Good morning! Today is the cover reveal for Begin With Goodbye, and I’m so excited about this book. I really think you’re going to like it. It’s a bit different than my other stuff, but I think you can hear my voice and style coming through, so if you like my other contemporary novels, try this one too.
Home for her sister’s funeral, Samantha knows the truth: for all intents, her sister died three years ago on the night of her senior prom and Julian Ashburn–her sister’s husband and Samantha’s former lover–is to blame.
He took her virginity, and he took her sister. Will he at least let her escape with her heart?
(Please note – Begin With Goodbye was previous released as a serial under the pseudonym Lilly Wright. It has been edited and reformatted as a complete novel.)
Read the first 2 chapters below:
It took my sister’s funeral to bring me home.
Never mind that I’m surprised she made it this long, which is the very reason I’ve stayed away. Or one of them, at least. My GPS app yells at me from where my phone rests on the faded passenger seat as I make my way down a tree-lined alley. It wants me to make a U-turn, but I know more of the roads in Harborhaven than it does, so I stay the course, straight ahead, hands tense on the wheel. I’m honestly not even sure why I’m using the damn thing, maybe just as an excuse to not answer the phone. I stopped counting after the fourth time my mother tried to call.
Only once I drive past my parents’ house do I understand. The GPS was right, and I’ve taken the long way to my sister’s. I think maybe I just wanted to see if it would look different, but it doesn’t. I’m the only one who’s changed. Ignoring the gated, tree-lined drive, I make a few turns and then I’m back on the only two-lane highway in town, speeding away from the house where I grew up, heading toward the land of (more) wealth and (more) privilege.
And secrets, my subconscious adds. Always secrets. The only way to appear clean is to hide the dirt. That’s the way it’s always been around here, and that’s the way it will always be.
My dinged and dented sedan putters along the picturesque road, past the town limits, eventually making its way up the winding drive. When I park it at the edge of the grass, it looks about as at home beside the fancy Range Rovers and Bentleys as an Orioles fan at a Yankees game.
I resist the urge to nervously chew my lip as a black-suited gentleman I don’t recognize ushers me through the enormous entryway, down a hallway and out the back door. The exorbitant level of money dripping from the throng of people milling around my sister’s backyard is literally blinding. Late afternoon sun glints off enough diamonds to fill every case at Jared, and then some.
What the fuck? Is this a funeral or a party?
My mother steps quickly into my line of sight, and in the midst of gaping at the ostentatious guests, I’m caught off guard, with no hope of avoiding her.
“Samantha,” she greets me, in her standard clipped tone that makes it sound as if she has a rod jammed beneath her chin, preventing it from opening enough to give her voice any meaningful inflection. Her lips fall into a familiar curve of disapproval as her eyes glide over me from head to toe.
“Hello, Mother,” I sigh.
My mother pats her hair, ensuring every strand is tamed. Unlike her unruly daughter. “We were expecting you sooner.” She manages to pack three years of disappointment into five little words. One of my mother’s many talents.
I could make a career out of failing to meet my parents’ expectations, but I decided journalism pays better. “I had finals.” My excuse is true, even if it isn’t absolute. I’m fairly certain that if I’d explained the situation, most if not all of my professors would have let me take my exams early so I could be at my sister’s side to say goodbye.
“Hi Sam.” My dad appears, hovering at my mother’s side like a useless but pleasant hummingbird. He’ll never shield me from her crushing judgments, but he’s occasionally nice to have around.
“Her name is Samantha,” my mother insists, causing my father to give an apologetic shrug.
I can see small lines of grief crinkling at his eyes, and although he’s done a good job of masking it, I know my sister’s loss hit my father hard. Perhaps I should feel more sympathy, but all I keep thinking is that this is their fault. Theirs and his.
My eyes scan the crowd, involuntarily looking for him. Finally, I spot him near the front, talking to his parents. Julian. My sister’s husband. The man who took her from me just as surely as he took my virginity. I’m not fooled by his impossibly perfect chin. Or his piercing blue eyes. His devilishly mussed hair is the only outward sign of the snake I know lies within. Bastard.
