June 15, 2017
August 29, 2017
Holiday In The Hamptons
From Manhattan With Love Book #5
The perfect summer escape…?
Fliss Knight hasn’t seen her ex-husband Seth for ten years, so when she discovers he is now working as a vet at the New York clinic she uses regularly for her dog walking business, she panics. When Fliss and her identical twin Harriet receive word that their elderly grandmother has had an accident and is in need of help, Fliss grabs the chance to escape Manhattan for the Hamptons.
The first person she meets on her arrival is Seth. Reluctant to confront the issues in their past, Fliss pretends to be her sister. But how long can Fliss keep up the ruse when Seth wants to talk to “Harriet” about why he and Fliss fell apart…and how he can win her back?
As Fliss struggles to keep up with the tangled web she’s weaved, sparks are starting to fly and she discovers that before you can have a future, you have to let go of the past.
AS EIGHTEENTH BIRTHDAYS went, it had to be the worst ever.
Fliss ran through the overgrown garden that wrapped itself around three sides of the beach house. She didn’t feel the sharp sting of nettles or the whip of the long grass against her bare calves because she was already feeling too many other things. Bigger things.
The old rusty gate scraped her hip as she pushed her way through it. Misery fueled every stride as she took the grassy path that ran through the dunes to the beach. No one could catch her now. She’d find a place away from everyone. Away from him. And she wasn’t returning home until he’d left. The birthday cake would stay uneaten, the candles unlit, the plates untouched. There would be no singing, no salutations, no celebration. What was there to celebrate?
Fury licked around the edges of her misery, and underneath anger and misery was hurt. A hurt she worked hard never to show. Never let a bully see you’re afraid. Never let yourself be vulnerable. Wasn’t that what her brother had taught her? And her father, she’d worked out long before, was a bully.
If she’d had to find one word to describe him it would be angry. And she’d never understood it. She got mad from time to time, so did her brother, but there was always a cause. With her father, there was no cause for the anger. It was as if he rose in the morning and bathed in it.
Words pounded in her head, matching the rhythm of her strides. Hate him, hate him, hate him…
Her feet hit the sand. The wind lifted her hair. She gulped in another breath and tasted sea and salt air. Squeezing her eyes against the tears, she tried to replace the sound of her father’s voice with the familiar soundtrack of seagulls and surf.
It should have been a perfect summer’s day, but her father had a way of sucking the sunshine out of the sunniest day, and no day was exempt. Not even the day you turned eighteen. He always knew how to make her feel bad.
She tried to outrun her feelings, her breath tearing in her chest and her heart pounding like fists on a punching bag.
You’re nothing but trouble. Useless, no good, worthless, stupid—
If she was as worthless as he believed then she should probably run into the ocean, but he’d be pleased to be free of her, and she was damned if she was going to do a single thing that might please him.
Lately she’d made it her life’s focus to live down to the low opinion he had of her, not because she wanted to make trouble but because his rules just didn’t make sense and pleasing him was impossible.
The cruelest part was that he wasn’t even supposed to be here.
The summer months were their oasis of time away from him. Time spent with her siblings, her mother and her grandmother while her father stayed in the city and took his anger to work every day.
She’d grown to love those precious weeks when sunlight burst through the darkness and all she trailed into the house was sand and laughter. They stayed up late and woke in the mornings feeling lighter and happier. Some days they carried their breakfast to the beach and ate it there right by the ocean. This morning’s choice, her birthday breakfast, had been a basket of ripe peaches. She’d been wiping the juice from her chin when she’d heard the wheels of her father’s car crunch on the gravel of the beach house.
Her twin sister had turned pale. Her peach had slid slowly from her fingers and thudded onto the sand, the fruit instantly transformed from smooth to gritty. Like life, Fliss had thought, hiding her dismay.
Her mother had panicked, thrusting her feet into her shoes while trying to tame wind-blown hair with a hand that shook like the branch of a tree in a storm. During the summer she was a different woman. An outsider might have thought the changes were a result of the relaxed pace of beach life, but Fliss knew it was due to being away from their father.
And now he was here. Intruding on their blissful beach idyll.
Her brother, calm as always, had taken control. It was probably just a delivery, he’d said. A neighbor.
But they all knew it wasn’t a delivery or a neighbor. Their father drove the same way he did everything, angrily, revving the engine and sending small stones flying. Angry was his calling card.
Fliss knew it was him, and the sweet-tasting peach turned bitter in her mouth. She was used to her father ruining every part of her life, but now he was ruining summer, too?
The cloudless blue sky seemed hazed with gloom, and she knew that until he left again she was going to be dragging her bad mood around like a ball and chain.
She was determined to see him as little as possible, which was why she’d chosen the beach over her bedroom.
Her flip-flops hampered her pace, so she slowed and kicked them off. This time when she ran her feet were silent, the sand cool and smooth under her soles. In the distance she could see the white mist of surf erupting over rock, and she could hear the crash and hiss of waves advancing and retreating.
Somewhere in the far distance someone called her name, and she quickened her pace.
She didn’t want to see anyone. Not like this when she was raw and vulnerable. She always kept her feelings inside, but right now there didn’t seem to be room for them all. They filled the space around her heart, made her head ache and her eyes sting. She wasn’t going to cry. She never cried. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. If her eyes were watering, it was because of the wind.
