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Blame It on the Brontes
By Annie Sereno
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She’s going to write her own happy ending.
English professor Athena Murphy is an authority on the novels of the Brontë sisters. But as they say in academia, publish or perish. To save her job, Athena decides to write a biography of C.L. Garland, the author heating up bestseller lists with spicy retellings of classic literature. Tracking down the reclusive writer and uncovering her secret identity, though, means Athena must return to her small midwestern hometown where Garland—and her ex-boyfriend, Thorne Kent—live.
Seeing Thorne again reminds Athena that real life never lives up to fiction. He was the Heathcliff to her Catherine, the Mr. Rochester to her Jane. Not only did their college breakup shatter that illusion, but they also broke each other’s hearts again a second time. Now she has to see him nearly every…single…day.
The only solution is to find C.L. Garland as quickly as possible, write the book, and get the heck out of town. As her deadline looms and the list of potential C.L. Garlands dwindles, Athena and Thorne bicker and banter their way back to friendship. Could it really be true that the third time’s a charm?
Athena and Thorne have a love story only a Brontë could write, and the chance for their own happily-ever-after, but first, they’ll need to forgive the mistakes of the past.
I have not broken your heart—you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine.
—EMILY BRONTË, WUTHERING HEIGHTS
The day Athena Murphy traipsed through Farmer Swenson’s pasture pretending she was Emily Brontë, wild child of the moors, and stepped into a steaming pile of cow flop, she should have known. She should have realized at the tender age of fifteen, before it was too late, that literature would betray her. That imagination was best confined to books. That following your dreams was a load of hooey.
Athena had followed her dreams all right, straight to a Harvard PhD in English and a plum position as assistant professor at Wyatt College in San Francisco. And now here she was, scraping cow crap off her shoes again—metaphorically speaking.
“Metaphor schmetaphor,” she muttered, squeezing her cherry-red Mini Cooper between two muddy trucks parked outside a store called Spin Cycle. A bike shop in Laurel, Illinois. Who’da thunk. She barely recognized her hometown anymore—strip malls and boutique shops with clever names where farms used to be, a health-food store selling vitamins in all letters of the alphabet, joggers and bicyclists competing for space on the roads. Kind of like California—without the stunning landscapes and agreeable weather.
She got out of the car, and the disagreeable humidity Saran Wrapped her in an instant. With a stomp of her ankle boots, she freed her legs of their Mini-Cooper cramp and the curves of her body from a clingy rayon dress. Another thing she should have known. Traipsing through meadows was best left to wan, wispy maidens with consumption, not a Brontë wannabe who wore a size 34C bra in ninth grade and grew childbearing hips by the tenth. A figure she wouldn’t trade for all the freak-of-nature model bodies in magazines—even if it hadn’t fulfilled its potential yet, fertility-wise.
“If ever,” Athena sighed, squinting at the clouds shaped like chubby babies.
Thankfully, the streets were deserted as she walked the four blocks to Ricki’s Café. She’d been home a week, but she wasn’t ready to engage in a What are you doing here? and How long are you staying? conversation with anyone.
I’m on sabbatical to research a damn book.
I’m staying until I’ve written the damn thing.
As for why… Having grown up in a farming community, Athena was accustomed to regarding death as part of the natural order of things. But professional death in the academic community was a different story. “Publish or perish” was the order of things. And they weren’t kidding.
She pulled open the door to Ricki’s Café and entered a room filled with copy machines and computers. “What the… Excuse me, miss,” she said to the young woman behind the counter, “I’m looking for Ricki.”
“He’s delivering flyers. Can I help you?”
“No. I mean Ricki Moretti. The owner of the café.” She and Athena’s mother, Lydia, had been best friends since junior high.
“Oh, that Ricki. Sorry, the café isn’t here anymore. This is DittoDocs.”
“But I’m supposed to work… she…” Ricki had said, “Come on board!” when she inquired about a job in April. If circumstances had changed, Ricki would have told her. “Do you have any idea where she is?”
“I sure don’t.”
A typical Midwestern turn of phrase—starting out so cheerful, not wanting to let you down, but then letting you down anyway.
“There’s a card in the window with the café’s new number. You can try calling,” the young woman suggested.
“Thanks. I sure will.”
Back outside, Athena punched the number into her phone. Ricki wouldn’t necessarily have informed anyone if she had closed or moved. Once, after a lover had left her, she decamped to the Galápagos Islands, leaving the café open. Her regular customers made themselves sandwiches, brewed their own coffee, and dropped money into the Wonder Woman cookie jar. They didn’t realize she was gone until the food ran out.
