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Lily Edmonds gently pulled another soft petal from the white daisy she held in her hand. Only one petal remained, and she looked down at the pile accumulating on the green picnic table on the back deck of her apartment. It was a brisk December day, deceptively cold in Atlanta, but Lily didn’t feel the chill.
He loves me not. She tossed the stem to the ground. It had been a week since Bob’s phone call shattered her world and undermined all of the confidence Lily had built up in her thirty years on earth. She glanced down at the three-carat, emerald-cut diamond, sparkling on her left finger and again felt a spurt of tears.
“Keep the ring, Lily,” Bob had said at the end of the call. “We did have a great time together, and I’ll always care about you. I am sorry.”
He was sorry?
After spending almost five years together, building a relationship, planning their future, talking about the children they would have, the life they would live, he was, simply, sorry.
Once she found out the reason he was dumping her, Lily had been furious. She still was. She had no idea how she would ever get over the betrayal. Her best friend, Avery Putnam, was expecting Lily and Bob to stay with her and her family for the holidays on Indigo Island. Lily knew she should call Avery and tell her, but she couldn’t make herself pick up the telephone. Denial was a powerful coping technique, and Lily was guilty of pretending if she didn’t tell anyone Bob had broken off their engagement, it might not be real. Pretending had become her life and how she’d been able to go to work at the restaurant each evening, a forced smile painted on her face.
Her routine had saved her. For the past week, at Alfredo’s Italian Restaurant in Buckhead, she had focused on her work as a pastry chef, and she continued to be especially proud of her ricotta cheesecake and Tiramisu she’d learned to create during culinary school. She added her own twists to make her confections uniquely hers and a patron favorite at Alfredo’s.
Lily swallowed and pushed back tears when she thought about other plans she and Bob had planned after their wedding—buying a building downtown and turning it into a bakery. Gone, she thought in despair. All her dreams were gone, erased by one phone call, and Bob no longer took her calls. Instead, he texted, What’s the point? It’s over.
Lily stood up and stretched her arms to the sky. The backyard of her apartment was as sad in winter as her heart. The grass was brown. The leaves had fallen from the giant oak trees gracing her neighborhood, leaving bare branches beseeching an empty grey sky. Lily had always made it a point to have a sunny floral arrangement in her apartment at all times. Just before Bob’s call, she’d purchased two dozen of her favorite white daisies from the flower store on the corner. She hadn’t even made a dent in the bunch during her new daily petal-plucking ritual. As she walked inside to get ready for work, Lily stared at the bouquet, resigned. She could pick petals for the rest of the week, but it wouldn’t matter what each daisy told her, she would never be able to change his heart.
As always, Alfredo’s was packed with hungry diners who were the who’s who of Atlanta. For the most part, Lily worked busily at her pastry station, hidden, while the majority of the kitchen and wait staff, mostly male and Italian, bustled around her. Lily often thought she’d been hired fresh out of culinary school due more to her dark, glossy hair and chocolate brown eyes—so large in her small face she sometimes felt like a cartoon character—than she had been recruited for her pastry skills. She definitely could pass for Italian; Lily quickly swept her long hair into a topknot and put a white chef’s hat on her head.
Her ingredients were ready to go so she pulled a white apron on to protect her black, long sleeved t-shirt and black pants, her work uniform, which her manager insisted on just in case Lily was ever asked to come to the front of the house to talk to the guests. Luckily, that didn’t happen often.
“You never know, bella,” Sergio had said when he hired her, with his attempt at a seductive smile. “I would ask to meet you.”
She’d been at the restaurant almost three years now, and she might still feel like the shy little girl she’d been when she’d first been engulfed in the sunshine of Avery’s friendship so many years ago, but Lily had been able to hold her own with the male employees of Alfredo’s. She was all business in the kitchen.
Lily carefully added the finishing touch to a chocolate mousse, squeezing the cone-shaped pastry sleeve in her hand to write Happy Birthday, James on the top of the cake.
“Lily, table seven wants you to personally deliver the cake. Go on,” Sergio appeared at her side and pulled her chef’s hat from her head.
“Oh.” She fought the impulse to drag her hat back on and continue to hide. “I’m really not in the mood,” she said. “Just have Tony take it over.”
“The Putnams insist on having you deliver it. They tell me you’re part of their family? Nice family,” Sergio said.
Lily huffed out a breath. Her best friend had left her numerous voice mail messages all week, and sent texts Lily hadn’t returned because she just couldn’t face telling Avery about Bob. That would make her broken engagement real, permanent. No way could she keep the awful news a secret in front of Avery. Lily felt flustered as she pulled her top knot off and allowed her hair to cascade down her back.
She picked up the cake and walked into the small, intimate dining room, determined to find a smile and congratulate James. Then she could flee back to her kitchen and blissful pretending that everything would be okay and she would wake up from the nightmare of Bob’s defection. Avery grinned and jumped up to hug Lily the moment she spotted her. Lily managed to shift her stance to protect the cake. Mark, Avery’s husband, her brother James, and father Richard all stood politely.