She heard her name again and almost missed her stride because this time she recognized the voice. Seth Carlyle. Oldest son of Matthew and Catherine Carlyle. Old money. Wealthy, successful, smart and decent. Classy. No skeletons in that family. No raised voices or kids quivering in fear. She was willing to bet Catherine Carlyle didn’t virtually crawl around the walls in order to prevent herself drawing the attention of her husband, and she could never in a million years imagine Matthew Carlyle raising his voice. In the Carlyle house, plates would be a vessel for food, not a weapon for throwing. And she was sure Seth had never made his father feel ashamed or disgusted. He was the golden boy.
He was also her brother’s friend. If he knew she was upset, he’d tell her brother and Daniel would once again step between her and their father. His protective instincts had put him in the firing line on more occasions than Fliss wanted to count. She didn’t mind him doing it for her twin because when Harriet was stressed her stammer got so bad she couldn’t always speak for herself, but Fliss didn’t want him to do it for her. She could fight her own battles, and right now she felt like fighting to the death.
Ignoring Seth’s voice, she kept running. He wouldn’t follow her. He’d return to the group and join them in a game of beach volleyball, or maybe they’d surf or swim. Things she’d planned to do today, before her father had arrived unexpectedly for the weekend and ruined it all.
She ran until she reached the rocks. She clambered over jagged edges without pausing, ignored the sharp sting in the palm of her hand and landed on the smooth sand on the other side.
She’d been visiting this part of the Hamptons since she was born, and the summers that she, her twin and her brother had spent with their grandmother had given her the only happy memories of her childhood.
“Fliss?” It was Seth again, and this time his voice was deeper, lower, closer.
Damn. “Leave me alone, Seth.”
He didn’t. Instead, he vaulted down from the rocks, lithe and athletic, his shoulders blocking out the sun. He was wearing nothing but board shorts. His chest was bare and glistened with droplets of water. He was on the swim team at college, and the four summers he’d spent as a lifeguard had given him muscles in all the right places. Everyone on the island knew about the time Seth Carlyle had risked his own life to save two young kids who had ignored the warnings and stupidly taken an inflatable out onto the ocean. That was the kind of guy Seth was. He did the right thing.
She only ever did the wrong thing.
Fliss had spent the summer listening to the other girls lusting after Seth, and it wasn’t hard to understand what they saw in him. He was smart and good-humored, self-assured without being cocky. And sexy. Insanely sexy, with that lean, powerful body and skin that turned golden at the first touch of the sun. His hair and his eyes were dark as jet, a legacy from his grandfather’s side of the family, who were Italian. He was the same age as her brother, which made him too old for her. Her father would freak at the five-year age gap. Girls your age should date boys, not men.
As she watched Seth stroll toward her, she felt her muscles clench. Clearly her libido hadn’t gotten the memo. Either that, or sexual attraction was no respecter of ages.
Or maybe she wanted him because she knew her father would freak.
He planted himself in front of her. “What’s wrong?”
How could he tell that something was wrong? She’d had years of practice at hiding her feelings, but Seth always seemed to see through the layers of protection that blinded everyone else to the truth.
She’d joked to Harriet that he was like an X-ray machine, or an MRI scanner, but the truth was he was just scarily perceptive. Or perhaps what she should really say was that he was perceptive, and she was scared.
If she’d wanted people to know how bad she felt most of the time, she would have told them.
“Nothing is wrong.” She didn’t mention the fight with her father. She never talked about it with anyone. She didn’t want people to know. She didn’t want sympathy. She didn’t want pity. Most of all she didn’t want people knowing how bad those fights with her father made her feel, not just because she’d learned to hide her feelings, but because part of her was afraid that saying the words aloud might give them credence. She didn’t want to give voice to the niggling thought that maybe her father was right. That she might actually be as worthless and useless as he believed her to be.
But Seth wasn’t so easily deflected. “Are you sure? Because you don’t look like a woman celebrating her eighteenth birthday.”
He’d called her a woman.
It made her giddy. Right there and then, she felt the age gap evaporate. Poise and power replaced doubt and insecurity. “I wanted time to myself.”
“On your birthday? That doesn’t sound right to me. No one should spend their birthday alone, especially not an eighteenth birthday.”
She’d known Seth for years, but they’d grown closer than ever this summer. Unlike her father, Seth never seemed outraged by her antics. When she’d gone skinny-dipping in the ocean late at night, her twin, Harriet, had begged her not to go, but Seth had simply laughed. He hadn’t joined her, but he’d waited on the rocks until she returned safely. Because Seth Carlyle always does the right thing.
Still, he hadn’t judged or lectured, simply handed her a towel and sprang down onto the sand as if his job was done. He never touched her, and she’d wished a million times that he would, even though she knew he was watching over her because he was Daniel’s friend and a responsible person.
She found herself wishing it again now. Which proved she was anything but a responsible person.
To be sure she didn’t give in to temptation and fling her arms around him, she wrapped them around herself.
His gaze dropped. “You’ve cut your hand. You should be more careful on these rocks. Does it hurt?”
“No.” She snatched her hands behind her back, one half of her hoping he’d leave while the other half hoped he’d stay.
“If it doesn’t hurt, why are you crying?”
Was she crying? She brushed her cheek with the heel of her hand and discovered that they were wet. “I kicked sand in my eyes when I was running.”
He thought she was upset because of the wounds he could see.
He had no idea about the wounds she kept hidden.
“Why were you running?” He closed his hands over her arms and drew them gently in front of her. Then he turned her hands over so he could examine them. His fingers were broad and strong, and her hand looked small in his. Delicate.
