July 14, 2016
August 30, 2016
Sunset in Central Park
From Manhattan With Love Book #2
”Morgan’s novel delivers the classic sweep-you-off-your-feet romantic experience.” – Publisher’s Weekly
”The second book in the From Manhattan with Love trilogy doesn’t disappoint, and Morgan (Sleepless in Manhattan, 2016) excels in balancing the sweet and sexy to create the perfect blend. .” – Booklist
“Sleeping Beauty didn’t need a prince. She needed strong coffee.”
SHE’D EXPECTED HEARTS, flowers and smiles. Not tears.
“Crisis unfolding, two o’clock.” Frankie tapped her earpiece and heard Eva respond.
“It can’t unfold at two o’clock. It’s already five past three.”
“Not the time, the position. Crisis is unfolding ahead of me and to the right.”
There was a pause. “You mean by the apple tree?”
“That’s what I mean.”
“Then why not just say by the apple tree?”
“Because if you’re going to make me wear an earpiece and look professional, I’m going to sound professional.”
“Frankie, you sound more like the FBI than a floral designer. And how can there be a crisis? Everything is running smoothly. The weather is perfect, the tables are pretty and the cakes are looking stunning if I say so myself. Our bride-to-be looks radiant and the guests will be arriving any minute.”
Frankie stared at the woman, crumpled against the tree trunk. “I hate to tell you this but right now the bride-to-be isn’t looking radiant. We have tears. I am the last person to make an observation on the psychology of weddings and all the fluff that surrounds them, but I’m guessing that’s not the usual response. If they reach this stage, it’s because they think marriage is a good thing, am I right?”
“Are you sure they’re not happy tears? And how many tears exactly? One tissue or a whole box?”
“Enough to cause a world shortage. She’s crying like a waterfall after heavy rain. I’m starting to understand why they call it a bridal shower.”
“Oh no! Her makeup will be ruined. Do you know what happened?”
“Maybe she decided she should have gone with the chocolate ganache instead of the orange sugar icing.”
“Or maybe she saw sense and decided to get out now while there’s still time. If I were about to get married, I’d be crying, too, and I’d be crying a hell of a lot harder and louder than she is.”
A sigh vibrated in her ear. “You promised to leave your relationship phobias at the door.”
“I closed the door, but they must have sneaked in through the keyhole.”
“The mood for this event is sunny optimism, remember?”
Frankie stared at the bride-to-be, sobbing under the apple tree. “Not from where I’m standing. It’s been a dry summer, though. The apple tree will be pleased to be watered.”
“Go and give her a hug, Frankie! Tell her everything will be okay.”
“She’s getting married. How can everything be okay?” Sweat pricked the back of her neck. There was only one thing she hated more than bridal showers, and that was weddings. “I will not lie.”
“It’s not a lie! Plenty of people live happily-ever-after.”
“In fairy stories. In real life they sleep around and get divorced, invariably in that order.” Frankie made a huge effort to smother her prejudices. “Get out here now. This is your area of expertise. You know I’m no good at the touchy-feely thing.”
“I’ll handle it.” This time it was Paige who spoke and who, moments later, strode across the neatly tended lawn, cool and composed despite the New York heat and humidity. “What was she doing immediately before she started crying?”
“She took a phone call.”
“Could you hear any of the conversation?”
“I don’t listen to people’s conversations. Maybe the markets crashed or something, although judging from the size of this house it would need to be a big crash to make a difference.” Frankie pushed her hair away from her sweaty forehead. “Can we do these events indoors from now on? I’m dying.” It was the sort of day that made your clothes stick to your skin and made you dream of iced drinks and air-conditioning.
She thought longingly of her small apartment in Brooklyn.
If she were home now she’d be fiddling with cuttings, tending the herbs on her windowsill and watching the bees flirt with the plants in her tiny garden. Or maybe she’d be on the roof terrace with her friends, sharing a bottle of wine as they watched the sun set over the Manhattan skyline.
Weddings would be the last thing on her mind.
She felt a touch on her arm and glanced toward her friend. “What?”
“You’re stressed. You hate weddings and all things bridal. I wish I didn’t have to ask you to do them, but right now—”
“Our business is in its infancy and we can’t afford to turn them down. I know. And I’m fine with it.” Well, not fine exactly, Frankie thought moodily, but she was here, wasn’t she?
And she understood that they couldn’t be choosy about their clients.
She, Paige and Eva had started their event-and-concierge business, Urban Genie, only a few months earlier after they’d lost their jobs at a large Manhattan-based events company.
Frankie gave a little smile, remembering the giddy excitement and sweaty fear that had come from starting their own company. It had been terrifying but there had also been a powerful feeling of liberation. They had the control.
It had been Paige’s brainchild, and Frankie knew that without her she would very likely be out of a job right now. Which would mean no way to pay her rent. Without the money to pay her rent, she’d have to leave her apartment.
Unease rippled through her, as if someone had thrown a pebble into the quiet, smooth pond that was her life.
Her independence was everything.
And that was why she was here. That and the loyalty she felt toward her friends.
She pushed her glasses back up her nose with the tip of her finger. “I can cope with weddings if that’s what comes our way. Don’t worry about me. She—” Frankie nodded her head toward the woman under the apple tree “—is your priority.”
“I’m going to talk to her. If the guests arrive, stall them. Eva?” Paige adjusted her earpiece. “Don’t bring the cakes out yet. I’ll let you know what’s happening.” She walked over to the bride-to-be.
Frankie knew that whatever the problem was, her friend would deal with it. Paige was a born organizer with a gift for saying exactly the right thing at the right time.
And she possessed another gift, crucial to the success of events like these—she believed in happy endings.
As far as Frankie was concerned, people who believed in happy endings were delusional.
Her parents had separated when she was fourteen when her father, a sales director, had announced that he was leaving her mother for one of his colleagues.
And as for everything that had happened since—
She stared blindly at the ribbons fluttering in the breeze.
How did people do it? How did they manage to ignore all the statistics and facts and convince themselves they could find one person to be with forever?
Forever didn’t exist.
She shifted restlessly. Paige was right. There was nothing on earth she hated as much as weddings and all things bridal. They filled her with a sense of foreboding. It was like watching a car driving along the freeway, heading toward a pileup. There was a hideous inevitability to it all. She wanted to cover her eyes or shout out a warning. What she didn’t want to be was a witness.
She saw Paige put her arm around the sobbing woman and turned away. She told herself that she was giving them privacy, but truthfully, she didn’t want to look. It was too raw. Too real. Looking stirred up memories she preferred to forget. Fortunately, her job wasn’t to manage the emotions of the clients; it was to provide a floral display that reflected the tone and mood of the event.
The mood was supposed to be happy, so she’d chosen creams and pastels to complement the beautiful linens. Celosia and sweet pea nestled alongside hydrangea and roses in glass pitchers chosen to satisfy the bride-to-be’s request for simplicity.
