Chapter One

“Good morning, books,” I whispered reverently. This was the first sentence that passed from my lips each day when I arrived at work. I flipped on the lights of the bookshop early that Monday morning at eight a.m. sharp, held my breath, and counted to three. The overhead lights took about that long to flicker to full vibrancy, bringing the store and the thousands of stories that lined its shelves to life. Incredibly satisfying, that moment. I exhaled at the pleasant squeeze my heart received and smiled in greeting at the space, my favorite in all of the world. I ran my hand along the spines of the mystery section as I passed, my own little version of a hello hug. Not that I was a sap. I wasn’t. I just had a soft spot for books, even more than I had for people, and recognized the ability of books to change lives.

Today was going to be a good day. A brief pat on the spine for general fiction as I walked. Something important was going to happen. I could feel it prickle my skin and warm my midsection, almost as if the premonition had blown in with the impending fall temperatures, encapsulating me and giving me energy. Strangely, I felt like bouncing around. It was still late August, but with the thermostat only expected to brush seventy that afternoon, I welcomed the glimpse of autumn ahead.

I’d opened my bookshop, A Likely Story, eight years prior, snatching up the storefront in downtown Providence, Rhode Island, from an elderly man who’d been ready to close his flower shop and enter the glory years of golfing and fishing, having invested his retirement funds nicely. Because of the fair offer and quick close on the sale of the storefront, I’d gotten the shop for a steal, making me, Hannah Shephard, a small business owner for the first time at twenty-six years old. That felt like centuries ago now. I looked back in amusement at the idealism of that innocent youngster, who imagined the bookselling world at her feet.

The store’s location was excellent, close to everything trendy and fun in downtown, but just off the beaten path by about two blocks, giving the shop its own quaint, away-from-the-hustle-and-bustle existence. The flower shop, Daisy Chain, had commanded a pretty steady business, and A Likely Story had followed in its footsteps…at least for the first few years I’d been in business. It would again, I told myself on the regular. That mantra had played like a broken record in my head this morning as I’d made the short walk to work from my apartment, only six and half blocks away. Things would be okay, I reminded myself again, while preparing the morning coffee with measured precision, taking each step in the process slowly to ensure the perfectly blended pot for my customers. Details mattered. If the coffee wasn’t amazing, then I had failed to do a key part of my job, which was bait people into the store with the amazing aroma of fresh coffee—made every two hours—so I could match them to their book. That’s right. I believed wholeheartedly that at any given moment, every human being had a book somewhere out there that was perfect for them and their headspace, if only they could find it. That’s where I came in. Call it my gift. But I know firsthand how effective the perfect match can be. I’ve had plenty of perfect matches in my thirty-four years: a self-help book about human imperfection when I was feeling introspective and less than amazing, or Stephen King’s dragon-slaying tale when my imagination was firing on all cylinders, or a fantastic Patricia Cornwell crime novel for a rainy night under a snug blanket. The key to a repeat customer was providing the ultimate escape, the perfect match, and so many had come to my store for that very reason. Fantastic coffee with a little bit of cinnamon helped grease the wheels, making my job easier.

“Morning, Hannah!” I heard Kurt, my employee, call from the front of the store. “It’s cooler out, and I wore earmuffs. That might be premature, because I’m also wearing shorts, but I’m digging it.”

“Morning right back. Today’s gonna be a good one.” I paused, then called again, “Shorts and earmuffs are maybe a weird thing to pair together, though.” I was being too practical again, and knew it. Best to let Kurt be Kurt. He was lovable enough.

I hit Brew on the coffeemaker and headed to the front to greet him. Kurt had the morning shift most days, and Luna would be in midafternoon. I tried to work it so that I always had one employee in the shop in addition to myself, giving me time to take care of day-to-day upkeep, accounting, purchasing and, well, advertising, because we could definitely use new customer traffic. Our repeat clientele only went so far.

“Anything special to get started on, or just prep for opening?” Kurt asked. We’d open at nine, but the shop wouldn’t pick up until close to eleven. I probably needed to do something about that.

“Well, we do have a new display to stage.”

“Oh, okay. I’ll get to it.” Kurt nodded a lot. “I like a good book tower.”

I couldn’t hide my grin, aware of what was coming. “The boxes for the display arrived yesterday. You’re gonna enjoy what’s inside, if I’m not mistaken.” I tossed that tidbit of information over my shoulder, knowing full well he was about to lose his mind.

He did a couple of shoulder rolls, his eyes scanning the room, as he pieced together my meaning. “No!” He looked up at me and paused midroll. “Is it Groffman’s new release? It is, isn’t it?” His hands moved to on top of his head. He rarely kept track of dates. Calendars were his kryptonite, which made surprises like today pretty simple to pull off. “I’ve been waiting on the new Groffman.”

“No!”

He nodded earnestly, his chestnut floppy hair dancing around. “Yes, yes, I have.”

“You only say so every other hour, so I wasn’t sure.” I winked at him. “I held back the boxes from Luna last night. Thought you might want to create the display yourself. They also sent some art and signage. I propped it up in the back. Looks like an action-packed book.”

He was listening at the same time he tore into the first box, eyes gleaming like a six-year-old presented with a new bike at Christmas. With that kidlike smile, he held up a hardback copy to me in victory.

“Look at you two. I feel like it was meant to be,” I said, over yesterday’s receipts. “The perfect match.”

“That’s it. I’m canceling all plans tonight. I had a curling match. Forget it.” He thumbed through the pages, seeming to inhale as he went. I completely identified. There was no smell as amazing as a brand-new book. No sound as breathtaking as the spine cracking for the first time.

“Take one,” I told him. “On the house.”

His eyes went wide, and if it was at all possible, his hair seemed to vibrate. “No, you don’t have to do that. I put some cash away.”

“But I don’t want your cash. You’ve been here, what? Four years now? I can handle a free book when it’s clearly a match. The two of you together is a thing of beauty. No arguing, and lend it to your mom as soon as you’re done. She loves Groffman.”

