Had I known the fate waiting for me outside the safety of my house, I would have pulled the covers back over my head, dismissed the cat’s complaining entirely, and ignored the flood on the first floor.
But then, I wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary to happen. After all this was Endsville, Texas and in Endsville, nothing much ever really changes.
As I parked my beat-up pickup truck in front of Love The Book, I still couldn’t believe it’s barely nine o’clock in the morning and already the September heat was bordering on another record-breaking high. And more importantly, I was late again.
I fumbled with the lock on the door while trying to ignore the pain in my ankle. Mentally I ticked off all the things I needed to be doing today, other than going to the minor emergency center. There was the bank deposit, which was already late, followed by sorting through the wrong shipment of books that arrived late yesterday afternoon. I’d need to return those today if I had any chance at getting the right ones in. Oh and let’s not forget the travel section that had needed reorganizing for weeks now. This was my least favorite thing to do and the real reason why it had taken so long to work up enough gumption to attempt the task.
After yesterday’s disaster, things had continued to snowball into what I liked to refer to as my morning from hell. I wasn’t sure how I was going to manage to get even one of those much-needed chores accomplished with an injured ankle.
The worst part of it all was poor Mr. Edwards was going to be disappointed again today. He’d been expecting his copy of the newly released mystery novel last week, and he wasn’t at all happy when I’d told him it was being delayed for another week. Now this! Two-dozen copies of the same romance novel from an author I’d never even heard of before. And judging from what I’d read of her work as I’d flipped through the pages last night, I wouldn’t be hearing from her again.
I’d dreaded having to face Mr. Edwards today and tell him the bad news. The old guy wasn’t the most patient person around this small town.
After the disaster with the romance novels, I’d completely forgotten to make the bank deposit. As it was, I’d need to close the store for an hour just to get to the bank on time; otherwise, I’d have checks bouncing all over town.
I just had time to flip the lights on and fire-up the coffeemaker for my first cup of much needed coffee, in spite of the heat, when the bell above the front door announced the inevitable.
“ I’ll be right with you, Mr. Edwards.” I called out, hoping I’d find him in a bit more understanding mood this morning.
Was he actually waiting for me to arrive?
Apparently, those mystery novels were the highlight of his life. He was fond of one particular author and had been reading through a series of the man’s books for more than six months now. Right around the same time I’d left my promising advertising career in New York behind to take over the running of the bookstore after my father’s heart attack.
I’d been my parents’ last hope, as scary as that sounds. I wonder what they would think about their future security if they could see the morning I’d just gone through.
Okay, so technically the washing machine hose burst in my parents’ two-story home sometime last night. But that didn’t change the facts, now did it? The entire ground floor had been standing in an inch or more of water when I woke up.
Unfortunately, this was only the first disaster of the day. The second occurred when Albert, my mother’s ancient and somewhat arrogant cat, tiptoed downstairs from sleeping on my bed, which he’d pretty much decided was his own in spite of my constant challenges to this right. Albert took one look at the state of affairs down there and fled the scene at the first opportunity he found, which came when I opened the back door and screamed as loud as I possibly could into the semi-dark country morning.
Okay, so maybe I wasn’t as prepared for a disaster of this magnitude as I wanted to believe. I’d grown soft at twenty-three, after living in a big city like New York where everything you could possibly need was right there within walking distance. I was no longer accustomed to living in the sticks.
In the past, I’d had my big brother Eric to act as a buffer zone against all things scary in the world (when he wasn’t pounding me into submission that is). So you see I really didn’t have any idea what to do when faced with a flooded house.
I thought about calling the parents in Florida where they had been vacationing since my father’s doctor ordered him to slow down, but I dismissed this idea the second I pictured myself getting into an hour-long discussion with my mother about why I wasn’t married at what, in her opinion, amounted to an old-maid age. Any woman past twenty-one and unmarried was a lost cause in my mother’s mind.
For half a second I even considered Eric. Then I remembered my brother’s usual smug expression, the one he reserved for whenever I did something boneheaded. I could almost hear him saying, “Lila, it’s a good thing God screwed your head on tight; otherwise you’d have lost it years ago.”
I promptly dismissed Eric’s help entirely.
