Danielle Ryan sighed as she stood in front of Ryan’s Books. It had been over six years since her last visit, and now it was only her uncle’s funeral that forced her to return. Looking at the marque on the window, she shook her head. The place hadn’t changed a bit. The gold letters on the bay window still glittered in the sun, just as they had during her childhood.
Figuring she may as well get it over with, she pushed open the door, the familiar sound of the bell announcing her arrival. Putting her bag down, she surveyed the store in wonder. Although the outside remained the same, the inside had been altered dramatically. Gone were the straight-back chairs and musty shelves of her childhood. The shelves themselves had been replaced with lighter, more open racks, giving the store a sense of space and lending room for the plush, oversized chairs and ottomans which liberally littered the floor area.
Moving deeper into the store, she adjusted her silk scarf over her shoulder, before tucking a piece of jet-black hair behind her ear. Looking upward, she noticed the crow’s nest: the old store office. It had been transformed into a reading area, complete with a tan micro-suede loveseat, full sized leather couch, and assorted dark oak tables. With a bit of a shock, she realized that the furniture was not the only major change. In the front of the store and in the corners there were dark oak tables, matching chairs, and signs that proclaimed free Wi-Fi availability—something that her uncle swore would never catch on.
Turning toward the checkout counter, she noticed the one thing that had stayed the same. The old-fashioned cash register that Uncle Sean had loved so much was still proudly perched on the end, but just like the rest of the store even that had been affected. Although it still graced the antique, dark-oak island, a newer model complete with a credit card machine balanced out the other side.
Letting her ice-blue eyes scan down the length of the counter, she took note of a petite redhead who appeared to be only a few years older than herself behind the register. Brushing her hair from her eyes, she picked up her bag and made her way over, her heels clicking with each step. Her long legs made short work of the distance, but she was somewhat taken aback when she noticed the smaller woman studying her intently. There was something about the redhead that made Dani uneasy. It was like she’d seen her somewhere before. Perhaps it was in a dream, or maybe some past life, but there was something about the way the women’s nose was slightly upturned, or her slightly lopsided grin, or perhaps it was her emerald-green eyes that seemed to be able to see right through her, that seemed almost too familiar to Dani.
Clearing her throat, Dani finally spoke, “I’m Danielle Ryan and I’m looking for…”
“Me,” the redhead cut her off. “Emma Gray.” She held out her hand and took Dani’s into a firm handshake. “Nice to finally meet you, Dani.”
“It’s nice to meet you as well, Ms. Gray, and it’s Danielle,” she replied, her eyes narrowing at the forwardness of this woman calling her by her first name. Dani and Emma continued to grip each other’s hands for a few moments before jointly releasing.
“Please, call me Emma,” the woman insisted, smiling openly.
“Alright, Emma,” Dani nodded as she began to walk the length of the checkout counter, running her fingers along the smooth oak as she went. Stopping at the old register, she looked up, her blue eyes glistening. “I never thought he’d stop using this for transactions.”
Emma chuckled. “Well, it took some doing, but I finally dragged him, kicking and screaming, into this century.”
“I didn’t know anyone could make Uncle Sean do something he didn’t want to do,” Dani said as she turned and watched Emma’s reaction.
“It wasn’t easy. Let’s just say, he and I had a meeting of the minds.” Coming out from behind the counter, Emma picked up Dani’s bag. “Let me help you up to Uncle Sean’s apartment. I changed the sheets on his bed and tidied up for you a bit. I also took Atticus to my apartment for now, unless you want him.”
“Atticus?” Dani asked, hurrying to catch up with Emma.
“Uncle Sean’s cat. We found him in the alley behind the store about two years ago. He was a great companion for Uncle Sean.”
Dani balled her hand into a fist but said nothing. Emma had some gall, speaking of her uncle so casually. With a slight shake of her head, she realized the reading of the will couldn’t come soon enough. “No, you can keep him. I’m sure he’s more comfortable with someone he knows.”
