You read it here first! Our FREE READ for April is from Heidi Rice, who brings us an exclusive deleted scene from Summer at Willow Tree Farm.
Here’s an exclusive snippet just for The Pink Heart Society from the prologue of my latest book, Summer at Willow Tree Farm, which releases in print April 19, 2018 from HQ Stories.
Is home always where the heart is?
When Ellie spent a summer with her mum on a Wiltshire commune in the 90's it was a bigger disaster than Leo DiCaprio’s trip aboard the Titanic, so fleeing to America seemed a perfect plan.
But now, with her marriage falling apart, running back to her mum seems like the only option for her and her son Josh. She wasn’t expecting Art, the boy she once had a crush on to still be working at Willow Tree Farm. And still be as hot and bothersome as he was when they were teenagers.
Ellie came to Willow Tree Farm for a fresh start. But is she ready to risk sailing her life and her heart into another iceberg?
And now for the fun stuff! An exclusive extract that didn't make it into the final version of Heidi’s book, Summer at Willow Tree Farm:
Orchard Harbor, Upstate New York
‘I’m sorry, Ellie, but I’ve decided to go with another event co-ordinator for the renewal ceremony.’
Eloise Granger’s fingernails scraped against the file folder of venue photos, seating plans, invitation designs and costing spreadsheets she’d gotten up at four am to finish compiling, while a tsunami of stomach acid napalmed the crust-less crab salad sandwich she’d swallowed two seconds previously. ‘You have? But why?’
Caroline Myerson was the only client she had left. Caroline liked her. Caroline respected her. Caroline absolutely adored the ideas Ellie had suggested for the surprise vow renewal ceremony Caroline was planning for her thirtieth wedding anniversary. Or at least that’s what Caroline had said ten days ago, during their original planning meeting.
Ellie had thought she was safe with Caroline. That Caroline at least would keep Events by Eloise viable for the rest of the summer, while she dealt with the catastrophe her personal life had become.
Caroline sent Ellie a patronising and mildly irritated look over the cake stand of dainty sandwiches and miniature pastries set out in her corner banquette at the Granger Memorial Country Club.
‘Why? Because, I believe your current situation will require all your attention.’
‘My current situation?’
‘Yes, dear. Your marital situation,’ the older woman stressed, as if Ellie had forgotten she’d kicked Dan Jr out of their house a week ago.
‘But Mrs Myerson, that’s my personal life, it won’t have any bearing on this job. I’m still one hundred per cent focussed on making this event the talk of the fall season, as we discussed.’ She heard the desperation in her voice and tried to dial down on the panic. She should have known Orchard Harbor’s well-oiled rumour mill would pick up on the separation of the town’s golden couple, but she hadn’t thought it would affect her business. Was this why Megan Eddington and The Carlton-Husks had cancelled on her too? Because she’d found a text on her husband’s iPhone from their son Josh’s middle school teacher which gave the term homework assignment a whole new meaning?
She held up the folder, which felt heavier than a lump of concrete. ‘I’ve found some wonderful venues for you to consider. A caterer whose herb-crusted beef roast canapés will knock your socks off. I thought an ice sculpture of your first home in Provincetown would be a marvellous centrepiece for…’
‘That all sounds lovely.’ Caroline halted Ellie’s manic sales pitch. ‘You’re good at your job. No one’s disputing that.’ She stared down her beaky nose, her expression pained now, as well as patronising. ‘But having an event co-ordinator who is in the midst of an acrimonious divorce from Senator Granger’s son doesn’t really set the tone I want for this event.’
The tartly critical statement hijacked Ellie’s breath. ‘I… I don’t know that we’re necessarily going to get a divorce,’ she managed to mumble, hating the mealy-mouthed qualification. But what else could she say? She hadn’t had time to think that far ahead. She hadn’t even told Josh yet that his father had left the building.
'Then you should let your husband return home,’ Caroline said.
But I saw a text from Miss Hamilton on Dan’s iPhone. A text that said: ‘My pussy needs u rite now.’
A text she couldn’t unsee, even if she wanted to. And she didn’t want to, not again.
‘We’ve all had indiscretions in our marriages,’ Caroline continued, going the full patronising as the ash-blonde highlights in her chignon caught the sunlight through the French doors that led out onto the Country Club’s 18-hole golf course. The golf course where, until a week ago, Ellie had tried to convince herself her husband spent his Saturdays.
