Make a new future. Choose your true family. Know your own heart.
When Elliott Dashwood’s father dies, leaving his family virtually penniless, it’s up to Elliott to do what he’s always done: be the responsible one. Now isn’t the right time for any added complications. So what the hell is he doing hooking up with Ned Ferrars? It’s just a fling, right?
Elliott tries to put it behind him when the family makes a fresh start in California, and if he secretly hopes to hear from Ned again, nobody else needs to know. While his mom is slowly coming to terms with her grief, teenage Greta is more vulnerable than she’s letting on, and Marianne—romantic, reckless Marianne—seems determined to throw herself headfirst into a risky love affair. And when Elliott discovers the secret Ned’s been keeping, he realizes that Marianne isn’t the only one pinning her hopes on a fantasy.
All the Dashwoods can tell you that feelings are messy and heartbreak hurts. But Elliott has to figure out if he can stop being the sensible one for once, and if he’s willing to risk his heart on his own romance.
His father’s hand was weightless. Elliott held it gently, rubbing his thumb over the loose, wrinkled skin of his knuckles. His father’s fingers were thin and fragile now, and scrubbed clean. Elliott had never seen his father’s fingers without paint under his nails.
“Elliott,” Henry Dashwood whispered, and Elliott lifted his blurry gaze. The smile on his father’s face was almost beatific, but that was probably down to the morphine.
“I’m here,” he said, his throat aching. “John’s here too, Dad.”
John Dashwood was seated on the other side of the bed, his hands folded in his lap. His jaw was clenched tight, and his gaze was fixed on some point just above Henry’s pillow.
Henry lifted his free hand and held it out toward John. John looked startled for a moment, and then reached out and took it gently.
“My boys,” Henry murmured. “My sons.”
They sat for a long moment as Henry drifted off into a doze, only the sound of his heart monitor punctuating the silence.
Elliott didn’t even realize Henry was awake again until he spoke.
“John,” he said. “John, promise me that you’ll look after your brother and your sisters.”
John seemed to recoil for a moment, and then he wet his lower lip with his tongue. “I will, Dad.” He met Elliott’s gaze and then looked down at their father again. “I promise.”
“Is Abby coming?” Henry asked, his voice faint.
“Mom’s on her way, Dad,” Elliott said. “She’s on her way with the girls.”
Henry passed away before they arrived.
Francesca Dashwood, John’s wife, arrived the day after Henry passed away. She organized the entire funeral, shoving Abby and her children aside as though Henry’s second marriage had been nothing more than a footnote in the Dashwood Family history. Norland Park was filled with a curious mix of mourners, well-wishers, and gawkers. Elliott, Abby, and Marianne suffered their attention, or lack thereof, with varying degrees of politeness. Greta, thirteen years old, locked herself in her bedroom and threatened to stab anyone who tried to drag her out again.
Three days after the funeral, the Naked Blue Lady vanished from her place above the fireplace, and that was when Elliott knew for certain that Francesca had made her move.
The Dashwood Family—always a capital F in Elliott’s mind, to distinguish it from the tiny offshoot that he considered actual family—had never forgiven Henry for running off with the help—Abby—and proceeding to prove their dire predictions wrong by living in wedded bliss with her for over twenty years before the cancer took him. Abby had never been interested in the Dashwood Family money. She’d signed the prenup the Family lawyers had asked her to. In exchange, the Family had allowed Henry to retain Norland Park and had provided him with a monthly allowance. Those, however, had only been guaranteed for as long as Henry lived.
And now, staring at the blank space above the fireplace where the Naked Blue Lady had hung, Elliott knew that he and his mother and his sisters were next to go.
“She’s evil,” Marianne announced. “She’s a horrible evil troll, and we should let Greta stab her.”
“She’s not evil,” Elliott began, and caught Marianne’s look. “Okay, so maybe she’s a little bit evil, but she’s also John’s wife, so can we try and be civil, please? Also, why does every scenario that anyone in this family comes up with always involve Greta stabbing someone?”
“Not every scenario,” Marianne said, her slight smile vanishing as she looked at the blank space above the fireplace. “Mom is going to be pissed.”
Right on cue, the French doors flung wide open and Abby Dashwood swept through in one of her trademark kaftans. She stopped when she reached the fireplace, and pressed a hand over her heart. “That bitch! Where’s my painting?”
