Read an Excerpt
"For a girl who isn't about to get laid, you're spending an awful lot of time obsessing over your underwear choices."
"These are important decisions," Larissa Zahn insisted as she sifted through the multitude of fabrics and patterns in the satin-lined box. "My entire future could be riding on
"On the choice between lace and satin?" Chloe Carpenter, Larissa's oldest friend and current roommate asked with a laugh. "C'mon, 'Risa. Put your panties away and let's go see a movie."
"I don't have time for a movie tonight. I need to make sure I have the perfect selection of merchandise for the test display tomorrow. I want to show Cartright's team that my concept for Isn't It Romantic will fit perfectly in their hotel's mall." Larissa waved a hand at the myriad of merchandise strewn all over the living room.
Boxes of romance, she'd been calling them over the last eight months as she collected possible items to stock when she opened her store. She stared, wild-eyed, at the mess. At the moment, it seemed a little more like an obsession gone overboard.
"Haven't you picked out your perfect selection already?"
Chloe lifted a red binder over her head and waved it around, tabbed pages of lists, photos and sketches fluttering like little tattletale flags. "Like, four times at least?"
Looking at the notebook, Larissa gave Chloe a weak smile. She knew her friend was right. Once upon a time, her dream had been easy. Since she was a teenager, she'd dreamed of buying the cozy independent bookstore she worked in, of getting married to her true love and starting a family. But two years ago, that dream had fallen apart. So she'd rebuilt her dream. This one depended on her and nobody else.
She'd started by asking herself what she believed in enough to devote her business, her time and all of her attention to. The answer? Romance.
Despite a heart-bruising breakup, Larissa still believed in romance. But romance with rules. The kind that kept a girl from getting so caught up in the fluff she got hurt by the reality. So just for funand, yes, as a way to clarify her own set of romance rulesLarissa had started a blog two years ago. Quickly gaining in popularity, it had swiftly grown into a monthly newsletter which had also become a huge hit. At first it had been about all of the wonderful romance novels she loved, pointing out the strength of the heroines. But over the last year it'd expanded to include songs and movies, romantic getaways and recipes for breakfast in bed. All things romantic. Six months ago, her fun little column, Larissa's Rules of Romance, had been picked up as a monthly feature in a nationally syndicated magazine. Now, in addition to her column, she also answered romance questions and offered tidbits of advice to the entire country.
It'd been the perfect foundation to use to open a store. All things romantic, based on her rules, advice and observations. She'd carry books, movies and music, of course. But she'd have more. Everything a woman could want to bring more romance into her life. The only thing Larissa needed was a location.
Only now that the most amazing location was right there, a fingertip away, she wasn't sure she was ready for her pitch. She knew the display she set up was crucial to selling her idea, so it had to be perfect. But did she go old-fashioned romance or modern-day romance? Did she focus on her favoritesbooks, movies and musicor should she make the gifts and romantic mementos the centerpiece of her presentation?
"You look like your head is about to explode," Chloe pointed out with a worried look. "Maybe you're right. We should stay in tonight."
Larissa shrugged that off. She knew she looked like hell. Her shoulder-length curls were knotted in a bandanna, black corkscrews spraying out the top of her head. Since it was her day off from her job as manager, clerk and stockwoman at the bookstore, she hadn't bothered with makeup and her small frame swam in baggy red shorts and a ratty purple tank top featuring a smart-ass bunny cartoon.
"I just want to make sure I bring the most up-to-date selections," she defended. "What do you think? Which one screams buy me louder? Bridal white or sweetheart pink?"
Larissa held up two separate gift bags, one flocked with roses and edged in white feathers, the other covered in foil hearts and sporting a lacy handle.
"Do you think guys care about the color of a girl's panties? All they're concerned with is how hot the contents are."
"Not my future customers," Larissa dismissed. She gave a disdainful little sniff. Then she ruined it by grinning when Chloe rolled her eyes.
"You're going to have to work on that snooty attitude if you want to make it uptown," Chloe chided. "Cartright Hotels are known for bringing in the hoitiest of the toity and the richest of the bitches."
Chloe was right. Cartright Hotels were known worldwide for their themed resorts. They had a golf hotel, with its world-class eighteen-hole green in Palm Springs. They had a spa hotel in St. Tropez and a hunting lodge-styled resort in the Adirondacks. And now they were opening a romantic getaway here in South Carolina.
