Willow Armstrong, the once-famous “Queen of Weight Loss” and president of Pound Busters, succumbed to stress eating after her divorce. Now the scandal of getting caught on camera binging on pizza, and the internet-wide mocking of her new curves, may destroy her career. Add in a business advisor who drained her finances, and Willow is out of options—until she learns she’s inherited a house in England’s most picturesque locale, The Cotswolds.
Willow’s trip across the pond to sell the property and salvage her company soon becomes its own adventure: the house, once owned by grandparents she never met, needs major work. Plus, single dad Owen Hughes, the estate’s resident groundskeeper and owner of a local tour outfit, isn’t thrilled about the idea of leaving . . .
Yet as Willow proceeds with her plans, she’s sidetracked by surprising discoveries about her family’s history--and with Owen’s help, the area’s distinctive attractions. Soon, she’s even retracing her roots—and testing her endurance—amid the region’s natural beauty. And the more she delves into the past, the more clearly she sees herself, her future, and the way home . . .
Praise for Sharon Struth
“Struth has a gift for layering stories within stories while keeping them all connected.”
“Struth is an author to watch!”
—Laura Drake, author of RITA-award winner The Sweet Spot
“Sharon Struth writes a good story about love and loss. She knows her characters and has a path she wants them to take.” —Eye on Romance
“The plot is refreshing and will definitely keep the reader turning page after page.”
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Willow Armstrong could hardly breathe as she stared at the video playing on her laptop. Stupid. She'd been so stupid. Once again, she'd let urges rule her choices, and this time, she'd been exposed.
Willow squinted at the blurred image. Maybe that wasn't even her. Heck, she'd seen clearer pictures of Sasquatch. "Are you sure that's me, Becky? I mean, lots of people in Manhattan could own a black Lexus."
Her assistant remained silent on the other end of the phone for a little too long then said, "Give it a sec. Keep your eyes on the rearview mirror."
The camera zoomed on the inside of the car and the front mirror came into focus. Willow paused the tape and leaned on the marble kitchen counter to get a closer look. A shiny object hung off the car's rearview mirror. Was that ...?
Dread wormed through her, twisting and turning like a knife in her gut. The silver folded-fork symbol associated with Willow's weight-loss empire, Pound Busters, dangled off the mirror.
She groaned. "I can't believe this."
"I'm sorry. I figured you'd want to know."
"You made the right call."
"Now I'm not sure. Why don't you shut it off?" Becky couldn't hide her worried tone.
Willow's heart warmed for her concerned assistant, who had given Willow ten dedicated years of service. Loyal right to the end. And this could be the end.
On the screen, the arrow hovered over the play button. Terrified to see what the rest of the world would, she froze, her hand stilled on the computer mouse.
Thirty minutes and four thousand "likes" ago, Celebrity Secrets had posted the video to their Facebook page. Dear God! Over seven hundred comments she didn't dare read, and some three hundred shares, all over a slip into Tony's Slice of Heaven. The mouthwatering goodness of the slice barreled toward her with a vengeance. Just a few moments of cheesy bliss. Was it too much to ask for?
"You there, Willow?"
"Yes." She drew in a breath that somehow boosted her courage. "I really should watch this."
She hit the play button. The camera moved and refocused, closing in on the shadowy figure in the driver's seat until the picture became perfectly clear.
A blond woman, whose hoodie barely hid her face, ate — no, more like shoved — a hot slice of Tony's extra-cheese thin crust into her mouth. Willow could still taste their trademark sweet sauce laced with fresh basil, the stretchy, melted mozzarella, the crust toasted to perfection in a brick oven. She salivated. So damn tasty.
The show paused right at a second messy bite and the camera panned back to their main studio, leaving the screen view of Willow pinned, mid-bite, in the upper corner. Show host Lindsay Star stood on the set, her body turned to the video of Willow. Her thigh-high, sleeveless, sequined dress seemed more suitable for clubbing. Suddenly, the pretty brunette swung to face the camera, her sly smile suggesting she'd just heard the century's juiciest piece of gossip.
