Nora Pennington, the owner of Miracle Books, believes that a well-chosen novel can bring healing and hope. But she and the rest of the members of the Secret, Book, and Scone Society know that, sometimes, practical help is needed too. Such is the case with the reed-thin girl hiding in the fiction section of Nora's store, wearing a hospital ID and a patchwork of faded bruises. She calls herself Abilene, and, although Nora and her friends offer work, shelter, and a supportive ear, their guest isn't ready to divulge her secrets. But when a customer is found dead in an assumed suicide, Nora uncovers a connection that points to Abilene...as either a suspect or another target. When a second death hits town, Nora and her intrepid friends must help the greenhorn sheriff discern fact from fiction and stop the killer before another story is prematurely brought to a close.
Release date: November 27, 2018
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 224
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Listen to a sample
The Whispered Word
Nora Pennington, proprietress of the only bookshop in Miracle Springs, North Carolina, glanced from her friend to the empty chair where she expected to find the pale-faced slip of a girl who’d hidden in the stacks until past closing time.
The girl wasn’t there.
Recalling the hospital ID bracelet encircling the girl’s bony wrist, Nora turned her attention back to her friend. “June, did she say anything to you? Or to Hester or Estella?”
June grunted. “Oh, sure. She told the three of us her whole story. Yes, ma’am. She donated a kidney to the love of her life and the surgery took place without a hitch, but when the sweethearts woke up, Miss Skinny-As-A-Broom-Handle found out that Mister Right was Mister Seriously Wrong. According to a news report, he was an escaped serial killer. No, that wasn’t it.” June frowned. “He ran a cult. Yeah, one of those brainwashing cults with a male leader and lots of female disciples. When our girl found out, she bolted from the hospital when the nurses weren’t watching, snatched a housedress from a clothesline, and hopped a train to Miracle Springs.”
Behind June, a woman issued a throaty chuckle.
“June Dixon, I believe you could write fiction if you were so inclined,” said Estella Sadler in an exaggerated Southern drawl. She languidly rose from her chair and jerked a thumb toward the back of the bookstore. “Since you’re perfectly capable of evicting your bubble-wrap refugee, Nora, I’m calling it a night. I don’t need beauty sleep, but I’ll take it all the same. Sweet dreams, ladies.”
After Estella sauntered out, Nora turned to Hester Winthrop, the fourth member of the Secret, Book, and Scone Society. “Bubble-wrap refugee?”
“You’ll see,” Hester said, picking up her handbag. “I need to get going too. The bread won’t knead itself at five in the morning and I have to bake extra loaves for our Secret Kindness bags.”
June shook her head. “I don’t know many people who can wake up when the stars are still shining and buzz around all day like a bee on crack. But you do it. With your freckles and energy, you remind me of Pippi Longstocking.”
Hester shook her head. “Estella’s the redhead, not me.”
“Estella’s not that kind of book character,” June said. “She’s far more catlike. Who does she remind me of?” She looked thoughtful and then slapped her hands together. “Shere Khan. The tiger from The Jungle Book. That’s Estella’s literary double.”
“And what book character are you?” Nora asked. Though she wanted to check on the strange girl, she was too intrigued by the conversation to move.
June put her hand over her heart. “When I worked at the nursing home, one of my favorite patients called me a Black Mary Poppins. I’m older, darker, and my hair is way curlier than Mary’s, but that’s what she called me.”
Seeing the shock on Hester’s face, June burst into laughter. “Honey, it was meant as a compliment. That lady knew how much I tried to put a little magic into the residents’ lives.”
Hester gestured in the direction of Nora’s small stockroom. “I don’t think there’s been any magic in her life lately. What will you do about her, Nora? She seems . . . fragile.”
Nora frowned. She’d moved to Miracle Springs in search of peace and privacy. She hadn’t wanted a single responsibility beyond her tiny house and her bookstore. She hadn’t wanted pets or close friends. She hadn’t wanted a lover. She refused to join a place of worship or participate in charity events. She didn’t sponsor children’s athletic teams, enter bake-offs, or take sides in local politics. She didn’t seek anyone’s company.
Despite this, people sought hers.
