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All This Time by Zee Irwin

Read Online All This Time by Zee Irwin Romance Book

All This Time - She’s a book nerd and a cat whisperer. He’s scarred and intimidating. Can the beautiful, quirky bookstore owner tame the beast in the detective?
♥Lily Young♥
I admitted the book boyfriends by the dozen in my Cat’s Cradle bookstore had taken precedence over dating in real-life. I wanted the real thing, an everlasting true love, a man holding me nightly, but the journey to finding that guy wasn’t so easy. I’d kissed a few frogs along the way, and maybe my quirky sense of style chased a few away. One thing was for sure, the heroines in my romance novels made this falling in love thing seem easier than this.
When Detective Jace showed up in my life unexpectedly, I wondered if we both had what it took to get over our pasts and into the future together.
♥Jace Delfino♥
Women took one look at me, then looked away, leaving me wondering if I’d live alone the rest of my life. My beastly look was perfect for work. As a detective I could intimidate the most hardened criminals. But when Lily entered my life, all I wanted was for her to see how soft she made me feel inside.
When the bad guys got too close to Lily and her bookstore, I worked overtime to protect her. It’s my job, it’s what I do - but would she let me protect her for life?

 

All This Time by Zee Irwin

Read Online All This Time by Zee Irwin Book Chapter One 

 

Uncle Joe used to tell me, “Lily, you never know what you’ll find around the next corner. A new adventure awaits.” I might have inherited a sliver of his optimism. Whether I was turning onto Prince Street where my bookstore was located or moving from one aisle of books to the next, I believed something new was awaiting me at every opportunity. A new customer looking for a book. A new hope. Maybe even a new love.

Every morning as I walked to work, the familiar sights and sounds of Prince Street flooded me with memories. Some shops may have changed, and owners came and went, but the mainstays were always here. It was home. The historical brick buildings and their perfectly decorated shop windows enticed me to stare at each one.

The smells of the street were familiar, too. Rich coffee from the cafe, and the catch of the day served from Whales fish market. Italian spices of a good deep-dish pizza, and the smell of leather. The eclectic mix kept shoppers coming back often. Shoppers meant sales. Sales meant profits, and I clung to hope for a successful day.

With an umbrella in one hand, I tightened my white fuzzy wool A-line coat around me against the chilly Boston breeze with the other. Analise waved from across the street at Hides, her handmade leather purse store, where she was adding more red and pink purses to her window display. She was one of the newest shop owners and I envied her craft, as she made all the purses on site. Her leather making classes were quite popular and brought plenty of shoppers as well.

A little further down the street, I found Frank Betto, Jr. outside of his Betto’s Italian Pizzeria, using a broom to scrub off the sidewalk.

“Good morning, Lily. You look beautiful today? Watch your step.” He held out his elbow for me and I hooked my arm through. His daily accompaniment was comfortable, and a routine we’d kept up over the past year since he returned from New York City to take over the shop after his Pops died.

“Good morning. What’s the news Frank?” I could always count on him to give me the latest gossip.

“It’s not good. Two more burglaries occurred in the past week, both within a few blocks of here. Fucking criminals. Be sure to lock up at night.”

“Will do.”

I paused in front of the windows of Jean-Marie’s Vintage Collection, all adorned with red hearts and pink twinkle lights. An ivory tea length satin gown, with petticoats added underneath for fullness, took my breath away. Oh, if only I were getting married. My vintage-loving heart skipped a beat at the vision even though there were no groom prospects in sight, and Frank Betto didn’t count.

“Hm, beautiful dress. Change your mind about marrying me?” The wink of Frank’s dark brown eyes always confirmed the running joke between us.

“Have you stopped fooling around with every bimbette who comes along? Last week you had a new redhead on your arm.” I usually enjoyed the joke between us, but today I wasn’t in the mood.

“Ouch, that hurts. When are you going to forgive me for prom night?”

“That was so long ago. It doesn’t bother me anymore.” So what if he had screwed the homecoming queen in the bathroom on our prom night and ruined my teenage dream of losing my virginity to him? I had tired of his flirty ways, and his inability to stay faithful made it easy for me to break up with him back then. He was the past, not my future.

“Besides, I’ve seen plenty of women around you since you moved back home. I’m sure any of them would say yes if you asked.”

“But none of them are you. People change, you know, and I could change for you. Until his dying day, Pops said, ‘Be a good son. Marry Liliana. She’s a kind woman.’ I’d hate to disappoint him. Maybe there’s another chance for us?”

