All Mari Everett’s life, she’s had two secret dreams: To own a bookstore, and to reunite with her long lost father. But when he passes away unexpectedly and she inherits his home and business, the only way she can learn about his life–especially why he abandoned her when she was three and never came back–is by leaving California to take over his bookstore in London.
Owen Sullivan lives and works on Elderflower Island, a close knit community in London where it’s impossible to keep a secret. It turns out, however, that Charlie Forsythe kept his daughter a secret from everyone for nearly thirty years. When Mari comes to London, Owen immediately falls for her. He’s never met a woman so intelligent, determined and honest. Not to mention so beautiful that she takes his breath away.
Soon, everyone on the island–including Owen’s four siblings, parents and grandmother–is pitching in to help give the bookstore a fresh start. But as insatiable passion develops into love, will Mari and Owen be able to grab hold of their fresh start? Or will their pasts continue to cast a dark shadow over their chance at a brilliant future together in London?
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AS LONG AS I HAVE YOU
A London Sullivans Novel
© 2019 Bella Andre
Mari Everett didn’t have time to pop into the bookstore during her lunch hour, but as always, she couldn’t resist looking in the window. Bookstores were her catnip.
Her brother, Carson—stepbrother, technically—laughed as she paused at the front door. “Go on in, you know you want to.”
“I can go another day. After all, I never know the next time I’ll get to have lunch with you.” Carson practically lived on a plane lately as he worked to build his tech company.
“We can spare five minutes for you to get your bookstore fix and still have time to eat before your budget review meeting.” He scowled through the words budget review. “Remind me again why you work at an accounting firm rather than owning a place like this?”
“I’m great with numbers, and I really like helping people get their financial lives in order,” Mari reminded her brother.
“So it has nothing to do with the fact that Mom would totally freak out if you ran a bookstore?”
Mari knew better than to try to deny it, not when Carson knew her—and their mother—better than anyone. “It certainly wouldn’t be her profession of choice for me.”
It was no secret to either of them that, while Donna Everett seemed so tough and strong on the outside, within their mother lay a deep fragility and vulnerability due to the circumstances of her first marriage to Mari’s birth father. Mari remembered how her mother used to cry and cry all those years ago. Even now, Donna could still fall into a funk if something triggered a memory from the past.
“All I’m saying,” Carson added, “is that from my perspective, you’ve never looked anywhere near as happy in your cubicle crunching numbers as you do when you’re in a bookstore.” He reached past her to open the door. “After you.”
Not wanting to get into yet another debate about her life choices, Mari simply said, “Promise to yank me out after five minutes.”
Once inside, she took a deep breath. Ahhh.
She loved the smell of books, both old and new. Loved the way they looked on the shelves, some colorful and fun, others serious and restrained. Loved how they felt in her hands, everything from glossy hardcovers to purse-sized paperbacks. Most of all, she loved feeling like she could learn everything, could become absolutely anything, all because of books.
There was a bigger, newer bookstore a few blocks away, and she’d spent many happy hours there over the years. But this store, with its antique shelves, old rugs over an even older wood floor, velvet armchairs, and a snuffling bulldog lounging on the floor by the register—this was her favorite place in Santa Monica.
Frankly, she was amazed a store like this could thrive in a Southern California city where people seemed interested only in the new and flashy. The owner, Nils, a sixtysomething Norwegian man with an encyclopedic knowledge of authors, had carved out his own special niche in the middle of Beach Town, USA. The cozy, somewhat cluttered store was always a welcome respite from the blazing sun.
When Mari was in Nils’s store, she could pretend she lived somewhere that didn’t have only one season. A city filled with history and stories that went back more than 250 years.
If she tried hard enough, she could almost pretend she was in England…and instead of Nils behind the register, it was her father.
The father she hadn’t seen in twenty-nine years.
“Mari, I’m glad you’re here.” Nils gestured for her to come over to the register. “I found a book I think you’ll be very excited about. I was just about to give you a ring, in fact.” He rifled through the books haphazardly stacked to his right. “Here it is.” He slid a book from the middle of the pile. Miraculously, they didn’t all come toppling down.
