Published on: 01 December 2021
Published by: Home Cooked Books
Type: HEA, series
Genre: Drama, 20th Century Historical Romance
Author: Karen Grey
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The bigger the secret, the harder it is to hide.
Single mom Isabella York was a celebrity before she had her first kiss, her first date, or her first sip of alcohol. Playing the bad girl—both on and off the set—allowed her to make up for lost time. Back home in Boston, with her “checkered past” behind her, all she wants is to raise her little girl far away from the spotlight, because revealing her secrets could mean losing everything, or gaining more than she’d ever hoped.
For her, and her daughter.
It’s not that Henry Smith hates kids—they don’t like him. Meanwhile, he’s stuck producing children’s TV, so he’ll try to tone down the grumpiness that’s dogged him since his life imploded seven years ago. After all, not everyone gets a second chance to chase his dream. If he plays his cards right at this new gig, he can move on to making television that will change the world, not just entertain a bunch of brats.
Maybe he can charm the woman he never thought he’d see again into a do-over while he’s at it.
In this sexy, heartwarming, not-quite-historical romance—the latest Boston Classics standalone romcom—a sunshine/grumpy pair has to face the past to before they can find a future… together.
Start the series today!
Book 2.5 – Like It’s 1999
The Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, as my daughter and I drive to a suburb west of Boston, the sun warming the car is welcome reassurance that winter’s truly over. After we locate the blocked-off street and park nearby, Lilah helps me find the right house. She then insists on ringing the doorbell herself. After a few moments, a freckle-faced redhead with a toddler on her hip opens the door.
“Hey, you must be Bella and Delilah. I’m Penny, Cal’s sister. We’re so glad you guys could come!” Ushering us inside, she gestures at a living room where every surface is covered with toys. “You can set your stuff in here before you head out to the street. There are tons of kids at the block party already.” Squatting so that she’s eye to eye with Lilah, she adds, “Don’t worry. I know a big girl like you doesn’t want to play with a baby like Danny here. He has cousins that are older, and there are all ages in the neighborhood. Do you want me to introduce you to some of them?”
“No, thank you,” Lilah says politely. “I’m gregarious.”
Straightening, Penny shoots a brows-up look at me before addressing my little word sponge. “Um, I think that means you’re not shy?”
“That is correct. Also, I prefer Lilah.” Lilah nods solemnly. The way she does everything.
Penny’s monologue seems to have run out, so I steer Lilah towards the living room. “Let’s find a spot for your bag, and then you’ll know where to find it in case you want to take a break and read.”
“How old is she?” Penny mutters under her breath.
“I’m five and three quarters,” Lilah says over her shoulder. After handing her plaid backpack to me—no toy themes for this girl—she turns back to Penny. “I grew up in a bookstore, so I like to read.”
“Good for you.” Penny nods. “Maybe you can teach Danny here.”
When the toddler pulls his thumb from his mouth and slaps his mother on the cheek, Lilah winces. “Maybe.”
Bouncing Danny, Penny walks us to the front door. “I was just about to put him down for a N-A-P, but Cal and Jess are out there somewhere. If I know Cal, he’s probably monitoring the waterslide to make sure the kids are being safe. Did you bring a suit, Lilah?”
“I have it on already.” Lilah lifts her T-shirt to reveal her one-piece. “Also, as soon as he learns to read, you won’t be able to hide things from him by spelling.”
“That is an excellent point.” Penny points a finger at her. “I will keep him ignorant as long as possible.”
Taking my daughter’s hand, I start down the front steps of Penny’s house. “Thanks for letting us stow our stuff here, Penny.”
“Anytime,” she calls over a loud yowl from Danny.
After Penny shuts the door and we head toward the crowd of people down the block, Lilah squeezes my hand. “Don’t worry, Mommy. It’ll be fun.”
I make a pooh-pooh gesture so over-the-top I’d never get away with it onstage. “Who’s worried?”
Her expression makes it clear she’s not buying it.
“Okay, okay, you’re right. I wish I were as outgoing as you.” I put an arm around her and hug her into my side. “But I’ll be fine.”