The thought of marrying him was laughable. I regarded him with a sideways glance. In high school, he had been the epitome of the Italian heartthrob, tall with almost jet black hair and dark eyes that held a twinkle of mischief. He was also always in trouble, and the bad boy every good girl desired.

Now at twenty-something, his body was fine-tuned by hours at the gym, and his good looks could have landed him on runways as a fine Italian model. He still walked around like he was God’s gift to women. No thanks. People don’t change that easily.

Still, I was sad about Pops passing away last year. The way he called me Liliana, even though my name was just Lily. Pops waited on me every Friday night after work to come in and give me a slice of cheese pizza and a wink. If he could have courted me, he probably would have.

“Aw, Frank. I miss Pops, too. But you and I both agreed we make better friends than anything else. I’ll always be here for you.”

“How about friends with benefits?” He wiggled his eyebrows at me.

I scoffed and walked away.

“Come on. I was kidding. I do recall a pinky promise years ago. What was it again? If we both got to be thirty-five and still single, we’d marry each other. How about we accelerate that plan?”

“You’ll never outgrow your bad boy ways, will you? Now get back to your store. I have work to do. Have a good day!” I dismissed him with a chuckle and thought about sending Frank a truckload of romance novels to study. If only men in real life could pick up a romance book once in a while and learn a thing or two about how to treat a woman.

I continued my walk, but the news of the robberies bothered me, hitting so close to home. Just last year I obtained a quote for installing extra security, but I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t afford to get broken into either, but because something bad happened to others didn’t mean it would happen to me. Right?

When I finally landed on the doorstep of my daily destination, I entered the shop and breathed in through my nose. The familiar scent of home and work greeted me. An inventory of ten thousand books, a few cats of different sizes, colors, and temperaments, and an enviable assortment of tea, teacups, teapots, and cozies, were just a few of the things that I loved about The Cat’s Cradle Bookstore. And it was all mine.

Since Uncle Joe retired and transferred ownership of the bookstore to me, I’d been working to transform the shop to one where women could feel comfortable browsing books, reading books, and discussing books while drinking tea with a cat in their lap. To me, and to my customers, the place was Heaven, where we found peace and harmony.

George twirled himself between my legs as if going through an obstacle course, marking his path upon my black tights and red suede boots with his orange fur. With a tiny Meow, Meow, despite his larger frame, the cuddly orange tabby cat greeted me and begged to be picked up.

“Yes, George, let me get my apron.”

Beverly, the dear retired woman who worked for me a few days a week, sewed adorable aprons for us to wear, one for every holiday and month throughout the year. I was particularly happy to wear the latest addition to our collection: Pink with a white heart-printed ruffle and embroidery that sported the saying My book boyfriends love Valentine’s Day at The Cat’s Cradle. Once tied firmly in place, I picked up the gorgeous boy and he promptly rubbed his whiskers against my cheek.

“Ooh, why are you such a sweetie? What do you think? Will it be a good day? It’s been a slow month so far.” I eyed the boxes waiting to be opened, the almost daily deliveries of new books sent from publishers and book distributors that made everyday feel like Christmas.

George used his paw against my chin as if saying Turn your head away from the boxes of new book arrivals and focus on me instead. How could I resist his charms? I snuggled him closer and carried him with me into the small cafe area, rubbed his head, and then put him down.

I made some tea, but it wasn’t the smell of fresh black cherry tea leaves that brought out the rest of the cat crew. It was my reach for the Seven Seas cans and the sound of the drawer opening to find the can opener.

“Here you go, hungry kitties.” Like a teacher taking attendance, I set out bowls and counted each cat as they appeared, realizing one was missing.

“Where’s BooBoo?” I went in search of the beautiful, long-haired black cat who stole my heart the minute I found her in the back alley of the shop the first Halloween after I took over The Cat’s Cradle. She scared me like a ghost hiding behind the trash bin, thus her name. The matted fur on her belly hid a cut, and ear mites and fleas were eating away at her. After a trip to the vet, I rescued her, and she became the first shop cat.

Like a mascot for the store, I couldn’t imagine my working day without her. In fact, BooBoo was famous among my customers as her illustrated black face appeared on my logo and business cards. She was also the author of my monthly email newsletters, and the “Ask BooBoo” feature was especially popular among the women who frequented my shop.

Finally, there she was, curled up in my favorite red velvet chaise lounge in the corner behind my favorite section of the store, the romance section.

