Excerpt: Secrets of the Tulip Sisters
Kelly Murphy was willing to accept certain injustices in the world. That brownies had more calories than celery. That wearing white pants meant getting her period—regardless of where she was in her cycle. That her car would be low on gas only on days when she was running late. What she did not appreciate or accept was the total unfairness of Griffith Burnett not only returning to Tulpen Crossing, Washington nearly a year ago, but apparently waking up last month and deciding that stalking her was how he was going to spend his day.
The man was everywhere. Every. Where. He was the aphid swarm in the garden of her life. He was kudzu and rain at an outdoor wedding and someone blurting out the end of a movie right when you were getting to the good part, all rolled into one.
"You're putting a lot of energy into the man," Helen Sperry pointed out in a let's-humor-the-crazy-girl tone.
"This isn't about me," Kelly told her. "I'm not the one who's always there. I'm not the one lurking."
"If you keep seeing him wherever you go, a case could be made that you're stalking him."
"I'm not going to dignify that with a response," Kelly muttered as she pulled in front of the craft mall and parked her truck.
"Did you know Griffith back in high school?" Helen asked. "You're what? Three years younger? You couldn't have had the same friends."
"We didn't. I was a sophomore when he was a senior," Kelly admitted. "We didn't have any classes together."
But not having the same classes in no way meant she hadn't known who he was. Everyone had known Griffith Burnett. He'd been one of those godlike figures blessed with good looks, a brain and athletic talent. She'd been the slightly weird girl he'd never noticed…until he'd broken her delicate, young girl's heart.
"I'm sure him being everywhere you are is just one of those things," Helen said. "I'm sorry to use logic, but we live in a tiny, little town. You and I cross paths with each other all the time. I see you like five hundred times a day."
Kelly smiled. "But we're friends and I like seeing you."
"Back at you." Helen looked at her. "You okay or is there something going on I don't know about?"
"Nothing but Griffith," Kelly told her. "I'm sure you're right. I'm sure it's just a coincidence that I can't take two steps without seeing him." Words that sounded great but that she didn't believe for a second.
If she were anyone else, or if he weren't who he was, she might think he was interested in her…in a boy-girl kind of way. He always spoke to her when he saw her, and smiled. His gaze seemed to linger. But there was no way he wanted anything like that from her. Kelly had proof.
Thirteen years and some odd months ago, she'd turned a corner and had run into Griffith. She'd been on her way to AP English and he'd been…well, she had no idea what he'd been doing. For less than a second, as her books had gone flying, she and Griffith had been plastered together from chest to thigh. She'd never been so close to a boy before. Never been so aware…so everything.
Then he'd stepped back. He'd helped her pick up her books, winked when she'd stuttered an apology then had lightly, and oh so gently, squeezed her hand before she'd darted off to the safety of her class.
In those magic seconds, when his fingers had touched hers and their eyes had locked together, she'd fallen totally and completely in love with Griffith.
It had been the kind of true love born only of a pure and inexperienced heart. She'd never even been kissed. From that moment on, she dreamed only of Griffith.
Just a week later, she'd walked by him standing with his friends. One of the guys had called out something about her being "doable." A gross and disgusting comment that had made her cringe, but that had been nothing compared to Griffith's casually uttered, "I couldn't be less interested."
She'd been devastated and had immediately turned and run. She'd been so upset and hurt that she'd needed somewhere to put all that emotion. That evening she'd had a fight with her mother, the kind where things best left unsaid were spoken and lives altered forever. Kelly knew in her head that what had happened with Griffith had nothing to do with her mother walking out on their family less than twelve hours later, but for her, the two incidents were forever linked.
She shook off the memories and grabbed her copy of Eat, Pray, Love. Their book club was discussing it tonight—for the third time—and she vowed that from this second on, she wouldn't think about Griffith ever again. At least not for the next three hours.
She followed Helen out of the truck and into Petal Pushers—the name du jour for the local craft mall the town hoped would be a tourist draw. There were booths where people could sell everything from handmade crafts to antiques to food. At the far end of the huge space was a big stage and reception area, along with a few community meeting rooms. All that was missing were the tourists. Vacationers loved to come to Tulpen Crossing for the tulip festival every spring, but beyond that, not so much.
