Ever After, Etc Sneak Peek
Keep scrolling for a sneak peek at the first four chapters of Ever After, Etc,
the second book in the Sacreola Sweethearts series!
Spring was underway in the small town of Sacreola, Kansas, and love was most definitely in the air.
At the moment, it was taking the form of one very jittery firefighter fidgeting his way around Angie Hoffman’s small kitchen.
Jittery. Firefighter. There were two words that Angie was pretty sure she had never used in a sentence before, and yet there he was.
“You open that box one more time, the ring’ll jump out and bite you,” she warned. She tossed a grin over her shoulder at her agitated son as she brushed warm soap suds off her forearms and back into the sink.
Chase snapped the velvet box shut and shoved it back into his pocket. A second later, he was jingling his car keys with one hand while dragging the fingers of the other hand through his hair.
Angie stifled her snort, grabbing the damp dish towel to dry her hands as she turned to lean against the sink.
“She’s going to love it,” she reassured him. A small shiver of joy burst across her own spine even as she said the words. This was actually happening. After so many years.
He responded with another nervous smile, biting his lip. “I don’t know… It’s not too early, right? I don’t know if she’s ready.”
“You guys met in what, October?”
She grinned at him, all too certain he had the day—and the minute and the hour—quite memorized by heart.
“Okay. That’s seven months ago? Almost eight? And it’s not like you haven’t spent every waking moment together since then,” she teased, lifting an eyebrow at him. “And every—”
“That’s not what I meant,” he interrupted with an eye roll, sidestepping her innuendo before it could happen. “What if she’s not ready for this?”
Angie sighed. “I don’t know, what do you think? What does your heart say?” God, what a line. How did that even come out of her mouth?
He gave her a look, his grin spreading. “Oh, that’s a gem. That’ll sell a whole book, right there.”
“Shut up.” She pivoted back to the dishes to dunk another saucepan into the hot water. Her tired brain was to blame for this. Chase should be grateful she was even having this conversation right now, given the State of Things in her writing world at the moment. Love was, quite literally, up in the air.
Oh God, now a pun. Her brain was definitely beyond tired, heading toward the slap-happy zone. She was not responsible for whatever happened next. In either world.
“Okay, so. You write this stuff, you tell me. Do you think she’s ready?”
She snorted. Because romance writer equated with love expert, apparently.
“Well?” Chase propped a palm on the counter next to her drying rack and angled his relentless gaze up at her. “Do you think Kriss and I are forever?”
Hell if I know.
The thought came so fast, her breath caught with the brutal slap of it. She covered it up with a quick smirk and ducked her head over her work again, scrubbing the damn grease off the saucepan.
It was an innocent question, the sort you’d ask a seasoned romance author. Happily ever afters rolled off the shelves as fast as Angie could write them, finding their way into the hands of all the hopeful dreamers and would-be lovers out there. The ones who didn’t know any better. Or the ones who did, who just needed to ditch whatever dismal reality they lived in and escape between the sheets. Of paper. And other sheets.
Those people. They’re the ones to ask. The ones with intact hearts.
She cringed as she heard Chase draw in another breath. The boy was too keen; he could probably read the whole sordid story right there on her tight-lipped face. He’d had a front row seat for the whole damn soap opera that was her love life, after all.
“Don’t make me break out into another love song to prove my undying affection,” he prodded. “You know I will.”
“Oh please,” she groaned, masking her relief at the distraction. “Kriss is so awesome, I wish you’d married her before Christmas. Just get out there and pop the question already.”
The gust of wind from his nervous sigh could have dried the rest of the dishes in a hurry.
“Well, actually…” She hesitated.
Her son’s gray eyes fixed on her. Angie blinked and found herself staring at the flattened bridge of his nose, the one he’d gotten passed down from her daddy. He had a good nose, taken together with the ensemble of the rest of his features. The ones he’d gotten… elsewhere. Too handsome for his own good; she’d had trouble keeping the girls off him all those years ago. Back when she was allowed to intervene. Nowadays… He was his own man. Off doing his own man thing, without her.
She shook herself. No he wasn’t. Chase wasn’t, at least. He was right there, in Sacreola, in her kitchen. Asking for her advice on marrying one of her favorite people in all the world.
“Don’t actually propose tonight, okay?” She flashed him a quick smile. “I mean, I guess you can, but I wanted to be part of the celebration, and tonight isn’t gonna work for me.”
