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Authors: Nina Lane

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BOOK: Spiral of Bliss 03 Awaken
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To my utter shock, tears sting my eyes. I hadn’t known until this moment how much I’d been looking forward to this—not only finally being able to help a friend, but also becoming a legitimate business owner.

“Don’t be upset, Liv.” Allie leaps off the sofa and hurries over to hug me. “There are so many other things you can do with the money.”

“I love the bookstore, Allie. You love the bookstore. How can you just give up?”

“I’m not giving up. Sometimes things have to end.”

My stomach tightens. “What if you don’t want them to end?”

“Then you try and start again,” Allie says. “Fall seven times, get up eight, right?”

“But you don’t even know what you’re going to do next.”

“I’ll find something.” She squeezes my arm. “You will too. Thank you for the offer, really. It means the world to me that you’d even consider doing such a thing. And you know I’d do anything for you, too.”

She blows me a kiss and heads out the door. I take the tape out of the VCR and toss it onto a table, then go to finish getting ready for the day. I walk to the Historical Museum, battling back the disappointment over Allie’s refusal.

Now what?

I can invest all the money in mutual funds, but even that wouldn’t put me on a path toward actually working for something of my own.

I glance at my watch, quickening my pace when I realize I’m almost late for my shift. As I turn on Emerald Street the door of a coffeehouse opens and a woman steps onto the sidewalk.

I stop. So does she. We stare at each other.

Then rage floods my chest. I tighten my hands into fists to prevent myself from clawing her eyes out.

She ducks her head and turns away.

“Maggie.” My voice is like barbed wire.

She hesitates, then turns to face me again. Even through my anger, I’m struck by how she looks both young and old at the same time—her hair is thick and curly, her skin unlined, but there’s an ancient weariness in her eyes, as if life has already stripped her of youth and innocence.

My fingernails dig into my palms. “Why?”

She averts her gaze. “I’m telling the truth.”

“You’re not. You’re lying. We both know it.”

“Look, Mrs. West, you don’t know what’s been going on.” Maggie lifts her chin, her eyes hardening. “I won’t let your husband get away with ruining my life anymore.”

“So you’re going to try and ruin his by threatening him with a false charge?”

“A
false
charge?” she snaps. “You, of all people, should know it’s not false.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Think about it,” she retorts. “I’m not supposed to talk to you about this.”

“Why not? What am I going to do—run to the Office of Judicial Affairs and tell them you’re lying? My husband has been telling them that since we first heard about this. How do you think screwing up his life is going to help you?”

Her jaw clenches. “By getting me out of King’s University. Either the administration will accelerate my graduation to avoid a scandal, or I’ll sue them for not protecting me from a lecherous professor. Either way, I’ll get out and be done with it all.”

“And you’ll still have your father’s money.”

“You don’t know what my father is like,” Maggie snaps. “But you should have helped me when I asked you to talk to your husband about my thesis. Now it’s too late.”

“It’s not too late for you to do the right thing.”

She shakes her head, her shoulders hunching as she hurries away.

I watch her go, not knowing if I just made things worse.

CHAPTER FOUR

 

 

 

Olivia

 

 

March 17

 

 

ve stopped researching information about sexual harassment cases at universities because they never seem to end well. The professors often end up resigning, and if they don’t, their reputations are tainted by the allegation.

Even if they’re innocent of the charge, their names are splashed all over the Internet, attached to news stories about the case. Some of the professors are not innocent, I know, and their accusers are right to pursue justice, but that sure as hell isn’t the situation with Maggie Hamilton.

“If you see her again, don’t talk to her, Liv,” Dean says, after I’ve told him about my encounter with Maggie. “I don’t want Edward Hamilton giving us a bunch of BS about stalking again.”

I promise him I won’t, but worries hover around me like a cloud in the days following my encounter with Maggie. My inheritance check arrives via courier, and I deposit it one afternoon before my shift at the bookstore.

After leaving the bank, I stop halfway down Poppy Street, across from a sage-green Victorian building with painted white shutters. The windows are shaded by the interior curtains. The wooden Matilda’s Teapot sign, hanging from a post by the fence, has been replaced by a For Lease sign.

