Sarah Morgan shares an extract from her new novel, Moonlight Over Manhattan.
This wasn’t how a date was supposed to end.
If she’d known she was going to have to climb out of the window of the ladies’ room, she wouldn’t have chosen tonight to wear insanely high heels. Why hadn’t she spent more time learning to balance before leaving her apartment?
She’d never been a high heel sort of person, which was exactly why she was now wearing a pair of skyscraper stilettos. Another thing ticked off the list she’d made of Things Harriet Knight Wouldn’t Normally Do.
It was an embarrassingly long list, compiled one lonely October night when she’d realized that the reason she was sitting in the apartment on her own, talking to the animals she fostered, was that she lived her life safely cocooned inside her comfort zone. At this rate she was going to die alone, surrounded by a hundred dogs and cats.
Here lies Harriet, who knew a lot about hair balls, but not a whole lot about the other kind.
A life of sin would have been more exciting, but she’d picked up the wrong rule book when she was born. As a child she’d learned how to hide. How to make herself small, if not exactly invisible. Ever since then she’d trodden the safest path, and she’d done it while wearing sensible shoes. Plenty of people, including her twin sister and her brother, would say she had good reason for that. Whatever reasons lay in her past, she lived a small life and she was uncomfortably aware that she kept it that way through choice.
The F word loomed big in her world.
Not the curse. She wasn’t the sort of person who cursed. For her, the F word was Fear.
Fear of humiliation, fear of failing, fear of what other people thought of her, and all those fears originated from fear of her father.
She was tired of the F word.
She didn’t want to live life alone, which was why she’d decided that for Christmas she was giving herself a new gift.
She didn’t want to look back on her life in fifty years’ time and wonder about the things she might have done had she been braver. She didn’t want to feel regret. During a happy Thanksgiving spent with Daniel and his soon-to-be wife, Molly, she’d distilled her fear list to a challenge a day.
She was going on a quest to find the confidence that eluded her and if she couldn’t find it then she’d fake it. For the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, she would do one thing every day that scared her, or at least made her uncomfortable. It had to be something that made her think I don’t want to do that.
For one month, she would make a point of doing the opposite of what she would usually do.
A month of putting herself through her own kind of hell. She was going to emerge from the challenge a new, improved version of herself. Stronger. Bolder. More confident.
More – everything.
Which was why she was now hanging out of a bathroom window being supported by her new best friend Natalie. Luckily for her, the restaurant wasn’t on the roof terrace.
“Take your shoes off,” Natalie advised. “I’ll drop them down to you.”
“They’ll impale me or knock me unconscious. It might be safer to keep them on my feet, Natalie.” There were days when she questioned the benefits of being sensible, but right now she wasn’t sure if it stopped her having fun or if it kept her alive.
“Call me Nat. If I’m helping you escape, we might as well drop the formalities. And you can’t keep those shoes on your feet. You’ll injure yourself when you land. And give me your purse.”
Harriet clung to it. This was New York City. She would no more hand her purse to a stranger than she would walk naked through Central Park. It went against every instinct she had. She was the type of person who looked twice before she crossed the road, who checked the lock on her door before she went to sleep. She wasn’t a risk-taker.
Which was exactly why she should do it.
Forcing down the side of her that wanted to clutch the purse to her chest and never let it go, she thrust it at Nat. “Take it. And drop it down to me.” She eased one leg out of the window, ignoring the voice of anxiety that rang loud in her head. What if she didn’t? What if she ran off with it? Used all her credit cards? Stole her identity?
If Nat wanted to steal her identity, she was welcome to it.
She was more than ready to be someone else. Particularly after the evening she’d just had.
Being herself wasn’t working out so well.
Through the open window she could hear the roar of traffic, the cacophony of horns, the squealing of brakes, the background rumble that was New York City. Harriet had lived here all her life. She knew virtually every street and every building. Manhattan was as familiar to her as her own living room, if considerably larger.
Nat took her shoes from her. “Try not to rip your coat.
Great coat, by the way. Love the color, Harriet.”
“The coat is new. I bought it especially for this date because I had high hopes. Which proves that an optimistic nature can be a disadvantage.”
“I think it’s lovely to be optimistic. Optimists are like Christmas lights. They brighten everything around them. Are you really a twin? That’s very cool.”
Today’s challenge had been Don’t be reserved with strangers. She was fine when she got to know someone, but often she didn’t even make it past those first excruciatingly awkward stages. She was determined to change that.
Given that she and Natalie had met precisely thirty minutes earlier when she’d served her a delicious-looking shrimp salad, she was satisfied she’d made at least some progress. She hadn’t clammed up or responded in monosyllables as she frequently did with people she didn’t know. Most important of all she hadn’t stammered, which she took as evidence that she’d finally learned to control the speech fluency issues that had blighted her life until her twenties. It had been years now since she’d stumbled her way through a sentence and even stressful situations didn’t seem to trigger it, so there was no excuse for being so cautious with strangers.
