Star-crossed lovers (forbidden love) is a theme as old as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, yet evergreen, and in House of Hearts, it is explored anew.
The relationship between a doctor and patient, or therapist and client, is often bound by rules, be they explicit or unspoken.
How many of us have invited our hairdresser for dinner, for example?
These people may know more about certain aspects of our lives than our friends and families do (such as what shampoo suits us best, to extend the trivial example) while other aspects remain strictly out of bounds.
It doesn’t mean there isn’t sometimes an interest…
In House of Hearts, set on the edge of Las Vegas, gambling addiction therapist Dr Lisa Bakker, a sweet divorcee, faces off against international playboy Will Huntley. (Will is the younger brother of James Huntley the Third, who met his match in Volume One of my House of Jewels series, House of Diamonds.)
Lisa is bound by the American Psychological Association’s two-year dating ban between clients and therapists, not that she’s interested in Will, however good-looking he might think he is.
Or is she?
Warmest thanks to my Amber Jakeman VIPs for your interest in my books, your feedback and reviews.
The House of Hearts dedication is …
To all good men.
To those who remind us we always have choices.
To the power of love.
And here’s a taster!
Please enjoy Chapter 1 of House of Hearts!
Lisa patted Rossco’s rough brown fur as he blinked at her and tried to lick her hand.
“See you tonight, old fella,” she said, as she opened her car door and slid in.
“January 4,” said the dashboard calendar. Eighteen months to the day since she’d fled west with just Rossco and a few boxes of possessions. Eighteen months of professional fulfilment. And a ton of personal guilt.
She must phone her parents again, remind them of how happy she was in her new life, how she hadn’t meant to hurt them. She didn’t blame them for what went on between Art and her. What hadn’t gone on, more like it.
Lisa loved this part of her commute. Once she’d left her peaceful Boulder City home and then the outskirts of Vegas, she passed the garish towers of Downtown and slipped into the lower-rise, older blocks, where the 1950s neon signs never failed to cheer her. She congratulated herself once more on her escape, on the fact she’d been able to study while Art had tended the samples in his lab and devoted himself to his research.
She’d finished one degree after another, then found her dream job and perfect career – counselling.
As she pulled into the clinic, Lisa opened her glove compartment and put her name tag in her pocket. It still gave her a thrill.
Dr Lisa Bakker
Group Counsellor and Diversion Therapist.
The Peters Clinic.
She loved to encourage others to better understand themselves and their behaviour, to recognize and act on better choices, to grow and thrive.
With its palm trees and curved, 1930s style white facade, the front of the clinic and health retreat always made her heart lift. She parked next to Dr Peters’ “Reserved” sign.
The receptionist’s parking spot was still vacant, the one dark moment of her morning. At 8.50am, unless Mindy had caught the bus or walked, she’d either be late or absent all day – again. Lisa would have to lodge an official complaint with Dr Peters.
She checked her hair and lipstick in the rear-vision mirror, flicked a dog hair off her slim grey skirt and entered the side door of the counsellors’ suites.
Normally, she loved this part of her day. She’d have a few moments alone in her consulting room to center herself and review her notes, but with Mindy AWOL again, she’d have to sort the clients’ folders herself. She’d end up running behind all day.
And with Dr Peters away in Europe for ten days, she had more appointments than ever. She’d asked her to stand in to welcome a couple of her new clients – the ones who’d join her group sessions later in the day.
She headed into reception, and sure enough, there was no Mindy. Nothing prepared. Lisa reached for the folders just as Dr Peters’ first new client arrived. She glanced at him again. Was there something familiar about him?
He sized her up with a cheeky half-smile. Distractingly good-looking, he wore a tight white t-shirt and faded jeans. Eyes the color of faded denim. Nice teeth, chewing half of his bottom lip. Was he staring at her? At her legs?
Damn Mindy for not being here to do her job! Especially with this extra case load.
Lisa gathered up the folders – in a hurry now – and dropped them. They skidded all over the floor. Disaster.
In a flash, the man was down on his knees, scooping them up.
Thank God. Her skirt was a bit tight for bending over. So, he was a gentleman. Why did that bother her?
“Thank you,” she said, accepting them and disappearing to her room to sort them as quickly as possible. She slipped on her white coat, positioned her name tag, glanced at the front of the top folder, and reappeared in reception.
“Will Huntley, please,” she said. Why was her heart beating so hard? Lisa smoothed her hands down the side of her jacket.
He stood, that grin in place, as if he knew he could make her blush.