Willow turned up the volume, prepared to face the jury of one.
"Once again we find Pound Busters founder and CEO Willow Armstrong in the spotlight. Just over two years ago, her then-husband, Lieutenant Governor of New York Richard Carter, announced he planned to leave Ms. Armstrong for his campaign manager.
"Viewers might remember Pound Busters made news earlier this week when Ms. Armstrong's long-trusted business advisor, Tom Comstock, embezzled both her company and personal funds, leaving the country without a trace. Word on the street is the Pound Busters' board isn't too happy with their founder, as it was at her urging that they kept Mr. Comstock rather than firing him six months ago. And Ms. Armstrong's significant weight gain since her divorce has caused Pound Busters shareholders to blame her for lower profits and dropping stock prices.
"It makes this reporter wonder if this is the end of the line for the woman known as the queen of weight loss. Earlier today, I interviewed Nikki Winslow, President of Pound Busters' Board of Directors. After seeing our clip of the firm's CEO during her visit to Tony's Slice of Heaven, here's what Ms. Winslow had to say ..."
The video of Willow vanished, replaced by a taped interview of Nikki with the brunette reporter. Outside her Upper East Side co-op building, Nikki stared at the camera, her thin face always angry and holding the dire expression of a woman who wished she'd eaten more for lunch. Wrapped in a beige Burberry trench coat, the Manhattan sophisticate clutched a Gucci shoulder bag while the doorman held an umbrella over her head. She pursed her thin lips, causing the cosmetic- tight-skin around them to twist unnaturally.
Willow's heart raced. The board had exhibited tolerance with her assurances that she'd been trying to lose the weight gained after Richard's public humiliation. After all, how many marriages ended that way? Hell would have to ice over before she'd forgive him for not telling her privately first. She'd owned her role in the gain, even though by many people's standards Willow's weight would be considered average. She ran a hand along the dip in her waist, full in an area where no curve had existed for decades. In the world of selling weight-loss services, going from a size six to a size ten — sometimes a twelve — was sacrilege.
"I'm dismayed to see this tape." Nikki shook her head. "Ms. Armstrong has lost sight of the company's vision. Pound Busters has seen a steady decline in her commitment to our goals. Because of her belief in Tom Comstock, we kept him on. A huge mistake. And now this latest episode proves she's been lying to us about a desire to return to her previous weight. We will be having a meeting soon about the direction and management of the company. A direction that may or may not include Ms. Armstrong."
Bile clogged Willow's throat. Fired. Tossed out on her butt from the company she'd started some twenty years ago. Her blood, sweat, and vision had gotten this firm off the ground when others merely laughed at her idea. If she knew one thing, it was how it felt to be fat and get skinny. Then get fat again, and lose it. Rinse, lather, and repeat. The sad story of her life.
Only after college had she figured out how to lose the weight and keep it off. A strict food regime and military workout routine. One often balked at by the experts.
But both celebrities and the public loved it.
One Pound Busters location led to ten, then to a hundred. The firm grew in leaps and bounds, finally so enormous she'd taken the company public. A move that seemed smart at the time, but now a board of nine people controlled Willow's destiny.
Becky quietly asked, "You okay, Willow?"
No. She wasn't. "I'll be fine. Thanks for the heads-up. I need to think about what I'm going to do. See you tomorrow."
She hung up and headed to the refrigerator, automatically reaching for the handle. She jerked her hand back as if she'd touched a hot metal rod.
Come on, Willow! Fix, don't feast. Commandment Four of Pound Busters' Five Commandments of Weight Loss.
She plunked down on a stool at the kitchen island, reaching for an apple from the basket then tossing it back in without taking a bite. Drawing in a deep breath, she closed her eyes. The depth of her current problems coiled around her like a cobra, getting tighter, tighter, tighter, until it sapped her energy.
Weight gain sat at the center of her work problems. Much as she wanted to stand up and scream at those who criticized her gain, how could she?