What my daughter doesn’t know is that when I was a kid, I was even more of an extrovert than she is. Driven by an unquenchable need for the next high—achieved at first through novel experiences, then risk-taking, and finally, sex, drugs, and alcohol—only rock ’n roll was left off the list of my adventures.
These days, I pretend to be an introvert. Makes it easier to keep temptation at bay, and to hide from the consequences of past poor choices. Just like on stage, it’s more comfortable for me to play a role than myself.
For instance, today I’ll play the role of laid-back but responsible single mom. I’ll keep an eagle eye on my daughter while pretending not to. The waterslide is at the other end of the block, so I smile and nod at the people who look up as we pass. In this suburban neighborhood outside of Boston, every single family seems to consist of a mom and a dad and at least two children. Probably a dog and a cat and a canary, to boot.
Lilah has been excited about coming to this block party ever since Cal invited us. She not only has a huge crush on him, she’s adopted his girlfriend Jess as her auntie. Cal’s family is just like the one she’s always wanted. Like the families she’s read about in books, with uncles and aunts and grandparents and cousins. And fathers.
None of which my little girl has ever had.
Briefly, an image of her father flashes in my mind. What if he hadn’t disappeared without a goodbye? Would he be walking down this street at my side, helping me watch out for our little girl, his palm on my hip a promise of things we might do later?
As lovely as all that sounds, that’s not my reality, so I pack it away. If I’ve learned one thing in this life so far, it’s that there’s only one person I can truly rely on, and that’s me.
Besides, what Lilah doesn’t know can’t hurt her.
“Mommy, there they are!” Dropping my hand, Lilah sprints away from me to tackle Tami and Abby. Jess’s nieces are a couple of years older than my daughter and treat her more like a doll than a friend, but Lilah seems to love the attention.
“Hey, everything okay?” Jess interrupts my thoughts as I approach the group.
Shaking my head and pasting on a smile, I say, “I’m fine. Just being a worrywart.” I tip my chin at the clutch of girls, jumping up and down in excitement. “I’m still not sure the sleepover tonight is a good idea. She’s never had one before, and I’d hate for your nieces to get tired of Lilah just as she’s falling for them.”
Jess gives me a side hug. “My sister’s a pro. Treats kids at her practice all day and still never loses it with those two.”
“And your nieces are such nice girls. I’m sure I’m just having jitters. Not ready for my baby to leave the nest.”
“I thought you’d be more worried about the dog-and-pony show we have to put on at the fundraiser tonight.”
“Ugh. Thanks for reminding me.”
“You know our scene and our delightful personalities will charm the money right out of those Shakespeare Boston donor pockets.” She links arms with me. “Have I told you how much I love playing your sister? It’s much more fun squabbling onstage with you than fighting with my real-life one.”
Like daughter, like mother, I guess, because I find myself wishing Jess were my sister. She’s become the next best thing: my closest friend. I wonder, though, would she like me so much if she knew everything there is to know about me? The things that didn’t make it into the gossip pages, as well as the ones that did?
“Hey, how’s my second-favorite Boston actress?”
After this greeting, I’m enveloped in a warm hug from Cal Alonso. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time with him since he and Jess got together, it still throws me every time the voice and the body come together. It’s not the scars that cover the left side of his body. It’s that I listened to him on the radio for years before meeting him in person, and I’m still a little starstruck. The way some soap opera fans feel about me, I suppose. It’s been a few years since someone recognized me at the grocery store, but between my time on the PBS show Boom and the soap, I was on TV and in the public eye for ten years. Ten long years.
“You ladies should eat. Fuel up for tonight,” Cal says, steering us toward the food tables.
It’s a relief that he and Jess aren’t drinking. Jess wouldn’t since we have to perform tonight, but I really appreciate that Cal’s isn’t popping a beer either since he’s the one driving the girls back to Boston.
With one eye on Lilah, now running toward the waterslide—I idly wonder where she left her clothes and hope it’s somewhere we can find them again—I fill my plate. “Cal, you should’ve told me it was a potluck. I would’ve brought something.”
“Penny says there’s always way too much food at this shindig. Don’t worry about it.”