White folding chairs have been arranged in several rows, with a center aisle between them, headed by a pulpit and my sister’s white-rose-draped casket. A lump forms in my throat and I quickly look away. She was lost to me long before she lay in that box, but there’s something final about it that brings my grief surging to the surface. I’ve been mourning my sister for years, even as she kept up the charade of life.
“It looks like the reverend is ready to start.” My father guides my mother and me toward chairs in the front row.
I’ve barely gotten myself situated in the hard plastic chair when a pint-sized child barrels toward me, launching herself into my lap. My three-year-old niece wraps her arms around my neck, burying her face against me. “Aunt Sammie!”
“Hi Mel-bell,” I whisper, drinking in her abundant warmth. She reminds me so much of Chloe, it hurts. And yet it helps too. Melody is the epitome of everything that was good and innocent about Chloe. Before she wasn’t. Before she was lost to me.
Melody giggles, and the sob I’ve been holding back spills free.
Julian turns—I’m not sure if it’s because of my sob or his daughter’s giggle—and our eyes meet for the first time. He looks like he’s trying to force back his own sob, which I highly doubt, because I don’t think he’s capable of feeling anything.
“No-no Melody. You don’t want to get Aunt Samantha’s pretty dress sticky.” He crosses to us in two easy strides, his eyes never leaving mine while he gently tugs on Melody’s arm. “Sorry.”
He should be sorry for a lot of things. This isn’t one of them. “She’s fine, she can sit with me.” I tighten my arms possessively around her, hugging her close.
Melody lifts her head, beaming a smile at her father. “You sit too!” she points at the empty seat beside me.
The girl just lost her mother; I really can’t blame him for complying, even though he’s the last person in the world I want to sit near.
And I definitely don’t want his leg pressed lightly against mine, separated only by pantyhose as he leans close, whispering, “You look good, Sam.”
I flinch away, scooting to the far side of the small seat, though it only gains me about an inch.
Julian Ashburn is every girl’s dream. Unless that girl is me.
The reverend up front clears his throat and the crowd quiets.
“Remember, we have to be quiet so we don’t interrupt Mommy’s party, okay?” Julian whispers to Melody.
The little girl nods solemnly as my eyebrows raise. Mommy’s party? What the hell? I guess maybe it’s an easier way to explain it to a three-year-old, but still. Does she even realize her mother isn’t coming back?
One by one, guests come forward and talk about their memories of Chloe. My father talks about taking us for our first ballet lessons, and how graceful and beautiful she was, and how for days afterward she wore nothing but her tutu, dancing around the house. Of course he doesn’t mention how Chloe hasn’t danced in three years.
My mother speaks of the hours that my sister dedicated to serving the less fortunate, working at a local soup kitchen first, and then at the animal shelter. She doesn’t mention that Chloe switched to helping animals instead of people because so many of the homeless people at the shelter wanted to touch her, craving any human contact, and that it freaked her out to be touched by anyone.
Julian recounts the day Melody was born—almost two months early—and how beautiful and brave Chloe was through hours of complications, and how she never gave up. Even when he was afraid, she had faith everything would be okay. He fails to mention that by then, my sister was only living for Melody.
And then it’s my turn. I’m supposed to walk up front and tell half-truths, something that will comfort these people who are only going through the motions of grieving for someone they barely knew. Melody has fallen asleep in my arms, and Julian reaches over to take her as he walks back from the podium. Instead of sitting back down with her, he carries her toward the house, mumbling something about putting her down for a nap.
The tender way he holds her is in stark contrast with the cold-hearted bastard I know he can be.
I take my time as I make my way forward, resting my hands on the podium as I watch Julian receding down the aisle. Expectant faces are turned upward, waiting for me to say something sweet, or even sorrowful. They want me to share some cherished memory that will ease their minds, giving them some confidence that my sister lived a fulfilled life, so it will seem slightly less tragic that she’s dead at twenty-one.
