Summer of Love by Sophie Pembroke
It’s only a summer fling…
Boutique jewelry designer Lily Thomas knows hating the boring ring her fiance gave her isn’t a good enough reason to end a seven-year relationship. Especially when settling down with Edward is the only thing she’s ever done right in the eyes of her mother–and her hometown. Besides, everyone else seems to be getting married: Lily’s best friend Cora, her cousin, her friends from work. So why not Lily?
But when Alex Harper, Lily’s high school crush, moves back to Felinfach, he shows her exactly why. She can’t pretend to be someone she’s not just to keep her fiance happy. It’s a terrible way to start a marriage, and a terrible way to live. Lily calls off her engagement, but she still needs a date to all the weddings crowding her summer calendar. Conveniently, Alex has a few weddings to attend as well.
They agree to be wedding buddies, and soon the whole town is talking about them. If everyone’s going to talk anyway, why shouldn’t Lily and Alex make the most of it? As long as they both know it’s only a summer fling…
CONTENT WARNING: May induce desire for pretty jewelry…
A Lyrical Press Contemporary Romance
All rights reserved, Lyrical Press, Inc.
“This could have been your party, you know.” Lily’s mother, Evelyn, ran a critical eye over the crowd of guests filling Cora’s parents’ house with polite chitchat and discussions about wedding favors. The terrace doors were flung open to let in the late spring sunshine, the party spilling out onto the patio, breathing in the sickly sweet smells of Mrs. Harper’s perfectly landscaped flower gardens.
Lily, for her part, planned on staying as close to the drinks table as she could manage.
“Fond though they are of me, I don’t think the Harpers would necessarily throw me an engagement party in their house.” Lily repressed a shudder at the thought. An engagement party came just below root canal surgery on her list of things she wanted. A whole room of people telling her how happy they were she was finally settling down, for her mother’s sake. And then indulging in a recital of every time Lily had screwed up as a teenager. Not fun. “Besides, they already have their own daughter’s engagement and wedding to deal with.”
Across the room, Lily’s best friend Cora sparkled with excitement, rivaling even the sizable rock on her left hand. At this distance, Lily couldn’t make out the delicate white gold band, stamped with tiny stars, or the princess-cut diamond at its centre, but she didn’t need to. She knew exactly what they looked like. That ring marked Lily’s best work to date, and her best friend would wear it for the rest of her life. Perfect.
Lily’s eyes dropped to her own ring, the boring round solitaire on yellow gold. It was a perfectly nice ring, she supposed, looked at objectively. But it wasn’t her. And really, shouldn’t the man who wanted to spend the rest of his life with her realize that, as a jewelry designer, she’d want to design and make her own ring?
Of course, some would say she should just be grateful he’d proposed at all. After seven years, people had started to talk. And Lily really didn’t want to give people a reason to talk about her, ever again.
“I’m just saying that now you’ve finally persuaded Edward to pop the question–”
“That’s not exactly how it went,” Lily interrupted, but Evelyn ignored her.
“You’ve been engaged for almost three months. I don’t understand why you don’t want to celebrate that.” Evelyn’s eyes narrowed as she focused in on Lily’s face. “You’re not planning some crazy elopement stunt, are you? Dragging that poor man off to Las Vegas or Gretna Green or somewhere? Because you know I will never forgive you. The way people would talk…”
Maybe she should. Maybe that was what she needed to make the whole thing feel real, feel more her. She wasn’t the big white wedding sort, really. But her mum was right. Depriving the small town of Felinfach of the chance to see its most wayward daughter conforming at last would never be forgiven. People would never stop talking.
“What on earth would make you think I’d elope?” Wasn’t seven years with the same man, living in the same place, pursuing the same dream enough to convince people she’d become a more stable person?
Evelyn shrugged, turning her attention to the far more interesting people around them. “Well, there was that time you ran off to Glastonbury without telling me.”
“I was sixteen!”
“Keep your voice down, Lillian.” The snap in Evelyn’s voice served as more of a reminder of that horrible summer than her words. Six months after her father left, two months after her grandfather died, and another month to wait for her sure-to-be-dismal GCSE results. Filled with a restlessness she couldn’t shake, Lily had hopped in a car with some friends and headed for the festival. Apparently the fact that Cora also absconded had slipped Evelyn’s mind.
Somehow it always did. To everyone who knew them, Cora was the good, well-behaved one of the pair, while Lily was the tear away. Never mind that they’d done everything together, from the age of ten onward, whether it was getting into trouble or studying for exams. Including getting engaged within a couple of months of each other.