“Ah, I should have known. A kitty after my own heart.” The little sweetheart was lounging on top of Lucy Score’s latest romantic comedy about a dead guy next door. She picked up her face to look at me with her gorgeous green eyes and turned on her purr box as loud as she could, the sound entering my ears and drawing me into her magic spell of morning comfort.

Sit with me, love, her eyes implored. I snuggled into the soft velvet, careful not to displace BooBoo too much, and picked up the book to reread my favorite part. It only took a few seconds before the petite cat crawled onto my lap and then perched her front paws on my chest, her nose coming to rest on my chin while her content purrs held me in their magic grasp.

Lost in the book, I jumped when I heard Beverly unlock the shop door at ten minutes to ten. I carried BooBoo with me to greet her.

“Happy Valentine’s day, dear.”

“And to you too, Bev.” The cat jumped from my arms and ran to the tuna bowls, hoping for any bits left behind by the others. We got busy opening the boxes of new books, but I couldn’t escape Bev’s inquisition.

“Are you excited about your rendezvous with that man you’re talking to online? What’s his name again?”

I didn’t want to get into this with her now. “Blue92? He had to work. No big deal. We chat now and then. It’s not like it’s an actual relationship or anything.” I struck the next box a little too hard with the box cutter, almost slicing my finger.

Okay, maybe it was a big deal Blue92 turned me down to meet in person. The joke was on me. I thought after chatting the past several months, we had reached a level of emotional trust unlike anything I had ever experienced before. But he didn’t jump at the chance to meet me. “I don’t know. Maybe I read more into it than he did. It was the closest thing I’ve had to a relationship in a long, long time, but whatever. I’m a business owner with too much to do to waste another minute thinking about him.”

“Thinking about who, sis?” Simon rolled into the shop from his apartment behind the store, looking preppy today, wearing a blue polo shirt and jeans. And behind him, a woman followed. In her disheveled ‘morning after where you realize you don’t have a hairbrush in your purse’ kind of way, she shuffled past us. Her brunette hair and blue eyes were exactly the type Simon liked. She shyly smiled at us, then ducked out the front door.

“Really, Simon? Isn’t that your third conquest in two weeks?” I did not know how he did it, but he charmed the ladies. Many ladies.

“But who’s counting? What can I say? It’s the wheelchair, attracts them every time.”

My nosy employee yammered on to Simon. “I’ll never understand your sister. She likes a guy she’s never seen.”

“Not another conversation about Blue92 again? Lils, how many times I gotta tell you to watch the movie Catfish? After you do, you’ll never try online dating again.” He took a stack of books from Bev and placed them on his lap. “Come out tonight with my crew. I’ll fix you up with a buddy of mine or we’ll find someone for you at the bar.”

He set to work, wheeling around the store, putting books away. In between his training and his conditioning, hoping to make the Paralympic sled hockey team, he worked for me when he could. Well, more like when he wanted to, but I was proud of him, and of both of us. The past didn’t beat us down like many would think.

Bev kept at it. “How can you possibly know if you’re attracted to a man online? You can’t know what he smells like after a clean shave, or how warm his hugs are? Why, last month, I read how a couple got married over the internet and hadn’t spent a single day together in person, just married like that, thousands of miles apart. What is the world coming to?”

“Everyone’s busy these days. It’s convenient to get to know someone online before you meet in person. I’ll admit, meeting someone online was the riskiest thing I’ve ever done, and it wasn’t even intentional.”

Blue92 had stood out to me when we met at LitForum’s summer virtual event. After debating in the chat room about the challenges of modern day class and gender in America compared with the time of Edith Wharton’s classic novel Summer, Blue92 amazed me, holding his own as the only male among the women in the debate. After the others left the chat, he and I stayed and things blossomed.

“If we do meet, and if we hit it off in person, it might be the most romantic story ever.” There was always hope.

The shop door bell chimed and a delivery person walked in, halting my thoughts. He lugged a dolly with boxes of books behind him. “I have a delivery for Lily Young?”

My eyes swept over the tall man clad in a brown uniform filling in the frame of the shop doorway and stopped at his brown hair and brown eyes. Was this him? Blue92’s description of himself as ‘brown hair and brown eyes in uniform’ wasn’t much to go on. It probably described fifty percent of the men I passed by daily on the walk home after work.

