April 2, 2020
May 5, 2020
Family for Beginners
A brand new summer read from Sarah Morgan!
When Flora falls in love with Jack, suddenly she’s not only handling a very cranky teenager, but she’s also living in the shadow of Jack’s perfect, immortalised wife, Becca. Every summer, Becca and Jack would holiday with Becca’s oldest friends and Jack wants to continue the tradition, so now Flora must face a summer trying to live up to Becca’s memory, with not only Jack’s daughter looking on, but with Becca’s best friends judging her every move…
The more Flora tries to impress everyone, the more things go horribly wrong…but as the summer unfolds, Flora begins pushing her own boundaries, and finding herself in a way that she never thought she needed to.
And she soon learns that families come in all shapes and sizes.
The first time she saw him, he was standing outside the store staring at the flowers in the window. His hands were thrust into the pockets of his coat, the collar turned up against the savage bite of a New York winter. It was the type of raw, freezing day that turned each breath into a white puffy cloud, the sky moody and heavy with menace. People scurried past, heads down, going about their business with grim determination.
Not this man. He didn’t push open the door and seek refuge from the cold as so many had done before him that morning. Instead he lingered, a blank expression on his face as he scanned the array of blooms that splashed color over the monochrome of winter.
“Guilt flowers.” Julia plucked twelve long-stemmed roses from the bucket and placed them on the workstation. “He’s going to buy guilt flowers. I bet you ten dollars he’s had an affair, and he’s looking at those flowers trying to figure out which of them says sorry in a way that isn’t going to get him kicked out of the house.”
Flora didn’t take the bet, and not only because she knew Julia didn’t have ten dollars to throw away. Maybe the man hadn’t had an affair, but he certainly wasn’t celebrating anything. His features were strained, and the fixed line of his mouth suggested he’d forgotten how to smile.
“Why does it have to be an affair? Maybe he’s in love, and she doesn’t return his feelings. Maybe he’s going to buy love flowers. He’s going to put them in every room.”
It was an exchange they had all the time, a to-and-fro about the motivation of the buyer.
When it came to explanations Julia veered toward the dark, which Flora never understood because her colleague and friend was happily married to a firefighter and was the mother of three loving, if demanding, teenagers.
Flora was more hopeful in her approach. If it rained in the morning, it didn’t mean it was going to rain in the afternoon.
“Does he look like a man in love to you?” Julia sliced through the stems at an angle, the way Flora had taught her. “It’s minus digits out there. People are only outdoors if they have to be. If they’re buying things essential to life. Like chocolate.”
“Flowers are essential to life.”
“I’d risk frostbite for chocolate. Not flowers. Flowers are not essential.”
“They’re essential to my life. Strip off those leaves. If you leave them under the water they’ll rot, then the bacteria clogs the stems and the flowers die.”
“Who knew it was so complicated.” Julia removed them carefully and then glanced at the window again. “He’s messed up, don’t you think? Made a major mistake, and he’s figuring out how big the bouquet has to be to make it up to her.”
“Or him.” Julia inclined her head. “He looks tired. Stressed. He’d rather be at home in the warm, but instead he’s freezing to death outside our window, which tells me it’s something big. Maybe his partner found out about his affair and he’s wondering whether it’s throwing good money after bad to try to change their mind.”
“Maybe he’s been married for thirty years and he’s marking the moment.”
“Or maybe,” Julia said, “he’s buying flowers to try to fix a day he’s ruined for someone. What?” She paused to breathe. “You’re the one who taught me that flowers tell a story.”
“But you always see a horror story.” Flora rescued a rose that was about to fall and breathed in a wave of scent. She tried not to touch the buds, but she could imagine the velvety softness under her fingers. Where other people used meditation apps to promote relaxation, she used flowers. “There are other types of story. Happier types.”
Celia, the store owner, tottered past in ridiculously high heels, her arms full of calla lilies. She had a florid complexion and a slightly flattened face that made Flora think of dahlias. Her personality was more thorny than a rose, but her brisk, no-nonsense attitude made her particularly good at dealing with dithering brides.
“You need to hurry up with those roses if we’re going to get them delivered in time for Mrs. Martin’s dinner party tonight. You know how particular she is.”
“We’ll be done in time, Celia, don’t worry.” Flora smiled and soothed. It came naturally to her. She’d calmed more storms in teacups than she’d drunk cups of tea.
“Our mission is to provide the very best customer service and the most beautiful flowers.”
“And we will.” Flora could almost feel Julia grinding her teeth next to her. She willed their boss to move on before her friend exploded.
Celia paused, her demeanor shifting from irritable to ingratiating. “Can you work Saturday, Flora? I know you worked last Saturday but—”
“—but I don’t have family commitments.” Flora still hadn’t got used to the fact that she no longer had to visit her aunt on weekends. Even though her aunt hadn’t even been aware of her presence for the last year of her life, visiting had still been part of Flora’s routine. She’d been surprised by how strange it felt not to go. Equally surprised by the grief she’d felt. She and her aunt hadn’t been close, although Flora had tried to be close. “It’s fine, Celia. I’m happy to work.” She knew Celia was taking advantage. She probably should have said no, but then Celia would have been in a mood and Flora couldn’t handle it. It was less stressful to work. And she didn’t mind that much. Weekends were always the hardest time for her, and she didn’t fully understand why.
Moving into an apartment of her own had been the culmination of a dream. It was what she’d wanted, and she’d been shocked to discover that getting what you wanted didn’t always make you happy. Her life didn’t look, or feel, the way she’d thought it would. It was like arriving in Rome, only to discover that your guide was for Paris. She wasn’t sure whether it was the apartment itself that was at fault, or her expectations.
Her mother had always emphasized that life was what you made of it, but Flora couldn’t help thinking that what you made depended on the raw ingredients you were given. Even the best chef couldn’t do much with moldy vegetables.
Having ticked that problem off her list, Celia strode off and Julia snipped the ends off a few more roses with more violence than before.
“I thought you were going to stop people-pleasing?”
“I am. Obviously it’s a gradual thing.”
“I don’t see gradual. I see you letting her bully you into working the weekend. Again.”
Julia was the first person to comment on that particular trait, and the first person to challenge her to tackle the issue.