I part my lips, taking in a slow, steadying breath. Swallow once. Twice. Then let my shoulders relax as I stare out at the crowd.
“My strongest memory of my sister is the night of my senior prom.”
At the back of the aisle, Julian freezes on his way back from inside the house, his face stricken. He knows damn well what I’m about to say, but surprisingly he doesn’t move to stop me. If I didn’t know better, I might even think he looked relieved.
“Colton Thomas needed a date, because he’d just broken up with his girlfriend.” The crowd nods. In a town as small as Harborhaven, everyone remembers things like the mayor’s son very publicly dumping his girlfriend. “He asked me, and my mother begged me to go with him.” I keep my eyes straight ahead, locked on Julian’s face, resisting the urge to watch for my mother’s reaction. I don’t have to tell them why she begged me. Everyone in Harborhaven knows my mother is a certified social climber. Around here, the mayor’s family is the top of a very short ladder.
“Chloe knew I already had a date; I’d only told her.” My eyes search Julian’s, wondering if he remembers. “So she volunteered to go with Colton, and I let her.”
I can’t help turning my gaze in my mother’s direction. Her expensive rouge isn’t enough to cover the way her face has paled at my words. She grips my father’s arm with tiny, white-knuckled fingers. “Stop her, Louis,” she hisses, but she’s too late.
With a clear, loud voice I set free the words I’ve held in for so long. “That night, my sister was raped by Colton Thomas.”
A shocked gasp rolls through the crowd, as the elite of Harborhaven struggle to accept that the darkness of the world could touch them, even here. The mayor and his family are untouchable, and my words could very well turn my entire family into social pariahs. My father’s mouth is set in a thin, mortified line.
Trying to clear the dryness of my mouth, I wet my lips, then continue. “Most of you don’t really know my sister, because the brilliant, carefree girl that she once was died three years ago, and she’s only been a walking husk ever since. The weight of her secret killed her, but she held it in rather than damage your perceptions. It wasn’t cancer that killed her, it was all of us, and our twisted expectations and dirty secrets. Cancer saved her the way I didn’t.”
Tears stream down my face as I rush away from the podium, stumbling blindly down the aisle. Julian reaches out a hand to grab my arm, but I brush past him, refusing to be stopped and scolded.
I manage to make it into the house without tripping on my heels or my pride, and pause to steady myself against the kitchen counter. It’s loaded with food brought by well-meaning guests. Some of it looks quite perishable, and it’s warm in the kitchen, thanks to the open door and the early summer heat. Sighing, I grab a container of potato salad and open the fridge, wondering if there’s even enough room for all of this stuff.
The sight of the barren fridge sends a wave of dread rolling through me, settling in the pit of my stomach. I pull open drawer after drawer, finding nothing but a few cheese sticks and a bottle of wine. I don’t particularly care if Julian starves to death, but where’s the food for Melody?
My mind races through possibilities as I seal all the food with some plastic wrap I find in a nearby cabinet. Julian is more than well-off—his family is what my mom would call ‘new money’—and despite Chloe’s medical bills, I’m fairly sure he can afford food. Does he just not care enough to buy any? I get angrier by the minute, each dish being shoved into the fridge with more force than the one before it.
When the counter is clear, I stomp down the hall, seeking answers without really being sure of my question. Family photos line the hallway, each one protecting the lie that a happy family lives here. In each of them, Melody is smiling the carefree grin of a child. But if you look closely enough, the set of Julian’s mouth isn’t quite right, and Chloe’s smile doesn’t reach her eyes. I find myself in the doorway of Melody’s room, unable to believe what I’m seeing. Her room looks as if a tornado went through it. Books, toys, and clothes are tossed haphazardly on every available surface, including the floor. My sister was the biggest neat freak you’d ever meet, even before…and she was much worse afterward, as if she was trying to control anything and everything she could in a desperate attempt to not feel so helpless. She never would have left Melody’s room like this.
Melody is on her back in the middle of her bed, her arms flung wildly to the side, her face angelic in sleep. Damp black curls, identical to mine and my sister’s, stick to her sweaty cheek. I can hear guests starting to pass through the house on their way to their cars out front. I don’t want them to disturb Mel’s rest, so I gently pull the door closed, then turn to retreat.