“Hey, Avery, hello everyone,” Lily said, forcing a smile. “Happy birthday, James.”
“Surprise!” Avery said.
“Lily, dear, so good to see you,” Avery’s dad said and kissed her cheek as soon as she’d put the cake in front of James.
“You, too, all of you,” Lily said, bending to give Avery’s mom, Evalyn, a kiss on her cheek.
“How are you, dear? How’s Bob? When is the big day? We barely survived Avery’s wedding and now, well, I demand to be involved in planning yours,” Evalyn said. “You’re my second daughter, you know.”
Lily swallowed hard and nodded, but no way could she speak.
“You okay?” Avery asked softly as she wrapped Lily in a big hug. “I’ve been so worried. What is going on? Is it Bob?”
Lily nodded for the third time, purposefully avoiding eye contact with her beautiful blonde friend. Instead, she moved on to give James a hug. Even through her haze of misery, she noticed that for once he didn’t have a date. “Happy Birthday, James. Hope you all enjoy the cake. It’s so good to see you all. And Merry Christmas, if I don’t see you again before then.”
“It’s only December tenth, Lily, we’ll see you before Christmas. You’re coming to Indigo remember?” Avery said, hands on hips, watching her closely.
Lily wanted to escape their concerned eyes. “Would you like me to light the candle? Are we singing?”
James grimaced. “No, of course we aren’t singing.”
Lily remembered his embarrassment at public displays like a birthday cake, and she was thankful. Now she could make her exit.
“Well, enjoy. It’s my special chocolate mousse! I’ve got to get back to the kitchen,” she said as cheerfully as she could and bolted back to the kitchen.
Back in the safety of her work space—the comfort of heat, routine chaos, creative mixing, and the smells of garlic and tomato sauce—Lily relaxed a little. She had to tell Avery, she just didn’t feel ready to face the concerns, the pity, the questions.
And then, Avery appeared at her station. “Lily, we’re all worried about you. What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Lily lied, her face flushed with guilt.
“Honestly, Lils, it’s not even James’s birthday for another week. You should know that.”
“I’ve just been busy at work. You know, we had all those catering jobs over Thanksgiving, just the busy holiday season,” Lily said, rolling pastry with her rolling pin, preparing the wafer thin dough her famous Sicilian Cannoli deserved. “You’re going to get me in trouble being back here.”
If anything, the chefs—all men—appreciated the appearance of the tall, beautiful blonde. Suddenly, they all found a reason to saunter past the pastry station, a miniature white-hatted parade.
“Bull shit. I told Sergio I was coming back here. Are you and Bob in a fight?” Avery said, blue eyes flashing. “I’m not budging until you tell me the truth. In fact, I want you to come home with me after work. Mark and I drove separately and he’s riding home with my parents, leaving our car. So tell me now, or after work. Your choice.”
Lily felt the tears well up in her eyes before she could stop them. They rolled down both cheeks, landed on the pastry dough, and ruined the batch, the moisture making the delicate dough too sticky. She’d have to start over.
She was starting over.
“Oh, Avery,” she said, hurrying around the stainless steel counter to embrace her friend. “Bob broke our engagement. He said he’s in love with someone else. They’re getting married this Christmas!” Her voice ended in a wail.
Avery wrapped her arm around Lily and escorted her out the kitchen’s back door into the chilly evening. She walked to her car, opened the passenger door and pushed Lily, still wearing her kitchen whites and chef hat, gently inside.
Sobs wracked Lily’s body as Avery climbed into the driver’s seat.
“He was an asshole, Lils,” Avery said, her musical voice for once hard. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t figure out a way to tell you I didn’t think he was good for you long term. You only saw one side of him.”
“I loved him, Aves,” Lily managed.
“I know,” Avery rubbed circles on Lily’s back. “I know you did. But you deserve much better.”
Lily couldn’t speak anymore, and Avery seemed at a loss for words, stroking Lily’s tangled, damp hair after the chef’s hat had fallen off.
“I need to go back in there, finish my shift,” Lily gulped.
“You’re in no condition,” Avery was already taking over like she always did, like Lily had let her take over for years. “I’m texting mom right now to tell Sergio that you’re very ill. He’ll be fine. Most of the tables are through desert anyway,” Avery said.
Lily wondered what she would do without Avery. Only Avery knew how far Lily had come, overcoming the heartbreak of her teens to emerge as a strong, independent woman. Avery had been there every step of the way. In fact, all of the Putnams had been like a second family, even Avery’s brothers, Blake, James, and Denton were like siblings to her despite the one time she and James crossed a boundary in the back of his car her senior year in high school. They’d both been drinking, and later had promised each other that it would never happen again.
