Set on breathtaking Coates Island, off the coast of North Carolina, bestselling author Rochelle Alers' new series debut brings together three book-loving women whose summer will offer a chance to rewrite their own stories . . .
For three decades, the Seaside Cafe has served delicious meals to locals and island tourists alike. Kayana Johnson has moved home to help her brother run the cafe—and to nurse her wounds following a deep betrayal. Between cooking favorite recipes-creole chicken with buttermilk waffles, her grandmother's famous mac and cheese—and spending time reading, Kayana is trying to embrace a life free of entanglements, while staying open to new connections . . .
After striking up conversation with two customers, Kayana suggests a summer book club. Each week, they'll meet on the patio to talk about their favorite novels. But there are plot twists awaiting them in real life too. For schoolteacher Leah, this two-month sojourn is the first taste of freedom she's had in her unhappy marriage. Cherie, filled with regret about her long-term affair with a married politician, discovers a powerful new passion. And Kayana finds a kindred spirit in a reclusive visitor who's ready to make his true identity known, and fill this summer with new possibilities . . .
Release date: May 26, 2020
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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The Seaside Café
Kayana Johnson groaned when she heard her cellphone’s alarm go off at 4:00 a.m. It was the beginning of the tourist season, and she’d slept restlessly throughout the night. Once again, she had been plagued with the dream where she’d grabbed a large kitchen knife and stabbed her husband until he lay with lifeless, unseeing eyes staring up at the ceiling. It was only when she realized he was no longer breathing that she’d calmly walked over to the sink and washed the blood off her hands before calling the police. Afterward, she had sat down at the table and waited for them to come and arrest her.
Kayana quickly sat up, as if jerked by a wire attached to the top of her head. It wasn’t a dream but a nightmare, one she’d had over and over since her divorce. As a counselor, she knew she had to let go of the demons that had plagued her relentlessly; however, forgiveness was slow, much too slow in coming for her emotional healing.
Sweeping back the sheet and lightweight blanket, Kayana swung her legs over the side of the bed and walked to the minuscule bathroom in the two-bedroom apartment above the restaurant that had been in her family for more than three decades. The Seaside Café had become her sanctuary, a place where she now felt most at home. As a young girl, after classes were over, on weekends, and during the summer months, she’d watched her mother and grandmother concoct the dishes that had made the restaurant a popular dining spot with locals and vacationers alike.
Located on Coates Island, North Carolina, several miles south of Wrightsville Beach, the Café, as the locals called it, offered panoramic views of the dunes, the beach, and the Atlantic Ocean whether one was seated inside or on the screened-in patio. The island boasted a population of a little more than four hundred permanent residents, but that number swelled to more than a thousand during the spring and summer, when bungalows, boardinghouses, and several bed-and-breakfasts were filled with singles, couples, and families who returned year after year. A decade ago, a developer had purchased several tracts to build twenty one-bedroom condos. After ongoing protests from residents, he was approved to construct ten two-bedroom units. Vacationers were given bumper stickers to park personal vehicles in designated lots, because from late May to Labor Day, their cars were not permitted on any road on the two-mile island. Tourists were able to get around by walking or on bicycles or local jitneys, unlike locals, whose bumpers were stamped with a large red R and their license plate number. Local deliveries were exempt from the vehicular restrictions.
Her Grandma Cassie was gone, and her mother had relocated to Florida, to help take care of her grandchildren. Kayana’s brother-in-law had had an epiphany after ten years of marriage and suddenly decided he’d wanted to be single again. Kayana didn’t know what it was about the Johnson sisters, but their marriages had imploded within three months of the other, and she wondered if the brothers-in-law had been engaged in a conspiracy to rid themselves of their wives.
Since moving back to Coates Island to help her widower brother run the Café, Kayana wanted to thank her husband for his duplicity because it was the first time in a very long time that she could be Kayana Johnson and not the wife of the revered Dr. Hudson. She no longer had to be the consummate hostess for his colleagues who came to admire the opulent five-thousand-square-foot showplace in Atlanta, Georgia, that was much too large for two people. And she didn’t have to skin and grin for his bougie family, who’d believed James Hudson had married down rather than up. Now, in hindsight, she was able to say good riddance to him and his plastic family and friends. The folks who came into the Café were a constant reminder that down-to-earth people still existed.