Emma nodded, “Sure, just let me know if you change your mind.” Handing Dani her bag back, Emma pointed up the stairs. “The door is unlocked, and the key is on the kitchen table. I took the liberty of stocking the refrigerator as well as buying a few items for the pantry. I wasn’t sure how long you’d be here, but don’t worry, whatever you don’t use won’t go to waste.”
“Thank you,” Dani responded curtly. “I can manage now,” she added as she headed down the familiar path of the back stairs up to her uncle’s apartment. Reaching the landing, she walked down the short hallway to the last door on the left. Turning the knob, she found it open, just as Emma had said.
Entering, she noticed that the store wasn’t the only thing that had a makeover. The apartment actually looked good. There were newer curtains, a flat screen TV, an overstuffed lounge chair, and matching couch in his living area. A round wooden coffee table sat in front of the chair, and a large bookcase framed the window to her left. Wondering when her uncle decided to update his apartment, she turned and carried her bag down the hall.
Despite Emma’s assurance that her uncle’s room had been made ready for her, she entered the apartment’s second, much smaller bedroom to investigate. Stopping short, she dropped her bag and took in the room. The bed that had always been there was gone, as was the child sized furniture. It had been replaced by a dark leather wingback, a low ottoman, and walls of books. A small secretary desk graced the only open corner, while recessed lights and a floor lamp completed the picture. Realizing that he had finally transformed this room into the personal library he was always talking about, she smiled before walking to the table near the chair. Dani picked up the book that had been left. She shook her head at the dog-eared pages and worn cover. To Kill a Mockingbird had always been his favorite book, and this copy had obviously been loved.
Deciding that she would scan his personal bookshelves later, she sat in the chair and leaned back. Now in the still and quiet of the apartment, her thoughts and memories begin to stir. Why had she stayed away so long? He’d been her only family, and though he’d been to visit her as she established her business, she never bothered to come back to the place where she’d spent so much time as a child. Feeling angry with herself, she stood and picked her bag up once again before placing it down in her uncle’s bedroom.
This room had been updated as well, and she couldn’t help wondering who had helped her uncle with the decorating. Sitting on the tan colored comforter, Dani smiled at the framed photo of them on her twelfth birthday. He’d kept that photo on his nightstand ever since it had been taken. Feeling safe but alone, she drew his pillow into her body and lay back, trying to remember happier times.
* * *
Dani was sitting at the kitchen table and drinking her second diet soda when she was interrupted by a knock on the front door. She was trying to finish the last minute details to a large event in Chicago and was less than pleased with the interruption. Looking up from the computer screen, she rubbed her eyes and was startled to see that the clock read 7:00 p.m. Stretching, she headed to the door as the knock sounded again.
Opening it, she was surprised to find Emma, bags of takeout in hand. “I took the liberty of bringing you dinner. I hope you like Chinese—I know Uncle Sean did,” she announced entering the apartment uninvited.
Heading to the kitchen, she gave Dani a pointed look. “You need to move the computer, dear. We have to have someplace to eat.”
Finally coming to her senses, Dani stiffened. “Thank you for the offer, but I’m working. Now, if you’ll just…”
“Nonsense, you need to eat, and we need to discuss the funeral and other things. Now, please move the computer and sit.”
Huffing, Dani moved her laptop and sat down as instructed. She silently watched as Emma began to remove plates and silverware from the cabinets and drawers. The fact that Emma seemed to know where everything was located was not lost on Dani. Opening the refrigerator, Emma poured two glasses of lemonade before sitting down and taking out the food cartons. “Well, help yourself, Dani,” she directed.
Feeling out of sorts and still a little annoyed at the interruption, Dani crossed her arms, refusing to move. Catching Emma’s gaze, Dani tried to hold it long as possible. Emma broke contact and began dividing the food among two plates. Putting one in front of Dani, she placed the fork down by her hand. “You need to eat, Dani. I know you had a long drive from Chicago, and from the looks of you, Uncle Sean was right about you not taking proper care of yourself.”
Dani’s back stiffened. “What do you mean by that?”
Emma relaxed into an easy smile. “Just that you work too hard. Uncle Sean told me how much your job meant to you and that sometimes you forgot to take care of you.” Her smile faltered a bit. “What would he think if I didn’t look out for you now, since he can’t?”