Kelly wanted to say that wasn't her problem, but as a member of the tourism development committee, she did have a vested interest in getting people back to their small slice of heaven.
It was early on Tuesday night and Petal Pushers was closed. The long corridor to the meeting rooms was dimly lit and their footsteps echoed on the worn linoleum—Kelly's more than Helen's, actually. Probably because while Helen wore cute flats, Kelly hadn't bothered to change out of her work boots. Or her jeans. Or her slightly stained T-shirt.
One day, she promised herself. One day she would care about clothes and buy a push-up bra and be, if not girly, then at least vaguely feminine. She should let Helen inspire her.
Her friend was tall, with inky black hair that fell past her shoulders, and startlingly blue eyes. She had plenty of curves and always managed to look sexy, no matter what she wore. Helen worried about carrying a few extra pounds, but Kelly didn't see that at all. Helen was lush while Kelly was…boring. She had brown hair she wore in a ponytail. Brown eyes. No curves, no noticeable features at all. She was plain.
She supposed she could try to be more Helen-like but who had the time? And even if every few months she swore she was going to do something about her appearance—like wear mascara—she quickly got distracted and forgot. Until the next time.
So here she was, clumping along in boots that might or might not have mud on them. At least book club would be fun. There was always good conversation and wine.
"Did you read it again?" Helen asked, holding up her copy of Eat, Pray, Love. "I didn't. I figured twice was enough."
"I read it." Not reading it hadn't been an option, Kelly thought. She always read the book and took notes. She was such a rule follower. How depressing. She needed to break out of her rut or something. Maybe it was time for her to renew the mascara vow.
They walked into the community room and greeted their friends. Paula, a pretty mother of three, had already opened the bottles of wine she'd brought. Someone else had set out plates of cookies and cupcakes. Kelly scanned the sign-up sheet and confirmed that she was in charge of wine next month, and that they would be reading a memoir of Eleanor Roosevelt.
She reached for a cupcake just as a few more members arrived. Sally, a fifty-something avid quilter who had the biggest booth at Petal Pushers, announced, "Ladies, we have a new member. And guess what? He's a man!"
Kelly looked at the cupcake she held. She wanted to take a big bite—or possibly run out the back exit. Or poke Helen in the arm while saying "I told you so" in a loud, taunting voice. Because she knew without turning around who she would find standing there. Like the Terminator, Griffith was back, and there was nothing she could do about it.
Griffith Burnett was used to being the center of attention—whether it was at a symposium on how micro housing could transform the poorest regions of Africa as well as answer the needs of the homeless in the urban centers of Europe and the United States, or at a black-tie fundraiser for a children's charity where he was the featured speaker. He was comfortable in front of a crowd, or so he'd thought. He found himself slightly less at ease in a room filled with nearly a dozen women, all staring at him with varying degrees of interest.
No, he thought as he scanned the faces. Nearly a dozen, less one. Kelly wasn't looking at him at all.
"Everyone, this is Griffith Burnett. You should know him. He owns that tiny house company you've all seen off the highway. He grew up here. His folks are Mark and Melinda. They moved to New Mexico six months ago. Griffith here wants to join our book club."
He waited for the inevitable, "Why?" but the women only smiled and nodded. Except for Kelly, who kept her attention firmly on the cupcake she held.
"Let me introduce you to everyone," Sally said. They'd walked in together and somehow she'd assigned herself as his hostess for the evening.
She went around the room, spouting names faster than he could remember them, starting with a mother of three and ending with the reason he was here in the first place.
"This is Kelly Murphy." Sally frowned. "Didn't you two go to high school together? Or is she closer to your brother's age? I can't keep you kids straight. And what about Helen Sperry? You're the same age, aren't you?"
"I'm a year older," Helen said, offering her hand. "Hi. I think we had a social studies class together."
"I'm sure we did." He waited until Kelly had no choice but to look at him. "Hello, Kelly."
"Griffith." The word was clipped, her tone less than friendly, matching the wary expression in her big, brown eyes.
