Read & Write is the third book in the Try Again series. It is an interconnected stand alone, so if you haven’t read Ethan & Juliet or Sparkle & Shine, never fear. You can dive right in to Colleen’s story on October 29th. Here’s your exclusive first look at Chapter One!
Colleen parked in the farthest space from the entrance out of habit. That she needed to walk the extra steps into the grocery store was ingrained. It was only one of the many habits her mother had expected of her since childhood. The rest she imparted as helpful text messages like an unwanted fitness app. Park as far back as you can. Always take the stairs. Take walks on your lunch break. Always leave food on your plate. Drink more water. Eat more vegetables than anything else. Save sugar for special occasions.
Her mother lived by those rules. Colleen did not. That Colleen neither kept a journal where she tracked her food intake, nor cared if her calories burned measured more than her calories consumed had always a point of contention between her and her mother. She’d always told Colleen that it was a woman’s job to be conscious of her figure. A woman’s appearance affected her place in the world. For that reason, her mother had always been quick to pick at Colleen’s eating habits at family barbecues and church picnics. She would criticize the food on Colleen’s plate no matter who was listening while Juliet, Colleen’s naturally thin older sister, was allowed to eat as many pieces of pie as she liked.
Colleen had always been on the round side of thin growing up and had only recently crossed over into being plus-sized. A person could only juggle so much and when she felt like her entire life had been falling apart, a few pounds had seemed the least of her worries.
Now that she was back in Goodland though? It had been the only thing her mother had talked about. In truth, the first few days it had almost been a relief. She could compare step counts and food journals with her mother instead of discussing exactly why her youngest daughter had given up her apartment in Denver and was living in the studio above the garage.
It was only a stalling tactic. Colleen knew that. Because even if being thin was one of her mother’s measuring sticks, it wasn’t one of Colleen’s.
No, what made Colleen feel like as failure as she tripped out of her boat of an old Buick and into the blustery Walmart parking lot was that she’d been asked to resign from her underwhelming day job and just flat out fired from her “just for fun but I really need the extra money ha ha,” barista gig. Which was bullshit. She had not been rude to that guy. She’d called him out on staring at her boobs, which she considered harassment. But when had anybody ever taken the woman’s side in a harassment case? Easier just to fire her and not deal with it.
Luckily, the people at Holy Grounds, the coffee shop where Colleen worked now, thought Colleen moving back home to Kansas from Denver showed good sense. Which was good for, because without the tips she’d made this last week, she wouldn’t be able to afford this trip to the grocery store.
Just like she hadn’t been able to afford much of anything since Derek had moved out last year. Colleen shoved any thoughts of her ex out of her mind. She didn’t have the energy to waste on him right now.
So, here Colleen was, at twenty-six, kind of, almost, not really living with her parents and working as a barista–again. She’d left her umbrella in a half-unpacked box by the door, so she was also getting slowly soaked by the cold, misty October rain. Colleen pulled her denim jacket tighter around her waist and jogged as fast as her heeled booties would let her run.
The lights were too bright, like noon in July compared to the dank bluish gray cold outside. Colleen had to blink as she spun in a circle, gathering her bearings in the massive store. She hadn’t been in a Walmart since she’d come home last Christmas.
Colleen had expected to be stopped by every person she met and interrogated about how her life was and what she was up to and how magical Juliet’s wedding had been, and how were the bride and groom? Any babies on the horizon? How perfect was it that their little hometown midwife had found a baby doctor of her own? They were going to be so happy, and when was Colleen going to settle down?
She’d been through the same conversations six times a day at the coffee shop since she’d been back, but Walmart was different. It was big, sterile, anonymous. She could have been at any Walmart anywhere in the world. She didn’t even recognize the elderly greeter by the door who pointed her in the direction of the shopping cart bay.
As much as Colleen was appalled by the idea of Walmart being the only real grocery store in town anymore, she was thankful to be someplace where she could be alone. She didn’t want anyone to remind her about her perfect sister and her sister’s perfect husband and her sister’s perfect house in the mountains and the baby Juliet was going to have in the spring. Colleen didn’t want to be reminded that no matter what Juliet did, she succeeded and no matter what Colleen did, she failed.
She picked out some new kitchen towels and roamed the aisles for the ground turkey. She paused in front of the vanilla Oreos, her hand almost grasping the yellow package before her mother’s voice rang in her head, citing again how much weight Colleen had put on recently. She forced her back straight and her chin up. She didn’t need her mother’s voice, and she didn’t need the damn cookies either. She might be home with her tail between her legs, but she had a plan damnit, and that started by not spending money on extras.
