I tucked the roll of tape into my pocket and stepped away from the wall, looking up at the words I had cut from construction paper the night before. The blue letters that spelled “Staff Picks” stood out against the library wall’s cream paint, making an eye-catching header for our display. My choice of I Capture the Castle was prominently placed between Hillary’s The Poisonwood Bible and Melanie’s The Hunger Games. The other employees hadn’t turned in their picks yet, and I had no doubt I’d have to hunt them down before the day was over.
I took a moment to run through my favorite scenes in my mind.
I am Cassandra Mortmain. I don’t mean that literally—my name is Addie Preston, but every time I pick up my own dog-eared copy of I Capture the Castle, I’m sitting in the kitchen sink with the main character, feeling everything she feels. We’re the same person, only in two different dimensions. I swoon over Simon, I get irritated with Neil, I envy Rose’s beauty and charm. I have to pull myself back to my own reality with force at the end of the story because I’ve lived it so fully, so completely, as I read.
I reached up and pressed the lower part of the “S” more firmly against the wall, hoping the tape was strong enough to keep the letters in place.
“Let me guess. You are Cassandra Mortmain.”
I didn’t recognize the voice. I grasped the hem of my shirt and tugged it down a little, then turned to face the speaker. A tall young man leaned up against one of the bookcases, his arms crossed over his chest, looking a little Abercrombie and Fitch with the sleeves of his dress shirt rolled to his elbows. He looked about twenty-six or twenty-seven. He was really cute, too, and I wondered if my hair was still good. It had turned out exceptionally well that morning, but you never know what might have happened to it between home and school and work, with all the wind and stuff. Then I registered what he’d said. “What do you mean?”
“I know your type. You probably put yourself in the shoes of the heroine in every book you read.” He quirked an eyebrow. “You imagine you’re right there with her, feeling everything she feels, going through everything she goes through. I bet you’re even in love with Simon.”
Heat rose in my face. “Who are you?” Had I thought he was good-looking? It was probably time to get my eyes checked. I took a step closer, unable to hide my irritation. “And do you always go into your public library and insult the workers?”
“My name’s Blake Hansen. I’m the new guy.”
The new guy? As in, the new guy who was hired to work here, in the library, with me? The one we were told was coming, but weren’t told he was going to be an arrogant snob? “I see.” I took a moment to compose myself. “So, as the ‘new guy,’ what book would you like to place on the Staff Picks shelf?”
He turned and disappeared among the stacks. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, then opened them when I heard him return. He held up a copy of Dune.
“Frank Herbert?” He hadn’t really struck me as a sci-fi nerd, but then I suppose you can’t really pick them out in a crowd, unless you’re at a sci-fi convention and they’re dressed like Klingons or something.
“You are guilty of underestimation.” He stepped forward and added his book to the wall. “This is the greatest science-fiction novel of all time. It won the 1966 Hugo, and it received the very first ever Nebula Award. Haven’t you read it?”
“No,” I hedged, not wanting to say I’d rather stick my pinkie finger into a pencil sharpener. “There are so many books to read—”
“And so little time,” he finished for me. “You should give it a try. You might like it.” He glanced at the wall, then at me. He raised an eyebrow, the same one he’d quirked. “I bet you have a real-life Simon tucked away somewhere. An older man, someone you’re secretly in love with, but who thinks of you as a cute little sister . . .” He trailed off.
My face felt like it was on fire. I moved to duck around him, but he stretched out his arm and rested his hand on the opposite bookshelf, effectively blocking my path. “I should get to know all the employees here, don’t you think? What makes them tick, and so forth?”
“We’re not having this conversation.” I pushed against his arm with my shoulder.
Blake dropped his arm but said, “You should read Dune. It won’t fill your head with silly romantic ideas.” He turned and walked away, threading a path toward nonfiction and large print.
I couldn’t even call out a retort, I was so furious. And not only that, but you’re supposed to talk quietly in the library, and you can’t really retort in a whisper.
@ & 1
“Welcome to staff meeting.” Mr. Carlsen leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table in his office, crumpling one corner of his printed agenda.