Only problem was, while Cora looked serene and sparkling at this new turn of events, Lily could feel that old restlessness rising up inside her again, bubbling under her skin, waiting to break out.
“Who’s that talking to Cora?” Evelyn asked, and Lily glanced up, amazed Evelyn had found someone at the party whose life story she didn’t already know and enjoy telling to strangers, dropping her voice to a whisper for the most scandalous parts. Felinfach wasn’t a big town, and Evelyn had lived there all her life. As, obviously, had Lily. She might not be quite so well informed about her neighbors as her mother, but still. She knew things.
But not this. Beside Cora stood a man Lily couldn’t remember seeing before. Surely she’d have remembered those wide shoulders, that curling black hair? He faced away from her, so she couldn’t make out his face, but she’d been through the guest list with Cora just a few days before, and there hadn’t been any unfamiliar names, or mention of unfeasibly attractive men arriving just when the both of them were off the market.
The man looked around, and Lily felt a blush rising as he caught her staring. And it only grew hotter when a name from the guest list flashed up from her memory and she realized who he was. Alex Harper. Cora’s older, gorgeous cousin. Just enough older than them that he’d only ever seen them as kids. God, he’d grown up well… He’d always been good looking, but in a boyish way. Now…absolutely all man. Definitely man enough to make a girl a little sorry she was taken…
With a quick, sharp smile, she turned away, focusing her attention on her mother instead, until Alex lost interest and moved on. Chances were he wouldn’t remember her anyway. Cora said he’d moved back after his father died, suddenly, a month ago. He’d have plenty bigger things on his mind than a girl he half recognized.
But Evelyn foiled her plan by announcing, “I’ll go and find out,” and marching away across the room.
Lily watched her go, and saw Cora paste on her best social smile. Poor Cora. But really, she owed Lily some Evelyn time, given how often Lily had taken the blame for her. Still, probably best to be out of sight in case Cora decided to pull her in to the conversation, too. Especially since Cora only had one topic of conversation lately–wedding planning.
It was natural. In a matter of months, Cora would marry the love of her life, move into one of the little cottages on the edge of town, start a family, bake cookies, and live happily ever after. Of course she wanted to discuss her plans and dreams with her best friend.
And Lily was thrilled for her, honest she was. Only…she was supposed to be looking forward to the same future. So why wasn’t she sparkling and serene? Why did she feel trapped, now of all times, after seven reasonably happy years with Edward?
What was wrong with her that she got more excited about her friend’s happily ever after than her own?
Suddenly depressed, Lily grabbed a fresh glass of wine from the table by the door and slipped through the opening to the hallway. She knew Cora’s parents’ house as well as her own. Surely she could find somewhere private for just a few moments peace and quiet? And drinking. She definitely needed wine if she planned to seriously contemplate her future.
* * * *
Cora was still rabbiting on beside him, but since her topic hadn’t changed once in the last twenty minutes, Alex felt justified in tuning her out while he turned his attention to more interesting things. Like the blonde across the room, clearly being bored to death by a conversation with an elegant older woman whose hair didn’t move.
“And I think it’s wonderful that you’ve come home to Felinfach to settle down, Alex, I really do,” Cora said, unnecessarily, as she’d already expressed the same sentiment three times. Alex loved his cousin dearly, but God did she love to talk.
“I’m glad,” he said, also for the third time. It wasn’t a lie; his cousin’s opinion mattered to him. She tended to be an excellent judge of character, something borne out by her choice of fiancé, he felt, after a long, wine-soaked evening in the man’s company a few days before. He should ask her the blonde’s name.
“It’s just…” Cora said, and stopped. That was new. Alex paused in his consideration of the way the blonde’s hair swept across her shoulders when she shook her head, revealing a very elegant neck.
“Just?” he prompted, looking at his cousin.
Cora bit her lip. “Just… Aren’t you going to be a little bored, here in Felinfach? I mean, it’s hardly London…”
“I know. I did grow up here too, remember?” Even though it seemed like a lifetime ago, now. Once, he’d been one of the boys hanging out round the rundown old mill, causing trouble and somehow never getting caught. Before he grew up and grew responsible, of course.
“Yeah, but that was years ago.”
Alex winced at the implication about his age, even though he’d been thinking the same thing. “So maybe Felinfach’s got more exciting,” he said. Cora raised her perfectly plucked brows. “Maybe I’ve grown more boring?”
That surprised a laugh from her. “Somehow I doubt that.”
But he had, Alex knew. He didn’t want the cut and thrust of the City anymore. Didn’t want the endless parties, the late nights that became early mornings, the stress and the responsibility and the indigestion. Hell, he didn’t even really want the women that went with it all, anymore.
