Authors: Kristin Wallace
Nate burst through the door of
and hurried up the sidewalk toward the car. He needed to put some distance between himself and the caramel-haired Calamity Jane inside. His heart still threatened to erupt out of his chest like the alien tearing through that guy's stomach. Emily claimed he'd moved fast, but in his mind time had slipped into slow motion. His only thought had been to stop the flames from eating into her skin.
Then, like an idiot, he'd pulled her into his arms. Man, what a dumb move. He could still feel the imprint of her pressed against his chest. Her scent, a combination of cinnamon and some kind of berry-scented shampoo, assaulted his senses every time he breathed. He should never have touched her.
“Bro, are we running for a reason?”
Nate skidded to a halt. “Huh?”
“Are we late?” Zach asked.
“Sorry, I was thinking of something else,” he said, forcing himself to take a deep breath and calm down.
The kid grinned. “I'll bet. She's hot, man.”
If possible Zach's grin spread wider. “Are you kidding? E.J. Sinclair. Like you didn't notice. She's little, but everything's packaged just right.”
He scowled. “You shouldn't talk about women like that. It's disrespectful.”
“I'm just saying,” Zach said with careless shrug. “Are you gonna do something about it?”
Zach sent him a
glare. “About Emily Sinclair? About you looking like you were ready toâ”
The kid's eyes widened. “âkiss her. Man, what'd you think I was gonna say?”
“Nothing,” Nate mumbled. “Come on. We need to go home and fix dinner.”
Zach laughed. “So, more than kissing then? Do we need to have a talk?”
Nate jabbed a finger in his brother's face, but he couldn't come up with a good response. Thankfully, they'd reached the car. “Just get in.”
Of course, Zach didn't let the subject drop. As soon as Nate had backed out of the parking space, his brother launched the next attack.
“She had the same expression on her face,” Zach said, looking out the window as if he'd just commented on the weather.
Nate's head swiveled around. “What?”
“Carâ¦” Zach said, pointing out the windshield.
Nate jerked the wheel back, narrowly avoiding an SUV parked on the street.
“What are you talking about?” Nate asked, careful to keep his eyes on the road.
“Emily. Should have seen her face when you grabbed her. Likeâ”
He shouldn't even care, but he had to know. “Like what?”
“Like she could stay there forever.”
A shiver worked its way down Nate's spine. “Must have been shock from almost burning herself.”
They drove in silence for a few minutes.
“You're not going to do anything are you?” Zach asked finally.
“She won't be here long.”
“Soâ¦ she's leaving.”
“Maybe you can convince her to stay.”
“Maybe she's The One,” he said, waggling his eyebrows and making air quotes with his fingers.
“I don't get it.”
“There's nothing to get.” Nate made a left onto their street. “She's passing through. We have nothing in common, and besides I have too much on my plate right now to get distracted.”
“Is that why you let her think you were dumb?” Zach asked. “You should have told her.”
“There's nothing to say. I figured out how to live with it.”
By now they'd reached the house. Nate pulled into the driveway and shut the engine off.
“I think Mom would like her,” Zach said.
If he'd been hit by a two-by-four, Nate couldn't have been more shocked. “What?”
Zach turned back, all signs of teasing had vanished. “I think she'd like Emily, and I think she'd like knowing someone was going to be here with us afterâ” He trailed off and swallowed, the wise old man expression replaced by one of a lost little boy.
Nate clapped a hand on his brother's shoulder. “I know, but it's not going to happen.”
The creature rose from the water.
arms stretched toward the small boat
on the surface.
The four teenagers in the raft had thought their boat sinking was the worst
of the disaster.
Now, a creature more hideous than a nightmare offered a much more terrible fate.
A shrill alarm cut through the stillness. Emily's head jerked up, her mind returning from the fantasy world she'd been trying to create. All thoughts of terrible sea creatures and lost teens vanished as she saw smoke pouring from the oven in great waves.
With a startled cry, she jumped up from the stool and ran across the kitchen. She pulled the oven door open and more acrid smoke flooded out. Coughing, she reached for a dishtowel and clapped it over her face.
With her free hand, she grabbed an oven mitt, reached inside for the pan, and then sprinted to the sink. She flipped up the handle on the faucet, and cold water gushed out. Then she took up the dishtowel and fanned it in front of the alarm, hoping to stop the shrieking. The ear-splitting wail was enough to make a person go deaf. Or wish they were.
A door crashed in the dining area, and three hulking figures in full fire regalia rushed in. She screamed before realizing they were only firemen.
“We had an alarm,” the one in the lead barked out.
Emily conjured up a contrite smile. “Sorry. I lost track of time and left something in the oven too long. Who knew one cake could produce so much smoke, huh?”
The lead firefighter blinked. “A cake?”
“Yes. Sorry. I tried to get the alarm to stop.”
Great. Jessie. Emily cringed as her boss raced into the kitchen, nearly tripping over the firefighters.
“What happened?” Jessie asked.
“Only a little smoke,” Emily said.