“Welcome to The Peters Clinic,” Lisa said. She held out her hand, her smile professional. “I’m Dr Lisa Bakker, part of the team. Dr Peters has asked me to get things started for you. Follow me, please.”
On her way home at the end of the day, Lisa called in at the grocery store for fresh vegetables and pasta. Jilly, her old friend from grad school, in town to visit her mother, was coming for dinner and a talkfest.
Wonderful, outspoken Jilly, Jilly who’d told her about Vegas, who’d shared her love of skyrunning with her back in college. Without Jilly, none of her new life would exist, this patch of sunlit color in a universe of gray.
When Jilly arrived, she didn’t waste a minute. She hugged Lisa, dumped her hot-pink handbag on the couch and followed her into the kitchen, where she washed her hands and helped prepare the meal.
“So, Lisa, hooked up lately?”
Good old Jilly, fast and fearless. Love-life front of mind. Maybe growing up with her mother had made her believe it was the only sensible topic of conversation. Scoping stepfathers, matchmaking, how to avoid her mother’s mistakes …
Lisa slid the chopped tomatoes into the steaming sauce as the silence stretched.
“Come on, Lisa,” Jilly said. “You’ve got to get out there. Eighteen months? And we both know it’s been longer than that. Look, Art never even gave you a love-life. If that’s why you left him, maybe you should have just stayed.”
Lisa stared at her old friend. No wonder that tech company had snapped her up for their human resources team. Jilly nipped any nonsense in the bud, called a spade a spade, and she was usually right.
Jilly might be outspoken, but she was also wise. There was always some truth to what she said. Even if Lisa rightly accused Jilly of always having too many boyfriends, it wouldn’t change the fact that Lisa had never had enough.
She’d had a husband, instead – Art. Straight out of school. And how was she to have guessed that a fine family friend wasn’t necessarily good husband material? He’d been as disappointed with her as she’d been with him, no doubt, not that they’d ever spoken about that. In their eight years together, they hadn’t spoken about much at all.
Lisa sighed and twisted open the lid of a jar of tomato paste, then dumped the contents in the frypan.
“I don’t know,” she said. “There isn’t much time for romance, Jilly. I work flat out on with people all day, and when I come home, I go for a run and then I’m tired. Besides, Rossco gives me all the love I need right now.”
“Evidently. But I didn’t mean ‘love.’ I actually meant ‘sex.’ How’s your sex life?”
“Not everyone requires hot, uninhibited sex every night, Jilly.”
“Okay, but no sex? None at all? You don’t realize what you’re missing. It’s not natural. Physician, heal thyself.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Lisa said, hiding her face in the cutlery drawer, clattering and jangling as she searched for matching forks. It had been a while. Maybe since never, if she was honest. Had she ever had proper sex, sex you read about and heard about where your lover knows what they’re doing and cherishes every part of you and you’re both in ecstasy? Had she ever experienced sex beyond the rapid, embarrassed fumbling in the dark which Art had attempted? Sex with Art had never improved, no matter how much she read up on what should be happening. In the end it had been easier just to avoid it all.
“It doesn’t have to be about sex, even,” said Jilly, picking up on Lisa’s hesitation. “How about a simple date? Just one. Give yourself a chance. You know, we’re both twenty-eight. In fact, I’m willing to bet you’ve never been on a date. I just worked it out, Lisa! You married that old creep straight out of school.”
As the high school principal’s only child in a conservative small town, Lisa might as well have had “do not touch” tattooed on her forehead. Marrying Art straight after her high school graduation seemed the perfect solution at the time.
Born shy, with parents who wanted to protect her from the evils of the world, she’d grown up with fairy tales and books as her best friends, only to discover that “happy ever after” didn’t necessarily follow the white wedding.
Tertiary education broadened her mind and gave her the qualifications to make her own way professionally and financially. But it wasn’t possible to study “Perfect Relationship 101” or even “Elementary Dating.” Well, sure, eventually she learned about the Gottman Institute, but she’d committed to addiction therapy as her specialty by then, and her own love-life had never been a priority.
“Okay,” said Jilly. “All that’s in the past. You escaped. All I’m trying to tell you is that the sky won’t fall in if you go on a date or three. It’s not like you have to go out there and match up with Dream Lover or Mr Right straight away.”
Jilly helped herself to a stray piece of uncooked pasta and crunched on it.
“It’s just about having fun,” Jilly said. “Playing the field. Call it what you want. It’s all very cosy here. Now don’t get me wrong. I love the way you’ve decorated this place.” She waved her hand at Lisa’s blue-and-white kitchen. “And I couldn’t be happier that your career’s going so well. You’ve got a great job, by all accounts, and we all love Rossco, though he does need a bath, just between you and me…”
Lisa inspected the pasta and dumped it in the colander, steam rising in a cloud around her. Now her cheeks were pink for two reasons.