We settle on some folding chairs and watch the kids on the slide. A couple of dads are supervising, making sure everything’s safe, so I let myself relax. “Man, I don’t remember the last time I had fried chicken. This is so good.”
“Same here,” Jess says. “Literally finger-lickin’ good.”
Cal tries to steal a leg from her plate, and she swats him away. “Get your own!”
When he makes a pouty face, she groans before letting him take it. “He’s got me trained better than his damn dog.” After finishing her own piece, she wipes her hands on a napkin. “I’m ready for dessert, anyway. If you two are lucky, maybe I’ll bring you some.”
Cal shoots a smile at me. We’re both glad to see that Jess has gained some weight back. Her time in therapy seems to be paying off. The look on his face as he watches her skip away is a testament to the work they’ve both put into the relationship. They might’ve had a rocky start, but it’s clear they’re good for each other. I can’t imagine letting a guy into my complicated life, but I’m glad it’s working for them.
“I have a confession to make,” Cal says.
When he doesn’t continue, I intone, “‘How many days since your last confession?’ Is that what I’m supposed to say next?”
He laughs. “Don’t tell my mom, but it’s been so long since I went to mass, I’ve forgotten the script.”
“Your secret’s safe with me.” I circle a hand in the air between us. “Go on, get it off your chest. I’m sure I’ve done worse.”
“I don’t know if you noticed, but when we first met, I was probably a bit cold to you.”
Furrowing my brow, I try to remember. “Maybe. I figured you were probably just shy.”
He shrugs. “I am still working on letting go of self-consciousness about my scars. You know, assuming that it’s the only thing a person sees when they meet me.”
“Well, I was probably awkward too. Every time you open your mouth, I expect to hear music.”
He laughs. “Guess I should carry a boombox with me.”
A squeal from Lilah has me rising out of my chair, but when I find her face in the crowd and see that she’s laughing, I sit back down again. “Sorry. What was it you wanted to confess?”
The right side of his mouth lifts in a lopsided, sheepish grin. “When I saw you for the first time, all I could see was Quinn.”
“You watched As the Earth Revolves?” I do a quick calculation. “Wouldn’t you have been in school when it was on?”
“I missed a lot of school, recovering from surgeries. It was my mom’s favorite soap. We both hated you.” He leans in close to whisper, “I actually had nightmares about you.”
I wince. “I’m sorry. I promise I’ll never reveal that you slept with my sister.”
“Or kidnap me?”
“Or force you to rob a bank with me.”
“Or convince everyone that I’m possessed by the devil?”
All I can do is shake my head at the memories. “Man, the older I got, the more outlandish Quinn’s capers were.”
“It’s probably a compliment to you that they thought you could carry it off.”
I shrug, my cheeks heating at the praise. “I don’t know about that.”
He folds up his paper plate and the remains of his meal. “Anyway, the first few times we met, I really had to convince myself that you’re not like her.”
Adopting Quinn’s blunt tone, I ask, “How do you know I’m not?”
After a theatrical shudder, he points at Jess, engaged in chat with another guest. “Because that one loves you.” Nodding at my daughter, now running around with a bunch of kids shooting each other with water guns, he adds, “And you made that one.”
“Maybe I’ve got you all fooled.” When I let loose with Quinn’s signature cackle, he crosses his forearms over his face.
“No, no! Not the laugh!”
We’re both howling with genuine laughter by the time Jess sits down. “I don’t even want to know,” she says. “All I want is this chocolate cake.”
She only takes a bite before drawing a line in the air between us with her fork. “Okay, I lied. What were you two laughing at?” She twists in her chair. “Do I have a sign on my back or toilet paper stuck to my shoe or something?”
“Nah, sweetheart.” Cal rubs her shoulder, and she relaxes into his touch, practically purring like a cat. “Bella was just torturing me with her Quinn laugh.”
“You brought it up!”
Jess offers up her plate of goodies for sharing and after I take one she says, “I don’t think I ever saw you on the soap, but I loved Boom. It was so cool to see kids like me doing skits and singing songs that other kids sent in. I wanted to audition, but the shooting times conflicted with dance and Hebrew.”
