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Poor choice in men? Check.
Debatably losing the plot? Check.
Payton Callaghan has had enough. She needs time away from her stressful job, time away from her disaster of a love life and what she really doesn’t need is a hot bookshop owner trying to verbally outwit her in the middle of his store.
Owen Anders believes in creating his own plot. Successful businessman, talented musician and book nerd, he hadn’t accounted for Payton and her wrath at the exact moment his well-constructed world was hitting an unplanned crisis.
However, he needs a lawyer and he thinks she needs him. With Payton insistent that a relationship is not in an upcoming chapter, can Owen persuade her to change her plot and ensure her happily ever after stars him?
Part of the Callaghan Green Series but this friends-to-lovers romance can be read as a steamy standalone!
- He owns a bookstore!
- She doesn't want to fall
Intro to Chapter One
Intro to Chapter One
Chapter One - Payton
If he didn’t take at least two steps backwards he was going to find his balls spewing out of his throat and his penis retracting into his bladder. I was officially done with this shit.
“Excuse me,” I said, trying to slip past him even though he was mid-sentence on some topic that was ‘All About Him’. I had no idea why I was being polite.
“Shall I come with you?”
He grabbed my arm. He grabbed my fucking arm. I resisted the temptation to knee him hard in the testicles and make all my fantasies come true.
The bar was loud enough to make me raise my voice. “No thanks. I’m going to find my friends.” Who were at the bar. Together. Drinking margaritas. Together. While yet again, I was being hit on by a totally douche.
“But I thought we had a thing going here. You know, I’ve bought you a drink and we were mid-conversation about the choices I’m having to make about my career and…”
I exhaled deeply and tried to seek my inner calm. Unfortunately, the bitch that was my inner calm had decided she was taking a vacation in Hawaii and had left her cousins Tired and Stressed in her place. “Actually, I put my drink and your drink on my tab. You’re telling me about you, and haven’t asked me a single thing about me yet and you’re way too close into my personal space considering you’ve known me all of twenty minutes.” I could’ve been worse. To be fair, that was pretty tame for me.
He looked shocked, his overly large mouth gaping slightly open and his eyes wide. “I thought—”
“Look, Ed, I think this was never going anywhere. If you want to score here on a Friday evening you need to get a bit more creative. You know, ask a few questions, listen to her answers, at least pretend you’re interested in what she has to say and you never know, she might be drunk enough to go home with you,” I said, almost applying the cruelty filter. “Good luck in your search.”
He started to speak but I managed to find enough room to turn around and walk towards the door where my sister, Ava, was waiting for me, along with two of the girls I worked with at my law firm, Callaghan Green, where I was a commercial litigator—a commercial litigator who had endured an incredibly stressful and busy week ending in a huge win for my client.
The end of a case always depressed me somewhat. I liked the busyness of a big case with a lot at stake. I enjoyed the adrenaline rush and the deadlines, the battle of wits with the opposition. But when it was over I felt a huge sense of loss and something my counsellor had equated to grief. I wasn’t quite sure it went that far, but I would always get a little bit more tense than usual until the next client came along. I was aware I wasn’t quite sane.
“Do we need to let the bar staff know where you’re leaving his balls?” Ava said, her long blonde hair hanging in a curly mess. She was my youngest sibling, the baby of the seven of us, and looked the part of princess, a role she had always been given by our four older brothers, although Seph, my twin, was only just older than me.
I shook my head. “I left them attached. It was too much effort.” We headed outside into the spring London night. It was just about warm enough to be able to wear a jacket rather than a coat and I was dreaming of evenings sitting by the Thames with a cool beer and the warm sun on my shoulders. Those sorts of evenings were still a couple of months away, which made me feel even more like going home and burying myself in a good book and having a hot bath. “Where are we heading?”
Ava gestured to a side street. “Silvia’s. Unless you want to go pick up another mansplaining arsehole to insult for the evening.”
My sister was surprisingly sober. “I’m giving up on men,” I said, feeling better now the confession had met the air. “I’m done. I’m all about the job and my family and my friends.”
Ava raised her brows disbelievingly. “You said this about ten years ago and decided you were into girls instead.”
This was true. I had an experimental phase around the start of university as my boyfriend had been a cheat and an idiot. It had lasted about nine months, during which time my parents hadn’t raised a single eyebrow and had welcomed the single girlfriend I’d brought home with the same open arms they’d shown everyone else. “No. No relationships. No dating apps. No men. I’ve had enough with picking up wankers in bars.”