She looked good. He supposed there were some men who would be put off by the absence of frills, but he liked that about her. The sharp edges, the lack of guile. What you saw and all that. She was smart, she was determined and she wasn't going to make it easy. He'd always been the kind of guy who liked a challenge so he was looking forward to the latter.
"Why are you here?" she asked.
Beside him, Sally stiffened. "Kelly, honey, what's wrong? Griffith wants to join our book club."
"And read Eat, Pray, Love? I find that hard to believe."
"Is it my reading skills you doubt or my interest in the subject matter?"
The corner of her mouth twitched. He would guess annoyance rather than humor, not that he would mind seeing her smile.
"A woman's journey to emotional and spiritual fulfillment hardly seems like something you'd enjoy," she murmured.
"Do you think you know me well enough to decide that?"
Now everyone was watching and listening. He stepped closer to Kelly. Close enough that she had to tilt her head slightly to hold his gaze.
"I find everything about a woman's journey interesting. I enjoy discovering how she's different than I expected. I like the anticipation."
Someone's breath caught. Not Kelly's. Her gaze narrowed. "Next month we're reading an autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt."
"Lucky me. I've always been an admirer."
She didn't say the word out loud, but she sure as hell thought it. Griffith held in a grin as he watched her struggle with her temper. He suspected she was imagining smashing the cupcake she held into his face, turning on her heel and walking away. Only she wouldn't. She would restrain herself. He couldn't wait to test that restraint in every way possible.
But not tonight. Tonight was simply the next step in his plan. He wanted someone in his life—he'd decided that serial monogamy was his road to happiness and he hoped he and Kelly could come to a mutual understanding.
"Did you think the author spent too much time deconstructing her divorce in the book?" she asked. "Should we have gotten right to the journey?"
He'd thought there might be a test, but he'd hoped it would be harder. "She doesn't deconstruct her divorce. In fact there isn't much detail as to what went wrong. She does make it clear the divorce was painful."
Something he understood personally. Screwing up was never pleasant but to mess up something that fundamental sucked in a big way.
"And the part in Thailand?" Kelly asked.
"You mean Indonesia?"
She handled defeat with grace. Instead of saying something sarcastic, she flashed him an unexpected smile—one that hit him in the gut with the subtlety of a 2x4—and offered him her cupcake.
"Welcome to our book club."
"Now if you'll excuse me, I need a glass of wine."
"He was nice," Helen said as Kelly drove the handful of miles between Petal Pushers and their respective houses.
No need to ask who "he" was, Kelly thought. She'd just endured the longest three hours of her life in the same room as Griffith. She'd listened to him analyze the book, make jokes and generally charm every woman within earshot. Except her, of course. But then she was the only one to have survived being rejected by Griffith, so she was special.
"Incredibly nice," Kelly murmured.
"Now you're being sarcastic."
"I can't help it. Doesn't it strike you as the least bit odd that he wanted to join our book club? There's that mystery one in La Conner. Why doesn't he join that one?"
"He's local, like us."
Griffith was many things but "like us" was not one of them. "Can you at least admit it's slightly odd that he showed up?"
Helen considered the question. "It's unexpected, yes. But it's not a bad thing."
"Not for you."
Helen angled toward Kelly. "Come on. Griffith is gorgeous. You have to admit looking at him isn't a hardship."
No, it wasn't, not that she wanted to admit anything of the kind. He'd always been one of those guys who captured the attention of every female in a three-block radius. Of course he was tall, with sandy brown hair and brown eyes. But it wasn't the individual features so much as how they came together into one incredibly appealing man.
"I still wish he'd gone to the mystery book club. There are guys there. He'd feel more comfortable."
"Maybe you should tell him."
Kelly heard the amusement in her friend's voice and groaned. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
"A little." Helen shook her head. "Come on. Is it really so bad to have a guy like Griffith interested in you? It's been six months since you and Sven broke up. It's time to move on. Griffith is a great moving-on kind of guy."
"So speaks the woman who hasn't dated since her divorce six years ago."