Taking off her nightgown, she left it on the hook behind the bathroom door. Kayana had made it a habit not to close the door because it made the space feel even smaller than it actually was. It was furnished with a shower stall with barely enough room for one, a commode, and a vanity. What she missed most was a bathtub. She’d made it a practice several times a week to soak in the garden tub, with pulsating jets of warm water massaging her body. However, the shower stall had become a welcome trade-off if it meant that, at the age of forty-six, she had total control of her life and destiny.
She brushed her teeth, followed by gargling with a peppermint mouthwash, and then covered her chemically straightened hair with a shower cap and stepped into the stall. She completed her morning ablutions in record time, and it was exactly 4:45 when she descended the staircase and turned on the lights in the restaurant’s kitchen. Kayana had arranged with her brother that she would oversee the preparation of breakfast and make the sides for lunch and dinner, while Derrick was committed to preparing dinner, which had allowed him more time to spend with his daughter, Deandra.
The girl had taken her mother’s death hard, and even after four years, the teenager still deeply missed her. Kayana had finally convinced her brother to let Deandra spend her summer recess in Florida with her grandmother, aunt, and cousins before returning home to begin her senior year at the mainland’s high school.
During the off-season, the Café only offered a buffet brunch from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday. But from the Memorial Day weekend to the Labor Day weekend, diners were served a buffet breakfast from 7:00 to 10:00, lunch from noon to 2:00, and a sit-down dinner between the hours of 5:00 and 8:00 p.m. Sundays were the exception, with brunch from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Kayana preferred preparing a buffet breakfast because she didn’t have to wait on customers who wanted individual orders. She’d fill warming trays and replenish them when necessary, while varying the menu with sliced seasonal fruit, in addition to the ubiquitous scrambled eggs, grits, bacon, ham, sausage, pancakes, waffles, home fries, and French toast; milk, coffee, herbal teas, and bottled water were also available with the fixed price. She made oatmeal on request for those looking for a hot-cereal breakfast. Her brother had contracted with vendors on the mainland for their baked goods, meat, and fresh fish.
The dinner menu hadn’t changed much over the years except for the addition of a few Asian-inspired recipes. During a trip to New York City, Kayana had visited several Korean restaurants and found herself instantly addicted to several of their dishes. Once back in Atlanta, she’d experimented with Korean barbecue and after a few attempts was able to duplicate some of her favorites.
She opened the walk-in refrigerator-freezer and removed a crate with dozens of eggs to bring them to room temperature; in a half dozen large plastic containers, cut-up chicken marinating in buttermilk lined two shelves. Minutes later, she set a box of apple-cured slab bacon, another with locally made pork sausage, and a half dozen ham steaks on the prep table. Working quickly, Kayana mixed up pancake and waffle batter, and set a large pot of grits on the commercial stove.
The chiming of the bell echoed throughout the restaurant, and she glanced at the closed-circuit monitor. It was minutes before six; the college student her brother had hired the year before as a dishwasher and busser had arrived. Wiping her hands on the towel tucked under the ties of her bibbed apron, she disarmed the security system and walked out of the kitchen to the front.
She opened the door, smiling. The lingering aroma of burnt wood mingling with the distinctive smell of saltwater wafted to her nostrils. Her brother, Derrick, had built an addition at the rear of the building where he smoked brisket, pork shoulder, ribs, pork belly, and chicken. Steaks were aged and then grilled to order in a wood-burning oven.
“Good morning, Corey, and welcome back.”
The tall, raw-boned young man with shaggy, sun-streaked light-brown hair and large brilliant blue-green eyes flashed a shy smile. “It’s good to be back. I like going to school in Michigan, but I sure miss seeing the ocean.”
Kayana opened the door wider, waited for Corey Mason to enter before she locked it after him. “I felt the same way when I lived in Atlanta.” The young man, who lived on the mainland with his single mother, had earned a partial academic scholarship to attend the University of Michigan and had worked a few odd jobs throughout high school to save enough money to supplement his student loans. He was one of several part-time employees working at the Café during the summer season.