“Geez. Okay, but you’re pretty awesome.” He stared down at his new book happily.

It was the least I could do. None of us were making much money these days. Not me on the shop’s bottom line, and not Kurt or Luna on their miniscule hourly checks. The only reason they worked here was because they loved the gig and the store as much as I did. I’d been able to offer them semiannual bonuses back in the more profitable days to help bolster their take-home, but not this year with the shop taking on water. We were all scraping by at best, adoring our jobs but watching the clock, wondering how much longer we had until A Likely Story shuttered for good. I wasn’t sure what I would do with myself if that happened. These four walls, these books were my life, my family, and I had no intention of ever saying good-bye.

I shook myself right out of that line of thinking. Nope! No way. There would be no surrender nor submission on my part. Not when something I loved so dearly was at stake. I was prepared to fight this thing with every ounce of business sense I had or would have to learn. That last part was more likely. I tapped my lips in determination and headed off to make mugs of cinnamon coffee for myself and Kurt while he put together the Groffman display, which would hopefully sell like mad. Thank God for long-awaited novels and please, oh, please let this one fly off the shelf. I’d had several customers ask about the book’s release date the week prior, which was a good sign.

“Looking sharp,” I told Kurt as I surveyed his work still in progress and straightened a tilting copy. The shop would open in twenty-five minutes, and although Monday mornings were sleepy in general, I planned to be ready to wow any customers that came through the forest green door of the shop. I’d make them feel welcome, attended to, but not overly so, and excited to take home a few new fictional friends. Or nonfictional, if that’s what they were into. I tried not to judge, but definitely favored getting lost in a make-believe tale myself.

By midafternoon, we’d had about eleven customers come through. Half had made purchases. All had accepted the complimentary coffee. The world had not been changed yet, nor had our finances. Maybe my premonition about today had been wrong after all. I stared at myself in the mirror of the small bathroom and attempted to scrub the noticeable worry lines from my face with a dousing of cold water. Double sigh. My brown hair needed to be cut. It hung too long and thick, well past my shoulders. I’d make an appointment for a few days from now and try to get my sass back. I lifted a strand and let it fall back into place, prompting me to give it a fluff. Unfortunately, I had not inherited the good curls from my father’s side of the family, but I did get his blue eyes, which made me happy. “What are we going to do?” I asked my weary reflection. “What, indeed?”

“You’re gonna stop talking to yourself in the bathroom like a semilunatic!” Luna shouted from the shop. “The universe will take care of you because you’re a good human, and that’s that.”

I laughed, finished washing, and joined her. The store was currently empty and my employee Luna, who also happened to have become my friend, stood with her hands on her hips, surveying the Groffman display like she had a bad taste in her mouth. We’d sold three copies so far, though the day wasn’t over. Luna held up a hand, palm up. “Hear me out about this thing.”

“Uh-oh. Okay. Hearing you.” Generally, when Luna started a sentence that way, she had passionate feelings about something. They weren’t a rare occurrence. Sometimes her speeches were helpful and logical. Other times, they bordered on overly opinionated, whimsical, or silly. I tried to brace for all.

“Groffman is great.”

I nodded. “He’s good. I’ll give him that. I thought his last one took a dip, but it’s bound to happen after so many slam dunks. He’s getting wordier to a fault, but maybe that’s age.”

Luna studied the display again. “And he sells pretty well. I’m not denying that. Let the record reflect.” She placed her hands on her hips.

“The record so reflects that you acknowledge he’s a definite best seller.”

Luna now studied me, clearly preparing for book battle. I wasn’t sure where she was headed with this, but it really could be anywhere. “We also got the new Parker Bristow yesterday.” She gestured with her chin to the storage room, where the boxes were waiting to be unpacked. “Traitorous Heart.”

“I know,” I enthused. “I was hoping you’d get them on the shelves for tomorrow’s release. Or I can, just as soon as I sort the mail.”

Luna pointed at the display. Her medium-length strawberry-blond hair sported two blue streaks today. “That’s the part I want to speak with you about, you fairy princess of a boss.” I tried not to wince at the awful nickname I’d never heard before. There’d likely be a new one tomorrow. “Why not feature them up front? Scratch Groffman and go with Bristow? She’s a powerhouse.” Luna turned to me fully. “You know she sells fantastically. She just doesn’t come in hardcover or with a penis. That’s not a crime. People go nuts for her stuff, especially women, and we get a ton of them in here.”

I scrunched my shoulders. Parker Bristow wrote romance and was at the top of the genre. I was grateful to her and the rest of Romancelandia for the dollars they brought into the store, but I couldn’t really imagine featuring a romance novel in my one and only display, and the space wasn’t large enough to support a second title. “I’m not sure that’s the best idea.”

Luna studied me some more. She wasn’t done.

“What?” I asked. “You’re looking at me with judgment, and I feel like ants are crawling all over me. Say what’s on your mind.”

“You’re being a book snob.”

I let my mouth fall open. “I am not. I would never do that. I’m being practical.”

“If you were being practical, you would consider putting our best seller at the front of the store and letting everyone know the new book is out tomorrow. You’re holding back because you think of the romance genre as lesser.” Luna had a way of saying such matter-of-fact stuff without offending others in the slightest. Maybe it was her sweet, innocent face. Maybe it was the sheer earnestness of her delivery. Regardless, peaceful self-expression was her honest-to-goodness gift.

I exhaled, hating that she was right. My decisions had to take dollars and cents into consideration these days. No, I wasn’t a huge romance fan. Those books were always so hyperbolic when it came to love and sex and perfection. They set unrealistic expectations and always had the formulaic “everything is going to be rainbows and unicorns” ending that I struggled with. I’d read a handful in my teens and enjoyed them well enough, that is, until I outgrew them. I just couldn’t see the appeal anymore. I stared at the ceiling. “Why do people love these things?”

