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Title: Zora Books Her Happy Ever After
Author: Taj McCoy
Publication Date: April 25, 2023
Page Count: 311
About the book:
A heart-pounding, curvy romance about an indie bookstore owner who finds herself in a love triangle when she meets the author she’s had a crush on for years…and his best friend.
Zora has committed every inch of her life to establishing her thriving DC bookstore, making it into a pillar of the community, and she just hasn’t had time for romance. But when a mystery author she’s been crushing on for years agrees to have an event at her store, she starts to rethink her priorities. Lawrence is every bit as charming as she imagined, even if his understanding of his own books seems just a bit shallow. When he asks her out after his reading, she’s almost elated enough to forget about the grumpy guy who sat next to her making snide comments all evening. Apparently the grouch is Lawrence’s best friend, Reid, but she can’t imagine what kind of friendship that must be. They couldn’t be more different.
But as she starts seeing Lawrence, and spending more and more time with Reid, Zora finds first impressions can be deceiving. Reid is smart and thoughtful—he’s also interested. After years of avoiding dating, she suddenly has two handsome men competing for her affection. But even as she struggles to choose between them, she can’t shake the feeling that they’re both hiding something—a mystery she’s determined to solve before she can find her HEA.
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“Well, is he attractive? You know I don’t want no ugly great-grandbabies.”
“Granny!” Zora laughed, pulling books from the stocking cart to arrange on the shelving display for the storefront window. The sun poked through the cloudy morning, threatening to scorch another early September day. Opus Northeast had been open for less than fifteen minutes, and its owner was already rolling her eyes. Silly her for making the mistake of mentioning the man who hit on her as she walked from her parked car into the store. “There’s no such thing as an ugly baby.”
Granny Marion shook a ruby-red fingernail at her granddaughter. “Now, I know I taught you better than that. Ain’t no reason to lie, baby. You know good and well that the li’l girl two doors down from you has one, bless his heart.”
Zora stifled a snort as she stacked middle-grade fantasy books next to some young-adult ones. Stories of witches, magic, and other worlds rich in cultural traditions and majesty. Running her fingers over the foiled titles of their hardcover jackets, she pictured her younger self staring into the window in awe, ready to devour each word in the safety of her cozy bedroom fort. Her parents would shake their heads in amusement before turning her loose in the children’s section. She’d beg to take home every new story that she hadn’t previously spent hours poring over, eventually convincing her parents to allow her a new armful. “That baby is cute. He just has a big head.”
“Hmmph. I think the word you’re looking for is oblong. And why are his eyes so big?” Granny Marion widened her eyes until they bulged behind her wire-rimmed glasses, her taut brown skin hugging high cheekbones and a proud forehead. Her long, salt-and-pepper hair twisted neatly into a bun at the nape of her neck—a nostalgic reminder of her past as a professional dancer turned dance teacher. Every move of her petite frame flowed with grace and intention, even when she ridiculed their neighbor’s newest family addition.
“Granny.” Zora squeezed out from the window front, smoothing her hands over her shapely figure clad in her usual skinny jeans, camisole and cardigan—today’s was hip length and plum colored. She loved a layered look, and her sweater matched her matte lipstick perfectly. “I’m sure he’ll grow into his features as he gets older.” She leaned down to kiss her grandmother on the cheek. “Remember, I had to grow into my smile—I had that awful headgear the orthodontist made me wear.”
For her entire fifth grade year, Zora had been plagued with jeers and jokes about the metal contraption affixed to her upper jaw to help with her overbite. Her only reprieve was when she ate, but even then, her classmates would tease Zora about her protruding front teeth. She’d sit with her closest friends on benches outside to avoid the meanest kids posted up at tables in the cafeteria.
Granny Marion kissed her granddaughter back, eyes sparkling. “Mmm-hmm, I remember. That gear gave you character. But there ain’t no headgear to fix a misshapen head, baby.”
“Jesus.” Zora shook her head, unable to hide her smile. She grabbed Granny’s hand, entwining their arms, and led her farther into the store. “So what are your plans for today?”
