In this intriguing new series from New York Times bestselling author Ellery Adams, a quirky club in small-town North Carolina holds the keys to health, happiness, friendship—and even solving a murder—all to be found within the pages of the right book . . .
Strangers flock to Miracle Springs hoping the natural hot springs, five-star cuisine, and renowned spa can cure their ills. If none of that works, they often find their way to Miracle Books, where, over a fresh-baked “comfort” scone, they exchange their stories with owner Nora Pennington in return for a carefully chosen book. That’s Nora’s special talent—prescribing the perfect novel to ease a person’s deepest pain. So when a visiting businessman reaches out for guidance, Nora knows exactly how to help. But before he can keep their appointment, he’s found dead on the train tracks . . .
Stunned, Nora forms the Secret, Book, and Scone Society, a group of damaged souls yearning to earn redemption by helping others. To join, members must divulge their darkest secret—the terrible truth that brought each of them to Miracle Springs in the first place. Now, determined to uncover the truth behind the businessman’s demise, the women meet in Nora’s cozy bookstore. And as they untangle a web of corruption, they also discover their own courage, purpose, and a sisterhood that will carry them through every challenge—proving it’s never too late to turn the page and start over . . .
“Anyone who loves novels that revolve around books will savor this tasty treat.”
—Library Journal, Starred Review
About the Author
Ellery Adams has written over thirty mystery novels and can’t imagine spending a day away from the keyboard. Ms. Adams, a native New Yorker, has had a lifelong love affair with stories, food, rescue animals, and large bodies of water. When not working on her next novel, she bakes, gardens, spoils her three cats, and spends far too much time on Pinterest. She lives with her husband and two children (aka the Trolls) in Chapel Hill, NC. For more information, please visit www.elleryadamsmysteries.com.
Read an Excerpt
A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozeninside our soul.
— Franz Kafka
The man on the park bench stared at the empty space above the knuckle of Nora Pennington's pinkie finger.
Strangers were always hypnotized by this gap. They would gaze at the puckered skin stretched over the nub of finger bone for several awkward seconds before averting their eyes in disgust, pity, or both.
Like most strangers, the man's attention could only remain on Nora's pinkie for so long. She had other fascinating scars. He couldn't fixate on just one.
His chin jerked slightly, as though he knew he was being impolite and should look away, but was powerless to do so. His eyes slowly traveled over the bubble of shell-smooth skin on the back of her hand. It was pinker and shinier than the surrounding skin, and Nora sensed that the man had an irrational desire to touch it.
Years ago, when Nora was in the hospital, a night nurse with silver hair that flashed like fish scales when caught by the light told Nora that the burn on her hand was shaped like Iceland.
"That's where I'm from," the nurse had added proudly. Her voice was part grandmother's lullaby, part chamomile tea, and part chenille blanket. It was the only thing that penetrated Nora's veil of pain. "You even have the two peninsulas on Iceland's western shore. See? They're like a pair of crab pincers."
Nora hadn't opened her eyes to look. She didn't want to acknowledge the nurse's presence. She didn't want comfort. She'd wanted to be left alone to sink deeper in her ocean of agony and remorse.
The man on the bench shifted, bringing Nora back to the present.
He was studying her right arm. This was her darkest, angriest scar: a Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish swimming through her skin from wrist to shoulder. And while part of its red and purple bell disappeared into the sleeve of her white blouse, there was an impression of other sea creatures reemerging above the collar. A parade of pale, glistening octopi drifted across Nora's neck and cheek, forever trapped in the ripples and wavelets the flames had carved into her skin.
The man's eyes strayed to Nora's other hand. The unblemished one.
This was unusual. Most people finished their inspection of Nora's face with a forlorn expression. She knew exactly what they were thinking when they wore that look.
What a shame. She'd be so pretty without those scars.
But this man hadn't responded with the "too bad, so sad" expression. He was clearly more interested in the scone she held than in continuing to study her burn scars.
