Beneath The Willow Tree by Rachel Hanna

Chapter 1

Abigail Clayton stood behind her desk, the phone clutched in her hand. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Elaine Benson? Are you sure?”

“Yes, ma’am. She passed away last Thursday,” the man from the attorney’s office said. She hadn’t caught his name.

“How?”

“They believe she had a heart attack while working in her garden.”

“She loved that garden,” Abigail said softly.

“Pardon?”

“Oh, nothing. When is the funeral?”

“It’s on Saturday, but I’m also calling to tell you that you will need to be at the reading of the will Friday morning.”

“The will? Why?”

“Ms. Benson left you something.”

Abigail’s mind raced with memories that she thought she’d long since forgotten. Her father’s funeral. Multiple foster homes. Finally landing at Elaine’s and enjoying a couple of wonderful years before being adopted by the Clayton family in Tennessee. Even with her new family, nothing had ever compared to living with Mama Elaine, as she called her.

“Okay, what time?”

“Nine o’clock. I’ll text you the address.”

“Thanks.”

She pressed the button to end the call and stood there, silently staring out over the Nashville skyline. Her office, on the tenth floor of the building, overlooked a line of popular bars and restaurants. Watching people had always been one of her favorite pastimes. It soothed her in a weird way.

She walked closer to the window and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. Mama Elaine was gone. It wasn’t too surprising, considering she was in her eighties. The sting of regret and guilt washed over her as she thought about the last time they’d spoken. Had it really been two years ago already? How did time get away from her like that?

Abigail had adored Elaine, but life had gotten busy in recent years with a marriage, infertility, and eventual divorce. She supposed a part of her hadn’t wanted to admit to Mama Elaine that she’d failed at marriage and having a baby, the two main things she’d set out to do in her life.

After losing her own father at ten years old, Abigail had ended up in foster care. Her mother had never been a part of her life, choosing to leave for another man when she was just eighteen months old. Her father had been a good man, but his drinking finally ripped him from this life when Abigail was just entering fifth grade.

After bouncing around in foster care for almost two years, she was finally placed with Elaine in Seagrove, South Carolina. At first, she’d been hesitant to bond with yet another new person, but Abigail had craved love and connection more than anything, and Elaine had that in spades.

Her two years with Elaine Benson were some of the best of her life. She’d loved her father, but his addiction had kept her from having a close relationship with him. Having never had a mother, Elaine filled that role, and Abigail had prayed she could stay there forever. As it turned out, fate had other plans. One day, she came home from school to find her social worker there, ready to collect her and take her to Tennessee.

Although she was happy to get adopted, and away from her horrible foster sister, she’d wished Elaine could be her mother. She just had that motherly demeanor that Abigail had longed for her whole life.

The Claytons were nice enough people. Her adoptive mother, Olivia, was a painter and very artsy. She was constantly redecorating their farmhouse in the mountains of Tennessee. Her adoptive father, Bruce, worked most of the time. He was a busy dentist, and his office was almost an hour from home. Abigail had always felt he was cheating on Olivia, but they stayed together anyway, probably for her sake.

“Becky?” Abigail said, poking her head out of her office. Becky had been working as her assistant at her public relations office for almost two years now, and she didn’t know what she’d do without her.

“Yes?”

“I need a rental car for Thursday.”

“Where are you going?” Becky asked, walking around the corner.

“Seagrove, South Carolina.”

* * *

Celeste Greenway was angry.That was not unusual. Anger was one of her top three typical states of being, it seemed. It ranked right under annoyed and frustrated.

“Jim, seriously? Who thought this was okay?”

He hung his head. “I’m sorry, Celeste. I have a couple of new guys…”

“Don’t pass the buck. You’re the supervisor on this job. It all ends with you.”

This morning, Celeste was irritated as she walked through one of the new houses in the subdivision she was developing. Somehow, a worker had managed to put a phone jack inside of a kitchen cabinet.

“I’ll get it fixed.”

“You know I don’t like delays, Jim.”

“No delays, I promise.”

She stared at him for a moment longer before he hung his head and made a beeline out of there. At almost six feet tall, Celeste towered over most of the men she managed, and most of them didn’t dare cross her.

As much as she sometimes wished she was petite and sweet, God just didn’t make her that way. She’d been a little rough around the edges her whole life, but what did people expect? Left at a fire station at three years old, her feelings of abandonment were deep. Trust wasn’t something she gave out to just anyone, and earning it from her was almost impossible.

Her phone vibrated in her pocket, so she pressed the button on her wireless ear bud. “Hello?”

“Is this Celeste Greenway?”

“Who’s asking?”

“This is Edward Dammeron, attorney at law.”

“Oh, good Lord. Who’s suing me now?”

He cleared his throat. “I’m Elaine Benson’s attorney.”

“Why is that old bat suing me?”

“No one is suing you. Elaine has… passed.”