“I don’t mind. I’m saving being assertive for something big and important.”
“You need to start small and build up. Why are you so afraid to stand up to her?”
Her heart thumped harder at the mere thought. “Because then she’ll fire me. I’m not good with conflict.” Or rejection. That was her big one.
“She is not going to fire you, Flora. You’re her biggest asset. Half the customers only come here because of you, so you don’t have to please her the whole time.”
“I think it’s a hangover from constantly trying to please my aunt. My world was a better place when she was happy.” Although her aunt had never been happy as such. It was more that her disapproval levels had fluctuated.
And dealing with her had given Flora useful experience. She was good at handling difficult people. She’d even, on rare occasions, made her aunt smile—the biggest test any people pleaser would face in a lifetime. Causing an upward lift of Gillian’s lips represented the pinnacle of achievement. The people-pleaser’s equivalent of the summit of Everest, the four-minute mile or rowing the Atlantic. Given that the world was full of difficult people, Flora had decided she might yet have reason to be grateful to her aunt for providing her with so much practice.
Julia didn’t agree. “I teach my kids to stand up for what they want and believe in. Also that they’re responsible for their own happiness.”
“Exactly. And I’m at my happiest when the people around me are happy.”
“Saying yes doesn’t make you happy. It just makes the other person happy and removes you from conflict. And you feel bad about yourself for not having enough courage to say no.”
“Thanks Ju. I didn’t feel bad about myself, but now I do.”
“I’m being honest. If I’d ever met your aunt I would have told her what I thought of her.”
Flora winced as she imagined that particular confrontation. “My aunt wasn’t exactly warm and affectionate, that’s true, but she was my only family. She took me in when I had no one. She felt that I owed her, and she was right.”
“I’m not sure there should be ‘debt’ between family members, but if there is then you paid that debt a thousand times over, Okay, I get it, she gave you a home, but she gained a live-in carer. And Celia is not your aunt.”
“If I’d said no she would have asked you, and you have Freddie’s indoor track event this Sunday, and Geoff isn’t working so you’ll be having his mother over and doing Sunday lunch, and you promised Kaitlin you’d take her to buy a dress for that family thing you have at Easter.”
Julia gasped as a thorn pierced her finger. “How come you know my schedule better than I do? Hearing you say it aloud makes me realize how crazy my life is.”
Flora said nothing. She’d do anything, just about anything, for a slice of what Julia had. Not the craziness—she could reproduce that easily enough—but the closeness. The interwoven threads of a functioning, healthy family created something bigger than the individual. Something strong and enduring. To her aunt, Flora had been a loose thread. Something to be brushed off.
“You have a beautiful family.”
“Are you kidding? My family is a pain in the neck. Freddie has a girlfriend so now they’re sprawled on the sofa every night holding hands and gazing at each other, and Eric keeps teasing him so you can imagine how that pans out, and Kaitlin—well, I could go on. Let’s just say I envy you not having to share your space with anyone. You go home, and it’s just you.”
“Yes.” Flora watched as Julia placed the roses carefully, shaping the bouquet. “Just me.” This was the life she’d dreamed of living when she’d been sharing a house with her aunt. She had an apartment of her own. Small, lacking in charm, but all hers. She had friends. Her diary was filled with activities and invitations. She should be grateful and happy. She was lucky, lucky, lucky.
“When you go home at night everything in your apartment is exactly the way you left it. No one has moved stuff around, or buried it under piles of their own crap. You don’t have a dozen pairs of sneakers tripping you up when you walk through the door, no one banging on the door yelling ‘Mom!’ when you’re trying to use the bathroom, no one sprawled over every inch of the sofa.”
“No one bangs on my door, that’s true, and it’s just me on the sofa.” Flora removed a couple of stray leaves that Julia had missed. “Brilliant really, because I can stretch my legs out and flop like an octopus and no one complains.”
“I’m surrounded by chaos. You have blissful silence.”
“When you choose flowers for yourself, they’re always beautiful. If I’m lucky, Geoff sometimes buys me a bunch from the convenience store.”
But at least he’d bought her the flowers.
No one had ever bought Flora flowers. She spent her days producing stunning arrangements for other people, but was never the recipient.
“I read the other day that single women with no children are the happiest of anyone.”
“Mmm.” Who had they asked?
“You have the perfect life. Although I still want to fix you up with someone. You need a man.”
Flora was less convinced. All the men she’d dated had only been interested in one type of intimacy. And that was fine. More than fine on occasion, but it was like gorging on ice cream when your body was craving something nutritious and truly nourishing. Satisfying in the short term but offering no long-term sustenance.
No, what she really wanted was to matter to someone, the way she’d mattered to her mother. She wanted to be important to someone. Connected, the way Julia was. She wanted to have someone’s back, and know they had hers. She wanted someone to know her and she wanted to be needed. What was the point of being here if no one needed you? If you didn’t make a difference to someone’s life?
She had so much to give, and no one to give it to.
She was lonely, but she’d never tell anyone that. If you admitted you were lonely, people assumed there was something wrong with you. The media talked about an epidemic of loneliness, and yet admitting that you felt that way was a statement of failure. She was thirty, unattached and living in the most exciting city in the world. People assumed her life was like a day on the set of an upbeat sitcom and from the outside it probably looked that way, apart from her apartment, which was more like the set of a murder mystery. On the inside? On the inside, deep in her heart, she was crushingly lonely but if she told people they’d judge her and tell her all the things she was doing wrong. Or they’d invite her out, and she knew that wasn’t her problem. It wasn’t the number of connections she made in her social life that mattered, it was their depth.
When people asked, she told them what they wanted to hear because anything else would make them uncomfortable.
Yes, I stayed in last night and it was great. I had a chilled evening and caught up on phone calls.
My social life is so crazy it’s good to have a night in doing nothing.
Weekdays were easier than weekends when time seemed to move at half pace, and whatever she did she was aware she was doing it alone. Running in the park meant witnessing the intimacy of other people. Dodging mothers with children, couples holding hands, groups of friends laughing and drinking coffee on a bench. Shopping meant rubbing shoulders with women choosing outfits for an exciting night out.
