By Annie Sereno
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This modern take on Little Women features “Bronte brooding and rom-com banter”—a classic romance with a contemporary twist (Jenny Holiday, USA Today bestselling author).
When it comes to disastrous relationships, English professor Amy Marsden has pretty much seen everything. From Banana Brad (who had a thing for fruit costumes) to her latest disappointment, Derek (undiscovered artist with a penchant for tighty-whities and their perky pizza delivery driver), it’s been an endless adventure of oddballs, jerks, and some terrible lapses in judgment. Which is exactly how Amy has ended up living in a house with the guy she’s been half in love with since she was a kid….
Theo Sinclair has been her sister Jo’s best friend—and a commitment phobe—for as long as Amy can remember. And aside from one hot and heavy make-out session, she’s managed to ignore her feelings for Theo and successfully avoid adding another entry in her What-was-I-thinking list. Yet now that they’re living under the same roof, Amy and Theo are sharing everything from Cheetos and smoothies to their family drama, past trauma, and an attraction that Amy begins to think might not be one-sided. Could Theo really have feelings for her—or is Amy just setting herself up for another disaster?
I'm not afraid of storms, for I'm
learning how to sail my ship.
—Amy March, Little Women
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I'm so sick of people saying that love
is all a woman is fit for.
—Jo March, Little Women
Looking backward and forward and every which way, Amy had to admit that dating Banana Brad had marked a new low in her love life. Still, she wouldn't trade her brief relationship with the guy who wore humongous fruit costumes in public for someone less…memorable. Because now she was ready for anything. Like Derek, her latest boyfriend, greeting her at the door of their apartment dressed in nothing but tighty-whities. And a sliver of pepperoni stuck to his right knee. All right. No biggie. After a long day of faculty meetings and budget reviews, she was up for a few laughs.
"How's it going?" she asked him.
"I've met someone," he said as eagerly as if he'd spent the last eight hours without human contact. Which was usually the case. Seriously, it was like coming home to a lonesome puppy. Yesterday, he had babbled on and on about Manet and his water lily paintings before she'd even pulled the key out of the lock. Monet, not Manet, she'd mumbled under her breath. Monet is the artist who painted water lilies.
"Hope you're hungry," she said. "I've got takeout."
He popped the pepperoni from his knee into his mouth. "You're not listening."
"Sure I am."
Amy breezed by him and dropped the China Castle bag onto the kitchen counter. Spending an hour in the Honda service station, only to be told that her Civic was "a goner," required an immediate infusion of wine. She looked in the refrigerator, its shelves crowded with cartons of restaurant leftovers. "Where's the bottle of merlot?"
Derek leaned against the doorway, arms folded across his bare chest. "We drank it."
"We did?" One glass, flat on her ass, described her tolerance for alcohol. "I don't remember. Though I guess oblivion is the price of inebriation."
"Another famous quote I'm supposed to know, professor?"
"What? No. No biggie. I was just—"
"Nothing's a big deal to you, is it?"
"Let's see," she said, closing the refrigerator. "Unreliable cars. The slow, agonizing death of print journalism. The gunky glue on labels that sticks to things forever."
"Haha. Very funny."
She was going to tell him to keep his shirt on, but he wasn't wearing one. "I'll open the chardonnay. Want some?"
"It's all yours."
His undies were in a bunch about something, but where the heck was the corkscrew? Amy checked under the dirty dishes in the sink and peeked into a box with a half-eaten pepperoni pizza inside. Derek routinely left things in odd places to, as he put it, exercise his creativity. The only items in the recycling bin were a cream-of-mushroom-soup can and the empty bottle of merlot they had presumably drunk. Finally, she found the corkscrew beneath yesterday's pile of mail. A copy of the literary journal The Rustic Review, addressed to Dr. Amy Marsden, was on top of it. She'd been a subscriber ever since they published one of her sister's short stories last year.
She opened the journal and read aloud from the table of contents. "'Escarpment' by Jo Marsden."
Derek grumbled a comment and snapped the waistband of his briefs.
"It's not my fault if you ran out of clothes," she said. "It was your turn to do laundry."
"Don't change the subject."
"There's a subject?"