Nora felt herself relaxing the stiff posture she held when newcomers inspected her.
"Excuse me." The man pointed at her decimated pastry. "Where did you get that?"
Nora, who'd been feeding the scone to a small flock of mourning doves, replied, "From the Gingerbread House. They're called comfort scones. The baker, Hester, makes custom scones based on what she thinks her patrons will be comforted by. You should pay her a visit."
"I love scones, but I haven't had one in forever. I used to have a chocolate-chip scone every Thursday afternoon at this little coffee shop near my office. But that was before everything changed. I couldn't look the barista in the eye after —" The man fell into an abrupt silence. He sat very still and watched the doves devour Nora's crumbs. When every last piece was gone, he asked, "Why are you feeding yours to the birds?"
"A customer dropped it on the floor while I was in the bakery buying a cinnamon twist," Nora said. "I prefer cinnamon twists over scones because they're easier to eat while I'm reading. That's my main priority when it comes to food. Other people are obsessed with calories, nutritional value, antioxidants. I look at food and wonder: Can I eat that without having to put my book down?"
This elicited a small smile from the man. He pointed at the yellow building with the cobalt blue trim and doors on the far side of the park. The former train depot, which had been converted into a bookshop, possessed an air of charming dilapidation.
"So I take it you hang out there pretty often," he said.
"I do." Dusting crumbs from her hands, Nora added, "Miracle Books is my store."
Hearing this, the man pivoted to face her.
The sudden movement startled the doves and they took off in a burst of alarmed coos and whooshing wings.
"An African-American woman working at the thermal pools told me about the resident bibliotherapist. Was she talking about you?"
Nora saw the need in the man's eyes. She'd seen it hundreds of times. But only from those who dared to look directly at her. "This woman said that the bibliotherapist was able to help people solve their problems by recommending certain titles." The man gestured at Miracle Books. "It makes sense that you'd own a bookstore."
"I have no official training," Nora said, uttering her standard disclaimer. "Before I came to Miracle Springs, I was a librarian. I haven't taken a single course in psychology. I've never done any formal counseling."
The man frowned in confusion. "This woman said that people seek you out when the rest of the services in town failed to make them feel better. But I don't get it. How can you succeed where all of the professionals — and the healing waters — can't?"
Nora shrugged. "There's no guarantee my method will work, either. I read all the time. And I listen to people. I really listen." She held the man's dubious gaze. "Stories don't change much across continents and centuries. Hearts are broken. Pride is wounded. Souls wander too far from home and become lost. The wrong roads are taken. The incorrect choice is made. Stories echo with loneliness. Grief. Longing. Redemption. Forgiveness. Hope. And love." Now it was her turn to point at the bookstore. "That building is stuffed with books that, once opened, reveal our communal story. And, if you're lucky, the words in those books will force you to grapple with the hardest truths of your life. After reducing you to a puddle of tears, they'll raise you to your feet again. The words will pull you up, higher and higher, until you feel the sun on your face again. Until you're suddenly humming on the way to the mailbox. Or you're buying bouquets of gerbera daisies because you crave bright colors. And you'll laugh again — as freely as champagne bubbling in a tall, glass flute. When's the last time you laughed like that?"
The man's mouth twisted. He was trying to hold his emotion in check — to keep his pain from overtaking him. His hands gripped his knees so hard that his knuckles had gone white. He looked away from Nora, and she thought he might get up and leave. Instead, he asked, "How does it work? This bibliotherapy."
"Go to the Gingerbread House and buy a comfort scone," Nora said. "Tell Hester you're coming to see me and she'll put your scone in a takeout box. I have coffee, but the fanciest thing I make with my espresso machine is a latte, so if you're used to soy no-foam mochaccinos, you're going to be disappointed."
"I confess to making decisions that have complicated my life and compromised my principles," the man said. "But I've never taken my coffee any way but black."
