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 days.
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 god like 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 girlie, 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 centre 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 centres of Europe and the United States, or at a black-tie fund-raiser 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 humour, not that he would mind seeing her smile.
“A woman’s journey to emotional and spiritual fulfilment 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.”
We hope you enjoyed this sample of Secrets of the Tulips Sisters by Susan Mallery.
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