His face relaxed with relief, and mischief. “Why, you got a hot date?”
This again. The boy caught one whiff of love and started trying his damndest to set his old mom up with anyone and everyone he could find. Enough already.
With a quick twist of her wrist, she sprayed his T-shirt with the sink’s flexible faucet until he shouted and jumped back out of range.
“Hot date indeed. With a few thousand words.” She glared at the glint in his eye. “And don’t you say a thing—”
“Sounds like quite the climax.”
Her next spray attempt missed him as he chortled his way out of the kitchen.
It was 8:52 PM. Tuesday night. May 5. Two years to the day—and almost to the hour—since Margie died.
And about twenty minutes after the moment that Ben Thompson just admitted to himself that he might have actually fallen in love with another woman.
It was as ridiculous as it sounded. Today, of all days. What was he thinking?
Maybe he wasn’t thinking. He was working late in the bookshop, just a few short minutes from closing, less than an hour from his usual bedtime. He should have been shutting everything up and hunkering down, tucking himself in with his grief and his memories. Or he should have been texting his daughter Lili back, telling her he was all right and he’d gotten the cookies she’d delivered that afternoon. Or even organizing the stack of sheet music waiting on its stand next to the bookshop cafe’s counter, rearranging all of Margie’s favorites, picking out her playlist for the night’s solo cello concert he was planning to play in her honor.
Come to think of it, he should have closed up early and kicked everyone out a couple hours ago. He could have dodged their questions easily enough, shuttering his face behind the usual I’ll be fine mask, the one with just enough grief mixed in to meet the sympathy in their eyes. Well-meant sympathy, but it weighed him down, nonetheless. That weight alone was enough excuse to close up hours ago.
But… closing the bookshop early would have meant waking Angie up.
Ben took a deep breath and told himself he was not going to check on her again. He was not going to tiptoe over there to the Cozy Mystery Corner and peek around the shelves at the overstuffed chair where she always curled up with her latte and her laptop. Her caramel latte, extra syrup, extra whipped cream, with the decorative heart-shaped pattern he had always swirled into the cream on top without much thought… until today. Her brushed chrome laptop plastered with stickers: the one with the words “Book In Progress” and a half full progress bar underneath, Rosie’s bare biceps boasting “We Can Do It,” a yin and yang made out of two black and white cats…
He closed his eyes, and he could see each one of those stickers. And more. He could see her bulky, black-and-fuchsia headphones pressed between her shoulder and the smooth curve of her jaw, her dark eyelashes fluttering against her cheek, the brown waves of her silky hair spilling over her shoulders, rising and falling with each deep breath.
What was wrong with him?
He shook himself. Hard. But the image of Angie Hoffman had lodged itself into his subconscious, settling in like it planned to stay for a while.
It had no business in his brain. He had no business obsessing over a random other woman, not today.
But… Angie wasn’t exactly a random woman. She was his most loyal customer, stopping by two or three times a week and even more often in recent months.
She had chuckled and tossed him a wink the other week when he’d commented on seeing her around a lot. Apparently now the house she shared with her son Chase was “occupied” most evenings, and she needed to wrap up her latest book with as few “distractions” as possible.
And so it had somehow happened that almost every night around 7 PM the town’s resident writer, book lover, and night owl breezed through the front door of the Snowy Owl Bookshop, scooped up her usual latte, and nestled herself into the cozy mystery corner for a couple hours of writing before the shop closed at 9 PM.
Tonight, of all nights, she must have been extra tired. Because tonight, of all nights, she had fallen fast asleep behind her darkened laptop screen.
Ben tucked his own yawn behind the back of his hand, then grimaced. Lili kept telling him he needed to cut down the shop’s hours—nobody wants coffee after supper, Dad—but he couldn’t bring himself to actually do it. For those first few months after Lili moved out again, the bookshop had been the only thing keeping him going, and vice versa. Even an empty shop was better than his empty house.
The shop was never completely empty, anyway, with so many “friends” keeping him company from the shelves. He had always imagined the spines were leaning together to whisper secrets from one book to the next, teasing him with plots of conspiracy and intrigue. And never once had he felt the weight of his books’ sympathy.
He glanced at the old mantle clock opposite the cafe counter, watching another minute tick by, now for the first time letting himself wonder if he had another reason for keeping the shop open so late. A reason called Angie.
