Aster stared straight ahead, refusing to even blink, just in case the tears burning against the back of her eyes fell. Just a little while longer. She only had to hold on for a few minutes more before this horrid ordeal would be over. She squirmed in the ugly overstuffed chair as the lawyer droned on and on. Suddenly a thought struck her; she didn’t have to stay! She could leave and she would. The mistress employing her was dead; all her hard work had boiled down to a small, square, rather plain black notebook. What was the point of hearing how the old lady had divvied up her assets among her brood? She clearly had not been nearly as valued as she had once thought.
Aster shoved the chair back, irritated when the chair refused to even squeak on the plush carpet. She shoved open the heavy door to the conference room and marched out. Vaguely Aster registered footsteps and a deep voice calling out behind her. She merely lengthened her stride; each click of her heels on the shiny tile a soundtrack to the anger and pain boiling inside her. To think she had liked the eccentric old woman, had shed tears at her funeral, had opened up to her, had thought of her as more than just a job. Aster pressed a fist to her lips in a fruitless attempt to stifle a sob. She hadn’t expected riches but something to keep her going until she could find another post. Something more than this ridiculous little black notebook.
Aster stepped off the elevator and into the parking garage. She glanced around and spied a trash can right next to her little Honda. She paused and drummed her fingers against the book. To throw away or to keep. This was the last little piece she had of Mrs. Loughty. The woman who had hired her, housed her, and had given her a chance when Aster was bumbling through college, volunteer assignments, and grief. Mrs. Loughty had had a good heart, oodles of money, and a lonely spirit. The woman was the picture of elegance but regret and sorrow pulsed from her very being. Aster understood how sorrow could burrow in and eat at your bones. An instant connection had formed between the two lost souls, right there at the arts and crafts table, in the center where Aster still occasionally volunteered.
She threw her head back suddenly and screamed. The primal sound of pain and rage echoed in the parking garage where she stood and grimacing, Aster pitched the little black book into the bin, slid into her car, and drove off. She did not notice the stranger in the oversized hoodie watching her from the stairwell. She had no idea that he rummaged around in the trash, picked out the notebook, and pulled out only minutes after her.
Aster sped along the freeway, tears turning her makeup into a waterfall down her face. She slowed down as she approached her favorite taco spot, “Yes, a fat burrito, a couple of beers, that’ll set me right. Maybe 2 burritos.” Musing over the carne asada burrito she would order, Aster mopped at her eyes and flung open the car door only to crash right into the hard body of a stranger.
Aster blinked then sighed, “Look if you are going to abduct me or carjack me or whatever, can I at least order my burrito first? If you pay for it plus get me a beer, I won’t even fight.”
The man let out a startled laugh, “abduct you. Why would I…. don’t you know who I am?”
She stared, “other than in my way? No. Should I?” He stepped back, pulling the hood and sunglasses off.
Aster stared into the deep brown eyes of the man she had loved and lost so very long ago. “Jonah McGrace?” she breathed.
Aster couldn’t think of what to say. Thoughts flashed through her head too quickly for her to fully realize each one. Finally, she blurted out, “I thought you left.”
He nodded, “I did. I came back. For you.” Aster shook her head frantically, “No, you don’t get to do this. You waltzed out of my life years ago. I carved out something and, on the day, the very day, I have to start all over, here you just appear again! NO! NO! NO!” Aster didn’t realize her voice had gone high and shrill until Jonah stepped fully into her space and pressed a finger to her lips.
Aster was seconds away from sinking her teeth into his hand, but he shook his head, his eyes boring into hers in warning, “We are likely being watched. I know you have no reason to listen or trust me but please. Go home. I’ll find you.”
He stepped in, his warm hard body pressing into hers and she felt him slip something square and heavy into her pocket. He brushed his lips lightly across her forehead and stepped away. Aster drew in a deep breath. Shaking her head, she looked regretfully at the dingy restaurant, committing the peeling paint and decorative circles on the door to memory. Scowling, she sat back down into her car and drove away. Jonah’s last words played through her mind. “Go home?” What did he mean by that? She didn’t have a home anymore, not really. Mrs. Loughty was dead and as her caregiver, Aster had lived with her for the past 9 years. With the demands of the job, it simply hadn’t been practical for her to have her own apartment.
She was cruising down the street, lost in thought when her pocket buzzed. She glanced at the center console where her dark and silent phone lay. Aster heaved a sigh of irritation and reaching into her coat pocket, pulled out a vibrating phone and…., “What? How did he get this? I tossed it. Is Jonah McGrace following me? Did he go through the trash? How was he there?” She tossed the little black book onto the floor of the passenger seat. With one hand, she brought up the recent text message, the other clenched tightly on the steering wheel. It was from Jonah. Of course. She frowned at the phone and despite everything couldn’t help the smile that played at the corner of her lips.
