May 31, 2022
Standalone Women's Fiction
From #1 New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery—a story of friends who become family, giving each other courage to start over…
When fate brings three strangers to a charming space for lease on the California coast, the Boardwalk Bookshop is born. Part bookstore, part gift shop, part bakery, it's a dream come true for Bree, Mikki and Ashley. But while their business is thriving, their personal lives are…not.
Bree, wounded by brilliant but cold parents and her late husband's ultimate betrayal, has sworn to protect her heart at all costs. Even from Ashley's brother, a writer and adventurer who has inspired millions. He's the first man to see past Bree's barricades to her true self, which terrifies her. Mikki has this divorce thing all figured out—somehow, she's stayed friends with her ex and her in-laws…until a new man changes how everyone looks at her, and how she sees herself. Meanwhile, Ashley discovers that the love of her life never intends to marry. Can she live without being a wife if it means she can have everything else she's ever wanted?
At sunset every Friday on the beach in front of the Boardwalk Bookshop, the three friends share a champagne toast. As their bond grows closer, they challenge one another to become the best versions of themselves in this heartachingly beautiful story of friendship, sisterhood and the transformative power of love.
“I thought there’d be more sex.”
Bree Larton stared at her seventy-something-year-old customer, not sure how to respond. Bursting out laughing would be inappropriate and Ruth would take offense. “You need to tell me what you want so I can get you the right book,” Bree said with a gentle smile. “You wanted a political thriller. Most of them aren’t sexy.”
Ruth, barely five feet tall but feisty as a badger, pursed her lips. “Not true. James Bond has sex all the time and he spends his day saving the world. I want a book like that. Ticking bombs, financial collapse, kidnappings and then everyone jumps into bed.” She winked. “That would be a good book.”
“I can do a sexy thriller. Maybe international?” Bree started walking toward that section of the bookstore. “A couple of options come to mind. Now, on the sexy part—do you want monogamy or can the partners play around?”
Ruth’s eyes brightened. “I’d like them to play around, but nothing too kinky. And no groups. That’s just too hard to keep track of.”
Bree held in a chuckle. “All right. We’ll limit the body parts, add a little European flair.” She held out a book with a hunky guy on the cover. “If you like this one, the author has five more stories waiting for you.”
Ruth, an unnaturally yellow blonde wearing cherry-red lipstick, clutched the book to her narrow chest. “I’ll take it.”
Bree suggested several additional authors. Ruth browsed for a few more minutes, then carried a stack of books to the register.
“I think I would have been a good sidekick for James Bond.” Ruth passed over her credit card. “Back in the day, I was quite the looker.”
“You still are,” Bree told her.
Ruth waved away the comment. “I’m too old for espionage, but I wouldn’t say no to dinner with a charming man.” Her smile turned sly. “I’ll just have to keep living vicariously through you.”
“Sadly, I’m lacking a man these days.”
Ruth leaned close. “What I admire about you, Bree, is that you’re not holding out for love. You go after what you want. When I was your age, that wasn’t an option. Not in polite society anyway. I was born in the wrong time.”
Bree honest to God had no idea what to say. “I guess we have to work with what we have.” She tucked a flyer into the shopping bag. “Harding Burton is signing here in a couple of weeks.”
Ruth looked at the poster next to the counter. Her bright red lips curved into a smile. “He’s a good-looking man.”
Bree mentally shrugged. “I suppose.”
“You don’t think he’s exceptionally handsome? Those eyes, that smile. Isn’t he the one who was hit by a car and left for dead on the side of the road when he was just a teenager?” Ruth clucked her tongue. “So tragic. But he pulled through and walked again and now look at him.” Her gaze darted to Bree. “You should have your way with him and then tell me all about it.”
Bree held in a wince. “First, I’d never tell you about it and second, I don’t date authors.”
Between her late husband and her parents, she knew enough about the type to want to avoid them forever. At least on a personal basis. Work-wise, she was stuck. What with owning a bookstore and all.
“Harding seems exception-worthy,” Ruth told her. “He might have some interesting scars you could trace and—”
Bree held up her hands in the shape of a T. “Stop right there. If you’re interested in Harding’s scars, go for him. How could he resist you?”
“I’m old enough to be his mother.”
Grandmother, Bree mentally corrected, but kept silent. She had a soft spot for the ever-outspoken Ruth.
“Maybe he’s into older women,” she said instead.
“Wouldn’t that be nice.”
Ruth was still laughing when Bree walked her out of the store. Anson, Ruth’s driver, was waiting in the no-parking fire lane. Anson helped Ruth into the Mercedes. Bree stayed outside until the car drove away.