Athena was about to hang up after a half dozen rings when a male voice answered.
“As you like it,” he said.
“As I like what?”
“As You Like It Café.”
“What happened to Ricki’s Café?”
“Sold, relocated, renamed.”
“Since this summer.”
That voice. So calm. So deep. So… Thorne.
Impossible. Thorne lived in Seattle. Eight hundred eight miles from San Francisco by car. Six hundred eighty by plane.
A fly danced on the window behind her, buzzing its stupid tiny brain out.
“Who is this?” she demanded. “How do you know it’s me?”
“Who else would you be?”
That question. So logical. So pithy. So…
She inhaled deeply, counting to ten.
Made it to four.
“It took you long enough to recognize my voice.”
Five. Six. Seven.
“I was expecting Ricki to answer.”
“She’s not here. How can I help you?”
“I’m looking for her café.”
“You’ve reached the right place.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You don’t have to get it.”
“Where exactly are you, Thorne?”
“Where exactly are you?”
“DittoDocs.” And in the state of confusion.
“The address is on the card in the window,” he said. “Use your phone’s GPS. You’ll find me.”
He hung up before Athena could say she wasn’t looking for him. Necessarily. Before she could ask what on earth he was doing in Laurel, Illinois.
As You, she typed into the phone.
… pissed me off, she thought.
… let me down.
Broke my heart.
Thanks to San Francisco’s gravity-defying streets, Athena’s legs were as fit as when she played intramural soccer in college. Driving the half mile to As You Like It Café was not an option. The temptation to burn rubber clear out of southern Illinois would be too hard to resist. Besides, walking didn’t hurt a bit—August swelter and tight dress be damned.
But meeting Thorne Kent, the last person she ever expected to see again, much less in her hometown, hurt like a bitch.
She kept to the thin band of shade beneath the stores’ awnings and slowed her pace. Forced herself to look the past dead-straight in the eye. Made herself remember.
From the hour they met in their freshman Literary Explorations class at Washington University in St. Louis, Athena and Thorne were certain they had found their soul mate. The person who embodied all their fantasies of the One True Love. She was Juliet, Beatrice, Portia, and any other Shakespearean heroine he wished as he festooned her head with garlands and wrote sonnets praising her mahogany tresses and bee-stung lips.
And though he wasn’t darkly handsome, brutal, or particularly brooding, Thorne was Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, the passionate lover she had been running to in the moors (or farmers’ pastures), the Brontë hero who had proclaimed, “I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” when his lover Catherine was lost to him.
Except Thorne wasn’t Heathcliff. And he did—live, that is.
They planned to pursue PhDs in English at Harvard, reside in an ivy-covered cottage on a college campus with their three ethereally brilliant children and a golden retriever or two, and enlighten generations of students on the power of literature to illuminate their lives.
Except he didn’t.
Her One True Love went off to law school in Seattle instead, keeping the Kent family tradition alive, if not their relationship. If the enormous geographic chasm wasn’t enough to doom them, her hurt and disappointment at his betrayal of their dreams assuredly did.
Athena kicked a crushed Pepsi can halfway up the sidewalk before pitching it into a garbage can. She’d had ten years to admit Thorne had a right to resent her, too, for their breakup. A whole decade of her fricking life to wonder if she had made the right decision choosing her career over them. Refusing to compromise. But what he’d done the last time they met, the things he’d said…
She stopped at an intersection and wiped the sweat trickling down her cheek. As You Like It Café was one short block away. “You’ve got this, girl. You own it.”
She owned it big time. There was no question, not a shred of doubt, she had full resentment rights this time around. None whatsoever.
Ricki’s Café had always been a popular Laurel hangout, despite décor as austere as Ricki’s tight hair bun and fierce cheekbones—medical clinic meets cafeteria. But As You Like It Café was Tudor pub meets cozy bistro, without the tackiness of most theme-styled restaurants. A dozen oak tables of various sizes were arranged around a central stone hearth and near the front bay window. Antique hutches filled with rustic crockery lined the brick walls. Pendant lamps hanging from ropes illuminated the beamed ceiling.
At ten-thirty, the empty café was in the lull between breakfast and lunch. Athena followed the aroma of baking bread to the kitchen, suddenly itchy all over, including her nose with its constellation of freckles Thorne named one night while they stargazed. A name she couldn’t remember for the life of her because there he was, on the other side of the swinging door. Thorne Ainsworth Kent. The only person in the world to whom she was Thena.
