The Forever Family
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A heartwarming story about sisters, falling in love, and discovering life’s greatest adventures are made with those who matter most by New York Times bestselling author Shirley Jump.
The youngest of the three close-knit sisters, Emma Monroe is the family wild child. She’s never stayed with anything—job, apartment, boyfriend—for long, and she likes it that way. Except lately, her freedom has seemed less like a gift and more like a burden. Maybe that’s why a yoga retreat in Las Vegas leads to a spur-of-the-moment decision to marry Luke Carter, a man she’s met exactly three times.
The next morning, instead of facing Luke, Emma sneaks back home to Harbor Cove, where she should have nama-stayed in the first place. Still, it shouldn’t be difficult to annul their hours-long marriage. Except Emma’s brand-new husband arrives in town to convince her to give their marriage a chance. With the support of her family, can Emma envision a future where her biggest adventures come not from running away but from staying… and risking it all on love?
Release date: January 17, 2023
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 336
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The Forever Family
The morning sun blared through the floor-to-ceiling windows like a solar bonfire. Emma Monroe clutched a crisp white sheet tight against her chest, squeezed her eyes shut, and slid under the Egyptian cotton as if she were five and hiding from the imaginary monster in her closet. None of that, of course, erased the monster-size mistake she’d woken up to in a hotel room in Nevada.
Emma made major life decisions like some people bought uncomfortable shoes, without thinking or trying them out or even waiting for a sale. Last night, surprise-surprise, she’d made another one. But this time, the choice she’d made was bigger, more permanent, and…human.
The low rumble of snoring came from the right side of the bed. She closed her eyes tighter, but it didn’t change a thing. Instead, the snoring stopped, and the bed swayed a bit with movement. Then a hand slid across and covered hers, fingers starting to interlace with her own.
No, no, hard no.
Emma scrambled out of the king-size bed, disentangling from the sheets with a twist and stumble. “I…I have to go.”
Luke lifted his head from the pillow. One side of his dark, wavy hair had flattened in his sleep, making him look like a two-dimensional version of himself. “What? Why?”
She had a hundred reasons for leaving, most of which started and ended with because we never should have done this.
“It was your idea. Remember?” He shielded his eyes against the sunlight streaming through the windows and grimaced. “It’s so early, Emma. Go back to sleep, and we can talk about this later.”
“It’s after nine, Luke, and we…we can’t talk about this. We are just going to forget it happened. Okay? I’m serious. This never happened.” She started gathering up her clothes—faded jeans with tattered hems, a peasant blouse with tiny coral flowers, gold braided sandals—and avoided the floral headband sitting on the nightstand. The flowers had dried, and petals had begun to flake off, as if the headband were shedding its memories of the night before, too.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glint, a bounce of sunshine. A shiny gold circle sat on the fourth finger of her left hand, like a hallucination. She tried to wrestle the ring off, but it was good and stuck. Karma was probably laughing his butt off because Emma had long ago been voted the Monroe girl Most Likely to Never Settle Down. Maybe it was all some kind of waking nightmare. A hallucination. Yeah, and maybe the Easter bunny was going to waltz in here and hand her a Cadbury egg, too.
“Emma, they’ll kick you out if you don’t go through with the whole thing.” Luke’s voice held the huskiness of sleep, the kind of hypnotizing sound that lulled people into bad decisions.
“I don’t care. I’ll find another way to get into one of Yogi Brown’s retreats.” Except she’d been trying to go on one of the yogi’s retreats for two years now. There was no rhyme or reason to the nearly secret getaways. He would announce one, it would fill up in a matter of minutes, and then he’d go silent until the next one. When the notice for the Renew Your Connection retreat came into her inbox, Emma clicked and paid without even reading the description.
Which was half the reason why she was standing in a bedroom in Nevada with a wedding ring and a six-foot problem.
If she stopped long enough to consider her decisions, maybe she wouldn’t end up in situations like this. But stopping meant thinking—no, feeling—and Emma avoided the latter at all costs. It wasn’t like she needed to have some kind of self-revelation, aha moment, or anything. She already knew she was the kind of person who flitted from relationship to relationship, job to job, and apartment to apartment, always in search of…something.