He, Alex Harper, was ready to settle down. Now he just needed to find the right woman to settle down with.
“Seriously, Alex,” Cora said, placing a hand on his arm. “I’m just trying to understand. It’s a huge change for you, and I know…”
She stalled, and something compelled Alex to say, “Go on.”
“I just worry that you wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for your dad.”
He shouldn’t be surprised. It was what everyone in London thought. A knee-jerk response to a traumatic event. Some of his ex-colleagues, he knew, were even placing bets on how long it would take him to ditch the countryside and move back to London.
They were going to be disappointed.
“I’ll admit, Dad going like that, and so soon after Mum died… Maybe it made me speed up my plans.” The last words his father had spoken to him, in a phone call a few days before he’d died, echoed round Alex’s head. I don’t want you to spend your life at one thing, only to realize it wasn’t what mattered at all. “But I was always going to move home eventually. Settle down. And now’s a good time. Don’t even have to worry about selling Mum and Dad’s cottage.”
Cora didn’t look entirely convinced.
“What are you even going to do here?” she asked. “Besides stripping that hideous wallpaper out of the cottage, of course.”
“Oh, you know. This and that.” Alex shrugged, trying to decide how much to tell her. “Some accounting, I guess. I’ve already been working with a few clients remotely–the Avalon Inn up the road, for one. Once I told them I was moving back permanently, they were very keen to get me on board. There’s been no accountant practicing in the town since Mr. Phillips retired last year. I’m needed here.”
Cora eyed him with suspicion. “And you think that’ll be enough of a challenge for you? After years in the City?”
“I’ve got some other plans, too.” Alex looked away. Too soon to mention his new career direction just yet. He’d wait until he had something concrete to show people. And in the meantime… “For starters, who’s the blonde?” He nodded in her direction, and realized with a start that she was watching him too. His pulse kicked up a beat. Maybe Felinfach wasn’t nearly as boring as Cora made out.
The blonde looked away again, but not before Alex saw a delightful pink color flush across her cheeks. Definitely not boring.
“Lily?” Cora said, and Alex blinked. “Don’t you remember her?”
Of course he did. He remembered her seven and stuck up a tree, and he remembered her fifteen and wearing too much glitter makeup. He remembered driving all the way to Manchester, his last summer home from university, to pick up her and Cora after their ride stranded them in Glastonbury and they got kicked off the train at Manchester Piccadilly for travelling without tickets.
He did not remember her hot.
“Well, you haven’t seen her in ten years. You’ve changed in that time too, you know.” Cora’s eyes sharpened, her smile slipping off her face. “And not only is she my best friend, she’s engaged. So don’t even think about it.”
Alex threw up his hands in defense. “Wouldn’t dream of it.” Attached women were firmly off limits, as far as he was concerned. Especially ones planning a wedding. Marriage was not something to be messed around with.
“Good.” Cora sounded mollified, at least. But then she groaned. “Oh God, here comes Evelyn. Quick, escape while you can.”
The stiff haired lady who’d been talking to Lily approached them with determination in her step. Alex did a quick search of his memory. “Lily’s mother?”
Cora nodded. “Terrifying woman. I’m serious, I’d run.”
Sounded like a plan to him. Especially since, across the room, he caught a glimpse of blonde hair disappearing behind the door to the hall. Now, where was she going? And, more importantly, should he follow?
Alex darted out of Evelyn’s way before she came close enough to require an introduction and polite conversation. Pausing at the drinks table, he helped himself to another glass of wine and considered his options. On the one hand, engagement put Lily firmly out of the running for personal entertainment. On the other…he couldn’t help but be intrigued to see how she’d grown up. Alex wanted to know what sort of man had tamed Cora’s wild child best friend. If he stayed in Felinfach as he planned, he’d need friends. And from what he remembered of Lily, she’d always known how to have fun. If Felinfach had a less boring side to it these days, Lily Thomas would know where to find it.
Mind made up, Alex grabbed a second glass of wine, and followed Lily out of the party and into the house.
* * * *
Cora’s childhood bedroom hadn’t changed in the eight years since she’d left for university. The cream walls still had their stenciled flowers up by the ceiling, and the dressmaker’s mannequin wore the same pale blue ball gown it always had. Lily paused at the bookcase, running a finger along the spines of some old favorites, remembering rainy afternoons curled up in Cora’s window seat, reading together. Until she got bored, of course, and begged Cora to come find something more interesting to do.