They came looking for her. People with different backgrounds, different skin colors, and different accents. People from all over the globe brought her their stories. They all carried a burden they couldn’t put down, no matter how much they wanted to be free from its weight. These weary souls came to her, the bookseller known to the locals as “the beautiful, burned woman,” or “the bibliotherapist with the scars,” in search of relief.
Sometimes, these people liked Nora. Sometimes, they didn’t. But they all felt at home in Miracle Books. It was almost impossible not to. Walking through the bookshop was like falling in love for the very first time.
New customers would enter the store and hesitate, fearing the only offerings would be New Age titles and crystals. This was a reasonable concern in a town built upon the premise of healing, but Miracle Books had something for everyone. They just didn’t always know how to find it.
Nora had never bathed in the famed mineral baths of Miracle Springs, so she couldn’t tell her customers that the waters possessed restorative powers.
She believed books had the power to heal. She believed that carefully chosen words and well-crafted phrases could gift readers with the ability to let a painful past go—to turn the page and start a fresh chapter in their lives.
Because she believed that every story had something to offer, Nora’s store was stuffed with books of every format and genre. The latest best-selling novels, in their glossy dust jackets, shared shelf space with dog-eared paperbacks. Other shelves held rare first editions, coveted signed editions, and antique leather-bound books. There were books in all conditions. Books for all ages. Books to satisfy every need. Every wish.
There was much to see in the warren of shelves and the cornucopia of books for sale, so Nora let her customers wander undisturbed. In fact, she encouraged them to become lost in the labyrinth of colorful spines, to pull down books and read blurbs, to touch one of the many shelf enhancers.
Nora had dubbed these knickknacks “shelf enhancers” before Miracle Books was up and running. Back when she was still assembling her initial inventory, she’d been rummaging through a box of books at the flea market when she’d come across a pair of bronze owl bookends. They weren’t in perfect shape. There was minor flaking to the bronze, undoubtedly due to age. Nora liked the owls despite their flaws. Their gaze was stern and their sharp talons curled protectively over a stack of thick tomes.
“If you buy the set of Nancy Drews, I’ll give you a discount on the owls,” the vendor had said to Nora while overtly studying her burn scars.
Nora wasn’t used to negotiating, but she knew she had to buy every book at the lowest price if she wanted her business to succeed. She turned the bookends over in her hands and thought of how much more interesting her future store would be if her shelves were enhanced by unique, vintage items. And then, she’d looked the vendor straight in the eye and started haggling.
The shelf enchancers were impulse buys for locals and visitors alike. As Nora moved deeper into the stacks, heading for the stockroom, she noticed some of her recent additions. She walked by a wooden mortar filled with crushed lavender, a marble and brass letter holder, a picture frame in pink Lucite, a Victorian child’s porcelain tea set, and an art nouveau trumpet vase. Those were just the treasures in the Contemporary Romance section.
Nora rounded the corner of a bookcase crammed with pulp fiction novels and heard the loud clang of brass bells smacking wood. The bells, which had once been attached to a horse harness, now hung from a strip of leather behind Nora’s front door.
The clanging sound meant that her friends had left Miracle Books.
Nora was alone with her books and the strange girl.
She found the girl curled among layers of bubble wrap and packing paper. She looked like an undernourished Goldilocks who’d passed out after partying too hard.
Nora studied the stranger in the dim light of the stockroom’s single bulb. Though her slim figure and pallid skin made her seem childlike, Nora guessed that she was closer to twenty than ten.
“What am I supposed to do with you?” she murmured under her breath.
Despite Nora’s intention to live an uncomplicated life in Miracle Springs, she’d recently become friends with three remarkable women. Together, they’d formed the Secret, Book, and Scone Society. In the middle of their investigation into the murder of a visiting businessman, Estella, June, and Hester had all shared their deepest secrets with Nora. And eventually, she’d entrusted them with hers—the terrible truth behind the jellyfish burn scar swimming up her right arm and the pod of bubbly octopi scars floating up her shoulder and neck to caress her cheek with their puckered tentacles.
I’ve already risked enough, Nora thought, staring down at the sleeping girl.