“Because they are amazing escapes and they offer a little glimpse of what could be when you finally meet the right person,” Luna said, with a faraway glint in her eye. “We slog around going on all the wrong dates with all the wrong people, and these books nudge us to shoot for the stars. To find our true person. I can read one a night if I let myself.”

“Are you dreaming about what could be in this very second?” I asked playfully. “Are you undressing what could be in your mind?”

Luna nodded slowly and deliberately. “I also have a date tonight with that hostess at Mementos. The one with the thingy always in her hair? God, it gets me going.” She began to jog in place, suck in her cheeks, and take breaths.

“I think that’s called a pencil.” I hid my grin.

“Yes. Gandalf in sneakers, I love girls with pencils in their hair! I wish all of them came that way.”

“That’s specific. And why would Gandalf wear— You know what? Not important.”

Luna wasn’t fazed, and instead swooned a little. “She’s so cute. Don’t you think she’s cute?”

I thought briefly on it. The hostess was less my type than Luna’s. Loud, quirky, and fun. Those were the people I tended to bore after we spent a little time together. I was too reserved for them. Too pragmatic. Didn’t matter if they were men or women, and I did date both. I gave Luna’s blue strand a tug. “She’s beautiful, pencil and all. You’re gonna have a great time on this date. I beg you to tell me all about it afterward so I can live vicariously from my status as queen of couch potatoes.”

Luna bounced her shoulders. “If we turn into anything even close to a Parker Bristow–caliber romance, I’ll be thrilled and pepper you with every saucy detail I can muster. My heart would pitter-patter in the most luscious, lusty sense. Maybe we can get our palms read together. We should definitely do that. I hear there’s a new psychic on Eighth.” She gestured to the display. “Thoughts? A decision?”

My head was spinning trying to keep up with her twists and turns. Ah, the display. “A romance novel?” I sighed. I was being a book snob. I felt it that time, and the self-awareness was like a thump on the back.

“They’ve come a long way, Hannah. You should really pick one up again and start with a Bristow, because damn. She can rip my heart out with a few well-placed sentences. These aren’t your mama’s romances. Your mama would faint dead away at the angst, the love, the passion.”

I blinked several times as indecision swirled. “That all sounds really great, the angst and such, and maybe I’ll pick one up to read, but as for the display?”

“Yes?” Luna stared at me hard, as if daring me to make the right decision.

“I can’t do it,” I said, finally. “It would break Kurt’s very fragile heart.” I walked to the cashier’s counter. “And go against my literary palate, snobbish or not.”

Fire flared behind her eyes. Here came her feelings. “Your literary palate is wildly off when it comes to Groffman, by the way, who writes in sentences only containing thirty-five words or more.”

I shrugged. “It’s a stylistic choice. Not always a fun one for the reader, but it’s his thing.”

Luna blew out an exasperated breath. She was in her mid-twenties, putting her nearly ten years younger than me, but there were times she seemed even younger in her emotional displays. “Screw Kurt and his Groffman-loving heart.”

I smiled. “You have deep-rooted feelings about this display. Look at you. You can’t let it go.”

“I can’t. I’d also like to keep my job.”

Okay, that one landed, and she meant it to. The air left the room, as I circled around the larger implications of these decisions. I nodded and remembered my plight, my vow to turn this place around, and maybe that meant, damn it, trying something different. I swallowed my own opinion about the Bristow books in the name of business. Luna was right. “You make a very valid point. I need to be smart about this.”

Her eyes went wide as she predicted victory. “So, the display?”

I decided to bite the romance bullet then and there. Sometimes you had to make a drastic decision when times were tough. I needed to shake things up, and this could be stop one. “Sign me up for the sexy angst.”

Luna beamed and nodded.

“Bring on the Traitorous Heart. I’ll explain gently to Kurt. Maybe we can set up a secondary, smaller display on one of the shelves for Groffman.”

Luna chuckled in triumph, as if Judge Judy had just awarded her three hundred dollars. She began to remove the Groffman copies, one by one, dancing a little as she went. “This is the right move, Hannah. Gonna be good. I promise you.” While she went about constructing and tweaking a more romance-themed display, including some snaking ivy from somewhere in the storage room as well as art supplied by the publishing company, I began working on next week’s orders.

“Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Hannah Tropicana, would you look at this? It was tucked in with the promotional material.” Luna came to the front of the counter and slid a flyer my way with wide, excited eyes.

I picked up the flyer and skimmed it. “Parker Bristow is doing a book signing tour. Very cool.” I slid it back.

Luna slid the flyer my way again and landed a finger on the bold print. “They’re still booking cities. It says so right here. We’re a bookstore in a city. We should be a stop on that tour.”

“I can’t imagine they’d take us.”

“We should try, at least. One tweet from Parker Bristow about the store and we’re on the map. Do you know how many followers she has? She’s like Twitter’s unofficial queen of quip.”

I blinked several times. It wasn’t an awful idea, but they were likely hitting the big chain stores. “We’re pretty small.”

“The worst they could say is no, right? What if they’re into quaint and desolate? We might be totally their jam.”

“Very funny.” I stared at her as I processed the possibilities. “You really think I should reach out to her people?”

“Hell, yeah. Parker’s Posse—that’s what her fans call themselves—will drive from wherever for a chance to meet her. She’s not just another successful author. Think about it. She’s a celebrity. She’s made an entire brand for herself and has rabid fans. Throngs of them.”

“It’s true. She has throngs.” I saw Luna’s point. Parker Bristow had become the face of romance for a reason. She was beautiful and charismatic in addition to being their favorite storyteller. Once her books started hitting the big screen—and there had been two films at least that I knew of—her social media star rose rapidly. Her witty tweets garnered a lot of attention. After that, she’d even become a regular on the talk show circuit and on those podcasts that did things like top ten lists and what not to wear in June. I didn’t want to go as far as to call her a sellout, but it seemed like the limelight carried more appeal for her than maybe the books did. Really, what did I know? People clamored for her, and Luna was right. An appearance at the shop would be a really, really big deal. I met Luna’s hopeful gaze. “I’m doubtful about our chances, but I’ll reach out and give it a shot.”