Early evening on the beach in Los Angeles was nearly always magical but in June, if the skies cleared, it was the stuff of dreams. Warm air, palm trees, sand and surf. Honestly, she shouldn’t admit to having any real problems in her life. Even Ruth’s impossible book requests were insignificant when compared with the view outside the front door of her store.
Until six months ago, Driftaway Books had been located about two miles north and a good three blocks inland from the actual beach. Last fall, when the current space had come up on the market, Bree had stopped in to drool and dream. But beachfront came at a premium, and the square footage had been nearly double what she’d needed.
In one of those rare moments when fate stepped in and offered an unexpected opportunity, that very day two other women business owners had also been swooning over the same retail space. They’d agreed it was an unbelievable location, right there on the sand, but it had also been too big and expensive for each of them.
Impulsively, Bree had suggested they go get coffee together. Over the next hour they’d discussed the possibility of sharing the lease. Bree generally didn’t trust people until she got to know them, but there had been something about Mikki and Ashley that had made her want to take a chance. By the end of the week Driftaway Books, The Gift Shop and Muffins to the Max had signed a ten-year lease and hired a contractor to remodel. Bree had changed the name of Driftaway Books to The Boardwalk Bookshop, the final step in fully claiming the business as her own. The first Monday after the holidays, they’d moved in together.
Bree looked at the long, low building. Huge display windows were shaded by blue-and-white-striped awnings. The large glass doors could slide completely open, blurring the line between retail and sand. She and Mikki, the gift-store owner, had their stores on either side, with Ashley’s muffin selection taking up the middle space.
Big, bright displays showcased books, gifts and muffins, grouped together in seasonal themes. An array of beach books, sunscreen, flip-flops and wide-brimmed hats enticed tourists who had shown up to the beach unprepared.
Bree headed back inside, aware of the approaching sunset. She collected blankets and champagne glasses, then paused to straighten the poster announcing a book signing by Jairus Sterenberg, author of the popular Brad the Dragon children’s books. Jairus lived in next-door Mischief Bay and was always a pleasure at signings. He was one of the few authors Bree liked. He arrived early, stayed late and asked only for a desk and a glass of water. The man even brought his own pens.
At the other end of the spectrum was a not-to-be-named famous mystery author who was a total nightmare. Demanding, slightly drunk and very handsy, he’d patted her butt one too many times at his last signing and had been banned from the store. Despite pleas from his publicist and a written apology from the author himself, Bree had stood firm. She owned The Boardwalk Bookshop and she made the rules. No literary books, no existential anything and no guys touching women without their permission. Not exactly earth-shattering, but she could only control her little corner of the world.
Mikki saw her and smiled.
“Once again, we’re waiting for Ashley. Have you noticed that?”
“Young people today,” Bree teased.
Mikki, a generally upbeat kind of person, with thick blond hair and more curves than Bree and Ashley combined, laughed. “I like that. I’m only ten years older than her, so if she’s young, then I’m less old than I thought. Maybe I won’t mind turning forty this fall.”
“You’re not seriously worried about it, are you?”
Mikki wrinkled her nose. “I don’t know. Sometimes. Maybe. Forty sounds a lot worse than thirty-something.”
“Forty is the new twenty-five.”
Mikki’s humor returned. “If I’m twenty-five, then Ashley’s barely eleven. That could create some legal issues with our lease.” She waved the bottle of champagne she held. “Come on. This needs our attention. When Ashley’s done texting love notes to Seth, she knows where to find us.”
They left the store and walked out onto the sand. With the approach of sunset, the temperature had cooled and the Friday crowd had cleared. The sky had started to darken, while the part that kissed the ocean still glowed bright blue with a hint of yellow.
To their left were a grove of palm trees, a handful of kiosks and a boardwalk that went all the way to Redondo Beach. To the right were more shops and restaurants, benches, parking and hotels. In front of them was the Pacific Ocean. Big, blue and tonight, unexpectedly calm.
They stopped about thirty feet from the shore and sat on the blankets. Mikki held up the champagne.
“Perrier-Jouët Blason Rosé,” she said proudly. “Ladies Know Wine gave it 93 points and said it had ‘delicious hints of sweet earthiness that complement fruit flavors including strawberry and peach with a hint of spice in this perfectly balanced rosé champagne.’”
Bree grinned. “I don’t know which is more impressive. That you’re branching out from traditional champagne or that you can quote a Ladies Know Wine review that well.”
“I love Ladies Know Wine. I savor every issue. If Ladies Know Wine were a man, I would make him fall in love with me. Then we’d have sex.”
“Earl would be crushed.”
Mikki unwrapped the pink foil and tucked it into her khaki pants pocket. “Earl would need to get over it.” She held up the bottle. “Look at the shape of that. It’s beautiful. And the label. Kudos to the design team.”
She held the cork in her left hand and used her right to grip the bottom of the bottle. Instead of pulling on the cork, as often happened in movies, she rotated the bottle several turns until the bottle and cork separated without a hint of a pop.