Relaxing slightly, Dani picked up her fork. “I guess, but please call me Danielle,” she said quietly. Uncle Sean was the only one she ever let call her Dani, and now that he was gone, she wasn’t about to let this impudent redhead change that.
Emma nodded, but said nothing. There was something about this dark-haired woman in front of her that intrigued her, and she decided that she was going to get to know her better.
“So tell me, why do you call Sean, uncle?” Dani asked.
Emma’s green eyes held Dani’s blue for a moment. “In order to answer that, I should probably tell you how I came to work for Sean.”
“Okay,” Dani replied, shifting a bit as she took another bite of sesame chicken.
Emma put her fork down and took a sip of lemonade before beginning. “I’ve lived in Fort Strymon most of my life. I went away for college, but after graduating, I returned home to help take care of my ailing grandmother. I was looking for a part time job when I saw a sign posted in the bay window downstairs. Sean gave me the job and worked around my schedule.” Emma stopped and fingered her fork for a moment before continuing. “My grandmother died six months later, and since my mother wasn’t close,” she pausing giving Dani a rueful smile, “suddenly I was without a family and a place to live. Sean had just had the apartment down the hall redone and offered it to me. I jumped at the chance and came to work for him full time.”
“What exactly do you do?”
“Using the MBA I worked my ass off to obtain, I manage Ryan’s books, and I helped Sean with everything that had to do with the store. About a year into me living here, Sean slipped, fell down the stairs, and tore up his ankle pretty badly. They weren’t going to let me see him at the hospital, so I told them I was his niece.” Emma smirked at the memory. “He’s been ‘Uncle Sean’ ever since.”
Dani looked at her half-eaten plate and twisted her napkin in her hands. “I remember that. It was about four years ago, but he told me he was fine.”
“He didn’t want to bother you. He knew how important your career was, and I was here to take care of him.” There was a slight edge in Emma’s voice that Dani picked up on immediately.
“You mean he didn’t want to force me back to visit him. He wanted me to come on my own.”
“I never said that, Dani.”
“I told you, its Danielle now!”
Emma reached across the table and took one of Dani’s hands in hers. “There’s no need to yell at me, I’m sure you’re tired. I’ll clean up here. Why don’t you go get ready for bed?”
“I still have work to do,” Dani answered, reaching for her laptop.
Rising from her chair quickly, Emma claimed the laptop before Dani could. “Work can wait. We have a big day tomorrow, and you need rest.”
Not believing what had just happened, Dani practically growled at the women across from her. “Give it back,” she demanded.
A red eyebrow rose at the command. She put the laptop back on the table but also put a hand on Dani’s arm. “Calm down, Danielle. I’m just trying to look out for you.”
“I have an event coming up that I need to work on,” Dani tried again.
“When is the event?”
“In a month.”
Emma sighed. “So it’s not an emergency?”
“No, but…” Dani bristled, feeling both annoyed and oddly cared for in the same moment. On one hand, this woman had no right to do what she had, but on the other, she felt strangely safe with Emma. She sensed that Emma was truly concerned, and like her uncle often did, seemed to be able to call her on her actions. “Perhaps you’re right,” Dani relented. “It’s been a long day.”
Emma smiled. “Good. Now, don’t worry about a thing. You go rest, and I’ll clean up in here.”
Dani nodded, not thinking as Emma pointed her toward the bedroom. Once she shut the door though, the realization hit her. She wasn’t one to give in so easily, but that little red-haired dynamo had somehow convinced her not only to stop working, but to agree to go to bed. Looking at the clock on the nightstand, Dani groaned; it wasn’t even 9:00 p.m. Last time she’d been sent to bed this early was when she was twelve.
Shaking her head in disbelief, she sat down on the edge of the bed. The wedding she’d been working on was still a month away, but it was a big one, with lots of details that needed to be sorted out. But then, she supposed, they could wait until tomorrow or the day after. Lying back on the bed, she let her mind wander to earlier days, happier days, days when she felt free and without the weight of the world on her shoulders.