Elliott exchanged a glance with Marianne, and together they stepped forward and put their arms around their mother.
“I’m fine!” Abby shook them off. “It’s fine!”
It clearly wasn’t fine. Their wonderful, vibrant mother had been badly shaken by their father’s death. She had never once allowed herself to believe that Henry wouldn’t go into remission.
“You have to think positive,” she’d said a thousand times, and thought so positively herself that she had refused to even begin to entertain any thoughts to the contrary. “Positive thoughts are positive energy, and that’s what your father needs right now.”
Elliott wasn’t certain she’d actually come to terms with the fact that he was gone. Even though they’d all sat in the front row at the funeral, the Family on the left side of the chapel, and Abby and her children on the right side, with poor John constantly darting between both factions like some frazzled emissary, silently begging Elliott to please prevent Abby or the girls from making a scene.
“Mom,” Elliott said now. “Come upstairs.”
“Yes,” Abby said, and lifted her chin. “Yes, let’s go upstairs and pack our bags! I’m not staying in this house a minute longer!” She raised her voice for the benefit of any eavesdroppers. “We’re clearly not welcome here!”
Marianne met Elliott’s gaze.
“Mom,” Elliott said, “we don’t have anywhere else to go. We can’t just leave.”
“Oh, honey.” Abby smiled at him, her eyes shining with tears. She reached up and cradled his cheeks in her palms. “Of course we can! All we need is each other.”
And somewhere to stay. And jobs. And money for college for Marianne and school for Greta. And health insurance. And a million other things that their father’s savings would barely begin to cover. But Elliott didn’t have the heart to say any of that.
“We can’t go anywhere yet, Mom,” he said. “Not without a plan.”
“Oh, honey,” Abby said again, her smile softening. “You worry too much.”
Marianne twined her fingers through Abby’s and tugged her gently toward the stairs. “Come on, Mom. Let’s go and see if Greta’s stabbed anyone yet.”
Elliott watched them leave, and then headed down the hallway toward his father’s study.
Norland Park, outside of Provincetown, was the only home Elliott had ever known. It had seven bedrooms, a sunroom, and a large parlor that Henry had used as a studio. The house had been built in 1910 in the American Craftsman style, and purchased by the Dashwoods a little over a decade later when Alexander Dashwood made his first million in the burgeoning aeronautics industry. It had served as a summer house for the Family for generations. And now they clearly wanted it back.
Henry Dashwood’s study was on the ground floor beside his studio. The hallway smelled of his oil paints. Tears pricked Elliott’s eyes, and he wiped them away before he opened the study door.
John was sitting at Henry’s desk, flicking through paperwork. He looked up.
“Elliott,” he said, his expression suddenly guarded. “Is everything okay?”
“Mom’s pretty upset,” Elliott said. “The, um, the painting?”
John had the decency to look abashed. “Francesca felt it was confronting.”
A wave of grief rose up in Elliott. He could almost hear Henry’s voice. “Art is supposed to be confronting, Elliott. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable! It’s supposed to challenge you, to shake you up, to make you feel!”
Which were all good points, but Elliott still didn’t feel he could invite his friends over with the Naked Blue Lady hanging over the fireplace. She was very, very blue, and she was very, very naked. She was also his mom. Elliott had been twelve at the time, and not sure how to explain to his friends that yes, that was his mother sitting spread-legged on that chair, and yes, that was her vulva.
“It meant a lot to them,” he said.
John’s mouth pressed into a thin line.
And yeah, the painting meant a lot to John too, didn’t it? It represented the moment Henry Dashwood had walked out of his life and away from all his responsibilities as a father and a husband to be with the college student he’d hired as John’s au pair for the summer. John wasn’t a bad guy, but he was never going to be able to put that betrayal aside. Elliott couldn’t blame him. Henry had been a wonderful father to Elliott and Marianne and Greta. They’d stolen that from John, in a way.
“There’s a little over ten thousand dollars in Dad’s savings account,” John said at last.
Elliott nodded. “It’s what he’d been putting aside, except there’s not even enough for Greta’s school fees, let alone Marianne’s college tuition.”