I bump squarely into Julian’s chest, barely stifling a shriek.
“I figured you left,” he says, and I feel like there’s an unspoken accusation on the end of it, like ‘that’s what you’re good at.’ But maybe that’s just my conscience speaking.
I steel myself, expecting him to berate me for what I said outside. “I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to Melody.” I shrug. The truth is, I’m not sure why I’m still here, other than making sure she’s all right. We elected not to do the funeral procession to the graveyard, afraid it would be too much for Melody, so there’s really no reason for me to stay.
“Thanks for putting away the stuff in the kitchen. I’m assuming that was you, anyway.”
I really wasn’t looking for a confrontation, but I can’t bring myself to keep quiet. “Is there a reason the fridge was damn near empty? Please tell me you have been feeding the child.”
Anger flashes in the icy blue depths of Julian’s eyes. “Of course. There’s a McDonalds up the street.”
As if that’s much better. “Have you ever heard of these new-fangled places called grocery stores? They sell food, like fruits and vegetables.” My hands are on my hips and my voice is rising uncontrollably.
“And here I thought Chloe just waved her wand and made the food appear!” Julian’s mouth quirks up at the corners.
It suddenly makes sense. “You mean she did all the shopping? And—”
“And I’ll never do it as good as her.” His face falls. “I don’t know how to cook, or what to buy…”
“That’s fucking ridiculous.”
“Keep your voice down.” With a glance toward Melody’s bedroom door, Julian snatches me by the arm, opens a door a few feet down the hall, and then suddenly we’re in the master bedroom.
I jerk my arm away, then quickly take in the unmade bed and the overflowing laundry basket. The bones of the room, beneath the clutter, boast of fine taste and no expense spared. The only thing it’s missing is warmth, love. It’s like someone set up the perfect bedroom, and then forgot to make it home. There are no photos, no mementos of a happy life; it’s all function and nothing else. “Are you that helpless without her? Is that why you married her? So you’d have the perfect little housewife to wait on you hand and fucking foot?”
Something dark and dangerous clouds his eyes, and I think I might have crossed a line. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. You know nothing about my relationship with Chloe, and I will not tolerate you disrespecting your sister with talk like that, especially where my daughter can hear.”
I bite my lip, sucking back a retort. As much as I hate to admit it, Julian is ten times sexier now as a twenty-four-year-old man than he was as the stupid, careless kid I used to know. And even then he made my insides quiver.
His eyes flash again, focusing on my mouth, then he looks away. “Melody is going to stay with your parents for a few days; they’ll be back in a few hours to pick her up. If you’d like to stay until then, spend some time with her…”
“What? You cannot be seriously considering letting her go stay in that house?”
Julian takes a heavy swallow, and I have to look away from his haunted gaze. “It’s obviously not ideal, but I’ve not had any luck hiring a nanny yet.”
“She doesn’t need a nanny, she needs her mother back! But Chloe is gone, so you’ll have to do. And she most certainly does not need to be smothered by my mother. She fucked Chloe and me up enough, she doesn’t deserve a chance to do it to Melody too.”
Julian’s voice cracks. “I don’t think I can be what she needs right now.”
“You don’t have a fucking choice. Don’t you think it’s time you grew up and faced your mistakes? Sometimes, we just have to do what’s right, not what we want.”
“You have no idea what I’ve done to face my mistakes.” Julian towers over me, but I resist the urge to step back, even when his chest brushes against mine, igniting a spark of heat that pulses straight down my spine. He might have intimidated Chloe into doing what he wanted, but I’m not my sister. No matter how much we looked alike on the outside.
“Julian, please don’t send her to my mother’s.” My voice is softer than I mean for it to be, but it’s effective.
He steps back, tilting his head down to look at me, and the absence of him against me lightens the tension in the air considerably. “Your mother and Chloe had begun to repair their relationship. Perhaps that’s something you should consider as well, especially if you’re going to go around preaching about growing up and doing what’s right.”