That something was definitely not a husband. Marriage was one of those semi-permanent things that Emma wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole and a hazmat suit. Until now, apparently.
“They’ll ban you for life,” Luke said. “There’s a clause in the flyer that says—”
“I know what it says. I know what we did. Can’t you just forget all your stupid rules for one second, Luke? I need to go home. I need to think. I need…” Crap. Where was her phone? The little white wristlet she remembered dangling from her right hand last night was nowhere to be found. When it mattered, Emma rarely had her act together.
“You’re really doing this?” he said.
We’re really doing this? she’d said last night, in a giddy bubble composed of lies. There’d been something so…fun about pulling off the fake marriage. Undoubtedly fueled by the spiked punch that had been in abundance in the ballroom that had served as a wedding chapel for fifty couples. The only thing she hadn’t planned for was the real marriage license.
Emma started moving throw pillows and sliding her hand into the couch cushions before finally finding her tiny bag under a stack of papers on the kitchenette counter. A foggy memory of celebratory champagne and stumbling back to their “Marital Reinvigoration Suite” on the other side of the resort danced in the back of her mind.
Marital Reinvigoration. That was what she got for not reading the paperwork packet for the retreat before hopping on a plane and showing up at the center. All she’d known was that she had to leave the suffocating envelope of her life. Do something that had meaning and impact. Prove to her family and the entire town of Harbor Cove that Emma Monroe had her shit together.
Except nothing said my life is a total mess more than getting shackled to a man she barely knew. God, how could she be so incredibly idiotic? She’d wanted an escape and an adventure, and she’d gone and taken the whole idea too far. There was spontaneous—and there was foolhardy.
“Listen, Luke, you’re a nice guy and all, but I can’t—”
“Already breaking us up before we’ve even consummated the union?” He propped himself on one elbow and watched her fumble with the buckle on her sandal. A look of amusement lit his features. “That’s not exactly working on our marriage, Emma. You know that Yogi Brown would say you aren’t listening to the Law of Correspondence.”
“Don’t go throwing universal laws at me, Luke…” Her voice trailed off into the void in her memory. “Whatever your last name is. That’s not fair.”
“My last name is now your last name, wifey, so you might want to learn it.”
A year ago, Luke had unfurled his yoga mat beside hers in a canyon in Utah. They’d chatted between Sun Salutations and Downward Dogs, finding a common ground in their shared love of adventures and an uncle of his who lived in Harbor Cove, Massachusetts, only a mile from the house where Emma spent most of her childhood. Then she’d seen Luke again six months later at a weekend meditation retreat in Burlington, Vermont. They’d walked the serenity garden and the endless circles of the stone labyrinth as the sun crested over the mountains.
She’d liked him a lot and been happy to run into him again at the registration desk for the yogi’s retreat. When he’d whispered, Hey, we should pretend we’re a couple, she’d thought it would be a lark, until they’d ended up reciting vows with all the twosomes there to elope or renew their commitment. It was all fun and games—until it got super, super real. “Is all this funny to you? Because it’s not even remotely funny to me.”
“What happened to the Emma who jumped off the cliff at Navajo Falls and dove forty feet into a glacier pool? The Emma who walked across hot coals, and who tried a little ayahuasca in a tent in the middle of the Pyrenees?”
“I’m not that person anymore.” Geez, put all together, she sounded like the very definition of foolhardy. Or fun. Yeah, fun was a better adjective to go with.
And then a tiny part of herself, the part she tried never to listen to, whispered, Aren’t you already planning another risky venture in two months? One without a safety net to catch you if it doesn’t work out?
When are you going to get your act together, Emma?
“Anyway, as I was saying, I’m not like that. Anymore,” she added.
“As of what, yesterday afternoon?”
She refused to rise to his bait. “This whole thing was a deal you and I made so we could get into the seminar. How was I supposed to know that Yogi Brown was going to really marry all the couples during the seminar? Is that even legal?”
He crossed his hands behind his head and leaned against the bank of pillows. “In all fifty states, apparently. So we are, for all intents and purposes, a married couple. And we’re supposed to be at the”—he reached for a sheet of paper on the bedside table—“‘Are You Attracting or Repelling Love?’ seminar in seventeen minutes.”