It had been a full half hour since my little altercation with Blake, and I was still seething. He sat at the end of the table, leaning back with an ankle crossed over his knee. I could see the pattern on his fancy socks, and for some reason that made me angrier. I wanted to reach over and smack him.
“I understand Blake walked around and introduced himself to everyone.”
I pulled my attention to Mr. Carlsen. He deserved my attention; Blake’s socks did not.
“We’re very pleased to have him join our staff,” Mr. Carlsen continued. “He’ll be working with me as my assistant.”
With a sickening lightning bolt of pain, Mr. Carlen’s words cut into my chest. I tried to take a breath, but my lungs had forgotten how to work.
“Blake comes to us fresh from Kent State, where he received his degree in business management.”
I flicked a glance across the room at Melanie, my best friend. She looked nearly as stricken as I felt. I couldn’t stay silent.
“Mr. Carlsen?” I raised my hand.
“Yes, Addie?” He didn’t quite meet my gaze, but looked over my shoulder somewhere. I knew there was nothing behind me. He was being a big chicken.
“Could I . . . speak with you in private?”
“I’m sure we can talk right here, Addie.”
I bit my lip. I didn’t want to have this discussion in a room full of people. “I’d really prefer to step into the hall.”
He sighed and pushed his chair back from the table. I rose too, a little more forcefully, and my chair rolled and hit the metal filing cabinet next to the door. Ordinarily, I would have been embarrassed and apologized to everyone in the room, including the chair and the cabinet, but I just made my way out to the hall and waited for Mr. Carlsen to join me.
“I thought I was going to be assistant librarian.” I tried as hard as I could to sound calm and rational, but my voice hiked up anyway.
He pulled off his glasses and tucked them into the breast pocket of his white shirt. He always looked like he was on his way to church, although as far as I knew, he wasn’t religious. “You certainly have worked hard, Addie, and I appreciate that. But Blake has certain qualifications that are needed at this time, and I felt it was best to offer him the position.”
“Does he have a degree in library science?”
“No. I just told you—he was a business major.”
“Has he ever worked in a library before?”
“No, he hasn’t. But Addie—”
I plowed ahead, not caring what Mr. Carlsen might think of me for interrupting him. “I don’t understand. You told me that if I took a few more courses this fall, you’d see to it that I got the job. I’ve been studying hard, Mr. Carlsen. I’m going to get my degree.” I rubbed my right temple, where a headache was starting to form. “I even showed you my class schedule, and my grades. You know I’m doing the work.”
He looked uncomfortable. “I know I said that, Addie, but circumstances—well, things have changed. I can’t really go into it right now, but . . . things have changed.”
I pressed my lips together. I had been dreaming of this job since I was sixteen. I had prepared myself for it in every possible way. I’d been pulling an A average in my classes to impress the boss. And now he gives my dream job to this stuck-up know-it-all with shiny loafers and fancy socks and an irritating smirk.
“What things? What could possibly make it all right for you to go back on your word?”
“I wish I could tell you. Give me—give me a week. By then I should be able to explain.”
He had a real answer, something concrete, and he could tell me in a week? He wasn’t just brushing me off, bringing in some guy to be his mini me? I inhaled and then slowly let out the breath. Mr. Carlsen had never lied to me before—at least that I knew of. I gave a quick nod of defeat and left it at that.
“I’m sorry, Addie. I really am. Now can we please rejoin the others?”
I turned and looked behind me, where the rest of the staff kept a surreptitious eye on us through the office window that overlooked the rest of the library. I could only imagine what they must be thinking. I gave Melanie a slight wave and followed Mr. Carlsen inside. He picked up the meeting’s agenda as though nothing had taken place.
“Now, I believe I was telling you about Blake,” Mr. Carlsen said. “You’ll all be interested to know that he moved here to be close to his fiancée, who is attending law school at Harvard.”
Why did Mr. Carlsen think these little details of Blake’s life would be interesting to us?
“Blake will be helping me implement some needed upgrades to our system and our bookkeeping,” Mr. Carlsen continued. “The rest of you, please go about your day as usual.” He outlined some specific tasks, we shared a few concerns, and the meeting was adjourned.
