It was a hot August night when Annaleigh pulled up to her grandmother’s old home, now hers. Taking a deep breath, she peeked into the back seat to see her four-year-old daughter Rebecca fast asleep. Her small hands clutching her lovey bear Bumble. Rebecca’s brunette curls tumbled around her face, covering the smattering of freckles across her nose. Behind those closed eyelids were the same bright blue eyes she had, many people said she was Annaleigh’s mini me. Annaleigh put her head on the steering wheel and sighed. She never thought she’d come back to Oak Woods. Every summer she spent here with her grandmother until she came home the summer after she turned fifteen. Her parents insisted that she get a summer job to save for college.
This place had been her haven away from her parents’ high society friends and the constant attack on her weight. Shaking her head, she turned off the car and stepped out to take in the four-bedroom cottage, the white siding and blue shutters were just as she remembered, only a little weather-beaten. So were the wild flower beds out front though they desperately needed weeding. She couldn’t believe her grandmother had left this huge house to her. Her parents would have inherited, but they had died when she was twenty-two in a helicopter crash.
“Mama?” her daughter Rebecca called from the car. Annaleigh turned around and gave her a soft smile. She opened the car door and helped Rebecca out of her car seat.
“Are we home?” she asked sleepily, leaning against Annaleigh’s leg.
“Yes Poppet, we are home. Your Great Grandma Betty left this house to us and we will make a new life here in Oak Woods. Let’s get you inside. Aunt Mary and Uncle Jeff said they put new sheets on the beds for us to go right to sleep. Tomorrow the moving truck with all our things will arrive and we can unpack,” Annaleigh replied. She scooped Rebecca up in her arms and made her way up the steps to the front door. She unlocked it and tried to keep the shock off her face. The place was a disaster--- it looked as if someone had broken in and stolen or destroyed all the furniture and shredded the wall paper.
“This place is ugly,” Rebecca stated, wrinkling her nose.
“You said it, I wonder what happened? Let’s go check upstairs in the bedrooms. I hope we can still get to sleep.” Annaleigh motioned to the wooden staircase on the right. Rebecca jumped from her arms and raced up the stairs. Annaleigh was quick to follow.
“Your room is at the end of the hall with the starfish on the door,” she told her daughter. Holding her breath, she watched Rebecca open the door and to her relief, they had left the room alone. It looked exactly the way she remembered from her visits as a young girl. The walls were a pale pink with a window seat on one wall, two doors at the other end, one was a closet, the other leading to a Jack and Jill bathroom.
“This room is perfect!” Rebecca squealed, jumping up and down. Annaleigh laughed and watched her run around the room. In one corner stood a twin-sized sleigh bed with white head and foot boards, a matching six drawer dresser, and a floor-length mirror.
“I sent ahead your princess bedding to make sure your bed was ready for you tonight. Let’s brush your teeth and get you into your nightgown so you can go back to sleep. I will clean up downstairs a little to have space to eat breakfast.”
“Okay. Mama.” Rebecca smiled and bounded down the stairs out to the car. Annaleigh followed. She was happy to see the breakup with Wesley, Rebecca’s father, hadn’t diminished Rebecca’s happy spirit. She’d worried for the first month and had taken Rebecca to see a therapist. She grabbed both their suitcases from the back of her SUV and brought them into the house, Rebecca walking ahead, carrying her stuffed bear. She helped Rebecca get into her favorite Belle nightgown and brush her teeth before tucking her into bed and reading a chapter in their Percy Jackson story.
“Goodnight Poppet. I will see you in the morning. If you need me, I will be in the bedroom right by the stairs. We have a busy day tomorrow unpacking, and I want you to get a good night’s sleep.”
“Love you, Mama,” Rebecca whispered, her eyes closed and her body already halfway to dreamland. Annaleigh closed the door and made her way down to the living room and kitchen to clean up whatever had happened in the time the house had been empty. She worked hard on dragging all the broken furniture into the back parlor her grandmother had used for entertainment. Annaleigh could remember inviting all her friends over for movie nights. Suddenly, Connor Barret popped into her head, she remembered her last summer here. He had been a tall, lanky kid at seventeen with light brown hair and hazel eyes. When he had asked her out at the beginning of the summer, she thought he was playing a trick on her and had said no. He continued to ask her out for the next two weeks until she caved and said yes.
He took her on a picnic out to the falls. She remembered convenience store sandwiches and bags of chips in the basket along with a container of uncut strawberries and whipped cream. His sister Madison had been her best friend, and they still kept in touch, albeit not as much as she had wished. They’d been separated the last summer after she graduated high school. Being a sixteen-year-old in college had been hard, and Annaleigh withdrew from the world around her. When Madison had graduated high school two years behind her, she’d found Annaleigh’s cell phone number and called her. The two kept in touch through email and texts.
She continued well into the night trying to scrub the inappropriate paintings off the walls. She would have to spend a fortune in paint to clean up the place. Sitting hard on the floor, she thought about how much this move had cost her financially. She would be down to her last five hundred dollars in her savings. It would barely cover a car repair, let alone any major renovation needed for the house. Thankfully, she would start as the new kindergarten teacher for Oak Woods Elementary School on Monday and could slowly build up her savings again. The house was paid off so Annaleigh wouldn’t have to worry about a mortgage. She only had to worry about making sure Rebecca got the best education possible at the local preschool, bathed, and well fed. Her life revolved around that little girl. Her friends Meredith and Amaryllis joked about her finding a nice shifter in town to take care of her and Rebecca. Annaleigh knew otherwise, Connor would be the only one for them, and he had stopped talking to her after she went home that last fateful summer. She hadn’t been brave enough to ask Madison if Connor had found his mate when she’d accepted the job at the school. She desperately wanted to know if he was still single. Something about him had ruined her for other men, and Wesley knew from the start he would always be second best to her secret love.