Oklahoma, January 15
The flabby man had stayed crouched for hours in the same shadowy corner of the library where Isa Telwyn worked, which was odd, because it was obvious that he didn’t know how to read.
The large encyclopedia looked tiny in his huge, warty hands. He hadn’t turned the page since he’d arrived, but he kept peering over the top of the book at Isa like he was trying to figure out if he knew her. But the really strange part was that he didn’t seem to realize he was holding the encyclopedia upside down.
Closing time was minutes away, and he didn’t look like he was going anywhere soon. His bulbous body sat folded into a creaky oak chair that strained to hold his mass. The cowboy hat he wore was too small for his round head, but it shaded his face, leaving only an impression of sagging skin, wiry whiskers, and oddly-shaped eyes.
Wind howled outside as the winter storm front closed in. Tiny pellets of ice clicked against glass panes that had protected the books for so long they were rippled with age. The smell of old paper and aging wood wafted through the building as the fierce wind worked its way in through drafty cracks in the aging brick and plaster walls.
The buzzing fluorescent bulbs overhead hadn’t been replaced in years. There weren’t as many as there should have been, thanks to cost-cutting measures, leaving the whole space a labyrinth of shadowy mazes with high bookshelf walls. Even the utilitarian carpet on the floor seemed to absorb light as well as it did sound. Footsteps were muffled, but the creak of aging boards underneath was easy to hear all the way from the back wall to the check-out desk.
Mrs. Bird, the library’s oldest employee, shuffled toward the front desk, eyeing the strange man. Her white hair had thinned, but she still twisted the little wispy bits into a bun that was more bobby pins than hair. She settled her crooked hands on the back of a rickety chair too large for her shrinking frame. “It’s seven,” she said to Isa, confusion clear in her tone. “Why is he still here? Everyone knows we close at seven.”
“I don’t think he’s a local,” Isa said. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “In fact, I don’t think he can read. I bet he’s been sitting over there all day, trying to work up the courage to ask about our classes.”
“Classes are on Saturday. It’s Tuesday.”
Isa stifled a grin at the seriousness of Mrs. Bird’s statement. She’d lived in Silver Gulch her entire life, and after eighty-eight years had a hard time remembering there were other places on the planet where people could exist. This town—this library—was the center of her universe, and Isa feared that if she didn’t get out of here soon, she would end up just like Mrs. Bird sixty years down the line.
The light summer rain that had been falling all morning ceased only moments ago, leaving everything dripping and sparkling in new sunlight. The gunmetal sky was clearing, uncovering a brilliant blue, and the imported palms whispered as a cool easterly breeze brushed their long, sensuous fronds in a tender caress. On this bright August afternoon in 1992, a Sunday, a young man and a woman were making love in a hotel room in New York City.
It was hot in the room, and clothes were strewn all over the red-carpeted floor as the couple lay naked across the double bed, his body moving rhythmically on top of hers, making her moan with pleasure. Her eyes half-closed, she ran her fingers through his hair as his mouth left hers to rain kisses on her chin, her throat, her breasts. His mouth traveled up against hers again, and as he gently caressed her breasts, he excited her more and more until she gave a loud, ecstatic cry of total satisfaction. The mutual climax seemed endless, and when they finally stopped, she lay weakly in his arms. They were both covered in sweat, and he ran his fingers through her hair. Her breath was uneven as she looked up at him and smiled, her look inviting an answering smile from him.
He reached for the half-empty bottle of champagne on the bedside table. “Would you like a glass?” he asked.
“No, thanks,” she replied. “I’ve had enough champagne for now. But a cup of tea would be lovely.”
As he nodded, she brought her lips against his, then reached over and picked up her creamy silk peignoir, wrapped it around herself, and walked across the room to sit by the large window. A minute later, having called room service for tea, he joined her. From here on the ninth floor, the view of the city stretching out before them was incredible.
Frank Dawson, a tall, muscular man with light brown eyes and dark hair that hung down across his forehead, looked to be in his early thirties, but was in fact twenty-four. He had an attractive, sophisticated face with an expression that suggested he had already seen a lot in his life.
Christine Barkley, who was nineteen, also looked older. She was tall and slender, with blue eyes and long blonde hair that framed a face of finely boned, perfectly proportioned features.
The noise of the traffic below was barely audible as they sat in silence for a moment.
“Thanks for the wonderful, romantic weekend,” he finally said. “Usually, this kind of thing comes with a small gift and a letter of apology, saying that you’re sorry for never telling me that you were actually a lesbian.”
