Once Upon a Library – Lucy McConnell

Alice Rose Westbrook threw back the remainder of a pumpkin cocoa from ChocoLatte, swiped the back of her arm across her lips, and tossed the cup in a nearby garbage can. When a girl needed courage, milk chocolate with a twist of cinnamon was the way to go. Besides, it was her birthday, so she’d splurged. She took a right onto Maple Street, loving the fringe on her boots and how it swished attitude through the air with every step she took toward the old library. Something big was going to happen tonight. The knowledge tickled her spine and made her hips sway. The annual Fall Festival kickoff was next week, but tonight … Tonight was the library board meeting. The church-turned-library came into view, the windows glowing with golden light and the promise of a world of discovery behind the double glass doors. Her phone rang, and she stopped to dig through her dress-up purse to find it. The purse she reserved for church, funerals, and Russ. Ahem—not Russ, just Russ. She hit the green button and tucked the phone next to her ear. “Hey, Dean?” “How’s my favorite older sister on her birthday?” Alice rolled her eyes. She was older by eight minutes and his only older sister. They had a younger sister who had baked beautiful pink cupcakes for Alice’s birthday, inserted candles, and insisted she make a wish.

She’d made a big one this year—but it didn’t involve her brother. “I’d be better if my twin was here to have dinner.” Dean coughed uncomfortably, and silence stretched out like an old piece of gum. Alice instantly regretted her choice of words—they sounded so much like Mom. “I didn’t mean to guilt-trip you.” She stopped in front of the library, looking up at the stonework. “I just meant that I miss you.” “Me too. But we’re doing great things with our product. If this expo wasn’t such a big deal, I’d be there to celebrate our birthday.

You know that, right?” “Right.” She nodded once in affirmation, even though he couldn’t see her. They came from a family with issues, and they each tried to outrun them in their own way. Alice read books to escape. Dean was determined to make a name for himself—or to bring honor back to their family name, whichever happened first. Stacy pretended she was anyone else—going so far as to dye her hair pink so it wasn’t the same color as Dad’s. Dean continued, “Besides, I figured you and Russ would be at the festival tonight— maybe get lost in a kissing pocket at the corn maze.” “Russ is my friend.” Her friend with the dark hair and a scruffy jaw. Her friend who inspired twinges of attraction she so desperately wanted to ignore.

Ignore Russ? Not likely. Was it possible to ignore a Rhett Butler, a Mr. Darcy, or an Edmond Dantès? Never! The classic romantic heroes always called to her. Like sirens perched on the library shelves, their broad shoulders, devil-may-care boldness, flirtatious turns of phrase, and ability to sweep the heroines into their arms left her breathless with wanting. And yet, they were men made of words. What was a woman to do when Russ Phillips walked off the pages of a Brontë novel and presented himself in Harvest Ranch? A woman should sashay her way into an introduction. Perhaps offer her hand for a token kiss, or bat her full lashes his way and procure the object of her desire, all the while purring like a kitten. That was what a woman should do. What did Alice do? She headed right for the friend zone. And her aim was as accurate as Emma’s, Jane’s, and even Juliet’s.

She and Russ were thick as thieves and as platonic as pumpkins. Which was fine—until just that morning. Something about waking up a year older made her think crazy things. “Fine—you’re friends. But he’d be a fool not to snatch you up while he has your attention.” And vice versa—hence the lipstick and fringe boots. “And the fact that you said that makes you the best brother in the whole world.” She dug back into her purse for lipstick. She had a plan, but she wasn’t about to let her brother in on it. “Listen, I have to run.

The library closes in thirty minutes.” “Happy birthday, sis.” “Happy birthday, bro.” They hung up, and she used the back of her phone as a mirror to apply the lipstick. If she timed it right, she could be sitting in a chair, casually reading a book, and looking smart and sexy when the library board meeting ended and Russ came down the grand staircase. That would be the moment that started the rest of her life. On her twentyfourth birthday, Alice Rose Westbrook was going to become the heroine in her very own romance. If birthday candles had any magic in them, which she highly suspected they did, then wishing for something more than friendship with Russ was crazy scary, because it would change simply everything about her existence. Therefore, despite the fact that she’d only decided to change their friend status to friendlier a few hours ago, she’d planned this moment down to the last detail. In her fantasy, Russ would catch sight of her out of the corner of his eye as he made his way down the Titanic-ish curving staircase, her long honey-colored hair draping over her thin shoulders and her lashes lowered as she read a Brontë or Dickens novel.