She didn’t ever want to be delicate. Her mother was delicate. Watching her navigate her stormy marriage was like watching a single daisy struggling to stay upright in a hurricane. Fliss wanted to be hardy, like a thornbush. The sort of plant people treated with respect and care. And she was fiercely determined to earn a good living so that she would never, ever find herself trapped in the situation her mother had found herself in.
If I leave your father, I’ll lose you. He’d make sure I don’t get custody, and I don’t have the money or influence to fight that.
Seth bent his head, and she watched as strands of dark hair flopped over his forehead. She itched to touch it, to slide her fingers through it, to feel its softness under her hands. And she wanted to touch the thick muscles of his shoulders, even though she already knew they wouldn’t be soft. They were everything hard and powerful. She knew that for sure because last summer someone had tossed her in the water and it had been Seth who had hauled her out. Being held by him was something that no woman would forget in a hurry.
Unsettled, she dragged her gaze to his face. His nose had a slight bump in it thanks to a football injury the summer before, and he had a scar on his chin where he’d head-butted a surfboard and needed fourteen stitches.
Fliss didn’t care. To her, Seth Carlyle was pretty much the most perfect thing she’d ever laid eyes on.
There was something that set him apart from the others. It wasn’t just that he was older, more that he was so sure. He knew what he wanted. He was focused. He made doing the right thing sexy. He was studying to be a vet, and she knew he’d be good at it. He was going to make his father proud.
She’d made her father disdainful, exasperated and angry but never proud.
And she didn’t want to drag Seth down with her.
She snatched her hand away from his and curled her fingers into her palm to stop herself from touching him. “You should join the others. You’re wasting a perfect beach day.”
“I’m not wasting anything. I’m exactly where I want to be.” His gaze was focused exclusively on her. And then he gave her that wide, easy smile that made her feel as if she was the only woman on the planet. She didn’t know which got to her most—the way his mouth curved, or the way those sleepy dark eyes crinkled slightly at the corners.
Her stomach flipped. After being made to feel unwanted, it was a change to feel the opposite.
What would happen if she put her arms around his neck and kissed him? Would he get carried away and do the wrong thing for the first time in his life? Maybe he’d take her virginity right here on the sand. That would really give her father something to complain about.
The thought made her frown. Not even by virtue of a thought did she want her father to tarnish her relationship with Seth.
“You really shouldn’t be here. With me.” She leaned her back against the rock and gave him a fierce stare designed to repel, but it didn’t work with Seth.
“I saw a car outside your house. Was it your father? He doesn’t usually join you in the summer, does he?”
She felt as if she’d plunged naked into the Atlantic. “He arrived this morning. Decided to surprise us.”
Seth’s gaze didn’t shift. “To celebrate your birthday or ruin it?”
She squirmed with horror and embarrassment. Why couldn’t she have a normal family like everyone else? “I didn’t hang around to find out.”
“Maybe he wanted to deliver his gift in person.”
“That’s your father, not mine.” The words blurted out of her mouth before she could stop them. “Mine didn’t bring a gift.”
“No? Then it’s a good thing I did.” He braced one arm on the rock behind her and reached into the pocket of his board shorts with the other. “Hope you like it.”
She dragged her gaze from the swell of his biceps and stared at the cream velvet pouch in his palm. “You bought me a gift?”
“It’s not every day a woman turns eighteen.”
There it was again, that word. Woman. And he’d bought her a gift. Actually chosen her something. He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t care, would he?
Her parched self-esteem sucked up the much-needed affirmation. She felt dizzy and light-headed, even more so than she had the time she’d smuggled a bottle of vodka to the beach.
“What is it?”
“Open it and see.”
She took the bag from him, recognizing the shell logo picked out in silver. She knew that whatever was inside it wouldn’t have come cheap. She and Harriet had walked past the exclusive jewelry store when they had occasion to be in town, but the prices had stopped them even staring in through the window. Of course, price wasn’t an issue if your name was Carlyle.
She tipped it out of the bag onto her palm, and for a moment she forgot to breathe because she’d never seen anything so pretty. It was a necklace, a silver shell on a silver chain. It was the shiniest, most perfect gift she’d ever been given.
Forgetting about keeping her distance, she flung her arms around him. He smelled of sunshine, sea salt and man. Hot, sexy man. Too late she remembered that she was wearing only her tiny shorts and a tank top. She might as well have been wearing nothing for all the barrier it created. Her skin slid against his and her fingers closed on those shoulders. Under the silken, sun-bronzed skin she felt the dip and swell of hard muscle and the dangerously delicious pressure of his body.
She knew she should let him go. Her father would freak if he could see her. He hated her hanging out with boys.
But Seth wasn’t a boy, was he? Seth was a man. A man who recognized that she was a woman. The first person to see her that way, and she decided that just might be the greatest birthday gift of all time.
Her father made her feel like nothing, but Seth—Seth made her feel like something. Everything.
“Fliss—” His voice was husky and his hands slid to her hips, holding her still. “We shouldn’t—you’re upset—”
“Not anymore.” Before he could say anything else, she pressed her mouth to his. She felt the coolness of his lips and his sudden start of shock, and she thought to herself that if he pulled away she’d die of embarrassment right here on the sand.
But he didn’t pull away. Instead he tugged her against him with purposeful hands, trapping her against the solid length of his body. Behind her she could hear the rush of the ocean, but here in the privacy of the dunes there was only Seth and the indescribable magic of that first kiss.
