Authors: Hope Ramsay
He gave her a look from the measureless dark of his eyes. “Is that a trick question?”
Damn, he was onto her. “How could a simple question about a book be a trick question? Have you read
On the Road
“Of course I have.”
“Did you read it because you thought it was hip?”
She blinked at him because the truth was she had read it because Chris had told her she needed to read it in order to be well rounded. She had not particularly enjoyed the book.
Jeff smiled before she could respond. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell the in crowd that you didn’t much like it. The problem with reading Kerouac today is that everyone thinks he’s cool, when the truth is, he was just the writer guy, you know, the dude with the journal keeping notes on the crazy stuff his friends did.”
“I’m not worried about what people think,” she said. “So, are you like him? I mean, are you the writer guy who keeps a journal and chronicles the crazy stuff your friends do?”
His smile faded. “No. Not really. But I have a question for you.”
“Okay.” She wasn’t sure she wanted to be on the receiving end of any questions.
“What were you reading that day when I came in the store the first time?”
She wasn’t about to tell him she’d been reading a romance novel. How pathetic would that be? So she thought fast and lied.
His mouth turned up adorably. He didn’t believe her. “Good book. I wholeheartedly believe that we should all ask for more.”
And that was the end of her attempt at using book talk to discover his secrets. It was, however, the beginning of several long conversations about the classics, where she discovered that Jeff Talbert had actually read Jane Eyre. He’d hated every minute of it, but he’d read it in high school.
He’d also read
The Call of the Wild
The Last of the Mohicans
. Those books he’d liked. She wasn’t surprised.
All that book talk was tantalizing. So when Thursday came to a close, she took a leap and asked, “So, uh, you want to go down to the Jaybird for a drink or something?”
He gave her a soulful brown-eyed look and shook his head. “No. Maybe some other time.” And then he left the store, but not before he glanced out the window as if checking to see who might be out there on the sidewalk, watching.
* * *
He should stop. Now. Going to Secondhand Prose on a daily basis was a dumb idea. Even though the store wasn’t exactly the type of place Pam would frequent, he still risked being seen. He’d learned from the grapevine that Aunt Pam didn’t spend much time with Uncle Mark in DC. She stayed at Charlotte’s Grove and managed things. What things she managed were not precisely clear, but it wasn’t unusual for Aunt Pam to be seen on Liberty Avenue shopping or visiting with merchants.
Maybe he should book a flight to the Bahamas or something.
He jettisoned the idea. For some reason, helping Melissa clean and organize her grandmother’s bookstore had become the thing he wanted to do right now. It filled his days. It gave him purpose.
And maybe he was accomplishing something important—pulling Melissa out of her funk. She may not have shed a tear or said a word, but Melissa was grieving for her Grammy. Working to clean and organize the place seemed to have given her a purpose, too.
She obviously loved that store and wanted to keep it open. But she didn’t have enough customers. That kept him up at night, worrying. And worrying about how to save Secondhand Prose seemed way more productive than worrying about his lost career in journalism.
So, despite his better judgment, he returned to the shop on Friday with a bag filled with color-coded adhesive tags.
“We’re going to change your pricing system,” he announced as he came through the door and gave Dickens a long head scratch.
“Why would we do that?” Melissa asked.
She must have been anticipating his arrival this morning, since she was standing in the history section at the front of the store, but she didn’t seem to be shelving books or doing anything at all, except waiting for him. Today she greeted him wearing a bright yellow
Hansel and Gretel
T-shirt with red jeans.
He warmed at his first sight of her. What was she going to do today? Yesterday’s book discussions had been way more fun than Wednesday’s third degree. Last night she’d even asked him out for a drink. Saying no had been hard, but he needed to figure out where the Jaybird Café was located and whether Aunt Pam was a regular customer.
Scoping the place out was on his to-do list. But until he could fully define safe, Pam-free zones, he was sticking to his plan of mostly hiding out at Dad’s cabin or here at the bookstore, where no one ever shopped.
“Change is good for the soul,” he said, knowing full well that Secondhand Prose didn’t really need a change in its pricing system. It basically needed a total makeover and an influx of lots of cash. Not to mention advertising and new merchandise. But she would probably get all freaked out if he said any of that. And besides, saying stuff like that might be offensive. After all, the bookshop had been owned and managed by Melissa’s grandmother, and Melissa hadn’t said one thing to suggest that she wanted to change things around here.
In fact, Melissa was resistant to change. Which was to be expected. So small steps were called for.
“I’ve got colored adhesive tags. I figure we could group books and price them accordingly. Like all hardbound books at one price and all mass-market paperbacks at another.”
“Uh, well, we sort of do that already.”
“Yeah, but you have to handwrite a price sticker for every book in the store. Wouldn’t it be easier to post signs with the color codes and then just put colored dots on each book?”
She nodded. “I guess, but it’s a lot of work to do that for books that already have prices on them.”
He shrugged. “I know, but I don’t have anything better to do.”
So he got to work, and before noon came around, Melissa was helping him while they had a lively discussion of
The Catcher in the Rye
The Color Purple,
and Ayn Rand’s political philosophy.
When Friday came to a close, he didn’t want to leave, but he didn’t dare ask her out for a drink. So he reluctantly headed back up the ridge, but before he was out of cell phone range, his phone vibrated. It was his father, calling all the way from Japan.
He pulled the Land Rover over to the side of the road and punched the talk button on his phone. “Hello, Dad,” he said.
“Where the hell are you?”
Jeff said nothing.
“Don’t pull the silent treatment on me. Your mother is about to call the police and proclaim that you’ve been kidnapped.”