Of course, simplicity was a relative term, Frankie thought as she surveyed the two long tables. Simplicity could have meant feasting from picnic baskets, but in this case the tables gleamed with silverware and the shimmer of crystal. Charles William Templeton was a lawyer with a famous clientele and sufficient funds at his disposal to ensure that his only daughter, Robyn Rose, could have any wedding she wanted. The Plaza was booked for the following summer. Frankie was relieved Urban Genie wasn’t involved with that event.
The brief for the bridal shower had been garden elegance with a touch of romance. Frankie had managed not to wince as Robyn Rose had mentioned Flower Fairies and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Thanks to Eva, who had no trouble turning their clients’ romantic visions into reality, they’d more than met the brief.
They’d rented chairs and customized them with ribbon that coordinated with the table setting. Handmade silk butterflies were artfully positioned around the garden, and acres of lace created the feel of a fairy grotto. You could almost believe you were in a fairy tale.
Frankie gave a half smile.
Only Eva could have thought it up.
The only nod to simplicity was the mature apple tree currently sheltering the sobbing bride-to-be.
Frankie was bracing herself to start holding off guests when Eva appeared by her side, her cheeks pink from the sun.
“Do we know what’s happening?”
“No, but I can tell you it’s not all celebration. Paige needs to work magic.”
Eva glanced around wistfully. “It all looks so pretty and we’ve worked so hard to make it perfect. Normally I love bridal showers. I always think of it as a final celebration before the bride and groom ride off into the sunset.”
“Sunset is what happens before darkness, Ev.”
“Can you at least pretend you believe in what we do?”
“I do believe in what we do. We’re a business. We manage events and we’re damn good at it. This is just another event.”
“You make it sound so clinical, but there’s a magical side to it.” Eva straightened the wing of a silk butterfly. “Sometimes we make wishes come true.”
“My wish was to run a successful business with my two best friends, so I guess you’re right about that. There’s nothing magical about it, unless managing to function after an eighteen-hour day is magical. And coffee is definitely magical. Fortunately, I don’t have to believe in happy endings to do a great job. My responsibility is the flowers, that’s all.”
And she loved it. Her love affair with plants had begun when she was young. She’d taken refuge in the garden to escape the emotions inside the house. Flowers could be art, or they could be science, and she’d studied each plant carefully, understanding that each had individual needs. There were the shade-loving plants like ferns, ginger and jack-in-the-pulpit, and then there were the sun worshippers, like lilacs and sunflowers. Each needed an optimum environment. Planted in the wrong place, they would wither and die. Each needed the perfect home in order to flourish.
Not so different from humans, she mused.
She loved selecting the right flower for the right event; she enjoyed designing displays of plants but most of all she loved growing them and watching the changing seasons. From the extravagant froth of blossom in the spring to the elegant russets and burnt orange of the fall, each season brought its own gifts.
“The flowers are beautiful.” Eva studied the bunch of flowers artfully arranged in the pitcher. “That’s pretty. What is it?”
“It’s a rose.”
“No, the silvery one.”
Eva gave her a look. “What do normal people call it?”
“It’s pretty. And you used sweet peas.” Her friend drew her finger wistfully over the flower. “They were my grandmother’s favorite. I used to leave bunches of them by her bed. They reminded her of her wedding. I love the way you’ve put this together. You’re so talented.”
Frankie heard the wobble in her friend’s voice. Eva had adored her grandmother, and her death the previous year had been devastating. Frankie knew she missed her horribly.
She also knew that Eva wouldn’t want to have a wobbly moment at work.
“Did you know the sweet pea was discovered by a Sicilian monk three hundred years ago?’
Eva swallowed hard. ‘No. You know so much about flowers.’
‘It’s my job. What do you think of this? It’s Queen Anne’s lace,” Frankie spoke quickly. “You’ll like it. It’s very bridal. Perfect for you.”
“Yes.” Eva pulled herself together. “When I get married I’m going to have that in my bouquet. Would you make it for me?”
“Sure. I’ll make you the best bouquet any bride has ever seen. Just don’t cry. You’re a mess when you cry.”
Eva scrubbed her hand over her face. “So you’d be happy for me? Even though you don’t believe in love?”
“If anyone can prove me wrong it’s going to be you. And you deserve it. I’m hoping Mr Right rides up on his white horse and sweeps you away.”
“That would attract some attention on Fifth Avenue.” Eva blew her nose. “And I’m allergic to horses.”
Frankie tried not to smile. “With you, there’s always something.”
“For making me laugh instead of cry. You’re the best.”
“Yeah, well, you can return the favor by handling this situation.” Frankie saw Paige hand Robyn another tissue. “He’s dumped her, hasn’t he?”
“You don’t know that. It could be anything. Or nothing. Maybe she has dust in her eye.”
Frankie glanced at her friend in disbelief. “Next you’ll be telling me you still believe in Santa and the tooth fairy.”
“And the Easter bunny.” Composed again, Eva whipped a tiny mirror from her purse and checked her makeup. “Don’t ever forget the Easter bunny.”
“What’s it like living on Planet Eva?”
“It’s lovely. And don’t you dare contaminate my little world with your cynical views. A moment ago you were talking about Mr Right.”
“That was to stop you crying. I don’t understand why people put themselves through this when they could just stab themselves through the heart with a kitchen knife and have done with it.”
Eva shuddered. “You’ve been reading too much horror. Why don’t you read romance, instead?”
“I’d rather stab myself through the heart with a kitchen knife.” And it felt as if she’d done just that. She was looking at Robyn Rose, but she was remembering her mother, incoherent with grief on the kitchen floor while her father, white-faced, had stepped over her heaving body and walked out the door, leaving Frankie to clean up his mess.
She stared straight ahead and then felt Eva slide her arm through hers.
“One day, probably when you least expect it, you’re going to fall in love.”
It was a remark typical of Eva.
“That’s never going to happen.” Knowing that her friend was emotionally vulnerable, Frankie tried to be gentle. “Romance has the same effect on me as garlic does on vampires. And besides, I love being single. Don’t give me that pitying look. It’s my choice, not a sentence. It’s not a state that I’m in until something better comes along. Don’t feel sorry for me. I love my life.”
“Don’t you want someone to snuggle up to at night?”
“No. This way I never have to fight for the duvet, I can sleep diagonally across the bed and I can read until four in the morning.”
“A book can’t take the place of a man!”
“I disagree. A book can give you most things a relationship can. It can make you laugh, it can make you cry, it can transport you to different worlds and teach you things. You can even take it out to dinner. And if it bores you, you can move on. Which is pretty much what happens in real life.” Unlike her father, her mother had never married again. Instead, she burned through men as if they were disposable.
“You’re going to make me cry again. What about intimacy? A book can’t know you.”
“I can live without that part.” She didn’t want people to know her. She’d moved away from the small island where she’d grown up for precisely that reason—people had known too much. Every intimate, deeply embarrassing detail of her private life had been public knowledge.
Paige walked back to them. “The phone call was the groom.” Her voice was crisp and businesslike. “He called it off.”
Eva made a distressed sound “Oh no! That’s dreadful for her.”
“Maybe it isn’t.” Despite the fact she’d already guessed what had happened, Frankie’s stomach churned. “Maybe she had a lucky escape.”