As he angled his head and kissed her back, she thought that her eighteenth birthday had gone from being the worse day of her life to the best. Melting under the erotic slide of his tongue and the intimate stroke of his hands, she stopped thinking about her father. All she could think about was the way Seth’s mouth made her feel. Who would have thought it? Who would have thought that good-boy Seth had such a bad-boy side? Where had he learned to kiss like this?
She told herself that she deserved romance on her eighteenth birthday. She deserved this.
Never before had anyone, or anything, made her feel this way.
And never before had doing the wrong thing ever felt so right.
Ten years later…
“I’VE DECIDED WE should expand the business.” Fliss kicked off her shoes and left them in the middle of the floor as she walked barefoot to the kitchen. “Have you looked at our schedule for the next month? We don’t have a single available slot. Our referrals have doubled, and bookings are through the roof. Time to capitalize on success and think about growth.” Onward and upward, she thought. It felt good.
Her sister, busy feeding a puppy she was fostering, was less enthusiastic. “We already cover the whole of the east side of Manhattan.”
“I know, and I’m not suggesting we expand the dog walking part of the business.” She’d thought it over, studied the competition and run the numbers. Her head was filled with possibilities. “I think we should branch out into an area that has a better profit margin. Offer additional services.”
“Like what?” Harriet pulled the puppy closer. “We’re a dog walking business. The Bark Rangers. You’re thinking of branching into cats? The Meow Movers?”
“We already feed and care for cats if the owner requests it. I’m talking about pet sitting. Overnight stays. Holiday cover.” That part got her sister’s attention.
“You want me to stay overnight in a stranger’s home? Forget it.”
“Obviously the stranger won’t be there. If the owner is in residence they’re not going to need pet sitting.”
“I still don’t like the sound of it.” Harriet wrinkled her nose. “I like my own home. And if I do that, how do I foster?”
“I haven’t worked that part out yet.” And she knew better than to suggest her sister reduce her fostering commitment. There was no way Harriet would ever turn her back on an animal in trouble.
And she didn’t want her sister unhappy.
She’d grown up protecting Harriet. First from her father, and then from anyone and everything that threatened her twin.
It was protecting Harriet that had given her the idea of starting the business in the first place, and if she was going to expand then she needed to introduce the idea gradually.
She checked her phone for new bookings. “All I’m saying is that I’d like to look at the business more broadly. You don’t need to worry.”
“I’m not worried, exactly. But I don’t understand where this is coming from. Have we had a complaint about one of our dog walkers or something?”
“No. Our dog walkers are the best on the planet. Mostly because you have an uncanny instinct for sensing when someone doesn’t really like animals. Our screening process is excellent, and our attrition rate is close to zero.”
“So why the sudden change?”
“It’s not sudden. When you’re running your own business it’s important to evolve. There’s a lot of competition out there.” She’d seen just how much competition, but she didn’t share that with Harriet. No sense in worrying her.
“But you’ve said yourself that plenty of people who set up as dog walkers are unreliable. People are not going to trust their beloved pets with an unreliable walker. We’ve never lost a client. Never. Clients trust us.”
“And they will trust us in their homes, too, which is why I think we should extend the service we’re offering. I’m considering running obedience classes, too. I can think of a few dogs who might benefit.”
Harriet grinned. “Who was it this time? Dog or owner?”
“Dog. Name of Angel.”
“The poodle? Belongs to that magazine editor?”
“That’s the one.” The thought of it had Fliss rolling her eyes. She didn’t share Harriet’s tolerance when it came to misbehaving dogs. “If ever a dog was misnamed, it’s that one. He may be an angel on the outside, but on the inside he’s all devil.”
“I agree, but I don’t see why one badly behaved canine would make you question our entire business. Our business is fine, Fliss. You’ve done well.”
“We’ve done well.” Fliss emphasized the we and saw Harriet flush.
“That’s rubbish. Do you really think I would have come this far without you?”
“You bring in all the business. You handle the finances and all the difficult phone calls.”
“And you make the animals so happy, and their owners so happy, that our word-of-mouth recommendations are through the roof. It’s our business, Harry. We’re a team. We’ve done well, but now I intend to do better.”
Harriet sighed. “Why? What are you trying to prove?”
“I’m not trying to prove anything. Is it wrong to want to grow the business?”
“No, if that’s what you really want, but I’d like taking the time to enjoy my job. I don’t always want to be rushing to the next thing. And if we expand, we’d have to find premises.”
“Way ahead of you. I thought we could look for something that also has space for an office. Then our apartment might not be flooded with paperwork and I might actually be able to find my bed. And the coffee machine.” She glanced from her phone to the stack of papers on the countertop. It seemed to grow every day. “There used to be a coffee machine hidden somewhere here. With luck I might find it before I die of caffeine withdrawal.”
“I moved it. I had to put it out of Sunny’s reach. He’s chewing everything he can find.” With the puppy still tucked under one arm, Harriet stood up. She pushed Fliss’s shoes to the side of the room and then walked to the kitchen and scooped up the papers. “There’s a message on the machine. I didn’t get to it in time. New business call.”
“I’ll call them back. I know you hate talking to strangers on the phone.” Fliss grabbed an energy bar from the cupboard and saw her twin frown. “Don’t look at me like that. At least I’m eating.”
“You could eat something wholesome.”