Repelling. Definitely repelling. If there was some kind of reverse magnet for whatever was happening between them, Emma would order a giant version right now. “I’m not going, Luke.”
“And how am I to explain your absence, wifey?”
Wifey? The added note of sarcasm on the second use of that dreaded word added a little extra oomph of annoying punctuation. Emma parked a fist on her hip. Where did Luke get off questioning her choices? Her family did enough of that, thankyouverymuch. And maybe they sometimes had a point, but that was going to change. Right after she got out of this mess—the last mess, she swore—that she had created. Because Emma had big plans that were going to change her life and make a difference in the world. Then she could leave her screws-up-everything-she-touches reputation behind once and for all. “Why are you even here? You had to know about the whole marriage-required deal when you signed up for this retreat.”
She arched a brow. “The chance that there are two people who didn’t read the fine print is slim to none. So what’s your deal?”
“I don’t have a deal. I wanted an experience, and I figured I could charm my way past the rules.”
Emma didn’t care about Luke’s charm or his reasons or anything else about her hubby right now. All she wanted to do was leave and get back to her boring life in a small town. She had opportunities ahead of her that she refused to derail because of one stupid mistake after too much rum punch. “Tell Yogi Brown that I fell asleep during my meditation or that I got fatally entangled in my yoga mat. I have to get out of here.”
“Fatally entangled in your yoga mat?” He laughed. “The worst part is, he might just believe that.”
“Either way, I don’t care, and we are done here, in every way possible.” Emma grabbed the papers and the wristlet and then ran out of the room and down the hall, clutching the whole kit-and-kaboodle, as Grandma would say, to her chest, and whispering a quick prayer that the exterior doors would close before Luke…What on earth is his last name?…came stumbling after her.
The doors shut with a solid thud. Emma was now on the outside of the resort, a sprawling eight-thousand-acre property with pools and waterfalls and vast views of Nevada in all directions. She’d checked in on the other side of the property, and all of her stuff was in the locker room right off the main yoga studio.
Emma stood on one leg while she slipped on her shoes, balancing against the stone exterior as she did. She needed a ride back to the main lobby. She had no idea how to navigate this gargantuan building, and she was not going back inside where she could possibly run into Luke again. She wasn’t a fight girl. She was a take flight, avoid, then deal kind of girl.
She could handle this. No problem. She’d get back to the lobby and straighten out this entire mess. There was no way she’d really, legally, for sure gotten married last night, right?
Except she remembered standing in a room with white walls, white carpet, Yogi Brown in a white tuxedo, and dozens of couples filling the room while Emma sipped the unlimited agave nectar rum punch and laughed and wobbled and—
Oh. My. God. She’d said I do. She could hear the words in her head, caught on a laugh and the same devil-may-care, why-not impulsive whim that had been a part of Emma’s personality since birth. Normally that trait made her dash off on adventures like a hiking trip in Yosemite or kiteboarding in Newport, or agree to upend her life for a chance to work with a start-up charity. Not this. Not doing the one thing she had long ago decided she would never, ever, ever do.
Get married to Luke What’s-His-Name, or any other What’s-His-Name man for that matter. No, not her. Impossible.
Emma went to fold the papers, and there, in black and white atop a colorful brochure for the Nevada Half Moon Restoration Resort, was a marriage certificate for one Emma Monroe and Luke Carter. Dated the night before, signed by Yogi Brown, an ordained minister from someplace with a URL.
An internet-certified minister couldn’t marry people for real, could he? Even if he was the most sought-after retreat leader on the planet?
For more than two years, Emma had heard other people talk about Yogi Brown in soft, reverent tones and seen dozens of people in her Facebook groups rave about how Yogi Brown had transformed their attitudes and emotions.
And Emma—stuck in a job she hated, living in a town about as exciting as dish soap, and wondering what else the world might have to offer—felt like she was missing the one key that would turn everything around in her life and give her some meaning and substance, a purpose. She’d dabbled in this and that and jumped from thing to thing, looking for the answers that would finally ease the constant nagging feeling that she was failing at, well, everything.
Her mother, a person Emma didn’t even remember, had been someone. Penny Monroe would have changed the world if she had lived, of that Emma had no doubt. People spoke of her late mother like they talked about a saint—maybe because that’s what she’d been, at least from the stories Emma had heard. Her mother had been everything Emma wished she could be and kept falling short of achieving.