“How can you say that?”
“Because sooner or later he’d cheat on her and break her heart. Might as well be now before they have kids and a hundred and one Dalmatian puppies and innocent bystanders are injured in the fallout.” Not wanting to admit how gutted she was to have been proved right yet again, Frankie leaned forward and removed the Queen Anne’s lace from the pitcher.
“A hundred and one puppies of any breed would put pressure on a marriage, Frankie,” Eva said.
“And not all men cheat.” Paige checked the time on her phone, and the diamond on her finger caught the sunlight and glinted.
Seeing it, Frankie felt a flash of guilt.
She should keep her mouth shut. Eva loved dreaming and Paige was newly engaged. She needed to keep her thoughts on marriage to herself.
“It will be different for you and Jake,” she mumbled. “You’re one of those rare couples that are perfect together. Ignore me. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Paige waved her hand and the diamond glinted again. “You and I don’t want the same thing, and that’s fine.”
“I’m a killjoy.”
“You’re the child of divorced parents. And it wasn’t a happy divorce. We all have a different perspective on life, depending on our own experience.”
“I know I overreact, though. It wasn’t even my divorce.”
Paige shrugged. “But you lived through the fallout. It would be crazy to think that wouldn’t affect you. It’s like washing a red sock with a white shirt. Everything ends up tainted.”
Frankie gave a half smile. “Am I the white shirt in that analogy? Because I’m not sure I’m white-shirt material.”
Eva studied her. “I agree. I’d say you were more of a combat jacket.”
“Robyn has gone upstairs to fix her makeup.” Paige steered the conversation back to work. “The guests will be arriving any minute. I’m going to talk to them.”
“No. We’re going ahead, but now it’s not a bridal shower—it’s a party. A celebration of friendship.”
Frankie relaxed slightly. Friendship she could cope with. “Nice. How did you pull that one off?”
“I pointed out that friends are there for the bad times as well as the good. They were invited to share the good, but if they’re true friends they’ll be right there by her side for the bad.”
“And bad times are always improved by champagne, sunshine and strawberries,” Eva said. “Here she comes.”
Frankie reached for the next pitcher of flowers and Paige put her hand out to stop her.
“Those are beautiful. What are you doing?”
“The flowers are supposed to match the mood of the occasion, and these are too bridal.”
Without waiting for Paige’s approval, Frankie tossed the bridal Queen Anne’s lace into the border and watched as the flowers hit the dirt.
She tried not to think of it as symbolic.
THE THREE FRIENDS arrived home an hour or so before the sun was due to set.
Sweaty, irritable and miserably unsettled by the events of the day, Frankie searched in her purse for her keys.
“If I don’t get inside in the next five seconds I’m going to melt right here.”
Paige paused by the front door. “Despite everything, it went well.”
“He dumped her,” Eva murmured, and Paige frowned.
“I know. I was talking about the event. That went well. We should celebrate. Jake’s coming over. Why don’t we all meet up on the roof terrace for a drink?”
Frankie didn’t feel like celebrating. “Not tonight. I have a date with a good book.” She wasn’t going to think about how Robyn Rose was feeling. She wasn’t going to worry about whether she was all right or whether she’d ever have the courage to love again. That wasn’t her problem.
Fumbling, she dropped the key and saw Eva exchange a glance with Paige.
“Are you all right?”
“Of course. Just tired. Long day in the heat.” And part of that heat had come from being exposed to a boiling cauldron of emotions. Frankie retrieved the key and wiped her forehead with her palm.
“You should wear a skirt,” Eva said. “You would have been cooler.”
“You know I never wear skirts.”
“You should. You have great legs.”
Frankie made a blind stab at the door but it wouldn’t open. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“All right, but we thought you might need distraction after the bridal shower so we bought you something.” Paige dug her hand into her bag, the bag that held everything from cleanser to duct tape. “Here.” She handed over a parcel and Frankie took it, touched by the gesture.
“You bought me a book?” She opened it and felt a thrill of excitement. Her bad mood evaporated. “It’s the new Lucas Blade! It’s not out for another month. How did you get this?” Almost salivating, she held it against her chest. She wanted to sit down and start reading right away.
“Eva is well connected.”
Eva’s cheeks dimpled into a smile. “I mentioned to dear Mitzy that you love his work, and she used her power as a grandmother to force him to sign you a copy, although why you want to read a book called Death Returns I do not know. I’d be up all night screaming. The only good thing about that book is his photo on the jacket. The guy is insanely hot. Mitzy wants to introduce me to him, but I’m not sure I want to meet a man who writes about murder for a living. I don’t think we’d have much in common.”
“It’s signed?” Frankie opened the book and saw her name in bold black scrawl. “This is so cool. I was thinking of preordering it but the price is shocking because he’s so successful. I can’t believe you did this.”
“Your idea of horror is a bridal shower or a wedding, but you did it anyway,” Eva said, “so we wanted to treat you tonight. This is our thank-you. If it scares you and you want company, bang on the door.”
Frankie felt her throat thicken. This was friendship. Understanding someone. “I hope it does scare me. That’s what it’s supposed to do.”
Eva shook her head, bemused. “I love you, but I will never understand you.”
Frankie smiled. Maybe not understanding. Maybe friendship was loving someone even when you didn’t always understand them. “Thanks,” she muttered. “You guys are the best.”
The key finally slid into the lock and she stepped into the sanctuary of her apartment. She closed the door and the first thing she did was pull off her glasses. The frames were heavy and she rubbed her nose gently with her fingers and walked through to her pretty living room. The space was small, but she’d furnished it well, with a few good pieces she’d found on the internet. There was an overstuffed sofa that she’d rescued and covered herself, but what she loved most about her apartment were the plants. They crowded every available surface, a rainbow of greens with splashes of color, leading the eye toward the small garden.
She’d turned the small, enclosed space into a leafy refuge.
Gold flame honeysuckle, Clematis Montana, and other climbers scrambled over trellises while pots overflowed with a profusion of trailing plants. Vinca and bacopa tangled and tumbled over the small area of cedar decking that caught the sun at certain times of the day, and a Moroccan lamp sat in the center of the small table for those evenings she chose to sit alone rather than join her friends on the roof terrace.
Peace and calm enveloped her. The prospect of an evening reading a book she’d been looking forward to for months lifted her mood.
This was her life and she loved it.
Not for her the stomach-churning roller-coaster ride that was love. She didn’t need that and she certainly didn’t want it. She never wasted an evening staring longingly at her phone, hoping it would ring, and she’d never cried her way through a single tissue, let alone a whole box.
She flipped open the book, but she knew if she read the first page she’d be hooked, and first she needed to shower.
Tomorrow was Sunday and her schedule was clear, so she could read all night if she wanted to, sleep late and no one would care.
One of the many benefits of being single.
She put the book down, wondering why everyone else seemed so eager to give up that precious status.
Much as she loved her friends, she was glad she lived on her own. Paige and Eva had shared the apartment above hers for years and even though Paige was now spending more time at Jake’s apartment, she still spent at least half the week in her old room. Frankie suspected that decision was driven as much by her friend’s desire not to leave Eva alone as a need to maintain her own space.
