Eight-year-old Aubrey stood in the entryway of the massive home and shivered. She held all of her possessions—or at least the ones that the woman who had been sent by her father to come get her would allow her to grab—in the small bag that she clung to her chest.
“Don’t dawdle in the hallway.” The woman, Miss Ellison, as she had instructed Aubrey to call her, nudged her forward, causing her worn sneakers to slip on the smooth tile floor. “Careful,” the woman hissed. “If you break anything in this house, Mr. Smith will have my head.” The woman scowled down at her.
Aubrey tried to focus on walking carefully and followed after the woman through the massive house. She got so distracted watching the way Miss Ellison’s crisp slacks almost crackled with each step that she forgot to pay attention to where the woman was leading her. The woman’s short narrow heels echoed in the large home, lulling Aubrey into a zombie-like state.
Suddenly, she appeared in a narrow hallway after what seemed like a maze of stairs, doors, and wider hallways.
“These are your rooms,” Miss Ellison said as she opened double doors and stood back to allow Aubrey to step inside.
The room was white. Very bright white. Everything inside was so stark, it almost blinded Aubrey. Blinking a few times, Aubrey set her bag down on the floor. Miss Ellison scooped it up quickly.
“I’ll just put your things away.” She moved over towards a dresser.
“No,” she shouted, rushing to grab her bag away from the woman. “They’re mine.” She hugged it once more to her chest.
Miss Ellison leaned down until they were face to face. “There will be no more of that kind of outburst in this house. Do I make myself clear?”
Aubrey held in a sniffle but nodded. “I’m sorry,” she said softly.
“Very well, put your own things away. I expect this room to be tidy at all times. Your father has arranged for clothing.” She opened two tall mirrored doors. There were more pretty clothes in the massive walk-in closet than Aubrey had seen in any store. Setting her bag down again, she walked over and ran a finger down the soft lace of a pink dress. “Your bathroom is in there.” Miss Ellison motioned towards a doorway. The woman’s eyes ran up and down Aubrey. “I expect you to clean up and get dressed into something more appropriate. Be downstairs for dinner in”—she glanced at the thin silver watch on her wrist— “an hour sharp.”
With that, the woman turned around and left the room. Aubrey heard the sounds of the woman’s heels echoing down the hallway as she disappeared into the house.
She was enthralled with all the clothes and spent a long time in the closet. She was a little shocked to see that most of the clothes were pink. Not that she didn’t like the color pink, but almost every item was a different shade of the color. Nothing was orange, green, red, or her favorite color, blue.
Leaving the closet, she opened the bathroom door and wasn’t surprised to see the white space. A large claw bathtub sat in front of an oval stained-glass window. A glass and tile shower sat in the back corner with two white sinks on white countertops directly across from it. Even the towels were white.
She turned away and sat on the white carpet to open her small bag.
Pulling out a worn picture, she looked down at her mother’s beautiful face and cried for her loss.
A little over an hour later, she pushed her unruly red hair away from her eyes and stepped into what she hoped was the dining room. She’d spent too much time trying to find her way around the empty rooms and long hallways. The place scared her but what scared her more was not knowing where she was. She vowed to learn every inch of the place as quickly as possible.
“You’re late,” Miss Ellison said sternly.
“I’m sorry, I… got lost.” She looked around the massive room. She promised herself that it would never happen again. She wanted to be able to escape any room, even in the dark, if necessary.
She’d seen her father only once before, the day of her mother’s funeral. Now the older man sat at the end of a very long table surrounded by servants as candlelight danced over his features.
“Well, come on then,” Miss Ellison said, taking her shoulders. Then she knelt down beside her and tucked her long hair further behind her ears. She straightened the white dress Aubrey had picked out to wear and frowned down at the sneakers she was still wearing. “Didn’t the shoes fit you?” she asked her.
“No.” Aubrey frowned. “They were too big.”
The woman nodded. “You’ll grow into them.” She stood up and straightened her skirt. “Now, go on and have a seat.” She motioned to the chair across from her father.
Aubrey walked over, willing herself not to trip, and sat down in the tall chair. Miss Ellison scooted the chair in until Aubrey’s stomach was pushed up tight against the table.
There were so many plates and so much silverware in front of her that she tucked her hands in her lap, afraid to touch anything.
“I expect you to be on time.” Her father’s voice boomed across the space, causing her to jump slightly.
“Yes, sir,” she answered quickly.
Her father’s eyes narrowed. The fact that they matched her own eyes caused her stomach to flip.
She had her mother’s fiery red hair and light pale completion, but everything else about her matched the man sitting across from her.
Her father was old and wrinkled, and she wondered if he’d been that way when her mother and him had made her. She knew all about how babies were made, thanks to Marcy Moore, a girl in her class. Marcy’s mother was expecting a baby and had told Marcy all about it. Of course, Marcy had told her everything, since they were best friends.
