“I’m extremely displeased with this driver,” Ellie said, scowling at her phone. “I provided him with precise instructions on how to connect to my phone. Lance would never disobey an order. He understood the importance of sharing his location with me when he was transporting Father or Mother to and from the estate.”
“Why didn’t Lance make the trip to Augusta to pick them up?” I asked as I pulled books from the shelf. Following Ellie’s search grid, the library was next in the letter search task. And there were thousands of books where a senile old man might’ve tucked his written ramblings and confessions.
“He’s dead, Kinley.”
“Oh no. What happened to him?”
“He was killed in the accident.”
“I wasn’t aware of that.”
“Who did you think was driving that night?”
“I don’t know. I guess I didn’t put much thought into it.”
“They’re here,” she announced, peering out one of the narrow windows tucked between bookcases.
I dropped the book I was flipping through, racing down the hall toward the foyer.
“Slow down, fire crotch,” Harland chuckled when I plowed into him.
“If you don’t stop calling me that, the only action you’re gonna be getting is from your own hand.”
“Sorry. Old habit.”
“We’ve been apart for sixteen years. How is that still a habit?”
“I don’t know,” he said, caressing my shoulders.
“My grandparents have arrived,” I said. “I need to get outside.”
Ellie rounded the corner, wrinkling her brow when she saw Harland’s hands on me. “You two are so weird,” she muttered, shaking her head. “Yesterday, you were bickering and throwing insults at each other, today you’re making googly eyes.”
“We are not,” I said, pulling out of Harland’s embrace. “I ran into Harland.”
We continued down the hall to the front door. Harland and Ellie hung back while I ran to the car. I shook my head when my grandpa emerged from the passenger seat. The poor driver was probably sorry he took this job. I love my grandpa, but three hours in a car with him would be a bit taxing for a stranger. He loves to talk, and he has an opinion about everything.
Grandma climbed out of the backseat, wrinkling her nose as she took in the house. My grandparents were hardworking Americans. They struggled their entire lives, employed in low paying jobs to support their family. When Mom married Orland Hollingbrook, he offered to set them up in Florida with early retirement.
My stepfather could be generous when it suited his agenda. He wanted my young mother. And my grandparents didn’t approve of her marriage to a man who was forty-five years older than her. They refused to attend the lavish wedding held at the estate, and they never came to visit. I went to stay with them for two weeks every summer. My mother never went home to visit once.
“Hi, Gram,” I said, pulling her into my arms. “How was your trip?”
“Long and tedious.”
“Well, you’re here now. You can rest and relax.”
“Where’s my granddaughter? She’s the only reason we agreed to step foot in that house. If you can even call it that. It reminds me of the Tennessee State prison with the stone walls and the iron gate.”
“When did you visit Tennessee?” I chuckled. My grandparents never travelled anywhere. They’d never even been on a plane before that day. I don’t think they’d ever been out of New York State.
“I didn’t. I saw a documentary on it.”
“There’s my little pumpkin,” Grandpa bellowed, pulling me into a bear hug and almost crushing my ribs. “I’ve missed my princess.”
“I’ve only been gone for a few days, Grandpa.”
“Well, where’s my other granddaughter? I didn’t fly in a tin can for nothing.”
Ellie approached, exuding the confidence of a grown woman. “I’m Eloise Estelle Hollingbrook,” she said, her voice crisp and formal as she extended her hand to Grandpa.
He blinked, accepting her handshake with an amused grin. “Nice to meet you, Eloise.”
“I prefer to be called Ellie,” she explained before turning to Grandma, offering her hand.
“We don’t do handshakes in this family,” Grandma barked, pulling a shocked Ellie into her arms. “We hug.”
I covered my mouth with my hand, stifling my laughter as I glanced back at Harland. He shook his head, continuing to hang back while my family reunion played out.
“Shall we go inside?” Ellie suggested when Grandma finally released her.
“If we must,” Grandma muttered.
“Would you prefer to get settled in your room before we visit?” Ellie inquired, leading the way to the front door.
“No way!” Grandpa declared. “We already missed twelve years of your life, girly. I wanna get to know my granddaughter.”
“You must be the son?” Grandma snorted, turning her attention to Harland.
“Harland Hollingbrook,” he said, extending his hand.
“I hope you’re nothing like your father,” she said. “If you are, you don’t have any business raising my granddaughter, and I’ll be sure to tell social services exactly what kind of monster your father was.”
“I’m nothing like my father,” Harland declared. “And I think that’s a discussion for another time. Ellie doesn’t need to hear about that. It has nothing to do with her.”
“Agreed,” Grandpa said. “I’m George Davenport, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, George. Thank you for coming all this way.”
“And I’m Henrietta, but you can call me Henny.”
“Will do, Henny.”
“This is gonna take forever,” I muttered, placing another dusty book back on the shelf. We decided not to bother cleaning and dusting while we worked our way through the house. Once we’d secured all the letters, we would hire a cleaning service.
“There you are.”
I turned to find my grandmother standing in the open doorway. “How was your nap?”
“It was okay. The mattress is old though.”
“I know, Gram. Everything in this house is old and in need of replacing.”
“Harland and Ellie took him down to the stables.”
“Oh. He’ll enjoy that.”
“I’m sure he will.”
“How are you holding up, Kinley?”
“I’m fine, Gram,” I said, giving her a hug. “How are you doing?”
She flopped down in one of the leather armchairs with a heavy sigh. “I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet. It’s a lot to process.”
“I know.” I perched on the edge of the desk, smiling sadly. “Mom hasn’t been part of our lives for a long time, but it’s still hard to believe she’s gone.”
“She was a handful from the day she was born,” she said, chuckling softly. “Never wanted to listen. And she was always looking for shortcuts. She wanted the world on a silver platter, but she didn’t want to work for it.”
“That sounds like Mom.”
“Ellie is an interesting child. It’s a shame she’s been locked up in this prison, caring for a sick old man.”
“She wasn’t locked up.”
“She’s never been to school!”
“That is unfortunate,” I agreed. “But she’s very smart. And she has impeccable social skills.”
“She didn’t experience a normal childhood, Kinley.”
“She seems like a happy, well-adjusted kid, Gram.”
“You’ve only known her for a few days.”
“She’s a strong girl.”
“Why would your mother keep her existence a secret all these years?”
“I’m not sure,” I said with a heavy sigh. “And I guess we’ll never know.”
“How long until you can bring her home?”
“I don’t know. It’s not that simple.”
“Why in heavens not?”
“Because Harland and I have to share custody. And the court has to decide whether we’re suitable guardians. That could take months.”
“And you have to stay here?”
“Yes. We can’t take her out-of-state. And you guys are gonna be in Florida anyway.”
“You and Ellie should move down there with us.”
“Maybe. I haven’t really thought about what I’d like to do.”
“Well, you deserve every cent of the inheritance coming your way. Don’t let that boy tell you otherwise. And don’t let him bully you.”
“Harland isn’t bullying me, Gram. We’re grown adults now.”
“Does he know what his father did?”
I decided not to tell her about the letters, or that Ellie knew why I ran away. We decided it was best to keep the letters a secret between the three of us.
“Are you having nightmares?”
“I did the first night. But everyday is a little better. And you’ll never believe what Harland did for me.”
“What?” she asked with a snort of derision.
“Gram! What is your beef with Harland?”
“He treated you and your mother terribly.”
“He was a kid.”
“What did Harland do?”
“He had the pool house torn down.”
“Why on earth would he do that?”
“So I would be able to go outside without the constant reminder of what happened in there.”
“That was very thoughtful of him.”
“It really was, Gram,” I agreed.