When she’d gotten the phone call about Uncle Sean’s heart attack, a piece of her had died as well. Her uncle had always been the one constant in her life, and even though they’d grown apart, he’d always been just a phone call away. Knowing that he was no longer there left her feeling hollow.
Her parents both passed when she was little, so while growing up, she’d lived with her grandparents. All she’d had to do was pout or throw a fit to get her way, but when she was with Uncle Sean, things were different. She spent every summer and most holidays with him, and although he’d been strict with her, she wouldn’t have traded that warm and secure feeling he gave her for the world. She hadn’t felt that feeling in a long time, and she missed it. With a small smile, she realized that Uncle Sean wouldn’t have put up with the little tantrum she just threw, and something told her it wouldn’t work with the small dynamo either.
Getting up, she opened her bag and pulled out her favorite pajamas. They were old, tattered, and a little bit too small, but there was something about the warm red flannel that always made her feel better. It was a small comfort that she more than needed tonight. Once dressed, she managed to crawl under the sheets, taking additional comfort in her uncle’s bedding. The lingering scent of Old Spice brought back warm memories, and if she closed her eyes, she could almost feel his presence. Feeling much better, Dani suppressed a yawn, and although she didn’t want to sleep, she couldn’t resist the pull. Her last conscious thought was that 9:00 p.m. was just too early to go to sleep.
* * *
Her heart pumping, Dani bolted upright. It had been years, and she couldn’t believe that the dream had returned. It was the same dream. Always the same dream: red clothing, a full moon, and the fear, worst of all was the fear. Looking at the clock, she realized it was still early, 3:30 a.m. It was too early to get up, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep any longer.
Maybe it was the stress. Maybe it was the fact that being in Uncle Sean’s apartment brought back so many of her childhood memories. This had been a happy place, but her childhood wasn’t always happy, and the dreams plagued her even in her happy times. It was more than disconcerting that they were back.
Rolling out of bed, she shuffled to the kitchen and grabbed a diet soda out of the fridge. She then retrieved her laptop and headed to the sofa where she could switch on the TV for background noise. She still had details that needed to be sorted out for the wedding she was planning, and with the funeral later in the day and the lawyer tomorrow, she wanted to get as much work done while she still could.
* * *
Dani sat in the lawyer’s office as the balding man in a wrinkled suit and Emma made small talk. She was still numb and only half paying attention to what they said. The service had been nice. Her uncle would have approved. By the amount of people who showed and shared, he was well-liked, and that had pleased Dani. Her own memories were just as fond.
The night before, she’d had another nightmare and again had attributed it to stress, not that any of it mattered. In a few minutes, she’d find out the details of Uncle Sean’s will, and then she could deal with sorting out the store and his possessions before heading back to Chicago. All and all, she hoped to be home within a week.
Turning her attention back to the conversation, she realized that the lawyer and Emma were both looking at her. “What?” she snapped.
“Danielle, were you even listening?” Emma groaned.
Dani shook her head. “No, sorry, what was it again?”
Emma and the lawyer exchanged a look while the lawyer patiently read the first section of the will again. Dani sat for a moment, digesting the information. “You’re kidding right? Is this some kind of joke?”
“I assure you, Ms. Ryan, your uncle was very clear on his wants and expectations, both for you and for the store.”
She turned to look at Emma. “Did you know about this?” she demanded.
“No,” Emma answered quietly, “but that’s the type of man Sean was, Dani.”
“It’s Danielle,” Dani corrected again. “And don’t you think I know what kind of man he was?” she continued, narrowing her eyes at Emma. Not getting an answer, she huffed and threw herself back into her seat. Taking a deep breath, she tried to calm down. “Okay, tell me exactly what this means.”
“It means that Emma is now the owner of her apartment free and clear, just as you now own Sean’s apartment. The two of you equally co-own the building the bookstore resides in and the bookstore itself,” the lawyer explained to Dani, watching as she slid lower into her chair before continuing.
“There is a clause, however, that states if you do not want to stay and run the bookstore, that you may sell it to Emma for $1,000.00. If you choose to stay, then you may offer her your share after one year for a fair market price. There will be no outside sales of the bookstore for at least a year, and then, only if you both agree. Also, during the first year, Emma is to have the final say in the day to day operations of the bookstore itself.”