Eva’s romantic longing for a family was something Frankie understood but didn’t share. Her experience was that family was complicated, infuriating, embarrassing, selfish and, on too many occasions, hurtful. And when it was family that hurt you, the wounds were somehow deeper and slower to heal, perhaps because the expectations were different.
Her experiences growing up had influenced so much of who she was and how she chose to live her life.
Her past was the reason she couldn’t attend a wedding without wanting to ask the couple if they were sure they wanted to go ahead.
Her past was the reason she never wore red, hated skirts and was incapable of sustaining a relationship with a man.
Her past was the reason she felt unable to go back to the island where she’d grown up.
Puffin Island was a nature-lover’s paradise, but for Frankie there were too many memories and too many islanders who bore a grudge against the name of Cole.
And she didn’t blame them.
She’d grown up cloaked by the sins of her mother, and her family’s reputation was one of the reasons she’d made the move to New York. At least here when she walked into a store, the other people weren’t all talking about her. Here, no one knew or cared that her father had run off with a woman half his age, or that her mother had decided to heal her insecurities with affairs of her own.
She’d left it all behind, until six months earlier when her mother had stopped moving around the country from job to job and man to man and settled in the city.
After years of very little contact with her only child, she’d been keen to bond. Frankie found every interaction excruciating. And woven in between the embarrassment, anger and discomfort was guilt. Guilt that she couldn’t find it inside her to be more sympathetic toward her mother. Her mother had been the prime victim of her father’s infidelities, not her. She should be more understanding. But they were so different.
Had they always been that way? Or was it Frankie’s fault for going out of her way to make sure they were different? Because the clearest memory that lingered from her teenage years was her absolute determination to be nothing like her mother.
Stripping off her shirt, she walked into her little kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine. Paige and Eva would no doubt spend the evening chatting, dissecting every moment of the event.
Frankie had no wish to do that. It had been bad enough at the time without going through every detail again, and it wasn’t as if they didn’t know what had gone wrong. The groom had dumped the bride. The way she saw it, a dead body didn’t need a post-mortem if you could see the bullet hole through the skull, and right now she needed to take her mind off everything to do with weddings.
Stepping into the shower, she washed away the stresses of the day.
It could have been a disaster, but with her usual smooth efficiency, Paige had rescued the situation.
Robyn’s friends had been wonderful, supporting her and saying the right things. There had even been laughter as they’d shared champagne and Eva’s cakes. Instead of an impending wedding, they’d celebrated their friendship.
Frankie wrapped herself in a towel and stepped out of the tiny bathroom.
Friendship was the one thing that could be relied on.
Where would she be without her friends?
And although she wasn’t in the mood for drinking and talking on the roof terrace, there was comfort in knowing they were only a few steps away.
She’d snuggle up with her book and lose herself.
She pulled on black yoga pants and a T-shirt, put some cheese on a plate and sat down to read. Immersed in another world, she almost leaped out of her skin as an enormous crash came from the kitchen.
Yanked from a fictional world of horror, it took a moment for logic to kick in and tell her that one of the herb pots carefully balanced on her windowsill had fallen.
She didn’t need to investigate the source of the accident; she already knew.
Not a serial killer, but a cat.
“Claws? Is that you?” Still holding her book, she walked through to the kitchen, saw the soil and shards of terracotta scattered across the floor and a terrified cat with fur the color of marmalade. “Hey—you need to look where you’re walking.”
The cat shot under the kitchen table, eyeing Frankie from a safe distance, her fur almost vertical.
“Did you scare yourself? Because you scared the hell out of me.” Calm, Frankie put her book on the table and stooped to clear up the mess. The cat shrank farther under the table. “What are you doing down here? Where’s Matt? Is he working late?”
Matt, Paige’s brother, owned the house and lived on the top two floors. It was Matt, a landscape architect, who had found the old, neglected brownstone years before and lovingly converted it into three apartments. The four of them lived there in almost perfect harmony. Along with the cat Matt had rescued.
Frankie disposed of the shattered pot and the soil and reached for a tin of cat food. She carried on talking, careful not to make any sudden movements. “Are you hungry?”
The cat didn’t move, so Frankie opened the tin and tipped it into the bowl she’d bought after the cat’s first visit.
“I’ll just leave it here.” She put the bowl down.
Claws approached with the watchful caution she always showed toward humans.
As someone who approached people in much the same way, Frankie empathized.
“I don’t know how you’re getting down from Matt’s apartment, but I hope you’re being careful where you tread. Wouldn’t want you to be hurt.” Although it was a bit late for that. She knew Claws had been abused and neglected before Matt had rescued her. As a result, the cat trusted no one except Matt, and even he was scratched if he made any sudden movements.
Claws sniffed cautiously at the bowl and Frankie stood back, giving the animal space.
Pretending to ignore her, she topped off her wineglass, cut a few more slices of cheese and sat down at the kitchen table that had been a housewarming gift from her friends. It was her favorite place to sit, especially first thing in the morning. She liked to open the windows and watch the sunlight stream over her garden. It was a suntrap, catching the light and warmth from early in the morning.
“We should probably celebrate.” She raised the glass. “To being single. I can go where I like, do what I like, I’m dependent on no one. I sail my own ship through whichever waters I choose to navigate. Life is good.”
Claws took another sniff at the food, keeping one eye on Frankie.
Finally, she started to eat and Frankie was surprised by the sense of satisfaction that came from knowing the animal was beginning to trust her. Maybe she should get a cat of her own.
Unlike some humans, cats understood the notion of personal space.
She opened the book and started to read where she’d left off.
She was halfway through the third chapter when she heard a knock on the door.
Frankie pushed a piece of paper in the book to mark her place, trying not to be irritated at the disturbance. “It will be Eva or Paige, so there’s no need to freak out. They’ve probably run out of wine. Don’t break any of my plant pots while I answer the door.”
She tugged open the front door. “Have you drunk so much that you can’t—oh.”
Matt stood in the doorway, although stood wasn’t really the right word, she decided. He virtually filled the space. He topped six feet, his shoulders broad and powerful from all the heavy lifting he did at his job. He could have been intimidating, but a faint smile tilted the corners of his mouth and softened the rough edges of masculinity. There were a dozen reasons why a woman might take a second look at Matt Walker, but it was that bone-melting sexy smile that guaranteed he was never short of female company.
“So far this evening, I haven’t drunk a drop. Hoping to remedy that soon.” He glanced from her to the door. “You should use that security chain I fitted for you.”
“Normally I do. I thought you were Paige.”
He smelled good, she thought. Like summer rain and sea breeze. It made her want to bury her face in his neck and breathe him in.
She wondered which of them would be more embarrassed.
Definitely her. Matt wasn’t the kind of guy who was easily embarrassed.
“Am I disturbing you?” He scanned her damp hair and she pushed at it self-consciously.