Last fall the three of them had signed the lease late on a Friday. They’d been so excited, they’d driven out to their new location. The sunny, warm day had promised a beautiful sunset. Bree happened to have a bottle of champagne in her car and had suggested they share it to celebrate their new venture. The following Friday they’d done the same and a tradition had been born.
The first time Bree had opened a bottle of champagne with her business associates, she’d popped the cork and the frothy liquid had spilled over. Mikki’s expression of horror had been so clear as to be comical.
“You’re letting out all the bubbles,” she’d explained. “It changes the essence of the champagne and ruins the experience.”
“Ruins is kind of strong,” Ashley had pointed out. “It’s still really good champagne. Better than what I usually have. Of course most of my champagne drinking is done at weddings where they’re buying for two hundred, so price is a concern.”
“Champagne needs to be treated with reverence,” Mikki had told her. “Don’t drink bad champagne.”
From then on they’d alternated providing the Friday night sunset champagne. Ashley always ran her selection past Mikki, but Bree took her chances by picking it herself.
Mikki poured them each a glass, then put the bottle into the sand, pushing down a little to keep it upright.
“To us,” she said, touching her glass to Bree’s. “And to perfect sunsets.”
Bree smiled and then took a sip. She closed her eyes as she let the bubbly liquid sit on her tongue for a second before swallowing. Mikki was going to ask her how she liked it, and saying it was fine was never an option.
“Delicious,” she said, holding in her smile. “I taste a lot of berry with a hint of citrus. It’s surprisingly creamy.”
Mikki looked at her with approval. “That’s what I get, too. It’s really drinkable. I like it.”
“Noooo! You started without me!”
The shriek came from behind them. Neither of them turned around. Instead, Bree held out the third glass and Mikki filled it. Ashley, a tall, slim redhead with big blue eyes and a full mouth, plopped down next to Mikki. Her lips formed a pout.
“You didn’t wait,” she accused. “You’re supposed to wait.”
“You’re supposed to be on time,” Mikki reminded her. “Every Friday you text with Seth and run late. You agreed either you show up on time or we’re starting without you.”
Ashley ducked her head. “I thought the pressure would help. Instead, I just feel guilty.”
Mikki sipped her champagne. “I’m sure your chronic tardiness has to do with your mother.”
Ashley laughed. “My mom can take your mom anytime.”
Mikki grinned. “I don’t know. Rita would bring her Eeyore self to the party and then talk about how everyone’s good time depressed her.”
“I can see that happening,” Ashley admitted. “Then I’ll toast to both our mothers. And Seth, who is amazing. I in no way feel guilty about texting with him. He loves me and I love him.”
Bree held in a groan. “Yes, we know. It’s all so wonderful.”
Mikki bumped shoulders with Ashley. “She’s jealous.”
“No, no.” Bree held up her glass. “You are welcome to your cooing and clucking relationship.”
“We don’t cluck. What does that even mean?”
“I have no idea,” Mikki admitted. “Bree?”
“It’s just an expression.”
“Clucking is an expression?”
Bree chuckled, then glanced out at the sinking sun. Light reflected on the moving water. A family walked along, close to the waves. An older boy ran ahead, while the parents held hands with a younger child.
They looked happy, she thought, studying them the way she would an unfamiliar species. No doubt the mom and dad loved their children, took care of them. Mikki did that, too, with her two kids. And Ashley’s parents were wonderful. But not all parents were good.
Mikki refilled their glasses. “Ashley, a lot of customers are talking about your brother’s book signing. When are we going to meet him?”
“Monday,” Ashley said. “He’s moving into his new place.”
Harding, Ashley’s brother, after several months on the road for book signings and research, had returned to Los Angeles. He’d leased a house and was supposedly hard at work on book number three. In the meantime, he would be signing at The Boardwalk Bookshop where he would, no doubt, pull in a crowd.
Authors, Bree thought with a silent sigh. An annoying but necessary species. Customers liked book signings, so she had authors come in.
“I can’t wait to meet him,” Mikki said. “Such an interesting story. Bree, are you excited about the signing?”
“More than words can say.”
Mikki studied her. “That’s sarcasm, right?”
Bree laughed. “Yes. That’s sarcasm.”
“How can you own a bookstore, love books and hate writers?”
“I don’t hate them. I just don’t want them in my life.”
“You’re so weird.” Mikki turned to Ashley. “Help me out here. Tell her how weird she is.”
Instead of joining in the teasing, Ashley dropped her gaze. “Yes, well, we should talk about Harding. Or more specifically, him and you.”
Bree shifted back so she could angle toward Ashley. “I’ve never met the guy.” Which meant there shouldn’t be a problem. Unless…