3 Years Later
“You’re late!” Sarah chided, hurrying over to her daughter and linking their arms together. “I thought you had abandoned me to fend for myself.”
“Mother, I’m ten minutes late. And you know I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” Valerie said gently, patting her mother’s arm reassuringly. “Besides, Ryland’s already here. He’s all you really need.”
“How you got that fine boy to agree to marry you, I’ll never understand,” Sarah said, shaking her head. “He’s too good for you, you know.”
“Considering he’s the one who proposed to me, I sincerely doubt he’d agree with you,” Valerie said with a chuckle.
She looked over at her mother, marveling at the change that had come over her. For the first few months after most of their family was arrested, Sarah had been a mess. She wouldn’t leave the house and cried spontaneously. However, as time wore on and work on the Lily Hart Center began, Sarah couldn’t resist the challenge of turning the old mansion into something useful.
At first, the change had been maddening because Sarah had insisted on getting involved in every aspect of the planning work. It wasn’t until Sabrina pointed out that Sarah had some good ideas that Valerie decided to hear her out. In the end, Valerie had found herself letting Sarah take more control of the project while Valerie focused on running the business.
About a year ago, the center had opened its doors, and it proved to be a massive success. Instead of complaining about her lot in life, Sarah had poured her soul into creating the facility, and it showed. It was a place where single mothers could leave their children during the day and after school until they could come fetch them. They also helped wives and mothers who left abusive partners and provided support for homeless women. It was a haven within the community, and the response had been overwhelmingly positive.
There were even classes for women who needed to learn skills to get better jobs, and Valerie had started a program within Monroe Industries to help women from the center. She was slowly turning the family legacy into something that represented hope and joy.
“Do you hear that?” Sarah asked, stopping short and looking at the mansion with a wondrous expression. “That’s the sound of a successful party.”
The sounds of light music and chattering drifted over the hedge, greeting Valerie like an old friend. It was the newly reinstated Monroe Industries Charity Gala. When Sarah had come to Valerie with the idea, Valerie had been aghast. It seemed inappropriate and wildly insensitive, but Sarah had eventually convinced her otherwise.
She’d pointed out that the gala represented something within the community and would be a good opportunity for others to get involved in the Lily Hart Center. Valerie had been surprised by the suggestion because Sarah had completely stepped away from Fort Monterey’s high society. She barely saw her old friends, since she found it hard to forgive them for abandoning her in her hour of need. It was Ryland who pointed out that it would be good for Sarah to do something that she loved doing. In the end, Valerie had relented, and now she was glad she did.
When they walked into the garden, Valerie could see how the women from the society were enjoying themselves. Some of Valerie’s business associates had come out, and even some curious onlookers from the previous gala had deigned to show up. The party was a clear success, and if all went well, there would be another one the following year. It would only do good things for the center, and perhaps in time they would be able to expand to other towns. That would keep her mother busy for the next few years.
“You did an amazing job, Mom,” Valerie said, kissing her mother lightly on the cheek.
Sarah looked at her in surprise but gave her a grateful smile. The two of them had been working on their relationship over the past few years. It had been hard to get over everything that had happened, but at least they had each other.
They’d hit a rocky patch when Valerie had decided that she wanted to see her father. Sarah had been hysterical and admitted that she was afraid of Benedict. It had taken a lot of convincing before Sarah had let Valerie go to the jail, but, in time, she too had gone to see her husband.
It had been terrible. He was declining quickly, only a shell of the man he had once been. Conversation was difficult because he didn’t answer questions and was prone to angry outbursts. Valerie was confident that it would get easier, though. Sometimes she felt like she was talking to the father she’d always thought she had, but every now and then Benedict’s darker attitude would take over, and it would become unpleasant.
After that, Sarah had decided to take it a step further and visit her sons. While Valerie was reluctant to open that door, she’d decided to support her mother. Richard had been glad to see them, and he was the least bitter about it all. Valerie sensed he was coming to regret his part in the murder, and not just because he had been caught. That filled her with cautious optimism. It would be nice to be closer to at least one of her brothers. He had convinced them to visit Tessa, which had been slightly difficult.
She had been convicted for her part in the smuggling ring soon after the Monroe men. When authorities looked into the smuggling business, they had found that Tessa had actively participated in the illegal activities and even had plans to expand the operation. She’d received a ten-year sentence for her efforts. While she disliked Valerie, it was clear she appreciated having someone to come see her. Maybe once she was released, they could look at repairing that relationship.