“This is wholesome.” She flicked the button on the coffee machine. “So going back to my plan—”
“I don’t want to spend the night in someone else’s apartment. I like my own bed. We’d have to recruit, and that would be expensive. Could we even afford it?”
“If you’d been paying attention at our last company meeting, you wouldn’t be asking me that question.”
“Was that the ‘meeting’ where we had take-out pizza and I had to bottle-feed those kittens?”
“Then I don’t think I gave you my full attention. Just give me the top line.”
“It’s the bottom line that should interest you, and the bottom line is looking good.” Fliss poured coffee into two mugs, her head buzzing. With each new success, the buzz seemed to grow. “Better than our wildest dreams.” She eyed her sister. “Not that you’re the wild-dream type.”
“Hey, I have wild dreams!”
“Are you naked in them and writhing on silk sheets with a hot, naked guy?”
Harriet turned pink. “No.”
“Then trust me, your dreams aren’t wild.” Fliss took a mouthful of coffee and felt the caffeine bounce through her system.
“My dreams are no less valid than yours just because the content is different.” Harriet settled the puppy in his basket. “Dreams are to do with wanting and needing.”
“As I said—naked, silk sheets, hot guy.”
“There are other types of wanting and needing. I’m not interested in a single night of sex.”
“Hey, if he was hot enough I’d be willing to stretch it out a few days, at least until we’re both dying of thirst or starvation.”
“How are you ever my twin?”
“I ask myself the same question frequently.” About as frequently as she counted her blessings. How did people survive without a twin? If her childhood had felt like being trapped in a windowless room, Harriet had been the oxygen. Together they’d discovered a problem really did seem smaller if it was shared, as if they could carry half each and make it weigh less. And if Fliss knew, deep down, that her sister shared more than she did, she comforted herself with the knowledge that she was protecting Harriet. It was something she’d done all her life. “It’s because I’m your twin that I know your dreams as well as I do my own. Yours would be a white clapboard beach house, picket fence, a sexy doctor who adores you and a menagerie of animals. Forget it. If you want that kind of relationship, you’re going to need to read about it in a book. And now back to business. I think the Bark Rangers could legitimately offer pet sitting and even possibly dog grooming and obedience training. Think of it as an extension of what we do. We can offer packages where we—”
“Wait a minute.” Harriet frowned. “Are you saying you think romance only exists in books?”
“The type of romance you want only exists in books.”
“You only have to look at our brother to know that isn’t true.”
“Daniel fell in love with Molly. There’s only one Molly. And they’re basically together because their dogs are best friends.” She caught her twin’s eye and shrugged. “All right, they seem happy, but they’re the exception, and it’s probably because Molly is a relationship expert. That gives her an unfair advantage over the rest of us.”
“Maybe instead of expanding the business, you could take more time for yourself. You’ve been working at top speed since we started this business. It’s been five years, and you’ve hardly paused to breathe.”
“Six years.” Fliss grabbed a yogurt out of the fridge. “And why would I want time to myself? I love being busy. Busy is my drug of choice. And I love our business. We have freedom. Choices.” She nudged the door shut with her bare foot and saw Harriet wince.
“I love our business, too, but I also like the parts of my life that have nothing to do with the business. You’ve made a huge success of it, Fliss.” She hesitated. “You don’t have anything to prove.”
“I’m not proving anything.” The lie slid off her tongue while the voice inside her head shouted more loudly than usual. Useless, worthless, never make anything of yourself…
“Don’t you ever want more out of life?”
“More?” Fliss thrust a spoon into the yogurt, deciding it was time she shifted the conversation. This was starting to feel uncomfortable. “I’m young, free, single and living in New York City. What more is there? I have the world at my feet. Life is perfect. I mean, seriously, could life be any more perfect?”
Harriet looked at her steadily. “You didn’t do it, did you?”
Fliss’s heart started to pound. Her appetite vanished.
This, she thought, was one of the disadvantages of having a twin. She could hide the way she was feeling from everyone else in the world, but not from her sister.
She put her yogurt down and decided she needed to work harder at it. She didn’t want Harriet to know that she was terrified. It would make her anxious. “I was going to, I really was. I had the building in sight and I’d memorized what I was going to say—”
“My feet wouldn’t go that way. They were glued to the spot. Then they turned around and walked in the opposite direction. I tried arguing with them. I said, ‘Feet, what do you think you’re doing?’ But did they listen? No.” And since when had she been so pathetic? She gave what she hoped passed for a careless shrug. “Please don’t say what I know you’re about to say.”
“What was I about to say?”
“You were going to gently point out that it’s been three weeks since Daniel bumped into him—”
“Seth,” Harriet said. “At least say his name. That would be a start.”
The start of what? She didn’t want to start something she’d worked hard to put behind her.
And she couldn’t blame her sister for pushing because she hadn’t been honest, had she? She hadn’t told Harriet how she felt.
“Seth—” His name stuck in her throat. “It’s been three weeks since Daniel bumped into him—Seth—at the vet practice. The plan was that I’d take control of the situation and go and see him in order to avoid an awkward encounter in the street.”
“You’ve changed the plan?”
“Not officially. It’s more that the plan isn’t working out. It’s awkward.” It was okay to admit that much, wasn’t it? Finding something awkward wasn’t as bad as finding it terrifying. “And I don’t think an encounter in the street could be any more uncomfortable than a face-to-face in the clinic.”
