Flora was ten minutes early. Did that matter?
Nerves were jumping around in the pit of her belly, but she always felt that way before seeing Jack.
A man striding past gave her a wide berth and she realized it was because she was smiling at nothing in particular.
Feeling positive, she walked up the steps and rang the bell.
One day, she promised herself, she was going to have a proper front door of her own. Maybe flanked by olive trees, or pots filled with trailing plants.
Jack opened the door. He was wearing jeans, and his shirt was open at the neck. His feet were bare and there was a hint of shadow on his jaw. Here in his own domain, he seemed younger and more relaxed.
“You found us okay?” His gaze connected with hers and she felt a searing flash of chemistry that almost knocked her off her feet. Feeling a little disorientated, she stepped into the house. His fingers brushed lightly against hers, sending a shimmer of heat coursing through her. For a wild moment she thought he was going to simply kick the door shut and drag her against him, but instead he closed the door with deliberate care, his arm braced against it as he took a steadying breath, steeling himself.
It was a moment before he turned to face her. The atmosphere was charged with tension. It had all the intensity of sex, without the actual sex.
She gave him a sympathetic smile and unfastened her coat. “How’s it going?”
“Nothing that a long, icy shower won’t cure. You look great in that dress.” He spoke in a low voice. “And I love your hair when it curls like that.”
“It’s a style I like to call ‘the indecisive.’’’ She handed him her coat. “I pulled my dress over my head so many times while trying to decide what to wear I produced enough electricity to power the whole borough.”
His laughter broke the tension. “I’m pleased you came. And the girls are excited to meet you.”
“I can’t wait to meet them.” As he hung up her coat, she glanced around curiously.
She’d imagined a slightly messy, cozy family home. Maybe some signs of a man who was struggling to cope. It was nothing like that.
The walls of the entryway were decorated in a soft palette of whites and creams that reflected the light and added to the feeling of space. She’d never been in such ordered surroundings. It reminded her of a spa. She half expected a woman in a white coat to swipe her credit card and escort her to a treatment room for a facial.
A large vase full of calla lilies sat proudly on a console table. Her hands itched to rearrange them, but nothing here cried out to be touched. There was no mess. No unopened mail that needed sorting, no house keys, no casual detritus waiting to be stowed away. Everything was already in its place.
“Are you selling your home?” She spoke without thinking and saw his eyebrows lift. “No. Why would you think that?” Because her mouth was bigger than her brain. “It’s so tidy. The only time I’ve ever seen living space this tidy is when people are selling. Sometimes we’re asked to do the flowers to help showcase a property.”
“Mommy liked it tidy. We try to keep it the way she liked it.” The shy voice came from the stairs and Flora turned and saw a young girl standing there. Her hair was dark and caught up in an uneven ponytail. Her blue dress hung around her skinny frame and she was carrying a limp giraffe that probably hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine at any point during its life. She stared at Flora, unsure whether she was looking at friend or foe. “
Hi there.” Flora gave her a warm smile. “You must be Molly.”
She stepped forward but the little girl shrank back, clutching the giraffe to her chest.
“Come here, Molly.” Jack held out his hand. “Come and say hi.”
Molly didn’t say “hi.” Instead she ran to him as if he were a lifeboat and Flora the storm.
Jack scooped child and toy into his arms. “What’s the matter, honey?”
“She’s wearing shoes.” Her voice was barely audible. “Mommy doesn’t let us wear shoes in the house.”
Jack’s gaze met Flora’s over the top of Molly’s head and she bent to pull off her running shoes. She could feel her face burning.
“I was so excited to see you, I forgot to take them off.” Her fingers slipped and slid on the laces. She was eight years old again and fumbling with her coat under the glare of her aunt’s disapproving frown.
I chose not to marry and have children so we’ll have to find a way to tolerate each other.
Nothing stressed Flora more than knowing she was being tolerated. She wanted to be accepted. Welcomed. Loved.
Protected by her father’s arms, Molly gained confidence. “Do you wear shoes in your house?”
“I don’t have a house, I have an apartment. And I don’t own it, I rent it. It belongs to someone else, and he doesn’t care too much about things like leaks and damp.” And cockroaches. “It’s not as special as your home.” The thought of all the people and activity that had probably taken place on her floor made her want to walk around in thigh-length boots and a hazmat suit, not bare feet.
Still, when she’d dreamed of a family home it hadn’t looked like this.
Flora placed her shoes neatly to the side of the entryway.
“We have a shoe cupboard.” Molly pointed, and Flora followed directions and opened a door. Behind it was a large concealed cupboard complete with shoe racks.
“Well look at that!” Flora tucked her shoes inside. “I bet that’s a perfect place to play hide-and-seek.”
Molly gave her an odd look. “It’s a cupboard. You’d get dirty.”
“But sometimes getting dirty is fun, and—” Flora stopped “—and, you’re right, you would get dirty and that is such a pretty dress. It would be a shame to get it dusty.” It had driven her aunt mad that Flora could never stay clean for five minutes.
“Your dress is very bright and dazzly.”
“Thank you.” Flora glanced down at herself. “I made it myself.”
Molly frowned. “Why? You couldn’t afford to buy one?”
Jack cleared his throat. “Flora made it herself because she’s talented. And I think it’s time to move this conversation on, young lady. Let’s go through to the kitchen and see how your sister is doing with dinner and what we can do to help.” He put Molly down and sent Flora a look of apology.
She smiled, signaling that it wasn’t a problem although of course it was a problem.