Flora did everything she could to avoid confronting that silence that Julia seemed to prize above everything else. She went running with friends, called friends, had meals with friends, joined a pottery class, an art class, listened to music and podcasts, streamed movies. In the bathroom she sometimes turned on her electric toothbrush just for the noise, but eventually she had to lie down and close her eyes and then the silence enveloped her like a smothering cloud. Not that her apartment was quiet. Far from it. Above her was a big Italian family who thundered their way from one room to another and argued in voices designed to break the sound barrier, and next door was a couple who indulged in noisy sex sessions into the early hours. She was surrounded by the sounds of other people living full and happy lives.
“I’ll be fine. My weekend plans are relaxed. Yoga. Brunch with a friend. It’s not a problem. You know I love working here.”
“You love Celia?”
“I love the flowers.”
“Phew. For a moment there I was going to suggest you got professional help. And you’re right that if you’d refused to work this weekend I would have ended up doing it, and thanks for that, but one day I want to hear you say a big loud ‘no’ to her.”
“I will.” She was well aware of the downsides of people-pleasing. In the few relationships she’d had, she invariably spent so much time pleasing the other person she forgot to please herself. That was usually the point where she ended it, in a charming it’s not you it’s me kind of way that left no hard feelings.
Julia watched Celia haranguing another member of staff. “What is her problem?”
Flora took advantage of her lapse in concentration to make a few swift adjustments to the arrangement. “She’s anxious. She owns the business and these are challenging times. We worry enough about our own jobs. Imagine if we were responsible for everyone else’s, too.”
“I don’t think it’s concern for us that’s keeping her awake at night. No wonder she lives alone. She probably ate her first husband. Or maybe he dissolved when she dripped acid on him. If she was a flower, she’d be hemlock.” Julia had a flare for the dramatic. She’d had dreams of being an actress, but then she’d met her husband. Three children had followed in quick succession. She’d done various jobs in her time, and Flora was forever grateful for the day she’d walked through the doors looking for work.
Julia admired the roses. “I’m getting better, don’t you think?”
Flora added a couple more stems of foliage and trimmed one of the stems a little shorter. “You have an eye for it.” In fact Julia didn’t have much of an eye for it, but there was no way Flora would hurt her feelings by telling her that and she knew how badly her friend needed the job.
“I’ll never be as good as you, but I’m still learning and you’ve been doing this since you could walk.” Julia eyed the guy outside. “Do you think he hit her and he’s here to buy ‘sorry I bruised you’ flowers?”
“I hope not.”
“You should come over the next Sunday you’re free. Have lunch. My way of saying thank you.”
“I’d like that.” Flora loved having lunch at Julia’s even though the banter between her friend and her husband gave her the odd pang. No one knew her well enough to tease her.
“I’d invite you to stay over and have a night away from that apartment of yours, but you know we’re in very tight quarters. And trust me you do not want to share a bed with Kaitlin. Is your landlord still raising your rent?”
“Yes.” Flora felt a twinge of anxiety. She’d made a half-hearted attempt to look for somewhere else, but there was a depressing gap between what she’d like and what she could afford.
“And has he sorted out your cockroach?”
“Not yet. And I have more than one cockroach.”
Julia shuddered. “How can you be so relaxed?”
“I’m just pleased they have friends.”
“See that’s the difference between us. I think extermination, and you think cockroach dating service. Roach.com. Have you talked to him about it?”
“I sent him a strongly worded email.”
“And what did he say?”
“Nothing. He hasn’t replied.”
“And how long ago did you send it?”
“A month? Knowing you it said ‘Darling landlord, if it’s at all possible for you to sort out my damp apartment and the cockroach I’d be hugely grateful but don’t worry if it’s an inconvenience.”
“I was firmer than that.” But not much firmer, and her words hadn’t had an impact.
“What about the damp? Has he found the cause?”
“He hasn’t looked. I’m worried because that suspicious damp stain on my ceiling is spreading.”
“Maybe your neighbor has died and his rotting corpse is slowly decomposing and leaking through into your apartment.”
“If he’s decomposing, he’s making a lot of noise about it. He was singing opera last night.” She glanced up and saw the man still standing there. He had to be freezing cold. Should she open the door? Offer him shelter? A hot drink? “Maybe it’s his mother’s birthday and he hasn’t had time to buy her a gift.” She saw it all the time, people who rushed in and grabbed one of their ready-made bouquets without expending thought or time on the selection process.
Flora didn’t judge. Instead she took pride in the fact that her hand-tied bouquets were a talking point in this little corner of Manhattan’s Flower District. Like her mother before her, she loved creating a bouquet to a specific brief, but was equally happy creating something that took the pain out of decision-making. Some people were nervous when buying flowers, dazed by choice, afraid of making a mistake.
Flowers, in Flora’s opinion, were never a mistake. Her mother had always insisted on fresh flowers. It wasn’t enough to be surrounded by them in the store where she worked, she’d insisted on filling her home with them. There would be a large arrangement in the entryway, welcoming guests with scent, another bunch in the living room and small posies in each of the bedrooms. Violet Donovan had considered flowers to be art, but essential art. If economy became necessary, then it would be made in other areas, like clothing or dining out. When reflecting on early childhood, most people remembered events. Flora’s earliest memories were all of fragrance and color.
That had lasted until she was eight years old and she’d gone to live with her aunt who didn’t share her sister’s obsession with flowers.
Why waste money on something that dies?
Flora, raw in her grief, had pointed out that everything dies and surely the important thing was to make the most of it while it was alive? Up until that point she’d skipped through life, but she’d soon learned to tiptoe, picking her way carefully through every situation. She’d learned quickly what made her aunt angry, and what simply made her scowl.
At that moment the man lifted his gaze from the flowers and stared straight at Flora. He couldn’t have known they’d been talking about him, but still she felt her face bloom peony pink with guilt.
Her smile was part welcome, part apology. It didn’t occur to her to pretend she hadn’t seen him.
“Whoa,” Julia muttered. “Do you see the way he’s looking at you? Geoff looked at me that way and a month later I was pregnant. You’re either going to be the love of his life, or his next victim depending on whether you’re the romance or thriller type. Maybe he’s going to use rose petals to bury your body. Or the body of his wife.”
