Brooke watched the gentle flow of the river as it drifted north in the late evening sun, carrying with it the cremated remains of a relative she’d never met. The chilly wind kicked up swaths of dust from the ashes as Aunt Rayah gently sifted them from the brushed nickel urn into the water. Brooke couldn’t help feeling how overwhelmingly sad it was that only she and her Aunt were there to lay him to rest in accordance with his final wishes.
Aunt Rayah wore a soft gray dress and matching sweater with knee high boots and leather gloves. Her tawny complexion reddened slightly under the setting sun made her seem some how at peace. Brooke couldn’t help taking her phone from the pocket of her jacket and capturing an image of the moment. When the last of the ashes spilled into the river and disappeared from sight, her aunt replaced the lid on the urn, nestled it in the crook of her arm, and swiped away at a curious tear.
“Are you alright?” Brooke asked wondering about the show of emotion that seemed misplaced.
“Yes, it just… reminds me,” she stated.
“About my parents?”
She nodded in response and swiped at another tear. Her parents had been killed in a plane crash shortly after Brooke was born.
“Would you like to say anything to him before we leave?” she asked surprising Brooke.
“No, that’s okay,” Brooke answered, even though there were a million questions jumping around in her head, not the least of which being why he hadn’t bothered to find her while he was still alive.
“Would you like to go see the cabin?” her aunt asked next.
“We might as well. The Will stipulates that you can’t sell it for ten years. And it’s a long way from New York. I don’t think we’ll be back very often. Do you?”
“No, I guess not.” Brooke took in a deep breath of the fresh air and let it out again.
“Let’s just take a look. There may be some old photographs or something.”
“Okay,” she agreed hoping that her Aunt was right. That there would be something she might learn about her mother’s family.
Aunt Rayah had been her guardian since before she could remember. But Aunt Rayah hadn’t known about the next of kin until the notice from his attorney arrived with a package containing the inheritance he’d left to her, an expansive property on Sweetgrass Island and a Trust Fund that would see to its upkeep and her education.
“They never mentioned him at all?” Brooke asked her aunt when they climbed back into the car and set the GPS for the address of the cabin.
“My brother never mentioned him and neither did your mother,” she insisted. “I honestly didn’t think your mother had any family but us. Or that if she did have, family she wanted to stay far from them.”
“But obviously, this man knew about me…”
“Right.” Her aunt took in a slow breath as if bracing herself for one of the many hard questions she wouldn’t be able to answer.
Brooke exhaled in a huff of sadness and confusion. She turned to watch the trees lining the highway as her aunt drove the car in silence. Brooke wished she had known Raymond Ellis, III. Someone who could have connected her to her mother the way Aunt Rayah had done for her father. She took a moment to contemplate why he had never tried to reach out to her while he was still alive.
She also wondered why he wanted her to renovate the property and stipulated that she couldn’t sell the property for ten years. It was worth a small fortune according to a representative from Omega Development who’d stopped by her Aunt’s house before they’d left for the funeral. Even though the trust fund contained a lot of money as well, she was sorry for having to tell him that she wouldn’t be selling.
She tried not to let her imagination run wild as to what could have been so bad that her mother never mentioned him or why he had not contacted her until after he died, but she couldn’t help it. She was in the middle of considering that her mother might have been in witness protection when she noticed her aunt pulling over to a road side gas station.
“Never hurts to fill up and get snacks. You want anything?”
“Maybe a soda,” Brooke replied.
She handed her a twenty dollar bill. “Grab one for me, too.”
Brooke hurried into the store and lifted two sodas from a tall cooler near the register. They looked like old-timey bottles with chunky thick glass, long necks, and metal tops.”
“Need a bottle opener?” A smooth baritone voice asked from behind the register and she looked up to lock eyes with a man, maybe twenty-five, with large brown eyes encased in thick dark lashes and hooded beneath dark brows. His short curls were tapered at the edges and swirled just to the middle of his forehead. The kindness of his eyes spread across the warmth of his amber complexion to the humored smile on his lips.
“Excuse me?” she asked as her mind went blank and she felt an involuntary smile touch her own lips.
“City girl, right?” She picked up the soft cadence of his accent and smiled wider.
“Yeah,” she admitted.
He nodded satisfied with himself as he retrieved a bottle opener from the rack behind him and left the counter to stand next to her. He took both bottles, popping the top of each before handing them back. He was more than a head taller than her five foot six, and she tried not to notice the warmth of his nearness as she placed one bottle down on the counter and tried to hand him the twenty.
“On the house,” he said waving the money away.
“Oh, I can’t,” she said trying to hand it to him again.
“I insist. It’s a family company. I bottled these myself last summer. I’m Nathan Cross.”
He extended a hand, and she shook it without thinking.
“I’m Brooke Morgan.”
An electric warmth seemed to spread from his hand to hers before she pulled away. He pointed to a social media ID on the label and smiled good natured. “Follow us on social media. Post a picture of the label when you get back to the big city. Make us famous.” His eyes twinkled, mingling with the charm of his accent as he winked at her.
Her mind went blank, as an inappropriate rush ran over her. She tried to turn her eyes away from him and will herself to stop smiling at him like an idiot.
“What brings you all this way anyway?” he asked as he returned to the register and put the bottle opener away.
“We are going over to Sweetgrass Island. I just inherited some property over there.”
In the next moment Nathan’s eyes went wide and his jaw fell slack and it felt as if a cool breeze blew between them.
“What? Did I say something wrong?”