As the local youth minister, Eric might be God’s messenger, now, but he was still my big brother and he never missed the opportunity to say I told you so. Unfortunately, I gave him plenty of help along those lines. I was a constant screw-up.
So, after screaming a few more times, followed by stamping my feet just as many, I still didn’t feel any better and my problems hadn’t miraculously disappeared. At this point, I waded back inside the soaked house and called a local plumber.
I reached his answering service who assured me Mr. Sinclair would be happy to help at a somewhat more reasonable hour. I was then informed that Mr. Sinclair could be at my place at such and such time if I met him at the door with a nice little check. I readily agreed.
After I had spent several hours fuming and bailing water, followed by vacuuming, the place appeared to be reasonably less soggy.
As I worked, I hoped and prayed today wasn’t going to be one of the days Eric made a surprise visit (with my parents’ blessings) to make sure I was managing to stay alive and somewhat trouble-free.
Somehow, I didn’t see flooding the house constituting remaining trouble free.
Once I’d bailed enough water to keep the dry September grass alive for months, I soon discovered my woes were just beginning. Albert was missing. Apparently, he’d fled to higher ground.
When I found myself standing on the ladder beneath my parents’ one hundred-year-old Live Oak tree, while reaching as far up as possible I could just to try to retrieve Albert from the limb he was hunkered down on, I suddenly remembered why Albert and I’d never become friends.
He took a swipe at my hand with his nicely sharpened claws, sending me reeling backwards to avoid them and sailing through the air, landing on my hindsight.
The lousy cat could just stay in the tree as far as I was concerned. But Albert definitely won this round.
Unfortunately, I knew the second I put pressure on my ankle and felt the pain threaten to make me cry I was in big trouble. It had begun swelling at an alarming rate. I said a few choice words and eyed Albert with enough contempt to send him higher up the tree.
Once I’d wrapped the ankle, I decided there really wasn’t much else that could go wrong with this day, so I was pretty much home free.
Boy was I wrong. This day had only just begun to go bad. I knew this for certain the second I hobbled back to the store and saw that the man standing at my counter waiting, and not very patiently I might add, was not Mr. Edwards at all. Not by a long shot. No sir. There was absolutely no way anyone could ever mistake this gorgeous hunk for the slightly stooped Mr. Edwards.
For starters, the man leaning against my counter was at least a good foot taller than Mr. Edwards and about half Mr. Edwards’ age. He looked slightly puzzled at the display of romance novels I’d placed invitingly next to the front of the store, close to the register.
Even from where I was standing I could see he was in a different category entirely from Mr. Edwards and about ninety percent of the male population of Texas.
As I watched, he gingerly picked up one of those romance novels as if fearing it might bite him. He squinted at the provocative title, his lips actually moving. I could almost see the wheels turning as he shook his head, then ran a hand through his dark brown hair before replacing the book again. He’d probably wondered why anyone would choose to name their book, Your Every Desire. I had to smile.
Of course, men like that didn’t understand the whole happily-ever-after, love-at-first-sight kind of thing. They didn’t need to. They were used to getting everything they needed on looks alone.
Not that I had anything against good-looking men. In spite of his being dressed in a dark gray business suit of all things, it was easy to see my puzzled intruder had a body to rival any one of my fantasies. In fact, he could have stepped from the covers of Your Every Desire.
He certainly would know exactly what to say and do to set any woman’s heart racing. Mine had begun pulsing faster, along with a few more frustrated parts of my body.
I tried to bring my straying thoughts back to the world around me and out of places best left alone, especially when the answer to my extremely detailed list of requirements for a bed partner was standing right before my eyes.
“ Oh for crying out loud.” Now, I imagined I’d simply thought these things to myself. Unfortunately, when he turned my way and I came face-to-face with the most startling pair of gray eyes, I realized I haven’t. I’d said them aloud.
From my vantage point close to the magazine rack, I watched a slow smile play across his face. God, the man was gorgeous! And clearly, he’d guessed the real reason behind my outburst. He’d probably seen my reaction on a million different faces in the past.
Well, at least my bad day was getting a bit more interesting, I thought. Until he spoke.
“ Hi there. I’m trying to locate the owners of the bookstore.” Damn, even his voice was sexy. “Can you tell me how I might get in touch with them?” At my gawking silence, he tried another approach. “Boy, am I glad to see you. I was beginning to think no one actually worked here anymore.”