She smiled gently at his little joke. “Very funny.”
“I’d still love you just as much even if you turned out to be a lesbian.”
She crossed her bare legs on the big couch. “Oh, stop it!”
He laughed shortly. “We can go for a ride,” he said. “The rain’s stopped.”
He looked at his watch. “It’s still early.”
“I know, but I’m having quite a good time right here.”
“Well, then, I suppose you don’t mind at all that we’ve been stuck here in this hotel room since Friday afternoon?”
“Not at all.” She moved to sit in his lap. A loose strand of hair came down over her face as she leaned closer to him and gave him a quick kiss on the mouth.
He rolled the stray lock of hair round her ear, and then wrapped his arms around her waist. “I wouldn’t mind being stuck here with you forever.”
“The feeling is mutual.” She looked at him affectionately as she stroked his face with her hand. “We hardly spend enough quality time together. I just want us to make the most of every moment we share right now. No people, no joyrides, no restaurants. Just you and I, enjoying each other’s company.”
He gave her a questioning look. “Apart from talking and all the board games we’ve been playing for the past two days, what else do you suggest we do for the rest of the afternoon?”
She gave him one of her big smiles, warm and seductive. “Well, how about we go back to bed and continue what we were doing a few minutes ago?”
“Now that sounds like a very good idea.”
“Come here.” He took her hand and they walked back to the bed. “You’re so irresistible,” he murmured against her throat as he slid her peignoir down to her waist. Then he bent to kiss her breasts. Her hands in his hair, she began to moan, but then there was a knock on the door.
He sat up. “Damn!”
“Room service,” a man’s voice called from outside.
Frank stood up while Christine hastily pulled up the peignoir. Then he picked up their clothes from the floor before he went to open the door. The waiter came in with his tray of tea and its accompaniments. Frank pointed to the bedside table.
“Put it over there.”
The smiling waiter set down the fine china teapot and cups, sliced lemon, sugar, and some cookies and slices of fruitcake. After Frank signed the bill, the waiter inclined his head and left.
Christine poured the tea. “I think I should give my father a call,” she said. “He’s been back from London since yesterday.”
Frank squeezed some lemon into his tea. “When you do, please give him my love,” he joked.
“And give him a heart attack?” She sipped her tea.
“The man who produced you must be worthy of affection…even if he doesn’t approve of me.”
“That’s not funny,” she said, her expression suddenly solemn. “My parents still think I’m nine years old and that they can bully me into submission.”
“Relax! No one has a clue where we are. Not even the paparazzi. And they seem to follow you everywhere you go.”
She frowned. “See? That’s the problem. I’m tired of the secrecy! I want my parents to know about our relationship. We can’t go on like this.”
“Hey.” He looked at her thoughtfully. “Where’s all of this coming from all of a sudden? We promised each other we wouldn’t let anything spoil our weekend.”
“I’m sorry.” She made a frustrated gesture. “It’s just that I don’t want this. We love each other and being scared about it is not right.”
“Look, I know it’s hard, but everything will be okay. Just give it some time.”
“I’m just so tired of all the sneaking and lying. I’m tired of pretending that we’re merely friends. I want my parents to know that we’re in love. Only that way can we truly be happy and get married.” Her eyes had taken on a faint sheen of tears.
The subject of her parents was a sensitive one and they had talked very little about it.
“I know that’s what you want, but we can’t lose focus now,” he said. “I haven’t said we’re going to keep our relationship a secret forever. It’s just that now isn’t the right time.”
“Sometimes I wonder if the right time will ever come.” She looked away as she wiped a tear from her eye.
“Christine, look at me.” She did, and he touched her cheek. “Do you understand? We can’t let your parents find out about us now.”
“No,” she replied in a tremulous voice, “I don’t understand. Why does this have to be so complicated for us? Why can’t we be like other couples?”
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“I’m sorry it came to this. If you need a reference in the future, please let me know. I’d be happy to help you out in any way possible.” My eyes follow the chapped lips before me as I try to comprehend the words that were just spit my way.
“I’m sorry, what?” I ask with confusion. I obviously didn’t hear him right because there’s no way my boss just fired me.
“If there is anything I can do, please let me know,” he repeats, a little slower this time. Then adds, for the fifth time since we sat down together, “I’m sorry, Emma.”
I open my mouth, but I quickly close it when no words flow out. I wait for the right letters to align together and register with my mouth, because right now all I can think of stammering out is, “What the fuck? Are you shitting me? It’s my birthday! You’re an asshole!”
