Read Sunkissed Online

Authors: Janelle Daniels

Sunkissed

 

 

By

Janelle Daniels

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

Sunkissed

 

Copyright © 2013 by Janelle Daniels

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

 

 

* * *

The wake had been exactly what Natalie’s grandma would have loved—loud, lively, with a hint of flamboyance. Just the way Adele Cunningham had preferred her life.

But now, standing in her grandmother’s condo, the fluorescent lights bouncing off of
the countertops in the tidy kitchen, she felt desolate.

Splashing cool water over her forehead and neck, Natalie leaned against the spotless stainless-steel sink for support.

There hadn’t been time to grieve, to slow down and realize what her grandma’s passing meant. But now that the funeral was over, loneliness crept in.

The condo belonged to Natalie now, along with all of its contents. But none of that mattered. They hadn’t been wealthy by
California standards, but at least they owned the condo outright.

Unwilling to return to the downtown apartment her grandma had insisted that she lease, Natalie crawled into the bed in the master suite
, still wearing the simple black dress she herself had designed only a few days ago. A fresh wave of tears flooded her eyes as the rose-scented sheets her grandma had loved filled her nose.

So much needed to be done.
But organizing and sorting her grandma’s memories would have to wait. Tonight, Natalie would mourn the loss of the only true parent she had known. Her own mother, Linda, had died while abandoning her, running away with yet another loser who had preyed on her insecurities, her inability to stand on her own. Her father had never been in the picture.

Grief wracking through her body, Natalie poured her anguish into the pillow, not noticing or caring when she finally drifted off to sleep.

Morning came too soon. The sound of a vacuum running in the unit above, a thing so ordinary, unbalanced her as she reeled from loss.

Sitting up, she sipped from the water cup resting on the nightstand, gingerly taking stock of her feelings, her body. The underlying hollowness in the pit of her stomach remained, but the cry had been cathartic, draining most of the ravaging grief from her heart.

Glancing at the clock, she winced. Past ten. She had slept for fourteen hours.

Locating her cell phone, she dialed the familiar number with ease.

“Hello?”

Natalie cradled the phone to her ear before answering. “James, it’s me.”

“How are you? I worried about you all night.”

Comfort settled over her like a warm, familiar blanket. They had gone to fashion design school together and had instantly bonded over shared taste. After graduation, they had joined forces, working together when Natalie started her own line. James had helped her to make sense of a world that had never been kind.

“I’m sorry.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I didn’t mean to worry you. I went straight to sleep after the wake and I just woke up.”

“Understandable. Do you want me to pick you up?”

“No. I think I’m going to stay here for a few days, start sorting through things.” She smoothed a wrinkle in the bedspread.

“You sure you want to do it alone? I don’t mind spending time there.”

“I appreciate it, but this is something I have to do on my own.”

“Just know I’m here for you.”

A small smile turned her lips. “You always are.”

“Call me if you need to talk.” He paused. “What do you want me to tell the others?”

The ‘others’ he referred to were her team, currently on standby to help her collection come to life. “Tell them to take a few days off. They’ll need it in the upcoming weeks.”

“They’ll appreciate it.”

“No doubt.” Natalie could be an unrelenting taskmaster when they were down to the wire. She admired that trait in herself. “I’ll call you if I need anything,” she reassured him before saying goodbye. 

She didn’t wallow in bed as she wanted to, opting for a shower and a fresh change of clothes instead. Her grandmother had taught her to never procrastinate.

With that in mind, Natalie rolled up her sleeves, determined to go through her grandmother’s treasures, sorting items into piles that she wanted to keep or donate.

In the walk-in closet, Natalie took time to remember her grandmother in particular pieces. Unwilling to let the memories go, she folded the garments before placing them in the keep pile.

Laughing at the boxes of unworn shoes, at least ten pairs, still wrapped in crisp paper from the store, Natalie overflowed with love for the woman and all of her quirks.

With a smile lingering on her lips, Natalie reached for the final shoe box, pausing when her fingers touched smooth wood.

Curious, she pulled the chest down, puzzled when items clinked inside the enclosed space. Definitely not shoes.

Natalie settled herself on the bed before opening the lid with care.

Chuckling, she found a stack of pictures. Most of them were of her growing up, her firsts. First missing tooth, first dance recital, her first sewing machine. Even her first date. Her grandmother had gathered all of the important moments in Natalie’s life into this one box.

Flipping through the stack, she alternated between laughing and cringing at her awkward stages, until she came to the last photo.

Eyebrows crinkling, she studied the young man in the aged picture. Handsome, with a build no doubt honed from working in the large orange trees in the background.

Turning it over, she found little information.
Only the date—1938.

Judging from what appeared to be light brown hair with lighter streaks running through
it, Natalie surmised the man in the photo was not her black-haired grandfather. Why would her grandma keep a picture of a man other than Grandpa tucked in this box?

Natalie dumped the rest of the contents out, spreading them over the comforter like a pirate inspecting his booty.

Gingerly, she picked up a stack of letters, the folded pages bound together with a red satin bow. Her nose twitched as scent from the dried sprig of lavender, tucked in the ribbon, hit her.