‘Sometimes you simply have to ignore them,’ Caroline said. ‘Boys will be boys, after all. How do you think I stayed married to Edward for thirty years?'
‘Dan’s not a boy, he’s a man.’ Even if he had always been incapable of taking responsibility for where he put his dick.
‘There’s no need to be rude.’ Caroline’s chignon ruffled like the feathers of an indignant peacock. ‘I do hope you realise, no one will hire you in this town if you take that attitude towards well-meant advice.’
Ellie’s fingers dug into the folder hard enough to make her knuckles ache.
‘Well-meant advice?’ She stood, the temper she’d been trying to locate, to disguise the hurt of Dan’s latest betrayal, blazed through her like a meteor shower.
Why hadn’t she figured it out sooner? This was an ambush. Caroline was the town’s matriarch, and Senator Granger’s biggest donor. That was why it had been such a major coup for Ellie to get this event. Why she’d been prepared to do just about anything to win it and keep it. But now it was tainted, like every other thing in Ellie’s once perfect life.
‘You’re the reason Megan and the Carlton-Husks cancelled on me too,’ she said. ‘Aren’t you?’
‘Now you’re being paranoid as well as rude,’ Caroline replied, but Ellie could see the guilty splash of colour underneath the layers of Chanel foundation.
‘Paranoid? Really?’ It was the exact same thing Dan had accused her of being when he’d returned from his restroom break in the Harbor Inn restaurant last Friday, during their dinner to celebrate finishing six months of couples therapy, and found her reading the message that had popped up on his iPhone.
Ellie picked up her briefcase and stuffed the folder inside. ‘Just so you know, Mrs Myerson,’ she said, her tone tight with the bitterness she felt towards the good ladies of Orchard Harbor who had decreed her business was nothing more than a vanity project index-linked to her association with the Granger family. ‘There’s a different between well-meant advice.’ She shut the case with a satisfying snap. ‘And being an uptight, judgmental prima donna who doesn’t have an ounce of principal, integrity or sisterly solidarity in her whole anorexic body.’
Caroline sputtered, the guilty splash becoming a tidal wave.
Ellie marched out of the restaurant, her head bolted onto the iron rod of her backbone, as the eyes of the other diners — the ladies who lunched and the gentleman who lunched with them, because they were too decrepit to get out on the golf course or spend their Saturday afternoons boffing their son’s English teacher — followed her out into the lobby area .
She arrived at the shiny red Beemer Dan had bought her two years ago, the second time she’d caught him cheating, or had it been the third?
She threw the briefcase inside, and settled into the driver’s seat. The meteor shower got sucked into the black hole opening up in her stomach.
She inhaled the smell of leather and Coronado cherry air freshener, and the regurgitated remains of her crab salad sandwich butted her tonsils.
Hopelessness engulfed her. Hopelessness and self-pity. She stared at the faux Doric columns announcing the entrance to the Granger Memorial Country Club – a place she had always tried so hard to belong, but never would now, once Mrs Myerson had her banned for the rest of her natural life.
She drove home along Main Street, past the County Courthouse, the new winery, the string of stores selling luxury brick-a-brac and the Harbor Inn restaurant which specialised in Vegan Middle-Eastern fusion dishes – because nothing said classy cuisine like a fifteen-dollar tofu kebab. She wound through the woods along Orchard Harbor Drive, imagining her perfect life as the Galleon piñata at the pirate birthday party for six-year-old Robbie Hollister she’d organised a week ago. How had her perfect life become a mangled piece of brightly coloured cardboard which had once promised so much but had ended up with the last pieces of candy now scattered in the mud.
She turned into the driveway of the six-bed-five-and-a-half bath Colonial her father-in-law had given her and Dan as a shotgun wedding gift– after the pee stick had turned pink thirteen years ago — and spotted Dan’s Audi convertible under the portico.
Fabulous. When it rains in my life, it doesn’t just pour it becomes a deluge.
What was Dan doing here? Had he come to see Josh? Come to see her? Finally thought up a plausible excuse for Chelsea Hamilton’s badly spelled text on his iPhone? Unlikely, given that dealing with the fall-out from his screw-ups was not usually Dan’s style.
She tried to muster the energy to get out of the car while picturing Robbie,scrabbling around in the dirt in his Captain Jack Sparrow outfit, stuffing as many muddy lifesavers and crushed Reece’s Pieces into his mouth as he could before his mother dragged him away.