Taking in a deep breath, I calmly recollect my thoughts. “But why?” I’m shocked at how soothing my voice is.
My now former boss, Mike, pushes away from the mahogany desk that looks just as old and tired as he does and shifts in his chair uncomfortably until his arms eventually end up crisscrossed in front of his chest. His eyes dart over my shoulder to the empty canvas on the wall, then slowly drag to the ugly eggnog carpet that covers his office floor. He clears his voice, avoiding eye contact. “Look, Emma, you’re a nice young girl and I’m sure you’ll succeed…”
“Just not here,” I cut him off. Not that I see myself succeeding in the restaurant business as a waitress, but that’s beside the point. I need a job.
I need this job.
Or rather, I need the tip money for living expenses.
Of all the events that happened in the months after I met Sol, the first I remember is the day he sent me twenty-five roses. The bouquet was the first gift I received from him – in fact, the first flowers from any man. When Sol didn’t call me after the incident in the library, I worried that my angry outburst had given him second thoughts. For three days, I waited in agony for his call. I blamed myself and once again regretted how I often acted without thinking.
My mother was at home that afternoon working on a dress for a wealthy client in Westmount. Thinking back, I imagine her kneeling on the floor cutting out a pattern with her large shears, her tongue poking out to the side from between her lips. The doorbell rings. She stands and smoothes her house dress, wondering if it is Mrs. LeClerc, our next door neighbor. Opening the door, she sees a truck with a sign ‘Robichard Fleuristes de Montréal.’
“Fleurs pour Rebecca…ah,’ the delivery man examines the invoice, “Wiseman. Signer ici.”
Of course, I don’t know if the man hesitated, but in my imagination he does. My mind always enhances my memories until sometimes I can’t remember what is real and what I make up. I blame this exaggeration on my life-long habit of reading one or two books a week.
My mother tried to act as if nothing unusual had happened. I could see she was excited, but guessed she had a new commission for a dress. “Come,” she said and taking my hand, led me into the dining room. I smelled the roses before I saw them. The bouquet filled a deep blue vase in the middle of the table. The late afternoon sunlight, coming through the windows, seemed to illuminate only the roses. The red color of the delicate petals was hypnotic.
“From Dad?” Had I forgotten my parents’ anniversary?
She looked at me as if I’d asked a stupid question. “No, they’re for you. From Sol.”
My mother laughed, clasping her hands under her chin in delight. “Of course. How many Sols do you know who’d send you flowers?”
My hands trembled as I took the card from its place between two roses. I was annoyed I couldn’t be calm and sophisticated as if this gift were only to be expected.
A rose for each day of our budding friendship.
“Fine,” she said to the computer screen. “Fine. You win. I hope you enjoy all those words of mine you just devoured.”
Ruth glared at the laptop, wanting to growl at the infuriating thing. She’d just spent her scant thirty minute lunch break typing through fear and resistance to add to her growing romance novel — only to have the computer eat all her progress.
She glanced at the clock on the corner of the screen and sighed. Just a few more minutes and then the bell would ring and a tumble of first graders fresh from recess would stream into the classroom, tracking mud and flinging sweaty jackets every which way no matter how often she asked them to put their things in their cubbyholes, please.
Ruth stood to gather up the leavings of her lunch, closing the computer document containing her novel. She loved her students, and loved getting to see them grow and change over the course of the school year. But she wasn’t so sure she loved the teaching itself. She’d only gotten into education because she hadn’t known what to do after she’d graduated from college, and the elementary ed program at Boston College was the only grad school degree program she could find that was still taking applications. And going back to live in her parents’ home and once again be the whipping post for the pain of their soured marriage? Not an option.
And she’d actually thought that she’d love teaching. But while she didn’t hate it . . . it wasn’t her. It wasn’t what lit her heart on fire. Writing did that.
But, as her father loved to point out, writing stories wasn’t practical. It didn’t pay the bills, didn’t pay for hardly anything, really, except for the very talented or very lucky. “And you are neither,” he’d said the day she’d announced that she had decided to earn a bachelor’s degree in creative writing.
Ruth’s stomach clenched at the memory of those words she’d never been quite able to shake, even after two more years of undergrad, a whirlwind single year of graduate school, and then three years teaching at this elementary school in Cambridge, one of her favorite parts of Boston. She still didn’t know how she’d managed to snag this job; the competition had been impressive and copious.