Celeste’s breath caught in her throat. It wasn’t often that she was surprised, but for some reason, that shocked her. Elaine Benson was supposed to live forever. She was just that kind of force of nature. Of course, Celeste hadn’t liked her. Not one bit. And she hadn’t thought about her in decades.

“Are you there?”

“Yeah. Why are you calling me about this?” She popped the top on a soda can and took a long sip, desperate for a caffeine boost.

“Her funeral is this Saturday, and the will is being read Friday morning at nine.”

“So?”

“Well, you’re named in the will.”

“What?” She almost choked on her drink.

“Ms. Benson left something to you.”

“What did she leave me?” She imagined it to be an old shoe or partially chewed gum, but definitely nothing of value.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t divulge anything outside of the official reading of the will.”

Celeste groaned. “Do you realize I live in Texas now?”

“I do. That’s why I wanted to give you plenty of notice so you can get a plane ticket.”

Her mind raced. She had an entire neighborhood under construction, and she didn’t trust anyone to manage it while she was gone. However, if there was one thing Celeste couldn’t stand, it was not knowing a secret. She needed to know what this woman left to her.

“Fine. I’ll be there. Text me the address.”

As she ended the call, she sat down on the brick fireplace hearth and stared off into space. Elaine Benson. One of her many, many foster mothers. At least Elaine hadn’t been abusive like some others had been.

Celeste remembered how shocked her social worker was that she never got adopted after being abandoned at three years old. People kept coming to meet her and then deciding to go a “different direction”.

“She’s a little too tomboyish.”

“She’s so angry all the time.”

“Why doesn’t she smile more?”

“She won’t play with dolls. She plays with trucks.”

The complaints were endless. It wore on her after hearing it for so many years. To be abandoned at three years old and never get adopted was disheartening. But it also made her stronger than anyone she knew. Nothing pierced her thick armor.

After aging out of the foster care system, she eventually took a job framing houses with a friend’s father. Year after year, she honed her craft and learned more than she could’ve ever imagined. Now, after almost twenty years of working in construction, she had to admit she was exhausted.

Although she loved building things, she longed for a quieter life. Being in charge was something she was good at, but didn’t necessarily love. Sometimes, she just wanted to be still. Peaceful. That never happened.

Maybe this trip down memory lane would give her some kind of closure, or maybe it would open old wounds.

* * *

Dixie tooka sip of her coffee. “I just can’t believe it.”

“How long had you known Elaine?” Julie asked, reaching across and squeezing her hand.

“Almost fifty years,” she said, her eyes welling with tears. “She was older than me, but we were dear friends. In fact, we ran the gardening club together for almost ten years before we passed the baton to the younger folks a few years back.”

“I’m so sorry, Dixie. Losing someone you love is so hard.”

“Don’t I know it. Losing Johnny just about killed me.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

Dixie smiled sadly. “Do you mind if I head home and take a nice hot bath? I think I need to have a good cry in private.”

“Of course. How about I bring you a casserole later? Lucy has tons of them in the freezer for just this sort of occasion.”

“Oh, that’s alright, dear. I’m not very hungry.”

“Is Harry home?”

“No. He’s visiting his daughter this week.”

“Do you want me to come by after work?”

Dixie stood up. “I think I just want to be alone, if that’s okay? I need a little quiet time to grieve.”

“Okay, but if you need anything, you know how to reach me,” Julie said, hugging her. Dixie picked up her purse and walked out as Julie watched her and worried. She was truly like a second mother to her.

As Julie unpacked a box of romance novels, Janine walked into the shop. “Hey, sis. What’s wrong with Dixie? She looked so sad when I passed her on the sidewalk just now.”

Julie waved for her to sit down and handed her a cup of coffee. This was their regular routine in the mornings before Janine’s first yoga class of the day. One cup of coffee with extra cream and sugar, and a banana nut muffin.

“She just lost a friend. Her name was Elaine Benson.”

“Oh wow. Ms. Benson, who owned the house with that enormous willow tree?”

Julie sat down across from her and took a sip from her second cup of coffee. “You knew her?”

“Not well, but we met a couple of times. She did my senior yoga class, but I haven’t seen her in months. I guess I should’ve checked in on her.”

“Dixie is pretty torn up about it. They’d been friends for fifty years.”

“Fifty years? Wow. That’s amazing.”

“Yeah. I don’t have a friend like that,” Julie said, feeling a little sadness. Since leaving Atlanta, she’d thought a lot about friendship. The women she’d hung around with back in those days had been so shallow, yet they were all she’d had at the time.

“You have me and Dixie!”

“I had a wonderful childhood friend, but we didn’t stay in touch. Maybe I should’ve tried harder.”

“Do you mean Carol?” Janine asked, scrunching her nose.

“What was wrong with Carol?”

“She was horrible! I’ve never met a kid who was meaner than her.”

Julie chuckled. “Okay, maybe she was, but if I’d have stayed friends with her, we’d be coming up on forty years of friendship.”