The thought of her mother loving the man sitting across from her had Aubrey’s stomach rolling again.
“Well,” her father called out, “the girl is here.” He waved towards a thin bald man, who snapped his fingers. Several staff members rushed around the table, removing empty plates and bringing a bowl of orange liquid.
She wondered quickly why the plates were there in the first place if they were going to just be removed.
Aubrey frowned down at the orange liquid in the bowl that had been set in front of her. “What is it?” she asked.
“Squash soup,” Miss Ellison answered. She hadn’t realized that the woman was still standing behind her.
“I don’t like—”
“You’ll eat what I provide for you,” her father said loudly. “Every drop.” His eyes narrowed.
Swallowing the determination to fight, she picked up one of the three spoons and scooped some into her mouth. After the first bite, she’d shut down everything, even the will to live.
Was this going to be her new life? Stuck in a new world, in a new house? Belonging to this old man? She was his property now, that was made very obvious.
He wouldn’t deny that she was his child, as long as she obeyed his every rule. He would feed her, clothe her, and send her to the best schools, as long as she obeyed.
She hated it, but since there wasn’t anyone else in her life that could or would watch out for her, she figured it was better than being stuck in an orphanage.
Maybe her father would grow to love her. She had seen the movie Annie. Twice. Maybe, just maybe, dreams could come true for her as well.
Eleven-year-old Aubrey stood and watched the black limo disappear down the dusty drive. Once it was out of sight, she darted her eyes around and held in a sob. It had been three years since her father had taken over her entire existence.
Now, standing alone in a strange place, she realized that she’d never felt so abandoned in her entire life. Even after her mother’s death, she’d had Miss Ellison to snatch her up and show her where to go, what to wear, and how to eat. Her father had dictated every aspect of her life. This was the first time she’d been left unattended in all that time.
Three long years of learning how to be a lady had almost squashed her spirit. But this, this just might do it.
She didn’t know what she’d done to deserve being dumped at an all-girls summer camp. She’d never been to such a place before. What did they even do here? How was she supposed to make friends? Especially dressed like she was.
She looked down at the starched dress Miss Ellison had forced her to wear.
Tears blinded her eyes as she started following a group of girls towards a large building.
She was so busy holding back the tears and keeping anyone from noticing them that she bumped into a dark-haired girl roughly her own age.
“Sorry,” she said softly after the girl turned around.
“It’s okay,” the girl said with a slight frown. Aubrey knew that she was running her eyes over her. For the past three years, it seemed that all anyone had done was look at her with calculation in their eyes.
She was in one of the outfits that had been picked out for her. It was uncomfortable to begin with, but Miss Ellison had starched it until it was so stiff, she felt like she was wearing a straitjacket instead of a sundress.
Then a blond girl stepped forward and asked, “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” Aubrey answered as she looked down at her feet while her eyes burned even more. She would not cry in front of these girls. They’d probably burst out laughing and make fun of her.
“I’m Elle. This is Hannah, Zoey, and Scarlett.” The blond girl motioned to each of them as she talked.
“Aubrey,” she answered quickly as her eyes returned to her tennis shoes. She was at least thankful that Miss Ellison hadn’t been in the car ride from the airport, where she’d slipped out of the stupid sandals that she’d forced her to wear.
Her eyes were so blurry from the tears that she didn’t get a good look at any of them. Not really.
“We were going to bunk together,” Elle said softly. “Would you like to join us? There’s room for one more.”
Aubrey’s head jerked up, and she took a second to search each of their eyes. It only took a moment for her to realize that they weren’t being mean or making fun of her. Instead, what she found in each of them was just as much sadness and loneliness as she felt herself. “Sure.” She nodded quickly and fell in step with them. “Thank you.”
Over that first summer, the five friends, known as the Wildflowers, grew inseparable. To be honest, she doubted she would have made it through the first day without any of them, let alone that whole first summer.
For the next five years, even when the friends were separated by distance, they were her line of defense against her father and all the horrors of the life he forced on her.
She was shipped out in the winters to a boarding school in upper New York where she attended classes on everything from ballet to baking and was molded into a perfect socialite. Still, her father’s reach was long, and she didn’t have many freedoms even there. The only place she felt like she could breathe was during her time at River Camps with her Wildflowers.
However, during her high school years, without her father’s knowledge, she’d managed to enroll in a couple of off-campus classes. Taking tai chi and judo was the only thing she had ever done in direct defiance of his wishes.
Both classes were a great place to channel her pent-up anger, and she excelled in each area. She easily gained her black belts long before graduation.