Corey followed her to the kitchen, where he washed his hands in one of the three sinks and then slipped on an apron. “It looks as if you’re going to have a lot of business. I saw many more cars with vacation stickers this year than we had last summer.”
Kayana smiled. “We can never have too much business.”
She wanted to remind Corey that she and her brother depended upon new and returning customers to keep the restaurant viable during the off-season. Derrick had made it a practice to raise prices between eight and ten percent every other year to offset the higher costs for food and utilities. Earlier in the year, they’d added wine and beer to the menu, and Kayana knew it would substantially increase their revenue.
Aware that there was only an hour before they would open the doors to the public, she placed strips of bacon and sausage links on baking pans and put them in the oven. Ham steaks sprinkled with cinnamon and brown sugar were grilled on the heated flattop, flipped, and then cut into bite-size pieces. Forty minutes later, Corey carried platters of meat into the dining area and placed them on warming trays. Stacks of pancakes and waffles followed, and then hot, creamy grits. It had been two years since her return to Coates Island, and Kayana was still in awe that she felt more comfortable working in the kitchen than she had counseling patients as a hospital social worker.
Corey had just set out pitchers of chilled orange, grapefruit, and cranberry juice, along with the bowl of fruit, when the clock in the kitchen chimed the hour. Reaching for the remote device, Kayana raised the shades and unlocked the front door. She also switched on several televisions set up around the restaurant, muting them and activating the closed caption feature. She tuned them to all-news, weather, and sports channels, while contemporary tunes spanning several decades flowed from hidden speakers as a steady stream of customers walked in.
She knew every permanent island resident, and recognized the names and faces of those who’d summered on the island the year before, greeting them with a smile and thanking them for returning. Many of the vacationers were educators who took advantage of their summer recess to bring their children to the seaside community to swim, fish, and relax. Kayana saw a woman walk in and knew instinctually she was a first-timer. The slender redhead, cradling a book, stood at the entrance, glancing around for an empty table. Smiling, Kayana approached her.
“Good morning, and welcome to the Café. I’m Kayana, one of the owners.”
The woman returned her smile. “Thank you. How long do you think it will be before I can get a table?”
Kayana’s eyes were drawn to the book title, Les Misérables, which happened to be one of her favorites. Only this edition was printed in its original French. “We have a policy here that you can sit at any table with an available chair. It’s a way for folks to get to know one another.”
Bright-blue eyes sparkled like polished topaz in a lightly freckled pale face. “I like that policy.”
Kayana nodded. “It works for us.”
“By the way, I’m Leah, and I noticed you staring at my book. Have you read it?”
“I have—several times, but not in French,” Kayana admitted. “It happens to be one of my favorite novels.”
Leah’s smile grew wider. “Mine, too. Maybe we’ll get a chance to discuss it.”
“I’d like that.” Since returning to the island, Kayana rarely got involved with vacationers who frequented the restaurant. Most came in to eat before going into town to browse the shops lining the main thoroughfare. Mothers congregated on the beach, while their children competed making sandcastles or frolicking in the surf under their watchful eyes. Teens tended to congregate on the sand, listening to music until sunset or sometimes later. However, no one was permitted on the beach after midnight, and the regulation was strictly enforced by local law enforcement.
Leah Kent smiled at the cook, silently admiring her flawless, nut-brown complexion with orange undertones. Her near-black, chin-length hair covered with a white bandana emphasized the roundness of her small face. Leah hadn’t come to Coates Island to make friends, but to unwind and figure out what she wanted to do with the next phase of her life. However, there was something about the other woman’s warm smile and laughing eyes that silently communicated she had found a kindred spirit when it came to books. And it wasn’t just any book but her favorite: a classic.
It had taken months for her to research vacation properties once her husband informed her that he’d planned to take their twins sons to Europe with him as a gift for them passing the bar exam. What had originally been scheduled as a month-long stay was extended to two months when Alan added a two-week African safari to their itinerary. Once she realized she would have at least six to eight weeks to herself, Leah decided to rent a bungalow at the seaside resort and indulge in everything she’d been denied back in Richmond, Virginia.
“I’m free twenty-four-seven, so you’ll have to let me know when you’re available,” she told Kayana.
