My cage is gilded. Like the proverbial songbird, I have everything I could ever want except freedom. The meals I’m served are delicious. The pictures on my walls, expensive. Even my bedding is the highest thread count money can buy. I don’t care. All I want is out.
If that’s going to happen, I’m going to have to engineer it, cleverly, creatively, because they don’t want me to leave. They believe, wrongly I think, that I’m too valuable.
I’ve always thought being a commodity was something to be aspired to. Who doesn’t wish to be treasured? I now know that coin has two sides, heads and tails. Heads is the winning side of the equation, the only side most of us have ever imagined. It’s the only side I’d ever considered.
Coins can be spent, or they can be hoarded. When they’re spent, they circulate, moving from admiring hand to admiring hand. When they’re hoarded, they’re locked in a secret place, held for some future imagined or real event. Heads, I win. Tails, I lose. Tails has become my life.
Everyone wore black but Willow. How stupid could she be? Even the universe seemed to understand the need for adherence to tradition. The day wore gloom like a shroud, the priest’s white collar neon against its leaden sky. She tugged her green blazer tighter around herself, hoping to cover more of her cream silk blouse.
Willow cast a glance at Jonathan, who stood granite still next to her. His blue eyes, almost iridescent in the colorless surroundings, were dry, his square jaw tense. Only the pallor of his face gave any indication of his emotion.
Her gaze roamed the rest of the group gathered at the grave. They were as somber as their clothing, each appearing deep in their own dark thoughts, expressions unreadable. Not even Hamish’s widow or daughter shed a tear. Note to self—the wealthy do their crying in private.
She’d expected this event to be well attended. Hamish Lauder was rich if not loved, and well-known with Orange County’s elite, but his funeral was as tight-fisted as the man had been. She squeezed Jonathan’s arm in sympathy.
The priest nodded his head toward Gerry, Hamish’s widow. Jonathan tugged Willow’s hand, dropped it, then hurried to his mother’s side. Gerry and Jonathan walked together toward the yawning hole in the otherwise perfectly groomed lawn. Was Willow supposed to follow?
She stood still, wishing she’d worn something more appropriate, wishing she knew what to do. Gerry plucked a white rose from a vase balanced in the grass and let it fall into the abyss. Jonathan glanced at Willow over his shoulder and widened his eyes meaningfully before doing the same, and after a quiet moment the two resumed their places.
He leaned toward Willow when he reached her side and lowered his voice. “Why didn’t you come with me?”
Her answer was a small shake of her head. She didn’t go because she’d have felt like a Protestant taking communion at a Catholic mass. This wasn’t her clan, her people. They’d had this discussion before, and he hadn’t understood her feelings then. Now wasn’t the time to tackle the topic again.
A rustle of fabric drew Willow’s attention. Chloe, Jonathan’s beautiful twin, and her fiancé walked up the grassy aisle to the grave. Mat and Chloe had only been engaged a month and a half longer than Willow and Jonathan, but he seemed perfectly at ease with the Lauders.
Of course, he had money. Mateo Avila was a pediatrician. He was also descended from one of the first Spanish families of Southern California. Willow was descended from a Kentucky firefighter and a chef who specialized in Southern fusion food.
Mat’s suit probably cost more than she paid for three months’ rent, and Chloe’s outfit—a flowing, black dress with an edge of lace peeking from the hem—more than Willow’s annual grocery budget. They looked cool, sophisticated, and elegant. Willow shifted her weight until her pilling gray wool slacks were halfway hidden behind Jonathan.
After Chloe and Mat paid their respects, Hamish’s brother, his rabbit-faced wife, and his pale daughter each threw a rose into the dark hole. Willow had met them briefly at Sunset House the month before. The daughter’s name was Ophelia. Willow remembered it because the Shakespearean association was so apt. According to Jonathan, Ophelia was the crazy cousin every family had and tried to hide.
The final flower was tossed into the grave by an olive-skinned, hollow-eyed woman of about Willow’s age. The priest stood, gave a short homily, prayed, then announced the reception following at Sunset House. Nobody gave a eulogy.
Months ago, when Willow’s father, Booker, was in the hospital, fear had painted visions of his death and burial in her mind. If her father had died—thank god he hadn’t—she was sure the entire fire department would have turned out for the funeral, along with the neighborhood and the entire large, unruly, extended Wells family. Eulogies would go on for hours amid tears and laughter and toasts to his memory .
Hamish’s family turned away from the grave site without a backwards glance. Everyone made their way toward the cars parked along the cemetery’s narrow streets. The clicking of their hard-soled shoes echoed in the holy hush. Willow gripped Jonathan’s arm. She’d been a bit off-balance lately, and her kitten heels weren’t helping. “How are you doing?” she said under her breath.
Jonathan inhaled deeply as if he were going to speak then tightened his lips. He’d been opaque since his father’s death. A neutral veil had slid over his face, masking his emotions. The death had been a surprise, but not a shock. After Hamish’s first stroke, the doctor had warned the family another could come at any time. Willow had assumed Jonathan was ready for this eventuality, but now she wasn’t sure. Grief, anger, denial, whatever he was feeling was a mystery to her. He wasn’t sharing.
“I think I should call an Uber,” Willow said.
Jonathan stopped walking and stared at her. “Why on earth would you do that?”
“I don’t belong in the limo.”
“Of course you do. You’re my fiancee.”
“I’m not family yet.”
He placed his free hand on the small bump hidden beneath her blazer. “You’re carrying family. That’s more than Mat can say.” He removed his hand quickly, tugged her arm, and began walking again. Willow tumbled forward, righted herself, and hurried along beside him.
She might be carrying Hamish’s grandchild, but nobody knew it. They’d planned to break the news to Jonathan’s parents when Hamish recovered from his first stroke. He’d died before they’d had the chance, and it didn’t seem appropriate to bring it up now.
They reached the limo after Gerry, Chloe, and Mat had been seated. As Willow slid inside, she noticed the woman who’d thrown the last rose unlocking a car across the narrow road. Tears streaked her face. Someone had loved Hamish, then. Who was she?
The fifteen-minute ride from San Juan Capistrano to San Clemente was silent and awkward. It was a relief when the wrought iron gates of Sunset House opened and the parade of vehicles processed through. A staff of four, all dressed in somber black uniforms, met them at the top of the circular drive. It looked like a scene from Downton Abby.
The first time Willow had visited Sunset House, she’d been in awe. She hadn’t been raised in poverty, far from it. Her upbringing was very middle class. She hadn’t had everything she’d wanted, but she’d had everything she’d needed. Sunset House was a fairy tale. It was full of things you never knew you should want until you saw them.
House was a misnomer, though. It was an estate. Behind its high walls and locked gates were several buildings. The main house, or hacienda, was horseshoe shaped—a two story building encircling a courtyard of fountains and flowers. There was also a botanical conservatory, two unattached garages that housed six to ten cars each, a pool house, a garden shed that could sleep a family of five, and a library. The property bordered the Pacific Ocean, hence its name. The sunset view was breathtaking.