Ten minutes later and I was still on hold with the publicist in charge of Bristow’s book tour. I moved my head slightly in rhythm with the elevator music the firm had so kindly provided as I waved at the twelfth customer of the day. Luna quickly took it from there and escorted them to True Crime. When the agent finally took my call, he was clearly in a hurry.

“Yep. Where are you guys at, this bookstore of yours?” he asked, when I explained the reason for my call. He was clearly a New Yorker, with an accent and clipped tone. I stared at his name on the form: Hill Lawson. Sounded like a law firm to me.

“Providence, Rhode Island. Downtown. A very trendy area,” I rushed to include. “Great restaurants and entertainment down here. Not to mention the water.”

“Interesting.” He asked some questions about the store itself. Square footage. Foot traffic. Parking opportunities. I cringed as I answered, hoping somehow, we’d be enough. When we were said and done with the Q&A, I asked the big question. “So, what do you think?”

“Gonna depend on Ms. Bristow’s current itinerary and how we transition her from one city to the next. I appreciate the reach out. We’ll be in touch.” I opened my mouth to thank him, but he was gone. Not so much as a good-bye from Mr. Lawson, busy guy that he was.

“Well?” Luna asked, once her customer had made his purchase.

“Sounds like a ‘no, thanks.’ But he’ll be in touch, which tells me to go back to the bag of tricks. What about a raffle? That could get people excited.”

“For a Parker Bristow book bundle. I have a lot of friends who would die for a complete set.”

“We could easily manage that.” I studied the newly assembled display at the front of the store, with the cover of the starry-eyed girl looking off into the abyss. Likely, some alpha male had swooped in and put that dreamy look on her face. I tried not to grimace and instead embrace this new release, Traitorous Heart, as my new cash cow.

 

v

 

I loved the newly billowed ceiling in my bedroom. It seemed like such a simple thing, but it made me want to spin in circles like I lived in The Sound of Music. I didn’t actually do that. But I thought about it in detail.

Instead, I stood with my hands on my hips, blew a loose strand of hair from my eyes, and stared up at the project I’d poured my weekend into. I was a champion of the billowed ceiling and never even knew it. Project mode served as my true happy place. Fabric selection, placement, and the right amount of billow had been the perfect antidote to keep my mind off A Likely Story’s financial woes. I’d taken Saturday afternoon off, leaving the store in Kurt and Luna’s capable hands, and with shortened Sunday hours, I’d given myself lots of extra time to billow that weekend, and billow I did.

“Well, look at you,” I murmured to my beautiful ceiling. The finished product was breathtaking, if I did say so myself. I’d gone with a beige fabric that came with a little bit of a gold shimmer and billowed it moderately from the ceiling, with each section meeting just shy of the small chandelier in the center. “I can most certainly get used to sleeping under this.”

The fabric matched my curtains, which I’d also designed for maximum swoop. My entire bedroom now looked like the fluffiest place I knew, complete with lush ivory pillows. I felt damn proud about that. So much so that I let my phone continue to ring while I took it all in. Finally, I clicked onto the call.

“Hey, Kurt.”

“Hey, boss lady.”

“I thought we agreed you weren’t going to call me that anymore.”

“We did. I’m phasing it out slowly. Feels better that way.”

I accepted the small win. “What’s up?”

“A woman from Barrow House called to set up details for the Parker Bristow appearance.”

“What?”

“That’s what I’m saying over here. We’re getting Parker Bristow? I had no idea. This is like the day they added that raspberry donut to the lineup at Ralph’s. Well, maybe not as big, but had I known about that raspberry donut, I would have been there right—”

“Kurt, focus.” I paused and walked down the hall of my apartment to the living room, which sadly had no billowing ceiling. “They’ve actually put us on the calendar? I put in a request to be included on her tour but didn’t expect they’d actually book us.” Kurt was muttering to himself on the other end of the line. It was something he did when he had a lot of feelings. “Kurt, I can’t understand you. Can you enunciate?”

“I was just saying that I was going to need a new outfit if Parker Bristow is coming to town. She’s a hottie and I’d want to be at my best, so she’ll at least think I’m not a schlub. What do you think of my light blue linen pants?” I imagined him ruffling his hair. He had a tendency to run his fingers through it until it puffed up, wavy and tall.

“The linen pants are great.” I smiled into the phone. “So, you have a crush on Parker Bristow?”

“She’s so pretty. Did you see her on Lip Sync Battle? I recorded it.”

“Perfect,” I said, with a laugh. “This signing is really great news. We need to get the word out to our customers, social media it, publicize the hell out of this thing. My head is spinning with possibility now.”

“The voice mail says they’ll be sending press releases to all local news outlets.”

I couldn’t dim the smile that crept onto my face if I’d tried. At last, I’d been granted a true shot at putting A Likely Story on the Providence map. The day we’d set up the display had been an important one after all.

“Kurt, can you jot down the details and then save the voice mail so I can listen in the morning?”

“On it, Hannah. Sans boss woman.” A pause. “This is really excellent news.”

“I couldn’t agree more.”

I clicked off the call and turned to the pair of bookends also known as my cats, Bacon and Tomato, who sat on either end of my sofa. “Parker Bristow, unlikely savior of bookstores, has agreed to come in for a signing.” I waited for their response, which consisted of some blinking, and a yawn from Bacon. “This is big,” I told them with a nod and headed for my much-anticipated bath after billowing. It was the most relaxing bath of my adult life. I had hope, a lifeline, and a shot at something important.

 

v

 

“Really? The romance novelist?” Brandon asked, with a pretentious smile that said he was humoring me.

This was our third date, and he’d upped his game and taken me to somewhere that had white tablecloths and something called a waiter’s captain. We’d been finished with our meal for a good twenty minutes now and had ordered more wine to continue our conversation. I always relaxed with a little wine and contributed more to the conversation. I wasn’t drunk, but the tipsy line had been breached.

