Her books mirror her personality beautifully: they are sweet, funny, original and uplifting. In her own words, Shirley writes romances set in small American towns, and they are all about love, family and food... not necessarily in that order.
Here is an excerpt from her romance, A PRINCESS FOR CHRISTMAS:
"Hey." Carmen nudged Mariabella. "Did you see that?"
"Eye candy, two o'clock."
"Cute guy, walking past the gallery." She nudged Mariabella's shoulder a second time.
"Mmm… okay." Mariabella kept working on the catalog's corrections.
Carmen let out a frustrated gust. "You should go talk to him."
That got Mariabella's attention. "Go talk to him? Why?"
"Because he's alone, and you're alone, and it's about time you took number one, a few hours for yourself, and number two, a step out of that comfort zone you're so determined to stay glued to."
Mariabella wanted to tell Carmen she had already taken a giant step out of her comfort zone, something beyond opening the gallery. A step that had brought her all the way across the world, from a tiny little country outside of Italy to here, an even tinier town in Massachusetts.
To a new life. A life without kings and queens.
Carmen did have a point about the dating, though. In all the time Mariabella had been in Harborside, she hadn't dated anyone, hadn't gotten close to a man. She'd made friends, yes, but not true relationships, nothing deep. Part of that was because she'd had no time, as Carmen mentioned, but a bigger part was self-preservation.
She thought again of the woman in the painting. Had that woman dared to open her heart?
If so, was the price she'd had to pay as high as Mariabella's?
"Let's focus on catalogs and canapés, instead of my love life," Mariabella said to her assistant. "I think the artist will be upset if I tell him I spent my time pursuing a hot date instead of concentrating on his show."
Carmen turned to Mariabella and opened her mouth, as if she wanted to argue the point, then shut it again. "Okay. I can see when the stars are out of alignment for this topic. I'll zip down to Make it Memorable and check on the appetizers for Tuesday's opening."
Mariabella sent up a wave, while she kept on checking the page proofs. "Thank you. I'll hold down the tent."
Carmen laughed. "Fort, Mariabella. Fort."
Heat filled Mariabella's cheeks. Her accented English was flawless, but she'd yet to master all those odd little idioms. "I meant fort."
"Hey, a horse is still a horse, even if you call it a pony." Carmen toodled a wave, then left the gallery, with the hurried step that marked her every movement.
Soft, jazzy Christmas music flowing from the gallery's sound system provided companion noise for Mariabella as she got back to work. She settled onto a chair behind the counter, content to be alone, surrounded by the art she loved. All her life, she'd craved this kind of shop, this exact kind of cozy gallery. There were many days when she couldn't believe she actually owned this place, and had seen this dream come true. It made up for all those arguments with her father, all the tears she'd shed.
She paused a moment and cast a glance out the bay window behind her, drawing in the view of the ocean that lay down the dock from the gallery. Through the window, the sun-drenched day could have passed for summer, if the calendar didn't read a few days before Christmas. No snow lay on the ground yet, though the temperature outside was all winter. The ocean curled gently in and out, while seagulls dipped down to the beach for a late morning meal. Bright sunshine cast sparkles of light over the water. How different Harborside was from where Mariabella had grown up, yet how similar, too. She'd lived on the coast then, too, but that coast had been full of rocky cliffs, houses nestled among the stone paths and lush landscape. Here, the land was less hilly, more populated and didn't have hundreds of years of history carved into the side of every building. But Harborside offered something else Mariabella couldn't have in her old home. Something precious.
A sense of peace draped over Mariabella like a cozy blanket. She loved this town, loved the haven she had found here. She thought of the letter in her purse, and wondered what answer she could possibly give. How she could ever explain she had found something in Harborside that she could never imagine leaving.
But soon, duty demanded her return. As always.
The bell over the door jingled and Mariabella jerked to attention. The man she and Carmen had seen earlier stood in the doorway, his tall figure cutting an imposing stance.
"May I help you?" Mariabella said, moving away from the front desk.
"Just looking, thank you." He stepped inside, giving Mariabella a better view of him.
Dark hair, dark eyes. What appeared to be an athletic build beneath the navy pinstriped suit, clearly tailored to fit his frame. She recognized his shoes as designer, his briefcase as fine leather. No ordinary tourist, that was clear. Most people who came to Harborside wore jeans in winter or shorts in the summer—dressed to relax and make the most of the boating, swimming and fishing the coastal town had to offer.
This man looked ready to steer a corporation, not a catamaran.
He stood about six feet tall, maybe six-two, and when he moved about the open space of the gallery, he had the stride of a man who knew his place in the world.
A zing of attraction ran through Mariabella. No wonder Carmen had called him eye candy. He had more to offer than a ten-pound chocolate bar.
"Our main gallery houses the artist in residence," she said, falling into step a few feet away from him, "who has some mixed media pieces in his collection as well as a number of portraits. In the west room, you will find our sculptures and art deco pieces, and the east room, which overlooks the ocean, features our landscapes, if you're looking for a picture of Harborside to take home or back to your office."
"I'm not looking for something for my home. Or office."
He barely glanced at her as he said the words, but more, he hadn't looked at a single painting. His gaze went, not to the landscapes, portraits and fresco panels, but to the—
Walls. The ceiling. The floors.
Then to her.
A chill chased up her spine.
Had they found her? Was her time here over? No, no, it couldn't be. She had two more months. That was the agreement.
It was too soon, she wasn't ready to leave. She loved her home, loved her gallery, and she didn't want to go back. Not yet.
Mariabella hung back, watching the stranger. He paused to look out the window, the one that provided a view of the entire boardwalk. He took a few steps, as if assessing all of Harborside, then returned to his perusal of the main room of Harborside Art Gallery.
Perhaps he hadn't come here after her. Perhaps he was only sizing up the gallery. Maybe he owned a place in a nearby town and he'd come here to check out the competition.
Doubt nagged at Mariabella. A whisper of more here, a hidden agenda. But what?