Bookbinding (verb): the art of creating something magical out of fabric, leather and paper.
As a lonely foster kid, Serafina Conte sought refuge in handmaking journals — and writing her wishes within their pages. Now, in the quirky new age store she shares with her two best friends, Sera’s intentions have paid off. Her journals are in the spotlight — and rumoured to manifest great things. Whether it’s witchy skills, real magic or not, Sera’s finally ready to be the leading lady of her life story…
Until her plot hits a twist.
After the death of her mentor, Ford Sitwell, all the loneliness and insecurity of her past returns. The only balm is the box of antique books he left to her. But Ford’s suspicious brooding grandson, Wes, is ready to think the worst of her — and get his grandfather’s books back! The first part doesn’t bother her. The second? Forget it. Sera won’t give Wes the books so easily. But it’s clear he’s seeking something more, an emotional connection no book can replace. So she offers a deal — work in her store for six weeks, and in return, she’ll help him get closure by sharing memories of his late grandfather.
Yes, Wes seems grumpy, but actually he’s hot…and maybe kind? Deep down? And when desire and vulnerability work their charms, Sera begins to wonder if the best stories aren’t the ones you intend, but the ones that take you where you least expected…
Serafina Conte wished she had magic. Not the kind that everyone thought she had, where she could make their dreams come true, but the kind where she could turn an onerous man into a toad.
To be fair, she wasn’t sure what she’d do with Wesley Sitwell once he was a toad—maybe put him in a terrarium like they had for the fourth-grade class turtle and feed him dead flies once a week. That sounded perfect to her.
Except despite what Amber Rapp had told her followers, the co-owners of WiCKed Sisters weren’t modern-day witches. Sera and her friends had no control over anything paranormal. She was pretty sure Amber’s success had come from her own determination to release an album unlike anything she’d created before. She’d made her own magic.
But Amber wasn’t taking the credit and had given it all to them. So each day before they opened the shop there was a crowd of people outside, not just younger fans but their parents and grandparents as well.
Sitting among the stacks of books that lined the back room of her shop, Sera felt at home and safe in a way that nothing else had ever made her feel. She glanced at the letter she had just received, written on very official-looking letterhead from Sitwell & Associates, Attorneys at Law.
It forbade her from attending the funeral of Ford Sitwell, being held on Saturday at 10:00 a.m. at St. Luke’s Catholic Church, right in the heart of the town of Birch Lake, Maine. Could they ban her from church? She was pretty sure Sister Mary Edward would disagree. No one was banned from the church.
A wave of sadness rolled over her, engulfing her. Ford had treated her like she imagined a grandfather would have. He’d been kind and funny, sharing his library and the books he’d loved. Though Sera had always been well-read, he’d introduced her to authors she’d never heard of and to worlds that had dominated her dreams.
They’d talked about books and bookmaking; Ford had been a bookbinder in his twenties. Long before he’d settled down and had a family. He’d regaled her with stories of that time in his life and taught her techniques that had fallen out of use. She’d used those techniques to start making her journals and had seen the quality of her product begin to change.
Ford had been the one to tell her she was never going to produce a quality book if she kept buying the cheapest materials on the market. She’d spent every Thursday morning for the last two years visiting with him. He’d been the first man to give her a gift on her birthday, and Sera knew she’d never forget him.
It didn’t matter that he’d turned ninety on his last birthday and that she’d known he wasn’t going to live forever. Her entire life had been marked by the fact that she was alone. Ford had left an indelible mark as well, so it made her angry that this Wesley Sitwell, speaking on behalf of his father and brother, was now trying to keep her from saying goodbye to her friend.
“There you are. You know the shop is packed, right?” Liberty Wakefield asked, sitting down next to Sera on the overstuffed love seat that she’d wedged into this back room between the bookshelves. Liberty had a cup of her morning mud water, some kind of functional mushroom drink that was supposed to improve concentration.
“And? What are you doing?”
Liberty lifted both eyebrows at her as if to say, Duh!
“I’m trying to conjure a spell to turn Wesley Sitwell into a toad,” Sera admitted, dropping the letter onto her lap and reaching for her own cup of Earl Grey tea.
“What’s he done? Sitwell… Is he related to that old guy you visit?”
