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.
USA Today bestselling author Sarah Morgan writes lively, sexy contemporary stories for Harlequin.
Romantic Times has described her as ‘a magician with words’ and nominated her books for their Reviewer’s Choice Awards and their ‘Top Pick’ slot. In 2012 Sarah received the prestigious RITA® Award from the Romance Writers of America. She lives near London with her family. Find out more at www.sararahmorgan.com.
Was destroying evidence always a crime?
Clare scrunched the letter into her pocket and walked across the damp grass to the lake. It had been raining all week and the ground was soft under her boots. The wind blew her hair across her face and she swept it back, needing to see clearly.
She wasn’t built for moral dilemmas, and yet here she was, required to choose between the two things she valued most. Loyalty and honesty.
Where the grass met the narrow shingle beach, she stopped. Across the water, nestling among the tall reeds on the western shore of the lake, was the boathouse. Behind it was dense woodland, offering an enviable degree of privacy. As a child, she had played there with her best friend, Becca, dodging uneven planks and cobwebs as they’d transformed themselves into pirates. They’d launched canoes, and splashed around in the freezing water, shrieking in delicious terror as their limbs were roped by tangled weeds.
Her own child had played there, too, although she’d been less relaxed than her parents. Perhaps because she understood what degree of adventure was possible here, she’d insisted on life belts and supervision at all times.
She’d lived in London and Paris for a while, but this little corner of England with its lakes and mountains was the only place that had ever felt like home.
After her father died, she and Todd had moved here to be close to her mother. It had been Todd’s idea to convert the boathouse into a luxury property. An architect, he saw potential in the most dilapidated buildings, but in this case his vision had been inspired. Splintered planks and broken windows had been replaced by stone, cedar and acres of glass. The upturned crates that had provided rough seating were long gone. Now, when Clare had time to sit down, she relaxed into deep sofas, cocooned by linen and luxury. But the true luxury was the position. The peaceful waterfront location attracted the most discerning of travelers, people seeking to escape the stress of the modern world and sink instead into the sybaritic pleasures of life on the lake, where their nearest neighbors were ducks and dragonflies. There were plenty of people willing to pay good money for that degree of seclusion. Clare and Todd rented out the boathouse for enough weeks of the year to guarantee themselves a healthy income.
The boathouse was visible from only one corner of her garden and occasionally Clare would glance across and see guests seated on the deck, sipping their champagne while watching the coots and cormorants sheltering in the reed beds. At night the only sounds were the whisper of the wind, the hoot of an owl and the occasional splash as a bird skimmed the surface of the water in search of sustenance.
Privacy was assured because this section of the lake was only accessible from Lake Lodge, and the entrance to the main house was easily missed from the road unless you knew where to turn. Hidden from view and mostly concealed by an overgrowth azaleas and rhododendrons were large iron gates, and immediately behind those gates was the Gatehouse where her mother now lived. From there a long, graveled driveway wound its way to the house.
Clare’s mother had moved into the Gatehouse after Clare’s father had died, insisting that Clare and Todd move into the bigger property. Almost on impulse, they’d sold their small London apartment and moved back to a place where the pace of life moved slowly. Like others, they came to breathe the air, walk the mountains and sail on the many lakes.
Her friendship with Becca had grown and matured here. Maybe it would have ended here, but now she’d never know because Becca was gone.
The boathouse held no evidence of their final conversation, and she was glad of that.
But now she had written evidence, sent the day before Becca had died.
I wish I’d never told you.
Clare wished that, too.
Her eyes stung. Grief. Frustration. She wished they hadn’t had that last talk, because now it was the only one she could remember. Their decades of friendship had somehow shrunk down to that last stressful hour. She’d been so angry with her friend, her loyalties stretched to snapping point.
She hadn’t known that summer would be their last together. If she had, would she have tried harder to bridge the gulf that had opened up between them? Maybe not. She’d been angry, but now that anger was shaded with guilt, because death often brought guilt along as baggage.
Did loyalty still matter when the person was dead? Did honesty matter when all it would produce was pain?
“Clare!” Her mother’s voice drifted across the garden. “What are you doing out here in the rain? Come indoors.”
Clare raised a hand, but she didn’t turn.
She had a decision to make, and she’d always done her best thinking by the water. She considered herself an ethical and moral person. At school she’d been teased for always doing the “right thing,” which had made it all the more extraordinary that her best friend had been a girl who made a point of always doing the wrong thing.
And now Becca had left her with this.
She was so lost in thought she wasn’t aware of her mother until she felt her hand on her shoulder.
“You don’t have to go, you know.” Clare stared at the lake. Its surface was dark and stippled by rain. In the summer it was idyllic, but with angry clouds crowding the sky and small waves snapping at the shore, the sense of menace matched her mood.
“She was my best friend.”