“Maybe he’s staring at your dress. I wish I could get away with wearing that. You manage to look edgy and arty. I’d look a mess. I mean—red dress and purple tights. No one but you would think to put those colors together. Kaitlin would refuse to be seen with me, whereas she thinks you’re the coolest person on the planet. And where did you find those earrings?”
“In the market.”
“Whatever. You’re rocking that look. Although I wouldn’t want to look at you if I had a hangover.”
“I like clothes to be—”
“—happy. I know. You’re all about spreading a smile. Everyone else I know is moan, moan, moan, me included, but you’re like an oasis of sunshine in an otherwise dark and stormy life.”
“Your life will be stormier if you don’t finish that bouquet fast.”
Julia snipped the rest of the stems and then glanced up again. “Still there. The man is going to get frostbite soon. Look at his eyes. Full of secrets.”
Flora didn’t answer. She had secrets, too. Secrets she’d never shared. That wasn’t the saddest part. The saddest part was that no one had ever been remotely interested in digging deep enough to find them. No one had wanted to know her that well.
“Maybe he simply doesn’t know which flowers to choose.”
“Well if anyone is going to find out the truth about him, it’s you.” Julia added foliage, and tied the stems so that that recipient would have to do nothing but put them in a vase. “People tell you everything, probably because you’re too polite to tell them to shut up.” She blew her hair out of her eyes. “You care.”
Flora did care. Like flowers, people came in all colors, shapes and sizes and she appreciated them all. Her mother had been the same. People would walk into the store for flowers, and stay for coffee and a chat. As a child, Flora had sat quietly among the blooms, bathed in the warmth and the scent and the soothing hum of adult conversation.
Finally, the door opened and he stepped into the shop, bringing with him a flurry of cold air and a sense of anticipation. Heads turned. There was a lull in the conversation as people studied him, and then returned to whatever they’d been doing before he’d made his entrance.
“Okay I have to admit he’s hot. I bet whatever it is he does, he’s the best,” Julia said. “I can almost understand why someone would have an affair with him. He’s all yours, but if he asks you out, don’t invite him back to your place. Unless he works for pest control.” She disappeared into the back of the shop where they stored more flowers.
Flora felt a rush of exasperation.
He wasn’t hers, and he wasn’t going to ask her out. He was ordering flowers, that was all.
“How may I help you?” She pushed her conversation with Julia to the back of her mind. If he was having an affair, it wasn’t her business. Human beings were flawed, she knew that. Life was messy. Flowers brightened life’s mess.
“I need to buy a gift. For a young woman.” His eyes were ice blue and a startling contrast to the jet-black of his hair. “A special woman.”
Maybe Julia was right. Maybe it was an affair.
You saw the whole spectrum of life working in a flower shop, from celebration to commiseration. It shouldn’t have bothered her, but still she was disappointed.
“Is there an occasion? Anniversary? Apology?”
His brows knitted together. “Apology?”
Had she said that aloud? Silently she cursed Julia for infecting her with cynicism. “If you tell me the occasion, I can recommend the perfect flower to convey your message.”
“I doubt that.”
“Try me. I love a challenge. What is it you want the flowers to say?”
He studied her. “I want them to say sorry for all the times I’ve screwed up over the last few months. All the times I’ve said the wrong thing, or done the wrong thing; stepped into her room when she wanted privacy, or left her alone when she wanted company. I want them to say that I love her, and I will always love her, even though maybe I don’t show it in the right way. I want them to say that I’m sorry she lost her mother, and that I wish I could bring her back, or make the pain go away. I especially wish her mother were here now, because she would have known what to buy our daughter for her seventeenth birthday and I don’t.” He paused, conscious that he’d perhaps said too much. There was a faint flush of color across his cheekbones. “And if you can find a way to say that in flowers, then you’re smarter than I am.”
Flora felt pressure in her chest and a thickening in her throat. His pain had spilled over and covered her, too. The silence from the back of the store told her that Julia was listening.
“It’s your daughter’s seventeenth birthday.” And he was marking the day without the love of his life. His daughter’s mother. His partner. Flora wanted to gather him up and hug him. And she wanted to gather up his daughter, too. She knew loss, and understood the great tearing hole it left in a life. You were left to try to stick together pieces that no longer fit. Your life became a patchwork, with a few holes.
“Becca—my wife—would have known exactly what to buy her. She always chose the perfect gift no matter what the occasion. She probably would have thrown a party of some sort, with all the right people—but I’m not my wife and sadly she didn’t leave notes. Her death was sudden. I’m winging this.”
Flora breathed slowly. He didn’t need her crying for him. He needed her to solve his problem. And gifts were always difficult. She tried hard to buy the right gift for people, but she knew she wasn’t perfect. Becca, apparently, had been perfect. She imagined a cool blonde who carried a notebook and scribbled ideas for gifts the moment someone mentioned something in passing.
Buy Tasha a silk scarf in a peach shade for Christmas.
On Christmas Day Tasha would open her gift and gasp, unable to believe that someone had chosen so well.
No one would ever return a gift bought by Becca.
No one would ever look at it and think I already have three of those.
No wonder he missed his wife. And he did miss his wife, she could see that.
He had a powerful physical presence, and yet he seemed a little lost and dazed. Flora hadn’t known it was possible for someone to look so strong, and solid and yet totally vulnerable.
“Flowers are a perfect idea.” She felt a sudden urge to lighten his load. People-pleasing wasn’t always about being cowardly. Sometimes it was just about wanting to help someone. “Great choice.”
He glanced at the bouquet Julia had just finished. “Roses?”
“There are better choices for a seventeenth birthday. Tell me a little about her. What does she like?”
“At the moment? I’m not even sure. She doesn’t open up to me.” He rubbed his forehead with his fingers and then waved his hand apologetically. “You probably think I’m a terrible father.”
“You’re here, trying to find the perfect gift for your daughter, that makes you a thoughtful father. Grief is always difficult.”
“You speak from experience?”
She did. She was sure she knew everything he was feeling, and everything his daughter was feeling although Flora had been younger, of course. Was there a good age to lose a loved one? Flora didn’t think so. Even now, so many years later, she would catch the scent of a flower and miss her mother. “What does your daughter like to do in her spare time?”