Mari’s heartbeat quickened when she saw the title: A History of Elderflower Island.
She wanted to sink into the nearest armchair and devour the information on the faded pages. But she’d have to wait until she was home tonight to feed her secret fascination for the one place on earth that intrigued her more than any other.
Carson saw the title when Nils handed over the book, but apart from a raised eyebrow, he didn’t comment. Her brother was the only one in their family who knew that Mari had spent years soaking up information about her birth father’s homeland. Thankfully, Carson didn’t judge her for it. Just the opposite, in fact—he always encouraged her. Not only to search for information online and in books, but to actually go to London and meet her father face-to-face at the bookstore he owned on Elderflower Island.
But she’d always been so busy, first with school and then work, that there had never been a good time to fly all the way to England. Instead, she enjoyed taking mini-breaks at beach houses with girlfriends and long weekends skiing with her family in the nearby mountains. One day soon, she promised herself, she’d block out time for a longer vacation to explore Europe. Maybe after tax season had come and gone…even though the truth was that tax season pretty much went all year once you factored in all the people and companies that filed for extensions.
Belatedly realizing she hadn’t thanked Nils for finding the book, she said, “You’re a wonder, always able to find the impossible.” She took out her wallet and gave him a twenty.
As he made change, he said, “I got lucky with this one. Looks like there was a bit of a fire sale from a bookstore on the island.”
Mari’s senses immediately went on red alert. “What do you mean by a fire sale? Has something happened to the bookstore?” It had to be her father’s. “Or do you think they are simply clearing stock?”
“I wouldn’t know for sure without giving them a call. I could do that if you’d like, although with the time difference, they’re likely closed for the day.”
Carson looked up from a book about World War II that he’d been thumbing through. “Something wrong, Mari?”
Before she could reply, her phone rang.
She was tempted to ignore it, but there was a lot riding on this afternoon’s budget meeting at Everett Financial. Mari’s assistant, or one of the other staff members, was likely waiting for her to come back from lunch so that she could answer their eleventh-hour questions.
She took her phone out of her bag, but didn’t recognize the number on the screen. In fact, the area code wasn’t local, but had a +44 in front of a long string of numbers.
The prefix for England was +44.
Oh my God. Could it be…her father?
When Mari was three years old, Charlie Forsythe had left her and her mother, and never made contact again. Had something finally prompted him to reach out to her? Maybe something to do with a fire sale at his bookstore?
Her hand trembled slightly as she accepted the call. “Hello?”
“Hello. My name is Clarence Wencel, and I am a solicitor with Ford, Bixby and Wencel.” The man’s accent was unmistakably British, as was his use of the word solicitor rather than lawyer. “I am trying to reach Marina Forsythe.”
For as long as Mari could remember, no one had called her Marina Forsythe. After her mother remarried when Mari was four, Mari’s surname had been legally changed to Everett. And the name Forsythe was never spoken of again.
“Yes, I’m Mari.” The words croaked out of her throat. She turned away from Carson, who was giving her a worried look, and moved to a deserted corner of the store. “How can I help you?” The question was automatic, one she asked co-workers and clients several times a day.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this news over the telephone, but your father, Charlie Forsythe, has passed away.”
Mari’s knees gave out. Had there not been a velvet-covered footstool directly behind her, she would have collapsed onto the floor. As it was, shock—and a soul-deep sorrow—had her dropping her phone, the device clattering from her ice-cold hand to the floor.
Carson hurried over and knelt in front of her. “Mari? What’s happened?”
She couldn’t speak, could only shake her head. Her phone rang again, from the floor.
Finally, she found her voice. “It’s my father.” Father came out on a sob. “He’s dead.”
“I’m so sorry.” Carson’s hands covered hers, his touch feeling like the only thing keeping her tethered to the earth. “Would you like for me to talk to whomever is calling?”
Though she was beyond shell-shocked, she shook her head. “I need to do it.”
Carson picked up her phone and handed it to her. It had stopped ringing, so she scrolled to her most recent call and hit Redial.