Lily sighed. Maybe that was the reason everyone saw her as the troublemaker. Limited attention span. Often resulted in mischief.
That, at least, was one thing she could say had changed for the better over the last decade. Precious metals and gemstones required patience; she couldn’t rush them. She’d learnt that quickly enough, when it became obvious she’d bankrupt herself before she even started if she didn’t slow down, learn what she was doing first. She’d practiced for hours, days, months with less expensive materials, until she felt confident enough to risk shaping and setting the more valuable ones.
But her patience had paid off. She just had to look at the ring on Cora’s left hand to remember that.
“I never took you for much of a reader.” She might not have recognized his body, but Alex’s voice behind her sent an instant shiver of familiarity through her.
Turning slowly to face him, she shrugged. “I like books. I like adventures.”
“Reading about them or having them?” Alex leant against the doorframe, looking too broad, too dark, too handsome for Cora’s girlish room.
“Both.” Lily tipped her head to one side and took the opportunity to really look at him, to catalogue the changes ten years had wrought in him. No longer a slender, pretty boy. He’d broadened out, become sturdier, rougher. Hotter. “It’s good to see you again, Alex.”
“I wasn’t sure you’d recognized me.” Hands in the pockets of his perfectly cut grey trousers, Alex cast a sheepish look at the carpet. “To be honest, I didn’t realize it was you until Cora told me. You’ve changed.”
“Ten years will do that to a girl.”
“Has it really been that long?”
Lily just nodded. No reason for him to remember, but she’d never forget. The last time she’d seen Alex, he’d been dropping her home after the Glastonbury debacle. His parting words–“Chin up. You wanted to go, you had fun. Own your decision and face the consequences.”–had been the only thing to get her through the next two weeks of misery with her mother. And they’d stayed with her since. Somehow, some words of advice from a guy only four years older than her, a wise and worldly twenty at the time, had become a guiding principle in her life.
“Cora tells me you’re moving home,” she said instead, backing up against the whitewashed desk as Alex came into the room.
“Well, back to Felinfach, at least. Mum and Dad’s old cottage is a bit ramshackle, but…” He shrugged, a smile twisting at his mouth. “I always had an affection for the place.”
“I heard about your dad,” Lily said, remembering abruptly. “And your mum, last year. I’m sorry. I always liked them.”
“I think Dad had a bit of a soft spot for you, too,” Alex replied. “He always liked someone who did what was right for them and damn the consequences.”
Lily tried to smile. Was that how Alex remembered her? She wasn’t sure she could still remember that girl, these days.
“So you’ve come to sort out all our money troubles?” At least she’d remembered he was in finance. Faced with the reality of Alex Harper, facts were harder to hold onto. God, if she’d thought him crush-worthy at twenty, it couldn’t compare to him at thirty. Not that he’d ever thought of her at all. Or remembered her, apparently.
“Actually…”Alex glanced away, then looked back, his eyes sharper. “I’ve got some new plans. A new direction, so to speak.”
Which sounded interesting. “Care to elaborate?”
He shook his head. “Not yet. Not until I’m sure where it’s going.”
She thought about pressing him for details, but from the way his gaze darted aside, it was pretty clear he didn’t want to talk about it.
Alex sat on the bed, looking even more out of place against the pink ruffles, and patted the duvet beside him. “Come on, then. Catch me up. How’s the last decade been for you?”
“I don’t know where to start.” Lily left a good few inches between them when she sat. Somehow, she had a feeling being alone in a bedroom with Alex wasn’t a situation girls normally got out of with all their clothes intact.
“How about telling me about your fiance.”
“Fiance?” Alex nodded at her left hand, and Lily blinked down at the ring she hadn’t designed. “Oh, that. Yeah. It’s…complicated.”
Alex raised an eyebrow. “Did he ask you to marry him?”
“At the top of the Eiffel Tower on Valentine’s day.” Lily sighed, remembering the way the other diners had stopped and stared when he got down on one knee, even as three other men were doing the same at other tables. They’d all had their pictures taken together afterward. It was, by far, the most conventionally romantic proposal ever conceived. Which was Edward all over. He knew the conventional, appropriate thing to do for every situation. And he did it, every time. Her mother thought that made him the perfect man. Lily thought it made him predictable. Which she’d liked, when nothing else in her life was.
“And did he give you this ring?” Alex asked, interrupting her thoughts.
“Unfortunately.” He frowned at her answer, and she felt compelled to explain, “I’m a jewelry designer.”
Alex winced. “Ah. He didn’t think you’d want to design your own?”
“No.” She really needed to stop sounding so bitter about that.