LitForum’s rules had demanded keeping talk about professions or any personal details anonymous. There wasn’t even a photo upload feature. Although I had to admit, the mysteriousness of it all was rather titillating. Who could my mystery Blue92 be? It didn’t stop my heart from jumping every time I came within ten feet of a man who fit his basic description.

“I’m Lily . . . like the flower.” I waited for any hint of recognition from the delivery guy. Blue92 would only know me by my online moniker Flower65.

“Well, I have five boxes here for ya, and they’re heavy. Where do you want ‘em?”

No, this can’t be Blue92. This guy already didn’t sound as cultured as I imagined my online friend. “Can you haul them over behind the register? I already have a mess going here with yesterday’s boxes.”

I watched and waited for another entry to test him. He stacked the last one and handed me his clipboard to sign for them. “So, have you read anything interesting lately?”

His blank face told me everything before he spoke. “You mean, like books?” With a scrunched face like the word books was the filthiest word in the English language, he was definitely not my Blue92.

After he left, I picked up BooBoo and let my hands stroking her fur soothe my loveless wound. “Maybe Bev is right. Falling for some online guy is hopeless. I guess I’m destined to have all the book boyfriends I could ever want, but never the real thing.”

 
* * *

I did well the rest of the day, avoiding thinking about Blue92, until I arrived home. Maddie and her boyfriend, Daniel, had scored last-minute tickets to Hamilton for the evening, but she was the best roommate ever because she left me a Valentine’s Day card, a little basket filled with heart-shaped chocolates, a bottle of cheap wine, and an order of Chinese food. Since our other roommate Cassidy just moved into a new apartment with her boyfriend Bronson, a Valentine’s date with me would be my evening plans.

Cassidy and Maddie both had boyfriends now, and it wouldn’t surprise me if marriage and kids soon followed. Where would that leave me? Alone, with no roommates, being called “Auntie” by their kids, with at least a dozen cats and shelves full of books. I pictured myself as an old maid, cat lady complete with gray hair in a bun and wire-rimmed glasses. I shuddered at that vision at first. But I’d at least have Simon. Or Frank. I huffed and grabbed the box of General Tso’s chicken over fried rice and dug in.

Sheesh, why did spending Valentine’s Day alone bring up so many emotions? I wanted to talk to Blue92 so badly. I did anything and everything to avoid opening my laptop because it was crazy to need him like this. He said he had to work on Valentine’s and that was why he couldn’t go out.

I checked the time. Would he be home now? Maybe he was online waiting for me, and dying inside since I wasn’t. Well, he deserved it. I held out longer, but it was no use. He was like an addiction I couldn’t shake, and I mustn’t have hit rock bottom yet because I wasn’t ready for an intervention.

I grabbed my laptop off my nightstand, then loaded the LitForum website. And there he was, online, waiting for me. My heart sped up.

Me: Hi. How was work?

Blue92: Good. Hey, Happy Valentine’s.

Me: Thanks. You too.

I resisted the urge to type out that it might have been better to hear that from him in person.

Blue92: Did you end up doing anything?

Me: My roommate left me an order of Chinese, a bottle of wine, and I’ve been reading.

Blue92: Was it your favorite? General Tso’s?

My heart fluttered how he could recall the little details about my favorites, but it didn’t mean he was into me enough to meet in person.

Me: My brother invited me out with him and his friends for drinks tonight. Maybe I should have taken him up on that.

Blue92: Oh yeah?

Me: He’s always trying to fix me up with one of his friends.

There was a momentary lag until his next text finally appeared. I hoped he was jealous.

Blue92: Why didn’t you?

Me: Maybe there’s someone online I find more appealing than his sports-fanatic buddies.

Blue92: Look, I’m sorry again that I had to put off meeting you tonight. I know we’ve been saying we’ll meet someday to enjoy a cup of coffee and talk about books.

Me: We could meet now? I’m sure some coffee shops are still open in the city somewhere?

Was I coming across too forward? Damn, it’s what I wanted. Why shouldn’t I ask for it? I wanted someday to be today. I was lucky to find someone like him who was into the same things as me. So why did this feel like it was going nowhere?

Blue92: You’re funny. It’s a little late now. I’m going to sleep. Hope we can chat later this week.

Hot tears formed in my eyes and I slammed my laptop down. I reached for a tissue and knocked over the stack of romance novels on my nightstand. Did the books perpetuate the lie? Was fated love a myth? Where was my knight in shining armor coming to save me? Not that I needed saving because I could take care of myself, but seriously, where was my swoon moment?

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