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sweeping WWII thriller set at an English country house, described by Lee Child as "like binge watching a great British drama on Masterpiece Theater.


Almost Perfect

Almost Perfect, July 2010
Fool's Gold #2
by Susan Mallery

HQN
Featuring: Ethan Hendrix; Liz Sutton
384 pages
ISBN: 0373774907
EAN: 9780373774906
Kindle: B0084ZZAMG
Mass Market Paperback / e-Book
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"Being perfect is definitely overrated -- in love getting to almost may have to do"

Fresh Fiction Review

Almost Perfect
Susan Mallery

Reviewed by Sandra Wurman
Posted August 14, 2010

Romance Contemporary

How many times can someone say they're sorry before you are forced to steel yourself for the inevitable hurt, bite the bullet and walk the other way? What if you can't walk the other way and you are stuck? Well that's the picture that was developing for Liz Sutton when summoned to return to her hometown of Fool's Gold California. Upon receiving an SOS email from two nieces, she wasn't even aware of; there was no choice. So she packed up just enough, for herself and her son Tyler, to last a couple of weeks away from their real home in San Francisco and set off for Fool's Gold. She knew there was no way she was going to come out of this unscathed. But she hoped that the years away would have diminished the town's memory of her.

Her departure from the town was rather abrupt having discovered she was pregnant with the child of her first and enduring love, one of the town's golden-boys. She never had the chance to even tell Ethan Hendrix that he was going to be a father. He made it apparent to all his closest friends that she had never mattered and with that message burned into her heart as well as brain she ran. Now she was back and inevitably would have to face Ethan. She was certain that he wouldn't be interested in getting closer to a son that he had shut the door on so many years ago but she knew that Tyler would benefit from getting to know his father even for the short time they would be there. But the longer she stayed the more complicated the picture with Liz facing harsh criticism every where she went because the townspeople were siding with Ethan who believed he was denied time with his son.

Ethan couldn't be convinced that Liz did indeed try to contact him that he had a son and so he set out to make sure that no more time was lost no matter the consequences. The town was going to be divided into two camps. Question was who would surface as the winner in this fight where winning might make things even worse and there were now three children that Liz had to consider. The easy solution for the children would be the absolute worse one for Liz but personal feelings aside she had to do what was right. Even if it wasn't perfect. I absolutely loved that Liz wrote murdered mysteries and killed off Ethan in each one. Now that was perfect. That was her catharsis for a difficult start in life and brought her great success as an adult. This story continues the saga of a town where the women sorely outnumber the men and it seems like the few hometown men are lacking in the romance and common sense department. Enjoy.

Learn more about Almost Perfect

SUMMARY

Back in high school, Liz Sutton was the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Then she’d stolen the heart of the most popular boy in town, and their secret romance helped her through the worst of times. Until Ethan Hendrix betrayed her and everything they’d ever meant to each other. Devastated and pregnant, Liz left Fool’s Gold, California – forever, she thought…

Now Liz must return to town and face the man who doesn’t know of their son’s existence. And this time she won’t have the option of making a quick getaway. Ethan and Liz can’t deny their passionate attraction, even after all these years. But will their desire be enough to spark a second chance at love?

Excerpt

Liz Sutton had always known the past was going to come back and bite her in the butt—she just hadn’t known it was going to happen today.

Her morning had started normally enough, with getting her son off to school, then going down the hall to her office, where she managed to write five fairly decent pages before having to stop for some serious pacing, followed by deleting three of the five pages. She was trying to figure out who she was planning to murder in the first chapter of her new book, not to mention how they would be murdered. Was decapitation just too predictable? Luckily her assistant knocked on her door, sparing her from making a decision.

"Sorry to interrupt," Peggy said, frowning slightly as she held out a piece of paper. "But I thought you’d want to read this."

Liz took the single sheet. It was an e-mail, sent to her website. There was a link there for fans to get in touch with her. Peggy handled most of the e-mails, but every now and then she found something she didn’t know what to do with.

"A crazed stalker type?" Liz asked, pathetically grateful for the interruption. When the writing was going slowly, even a death threat was more thrilling than the current work in progress.

"Not exactly. She says she’s your niece."

Niece?

Liz scanned the sheet.

Dear Aunt Liz,

My name is Melissa Sutton. My dad is your brother Roy. I’m fourteen years old and my sister Abby is eleven. A few months ago, our dad went to prison. His new wife, our stepmom, said she would take care of us, but she changed her mind and left. I thought Abby and me would be fine. I’m really mature for my age. My teachers say that all the time.

She’s been gone a while now and I’m really scared. I haven’t told Abby because she’s still a kid, but I don’t know if we can make it. I don’t want to tell Dad what happened because he really liked Bettina and he’ll be sad she didn’t wait for him.

So I thought maybe you could help. I know we haven’t met before, but I’ve read all your books and I really like them.

