Excerpt: Primrose Lane

CHAPTER 1

Gardening had once been Olivia Davenport’s favorite pastime. Her mother and grandmother had both been avid gardeners. They’d passed on their love of flowers to Olivia and taught her to appreciate the simple pleasure of being at one with nature.

Olivia hadn’t picked up a trowel or hoe in more than two years. She’d lost the desire to carefully tend the tender shoots and bulbs only to have them blossom and then die. But here she was now, sitting in the middle of an overgrown garden on the Gallaghers’ estate with her trusty trowel in hand.

As the event planner for Greystone Manor, she took care of all the details—nothing was too big or too small. Including ensuring the gardens were shipshape for the upcoming outdoor wedding season.

She looked up from under her wide-brimmed sunhat at the imposing granite mansion casting a shadow over the fragrant garden. Eight months before, on a dark and dreary September night, a thick fog rolling off the Atlantic had forced her to seek shelter in the coastal town of Harmony Harbor. Little did she know then, as she’d spied the fairy-tale castle rising from the mist, that Greystone Manor would become her home. The place where she’d reinvent herself. The place where she’d become Dana Templeton.

No one here knew she was missing Boston socialite Olivia Davenport. No one knew she’d once been a mother and a wife. No one knew that for the past week the memories had been threatening to bring her to her knees.

She never knew when they would strike. Sometimes they were like a thief in the night; coming out of the darkness to pounce on her, stealing her breath and the tiny bit of contentment she’d managed to carve out for herself in her new life. At other times, they were like a warm, all encompassing hug that she never wanted to end.

But it didn’t seem to matter if the memories were good or bad, they had one thing in common: the power to send her to that dark place she’d escaped from not so very long ago. She supposed it said something that she actually cared whether she ended up back there or not. There’d been a time when she hadn’t.

It was the anniversaries. They were piling up on one another. Today was brutal. Tomorrow would be worse. It was Mother’s Day. But Olivia had no choice but to do her job.

That wasn’t entirely true. She had a choice: there was always a choice. It wasn’t like she had to work for a living. But in some ways, she credited her job for saving her life. Staying busy, filling her mind and time with work, helped her cope.

Her job as Greystone’s event planner had given her a sense of purpose, a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. And the Gallagher women had given her something even more precious—their friendship.

So, no matter how tempting it was to stay in bed tomorrow with the blankets pulled over her head, Olivia would do her best to make the day special for both her friends and the other mothers staying at the manor. She’d keep the crippling memories at bay the same way she had for the past week—antianxiety pills and sleeping pills.

They were the same weapons she’d used in the past. However, now she was using them not only to help with the pain of remembering, but also using them to fight the feeling of impending doom. She didn’t worry she’d become addicted. She just needed a little help to get through the next thirty-six hours. Admittedly, she’d doubled up on that help today.

Her nerves were frayed because of the phone calls. The ones she wouldn’t answer because she recognized his number. She’d have to, eventually. Stanley Morton wasn’t a man who gave up. But he couldn’t hurt her anymore. He’d already done his worst. Now it was probably something as mundane as changing the ownership on the brownstone. Except, in her mind, even something that small could grow like a pertinacious weed and suck her back into her old life.

Tossing a clump of yellowtail into the growing pile beside her, she did her best to push thoughts of Stanley and his phone calls out of her head. She couldn’t afford to be paralysed by worry today. Her schedule wouldn’t permit it.

At three that afternoon, fifteen children between the ages of four and ten were scheduled to gather in the conference room to paint miniature flowerpots. Each pot would hold one of the pink tulips Olivia was now carefully trying to dislodge from the greedy hands of spring soil. She was determined that the mothers would enjoy their flowers for more than a few days and did her best to keep the roots intact.

Smiling when she lifted the entire pink tulip, bulb and all, from the ground, she transferred it to one of the small pots. The flower symbolized happiness and good wishes, which, in her opinion, made them the perfect choice for the children to give to their mothers.

No sooner had the thought passed through her mind than a memory from three years earlier sprang to life right before her eyes. She clearly saw her little boy carrying a white wicker breakfast tray to where she sat in a canopied bed. Noting how he struggled under the weight of the tray, she reached out to help him. Cooper warned her off with a determined lift of his little chin.

He was six, pale and skinny from another round of treatments for leukemia, and it made it next to impossible not to try and help him. Worrying her bottom lip between her teeth, she clasped her hands tightly on her lap to keep from doing so. From beneath his Boston Red Sox hat, he rewarded her with a proud smile that reached his blue eyes as he placed the tray on the bed.

He’d made her breakfast, a juicy orange peeled and torn into segments, a bowl of his favorite cereal, Coco Puffs. He held up a painted pot that contained a perfect pink tulip. He’d remembered the meaning. She reached out to hug him. Instead she grabbed thin air.

Her eyes grew wet, the grounds a blurred blob of green and blue as she checked to be sure no one had witnessed the moment. She lowered her empty arms to her sides. Two years ago tomorrow, she’d buried her son. This year, the anniversary fell on Mother’s Day.

