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Cassie Wilkerson lowered her torso into a downward dog position, inhaled deeply through her nose, and breathed out through her mouth. A simple move that would be far less awkward if she were sprawled out in her Manhattan high-rise living room in her red tank top and yoga pants, and not attempting it on her office carpet in a sleek, black pencil skirt and patent leather high heels.
Nevertheless, it was her go-to move when she needed to calm her nerves and stay in control. She brought her chin to her chest and inhaled through her nose. You got this. Absolute . . . total . . . control . . .
“Hey, Cassie. Well, this is interesting.”
She whipped her head to the side, her hips going vertical toward the ceiling, causing her to sway. “Whoa!” she yelled before crashing to the floor, one heel flying toward her visitor.
So much for control.
“Are you okay?” her assistant, Lloyd, asked. Jostling a bright-yellow package in his hands, he bent down and picked up her high heel. His lips tipped up—way up—showing far more amusement than concern as he handed her the shoe.
She scrambled to her feet and slipped it back on, straightening her suit jacket. “I’m fine,” she said. “Just passing the time while I wait to hear from Lorraine.”
It’d been a big morning for the company, and now her boss, Lorraine Burke—the Burke in Burke & Taylor Advertising—was currently doing her best to seal a huge global deal with a lucrative skincare company, Skin Essentials.
As the director of new business for the renowned New York City advertising firm, Cassie had flawlessly delivered arguably the biggest pitch of her career—a career she had dedicated the last eight years of her life to as she’d moved up the Burke & Taylor ladder.
Everything had gone according to plan. She’d walked the Skin Essentials leadership team through her vision to advertise their new First Touch skincare collection to outdoor adventurists. Pausing at each colorful storyboard, she’d proudly demonstrated that the new line would be used by every mountain climber, flat road cycler, and ocean surfer this summer—from the summit to the sea.
Resting a palm on the last storyboard—a hiker touching up a small leg scratch with First Touch antibacterial wound cream—she had looked the Skin Essential’s CEO square in the eyes and promised that his new line would catch fire, and she was going to be the one to light the match.
It was a promise she intended to keep. Her promotion to vice president depended on it.
The wait would be over soon. Corner office, here I come.
Elated by that thought, Cassie slid into her chair, eyeing the canary-yellow box Lloyd was still holding. “Is that for me?”
“Yes. It was delivered an hour ago.” He set it on her desk.
Interesting color for a package. It was way too early for a celebratory gift, since the Skin Essentials brass were still in the building. Maybe one of Burke & Taylor’s other clients sent her some product to try. It wasn’t uncommon. Her favorite gift, hands down, had been the enormous basket of multicolored tortilla chips and yummy guacamole from Guac Olé, a lucrative family business in Sweet Ridge, Texas.
“Does it say where it came from?” she asked, sitting forward and clicking open her e-mail. Multitasking was her superpower. She responded to the sole message in her inbox, hovered her cursor over the trash can icon, and gave it a triumphant click. Yes! Nothing gave her more pleasure than an empty inbox.
A ding interrupted her short-lived celebration. “Darn.” She clicked open the e-mail from one of the creative directors and began to respond.
Lloyd inspected the package. “It says it’s from Honey Springs, California.”
Cassie’s fingers stiffened, and she stopped typing midsentence. “Where did you say?”
“Honey Springs, California,” Lloyd confirmed and handed over the box. “Says it’s from the mayor’s office.”
“Thank you.” An enormous wave of guilt washed over her. The return label indeed read ‘mayor’s office.’ It’d been more than a decade since she last saw the mayor of the charming, Northern California town.
A reunion that now could never happen.
A knot formed in her stomach. Her aunt, Etta St. James, had assumed the mayor role eight years ago. She’d even invited Cassie to her inauguration, but Cassie had just started at Burke & Taylor. She couldn’t get the time off.
Truth be told, she hadn’t tried hard to be there.