All in all, a good result. And part of that was down to the support of her sister.
“It is cool being a twin. Very cool.”
Nat gave a wistful sigh. “She’s your best friend, right? You share everything? Confidences. Shoes…”
“Most things.” The truth was that, until recently, she’d been the one to do most of the sharing. Fliss found it hard to open up, even to Harriet, but lately she’d been trying hard to change.
And Harriet was trying to change too. She’d told her twin she didn’t need protecting, and now she had to prove it to herself.
Being a twin had many advantages, but one of the disadvantages was that it made you lazy. Or maybe complacent would be a better word. She’d never had to worry too much about navigating the stormy waters of the friendship pool because her best friend had always been right there by her side. Whatever life had thrown at them, and it had thrown plenty, she and Fliss had been a unit. Other people had good friendships but nothing, nothing, came close to the wonder of having a twin.
When it came to sisters, she’d won the lottery.
Nat tucked Harriet’s purse under her arm. “So you share an apartment?”
“We did. Not anymore.” Harriet wondered how it was some people could talk and talk without stopping. How long before the man sitting inside the restaurant came looking for her? “She’s living in the Hamptons now.” Not a million miles away, but it might as well have been a million miles. “She fell in love.”
“Great for her I guess, but you must miss her like crazy.” That was an understatement.
The impact on Harriet had been huge, and her emotions were conflicted. She was thrilled to see her twin so happy but, for the first time in her life, she was now living alone. Waking up alone. Doing everything alone.
At first it had felt strange and a little scary, like the first time you rode a bike without training wheels. It also made her feel a little vulnerable, like going out for a walk in a blizzard and realizing you’d left your coat behind.
But this was now the reality of her life.
She woke in the mornings to silence instead of Fliss’s off-key singing. She missed her sister’s energy, her fierce loyalty, her dependability. She even missed tripping over her shoes, which had been habitually strewn across the floor.
Most of all she missed the easy camaraderie of being with someone who knew you. Someone you trusted implicitly.
A lump formed in her throat. “I should go before he comes looking for me. I cannot believe I’m climbing out of a window to get away from a man I only met thirty minutes ago. This is not the kind of thing I do.”
Neither was online dating, which was why she’d forced herself to try it.
This was her third date, and the other two had been almost as bad.
The first man had reminded her of her father. He’d been loud, opinionated and in love with the sound of his own voice. Overwhelmed, Harriet had retreated into herself, but in this instance it hadn’t mattered because it had been clear he had no interest in her opinions. The second man had taken her to an expensive restaurant and then disappeared after dessert, leaving her with a check big enough to ensure she would always remember him, and as for the third — well, he was currently sitting at the table in the window waiting for her to return from the bathroom so they could fall in love and live happily ever after. And in his case “ever after” wasn’t likely to be long because despite his claim that he was in his prime, it was clear he was already long past retirement age.
She would have called time on the date and walked out of the front door if she hadn’t had a feeling he would follow her. Something about him made her feel uneasy. And anyway, climbing out of the window of a ladies’ room was definitely something she would never do.
In terms of Challenge Harriet, it had been a successful evening. In terms of romance, not so much.
Right now, dying surrounded by dogs and cats was looking like the better option.
“Go.” Nat opened the window wider and her expression brightened. “It’s snowing! We’re going to have a white Christmas.”
Harriet stared at the lazy swirl of snowflakes. “It’s not Christmas for another month.”
“But it’s going to be a white Christmas, I feel it. There is nowhere more magical than New York in the snow. I love the holidays, don’t you?”
Harriet opened her mouth and closed it again. Normally her answer would have been yes. She adored the holidays and the emphasis on family, even if hers was restricted to siblings. But this year she’d decided she was going to spend Christmas without them. And that was going to be the biggest challenge of all. She had the best part of a month of practice to build up to the big one.
“I really should be going.”
“You should. I don’t want your body to be discovered frozen to the sidewalk. Go. And don’t fall in the Dumpster.” “Falling into the Dumpster would be a step up from everything else that has happened this evening.” Harriet glanced down. It wasn’t far and anyway, how much further could she fall? She felt as if she’d already hit rock bottom. “Maybe I should go back and explain that he wasn’t what I was expecting. Then I could walk out the front door and not risk walking home with a twisted ankle and food wrappers stuck to my new coat.”
“No.” Nat shook her head. “Don’t even think about it. The guy is creepy. I’ve told you, you’re the third woman he’s brought here this week. And there’s something not quite right about the way he looked at you. As if you were going to be dessert.”
She’d thought the same thing. Her instincts had been shrieking at her, but part of Challenge Harriet was learning to ignore her instincts.
“It seems rude.”