“Stop picking up wankers in bars then. Other places are available as are other sorts of men. Join a book club or go to the gym with someone who isn’t one of our brothers and therefore doesn’t look like a bodyguard. Ask Callum to set you up with one of his colleagues at the zoo.” Callum was our brother who wasn’t a lawyer. Instead he was a vet, one with his own YouTube channel and a very popular Instagram feed.
“Callum would probably try to set me up with a gorilla and video it to get a few thousand likes,” I said as we entered Silvia’s. “Besides, I don’t see you setting the dating world on fire.” Ava had been dateless for at least four weeks; I hadn’t even seen her on-again, off-again bed warmer Antonio about.
“The gorilla would probably have better grooming techniques than most of the men you’ve dated in the past twelve months, Payts. Regroup, consider what you want and then set about it the right way; not picking up dicks in bars when you’re both half-drunk. But joining the nearest nunnery is not going to make you happy. Decent sex and a few good orgasms should be mandatory,” Ava said, heading straight to the bar and ordering two margaritas.
Silvia’s was a small, very boutique-style, cocktail and bottled beer bar that was most popular straight after work or for a liquid lunch. It was quieter as it was later on and we perched on the barstools, accepting the small plate of stuffed vine leaves and a bowl of olives. It had a Greek theme and we knew the owner—who wasn’t called Silvia—well enough to be fed whatever bar snacks she hadn’t sold at lunch.
I stared at my sister, my two colleagues and a friend of Ava’s now in the bar with us. “Since when did you become an expert on decent sex and few good orgasms? I thought Antonio was yesterday’s headline?”
“He wasn’t much of a headline,” she said. “He had a good-enough sized cock that filled a hole but he really didn’t know what else to do with it.”
“Don’t let our brothers hear you say that,” I said, taking a sip from my margarita. “Else they’ll fill his hole. With cement.”
Ava laughed. “They’ve heard much worse from Claire. Have you heard from her today?”
Claire was our other sister, a few years older and currently very pregnant, which meant she was more argumentative than normal. The only person able to handle her was her soon-to-be-husband, Killian, and even he was looking slightly fraught. “A text this morning wishing me luck for when we received judgement and another letting me know that sex does not induce labour. I didn’t ask for details.”
“We should go see her tomorrow. At least try to be supportive while she has the world’s longest pregnancy. And it’ll give Killian a break from trying not to kill her,” I said, biting into a stuffed vine leaf. It tasted divine: all glorious carbs and flavour.
Ava groaned. “I need to go shopping for a house warming gift for Max tomorrow. Fuck knows what to get the couple who have everything.” Max was our eldest sibling and had just moved into a newly renovated house with his girlfriend, Victoria. “Let’s not have too many of these and we can go early.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Why do you want an early start on a Saturday morning?” My sister was a notorious late riser on the weekends. She flipped houses for a living and spent Monday to Friday on job sites, bossing about construction workers which meant starts earlier than seven am a lot of the time.
“I’m viewing a few houses tomorrow afternoon,” she said, knocking back the margarita and gesturing to the bartender for another two. “Time for a few new projects.”
I finished my own drink and felt slightly less cranky. Ava felt the same way I did when a project was finished. “Why can neither of us accept when we’re between jobs and just relax like normal people?”
“Because we’re not normal people,” Ava said. “We’re Callaghans.”
Despite having invested in the biggest bed I could find, I woke up each morning tucked onto one side, as if leaving room for an imaginary boyfriend. It had been a long time since anyone had been on that side on a regular basis: my last boyfriend had been booted nearly three years ago, and although I’d had a few casual relationships since then, no one had been under my sheets for more than three separate occasions. I’d been burnt, and not just when I was a teenager, but since. There had been Matt, who was an investment banker: charming, intelligent and charismatic, he’d treated me like a princess and in my head I’d picked out the names of our children and where we’d hold our wedding reception. In his head, he already had a wife and a piece on the side, which happened to be me. I’d found out when I’d met Claire for a meal in an upmarket restaurant and he’d been gazing into his wife’s eyes instead of mine. Somehow, I’d not lost the plot. Instead, I’d taken a photograph and sent it to him and then watched him finish his meal absolutely petrified that I was about to come over and cause a scene.