They walked past rows of bookshelves, display tables full of must-read paperbacks, and the checkout counter to a large corner filled with comfortable furniture for patrons to enjoy their purchases. Four-top tables lit with antique desk lamps were often filled with college students studying or local writers needing a change of venue. Against the farthest wall stood a coffee kiosk operated by a local Black-owned coffee shop and bakery. “I’m going to grab myself a latte and a breakfast bagel before I enjoy today’s newspaper.”
Granny Marion visited the store daily without fail, only deviating slightly from her routine when the Kerri’s Coffee kiosk sold holiday-inspired treats and she craved a holiday spice latte with a splash of eggnog instead of her regular skim latte. From open to close, Granny was often the one constant, greeting patrons, playing with kids, sharing her favorite reads and best cake recipes and reading her morning paper. She set her newspaper down on her favorite plush, high-backed chair in the reading corner, winking at the barista as they neared the coffee kiosk. “Hey there, young man, how you doin’ today?”
As they approached, Brian, a shy college sophomore, circled in front of the kiosk to wrap his arms around her. “Good morning, Ms. Marion. I’m doing good. How you doin’?” He waved at Zora. “Hey, Z.”
“What up, B?” Zora slapped him five and grabbed her usual from the counter—a raspberry cheese Danish and an oat milk latte. Before she could grill Brian about his upcoming calculus exam, the bell on the front door jingled. She raised her latte in thanks, and left her grandmother to chat. On Zora’s way to the front, she picked up a folded paper towel from the floor and chucked it into a waste bin. “What’s this doing here?”
Rushing in with several bags in her hands and flushed cheeks was Emma, Zora’s best friend and roommate. Her box braids were swept up into a high bun and framed by a colorful head wrap. Big hoop earrings barely skimmed the shoulders of her chambray dress shirt, which was tied at the waist over a colorful pleated skirt. “Girl. It’s already hot out there—I’m sweating! Now, don’t get mad. I know I’m late.”
Zora bit into her Danish and chewed, waiting. “I’m not mad.” Ain’t nothin’ new.
“It’s just that, I don’t even know how to tell you this…” She shoved her bags into a cabinet under the checkout counter, clenching and releasing her hands as she shuffled from one foot to the other nervously.
Zora sipped her latte, side-eyeing her friend. Nothing was new about these antics. “Rip the Band-Aid off, Em.”
She blew out a breath, grimacing. “I think I lost the inventory tablet. I couldn’t find it last night. It wasn’t in any of my bags or at home. I am so, so sorry. If we can’t find it, I promise I’ll pay for a replacement.” Emma wrung her hands. “I’m kinda hoping you can do your Zor-lock Holmes thing and help me retrace my steps.”
Emma lost everything. Back when they were college roommates, she lost her dorm keys the day she moved in. She lost her car in parking lots, lost her water bottle at yoga, and lost good wigs on multiple occasions when there was no logical reason for them to have been removed in the first place. One time she lost her date, which Zora never let Emma live down. Emma tried organizing differently, or keeping a note on her phone so that she knew where she parked, but then she’d lose her phone. Their freshman year Zora spent all of her free time retracing Emma’s steps to find her lost items, eventually printing instructions to call Zora onto adhesive labels to stick onto most of Emma’s property for the next time it went missing. They used Emma’s number originally, but she lost her phone more than anything else that she owned.
Chewing on a bit of Danish, Zora interlaced her fingers, pushing her palms out in front of her to stretch her arms before shaking them out at her sides. She tilted her head side to side, cracking her neck. “Okay, so you stayed to do inventory last night. What section were you working on?”
“Cookbooks.” Emma bit her lip.
Zora pulled her lips into her mouth, pressing them together as she nodded. “What did you eat for dinner?”
“I bought a chicken wrap from Brian, but then I wanted French fries, so I grabbed some duck fat fries from next door.” The bistro next door boasted New American cuisine with a hefty price tag.
“Ooo, I love those.” Now I want some.
“Right? They’re perfection.” Emma brought her fingertips to her mouth, kissed them and splayed them wide.