What have I been trying so hard to fix all these years?
With her professional life in tatters, and her confidence in the toilet, trying to answer that question felt like attempting to climb Mount Everest in high heels with a Sherpa strapped to her back.
Unfortunately, avoiding Dan was a luxury she could no longer afford, especially as she’d just become the town’s resident leper.
She hauled herself out of the car, leaving the briefcase with the now useless venue plans. The scent of lemon polish greeted her as she trudged up the wide, sweeping staircase towards the master bedroom. She caught Dan coming out of the walk-in, his arms loaded with the freshly laundered shirts their maid Gabriella had ironed that morning.
‘Ellie? You’re home?’
The pile teetered precariously, all the evidence she needed that he’d only sneaked back to the house to restock his dwindling supply of clean laundry at the Ramada Inn.
He tilted his head to one side, studying her, then dumped the shirts on the bed. ‘Did something happen?’ he asked, the question apparently devoid of irony. ‘You look like shit.’
If she hadn’t felt like shit, she might have taken offense.
She slung her purse on the bed. ‘Yes, something happened.’ Apart from me discovering my husband is sexting another woman and my perfect life is pants. ‘Caroline Myerson fired me.’
‘Why’d she do that, I thought she loved your stuff?’ He sounded genuinely confused, so she decided to enlighten him.
‘Because I kicked you out.’
‘I don’t see how that’s any of her business.’
Strangely, it didn’t seem weird her cheating husband was so indignant on her behalf. Despite his complete inability to remain faithful, Dan had always been supportive of her business acumen.
‘I may have mentioned she’s an uptight anorexic diva with sisterly solidarity issues,’ she added in the interests of full disclosure, something their marriage had lacked for far too long.
‘I guess that didn’t play too well, even if it’s true,’ Dan said, still fighting her corner. ‘But you’ve got loads of other clients, right?’
‘Not precisely.’ She kicked off her heels and slumped onto the bed, rubbing her toe over the blister that had formed on her ankle. ‘Megan Eddington and the Carlton-Husks have cancelled on me too. I have officially become the anti-romance.’
He sat on the bed beside her, making the mattress creek. ‘Anything I can do?’
‘Not unless you can give Caroline a lobotomy.’
Dan dropped his head, and his hair flopped across his brow.
Ellie sat on her hands, resisting the familiar prickle of sensation in her fingertips. Rich and thick, the silky chestnut waves had always made Ellie itch to reach out and touch. An urge she’d given into with alarming regularity the summer they’d met – when she’d been doing grunt work on a J-1 visa at the Marshall Creek Summer Camp in Sarasota and Dan had been the camp’s sailing instructor. Impossibly cute and so effortlessly sexy, he could make every person at the camp with ovaries, and quite a few without, hyperventilate.
At the time, she’d convinced herself she was special. The only one who could make him hyperventilate back, during all those sweaty, furtive encounters in the boathouse after lights out that had eventually produced Josh.
If only she’d known then what she knew now, that Dan got his hair styled that way deliberately so it would flop over his brow and sucker punch every woman who swept it back for him into thinking he was hyperventilating just for her.
Tears tickled the back of her throat.
Stupid that after all they’d lost – desire, love, trust, even friendship – the last thing to go would be the urge to nurture him.
‘Do you want a divorce, this time?’ The resigned question wasn’t one she’d expected him to have the maturity to ask, which she supposed was progress – even if it didn’t feel much like progress.
‘I think so,’ she said. If nothing else, her crab salad showdown with Caroline at the County Club had shown her it was way past time she stopped trying to fix the unfixable.
‘I really screwed up this time, didn’t I?’ He raised his head, and raked his hair back himself. ‘How do you want to handle it?’
‘You’re not going to contest it?’
Really? It was going to be that easy? As much as she’d been hoping for this decision to be as painless as possible – for Josh as much as her – she’d been prepared for more of a fight. And as contrary as it probably was, it made her feel like even more of a failure that Dan wasn’t going to put up even a token resistance. Those six months of couples therapy they’d endured were beginning to look like a total waste of time and money. Maybe she could demand a refund from the good Dr Macklin?
A guilty flush worked its way up to Dan’s hairline.
‘There’s something you’re not telling me?’ She knew that look, because it was the exact same one Josh wore when he’d been caught sneaking a Snickers bar. ‘What is it?’
‘Things may have gotten more complicated than I originally thought.’ The flaming red colour beneath his tan reached the tips of his ears.