She rubbed her forehead. The apartment always reeked of varnish and wet rags, giving her a perpetual headache. Like his idol, Jackson Pollock, Derek dripped paint onto huge canvases—but from interesting angles, he had assured her when he showed her his work for the first time. All of them were untitled, a lack of commitment she applauded, if not necessarily the paintings themselves. You either got Pollock—and Derek—or you didn't, she supposed.
"Yeah, there's a subject," he said. "See? I told you you weren't listening."
Wine would have to wait. He obviously needed her un-inebriated attention. If that was an actual word. Though it should be. And why were boyfriends so fricking high-maintenance?
Derek turned on his heel and walked out of the kitchen. Crouching over Untitled No. 9 in the middle of the living room floor, he slowly poured a stream of tomato-red paint in the upper left-hand corner. Lifting heavy cans had done wonders for his muscles. What his labors had done for the art world had yet to be revealed.
Amy grabbed a fork and a carton from the China Castle bag, and followed him to the living room to check out his latest creation. Blue violet was her favorite color, but she had yet to see him use it. She rummaged through her mind for a constructive criticism. "The streak of green on the bottom balances the composition," she offered.
"I've met someone."
The words sounded familiar. Had he said this already?
"How'd you meet anyone? You never leave the apartment."
"She comes here." Derek straightened up and regarded the canvas. "I think I'll call this one Jaycee."
"The first painting you ever title and it's the name of our pizza-delivery girl?"
"You're the chair of an entire history department. You figure it out."
"English department," she said, correcting him. "Figure what out?"
He fixed her with his dark, hooded eyes as she shoved forkfuls of lo mein into her mouth—and spit them right back into the carton.
Jaycee Chambers, whose hair was cut to within an inch of its life, like Derek's. Whose compact, sturdy body in its Marconi's Pizza uniform was a perfect match for his.
Derek threw globs of yellow paint onto the canvas and whistled. In the six months of their relationship, Amy had never heard him whistle. What kind of name was Derek Demerest, anyway? It was what a character in a porn movie would be called. Or a soap opera. Which this day was starting to feel like.
"I should have guessed," she said, closing the flaps of the lo mein carton. "Your stuff has been looking like pizzas lately." Not to mention that they were down to having sex about every two weeks.
"My work is art, not stuff," he said with a sniff.
"How long has it been going on between you two?"
He shrugged. Since he never left the house, she assumed his days bled into one another like the paint on his canvases.
"Do you have sex with her here?" she asked.
As recently as the pepperoni pizza in the box on the kitchen counter. And the empty bottle of merlot.
"On our bed?"
"My bed," Derek reminded her.
His bed in his apartment.
Amy had agreed to move into his place when her apartment building was sold and reconfigured into a mental health clinic. The boyfriend's turf—never a good idea. But she didn't have to sign a lease. She could pick up and leave whenever she wanted. And it was ideal. Affordable, conveniently located near Laurel's shops and restaurants, and a short commute to her job at Southern Illinois College.
"This is the worst time for me to move, Derek. The fall semester begins in two weeks." Her budding headache was in full bloom.
He poured a wide white stripe across the top of the canvas in reply.
"Any chance you can move?" she asked.
"No way. I need these big windows for the light."
So do I, she would have said—if she wanted to hear his spiel about how he was the professional artist and she a mere amateur.
"Finding an apartment in August is impossible." Students would have snatched up everything in Rosewood, the college town, already. And Laurel, for all its recent gentrification, had few rental options. "I'll pay you double for the room where we keep our art supplies. I'll sleep on the futon."
"No can do. Jaycee's lease ends soon, and she'll be moving in."
"Gee. You guys didn't waste any time."
Tears formed in her eyes from the paint fumes. Amy Marsden did not cry over breakups. Ever. On the bright side, Untitled No. 9—Jaycee—looked much better blurry. "You might have told me sooner."
"Yeah. S'pose so."
"Well? Why didn't you?"
Derek looked down at his body as if trying to remember where he'd left his clothes. All over the bedroom floor. Where he'd flung them in horny haste to screw Jaycee before Amy came home. "Sooner. Later. What difference does it make?" he said. "Nothing lasts forever."
Amy opened her mouth but no words came out. Her mind went blank. She was acutely aware, however, that her long, blond curls were spiraling from the August humidity. Her chest was flattened unflatteringly by the Jil Sander suit she had splurged on when she was promoted to chair. Derek squinted at her, probably wondering, as she was, what had brought a painter and a professor together in the first place.