When she wasn’t attending classes, she trained herself in other ways. She would walk the hallways of her home or school at night, in the dark, to strengthen her ability to escape any situation. This helped her feel less trapped in life.
The classes and the summers spent at the camp got her through some of the darkest years of her life. When the five friends had grown too old to attend camp themselves, they’d returned as counselors. She’d lied to her father about the summer job and instead told him that the camp now allowed older girls. She would find out years later that Elle’s grandfather Joe had convinced him of that story at Elle’s request.
Shortly after their last summer at River Camps and a week after she’d graduated school, the Wildflowers took a trip together. Since then, they’d tried to get together every summer and head somewhere tropical for a week or at least a weekend. Their last trip had been to Cabo, last year.
She’d been working for one of her father’s businesses, the third one to date. She’d flown through jobs at Harold Smith’s many ventures more than most people changed hairstyles.
She tried to fit in anywhere, but the fact was, she just didn’t.
Over the years, she’d tried everything to grow closer to her father. Even Miss Ellison had disappeared a few months after Aubrey’s sixteenth birthday.
At first, Aubrey had tried to look for the woman, believing she’d been fired by her father. Then she’d overheard several of the staff talking about how Pricilla Ellison had retired and moved to Italy to be closer to her ailing sister.
Her father had made her life hell. He’d controlled every aspect of her day-to-day life when she was in New York. Looking back at her youth, she realized that her time at school and the campgrounds had been the only chance she’d had at freedom.
Shortly after her eighteenth birthday, she’d come home to find a small suitcase in the front entry. At first, she’d believed they had a guest, even if that had never happened once over the ten years she’d lived there. She had been excited at the prospect.
Then she’d read the note on the table and her heart had sunk.
This fulfills my financial obligation to you. I will expect you to remove your items, which I have had packed up, and be out of my home before I return from work at 6:00 p.m. sharp. As previously discussed, there is a job waiting for you at my offices downtown. I’ve given them your name and they will expect a call from you today.
It stung, at first, that she’d only been an obligation. Over the next few years, she’d realized that’s all she had ever been to him. She should have never expected anything more.
She went to great lengths to keep her connection to Harold a secret. She was thankful that no one in the office where she had been hired as an entry-level filing clerk knew she was the boss’s daughter.
She’d slowly worked her way up the corporate ladder at the office and was close to becoming a team lead. Then one day, she’d walked in to find Terry Osborn reclining at her desk with his feet up on her paperwork.
“Terry.” She pushed his feet off her paperwork and glared at him. “What can I help you with this morning?” She tossed her bag and umbrella down on the floor. Since it usually took her half an hour to warm up after the brisk walk and subway ride into work, she kept her thick heavy jacket on.
“I’m here to help you,” Terry answered with a smile as he slowly stood up. “I hear you have family in… high places.” His eyes ran over her, and she felt her entire body shiver with disgust. The man was easily a hundred pounds overweight and at least twice her age. Not to mention that she knew he was married. She’d heard rumors that he’d had several affairs while working there but had yet to find anyone in the office who liked him, let alone would sleep with him.
“I don’t know what you mean.” She moved past him, but he caged her in.
“Oh, I think you do. It’s come to my attention that you’ve been keeping a secret from us. A pretty big one.” His eyes narrowed. “Harold Smith”—he wiggled his eyebrows— “is your father.”
She felt her back teeth grind as she pushed past him. “I am not keeping it a secret.” She sat down in her chair and logged into her computer. “Anyone with a brain could have figured it out.” She glanced up at him, hoping he didn’t see her hands shake or her temper grow. “Was there something else?”
Terry was frowning down at her, and his face was growing red like it did every time he was agitated. “No one else knows.” He moved closer to her and reached out. He would have placed his hand on her shoulder had she not scooted her chair back a few steps. Arching her eyebrows, she chuckled.
“I will happily head out right now”—she nodded towards the door— “with a bullhorn and let everyone in on my secret.” She air quoted the last word.
His face grew even redder. His eyes moved around as if gauging his next move. “Then I’m sure you won’t mind if I let your father in on your last client.”
She laughed. “Why don’t you regroup?” She pushed herself back towards her desk and turned her attention towards her screen. “When you come up with something else you deem worth blackmailing me for to get to my father’s money, let me know.” She glanced up and smiled and then dismissed him and returned to her work.
Shortly after the man left her office, she felt the tension in her body relax. God! She hated her job. She hated being associated with one of the richest men in the world.
It took Terry a week to come up with a new angle. He barged in while she was finishing up with an email.
“Kasey, I’m going to have to call you back.” She hung up. “Yes?”
Terry had moved over and sat across from her and had gone as far as to prop his feet up on the edge of her desk again.
“I was thinking,” Terry started slowly. She bit the edges of her tongue.