As he stepped closer, I took a countering hobble backwards. His eyes lost some of their amusement. Obviously, this wasn’t the reaction he’d been expecting.
What was he talking about? I was the one in charge here, and this place was open seven days a week, without fail. I of all people should know. I’d added a couple of new frown lines each time I went over the less than profitable books.
“ What about?” I asked, without even trying to disguise my anger. Who did he think I was? The cleaning lady?
“ Well, that’s kind of between me and the Taylor’s, so if you don’t mind would you just let them know Grayson Stone stopped by to see them.” He reached in his pocket and retrieved a business card. “They can reach me at any of these numbers most any time,” he added as if he might be talking to some sort of simpleton.
“ Grayson...” I repeated the name, still not budging from my perch next to the magazines. I didn’t recognize him or his name, but I was pretty sure if my parents had ever mentioned it, I would definitely have remembered.
“ Yeah, my parents had some strange sense of humor, didn’t they?” He sent me another smile meant to win me over and get me moving. I decided I wasn’t nearly as attracted to him as I first believed. He should have kept his mouth closed.
“ Well, Grayson,” I emphasized the name in such a way that had his eyes narrowing ever-so-slightly, “as it happens, I don’t need to go get them for you because I am them. I’m in charge of Love the Book now.” I had the fleeting satisfaction of seeing that smile disappear. Clearly, I’d surprised him.
“ I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand. I was told by my assistant that the bookstore was owned by...” At this point, he was so unsure of himself he actually had to consult a rather expensive looking Blackberry to be certain he’d gotten the names correct.
I waited patiently for him to verify his facts, knowing exactly what he would say next.
“ ...By a John and Melissa Taylor.”
I gave him a flick of my hand. “Your assistant has obviously been given some out-of-date information, Mr. Stone. I’ve managed the store for almost six months now.”
He appeared even more puzzled. After a moment, the smile returned. “I’m sorry; it’s not that I doubt you. It’s just...well, you’ll forgive my saying, but you don’t look like you’re even out of high school yet. Are you sure you’re old enough to run a bookstore?”
In the past, my friends and family had all told how lucky I was to have one of those youthful faces. On my best days, I could pass for eighteen. Today, without a trace of make-up, I probably looked about twelve.
I had a sneaky feeling Grayson Stone’s comments were not meant as flattery. It was a deliberate attempt on his part to put me in my place. As much as I hated to admit it, it was working. I felt like the screw up my morning reminded me I was. “I’m sorry, was there something you actually needed, Mr. Stone? Or did you simply drop by to spread a little cheer. I actually have a very busy day ahead of me and as much as I might like to stand around chatting with you, I really don’t have the time.”
At this point, I was feeling pretty good about myself. That almost sounded confident. I turned to leave with what I hoped would be some amount of grace. Regrettably, I barely managed a single step before almost falling flat on my face.
So much for making a clean and dignified exit.
I let out a yelp loud enough to put any banshee to shame, before the object of my frustration came to my aid.
“ Are you okay?” he asked when he reached my side, spotted my swollen ankle, and knelt in front of me.
Oh geez, he was a little too close for comfort for someone wearing only shorts, sneakers, and trying to remember if I’d actually shaved my legs today.
“ I’m fine.” I tried to put some distance between us but the pain in my ankle had now kicked up another notch. I resisted the urge to cry like a baby. Instead, I reached out to him for support. At that moment, the last thing I was thinking about was how ridiculous I must look like in his eyes.
“ Here, let me help you,” he said as he picked me up. Grayson Stone carried me back through to the office where he put me gently down in my chair. His fingers went to work examining my injured ankle very thoroughly. His touch, however impersonal, had me squirming in my seat, reminding me that it had, after all, been more than six months since I’d been this close to a man. It reminded me of the vow I’d made to someone…oh yeah, God, save myself until marriage. That record now stood at close to a year. And my dry spell was driving me wild.
I imagined what it would feel like to have those expert fingers move up my body just a smidgen higher. My face turned bright red at the thought of it, and my body instantly flushed with excitement. I let go of a shuddering breath.
Grayson eyed my heated face, no doubt reading every single one of the reasons behind my uneasiness.
“ What happened? Did you fall?”