“Used to visit. Ford died yesterday,” Sera said. “His funeral is on Saturday morning.”
“Oh, Sera,” Liberty said, hugging her.
“I can’t believe he’s gone.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t get your relationship, but I know you liked him and he treated you like a surrogate granddaughter,” Liberty said, taking the letter and skimming it. “He left you something?”
“Yeah, some old journals and books. That was our thing. But his son and grandsons are ticked and don’t want me at the funeral.”
“So what’s their deal? Do they want the old books?” Liberty asked. “Do you want me to put a spell on them?”
“The books or the Sitwells?”
“Both,” Liberty said, grinning at her.
Sera smiled at her friend, glad she’d found Liberty when they’d both been working for a national coffee chain, dreaming of something bigger. “No to the spells for now.”
But the old books weren’t just a box of paperbacks that no one wanted to read. The books were antiquarian and possibly valuable if they were repaired. Sera was still a bit shocked that Ford had left them to her, but he’d been showing her the techniques needed to restore them, so she suspected that had been his motivation. Last week he’d told her he didn’t want her skills to get rusty when she’d mentioned that the new crowds at WiCKed Sisters meant she barely had time to do anything but make her journals.
She had asked him if she could have the old books he’d shown her in his attic. They were water damaged, and some of the pages were torn or folded over. The paper aged better because of that, and it had a nice—Well, patina wasn’t the right word, but it looked pretty in the journals after she worked her magic on them.
“What are you going to do?” Liberty asked.
She’d never been one to cling to people. She knew most of them weren’t going to be in her life for a long time. In fact, her longest relationship was with Liberty and Poppy, and she’d only known them for five years. It was probably why she loved books so much.
Books were always available. When she’d had no money, she’d gone to the library, and when she had a little bit of money, the used bookstore. Now, when she was making more money than she’d ever dreamed of, she could afford to buy new books and she had a huge stack of them piled in her bedroom next to the dresser and on her nightstand.
But this gift from Ford wasn’t about money; it was special to her. He had left her books because they’d talked about stories and even read together. Books had created a bond between the two of them. But apparently his family wanted her to give the books back, and they were sending Wesley to discuss the issue.
“I’m not sure. I mean, I don’t have any family, so I’m not entirely sure how I’d feel if a stranger—”
“You weren’t a stranger to Ford. You were family to him,” Liberty said. “Seriously. Do you want me to deal with the toad?”
Yes, because she hated confrontation, but she knew she couldn’t ask Liberty to do this for her. There was a part of Sera that wished she were more like Liberty. Her friend spoke her mind and didn’t worry about it. If she hurt someone’s feelings, she’d apologize for it later. But she never held her tongue.
“Thanks. I’ve got it. I’m more concerned about how I’m going to keep up with the demand for journals,” Sera said, changing the subject so she could get ready for her day and not worry so much about Wesley Sitwell.
“Are you running low?” Liberty asked with a note of concern in her voice.
And that concern was justified. The Amber Rapp thing meant customers wanted to have tea in Poppy’s shop, get their cards read by Liberty and then write a message to themselves that Sera put into the cover of a handmade journal. They wanted the full ritual in the hopes of bottling some of Amber’s success. If they didn’t have journals, that would affect everyone.
Sera wasn’t about to let down her friends. They were her found family.
“Yes, because I make them all by hand… I might need to hire someone else,” Sera said. It was nice to have something practical to discuss rather than Ford’s family.
“I think we should talk about hiring staff to run the register. That way we don’t have to ring up customers. I’m sure Poppy would agree.”
“Probably. She mentioned she was hiring two new servers for the tea shop,” Sera said. She sent a message to Poppy in their group text, telling her they wanted to hire more staff and asking if she was going to be back in Birch Lake on Friday for dinner.
Poppy texted back a thumbs-up.
“That’s taken care of. I guess that means Merle is going to be running the tea shop today,” Liberty said. “I know he’s Poppy’s cousin, but he gets on my nerves.”
“He’s okay. Just a little nerdy…and that’s saying something, coming from me,” Sera said with a laugh.
“You’re a bookworm, not nerdy,” Liberty said. “He is full-on nerd.”