The knot tightened, and she swept a hand across her stomach. Last month, she’d been pulled out of a focus group to take a phone call from Aunt Etta’s office. A staff member, in between uncontrollable sobs, had informed Cassie that her aunt had a sudden heart attack and passed away.
Cassie had wanted to attend the funeral, but she’d been neck-deep in the Skin Essentials pitch. There was no way she could leave to fly clear across country. She’d sent a dozen bright-pink roses to the funeral home. They were Aunt Etta’s favorite; she had said they symbolized gratitude and appreciation.
Cassie pulled her blonde hair to the side. She’d thought it was an appropriate remembrance.
“Would you like me to open it?”
“No.” She dismissed his offer with a wave. “My aunt was the mayor of the town.”
“She died last month. Right before Christmas.”
“Oh,” he mouthed. “I’m sorry to hear that. I’ll just be at my desk if you need me.”
Cassie leaned back in her chair, sliding a hand over the box. Over the years, she hadn’t given Honey Springs much thought.
But once upon a time the small West Coast town had been her home.
One brief, tumultuous time.
Reaching for her scissors, she took a blade to the taped-up flaps. “Hey, Lloyd! Can you come back in here for a second?” she called into the hall. For reasons she couldn’t fully understand, she didn’t want to be alone when she opened the box.
She separated the soft, yellow tissue paper and pulled out a glass jar. Inspecting its thick, light-brown contents, she couldn’t help but laugh.
Lloyd stepped toward Cassie’s desk and took a bite of a half-eaten apple, no doubt part of the lunch he was trying to eat at his desk. “Was your aunt into honey?”
“It was her livelihood.” Memories of that beautiful farm with its big red barn and the rolling green hills behind it swarmed her head as she inspected the jar, touching the bright-yellow ribbon featuring little honeybees that was tied around it. “She owned a honeybee farm.”
“For real? Those exist?”
“They sure do. The honeybee is incredibly important to our ecosystem. You wouldn’t be able to enjoy that apple, for instance, without the bee pollination that occurred in the orchard it came from.” She smiled up at her New York-bred assistant who, from what she knew, had rarely been west of Broadway.
“Who knew?” Lloyd took one last bite and tossed the core in the wastepaper basket next to her desk. “Thank you, honeybee. It was delicious.”
“You should see my aunt’s farm. It’s way on top the most beautiful hill. On a clear day you can see the outline of the Pacific coast.”
“It was. I mean, it is. I had my first kiss up on that hill.” She paused, quickly adding, “Not that I should be telling you these things.” She wasn’t about to share anything about her life in Honey Springs, and she certainly wasn’t going into details on how then sixteen-year-old Nick Porter, the son of one of her aunt’s farmhands, had broken her teenage heart.
She hoisted the jar in the air. “Aunt Etta’s Honey, named rightfully after my aunt. She had quite a business. Sold jars of this stuff throughout the country. Mainly in the Pacific Northwest.”
“That’s pretty cool.”
“It was cool,” she agreed. But why would her aunt’s office be sending her honey? She set it down and reached for the envelope also inside the box. Tearing it open, she scanned its contents. Her jaw dropped. “Oh my gosh.”
“The reading of my aunt’s will is the day after tomorrow. It’s an invitation to attend.” There was a phone number for her aunt’s lawyer, Matt Evans, if she had any questions.
Lloyd stifled a laugh. “Did she leave you the bee farm?”
Cassie looked up. “I doubt it.” She continued to read, covering her mouth.
“Um, yeah.” She reread the sentence.
Ms. Wilkerson, as the sole relative of the deceased, you must also report for duty as the interim mayor.
Sole relative. Interim mayor? She cast her gaze over to a framed picture of herself proudly holding up a plaque she’d received at an industry awards gala while her mother smiled on. It had been taken during a much happier time in their lives, right before her mom’s diagnosis. Her mother had fought courageously but lost her battle to breast cancer four years ago.