Though the investigation was over, the abrupt closure of the community bank had left Miracle Springs reeling. Dozens of people had lost their jobs. Others had been jailed. The town needed to recover. So did Nora.
Recovery meant peace and calm. Strange girls sleeping in her storeroom did not make Nora feel peaceful or calm.
She was torn.
Part of her wanted to shake the girl awake and tell her to move on.
This is a bookstore, not a hotel, she could hear herself saying.
But another part remembered how the girl had caressed the book spines when she thought no one was watching. There had been such tenderness in that touch. Such longing.
There’d been pain too.
At that moment, Nora had seen herself in the girl. Had seen her own need for stories, for escape, reflected in the girl’s hungry eyes and desperate fingers.
It was this tenuous connection that had Nora striding to one of the shop’s reading nooks, grabbing the throw blanket from the back of the fainting couch, and returning to the stockroom to drape the length of soft cotton over the slumbering girl.
I wish I could sleep that soundly, Nora thought.
She changed her mind almost before this thought was completed. The girl’s hospital bracelet and ill-fitting clothing hinted at sleep that was anything but sound. Her sleep was probably deep because she was bone weary. It was the dreamless slumber of someone who’d been running and running until their legs couldn’t carry them another step.
Nora lingered long enough to wonder why a person would run away from a hospital. But she didn’t want to know the answer to that question. She didn’t want to get involved. She’d give the girl food and shelter. That was all.
After writing a brief note to the sleeping stranger, Nora locked the girl in the bookstore and went home.
The next morning, Nora woke early. She hadn’t slept well and her first cohesive thoughts focused on brewing and drinking plenty of strong, dark coffee.
She’d showered, run a brush through her brown hair, dressed in her typical uniform of jeans and a T-shirt, and was well into her second cup of coffee when she remembered her stockroom Goldilocks.
“Damn it,” she muttered and hurriedly made a plate of food for the girl.
She walked the short distance from her tiny house, a modified railway car the townsfolk had dubbed the Caboose Cottage, and unlocked the back door to Miracle Books. Nora loved that her bookstore had once been a train station and that her home had once been a train car. The aura of adventure embedded in every board and bolt was almost tangible.
“It’s me! Nora!” she called out. She didn’t want to scare the girl, especially if she was still asleep.
However, the stockroom was empty.
Nora stood in the doorway and tried to understand what she was seeing. Or more accurately, what she wasn’t seeing. The room had been completely altered. Every cardboard box had been flattened and lined up along one wall. There wasn’t a shred of bubble wrap or packing paper in sight.
Moving through the store to the ticket agent’s booth, Nora glanced around for signs of life. Had the girl used one of the hundred coffee mugs hanging from the pegboard to make herself a cup of coffee or tea? It didn’t look like it.
“I have fresh bread. It’s toasted and buttered,” Nora said, her voice echoing through the stacks. “Hester baked it. You met her last night. She’s the one with the freckles and the frizzy blond hair.” Nora continued toward the checkout counter. “I also have blackberries. I picked them yesterday. And farmer’s cheese. I could make you a cappuccino or a latte. Or just a plain coffee. Whatever you feel like.”
By this time, Nora had reached the register. She put the plate of food on the counter and stopped to listen. The girl was here. She could feel her presence. Why was she hiding?
Nora threaded her way to the front of the store and stopped short behind the display window. Something was wrong. The display hadn’t looked like this last night.
Digging out the skeleton key that unlocked the front door, Nora rushed outside to view the window from the sidewalk.
What she saw was magical.
She was facing a scene created entirely of packing materials. The central figure was a woman sculpted out of clear packing tape. The female sculpture held a string fastened to a balloon bouquet made of bubble wrap. Both woman and balloons were surrounded by hundreds of origami birds fashioned from white paper. The birds swayed and spun, coaxed into subtle movement by the air exiting a nearby duct.
For a moment, Nora felt as if she were in motion. She felt as weightless as the paper birds. Like she could float. She almost glanced down, half expecting her feet to be hovering above the sidewalk.
This time, when she looked back at the window, she saw the books. Books with blue covers, and only blue covers, dangled from the ceiling. White string was wedged in their gutters, forcing the books to spread open, and creating an illusion of wings. Nora found herself moving around in an effort to read all the titles.