“Please,” I scoff. “As if my mother is ever going to speak to me again, especially after I just told the whole town what Colton did.”
The corner of Julian’s mouth lifts, giving me a brief glimpse of the smile that once melted my heart. Now it just reminds me of the things I can’t take back. “You’ll make a great journalist. Chloe always wished she could be as brave as you. At least you had the courage to speak the truth.”
His compliment briefly shatters my armor, but I quickly repair it. “Unlike you, you mean.”
Julian runs a hand through his hair, pushing it back from his forehead. A rueful expression settles across his face. “Why do you hate me so much?” He sounds so sincere it batters my floodgates and tears threaten to burst free.
I shake my head, trying to clear the tsunami of emotions raging inside me. “If you and I hadn’t gone out that night, if I’d just gone with Colton like I was supposed to, Chloe wouldn’t have been raped, and nothing would be the same. You took her from me!”
I spin away, turning my back to him. I fucking hate the sympathy swirling in his eyes. Just like I hate the little voice inside that’s admonishing me, saying maybe I’m not being quite fair.
“Samantha.” He lightly touches my shoulder. “I lost her too. I lost both of you.”
Grief nearly brings me to my knees, and only his arms sliding around me keep me on my feet. Julian turns me, then cradles me to him, his hand lightly smoothing my hair. “Shh, let it out,” he says as sobs wrack my body.
The heat is undeniable between us, and my traitorous body doesn’t care that I hate him; being in his arms is like coming home. Once, I thought I loved Julian. We’d dated behind my mother’s back my entire senior year of high school—or at least until senior prom. I could never look at him the same again after that night, so he turned to my sister instead.
My instinctive response as he presses a kiss to my forehead is a betrayal of myself, and of Chloe. My God, his wife—my sister—hasn’t even been dead a week, and he’s already putting the moves on me.
I shove him away. “No! Don’t you dare touch me. You were friends with Colton! You knew what he was capable of, yet you didn’t say a word when I had my sister go with him, so I could go with you. And then, after I told you what happened, you had the balls to go and date her. She was broken and vulnerable, but you turned on the charm and she became putty in your hands, and even knowing what she’d been through, you took her right to your bed. Did you even give her a choice, or are you just like Colton?” The memory of my sister, barely eighteen, pregnant and walking down the aisle toward Julian, crashes through my mind, tearing down my walls like a sledgehammer. Chloe hadn’t been showing at the time, but I’d known.
“You think you’re so smart. Always all about the truth. But how much do you really know?” His voice is thin, sharpened to a hard edge by his anger.
“I know you took advantage of her. I know you fucked her. And you trapped her in this hell-hole town when you made her the stereotypical barefoot and pregnant wife. You squashed what little life she had left in her. You killed her as surely as the cancer did.” My shoulders tremble with fury.
Julian steps around me, walks to the bedside table and flips a switch on a baby monitor. The soft sounds of Melody’s breathing fill the room. “Almost everything you think you know is wrong.” He sits on the edge of the bed, looking up at me.
His voice is so velvety smooth, I’m tempted to believe him. My anger almost works as a gravitational pull, putting me into furious orbit around him. He knows me well enough to know I need answers, and that need draws me to him. What don’t I know? “So tell me the truth then.”
He nods. “I will, on one condition.”
I cross my arms over my chest, bracing for whatever bullshit he’s about to come up with.
“You want me to keep Melody here instead of sending her to your mother’s, and I want that too, but only if I’m confident that I’ll have help. It may make me sound like an ass, but I don’t know the first thing about raising a child. I work impossible hours, and the truth is Melody seems so small and breakable—she intimidates me.”
It’s all I can do to bite back a small laugh and something warms in his eyes.
“I miss your laugh,” he whispers. Then he adds, “And it’s true. She looks innocent with those curls of hers, but underneath she’s a tiny terror.”
Most toddlers are. I’m still waiting for the rest of this deal he has in mind. I’m purposefully ignoring what he said about missing my laugh. What used to be between us faded a long time ago.