“This is New York. You have to be street-smart. I’m going to keep him distracted until you’re a safe distance away.” Nat glanced toward the door, as if she was afraid the man might burst in at any moment. “I couldn’t believe it when he started calling you babycheeks. I have to ask this — why did you agree to meet him? What was it about him that attracted you? You’re the third gorgeous woman he’s brought here this week. Does he have some special quality? What made you agree to choose him?”
“I didn’t choose him. I chose the guy in his online dating profile. I suspect he may have reality issues.” She thought back to the moment he’d sat down opposite her. He had so obviously not been the person in his profile that she’d smiled politely and told him she was waiting for someone.
Instead of apologizing and moving on, he’d sat down in the chair opposite her. “You must be Harriet? Dog lover, cake lover. I love an affectionate woman who knows her way around a kitchen. We’re going to do just fine together.”
That was the moment Harriet had known for sure she wasn’t cut out for online dating.
Why, oh why had she used her real name? Fliss would have made something up. Probably something outrageous.
Nat looked fascinated. “What did his dating profile say?” “That he was in his thirties.” She thought of the thick shock of white hair and the wrinkled brow. The yellowed teeth and the graying fuzz on his jaw. But the worst thing had been the way he’d leered at her.
“Thirty? He must be at least twice that. Or maybe he’s like a dog where each year is seven years. That would make him—” she wrinkled her nose “—two hundred and ten in human years. Jeez, that’s old.”
“He was sixty-eight,” Harriet said. “He told me he feels thirty inside. And his profile said that he works in investment, but when I questioned that he confessed that he’s investing his pension.”
Nat doubled over laughing and Harriet shook her head. She felt weary. And stupid.
“After three dates, I’ve lost my sense of humor. That’s it. I’m done.”
All she wanted was fun and a little human company. Was that too much to ask?
“You decided to give love a chance. Nothing wrong with that. But someone like you shouldn’t struggle to meet people. What’s your job? Don’t you meet anyone through work?”
“I’m a dog walker. I spend my day with handsome, four- legged animals. They are always who you think they are. Although having said that I do walk a terrier who thinks he’s a Rottweiler. That does create some issues.”
Maybe she should stick with dogs.
She’d proved to herself that she could do the whole online dating thing if she had to. She’d ticked it off her list. It was victory of a sort.
Nat opened the window wider. “Report him to the dating site so he doesn’t put any more unsuspecting women in the position of having to jump out the window. And look on the bright side. At least he didn’t scam you out of your life savings.” She checked the street. “You’re clear.”
“Nice meeting you, Nat. And thank you for everything.” “If a woman can’t help another woman in trouble, where would we be? Come back soon.” Harriet felt a tug deep inside.
Friendship. That was perhaps the only F word she liked. Feeling a flash of regret that she would never be going anywhere near this restaurant ever again, because she genuinely liked Natalie, Harriet held her breath and dropped onto the sidewalk. She felt her ankle twist and a sharp, agonizing pain shot up her leg.
“You okay?” Nat dropped her shoes and her purse and Harriet winced as they thudded into her lap. It seemed that the only thing she was taking away from this date was bruises.
Victory, she thought, was both painful and undignified. The window above her closed and Harriet was immediately aware of two things. First, that putting weight on her ankle was agony. Second, that unless she wanted to hobble home in bare feet, she was going to have to put on the stilettos she’d borrowed from the pile of shoes Fliss had left behind.
Gingerly, she slid the shoe onto her foot and sucked in a breath as pain shot through her ankle.
For the first time in her life she used the F word to express something other than fear. Another box ticked in project Challenge Harriet.
She’ll risk everything for her own Christmas miracle…
Determined to conquer a lifetime of shyness, Harriet Knight challenges herself to do one thing a day in December that scares her, including celebrating Christmas without her family. But when dog-walker Harriet meets her newest client, exuberant spaniel Madi, she adds an extra challenge to her list – dealing with Madi’s temporary dog-sitter, gruff doctor Ethan Black, and their very unexpected chemistry.
Ethan thought he was used to chaos, until he met Madi – how can one tiny dog cause such mayhem? To Ethan, the solution is simple – he will pay Harriet to share his New York apartment and provide 24-hour care. But there’s nothing simple about how Harriet makes him feel.
Ethan’s kisses make Harriet shine brighter than the stars over moonlit Manhattan. But when his dog-sitting duties are over, and Harriet returns to her own home, will she dare to take the biggest challenge of all – letting Ethan know he has her heart for life, not just for Christmas?
USA Today bestselling author Sarah Morgan writes commercial women’s fiction and her trademark humour and warmth have gained her fans across the globe. Described as ‘a magician with words’ by RT Book Reviews, she has been nominated four years in succession for the prestigious RITA Award from the Romance Writers of America and won the award twice. Sarah lives near London with her husband and children, and when she isn’t reading or writing she loves being outdoors.