He bent over a stainless steel counter, kneading dough. His build, broad shoulders tapering to slim hips, was as athletic as when he was on the varsity swim team. His long, big-knuckled fingers patted and prodded the dough. Squeezed it. Caressed it.
She swallowed a sigh, but it came out like a strangled cry. Thorne looked up and shook thick, wavy hair from his forehead. Its wheat-gold color was as lustrous as ever.
“It’s been a long time, Thena,” he said, wiping his hands on the towel tucked into his belt.
“Yeah. Long time. What are you doing here?”
“I’m fine. Thanks for asking.”
“What’s next? I comment on the weather?”
“If you like.”
Severe storm warning. Seek shelter immediately.
“I’d like to cut the chitchat,” she said, walking toward him. Away from shelter. “Why aren’t you in Seattle?”
“I moved back to St. Louis about three years ago. I’ve been baking for cafés and restaurants in the area ever since.”
From rolling in the dough at a prestigious law firm to rolling actual dough were the only dots Athena could connect as she stood drenched in flop sweat, questions buzzing around her head like the fly dancing on the window of DittoDocs.
Why hadn’t her family warned her he’d returned to the Midwest?
Why had he returned?
Baking for a living? Seriously?
“The closer I got to thirty, the more I craved creativity in my life,” he said, shaping the dough into a mound. “I quit my job and made it happen.”
She used to love, love, love when Thorne read her mind—before he gave her reasons to hate, hate, hate it. She surveyed the spotless kitchen, as orderly and professional as a cooking show set. They used to binge-watch food programs, marathons that ended with him concocting delectable recipes to please his lady fair. And his lady was always pleased. Before he gave her reasons not to be.
“So, how’ve you been, Thena?”
Keep calm and carry on was Thorne Kent’s personal motto.
Keep calm and lie through your teeth worked perfectly fine for Athena Murphy.
“What brings you to Laurel?” he asked.
“I’m on professional leave for a semester to research and write a book, with a bit of waitressing on the side.” Just another chapter in my busy, full life. She whisked her phone from her handbag. “I have to talk to the new owner of the café. What’s their number?”
“You’re looking at him.”
Keep calm, she reminded herself as she absorbed this latest surprise. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope.” He covered the mound with a cloth as if it were immodestly naked. “I ran into Ricki at one of the restaurants I baked for. When she told me she was selling her café, I offered to buy the equipment and supplies on the spot.”
Naturally, he did. Kent family money had been leaking from his ears since birth. Thorne making an impulsive decision, though, was a new twist. Guess he had craved more spontaneity in his life too.
“If I remember correctly, this used to be Schmidt’s Bakery,” she said.
“It was. Gunther retired and sold me this part of the building for a reasonable price. Left me his recipes too. What do you think of the renovations?”
“If you’re going for Henry VIII in the heartland, you’ve pulled it off.” She checked her phone as if she were expecting an important call any minute. “Where is Ricki anyway? Did she get another café? She promised me a job.”
Thorne shook his head. “She’s in Uruguay. No, wait. Paraguay.”
“Another bad romance?”
His expression conveyed both humor and sympathy. “She was still crying when we signed the papers.”
Passion and heartache at fifty-four. Maybe Catherine, exhausted by Heathcliff and all that moor-wandering, was relieved to give up the ghost in her twenties.
Thorne took another mound of dough from the refrigerator and lightly punched it in the center. “Why do you need a job? I thought professors were paid while they were on sabbatical.”
“Want, not need.” Athena rubbed her suddenly constricted throat. “I’d go stir-crazy writing all day. And a little extra money comes in handy.”
“For what? Earrings?”
Her one indulgence, besides the teetering stacks of books along the walls of her apartment. He used to tease her mercilessly about it—and then buy her another pair.
“You kept them,” he remarked, pointing to her coral rosebud earrings, a Valentine’s Day gift from him.
Shit on a stick. She’d forgotten to take them off on the walk over. “They match a lot of my outfits.”
The faintest of smiles slid across his lips. “How practical of you,” he said.
How sentimental of you, his eyes said.
After she beaned him with a bowl, or better yet, a small skillet, she’d march right out of there, walk the half mile back to the absurd little car she had bought because it was both ecologically responsible and, yes, practical, and put pedal to the metal until she reached San Francisco, never to return to the Midwest, home of gooey butter cakes and gooey broken hearts, ever again.
Except she couldn’t.