Then there’d been Gary. He’d healed my heart and promised me the world for two years. For a few months we’d even lived together. He was a teacher and played soccer every Saturday afternoon, taking me out for lunch on a Sunday and tolerating my twin brother, Seph. One evening I’d come home from work to an apartment empty of all his belongings and a note apologising, telling me he’d met someone else and wanted to end it before anything physical happened. And that had been three years ago and there had only been men worthy of up to three nights since.
I stretched out across the mattress, enjoying the coolness of the sheets and the space. We’d left Silvia’s early last night, avoiding any more wankers and I’d strolled home to a hot chocolate with a dash of whisky and my book, the latest in a series set in an interesting club in Seattle. It was making me wonder if such clubs existed in London and how to discover one without alerting my siblings. Lazily, I checked my phone, knowing there would be a couple of messages from Seph at least. My twin was still struggling to find himself since splitting from his very long-term girlfriend and needed frequent mollycoddled. He had managed to move in with Max and his girlfriend, Victoria, but given that they had six bedrooms and countless reception rooms I didn’t feel too sorry for them.
Callum: Is it tonight Max is having this house party?
Claire: Yes. I sent an invite that you should’ve accepted and it should be in your calendar on your phone. I say should because you keep ignoring me.
Callum: Shouldn’t you be giving birth to my niece or nephew round about now?
Claire: Yes, but I’m not. He or she has inherited your DNA for being late, clearly.
Callum: Does the diary entry have something in it about bringing a gift?
Claire: This is a lot of questions for Friday evening. Shouldn’t you be getting laid?
Callum: Who says I’m not?
Seph: You’re messaging us about a house warming party. If you’re anywhere in the process of getting laid you definitely won’t be seeing her again. If it is a her.
There was a break in the timeline while Callum clearly went back to whatever he was, or rather who, he was doing and Claire no doubt continued pacing around the house in the hope it would induce labour. I skimmed down the rest of the messages, enjoying not having to rush out of bed to get to work or a meeting, or god forbid, a gym class.
Callum: What sort of gift am I meant to get for a fucking house warming present? This sort of shit needs to come with instructions.
Claire: For fuck’s sake, Callum. A plant? A bottle of wine or Champagne? You could go with something more personal but not, and if I could underline NOT I would, a pet or any form of animal.
Callum: But what if we all turn up with the same present?
Seph: If we all turn up with whisky Max’ll probably have a freaking orgasm.
Payton: And what about your future sister-in-law? Do you think she’ll appreciate the whisky?
Seph: Get her a bottle of really decent merlot or malbec. Then they’ll both be happy. Did they get engaged too?
Claire: No, but it’s only a matter of time. Like this baby making an appearance. Hopefully. I think it wants me to be pregnant forever.
Seph: None of us want that. Seriously. You were bad tempered before, now you’re just unpleasant. We’ve nominated Killian for a sainthood.
Payton: Claire, what’ve you bought them?
Claire: A set of red wine glasses and a bottle of merlot. Hopefully to be used later for wetting the baby’s head.
Payton: Keep wishing. Ava was nearly three weeks late. Anyone heard from her this morning?
Seph: Weren’t you with her last night?
Payton: Only till about 9. It wasn’t a late one.
Seph: Maybe she’s just sleeping in.
Payton: Apparently she’s checking out some houses this afternoon so she wanted to go shopping early on. Although it is only 8.30. I wish I could sleep in longer.
Callum: Back to presents, people.
Claire: How about passes to the zoo? Or an adopt an animal thing—as in one you get newsletters about, not an actual animal. I don’t see Max homing a friendly alligator or something.
Callum: That’s me sorted. Cheers.
Claire: And you couldn’t have come up with that yourself. Lazy.
Seph: I have no idea either.
Claire: Which is ridiculous seeing as you live with them. How about a voucher for a meal out so they can get away from you?
Seph: Somewhat harsh but I’ll take that and run with it. See you later.
I hit the home button and left the conversation, wondering what Ava’s plans were given that she wanted to be done early afternoon. She answered her phone just as I was about to hang up, sounding predictably groggy.
“What time is it?” she said, muffling a groan.
“Quarter to nine. What time are we meeting?” I said, still sprawled out in bed.
There was a low groan and a muffled voice that sounded distinctively male and familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
“I thought you were busy this afternoon?” I said, now highly suspicious that my little sister wasn’t alone and when she said she was going home yesterday, she had lied.