He sighed. “I told her I was going away for a while. She knows I haven’t been kidnapped.”
“That’s debatable. She’s hysterical.”
“You know, she wouldn’t be hysterical if you hadn’t allowed the White House to issue that statement in which you said I had no business being a journalist. I think that ticked her off. It sure ticked me off.”
“Well, that’s too bad. Because it’s the truth. Go home, Jeff. Go manage your mother’s money. She has so much of it, I doubt that you could screw things up the way you’ve screwed up the Durand nomination. But whatever you do, stay out of journalism and stay out of politics. Because you sure didn’t inherit any of the Lyndon smarts when it comes to those things.”
That was it. He’d had enough. “Ambassador Lyndon,” he said in a tight voice, “I’m happy to comply with your request that I take myself out of the family. Tomorrow I’ll be calling my lawyers and starting the formal process of removing your last name from mine.” He pressed the disconnect button and sat there for several minutes breathing hard while his fury subsided. He hated his father. The feeling was clearly mutual.
He probably ought to move out of Dad’s cabin. But what the heck. The guy was in Japan, and Jeff had the key. Besides, leaving Shenandoah Falls was the last thing he wanted to do right now.
* * *
On Saturday Melissa found herself anticipating Jeff’s arrival, and the moment the front door opened with a jingle, she and Dickens had almost the same reaction. The cat sat up and meowed plaintively until Jeff stopped and gave him a good scratch behind the ears and told him what a beautiful feline he was. Melissa got hot and bothered just watching him stroke the cat.
Hugo wasn’t about to let Dickens get all the attention. He waddled out from his lair in the back and demanded equal time. Jeff lavished praise on him, too, allowing Melissa to appreciate Jeff’s manly but gentle hands, with their long, patrician fingers.
Once Jeff satisfied the cats, he turned and strolled past her toward the back room and the coffeemaker. “Can I interest you in a cup of hazelnut coffee light on the cream, heavy on the sugar?”
He pulled a package of coffee and a coffee grinder from the sack he was carrying. “I stopped at the store on the way in.”
Wow. He’d been listening when she’d said that hazelnut coffee was her favorite. Boy, he was kind of terrific, wasn’t he?
He disappeared into the back room and emerged several minutes later with a mug of coffee, made exactly the way she liked it. She was ready to melt right in front of him. Where had this guy come from and why was he here?
“So what’s it going to be today?” he asked.
The coffee warmed her hand. The spark in his brown eyes warmed up every other part of her. “I don’t know, Jeff,” she said. “I told you I didn’t need help. Why don’t you tell me what I need?”
He grinned. “How about I fix the ladder?” He gestured to the floor-to-ceiling shelves along the northwest wall. “Then you could use the upper bookshelves again.”
“I can’t even remember the last time we had access to those shelves. I’m pretty sure the ladder is long gone.”
“Actually, I found it in the back room when I was tidying up.”
She was tempted to tell him to forget the ladder. She could use someone to tidy up the small apartment above the bookstore where she was living. But she held her tongue. She didn’t want him to know what a slob she was. Her inability to keep things neat and tidy had been a serious bone of contention between her and Chris. “It’s missing some pieces, I think,” she said instead.
“Is it? Let’s figure out what it needs and get it working again.” He strolled past her, leaving his yummy scent—soap, coffee, and cedar—behind.
She settled into a comfy chair behind the checkout and watched him work. Today he was channeling his inner lumbersexual. His beard was impeccably groomed, and he wore a plaid flannel shirt and a chest-hugging black T-shirt. He’d left his skinny black jeans behind this morning and instead he wore a pair of faded blue ones that were almost threadbare in the seat and the knees.
He’d been impressive with his colored dots, but when he pulled out the old toolbox from the back room, along with the pieces of the broken library ladder, the show definitely took an erotic turn. What was it about a man in a flannel shirt and faded jeans using a screwdriver?
It took him two trips to the hardware store for parts, but by noon he had the ladder rolling along the rails the way it had when Melissa was eight years old and had first come to live with Grammy.
He was using the ladder to reorganize the books in the children’s area, near the back of the store, when the front door opened, jingling the bell. Pamela Lyndon—who Grammy always referred to as the Duchess of Charlotte’s Grove—came gliding into the store wearing a designer dress in her signature shade of pale blue.
The duchess got about two steps into the bookshop before Dickens arched his back, fluffed out his fur, and yowled at her in a way that could only be called bloodcurdling.
Several things happened in quick succession after this.
First the duchess said, “Goodness!” and retreated a step, clutching her purse in front of her like a shield. “Shoo, kitty,” she said in a totally ineffective voice.
Second Jeff, who was up on the ladder shelving fiction on the highest shelf, turned toward the cat and said several X-rated words. He must have thrown his weight to one side, because the ladder’s rail (which he apparently hadn’t checked earlier in the day) detached from the bookshelf. The ladder unexpectedly pivoted and slammed Jeff into the back wall of the store.
And that’s when the unthinkable happened.
A long time ago, when the store had been more successful, Grammy had put up a bunch of coat hooks on the back wall, where she’d hung merchandise for kids. The coat hooks were empty at the moment. But when Jeff slammed against the wall, somehow his slightly threadbare jeans got snagged, so when the ladder pivoted again, Jeff didn’t pivot with it. Instead, he was left behind, hanging there on the wall for a moment, suspended by the seat of his pants.
That didn’t last very long. There was an audible
as his jeans split. Jeff came down, dumped unceremoniously onto Melissa’s favorite beanbag chair. His pants stayed put, snarled in the coat hook, his legs still caught in them.