He’d be so struck by her beauty that he’d just stare as a desire to be near her built within his impressive chest. Finally, when the distance was too much for him, their magnetic attraction would pull him across the room to gently touch her elbow. Bringing her gaze up to his brooding brown eyes would reveal the astonishment and joy of new love. Only a heartbeat would pass before he lowered his lips to brush against hers in a petal-soft caress. Alice sighed to herself. Ah, Russ. Her phone beeped a reminder, and she jolted from her daydream—er, strategizing. She should already be in her seat if she had any hope of bringing her imaginings to fruition. Dropping her lipstick into her purse, she scrubbed her moist palms down the front of her black skinny jeans. She flipped her head over and shook out her hair, giving it bounce and volume that women in shampoo commercials would envy.

Blowing out a breath that had stuck in her throat, she was ready to step across the proverbial threshold and into adventure and quite possibly romance. Her knees trembled with a mixture of anticipation and fear. “You can do this,” she affirmed under her breath. “Take a chance.” T Chapter Two he Harvest Ranch Library hadn’t always been full of books, computers, and an assistant librarian with a stern countenance. The first families to settle the town had, stone by stone, constructed a place of worship. Not the types to do a job halfway, they’d insisted the building have cathedral ceilings, with thick supportive beams made from walnut, and stained-glass windows adorning the walls. When the building was converted to a library thanks to a huge donation from the better part of the Westbrook family headed by Grandma Westbrook, whose portrait hung over the checkout desk, the hardwood floor was covered with sage-green industrial carpet and oak shelves replaced the worn pews. Lillian Short, the assistant librarian, dropped her chin in hello. Her thick glasses slipped to the end of her nose as she tapped a stack of papers once to line them up and then attached them to a clipboard.

“Hello,” Alice whispered. She picked up a copy of The Screwtape Letters and headed to the stuffed chair in the corner near the computers. The children’s section was a mess, with open books all over the floor. Stephanie Westbrook, Alice’s cousin-in-law, picked them up and handed them to Jaden, who glared at her as if she were a witch sent to make his life miserable. He stacked the books on the put-back shelf. “How come she’s so nice to you?” hissed Stephanie as she massaged her neck muscles. “I can’t come in here without a lecture on keeping Jaden’s hands off the stacks.” Alice chuckled. “Lillian really loves these books. She picked most of them out herself.

” She leaned closer. “And I’ve never had a late fee.” The frown lines disappeared, replaced by wide eyes and a petite sniff. “Never?” “Never,” avowed Alice. “No wonder she loves you—you always were the teacher’s pet.” The barb should have stung like the wrong end of an angry hornet; however, Alice had long since come to an understanding with life in a small town where reputations were handed out on the playground. To the grand populace of Harvest Ranch, she’d once been —and would always be—the poor little girl from the wrong side of the trailer park in illfitting clothes who preferred to have her nose in a book. Just like they’d always think Lillian was overbearing and critical, even though she’d often allowed a younger Alice to work alongside her. It wasn’t much, but Lillian’s quiet approval helped Alice feel needed during a time when she thought no one wanted her. Even her extended family didn’t understand the things that happened in her childhood home.

Feeling bad for joking about the assistant librarian behind her back, Alice said, “It doesn’t take a lot to see the work she does. I mean, this place is always ready for patrons.” She ran her finger over the windowsill. “Never a speck of dust. She thinks of the library as a heritage for future generations and wants it to last long enough for Jaden’s grandchildren to enjoy it.” Stephanie brushed her hand over Jaden’s floppy hair. “I’m sure deep, deep down, she’s sweet.” She moved to take the stroller’s handles. “We’re off. Wyatt will be grumpy because we’re eating so late.

” Alice kept her mouth closed. She didn’t know a grown-up Wyatt all that much, despite being cousins. He’d always seemed driven and a little grumpy to her. Jaden waved and yelled, “Bye!” He clomped along in his cowboy boots, the sound echoing off the ceilings. Stephanie ducked her head and rushed for the exit in a mad attempt to avoid Lillian’s curmudgeonliness. Alice took up her predetermined spot with all the confidence of a queen taking her throne, and not a moment too soon. She had just draped her hair appealingly over her left shoulder when she heard the door to the conference room open and the deep timbre of Russ’s voice as he bid farewell to the other board members. Forcing her eyes to remain on the page, Alice concentrated—not on reading, but on counting Russ’s steps as his worn Doc Martens brushed the carpet. Each swoosh whispered possibilities that had her heart thrumming. Swoosh.

Swoosh. Pause. He’s here! Her fingers gripped the book. The longer he stood motionless, the warmer her face grew. The insane attraction she’d hidden from him was made bare in her blatant efforts to garner his attention with hair serum and her favorite sweater. She held her breath, willing her cheeks to return to their normal color; her heart pounded with the force of a hundred Swedish dancers and drowned out the sound of his approach. Standing directly in front of her, Russ cleared his throat to get her attention. Not exactly the light touch to the elbow with violins in the background, but she could work it into her daydream. Hopefully, memories of this moment would be much better than the daydreams she’d lived inside for the last hour. Alice allowed her gaze to travel lazily away from her book, as if she were ripping herself out of the novel.