We left the office, Melanie on my heels, Hillary and Terry close behind. Hillary went back to shelving books, and Terry pulled the bookmobile keys from his pocket. “See ya,” he said.
“Where are you off to?” Melanie asked. Terry didn’t have a set route—he just went wherever his “spirit guide” sent him that day. Yeah, he was a little different, but somehow he always managed to get the right book to the right patron.
“Here, there, everywhere,” he answered cryptically. He opened the door to the employee parking lot, then stopped. “Whoa.”
“What’s the matter?” I came to his side and looked out. A red motorcycle was parked next to my beat-up little car, a helmet dangling from the handlebar.
Melanie joined us. “Oh, that’s Blake’s. I saw him pull in.”
Terry walked over to it and whistled. “This is one sweet machine. But he’d better keep his helmet inside or it’s going to get stolen.” Terry tossed it to me, then gave a casual wave as he climbed aboard the old bus that served as our bookmobile. After pulling the door closed, I tucked the helmet under the circulation desk for safekeeping.
“Addie, come here,” Melanie said, glancing around.
I came out from behind the desk. “What’s the matter?”
She grabbed my arm and dragged me around the corner, ignoring my protests. “I’ve been dying to talk to you all morning,” she said. “But first, are you all right? About the job, I mean?”
I shrugged. I didn’t know how to voice what I was feeling. “Maybe we’ll talk about it later, okay?”
She gave me a quick hug, and I was glad she didn’t pester me. She knew I’d have plenty to say once we were away from the library.
“So, I got an email from Rob right before I came in,” she told me.
My heart leaped into my throat. At this rate, every organ I had would be in the wrong place. Rob was Melanie’s older brother. And yes, he was my real-life Simon. Stunningly good-looking, pre-med, as charming as the proverbial prince—and I’d been in love with him since the third grade, when I first made friends with Melanie and was invited to her house to play Barbies.
“And?” I prompted.
“Just wait until you read it. Just wait.” She looked around, then edged toward the circulation desk. No one was around, and she quickly accessed the Internet on the computer. I watched over her shoulder as she brought up Gmail.
“You aren’t using the library computer for personal reasons, are you?”
Melanie turned, a guilty expression on her face. “Um, hi, Blake. Didn’t hear you.”
“He does that,” I said. “He likes to walk up behind people and startle them.”
He ignored me, focusing on Melanie instead. “It’s against the rules.” He held up a sheet of paper. “Mr. Carlsen just gave me a printout of those rules, and yes, look, it’s right here.” He jabbed the list with his finger.
Melanie sighed. “Okay, I’m sorry.” She clicked, and the Gmail sign-in page disappeared from the screen. “It won’t happen again.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that. Now, Addie, were you doing something?”
“Yes. I’m preparing a list of books for tomorrow’s Story Time.”
“Well, the children’s section is over there, I believe.” He shooed me away.
“Addie, come over to my house on your way home from work,” Melanie called after me. I’d have to. It was the only way I’d get to hear whatever it was she had to tell me, now that Blake the Bloodhound was watching our every move.
@ & 1
Melanie said she’d read me the email, but first she let me rant and rave about not getting the job. Then she wanted to know how I’d gotten off to such a bad start with Blake that morning before I even knew who he was. I gave her a quick rundown of our friendly little exchange.
“He said what?” She leaned forward, her deep blue eyes wide. Rob’s eyes were the exact same color. What a lucky family.
“Yeah, he said I should read something that wouldn’t fill my head with silly ideas.” The more I thought about my conversation with Blake, the angrier I became.
“Well, he’s crazy.” Melanie leaned against her headboard and tucked her leg underneath her. “He’s cute, but he’s crazy.”
“You think he’s cute? Where did that come from?”
“Well, he is. I think he looks like that guy.”
“Um . . . what guy?”
“You know—that guy.” She stood and walked over to the closet, then reached behind her clothes and who knows what else and pulled out a box of DVDs. “This guy.” She tossed me one of the plastic cases.
“The cute sort-of-stepbrother who turns into the love interest. Look at his picture. That’s Blake.”