"Then we're off to a good start." Nora got to her feet. "While you're eating, you can tell me what brought you to Miracle Springs." She held up her hands. "This won't be like a traditional counseling session where we sit down and you talk for a long period of time. You won't need to go into detail with me. I only need a broad brushstroke — a brief glimpse into the heart of your pain. That way, I can select the right books. After that, you can start reading your way to a fresh start this evening."
The man grunted, infusing his exhalation with a feeling of dismissal. "I'm not much of a reader."
"Ah." Nora moved away a few steps and then stopped and spun on her heel. "You came to Miracle Springs to make changes, didn't you? Becoming a reader is a change for the better. Trust me. No one has ever lost by becoming addicted to stories — to the lessons learned by those who possess enough courage to put pen to paper."
"You've got a point." Another dismissive grunt. "What's the worst that could happen from my opening the cover of a book?"
For the first time since they'd begun speaking, Nora smiled. And because she was showing the man the unblemished side of her face, she saw that he was utterly transfixed.
"You have no idea," Nora said. Her smile wavered before completely vanishing. "Stories are just like people. If you don't approach them with an open mind and a healthy dose of respect, they won't reveal their hidden selves to you. In that event, you'll miss out on what they have to offer. You'll walk through life an empty husk instead of a vibrant kaleidoscope of passion, wisdom, and experience."
The man studied her for a long moment. "I don't want to be empty anymore. I came to Miracle Springs days ahead of my partners to figure out how to fix things before it happens all over again. Nothing's worked. My partners arrive on the three o'clock train, so I have nothing to lose by giving your method a shot." He grinned. "At the very least, I'll have a scone for my efforts. Where is this celebrated Gingerbread House?"
Nora gave him directions and then continued on to Miracle Books. She had things to take care of before the man returned for his session. The trolley from the lodge would be arriving soon, and trolley-loads of rich and restless souls paid Nora's bills.
Nora Pennington loved selling books. She loved talking to people about books. But what she wanted most was to heal people using books.
Four years ago, when Nora had been a patient in a hospital burn unit, she'd prayed for death. Not only were her prayers unanswered, but she was also given first-rate medical care and the perfect prescription of stories, courtesy of an Icelandic nurse with silver hair.
First, the nurse brought Nora books about physically deformed men who were capable of great genius, devout love, acts of madness, or all of the above. And while Nora refused to watch television or receive visitors, she grudgingly reread Frankenstein.
Next, she was given The Phantom of the Opera, followed by the Christine Sparks version of The Elephant Man.
"Are you trying to depress me? Because I don't think I need any help in that department," Nora had grumbled to the nurse. She'd been angry. She was always angry. And when she wasn't angry, she was depressed. She felt no other emotions.
In response, the nurse had laid a copy of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame on her bed.
"Guess I'm ready for Dracula or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Nora had told her caregiver after she'd finished the Victor Hugo classic.
"You're heading in another direction," the nurse had cheerfully informed her, placing John Green's Looking for Alaska, Karen Kingsbury's Waiting for Morning, and Kristin Hannah's Night Road on Nora's nightstand.
Because of the narcotics, Nora hadn't immediately realized that the theme of this current set of novels was drunk driving, so she read on. As she'd turned the pages, her emotional pain became as intense as her physical pain.
"Why are you doing this?" she'd whispered to the nurse one night. "You heard about my accident. I thought you were kind."
"You have to sink to the very bottom, my child," the woman had whispered in her lullaby voice. "After that, you can push off with both feet and start swimming toward the surface. You're strong. You can get there. But it's going to hurt. You have to clean out the wound before it can heal. Let the stories be your antiseptic. Bear the pain now for a chance at a better tomorrow. Otherwise, you'll repeat the mistakes that landed you in this bed."
Nora had read every title. When she was done, the nurse had brought her a book called The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon. "It's about a boy who set himself on fire when he was fourteen," she told Nora. "I know you didn't burn yourself on purpose, but I thought you'd like to read about his recovery process. He might even make you laugh."