I cross the street and approach the house. I’ve passed by several times since the tearoom closed a few weeks ago, but I haven’t paid much attention to it aside from wishing it was still open so I could stop in for a plate of chocolate crepes and a pot of Darjeeling tea.

A vinyl banner with the word
Closed
hangs over the windows. I walk up to the porch and peer into one of the first-floor windows.

“May I help you?”

I turn to see a robust woman in her mid-fifties climbing the front steps. She has a broad, friendly face and brown hair streaked with gray.

“Are you Matilda?” I ask, recognizing her from my visits to the tearoom.

“Matilda was my mother.”

“Oh.” I gesture to the window. “I wasn’t snooping. Well, not much anyway. It’s just that I used to love your place.”

“That’s nice to hear.” She reaches to unhook the banner from the window. “My mother opened the tearoom years ago, and I took over after she retired.”

“The crepes were amazing,” I tell her. “I’m sorry you had to close.”

“Well, my husband died a couple of years ago and it just got to be too much work for one person,” she explains. “I won’t miss all the paperwork and headaches, but I will miss the customers. Could you get that corner? I can’t quite reach it. I’m Marianne, by the way.”

“Olivia. Everyone calls me Liv.” I put my satchel down, pull a narrow bench over to the window, and step onto it to unfasten the banner.

“What’s going to happen to the building?” I ask.

“I don’t know yet. It’s coded for retail and food service, so I’m hoping someone will put it to a similar use.” She glances at me as we lower the banner to the porch. “Why? Are you interested in leasing it?”

The question catches me off guard. “Uh, no.”

“Oh.” Marianne almost seems disappointed.

“I’m not… it’s just that I don’t know anything about owning a—”

I stop and give myself a swift mental kick in the ass. So what if I don’t know anything about owning a business? I can learn.

I don’t know anything about being a mother either, but I’ve started to believe that someday, I could be a good one. I’d certainly give it everything I have.

“Well, I could… I suppose I’d consider it,” I finally say.

Marianne looks up at the second floor of the building. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t recommend reopening the tearoom. Business was going downhill a bit, and we had a reputation for catering to senior citizens, so we weren’t popular with younger people. Would you like to come inside?”

“Okay.”

We finish rolling up the banner. Marianne unlocks the front door and pushes it open. After she flicks on the lights, I can see that the interior is more dingy and worn than I remember. All the tables and chairs are stacked against one side of the room beside a pile of chintz tablecloths. The floral wallpaper is starting to peel, and a thin layer of dust has settled over everything.

I run my hand over the high, curved back of a chair. “Has anyone asked to lease the building?”

“I’ve had a few inquiries, but no applications yet.”

“What kind of place would you like to see here?” I ask.

“I haven’t really thought about it, Liv.” Marianne looks around a bit wistfully. “My mother always just loved the fact that people enjoyed themselves here. She liked making customers happy, serving them good food. She never minded that some of them would stay for several hours, just chatting and drinking tea. In fact, she’d encourage it.”

“Your mother would have gotten along great with my friend Allie,” I remark. “Allie’s the same way. A natural hostess. She owns the Happy Booker bookstore over on Emerald.”

“Oh, yes. I saw there was a going-out-of-business sale.”

A pang of sorrow hits me. “Allie lost the lease on the building. She tried everything to bring in new customers. Children’s parties were her biggest events, but she never had much success despite all her planning and creativity…”

My voice trails off. Something flickers to life in the back of my mind.

“Do you have a business card?” I ask Marianne.

“There’s probably one still back here.” She goes behind the front counter and rummages around underneath the cash register. “I have a crew scheduled to come in next week and clear out the tables and things. Ah, here we are.”

She retrieves a card and writes something on the back. “There’s my cell phone number, if you’d like to discuss anything.”

“Thanks.” I glance around the restaurant again before Marianne and I exchange goodbyes.

I walk to Emerald Street and the bookstore. Allie is busy moving the remaining sale books to the front shelves.

“Hey, Allie, I understand why you need to let the bookstore go,” I tell her, “but would you hear me out about something else?”

“Sure.” Allie straightens and gives me her full attention.

“I was just over looking at Matilda’s Teapot when the owner stopped by,” I explain. “She seemed really nice. We started chatting, and she told me she doesn’t have any plans for the building.”