Every day of her forty years, she'd been aware of her weight. A chubby early childhood. Those plump adolescent days, turning into plus-sized teenage and college years. Every single moment living in the shadow of a mother who'd once modeled, worsened by a stepfather who'd pounded in her head that she'd better be smart, because with her weight, only her brain would get her places.
Getting thin at the end of college had given her the acceptance she always wanted. Deep inside of her, though, lurked the same person. The one who let dark demons in the pantry lure her to comfort. But who was she, without food in the equation? She'd asked that question too many times lately, making it hard to fight off the people who now fat-shamed her.
She stood and walked to her apartment window, searching the twinkling lights of the cityscape for answers. In the past, if she gained a few pounds, she'd sneak off to the spa upstate nestled in the Catskills. Maybe it made her a fake, but she couldn't afford to fail. This time, she faced a bigger loss obstacle. Five pounds had turned to ten. Ten to twenty. Twenty to thirty.
Her problems beat her silly, pummeling away at the idea she could salvage this. What had she done to herself? She rubbed her throbbing temples.
Stupid. Stupid me! All because of stupid Richard and his affair.
She dug into the Pound Busters Commandments, reviving number two: Believe, don't blame.
Inside her head she repeated, I believe I can lose this weight three times until her frustration slowly lifted.
If she could just get to Golden Bridge Spa, she could fix this. A month in secret seclusion, eating only what their dieticians provided while this video blew over. When she came out, she could reappear closer to her old self, even laugh at her lapse of judgment. Except she needed money for that secret seclusion. As Nikki so rightly pointed out, Tom had run off with both Willow's and the firm's money, leaving her without a dime. She could borrow it from her stepfather? No. No borrowing, from anyone.
There had to be money she could use. Somewhere.
Then it hit her.
She raced to the bedroom closet. Tossing shoe boxes and boots out of the way, she dug deep into the back for the cardboard box she'd shoved away a while ago and ignored since. Heart thumping, she set it onto her bed but hesitated to open it. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she opened the flaps and pushed past the personal items, a mishmosh of things she had no other place to store. A large manila envelope made her pause. Her mother's things.
Her stepfather's maid had delivered the envelope a week after the horrible car accident that ended her mother's life. Maria had handed it over, simply saying, "These were in your mother's closet. Your stepdad said you should have them."
That night, Willow opened it, surprised to find it filled with photographs. She'd removed a handful of the aged photos, tried to figure out who these strangers were to her mother. But with her gone, Willow would never be able to ask, or get answers to her questions. In her sadness, she'd shoved the photos back inside and figured one day she'd try to learn more. But life took over and she'd forgotten they were here.
Willow exhaled and returned to her task, looking past the large envelope as she rummaged for the bank passbook, of course, finding it at the bottom.
After opening the small booklet, a relic of banking's past, she blew out a relieved sigh at the eight-thousand-dollar balance. Plus interest. At least she had money. She'd call the bank in the morning. Placing the passbook on the nightstand, she thanked her lucky stars she hadn't closed out the account when she got married or shared this account with her former business advisor.
As she folded the box top to put it away, her mother's envelope beckoned. She removed it and tipped it, allowing the photographs to spill out. An envelope and a small black velvet jewelry case fell out, too.
She picked up the jewelry case. Mom's twenty-third birthday. The cook had made a breakfast tray and Willow ran ahead of her stepfather into the bedroom with this case, wrapped in shiny paper. Her stepfather had personally helped her purchase the gift at a swanky jeweler on Fifth Avenue, a big moment for five-year-old Willow, who'd lived rather modestly with her mother until she'd married Charlie. Willow could still remember Mom's beautiful smile as she'd removed the rosebud necklace and put it on.
The fond memory faded. Willow lifted the hinged lid. She ran a finger over the silver granulated pendant, across the bumps of the tiny rosebud surrounded by three leaves. The dark oxidized finish highlighted the flower's grooves, a gift Willow had been certain her mother would love. Rose was Willow's middle name.