Emma shoved the papers under her arm and then dug in her wristlet for her phone. A dozen text messages filled the screen. Her sisters and grandmother, worried that she hadn’t checked in for a couple of days. Plus three from Diana, her best friend and the manager at the hotel where they both worked, Diana at the front desk and Emma in the wedding planning department. An irony to be sure, given the situation Emma found herself in right now. Call me, Diana wrote, or I’ll assume you’ve been kidnapped by aliens and then I’m going to have to hop on a plane and rescue you.
Emma groaned and leaned against the wall. How on earth was she going to explain this to anyone? She started to type a reply to Diana and stopped. There were no words to explain signing up for what she thought was a yoga retreat—because who read the fine print anyway?—then discovering the surprise-surprise marriage requirement, and waking up hitched to a man she’d met exactly three times.
The resort flyer fluttered out of her hand, and as she went to pick it up, she noticed a little note on the bottom. If you need assistance, just dial this number, and we will help you find your center again.
Emma dialed, and a friendly woman answered. “Half Moon Restoration Resort. How can I help you become more grounded and intentional today?”
“Um, can you get me one of those golf cart guys to drive me back to the lobby? I’m standing out here on the other side of the resort, and I think I got lost.”
“All who are lost are easily found again,” the woman said. “Is there a number on one of the exterior doors?”
Emma turned around. “Um, A-235.”
“Perfect. Someone will be there in a moment. Until then, my dear, just breathe.”
Yeah, easy for that woman to say. She wasn’t married to a near-stranger and stuck in the middle of the country. If she’d been smart, she’d have nama-stayed back home in Harbor Cove, and then she wouldn’t be in this mess.
A few minutes later, the soft purr of an electric motor brought a golf cart around the corner. The man stopped and asked Emma if she was the one who had called for the ride. She climbed aboard, sank into the vinyl seat, and let out a sigh of relief. “Can you bring me to the lobby, please?”
The driver, a lanky older man in a green uniform and a ball cap emblazoned with the resort’s logo, gave her a quick glance. “You one of those health nuts? My wife is always trying to get me to eat greens. I say, if God wanted me to eat vegetables, he would have made them look like steak.”
“Uh-huh,” Emma murmured as they began putt-putting around the endless building. All she wanted was the quiet of the locker room where she’d first stowed her belongings. Then a moment to collect her thoughts before she caught the first plane back to Massachusetts. Her head was pounding, clearly an aftereffect of the marriage-inducing punch she’d had last night…
And the bad decision that had followed. How much had she been drinking anyway? Whatever the amount was, it was a lot more than her usual couple of glasses of chardonnay. She’d stood in the ballroom with all the other couples—some with hope in their eyes that a renewal of their vows would change years of fighting, some with infatuation bubbling between them—and felt…
For some reason, the thing she loved most—her freedom—had seemed like an albatross yesterday. “Who is ready to commit to changing their lives together?” Yogi Brown had asked.
A few minutes before that, Luke had made his way through the crowd and come over to say hello. Emma flashed him a quick smile, but her attention stayed on the tall, thin man with the long white beard, so much the epitome of a yogi that he might as well be a caricature. “You thinking of doing this?” Luke whispered.
“Maybe. I mean, yeah, I’ve been trying to get into his retreats for years. I’ve heard he’s so life-changing. Whatever Yogi Brown has us do, I’m all in, because I need my life changed in the worst way possible.”
“Anything?” Luke clarified, and Emma remembered wondering why he’d said that with a quirk in his grin.
“Anything,” she’d replied, thinking it meant walking on hot coals or dropping into a cryo tank or holding the Lotus Pose for thirty minutes.
“Well, you should know that, this time, he has something different planned. Very different. I don’t think”—his gaze dropped to her hands, clasped in front of her—“that you came adequately prepared.”
“I have my yoga mat in the locker room, Luke.” She shifted her weight. It had been a long day what with the flight, registration, and then waiting for the kickoff event. “I hope they assign us to our rooms soon. I’d really like to try to get in a quick meditation session before dinner.”
“I don’t think there’s going to be time for that today. In fact, Yogi Brown only has one event on the schedule today, and frankly, I’m kinda surprised you’re at it, Emma.” He looked at her askance. “You did read the schedule, didn’t you?”