Jessie's eyes slid toward the sink where the now sodden cake resided. “Sorry boys,” she said on a deep sigh. “Looks like we had a kitchen mishap.”
The firemen gave Emily a dark look as they filed out of the room. She wanted to sink through the floor.
Jessie walked over to the sink to inspect the damage. “Pan's destroyed, too.”
“I'm sorry,” Emily said. “I had an idea all of a sudden and got distracted.”
“The cake was on a timer.”
“Guess I didn't hear it.”
“We need to talk,” Jessie said in a soft, resigned voice.
Emily's heart sank. She hated that phrase. Talking never ended well. Her eyes stung with unshed tears.
“Oh, don't start crying now,” Jessie said, alarm in her voice. “You and I both know a bakery isn't the place for you. I knew when I hired you I was taking a gamble, butâ¦”
“A gamble? What do you mean?”
Jessie fixed Emily with a
stare. “I could tell right off you didn't have much experience, but something told me you needed this job. I guess I'm a soft case for people who are down on their luck. I didn't even realize it until you looked at me with your sad eyes and babbled something about God and signs. I was willing to give you a chance, but I can't ignore a fire.”
“I'll figure it out. I promise.”
“Honey, either you've got the knack or you don't. You don't unfortunately. It's like you and your writing. I couldn't write a chapter, let along a whole book, if you put a gun to my head. Cooking isn't your thing. No need to feel bad about it.”
So why did Emily feel so ashamed? She hated failing, and she'd been doing nothing but failing for so long now. Emily took off her cooking smock and handed it over. “I'm sorry about your cake and the pan. I'll pay for it.”
“I've got more pans. Cake batter, too,” Jessie said. “Don't think I failed to miss the fact that most of your earnings went back into the till.”
Emily's cheeks were going to become permanently stained with red. “What a disaster.”
Jessie winked and walked Emily to the door. “In the kitchen maybe, but your little fans improved my bottom line.”
Emily managed to keep the tears at bay until she was out of sight of the bakery. She swiped a hand across her wet cheeks. It was stupid to be so upset. Except a baker's assistant could now be added to the list of things at which she couldn't do. Depression sat heavy on her chest.
She looked up and down the street, wondering what to do now. She could go back to the bed and breakfast where she'd been staying. Better yet, she could pack her bags and head out of town.
Good idea, except her car still resided in Fred's garage. Shockingly, parts for expensive foreign cars were not abundant in Covington Falls, so unless she wanted to hop on a bus, she couldn't leave. She didn't think buses allowed cats, in any case, and she couldn't leave Wordsworth.
Another alternative was to climb into bed and not come out for days. Refuse to shower, eat nothing but dry cereal out of the box, and mutter about eight-legged sea creatures. Have a real breakdown. All the best authors had one at some point. She'd be joining elite company.
“Sounds like a plan.”
She went in the direction of the bed and breakfast. She reached the park at the intersection of Main Street and First Avenue. To her right, City Hall guarded over the good citizens of Covington Falls like a benevolent uncle. Opposite the hall stood an imposing gray building with stone columns. The library.
All thoughts of breakdowns disappeared.
Almost in a trance, Emily's feet took her across the park and up the steps.
Heaving open the heavy oak doors, she took a deep breath. Despite the ache in her heart, she couldn't help smiling. No matter where they were located, libraries shared a common smell. A combination of dampness, aged paper, and leather, mixed with the hint of lemon from years of polishing wooden tables. She wandered past the front desk. Metal shelves stretched above her head, marching in neat columns to the back of the building. In heaven, Emily picked a row and started down.
At the end of the first one, she rounded the corner and found herself nose to chest with a woman holding a huge leather-bound book. They both gasped.
“Sorry,” the woman said with a laugh.
She towered over Emily and had wild corkscrew red hair, shimmering blue eyes and a figure to die for. Emily's mind conjured up images of Amazon warriors and Greek goddesses.
“You all right?” the Amazon asked. “I didn't crush your foot, did I?”
Emily shook her head. “No.”
“Sorry again. I'm Julia Richardson, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Emily's gaze hooked on the leather tome. “What's in the book?”
“I'm searching for a newspaper clipping from 1935,” Julia said, turning to make her way back down the row.
“They still keep clippings bound in books?” Emily asked, falling into step beside her.
A smile flitted across Julia's face. “Just one of the many charming aspects of life in Covington Falls. To their credit, the folks here are trying to scan the old newspaper issues to digitize them, but they haven't gotten to the thirties yet.”
They left the aisle and Julia dumped her burden on one of the tables. She flipped the book open to reveal page after page of articles.
“Why do you need 1935?” Emily asked.
“I have a client who wants to recreate her grandmother's wedding, right down to the kind of buttons used on the dress. This book is one of my only sources beyond some old, faded pictures.”
“You plan weddings?”
“My sister and I own the business.”
Emily remembered the intriguing window display she'd seen the other day. “
. Did you decorate the window?”
A wicked chuckle escaped her as Julia sat down. “I did indeed.”
Emily slipped into a chair. “You did a great job.”