“I can push the viewings back till later. Meet me at eleven at Walsingham’s on Thayer Street. I think I’m going to get them this set of cushions and throws I’ve seen that’ll be perfect in the snug,” she said, still sounding half asleep. “Actually, make it midday.” There was definitely stifled laughter in her voice.
“That’s fine,” I said. “But when we meet, you’re going to tell me who you’re with and you’re not going to lie to me.”
“Gotcha,” she said, and hung up, leaving me feeling more than a little bit lonely in my bed on my own.
* * *
It was just after midday by the time Ava showed up at Walsingham’s. She was freshly pressed and tidied, radiating something that made people look at her as she walked down the street. I didn’t remember life before Ava: there were only eighteen months between us so she’d always been a fixture. Where I had been the determined and stubborn sister, she’d been the gracious and ethereal one, the girl who just naturally charmed with her smile but had the brains to follow it up. I’d had the brains, but the charm had to be worked at. If I didn’t love her so much, I’d hate her.
London buzzed around us, Saturday shoppers out in full force along with the tourists who were a continual trail of ants leading a parade around the sights. “How was your morning?” I said, obviously fishing.
She shrugged, stepping into the shop. “It was a hook up. Nothing to talk about. An itch got scratched. You should try it some time.”
“I’ve tried it plenty. I’m not usually as evasive,” I said. My sister was typically all too happy to analyse and score whichever hook up she’d been entertained the night before. That she wasn’t saying anything was something to dig into next time she’d had a few too many glasses of wine.
“What are you going to get them?”
“I was thinking of some books. Classics—the really nice editions you can get. There’s that book store next door I thought we could try; plus, they have a lunch menu and a licence in the coffee shop inside,” I said. I had been stumped for ideas as between Max and Victoria, they were richer than God and more alcohol or a house plant just seemed thoughtless. Books were something they both loved and the house had been renovated with several built-in bookcases.
Ava walked straight over to a set of shelves where material and cushions were displayed, including a tropical print that looked suitably historic in design. It turned out I was right; the print was a replication of one from the nineteenth century and matched the wallpaper in the snug.
“I’ll pick them up after we’ve been to this bookstore,” Ava said, putting her card back in her wallet. “No point dragging huge bags everywhere. Besides, I know how long you’ll spend in there.”
I decided not to respond, because she was unfortunately right. I liked big books and I could not lie and the bookshop next door was drool worthy, possibly better than the prospect of a night with most men.
Cases, as it had been named, was an independent, although it had three or four other premises across London and one in Bristol. Like a lot of bookstores, there was a licenced café, but unlike most others the spaces were also used as live music venues.
This one, next to Ava’s favourite home store, was the flagship and it was huge. I hadn’t been in this particular branch before so I allowed myself the time to walk in slowly and savour the dark wood bookcases that bordered a wide aisle leading to what used to be a ballroom. Again, the same mahogany bookcases ran around the room, smaller ones dividing it into sections, the tiled centre dotted with leather Chesterfields and tables, perfect for lounging on with a book and a glass of red. Above was a mezzanine floor where the bar and café were situated, and above that was another floor of books.
“This was some vision,” Ava said, taking in the surroundings. “Pretty much everything that could’ve been restored has been. Even the original fireplaces are dotted about.”
“And so many books,” I said, hoping I hadn’t drooled when I spoke.
“But you only read electronically these days. Mainly because the covers are too embarrassing to be seen with,” she said, raising an eyebrow.
I shrugged. “God gave us book boyfriends to make up for how fecking shit other men are. Actually, it’s not the covers, it’s just easier to read on my phone or my Kindle or my iPad. I still buy books though.”
“I know; I’ve seen the mess that is your lounge. I wish you’d move; let me find a nice townhouse for you where you could have your own snug. I’ll meet you in the bar—I’ve got a birthday present to buy,” she said wandering away in her own world.
I left her to it and started to browse the shelves, looking for some pretty classics for Max and Victoria—and something for myself. The shop had an immense collection of unusual books: editions of Alice in Wonderland and Ted Hughes’ poetry that I hadn’t come across before and I soon had a basket full of treats that meant getting them home would be a workout in itself.
Popping the basket on the floor, I took out my phone and took a step back, wanting to get a really good shelfie for my collection on Instagram. The different bindings and colours were far too pretty to ignore and it was a good bit of inspiration for when I finally did move and got that big bookcase I’d always dreamed of.