Hope to hear from you soon. Your niece, Melissa.

P.S. I’m using the computer at the library, so you can’t e-mail me back. But here’s our phone number. Even though the lights are off, the phone still works at home.

P.P.S. We’re living in your old house in Fool’s Gold.

Liz read the e-mail a second time, trying to get the words to make sense. Roy was back in Fool’s Gold. Or at least he had been, before heading off to prison.

She hadn’t seen her brother in nearly eighteen years. He was a lot older and had left the summer she’d turned twelve. She’d never heard from him again. Apparently he’d married a couple of times and had kids. Daughters. Girls who were living alone in a house that had been rundown and disgusting twelve years ago. She doubted there had been many improvements since.

Questions tumbled through her brain. Questions about her brother and why he’d returned to Fool’s Gold after being gone so long. Why he was in prison and what on earth was she supposed to do with two nieces she’d never met?

She glanced at her watch. It was barely eleven. As it was Tyler’s last day before summer vacation, he was getting out at twelve-thirty. If she got the car packed in time, they could leave directly from his school and be in Fool’s Gold in about four hours.

"I need to deal with this," Liz told her assistant, as she wrote an address on a piece of paper. "Call the electric company in Fool’s Gold and get the power turned back on. They should take a credit card for payment. Do the same with the other utilities. I’ll call the girls and let them know I’m coming."

"Are they really your nieces?" Peggy asked.

"I guess. I haven’t seen my brother since I was their age, but I can’t let them stay there alone." She shook her head, trying to figure out what else had to be done. Her next book wouldn’t be published until the fall, she so didn’t have to worry about publicity and book tours. She could work on her new story anywhere she had her laptop. At least that was the theory.

"I don’t know how long we’ll be gone," she continued. "I’m guessing it will take a couple of weeks to get everything straightened out."

Peggy stared at her. "Just like that?"

"What do you mean?"

"Aren’t you going to think about it? Most people would hesitate. You don’t even know these girls."

True, Liz thought. But what choice did she have? "They’re kids, by themselves and family. I have to do something."

"Which is just like you," Peggy said. "You leap in and do what you think is right."

"Someone has to." Besides, she’d grown up having to take care of things. Her mother hadn’t bothered. "With luck, I won’t be gone too long."

"Don’t worry either way. I can handle things here."

Liz forced a smile. "I know you can. I’m going to pack and then go get Tyler. We’ll drive to Fool’s Gold today."

"Maybe it will be nice to go home."

Liz did her best to look normal. "Sure. Okay, I’ll call the girls."

She waited until Peggy had left before picking up the phone. She dialed the familiar number, then let it ring eight times before hanging up. No answer. Of course, it was a weekday. The girls were probably still in school. She would try again later, from her cell.

She had to pack for herself and her son, phone a few of friends and let them know she would be gone for a couple of weeks, e-mail her editor and agent to tell them the same. Logistics, she thought as she collected the notes she’d made on her current novel. She was good at logistics. The ability to plan and deal with problems was part of the reason she enjoyed writing her detective mystery series. She’d always been good at the work. It was the rest of life that caused her to stumble time after time.

"Introspection later," she murmured aloud. "Action now."

She powered off her laptop, then disconnected it from the docking station. After collecting her notes, a few pens, pads of paper and her address book, she went down the hall to her bedroom.

An hour and a half later, she’d packed what she hoped was enough, loaded the car and gone over everything with Peggy. Her assistant would take care of the house and make sure the bills were paid.

"Are you all right?" Peggy asked.

"Sure. Great. Why?"

Peggy, a forty-something former executive assistant, frowned. "Just checking. This is a lot to take in." She hesitated. "You know if there’s no one else to take care of the girls..."

Liz might suddenly be responsible for two nieces she’d never met. "I know. I’ll deal with that when I have more information."

"Mac and I went to Fool’s Gold on our honeymoon. Back when I thought marriage was a good thing. I didn’t know you were from there."

No one did, Liz thought grimly. She found life easier when she didn’t talk about her past. "I left right after high school. Moved here. San Francisco is my home now."

Peggy smiled at her. "If you need anything, call me."

"I will."

Liz went downstairs to the single car garage and got into her Lexus RX350. She’d packed four suitcases, a couple of boxes with Tyler’s favorite movies, his Xbox, and a handful of books. She went over the inventory because that was easier than thinking about what she was doing. Going back to the one place she never wanted to be. The town where she’d grown up.

For a second she wondered if she really had to do this. Go rescue a couple of kids she’d never met. Then she shook off the thought. Right now there wasn’t anyone else. She couldn’t leave the two girls on their own. She would deal with the problem, get it resolve and return to her life. Staying was not an option.

Midday traffic was relatively light and she made it to Tyler’s school in about twenty minutes. He was talking to his friends, probably making plans for hanging out. When he saw her small SUV, he waved and hurried over.