I doubt it, Nora had thought. She'd done a terrible, terrible thing. There would be no laughter in her life. Never again.
But she'd read the book. And the next one. And the next.
The night before she was to be discharged from the hospital, Nora had asked for more books.
"You're a librarian," the nurse had replied with a smile. "You know where to find them."
Nora had dropped her eyes. "I'm not going back. I need to start over — in another place."
The nurse had sat on the edge of Nora's bed and taken her good hand in hers. "What would this place look like? The place where you'd begin a new life?"
"It would have lots and lots of books," Nora had said. "I can't live without them." Gazing at the lights and omnipresent haze of the urban sprawl outside her window, she went on: "It would be in the country. Somewhere remote and lovely. A place where people still grow vegetable gardens and build purple-martin houses. Where they have quirky holiday parades and bake sales. A place where people look for the pets on posters stapled to telephone polls. A little town. Not so little that everyone will pry into my business, but small enough that the locals will eventually get used to my appearance. Eventually, they'll stop whispering."
"And what will you do for money in this paradise?" the nurse had asked.
At this question, Nora had gone clammy with fear. She'd been so caught up in her fantasy that she hadn't considered the practicalities. During her lengthy convalescence, she'd ignored visitors, phone calls, and letters. But as of tomorrow, she couldn't hide from the outside world anymore.
Her burn scars had begun to throb, which was good, because the pain kept her grounded. She wanted to feel pain. She deserved it, so she embraced it.
"I'll open a bookstore," she'd said calmly. "I have some savings, and if I find a town that needs a bookstore —"
"Doesn't every town?" the nurse had interjected, her glacier-blue eyes twinkling with humor.
Nora had smiled. Smiling hurt the burn wound on her right cheek, but she owed this woman a smile, at the very least. "If it wants a soul, then yes. Every town needs a bookstore."
* * *
Nora pushed open the door to Miracle Books to the jingle-jangle of sleigh bells. They weren't a light, melodious tinkle, but a loud clanging that erupted from a leather horse harness covered in baseball-sized brass bells. Nora had bought the harness at the flea market and hung it from a nail on the back of the door. This way, she knew when a customer entered the shop, even if she was at the other end of the labyrinth of bookshelves she'd created to funnel people from the front toward the ticket-agent's office.
Everything in the store — from the fainting couch to the leather sofa, and the assortment of upholstered chairs in various stages of degeneration — came from yard sales and flea markets. Occasionally, Nora made purchases from the local auction company, but these treasures were reserved for her home: a four-room, tiny house that had once been a functioning railroad car. The locals referred to her diminutive abode as Caboose Cottage because her refurbished train car was a cheerful apple-red.
After flipping the SHUT sign over to read OPEN, Nora continued walking deeper into the shop. She needed to brew coffee. The trolley would be pulling into the public parking area any moment now.
Nora entered the small office where train tickets were once sold to Miracle Springs travelers. In order to convert the office into a basic coffee dispensary, Nora had removed the ticket window's glass divide and hung a chalkboard next to the opening. The chalkboard listed the literary names of the beverages Miracle Books offered:
The Ernest Hemingway — Dark Roast The Louisa May Alcott — Light Roast The Dante Alighieri — Decaf The Wilkie Collins — Cappuccino The Jack London — Latte The Agatha ChrisTEA — Earl Grey
From time to time, customers would suggest a new and complicated espresso recipe along with a suitable author name to match.
Nora, who'd learned to treat people's feelings with care since her life had taken such a dramatic turn on a dark highway four years ago, would smile and praise the person for their creativity. She would then confess that her secondhand espresso maker could barely handle steaming milk, but if she ever had the chance to upgrade, she'd keep their drink idea in mind.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Secret, Book & Scone Society"
Copyright © 2017 Ellery Adams.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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