Good grief. He was a grown man. A grieving man. He wasn’t that silly.
Only three minutes till nine now. The shop was closing. His cello was waiting.
Wake her up. He should just do it. All it would take would be walking the short distance over there and murmuring her name a few times. Or maybe he’d have to wrap a gentle hand around her shoulder if she didn’t hear him through her headphones, then smile in apology as she blinked open her hazel eyes to focus on his face, then help her pack up her laptop and slide her arms into her jacket…
He should. He really should. It was time.
But his gaze refocused on the sleek, black case of his cello resting in the small space between the counter and the supply cupboard, and his heart gave a sharp twinge. A new twinge, like a string had snapped inside somewhere after too many years and too many stresses. Or maybe after too many sympathetic gazes, each unwilling to open the case and see the actual status of the delicate instrument inside.
It was time, indeed. Time to open the case, tune the strings. See what music his hibernating heart could play.
His pulse thumped to life as the idea took hold. Yes. He would play, like he had planned. Here and now, Angie or no.
Grief was such an odd bedfellow. He had envisioned today’s session of remembrance more as a private thing, a space only big enough to fit him and his memories of Margie. The expectation of this moment had bubbled around inside him all day until he’d wondered what it would look like when it finally had space to burst. Now, The Moment was upon him, and it was nothing like he’d expected. And… maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.
Ben cast one more glance toward the shelves that hid the mystery corner’s slumbering resident, then he slid off his barstool and crossed the floor to kneel by the cello case. His fingers shook as he flipped the latches open and stroked his fingertips over the idle strings. Then he drew the instrument free and propped himself on the edge of one of the chairs in front of his music stand to tune once again and tighten the bow and prepare himself for The Moment.
When all was ready, he let his gaze roam once more around the lamplit shelves, caressing each of the spines in turn, lingering on so many of Margie’s old friends all around him. His most loyal audience.
Then he closed his eyes and set the trembling bow against the strings.
Angie dragged her eyes open as awareness pressed into her, awakening a symphony of sensations along the length of her body curled into the chair. Her skin tingled back to life as she shifted, her muscles complaining as they stiffened and stretched. Her jaw ached from the press of her headphones, and her mouth was dry with thirst as she pulled in a deep breath.
What the hell? She had fallen asleep in the middle of writing a climax. That was definitely a first.
Well, okay, not exactly the writing part. She could never fall asleep while actually writing anything for real, much less a climax. But today’s climax had necessitated a research detour into aviation physics, specifically the fluid mechanics of air flow around a small VLJ private jet when you blast a hole in the side just in front of the wing. Fluid mechanics could be quite fascinating. Not something you get to read about every day. She had let herself get sucked in—God, Angie, stop with the puns already—and the time had slipped away.
She shook her head to clear it… and then froze, blinking at the window opposite her nook. It was dark outside. Not just post-sunset twilight sort of dark; no, it was dark dark. Dark like nighttime. Streetlights on and all.
Not just outside—it was dark inside the shop too. The overhead lights were off, and the bookshelves were casting long shadows from the gentle glow of a few warm lamps around the corner near the cafe. The shop looked so different in the sideways light, more intimate and quiet, like a living room in the home of an old friend.
But crap. The shop had closed for the night. In the middle of her accidental evening nap.
She bit back a groan. This was going to be fun to explain to the night cops. Oops, sorry, I’m locked inside the Snowy Owl. Can you get the owner to let me out…?
Ben was so nice, too, and he always kept the shop and everything so organized. They’d have to wake him up and drag him down here to deal with her, and she wouldn’t be able to show her face around the shop for weeks for the embarrassment of it all.
Her laptop screen flashed to life in front of her face as she sat up. She squinted in the harsh glare, frowning at the encyclopedia page that had put her to sleep, then shut the lid as quickly as possible. The charger’s plug stuck a little in the wall outlet as she tugged it free while fumbling to wrap up the cord and dragging her headphones sideways off her head to stow them in her bag—
But then she froze again.
That music. It wasn’t coming from her headphones. It was coming from the shop. Someone had left some music on. Except it didn’t sound like typical easy listening or smooth jazz. And it wasn’t trickling down out of the overhead speakers, more like dancing toward her from right around the corner. Like someone was playing in real time, just beyond the bookshelves, near the cafe.