A romance hotel, right here in Larissa's backyard. It was totally meant to be.
"Are you sure this is what you want?" Chloe asked, not for the first time. For a woman who specialized in leaping with her eyes closed, Chloe was sure picky about doing height checks on Larissa's jumps.
"Romantic getaway, Chloe," Larissa cried out, waving the baby blue silk panties in her hand to punctuate the exclamation. "This location is totally made for me. It's my dream. I've put in the time. Eight years working in Mr. Murphy's bookstore. Four years perfecting my brand as a romance specialist and two more building the Romance Rules network."
Sure, she could settle for a small store somewhere else, but why? If she wanted great things to happen in her life, she had to make them happen. Nobody else was going to make her dreams come true. Romance Rule number one, It's Every Princess for Herself. This was her shot at her very own store in a fancy upscale place like Cartright Plaza. It was perfect for her.
She just had to convince the committee in charge of choosing the boutique vendors that she was the perfect choice for them. And convince herself that she wasn't jumping too high, given her lack of experience as a business owner.
"Have you told Mr. Murphy yet?" Chloe asked, referring to the man Larissa had worked for since high school.
"Not yet. But it won't be a big deal. I mean, he's retiring, so it's not like I'm leaving him in the lurch."
"But he's been hinting around that he'd like you to buy him out, hasn't he?"
Larissa's gleeful bubble of hope burst a little. She shrugged, tossing the blue silk panties into the case of lingerie.
"Sure, he'd sell me the business. But if I buy it, it's still his store, under new ownership, you know? I'd be keeping Mr. Murphy's dream alive, not living my own." Despite that, a part of her wanted to settle. She had enough money to make the down payment. When she'd first toyed with the idea of buying his store someday, she'd still been living with the wealthy aunt who'd raised her after Larissa's parents had died.
But then her aunt had died, leaving her home and all of her wealth to the Preservation of Feral Felines. And leaving Larissa homeless. Larissa had started saving money for her future, but working as a bookseller wasn't known as a road to riches.
She was sure Mr. Murphy would carry the rest of the loan for her. But she knew if she settled, she'd never take the leap. She'd always be reminded of her naive belief in happy-ever-after and thinking that some prince would sweep in and make her world perfect.
Nope. If she wanted her dreams, she had to make them happen herself. Now. She laid a hand on her queasy stomach.
"It's all for the best," she said, not sure if she was trying to convince herself or Chloe. "This way, I'm starting fresh. That's what I want. I mean, I think it's what I want "
"You want it or you don't," Chloe pushed. "Decide. Then, for crying out loud, quit second guessing yourself. You know what your problem is?"
"My choice in friends?"
"Don't be silly. You'd be miserable without me. You'd hole up with a stack of books and your dreams with the curtains closed while life flew by."
Larissa grinned, tilting her head in agreement. She couldn't argue with the truth. She loved nothing better than curling up with a romance novel, losing herself in the delights of happy-ever-after.
"Your problem is you think everything has to be perfect," Chloe said, tucking her feet under her as she lounged on the chair.
"What's wrong with perfect?"
"Nothing, as long as you realize that life isn't that tidy. If you're always holding out for some shiny image of perfection, you miss a lot of great living." Chloe gave her an arched look and shoved her hand through her long blond hair, purple nails glittering. The nails perfectly matched the zebra stripes in the magenta leggings she'd paired with her black tunic.
A freelance makeup artist, Chloe was the epitome of a free spirit. She went through life turning lemons into gourmet lemonade. The few times Larissa had tried to make the metaphorical drink, it'd damn near choked her. Given how badly she sucked at turning bad into good, she tried hardreally, really hardto make sure her life was lemon-free.
"I live," Larissa defended.
"Sure you do. But it's like you've created this litmus test for life. There are some great things out there that aren't perfect, you know."
"Of course I know that. I live with you, don't I?"
Chloe snorted. "Good point. And okay, yes, Cartright Plaza is a great fit for your dream store. It's almost as if Conner built it with you in mind."
"But he didn't," Larissa said quickly, trying to hide her grimace.