Brandon’s dark hair was extra wavy tonight, which made me want to run my hands through it and watch it bounce a little. Not in a sexual way, more like a kid exploring an interesting museum. “Yes, and before you say it, I know what you’re thinking. It’s fluffy. It’s gimmicky.” I held my hands up. “I get it, completely. But we could use the extra attention. We’ve been a little light on traffic lately, and with fall coming and the temperatures dropping, that trend will only increase as people stay home more.”

“You don’t have to explain yourself to me.” But he said it with a sidecar of judgment. Brandon and I had matched on Hearts Aflutter the month prior, more than likely because we both had a long-abiding love of literature. Given, his tastes fell on the extra-literary side of things, but it was nice to converse with someone who understood my passion. “But let me ask you, do you read romance novels, Hannah?” He finished the rest of his wine and let the glass linger on his lips in a move I think he believed to be sexy. It was only so-so.

“I’ve read them before, sure. They’re not my go-to.” I paused, and set my glass down. “I don’t think I’ve picked one up in the last, what? Ten years?”

He fell back against his chair. “Thank God.” He laughed. “I didn’t want to say anything, but if you’ve cried your way through those trivial fairy tales, I was about to lose a little respect for you.”

“Really?” I wasn’t a huge romance fanatic either, but I’d never count it as a deal breaker. “Oh, c’mon. You have to give them some credit. They sell like crazy.”

Brandon wasn’t having it. “Regardless, they’re the epitome of ridiculous.”

“The epitome.” I repeated the word, because it was harsh. “‘Ouch,’ said billions of humans across the world.”

“I apologize to them, but it’s true.” He poured more wine and leaned forward, gesturing with his glass like he owned the world. His opinions sure blossomed when he drank. The thick hair seemed less interesting the more pretentious he became. “If you told me you lived with your nose in a string of romance novels that all had the same singular, formulaic ending, I’d have a hard time with that. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Then you’re a book snob,” I said, and dropped my jaw. “Sitting right here in front of me.” I was playful in my delivery, but I also didn’t think it was cool to judge someone else for what they liked to read, even if I slightly agreed with him about the genre. Without the wine, I would have nodded and avoided the debate altogether.

“I guess I am.” He nodded several times, as if lost in the examination of the concept. “There are too many good books out there to fall into a pit of Parker Bristow.” He raised an eyebrow. “Though she is beautiful.”

“All of America sure thinks so.”

“You don’t? You’re into women. What do you think of her?”

I guess I had put that on my profile. “She’s very pretty.”

He leaned close and I felt his palm just above my knee on my bare skin. “Though I’m not opposed to acting out our own sex scene.”

Nope. Wasn’t feeling it. I picked up his hand by the wrist and returned it to his lap.

“I don’t think we’re a good fit. I’m very sorry about that.”

He blinked. “Then why did you go out with me again?”

I scrunched up one eye. “You have nice hair.”


Chapter Two

“You dropped him? The book guy with the luscious locks?” Luna shrieked, actually shrieked, from atop the twelve-foot ladder. She was up there stocking our highest shelf full of graphic novels, which had seen quite a surge lately. I’d made a note to up our order for next month. “Hannah, you have no life. This was the first actual incident of socializing on your part in months. Years. Probably ten.”

“Easy.”

“It’s true.” She placed the last copy and scurried down. “Talk to me about what went wrong, and maybe in the evaluation we can find the heart and soul of the problem.”

“He’s really high on his own opinion.”

She nodded as if chewing on this new information. “Well, that does suck. So, you disagreed with him and it didn’t go well. Did he yell or get violent?”

“What? No.” I slid back onto the stool behind the counter. “We actually agreed. We just did so differently.”

“Oh.” Confusion struck Luna’s features. The blue strands in her hair were pink today, always keeping me guessing. “You might have to explain that one.”

The bell above the door rang and we turned. “What’s up, working people?” Instead of a customer, it was my stepsister, Bo. Her real name was Belinda, but that seemed cruel. We called her Bo, which fit her much better. When my mother married her father back when I was six and she was eight, we thought we’d hit the jackpot, each gaining a ready-made sister. I still felt that way. Bo was great. Today she had straightened her curly red hair and wore sophisticated heels and a killer blazer, which meant she’d had an important client meeting at the family law firm she worked for. That or a court appearance.

Luna turned to Bo with her hands on her hips, really working the incredulous angle hard. “Your sister ditched the one potential suitor she’s indulged in decades and is going to die alone in the corner of her apartment if we don’t do something.”

I turned to her in utter shock. “Severe. Even for you.”

Luna raised her hands and let them drop. “Someone’s got to do something.”

“Nooo. The wavy-haired guy?” Bo asked and looked to Luna. “We had such hope for him. I’d already Instagram stalked the hell out of him and imagined where he’d go in our family Christmas photos.”

I rolled my eyes, and Luna shook her finger at Bo, reenergized. “I’m not convinced this thing isn’t salvageable.”

“You guys talk about me behind my back? Interesting. I need to remember to be aghast later. Putting it on my to-do list.” I didn’t look up from my paperwork.

Bo sidled up next to me. Her perfume smelled nice. I never thought to wear perfume, just scented lotion. Putting that on the to-do list, too. “It’s a good thing we’re fired up on your behalf, then. Maybe you shouldn’t give up so quickly.”

I shook my head. “Not going to happen. He hates people who read romance novels.”

Luna gasped. “Good riddance, Douche-Meister-Crazy-Hair.”

“See?” I held my hand outstretched. “My good judgment remains intact.”

“Sorry about the date.” Bo dropped her briefcase on the counter. “I’m here for a breather before court. This is my lunch break and it’s only about fifteen minutes long.” Hearing my cue, I slid her a Snickers from the drawer, which she happily tore into.

“What’s this one about?” I asked. Her cases always intrigued me.

“Child custody hearing. Amazing mom. Loser dad. Abusive, too. We’re going to wipe the floor with this guy.”

“Child support payments?” I knew the drill.