Lily had imagined that once she and Bob had become engaged, she wouldn’t rely on the Putnams’ emotional support again. She would get married and start her happy life. Now she was starting over. Alone. Once again, she would need to lean on Avery, maybe even her family. Lily covered her face and tried to stop the stream of tears and Avery drove away from Alfredo’s.
“Lily, are you awake?” Avery asked, pulling Lily from her dreams.
She opened her eyes and smiled wanly at Avery. The whole night came crashing back—crying, confessing that Bob had dumped her for someone else, leaving work. And now she had to face life alone. Again. Lily looked around the guest bedroom at Avery’s house, which reminded her of the guest bedroom at the Putnam Estate, the same soothing light pink color scheme. She’d spent many nights at the Putnams’ throughout her life, and in almost every case, she’d been there because of an overwhelmingly sad event. Now, she was repeating the pattern, a pathetic guest in Avery and Mark’s new home. A chill moved down her spine as she forced herself to ignore the old memories trying to bubble up in her mind. Bob’s betrayal was enough to deal with for now. When did he stop loving me? Why did he stop loving me?
“It’s lunch time,” Avery said gently, pulling back the thick silk curtains to reveal a grey, rainy day. “You slept through breakfast.”
Lily slowly sat up. “Thanks for bringing me here, Aves.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t call me the minute he broke up with you. The jerk. You know what Mark said about him right?”
“Boring Bob?” Lily repeated, a small smile crossing her face despite herself.
Avery’s husband found Bob a boring snob who only wanted to talk about money and social status.
“Yes, well, he has appended the nickname and now it’s Boring Bastard Bob. You like it? I do.”
Avery plopped down on the end of the queen bed. She wore a simple black cashmere turtleneck and fitted, dark jeans. Her long blonde hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail. Her gorgeous blue eyes were filled with love and concern.
“You have to be sick of my pathetic life,” Lily said. “I really thought I was on the road to my future. I really believed he loved me.”
“Well, after you went to sleep last night, I did a little snooping,” Avery said, her face drawn and sad. “Bob is planning to marry Rebecca Postle. I don’t know who set them up, his parents or hers, but it’s an arranged marriage of sorts,” Avery said.
“How could he possibly agree to marry her when he’d asked me to marry him?” Lily demanded, playing with the diamond ring on her finger. “I know I never was good enough for Bob’s family.”
“Bob’s not good enough for you if, after five years and a proposal, he caves in to his parents’ wishes. I mean really? Who does that?” Avery’s blue eyes flashed with indignation.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Lily fought back a fresh rush of tears. “Or think about it. I can’t imagine him, kissing her, making love to her.”
“You know what? You need to get angry, and then you need to realize the Postles have done you a big favor. You are better than that, Lils, you are. Good riddance is all I say. You’re keeping the ring right?”
Lily nodded. She hadn’t given it too much thought except to toy with idea of returning it so that she could see Bob again, make him explain himself in person, but after Avery’s outburst, she realized she needed to stop crying. She did need to stop thinking about Bob in present tense.
“Good. That’s a little safety net right there. I know you and Bob had discussed you opening a bakery at one point. That ring could be a nice start to a savings account for that dream.”
“I can’t think about all of that yet,” Lily said. “I don’t want to think about anything, but he’s still in my dreams. It’s like he’s haunting me. And it’s almost the holidays. This is the trouble with Christmas, and every other major holiday. It’s a time for family and love. And once again, I’m alone.”
“You have me, and my family. Mom and I are leaving for Indigo Island tomorrow and you’re coming, too,” Avery said. She excitedly reached for Lily’s hand. “It will be the best thing for you to get away and regroup. We’ll have fun like when we were kids. You have time to stop your mail, clean out your refrigerator, and pack your clothes. We leave in the helicopter in the morning.”
“I can’t,” Lily finally made a move to get out of the comfy bed so she could face the day and the rest of her life. “I have to work. It’s December, the restaurant is crazy busy.”
“I told Alfredo you needed time off,” Avery said, very sure of herself—like always. “And you do. If you want it, he’ll give you your job back when you return. I even helped line up a temporary pastry chef. It’s your choice about whether you return after the holidays. I’d rather have you start your own business,” Avery said, like it was the most natural thing in the world to arrange her friend’s life.
Always so willing to help, Lily thought wryly. To fix her life. She knew she had to stand on her own, but Lily had to admit it felt good to be taken care of after such a blow.
“You’re incredible. You really are. Thank you, Aves,” Lily said, her heart lightened a little bit at the thought of a trip to Indigo Island.
The remote Sea Island was like a second home to her. She’d even thought it would be fun to open her bakery there, but Bob had laughed off that idea as unreasonable.
“So let’s get started. We won’t return until after New Year’s. A whole new year and a new start when we get back.”
Lily looked down at the diamond ring sparkling on her finger and swallowed a sob. She wasn’t quite ready to take it off. And where would she keep it safe, anyway? She took a deep breath and stared out at the grey day. Another new start.
End of Excerpt