An assistant professor had two choices—publish or forfeit tenure. And since Athena hadn’t written anything but an article or two since her dissertation, “The Enduring Legacy of Catherine and Heathcliff’s Enduring Love”—subtitle forgotten—she was up the proverbial creek without the proverbial paddle.
Thorne leaned toward her as he flattened the dough with the rolling pin. “What’s the subject of your research, if I may ask?”
“You may. It’s the LitWit series.” On best seller lists for two years running, the series of erotic novellas deliciously described imagined sex lives of literary couples. “Have you heard of it?”
“I’ve seen it in bookstores. Clever marketing to include four novellas in one volume.”
“I’m going to uncover the identity of the series’ mysterious author, C. L. Garland,” she said in her serious professorial voice. “Last year, someone in her inner circle spilled the beans and revealed she grew up in Laurel, of all places, and still lives here. Isn’t that a piece of luck?”
“Unless you’re C. L. Garland.”
“I can’t believe no one’s tracked her down yet,” she said, pointedly ignoring his snarky comment. “Speculation about her identity is at such a high pitch, there’s a good chance my book will be a best seller.”
Whenever Garland published a new volume of novellas, journalists released a flurry of articles full of conjecture, miscellaneous factoids, and guesstimates of the author’s net worth. People magazine had once published an issue with a female silhouette, overlaid with WHO IS C. L. GARLAND??? on its cover.
“Best seller. Hmm. I see,” Thorne said, nodding thoughtfully.
His thought being, she was sure, that she was selling out, reducing her lofty literary ambitions to a crass commercial enterprise. As if his decision to be a lawyer wasn’t a total sellout.
“I’ll also explore the novellas’ subtexts, metatexts, and themes of sexual repression as they relate to the role of women in a patriarchal society.” She’d come up with a memorable subtitle this time.
He formed the dough into a neat rectangle. “A pretty tall order, Thena, considering the series is absolute schlock.”
“Which novellas have you read?”
“None. Don’t have to. Literature is literature, a potboiler is a potboiler, and never the twain shall meet.”
He once stormed off the stage during a rehearsal of the university’s production of Macbeth when the director suggested they “tweak the fussy language” to help the audience understand the play better.
“Tweak my fussy ass,” he’d said, throwing his papier-mâché crown into the Three Witches’ cauldron. Athena had never admired her hero so much as when he sacrificed the lead role for Shakespeare’s sake.
Thorne rolled up the dough like a rug. “You have quite a task ahead of you. Are you sure you’ll have time to waitress?”
“A four-hour shift three afternoons a week? Easy-peasy.”
Part-time, mindless work was the perfect antidote to her career-itis. And a café in a small town where gossip was the main amusement was the ideal place to snoop. To wait for more beans about Garland to spill. Or as her department chair, Dr. Oliver Davenport, had advised, “Get the skinny.”
Unless Thorne-itis interfered.
She pulled her cinch belt tighter. “Look, if you don’t want me to work here, just say so.”
“I wasn’t implying—”
“Because, believe you me, this isn’t the situation I expected when I made plans with Ricki.” Not in her wildest dreams. Or nightmares.
“I have no intention of disturbing your plans, Thena.”
Big of you, Thorne. Since you already disturbed them years ago.
“In fact, one of my waitresses had to go back to college,” he said, “so your timing is great.”
Great timing. She bit her lower lip to keep from laughing out loud.
“Besides, we’ll rarely see each other,” he said. “Unless it gets busy the days you’re in, I’ll be out of here by noon, free for the rest of the day.”
“Free for what? Ambulance chasing?” Athena asked, biting every word.
A spark of anger glinted in his spring-green eyes. “Intellectual property law is my specialty.”
“Was,” she said, pointing to a tray of croissants, the most impeccably formed, enticing croissants she’d ever seen.
“Well,” Thorne said, “are you reconsidering?”
A loaded question if she ever heard one.
“Why would I?”
“A café is a much different workplace than a lecture hall.”
“And a legal office. What’s your point?”
He shrugged. “You’ll be out of your comfort zone.”
“I waitressed for Ricki during college breaks, remember?” she said—rather than scream, Comfort zone? What fricking comfort zone? Or a personal favorite, Take this job and shove it.
But the only other local establishment where she could ferret out information on Garland was Benny’s Bar. Unfortunately, the combination of her curves and guys three sheets to the wind had never been a compatible one. When the news broke that the writer hailed from Laurel, she heard that a few journalists had come nosing around the bar. The double whammy of small-town boredom and Benny’s killer Hurricane cocktails sent them hungover and empty-handed back to where they came from.