Janine rolled her eyes. “She’s probably in jail by now. Maybe you can go on visitation day.”

“You’re terrible!”

* * *

As Abigail pulledher car into the parking space in front of Edward Dammeron’s office, she felt so much nostalgia it was hard to breathe. She hadn’t been to Seagrove in years. The memories she had were surprisingly good. Elaine had been a wonderful foster mother, and they did a lot of things together, like going to get ice cream and taking walks around the town square.

She got out of her car and took in a deep breath of the salty sea air that permeated the downtown area. It made her immediately happy to smell it. She loved living in Tennessee, but the ocean had always called to her and made her feel at home in a way she couldn’t put into words.

“Can I help you with anything, hon?” She turned toward the office building and saw a younger woman dressed in a business suit smiling at her.

“Oh, I was just taking a walk down memory lane.”

“Pardon?”

“Nothing. Do you happen to know which suite is Edward Dammeron’s office?”

She smiled. “I’m his assistant, Diane. He’s in suite two. I was just running to get some coffee. Would you like any?”

“No, thank you.”

She watched Diane walk down the sidewalk before turning to go into the building. Her stomach gurgled and churned. She hated surprises and always had. It was far easier to know all the details well in advance so she could relax. Anticipatory anxiety was her constant enemy.

Abigail pulled the handle of the large oak door. The building was older and historic, with high ceilings and original hardwood floors. There was a bit of a musty smell, much like that of an old library. Places like this had style, unlike all the newer construction she’d seen around Nashville. She hated those kinds of neighborhoods where every house looked the same, and each lot was the size of a postage stamp. What they did to the trees and area wildlife made her sick to her stomach.

Since Diane was gone to get coffee, there was no one at the front desk, so she took a seat in one of the brown leather chairs. The waiting area was small, and there was one table with some old southern architecture magazines and a weathered copy of People magazine. Nondescript was a great way to describe the office. She didn’t have to wait long, as it turned out.

“Are you here for the reading of Elaine Benson’s will?” A man she assumed to be Mr. Dammeron asked as he popped his head around the doorway.

“Yes. I’m Abigail Clayton.”

“Great. Come on back!”

She followed him down a short hallway into an office. It was a cluttered mess, with papers and files all over his giant mahogany desk and a wall of books on the shelves behind him. Edward Dammeron was a bit of a mess himself with his loosened neck tie and unwieldy hairstyle.

“Please, have a seat. The other party will join us soon, I hope.”

Other party? Abigail hadn’t thought about there being “other parties”. Of course, it would only make sense that Elaine would leave things to multiple people and not just her, especially since she’d only been her foster daughter for two years. It wasn’t like she was the center of Elaine’s world or anything.

Mr. Dammeron walked out of the room and Abigail looked out the window to her left. His office had a view of the marsh, and she realized how much she missed that. There was just something about the sights and smells of the lowcountry. A part of her had never left, even though she hadn’t been back in decades.

So many times, she’d planned to go visit Elaine, but life always got in the way. First, she met Danny in college and they’d gotten married a few months after graduation. He was supposed to be her lifelong partner, but it hadn’t turned out that way. Infertility, money fights and infidelity had plagued their marriage, and now she found herself divorced and childless at thirty-eight years old. It wasn’t exactly the plan she had laid out for herself so many years ago.

After her divorce, she threw herself further into her public relations business, working long hours to avoid her empty condo. Danny was the life of every party, totally the opposite of her reserved personality. Once he wasn’t living there anymore, the place felt hollow and sterile.

“Sorry for the delay. We called the other party, and they said they’re parking now. We’ll get started any minute,” Mr. Dammeron said, poking his head around the corner. Abigail nodded and smiled slightly.

“No problem.” She really didn’t have anywhere to go, anyway. She’d taken a full week off, intent on spending some time in nearby Charleston and maybe even going to the beach. She hadn’t taken a vacation in years. The last one was with Danny when they went to Tampa, Florida, for one of his business conventions. She’d spent most of the time in the room researching infertility doctors, not knowing Danny was spending most of his time in a room one floor below theirs with some woman named Sophie who was now his pregnant wife. Life wasn’t always fair.

Mr. Dammeron scurried back into the room and sat behind his desk. “The other party is here, but had to use the restroom.”

“Okay,” she said, not wanting any more details.

“How was your drive into Seagrove?” he asked, obviously trying to make small talk.

“Very nice. I forgot how tall that bridge is in Charleston, though. Gave me some anxiety.” She hated heights.

“Ah, yes. It can be a little daunting to some folks.” He looked to his left, toward the door to the office. “Oh good. Here she comes.”

The door opened, and one of the tallest women she’d ever seen walked through. She was wearing a stained pair of jeans, work boots and a black t-shirt. Her brown hair was pulled into a tight ponytail. Abigail scanned up to her face and felt like she was about to swallow her tongue.

“Ms. Clayton, do you know Ms. Greenway?”