“Are you staying on the island?” Kayana asked.
“Yes. I’m renting one of the bungalows.”
“I’m always free on Sunday evenings, so you can come by at six, and we’ll hang out on the patio.”
Leah smiled again. “You’ve got yourself a book club buddy.”
“That’s a bet. It’s been nice talking with you, Leah, but I have to get back to the kitchen.”
Leah went to find a table and again felt her decision to vacation on the island was certain to change her outlook as to her future.
When she’d parked her brand-new Audi in the designated lot for vacationers, she’d felt as if she’d been liberated. She’d driven the sedan out of the showroom two days ago on the very day she’d celebrated her forty-eighth birthday. Purchasing the car and driving from Richmond to summer on Coates Island was an act of rebellion. It had been the first time she hadn’t conferred with her husband about a big-ticket purchase, and it was to be the first time in their twenty-eight years of marriage that she and Alan would take separate vacations. Now she knew how people who were incarcerated felt when told they would be released from prison. Although still married, Leah had mentally divorced her husband years ago. In that instant, she made herself a promise not to think of or dwell on the man with whom she’d had some good as well as too many bad times.
Leah found a table for two with an empty chair. “Is anyone sitting here?” she asked the young woman with close-cropped hair who appeared totally absorbed in the magazine spread out on the table in front of her.
“It’s yours if you want it,” she said, without glancing up.
Setting her book on the table, Leah adjusted the strap of her colorful woven tote and walked over to the buffet table. Reaching for a plate, she filled it with two strips of crispy bacon, a serving spoon of scrambled eggs, and home fries. She passed up the mini corn muffins, because she knew she wouldn’t be able to stop until she’d eaten at least three or maybe even four. Baked goods were her Achilles heel whenever she tended to overeat. There was enough room on her plate for sliced melon, and she decided to set it down and go back for coffee.
“I hope you’re not on a diet because you’re skinny as hell,” the young woman at the table said when she returned.
Leah stared at her plate as she struggled not to lose her temper. Then her eyes met a pair of large brown eyes with gold flecks that reminded her of a pair of tortoiseshell eyeglass frames she wore whenever her eyes tired from prolonged reading. A hint of a smile lifted the corners of the full, sensual mouth of the woman with whom she was sharing the table. She looked very young, but as the mother of sons in their twenties, Leah had become quite adept in judging ages, and she knew she was close to if not at least thirty.
“No, and that should not be any of your concern.”
The woman’s smile vanished quickly. “You’re right about that. It is none of my business. Sit down and enjoy your breakfast, because I’m leaving.” She closed the magazine, picked up her plate and walked away.
“What a snot,” Leah said under her breath. It was her favorite word for the students in her school who’d believed they were so privileged that they could say and do anything they wanted without regard to the consequences.
She would make certain to avoid the rude woman during her stay, even if it meant standing up until someone at another table vacated a chair.
Cherie Thompson walked out of the restaurant and headed for the beach and folded her body down on the near-white sand. She knew she should return and apologize to the woman who’d asked to share the table, but an overwhelming wave of helplessness rendered her impotent. Today was the anniversary of one of the darkest days in her life, a day when she’d lost a part of herself.
The baby she’d carried to term and delivered was one she would never see, hold, or claim as her own because of an agreement she’d made with a man she’d at one time loved more than she’d loved herself. Although she’d been well compensated, it still did not diminish the pain of having to give up her son, which was the only and last connection between her and the man she could never have.
Two days after giving birth, she returned to her condo and sank into an abyss of depression that swallowed her whole. She’d only left her bed to relieve herself, brush her teeth, and down copious amounts of coffee, something she’d given up during her confinement. After several days of not taking a bath or shower, she discovered she found it hard to cope with her own body odor. She’d filled the tub with bath salts and hot water, waiting until the water was cool enough not to give her a first-degree burn, sat there, and cried until spent.
It took a week for her to shake off the self-pity. Cherie finally washed her hair, ate enough to regain some of her energy, and called her favorite stylist to ask him for an appointment.
The profusion of black curls that had contributed to her signature look lay on the salon floor, and when she stared at her reflection in the mirror, she did not recognize the image staring back at her. That’s when the person she’d known all her life was gone and would never return.