Saying no felt good. And hey, Katy Perry was playing on the store radio. Colleen bopped along to Katy’s encouragement to be a firework as she turned into the spice aisle. She had brought all the kitchen essentials with her from Denver when she’d moved but had tossed most of her spices. She hadn’t cooked often even though she’d had a gorgeous kitchen with a stainless-steel range and long, granite countertops. She hadn’t had time. She’d spent all her time at work to be able to afford the gorgeous kitchen that she didn’t have time to cook in. Takeout had been so good and so varied in Denver, it hadn’t really mattered.
But in Goodland? The choices were pizza, fried chicken, fast food burgers or the all you can eat buffet. There was the one Chinese place, but Colleen hadn’t eaten there since the summer after her senior year, and she still couldn’t think about that night without her stomach rolling, so cooking it was.
At ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning, Colleen was the only person in the aisle. She was debating whether she should buy the Walmart brand curry spice blend or the name brand kind when she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. Colleen glanced over her shoulder to see a man and his young son. But then she did a double take.
A man bun? She hadn’t seen a man bun yet. It was so common in Denver, she never would have noticed, but in this sleepy Kansas hamlet, this Norse god had her full attention. He was tall with strawberry blonde hair pulled back in an artfully messy bun. He’d complemented that with a sculpted beard just a touch redder than his hair. Broad shoulders and a muscled torso pulled his black t-shirt tight across his chest. The predictable logo printed over his impressive pecs read Wright’s Gym. Of course he wore a gym logo. Nobody got a body like that without considerable time lifting ridiculously heavy things.
Yup, it was like someone had walked into her mind and pulled out all her favorite attributes then molded them into one gorgeous package. Colleen checked that she wasn’t drooling and tried to turn her attention back to her spice purchases. She’d go for the expensive curry blend. If she was going to eat butternut squash, she was at least going to do her best to pretend that it was takeout from her favorite curry shop back home.
The Norse god and his heir stopped in front of the powdered sugar. According to her eavesdropping, they were making a cake for Grandma, which made Colleen’s ovaries jingle to life. She felt herself edging closer despite her resolve to stay away from anything that gave her mother more cause to complain. Father and son were going to make the frosting from scratch and were debating whether they needed one bag of sugar or two. Colleen wanted to swoop in and give them the best cake baking advice they’d ever heard and then be invited over to help them bake said cake and . . . possibly other things once the kid was in bed, but alas, Colleen had never baked a cake. She wished she had, because this man obviously hadn’t touched sugar in years, and he was likely more clueless about baking than she was. She at least could make cookies.
She dumped the rest of the spices she needed into her cart, then made her way down the aisle. She paused just on the god’s left to grab a bottle of the vanilla stevia that had to be beyond reproach. And would you look at that? No wedding ring. She offered the man a small, sweet, but apologetic smile for invading his space. He nodded at her, then stopped, cocked his head to the side as something like recognition lit in his eyes. He finished his nod and turned back to his son as Colleen navigated her cart away.
“Let’s get two bags just in case,” he said, and Colleen booked it into the next aisle. That little kernel of recognition had shaken her, and her heart pounded in her chest. Colleen would have remembered if she’d encountered that level of physical perfection before, wouldn’t she? There was really only one person she could think of. One voice with that particular timbre, one man with hair that color, and that height. With a child that age. But she wouldn’t let herself believe it.
Colleen leaned against a support pole in the coffee aisle, fanning herself as she tried to convince herself who he wasn’t. The most damning evidence was his shirt, because he almost had to be one of the Wrights by stature alone. Colton and Court had gone to school with Colleen and Juliet, and they had been tall and thin as telephone poles back then. The Colton Colleen remembered had been boring and obsessed with Juliet. She had always found Courtney more interesting, cute even–before he’d turned out to be a total bastard. But both brothers had moved away for college and never come back, and Wright’s Gym was one of those big franchises wasn’t it?
No, it couldn’t be that Wright.
Maybe he’d thought she was someone else. She was fifty pounds heavier than she’d been high school and had way better fashion sense now.
Colleen looked down at her skinny jeans and brown suede booties. She’d paired them with a sage green tunic that matched her eyes. Because of the rain, she’d worn her denim jacket with the gray triangular scarf Juliet had given her for Christmas last year. She looked fucking amazing–if she didn’t think too hard about those fifty extra pounds. Colleen knew she’d thought about them a lot less before she’d moved home, and her mother hadn’t stopped reminding her about them on a thrice daily basis.
It was part of the reason that she was here grocery shopping instead of at home putting the finishing touches on her freelance website. Because if Colleen had to share one more meal with her mother as she made passive aggressive comments about the amount and type of food she ate, Colleen might commit matricide. And she liked her mother–sort of. She didn’t really want to kill her, but one more comment about butter or white potatoes, Colleen was likely to lob her butter knife right into her mother’s forehead. She was pretty sure she’d be found not guilty by reason of grave provocation, but still, Colleen didn’t want to be sad unemployed chick who’d killed her mother. Nobody would ever hire her to be their social media manager.