Visiting Blake, on the other hand, was a complete nightmare. He was bitter about what had happened and had somehow found a way to blame everyone but himself. After their first visit, it was clear he thought it had been Valerie’s plan to throw them all in prison and take the company for herself. No amount of explaining or clear logic could dissuade him from his theories. The visit had ended when she’d had enough of his taunts and insults. After that, Sarah had decided she would go to visit Blake on her own.
The fact that Kelly had divorced him didn’t sit well with him, either. For a while, he kept badgering her with calls and letters until she changed her number and moved away. It turned out for the best however, because Kelly flourished in her new environment. She had found a job as a preschool teacher and was dating the single father of one of her students.
They visited Valerie regularly. Kelly doted on her future stepdaughter, a pretty little girl with chubby cheeks and dark brown eyes. Her mother had died when she was a baby, and Kelly seemed happy to fill the needed role. She seemed blissfully happy in her new life.
Valerie had told her she didn’t need to visit if it reminded her too much of her past, but Kelly insisted. They had formed a firm friendship in the months after everything exploded, and it would be wrong to let that die just because times were good again. Valerie was relieved to hear it. She would’ve hated losing Kelly as a friend.
“Okay, honey,” Sarah said, patting her daughter on the arm. “I have to check on my guests. Go find that handsome fiancé of yours and make sure no one steals him.”
With that, she walked off and started mingling with the crowd. Valerie watched her go with a pleasant smile. And then she turned to look at the house. It seemed like a brand-new building. Everything had been replaced, and it was glorious. It looked modern and homely. When they designed the center, they had wanted it to look strong without being too imposing.
The previous design had leaned heavily on grandeur and was meant to show off. Now, it looked like a big home. The aim was to have people feel like they belonged there, and Valerie felt like they had gotten it right.
As she looked up at the house, she spotted Ryland walking leisurely down the stairs. He was wearing a suit pants and a button-down shirt, but he had foregone the tie and jacket as it was too hot. The years had changed him, too. He was still the handsome rogue who had helped her through the toughest day of her life, but he had more smile lines now and seemed more at ease.
After his triumphant dismantling of the Monroe smuggling ring, he had received a massive promotion. From there, he’d started looking through the affairs of Benedict’s known associates. They both remembered how Benedict had boasted that half of his business partners were either criminals or liars. The search had proved fruitful and two more smuggling rings and a few money laundering operations were uncovered.
Despite his hard work, he still found time for their relationship. He had been more than patient with her in the dark days of her recovery. They still had far to go, but they were a long way from where they’d started. He hadn’t proposed to her until he was sure that it was what she wanted. And even then, it had been a simple affair between the two of them.
Sarah had pouted and said that he should’ve made a grander proposal, but Valerie was satisfied. She didn’t need big romantic displays, all she needed was him at her side. Besides, he showed her every day that he cared about her. After everything that had happened, she hated being in the spotlight more than anything.
During the trial, she had been called to the stand and interrogated. The lawyers had put her through the wringer and brought up every dirty detail of her past. It had been a harrowing experience. Once the papers had caught hold of it, her personal hell was subject to public opinion. Some called her an attention-seeker and a drama queen, while others heralded her as a hero.
At the end of the day, she was just a woman. And she wanted to grieve in private. It had taken a lot of work to get the media to leave her alone, but eventually they had moved on to bigger stories and she was forgotten.
She was so busy watching her fiancé that she didn’t see the projectile until it was too late. All she knew was that something had launched itself at her. As she fought to regain her balance, she looked down and felt little hands grab onto her legs. A mischievous little face peeked out at her from under a mass of red curls.
“Lili!” Sky cried, running up to Valerie. “What have I said about attacking poor Aunt Valerie?”
Lili let out an evil giggle and moved to run away again but Valerie scooped her up in her arms and kissed her cheeks. The toddler squealed in delight and grabbed Valerie’s face, her sticky hands causing Valerie to wince.
“I swear,” Sky said, taking Lili from her, “she’s going to give me a heart attack. One second, she’s playing with her food, and the next, she’s tackling people. Sorry about that.”
“Are you kidding?” Valerie said with a laugh. “it makes my day every time. She’s the cutest baby girl in the world.”
“Not baby,” Lili said with a frown, pointing accusatorily at Valerie. “Big girl.”
“How could I forget?” Valerie said, shaking her head and gasping, causing the toddler to chuckle at her again. “You’re a big girl now! How many?”
“This many!” Lili crowed, proudly holding out two fingers.
“Someone save me,” Sky said with a sigh as she hugged Lili to her. “Time goes by so quickly. One moment, she was still a little slug, and the next, she had legs. I tell you; it all goes by too quickly.”