She didn’t know who’d she’d been trying to fool. Herself, obviously. Because no matter how much medication she’d taken today or would take tomorrow, it wouldn’t be enough to keep the memories at bay or her emotions in check. And wouldn’t that be embarrassing . . . and possibly terrifying for the children. Maybe her good friend and boss, Sophie Gallagher, would take over the craft session for her.

No sooner had the idea passed through Olivia’s mind than she heard Sophie’s voice coming from the patio on the other side of the ancient oak trees and boxwood hedge. Olivia took it as a good omen and was pushing to her feet to wave her friend over when another voice joined Sophie’s. Deep and rich with a seductive rumble that Olivia felt straight down to her rubber-boot-encased toes. She immediately dropped to her knees, wincing when she landed on the edge of the trowel.

Ridiculously handsome, dark-haired, blue-eyed men didn’t typically send Olivia to ground and into hiding, but this particular one did. And it wasn’t because of the temptation of his alluring face and seductive voice or that lately he’d played a starring role in her dreams—for which she put the entire blame on her medication. No, it was because, when Finn Gallagher looked at her, she had an uncomfortable feeling he saw past her disguise and knew exactly what she was hiding.

There was another reason for her discomfort. But she didn’t want to acknowledge it because, once she did, she’d have to face her feelings.

“Have you seen Dana?” asked the man with the sea-blue eyes that seemed to see through to Olivia’s very soul. “Grams is worried about her. She thinks Dana’s coming down with something.”

Olivia stiffened at the sarcastic edge in Finn’s voice at the same time her heart picked up speed. It seemed the universe wouldn’t be happy until she faced every uncomfortable and worrisome thought and feeling today. Any hope of achieving a Zenlike state in the garden was shot thanks to Finn’s matchmaking grandmother.

Oh yes, Olivia knew exactly what Kitty Gallagher was up to. The seventysomething woman was hardly secretive about her determination to find her grandson a wife.

And sadly, Kitty’s recent successes with Finn’s older and younger brothers led the older woman to believe she had a gift.

She was also highly motivated. A wife would keep Finn from returning to the Congo to serve with Doctors Without Borders. He’d been badly injured in March when rebels attacked the hospital where he’d been working.

“I just saw her a little while ago. She seemed fine to me.”

Olivia heard the frown in Sophie’s voice. Four months pregnant, head over heels in love with her husband Liam, an extremely hot and sweet firefighter, and busy raising their adorable eight-year-old Mia and managing the manor, Sophie wouldn’t have a clue what Kitty was up to.

“Come on, you can’t seriously think the woman is fine, Soph.”

And there it was, the thing Olivia didn’t want to exam too closely—Finn and his resemblance to her late husband Nathan. Not so much in looks despite them both having dark hair and blue eyes; Nathan had been handsome but Finn was stop-and-stare gorgeous.

It was the way Finn spoke about her, the scorn in his voice that reminded her of Nathan. Finn Gallagher didn’t like her. Admittedly, she hadn’t spent much time in Finn’s company. Intentional on his part, she thought. He did his best to hide his feelings, but she could tell he’d judged her and found her lacking.

Not that anyone else would notice—Finn was unfailingly polite whenever they crossed paths. But he would be, wouldn’t he? He was a Gallagher after all. One of the good guys, men who were raised to serve and protect.

“Well, I did think she was fine, Finn, but obviously you think I’m missing something,” Olivia heard Sophie say. Her friend sounded a little ticked with Finn too. Which Olivia found somewhat gratifying.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean for it to come out that way. Blame Grams. I’m running a little low on patience these days thanks to her.”

“You can’t blame Kitty for trying to keep you here. She’s worried about you, Finn. So are Liam and your dad. Are you sure you’re not rushing things? It hasn’t been that long since you were in a wheelchair.”

“Your days must go a lot faster than mine. I’ve been out of the chair for more than six weeks, Soph. I’ve booked my flight. I leave the day after Griff and Ava get back,” he said, referring to his oldest brother and his wife. The couple were honeymooning in Italy.

“You haven’t told them yet, have you?”

“No, I’ve been putting it off.”

Olivia felt sorry for Finn. Yes, he was judgemental and not overly friendly toward her, but she knew how much he loved his family. It would be difficult for him to say goodbye, especially knowing how much they wanted him to stay.

“They’ll miss you. We all will.” There was a smile in Sophie’s voice when she added, “So will Miller. He’s gotten used to having someone at home with him all day. Down boy. Here, go fetch.”

Miller, the Gallaghers’ golden retriever, gave a happy bark, his paws scrabbling on the flagstone patio as he went after whatever Sophie had thrown.

“Jeez, you’re almost as good as Grams and Dad with the guilt thing.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel guilty. So, tell me what you think is wrong with Dana.”

Oh no, it sounded like they were walking toward the other end of the patio—the end that would lead them onto the garden path on which Olivia was currently kneeling. She awkwardly got to her feet and then duck-walked to the back of the garden. Branches and dried out stems from the overgrown perennials got caught on her hat as she made her way to the back hedges to duck out of view.

