Authors: Harper Steen,Lesley Schuldt
All rights reserved. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited.
Any similarities to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Liz leaned against the trunk of a beech tree, completely at ease, her ankles casually crossed. She stood so deeply in the shadow of the setting sun that she blended into it and wasn’t visible at first glance.
For a few minutes she watched the couple that stood at some distance from her and the large mansion. Liz turned away from them and let her gaze wander over the extensive garden with its abundantly flowering beds. In addition to the massive wall that bordered the entire property, perfectly manicured trees surrounded the enormous estate and shielded it from curious glances.
The grass, the borders and the ornamental plants that had been laid out symmetrically by an army of landscapers further emphasized the grand character of the estate. Liz wondered how long those underpaid gardeners toiled every day to keep the grounds in such pristine condition.
She thought back to the time when the garden hadn’t looked so immaculate, back when it looked more like one tended by a loving hand than one destined for the pages of a lifestyle magazine. It had been more than fifteen years since her mother, Isabelle Gibson, had looked after the garden. Although she’d had some help, hardly a day had gone by when Isabelle didn’t spend time in her garden.
She had been just as gentle with her rebellious children as she had been with her flowers. Her love engulfed them like a sweet perfume. That unconditional love had given Liz an indescribable feeling of security and protection. A single encouraging smile from Isabelle had been enough to send Liz’s childhood worries, and later her teenage ones, up in smoke. Her father, Harold, had loved his children unconditionally as well, but he couldn’t always be there for her; he was too busy at work, growing his company. Her stomach clenching painfully, Liz let her head sink against the brittle trunk of the tree and closed her eyelids as she recalled the day of the accident that had so abruptly changed her life.
It had happened only four weeks shy of her fourteenth birthday. She’d persuaded her friend, Maggie—a red-haired tornado who was always up for a good time—to hang out longer with her at the mall. If she hadn’t, they wouldn’t have missed the bus and she wouldn’t have had to call home for a ride. Liz’s mother had chided her on the phone for dawdling, but nonetheless promised to pick up the two girls. Two hours later, the familiar Thunderbird coupe still hadn’t shown up in front of the mall entrance, so Maggie called her mother. When Beatrice pulled up to the curb a half hour later, she got out and broke into tears the minute she saw Liz. She pulled Liz into her arms, held her tightly, almost painfully to her and whispered again and again how sorry she was.
“What are you sorry for?” asked Liz in a choked voice, understanding that something terrible must have happened for the unflappable Beatrice to have burst into tears in public. “What are you sorry about? Where’s my mother? What’s happened?” At first anxious, then panicked, she asked again and again, until Maggie’s mother stopped sobbing long enough to explain. Liz stared at Beatrice in wide-eyed disbelief. She shook her head repeatedly, wrapped her arms around herself and stepped back from the woman who claimed something that simply wasn’t true.
Because it couldn’t be true
. When Maggie’s mother reached a shaking hand out to her and pulled her into her arms, Liz couldn’t hold back her tears any longer. At first she clung to the older woman, sobbing, then she pushed Beatrice away with all her strength. Disoriented and blinded by tears, Liz ran from her. Her thoughts tumbled incoherently. Distraught, Liz ran across the enormous parking lot and stumbled into a busy multi-lane road, not caring that she was endangering her life.
That she survived that day was due to the quick intervention of an alert policeman. He pulled her back, just in time, from a truck whose driver had frantically slammed on his brakes. The policeman held Liz tightly on the grassy shoulder so that she wouldn’t run into the road again, while she cried, flailed, and screamed for her mother. After a long time passed, Liz stopped crying, and she went limp in the policeman’s arms, staring ahead as tears ran down her cheeks. Maggie and Beatrice talking to Liz in turns—Liz wasn’t aware of any of it. She could think of nothing but the terrible accident that Beatrice said had caused the death of her beloved mother.
A fully-loaded semi-truck had plowed into a traffic jam that had formed around a construction area on the highway, and several cars had been crushed together. More than a dozen vehicles were involved in the collision. The emergency workers had to use heavy equipment to extricate the occupants from their vehicles. Liz’s mother’s Thunderbird coupe was at the end of the traffic jam and was struck first, taking the worst of the impact. She was the first person the rescuers pulled out, but the injuries she’d sustained were severe. She died on the way to the hospital.
Like a house of cards, Liz’s idyllic world collapsed. For a long time she blamed herself for her mother’s death. If she hadn’t dawdled, her mother wouldn’t have been on the road and she’d still be alive. Feelings of guilt caused Liz to shut herself off from her family and she withdrew from them more and more, believing herself no longer worthy of their love and affection. Liz even avoided her brother, John, whom she idolized. And she didn’t let her father near her since he could hardly bear the death of his beloved wife, whom Liz resembled so closely.
It was years before Liz understood that her mother’s death wasn’t her fault and that no one blamed her for it. But by that time, the gulf between her family and her had become insurmountable.
Liz opened her eyes slowly and stared at the thick treetops above, trying to shake off her bleak thoughts of the past. Only the here and now counted, and this meant that she would likely have another argument with her father tonight. Just like she did every time she saw him.
Needing something to take her mind off her upcoming meeting with her father she turned her gaze back toward the couple she’d noticed earlier and studied them.