"Jason says his family’s for sure going to Disneyland in August and they’re gonna call and talk to you about me going with them," he said as he climbed into the passenger seat.

"Hello to you, too," she said with a smile.

He grinned. "Hi, Mom. How was your day?"

"Interesting."

"Great. Now can we talk about Disneyland?"

Her son was the brightest and best part of her life, she thought as she stared into his dark brown eyes. He had her smile, but everything else came from his father. As if her DNA hadn’t been strong enough to overpower his.

Tyler was smart, funny, warm and caring. He had dozens of friends, an easy-going disposition and plans to be an architect when he grew up. She knew that everyone said the early teen years were the worst with boys. That by thirteen or fourteen, he would be making her life hell. But that was a problem for another time. Today, Tyler was her world.

A world that had just been shifted off its axis and was tumbling freely through space.

"Disneyland sounds like fun," she said. "I’ll talk to Jason’s mom. If they want to take you and you want to go, then we’ll arrange it."

His grinned widened. Then he glanced toward the back of the vehicle.

"Whoa, are we going somewhere? Road trip?"

She pulled into traffic, heading toward I-80. She would take it east, until she turned off to drive into Fool’s Gold.

"Sort of," she said and tightened her grip on the steering wheel.

Over the years, she’d done her best not to lie to her son. Not about her past or his father. For the most part, she’d simply told him there were questions she wouldn’t answer. At four or five, he’d been easily distracted. At eight, he’d been determined to find out the truth. Now he asked less, probably because he knew he couldn’t wear her down. But she knew he wondered.

"I got an e-mail today," she told him. "You remember I told you I have a brother?

"Uh huh. Roy. We don’t ever see him."

"I know. He’s a lot older and he took off when I was twelve. I woke up one morning and he was gone. I never saw him again."

She still remembered her mother’s sobs, made thicker and louder by the alcohol lingering in her system. From that moment on, her mother spent her life waiting for Roy to return. Nothing else had mattered, certainly not Liz.

Liz had left town shortly after graduating high school. She’d phoned home once, a few weeks later, saying she thought she should check in and tell her mother where she was.

"Don’t bother calling again," had been the woman’s only response before hanging up the phone.

"So Uncle Roy e-mailed you?"

"Not exactly." Liz didn’t know how much to reveal. Telling the truth was one thing, but sharing details was another. "He’s, um, in some trouble and I have to go help. He has two girls. Your cousins. Melissa is fourteen and Abby is your age."

"I have cousins? You didn’t tell me about cousins."

"I didn’t know about them until today."

"But they’re family."

True enough, she thought. And the word "family" implied caring and connection. Maybe in most places, but not in the Sutton household. At least not until Liz had had Tyler. She’d done everything she could think of to break the cycle of neglect. She’d been determined to be a warm, loving mother, to offer her child a safe haven.

"I didn’t know where Roy was," she said. "He never got in touch with me after he left." For six years, she’d waited, hoping he would come get her and take her away. Until he’d walked out, he’d always taken care of her. Been a buffer between her and her mother. Protected her from the worst of it.

By the time she’d been old enough to go looking, she told herself she no longer cared.

"Do they know we’re coming?" Tyler asked. "Do they know about me?"

"Not yet, but they will. We’re going to stay with them for a couple of weeks." She didn’t mention the fact that Roy was in prison. Time enough for that later. Nor did she go into the possibility of the girls having to live with them permanently. Maybe there was other family who could take care of them.

"I grew up in a small town called Fool’s Gold," she said. "It’s in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains."

"Do they get snow?" he asked eagerly. Because at eleven, seeing snow was about the best it could be.

She laughed. "Probably not in June, but yes, they get snow. There’s lots to do there. Hiking, swimming. There’s a river and a lake."

"We could go camping."

She made a noncommittal noise in her throat, mostly because the thought of camping ranked right up there with being awake during open-heart surgery. Not even thinking about it was pleasant. But then she wasn’t an eleven year- old boy. She hadn’t been fascinated by worms and dirt and play cars and plastic guns, either.

More traits she knew he got from his father. Which was another problem. Not the traits, the man himself. Odds were Ethan was still in Fool’s Gold. The one place he’d asked her not to be. He’d made it clear he didn’t want her or his kid around.

Well, he was just going to have to get over it, she told herself. This was an emergency. She wouldn’t make a big deal about Tyler being in town and she certainly wouldn’t tell her son about his father. Not when Ethan had rejected them both so completely.

She would deal with the girls and get out as quickly as possible. If she happened to run into Ethan, she would be pleasant and distant. Nothing more. Because after all this time and all the ways he’d managed to hurt her, there was no way she was ever going to be vulnerable to him again. She’d learned her lesson. Fool me once and all that.

She gripped the steering wheel more tightly and glanced at her nav system screen. It showed the way to her destination and she was counting on the little device to be able to guide her back home when she was done.


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