When it was wet it turned an unflattering shade. “Rust” one boy had called it at school after she’d been caught in a heavy rainstorm. When she blushed, which she was now doing thanks to her wayward imagination, her face clashed horribly with her hair.
“You’re not disturbing me, but if you’re looking for Paige and Eva they’re up on the roof terrace.”
“I wasn’t looking for them. I’ve lost my cat. Have you seen her?”
“She’s here. Come in. I opened a bottle of wine.” She issued the invitation without a second thought because this was Matt. Matt, whom she’d known forever and trusted.
“You’re inviting me in?” His eyes gleamed. “I’m honored. It’s Saturday night and I know how much you love your own space.”
The fact that he knew her so well was one of the things that made their relationship so easy and comfortable.
“You have owner’s privilege.”
“There’s such a thing? I never knew that. What other benefits am I entitled to that I haven’t been claiming?”
“The occasional glass of wine is definitely on that list.” She opened the door wider for him and he strolled past her into her apartment.
Her gaze lingered on his shoulders. She was human, wasn’t she? And Matt had an impressive set of shoulders. The kind you could lean on, if you were the leaning type. She wasn’t. Even so, there was no denying that the man was sexy from every angle, even from the back. Of course, the fact that she found him sexy was her secret and it was going to stay that way.
She could enjoy her own private fantasy, safe in the knowledge that no one was ever going to find out.
Frankie closed the door behind him. “How did you lose your cat?”
“I left the window open but she’s never had the courage to climb through it before. I don’t know whether to be pleased that she was finally brave enough to explore or worried that she felt the need to escape from me.”
“Mmm, I guess that depends on whether this is a one-time thing. Do women often try and escape from you?” No, she thought. Of course they didn’t.
“All the time. It’s hell on the ego.” He was cool and relaxed and her heart gave a little kick, as it always did around him.
She ignored it, as she always did.
Unlike her mother, she didn’t think sexual attraction was an impulse that had to be acted on. She’d rather have a long-term friendship than short-term sex any day. In fact, there were a million activities more appealing than sex, which she’d always found to be fraught with complications, unrealistic expectations and pressure.
If they gave out grades for sex, you’d be a D minus, Cole, with nothing for effort.
She frowned, wondering why that memory had come into her head now.
The guy had been a total jerk. She wasn’t going to give a second thought to a man whose ego was so big it had needed its own zip code.
Matt, on the other hand, was a good friend. She saw him most days, sometimes on the roof terrace where they met for drinks or movie night and sometimes at Romano’s, the local Italian restaurant owned by Jake’s mother.
Their friendship was one of the most important relationships in her life.
Which was one of the reasons she tolerated his cat.
“I think you should be pleased she wandered down to my apartment. Shows she’s slowly gaining confidence. With luck she’ll eventually stop trying to scratch us all to the bone. She’s in the kitchen.” She walked through and he followed her, scanning the profusion of pots on the windowsill.
“You’re growing herbs now?”
“A few. Sweet basil and Italian parsley. I grow them for Eva.”
“There’s an Italian parsley? All those trips to Italy I took in college and I never knew that.” He strolled across to the window and stared out across the small garden. “You’ve done a good job with this place. I’m lucky having you living here.”
They talked all the time about a range of subjects but he rarely made personal comments. She hated the fact that it flustered her.
“I’m the lucky one. If it weren’t for you I’d be living in an apartment the size of a shoe box and storing my clothes in the oven. You know how it is in New York.” Embarrassed, she stooped to stroke the cat and Claws shot under the table for protection. “Oops. Moved too fast. She’s nervous.”
He turned. “She’s getting better. A few months ago she wouldn’t have paid you a visit.” He sat down on one of the kitchen chairs and Claws immediately crept out and jumped onto his lap. “Thanks for feeding her.”
“You’re welcome.” Frankie watched as Claws gave a slow stretch. The cat lost her balance and shot out her claws but Matt curved his hand over her back, holding her securely against the hard muscle on his thigh.
Frankie stared at that hand and the slow, reassuring stroke of his fingers and felt herself grow hot.
“Excuse me?” Frankie dragged her eyes from the mesmerizing movement of his fingers and met his amused gaze.
“You’re staring at my cat.”
Cat? Cat. “I—” she’d stopped staring at the cat a long time ago. “She’s still skinny.”
“The vet said it will take a while for her to regain all the weight she lost when she was shut in that room.” There was a grim set to his mouth that reminded her that there were limits even to Matt’s patience. And then he smiled. “Have I seen that T-shirt before? The color suits you.”
“What?” Unbalanced by both the smile and the comment, she stared at him.
She didn’t think Matt would ever mock her, which could only mean—
“Do you want something?” She looked him in the eye. “Because you can just ask straight out. You don’t have to do the whole ‘you look nice in that T-shirt’ thing to soften me up. Thanks to you I live in the best apartment in Brooklyn, and on top of that I’ve known you forever so you can pretty much ask anything and I’ll say yes.”
“Another owner’s privilege?” He gently lifted the cat and set her down on the floor. “You probably shouldn’t have told me that. I might choose to invoke that clause in our agreement.”
Was he flirting with her?
Confusion jammed her thought processes.
She always knew where she was with Matt but suddenly she was in unfamiliar territory.
Of course he wasn’t flirting. They never flirted. She didn’t know how to flirt. Her expertise, honed over a decade, was in putting men off, not in encouraging them.
And anyway, Matt would never be interested in her. She wasn’t sophisticated enough or experienced enough.
She needed to say something light and funny to restore the atmosphere, but her mind was blank.
Matt watched her steadily. “I paid you a compliment, Frankie. You don’t have to strip it down and check it for bugs or incendiary devices. You just say thank you and move on.”
But why? He never paid her compliments. “This T-shirt is five years old. It’s not that special.”
“I didn’t say I liked your T-shirt. I said I liked the way you look in it. I was complimenting you, not what you were wearing specifically. Did you mention wine?” Smoothly he changed the subject and she turned to pick up the bottle, frustrated with herself.
Why did she have to turn it into such a big deal? Was it really so hard to flirt?
Eva would have had the perfect response ready. So would Paige.
She was the only one who had no idea what to say or do. She needed to get a “how to” book. How to flirt. How not to make a fool of yourself around a man.
“Montepulciano. Unless you’d rather a beer?”
“Beer sounds good.”
She stooped and pulled one out of the fridge, forcing herself to relax. She was going to type “how to flirt” into a search engine later. She was going to practice a few responses so this never happened again. If a guy paid her a compliment, she should at least know how to respond instead of treating every comment as if it were an incoming computer virus. “How was your day?”
“I’ve had better.” He snapped the top off the beer. “Too much work, not enough time. Remember that piece of business I won a few months ago?”
“You’ve won loads of business, Matt.”
“Roof terrace on the Upper East Side.”
“Oh yes, I remember.” This conversation was better. Safe. “It was a real coup. Is there a problem with planning?”
“Not planning. That’s all good. What isn’t good is the fact that Victoria left yesterday.”
Frankie had trained with Victoria at the Botanic Gardens and she’d been the one to recommend her to Matt. “Doesn’t she have to give you notice?”
