Seventeen years ago, different dreams pulled Simon Mizrahi and Lana Kai apart. But when Lana takes a position as a chef back in Manhattan, her apartment search puts her right in her ex-husband’s path. Music teacher Simon is also hunting for a new place to live, and when Lana proposes they be platonic roomies, well…it’s not the worst idea he’s ever heard.
A sunny uptown two-bedroom sounds far more appealing than the cramped, noisy space where he’s currently struggling to work. Still, Simon has seen firsthand that Lana’s a flight risk, so he agrees on a trial basis.
Three months. With strict boundaries.
Living together again feels wonderfully nostalgic, but when the ex-couple’s lingering feelings rise to the surface, the rules go out the window.
Of course, chemistry was never their problem. But while Simon’s career feels back on solid footing, Lana is still sorting out what she wants. With their trial period soon coming to an end, they’ll have to decide if their living arrangement was merely a sexy trip down memory lane or a reunion meant to last.
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This book is approximately 47,000 words
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The last person Simon Mizrahi expected to see when he arrived at the uptown apartment he was looking into renting was his ex-wife, Lana Kuo.
He'd caught only the quickest glimpse of her profile, the back of her dark head, her decisive shoulders as she disappeared into another empty room. It was nothing but an impression, a ghost crackling with Lana's energy, before the real estate broker asked him to sign in.
It couldn't be her. Could it?
He was still distracted when the broker, who introduced herself as Magda Ferrer, began telling him about the building, and extracting information from him.
"I'm a music educator," he answered, trying to peer into the next room. Maybe there was no one there, but no — he heard a creak, a door opening and closing.
He fumbled through his email address and telephone number on the tablet, dimly aware he'd probably be getting a flood of emails from this broker because he'd given out too much information. But instead of protesting and stalling, he wanted to get this over quickly. To get into the other room. To make sure it wasn't her.
He hadn't seen her in years.
Magda Ferrer was looking blankly at him, so he added, "I teach, and I work with the Manhattanville Youth Chorus."
"Oh, I think I've heard them. They sang at a street festival I was at this summer."
She tugged a little self-consciously at her suit jacket. She seemed quite young.
Brokers always seemed so polished, so unlike his rumpled self. Part of the job, he supposed. He'd been hunting for apartments for a few months now, ever since the noisy renovations had begun on his neighbor's place, disrupting his concentration when he tried to work from home, knocking bits of plaster from the ceilings and onto his books, his piano. His tiny one-bedroom felt dustier and smaller, more oppressive than ever.
But try as he might, he was never going to find a deal like the one he had on the rent-stabilized unit he'd lived in for the last twenty years, the place that he'd shared, for a brief time, with Lana.
He plugged a few more answers into the broker's form before heading toward the open door of the bedroom to see if he could find the ghost. He was half afraid the broker would follow him and talk. Half afraid of what he'd say to Lana when he saw her.
She wasn't there.
He stood for a minute in the empty room. There wasn't another door, and it wasn't as if there were furniture anyone could hide behind.
Maybe he was dreaming. That would make more sense. Lana lived somewhere across the country, maybe the world. He didn't keep track of her. She wasn't on Facebook — and yes, he'd gone looking for her a couple of times. Once or twice he found mention of her in online newspapers. But she hadn't kept up with the rest of their friends, hadn't kept up with him, so that excused his occasional curiosity. They'd shared a life. And now, well, he didn't think of her obsessively every day. It was a long time ago.
In dreams he still saw her, though. On familiar and unfamiliar streets, in empty rooms like this one, in his bed — or rather, not in his small depressing bedroom, but a different bed, a better one that still somehow belonged to him.
He walked to the window, unbuttoning his heavy pea coat as he looked outside. It was snowing in great, thick tufts. There'd been no hint of this weather as he'd walked out of the subway to get here.
He'd been given a respite, and he was going to enjoy this, the quiet, warm empty room, so unlike his own apartment, the light from the snow outside reflecting on the walls. He was not going to rent this place, he already knew it, because he wasn't going to change. He needed to get out of his cramped space — should have gotten out years ago — but the thought of moving all of the stuff he'd accumulated over the years, the thought of paying double the rent every month even though he could afford it, the thought of changing everything he was used to, everything that annoyed him, every one of his small daily joys, with no dramatic compelling reason, it made him tired.
He frowned even more at the unexpected sky.
Definitely a dream.
He pinched himself, knowing that didn't work, and even if it did, he wasn't likely to be more pleased on waking. But a startled sound behind him made him swing around.
There, in the doorway, was his wife. Her eyes were round with disbelief, and she was clutching her puffy coat in one hand as if she was going to fling it at him.
But she dropped it. And it hit the floor with an unexpectedly heavy thunk.
She was probably real.
So was the coat.
They both looked down at it, and then back up.
"Simon," she whispered.
He took a deep breath. "Lana."
There was a moment when they stood, not sure what to do next. Then Lana's face softened into a bittersweet smile. One palm opened, beckoned for him.
He was going to have to touch her. He was going to get to touch her.