“Still. That aside, and this is the crucial bit: when he asked, and when he gave you this ring–did you say yes?”
No real way out of that one. “Yes. But…”
“No buts. What, are you going to be one of those couples who get engaged but never get around to getting married?”
Lily thought about the way her mother was already planning the perfect day in her head, and the catalogues of invitation samples Edward had started leaving around the flat. “Apparently not.”
“Why would you want to be?” Alex’s eyes were wide and disbelieving.
Oh, honestly. Talk about a double standard. “Don’t tell me you wouldn’t be sprinting the other way if someone told you that you had to get married this summer. The way Cora tells it, you’ve been running around with every single woman in the Greater London area for the last decade.”
“Maybe I’m ready to settle down.” The words were casual, but Alex’s eyes were serious.
“Really? That’s why you moved home?” Of course it was. Why else would he leave the bright lights and bonuses of the City? God, she was an idiot. Lily bit the inside of her lip. “Sorry, then. I’m just… I look at Cora, and how happy she is to be marrying Rhys, and I think…maybe I’m not cut out for marriage.”
“Maybe you’re not marrying the right man.”
It wasn’t as if she hadn’t had the thought herself, but hearing it in Alex’s calm, unconcerned voice made something sharp stick in Lily’s lungs. “That’s not it. He’s… Edward and I have been together since I was nineteen. He’s everything I ever wanted. It’s not his fault.”
Alex threw up his hands in mock self-defense. “Sorry. What do I know? Back in town less than a week, remember? I’m sure you know what you’re doing.”
But while his words sounded good, his eyes still said, Who are you trying to kid? “So, where is he today?”
“He had to work.” Jerking up off the bed, Lily headed for the door. “Sorry, I think I hear Cora calling me.” Never mind that Cora was probably still having her ear bent by Evelyn; Alex didn’t know that. And Lily needed to be somewhere else, quite desperately. Somewhere where people wanted her to marry Edward. Not with someone who just made the restlessness rise up and try to break free. “Good to see you again, Alex.”
She didn’t look back as she shut the door behind her.
* * * *
Alex leant back on his elbows as he watched Lily’s blond head disappear behind the door. Who was she trying to kid? No way she wanted to get married to this guy. So why was she going along with it? What had happened to the Lily he remembered? The one who’d fight anything she didn’t like, tooth and nail? Maybe he’d never known her well when they were younger, but back then you only had to spend a few minutes in the same room with her to know that Lily never backed down from a fight, and stood up for what she felt.
So, what had changed? The woman who’d sat beside him on the bed hadn’t seemed to feel anything at all except vague unease. Even her defense of her fiance sounded like she was just repeating the words she thought she should say, the things that should be true.
But they weren’t, obviously.
Why would Cora let her go along with this farce of an engagement? Why hadn’t she stopped her?
Jumping to his feet, Alex was halfway to the door, ready to go and demand some answers from his cousin, when another thought occurred. Why did he care? What did it matter to him if Lily married a guy that wasn’t right for her?
It didn’t, of course.
It was just… He believed in marriage. He believed that it mattered, that it wasn’t something to be rushed into. Once he found the right person, he knew he’d be ready to commit for life.
His parents had, and they had gone on strong for almost forty years. And his brother, Gareth, he’d married the love of his life, given Alex two perfect nephews, and settled back to enjoy life.
It wasn’t that Alex was a romantic fool or anything. He just thought marriage should be taken seriously.
Lily obviously felt differently if she planned to go ahead with marrying some idiot who didn’t even let her design her own ring. Not that it was his problem, or any of his business. But for the sake of the sanctity of marriage…
Maybe Alex should do what he could to help her see that settling for less than she deserved was a really stupid idea.
Decision made, Alex jumped to his feet, ready to re-join the party. But when he reached the door, he found Rhys standing outside, looking confused.
“Was that Lily?” he asked, looking back toward the stairs where, presumably, Lily had escaped.
“Yeah, we were catching up,” Alex said.
Rhys raised his eyebrows. “Well, that explains why Cora was looking for her. Word to the wise, mate. She’s very, very taken.”
“I know,” Alex said, a little stung at the implication. “Like I say, we were just catching up. Been a long ten years.”
“Yeah.” Rhys studied him with a steady gaze. “Look, it’s none of my business anyway. But you know what your cousin’s like. She gets these ideas, however ridiculous, and then she decides to meddle. For my sake, save me from the meddling? It’s crazy enough here with all the wedding stuff.”
Alex grinned. “Sure thing.” After all, what did it matter to him who Lily Thomas married anyway?