From the moment Henry had been diagnosed, he’d saved what he could from his monthly payments from the Dashwood family trust, but in the end it had been too little, too late. In the end he’d gone so quickly, and there were funeral costs, and taxes, and bills for the alternative treatments they’d tried when it was clear the chemo wasn’t working—bills the insurance hadn’t covered.
John sighed. “Elliott, I promised Dad I’d do what I could to help, but most of my assets are tied up in the corporation, or held in trust. I mean, the board isn’t going to . . .” He cleared his throat.
Elliott nodded, his eyes stinging again.
“I’ll see what I can do,” John said. “But Francesca wants the house.”
Elliott nodded again, and slipped outside before John could see him crying.
Greta’s bedroom overlooked the front entrance of Norland Park, and she’d taken to leaning out of her window like a particularly malevolent gargoyle and glaring at anyone who came or went. She was a pretty girl, usually, when she wasn’t plotting murder behind the curtain of her dark hair, but Elliott couldn’t blame her.
“Oh my God,” she exclaimed. “There’s another car coming, Elliott! Another one!”
Elliott couldn’t bring himself to care enough to climb off her bed and go and see.
“It’s like Francesca can’t even wait until she kicks us out to start filling the place with her awful friends! These ones are driving an Audi.” She leaned further out the window.
“Greta!” Elliott leapt off the bed and crossed to the window before she dived out of it. He wrapped an arm around her and looked down.
The black Audi was parked close to the front entrance of the house, and the two young men climbing out were both wearing blazers, khakis, and boat shoes.
“Oh, look! It’s the Brooks Brothers!” Greta exclaimed.
Greta had no volume control.
The young men looked up.
Elliott and Greta pushed back from the window at the same time, and landed in a heap on the bedroom floor.
Greta stared at Elliott wide-eyed, and he stared back.
Then, for the first time in what felt like weeks, they both started to laugh.
The Brooks Brothers, Elliott learned at dinner, were actually the Ferrars brothers. They were Francesca’s younger brothers, Ned and Robert, and they apparently did something in construction. By the looks of them, nothing at the dirty end of that business. The Ferrars family resemblance was clear. The brothers were both tall, blond, and good-looking in a way that had just as much to do with presentation as it did with genetics. Skincare lotions and hair products and designer clothing gave a glossy shine to the brothers’ otherwise ordinary exteriors. Elliott found himself glancing at Ned’s profile more than once during dinner. His nose was a little long for his face. His jaw was a little wonky. His ears stuck out a bit. Without that two-hundred-dollar haircut working for him, would he still be as handsome, or would the slightly awkward way he held himself be even more apparent?
Elliott had never had a two-hundred-dollar haircut in his life. His father might have grown up obscenely wealthy, but his mother hadn’t. Two hundred dollars for a haircut when there was a perfectly good pair of scissors lying around? Not on Abby’s watch. Even now Elliott’s dark hair was tousled and unruly. When it was wet after a shower, it hung in tendrils in his eyes and down the back of his neck. When it was dry he rubbed some wax through it, stood it on end, and let it do whatever the hell it wanted for the rest of the day.
And he was the most presentable of his side of the family. He’d heard Francesca telling Robert exactly that after the brothers had arrived, before conceding that he was also “the least objectionable.”
Not exactly high praise, then.
Elliott glanced at Ned again, and this time Ned caught his gaze and offered him a small smile. Elliott smiled back, a little embarrassed to have been seen looking, and stabbed a piece of carrot.
Dinner with the Family was an ordeal. And Elliott meant that in the most ancient judicial sense. At this point he would rather choose ordeal by fire and walk over red-hot plowshares than endure another round of stilted conversation and barely concealed barbs. In addition to John and Francesca and the Ferrars brothers, Great Uncle Montgomery had been in residence since the funeral. He hadn’t done much except wander around Norland Park poking his cane into the wainscoting and announcing the presence of dry rot, then making grumbled threats to sue Abby for failing to keep the house maintained while she was a tenant.
Aunt Cynthia and her husband, Aldous, had also been staying since the funeral. Elliott couldn’t decide if they were better or worse than Montgomery.
“Oh, such pretty children,” Aunt Cynthia had said the night she’d arrived. “They don’t look anything like Abby, do they?”
Aldous had grunted. “That girl’s got metal through her nose.”