Soon after the murder, Sky had married her fiancé as planned, and before anyone knew it, Lili had come along. She was a massive bright spot during the trial; visiting the happy little family had meant the world to Valerie. When she felt at her lowest, she would stop by at the house and let the domestic bliss lull her into a sense of security.
Around the same time, they received word that Johnny and Pippa had welcomed a new son into the world. Valerie didn’t keep in contact with them, but Sarah followed them on social media. While they hadn’t left on bad terms, there were some relationships that couldn’t be salvaged. Valerie didn’t resent them anymore, but there was nothing left for them to build on. In the end, they all knew it would simply be healthier to walk away.
The move away from Fort Monterey had done wonders for Pippa and Johnny’s marriage. According to Sarah, they were happier than ever. And Valerie found that she was happy for them. She had realized long ago that Pippa and Johnny fit together. It made sense for them to be together. And while they had gone about things in the wrong way, they didn’t deserve to suffer for their mistakes for the rest of their lives.
“There’s my favorite girl,” Ryland said, breaking Valerie out of her reverie.
He put his arm around her waist and drew her to him, kissing her lovingly on the forehead. She smiled up at him, melting into his arms.
“Hey!” Lili protested, putting her hand on her waist.
“Sorry, sorry,” Ryland said, holding his arms out to her. She immediately wriggled out of Sky’s arms and went to him. “I meant my two favorite girls.”
“I want to be number one,” Lili said with a little frown, snuggling into his chest.
“Oh, wow, watch out,” Sky said, wiggling her eyebrows at Valerie. “It looks like this little miss is out to steal your man.”
“She can have him,” Valerie said, flicking Ryland’s nose playfully. “I was just about done with him, anyway.”
“Hey!” Lili called out as Valerie pretended to walk away. “You must stay!”
Lili’s sticky little hand pulled Valerie’s hair, and she laughed excitedly when Valerie groaned and made her way back. Ryland immediately put his arm around her and held her close.
“What was that about being done with me?” Ryland asked, raising an eyebrow.
“You’ll get over it,” Valerie promised, pushing herself up on her toes and kissing his cheek.
Lili gagged dramatically, causing the adults to laugh and coo over her. The rest of the party flew by as the chatted and ate some of the delicious food. Before they knew it, Sarah was up on the podium, clinking her fork to her glass to get everyone’s attention.
“I wanted to thank everyone for joining us today,” Sarah said with a bright smile. “The annual Monroe Industries gala is an event that’s very dear to my heart, and I’m so grateful to have the chance to start fresh with such a worthy cause.”
She paused strategically for the smattering of polite applause.
“But that’s enough from me, let’s hear from the reason we’re all here today: my lovely daughter, Valerie.”
Valerie grimaced, but dutifully got to her feet and walked over to the podium. When she looked out over the faces in front of her, she felt her heart jump to her throat. However, it soon eased when she spotted all the friendly smiles.
“Three years ago, I lost the greatest friend I’d ever known,” Valerie said, looking down quickly. “He had found something out about my family and wanted to do the right thing. He knew it would be difficult for me, and so he tried to keep me out of it as much as possible. He meant well, but he was misguided. We could’ve worked together, and I think it would’ve saved his life.”
A heavy silence fell over the crowd, and she sighed deeply.
“I’ve made peace with it now, but I learned something important. It’s always better to rely on someone. I had someone like that, and I wish I could’ve kept him. But when I lost everything, I saw clearly who stood at my side. And that was when we learned about someone else who didn’t have enough support when she needed it most. Lily Hart was barely out of her teens when she was married to someone double her age. He didn’t care about her further than what she could do for him. And when she lost their baby, she lost her value in his eyes and he neglected her.”
When they’d torn out the fixtures in the mansion, they had uncovered Dr. Jackson’s journals. In them, he detailed his wife’s miscarriage and his subsequent apathy toward her suffering. This had strengthened Valerie’s resolve to build the center.
“Eventually, she found a support and planned to run away, but she didn’t get the chance to be free. And so, that’s why we decided to open the Lily Hart Center. It’s our aim to help as many women as possible. And in this way, we’ll keep her name from being forgotten. Today is a celebration of those two people, who both needed support. May our examples honor their memories.”
A round of enthusiastic applause greeted her words, and Ryland whistled loudly. She smiled gratefully at him. It had taken her a long time to accept what she had lost, but her grief didn’t blind her to all the things she gained. And, in the end, she wouldn’t trade any of it for all the money in the world.
“Thank you, Lily, for the inspiration,” Valerie said with a warm smile. “And thank you, Tom, for being the best person I ever knew.”
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