Colleen needed work that wasn’t coffee shop work. Colleen refused to be the aging barista who still lived with her parents. That wasn’t an option. Even the apartment over the carriage house was a temporary arrangement. Colleen had given herself six months to get her freelance business off the ground and then she was hoofing it back to Denver just in time for the snow to melt and enjoy the sunshine through her balcony window.
Colleen grabbed a box of organic green tea and smiled as she pictured herself tapping away at her laptop, sipping the tea and looking out the window to see Pikes Peak in the distance, and then writing the best fucking sentence of her life. Of course, in the fantasy Colleen was writing fiction and not web copy, but she couldn’t be too picky about that. No one was going to pay her to write the romance novels she only touched in the dead of night. Everyone needed a social media manager these days.
Ooo. That was a good niche market to target though. Romance authors would probably rather spend more time writing and less time marketing, she could think of two different promotional packages she could offer off the top of her head, and a good brainstorming session could churn out something for everyone at any price point.
Colleen dug out her phone and started tapping out notes before she forgot. See, she was fantastic at this marketing and promotions shit. She just needed to work for cool people who liked the word, “Fuck.” Turned out the History Colorado, where she’d tried to be conservative and educational for three years hadn’t been much of a fan of the hip, edgy perspective that had got her hired in the first place.
Whatever. She was gonna rock as an indie.
Colleen had just dropped her phone back in her purse when the Norse god and his dark-haired son passed her aisle. The little boy, who had to be seven or eight, pointed down the aisle. “Didn’t gramma say we were out of coffee?”
One huge, rugged hand steered the boy toward the next aisle over. “Not that crap. I’ll stop by Holy Grounds on the way home from work tonight and grab some of the good stuff.”
Colleen’s heart almost stopped. She didn’t hear whether the kid also had an opinion on coffee. She was too busy thinking about how she worked tonight, and how she would be able to convince Thor to meet her in the supply closet for some moka java and a quick grope.
Unless he was who she thought he was, in which case the only option was a swift kick in the shins, and by shins, she meant balls.
And if it wasn’t him, he probably wasn’t interested in her anyway. She looked down at herself again, noticing the tummy pooch and wide hips. Not for the first time, jealousy over her sister’s naturally lithe, lean yoga instructor’s build swept over her. The Norse god probably only went for women like Juliet. Thin. Beautiful. Perfect.
Whatever. Colleen didn’t need him. Didn’t want him. What did she need a god for? She didn’t. Especially not one with a kid. She was so not mother material. That was one thing Colleen would cede to her sister. Juliet could have all the babies. Colleen’s one run in with pregnancy had been more than enough for her. No thank you. Never again.
Sexy Man Bun–who definitely wasn’t Courtney Wright, aka the man who’d broken her heart at eighteen–hadn’t come into Holy Grounds that evening. Not that she had been looking for him or anything. Because she totally hadn’t been. Colleen had been too busy being interrogated by Ms. Wrathbone, the elderly woman who had been her Sunday School teacher up through sixth grade, and who was so desperately curious to know about Colleen’s life in Denver that she stood right beside the register while she stirred extra cocoa into her hot chocolate and smacked her scone.
“Big city wasn’t all it was cracked up to be then, huh?” had been her opening line.
Colleen had shrugged and attempted the same vague answer she’d given to most people who’d asked her about why she was back so far: “Denver was fun, but it was time for a change.” Most Goodland natives had taken that to mean that it was time for her to come home to where she belonged, but Ms. Wrathbone just kept on spitting scone and yammering while Colleen counted out her change.
“Big cities aren’t for soft girls. You have to be sharp to make it out there.”
Colleen did her best to ignore the insult, not sure if she’d just been called fat, or stupid, or both. The old Colleen would have said something smart and cutting, but today, Colleen didn’t have the energy.
Vi, the only other coworker she had that wasn’t eighteen, plunked a latte on the counter next to Colleen. “And what do you know about big cities Ms. W. You’re still living in the house you were born in.”
“My Hal was from the city.”
Colleen frowned, and she felt a little bit of her old self perk up as she remembered that Ms. Wrathbone’s long dead husband had gone to school with her grandfather. Her parents were from a town in west central Kansas that seemed big compared to Goodland, but still only had a population of around 20,000. “Well, I understand Hays was rough back in your day, what with all the gunslingers and the cattle rustlers and the brothels, but there’s plenty of space for savvy curvy girls to make their way outside prostitution these days.”
Ms. Wrathbone’s jaw gaped for a moment, showing the attractive sight of her partially chewed blueberry scone. “Well, I never,” she said, as Vi edged Colleen off the register with a bump of her hip.