Emma shook her head, “You’re sure about this, Roger? He really wanted me to have all this?”
The lawyer nodded and handed the stunned woman a sealed envelope. “He said everything would be explained in here.” Smiling, he handed an identical envelope to Dani. “We can go over the deeds in a few days and get the ownership of the building and store transferred.”
Emma stood, reaching out to shake the lawyer’s hand. “I’ll call you in the next few days. Thanks, Roger.”
“My pleasure. I’m going to miss the old goat. He was a great friend.”
Emma nodded in agreement before glancing at Dani who was still slouching in her chair. “Come on, Dani, we’d better get going. We need to discuss this new chain of events.”
“I need to get back to my event and contact my attorney in Chicago.” Dani stood and tried to walk past Emma, but Emma put a hand on her arm, effectively stopping her.
“I don’t want to keep you from your work, but you and I still need to talk, and we both need lunch. Your work and phone call can wait an hour or so.”
Dani pulled her arm away and glared at the shorter woman, but Emma simply ignored her. Instead she addressed the lawyer. “You know how to reach me if anything comes up.”
The man nodded. “Yes, Emma, I know how to reach you.”
“Good,” Emma responded before turning back to meet a pair of steely-blue eyes. “Come on, Danielle. There is a little coffee shop around the corner, best sandwiches in town,” she explained, brushing by Dani and out the door.
Dani blinked and then started after her. There was something about Emma that infuriated her, but there was something else that made her want to follow her to the very ends of the earth.
* * *
The women were sitting in a booth staring at each other. Dani was definitely on the defensive, with her arms folded across her chest. After a long moment, she leaned forward, resting her elbows on the edge of the table. “Despite the relationship you had with my uncle, that doesn’t give you the right to order me about like a child, Ms. Gray.”
“Well then, I suggest you not throw tantrums like a child anymore, Danielle.” Emma took a sip of her water. “That display in Roger’s office was ridiculous, and as I said, we do need to talk about the will and what it means for us.”
Dani sat back and nodded slowly. “I agree. We do need to discuss this. I want to know exactly how the bookstore is run and if it might be profitable to add or change anything there.”
“I’d be happy to go over the books with you, Dani,” Emma paused as the waitress delivered their food. “However, before deciding to make any major changes to the store, I do think you should get to know how it’s run, as well as the community we serve.”
“I’m not a novice at this. I understand the store. I spent every summer of my childhood there,” Dani replied picking at her sandwich. “My clients are just going to love that I’m stuck here rather than easily accessible in Chicago for the next year.”
Green eyes flashed. “You don’t have to stay. I’d be happy to buy you out.”
“I don’t think you understand, Ms. Gray. That bookstore is more than just a business. It’s part of me. I’m not going to just give it up.”
“I think I understand more than you think I do,” Emma managed, giving her darker haired companion a small smile. “But you need to be sure. Keeping the store may mean giving up your life in Chicago. Are you sure you’re ready to do that?” Emma challenged. Taking a bite of her sandwich, she studied Dani, who continued her pouting.
“No, I’m not sure, but Uncle Sean didn’t give me much of a choice, did he?” Dani responded shortly, stabbing a pickle with her fork.
“If you aren’t going to eat your lunch, at least stop playing with it,” Emma directed before leaning back in the booth. “I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out if you want to continue your event planning from here. There has got to be a happy medium, and after all, it’s not as if we’re that far from Chicago.”
Dani took a bite of her sandwich. “I suppose,” she responded.
“Emma!” a tall, blond man with dark brown eyes called as he approached their table and slid into the booth next to Emma. “I am so sorry about Sean.”
“Thanks, Jake,” Emma smiled softly as she motioned to Dani. “Danielle Ryan, I’d like you to meet Jake Braun. He and Uncle Sean used to play cards together every Tuesday night down at the lodge. Jake, this is Dani, Sean’s niece from Chicago.”
The man smiled and shook hands with Dani. “So, you’re Liam’s kid? Sean was always talking about how proud he was of you.” He reached across the table to pat Dani’s hand. “I am sorry about your uncle. We all miss him.”