“ Huh?” I asked because I hadn’t really heard a thing he’d said. All of my focused attention was now on the movement of his most incredibly sexy lips. I imagined...well, the possibilities were limitless!
“ Your ankle. Did you fall?” When all I could do was nod, Grayson smiled and tried reassuring me. “I don’t think it’s broken, but you do need to have it looked at by a doctor.”
“ I’ll be fine. You can go now...” Those words came out rushed and at least one octave higher than my normal voice. I noisily cleared my throat. By this point, I would have said anything to get rid of him. His closeness was causing me a whole lot more discomfort than my stupid ankle.
“ Not a chance. I’m taking you to the clinic.” He stood, glanced around the office until he spotted my purse and keys, then he scooped me up in his arms again before I could manage to dodge his well-defined and extremely muscular arms.
“ Wait!” I attempted to get his attention as he headed out the front of the store and in the direction of one very expensive-looking Range Rover. “I can’t leave now. I have customers...I need to go to the bank!”
My somewhat arrogant knight-in-shining-armor ignored all the things I needed to do. Grayson carefully placed me in the passenger seat of the Rover and proceeded to turn his back on me and walk away. Back to the store, where he turned the little open sign around to read closed. Then he locked the door.
“ What do you think you’re doing?” I asked when he climbed into the driver’s seat next to me.
“ Taking you to a doctor, Miss...”
“ Taylor. Lila Taylor. And I don’t need a doctor. I just need to stay off my ankle for a little while so...do you mind?” I arched a brow and pointed back toward the bookstore.
“ No, not usually, Lila. I’m sorry, but you need to see a doctor about your ankle. So why don’t you just sit back and relax. Enjoy the ride, okay?”
At his slightly condescending tone, I decided the pain in my ankle was much more favorable than enduring Grayson’s company for a single minute longer. I reached for the door handle just as he put the Rover in reverse. Unfortunately, he anticipated my move.
“ Uh-uh. I don’t think so.” He pried my hand away from the handle. “Come on, Lila, give me a break okay? Let me take you to the clinic just to make sure everything checks out. Just for my peace of mind.” When I couldn’t think of a valid reason to refuse, he added, “I’m going to do it anyway so you might as well relax, you know?”
It was at this stage in our strange conversation that I felt my first real twinge of fear. After all, what did I really know about him except his name? And that sounded about as phony as a three dollar bill. He could have made it up! He might be anybody, including the next serial killer in training.
“ Look, I can drive myself to the clinic. I’m sure you must have better things to do with your day.” I smiled in what I hoped would come across as something close to reassuring. Unfortunately, I was in so much pain by this point, I probably looked as if I were smirking.
“ Nothing that can’t wait. Relax, Lila. I’m not really a serial killer.”
That shut me up.
Once Grayson pulled into the last remaining parking spot outside the minor emergency center, he proceeded to hop out of the SUV and pick me up again before I realized that was his intention.
“ Look, I can handle it from here, okay? Really. I’ll be fine. Thank you,” I added when the last part actually came out sounding like a growl. “Why don’t you go do whatever it is you were doing before...” I actually bite my tongue to keep from saying, before you decided to ruin my day. But then, my day was ruined long before he walked into my store.
Grayson simply smiled and gave me a look as if to say, you must be out of your mind, before shouldering open the clinic door. He headed for the clerk at the front counter with me still in his arms.
“ Put me down!” I squeaked over my pain. He did as I asked and dropped me into one of the empty chairs of the waiting room and then went back to the front counter to talk to the girl. I hoped no one I knew was there to witness my humiliation.
My covert gaze went back to the counter in time to see my rescuer pointing in my direction. He said something to the young brunette clerk, which I couldn’t quite make out. Whatever it was it obviously got the hoped for reaction because she smiled at him. What was he doing anyway? Picking up a date for tonight?
As they continued to flirt with each other, I decided I’d seen enough. I picked up a magazine from the table near me and began flipping through its pages. I hoped he’d read my annoyance as easily as he’d managed to gauge most of my other emotions.
I ignored Grayson completely when he sat next to me, while praying he’d finally get enough of the silent treatment and simply leave.
“ I wasn’t trying to pick her up...” Grayson whispered so softly that I almost didn’t catch the words at first. But when they registered, I dropped my magazine into my lap and stared back at him.