“That’s a great place, isn’t it? Like a big old dollhouse.”

I try to ignore the nerves tightening my stomach again. “Allie, what if you and I rented the building and started a new business there?”

Allie blinks. “A new business? What kind of business?”

“It’s coded for food service, so I was thinking of a café, but something unique and focused on children and families.”

Allie leans her elbows on the counter. “Mirror Lake does have a ton of families, and there’s a whole new bunch of them every summer during tourist season. A family café wouldn’t lack for patrons. But there are also a million other restaurants and cafés in town.”

“That’s why we’d have to do something different. Something that would appeal to both locals and tourists.”

“Like what?”

“Like a party place,” I say. “Your children’s book parties were always so creative and fun… what if we opened a place where kids could have themed birthday parties?”

“There are lots of kids’ party places in town, not to mention in Rainwood and Forest Grove.”

“Not like this… I don’t think.” Of course, I haven’t done any research, so I go to the computer and do a quick Internet search. “Bouncy houses, sports parties, pizza places, karate parties. They don’t offer the kind of parties that you could. Like that
Alice in Wonderland
birthday you had when you turned ten, with the Red Queen cake and Mad Hatter tea party.”

“I couldn’t even get kids to come to those at the bookstore when I offered them free cake and cookies.”

“What if we combined it with another business, like a café?” I ask. “We both researched opening a café when we were looking into putting one in the bookstore, and I’m sure Marianne would give us advice or even help out. Maybe we could have a café that also offers birthday party packages.”

Allie straightens, a gleam of interest finally appearing in her eyes. “That’s not a bad idea.”

“We could uphold the tradition of Matilda’s Teapot by offering tea, but we could tailor the experience toward children and families,” I say. “Like have whimsical plates and teapots, maybe Red Queen cupcakes and those rainbow cake-pops you had for the
Wizard of Oz
party…”

Allie and I look at each other for a minute. It’s a good idea. We both know it.

“I have the money to invest now, Allie.”


You
do,” she says. “I don’t. I’m maxed out on credit, and another loan isn’t an option. I can’t contribute to start-up costs.”

“But you have a lot more experience than I do,” I point out. “You know about expenses, taxes, insurance, hiring employees, payroll. I don’t know any of that, but I’m a fast learner. If I contribute the money, you’d contribute the know-how.”

“Brent could help us out with the logistics,” Allie muses. “He was assistant manager at the Sugarloaf Hotel for three years, and now he’s a manager at the Wildwood Inn. Plus he has two degrees in hotel and restaurant management.”

The whole venture sounds both daunting and exciting. As Allie and I work for the rest of the afternoon, we exchange ideas about the café.

“I think we should do something like your
Alice in Wonderland
party,” I say. “Put greenery around the front entrance so it’s like a rabbit hole. Then we could have Queen of Hearts tarts and Cheshire Cat porridge… or if we combined it with the
Wizard of Oz,
we could have those sugar cookies you made with
Heart
and
Courage
iced onto them, and the lime-green punch…”

“That building does have two stories,” Allie says. “We could have one theme upstairs and another downstairs. Then have one menu, but with different dishes from each theme.”

“And we could offer birthday parties in one of the upstairs rooms so that they’re separate from the everyday running of the place.”

A palpable excitement flows between us.

“What’ll we call it?” Allie asks.

A name pops into my head without effort, as if it has been there all along.

“The Wonderland Café,” I say.

“I love it!” Allie claps her hands. “We’ll have murals on the walls with scenes from the books, and we can paint the staircase to look like yellow bricks leading up to the
Wizard of Oz
section.”

I can’t help smiling at the way she’s now talking about it as if it’s something we’re actually doing. The funny thing is that I can picture it too, envision how it would all look.

During my call with Dean that night, I take a breath and tell him about my ideas for turning Matilda’s Teapot into a café and birthday party place.

“That’s a great idea, Liv,” he says. “I’ve never even heard of that kind of café, and the location of the tearoom is perfect to catch a family crowd.”

Oh, my husband’s voice. Better than chocolate, hot baths, café mochas, sunshine. Warms me from the inside out and everywhere in between. I curl beneath my quilt, pulling my knees up to my chest.

BOOK: Spiral of Bliss 03 Awaken
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