‘You promise not to punch me?’
‘I’m too tired to punch anyone, even you.’
He looked down, and his hair fell across his forehead again. ‘Chelsea’s pregnant.’
Ellie’s hands balled into fists under her bottom, but the urge to sweep that wayward fringe back was gone for good.
‘This would be the Chelsea of the dirty sext messages who you insisted you didn’t actually sleep with, would it?’
Paranoid, my butt.
He nodded without looking up, like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Or rather his carrot in someone else’s cake. She stood and paced to the dresser. She needed distance, to counteract the surge of something. Not quite rage, but definitely not indifference either.
‘You didn’t think to use birth control while you weren’t sleeping with her then?’
‘She said she was on the pill.’
‘Jesus, Dan. Haven’t you heard of STDs?’ Panic raised her voice several octaves. ‘HIV, for god sake? A condom might have been nice, to protect me as well as her.’
‘We hooked up a week after the last time you and me had any. You’re safe.’ So he’d been cheating on her for months during their therapy, because by her calculations the last time they’d attempted sex had been before Easter.
Instead of the rage she should be feeling, all she felt was exhaustion.
‘Is she the only one since the last time I caught you cheating?’
He looked at her through his lashes. ‘That’s the only time I didn’t use a condom, I swear.’ It was a non-answer worthy of his father on the campaign trail.
‘How pregnant is she?’
He steepled his hands, clasped them between his knees. ‘A couple of weeks, she told me the night you kicked me out. I went to see her, to get her to stop sending me those goddamn texts.’ He sunk his fingers into his hair. ‘She’s even more pissed with me than you are.’
The spurt of sympathy caught Ellie unawares. This wasn’t the first time Dan had found himself in this fix.
She sat beside him. ‘Has she considered a termination?’
Why am I consoling my husband about his mistress’s unplanned pregnancy?
And when did my life become a tawdry soap opera worthy of Argentinian daytime TV? Is this my fault for always being ready to fix what Dan’s break?
Dan was the laid-back, fun one. The privileged, indulged youngest child and only son in a family of over-achievers – he’d been born not to take responsibility for anything. But she’d once loved that the most about him. As a compulsive fixer, she had found it wildly attractive Dan could look at any problem and say ‘screw that, let’s go party instead’. So it made perfect sense for her to handle all the details Dan couldn’t be bothered with: like calling the plumber, or doing the IRS returns, or hiring a nutritionist for Josh when he couldn’t stop comfort eating, or a couples therapist for them both when Dan couldn’t stop cheating.
But when exactly had she become the only one who had invested any energyin making their marriage a success?
Dan leant forward, putting his elbows on his knees. ‘She can’t, she’s a committed Christian and it’s against her religion.’
And sleeping with someone else’s husband isn’t?
‘So I’m going to be a dad again,’ he added. ‘Even though I’m not very good at it. I just hope she doesn't want me to marry her, because I’m even worse at that.’
Ellie pressed a palm to his thigh. ‘You’re not that bad.’
He slanted her a skeptical look.
‘At the Dad bit, at least,’ she qualified.
Dan rubbed the back of his neck. ‘My old man is going to go nuts when he finds out.’
Ah yes, the good Senator, who had gotten elected on a family values ticket. Twice. She could see how his son getting his grandson’s middle school teacher pregnant out of wedlock wasn’t going to play well to Orchard County’s conservative electorate.
‘Look on the bright side,’ she said, not sure there was one. ‘It ought to stop your father trying to get you to run for office when he retires. If I’m the anti-romance you’re now the anti-vote-winner.’
Dan let out a weary laugh. ‘Always a bright side, huh?’
Lifting her hand from her lap, he touched his thumb to the wedding band he’d slipped on what felt like several lifetimes ago. The regret in his dark blue eyes created a blockage in her throat. ‘I truly am sorry, Ellie. I meant what I said to you… And to Dr Macklin. Every time I cheated, they never meant as much to me as you.’
The fact he actually thought that made a difference spoke volumes about Dan’s dysfunctional attitude towards sex and relationships, but that wasn’t her problem anymore. ‘I know.’
She tugged her fingers free. ‘I suppose we should probably tell Josh. Then I’ll contact a lawyer.’
He rubbed her thigh, and let out a deep sigh. ‘I’ll get my father’s law firm to handle the details. He’ll want to do it quietly, if that’s okay with you? But that way you can name your terms.’