“Why does that bother you?” As a tarot reader, Liberty herself wasn’t considered normal by everyone’s standards—but something about Merle always seemed to throw her off.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Probably because he’s kinda hot and weird as hell.”
“I thought that was your type,” Sera said with a grin.
Liberty shot her the bird and then got up to take her mug to the sink. “Want me to draw a card for you before you go meet the old guy’s grandson?”
“Yes, but only tell me if it’s a good one.”
Liberty shook her head. “All the cards are neutral, neither good nor bad. You know that, right? Life isn’t good or bad.”
Maybe. Sera wasn’t convinced. “Yeah, sure. But remember that time you drew the tower and freaked?”
Liberty had a bunch of different decks, some themed for Samhain or to specific areas of interest. But her everyday carry for tarot was the original Rider-Waite tarot deck.
“Only because my mom was supposed to fly that day,” Liberty said.
“That’s what I’m afraid of. What if you draw something that says ‘outlook not good’?”
“These are tarot cards, not a Magic 8 Ball. You know you can handle yourself. You didn’t con anyone out of anything. You met a nice old man who liked books and you went to his house for the last couple of years to talk with him. Where was the grandson then?”
Liberty had a point. The letter made it sound like she didn’t deserve the books that Ford had left her. Her old thought processes and behaviors were making her believe it. She wasn’t the orphan girl being shifted from foster home to foster home with nothing to call her own.
She had become friends with Ford, and she was going to miss their weekly chats about the classics in the library of his large Victorian house, which had seen better days. She hadn’t become friends with him in the hopes of getting anything.
They’d connected over a love of stories—he’d turned her on to the author Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. As much as she appreciated their shared fondness for books, what she had really come to cherish was their unexpected friendship.
In her heart, she felt sad at the thought of never speaking to him again. Ford had made her feel like she belonged in a way she’d only ever found with Liberty, Poppy and the books on her keeper shelf.
She wasn’t going to let Wesley or anyone else take that from her. She’d been writing her own story since she’d been old enough to realize reality sucked. She’d been fourteen when she’d accepted that she’d cast herself as the best friend instead of the leading lady. When she’d turned twenty-one and met Liberty and Poppy, she’d seen in them something she’d never found in herself.
They were the leading ladies of their lives.
Something Sera had promised herself she’d become. Something she’d inched closer to when she’d gone in with her friends on this shop. Something she was going to have to be, because she wasn’t about to let Sitwell & Associates take Ford’s gift to her.
Wesley Sitwell wasn’t sure what he’d expected Grandpa’s twenty-six-year-old “friend” to look like, but it wasn’t that girl. Serafina Conte. She was bustling around behind the counter under a sign that read Words Are Magic.
Her thick, dark, curly hair had sprung free from the ponytail at the small of her neck. The hair band had popped while he’d been watching her. He didn’t know why he was obsessed with her hair.
Except maybe he did. His first crush had been Emma Watson as Hermione Granger, and Serafina Conte was giving him all the Hermione feels.
From a distance, her eyes were deep brown and she had thick eyebrows that furrowed as she ran from the counter to her back room and returned like a windup toy that his brother, Oz, had broken one of the legs off of when they were kids, spinning in a silly, constant circle.
But there was nothing silly about this woman. She wore a blouse probably more suited to a woman Grandpa’s age. It had a bow and puffy sleeves, and she’d paired it with faded jeans and some chunky-heeled platform boots. The jeans hugged her curves, showing off her near-perfect ass, which might have explained his grandfather’s obsession with her.
She had a slightly rounded face, and if she’d been wearing lipstick, she’d worried it off long before he’d entered the shop. Her face was earnest when she spoke to her customers. Still, Wes didn’t trust her.
Grandpa, who’d had the same friends for most of his life—namely his chess buddies Hamish and Ronald, though the latter had died last year—had suddenly developed a close association with this woman.
Wes wasn’t the type to stalk Reddit for conspiracies, but that didn’t mean he overlooked something this obvious. When a hottie started a friendship with a much older man, it raised a huge red flag. Not that Ford had been an easy man to influence, but to suddenly leave a small fortune in books to this woman…there had to be more to it than met the eye.