A shrill laugh nearly escaped her. Two people sharing their passion for art! They'd be both muse and mentor to each other!
"The way I see it," he said, "you act like you can take me or leave me. So I took Jaycee."
Right about now, when a relationship was heading due south, Amy would let loose a zinger or two. Witty repartee was her specialty, sharpened by years of growing up with her sister, Jo, and perfected by years of ending relationships. She clutched at her throat with one hand but couldn't pull even a syllable out—or dump the lo mein onto the painting with the other hand.
"Anyway, no biggie," Derek said, swirling an orange J in the middle of the canvas. "And you can have the coffeemaker. Jaycee's got a brand-new one."
I think anxiety is very interesting.
—Amy March, Little Women
Amy lay on the futon in the small spare room dimly lit by a Buzz Lightyear lamp. Derek claimed he'd had it since seventh grade, but it looked pretty fricking new to her. Stained drop cloths, tubes of paint, coffee cans stuffed with brushes, and mannequin heads—his, not hers—filled the bookshelf. The heads were a mystery since he never painted anything resembling a human form.
"I didn't say a thing," she whispered to one of her ferns she'd brought from the living room for company. "Not one stinking word."
The button fern's tendrils seemed to be reaching for her. It always was sensitive to her moods, prone to droopiness whenever she had had a trying day.
The steady rhythm of Derek's snores pulsed through the wall. Having been so magnanimous as to give her the coffeemaker, he was sleeping the sleep of the just. Amy squeezed her eyes shut rather than check the gruesome time on the clock—and opened them again when not one stinking word repeated in her head: 3:13. Screw it. She might as well boot up the laptop and catch up on work.
And stop obsessing over her speechless, zinger-free reaction earlier.
She reviewed the syllabi for her fall semester courses—Canadian Short Fiction, Masters of the Russian Short Story, and Microfiction. Because of her innovative curriculum, her classes typically had waiting lists. But Athena Murphy-Kent, the latest addition to the English Department, was the star teacher of the faculty.
Amy wished that she had Athena's theatrical talent to make fictional characters come alive for her students. And—she had to hand it to him—the chutzpah of her pre-Derek boyfriend, Banana Brad. An aspiring actor, he had decided that dressing as various giant fruits was his brand. In a competitive job market, he needed to stand out from the crowd, he'd explained. In the short time they were together, he'd landed a few gigs at food fairs and supermarkets, a couple of children's plays, and—go figure—a banking executive's retirement party. (But alas, no Fruit of the Loom commercials.) He attracted a loyal, if small, following to his YouTube videos in which he hectored grocery shoppers to pump up their potassium. Even after an irate senior citizen assaulted the stem of his apple, Brad soldiered on.
Originality, ambition, and courage in the face of a swinging handbag—what wasn't to like? Until one night, he writhed on Amy's bed, in full banana mode, moaning, "Peel me, babe. Peel me raw."
"It's time you took the show on the road, Brad."
"Haven't you heard of method acting?"
"Haven't you heard of therapy?"
"You should be. Who rolls around on the floor to get in touch with their inner grape?"
"A seedless grape," he pointed out.
"Whatever. It's weird."
"I have to stay in the zone."
"You have to leave."
One of Amy's favorite breakup exchanges. And she'd come up with quite a few doozies in her dating lifetime, heartily approved of by Jo, who heartily disapproved of the boyfriends. Sassing her way out of wacky relationships had proved effective indeed. So why no clever retort this time? Why stand there like a dumb bunny when Derek said, Nothing lasts forever?
Shutting the laptop, she went to the kitchen for a glass of water. Sauce was oozing from the uneaten food in the China Castle cartons. The pipes creaked as she ran the spigot, and the walls groaned. Rather, the couple in the adjoining apartment, Geraldine and Pete Gallagher, were groaning. And panting and pumping and setting another record for sexagenarian sex. Though married, they lived apart, and he rented the apartment. Pretending they were having an affair had reinvigorated their passion, they told her. Apparently, some relationships did endure, contrary to Derek's opinion.
She drank half a glass of water and poured the rest into the sink. Watching it circle the drain, she heard Derek say Nothing lasts forever again.