“I also want the chance to clear the air between us. I want you to continue to have a relationship with Melody, and the only way that can happen is if we develop some trust between us. There’s so much you don’t know, Sam, and so much I don’t know. I can’t face it alone.”
He can’t be saying what I think.
“I want you to stay here, help me find a suitable nanny—one that Chloe would approve of—and in exchange, I will tell you everything.”
My eyes grow wide. “You want me to stay here? In fucking Harborhaven?” Never in a million years.
Julian nods. “Temporarily, yes. Melody can stay here, and you can watch her while I’m at work, until we find a nanny.”
“Why didn’t you and Chloe figure out a nanny before she died? It wasn’t as if you all didn’t know this was coming.” She’d been diagnosed with the cancer months ago, although only the last few weeks had been truly bad, at least from what I’d heard.
Julian doesn’t answer directly; instead he pulls a white envelope from the inner pocket of his suit jacket, then hands it to me.
With shaking fingers, I pull back the flap and retrieve the folded piece of notebook paper inside. I recognize Chloe’s handwriting immediately.
I wish you would have come, although I know and understand why you didn’t. The good thing about staying here the last few years is that I’ve had ample time to face my demons. I think you need that chance too.
I hate that my daughter is going to grow up without me, and the only one who can make that easier on her is you. You can teach her to not be afraid of the truth, and to live her life for herself and no one else. Only you can give her that, and I need you to. Think how different our lives would have been if we’d had a mother like you—someone who could be open, honest, and unconcerned with appearances. Please Sam, I know you’re going to want to say no (I do know you, after all), but I need you to do this for me. For her.
I’ve made my peace with Mom, and I hope someday you can too. Somehow, I hope you find forgiveness. For Mom. For Julian. And most importantly, for yourself.
I don’t blame you, Sam. I never did.
For my daughter, I wish strength. For my husband, I wish a second chance at the love he could have had with you. And for you, my dear Sam, I wish you peace.
It all depends on you.
I lift my eyes to find Julian watching me carefully. I squeeze my eyes closed, trying to shut out the image of the way he’s looking at me, so open and vulnerable. “I have classes starting again soon. It’s—it’s my senior year. I can’t just move home.”
“Class doesn’t start for three more months, Sam. Can you give me that long at least?”
Can I? I honestly don’t know. A green light on the baby monitor flashes as the crackling sound of Melody rearranging herself in sleep rustles into the room. She sounds restless. I can relate.
Coming back to Harborhaven is like my worst nightmare. Coming back to Harborhaven and spending my time around one of the people I hate most in the world is inconceivable. But how can I not at least consider my sister’s wish?
“You said I was wrong about almost everything? What am I right about?”
“Your suspicion that I want you in my bed and that I won’t give up until I get you there is one-hundred percent correct. If you agree to this, I’ve only got three months to undo the past, and I don’t plan on wasting a moment of it.”
His words are so wrong, I can barely even comprehend them, but judging by the instant ache between my legs, my body disagrees. It remembers what it was like to be loved by Julian Ashburn, and it wants an encore.
“If I agree to this, it’s only for Melody and Chloe. Whatever you think there was between us ended a long time ago. I won’t be Chloe’s stand-in, as a mom or as a wife.”
“I don’t want you as a stand-in, I just want a second chance. I’ve spent the last three years doing the right thing and standing by your sister, but my heart has never stopped beating for you.”
His words confirm one of my fears. I always suspected that he didn’t truly love Chloe, although he did care for her. He only picked her because I made it clear he couldn’t have me. I shake my head. “We’re no good together, Julian.”
“We could be.” The determination in his voice is as sexy as it is irritating. He’s obviously not going to make this easy on me.
“Three months—and when those three months are over, I’m leaving and going back to school. I’ll be a part of Melody’s life, but that’s as far as it goes.”
Victory shines in his eyes as his face lights up with the first true smile I’ve seen from him all day. “We’ll see.”
Inwardly, I groan. What have I gotten myself into?