I wasn’t sure who said the word first but my phone bounced on the floor and my ass was about to follow. The brick of a person I’d backed into caught me from behind which allowed me to rearrange my legs into a stable position.
“Why is the world obsessed with taking photos?”
I swung around, my mother’s Irish temper raising its very ugly head. “Why is the world not? There’s nothing wrong with trying to capture something beautiful and if you can’t appreciate that,” I gestured to the shelf, “then go and find the nearest sports shop. I’m sure that’ll be more to your taste!” He was wearing a T-shirt that was tight over his chest and biceps. One arm was tattooed which did not match the round glasses that were perched on a strong nose. His light brown hair was neatly cut and he needed a shave. And a sense of humour.
His arms crossed over his chest and he glared at me, his biceps bulging. I folded my own arms and matched his expression.
“If I wanted to own a sports shop then that’s what I would’ve invested in, instead of a bookshop, princess.”
I laughed with feigned hysteria, aware that a few people were looking our way. “Nice try, Thor wannabe. Now crawl back under your nearest weight stack and pin yourself down if you will.”
A suited security guard had glided towards us. He had my phone in his hand. I breathed a sigh of relief. “See, it’s clearly obvious you’re only in here to cause trouble and insult people. Behaviour much better suited to elsewhere.”
“Mr Anders is this lady causing you trouble?”
I stared at the security guard.
“She’s nothing I can’t handle. Thanks, Reece.” He pushed his glasses further up his nose and accepted my phone from the guard.
“Nothing you can’t handle?”
“Trust me, princess, you aren’t anywhere near the top of the shit storm I’m dealing with. Now, are you in my store to buy books or just take pretty pictures for your social media accounts?”
He actually owned the store? This was the owner of Cases? I’d thought it was some old guy who had bought the premises?
“No way are you the owner.”
He eyed me, arms still folded. He was tall, taller than any of my brothers which was why I’d thought I’d stepped back into a brick wall. “I’d show you the legal documents but I’m sure they’re not something you’d be interested in.”
My laugh was pure genuine pleasure. “Actually, dealing with legal documents is my job, you pretentious arsehole. I’m a lawyer, one who specialises in business, so if you want to put your stereotypical judgements back in that Neanderthal mouth of yours, you might not lose business.” I pointed to the basket overflowing with books on the floor. “That is what I was going to buy from you. But you know, maybe I should go to one of your competitors. They might be more understanding of someone who really likes books and just wanted a picture to help model their own bookcase.” I left out the part about Instagram. That was not in my best interests at present.
He pulled off his glasses and rubbed his nose. “Shit, I’m sorry. I don’t spend much time on the shop floor and today is not good for me trying to be a people person.” He rolled his shoulders and holy fuck the man was built. “Owen Anders, not an asshole most of the time.” He held out the hand that didn’t contain my phone.
I debated not taking it, because I could be a dick like that, but the look on his face was one of genuine sorrow. “Payton Callaghan, book lover and present buyer.”
“And lawyer,” I repeated.
“Can I have your business card?”
I frowned, puzzled.
“I’m in need of someone who specialises in commercial litigation. Hence I’m unable to people properly today.”
I rummaged around in my purse for a card. He shifted and picked up my basket of books. “Here,” I said. “I’m good at what I do if you do need someone.”
He accepted it, the basket looking like it weighed the same as a bag of popcorn in his hand. “Thank you, Payton. I’ll take these to the till over there. I’ll make sure everything’s discounted—just add any more to it that you want.”
I fought the urge to touch the stubble thing he had going on and find out if it was soft or rough. “I appreciate that. I’ll make sure I tag you in the photo when I Instagram them later.”
His mouth cracked out into a broad smile. “The publicity never hurts.” Then his eyes caught mine and I took a step back.
“I best get moving. My sister is waiting for me in the bar.”
He nodded. “Your phone. It seems to have survived the fall.”
I took my phone and inspected the screen: not a single crack. “That’s one bonus,” I said. “I think that would’ve been my third screen this year.” I was notorious for dropping it when I became distracted.
“Maybe you should get a camera.” His own phone started to ring. “Excuse me, I know who this is. I’ll leave these at the till.”
I watched him walk away, jeans well-fitted enough to show off the arse underneath as well as strong muscular legs. He was clearly an attractive man. Just a shame he was yet another tosser.