Or he wanted there to be. Wes didn’t want to face the fact that he and Grandpa had fallen out. Wes had broken the partnership they’d formed when he’d left college and started his book repair business. The problem with Grandpa was that he refused to budge; everything always had to be his way. And Wes… Well, he was just as stubborn as Ford.
Ford had been the one to foster Wes’s own love of books, so Wes always believed he would inherit them. Books had been his way out of a troubled childhood. His mom left, taking Wes and his twin until his dad agreed to a divorce, nearly bankrupting both his dad and grandpa before returning Wes and his twin.
His dad hadn’t handled the situation well, and to say he hadn’t been father of the year was an understatement. Wes had always been the one least like him. Wes had his mom’s looks, and that had engendered… Hatred might be too strong a word for what his dad felt when he’d looked into Wes’s blue eyes and watched as, over time, the white-blond hair Wes had been born with turned to a rich honey blond that matched his mother’s.
Grandpa had left a note specifying that a box of curated antique books and journals were to be given to Serafina Conte. His dad hadn’t really been bothered by Grandpa’s bequest for the sake of the books—the old man never understood Wes’s choice to follow in Ford’s footsteps. But his dad didn’t like the fact that the woman, any woman, might have manipulated Ford the way his ex-wife manipulated him. He’d agreed to Wes’s request to use the family letterhead to send her a letter insisting she return Grandpa’s books to them. The truth was most of the old books Grandpa had needed repair.
Which was why Wes was here.
He was the one Ford had trained and he had always assumed Grandpa would give the books to him. Wes had hoped repairing the books would fix the damage he’d done when he’d told Grandpa he was forging his own path.
But it hadn’t.
Instead, Serafina Conte, who probably thought the books were worth money, like his dad did, had gotten them. That was a little too sus. Wes wasn’t leaving Birch Lake until he had the books back. Then he’d fix them. He might suck at relationships, but he was good at repairing broken things.
Who the hell was she? And why the fuck had Grandpa left the books to her?
“Sorry, folks. That’s all the journals I can make for today. Come back tomorrow and I’ll have more for you.”
She stood on a step stool near the counter, and though there were some rumbles of disappointment, most of the customers didn’t seem too upset to have to leave. As the shop emptied, Wes stayed to the side of the doorway.
The shop was lined with books, some newer editions but mostly secondhand titles. Nothing on the shelves had the same pedigree as the books his grandfather had left her. But she did have a few titles that would sell for a hefty price at the online auction house he ran as a sideline to make ends meet. Repairing old books was a specialist skill, but it didn’t exactly rake in the big bucks.
“Can I help you find what you’re looking for?” she asked, coming up next to him.
Up close, her eyes weren’t brown but more of a greenish hazel. Her hair looked like every sex dream he’d had back in the day, and her mouth… Fuck him, he couldn’t stop staring at it.
She reached up, pulling her hair back, which made his eyes drop to her chest and the way her shirt pulled tight across her breasts. It wasn’t just her ass that was perfect.
“So?” she asked.
“I believe I’ve found what I’m looking for.”
“Those are great books and a bit of a steal,” she said with a playful grin that went straight to his dick.
“They definitely are, but I’m not here for the books, Serafina Conte. I’m here for you.”
“For me?” she asked, a bit startled. Then her eyes narrowed. “Sitwell?”
“Indeed. Expecting me?”
Her mouth tightened in a frown.
“Not really. Are you here to deliver some extra threat if I show up at the funeral?” she asked. “I checked with the church and you can’t ban me from attending. Also, I think Ford would be disappointed to know you tried to.”
“Then you didn’t know Ford very well.”
“To be fair, I’ve only known him for a couple of years,” she said. “Not the lifetime I assume you’ve had with him.”
“Exactly, so why did he give you that box of books?” Wes asked. “What exactly did you do with him for two years?”
The smile left her face as she glared at him. “What do you think we did?”
“I wouldn’t be asking if I knew,” he said.
“But you have some idea,” she retorted.
She just stared at him, as if daring him to say what he was thinking. He hadn’t been this irritated by a woman in a very long time. He wasn’t sure who she thought she was dealing with. “Were you fucking?”
She opened and closed her mouth a few times and then turned and walked away from him without another word.
Publication Date: 23rd January 2024