Taken aback by the man’s words and familiarity, Dani looked at the table, only able to mutter a quiet, “Thank you,” before the man excused himself and left.
Tossing her half-eaten sandwich back on her plate, Dani threw a couple of bills on the table. “Yeah, I’m done.”
Taking a deep breath, Emma took the check to the front counter. Paying the bill, she watched as Dani slowly made her way to the door, making a show, as if waiting for her was the worst thing possible. Wondering just what type of upbringing Dani had, Emma thanked the cashier before exiting the restaurant with her new business partner.
* * *
“You want me to do what?” Dani asked indignantly. She hadn’t spent four years of her life in college to ring up book sales or stock shelves.
Emma regarded Dani’s outburst coolly. “Please sit down and stop yelling at me, Danielle.”
At the tone of the words, Dani stopped short. No one spoke to her like that, and they certainly didn’t boss her around. Feeling incensed once again, she rounded on Emma. “I do not like being spoken to in that manner. I am not a child.”
Emma sat back in the chair as she watched Dani’s dark hair swing across her shoulders. “Then stop the tantrum and sit down.” Her tone was even, and she waited patiently for Dani to do as she asked. “Danielle, please sit down, and I’ll explain myself.”
“Fine,” Dani huffed throwing herself into the chair across from Emma.
“Have you ever worked in a bookstore before?”
“Of course. I told you, I spent much of my childhood here. Every summer, I helped Uncle Sean.”
Emma smirked. “Did you ring up customers, answer the phone? What did you do?”
Dani frowned. It had been a long time. Yes, she did help the customers, but she also was underfoot a lot. “I did a little of everything.”
“Perfect,” Emma relayed. “Then this should be a good refresher for you.” Dani ground her teeth as Emma continued. “I know you think you know what’s going on, but ultimately it’s up to me to make sure that the store still running and being profitable. I’ve been doing this full time for many years now. A lot has changed in the last few years. If nothing else, you need to re-familiarize yourself with the store. Working here and doing the everyday tasks of making it run will allow you do that. Once you are more comfortable, then we can adjust things and see what works for us.”
Blue eyes locked into green before Dani stood and walked across the office, pausing briefly to study a framed photo of her uncle and Emma at some sort of birthday party. “I suppose you have a point, but I still need to be able to work the events I am planning. I suppose I can do most things remotely, but it’s going to take some time to adjust.”
“Of course,” Emma agreed. “We have Wi-Fi here in the store, and when we aren’t busy, you’re welcome work on them. That is, if you think you won’t be distracted.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine. Just show me what to do, and I’ll do it.”
Emma smiled at the tall figure who was once again looking at her. “I’d be happy to show you what to do, Dani. If you’d follow me please…”
* * *
Dani sat behind the counter on a tall stool with her laptop on, but she was lost in thought as she stared at the old-fashioned register. Smiling, she remembered her uncle showing her how to use it when she was around seven or eight. Shaking the thoughts from her head quickly, she returned to the laptop, ignoring the customer at the other end of the counter.
“Excuse me, miss,” the older lady by the newer register called in an attempt to get Dani’s attention. Having no luck, she smiled with relief when she noticed Emma come out from behind the stacks. “Emma, dear, I need to check out. Time to get to my yoga class, you know.”
Emma quickly came to the counter and smiled. “Of course, Mrs. Pemberton. Didn’t Dani help you?”
“Who, that girl on the computer? I tried to get her attention… repeatedly. She didn’t even notice me,” the woman explained.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Pemberton,” Emma said as she closed the laptop and pulled Dani from her stool. “This young woman is Danielle Ryan, Sean’s niece,” Emma continued to explain as she took Mrs. Pemberton’s credit card and rung her up.
The older woman’s expression softened as she addressed Dani. “Oh, you poor dear, no wonder you didn’t see me, burying yourself in your work, I bet. We all loved Sean,” she paused as her brown eyes bored into Dani’s blue, “but next time, dear, please try to remember that some of us do have other places to be when you’re working the register.”
“She’ll remember,” Emma reassured her, handing her the receipt as Mrs. Pemberton turned to leave the store.