“Hmm.” Zora sipped her latte thoughtfully. This is too easy. “Did you check the bathroom? On top of the paper towel dispenser.”
Emma frowned, hugging her arms over her stomach. “Why would I check the bathroom? This isn’t like that time I ate those deep fried Oreos…”
Zora giggled. “I promise you, I wasn’t thinking of the day you blew up the bathroom. Honestly, I’d rather forget that one. Just go check.”
In a huff, her friend turned on her heel, walking back toward the coffee kiosk. “Hey, B! I’ll be right back for my coffee.” The bathroom door opened. “What the— How?” Emma rushed back, tablet in hand, mouth wide open. “How did you know it would be in the bathroom?” She plugged it into a charger hidden behind the counter and grabbed the backup, which was fully charged.
Zora sipped her latte, serving enough suspense to make her friend bounce with anticipation. “You had a chicken wrap and then ordered duck fat fries. You brought the food over to the cookbook section, but you always forget napkins, so you went to the bathroom. You carried the tablet with you, because you were worried you’d lose it. I found a paper towel on the floor next to the cookbook display.”
“So much for keeping it safe,” Emma muttered, eyeing it like the device betrayed her.
“It’s fine, we found the tablet, and now we can keep going through the inventory. Are you still on cookbooks?”
Emma nodded. “One last shelf, and then on to travel.”
“Okay, well let’s try to get through travel and self-help today? I want us to get through a full inventory sweep so that we can place our next orders and start planning out the short-story contest. We only have a couple of months left.”
“You got it. What are you working on today?” Emma leaned against the counter, looking surprised when Brian brought over her cinnamon-topped cappuccino. “You betta stop flirting with me, B!”
He grinned, walking back to the kiosk, as several shoppers wandered into the store.
“I’ve got social media posts, graphics for event flyers, and I’m trying to nail down this author for a book signing in two weeks.” Zora logged in to her workstation, climbing onto her black mesh-back stool at the main checkout desk of the bookstore.
Emma surveyed and greeted the guests, offering a friendly nod. “You know you could work in your office, Z. Take advantage of the peace and quiet? I can handle this out here while you get through some of that computer work.”
“I know you can, but I like it out here.” Zora shrugged.
Emma sucked her teeth. “You should be a professional people-watcher, girl.”
She chuckled in response. “It’s an addiction. I really can’t help it!” Zora watched her friend turn toward the cookbooks, but not before giving Granny Marion some sugar. Squeezing the matriarch’s hand, Emma plopped a big kiss on her cheek before leaning down to whisper something in her ear. Granny chuckled and they slapped five, as Emma strode to the cookbook display, sat cross-legged on the floor and started reviewing inventory figures on the tablet.
Z exchanged an amused look with her grandmother, who blew a kiss in her direction. Catching it, she touched the tips of her fingers to her cheek. She blew a kiss back and turned her attention to her computer monitor. After pulling up the bookstore’s calendar, she made a list of the upcoming events for the next three weeks, putting together digital flyers using templates she’d made previously. She added book covers and author photos to author event flyers, candid photos of regular customers highlighting some of their favorite reads that year, and a photo of Granny Marion reading to a group of children to publicize upcoming story time events. She dropped links to all of the graphics into her social media spreadsheet, where she scheduled out posts weeks in advance, complete with post language, hashtags, author account handles, and registration links. Such a Capricorn.
Being organized was how Zora had gotten the business running smoothly so quickly. After her father died, she’d received a generous inheritance that allowed her to purchase Opus Northeast from its previous owner, Ms. Betty. A bookeller for decades, Ms. Betty had decided to retire and move to Arizona to be closer to her grandchildren. Betty had known Zora since adolescence, and she was delighted to sell her store to someone who loved the place just as much as she did. Zora took great pride in updating Opus Northeast in a way that invited the community to come in and stay awhile.