But somehow she’d found herself here, and three years in she was realizing that as practical as “here” might be, it was slowly but surely draining her away. And there was no way out in sight. No wonder so many of the older teachers she’d met were so bitter; they’d been sucked dry, perhaps, just like she was.
Ruth tossed her lunch’s remains into the trash, took a gulp from her water bottle, and stood for a moment in the silence of the classroom. She massaged her fingers against the base of her skull, closing her eyes, wishing for the umpteenth time for a man that could do that for her every once in a while. Maybe that was why she was writing a romance novel, a genre that she’d always scoffed at as an undergrad. A guy to toy with her wild brunette curls, to rub her feet at the end of a long day, and to fondle her —
No. She snapped her eyes open. No need to fantasize about something that seemed likely to never happen, according to her completely awful dating batting average. Although that was hardly an appropriate analogy, Ruth thought as she flipped open her lesson planner to remind herself what was on tap for the afternoon. You couldn’t have a batting average if you’d hardly been up at bat. There just weren’t any guys that made the risk seem worth it.
Ruth gazed around the room at the rather tired looking paper hearts and colorful paper chains that were leftover from the previous week’s welcome-back-to-school class party. All the children had exchanged little notes of friendship with each other, which they’d opened with such delight. They made her think of the Valentine’s Day parties she’d celebrated with her own classmates as a child. It had seemed so simple a thing, then, so easy to believe that love was in her future, that loneliness was no one’s destiny. And yet here she was, a woman in the prime of her life who’d barely been touched in any sort of a romantic way, stuck in a job that she tried desperately to love and couldn’t.
The bell that summoned the students in from recess shattered the silence of the room. Ruth sighed, then rolled her eyes. It seemed like all she did was sigh these days. With one last glare at the computer that had stolen the fruit of the little passionate labor she was allowed, she went to usher her first graders back to the classroom.
Lila picked up her knife and fork, not exactly sure how to even approach such an enormous pile of carbohydrates. She smothered the breakfast cakes with butter, then poured on the syrup.
“You’re doing it wrong,” a male voice said.
Lila was so startled that her knife and fork clattered to the Formica tabletop. Perhaps her nerves were propelled a bit by guilt for eating such non-nutritious foods.
And then her fingers were even clumsier as she stared at the man approaching the table. Several words popped into her head all at once. Gorgeous. Rugged. Hard. And pathetically moonstruck.
The “pathetic” and “moonstruck” words applied to her. Not to the man. The enormous man. The man looking at her as if he wanted to rough her up. Goodness, what was he about to do? Surely he wasn’t going to sit down across from her. Was he?
Lila pushed her plate away. “I didn’t know…” she stammered out. “I apologize.” Her cheeks were turning pink and she was looking around, painfully aware that others in the diner were now staring at her. Or perhaps they were staring at this man. He really was a huge man!
Oh my goodness, he actually did it! He slid into the booth across from her, his calloused hands resting on the table. Lila might still have the whole table between them, but just his presence caused her to pull back. She was stunned by how broad his shoulders were and, in that instant, she felt crowded by his size.
“You need to cut them up, then put the syrup on. That way, the syrup soaks into the pancakes better,” Jake explained.
He was staring at the gorgeous woman who looked like she’d just helped her grandmother keel over. The guilty expression was almost laughable, and he felt slightly bad for startling her.
Lila continued to stare at the man, still trying to absorb how large he was. Perhaps the jacket was adding several inches to those shoulders, but even still, he was huge! She realized that he’d just spoken to her but, for the life of her, she had no idea what he’d just said. “Excuse me?” she replied politely, not really sure what he was talking about. Her mind had gone completely blank and no matter how hard she tried to jump-start her mental acuity, it was a lost cause with this man sitting across the table from her.
Jake thought about explaining again, but he was just a bit too flabbergasted by this woman. She was, quite simply, stunning! He was surrounded by beautiful women all the time, women who spent hours primping and spending obscene amounts of money at day spas.
None of them could even come close to the startling beauty of this redhead, her hair sparkling in the sunshine streaming in through the diner’s window not to mention those blue eyes that told the world everything she might be thinking.
As he sat across the table, he could see the dark circles under her pale skin and her nails were broken, unpainted, her sweatshirt was about four sizes too big and he still was trying to hide his body’s reaction to her. There was just something about her, a frailty or perhaps a vulnerability that she didn’t want, but couldn’t hide either. Well, and that hair! Damn, her hair was a gorgeous color and he wished she hadn’t scraped it back and braided it. He’d like to see it spread out around her shoulders. Or even better, spread out on his pillow.