“People grow apart. It’s a fact of life. You’re not the person at forty that you were at fourteen. Sometimes one has to accept that.”
Had her mother sensed the tension between the two friends on that last visit? She’d walked down from the Gatehouse to see if she could help on that last day when Becca and Jack were busily packing the car and herding kids and luggage.
Clare had hoped the chaos would conceal the fragile atmosphere, but her mother had always been emotionally intuitive. Fortunately, Jack and Todd had been too busy talking cars and engines to notice anything. When they’d left, Becca had brought her cheek close to Clare’s. Clare thought she’d murmured “sorry”, but she wasn’t sure and as Becca never apologized for anything it seemed unlikely.
“I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t in my life.” She felt her mother’s hand on her arm.
“And yet the two of you were always so different.”
“I know. Becca was bright, and I was dull.”
“No!” Her mother spoke sharply. “That wasn’t it at all.”
Perhaps dull was the wrong word. Steady? Reliable? Boring? “It’s all right. I know who I am. I’m comfortable with who I am.” Until recently, she’d been able to sleep at night, satisfied with her choices. Until Becca had presented her with an impossible one.
“You steadied her and she brought out your more adventurous side. She pushed you out of your comfort zone.”
Why was that always considered a good thing?
In this case it hadn’t been good.
Clare was so far out of her comfort zone she couldn’t have found her way back with a compass or SatNav. She wanted to cling to something familiar, which is why she stared at the boathouse. But instead of all the happy times, all she saw was Becca, her beautiful face smeared with tears as she unburdened herself.
“I know something happened between you. If you want to talk about it, I’m a good listener.” Her mother produced an umbrella and slid her arm into Clare’s, sheltering both of them.
Should she tell her mother? No, that wouldn’t be fair. She hated being in this position. The last thing she was going to do was put someone else where she was standing now.
She was an adult, and way past the age where she needed her mother to untangle her problems and make decisions for her.
“I’m going to the funeral. My flight is booked.”
Her mother adjusted her grip on the umbrella. “I knew you would, because you’re you, and you always do the right thing. But I wish you wouldn’t.”
“What if you don’t know what the right thing is?”
“You always do.”
But she didn’t, that was the problem. Not this time. “I’ve already told them I’m coming.”
Her mother sighed. “It’s not as if Becca will know or care if you’re there.”
The rain thudded steadily onto the umbrella, the sky sobbing in sympathy, sending lazy drips down the back of Clare’s coat.
“I’m not going for Becca. I’m Izzy’s godmother. I want to be there for her.”
“Those poor children. I can’t bear to think about it. And Jack. Poor Jack.”
Clare stared straight ahead. “What do I say?” She knew her mother wouldn’t give her the answer she needed, because Clare hadn’t asked the question she really wanted to ask.
“They’ll find a way.” Her mother was brisk. “Life never sends us more than we can cope with.”
Clare turned to look at her, seeing lines and signs of age that hadn’t been there before her father had died. “Do you honestly believe that?”
“No, but I always think it sounds good when people say it to me. It’s reassuring.”
Clare smiled for the first time in days. On impulse she hugged her mother, ignoring the damp coat and the relentless drip from the umbrella. “I love you, Mum.”
“I love you, too.” Her mother squeezed her shoulder, the same way she had when Clare was a child and facing something difficult. You’ve got this. “Is Todd going with you?”
“I don’t want him to. He’s still working on that big project.” In fact Todd had insisted that he’d drop everything to go with her but she’d refused. This was something that would actually be easier alone. “I’ll only be gone four days.”
“Will you stay at the house?”
Clare shook her head. Jack had suggested that she stay with them in Brooklyn, but she’d refused. She’d told him she didn’t want to make extra work, but the truth was she wasn’t ready to see him yet. Jack, with his warm nature and quick smile. She remembered the first time Becca had mentioned him. I’ve met a man.
Becca had met plenty of men, so to begin with Clare had barely paid attention. She’d expected this relationship to be as short-lived as the others.
“He’s a good man,” Becca had said and they’d laughed because up until that point Becca had never been interested in good men. She liked them bad to the bone. She blamed her upbringing. Said that she wouldn’t know what to do with a man who treated her well, but apparently with Jack she’d known.
Clare remembered the first time Becca had shown her round the house in Brooklyn. Look at me, all grown up—four bedrooms, three bathrooms and a closet for my shoes. I’m almost domesticated.
There had been a twinkle in her eyes, that same twinkle that had helped her laugh her way out of trouble so many times at school.
Clare gripped the letter.
Attending the funeral wasn’t going to be the hardest part. The hardest part would be pretending that nothing had changed between her and Becca. Kissing Jack on the cheek, keeping that unwanted nugget of knowledge tucked away inside her.
Excerpted from Family for Beginners Sarah Morgan , Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Morgan. Published by HQN Books.