After taking another bite of cake, she tips her head to the side. “You know, I never told you this before, but I didn’t even know that was you. Izzy, I mean. I knew you were on the soap because Becky told me when you auditioned for the company the first time. But I wouldn’t have recognized you otherwise.”
It’s not easy to keep the corners of my mouth turned up. “I was a lot younger then.”
“It’s not just your age.” Jess shakes her head. “You have a completely different energy. Izzy was so…”
“Innocent?” I finish when she doesn’t.
“Mm, maybe. More carefree, I guess.”
“Being a mom kind of piles the cares on.” No need to mention the choices I made that snuffed out that Izzy energy in me.
Cal leans in. “I’m just glad she’s not as scheming and evil as Quinn.”
“How evil was she?” Jess asks.
As Cal details Quinn’s sensational schemes, I egg him on. Better than talking about my real-life problems. By the time he’s finished, the pile of desserts on Jess’s plate has disappeared and I’ve relaxed again. Mostly. Quinn may have been a villain, but playing her was fun. Until it wasn’t anymore.
After scanning the crowd to make sure Lilah’s doing okay, I flop back into the webbing of my folding chair. “Ugh. Now I’m stuffed.”
Everyone goes quiet for a few minutes, and I sit back to enjoy the warm sun on my face. The background hum of people chatting, punctuated by the occasional shout from a kid going down the slide, calms any remaining agitation.
My mood is as tranquil as the setting when Cals asks, “So are you guys excited for tonight? Nervous?”
“Both,” Jess says.
“Yep,” I agree with a groan.
“I’m more nervous performing in rep than doing our scene tonight,” Jess adds. “You’re lucky you’re only doing one show, Bel.”
When my mom talked me into auditioning for Shakespeare Boston last summer, I told them I could only do one play a season. Not only do I want to be around for Lilah, but I help out at my mom’s bookshop.
“I’ve never performed two shows at back-to-back before,” Jess continues. “I keep having nightmares that I go onstage in The Tempest wearing my Comedy of Errors costume.”
Even though they fight like cats and dogs most of the time, directors Nick and Mira managed to convince the company powers-that-be to try out a repertory schedule this summer, arguing that tourists will get a chance to see both shows if they’re playing every other night.
“At least you don’t have to worry about the lines,” I point out. Jess’s memory is like a steel trap. She only has to do a scene once and she’s got her lines down pat. “I swear, the older I get, the harder it is for me to hang onto my words. I don’t think my brain could handle learning two shows at once.”
“You might be relieved of your excuse sooner than you think.” Jess tips her head towards the slide. “My nieces look like they’re ready to adopt her.”
My gaze follows Jess’s pointed finger. The three girls pose for a photo, which has me instantly on alert. So far, I’ve managed to keep Lilah out of the public eye, but anybody can sell a photo to the tabloids. When I see that it’s Penny taking the picture, my heart slows.
It is a sweet shot. My little fair-skinned, blue-eyed girl is flanked by Abby and Tami, who, like their aunt, have golden-brown skin and jet-black hair. Tami’s face is rounder, framed by corkscrews as wild as Jesse’s. Abby’s hair is long and straight, and she’s tall enough that she has to bend down to get in the frame.
“My sister’s a pretty good photographer,” Cal says. “Since they always give you double prints these days, I’ll get you a copy.”
Moment captured, the girls are off again, this time to the food table. I do my best to convince myself that Lilah is safe at this party full of strangers, but the fear that my daughter will someday have to pay for the sins of her mother is a hard one to let go of.
So far, Lilah’s the one thing I haven’t screwed up.
Meet the Author
Karen Grey (also known as Karen White and K.E. White) has had several essays published, in Salt Magazine and the Nevertheless We Persisted collections (one an Audies Finalist and the other a SOVAs finalist), and a short story in the collection Vintage Love Stories. Her first romance novel was a winner of the NJ Romance Writers’ Put Your Heart in a Book contest and Hearts Through History’s Romance Through the Ages contest in the Modern History category and won second place in the GA Romance Writers’ Maggie Award. The first book in her 1980’s era romance series Boston Classics, What I’m Looking For releases June 23, 2020.