I studied the picture, trying to be objective. “Blake could never look so . . . friendly.”
Melanie shrugged. “Okay, so he’s an uptight control freak. But he’s also got an amazing smile.”
I thought about that for a minute. “I didn’t see him smile. I think he snarled at me once, but it’s not the same thing.”
“But you did notice his teeth, then.”
“Yeah. They’re nice and pointed and snarly.”
“The two of you are going to have to make peace eventually. He’s, like, our manager now.”
“I plan to be the model employee. That doesn’t mean I have to like the guy.” I picked up a throw pillow and played with the lace around the edge. “His taste in books . . . okay, he can read whatever he wants, but he shouldn’t poke fun at me.”
“There’s nothing at all wrong with reading romantic books.” This was quite the admission coming from Melanie, who wouldn’t read a romance under any threat I could possibly devise. “And as far as that whole Simon/Rob thing goes, you know I want you for my sister-in-law. I plan to keep doing anything and everything I can to get you and Rob together.”
“Thanks, Mel.” I glanced through her open bedroom door to the hallway, where a framed picture of Rob hung on the wall. It was his senior picture, and he was wearing a navy sweater that made his eyes look like laser beams. I’d give almost anything for a copy of that picture, but I’d never gotten up the nerve to ask Melanie for one. I just didn’t want to seem that infatuated. Even though I was.
“I have something that’s going to make you feel a lot better.” I turned my attention back to my friend, who was now grinning from ear to ear.
“Does this have something to do with an email, by chance?”
She grinned even more widely. “Rob’s coming home for Thanksgiving.” She handed me a printout of his note.
Hey, I was thinking. If Addie’s around, we should go out. Are you still dating Luke? We could go bowling or something. How’s that sound?
I gaped. And then I gasped. I gasped and gaped at the same time. “Does this say what I think it says? He doesn’t want me to bring a date of my own while he takes a fluffy?”
“Fluffy” was the term Mel and I used for skinny, not-all-that-smart blonds. She and I were both brunettes, and I was slightly on the not-skinny side. Not way not skinny, but enough.
“I can double-check if you want, but I’m pretty sure he wants you to be his date,” Melanie said. “So, what do you say?”
“I say you’d better double-check. I refuse to get my hopes up until I know for sure.” I believed I was being very reasonable. My heart was racing at a million miles an hour, though, and I could hardly think. If this was really him asking me out, the moment I’d waited for my whole life had finally arrived.
Melanie leaned down and grabbed her laptop from under the bed. “I’ll ask him right now. I think he’s out of classes for today, so he should be able to reply soon.”
“But don’t tell him I told you to ask.” I was suddenly panicked. I didn’t want him to think I was insecure or needy or immature, waiting around for him to throw me a bone.
Melanie squealed. “He sent me another email. Listen to this—‘Hey, one more thing. Can you take my blue shirt to the dry cleaner for me? I remember Addie saying she liked it, and I want to look nice. It’s hanging in my closet—I think it’s on the right-hand side. I can’t wait to see you.’”
She lowered the lid of the computer. “If you’re not his date, why would he want to wear your favorite shirt?”
We stared at each other for a second, and then we both started to scream.
I drove slowly home from Melanie’s, letting my brain relax. Fall colors had overtaken our small Massachusetts town, turning the trees into flames of red and orange. As I rolled down my car window, I inhaled the scent of crunchy leaves mixed with the unique smell of fall rain. Melanie always laughs at me, telling me it’s impossible to smell rain, but she’s wrong. Rain has a definite smell, just like snow.
I pulled up in front of my house and killed the engine, then grabbed my stuff from the back seat of my car. I really needed to clean out all the trash and maybe even give the whole thing a good vacuuming, but who had time?
My arms full, I bumped the door closed with my hip, then froze as I realized I’d forgotten something. I saw my keys dangling from the ignition, and I could have kicked myself.
I set my things on the hood, then squatted down by the front tire. I reached up into the wheel well to grab the magnetic key holder I kept there. When I slid it open, I saw that it was empty. The last time I’d locked my keys in the car, I’d put the spare in my pocket, and then into my jewelry box when I changed clothes . . . where it still was. My brother would never let me live this down.