“This is Mari. Sorry, I dropped my phone.” She swallowed hard, working to keep tears at bay. “Please tell me how he died and anything else I should know.”
She listened in silence for several minutes. “Thank you for telling me.” Her brain was spinning, but she needed to keep it together, at least until she got off the phone. “I will be in touch once I’ve decided what to do.”
Her limbs felt numb as she put down her phone and closed her eyes. If only she could start the day over. Better yet, the year, so that she could have finally gotten on a plane to England and reached out to her father while he was still alive. Their meeting might have gone badly—but what if it had gone well? What if, despite all the years of separation, they had been able to forge a relationship with each other?
She would never get that chance now.
Carson was sitting beside her, his arm around her shoulders, patiently waiting for her to tell him the rest of what the solicitor had said.
“He had cancer.” Her voice didn’t sound like her own, too low and scratchy. “He didn’t leave a will, but his solicitors were able to determine that I’m his next of kin. He had no other children and no living siblings or parents.” She looked into her brother’s eyes. “Evidently, this means I’m entitled to all his worldly possessions.”
Carson’s eyebrows went up. “What have you inherited?”
She had never been so thankful for her brother’s steady, nonjudgmental presence. Rather than coddling her, he understood that she needed to lay it all out on the table.
“His bookstore, which has a two-bedroom flat above it. The solicitor said probate will take approximately six weeks, at which point he expects I’ll own both the store and the flat outright once all is said and done with death duties. He thinks there will be about five thousand pounds left to support my taking over the bookstore if I choose to.”
Carson let the information settle for a few seconds, during which she knew he was turning it over inside his brain, looking at it from all angles. “Whenever you’re ready to go to England to check it out, I’ll clear my schedule so that I can go with you.”
It would be so easy to let him deal with everything. But she knew instinctively that would only lead to more regrets. Plus, she would never forgive herself if Carson’s growing business derailed at a crucial moment because he had dropped the ball to take care of her mess.
“Thank you for offering,” she said. “But I need to deal with this myself.”
“I thought you were going to say that. Just remember that I can always jump on a plane at a moment’s notice.” He paused before adding, “And whatever happens, don’t let Mom change your mind about going to England. I get that her demons are big where your father is concerned, but you’ve got to do what’s right for you.”
All her life, Mari had been careful to protect her mother from further emotional upheaval. But now that everything had changed in an instant with one short phone call? Though Mari suspected Donna would be devastated to hear Mari’s sudden new plans, even that wasn’t enough to keep her away anymore.
“I want to see it.” No, her feelings were stronger than that. “I need to see his bookstore and his home and his island.” She couldn’t think beyond that yet, couldn’t imagine the reality of actually keeping and running his store, or living in the flat upstairs.
“Let me know the date of your flight, and I’ll use my frequent-flier miles to get you a lie-flat seat.” Carson had encouraged her to travel for years, but she’d never left Southern California. “And I’m thinking you should tear the Band-Aid off as fast as you can with Mom, then give her some time to get over her knee-jerk reaction.” One they both knew would be bad.
Though she knew her brother was right, she winced just thinking about it. “First, I need to get back to the office and run the budget meeting.”
“You’ve just learned that your birth father died. Dad will understand if you can’t run the meeting.”
“I know he will.” She loved her stepfather. He had treated her from the beginning as though she was his daughter. “But I can’t let him down.” Gary Everett had not only given her love, he’d also provided her with every possible opportunity with school and then with her career at his accounting firm. “I can’t let him think I’m choosing the father who left me over the one who took me in and stayed.”
“He won’t think that.”
Mari wasn’t at all sure that would be the case. The only thing she knew for certain at the moment was that she desperately needed a few hours of normality before she sat down with her parents and gave them the news.
“Come on,” she said, forcing herself to her feet. “Let’s grab a sandwich before we both have to get back to work.” She wasn’t the least bit hungry anymore, but she’d force herself to eat something, if only so her brother wouldn’t have one more thing to worry about.
They were halfway out the door when Nils rushed over. “You forgot your book.”
She slid it into her bag. Now, more than ever, she would need to know the history of Elderflower Island.