“Shh. I’m listening.” She shot him a glare. Yogi Brown was talking again, and Luke’s whispering was distracting. And no, she hadn’t read the schedule but now she was beginning to worry that maybe she should have.
“You need a lot more right now than a yoga mat, Emma. You’re going to need—”
“Partners! Grab hands with your love match and stand before each other,” Yogi Brown said. The crowd began moving and re-sorting itself, like fish dropped into a pond. Several women dressed in long white muumuus began making their way through the room, dropping floral headbands on the crowns of every female they saw.
“My what?” Emma asked, just as Luke came around to stand in front of her. “What are you doing?”
He leaned down and whispered in her ear, “Saving you from getting kicked out of the retreat.”
“Why would Yogi Brown do that to me?” A woman placed a headband on Emma’s hair and moved on to the next female attendee. Headbands? Partners? Love matches? What the hell was going on here?
“Because this retreat, Emma, is a marriage retreat. For building, repairing, or renewing relationships. And look at us here together. I’d call that an opportunity for a little fun.” He brightened. “Hey, we should pretend we’re a couple.”
She spun a long, slow circle in the room and saw that yes, indeed, couples of all kinds, ages, races, and orientations were standing together, holding hands, waiting for Yogi Brown’s next command.
“But I…I…” She turned back to Luke. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Two choices,” he said. “Play along with me because I’m kind of in the same boat as you, or pack up your yoga mat and head back to Massachusetts.”
Whatever crazy marital repair thing the yogi had going on this weekend was surely just a theme or something. She could pretend to be with Luke and take advantage of the spa day, the meditation seminar, and the hatha yoga sessions, then go back to Harbor Cove all recentered and recharged.
“Partners, are you ready to begin or renew your commitment?” Yogi Brown asked. “Are you ready to transform your relationships?”
A collective yes went up from the room. Luke tipped his head toward Emma, and she nodded in return. He took her hand, gave her a quick grin, and then shouted, “Yes!”
And that was how she found herself getting swept down a set of category 5 rapids that led from a ballroom in a fancy resort somewhere in Nevada to the wedding band on her finger. It wasn’t my idea after all, Luke Carter. It was yours. She turned on the vinyl golf cart seat and glared at the building in the distance where she’d left her husband-mistake.
“Rough morning?” the golf cart driver asked as he stopped at a crossing and let several pairs of people meander past.
“That’s an understatement.” So no, it hadn’t been her idea to get married, but she’d gone along with it, which was just as bad. All for a seminar. Was her life really that awful that she’d get married to escape it? Apparently…yes.
That alone was a sign she couldn’t leave Harbor Cove fast enough. She had an opportunity to be part of a new charitable foundation that paired traveling volunteers with children in underserved corners of the world. In exchange for working with the kids, Emma would get free room and board and a trip around the world. It was essentially skills-based social work, but with airfare and hostels. And to Emma, it was the opportunity she’d been looking for all her life, one she believed in so much, she’d poured her entire savings account into the foundation. In a few months, she’d dust off her passport and take her life in a new, far more responsible direction. Finally officially going after a career she’d never dared to speak aloud.
Her phone rang, and Emma jumped, nearly dropping the cell on the floor of the golf cart. “Hello?”
“Thank God you’re not dead.” Diana laughed. “Seriously, I don’t want to do your job, and if you died, I’d be stuck in the bridezilla department until Larry opened his wallet wide enough to hire a replacement.”
Emma laughed. “I haven’t quit yet.” Soon enough Emma would leave her job and travel the world. No nine-to-five, no husband to tie her down—
Well, technically that last part wasn’t true. At least right now. She’d get an annulment or a divorce, or whatever it was that people did after such a stupid mistake. Wasn’t her cousin George a lawyer in Dover? He could help her figure out what to do.
“So tell me all about the retreat,” Diana said. “Any yummy guys there?”
“Uh…” Luke was yummy. He had a toned, muscular body, a sharp wit, and a hell of a One-Armed Compass Pose. When she’d first met him, he’d become a friend of sorts, and yeah, Emma had thought about dating him down the road if he ever got to Massachusetts to visit whatever family member he h. . .
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