The Book Babes reading group began as five women wanting to talk books—but now they’ve become family. There’s romance author Ava Sinclair, organizer and backbone; happily-married mother of five Ellie Preston, group mom; patrician art gallery owner Sylvie Everett; single mom and sociology professor Luisa Martinez; and ambitious attorney Laken Foster, the wild child of the bunch. For several years now, they’ve met monthly and discussed the current book a little–and dissected their lives and loves far more often.
But now change is rippling through the group, begun by Laken’s restlessness with her freewheeling life of serial hookups and sent into hyperdrive by Ava’s suddenly-hot career, while Luisa’s abusive ex tries to reclaim their teenage son and Sylvie faces her mother’s decline. But it’s when Ellie takes her first step into life after her children fly the nest and falls under the spell of the sexy artist who’s teaching her to paint that the group’s orbit begins to wobble on its axis, and life–for all of them and the men they love–will never be the same.
And then there’s the Sweetgrass Springs connection that arises…
Excerpt: The Book Babes
“You answered a freaking personals ad?” Ava Sinclair burst out laughing. “Which one, Laken? Six foot tall hunk of burning love seeks woman into foot massage and Bob Marley?”
Three other heads swiveled, waiting for the inevitable flare-up when Ava’s exasperation overcame her love, and Laken Foster’s shark-lawyer ego couldn’t stand coming in second.
“Laken, you didn’t,” Luisa Martinez protested, her soft voice barely heard above the sudden din. She squeezed Laken’s hand in commiseration.
Laken shot her a look that forbade pity. Luisa settled back to drink her tea and wait.
“Well, I for one, darling, think it’s about time you made the switch from the singles bar scene. All those dreadful married men with white bands on their fingers.” Sylvie Everett’s elegant nose wrinkled faintly. “Now tell all. Dish the details. What’s he like? Any orgies in the offing?”
Ava watched as Ellie Preston returned to her cozy living room, fresh wine bottles in hand. Ava could have predicted the rescue.
She wasn’t wrong. Ellie eased in between them, soothing. “Now, Sylvie. Laken may not want to talk about it. More wine, anyone?”
“Since when does Laken withhold a single detail of her sex life?” Ava couldn’t resist prodding Ellie’s perpetual air of virginity. The mother of five, her baby about to start first grade, Ellie could pass for sixteen in all but the harshest light. There was something of the ingénue about their auburn-haired friend that life couldn’t seem to erase. The room around them reflected her: lush green plants at every window, the bright spill of knitting yarns in a basket, pillow tops she’d quilted by hand.
The dusting of freckles across Ellie’s nose dimmed as her cheeks turned pink. Then her grin turned impish. “Well, far be it from me to discourage her from talking about it—” Her eyebrows rose with her voice. “—if she wants to?”
The whole group broke up laughing, Laken’s sultry chuckles blending with Luisa’s clear soprano.
“Come on, Laken, spill your guts. Luisa hasn’t been laid in two years and Ellie’s still trying to figure out where all those kids come from.” Ava poured herself a second glass of pinot noir.
Laken slugged down the last of her wine, holding out the glass for Ellie to refill. Her spiky dark mane shook with the force of her denial. “You do not have my permission to steal this for your next book, Ava.”
Ava clutched one hand to her breast with a dramatic sigh. “Trust me, Laken, I haven’t run out of imagination yet. This crew has a ways to go to catch up with my heroines.”
“Too true,” Sylvie nodded. “Thanks to your incredible imaginary men.” She lifted her glass. “To Ava’s heroes, long may they inspire our dreams.”
They all clicked glasses, laughing, and drank—Luisa her tea, Ellie her watered wine, Ava and Laken red, Sylvie her customary chardonnay.
Another meeting of The Book Babes was well underway.
Laken sprawled back and sighed, fanning herself against the summer swelter of Austin, Texas. “If only you could conjure some of them up in the flesh, Ava, I wouldn’t be reduced to scouring the earth for one good man.”
“There are good men all around you,” Ellie objected.
“Yeah, but you and Ava are married to them.”
“Wyatt has a friend—”
“Stop right there,” Laken flashed her palm at Ellie. “No more matchmaking. Period. There are three men in this town worth a damn; Ava’s got Tom, you’ve got Wyatt, and Sylvie’s going to keep Gabe waiting until he’s old and gray.”
“No, Sylvie’s not.” A tiny tremor shook the carefully modulated voice that matched Sylvie’s ever-faultless appearance.
Ava shot a glance across the coffee table, seeing what she should have recognized earlier in Sylvie’s silence. “What happened?”
Sylvie shook her head, the ash blonde shoulder-length pageboy shimmering. “It’s over, that’s all.”
Ever the nurturer, Ellie placed a hand on Sylvie’s shoulder. Only Ellie would dare, and only Ellie would not be shaken off by shoulders tightened into almost military posture. “You don’t have to talk about it, if you don’t want to.”
Silence stretched out, an unheard-of occurrence at their monthly meetings. Far more common was the clamor of all of them talking at once, too much to say, too much to share, words tumbling in pell-mell fashion from the lips of intelligent women trying to piece out the ways of the world.