“Technically yes, but her mother’s sick so I told her to forget it and just get herself home.”
That was typical of Matt. He was a man who appreciated the importance of family. His was a tight-knit unit, not a fractured mess like hers. “She’s not likely to be back soon?”
“No. She’s moving back to Connecticut so she can be closer.”
“Which leaves you without a horticulturist when you’re in the middle of a big project.” Roof terraces were Matt’s specialty, and his projects ranged from residential homes to large commercial properties. “What about the rest of your team?”
“James’s expertise is hard landscaping, and Roxy is keen and hardworking but has no formal training. Victoria had started to teach her the basics but she doesn’t have the skills to put together a design.” He set the bottle down on the table. “I’m going to have to recruit, and hope I get lucky. Fast.” He drank and Frankie eyed the strong column of his throat and the dark, grainy shadow of his jaw. He was strikingly handsome, his body hard and strong. He spent half his working day with his sleeves rolled up covered in dirt, but even dressed casually his innate sense of style shone through. It was that restrained eye for design that had built his business.
If she had been interested in men, he would have been a prime candidate.
But she wasn’t interested. Definitely not.
People told you to play to your strengths, didn’t they? And she was very, very bad at relationships.
Matt put the beer down and for a brief moment his gaze met hers. He gave her a look laden with intimacy and it made her heart pump a little faster and her breathing quicken.
Crap, her mind was playing tricks.
She had an overactive imagination courtesy of an underactive sex life.
She looked away. “I know a lot of people. I’ll make some calls. Roof terraces need special skills. It’s not just about planting pretty flowers. You need trees and shrubs that will provide year-round color.”
“Exactly. I need someone who understands the complexities of the project. Someone skilled and easy to work with. We’re a small team. There’s no room for egos or prima donnas.”
“Yeah, I get that.” It was stupid to be flustered when she’d known Matt pretty much forever. The fact that he’d matured from lanky boy into insanely hot man shouldn’t affect her as much as it did.
He was her best friend’s older brother and he’d grown up on the same island as her, off the coast of Maine. He’d experienced the same frustrations associated with small-town living, although of course his experience had been nothing like hers. No one’s had been like hers.
After her father’s affair had been exposed and he’d left them for a woman half his age, her mother’s response had been to have affairs of her own. She’d told anyone who would listen that she’d married too young and planned to make up for lost time. In an attempt to rediscover her youth and confidence, she’d cut her hair short, lost twenty pounds and started borrowing Frankie’s clothes. There had been no man too young, too old or too married to escape her mother’s attentions.
Frankie had discovered that a reputation wasn’t something that had to be earned. You could inherit it.
No matter what she did, on Puffin Island she’d always be the daughter of “that woman.”
It was as if her identity had merged with that of her mother.
Some of the boys at school had assumed she was the shortcut to a life of sexual adventure. One in particular.
Frankie pushed the memory away, refusing to allow it space in her head. “Do you want something to eat? I don’t have Eva’s skills, but I have eggs and fresh herbs. Omelet?”
“That would be great. And while you do that, tell me about your bad day. Paige said it was a bridal shower.” Matt picked up his beer. “I’m guessing that’s not your favorite thing.”
“You’re right about that.” She didn’t bother denying it. What was the point when Matt already knew her better than most?
“Oh, you know—usual thing. Groom backed out, bride cried, yada yada—” She smacked the eggs on the edge of the bowl, keeping her tone light, pretending it was of no consequence, whereas, in fact, she felt as if she’d spent the afternoon in a cocktail shaker. Her emotions were both shaken and stirred. Despite her best efforts to suppress them, memories engulfed her. Her mother setting fire to her wedding album and cutting through her dress with kitchen scissors. The agonizing family gathering for her grandmother’s eightieth birthday where her father had brought his new girlfriend and spent the entire afternoon with his hand up her skirt. “Paige rescued the whole thing, of course. She could smooth a storm in the ocean. The food was good, the flowers were spectacular and the bride-to-be’s parents still paid the bill so it had a happy ending. Or as close to a happy ending as life ever gets.” She pulled a fork out of the drawer and beat the eggs the way Eva had taught her, until they were light and fluffy.
“You must have hated every minute.”
“Every second. And the whole of August seems to be nothing but bridal showers. If it weren’t for the fact we’ve only just started the company, I’d take an extended vacation.” She snipped a selection of herbs from the pots on the windowsill. As well as the parsley and basil, there were chives and tarragon all growing in a tangled, scented profusion of green that made her small kitchen feel like a garden. She chopped them and added them to the eggs. “It started me thinking about stuff I haven’t thought about in ages. Why the hell does that happen? Drives me insane.”
His gaze was warm and sympathetic.
“Memories do that to you. They pop up when you least expect them. Inconvenient.”
“Annoying.” She added a knob of butter to the skillet, waited for it to sizzle and then poured in the eggs. “I’m not good at weddings. I shouldn’t be doing them. I’m a killjoy.”
“I didn’t realize weddings were something you could be good or bad at. Surely all you do is buy a gift, show up and smile.”
“The first two parts of that I can handle. It’s the last one that gives me a problem.” She tilted the pan, spreading the mixture evenly.
“Yeah, you’re expected to be a cross between a cheerleader and a groupie. The mood should be happy and excited and I just want to warn them to run while they still can. I’m hoping that one day Urban Genie will be successful enough to turn them down and focus on corporate events. I think I’m allergic to weddings in the same way some people are allergic to bee stings.” While the eggs were cooking, she prepared a simple green salad, threw together a dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar and put the bowl on the table.
“So the only way to get you to say ‘I do’ would be to give you a shot of adrenaline?” There was humor in his voice and she smiled too as she eased around the edges of the omelet and folded it in half. The surface was golden brown and perfect.
“I’d need more than adrenaline. I’m as likely to say those words as I am to walk naked through Times Square.” She picked up her glass and took a sip of wine. “Look at us. It’s Saturday night and you’re spending it in my kitchen with a deranged cat. And me. You need to get a life, Matt.”
He put his beer down. “I like my life.”
“You’re a man in your prime. You should be on a hot date with four Swedish blondes.”
“That sounds like hard work. It also sounds like something Eva would say, not you.”
“Yeah, well, sometimes I try and sound normal.” She took another sip of wine. “When you’re on an alien planet it’s important to try and blend in.”
“You’re not on an alien planet, Frankie. And you don’t have to be anyone you’re not. Certainly not with me.”
“That’s because you already know all my secrets, including the fact that the T-shirt I’m wearing is five years old.” She slid a perfect omelet onto a plate, added a chunk of crusty bread and handed it to him. “Ignore me. I’m in a weird mood tonight. This is what the word bridal does to me. All that talk of fairy-tale romance unsettles me.” And being with Matt unsettled her, too. Being this close to him made excitement shimmer across her skin and desire burn low in her body. She recognized sexual attraction. She just didn’t know what to do with the feeling.
Her phone rang and she checked the caller ID and ignored it.
Perfect timing. If ever she needed to be snapped out of a sexual fantasy it was now.
Matt glanced at her. “Don’t you want to get that?”