A feeling started low in her stomach, winding through her body until she swallowed against the lump in her throat.

Opening the letters, her eyes traced the signature on each page.

Edward Walker.

Heart clenching, Natalie read through the love letters. Letters that were never meant for another’s eyes. Letters her grandma had saved her entire life.

She lowered the pages to the bed.
“Oh, Grandma. Who was this man? Why did you never mention him?”

Adele Cunningham hadn’t remarried after her husband’s death, which had left her a young widow after a few short months of marriage.

Natalie thought that her grandma had loved her grandpa too much to ever marry another, but now she wondered if that were true.

Glancing at the back of the photograph again, she stared at the date. Grandma hadn’t married until 1946.

Whoever this man was, he had come first in her grandmother’s life.

Replacing the contents of the box, she tried to shove away her questions, but couldn’t. She needed to know more.

She redialed on her phone. “Hey, it’s me again. I need a favor.”

“Anything,” James said.

“Remember that guy you hired to check out your mom’s boyfriend?”

“Yeah.”

“I need his number.”

“All right.
I can text it in a minute. I think I still have him in my contact list. Is everything all right?”

She wanted to reach out and confide in James about the picture, but something held her back. Her grandma had kept this man private her whole life and it felt wrong to share his picture without finding out more about him first.
“Yeah. I just want to look into something. Find out about one of my grandma’s things.”

“I’m not sure how much help he’ll be. He specialized in following cheating spouses. But in any case, I’m sure he could point you in the right direction.”

“Perfect.”

After receiving the text, she called the private investigator,
who seemed fairly confident in his ability to track down Edward Walker if he was still alive.

Determined to finish her task, Natalie replaced the box on the shelf before sorting through a mountain of plastic bins. But the picture of the young man haunted her.

If nothing else, she needed to find out where he had come from. She couldn’t fully let her grandma go without knowing.

 

* * *

 

“In total, fifty trees have been poisoned.”

Grant Walker nodded to Carlos, his grim-faced foreman. It was the third act of sabotage in a month.
Grant knelt in muddy jeans, sifting dirt through his fingers before bringing some to his nose. Gasoline. Just like the others. “I think it’s time we involve the police.”

“Agreed.
I don’t see this stopping.” Carlos leaned his heavy frame against a fence post, his clothes streaked with dirt and sweat from daily chores.

“And you haven’t noticed anything else? No other trees starting to yellow?”

“No. Just the three sections along the border.”

Someone had tried to hurt him. Who that was, Grant wasn’t sure, but he’d be damned if he allowed the destruction to continue.

“I want every tree along the perimeter double checked. I don’t know when they were poisoned, but I want to make sure these are the last of them.”

“Yes, sir.”

Grant didn’t watch his foreman leave. Instead, he scrutinized the poisoned land, the dying orange trees.

Raking a hand through his sun-streaked hair, he puzzled out the destruction. What did someone gain by killing trees?

His grandfather had expanded their product’s distribution while Grant had increased their production. Three other orchards were acquired in the last five years that Grant had been in charge, making Walker Orchards one of the largest in California. They were well regarded in the area, and Grant Walker even more so.

No one was going to take that from him.

He didn’t think the saboteur was one of the previous orchard owners. They had all been pleased, relieved even, that their struggling orchards would remain intact. Another competitor, perhaps? He had heard a rumor that Sun Valley Orchards was having financial issues, but Grant didn’t see how poisoning a few of his trees would help that situation.

A trickle of sweat trailed down his neck when he turned away from the yellowing foliage. Unconsciously, he wiped the moisture with his
palm, leaving a smudge from the grime on his hands.

Approaching the house, one of the workers called out to him. “Grant
, there’s a guy here to see you. He’s waiting inside.”

Saluting his thanks, Grant bounded up the steps. It was common for people to stop by in the middle of the day. Most times it didn’t bother him, but with everything else going on, he wanted whoever it was out fast.

A middle-aged man sat on the gently-faded leather couch in the front room. “Can I help you?” Grant asked.

Heaving himself off the oversized piece of furniture, the pouch of extra skin around his waist making the movement awkward, the man asked, “Grant Walker?”

“That’s right.”

“Rich Homer.” The man held out his hand for a shake.

Grant responded with a brief, firm grip. “Homer… do I know you?”

“No. But I have some business that I need to discuss with you.”

“I see.” Taking in the man’s jeans and light jacket, Grant assumed he knew what the man had in mind. “Anything that concerns the orchard goes through my assistant manager. I’d be happy to give you his number if you’re looking for work.”

“Thanks. But the business I have to discuss with you is more personal in nature.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’m here to inquire after your grandfather, Edward Walker.”

Grant’s brow rose. “I’m afraid I can’t help you with that. My grandfather passed away almost a year ago.”

“I see. Well if that’s the case, I won’t waste another moment of your time.” The stranger placed a cap over his balding head before moving toward the door.

“Not so fast.” Grant blocked the man’s path. “What business do you have with my grandfather?”

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