They moved from the artfully frayed hem of his jeans up to the worn patches on his knees and on to the navy-blue sweater that covered his just-right waist and molded chest, and finally to his trimmed beard and those expressive, deep brown eyes. Le sigh. “What are you doing here?” he asked, as if she didn’t practically live at the library. There was a couch at the top of the stairs that had a permanent imprint the shape of her behind. He didn’t drop his eyes to her lips nor fall to one knee and take her hand. He stood four feet away, holding posters. Where was the dramatic swell of music? If she felt this shift, he should too, right? Suddenly feeling like a half-wit in a tight sweater, she wished she’d played it more casual and just called to see if he wanted to go to dinner after his meeting. They were friends. Good enough friends that such a request would seem normal. She was so tired of normal.

What she wanted was a date. Date, as in boy asks girl, girl puts on mascara, boy opens doors for girl, etc., etc. He filled a spot in her life—nay, in her heart—that had been hollow and empty. Russ respected her, and while that might not seem romantic to some, it was ambrosia to Alice’s soul. Was she so wrong to want more? “Reading.” She held up the book so he could see the cover. Glancing down, she was transported to her own version of Dante’s Inferno as humiliation reached its slimy little fingers up her neck. The book was upside down! She’d been staring at an upside-down book for the last five minutes. Panicked, she dropped the volume as if the devil himself were about to crawl out of the spine.

The resounding thud earned her a stern look from Lillian. Russ transferred the posters he carried to his left hand and bent to retrieve the book, his eyes never leaving her face. She glanced to the side. If he’d noticed her mistake, he didn’t comment, gentleman that he was. Let him believe it was the stimulating reading material of C.S. Lewis that brought her to the library and not the way his sweater pulled over his broad shoulders or that his nearness made her stomach flutter. “What are you doing here?” she asked, as if she didn’t know. Wasn’t that what being coy was all about? Had she learned nothing from her studies? “Library board meeting.” He showed her the posters advertising the annual fundraiser in the Big Barn on Halloween after the costume parade down Main Street and handed over the book.

She flipped through the pages, like she had every intention of staying right there in that chair for the rest of the afternoon, and did her best to look distracted. “Is that today?” He wiped his thumb down his jaw like he did when he wasn’t sure. Was it obvious she was flirting? Did he think she was playing a game? Not that she would play games, but with all the feelings swirling around inside like fall leaves in a wind tunnel, the rules had changed—even if he didn’t know it yet. “Do you want to go to the Blue Shadow Café?” Russ asked. She shrugged. “Sure.” Sliding her purse strap over her shoulder, she set Screwtape on the re-shelving shelf and smiled. He motioned for her to go first, his hand out like an usher. Alice plowed ahead, then slowed, walking stately instead. She would have glided out the glass doors, but Lillian blocked the exit.

“We’re in trouble now,” Russ said out of the side of his mouth. “You are—I’m her favorite.” Alice let her hips swing with a little attitude. “Not something to brag about,” countered Russ, his fingers finding the small of her back, causing Alice to giggle. “I A They stopped in front of Lillian’s ever-present clipboard. “Mr. Phillips, Alice, I’m glad I caught you.” “Caught being the operative word,” Russ whispered. Alice discreetly elbowed him in the side. “Lillian.

” Russ coughed out his greeting. “As I’m sure you’ve seen today, Alice, our classics section is sorely lacking.” Classics? Alice wrinkled her brow. Why would Lillian think …? Oh, The Screwtape Letters! The book she’d supposedly been reading. Lillian. Saw. Everything. Flushing, Alice quickly said, “I think you’ve done a wonderful job. The classics section is just wonderful, one of my favorites. I always find something wonderful to read.

” Could I say wonderful one more time? Russ gave her a disbelieving stare, which made her ears burn all the hotter. The truth of the matter was that the classics section of the library was composed of dog-eared paperbacks and a pristine copy of War and Peace. Alice was the only one in Harvest Ranch to check it out—ever. “While everyone else focuses on the new children’s section, I’ve made it my mission to expand the offerings of more traditional authors who have proven the test of time.” Lillian pressed her glasses up her nose. “Wonderful,” Russ said, his voice strained. Alice gave him a look for stealing her wonderful word. “I’m glad you think so.” Lillian pulled a sheet off her clipboard with a flourish. “Here’s your assignment.

” “My what?” Russ stared at the paper. Alice leaned over, taking in his nutmeg and woodsy scent and the words on the page.

.

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