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Authors: Heidi Rice

So Now You're Back

BOOK: So Now You're Back
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HEIDI RICE's
first romance novel was published in 2007, followed by several international award nominated titles.
So Now You're Back
is her commercial fiction debut.

To Rob, my hero.

Acknowledgements

Writing a book is supposed to be a solitary pursuit, until your publisher asks you to write the acknowledgements, and you suddenly realise how many other people got involved along the way. So here's my chance to send big, shouty thank yous to just a few of those people … My husband Rob for his suggestion that I rip off Shakespeare when I couldn't come up with a plot. My best mate Catri, who insisted we go to the Great Smokey Mountains for one of our US road trips. My best writing mate Abby Green, for telling me I
so
could write a longer book, over and over again until it stuck. My other great writing mates Fiona Harper, Iona Grey and Scarlet Wilson for consulting on everything from covers to sagging middles and dealing with my many, many anxiety attacks. To my editor Bryony Green for giving me revisions that made this story even better than I could make it on my own (the sulking was just for show, honest!). To the wonderful TonyB at Smokey Mountain Kayaking for his willingness to share his in-depth knowledge of kayaking and the Smokies. To culinary superstar Faenia Moore for her willingness to share her in-depth knowledge of baking and TV cookery shows. And finally to Anna Baggaley and everyone at Harlequin Mira for all your support on this, as it turns out, not at all lonely journey.

Chapter 1

W
here ru Mum? Your late. AGAIN!!!

‘Bugger.' Halle Best clicked furiously on the iPhone's keypad as she shot out of the car park at St Pancras Station and crossed the loading bay.

There in 2 secs. Honest.

Magnifico-Multitask Mum strikes again,
she thought triumphantly as she shoved the phone back in her bag. She kept her head down as the service tunnel at the back of the station led onto the strip of shops and cafés lining the route to the main concourse. Avoiding eye contact with members of the British public had become a habit in the past two years, because she'd discovered they only ever seemed to recognise her and want to waylay her for an autograph—or a chat about their latest baking disaster—when she was in a rush, chronically late or on a collision course with her daughter Lizzie's prodigious temper. As all three defcon positions were currently in countdown mode, she absolutely could not risk it.

Darting past the YO! Sushi on her left and the ticket office on her right, she narrowly avoided a young mum with a pushchair while circumnavigating a group of backpack-toting foreign students going at a pace that would make a geriatric snail look like Usain Bolt.

She sucked in a couple of extra breaths, feeling winded as she hit the main thoroughfare.

Note to self: Get that bloody cross-trainer in the basement out of mothballs.

Raising her head to check her direction, she made eye contact with a sharply dressed office worker who sent her a don't-I-know-you-from-somewhere smile. Halle returned it while shooting past on full steam before the woman figured out the answer.

She hated to be impolite or abrupt with people who recognised her. And up until two years ago, she had always been more than willing to stop and chat about collapsing soufflés or how to make the perfect choux pastry, because she'd gotten a major rush out of any kind of acknowledgement. She was still both humbled and chuffed to bits at any sign that people enjoyed and appreciated her Domestic Diva brand. But in the past twenty-four months, ever since
The Best of Everything
had moved from a morning slot on cable TV to an early evening slot on BBC Two and her third book—
The Best on a Budget
—had hit the bestseller charts, the attention had begun to interfere more and more with even Magnifico-Multitask Mum's ability to keep all the plates in her life spinning.

Hence being a tiny bit tardy to collect her daughter from the Eurostar terminal after Lizzie's four-day trip to Paris to visit her father. The production meeting had overrun, as it always did. But Halle thought she'd programmed in more than enough time to get from Soho to King's Cross. And
if it hadn't been for that plonker trying to do a right turn in a no-right-turn zone outside the British Library, she so would have made it here in time. She mentally tucked her frustration away, pasting on what she hoped was her most competent and unflustered smile as she spotted her daughter, slumped glumly on one of the benches by the Eurostar exit, with her boots perched on her suitcase, her iPod earbuds in and her smartphone out as she texted furiously—probably about what an arsewipe her mum was to all her friends on Facebook.

Halle slowed, as love and relief barrelled into her chest and combined with her breathlessness to make her light-headed. Given she was already several crucial nanoseconds late, she might as well take a moment to admire her eighteen-year-old daughter before facing the full force of Lizzie's disgust.