The girl—for she must be the creator of this masterpiece—had selected books from a variety of genres. There was The Cat in the Hat, Go Set a Watchman, Wonder, All the Light We Cannot See, The Great Gatsby, Eragon, The Mystery at the Moss-Covered Mansion, A Brief History of Time, and a dozen more. On the bottom of the window, a series of cardboard letters spelled out the phrase, MY BLUE HEAVEN.
Nora reentered the store and found the girl standing next to the plate of food. She hadn’t touched it, but was leaning so close to it that her hunger was almost palpable.
“It’s beautiful.” Nora gestured at the window behind her. “Did you spend all night making that?”
The girl took a long time to reply. When she finally spoke, her voice was a faint whisper, like a breeze winding through reeds. “A few hours.”
“I think you’ve earned your breakfast,” Nora said, indicating the plate. “Come on. I’ll make you a coffee while you eat.”
Though the girl said nothing, she picked up the plate and followed Nora to the circle of chairs near the ticket agent’s booth.
Nora tapped the chalkboard menu affixed to the wall next to the ticket window and asked, “What would you like?”
The girl stepped up to the menu. Her lips moved as she murmured every word aloud.
Nora turned away, giving the girl time to make a decision. She occupied herself by searching for the perfect coffee cup for her guest.
The majority of Nora’s mugs, which were purchased at yard sales or flea markets, bore book-related sayings or humorous phrases. Glancing at her collection, she decided that none of it was a good fit for this girl. She wished she had one of her handmade pottery mugs from home, especially since the girl seemed to have an affinity for blue. Nora could serve her in one of the mugs she used for children, but her Cookie Monster, Batman, Snoopy, or Harry Potter mugs didn’t feel right either.
Nora selected a white mug with a donut covered in pink icing and rainbow sprinkles. The picture of the donut was flanked by the words I and care.
For the first time ever, Nora wished she owned an innocuous kitten or puppy mug.
“Anything tempt you?” she asked the girl.
“A Wilkie Collins, please. I loved his Woman in White.”
Nora was impressed. She didn’t run across many twenty-somethings familiar with Collins or his work.
“Me too,” she said, moving behind the espresso machine. “Even more than The Moonstone, actually.”
She hadn’t asked the girl if she wanted sugar or special milk because she didn’t make a habit of giving her customers too many choices. If they wanted sugar, they could stir it in themselves. If they wanted soy, almond, or coconut milk, they were out of luck. Nora didn’t stock those items. She was neither a Starbucks nor a grocery store. Her espresso machine was a refurbished model that ran on a wing and a prayer. Since she expected it to die without warning, Nora was always a little relieved when her customers ordered a cup of black coffee or herbal tea.
“What’s your name?” Nora asked over the hiss and sputter of the machine. She glanced at the girl while frothing the milk.
There was no answer, so Nora finished preparing the drink. When she was done, she set down the donut mug next to the dish of food.
The girl kept her eyes fixed on the counter. “It’s . . . Abilene. Abilene . . . Tyler.”
Given the pauses, Nora couldn’t help but wonder if the girl had just dreamed up that name. If so, it didn’t matter to Nora. She’d call the girl whatever she wanted to be called.
“That’s a pretty name.” Nora gave the girl a friendly smile. “I don’t like it when people watch me eat, so I’ll leave you to your meal. Sit here and enjoy your food. I’m going to head to the front and take care of my opening chores. I don’t need to mess with the window display, thanks to you. In fact, I won’t want to change that for weeks. It’s really amazing.”
Abilene returned Nora’s smile with a small, shy smile of her own. “Thank you.”
Later, Nora was behind the checkout counter, circling yard-sale ads in the paper, when Abilene silently appeared. “Thank you for the breakfast. The bread and berries were really good. And thank you for letting me stay here last night. I’ll show myself out.”
She turned toward the front door.
Nora knew the girl couldn’t show herself out. The door was locked and the heavy brass skeleton key was inside the cash register. As she watched Abilene and tried to decide what to do about the young woman so clearly in need of help, something occurred that prevented Abilene from leaving Miracle Books.