Curiosity gave way to understanding. “Your mother?”
“Yes. She’s trying to bond with me, but that involves telling me about her latest twenty-something boyfriend, and tonight I’m not in the mood. It’s Saturday night. No one invades my space.”
“I’m invading your space.”
Her heart gave a little kick. “You own the space.”
“So we’re back to owner’s privileges.” Matt gave her a long look and then picked up his fork and started to eat. “Does your mother know you lost your job and set up Urban Genie?”
“You’re worried she’d fuss over you? Paige will tell you our mom always says you never stop worrying about your kids.”
Frankie felt a pang. “My mother wouldn’t fuss. She’s not really interested in what I do. As you know, we’re not close.”
“Do you wish you were?”
“No.” She disposed of the eggshells. “I don’t know. Maybe. It’s been years since we had a proper conversation about anything. I’m not sure we ever did. Most of our verbal exchanges were on the lines of ‘clean your teeth’ and ‘don’t be late for school.’ I don’t remember ever really talking.” Maybe that was why she wasn’t good at it. Or maybe it was just her nature to be private. “Let’s talk about something else.”
He glanced across the room. “Most people keep pots and pans in their kitchens. You have shelves of books.”
“I can’t fit them all in the living room. And anyway, I love books. Some people like looking at paintings. I like looking at books. What are you reading at the moment?” She relaxed. Books were something they often talked about. It was a comfortable, safe subject.
“Haven’t read anything for a month. Business has exploded. The moment my body hits the bed I’m unconscious.” He took another mouthful of food and glanced at the bookshelf again. “What’s the brown one on the end? I can’t see the title.” His tone was casual and she followed the direction of his gaze.
“It’s Stephen King. The Stand. Why? Do you want to borrow it?”
“No, I have that one, but thanks.” He gave her a thoughtful look and then returned his attention to his food.
Frankie had the feeling she was missing something.
“Is everything okay?”
“Everything is great. This omelet is fantastic. I didn’t realize you were such a great cook.”
“Food always tastes better when you’re not the one who cooked it.”
“You’re not eating?”
“I ate some cheese earlier while I started a new book. Reading food.”
He stuck his fork into the salad. “Reading food?”
“Food you can eat while you’re reading. Food that doesn’t require any attention. Can be eaten one-handed while I turn the pages with the other. You don’t know about reading food?”
“It’s a gap in my education.” There was a tiny smile on his lips. “So what else qualifies as reading food?”
She sat down and puffed her hair out of her eyes. “Popcorn, obviously. Chocolate, providing you break it into chunks before you settle down. Chips. Grilled cheese sandwiches if you cut them into bite-size pieces.”
He reached across the table and picked up the book she’d been reading. “The latest Lucas Blade? I thought this wasn’t out for another month.”
“Early copy. Turns out Eva’s favorite client is his grandmother, and I get to be the one who benefits from that friendship.”
“Well now I understand why you need to eat while you read. I’ll borrow it when you’re done with it. I love his work. So that’s what you were doing when I knocked? You were sitting here reading?”
Frankie nodded. “I’m halfway through chapter three. Gripping.”
He put the book back on the table carefully. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure, although I haven’t guessed the twist yet if that’s what you want to know.”
“It isn’t.” He’d finished his food and put his fork down. There was a pause. Her heart started to thud a little harder.
He looked serious, but surely if something was wrong he would have said so right away.
“What do you want to ask me?”
He pushed his plate away and lifted his gaze to hers. “How long have you worn glasses you don’t need?”
Had he really just said what she’d thought he’d said?
What was she going to say? She looked at him stupidly. “Excuse me?”
“When I knocked on the door you were reading, but I saw your glasses on the stand in the entryway so you can’t be long-sighted. Of course you could be short-sighted, but you read the title of that book perfectly just now. Which leads me to believe you’re neither.” His tone was neutral. “You don’t need them, do you?”
Flustered, she lifted her hand to her face.
Her glasses. She’d forgotten to wear her glasses.
She remembered taking them off when she’d walked through the door. She hadn’t put them back on because she hadn’t been expecting company.
“I need them.” What should she do? She could squint and trip over a chair, but it was a bit late for that. “It’s complicated.” Lame, Frankie. Lame.
“I’m sure it is.” Matt’s tone was gentle. “But the reason you need them has nothing to do with your vision, does it?”
Horror washed through her. It was like arriving at work and discovering you’d forgotten to dress. “If you’ve finished, you should probably go.” She snatched the plate from him, her face burning. “Claws is scratching my sofa. And I need to get back to my book.”
The book she could read perfectly well without glasses.
Matt didn’t budge. “We’re not going to talk about this?”
“Nothing to talk about. Good night, Matt.” She was so desperate for him to leave she stumbled over the kitchen chair on her way to the door. The irony almost made her laugh. If she’d done that sooner, he might never have guessed. “Have a great evening.”
He stood up slowly and followed her.
“Frankie—” The gentleness of his tone somehow intensified the humiliation.
“Good night.” She pushed him through the door and Claws shot out with him, clearly unimpressed by the level of hospitality.
Frankie slammed the door, narrowly missing his hand.
Then she leaned against it and closed her eyes.
Crap, crap and crap.
Her cover was totally and utterly blown.
MATT LET HIMSELF into his apartment and dropped his keys on the table.
He’d known Frankie since she was six years old and for the past ten years, since she’d moved to New York, she’d been a constant feature in his life. He didn’t just know her, he knew her. He knew she burned easily and always wore sunscreen. He knew she hated tomato, romance movies, the subway. He knew she had a black belt in karate. And it wasn’t just those basic facts that he knew. He knew deeper things. Important things. Like the fact that her relationship with her mother was difficult and that her parents’ divorce had affected her deeply.
He knew all those things, but until tonight he hadn’t known she didn’t need the glasses she always wore.
He ran a hand over his face. How could he have missed that?
She’d worn glasses for as long as he could remember, and he’d never once questioned her need for them. He’d noticed that she fiddled with them when a situation made her nervous or uncomfortable, as if they offered her some reassurance, but he’d never understood why her glasses would be reassuring. They were possibly the ugliest thing he’d ever seen. The frames were thick and heavy and an unappealing shade of brown, as if they’d been trodden into a patch of damp earth. They were unattractive, and knowing her the way he did, Matt was sure that was the reason she’d chosen them. They were armor. Razor wire, to repel unwanted intruders.
Relationships, he thought. Was anything in life as complicated?
Claws rubbed against his legs and he bent to stroke her.
Who was going to break the bad news to her that she was cute as hell with or without ugly glasses? The fact that she seemed unaware of it just increased the sexiness level. There was so much she didn’t know about herself.
The cat sprang onto the sofa, digging in her claws and he gave a humorless laugh.
“Yeah, she’d probably do the same thing if I told her that. Dig her claws in me. Then she’d hide under the kitchen table. You and she have a lot in common.”
Grabbing a beer from the fridge, he took the steps up to the roof terrace.
The setting sun sent shards of red and orange over the Manhattan skyline.