Theo Sinclair's exact words to her the day he dropped her from his life.
Theo—Jo's Teddy, her Broody Bear, her best buddy.
Theo—Amy's first crush, her first kiss.
Her secret love.
* * *
Since Derek monopolized the living room most of the day, Amy stayed in her campus office till early evening. They exchanged grunts when they passed each other on the way to their bedrooms or the bathroom. But she refused to eat in a kitchen where a growing stack of empty Marconi's Pizza cartons on the counter advertised Jaycee's presence.
One a day. Like vitamins. She kept count.
"Thorne wondered why you've been eating here all week," Athena said over lunch in As You Like It Café, Laurel's most popular restaurant. With its beamed ceiling, pendant lamps hanging from ropes, and brick walls lined with antique hutches, the café was reminiscent of Tudor England. On winter days, the oak tables around the central stone hearth were coveted spots. "What should I tell my hubster?"
"That I got kicked to the curb." Amy moaned with pleasure as she bit into a panini stuffed with grilled portobello mushrooms and roasted red peppers and eggplant. "And that he makes the best sandwiches in the universe."
"I won't mention the pizza-delivery girl; otherwise, he'll give Derek a hard time. You know Thorne. Café proprietor and knight in shining armor rolled into one." Athena licked mayonnaise off her thumb. "And, I might add, a gorgeous specimen of manhood."
If Amy didn't like Athena so much, she might envy her happiness with her knight, the only person in the world she let call her Thena. "Thorne's all right. In a tall, athletic, wheat-gold-hair kind of way," Amy teased her.
"And don't forget bone structure to die for."
"Your looks are to die for, too."
Tall and voluptuous, with dark curls cascading around her face, Athena was both girlishly cute and womanly sensual.
"We do make a handsome pair if I don't say so myself," Athena said. "No offense, but you and Derek were a classic case of beauty and the beast."
"He might have looked furtive, like he'd stolen your money, but he had sex appeal."
"Was sex the main attraction?"
"Yeah. And my fantasy that we'd inspire each other's art."
They looked at each other for a few seconds and then cracked up. The other café patrons smiled, familiar with Athena's hearty laugh.
"Come to think of it," Athena said, "it's Thorne's fault you were living in Derek's place to begin with. He campaigned really hard for a mental health clinic in Laurel. Your apartment building was reconstructed because there weren't sufficient funds to build a new one."
"An admirable cause worth sacrificing for." Amy reached across the table to clasp Athena's hand. "How do you two manage, living with his half brother?"
"Just fine. We converted the greenhouse in the backyard into a cottage so Robin has privacy. And so do we."
"Is he responding well to the new schizophrenia medication?"
As Amy polished off the panini, Athena watched, wide-eyed. She pointed to a table where stout guys in overalls and John Deere caps were devouring enormous cinnamon buns. "Your appetite gives the bachelor farmers a run for their money."
"They are so adorable. All shy and awkward like teenage boys."
"Rock their world and date one of them."
"No way. I'm going dateless for the foreseeable future. And the unforeseeable."
"Word around town is they're good marriage material," Athena said with a playful wink.
"Farmer's wife." Amy stared at the ceiling, trying the notion on for size. "Nah. Don't see that happening."
"Ever wish you were back in Chicago?"
"Only when I can't get takeout in the middle of the night. Or have to drive all the way to St. Louis to visit the art museum."
"How long did you live there?"
"From BA to PhD at the University of Chicago."
Twelve years of benefitting from all the social, educational, and cultural riches the city offered. Four more years of enjoying a rewarding academic position and a healthy bank account. Advantages Jo had not had the benefit of. Thanks to Amy. She had every intention of making it up to her sister. She just hadn't figured out how yet.
Slightly nauseous, Amy pushed her plate away. "I'm really in a jam, Athena. Classes start soon. If I don't get an apartment, like, yesterday, I'll be sleeping in my office and showering at the gym."
"I told you, come live with us. We've got extra rooms. You can use one as an art studio."
"Tempting, but strictly speaking, I'm your boss. The other professors already think I give you preferential treatment as my friend. If I moved in with you…"
Athena grinned. "I am the chair's pet. But I have an idea. Remember I told you my mother is a real estate agent? If Lydia can't find you a place, nobody can."