Conner Cartright and his brother, Daniel, ran the Cart-right empire. When Larissa's parents had died in a car accident, she'd gone to live with her aunt, a wealthy, eccentric spinster. Conner was the poor little rich boy who'd lived up the street. He'd had a crush on her for a while, but he'd given it up after he realized she'd only ever see him as a buddy.
Their friendship had almost bit the dust two years ago, when a selfish jerk, incapable of understanding a mature relationship, had misconstrued their friendship, then used it to break Larissa's heart.
She ground her teeth together in frustration, as irritated at the memory as she was at the fact that it could still get her so worked up and angry. Seeing her expression, thankfully Chloe let the subject drop.
Instead, her friend dug into a box labeled Chloe's Fun that she'd hauled out of her closet when she'd seen Larissa's collection of boxes. She tossed a few items willy-nilly into Larissa's collection of merchandise already deemed worthy of displaying.
"What are you doing?" Larissa asked, grabbing one of the objects midflight.
"Sending you with a few of the Chloe Kits I made."
Larissa looked at the beautifully wrapped box in her hand. The silver paper glinted and the velvet bow added just the right touch of elegance above the label stating the box contained One Romantic Evening.
Knowing Chloe, that meant a tiny bottle of tequila, a handful of flavored condoms and an edible guy-size thong.
Larissa didn't bother to sigh. Instead she set the box on the table and decided to go with the pink bag and lace undies she'd been considering earlier.
"What's the deal?" Chloe asked, her voice rising. "I thought you loved my kits? Are you really afraid your future customers won't be looking for a good time?"
"I'm selling the promise of a happy-ever-after, Chloe. I'm not going to dilute it with gratuitous sex."
"Sex doesn't dilute, it spices things up." With that, Chloe tossed a few of her kits into the keeper box. Larissa gave up, figuring it wasn't worth the argument she'd hear if she took them out. "And even you, the ambassador of pure romance, have to admit that lovin' is better spicy."
"I don't need sex to make my point," Larissa insisted half-heartedly. Through with the gift selection, she turned to one of the multitude of bookcases lining the living room wall to choose which of the hundreds of romance novels and self-help books she wanted to feature.
"You mean you don't want to use sex to prove your point," Chloe said, getting up to go into the kitchen and grab some chips to snack on. "But it is an important part of romance. You keep trying to gloss over it and you'll end up with some sterile, boring ode to platonic fantasies. I mean, yuck."
Larissa lowered two handfuls of books to stare, open-mouthed, as her roommate returned with a bag of crisp, cheesy potato goodness.
Who the hell yucked romance?
"Yes, yuck. Would you really want a sexless romance?" Her emerald-and-turquoise MAC shadowed lids glittering, Chloe's eye roll was a work of art.
"I'm not saying I want sexless romance. I'm just saying I don't think sex is the number-one priority."
"I'll bet your customers think sex is a priority," Chloe said, crunching away, then licking chip dust off her fingers.
It was like talking to a stubborn three-year-old. Larissa slapped her fists on her narrow hips and glared at her oldest friend.
"Quit, already," she insisted, starting to feel bruised from the constant poking. "It's not that I think sex doesn't count. But that's not what I'm selling. Isn't It Romantic is all about teaching men, and yes, women, to pay attention to the sweet little gestures and tender moments that make a relationship special."
"And I'm not saying that those things don't count," Chloe said in the long-suffering tone of patience she'd perfected in her teens. "I'm just saying that if you keep shuffling sex to the bottom of your priority listor worse, trying to hide it in the closetyou're going to lose out. Both personally and professionally."
"Look, my store is going to be called Isn't It Romantic. Not Prudes R Us. Quit making it sound like I have something against sex."
"But don't you?"
Larissa blinked a couple times. Then she bent over a box of cozy blankets, unfolding and testing out the different mohair and cashmere blends to see which one she wanted to bring. She finally decided on a lush, white angora blend that felt like a cloud of silk in her fingers, adding it to her display box.
"You make it sound like I'm some kind of nun. I'm not. Aren't all of my favorite romance novels hot and spicy? There's nothing more satisfying than reading about hot tension, the building intensity, then an explosive, um " Even though the two women were alone in the apartment, she still lowered her voice to a whisper, "climax."
"See! You can't even say it."