“I’m not reconsidering.” Athena crossed her arms over her chest. “Let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we?”
“Schedule. Does noon to four, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday work for you?”
“Dress code. Do I have to dress like a sixteenth-century wench in keeping with your Tudor theme?”
His face lit with a smile, tightening the pale skin over his chiseled jaw and cheekbones. She shivered as his eyes slowly traveled the length of her body, from curls to curled toes. “Your own wardrobe will do. But you’ll need more practical shoes.”
“Noted. This is a long shot, but do you have a clue who C. L. Garland is?” Thorne wouldn’t come right out and tell her. He’d want her to ask.
“No idea. I’ve only been living in Laurel since May.” He dipped his hand into a bowl and let flour sift through his long fingers onto the counter. “I’ve got to get back to work before the lunch crowd shows up. Anything else we need to discuss?”
Another loaded question. That one weighed a ton.
“When do I start?”
“Monday at noon. But come around ten on Saturday. Kristie Prescott, the other waitress, will train you. The menu is simple and features a sandwich special every day.”
“Saturday it is. Ten o’clock sharp.”
“She’s off until then, but I’ll tell her to expect you when she arrives that morning.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Interview over, short if not so sweet. Phone back in handbag. Handbag snapped shut and slung over shoulder. Clingy dress smoothed over womanly curves.
Thorne opened the refrigerator, and with his back to her, he was apparently struck by the wonder of modern refrigeration—as she was struck by the miracle she was still standing.
“Bye,” she said.
“Bye,” he said without turning around.
Athena walked the half mile back to her car in a daze. Safe in the air-conditioned enclosure of the Mini Cooper, her body cooled, her toes unclenched, and her heart ceased its reckless pounding. She checked her face in the rearview mirror to make sure she was still there, calculating how far Laurel was from Paraguay. Or Uruguay. Remembering, as if it were yesterday, Thorne naming the constellation of freckles on her nose:
“Stellathena. Because you shine so brightly.”
All in all, it could have gone a lot worse than a baking error. Thorne carefully unrolled the sticky bun dough and spread the forgotten brown sugar and cinnamon filling across it. Ever since Ricki had left him a voicemail last week saying, “Sorry for not calling sooner but I’m a total wreck,” and “Oh, by the way, I promised your old flame a job at the café”—ever since then, he’d been waiting for Athena.
Now she’d come and gone, and he was still waiting. But he wasn’t sure for what. He’d had the advantage of surprise. He’d kept his cool. They’d established their terms. And yet…
After rolling the dough up again, Thorne sliced it into twelve buns, his mouth watering. Tasty, wholesome, satisfying—like a certain saucy damsel whose chocolate-brown eyes would satisfy any man’s sweet tooth.
Or a particular man. Whoever he was.
Athena wasn’t wearing a ring, diamond or otherwise, so there probably wasn’t a fiancé or husband in the picture. Just the same nameless, faceless lover he’d imagined all these years. And hated. And wished for, for her sake. And hated again.
“Dammit, Thena,” he growled, picturing the sway of her body in the silken dress as she had walked toward him. It hadn’t seemed likely their paths would cross when he returned to St. Louis. Since he moved to Laurel though, he had expected to run into her sooner or later when she visited her family. But a semester-long visit? Working in his café? Good thing Ricki had given him a heads-up. A few years of playacting experience helped too.
“A delightful third-chance romance with Bronte brooding and rom-com banter. You’ll be rooting for Thena and Thorne!”
—Jenny Holiday, USA Today bestselling author
- "In Sereno's charming, contemporary romance debut, the love of literature takes center stage… [English professor Athena Murphy] runs into her former lover, Thorne Kent, who owns the town's main hangout, the As You Like It Café, where our frenemy protagonists trade Amy Sherman-Palladino-like barbs to the delight of the gossip-loving patrons. Sereno is a gifted writer and readers will watch for her next book."—Booklist
- “A swoon-worthy hero in a story that’s everything a rom com should be—smart, sexy, funny, and charming to boot!”—Carolyn Brown, New York Times bestselling author
- "Delivers plenty of tongue-in-cheek literary witticism and small-town heart... The novel’s heart lies in its quirky, memorable characters. Readers will find themselves laughing through the familiar tropes."—Publishers Weekly
- "Sereno’s novel is witty and entertaining, and fans of the Brontë sisters will undoubtedly appreciate the fun she has nodding to their books."—Kirkus
- On Sale
- May 3, 2022
- Page Count
- 384 pages