"I'm very comfortable in my ‘do as I say, not as I do' role in our relationship. Come on. You can't tell me you're not the tiniest bit flattered. You have to be."
"Why? Because he's staring at me? I don't know what he wants, but I doubt it's what's you're thinking."
"Why would you say that?"
Kelly turned at the corner and headed toward her friend's house. "I'm very clear on my place in the universe."
Kelly waved her hand in front of her midsection. "I'm average at best. Not beautiful, not pretty, not ugly. Just regular."
If Griffith was looking for a fancier version of a Murphy, he should check out Olivia. Kelly hadn't seen her sister in forever, but she would literally bet the farm on the fact that Olivia was still gorgeous and glamorous and wearing a designer something. Not cargo pants bought on sale from an online farm equipment supply outlet.
"It's a family thing," she continued. "I take after my dad. We're sensible people. Hardworking. Ordinary. My mom and sister are the…"
"Exotic tulips in the garden that is your life?" Helen asked drily.
"Not the analogy I was going to use, but sure. It works."
"You're selling yourself short," Helen told her. "Worse, you're saying bad stuff about my friend and I don't appreciate that. You're not ordinary. You're lovely and funny and hardworking."
"It's amazing you don't want to have sex with me right now."
"Stop. It." Helen glared. "I mean it. Kelly, you're great. Griffith finally got his head out of his ass long enough to notice you."
"I thought you liked him."
"I do. I used the phrase for effect. What did you think?"
"Thank you." She shifted to face Kelly. "I'm serious. You're obviously over Sven. Take a chance on a great guy."
"We don't know he's great."
"I've heard rumors."
Kelly had, too. The problem wasn't Griffith. Not totally. Nor was it her still recovering from the end of a long-term relationship. She was embarrassed to admit that while Sven had surprised her when he'd said it was over, she really hadn't missed him. Or felt all that upset. Which was sad because after five years, shouldn't she have been at least a little crushed? What did it mean that she'd gone on without much more than a blink? Hadn't she been emotionally engaged at all? And if she hadn't been, what was the reason? Had he not been the one or was she somehow stunted?
Not a question she really wanted answered. Although Sven had pointed out that she'd never been in love with him. Which was true, if disconcerting to find out from a man.
"What's the worst that could happen?" Helen asked.
"If I slept with Griffith?" The list was really long—where was she supposed to start?
"Whoa, I was going to say if you talked to Griffith. I find it fascinating you jumped right into bed with him, so to speak."
"Please don't."v"Too late now. You've subconsciously told me everything."
"I haven't and it wasn't subconscious anything. I spoke out loud." Kelly pulled into Helen's driveway.
"You're trying to distract me with facts," her friend said with a grin. "But I see you for what you are."
"I'm afraid to ask what that is."
"As you should be." Helen lowered her voice. "You're a sex-starved single woman who desperately wants to get involved with Griffith but you're afraid."
Words spoken in jest that were just a little too close to the truth. Not the sex-starved part. Sex was fine, if not the amazing, earth-shattering experience the media claimed, but still. She did find Griffith intriguing and attractive and…
"He can be annoying."
"I want him to leave me alone."
Helen sighed. "At the risk of repeating myself, liar, liar."
Kelly growled in the back of her throat. "You're annoying."
"That is absolutely true. Just say it. You're interested. Intrigued, even. He's hot and you have no idea why he's suddenly interested, but you don't hate it."
"What I hate is being that transparent."
Helen hugged her, then opened the passenger door of the truck and slid to the ground. "Only to me, my sweet. Only to me. My advice is simple. Say yes."
"He hasn't asked me anything. In fact all he's done is stare at me and be everywhere I am."
"Then go find out why. Oh, and start keeping condoms in your purse. Just in case."
With that, Helen waved and walked into her house. Kelly waited until the living room lights came on before backing out of the driveway and heading home.
Kelly had no plans to take the condom advice, but confronting Griffith might not be such a bad idea. Maybe she could find out what he was up to. Because as nice as it would be to think he was interested in her, she knew for a fact her luck wasn't that good. Besides, he was Griffith Burnett. Even if she got him, she would have no idea what to do with him. Sad, but true.