New York was a city of neighborhoods, of buildings that rose tall and proud into the sky, of blaring cab horns, hissing steam and the never-ending noise of construction. It was a city of iconic landmarks: The Empire State Building, The Chrysler Building, The Flatiron Building. The ultimate dream destination for many, and he understood that. Tourists arrived and immediately felt as if they were extras on a movie set. You saw them pointing it out. That’s where they filmed Spiderman, or that’s where Harry met Sally.
And it was a city of individuals. The wealthy, the poor, the lonely, the ambitious. Singles, families, locals and tourists—they all crowded together on this patch of land that nudged the water.
“You going to stand there admiring your kingdom all night or are you going to share a beer with me?”
Matt turned sharply and saw Jake sprawled on one of the loungers, a beer in his hand. He swore under his breath. “You scared the shit out of me.”
Jake grinned. “Big tough guy like you? Never.”
“What are you doing here?” Normally he would have been happy to see his friend, but right now he wanted space to process this new information on Frankie. What else didn’t he know about her? What else was she hiding?
Jake raised the bottle toward Matt. “I’m drinking your beer and enjoying your view. Best view in Brooklyn.”
“You have your own roof terrace. And the reason I know that is because I built it for you. You also have your own beer.”
“I know, but my roof terrace and my beer don’t come with your scintillating company.”
“Last time I looked it was my sister’s scintillating company that was taking most of your time and attention.” He saw Jake open his mouth to speak and cut him off quickly. “Do not even think about telling me what it is about my sister that takes most of your time and attention. I don’t want details. I’m still getting used to the idea that the two of you are together.”
“You’re going to be my brother-in-law. It’s official. There’s going to be a ceremony. In a way you’re marrying me.”
Matt almost cracked a smile. “I’m going to file for divorce.”
“On what grounds?”
“Unreasonable behavior. Breaking and entering and—” he eyed the beer “—theft and misappropriation of property.”
“I always said you would have made a fine lawyer.” Jake leaned back and closed his eyes. “Bad day?”
There had been nothing wrong with his day. It was his evening that hadn’t gone according to plan.
Matt sprawled on the lounger next to his friend. “Have you ever thought you knew someone and discovered you didn’t?”
“Every damn day. What’s her name?”
“What makes you think it’s a woman?”
“If you thought you knew someone and then discovered you didn’t, that person could only be female. Mystery, thy name is woman. And you’re in luck, because Uncle Jake is here to give you advice on that.”
“Or Uncle Jake could just drink his beer and shut up.”
“I could do that, but because I’m your friend I’m going to give you the benefit of my infinite wisdom on the fair sex. Do not expect to understand a woman. You don’t need to. It’s like traveling to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. You can get by with a few phrases and hand gestures. But don’t tell your sister I said that or she’d throw the ring I gave her into the East River.”
“Talking of Paige, why are you up here with me instead of downstairs with her?”
“She’s taking a call. Building her empire.”
“You couldn’t just hang out until she’d finished? What about Eva?”
“Eva is watching some movie where everyone is kissing and crying so I thought I’d enjoy the sunset and catch up with an old friend.” He eyed the beer and grinned. “And then you showed up. So what happened with Frankie? What did you find out that you didn’t know before?”
“What makes you think this has anything to do with Frankie?”
“Because I’ve known you a lot of years.” Jake took a mouthful of beer. “And you’ve had feelings for Frankie for every single one of those years.”
“How the hell do you know that?” He shifted uncomfortably. “Am I that easy to read?”
“No, but you’re protective of the people you care about, and you’re extra protective when it comes to Frankie. You don’t need to be an expert in human relationships to see that she matters to you. As far as I can see, it’s always been Frankie.”
“Not always. I was engaged to Caroline.”
“A temporary lapse from which you recovered, fortunately for our friendship.”
“You didn’t like Caroline?”
“She was the female equivalent of a hand grenade, a small curved object designed to cause maximum destruction.” Jake paused. “She had me fooled for a while, though. Frankie is nothing like her.”
Matt didn’t disagree. He and Caroline had met in college and their relationship had been more like a kick in the balls than a blow to the heart. It had lasted twelve intense months and it had woken him up to what he wanted. Not just wanted, needed. Trust. Honesty.
“Frankie hides a lot.”
“Maybe, but the difference is that Frankie doesn’t hide it because she’s manipulative or conniving. She hides it because she’s scared. I joke about women being difficult to read but Paige is pretty much an open book and as for Eva—she’s not just an open book, she’s an audio book. Everything she feels comes out of her mouth with no filter. Which makes it simple for guys like me. But Frankie—” Jake pulled a face “—she’s different. She’s guarded.”
“I know.” Matt didn’t mind the fact that she was guarded. What he minded was the fact that she was guarded around him. Why would she feel the need to wear glasses around him? Didn’t she trust him?
“What? You expect her to open up and spill all her secrets to you?” Jake shook his head. “You expect too much.”
“I expect trust. Is that too much to ask?”
Jake shrugged. “It’s everything. Trust is serious. More serious than sex. Think about it. When you trust someone, you’re giving them the power to hurt you.” He drained his beer. “That’s scary stuff. Like saying ‘hey, here’s a really sharp knife. Stab me in the chest with it anytime you like.’”
“I would never hurt Frankie.”
“That isn’t the point.”
“So what is the point?”
“She had a rough time growing up, you know that.Her mom is scary. Remember the last time she visited? She pinned me against the wall. I almost lost my virginity right there in Frankie’s kitchen. It’s no wonder Frankie is guarded.”
Matt remembered Paige telling him that boys had hit on Frankie at school, assuming she was like her mother and that sex was guaranteed.
Like mother, like daughter.
“I don’t know how to handle it.”
“You’ll figure it out. Getting wounded creatures to trust you is your special gift. If you don’t believe me you only have to look at that damn cat.”
“Are you comparing Frankie to a cat?” Matt shook his head. “How did you ever get any woman, let alone my sister?”
“I used my abundance of natural charm.” Jake yawned. “How’s work? You never return my calls. Are we breaking up?”
Matt was too preoccupied to smile. “I’m snowed under. I’m in the middle of a big project and I’ve lost a key player.” His skill lay in design and hard landscaping and much of that was already completed. They still had to deal with lighting and furniture. He’d planned three log seats, and had completed one of them. His problem was the planting and it would remain a problem until he could find someone to take Victoria’s place. “I need to try and recruit someone with Frankie’s skills.”
Jake shrugged. “So ask Frankie.”
“Why bother trying to find someone like Frankie, when you can have Frankie. If she has the right skills, give her the job.”
“She already has a job.”
“So you’ll need to be creative. Find a way.” Jake paused. “The best way to get someone to trust you is to spend time with them. You have the perfect excuse right there under your nose.”
Matt stared at Jake, wondering why that solution hadn’t occurred to him. “Sometimes,” he said, “you’re not a bad friend.”
“I’m the best friend on the planet. You love me. That’s why we’re getting married. And we’re going to live happily-ever-after.”
“Until I divorce you.”
“You couldn’t afford to divorce me. We haven’t signed a prenup.”
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