“He’s behind by close to two years, yet taking vacations with his new girlfriend every three months. He uses the money as power to hold over her head. He hasn’t stopped trying to control her, even post-divorce.”

I nodded. “Lovely fellow, but I like these odds.” My sister fought the good fight, and I loved her for it. Not only that, but Bo was damn good at her job, put in the time, and rarely lost a case. We bonded over our complementary work ethics in school, grappling for the highest grade point average. Yeah, she won.

“As for your dating life”—Bo placed a hand on my shoulder—“don’t die alone in the corner of your apartment. The cats will eat you. There are other solutions.”

“Bo! Stop that.” I looked between her and Luna. “What has gotten into you two? I like my life on my own. Genuinely. Therefore, the fact that Brandon didn’t work out is honestly not an awful thing.”

My sister passed me a sympathetic look that I wanted to hurl right back at her. It was true I didn’t date much and that I spent most of my free time alone in my apartment, but I wasn’t antisocial. I just…did my own thing. “We both feel it’s time we give you a little shove. Knock you out of the nest. You get hit on all the time. Stop being so hyperselective.”

“I’m not in any kind of nest, and I’m hyperselective because it would take a lot to make me want to share what I have going. I’m happy, Bo.”

“There’s a definite nest.” Luna made a sweeping, round gesture. “A nest of your own twiglike construction that insulates you in a snuggly cocoon of comfort but holds you back from your true womanly destiny.” She finished with some flowy arm movements. She’d been reading too many new-age books and was inching her way closer to flower child status by the day.

“Well, now I’m confused.” I stared at her, waiting for her demonstration to trail off. “Is it a nest or a cocoon? You lost me.” I blinked.

“You’re missing the point.”

The bell above the green door rang and Kurt appeared. He pointed at Luna, who repeated her performance silently for reasons I was unclear on.

“Hannah’s cocoon demonstration?”

“Aha, so it is a cocoon,” I said, pleased with myself, and nodded to Bo.

“She’s out of the cocoon,” Kurt said. “At least, I thought she was. With the guy with the…” He pointed at his head.

I tossed Kurt a look. “Yes, the guy with the nice hair had me out of my perceived cocoon, but I’m going back in because I really, really prefer it. Dating sucks, and honestly? I like my life and my time alone. Nothing is missing. I went out with hair guy because you,” I said, gesturing to Bo, “made me feel like I was missing out on a fundamental part of life, when really, I just think I’m not at all. I’m happy. I’m solitary. My cocoon is comfortable.”

“But—” Bo started.

“Not everyone has the same need for day-to-day companionship,” I reminded my sister. “I think having to deal with someone else would exhaust me. No, I know it would.” Yeah, I tended to get wordy when I felt strongly about something. My mother thought I should have been an attorney myself. But she retired to Tampa with my stepfather, and I opened a bookshop, so the rest was history. Bo and I visited them once a year and hit the beach.

“Are you done?” Bo asked.

“Yes.”

She continued. “You’re drop dead gorgeous.”

“Thank you.” I sipped my coffee. “That’s a non sequitur. How was your chocolate lunch?”

“I know what it is,” Bo said. “My lunch was fine, but you’re deflecting. My point is that you can literally have your pick of lots of people. You have to go on a ton of dates, Hannah, to find someone worthy, and with those blue eyes and a face like yours? You’re gonna score big. You just have to put in the time.”

“You do have the best eyes,” Kurt said. “Is that weird to say to your boss?” He looked worried. “I shouldn’t say things like that.”

“I’ll let it slide.” I sent him a smile.

I’d never paid much attention to my looks. My style of dress was fairly understated and simple. Shoes were my favorite and I owned a ton, yet most were practical, comfortable, like old friends. I brushed my hair and kept it neat but didn’t get caught up with fancy, intricate styles. I wore lip gloss and mascara on occasion, preferring to keep it subtle. Glamour and fashion had never been my thing. But yes, I’d grown up with people commenting on my looks since I was small, so Bo’s declaration was not the first time I’d heard the sentence. I accepted my fortunate genetics, and the smiles and open doors they’d afforded me, but I also believed I had two feet planted firmly on the ground. Looks were superficial. Plus, if I was pretty, I definitely wasn’t the prettiest. There were degrees to everything.

Luna tousled my hair and grabbed a second box of new books for stocking. “She’s got a point. That face is going to waste in your apartment, plastered to the squawking box.”

“I think they call that a television these days. Are you eighty now?”

Luna didn’t pause. “It’s sucking all of your good energy dry.”

“You don’t want to go dry,” Kurt said with a grimace. “Energy has got to be kept aloft. Luna’s taught me a lot.”

“Too much, I’d say.” I flipped open my ledger. “Your concern has been noted for the record.” I turned to Bo. “I learned that sentence from you, Counselor.”

She touched her chest. “Because as your sister, I could not fail you.” Her eyes landed on the display and the corresponding poster advertising the upcoming signing. “Get out. You march right out of this store and don’t come back, you secretive minx.”

I narrowed my gaze. “Well, I own the place, so that might be problematic from a logistics perspective.”

Bo stared wide-eyed, as if she couldn’t quite believe it. “Focus. Are you telling me that Parker Bristow is coming here, to this shop? No.”

“Yes. Next Saturday,” Luna said, smugly. She took great pride in having been the catalyst for making it all come together, and honestly, she deserved that credit.

Bo seemed to marvel at the information and then erupted in an uncharacteristic flutter. “I have to meet her. I’ve read everything she’s ever written. I love her stuff.”

“Rewind.” I frowned. “You have? How did I not know this?”

“Maybe because I tend to buy them up when you’re out of the shop.” Bo high-fived Luna, who was clearly her romance novel dealer. They were doing back-alley romance deals, and I’d had no clue. “I don’t need to advertise my reading habits to a sister who has strong opinions on books and their hierarchy.”