Long-limbed and slim—but not too slim any more, thank goodness—Lizzie had what Halle had always craved, a coltish elegance that was natural and unaffected and didn't require the help of a personal trainer and/or industrial-strength Spanx. The soft tangle of strawberry blonde hair hanging down her back, which had fizzed around her head as a baby and made her look like a cherubic dandelion, was equally arresting. Sometime in the past two years, after what Halle had panicked might be an eating disorder, Lizzie had lost that pudgy tomboyish quality that Halle had always adored and grown into this beautiful if sullen and secretive swan.

Halle shook off the thought to stop the guilt from constricting around her stomach like a freakishly large anaconda. No need to go there, again. Somewhere along the line, Lizzie had stopped being that happy-go-lucky tomboy who had been open and eager about everything and an absolute marvel with her little brother, Aldo, and become a volatile teenager with a quick-fire temper who resented
her mother's success and thought the now ten-year-old Aldo was the spawn of Satan.

To be fair, given Aldo's genius for making everyone's life hell, including his own, Halle did secretly sympathise with her daughter on that score. And really the only thing for Halle to remember in the face of her daughter's derision was what the family counsellor had told her.

That teenage rebellion was normal, that it was much better for Halle to have to deal with Lizzie's temper than having her daughter internalise everything and that while Halle's family set-up wasn't completely the norm, very few people's were these days. In fact, the norm these days was pretty much the anti-norm. And, if nothing else, Halle's family—which included a ten-year-old son who didn't have a father, and an eighteen-year-old daughter who saw her father, whose name Halle couldn't say without flinching, only six weeks a year—fitted perfectly into the anti-norm mould.

The truth was, there was nothing Halle could do about Aldo's lack of a father—except hire a wonderful au pair like Trey Carson to take some of the slack. And nothing she needed to do about Lizzie's dickhead of a dad, Luke Best, except remember every time she got the urge to flinch that she only had to deal with Luke's bullshit by proxy these days.

No, all Halle needed to focus on now was one simple truth.

That Lizzie wasn't colourful, durable Tupperware any more, who would bounce if Halle dropped her—as she had so often when her children were small and she'd been juggling two menial jobs, ad hoc childcare and her fledgling party-cake baking business in a Stoke Newington council flat all on her own. Somehow or other, while Halle hadn't been paying the proper attention, because she'd been focused
on making her career happen, her daughter had become china. Fragile, delicate, brittle china that had the potential to shatter if Halle let it fall off its perch. But as long as Halle knew that and remained vigilant, ready to handle any potential wobbles, everything would be absolutely fine.

Which meant finding the time to collect Lizzie in person from the Eurostar terminal, especially as she'd just celebrated a milestone birthday in Paris, instead of arranging for a car and driver to do it instead. But the occasional hiccup—like some tosser thinking he could turn right when the sign clearly said he could not—was not Halle's fault, and she must not beat herself up about it. Especially as Lizzie was now perfectly capable of doing that for her.

Pushing the anaconda the rest of the way back down her throat, Halle waved her hand in front of Lizzie's face and smiled as her daughter's head bobbed up and she tugged out her earbuds.

‘About time. Where have you been? I've been waiting here forever.'

‘Sorry, sweetheart,' Halle said, knowing ‘forever' had been a maximum of ten minutes. ‘Did the train arrive early?'

‘No, you were late. As always.' Lizzie scowled. ‘Dad's never late picking me up at the other end, you know.'

Yes, Halle did know, because Lizzie had never missed an opportunity to point out all the things her dad did right and Halle did wrong.

‘Well, at least I'm here now,' Halle replied, keeping her beatific smile firmly in place and nobly resisting the urge to list all the things Lizzie's father had done wrong once upon a time. Apart from the fact that would take months, Halle had made a decision sixteen years ago, when she had negotiated Luke's request for visitation rights through the duty solicitor at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Hackney,
that never having to talk to Luke again was worth the price of not slagging him off to his daughter.

Her silence on the subject of Luke's betrayal, his selfishness and his numerous character flaws had been agony to maintain when Lizzie was little, and the pain of what he'd done was still fresh, still raw, still all-consuming. But she'd managed it, by keeping three things front and centre in her mind: Lizzie idolised her dad; the less Lizzie knew about her parents' broken relationship, the less likely it was to become a point of conflict between them; and, for all his many faults, which were legion, Luke did love his daughter—unlike Aldo's father, Claudio, who had refused to even acknowledge his son.

Plus, there was a limit to how much Luke could screw up Halle's karma when Lizzie spent only a few weeks of the year with him.

So moments like this, when Lizzie insisted on poking at that old wound, were really only a mild irritation, which Halle could dismiss easily … enough.