The moment the customer left, Dani glared at Emma. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? I was in the middle of something on my computer.”
“I suggest you watch that tone with me, Danielle,” Emma began. “You were ignoring one of our best and nicest customers. That is not acceptable, and you will apologize to her the next time she comes into the store.”
Cheeks flushing, Dani shook her head. “I will do no such thing. I was in the middle of something, and it wasn’t like she couldn’t wait a few more minutes…” she suddenly stopped her tirade as she noticed Emma’s green eyes flashing at her.
“You do not make customers wait like that, Danielle.” Emma’s tone was even and controlled, but something about it made Dani uneasy. “I think you should go. Go on upstairs where you can finish whatever you were in the middle of. I’ll bring dinner, and we’ll discuss this tonight.”
“We have nothing to discuss, Emma,” Dani said, picking up her laptop and quickly walking to the back of the store and up the stairs.
“Oh yes we do,” Emma mumbled under her breath. Turning, she looked at a photo of herself and Sean taken during the town’s July 4th picnic the previous year. “Just what were you thinking, Sean? What were you thinking?”
* * *
Dani was on her third diet soda when she heard the knock on her door. Glancing up, she noticed the clock already read 6:30 p.m. “Damn,” she mumbled, “must be Emma with dinner.” Leaving her laptop on the kitchen table, she rose to open the door. Emma entered, placing a pizza on the kitchen counter. “I’ll get the plates. You can put the computer away and get the drinks tonight.”
Temper flaring, Dani turned on her heel and quickly walked back to the kitchen. “I told you, we have nothing to discuss. Now take your dinner and go.”
It was only then that Dani noticed the spark of anger in Emma’s eyes. “Turn off the computer and sit down, Danielle,” Emma repeated, placing a slice of pizza on each plate before setting them on the table. Tossing napkins in the middle of the table, she removed Dani’s soda and grabbed two bottled waters from the refrigerator and placing them on the table before she sat down.
Emma said nothing as she waited for Dani to sit. Blue eyes met green but lowered before Dani sat back down at the table—without her computer.
“Thank you.” Emma took a sip of her water before pulling her opened envelope from her pocket. “Have you read your letter from Uncle Sean yet?”
Shaking her head, Dani took a small bite of pizza and resumed glaring at Emma.
“Please get it and read it. I think we have more to discuss than I first thought.”
“I’ll read it when I’m ready to; later, in private,” Dani emphasized the last word as she crossed her arms in front of her and continued to shoot dagger through her eyes at Emma.
The redhead leaned across the table. “You’re acting like a child again. Now stop this and go get your letter,” Emma countered evenly.
Dani tried to resist, but her eyes quickly darted to her purse, before fixating again on Emma. Dani stayed seated as Emma exhaled deeply, stood, and walked toward Dani’s purse. She didn’t ask permission before opening the purse and removing the letter. Placing it on the table, she slid it over to Dani, who looked at it like it was a snake that would strike her at any moment.
“Stop being a brat and read the letter, Danielle,” Emma directed, “and maybe you should remember what Uncle Sean would have done to you if you were to act this way to him.”
“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about, Emma.” Long fingers pushed the letter back across the table. “Besides how would you know how Uncle Sean treated me?”
Green eyes regarded her coolly. “I would know because I’ve been here with him on a daily basis for the last five, almost six years. The bookstore staff was like family to him, and he was like family to us as well.” Emma rose again and pushed the letter back toward Dani. “You and I are going to talk, but you need to read your letter first. I’ll be in the living room when you are ready.”
Huffing, Dani sat for a long time before she succumbed to the need to rid herself of Emma and opened the envelope. As she read the letter, her eyes went wide at what it contained.
If you are reading this, you’ve met with my lawyer as well as Emma, and so you are aware of my wishes. I know you are probably a jumble of emotions right now, and I’m sure you’re confused and perhaps a little frightened, but don’t be. Although I’m gone and can no longer be with you, I was only thinking of you when I wrote my will.