“When she’s not at school, she helps take care of her sister. Molly is seven. When I get home and once Molly is in bed, she mostly shuts herself in her room and stares at her phone. Do you have flowers that say ‘maybe you should spend less time on social media?’ It’s a thorny subject, so maybe those roses would be more appropriate than you think. Or perhaps a cactus.”
So there was a sense of humor there. Buried, possibly mostly forgotten, but definitely there.
“We can do better than a cactus.” Flora stepped out from behind the counter and walked toward the buckets that held an array of blooms. She’d been at the Flower District on West Twenty-Eighth Street before the sun was up, powered by caffeine as she foraged for nuggets of perfection and dodged trucks that were unloading crates. Only flowers could tempt her to leave her bed at that hour of the morning. So many growers focused on shelf life at the expense of color and scent, but Celia relied on her to choose quality and Flora would never contemplate anything less. Her mother had taught her the importance of seasons and now, at the tail end of winter she’d selected alstroemeria and amaryllis, carnation and chrysanthemum. She’d scooped up great bundles of foliage, tallow berries and seeded eucalyptus and stashed them on the metal shelves provided for that purpose. She could never walk past narcissus without adding them to her growing pile. Everywhere she went, she touched and smelled, burying her face deep into flowers and inhaling scent and freshness. She treated flowers as someone else might treat wine, as something to be sampled and savored and for Flora the early morning trip was a sociable event, not only because she knew so many people, but also because so many people had known her mother. It was familiar, a connection to the past that she treasured.
Finally, when she’d finished, she helped Carlos load up the van they used for deliveries and together they transported their precious cargo to the store. Once there her selection was sorted, trimmed of leaves and thorns, and the stems cut. Then her day shifted to customers and she handled walk-ins, internet orders and regulars. Her legs ached but she was so used to it that these days she barely noticed.
Her gaze drifted past the hydrangeas and lilacs, and lingered on the alstroemeria before moving on.
She thought back to her own teenage years, and then stooped and hand-selected a bunch of gerberas in sunshine yellow and deep orange. “These should be the main focus.”
He inclined his head. “Pretty.”
“The Celts believed that gerberas relieved sorrow.”
“Let’s hope they were right.”
She could feel him watching her as she selected tulips and roses and then assembled the bouquet. She took her time, trimming the stems and adding foliage. She stripped leaves, removed thorns from the roses, angled the stems and checked the balance and position of the flowers, aware the whole time that he was watching her.
“You’re good at that.”
She identified the binding point and tied the bouquet. “It’s my job. I’m sure you’re good at yours.”
“I am. And I enjoy it. I should probably feel guilty about that.”
“Why?” She wrapped the flowers carefully, added water to the pouch and tied them. “It’s not wrong to enjoy what you spend your day doing. I’d say it’s obligatory.” She wondered what he did.
Despite the fact that he was floundering with his daughter, there was a quiet confidence about him that suggested he didn’t doubt himself in other areas of life. Underneath the black coat his clothing was casual, so probably not a lawyer or a banker.
Advertising? Possibly, but she didn’t think so. Something in tech, maybe?
No doubt Julia would be full of ideas and wouldn’t hold back from expressing them.
“I feel guilty because sometimes when I’m at work, I forget.”
“That’s something to feel grateful for, not guilty. Work can often be a distraction, and that’s good. Not every pain can be fixed. Sometimes it’s about finding a way to make each moment better. These flowers should stay fresh for more than a week. Add flower food. Change the water every day. Strip off any leaves that are under the water. It will help to keep the flowers looking good.” She handed them over. “Oh, and remove the guard petals from the roses.”
“This,” she pointed with her finger to the curled, wrinkled edge of a petal. “They look damaged, but they’re there to protect the rose. Once you get them home, peel them away and the flower will be perfect. I hope she loves them.”
“Me, too.” He produced his credit card. “Given that you may be saving my life, I should probably know your name.”
“Flora.” She ran the card through the machine. “Flora Donovan.” She glanced at the name as she handed it back.
Jack Parker. It suited him.
“Flora. Appropriate name. You have a gift for what you do and I’m the grateful recipient.”
Flora wondered if Becca had been good at arranging flowers.
“Are you having a party for your daughter?”
“She said she didn’t want one. That it wouldn’t be the same without her mother there. I took her at her word.” He slid the card back into his pocket. “Was that a mistake?”
It must be so hard for him trying to get under the skin of a teenage girl.
“Maybe a party wouldn’t be right. You could do something different. Something she wouldn’t have done with her mother.”
“I don’t know—” Flora thought about it. “Is she athletic? Go to an indoor climbing wall. Or spend the day making pottery. Take her and her friends to a salsa class. Or do something together. If she’s feeling lost, what she really wants is probably to spend quality time with you.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. Dads are an embarrassment when you’re a teenage girl.”
Flora wished she had the experience to know. She would have given a lot to be embarrassed by her dad, but her dad had wanted nothing to do with her.
You’re my world, her mother had always said but after she’d died Flora had wondered whether life might have been easier if their world had included a few more people.
She wanted to ask him more about his daughter, but there was a queue of customers building and Celia was frowning at her across the store.
But he seemed in no hurry to leave. “How long have you worked here?”
“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t work here.” She glanced up at the high ceilings and the large windows. “My mother worked here, too, before she died. I helped her from the moment I could walk. Many of our customers were my mother’s customers. We deliver flowers right across Manhattan.” And she was proud to be continuing what her mother had started. It brought the past into the present and gave her comfort.
“How old were you when you lost your mother?”
“Eight.” Barely older than his younger daughter was now.
“And your father?” His tone was softer now, and she was grateful for his sensitivity.
“My mother raised me alone.”
“How did you handle it—losing her?” He sucked in a breath. “I apologize. That was an unforgivably intrusive question, but right now I’m at that stage of looking for answers everywhere. Something I can do, something I can say—I’ll try anything.”
“I’m not sure I handled it. I got through it, the best I could.” Her life had gone from warm sunshine to bitter cold. She’d moved from a warm, safe place to one where she felt vulnerable and exposed. “I’m not sure what helped me, would help others.”