Quietly, I opened the back door to the house, hoping no one would notice me. A set of spare keys hung on a hook over the microwave, and I grabbed them. Moments later, I entered the kitchen with my keychain safely in my purse, pretending nothing at all was wrong.
“Addie!” My nine-year-old sister, Jenni, greeted me from the table, where she sat with her homework, and her pet rat in its cage next to her. “Did you bring me a book?”
“Did I bring you a book? What, you think I work at a library or something?” I bent down and kissed the top of her head, then pulled the newest Janette Rallison novel from my bag. “Here you go, but no staying up all night to read it.”
“Okay,” she agreed, but I knew full well I’d be going in her room at midnight to tell her to flip off the light. She was too much like me.
“He’s playing basketball. Again.” Jenni shook her head. “And Mom’s in her studio.”
I poked a carrot stick through the bars of the rat’s cage—although I don’t know why, because I don’t like rats—then walked down the hall and paused in the open doorway. My mother stood before a huge canvas, pondering it with a brush in one hand and a palette balanced on the plaster cast on her other arm. The canvas was completely blank, just as it had been before I left for school that morning. I wondered if she’d been staring at it all day. She did that sometimes—and forgot to eat.
She turned and smiled at me. “Hi, honey. How was your day?”
I took a seat on the stool nearest the window. “It was okay. Well, it got better toward the end.” I told her about Rob’s email, and she chuckled softly.
“See, honey? Didn’t I tell you he’d come around?”
“Yeah, you did.” I blushed to think back on that conversation. It had taken place the night Rob came home for summer break the year before. I was so sure he’d take one look at me in all my eighteen-year-old grownup-ness and propose on the spot, but he hadn’t. Instead, he’d reached out and rumpled my hair. Like I was a puppy. Or a little boy. Or something else, but not a something he wanted to marry. I’d cried for hours while my mother held me. She promised that someday, he’d look at me and see the young woman I was becoming, rather than a little girl. At the time, I thought she was just trying to cheer me up . . . and to get me to stop sniffling all over her white bedspread. Later I realized how much she’d come to mean to me.
My birth mother died of a brain aneurysm when I was a year old. I don’t remember her at all, but I am often told I look just like her. My father did his best to raise me, but I will always be grateful for the day he found Lillian and brought her into our lives. Now I had no idea what I would do without her.
“Did you remember to eat?” I asked her, wanting to change the subject. I’d think about Rob later, when I was alone and could envision how he would look and what we would say to each other.
“Benji made some tomato soup and brought it in here,” she answered. “It was actually pretty good.”
“Yeah, the kid’s got some skills with a can opener.” I stood up and walked to the door. “I’ll let you know when dinner’s ready.”
“Okay. Thanks, honey.” My mother’s voice was distant, and I knew she was already immersed in her world of painting—or world of white.
Her doctor had told us to encourage her creativity, but also to encourage her to eat. The two didn’t often go hand in hand, so the kids and I took turns reminding her. I didn’t understand all the ins and outs of the artistic temperament, but she seemed to be doing better, and that was the important thing.
I stopped at the family portrait in the hall, the one taken just two years before, and reached out to touch my father’s kind face. “We’re doing all right, Dad,” I told him. I felt a little silly talking to a picture, but I knew that somehow, he could hear me and was listening.
Once inside my bedroom, I took the key from my jewelry box and tossed it into my purse. I was not going to lose it again.
@ & 1
Mom and Aunt Kathy were sitting at the kitchen table when I came downstairs the next morning. The checkbook was open in front of them, and Mom was wearing her “I’m going to be cheerful despite everything” face. I wasn’t the biggest fan of that face—it meant things weren’t going so well.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
“Well, it could be better,” Aunt Kathy replied. She always talked to me like an equal, trusted me to handle things without her needing to sugarcoat them. “We’ve been looking over the bills, and it looks like things are going to be a little tight for a while.”
I reached into my purse and pulled out the envelope I’d been carrying around since the previous Friday, meaning to hand it over before, but forgetting until now. “I cashed my paycheck, Mom. I want you to have it.”
