. Not in a sailing mood today.”
His cheery disposition fades and he studies me for a moment. “This isn’t about the Hilliards, is it? If you’d like to write them a letter, I’d be happy to have my attorney work on locating them and sending it on.”
I consider his offer. “And how long do you think that would take?”
He squints. “Is this an urgent matter? I was under the assumption you were simply wanting to keep in touch.”
Yes, it’s urgent.
The woman I love—the only woman I’ve ever loved and will ever love—is out there somewhere and I haven’t the slightest idea as to where she is, how to contact her …
… or why she would’ve left without saying goodbye.
Lila had my address at school—before I left, I gave it to her for emergency purposes as well as my number and email address. She could’ve written me a letter. The Hilliards didn’t own a personal computer of any kind, but there was a lab at the public library in Rose Crossing—she could’ve easily looked me up and emailed me.
The last thing I told Lila when I left here last August was that I loved her more than anything in the world. She kissed me hard as the ocean breeze played with her sun-bleached waves, and then she whispered, “Two hundred and sixty-three days…”
We didn’t do the long-distance relationship thing. Not in the traditional sense. During the school year I focused on studies and extra-curriculars, and she planned to stick around Rose Crossing Island and help her grandparents whittle away at their never-ending To-Do List. When I left, we agreed that we didn’t have to spend hours on the phone talking about nothing to keep that flame flickering. We agreed we didn’t have to wait by mailboxes for handwritten letters every week as proof that our unwavering devotion was still received and reciprocated. Not that either of those things were options, but we both just knew. We knew that the other was always going to be there no matter what.
I believe that the Hilliards retired, but I don’t believe that Lila would have left here without so much as leaving a letter in the cottage.
Something isn’t adding up here.
“Thayer.” My grandfather clears his throat. “I’m speaking to you. Are you all right?”
I realize now that I’m sitting at the base of the grand staircase in my grandfather’s foyer. I don’t remember walking here. I don’t remember sitting down and placing my hands in my hair, tugging until my scalp throbs.
Coming to, I pull in a deep breath and force myself to stand. “I’m fine. Think I just need to lie down for a bit.”
His mouth flattens. He’s disappointed I won’t be sailing with him this afternoon, but he’s not going to push it. The summer is young, I’m sure he’s thinking.
“All right. I’ll have Bernice get you the key to Ainsworth,” he says. “We weren’t expecting you home this early, but everything should be in order. If it isn’t, let me know. This is her first time opening the island for the summer.”
Opening the island …
He opened the island the way other people open their pools for the summer: with checklists and procedures and quiet fanfare. “Opening the island” was always his expression for this time of year, when our entire extended family would abandon their modern lives, their work and school in favor of sun, sand, and sailing off the coast of a New England island hideaway. It was always Ed and Junie who would prepare for our arrivals. All the linens would be freshly washed, beds made. Junie used to fold our towels into little animal shapes, like we were at some resort, and Ed would shine up the boats and hose off the dock. Junie would place freshly picked and trimmed flowers in vases in every living room, kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom—that alone must have taken her hours if not days considering each home had at least five bedrooms and six baths. But she always loved to go the extra mile to make our annual homecoming a splendid affair.
My grandfather disappears into the kitchen, returning with a set of keys to my family’s designated house just a few hundred yards down the drive.
“Dinner will be at six,” he says, dropping the key ring in my hand. “Get some rest, but don’t be late. We have much catching up to do.”
As soon as he’s gone, I realize I’m squeezing the set so hard, the metal teeth are leaving indentations in my palm. Relaxing, I show myself out and head down the path to Ainsworth, gaze locked on the cedar shake siding that covers the backside. Last summer, I stole a kiss from Lila next to the white peony bushes on the north side of the house.
The bushes are lackluster now, appearing as if they hardly intend to bloom this year.
Once I get to the house, I unlock a side door and head in. My lungs fill with stuffy, slightly damp air. Apparently Bernice didn’t air out the house the way Junie always did in anticipation of our arrival, but I know she’s new so I won’t fault her for it.
Passing down the hall, I make my way to the living room before cutting through the foyer to get to the kitchen. There’s no bowl of fresh fruit waiting on the counter. Not a single vase filled with picked hydrangeas or lilacs as per tradition.
A moment later, I climb the stairs to the second floor and find my room at the end of the hall.
No folded swan towels.
No welcome note in Junie’s whimsical handwriting.
No secret welcome note from Lila tucked into my pillowcase.
I head to the windows first, sliding up the sashes and letting some much needed fresh air fill the space.
Collapsing on the bed next, I slide my hands under my neck and stare at the lifeless ceiling fan above. Everything … and I mean everything … has taken on an empty quality.
It’s like a substantial part of me is missing—and that part of me is her.
Squeezing my eyes shut, I try to rest despite knowing damn well my head isn’t going to stop spinning long enough to make that possible. But I need to calm down so I can come up with a game plan.
There’s no internet access on the island—my grandfather contacted the local phone company once, and they were told there was not enough infrastructure to support running cable or DSL lines to Rose Crossing at the time, and then they said that running those lines to the island would’ve been humanly impossible. The only options he was given were satellite or dial up. My grandfather made the executive decision to forgo both—deciding that the island was better off with as minimal technology as possible because family time was too priceless to sacrifice for “computers and video games and the like.”
I grab my cell from my pocket and check the service. It’s always been spotty out here, even at the highest point, which happens to be the attic of my grandparents’ house, so I don’t hold my breath.
One bar is enough to make phone calls if you’re okay with the sound cutting in and out, but it makes any internet capabilities virtually useless.
I try to refresh my email inbox as a test … my point proven in under two minutes when the app times out before it has a chance to load.
I’ll have to try and sneak away to town in the next day and use the computers at the library.
I’m sure a quick online search will tell me exactly where she is …
Placing my phone aside, I close my eyes once more and listen to the crash of the ocean outside my windows.
It doesn’t sound the same without her here.
And it sure as hell doesn’t feel the same.
I close my eyes and try to get some rest.
I’ll look for Lila forever if I have to.
I’ll start first thing tomorrow, and I won’t stop until I find her.
Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon bestselling author Winter Renshaw is a bona fide daydream believer. She lives somewhere in the middle of the USA and can rarely be seen without her trusty Mead notebook and ultra portable laptop. When she’s not writing, she’s living the American dream with her husband, three kids, and the laziest puggle this side of the Mississippi.
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