“Fun,” Lisa said. “Yeah, dating. I get it. I’ll think about it. Now, what about you, Jilly? Been on any dates? Had a night at home lately? That’d be new and different. I suspect you enjoy enough excitement for the two of us.” She selected two big bowls from her wooden dresser.
“In fact, Jilly, here’s a challenge. I’m willing to bet you’ve never been on an actual date, either. You just have to meet a man and he falls for you. They’re all putty in your hands. I’ve known you for seven years, and in all that time you’ve never once been on your own. Men adore you.”
Lisa pointed at her friend with the cutlery she’d selected. “One smile and they’re yours,” Lisa said. “It’s different for me. Men don’t go for me. Maybe they worry I’m analysing them all the time. Maybe I am!”
“Lisa, you’re gorgeous! You might be the world’s best addiction therapist, but you don’t even notice when men find you attractive. You’re a beautiful human being.”
“That’s so lovely of you to say, but not everyone wants to date a giant.”
“You are not a giant. Okay, you’re tall. So? Models are tall. You know what? I’m willing to bet that if a man looked at you like he wanted you, you wouldn’t even notice. Open your eyes. Let yourself thaw out a bit. You’re a long way from that conservative home town now.”
“Maybe.” Often it was easiest just to agree with Jilly. “So come on, how’s your new job? Your mom must love it now you’re only one state away. I love it. Thanks for the visit.”
Lisa brushed her hair as she got ready for bed. Had Jilly been right? There was no way Lisa wanted a life like Jilly’s. But a little bit of fun wouldn’t go astray, now that everything else was so stable in her life. The thought scared her. But did she really want to hide away forever?
And that bit about her not even realizing guys found her attractive? Maybe Jilly was right about that, too. Only that morning, there’d been that new client, Will Huntley, the handsome Australian.
The way he’d scooped up those folders and handed them over. Chivalrous. Had he been giving her the eye? Had he been thinking of her in that way?
Brush mid-air, she stopped and studied herself in the mirror – caught herself smiling. Because he really had been looking at her. At her ankles, and then into her eyes, for just a second too long. Long enough to notice her blush.
She put down the brush and stared into her own eyes. Jilly was right. She was tall but she wasn’t exactly ugly. Why did the thought he might find her attractive please her so much? Because it did. A sudden thrill gave her cheeks a fresh, healthier glow, and her eyes sparkled.
And then in her consulting room, he’d been embarrassed to have mistaken her for the receptionist. She laughed, remembering how he’d done a double-take.
Earlier, in reception, he’d been so self-assured with her, so at ease in his own body. Arrogant, in a casual way. Lean and effortlessly handsome in that t-shirt, which sat tight over his pecs and biceps. Show-off.
She grabbed the brush again and swept it through her hair, finished the job, threw it on the dressing table, and jumped into bed.
In fact, for Will Huntley, being so handsome was a big part of his problem. Everything came too easily for people like that, and when the going got tough, they were lost, with alcohol and gambling a major temptation. It was why they ended up coming to therapists like her.
Lisa turned over and plumped her pillow. Well. Jilly might be sad to hear it, but there was no risk she’d ever get involved with Will Huntley. Bad-boy Will was strictly off limits. She was a professional. No clinic client could ever be dating material.
Her job was to focus on their minds and their behavior, not their bodies. Though his body had, in fact, been spectacularly distracting. And his eyes. They’d been so curious, so alive. And his smile. It seemed genuine. He’d laughed at his mistake about her role. She liked that in a person; a sense of humor.
And then he’d had the grace to admit he hadn’t been looking forward to the treatment. That he’d actually only agreed to it because of the food at the retreat, not because of the clinic’s reputation for helping people stop gambling. Cheeky.
So yes, he did have some appealing qualities, but that was literally no business of hers. Completely irrelevant.
Dating someone like Will Huntley would be ridiculous. Not only was he an addict, he was a client. So, even if they were attracted to each other, the American Psychological Society code of conduct forbade such relationships for two years after therapy ended. There. It was utterly impossible. Easy. She was a good girl. Professional. She’d never broken a rule in her life.
Rossco whined and nudged her knee, desperate for a last pat before he settled in his basket. She tickled his ears and had his tail wagging in no time, thumping against the side of the bed. She and Rossco were happy. Happy enough. Well, maybe she should take a risk now and then. Okay. Maybe one date. With somebody. One day.