‘Did you get the bouquet and the gift I sent to your father's place on your birthday?' Halle asked, subtly changing the direction of the conversation away from the minefield of Luke's shortcomings.

‘Yeah, thanks. The iPad was cool.'

Halle's smile became strained at Lizzie's surly shrug—and the evidence that she obviously hadn't rated any extra parental brownie points with the lavish gesture. She dismissed the treacherous thought. Easily enough (ish).

You're not in a competition with him. Because if you were, you'd wipe the floor with him.

‘Good, I'm glad you liked it. Actually, I booked us a table at the champagne bar here to celebrate your coming of age
before we head home.' Halle's smile became genuine at the shock in her daughter's pale blue eyes. ‘If you fancy it?'

‘You're kidding. You'll let me have a glass of champagne?'

Nice call, Mel.
She silently thanked her super-efficient PA, Melanie Blissett, for the suggestion.

‘Of course. You're legal now,' Halle said airily, gripping the handle of Lizzie's suitcase and dismissing the pang of something sharp and bittersweet that stabbed into her left ventricle.

No need to go the full wuss.

This would not be the first time her daughter had consumed an alcoholic beverage. It would simply be the first time she'd consumed one with her mother's permission—so really it wasn't a milestone worth getting too emotional about.

‘Awesome,' Lizzie replied, finally losing the last remnants of her scowl.

Halle led the way onto the escalator that took them up to the station's impressive upper level and the Grand Terrace, where the champagne bar, which stretched towards a giant sculpture of a couple kissing, was already packed on a Tuesday evening. Halle was grateful that Mel had called ahead and somehow managed to secure them a corner banquette, especially when several of the other patrons gave her penetrating I-know-who-you-are looks as she and Lizzie were led to their seats.

She was careful not to acknowledge them, giving off what she hoped were please-don't-approach-me vibes. Just this once, it would be great not to be recognised. Getting the chance to have a companionable chat with her daughter, without the usual friction, was rare enough, but having quality time with Lizzie without having to ride herd on Aldo, or, worse, settle the arguments between her two
children—which was usually more traumatic than trying to negotiate world peace—was virtually unheard of.

She ordered them two glasses of rosé champagne and slid into the bench seat with her back to the rest of the bar—glad when the usual Londoners reserve held true and no one approached them.

‘Where's the Antichrist tonight?' Lizzie took the seat opposite. ‘With Mr Perfecto, as usual?'

‘So you've been missing your brother, have you?' Halle teased, ignoring the jab at Aldo's au pair.

She suspected—even if Lizzie would rather have all her precious Urban Outfitters clothes ceremonially burned than admit it to herself—that her daughter might well have a secret crush on Trey Carson. Which would not surprise Halle in the slightest—she certainly couldn't fault her daughter's taste this time.

Twenty-one going on thirty-five, Trey was kind, gallant, responsible, a lifesaver with Aldo and much better looking than the feckless hipster losers Lizzie had favoured in the past.

When Trey had first started to work for her three months ago, Halle had noticed Lizzie watching him and had panicked. She had instantly recognised the interest in Lizzie's eyes, because it was similar to the puppy-dog eyes Halle herself had once cast at Lizzie's father—when she was a clueless fifteen-year-old desperate to lose her virginity and Luke had been a surly, sexy sixteen-year-old class warrior and sixth-form reject.

Thankfully, for everyone concerned, Trey—unlike Luke—had been far too mature to take advantage of Lizzie's interest. He'd handled the situation perfectly—treating her daughter with the same calm confidence he used to handle her son, while at the same time establishing a professional distance.

And while Lizzie might still have the hots for him, Trey's behaviour had rendered any crush not just harmless but also a surprisingly effective distraction technique. Because as long as Lizzie was busy needling Trey so he would notice her, she'd been steering clear of horrid misogynists like her first boyfriend, Liam—the little bastard who had dumped her a year ago and whose callous treatment Halle was sure had contributed to her daughter's increasingly prickly behaviour.

‘I've missed Aldo about as much as I'd miss a septic rash,' Lizzie scoffed as the waiter placed two flutes of sparkling pink champagne in front of them.

‘Here's to a long weekend without a septic rash, then.' Halle picked up her glass, ready to humour her daughter for once in the interests of world peace. ‘Happy eighteenth birthday, Dizzy Lizzie,' she said, vindicated when her daughter lifted her own glass and didn't make some caustic comment about the childhood nickname.

BOOK: So Now You're Back
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