“I can imagine it feels a little awkward, but—”
“A little awkward? That’s like calling a hurricane a light breeze. This isn’t a little awkward, it’s mega awkward, it’s—” She floundered for a description and gave up. “Forget it. No word has been invented that correctly reflects this situation.” And even if it had, she wouldn’t be using it. She didn’t want Harriet to know how bad she felt.
“‘This situation’ being bumping into your ex.”
“You manage to make a highly complex and delicate situation sound simple.”
“That’s probably the best way to look at it. Don’t overthink it.” Harriet lowered the puppy to the floor and stood up. “It’s been ten years, Fliss. I know it was a traumatic time.”
“No need to dramatize it.” Why was her mouth so dry? She took a glass from the cabinet and poured herself some water. “It was fine.”
“It wasn’t fine. But everything that happened is all in the past. You have a whole new life, and so does he.”
“I never think about it.” The lie came easily even though a day rarely passed when she didn’t think about it. She also thought about what Seth’s life might have looked like if he hadn’t met her and, occasionally when she was indulging herself, what her life with Seth Carlyle could have looked like if the circumstances had been different.
Harriet studied her with a mixture of concern and exasperation. “Are you sure? Because it was a big deal.”
“As you say, it’s been ten years.”
“And you haven’t been seriously involved with a man since.”
“Haven’t met anyone who interested me.” Anyone who measured up. Anyone who made her feel the way Seth had made her feel. There were days when she wondered if what she’d felt had been real, or if her teenage brain had augmented those feelings.
“It upsets me when you don’t share your feelings with me. I can understand why you hid everything from Dad, and even from Daniel, but this is me.”
“I’m not hiding anything.”
“All right, maybe I hide some things, but there’s nothing I can do about that. It’s the way I am.”
“No. It’s the way you learned to be. And we both know why.” Weary, Harriet stooped to remove Fliss’s shoe from the puppy’s mouth.
Fliss stared at her sister, the urge to confide momentarily eclipsing her quest for privacy. “I—I think about it sometimes. About him.” Why had she said that? If she opened the door a crack, her emotions were likely to come pouring out and drown everyone around her.
Harriet straightened slowly. “Which part do you think about most?”
That fateful birthday. The kiss on the beach. His mouth and hands. The laughter, the sunshine, the smell of the ocean. Passion and promise.
She could still remember it vividly. Almost as vividly as she remembered everything that had followed.
“Forget it. I don’t really think about it.”
“All right! I think about it. All of it. But I was dealing with it pretty well, until Daniel told me he’d seen Seth here in New York.” You were supposed to be able to leave your past behind. What were you supposed to do when it followed you? “Do you think he knew I was living here?”
New York was a city of eight million people. Eight million busy people, all running around doing their thing. It was a city of possibilities, but one of those possibilities was to live here anonymously, blending in. It had been perfect, until the day Seth Carlyle had taken a job in the vet practice they used regularly.
“In New York? I don’t know. I doubt he knew he’d be this close to you. It’s not as if you’ve been in touch.”
“No. Never been in touch.” It was the only way she’d been able to cope. Put it behind her. Move on. Don’t look back.
He hadn’t been in touch with her either, so presumably he’d been taking the same approach.
Harriet lifted the puppy back into his basket. “I know it feels difficult, but you’ve built a whole new life, and he has, too.”
“I know, but I wish he hadn’t chosen to move his life onto my patch. I should be able to walk the few blocks around our apartment without having to peer around street corners like a fugitive.”
“You’re doing that?” The shock in her twin’s eyes made her wish she’d kept that information to herself.
“I was talking hypothetically.”
“If you’d done what you planned to do and just walked in there and said, ‘Hi, good to see you again,’ you would have cleared the air and you wouldn’t be glancing over your shoulder. Things will feel easier when you’ve actually seen him.”
“I have seen him,” Fliss muttered. “He was standing in Reception when I made my first attempt to approach the building last week.” It was his hair that had caught her eye first, and then the way he’d angled his head to listen to something the receptionist was saying to him. He’d always been a good listener. It had been ten years since she’d touched him or stood close to him, but everything about him was achingly familiar.
Harriet was gaping at her. “You saw him? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Nothing to tell. And don’t worry, he didn’t see me.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I dropped to the ground like a navy SEAL on a secret mission. I didn’t move until I was sure he’d gone. I had to stop a passerby calling 911, which was both annoying and reassuring because usually New Yorkers are too busy doing their own thing to pay much attention to a body on the ground. Why are you gaping at me?”
“You dropped to the ground. And you’re trying to pretend you’re fine with this?”
“No pretense necessary.” She ground her teeth. Didn’t her sister have a dog to walk or something? “You’re right. I have to do this. I have to meet him and get it over with.” The thought of it made her heart and pulse thunder a protest. It was a fight-or-flight response, and her body seemed to be choosing flight.
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“What I really want is for you to pretend to be me so that I don’t have to do it at all.” She saw Harriet’s eyes cloud with worry and cursed herself for saying too much. “I was joking!”
“Of course. If I let you do that I’d lose the last shred of my self-respect. I have to do this by myself.”
“Remember what Molly said. You should control the meeting. Make an appointment for one of the animals. That way you have a reason to be there and something else to talk about. If it’s awkward you can keep it professional.”
“Memorize one line. ‘Hi, Seth, good to see you. How are you doing?’ I can’t believe I’m saying this to you. You’re the one who is great with people. I’m the one who is tongue-tied and awkward.”
“You’re right. It should be easy. So why isn’t it?”
“Probably because you left so much unresolved.”