She shook her head, her eyes filling with tears. “But you’re saving up for next year’s classes. I don’t want to take this.”
“I know you don’t want to, but you need to, Mom. You need to let us serve you for once.” I bent down and kissed her on the forehead, then set the envelope on the table. “I kept out a little bit—a girl’s got to have chocolate money. But the rest is yours.”
“Thank you, Addie.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I’ll use this for something really important, like the electric bill.”
“Then it’s only fair, because I probably use more electricity than anyone in this house.”
I ducked out the door before I started to cry too. I wanted to tell her it was the least I could do, because now that Dad was gone, I felt responsible for her. She had Benji and Jenni, and we had Aunt Kathy and Uncle Tim, but for some reason, I felt like it was my job to take care of Mom. It made me miss Dad a little less, doing something I think he would have wanted me to do.
@ & 1
I gathered up my books and stood, hoping to escape my Tuesday morning class unnoticed. The lecture had gone right over my head—I had stayed up too late the night before, reading. It was one of my many bad habits, but thankfully, the only one Jenni had picked up from me. So far. I’d have to watch for that.
I was nearly at the door when I heard my name. Holding in a sigh, I turned around, stepping back to let the last few students leave the room. Then I walked up to Mr. Jensen’s desk. “Yes?”
“Have a seat, Addie.” Clearly, he wanted to talk. I should have expected it—him being my academic advisor and all. He picked up a sheet from his desk and handed it to me. It was a copy of my grades from the last year. I’d been pulling a straight-A average up until my father’s death, but then I’d scored a few B’s and even one C. Definitely out of character for me. “I know this doesn’t look good, Mr. Jensen, but I’m going to try harder. I really am.”
“The grades aren’t that bad, Addie, but I’m worried about you.” He leaned forward a little and rested his elbows on his knees. “You still work at the library, right?”
I nodded. “I go straight there after class.”
“Are you sure you aren’t overdoing it? I know things are tough at home right now . . .” His voice trailed off. All my teachers had been called into a super-secret meeting when my parents had their car accident—they were alerted to be “kind” to me. I wasn’t supposed to know about that meeting, but he’d let it slip, and I could tell he was now trying to find the balance between being “kind” and telling me what I needed to hear. “I saw you fighting to stay awake one day last week, and today, you looked like you’d rather be anywhere else. I wonder if you’ve taken on more than you can handle for right now in your life.”
“I’m fine.” I pasted on my biggest smile. “I really appreciate it, but things are good, and you’ll see my grades go up.”
“The grades don’t tell me nearly as much as watching you in class, Addie. You used to be excited to be here, and now you’re just barely participating. You’ve had a rough couple of months, and I don’t want to see you overwork yourself.”
I stood up, trying to look energetic. “I’m great. I really am.”
He shrugged. “Let me know if you need to change your schedule or anything, okay?”
“I will.” Books clutched to my chest, I left the room, vowing to try harder. I wasn’t about to let my father down—I’d told him we were doing just fine.
@ & 1
I crouched beneath the circulation desk, stretching to the tips of my fingers, trying to reach the outlet. The computer had frozen, and the only thing I could think to do was unplug it. Melanie stood nearby, ready to help if I needed her, although her idea of “help” was popping her bubble gum every five seconds.
Blake’s voice made me jump, and I almost hit my head on the cabinet. I backed up and looked at him. “Yes, He Who Likes to Walk Up Behind Me?”
“Can I talk to you for a minute?”
I sighed. Then I used the counter as leverage to pull myself to my feet.
He led the way over to the adult fiction section, where we’d set up some couches. It was supposed to look like a living room, or maybe a den, but our limited budget hadn’t extended to a fireplace, even a fake one, which is something we’d all really wanted.
I plunked down on the closest couch and folded my arms. I wasn’t in the mood to have a little chitchat.
“Listen.” Blake sat across from me—well, just barely sat. He perched on the edge of the couch, looking ready to take off again at a moment’s notice. “I understand you’d hoped for my job.”