Cherie lost track of time, reliving all she had experienced over the past three years until the sound of unrestrained children’s laughter captured her attention. A father, pretending to be a monster, lumbered along the sand, dragging one leg as his young son and daughter ran to escape him. She smiled at their antics, her dark mood suddenly lifting. She had never been able to resist the sound of a child laughing. It had been the reason she’d accepted a position to work at a childcare center. But that was before she’d discovered she was pregnant. She’d continued working until her last month, then took off to prepare herself for the inevitable. At that time, Cherie had believed she was ready to give up her child, but in the end, she discovered that if she could’ve changed her mind, she would have.
Pushing to her feet, she made the ten-minute walk to return to the restaurant and stared at the back of the woman she’d insulted. Walking over to the table, Cherie took the chair she’d vacated. She knew she’d shocked the redhead when she looked at her as if she’d grown a third eye.
“I’m sorry I insulted you. Will you please accept my apology? I’m . . . I was having a bad day.”
A network of fine lines fanned out around a pair of bright blue eyes when the other woman smiled. “As for bad days, I’ve had enough of those to last me a lifetime. So, of course, I forgive you.”
Cherie extended her hand. “Let’s begin again. I’m Cherie Thompson, and it’s nice meeting you.”
Leah took her hand. “I’m Leah Kent, and it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Cherie’s eyebrows lifted. “Are you always this proper?”
Leah lowered her eyes. “Proper decorum is something we attempt to instill in the young girls at my school, but unfortunately we are losing the battle.”
“You’re a teacher.” The query was a statement.
“Yes. But right now I’m headmistress at a private school for girls whose parents pay through the nose for us to turn their unmanageable, rude, and spoiled little girls into ladies so they can make proper wives for so-called upper-class wealthy men.”
Cherie smothered a laugh. She knew exactly what Leah was talking about. “Why did you call them ‘so-called upper-class’?”
“Just because you have a lot of money doesn’t mean you are upper-class. Would you call a drug trafficker upper-class because he’s amassed a fortune selling death? No,” Leah said, answering her own question. “It’s home training that produces class.”
“Don’t you mean breeding?” Cherie asked.
Leah nodded. “Yes. Up north, you call it breeding, and down here we say home training.”
“Do you also speak French?” Cherie had deftly changed the topic of conversation away from private schools for the elite because it would open a chapter in her life she’d closed and did not want to revisit.
“Yes, but not as well as I read it. Have you read Les Misérables?”
“It was required reading in one of my high school’s literature classes.”
“Did you enjoy it?”
Cherie stared over Leah’s shoulder. “I never really completed any required reading.”
“Did you pass the class?”
“How could you when you hadn’t read any of the books?”
“I read the Cliff Notes.” Grinning, Cherie pointed at Leah when her jaw dropped. “Gotcha!”
Slumping back in the chair, Leah narrowed her eyes. “That wasn’t very nice.”
“I couldn’t resist teasing you, because you should’ve seen your expression when I said I hadn’t read any of the books. My literature teacher warned the class at the beginning of the school year that he would assign a quiz every Friday, and we had to read the required pages because what was going to be on the tests couldn’t be found in Cliff Notes.”
A slow smile flitted over Leah’s features. “It looks as if he was one step ahead of his students.”
“He claimed he knew every cheating trick in the book and that he’d forgotten what we were attempting to concoct. But I must admit he was an incredible teacher who kept everyone totally engaged in the classics. By the way, I got an A in all of his classes.” Pushing back the chair, Cherie stood. “I’ve intruded on you enough, so I’ll leave you to read your book.”
She felt a lot better walking out of the restaurant the second time now that she’d apologized. It had taken more than twenty years for a poor girl who’d grown up in public housing to reinvent herself; she’d learned that having good manners was her entrée into a social milieu that she would’ve been denied without them.
Cherie Renee Thompson no longer lived in public housing, and she had graduated college. However, it was marrying well that had eluded her; it was something she’d wanted all her life, because she didn’t want to repeat the cycle of poverty and hopelessness that had plagued most of the women in her family.
She’d requested and was granted a two-month leave without pay f. . .
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