“Yes?” She glanced at the clock and realized she only had a few minutes before she could technically clock out.
“I’ve gone about this the wrong way.” His smile grew. “I think we should have drinks.”
She laughed. A burst of it escaped her before she could control herself.
“That is not going to happen.” She hit send on the email. The email instantly popped back at her that her account was locked, and she frowned.
“I think you’ll reconsider.” He motioned to her computer.
“What did you do?” she asked, hitting send again. She sighed and leaned back. “Paid off the IT guys?”
His eyes narrowed. “It’s amazing what you can find going through someone else’s email. I think your father would find a few of these very interesting.” He set down two papers he’d been holding.
She didn’t even spare them a glance. Instead, she stood up and smiled at him. “Thank you, Terry,” she began as she leaned on the desk. “You’ve made this decision easier for me.”
The man’s bushy eyebrows rose slightly as he removed his feet from her desk. “We can discuss this over—”
She laughed again. “When hell freezes over.” She pulled her purse and jacket from the bottom drawer and took her time slipping on her jacket. “You’ve just made it easier for me to walk out.” She smiled and started out of her office.
He followed her until she stopped by Barb’s desk. Her supervisor glanced up at her with annoyance.
“Terry here has seen fit to have my email account locked, which has finally given me the spine to quit,” she said with a smile. Then she leaned down closer to her boss. “In the last two years that I’ve worked under you, not once did I see you stick up for what was right. You treated your employees like tools to better your own career.” The woman looked put off and annoyed. “Terry has also informed me that it may not be common knowledge who my father is.” She smiled when Barb glared up at her. “The name Harold Smith might ring a bell.”
She waited until she could see in Barb’s eyes that she’d made the connection before turning around and leaving.
It was the best feeling in the world, until she stepped out on the snow-covered curb and shivered. How the hell was she going to pay her rent next month?
That night, sitting in her small one-room studio apartment listening to sirens outside her window while she sipped the cup of noodles, she realized the magnitude of her actions.
She had been paying for night classes at the closest community college in hopes that her art career would take off. But now that she couldn’t even afford a meal beyond what she was currently eating, she knew her entire life would have to be put on hold.
She had some money in her savings account that she could live off if she had to, but she preferred not to touch it. At least not yet.
She was job hunting on the small secondhand laptop she’d purchased a few years back when her phone rang.
Seeing the unmarked number, she almost didn’t answer it, but then she remembered she’d put her number on a few online applications.
“Tell me it’s not true you quit today?” Her father’s voice boomed in her ears. She hadn’t seen him since the day before her eighteenth birthday and she wondered if he was older and frailer looking now.
“Yes,” she answered. “My hand was forced—”
“You’ll go back tomorrow.” It was a demand not a request or question.
“No, I won’t,” she said quickly. No matter what happened to her, she would no longer be indebted to anyone.
“Yes, you will. I’ve arranged everything with your supervisor.”
“I don’t care. I won’t go back.”
“Then you leave me no choice to see to it that you will have no references. I’ll make sure that it’s noted that you were officially fired. I can even arrange to make sure that it’s difficult for you to be hired anywhere else in the city.”
“I don’t care.” She shut her eyes and tried to hold firm. “I don’t need anyone’s handouts.”
“How will you pay for the room you call an apartment?” he asked, causing her eyebrows to rise. Did he know where she lived? If so, why? Why was he keeping track of her? His exact words from a few years ago were that his obligations as far as she went was over. Why would he care where she lived? Or even worked?
“I’m no longer your obligation.” She threw his own words back at him.
He was silent for a while and she almost believed that he had hung up. Then he said. “A job isn’t an obligation.”
She was in complete shock and almost missed his next statement.
“Think about coming back to the office. I’ve secured a leadership position for you. Your supervisor had nothing but great things to say about your work ethics. She’s the one that suggested I move you to the eleventh floor.”
She held her breath. How long had she been trying to reach that goal? From the moment she’d learned about the leadership team positions almost two years ago, she’d worked on moving up in the company.
“I’ll think about it,” she said softly.
“Don’t take too long.”
“I’ll let you know by Friday,” she added before hanging up.
She was torn. Part of her wanted to tell her father where he could take his new job offer while the other part of her liked the thought of eating more than noodles and broth for dinner.
That night she had little sleep as she made a mental list of the pros and cons of going back to work for her father’s company.
The following day, Aubrey had gotten the call that Elle’s grandfather Joe had died. During her trip back down to the camp to console her friends, Elle had proposed that the friends all chip in and rebuild the defunct campground. She’d been the first one to jump at the chance. After all, there hadn’t really been anything for her back in New York. Her friends needed her. So, without a second thought, she’d pulled most of her money from her savings account to be with the only people she deemed family. And, in the process, she’d found her new life.