“I know you didn’t get your burrito. I have Chinese and I will be waiting at our special spot. Aster, please come.”
Aster knew it was a bad idea. Having Jonah McGrace re-appear was not a good sign. Having him bring back her so-called inheritance when she had pitched it was a bad sign. Meeting him at the place where they had shared their first kiss was an even worse sign and yet here she was. Driving on, Aster stopped at a red light. She flicked a glance in the rearview mirror and saw a dark blue SUV. It looked awfully familiar – had she seen it at the lawyer’s office? But then it turned right when Aster went left and she immediately forgot it.
Pulling into the small park, Aster nearly jumped out of her skin when a knock on the window came. Hastily she unlocked the doors. Jonah had just slipped inside the car when her hand connected with his face. Her open hand against his icy cheek echoed in the tiny vehicle and shocked them both. Jonah worked his jaw, “I guess I deserved that.”
“You guess you deserved that?” Aster felt her knee-jerk reaction to apologize vanish as she repeated the words and would have slapped him again but he caught her hand first. “Aster, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that. I’m so sorry. I wish I had a lifetime to give you. I would spend it groveling, apologizing, worshipping, and begging you for any scrap of your attention. I would enslave myself to your every whim.”
He slowly let her hand go and cupped her cheeks in his huge hands, “But I don’t have a lifetime. We don’t have a lifetime. We may not even have another day. I need you to trust me. Let me feed you and explain.”
Aster shook her head, trying to make sense of the words he was spouting. “Jonah.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “Jonah, please, my employer just died. I don’t have a job. I don’t have a place to live. I have nothing except a suitcase of clothes, my laptop, a burner phone you gave me, and this little black book that you apparently dug out the trash in a place you shouldn’t have even been. I don’t…. I can’t…. How do I even?” Words failed and her chest heaved with tears.
“Eat. I’ll talk.” He handed her a carton of shrimp fried rice. Aster took it mechanically and stared down at the small white box.
“Your employer, the woman you knew as Mrs. Keena Loughty was a wealthy woman but her maiden name was Keena McHale, daughter of the oil tycoon Samuel McHale.” Jonah searched Aster’s face carefully, but she didn’t look at him. “Keena and her father were close but there was no love lost between her and her stepmom. When Samuel died and her stepmom found out Keena stood to inherit almost everything, she tried to prove that the will was false. It dragged on for years and she never got another penny but what she did find out was that Keena had had an affair during the early parts of her marriage, likely when she was grieving her father. That child was named Correna.”
Aster’s eyes flew up to his. She carefully set the Chinese food carton in the cupholder. Jonah went on, “I have reason to believe that Keena’s daughter Correna was your….”
No, no, no, no, no, no” Aster chanted, her eyes pleading with Jonah to stop his tale. She could feel the truth of his words and a steady throb built at the base of her skull. “Aster, Correna was your mother and Keena Loughty was your grandmother. Everything she left you, everything about who you are is detailed in the black book. If I’m right and we both know I am, you could be in danger and you have some serious decisions to make.”
Aster’s head fell back against the seat. “I don’t understand why you’re here.”
Jonah nodded slowly and his eyes fell from hers, “I’m here for many reasons, but the one you want to hear is Keena, your grandmother, found me. She pulled me from my assignment and charged me with your protection. My life, my guns, all that I have is yours. She knew she didn’t have long. She wanted you to be safe.”
Aster stared at him, “What did she pay you?”
Jonah licked his lips, “$20,000.”
Aster gripped the steering wheel and tried to think. The second she grasped onto a thought, it fled, leaving her trapped in a maze of confusion, sitting in a seat next to the one man she thought she’d never see again, apparent heiress to some sort of fortune from a grandmother she’d never really known. How to proceed? What to do? She couldn’t even imagine receiving $20,000, let alone more than that.
She blew out a harsh breath, “What did you do with the money, Jonah?” He shrugged, “I bought a plane ticket, rented a car, booked a hotel and placed an order at the Chinese food spot for you. I am here for you Aster. Whatever you want. I wasn’t here before. I failed you once.” His eyes bored into hers, “Never again.”
Without a word, Aster reached down and rummaged on the floor by Jonah’s feet. Gripping the little black book, she bit her bottom lip, undid the leather ties, and flipped open the first page. She wished she could wait but was there any point? Her life had already irrevocably changed, and this just made it official.