“What did help you?”
“Things that made her seem closer. Flowers. Flowers were like having my mother with me.”
He studied her and she could have sworn for a moment that he saw her. Really saw her. Not the rose-colored dress or the hyacinth tights, or the hair that tumbled and turned and refused to behave in a predictable manner much to the annoyance of her aunt, but the gaps inside her. The pieces that were missing.
He smiled, and she felt warmth spread through her and spill into those gaps. Her heart beat faster and stronger.
There was so much charm in his smile. She was pretty sure that he’d be single for as long as he chose to be and not a moment longer.
“You seem to have turned out all right.” He was in no hurry to leave. “I’ve been worrying my girls won’t be okay. That their lives are ruined. But here you are. You give me hope that we might get through this.”
There was a strength to him, a seam of steel, that made her sure he would get through anything.
“You’ll find a way.” She was instantly embarrassed. “Sorry. That sounded trite. Like one of those self-help quotes that pop up on the internet. Live your best life.” The fact that he smiled felt like an achievement.
“I hate those quotes. Especially the ones that tell you to dance in the rain.”
“I love dancing in the rain.” Better than dancing in her apartment, where her elbows knocked against the walls and her neighbors complained about the noise.
His gaze held hers and again there was that feeling of warmth. “Do you get a lunch break? Would you join me for something to eat? Or a coffee?”
Her heart woke up. Was he asking her on a date?
“You’re wondering if I’m a crazed serial killer. I’m not. But you’re the first person I’ve talked to in a long time who seems to understand.”
She saw that his eyes were green, not blue. And she saw that he looked tired. Maybe he was aware of that, because he gave a faint smile and she found herself smiling back. The brief moment of connection shocked her. It was the closest she’d been to experiencing intimacy with another person in a long time. Ironic, she thought, that it was with a stranger.
“I don’t think you’re crazed, and I don’t think you’re a serial killer.”
“I asked you for coffee because you’re easy to talk to.” The focus of his gaze shifted somewhere behind her. “I’m assuming that scary-looking woman glaring at me is your boss?”
Flora didn’t even need to look. “Yes.”
“In which case I’m going to get you fired if I stand here talking any longer. I don’t want that on my conscience. Thank you for listening, Flora. And thank you for the advice.”
He was handling two traumatized girls by himself. Wounded. Hurting.
Who looked after him? Did he have no one supporting him?
He’d lost his wife, who’d clearly been perfect in every way. Becca. It seemed deeply unfair that people who had managed to find each other in this busy, complex world, should then lose each other. Maybe that was worse than never finding someone in the first place.
She shouldn’t get involved. Coffee and conversation wasn’t going to fix anything.
But who could say no to a single father who was desperately trying to do the right thing by his daughters?
“I could do coffee,” she said. “I get a break in an hour.”
“You’re bringing someone to dinner? You’re dating? You have to be kidding me. It’s not even been a year since Mom died, and you’ve already forgotten her.” Izzy stopped folding laundry and clamped her mouth shut. Had she really said that aloud? Guilt washed over her. She’d done so well holding it all together, but now her dad had opened a door she’d kept closed. His words had released all the rubbish she’d been hiding inside, like the cupboard holding all of Molly’s toys. Izzy could barely close the door. And now her hands were shaking and misery covered her like a film of sweat. Her body had felt weird, as if she was inhabiting someone else’s skin that didn’t quite fit. She had dizzy spells, moments when she felt oddly detached, panicky flashes when she thought she might totally flip out in public and humiliate herself. At the beginning people were constantly checking she was okay. How are you doing, Izzy? And she’d always answer that she was fine. Apparently they’d believed her, and their comments had shifted to you’re totally amazing. Your mom would be so proud of how you’re handling this. If grief was a test, then apparently she’d got a good grade. She’d even felt proud of herself on occasion, an emotion that was way too complicated for her brain. Was surviving something to be proud of?
Gradually people had stopped tiptoeing around her and gone back to their normal selves and their normal lives. People rarely mentioned it now. She’d thought that might be easier, but it turned out it wasn’t. They’d moved on, but she hadn’t. Her life had been shredded and she was still trying to stitch the fragments together alone with fingers that were raw and bleeding. Whatever she did there was no patching over the fact that there was a big mother-shaped hole in her life. She was trying hard to fill it for her dad’s sake, but mostly for Molly’s sake.
Had her father given any thought to the impact dating would have on Molly?
How could he do this? She didn’t understand love. What exactly was its worth if it didn’t even leave a mark? If you could move so easily from one person to another?
She knew she should probably be pleased for him, but she couldn’t summon that emotion. If he moved on, where did that leave them as a family? Where did it leave her?
The sound around her faded and she could hear the blood pulsing through her ears.
She felt lost and panicky.
Maybe this relationship wasn’t serious. She wanted to whip out her phone and type “grief and rebound relationships” into the search engine. Even though he hid it well, she knew he was hurting and vulnerable. She wasn’t going to let some opportunistic woman take advantage of that. The last thing little Molly needed was a parade of strange women marching through the house.
Her father put his arm round her but she ducked away, even though she needed a hug more than anything.
He looked stunned. “What’s wrong? You’re not normally like this.”
“Sorry. Long day.” Clamping her jaws together, Izzy shook another towel out and folded it.
“Do you really think I’ve forgotten her?”
“I don’t know. Seems that way, that’s all.”
It freaked her out that he could be so calm. She tried to be the same, but he set a high bar. Did he cry? Did he ever howl in the shower like she did? Her tears poured down the drain along with the water. She wanted to know she was normal, that she wasn’t the only one who felt this bad, even though deep down she knew it would scare her to see his tears.
It was a totally crap situation, but if he could be brave and stoic then so could she.
If he could hold it together then so could she. She’d managed well, hadn’t she? Until today.
She folded another towel, and then another, until she had a neat pile. It amazed her how soothing it felt to have completed that one small task.
Mrs. Cameron came in every morning to clean the house and do the laundry, but it was Izzy who removed it from the dryer and folded it all. She didn’t mind. It was a bit like meditation.
“I made homemade veggie burgers for supper.”