Angie’s heart thudded with a mixture of relief and surprise. She wasn’t locked up alone, then. But she still wasn’t supposed to be here, about to scare the crap out of whoever was playing the music. Which would be a real shame, because wow, that music…
Her chest expanded with the swell of the mellow tones of the tune, some classical piece she should probably remember the name of. She could feel the emotion woven into every musical phrase, the passion singing through every pull of the bow.
The music flowed around her, filling her favorite writing corner with a wild energy, almost an invitation. It was like the music knew she was there, and it didn’t mind. It came to find her, wrapping her round and pulling her out of the chair and onto her feet, drawing her toward its source.
Her pulse spiked as she reached the edge of the shelf that had sheltered her corner from view. It would be a shame to disturb the music, but she couldn’t help it. She would just peek around the shelf and catch a glimpse, then go back to her chair and pretend to fall back asleep until the song stopped.
She leaned forward another inch, just enough to see around the edge, and her breath caught.
It was Ben, of course. He was sitting there on one of the cafe table chairs in front of the counter, facing a music stand and the New & Popular shelves along the side wall, a cello propped between his knees and against his chest.
His head was bent forward over it with his eyes closed, the fingers of his right hand dancing over the cello’s stem above while his left hand drew the bow with expert ease across the strings. His whole body moved with the flow of the music that thrummed from the instrument’s core, as though the haunting tones had caught him in their thrall as well.
The music shifted to a lighter cadence, and Angie remembered to breathe. But she couldn’t go back and sit down. She couldn’t tear her gaze away. The lighting was perfect; the lamp on the far edge of the counter cast a warm glow over his back and shoulders, which were turned just enough to throw the front of him in shadow. His bow hand slid back and forth, dancing in and out of the light underneath the silhouette of his profile as his head bent over his moving fingers.
He wasn’t even looking at the music—no, he knew this piece by heart. Angie watched his lips tremble as though they wanted to speak or sing along. The lamp’s glow caught the side of his face and the tiny hairs of his neatly-trimmed small beard. A bead of moisture that might have been a tear glistened on his cheek for a moment, but he turned his head and it was lost to shadow again.
The music paused, and she watched a shudder run over the length of him. When he leaned forward again, the song shifted with his pose, the notes lengthening now like indrawn breaths, or the crashing of deep ocean waves. The melody soared, shaped by his hands and heart and soul, swelling with desperate hope… Then it resolved into a calm stillness that resonated through the silence of the room, fading slowly until all that was left was the pounding of Angie’s heart.
And she thought she was good at climaxes.
She was just realizing she was still standing there at the shelf’s edge, quite visible even in the low light, when Ben opened his eyes and turned his head to look right at her.
There she was.
Ben watched Angie’s eyes widen as his glance landed on her, then her lips pulled in a quick smile. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, I must’ve fallen asleep, I didn’t mean to stay so late…”
“Oh no, it’s fine.” He returned her smile with a quick shrug. Relax, he told his thumping heart, but it was no use. Angie. Was right over there. Watching him play.
Her gaze shifted around the dimly lit shop, landing on the mantle clock. He took the opportunity to brush discreetly at the tears drying on his cheeks while he shuffled through his music on the stand.
She let out a small groan. “Nine thirty. Gosh, I’m so sorry. You should’ve kicked me out.”
“It was no trouble,” he assured her. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go anyway.” His heart ached at the truth of the statement, and the forced-casual way it came out of his mouth.
She glanced back at him, her eyes shining as she took in the cello and music stand. “I am sorry I interrupted your music, though. That was beautiful. Holy cow… I didn’t even know you played.”
“Oh, yeah. Thanks.” Ben reached a hand up to scratch the back of his neck, suddenly too warm in his light sweater. “I’ve played since middle school. Nothing too fancy, no groups or anything. Used to do duets with my daughter.”
He nodded. “My youngest, Aurelie.” He watched recognition light up her face at the name. “She plays the violin. But she moved to New York a few years back, for college.”
“You have a couple other girls, too, right?”
“That’s right. Carrie and Olivia.” His throat tightened. Margie, Carrie, Livie, Lili. His girls.
“Oh yes, Carrie. I think she was in Jess’s high school class. Jess is my daughter,” she explained, and Ben nodded. He remembered Jess, although she had moved out of town just after high school as well.