“I’d never judge you for what you read, even if it is romance, sappy as it is. I just love that you read in general.” To help that comment along, I kissed her cheek as I passed. “Speaking of which, do we all have our assignments for Saturday in order?” I asked my tiny team. The PR people for Bristow had sent over a list of requests—I called them demands—to help the signing go smoothly. They’d also done a great job of putting the word out there to hard-core romance fans. Bo must have been elbow-deep reading case law to have missed this.

“I’ll be sweeping, scouring, and scrubbing this place until it shines,” Kurt said, and cracked his knuckles.

“I’ll be clearing a space for the throngs of fans to line up on that wall, that will lead out onto the sidewalk for overflow. Plus, moving some shelves so the readers have a clear exit through the back of the store after having their book signed.”

“Overflow,” I said, tasting the word. “I never thought A Likely Story would have a possible overflow issue. Not that I’m complaining. Time to introduce the city of Providence to the store they hopefully can’t get enough of.”

Bo hugged me. “I’m so happy for you, little Hannah-pants, and you will see me next Saturday, books in hand.” She checked her watch. “Now I’m off to court to save the world.”

I waved. “We’re going to stay here and sell books.”

My sister grinned. “You always have the best damn ideas.”

 

v

 

Why in the world was I nervous? It was Saturday afternoon and the Parker Bristow signing was set to begin at three p.m., and my stomach was flip-floppy, my mouth was dry, and I couldn’t quite seem to settle into one spot, because they all seemed to suck. I was normally a jittery type on special occasions and reminded myself that it wasn’t as if there would be much participation on my part. Our job was to sell copies of the book, make sure that the signing ran smoothly, and to make sure that the “talent”—that’s how the paperwork referred to Parker Bristow—was provided for. We’d obtained all the items on the rider, including Diet Coke, bottled water specifically manufactured by Fiji, a very hard to find brand of tea, and popcorn. Yes, popcorn. I couldn’t make this stuff up. Apparently, Parker Bristow would drink obscure tea and eat handfuls of buttery popcorn as she signed books and took photos. Who was I to judge? I didn’t have throngs or a publishing contract. I did enjoy feeling a part of it for a little while, though.

“They here yet?” Kurt whispered, peeking his head out from the Intrigue section, where he was helping a gaggle of college kids find something “scary, but not really scary.”

“Not yet,” I said, after handing a friendly woman her bag of purchases. It had been a high-volume day in the store, as folks seemed to want to peruse the place in advance of lining up for the signing. Exactly what I was hoping for. It was just past one, and we’d already broken all sorts of sales records. I owed Luna big-time for this one.

An hour and a half later, two well-dressed women, who didn’t look like they were here for a signed copy, entered the shop. “Ms. Shephard?” the brunette asked. She wore a black suit, and yeah, that had to be designer. A week’s salary of mine, at least. I fought the urge to handle the fabric of the lapel.

“That’s me.” I extended my hand and she shook it firmly, as I’d been taught to do from a young age.

“So nice to meet you.” The brunette glanced around the shop while the other woman, a tiny blonde, began walking through the space, clearly in investigation mode. What they were searching for I was unsure. “I’m Bernadette Hall. You can call me Bernie, and we’re here to prep for the signing.”

“We’ll want to set up here, Bernie,” the blonde said, pointing at a spot not far from the cashier’s counter.

I half raised my hand to be polite before speaking. “Actually, I was thinking that over there near the display might work best because—”

“No, I think Pinky is right.” Pinky? Really? Okay. Pinky and Bernie, it was. “This is the spot. We can drag some of the promo art over, and we’ve brought some of our own for a photo backdrop.” She walked a few feet to the right. “We’ll need a table of books here.”

“On it!” Luna said, scurrying in from the break room, where she’d been on lunch. She’d informed me earlier that the streaks in her hair were red today in honor of romance, passion, and fire.

“What else can we do?” I asked. It turned out, a lot. They had us dragging shelves out of the way, and setting up “the most comfortable chair possible,” brewing coffee, prepping hot water for tea, opening the snacks, popping the popcorn, and handing out numbered cards to the masses waiting in line on the sidewalk. It was a whirlwind of a half hour, and at 3:00 on the dot, I heard a roar of applause. Sounded like the talent had arrived.

“All right, everyone. I think it’s go time,” Bernie announced.

And then there she was. The most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my life.

I hadn’t expected that. My breath caught and released. Parker Bristow was attractive on television and in photos, but I now realized that they’d not done her justice. Not even in the realm of reality.

“Parker, we have you over here,” Bernie said, and gestured to the comfy chair we’d pulled in from the break room. I smiled but stayed out of the way. That didn’t deter her.

“Hi, there,” she said with a bright smile. She walked out of her way, in my direction. “I’m Parker.”

I took her offered hand. “Shephard. Hannah.” I made a circular gesture. “But the other way around. I don’t know why I said it that way.”

“Both are good names,” she said, with a laugh. Her long blond hair fell across her eye in the way it never seemed to on normal people, only characters in movies. Yet hers did. I swallowed and attempted to rebound.

“We’re so excited you’re here.” I gestured outside. “As you can see from the incredibly long line.”

“I just hope they like the book,” she said, and took a sharp inhale. She looked, dare I say, nervous? How was that possible when she was…her?

I pushed forward. “Well, my sister already read it and can’t stop gushing. She’ll be here soon.”

She turned around and faced me. “Well, please don’t make her wait in line. You’re lending out your store to us for the afternoon, so I’d be happy to sign her book without a delay.”

“Oh, that’s okay. You don’t have to—”

“I want to.”

I paused, feeling a heated blush inch in on my cheeks. Did I mention her hair was actually shiny? “Thank you so much. I’ll tell her.” I came around the table to where she’d settled. “Is there anything you’d like to drink? Or eat? I could pop some fresh popcorn.” God, that felt weird to say.

She laughed. “I’m so sorry that’s still on the rider.” She glanced at her people. “Bernie, can we get that updated, please?” She turned back in my direction, and her hair swung like a shampoo commercial. If I’d had a rewind button, I would have utilized it. “I had an ex who ate nothing but popcorn to lose weight. Crazy and unhealthy, I know. She used to come to these things with me, and as a courtesy, we added popcorn. I’m really sorry.” Her eyes carried sincerity.