And he stepped up for a hug.
* * *
Lana Kuo had not expected to end up with her arms around her ex-husband that day as she set out to view potential apartments before she went to work.
But here she was gathered into him, her forehead against his shoulder, her nose pressed into the lapel of his slightly scratchy wool coat, her arms tightening of their own accord around his lean familiar yet unfamiliar body.
She pulled away to look at him and he stared right back at her with his bright blue eyes. He didn't bother with the polite cheek kiss she knew he might have given an acquaintance, and somehow that made her more and less comfortable.
They dropped their arms. They both took a single step back and began talking at once.
"Have you moved back to the city —"
"You're looking well —"
"Here for a job —"
"You haven't changed."
They stopped. Luckily they both laughed. If it was a bit forced, Lana didn't care.
She hadn't seen Simon for years, and he was as handsome as ever, the asshole. Same soft, floppy dark hair, now touched with gray at the temples, same sad eyes. He had a few more lines around them now, but they only made him more elegant, less stern than he'd been when he was younger; they crinkled as he smiled at her. She resisted the urge to touch her hair, to remember with dismay about how she must look several years later, to think of how she had changed.
Because despite his words, of course she had.
She wasn't in her twenties anymore. Her skin was no longer smooth, and while her hair was still dark and her body relatively strong, she felt so much more utilitarian. Youth had been so effortless; she knew this now because back then she hadn't thought about her health much at all except when she enjoyed it. She'd enjoyed it a lot when she'd been with Simon. Now, more of her efforts were geared to making her parts function correctly.
Most days, they did.
The broker luckily chose that moment to pop her head in. "How are we doing here? Have any questions for me?"
Judging by the speculative glint in the young woman's eye as she measured the small distance between the two people looking at the apartment and took in Lana's coat still on the floor, it seemed Magda Ferrer had more questions than Lana and Simon did.
Simon recovered and took another step back. "It's such a coincidence. We've known each other a long time," he said.
Which was true, if he didn't count the last absent seventeen years.
She didn't. She knew nothing about him now. Why was he thinking of moving? She never imagined he'd leave the rent-stabilized apartment he'd "inherited" from his father. Was he with someone? Not that she cared too much about that, of course, but after all, she was curious.
"We knew each other," she corrected, more for her own sake than for anyone else's.
She grabbed her coat and smoothed it down, trying not to blush. The broker glanced between the two of them again. "What are the odds?" she said, giving them a brief smile before withdrawing again.
A small silence.
"Why are you here?" Simon must have realized how abrupt that sounded, because he added quickly, "How long have you been in New York? Are you moving back? Planning to stay this time?"
She wanted to laugh again because she remembered him enough, still understood him enough to sense he was trying to hold back, but he had too many questions. She had them, too. It was like carrying a brimming cup of hot coffee that was threatening to spill even as she tried to take sips that inevitably burned her tongue.
"I arrived a few weeks ago. Crashing on my cousin's couch. I'm taking a temporary job at Lore in Chelsea, one that might become more permanent, depending."
"On whether they like me, or whether I like them, I guess."
He thought about that for a moment. "Do you have time right now to catch up?"
She'd planned to view a couple of other apartments, and she had to be downtown at her new job before three o'clock.
She was not going to be finding a place to live today, and she didn't care.
Ten minutes and one slippery walk later they were perched side by side in a cafe, looking outside as the snow continued to fall.
"You used to be a coffee hound," he said, inclining his head at her green tea.
She pulled the lid off and sniffed it. "Can't drink it anymore. It makes my heart race. But I guess you're the same if you're drinking a cup in the middle of the afternoon."
"It's a new habit. I need the kick if I want to stay up past eight nowadays. Not that there's much call for it."
Even as she knew she shouldn't take the bait, she did. "Not out tripping the light fantastic?" "Not so much. I mean, I've dated since. You must have, too."
There was another short pause as they digested the implication that they were both currently unattached.
He gave her a sidelong glance. "This is weird, isn't it?"
"It is. I want to ask you all these questions, but I don't know if I can or if I should. But at the same time —"
"At the same time?"
"I want to sit and look at you for a little bit."
They hadn't screamed at each other over the divorce, but they'd both been angry and hurt and ... shaken. She hadn't exactly asked him to vow to always be her friend, either. Because it was no use. She'd loved him, she'd tried to stay with him in the graduate music education program. But she'd been barely hanging on and he'd been a rising star. She'd needed a change and he kept believing until the very last day that if she just kept at it she'd be all right. But she wasn't all right, and she knew — she knew — he still considered it a failure, a failure of his love and belief. While she thought of it as her own personal failure, one that had almost nothing to do with him. She'd known she couldn't stay in New York anymore, not if she wanted to ever find a path that made her happy with the course of her life. But he couldn't see it that way.
They couldn't be friends. Even after more than fifteen years of silence and distance, the prospect seemed doubtful.
There were a lot of reasons why she wanted to stare at him without talking.