With her mom gone, it was true that Cassie was her aunt’s last living relative, but that couldn’t possibly mean she had to step in as the town’s mayor, did it?
She folded the letter, slipping it back into its envelope. Of course it doesn’t. It had to be a mistake. Obviously, she couldn’t be mayor. Her job was here in New York City. She’d give the lawyer a call later.
Her gazed rested on the honey jar. The winter she’d stayed on the farm, her aunt Etta had greeted Cassie in the kitchen every morning with a hot bowl of oatmeal and a large spoonful of that same lavender-infused honey.
She could almost taste the thick, sweet substance from memory alone. As an adult, she’d lost her taste for honey, but during that brief time in Honey Springs she’d had plenty of it. She picked it up and removed the ribbon, twisting the cap. “It really is quite good. Want to try?”
“Sure.” Lloyd stepped forward.
She opened her drawer and rummaged for two plastic spoons from the supply of utensils she always kept in there. “So, what you’re about to taste is lavender honey. It’s very powerful.” She couldn’t help but snicker because that’s exactly what Aunt Etta had told her. “My aunt convinced me that if I had a spoonful every morning, it would grant me a special power.”
“Anything I wanted.”
“Did you believe her?” Lloyd asked.
“Of course I did.” She paused and chuckled. “Okay, not really. I was a teenager.” She nodded and handed him a spoon. “So, what power would you want?”
Lloyd thought about it for a minute before snapping his fingers. “To fly. Definitely would cut my commute to Queens in half.” He laughed. “How about you? What power did you wish for?”
The power to make Nick Porter admit that he loved me.
“It never came true.” She pushed the jar toward Lloyd. “It was stupid anyway. Here, taste.”
Her assistant obliged, and then went in for another spoonful just as Lorraine waltzed in. He set the jar down on Cassie’s desk and excused himself.
“Cassie, you were sensational this morning.” Lorraine crossed the office, folding her arms triumphantly. “Everyone in the room was eating out of the palm of your hand.”
“Thank you. I’m glad to hear it.” Cassie stood, her cheeks warming. It was nice to receive accolades from her boss for having given it her absolute all.
“I have no doubt we’re going to win this account, so I want you to get started on landing our next client. If we’re going to make our quota for the quarter, I need you to work on that pitch immediately.”
No rest for the weary. The next pitch she was assigned to was for an upscale women’s footwear line looking to run new advertisements during the holidays.
Cassie’s gaze dipped down to the opened honey jar on the corner of her desk. Aunt Etta’s will would be read on Friday. Sure, she could make an excuse that she couldn’t possibly get away at such a pivotal time for the company and her career, but truth was, she was a hamster running on a wheel. There would never be an ideal time.
Her heart grew heavy as she moved her gaze from the honey jar to the picture of her mom with her arm around her. Cassie squared her shoulders, knowing exactly what she needed to do. She could catch an early flight tomorrow and take a red-eye back the next day. She’d be back in the office Monday morning before anyone even missed her.
“Lorraine . . .” She paused, gathering her thoughts. “I can get started on the new pitch, but I’m going to be out of the office for the remainder of the week. I have to tie up some loose ends with my aunt’s estate.” She conveniently left out the part that she’d have to fly clear across the country to do it.
“That’s fine.” Lorraine patted her on the shoulder. “Just keep your phone on in case something urgent comes up with Skin Essentials, and I need to reach you.”
“Sure. Of course.” Feeling a twinge of guilt, she reached for the honey jar and screwed on the cap. Her boss was known to have a sweet tooth. “Here, try some of my aunt’s honey. You’ll love it. It’s a great afternoon pick-me-up.”
Lorraine took the jar, twirling it with her palm. “Don’t you want it?”
“I’m good. Enjoy.” Cassie said goodbye to Lorraine and stuffed her laptop into her briefcase, reaching for her purse and wool coat. Where she was going, finding honey wasn’t going to be a problem. She blew out a breath. God help her.
End of Excerpt