“It’s not a problem. We have some spare popcorn now for the break room. Silver lining, right?”

“Well, there is that.” She held my gaze, and I held hers. It only lasted a few seconds, but they felt important. Everything about her did.

“Well,” Pinky said, snapping us back on course. “Here’s the pen you like to sign with, and here’s a backup. You’ve got your water, lip gloss. Anything else?”

Parker uncapped the pen with flourish. “Just the readers. I don’t like to keep them waiting, so let’s be sure we start on time.”

Bernie jumped to attention and I exchanged a thumbs-up sign with Kurt and Luna, who watched from some distance away with big grins on their faces. This was such a big day for all of us. I would be sure to introduce them later. Parker seemed approachable and kind, and I don’t know why, but I hadn’t expected that. At all. If anything, her team seemed higher on themselves than she did.

The afternoon flew by in a flurry of smiling readers, small talk, snapped photos, laughter, and the best of all? Lots and lots of sales. We had it set up where the readers entered through the main door of the shop to buy their copy of the book from me before being ushered to Parker for a few moments of conversation and a signature. Because they would exit through the back of the store, they’d pass through the many shelves of possible matches, which more often than not resulted in more sales, rung up by Kurt and Luna. I had to pinch myself. Today couldn’t have gone any better. From my spot behind my register, I watched as each reader, most of them women, were treated with the utmost respect and enthusiasm from someone they clearly admired so much. Parker made each one of them feel special, which, after hundreds had gone through, had to have exhausted her. Maybe I did need to read me a Parker Bristow novel. She’d won me over today.

“She’s amazing,” Bo whispered in my ear after having her copy signed. “She smells like baked goods and said my favorite book of hers, Willing to Fall, is also her favorite she’s written, and that I was right about there needing to be an additional book in the Angry Tears series.”

“Well, you’ve always had good taste, Bo-Bo.”

She scrunched her shoulders, which was Bo for “I’m so giddy right now.”

I laughed. “I’m glad you’ve had a good day.”

“Haven’t you?” she asked. “I’ve never seen more people between these four walls. You gotta have cash coming out of your ears by now.”

“Well, it is hard to hear you.” I laughed. “This has all been fantastic for the shop. You’re dead, aren’t you? Meeting her.”

“I’m talking to you from the grave.” Bo squeezed my arm. “Just so you know, there’s also a news crew out front covering the whole thing.”

My jaw dropped. “You’re making that up.”

“I’m happy to report I’m not.”

She wasn’t! As soon as the signing wrapped—and it ran over because Parker wanted to make sure she signed for everyone who came out to support her—Marta Jenkins, the very spunky reporter I watched every night at ten, appeared in my store and asked to interview Parker, who was nice enough to suggest they stand in front of my sign during the interview. Bernie and Pinky stood off to the side, nodding at everything Parker had to say.

“It’s been a fantastic day here in Providence, and I’m so blessed to have met so many readers,” Parker told the reporter, grinning broadly. “And this bookstore is one of the most awesome I’ve seen anywhere on the tour. Quaint and comfortable. Everyone should be sure to check out A Likely Story. I hope to be back someday. In the meantime, I’ll be buying a few books for my next flight.”

I closed my eyes in gratitude, hopeful that the unexpected plug would transfer to customer acquisition. I held a glimmer of hope that it just might.

“Well, I count today a big success,” Bernie said, as she helped me carry the signing table to the back of the store. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Providence sure showed up today for Parker. Just goes to show you that every city loves her.”

“Everyone was so sweet.”

I turned at the sound of Parker’s voice and found that she’d followed us, carrying the comfy chair I’d pulled from the break room. Apparently, she wasn’t above helping or physical labor. Strong, too. Kurt and Luna had moved it together.

“Well, you were a hit, and we sold hundreds of your new one, and tons more from your backlist.” We set the table down gently and Bernie dashed off to the front to gather the promotional artwork they’d brought with them.

Parker relaxed into a smile. “That’s good to hear. The sales. You never know how these things are going to go. Is anyone going to show up? Will they be disappointed when they do?”

“Why would they be disappointed?” I asked, confused. I had no concept of what in the world she was talking about.

“Well, if they have an idea of what I’m going to be like and I don’t live up to it. That’s always a fear. Keeps me up at night sometimes. Insomnia has been an issue lately because of it.”

“Really?” I just couldn’t imagine someone like Parker Bristow being nervous about what a stranger thought of her. I pushed the table against the wall of the break room. It was usually where we kept the coffee supplies, but it felt infinitely more important now that it had fulfilled its celebrity signing destiny. I gave it a “good table” pat and straightened. “Well, everyone loved you, just like Bernie said. Even I was impressed.”

“Even you?”

I hesitated. “Well, you’re pretty famous, and—”

“It was the popcorn on the rider, wasn’t it? Set the bar kind of low.”

I smiled. “It made me wonder who’d be walking through that door.”

“Let’s have dinner.”

I stared at her. I had definitely heard wrong and replayed the sentence for its actual meaning. I came up empty-handed and glanced behind me to find we were alone in the room. “Why?”

She laughed. “Why?” She glanced at the ceiling and back to me. Her green eyes were so big and expressive. She had lashes for days. “Because I’m hungry. You might be, too, though one can’t be sure. Hence, the asking.”

I immediately came up with eighteen reasons why I wasn’t available. There was the shop to reassemble after the slight redesign for the signing. I’m a quieter person who’d been looking forward to heading home and curling up under a blanket to decompress. The cats probably missed me. I wanted to watch the news that night and see the story about the signing. Yet none of them toppled the insane offer that had just been extended to me to have dinner with Parker Bristow, who’d been so kind all day.

“Okay. I could eat.” Bo was gonna flip. So was Luna.

Parker smiled, this time bigger. “Where should we go?”