“Who told you that?” Had my temper tantrum the day before been so loud that everyone could hear it from inside the office? I’d tried to stay calm, but that wasn’t always my talent.
“Melanie. She said something, and I followed up on it. Addie, I didn’t come in here with the intention of stealing anyone’s spot. I saw the posting, I applied, and I was hired.”
I nodded. “It’s not your fault.” I could pretend to be understanding, even if I couldn’t understand why Mr. Carlsen had posted the job somewhere else instead of following what I thought was proper protocol . . . like offering the job to me.
Blake tugged on the collar of his shirt—his very ironed shirt—and smiled. “Now, I understand that you’re taking some classes at the community college. Library science. Is that right?”
“And you’re a sophomore?”
“That’s right.” Was he going to ask my blood type next?
“How old are you, Addie?”
“Nineteen, but I’m really not following . . .”
He smiled again, and despite his very nice teeth, I felt uncomfortable. It was the kind of smile a car salesman would use while saying, “Trust me.” Blake laced his fingers together. “Addie, you’re young. You’re smart. You have a long time to finish college and get started on your career path. This isn’t the end of the world.”
“I never said it was the end of the world, Blake. In fact, I think I’ve been remarkably patient. But if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to work.” I stood, turning away before he could see me blush. What was this, some kind of placating speech to keep me happy while he pranced around and acted like the crown prince? I had never felt so demeaned and patronized in my entire life, and it just fueled my fire to get my degree and rub his smug, pointed little nose in it.
@ & 1
Children poured into the library, some holding their mothers’ hands and others dashing in ahead. They all went straight for the story rug, a large piece of checkered carpeting that had been part of the library for as long as I could remember. They arranged themselves in neat rows like chess pieces, their legs tucked beneath them, and waited expectantly. It was so cute.
“How do you get them to do that?” Blake asked, surveying the scene.
“They know the rules. If they want a story, they have to sit quietly and listen.” I reached under the counter and pulled out a giant Dr. Seuss hat. After placing it on my head, I walked to the front of the crowd, and the children burst into applause.
“It’s so good to see all of you,” I said. “Today, we’re going to read three of my favorite books ever. What do you think the first one is?”
“The Cat in the Hat!” the children called out, nearly deafening me, and I began to read the beloved story.
Half an hour later, they filed out, their arms filled with books. The returns cart was overflowing and Melanie looked downright exhausted, as she did every week after checking out, on average, ten new books per child. I was equally worn out from my high-powered performance, followed by helping kids find just the right books. I would need a protein snack, and soon.
Blake shook his head, looking pretty overwhelmed. “You do this every week?” he asked, pulling up a chair and sitting between Melanie and me.
“Every Tuesday during the school year, and three times a week during the summer,” I replied.
“That’s madness. I’m totally wiped out, and I just bagged the books.”
“You’ll get used to it,” I told him.
“It’ll put hair on your chest,” Melanie added. “Lots and lots of nice, masculine hair.”
“On that note, I’ll start checking these in.” Blake stood and moved a stack of books to the scanner while Melanie stifled a snicker.
Gina, a single mother who came in every week with her twins, approached the counter and crooked a finger at me. I leaned forward, and she said in a whisper, “Who is that gorgeous hunk of manliness over there?”
I glanced around, but I didn’t see anyone who matched that description. “Where?”
“There, silly.” She pointed and I turned to see Blake, who was placing books on the reshelving cart as he scanned them in. She thought he was gorgeous? Didn’t she have better taste than that? Couldn’t she see his snarly teeth?
“That’s Blake, the new assistant head librarian.”
“Well, he’s completely dreamy. Is he single?”
Gina smiled a long, slow smile. “Engaged is not married. Not yet, anyway. Is he here every day?”
“I’ll come back tomorrow when the twins are at daycare. It’s kind of hard to pick up a man with munchkins hanging on your elbows.” She waggled her fingers in a wave. “Bye.” I watched her leave, then tried to see Blake through her eyes. What had she said—gorgeous hunk of manliness or manhood or something? And Melanie thought he was cute, with a great smile. Sure, whatever. When I looked at him, all I could see was the guy who had stolen my job, and that was very unattractive.