After a couple of hours of events and social media planning, she moved on to email, deleting all of the spam before responding to emails from book distributors, patrons inquiring about upcoming releases not currently available for preorder, and local authors replying to her invitations for in-store author events. Looking down at her desk, she clicked her tongue at herself for leaving her breakfast sitting there as she worked. She had a habit of leaving food sitting next to her for hours as she zoned in on a task only to pick at it once it was cold. She popped the last of her flaky Danish into her mouth, as a new email hit her inbox. “Oh, my God.”
“What is it?” Emma asked curiously as she advanced toward the counter, setting a fresh latte in front of Zora.
“He said yes.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. She lifted the latte to her lips on autopilot, humming softly as she took in the scent. “Thanks.”
Her friend peered over her shoulder. “Is he who I think he is?”
Stunned, Zora looked up at Emma, her brows furrowed in confusion. “He said yes?”
“Are you having a stroke? I’m gonna need for you to use your words, sis.” Emma waved her hand in front of Z’s face.
She couldn’t find the words. Her mouth went dry. Helpless, Zora pointed to her computer screen.
Emma leaned forward. “‘Dear Ms. Dizon,’ blah blah blah. ‘I’ve spoken to Lawrence Michaels, and he would love to have an author event hosted at Opus Northeast! As you may know, he grew up not far from there, and he is excited for an opportunity to read an excerpt from Trial by Fire, which is also based in Northeast D.C. Following the reading, he can stay for a brief Q&A and a book signing,’ blah blah blah. Wow, are you freaking out right now?”
It was no secret that Zora had been crushing hard for years on bestselling author Lawrence Michaels, whose newest installment of his Langston Butler mystery thriller series was selling like hotcakes, and word on the street was that the first two books in the series were being optioned for film. Aside from being a local star, Lawrence’s good looks were undeniable. “I bet he’s tall,” Zora murmured, grabbing his book from a pile of new releases on the counter behind her. Opening the book to the author photo inside the back cover, she ran her fingertips over the image of his clean-shaven brown skin, a hint of a smile curving at the edge of his closed mouth. A cleft in his chin and strong jaw led down the column of his neck to broad shoulders cloaked in a dark blue blazer. “Wonder if he has dimples.”
Emma stared at her friend, pinging her eyes back and forth between Zora and the author photo. “I think you might need to break out the ol’ vibrator tonight, girl. This ‘hot for author’ thing is getting unhealthy. Look at you—you can barely string words together right now. What are you going to do when he gets here? Drool on him?”
Zora swatted her friend away. “I’m fine. It’s just… I didn’t think he’d actually be willing to come here.”
“Why? He’s too big and bad for Brookland? He’s from here!” Emma shoved her hands onto her hips.
Zora pulled at one of her tight curls, coiling it around her finger. “You know what I mean. Folks like that set their sights higher than modest indie bookstores like this. And he’s from Petworth.”
“He’s from D.C. And he could still be a total douche. Besides, when have you ever cared about someone having too much bravado to fit their big ass head through our doors? He’s lucky to be invited, girl. Don’t gas that dude up too much.” Emma dragged her fingers across her throat, deading the subject. She really should have gone to law school.
She struggled to find the words. “I just— I’m surprised is all.”
“‘Oh, Rexy, you’re so sexy.’” Emma quoted one of their favorite movie quotes from their college days—they’d scored a box of her sister’s old DVDs and binge-watched everything, but some lines stuck forever. Emma was forever quoting Empire Records, Center Stage, and The Cutting Edge. She curled her fingers into a claw and delicately pawed in Zora’s direction as she turned toward the travel section.
Exasperated, she pursed her lips, still tugging at her curls. “I hate you.”
“I heard that, heffa.”
Excerpted from Zora Books Her Happy Ever After by Taj McCoy © 2023 by Taj McCoy, used with permission from HarperCollins/MIRA Books.
About the author:
Law grad Taj McCoy is committed to championing plus-sized Black love stories and characters with a strong sense of sisterhood and familial bonds. Born in Oakland, Taj started writing as a child and celebrated her first publications in grade school. When she’s not writing, Taj boosts other marginalized writers, practices yoga, co-hosts the Fat Like Me and Better Than Brunch podcasts, shares recipes, and cooks supper club meals for friends.
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