Luisa filled in with their topic of last resort—the book they were supposed to be discussing. “So what did anyone think of Smilla’s Sense of Snow?”
Ava held back. She’d hated its dearth of emotion. The plot was intriguing, but the writing was so spare and sterile. But she knew that Sylvie had loved it, and Sylvie was already hurting.
Laken had no such restraint. “It sucked.”
“Laken!” Ellie reached over, patting Sylvie’s knee. “It was really interesting. Very exciting.”
“I loved it, Sylvie,” Luisa responded. “I had to wrap up in a blanket, reading it, the setting was so vivid.”
Ava chuckled and shook her head. A blanket in August in Texas. “What was the a/c setting? Fifty-five?”
Laken intoned, “Thank God summer doesn’t last forever.”
Sylvie’s smooth tones interrupted their laughter. “What about you, Ava? How did you like it?”
Opening her mouth to respond, Ava glanced around the room, distracted by the tears brimming on Ellie’s lashes. Ava’s comments were forgotten as she took in the startling sight. “What’s wrong, Ellie?”
The auburn pageboy swung with the shaking of Ellie’s head, her fingers pressed tightly to trembling lips.
Even the Ice Queen was disturbed by the sight. Ellie always smiled, always ministered to the rest of them. “Is it one of the children?” Sylvie ventured.
The tears overflowed ginger lashes, brown eyes filled with hurt. “I swore I wouldn’t do this. It’s silly…millions of women deal with this. I know it’s dumb, but—” She shook her head again, dropping her gaze. “Sam’s starting first grade, and Christy is leaving for college, and all of a sudden, all I can think is: what happens when they’re all gone?”
Ava and Luisa exchanged glances. The empty nest. It hit everyone. Laken and Sylvie had no children; they could look sympathetic, but they’d never truly understand.
She tried for reason. “It’s a long time until Sam leaves the nest, kiddo.”
Ellie sniffed. “I know that. Intellectually, I understand all of this. But it doesn’t change the fact that being a mother is all I know how to be. Look at you, Ava. You’ve created a whole new life, becoming a writer. You’re excited and alive and—”
“—crazed and despairing and insane to have tried it.”
Ellie brushed at her eyes. “But the fact remains that you know what you’re doing with your life. You’re a mother, but you’re not only a mother. Luisa has her Ph.D. and tenure—”
“And a mother driving me nuts.”
Ellie ignored her, leaning forward. “Laken’s a successful lawyer, Sylvie’s got her gallery. What do I do that’s interesting? I drive carpools and bake cupcakes and do laundry and feed the damn chickens.” For Ellie to swear was almost earth-shattering.
“And lead Scouts and sew and garden—hell, Ellie, you can do anything,” Laken’s voice rose above the others.
“Jack of all trades, master of none.”
Ava drew a breath to respond, but Sylvie beat her to it.
“You need to be painting, Ellie. It’s criminal that you ignore your talent.”
Ellie blushed. “I just fool around. I’ve never had lessons.”
“Anyone can take lessons. You have a gift.”
Ava could see that Sylvie meant it. Sylvie’s life revolved around art; it was the great sorrow of her life to have an unerring eye for the beautiful, for startling new talent—and to be unable to draw with more than mediocrity herself. Sylvie did not suffer fools gladly; even with her great affection for Ellie, an alliance that surprised them all, she would never say something she didn’t mean. Saving feelings was never a priority with Sylvie.
Ava added her weight to the proposition. “I only had two children, not your five, but I know all too well the toll a family takes. You need to be feeding your soul, Ellie. You’ve still got a long way to go down this road of life, and you have a right to reserve some of it for yourself. You give everything to Wyatt and the kids, but Wyatt is a grown man, and the kids will need you less and less as they get older. It’s time to start thinking about Ellie.”
“But I know how fast it goes. Before I know it, Sam will be leaving for college. I can’t miss these years.”
“Come on, Ellie,” Laken’s dry tones crackled. “You’re not talking about abandoning them. You can do this while they’re all at school.”
“But they’re not used to—”
Ava spoke gently. “Your kids are great and amazingly unspoiled, but they won’t die if you don’t lie down in the road to be run over by them.”
Ellie blew her nose, her back stiffening. “I don’t do that.”
Luisa’s hand touched her gently. “What Ava means is that you give yourself to everyone you know, including us, and never reserve anything for yourself. We’re all very lucky that you do, chica, but you have to look out for yourself, too.”
“The well runs dry, kiddo,” Ava reasoned. “Nothing faster than a family to drain you. Cut yourself some slack and think of it this way: if you’re happier, they’ll be happier.”
“I should be happy now.”
Ava waved a dismissive hand. “We should all be happy. None of us are starving in Africa, we all have roofs over our heads, we have love in our lives—”
“Speak for yourself,” Laken said dryly.
Ava shot her a glare. “All right, everyone but Laken has love in her life, but constant hot sex is a workable substitute—”
The entire group broke up laughing. Even Ellie grinned.