“Again? Didn’t we have them two nights ago?”
“They’re Molly’s favorite.” But maybe she should have been making her dad’s favorite, not her sister’s. Pressure, pressure, pressure.
“You made a good decision, Izz. You’re my superstar. Your mom would have been so proud.” He picked up the stack of towels she’d folded. “Molly didn’t eat the lunch I made her this morning.”
“Did you give her ham? She hates ham.”
“She does?” He looked surprised. “I’ll try to remember that. What would I do without you? You’re a good cook, and you’re so great with Molly.”
“She’s my sister. Family.” She was struggling to hold the family together, and now he was planning on inviting a stranger into their home. Although the woman obviously wasn’t a stranger to him. Had he had sex with her? Izzy felt her face turn hot and her chest tighten. A girl at school had panic attacks all the time. Izzy had never had one, not a proper one, but she suspected they were lurking round the corner. What if she had one when she was watching Molly? She forced herself to breathe slowly, and tried not to picture her dad naked with another woman.
The problem with being a family was that every member was affected by the actions of an individual. This should be her dad’s business, except it wasn’t.
“I haven’t forgotten your mom, Izzy.” His quiet tone poked at the small, miserable part of herself that wasn’t bursting with anger.
Maybe he hadn’t forgotten her, but he’d moved on. Her head was full of questions, most of them beginning with “why.”
Why had this happened to her mom? And why didn’t her dad feel guilty, when she felt guilty all the time? Guilty for all the times she hadn’t hugged her mother or told her that she loved her, guilty for never making her bed and for leaving empty milk cartons in the fridge. Most of all she felt guilty about that last fight they’d had before her mother had left the house that night. The one she couldn’t talk about. The one she hadn’t mentioned to anyone, not her friends and certainly not her dad. She didn’t dare say anything to her dad. If she did—well, she couldn’t. No way. It would change everything. The family she’d been working so hard to protect would be blown apart.
Thinking about it stung like squeezing lemon onto a cut.
“When is she coming? I’ll take Molly to the park or something.”
“I don’t want you to do that. I invited her here so she can meet you both.”
Were all men so clueless? She was used to people doing and saying the wrong thing around her, it happened all the time, but the fact that her own dad couldn’t see the bigger picture was particularly hurtful. “You don’t think that’s confusing for Molly?”
“She’s a friend, that’s all. You and Molly have friends over.”
Izzy dragged the rest of the laundry out of the dryer. “So are you telling me this is a sleepover situation?” She saw color streak across her father’s cheeks.
“It’s dinner, that’s all.”
She was tempted to tell him to take the woman out for dinner somewhere else, well away from the family home, but part of her thought it might be better to keep it close. At least then she’d be able to see what was going on. What did this woman want exactly?
She reached for a sheet she’d washed earlier and saw her dad frown.
“Why are you washing Molly’s bedding? Mrs. Cameron should be doing that.”
“Molly spilled her drink.” The lie emerged with an ease that probably should have worried her, but didn’t. She’d promised her sister that she wouldn’t tell anyone she’d wet the bed for the fourth night in a row. The only way to keep that promise was to launder the sheets herself.
Did her dad even know that Molly crawled into Izzy’s bed in the middle of the night when she’d wet her own, bringing with her a zoo of soft toys? It had started in those early weeks and then become a habit. Every night Izzy, drunk from lack of sleep, helped wash her sister and change her pajamas, then tucked her up in her own bed along with Dizzy the Giraffe. Molly would immediately fall asleep, but Izzy would lie there awake for hours, often drifting off only as the sun started to rise. She was tired at school and her grades were slipping. Twice she’d fallen asleep at her desk, and sometimes she walked into furniture.
Some of her friends had taken to calling her Dizzy Izzy. It didn’t do anything for her mood to be given the same name as her sister’s soft toy.
They had no idea what her life was like, and neither had her dad, and she had no intention of talking about it. She’d learned more about people since her mother died than in her entire life before that. She’d learned that people focused mostly on their own lives, not other people’s. And when they did think about other people, it was mostly in relation to themselves. Her friends didn’t think about her life, except when watching Molly meant that she had to say no to something they’d arranged. It wasn’t intentional or malicious. It was carelessness. Thoughtlessness. Those two human characteristics that caused more pain than the words suggested they should.
Was bringing a woman home thoughtlessness, too?
Izzy didn’t know much about anything, but she knew it wouldn’t be good for Molly to see another woman in the house. She didn’t feel great about it, either.
In that moment she missed her mother so badly she couldn’t breathe. She wanted to turn the clock back. There was so much she wished she’d said and done. No one had ever told her it was possible to feel angry and sad at the same time.
She remembered the night before her mother had died. After their terrible fight, her mother had swept into the room to let her know they were going out.
Her dark hair had been swept up in an elegant knot, and her black dress had flowed in a silken sweep to the floor. Izzy had badly wanted to continue their conversation, only this time without the shouting, but before she could speak her father had stepped into the room and the moment had passed.
Izzy had felt frustration and anxiety, but had promised herself she’d make her mother talk about it the next day. But there had been no next day. Her mother had collapsed suddenly from an undetected aneurysm in her brain. She’d died before she reached the hospital.
Their world had collapsed that night. For Izzy it had remained in ruins, but apparently her father had been busy rebuilding his.
“It’s dinner, Izzy. That’s all. She isn’t sharing my bed. She’s not moving in. But I like her.” He hesitated. “I like her a lot and I think you and Molly will, too.”
Izzy knew for sure she wouldn’t like her. There was no way, no way, she was ready to see her father with anyone else. Where would that leave her? Where would she fit in that scenario? Right now her dad needed her. Would that change if he had another woman in his life?
“How long have you been dating?” She tried to mimic his calm. “How did you meet her?”
“Remember the flowers I bought for your birthday? She’s a florist. She made that bouquet you loved so much.”
Izzy had loved the bouquet. It had made her feel ridiculously grown-up. She’d considered it thoughtful, but now she discovered that the choice had been driven by someone else’s thought. The gift shrank in her head.
“You’ve been seeing her since my birthday?”
“We went for a coffee that day. She’s been through tough times, too. She was about the same age as Molly when she lost her mother.”