“We’re divorced. How much more resolved than that can you get?”
“You were in love with him, Fliss.”
“What? Don’t be crazy. It was a teenage crush, that’s all. Sex on a beach that got a bit more hot and heavy than we’d planned—” Her voice tailed off as she met Harriet’s unwavering gaze.
“You’re doing it again. Hiding your feelings from me.”
“Believe me, you don’t want a dose of my feelings.” She stiffened as Harriet stepped forward and gave her a hug. “Oh. What’s that for?” She felt her sister’s arms tighten around her.
“I hate seeing you hurt.”
Which was why she never let her twin see the true extent of her hurt. “Of course you do. You’re the good twin. I’m the bad twin.”
“I hate it when you call yourself that. I would love to have your qualities.”
“You don’t have room for any more qualities. You’re already loaded with them.”
“I hate it when you call me ‘good.’ I’m not good, and one of these days I’m going to do something really bad to prove it.”
“You couldn’t be bad if you tried, although if you ever decide to give it a try I hope you’ll call me. I’d like to see it. You’re strangling me, Harry. I can’t handle affection before I’ve had at least two cups of coffee.” And because she didn’t trust herself not to say more than she wanted to say. Harriet’s affection was like a key, unlocking a part of herself she preferred to keep secured.
“You’re not bad, Fliss.”
“Try telling that to Seth and the rest of the Carlyle family.” And to her father. “He had a glowing future until I came along.” She poured herself another glass of water.
“He’s a vet. His future looks just fine from where I’m standing. And why do you take all the responsibility for what happened? He made a choice, Fliss.”
Had he? Remembering the detail, Fliss felt color flood her cheeks. There were things she hadn’t even told her twin. Things she hadn’t told anyone. “Maybe. That’s enough talking for one day.” She felt unsettled, like a snow globe that had been shaken, leaving her previously settled feelings to swirl madly around inside. How could she still have so many feelings after so long? Weren’t they ever going to fade? It was annoying and unfair. “If Seth is going to be living here, maybe I should leave New York. That would be a solution.”
“That’s not a solution, that’s avoidance. Your business is here. Your life is here. You love New York. Why would you leave?”
“Because now he’s here I’m not sure I love it anymore.”
“Where would you go?”
“I’ve heard Hawaii is pretty.”
“You’re not going to Hawaii. You’re going to channel your inner warrior and go see him. You’re going to say, ‘Hi, Seth, how’s the family?’ And then you’re going to let him talk. And when he’s finished talking you’re going to notice the time and leave. Done. How do you know he won’t be pleased to see you?”
“Our relationship didn’t exactly end in a good way.”
“But it was a long time ago. He will have moved on, as you have. He’s probably married.”
The glass slipped through Fliss’s nerveless fingers but fortunately didn’t break. “He’s married?”
Why did she even care whether he was married or not? What relevance did it have? What was wrong with her?
“I don’t know he’s married. I was just putting it out there, but clearly I shouldn’t have.” Ever practical, Harriet retrieved the glass and started mopping up water.
“You see? I can’t possibly talk to him because I’m not in charge of my emotions. But you are. You should definitely pretend to be me. That way you could have this conversation and get it over with and you won’t feel awkward.”
Harriet straightened. “I haven’t pretended to be you since I was twelve.”
“Fourteen. You’re forgetting that time when I pretended to be you in biology.”
“Because that sleazy creep wouldn’t stop tormenting me about my stammer. Johnny Hill. You punched him. How could I have forgotten that?”
“I don’t know. It was a great day.”
“Are you kidding? You had to have eight stitches in your head. You still have the scar.”
“But he never touched you again, did he? And neither did anyone else.” Fliss grinned and rubbed her fingers along the scar hidden under her hair. “You got a reputation for being scary. So you owe me. Go and see Seth. Be me. It’s easy. Just do and say everything you’d never do or say and you’ll be convincing.”
Harriet gave a wry smile. “You’re not such a bad girl, Felicity Knight.”
“I used to be. And Seth paid the price.”
“Stop it.” Harriet’s voice was firm. “Stop saying that. Stop thinking it.”
“How? It’s the truth.” But she’d paid it, too, and it seemed as if those payments never stopped. “If I could find a way to avoid seeing him, I would. I have no idea what to say to a man whose life I ruined.”
FOUR BLOCKS AWAY Seth Carlyle had his hands full of moody cocker spaniel.
“How long has he been like this?”
“Like what? Angry?”
“I meant, how long has he been limping?”
“Oh.” The woman frowned. “About a week.”
Seth examined the dog thoroughly. The dog snarled, and he eased the pressure of his fingers. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to hurt you. Just need to take a good look and see what’s going on here.” He kept his voice and his touch gentle and felt the animal relax under his hands.
“He likes you.” The woman looked at him with surprise and dawning respect. “Dr. Steve says you’re helping him out. Said you were a big-shot vet who worked in some animal hospital in California.”
“I don’t know about the first part, but the second part is true.”
“So why leave California? Tired of all that sunshine and blue skies?”
“Something like that.” Seth smiled and turned his attention back to the dog. “I’m going to run some tests and see if those will give us the answers we want.”
“Do you think it’s serious?”
“I suspect it’s a soft-tissue injury, but there are a few other conditions I need to rule out.” He gave some instructions to the vet technician, ran some tests and checked the X-ray. “We should limit his exercise.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“Make sure you keep him in a small space.”
“No more walks in Central Park?”
“Not for the time being. And give him some time in his crate.”