“I remember Aurelie too,” Angie mused. “I always loved her name. Is it… French?”
Ben nodded again, laying his bow across his knees and pretending to inspect the tension. He wasn’t sure the tight clog in the back of his throat would let him speak yet.
Aurelie had been Margie’s name pick, after she had won the years-long “discussion” about balancing beauty and family legacy with complicated French pronunciation. I’ve managed mine just fine, she always said with a laugh—and so she had. And Ben had never been able to say no to Margeaux Chloé Thompson. Of course, toddler Olivia had dubbed her younger sister “Lili” within weeks of her arrival, and the nickname had stuck.
He realized he still hadn’t said anything back to Angie. The silence was starting to get awkward, and fast. He drew a breath and cleared his throat—
“Well,” Angie said abruptly, tugging the hem of her sweatshirt down over her leggings’ waistband. “Thanks so much for letting me crash here tonight. God, thanks for letting me live here these days. I don’t know where this book would be without my Snowy Owl writing corner. Or where I’d be without my lattes.” She dazzled him with her smile.
“How is your writing going?” Ben asked, grateful for the conversation’s new turn.
She made a sound like a flat tire with her lips. “Good enough, except for tonight. I should be able to knock out this climax in a few days. If I can keep myself awake.” She chuckled and rolled her eyes.
“You know, I forget if we’ve mentioned this before, but if you ever want to sell your books here we’ve got a local author section.” He swallowed, hearing his choice of pronoun ringing in his ears as always. Too much of a habit, that “we.” Maybe he could pretend it was the royal we. We, the owner and manager of this fine establishment…
Angie’s gaze was drifting over the shelves, a faint smile tugging at her lips. “Thanks, yeah. Um… I know I’m weird about this, but I’m good with my anonymity. Especially around this town.” She laughed, then shrugged. “Most of my sales are online anyway. But if I ever decide to crawl out of my shell, I promise you’ll be the first to know.”
He nodded, processing her words. “Online… So I’m assuming you don’t write picture books?”
She barked a laugh. “Nope. Wouldn’t that be interesting. No, I write romance.”
“Ah, right.” He almost said, Margie’s favorite, but stopped himself just in time. The size of the romance section along the shop’s main wall spoke volumes to that fact.
He couldn’t do this much longer, not even with Angie. He pulled in a trembling breath and picked up the bow from his knees. Then he pushed himself to his feet, lifting the cello gently by its neck and pin.
She scooted out of the way as he stepped over to the case beside her on the floor, but she didn’t leave. “Thank you again for the beautiful music,” she said, her voice soft. “I just love strings. They sound so magical, like human voices, but wilder. I always imagined strings are what a forest might sound like if it could sing.”
Ben felt his smile curve in spite of himself. She even talked like a writer. A forest singing. He’d have to tell Lili about that one. “Did you ever play?”
“Me? Oh God, no.” She gave an embarrassed laugh, but he imagined he heard a hint of wistfulness behind it. “I don’t have the ear for it. Or any music. Chase could probably pick it up. He’s good with pitch, and all that. I’m definitely not, but I do love listening.”
An idea pricked at the back of Ben’s mind… but he couldn’t even bring himself to shape it right now. The timing wasn’t right, anyway; it was too soon, and he was so tired. No, right now he just needed an empty house and a dark room and a night to sleep and forget.
He snapped the clasps shut on the case, and Angie seemed to snap herself out of her reverie. “I’d better grab my stuff,” she told him, popping around the bookshelf toward the mystery corner.
A few moments later she re-emerged toting her usual library-logo messenger bag. The hood of her sweatshirt now framed her face, her brown hair cascading out from it in waves around her neck. Her eyes were bright as she smiled at him one last time, apologizing and thanking him again while dropping a tip in the jar “for the concert.” Then she jingled her way through the front door and out onto the darkened street.
It was only after she was gone that Ben realized two things. One, he should have offered to walk her home. It was late, and quite dark. But today had just about fried the chivalry out of his tired brain.
Two… She hadn’t looked at him with sympathy. He’d seen all the other emotions: delight, embarrassment, wistfulness, whimsy, appreciation—but none of the sympathy he’d been swaddled in for over two years now. Somehow her presence had felt exhilarating and exhausting and refreshing, all at the same time.
And his tired brain had no idea what to do with that.