That wasn’t good news. She’d think she understood them, and she most certainly didn’t. Families, Izzy decided, were the most complex things on the planet. “But you’ve seen her more than that one time.”
“She works near my office. I’ve seen her for lunch a few times.”
A few times. Enough times to want to bring her home to meet the family.
“You never mentioned it.”
“There was nothing to mention.”
“But now there is.”
Her father put the towels down. “I know this is difficult, and sensitive, but I’m asking you to keep an open mind.”
Molly had only just stopped crying herself to sleep. Would it all start again if her dad brought someone home? “So what? You want me to run round the house taking down all the pictures of Mom?”
He rubbed his fingers over his forehead. “No, I don’t want that. Your mother will always be part of our lives.” He let his hand drop. “You’ve turned the same color as those white sheets you’re holding. Are you doing okay, Izzy? Really?”
“I’m great.” The words flowed automatically. She’d said them so many times she almost believed them, even though a part of her was wondering why this was happening to her. What had she done to deserve it? She wasn’t perfect, but she wasn’t awful. She recycled. She’d given money to save endangered whales. She hadn’t yelled when Molly had spilled blackcurrant juice on her favorite sweater.
“If you ever want to talk—” he paused. “It doesn’t have to be to me. The hospital gave me the name of someone. A psychologist. I mentioned it a while back and you didn’t want to, but if you change your mind—”
“I haven’t changed my mind.” She couldn’t think of anything more awkward. No way could she tell anyone what was going on in her head. It was just too big. And there was no one she trusted. She couldn’t even write about this on her blog, and she spilled everything there. She called it The Real Teen, and talked about everything from periods to her views on global warming. It was anonymous, and that was so freeing. She wrote things she would never say aloud. Things she could never say to her dad, and things she could never say even to her friends. She’d done it for herself, and had been surprised to quickly gain a following. It had grown at a ridiculous rate, and now people left comments. Sometimes just an OMG I feel the same way, but occasionally a longer reply detailing the issues in her own life and telling Izzy how much her post had helped. It gave her a buzz to know she was helping people. She liked saying things that others were afraid to say. While her friends were posting selfies and talking about clothes and makeup, she talked about the serious stuff. Words had so much power. She didn’t understand how so few people seemed to get that.
She’d already decided she wanted to be a journalist. Not the sort that interviewed celebrities on red carpets about subjects that mattered to no one, but the sort who shone a light into dark corners. She wanted to tell truths and expose lies. She wanted to change the world.
Her father was watching her. “I’m worried about you.”
“Don’t.” She didn’t want him worrying about her. She didn’t want to be a burden.
“We should be talking about college. Maybe we should do a few campus visits.”
She tensed. “There’s plenty of time.” She didn’t tell him she was thinking of not going. She didn’t want to leave the family. “Can we talk about it another time?”
“Sure.” He hesitated. “It’s what your mom would have wanted.”
People didn’t always get what they wanted, did they? Except that, ironically, her mother usually had. Except for dying, of course. That hadn’t been part of her plan.
Her dad picked up the towels again. Izzy had a feeling he was looking for things to do.
“I’ll take these upstairs. Are you sure you want to cook for Flora?”
That was her name?
“I want to cook.” She’d show this woman that they were a close family. That there was no room for anyone else.
There was no way she was going to college. She was going to stay home and get a job so that she could keep an eye on things. Maybe she could monetize her blog or something. Other people did it. People got paid for waving stupid handbags in front of the camera. Why couldn’t she be paid for saying important stuff? People commenting on her blog admitted to things they never said in public. They were talking about things that were real. If she could get her traffic up, that would help. And employers liked people with real life experience.
“Thanks, Izzy.” Her dad reached out one more time to hug her and Izzy moved away. She didn’t trust herself not to crumble.
She saw the pain cross his face and felt her breath catch.
Was she a horrible person?
“Sorry. I need to get on, that’s all. I have to check Molly’s school bag for tomorrow, read to her and then I have an essay to do.”
“I’ll try to persuade her to let me read to her so you can have a break. I know I’m second best, but I’ll give it a go.”
“It’s okay.” She liked to feel needed and Molly’s love was like a balm.
“I’m worried you’re working too hard.”
“I like doing it.” She liked the fact that she was keeping things as normal as possible, even though it was far from the life they’d had. She liked being useful. Needed. Indispensable.
“I appreciate what you’re doing, and I’m pleased you’re going to meet Flora. And I’m not trying to replace Becca. I’m trying to keep living, one day at a time, which is all any of us can do.” He sounded tired. “Fortunately love isn’t finite. You don’t use it all up on one person. It’s like a river that keeps flowing.”
Some rivers dried up. And that was how she felt. She’d cried so much she felt permanently dehydrated. And her dad didn’t know half of what was going on in her head. He didn’t know all the stuff that had happened, and she couldn’t tell him.
“I’m not trying to erase your mother, Izzy. Far from it.” He put his hand on her shoulder. “You don’t think we deserve happiness? You don’t think your mom would have wanted us to be happy?”
Izzy didn’t know the answer to that. Her mother had always been the center of attention, always the star, whether it had been at a party or a school event. Becca Parker lit up every room she entered. People around her were dazzled by her brightness. Izzy had heard her parents described as a “beautiful couple”, and it was true they attracted attention wherever they went, and not just because her mother had always insisted on arriving late and last for everything. It had driven Izzy crazy, but she no longer remembered that. All she remembered was that everyone had paid attention to her mother.
“Everything is cool, but you should be careful.” She said it casually. “She’s probably after your money.”
“You think that’s the only reason a woman would want to be with me?” For the first time since he’d walked into the room, he smiled. “I’m not that bad a judge of character. Relax, Izzy. You’ll like her, and I know she’s going to like you. It’s all going to be fine.”
Seriously? He thought it was going to be fine?
This family was already a total mess, and he was planning on making the mess worse. Izzy wasn’t going to let that happen. She needed to keep this family together, no matter what. For herself, sure, but also for Molly. Molly relied on her, and Izzy wasn’t going to let her sister down.
Her objective wasn’t to make sure Flora liked her, it was to make sure the woman never wanted to set foot in the house again.
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