Once he’d completed the notes, he walked to Reception.
“Hi, Dr. Carlyle.” Her face turned pink, and she dropped the magazine she’d been reading under the desk. “Is there something I can do for you? Coffee? Bagel? Anything at all? You just need to ask. We’re so grateful to you for stepping in and helping out.” It was clear from the look in her eyes that anything wasn’t an exaggeration, but Seth ignored the unspoken invitation and the hopeful look in her eyes.
“I’m good, thanks. Did I miss any calls while I was in the clinic?”
“Yes.” She checked the notepad in front of her. “Mrs. Cook called to tell you Buster’s wound is looking better. One of the vet techs took the call. And Geoff Hammond called about his pooch. I put him through to Steve.”
“That’s it?” He felt a stab of disappointment, and Meredith checked again, desperate to please.
“Yeah, that’s it.” She glanced up. “Why? Were you expecting someone in particular?”
“No.” His reason for asking wasn’t something he intended to share.
He’d been waiting for her to come to him. Thinking about it, he realized he was treating Fliss much the same way he’d treat an injured, frightened animal. With patience. No sudden moves.
He couldn’t even pretend that perhaps she didn’t know he was here. He’d run into her brother, Daniel, on his second night in Manhattan. It had been an uncomfortable encounter, and it had been obvious from the tension heating the air that the animosity Daniel Knight felt toward him hadn’t diminished over time. Daniel would have told Fliss that Seth was in Manhattan. The Knight siblings were so close they might as well have been sutured together. He suspected that part of the reason for that was their stormy family life. Growing up they’d formed a bond. Seth didn’t blame Daniel for being protective of Fliss. Someone had to be, and it hadn’t been her father.
He’d met her when she’d been a leggy fourteen years old. She’d been part of the group who hung out together on the beach during those long, blissful summers in the Hamptons. At first glance she was indistinguishable from her twin, but anyone who spent a few minutes in their company would have known which twin they were talking to. Harriet was reserved and thoughtful. Fliss was wild and impulsive and attacked life as if she was leading an army into battle. She was first into the water and last out, swimming or surfing until the final rays of the sun had burned out over the ocean. She was bold, brave, loyal and fiercely protective of her quieter sister. She was also a daredevil, but he’d sensed a level of desperation to her actions, almost as if she wanted someone to challenge her. He’d had the feeling sometimes that she was living life just a little too hard, determined to prove something.
He’d known nothing about her family life that first summer. Her grandmother had owned the beach house on the bay for decades and was well-known in the area. Her daughter and children visited every summer, but unlike his own mother, who was actively involved in the local community both at the beach and back in their home in upstate New York, Fliss’s mother was virtually invisible.
And then one day the rumors had started. They’d trickled along the narrow lanes and into the village stores. A couple of people passing had heard raised voices and then the sound of a car driving too fast along the narrow island roads toward the main highway. The rumors spread from person to person, whispers and questions, until finally Seth heard them. Marriage problems. Family problems.
Seth had rarely seen her father. Almost all his impressions of the man had come from Fliss and Harriet’s reaction to him.
“Dr. Carlyle?” Meredith’s voice brought him back to the present, reminding him that his reason for being here was to move forward, not backward.
Since he’d arrived in New York he’d seen Fliss twice. The first time had been in Central Park on his first day in Manhattan. She’d been walking two dogs, an exuberant Dalmatian and a misbehaving German shepherd who had seemed determined to challenge her skills. She’d been too far in the distance for him to engineer a meeting, so he’d simply watched as she’d strode away from him, noticing the changes.
Her hair was the same smooth buttermilk blond, pinned haphazardly at the top of her head in a style that could have been named “afterthought.” Lean and athletic, she walked with purpose and a touch of impatience. It had been her attitude that had convinced him he was looking at Fliss and not Harriet.
She’d grown into a confident woman, but that didn’t surprise him. She’d never been short of fight.
He was desperate to see her face, to look into those eyes and see the flare of recognition, but she was too far away and didn’t turn her head.
The second time he’d seen her had been outside the office. The fact that she was hovering indecisively convinced him again that this was Fliss and not her sister. He guessed she’d been trying to summon up courage to confront him, and for a moment he’d believed maybe they were finally on their way to having the conversation they should have had a decade before. He’d also witnessed the exact moment she’d lost her nerve and fled.
He’d felt a burst of exasperation and frustration, followed by an increased determination that this time they were going to talk.
The last time they’d seen each other the atmosphere had been full of emotion. It had filled the air like thick smoke from a fire, choking everything. Maybe, if she’d been different, more willing to talk, they could have stumbled their way through it, but Fliss, as always, had refused to reveal her feelings, and although he had more than enough feelings for both of them, he’d not known how to reach her. The brief intimacy that had connected them had vanished.
He refused to believe that connection had been purely physical, but it had been the physical that had devoured their attention.
If he could have wound time backward he would have done it all differently, but the past was gone and there was only the present.
They’d had no contact for ten years so this was always going to be an awkward meeting for both of them, but it was a meeting that was long overdue, and if she wasn’t going to come to him, then he was left with only one option.
He’d go to her.
He’d tried leaving it alone. He’d tried pushing it into his past. Neither had worked, and he’d come to the conclusion that tackling it head-on was the only way forward.
He wanted the conversation they should have had a decade before. He wanted answers to the questions that had lain dormant in his head. Most of all, he wanted closure.
Maybe then he could move on.