Colleen took up her position at the espresso machine, thankful for the save, though Ms. Wrathbone remained undeterred. She stood by the register, talking over the line of customers looking for an afternoon pick-me-up talking about the last girl she knew who came home from the big city. She’d been pregnant and penniless because she’d been living as a kept woman and her sugar daddy had left her for somebody else. She’d actually said, “Sugar daddy.”
“You can’t trust men from the big city. They’re vain and fickle as a feather,” Colleen heard her say over the grinder. And she rolled her eyes at Vi, but her heart panged in her chest. Colleen hadn’t been a kept woman. She’d worked hard to pay her half of the apartment she’d shared with Derek. But he had been fickle, and her being destitute and depressed had been a direct result of him moving out to date a younger, thinner blonde than Colleen. He hadn’t gotten her pregnant though, so at least Colleen had that point in her favor.
She was still working on forgiving herself for trusting him, and it was made even harder by the fact that he’d somehow gotten wind of her moving. He’d been texting her three times a day for the last week.
Eighty percent of Colleen knew that he was only reaching out because Younger and Blonder had dumped him, but the other twenty percent still stupidly missed him and the fun they’d had together. That had been their pattern for years. How many times had Colleen let him back into her bed? She’d called it a convenient arrangement with her best friend because it made her sound less pathetic, but really it had been Colleen taking whatever scraps of affection Derek spared her. Now she knew better.
“I suppose you know that from experience?” Colleen said, just loudly enough for Ms. Wrathbone to hear over the phlegmy sound of steaming milk. Colleen actually hadn’t known anything about Ms. Wrathbone’s personal life, but the way the woman stuck her nose in the air and turned on her heel, leaving her scone wrapper abandoned on the counter suggested that Colleen had struck a little too close to home.
When the cranky old woman had disappeared out the front door, Vi high-fived Colleen. “Score one for us, City Girl.”
Colleen liked Vi a lot, even though she hadn’t expected to make any friends in town. All her high school friends had either moved away or were busy being married and pregnant with their second or third kid. And really, Colleen had been kind of a loaner in high school. She’d worked with her dad, did her best to fit in at youth group, but spent most of her time hiding behind books so nobody noticed how much she didn’t fit in at all.
It hadn’t been until that summer after her senior year that Colleen had really felt seen by anyone. When it had been Courtney Wright how had seen her.
“The girls and I are heading out to Taylor’s tonight around ten. You should join.”
Taylor’s was a country music club in Colby where everyone went line dancing. It had been the place to sneak into in high school, since it was eighteen and over. Colleen had only been once, and it had been awkward and lonely. She’d grown up listening to country music, since that’s what her parents listened to, but she’d been more into Pulp and The Killers. Anything intense and glittery.
And besides, Taylor’s had been a fifteen-dollar cover when she was sixteen. It only had to have gone up since then. If she couldn’t afford a three-dollar package of vanilla Oreos, she definitely couldn’t afford a night out with drinks.
“Maybe in a few weeks,” Colleen said.
Vi gave her a sympathetic look, but only said, “I’ll hold you to that.”
Vi was only a year younger than Colleen but working her way through school part-time. She still hung out with the newly-of-age drinkers. Colleen could drink. She was able to knock back whiskey with the best of them. When she was in a mood, she ordered top shelf bourbon neat and drank the man who had put her in that mood–usually Derek–right under the table.
Just another reason Derek had never been good for her.
“I know you will.” And really, Colleen wouldn’t mind going out, even if it was country music. She preferred writing until the dead of night then collapsing into bed with her head so full of her characters that she dreamed of them, but she wasn’t beyond needing a girl’s night every now and then.
She’d been working so much her last few months in Denver that she hadn’t hung out with any of her friends. And that was the kicker about break ups, all the friends ended up choosing sides, and all hers had chosen Derek.
Since heroes in romance novels were always better than men in real life, Colleen asked. “Did you read that book yet?”
“Holy shit,” Vi said, and Colleen’s face broke out into a devious smile. She loved this part of getting friends hooked on romances. She’d loaned Vi one of her favorite slow burns a couple of days ago.
“You finished it didn’t you?”
“I stayed up until midnight reading, before I got to my psych homework. The textbook wasn’t nearly as exciting.”
“I have the next book, if you’re interested.”
“No. Yes. Well. I need to study for my test on Friday. But after that?”
“Absolutely.” Colleen and Vi high fived. The satisfaction of getting someone hooked on reading carried her through the rest of her shift.
She was mopping the floor after close when a jolt of satisfaction stopped her mid-wring. If she went with her idea of promoting indie romance novels, she’d be doing one of her favorite things: introducing readers to books they loved.
Colleen smiled to herself. She’d finally found her niche.
Can’t wait to read the rest? Read & Wright releases on October 29th, 2019. You can pre-order your copy today from Amazon, Kobo, Nook, or Apple and have it land on your ereader first thing that morning.