There have been two things in my life for which I have been the most proud: my store and you, Dani-girl. The store is just a thing, but you… you are my pride and joy, and there is nothing I wouldn’t have done for you. My only regret was that I couldn’t keep you with me full time when you were younger. When you were little and you’d ask me why, I’d tell you that it was complicated, and to be honest that is still the best answer. And so, why did I set things up this way? It’s complicated, but I hope in time you’ll understand.
This brings me to Emma. Know first of all, that the bookstore is as much a part of her as it is a part of you. She may not have grown up in the store or with me, but she’s become an important part of my life. Give her a chance to become family to you the way that she has to me. You need someone in your life, Dani, and I’m giving you the gift of friendship with Emma.
I know it won’t be easy for you, but I need you to try. I know your life in Chicago is important for you, but it’s also left something missing from your life. You need family, Dani, and you need to come home. I tried so many times to get you to come, but perhaps in death I can succeed where I failed in life. So, it is with that hope that I leave you with this: listen to Emma and allow her into your life. You are to follow her directives, at least within the confines of the store. She knows what she is doing, and I expect you to honor her wishes as if they were mine.
If this is too much for you, then leave and allow her to buy you out. But I hope that you will not run away from this opportunity. I think if you give it a chance, you’ll be surprised. After the year, if you still wish to leave, then I would understand. I would be proud of you for trying. It was never my intention to trap or weigh you down, only to give you a system of support to help you continue your own life journey.
I’ll leave you with this final thought: behave and be brave, for life is full of hard choices. I’m no longer there to guide you, Dani, but remember, I didn’t leave you alone.
All my love,
“He’s kidding, he must be kidding,” she mumbled. All bravado was gone as she looked toward Emma, who was reading one of the old books piled on the end table. Shaking her head once more, she pushed the thought aside as she worked up courage to face the little dynamo once again.
“It’s not like I’m clueless with the store. I did work here when I visited in the summers,” Dani announced, entering the living area and taking a seat across from Emma.
Emma closed her book. “So you keep saying, but I know he wanted to make sure that everything continued to run smoothly.” She then moved over so she was next to Dani and placed her hand gently on Dani knee before continuing. “We’ll be fine working together, Dani. You and I will work out what needs to be done. Just remember that I have the final say.”
“I’m not used to collaborating with anyone in my work. Not like this.”
“Well, this isn’t your work. It’s mine, and you need to figure out how you fit here.”
“I’ll fit just fine, thank you. I’m sure if I can plan an event for 500 guests, I can figure out what makes a bookstore run.”
A small smirk played at the corner of Emma’s mouth. “I’m sure you can. You’ll be family in no time.” She then stood up and walked to the door. “Oh, and Danielle, if you ever treat another customer the way you treated Mrs. Pemberton today, I’ll deal with you the same way Uncle Sean dealt with me the first and last time I did something like that.”
Standing, Dani frowned in confusion. “Oh, and what was that?”
Smirking outright this time, Emma kept Dani’s gaze. “I’ll take you over my knee and spank you.” Opening the door, Emma left as Dani’s chin dropped.
Grabbing a pillow off the sofa, Dani flung it across the room. “Just who does she think she is?” she shouted to no one in particular.
* * *
Emma sat with her feet tucked under her, one hand absently petting Atticus as she re-read Sean’s letter to her.
My Dear Emmy,
I know by now that you’ve met with Roger and are probably still in shock about my wishes regarding you and the bookstore. Believe me, I knew exactly what I was doing when I wrote my will.
I’m sure by now that you’ve also met my niece, Dani. As you can see, I think she’ll benefit from some loving guidance from you. She has potential, Emmy, not just for her role in the bookstore, but for so much more. Let her know this, and don’t let her get away with anything. She’ll try, believe me, but she’s a smart girl and needs to have someone help her find herself before she turns into a copy of her grandparents.
You’ve been a wonderful ‘niece’ to me, Emmy. Remember that I love you.
P.S. If you need a little help in working with Dani, remember what I put in the top left-hand drawer of your desk in the office. Use it wisely.
Folding the letter, Emma placed it back in the envelope and then rose to put it in her favorite book on the bookshelf next to her TV. Returning to the couch, she pulled Atticus onto her lap and cried silent tears into his fur.