Amy read the business card that Athena handed to her. "Your mother's last name is Moretti?"
"She and her partner, Ricki, traded names when they got married. And here Thorne and I thought we were cutting-edge when we hyphenated ours."
The Gallaghers, the Murphy-Kents, the Moretti-Murphys—everywhere Amy looked, couples found solutions. Even Derek and Jaycee had solved the problem of a surplus coffeemaker.
Amy Marsden and Theo Sinclair were never a couple. Solving their problem should have been possible. But when a friendship is tested to the limit…
Nothing lasts forever.
Except gunky glue on labels.
Amy gathered her satchel and bike helmet. With the Civic officially dead and on its way to the boneyard—where her last two cars had gone to meet their Maker—she'd decided to try cycling as a means of transportation.
"Wanna ride on my handlebars and pretend you're ten years old again?" she asked Athena. Her adult tricycle was squat with thick tires and a basket in back to hold her belongings and groceries. Safe. Practical. Something a ten-year-old wouldn't be caught dead on.
"Sounds like fun, but I'll take a rain check. I need a refill."
"Of iced tea?"
Athena waved to Thorne, pouring coffee for a table of middle-aged couples across the room. "Of my handsome hunk of a husband."
I am lonely sometimes, but I dare say
it's good for me.
—Jo March, Little Women
Thanks to Lydia's no-nonsense professionalism, Amy saw every available rental in Laurel and Rosewood. But the apartments were either unfurnished, too shabby, or located on a noisy street. The few houses she considered were newly renovated and worth investing in furniture for, but she had neither the time nor inclination to maintain an entire property.
The search was exhaustive, exhausting, and futile. With one day left before Jaycee was to move in, and with Amy's stress peaking, Lydia texted her.
New Laurel listing. Immediate occupancy. Second floor of house, no upkeep required. Interested?
Can you meet me there now?
I'm on my way, Amy replied, adding the address Lydia had texted to her contact info.
"I should have asked if you were allergic to cats," Lydia said when they met on the porch of the Craftsman-style house.
Thankfully, Amy wasn't, because a half dozen cats had colonized the first floor where the owner lived. They draped their languorous bodies over the backs of the sofa and armchairs, huddled beneath end tables, and posed proudly on the rippled hill of toilet paper below the empty roll in the powder room.
"A pet sitter is taking care of them while the owner is traveling," Lydia said. "And there's a dog being boarded, I believe. Do you mind living with so many animals?"
"Not at all. And this is too nice to pass up."
The entire second floor would be Amy's, but she had to share the kitchen, a minor inconvenience since she rarely cooked. The house was located a comfortable biking distance from town and the college, making any inconvenience worth it.
"I may be able to negotiate a month-to-month rental," Lydia said.
"Thanks, but I prefer the security of a year's lease."
"Let's get the papers signed, then," Lydia said, handing her keys to the private entrance accessed by stairs at the back of the house.
As soon as Amy returned to Derek's apartment, she arranged for a U-Haul van rental and started packing her belongings. She carefully placed her collection of ferns in the plastic crates she'd moved them in with.
"The fuzzy one isn't looking too good," Derek said from the doorway of the spare room. The first words he'd spoken to her in days. The first time he'd commented on her plants, ever. "I kinda like it, though."
"Sure. I'll make it the subject of my next painting."
The ailing squirrel's foot fern seemed to shrink in its pot. And since when did his paintings have subjects?
"Hey, you know what?" he said. "Jaycee's moving in tomorrow. Once she unloads her things from the pizza-delivery van, you can fill it with yours. Save you bucks on the U-Haul."
Like relays. Girlfriend out, girlfriend in.
- “Sereno handles her characters’ transition from friends to lovers with grace and includes just enough echoes of Alcott’s original to enchant Little Women aficionados while keeping them guessing.”—Publishers Weekly
- "A slightly hotter take on a warmly regarded classic."—Kirkus
“Annie Sereno is a phenomenal writer who has earned a standing spot on my must-read list!”—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—and dying for one of Thorne’s delicious creations."—Publishers Weekly on Blame It on the Brontës
- "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 Blame It on the Brontës
“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, on Blame it on the Brontës
- “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, on Blame it on the Brontës
- On Sale
- May 30, 2023
- Page Count
- 384 pages