Telling herself that this was bound to take time, Flora followed them through to the back of the house. If this was a test, she’d failed dismally.
As she followed him toward the kitchen she glanced through an open door into the living room, and noticed the elegant white sofas. White sofas? How did they not get filthy? Flora hoped she wasn’t going to be invited into that room. She’d be terrified to sit down in case she marked the fabric. A selection of art books were stacked on a low table and a large cream rug covered the oak floor.
It looked like a room straight out of a design magazine. If she hadn’t known a family lived here, she would have guessed the occupants were a professional couple who spent most of their time in the office or entertaining friends who wouldn’t spill a drop of red wine.
The house had a cool, elegant feel with art and large photographs crowding the walls. She looked more closely and saw that all the photographs were of the same person, a dancer. She was almost impossibly graceful and ethereal, the camera capturing the height of a gazelle-like leap into the air, the elegant stretch of her arms, the curve of her instep as she balanced en pointe. It all looked effortless.
She turned her head and saw Molly watching her.
“That’s my mommy. She was a famous dancer.”
And now, of course, it all fell into place. Becca. Jack’s wife was Becca Parker. The Becca Parker, darling of the media and ballet-loving audiences across the globe, a dancer who displayed the perfect combination of athleticism and grace, power and poise. Those photographs portrayed the triumph and nothing of the struggle. And they only told the early part of Becca’s story.
As her star was rising, Becca Parker had damaged her knee and been unable to perform again. Another person might have sunk into depression. Not Becca. She’d turned her recovery into a triumph and invented a fitness regime she called “Becca’s Body.” She’d invested in first one studio and then another until her company was running classes across the major cities of the US.
Flora had never taken a Becca’s Body class. She had neither the budget nor the motivation. And she definitely didn’t have the right body.
Staring at those photographs, she felt like a small, ungainly elephant. She had a feeling Becca wouldn’t have been impressed by her.
Flora knew she was good at many things, but she was the first to admit they weren’t particularly impressive things. She could restore a flagging plant to health, create a stunning bouquet, dance the tango, perform a perfect cartwheel, paint in watercolor and pastels, and turn random pieces of fabric into clothes. What she couldn’t do was keep her living space neat and tidy, throw away a book, or stomach an oyster. And not in a million years would she want to run a business.
She straightened her shoulders and sucked her tummy in. “Your mommy was very beautiful.”
“She was perfect in every way.” The cool voice came from the doorway to the kitchen and Flora turned and saw a girl studying her. She wore skinny jeans, ripped at the knees, and a top that left most of her smooth, flat stomach exposed. Her eyes were green like her father’s, her skin a perfect ivory with hardly a blemish. She was older than Molly, a teenager, so presumably this had to be Izzy.
Flora had imagined some wounded, bruised, uncertain creature. She’d pictured a fractured family that she could somehow help to heal. This girl didn’t look broken. She was frighteningly cool and the fierceness in her eyes suggested that help was not only unnecessary, it was unwelcome.
She stood in a relaxed dancer’s pose, one foot resting against the other. Her hair, the same dark shade as her father’s, fell straight and shiny over one shoulder, smooth and well behaved. Instinctively Flora brushed away one of the curls that bounced happily out of whichever style she’d attempted that morning. Never, in a million years, would she look as cool as this girl.
(C) Sarah Morgan, HQN, 2020. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
COMMENT TO WIN: What’s your favorite type of book to read on summer vacation? Tell us in the comments and you’ll be entered to win a fabulous Sarah Morgan prize pack featuring print copies of ONE SUMMER IN PARIS, HOW TO KEEP A SECRET, and FAMILY FOR BEGINNERS. US and Canada only — GOOD LUCK!
USA TODAY bestselling author Sarah Morgan returns with a life-affirming exploration of love, loss, and how families come in all shapes and sizes…
New York florist Flora Donovan is living the dream, but her bubbly optimism hides a secret. She’s lonely. Orphaned as a child, she’s never felt like she’s belonged anywhere…until she meets Jack Parker. He’s the first man to ever really see her, and it’s life changing.
Teenager Izzy Parker is holding it together by her fingertips. Since her mother passed away a year ago, looking after her dad and little sister is the only thing that makes Izzy feel safe. Discovering her father has a new girlfriend is her worst nightmare–she is not in the market for a replacement mom. Then her father invites Flora on their summer vacation…
Flora’s heart aches for Izzy, but she badly wants her relationship with Jack to work. As the summer unfolds, Flora must push her own boundaries to discover parts of herself she never knew existed–and to find the family she’s always wanted.
Romance Contemporary [HQN, On Sale: May 5, 2020, Trade Size / e-Book, ISBN: 9781335014931 / eISBN: 9781488056666]
About Sarah Morgan
Sunday Times and USA Today bestselling author Sarah Morgan writes contemporary romance and women’s fiction, and her trademark humour and warmth have gained her fans across the globe. Described as ‘a magician with words’ by RT Book Reviews, she has sold over 16 million copies of her books. She has been nominated five times for the prestigious RITA© Award from the Romance Writers of America and won the award three times; in 2012 for her book ‘Doukakis’s Apprentice’, 2013 for ‘A Night of No Return’, and 2017 for ‘Miracle on 5th Avenue’. She also won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award in 2012 and has made numerous appearances in their ‘Top Pick’ slot.
As a child Sarah dreamed of being a writer and although she took a few interesting detours along the way, she is now living that dream.
Sarah lives near London with her husband and children, and when she isn’t reading or writing she loves being outdoors, preferably on vacation so she can forget the house needs tidying.