“Then don’t.” He sits up and pulls me into his lap, our naked bodies touching at every curve and bend, fitting together like two perfect puzzle pieces. “Lila, you have my word that when I go back to school, I’ll be one-hundred percent focused on my studies. My heart will belong to you and only you. And I know you’re going to worry. That’s in your nature. That’s who you are and I’ve known that from the day I met you. But you’ll just have to trust me.”
“So when will I see you again? Will you come back here for winter break?”
His shoulders fall. “Maine winters are brutal. A lot of times there’s no travel to and from the mainland. Granddad usually comes to Bridgeport for the holidays and your grandparents stick around to take care of the grounds. Coming back here while the rest of my family is in Connecticut isn’t going to be an option.”
“So I won’t see you again until … next May?”
“Right.” He softens his voice, but it only amplifies the disappointment in his tone. “It’s not going to be easy, but with a little trust and a little faith, I know we can do it. I mean, I kind of think we make a pretty amazing team, don’t you? Look what we pulled off this summer.”
“So what do you say?” he asks. “Are you in this with me?”
I lose myself in his calming ocean eyes for a moment before kissing the lips I’m going to spend the next nine months missing like hell.
“Yes,” I say. “I’m in this with you.”
9 Months Later…
“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.