She was close to the front door when the rubber strap on her left flip-flop snapped and she lost her balance. Pitching forward, she collided with a floor spinner crammed with paperbacks. The display was made of acrylic, and Nora gasped in dismay as it gave way in a series of violent cracks. With the cracking sound came another noise. A cry of pain.
By the time Nora dropped to her knees beside the girl, Abilene was cradling her right hand. She tried to hide the blood seeping from between her fingers and the tear tracks wetting her cheeks, but failed on both accounts.
“Don’t move,” Nora ordered and ran to get a dish towel from the back.
When she returned to Abilene, the girl refused to let her look at her hand.
“I’m fine,” she stubbornly insisted.
Nora scowled. “The hell you are. You’re bleeding all over my floor. Come on. I need to see how bad it is.”
Averting her gaze, Abilene offered Nora her injured hand.
Nora gently pried off the fingers covering the wound, and blood immediately welled from a cut across Abilene’s palm. It was deep enough to require sutures. This wasn’t a shallow wound that would heal on its own. It had to be closed by a professional.
“You need stitches,” Nora said, balling up the towel and pressing it against Abilene’s palm.
The girl drew back so abruptly that she nearly knocked Nora over. “No.”
Nora glanced at the girl’s wrist, but the hospital bracelet was gone.
She didn’t think she stood any chance of getting Abilene to an urgent care facility or a doctor’s office. She probably wanted to avoid all health care facilities. Why else would she have shown up last night in a dress that was far too big for her, Dollar Store shoes, and the look of someone who hadn’t eaten or rested well in weeks?
“Listen to me, Abilene.” Nora spoke very gently. “I have a friend who can patch you up. I’m going to call him. He won’t tell anyone about you and you’re going to stay with me today. No arguments. You’re going to rest and eat. No one will ask you questions. If they do, you don’t have to answer them. Okay?”
Abilene shook her head and Nora feared the girl would bolt the second her back was turned. She’d have to find another way to coerce her into staying put, which wouldn’t be easy. Abilene was as agitated as a caged bird.
Why? Nora silently wondered as she held the girl’s hand. What happened to you?
“This isn’t a debate.” Nora adopted the firm, no-nonsense tone she’d employed during her previous life as a librarian. Pretending that Abilene was an unruly high school student, she said, “You broke my spinner and you’ve made a mess. This has to be cleaned up before I open at ten. The way I see it, you have two choices. You can make a dash for the back exit and pass out in some field a few miles away. Your left foot will be torn to shreds because you have only one shoe, which clearly doesn’t fit. And what happens to your foot doesn’t matter because your hand will eventually get infected. You’ll run a fever. You’re obviously too weak to handle that and you will pass out. Whoever finds you will call for an ambulance. Or the police. Is that what you want?”
Abilene refused to answer.
“Your other option is to let my friend patch you up. You can get a little strength back, change into clothes that actually fit, and do a few light chores to earn your keep.” Nora cocked her head. “Do you like books?”
Judging by the window display, the girl definitely did. But Nora wanted to see if the question would elicit a response.
Abilene’s head whipped around. She faced Nora without flinching and her eyes were lit with twin sparks.
“I love them,” she said in a voice that was almost loud. There was passion in her reply. Anger too.
Nora was relieved by this show of emotion. The girl had a layer of steel beneath that translucent skin. She’d probably drawn on this strength to have made it to this point. Wherever it was she’d run from, the running had taken its toll. She still had fight in her though. That was good.
“I love books too,” Nora whispered to the girl. “They saved my life.” She traced the burn scar on her cheek, holding Abilene’s gaze the whole time. “Which is why you should believe me when I tell you that this is a safe place for you. Here, among the books. And with me, a woman who was rescued by them.”
Abilene glanced around the shop. The glint left her eyes. It was replaced by a look of longing. Doubt flickered across her face. Or was it fear?
Nora wondered just how long Abilene had been on the run. Why was she afraid? Was Nora inviting more danger into her world? She’d already risked life and limb for a complete stranger that summer. And yet here she was, offering shelter to a young woman who acted like she was being hunted. Was she? And if so, who was the hunter?
This maelstrom of thoughts was interrupted by a buzzing noise outside the bookstore. Nora told Abilene to. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...