“I enjoy doing them, though my sister says one day I'll go too far.” She took her first good look at Emily. “You're new in town, aren't you? I've never seen you before.”
“Yes. My car broke down a couple days ago, and I liked it here so much I decided to stay awhile.”
Julia's eyes widened. “Oh. You're the author, E.J. Sinclair.”
“You know who I am?”
“Everyone's been talking about you. You're working at the bakery, right?”
Oh, why did she have to mention the bakery? Tears threatened to erupt again. “I was.”
“Turns out I'm not a very good baker's assistant.”
Julia's head tilted back as she laughed. “I wouldn't be either. So, what are you doing in here?”
“Hiding out, I guess.”
Julia had started flipping through the news clippings, but at the forlorn answer her head came up. “Hiding from what?”
“From myself. Or maybe from E.J. Sinclair. Or perhaps I hoped to find her again. A library is where I discovered my alter ego after all.”
The search for the vintage wedding dress was forgotten as Julia leaned forward. “I have no idea what you just said, but I sense a good story somewhere in there.”
“I've lost E.J. and I don't know how to get her back,” Emily said, resting her chin in her hand. “I can't write anymore, and I've always been able to come to a library to get reenergized.”
“Libraries have magical powers?”
“For me they do. Think about all the tales contained within these walls. Stories of musketeers and knights and cowboys. Great battles and sea adventures. Those things aren't just words on a page. They're alive, right here.”
“Boy, you really like books, don't you?”
Abashed, Emily cleared her throat. “Sorry, I get carried away sometimes.”
“I can tell,” Julia said, a teasing light in her blue eyes.
“I guess I can blame my grandmother. She used to take me to the library every Saturday when I was a little girl. At first she read the stories to me, and then when I got old enough, I'd read to her. I fell in love with the place as much as the books. I always felt so at home. More than I ever did in my real home.”
“Ah, family drama,” Julia drawled. “Now I understand. Going to the library became a way of escaping whatever was going on in your life.”
“Pretty much. I was in a library the first time I wrote something. A bad short story, but it's where I found E.J.”
“And now you've lost her and what feels like your whole identity.”
Shock had her sitting up straight. “How did you know?”
Julia's smile became warm and understanding. “I know something about wrapping up your identity in a career, and what it feels like when it's snatched away.”
“What did you do about it?”
“I realized I'd been hiding behind my businesswoman identity,” Julia said. “I used it as a way to keep people at a distance so I wouldn't have to care. Eventually, I found something more concrete to believe in.”
“I found faith.”
Emily wrinkled her nose. “You mean God or something?”
“Not or something. Once I accepted that Christ loved me no matter what I did or the kind of career I had, everything else in my life seemed to fall into place. Of course, I still forget sometimes. I'm a hard case. Or hardheaded as Seth would say.”
“My fiancÃ©. He's a minister, which must be God's idea of a cosmic joke. What better way to shake up my foundations than by having me fall in love with someone who represents everything I've always scorned?”
Emily's gaze drifted over the vibrant, outspoken woman. “Somehow I don't picture you as a minister's wife.”
“I know, right? It's crazy.”
Judging by Julia's face, her relationship was wonderful. She glowed with happiness. Emily had heard the term before, but she'd never seen the phenomenon first hand. She wondered if Julia's faith had as much to do with the glow as the minister fiancÃ©. Religion had never played much of a role in Emily's life. Her parents talked about different practices in academic terms, but they'd never considered adopting a particular faith. Emily hadn't either. She'd attended services all over the world, in churches and synagogues, and even a Buddhist temple, but more out of curiosity than any real desire to deepen her spiritual life. Now she wondered if she hadn't missed something along the way.
“Maybe not so crazy,” Emily said.
Julia leaned even closer and dropped her voice. “You should be careful while you're here.”
“Covington Falls has a way of changing you. No one seems to escape it.”
An icy finger skated down Emily's being and she shivered. Before she could respond, a tiny woman with tight, steel gray curls approached their table. Gold-rimmed reading glasses sat on the edge of her nose and a beige cardigan sweater rested over her shoulders. A white blouse and navy blue skirt rounded out the outfit.
Librarians. Emily's favorite people. Her heart melted.
“Good afternoon, Julia,” the woman said in a near whisper used universally by librarians the world over.
“Hi, Ms. Allen,” Julia said, matching the other woman's tone. “How are you?”
Ms. Allen's faded blue eyes clouded with worry. “Oh, we are troubled. Elsie threw out her back, bless her heart, and she won't be able to drive the library van for some time. We're searching for a volunteer to replace her, at least temporarily.”
“Too bad,” Julia said, with a little mew of sympathy. “I'm sure you'll find someone soon.”
“It's so unfortunate,” Ms. Allen said, wringing her hands in despair. “All those poor people waiting for their books. Trapped in their houses with no human companionship. No contact with the outside world.”
A look of unbridled amusement flashed across Julia's face and she bit her lip, obviously trying not to laugh at the Shakespearean tragedy spun by the older woman.