So she didn't tell him she'd missed him. She didn't tell him about the immediate years after she'd left. No use dwelling on the mess she'd been because she'd chosen to leave school, New York, and him. She gave him the abbreviated version she gave everyone else. "I ended up apprenticing with a master noodle maker. I learned to shape a long log of dough into hundreds of thin strands, all by swinging and pulling the dough through the air." She mimed the gesture with two hands and he laughed, not really understanding. It did sound like a circus trick. "I moved to Taiwan for a bit, then Singapore, then to Seattle, cooking and learning the whole time."
"So now you're a master noodle maker."
"Not quite. Plus that makes it sound dirty."
His eyes lit briefly, and then he cast them down again. He sipped his coffee.
Lana realized she'd been holding her breath.
"Well, my life hasn't been quite as exciting," he said a moment later. "I'm sure you could've predicted the whole thing. Finished school, taught for a few years and started a chorus for teens."
"I heard it won a few awards."
He raised an eyebrow, which she saw although he wasn't quite facing her. "You kept up with me?" She looked into the reflection of his eyes in the window. "I checked in every now and then. Of course I did."
He shook his head. "I thought ... Well, I thought when you left, that you really left everything behind."
This was not the time and place to get into this. The time and place had been seventeen years ago, when neither of them had had a clue how to talk.
So she picked up all those old feelings that had been unravelling around her and gathered them into a tight ball and shoved them deep, deep down where they usually lived. "And you've been teaching the teachers now, right? That's your new gig?"
"It's been over ten years, so I wouldn't call it new. No, now I'm also trying to write a book about choral programs across America. Still living in the same apartment."
"The one we — the one your dad lived in?"
"Wow, you've been there a long time now."
"And now you want to move?"
"I've wanted to leave for years. I feel like it's holding me back. I'm in a rut, but my rut is so reasonably priced and centrally located. Besides, not moving feels easier than moving, you know? Maybe you don't. After all, it seems like you don't like to stay in one place for very long."
That was a kind way of putting it. "Maybe it's not so much that I don't like to stay in one place as much as the place doesn't necessarily want me to stay."
It was her turn not to be able to look at Simon.
She glanced at her phone.
"Shit. I have to go to work."
She stood up and pulled her jacket on. Simon got up, too.
He said, "Well, if you're in town, we should meet up again. You know, for old time's sake."
"Of course, yes."
She gave him her number and when he called to give her his, she saw how familiar it was. "Your old landline."
"Yeah. I got it transferred to this hand computer."
He held up the device.
"Kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Does it mean I get to text you, like the kids do?"
"I'm not great at that. But yes, everything else is the same. You could have dialed up anytime, you know."
"I could have. It's not like I don't have that number memorized."
It was supposed to be a joke, but it didn't come out as one. Simon sent her another swift, searching glance, and she knew he'd seen the truth of it.
He probably also sensed that she had almost called him many times. She really had to leave now before she said too much.
This time, when she went to say goodbye, she kissed him on the cheek, the way an acquaintance would. "You take care of yourself," she said, before giving him one quick last squeeze.
She dashed out before he could answer, and once she was seated on the train, she closed her eyes.
Well, against all odds, she'd run into her ex in her first month in town. It likely wouldn't happen again.
Not unless she wished for it.CHAPTER 2
"Does she look the same?" Maxine asked.
Simon was on the phone with his sister, who lived in Toronto. He was supposed to be finding out what gifts her kids wanted for the holidays. Maxine had four children all under the age of fifteen who she shuttled to school and tae kwon do and piano and skating lessons, but she had only one ex-sister-in- law who she never got to gossip about, so of course she wanted to hear everything about Simon's accidental encounter with Lana.
Simon was not quite as eager to recap events, although he couldn't quite say why. "Yes. I mean, no. Of course, she's going to seem a little different."
She wore her hair in a braid now instead of loose, but the tip curled up defiantly. She was thinner. Her skin probably wasn't as firm as it once was. Around those golden-brown eyes he'd loved, he noticed little wrinkles, but those made her look softer, where before sometimes her face seemed stretched tight with worry. He liked how she appeared now, more still, more serene, even as he'd glimpsed her reflection in the cafe window, he'd felt slightly startled by her appearance — no, by her presence.
There you are, finally.
He hadn't wanted to look away, dammit.
Maxine was saying, "Men never notice anything. I want details."
"There wasn't much to it. We updated each other about our lives, and she had to go to work. I got her number. In a city of nine million people, we're probably not going to run into each other again, especially now that she's doing something so different."
"So you're not going to talk to her after this?" Max sounded disappointed.
"You didn't even like her."
"I liked her fine. I didn't like that she left and cut off all contact in order to find herself like some Eat, Pray, Love cliché, and that you clearly never got over it."
"I'm — it's been years. Of course I'm over it. I've dated. I've had long-term relationships —"
"I've got a very full life. It's just strange encountering someone, anyone, after so many years. You'd be confused, too."
"I had dinner with my ex-boyfriend when he was in town and I didn't feel flustered at any point."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "House Rules"
Copyright © 2020 Mindy Hung.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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