Worse, probably. They were worse than Montgomery. Montgomery might complain about holes in the wainscoting, but at least he didn’t comment on the hole in Marianne’s nose.
With the arrival of the Ferrars brothers, it didn’t take long for conversation at dinner to turn to the fact that they now had more guests than available guest rooms.
“Well,” Francesca said, with a thin smile in Abby’s direction, “I’m sure that the children can share, can’t they?”
Abby narrowed her gaze. “Excuse me?”
“I think it’s only fair to offer guests a proper bedroom, isn’t it?” Francesca asked.
Elliott met John’s gaze. John glanced away.
“Invited guests, yes,” Abby said. “But I didn’t invite them.” She grimaced in the direction of Ned and Robert. “No offense.”
They both mumbled something that sounded vaguely polite.
“Well, I just thought that Marianne and Greta could share,” Francesca pressed on. “That would free up a room.”
Abby drew a deep breath. “Excuse you. My daughters don’t have to—”
“Ned and Robert can have my room,” Elliott said, to head Abby’s diatribe off at the pass. Francesca looked smug, John looked relieved, and Abby looked like she had a hell of a lot more to say on the subject. “It’s fine. I don’t mind.”
Ned shot him a worried glance. “That’s really not necessary.”
“I don’t mind,” Elliott repeated.
In the awkward silence that settled over the dining room, Great Uncle Montgomery muttered about nonexistent mold spores, and Greta turned her steak knife over and over in her palm in a thoughtful manner that made Aunt Cynthia shuffle her chair a few inches further away.
Elliott trudged upstairs after dinner to grab some spare clothes and his laptop and phone. He dragged a duffel bag down from the back of his closet and shoved clothes into it. This was his room, but he had known since his father died that he wouldn’t be allowed to stay in it. The Family wanted them out of the house. It was a matter of when, not if.
Elliott slid his laptop into his bag, then zipped it up and slung it over his shoulder. He stared down at his rumpled bed, but fuck it. If the Ferrars brothers wanted clean sheets, they could find them for themselves. Elliott crossed to the door and wrenched it open, surprising Ned Ferrars.
He had a suitcase on wheels.
“Sorry,” Elliott said, and stepped outside his room.
“No, um, I’m sorry.” Ned pressed his lips together. A faint wrinkle appeared at the top of his nose, right between his drawn-together eyebrows. “For, um . . . for your loss, and for everything.”
Elliott’s heart skipped a beat. He didn’t think a single person associated with the Family in any way had stooped to offer him their sympathies. At the funeral, everyone gave their condolences to John, as though Abby and her children, even in that moment, were interlopers with no claim on Henry Dashwood.
He was our dad too.
“Thanks,” he murmured, his throat aching.
Ned nodded and wheeled his little suitcase into Elliott’s room. The door snicked shut behind him.
Henry’s studio was largely undisturbed. It smelled of oil paints and turpentine. Stacks of unfinished canvases leaned against the walls. Elliott set his duffel bag down on the old paint-spattered couch his dad used to take his naps on every afternoon. It still smelled faintly of weed.
He crossed to the wall and traced his shaking fingers down a canvas. The paint was laid on thick, in a choppy texture that read like Braille. He closed his eyes and could hear Henry’s voice.
“This is art, my boy! Art! Nothing matters more in the world!”
“Says the man living in a Cape Cod mansion!”
Henry’s laughter had filled the room, and then he’d grown uncharacteristically solemn.
“Alexander Dashwood used to fly kites, you know? He used to watch the birds, and fly kites. He wanted to soar. He had an artist’s soul as well, I think. What would he make of his descendants, hmm? Making their fortune by manufacturing military drones. All innovators become oppressors, given enough time.”
Elliott smiled, his chest aching, and lifted his fingers away from the canvas.
“Love you, Dad,” he whispered to the silent studio. “Miss you.”
Lisa lives in tropical North Queensland, Australia. She doesn’t know why, because she hates the heat, but she suspects she’s too lazy to move. She spends half her time slaving away as a government minion, and the other half plotting her escape.
She attended university at sixteen, not because she was a child prodigy or anything, but because of a mix-up between international school systems early in life. She studied History and English, neither of them very thoroughly.
She shares her house with too many cats, a green tree frog that swims in the toilet, and as many possums as can break in every night. This is not how she imagined life as a grown-up.