She nodded, Dan had always been generous with his father’s money. ‘But what about Josh?’
‘Tell him when you think the time is right,’ he said.
So that was going to be her job. Then again, why wouldn’t it be, when Dan had always been a hands-off dad. She nodded, unbearably weary, at the thought of having that conversation with their son.
Suddenly the miserable summer that awaited her and Josh in Orchard Harbor stretched out before her.
No matter how quiet Dan Snr’s law firm kept the details of the divorce proceedings, it was only a matter of time before the whole town knew about Chelsea’s baby. Ellie would be able to cope with all the ‘well-meant advice’ and faux sympathy once the news was out, because she’d been doing that for years, but she wasn’t sure Josh could, without eating his own weight in Oreos.
Dan packed the clean shirts into his overnight bag and apologised again before he said his goodbyes.
She flopped back on the bed as she listened to the Audi’s engine power up and then fade away. She stared at the crown moulding on the ceiling, let her gaze drift past the antique furniture she’d spent hours agonising over with the designer when she’d been determined to make this house the perfect show home for her perfect life.
Next time order a husband who doesn’t screw other women along with the cherrywood dresser and matching footstool.
Her perfect home and her perfect life were now officially even more depressing than Robbie’s crushed piñata.
She pushed herself upright.
But why stay here in Orchard Harbor for the summer and watch it disintegrate? She had no events to plan thanks to Caroline Diva Strop Myerson. Why not pull Josh out of school a couple of weeks early and escape, before the news of Chelsea’s baby got out?
She climbed off the bed.
There was only one place she could think of to go, that was far enough away–because with no business and a divorce to pay for, a three-month trip to Madagascar was probably out.
Opening one of the drawers in the vanity unit on top of the dresser, she drew out the postcard she’d stuffed in there in January. Her thumb glided over the photo of the cobblestone hill which was Gratesbury in Wiltshire’s one claim to fame, and rubbed off some of the glitter snow. The blockage in her throat swelled.
The collection of postcards had once been a talisman. A reminder of all the reasons why she had to swallow her pride, and her self-respect and her Why-Did-I-Ever-Marry-a-Dipshit-Like-Dan thoughts and do all she could to save her marriage.
She flipped the card over and read the words her mother had scrawled across the back at Christmas.
Thank you so much for the box of Saltwater Taffy, it was delicious. I hope Josh liked the blanket – and that he still thinks Marvel super-heroes are cool.
Ellie pressed two fingers to her nose, thinking of the handmade quilt with Josh’s favourite comic-strip characters painstakingly stitched into it. Like all the other homemade presents her mother had sent for Josh over the past four years, Ellie had stuffed it into the back of his bedroom closet, scared he might read too much into the gift.
Everything’s wonderful here, no snow – thank goodness. Last time we had snow on Candlestick Hill poor Jane Phillips broke her hip (ie: this postcard lies – it should be strewn with the broken bodies of the local Women’s Institute). The farm is doing well and gets more beautiful every year. I’d love to show it to you. And to meet Josh. Maybe next summer?? Love you always Mum xxx
Ellie’s gaze snagged on the glossy photo of her and Dan and Josh on the dresser, taken during a family vacation – their last – to Martha’s Vineyard three summers ago. The lacquered silver frame shone smugly in the sunlight coming through the window.
She hadn’t been to visit her mum in nineteen years. Not since that fateful summer the year she’d turned fourteen when her mum had run off to Wiltshire with her to join her lover Pam, in a place that was one step up from a rubbish dump – and inhabited by a load of weirdos.
But she could barely remember now what had been so awful about Rainbow Commune. Laura Dalton, the co-ordinator had been a bit of a bitch, and then there had been Laura’s scarily delinquent fifteen-year-old son Art — who had held a special place of horror in Ellie’s memories of that summer.
But that had been years ago – and her mother had been showering her with gifts and cards and homemade quilts to tempt her back to the Wiltshire for the last four years, ever since she’d gotten back in touch by emailing her through her website.
How bad could the place be? All those awful people had probably left by now. Why else would Dee never have mentioned them in her correspondence? She didn’t even mention Pam.
Wiltshire was a whole world away from Orchard Harbor. And it would give her and Josh the breather they needed from the hot mess her not-even-close-to-perfect life had become.
Summer at Willow Tree Farm releases in print in April 2018. For all the details check out Heidi's website and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
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