Interesting, really interesting,
she thought. She pushed a light blonde strand of hair back from her face and shoved it behind her ear before looking at her watch. Feeling curious, for the next ten minutes Liz watched the smartly dressed couple as they stood side by side looking at the gardens and talked softly, but animatedly. She didn’t know who the man was, but she did know the young woman who was with him. It was Annie, her brother’s fiancée. Though they were too far away for her to overhear what they were saying, she couldn’t help but wonder: What were these two doing alone in this isolated part of the garden?
Liz scrutinized the stranger closer—at least what she could see of him. At the moment, that was only his impressive backside. She took in every detail. She judged him to be a little over six feet, maybe even a little taller. He wore his dark brown hair short, almost military-short. His dark suit fit perfectly. In summary, he looked good. Liz instinctively knew that he wouldn’t be the type to still be living with mom and dad, trying to cash in on their success.
Her eyes were glued to his muscular body. She’d been longing for a distraction, and here was the perfect one. Liz decided that it was time to grill the guy who was talking so amicably with her sister-in-law—and who didn’t seem to care a bit that Annie was already spoken for.
She took a sip of the beer that she held loosely in her left hand and pushed off from where she’d been leaning against the wide tree trunk. As she stepped leisurely out of her hiding spot, she pulled a small pack from her jacket pocket, shook out a cigarette and shoved it between her full lips. She lit it and inhaled deeply.
Liz stopped just a few steps away from the couple, who were so intent on their conversation they still hadn’t noticed her. She gave a scornful laugh and the broad-shouldered man turned toward her abruptly. He stared perplexed at Liz for a minute, one eyebrow rising in question. Liz ignored him and turned instead toward her future sister-in-law.
“John is probably looking for you, Annie. Don’t you think you should go find him before he wonders where you’re hiding?”
“Liz! Where did you come from? I didn’t even see you.”
Liz smirked. Annie had spun around in shock. To be caught in the act like this really had to suck for her. Or was she just surprised by Liz’s unexpected appearance? That certainly couldn’t be it, so she decided to give her brother’s fiancée a little grief. “I can certainly believe that. You were pretty preoccupied. Am I interrupting something?”
“It’s not what you think.”
“No, no, of course not. What am I thinking, anyway?” The corner of Liz’s mouth twitched scornfully. She inhaled again and studied Annie with feigned friendliness. But her sister-in-law-to-be wasn’t so easily intimidated.
Annie sighed, shook her head irritably so that her dark curls flew wildly back and forth, then turned to her companion, pointedly ignoring Liz, just as if she were a rude little girl. Annie had known John’s sister for some time now and had witnessed more than enough of her antics to still be impressed by them.
In the beginning, Liz’s belligerent attitude had been completely incomprehensible to Annie. Then John had explained how much their mother’s death had changed his sister.
Everyone processed traumatic experiences differently and it distressed Annie to see how much Liz still suffered from the loss of her mother after all these years. She would have loved to have a better relationship with her future sister-in-law, if only Liz wouldn’t nip every attempt she made to get closer to her in the bud. Annie wasn’t going to give up though; she liked Liz too much for that.
She’d learned a while ago that when Liz was so confrontational she could take the wind out of Liz’s sails by simply ignoring her and her barbed comments. The other option was to simply walk away—and that’s exactly what she did now.
“I’m sorry, Gray! I’ll see you later, and when I do, I’ll tell you more about what the landscape architects working on the green space design said.” With one last, disapproving glance at the troublemaker, Annie turned and left Gray and Liz in the garden.
Liz thought about Annie’s words. Landscape architect? Green space design? Uh oh. She realized that she’d put her foot in her mouth pretty badly this time.
Maybe I should have eavesdropped first before I went on the attack.
Liz gazed after Annie, but she didn’t really feel any regret.
Liz shrugged. Her future sister-in-law was used to it and was so soft-hearted, she would forgive Liz’s
as she always did, despite the irritation she had displayed upon leaving.
Surprised by the display of rudeness he’d just witnessed, Gray examined the scruffy figure who had interrupted his conversation with Annie. Judging by her clothes, he figured she didn’t have any business here. Her washed-out, faded black jeans were so torn, it was a miracle that they even stayed on her body, and her T-shirt was so short that it ended more than a hand’s width before her waistband. The dark brown leather jacket she wore over her shirt—which was, in his opinion, much too short—had also seen better days, and was raw and shabby in many spots. His gaze lingered on the bare, lightly tanned skin of her stomach and on her navel, making him feel something like embarrassment. He hoped the brat couldn’t read minds.
He tried to appear as relaxed as possible and let his gaze wander to her face which was framed by chin-length, messy, light blonde hair. Every so often, a stray strand would tickle the delicate, smooth skin of her face and she would sweep it away with an impatient gesture.
Liz turned toward Gray and looked up at him. A mocking expression was in her flashing blue eyes, and was mirrored in her smile. Was that a challenge?
“Didn’t anyone teach you manners when you were a child? Who are you anyway that you dare to speak to her like that?” His eyebrows were knit close and his gray eyes roamed over her shapely figure again.
!” The malicious way she emphasized his name made it clear that she was either making fun of him or actually provoking him. Or both. That had never happened in his thirty-six years. He was used to being given proper respect.