With years of sadness starting to unravel, Willow slipped the silver chain over her neck. A thickness filled her throat. Avoiding these special things had allowed her to cope with the loss.
She gathered photos left scattered on the mattress. On top was one of her mother as a young woman holding hands with a man around the same age. Willow gave him a closer look, noting a familiarity in the man's face. Mom only shared the occasional story about her life in England before moving to the States. Could these people have been from that life? Were they relatives Willow never knew about?
She put down the photos and took the long, thick envelope. The postmark date was a year before her mother died, the contents from a lawyer in Bath, England.
The flap had been opened already. Willow removed the multipaged correspondence.
On top was a letter, dated October 15, 2006, indicating that due to the recent passing of her mother's parents, the attached will was being executed. 2006? Mom had always said her parents died before she'd left England. The postmark and date made no sense. She flipped to the will, read the details, Bitton Property willed to Chloe Armstrong Van Dassel by Derrick and Sarah Armstrong. They'd left her mother their house? Why hadn't she claimed it?
A voice inside her head shouted, "You had grandparents," but she couldn't quite grasp the reality.
Her mother had lied?
Was there other family Mom had hidden? Willow would have given anything to learn there was family out there besides her mother. She'd even asked her mother a few times over the years, but was told there wasn't.
She continued reading and, almost at the end of the will, Willow blinked at a single line, not sure she'd read it correctly. She read it again.
In the event of Chloe Armstrong's death, Willow Armstrong will be bequeathed the property.
Willow put down the will and went to the other envelopes. Each contained a follow-up letter, asking her mother to confirm receipt of the will. The final letter, dated almost a year after the first, said the property would be held in trust if she didn't respond soon. Based on the postmark, her mother had passed away one month later. So a month before she died, she hadn't claimed the house ...
Which meant Willow owned property in Bitton, South Gloucestershire?
Excitement she hadn't felt in ages bubbled inside her. A house in England must be worth something. The passbook might be small potatoes compared to the money she could get from selling a house.
She gathered the passbook, will, and photos, then scurried down the hallway to the kitchen, flying on the wings of hope. A search on the internet for this address should provide more details on the location.
The passbook money could get her to England, where she could see about selling the house. With any luck, while there, she could start to piece together the empty spaces of her life.
"Unreserved seats found in cars one and two only!" The Paddington Station conductor waved his arms toward the opposite end of the track from where Willow stood to board a car.
Passengers standing in the same line as Willow groaned and half of them abandoned their spots to rush to the other end of the track.
Willow didn't have a seat number or car number that she could see so she went up to the conductor. "Excuse me. Am I in the right line?" She showed him the ticket.
He leaned over to look, squinting as he scanned it. "No. Car one. Best you hurry, Miss. Those unreserved seats fill fast on a bank holiday. Next time it's worth a little more money to pay to ensure you get a seat."
"Thank you." That explained why she'd gotten such a bargain when she'd booked online.
She ran toward the others who'd left her line, a yawn slipping out as she dragged luggage that got heavier with each step. Sleep was all she wanted after the overnight flight to Heathrow, where she'd been too wound up to get a second of shuteye.
Since her arrival in England at eight a.m., she'd taken the express train into London to a branch of the law firm handling her grandparent's estate. There, they'd given her a key to the house, located near Bath. Now she navigated Paddington Station. Stunning with its high, curved ceiling, modern in style, and open-air tracks, it was also jam-packed with people.
At the first car, she squeezed into the thick of the crowd, gripping her luggage and inching toward the door. She'd always heard that forming a queue was as British as scones and tea, but perhaps it wasn't true on a bank holiday.
By the time she hauled her luggage up the steep steps and swung the bag onto the top of a luggage rack near the entrance, sweat beaded her forehead. She ambled down the aisle glancing both ways for a free seat, squeezing past passengers who stood talking to other passengers. Two-thirds of the way back, she blew out a sigh of relief when she spotted a few empty seats.
Excerpted from "Willow's Way"
Copyright © 2018 Sharon Struth.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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