She was reaching up to pull off the leaves when Finn said, “What I think or what Grams thinks?”

“It’s not the same?”

“Nope. Grams thinks her precious Dana has migraines. I don’t know what it is about that woman, but to hear Grams tell it, Dana Templeton is a saint.”

If Olivia didn’t know what Kitty was up to, she might have smiled. But the sarcasm in Finn’s voice would have immediately wiped it away. He really didn’t like her. She didn’t know what she’d ever done to him. He certainly didn’t take after his grandmother and great-grandmother Colleen, who were kind and welcoming. Olivia didn’t know where she’d be right now if not for Colleen and Kitty Gallagher.

“I don’t know what your problem with Dana is, Finn. She’s one of the sweetest women I know. She’s been a wonderful friend to me and everyone at the manor. She’s tireless. She’d give you the shirt off her back if you asked.”

Take that, Finn Gallagher, Olivia thought, her lips lifting in a grateful smile.

“Well, if I’m not mistaken, the sweetest woman you know is using, Soph.”

Olivia lifted her hand to cover her outraged gasp. Using? How on earth did he come to the conclusion she was doing drugs? Just before her hand reached her mouth, her eyes dropped to the palm-shaped leaf attached to the glove. She must have removed it from her straw hat. Distracted by the conversation between Sophie and Finn, she hadn’t realized she’d crumpled it in her gloved hand.

She recognized the leaf’s shape almost immediately—monkshood. A member of the buttercup family, its showy blue flowers would bloom midsummer. And while it was a tall and lovely perennial that would grow beautifully in the shady spot at the back of the garden, there was one problem. It was poisonous. In the language of flowers, monkshood symbolized a warning that a deadly foe was near.

Finn’s voice penetrated her panic. “You don’t seem surprised.”

“I’m not. But she’s not using illegal drugs. I can’t tell you how I know that, but I do. I think she’s hiding from someone, Finn. I just wish she’d open up and let us help her.”

“You might want to find a way to get her to do that sooner rather than later, because I have a feeling your friend is in more trouble than you know.”

She wasn’t in trouble. She’d been getting better. As soon as Finn left, she’d be fine. Kitty would stop trying to match her with her grandson and the most difficult anniversary will have passed. And somehow Olivia would find a way to deal with Stanley. As she carefully removed the gardening gloves, she wondered if it was her late husband’s best friend or Finn Gallagher who was her deadly foe.

An animal brushed against her back and she released a startled yelp, throwing the gloves in the air. A black cat rubbed against her as he came around to sit at her side. She pressed a hand to her chest and bowed her head. “A meow would have been nice, Simon. You scared the life out of me.” He meowed. “A little late,” she informed him.

She glanced at the cat, following the direction of his bright blue gaze. A fortysomething woman strode toward them carrying a broom. She had a silver streak in the front of her dark hair and wore a short-sleeve black uniform dress with a black and white apron. It was a woman from housekeeping. Ivy, Olivia thought her name was. She helped out at the events too. Her thin lips turned down when she spotted Simon, her hand tightening around the broom.

“What have you been up to, Simon? She doesn’t look happy with you.” Olivia put a protective arm around him. She wasn’t really a cat person, but she’d grown fond of Simon. He had an odd habit of showing up whenever Olivia needed a friend.

Like Colleen, he knew all her secrets. At least Olivia didn’t have to worry about the truth getting out. Although, she did have a small fright when she’d discovered Colleen had written everyone’s stories in a leather-bound book—The Secret Keeper of Harmony Harbor—and it had gone missing.

Since the manor had been extensively searched, Olivia’s fears had been somewhat alleviated. Even if there was a book, she assumed it had gone missing long before Colleen died. So the Gallagher matriarch wouldn’t have had the opportunity to write down the secrets Olivia had shared not long after she’d arrived at the manor.

“Is there a problem, Ivy?” she asked when the woman approached. At the sound of Finn and Sophie calling to Miller, Olivia scooped up Simon and came to her feet.

The woman sucked on her teeth, lifting her chin at Simon. “Is he your cat?”

“In a way, I suppose he is. We’ve all adopted him. He belongs to the manor, something of a mascot.” Olivia smiled.

The woman didn’t return her smile. Her eyes flicked beyond Olivia then back to her. “I’d suggest you all find yourself a new one before this one lands you in hot water with the Health Department.”

That’s all they needed. “Was he in the kitchen? He’s a very good mouser, so perhaps—”

“There weren’t no mice around. He was—”

At the sound of Miller barking, Simon hissed and jumped from Olivia’s arms. She turned to see the golden retriever galloping down the path toward her, his tongue lolling happily out of his mouth. Then he veered off the path and into the garden, tromping on the pink tulips and anything else that got in his way.

“Miller, come out of the garden this . . .” Olivia began, but the friendly retriever gave her a playful bark and then picked up . . . her glove. “Miller, no, drop the glove. Drop it now!”