“ I mean, what do I need with her when I have such a sweet, accommodating woman sitting right here next to me?” I watched the smile—the one I’m almost certain I would come to hate, spread across his face. It didn’t quite kill the seriousness in those gray eyes. I forced my gaze back to the magazine I wasn’t actually reading.
“ You know, it would be a lot more convincing if you actually held the magazine right side up.” Grayson took it from my unresisting hand and turned it to the proper angle.
I counted to ten—twice, before losing the battle with my anger.
In the past, my mother had warned me at least a thousand times if I didn’t take control of my temper, it would end up costing me dearly someday. Unfortunately, this was just one of many lessons she’d tried to get me to understand and failed.
“ Who are you anyway?” I asked, barely managing to keep the words between the two of us. “Why won’t you just...leave?”
I stopped my little tirade when I heard him laugh. God, it sounded just as good as his voice. Just as sexy and exciting as everything about him. The man was one living-breathing real life fantasy.
At that point, I decided while he might not be willing to leave, I wasn’t obligated to sit next to him any longer.
I tried to stand, hoping to hobble over to the far end of the waiting room. The pain in my ankle decided not to go along with my little plan.
“ Sit down, Lila...” Grayson’s long fingers circled my wrist and forced me back into my seat. “Don’t be childish—you’re obviously in pain. You shouldn’t be standing on that ankle any more than necessary. So just sit down and relax, will you? I promise I don’t bite. At least not too hard and certainly never in public.”
The first reminder of the terrible day I’d experienced so far blindsided me as tears stung my eyes. I couldn’t look at Grayson. I didn’t want him to see how vulnerable I felt. Instead, I concentrated on my now right-side-up magazine.
The normal waiting time for the minor emergency center, even on a good day, was literally hours.
I tried concentrating on the boring article I was pretending to read, something about a movie star, while deliberately ignoring the man to my left, who seemed to be busy working on his little electronic gizmo-thingy again. God I missed my Blackberry. And my life in New York.
After my curiosity finally got the better of me, I snuck a quick glance at what he was doing, trying to be as discreet as possible. Grayson was sending out emails like they were going out of style.
Brother, some people certainly have a high opinion of themselves if they can’t stay away from their technical lifeline even for a couple of hours.
“ Do you want to see how it works?” he asked without looking at me but clearly spotting my interest.
“ No thanks.” I rolled my eyes and continued with my boring article, which was now accompanied by the sound of his laughter.
Three long hours later and still waiting, my anxiety continued to escalate as I pictured poor Mr. Edward’s panic. Once I imagined our few remaining customers’ reaction to seeing the closed sign on the door, I freaked.
I was getting ready to hobble on my one good foot out of the clinic when a door opened and the nurse called Grayson’s name. He stood. I stood. Then I winced in pain, and stifled a tiny scream. My knight in shining armor’s arms went around me once more in what was quickly becoming a little too familiar for comfort. Definitely too disturbing, if my body’s reaction was any indication.
“ No,” I managed before the very effort of being picked up knocked the breath out of me, and sent the dozen or more bored and impatient patrons waiting for their turn, sniggering at our little show.
Oh for crying out loud... I hoped I’d only just thought these things to myself instead of saying them aloud.
“ I can manage to make it to the exam room by myself,” I told Grayson but he apparently wasn’t listening to me. He said something to the nurse, who smiled sympathetically.
“ Right this way, Mr. Stone.” The nurse opened the door to one of the exam rooms then added, “It will only be a few more minutes if you would like to get undressed, Miss...” She consulted her little chart before adding, “Miss Taylor.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask her why I needed to be undressed to have my ankle examined, but then I caught a glimpse of Grayson’s maddening grin and kept my mouth shut.
I waited until the nurse left us alone before deciding I’d endured more than enough of his company for one day.
“ Can you put me down now, please?” I told him rather ungraciously. Surprisingly, he did as I asked for once. Not entirely gentle I might add. Apparently, he’d had enough of me as well.
“ Look, I really do appreciate all you’ve done for me today, but there’s no need for you to stick around. I can take it from here.”
“ You’re embarrassed by the nurse’s get undressed remark aren’t you? I don’t think she meant anything by it, Lila. I’m sure she probably thought we were together...or something.”
He left the last part to my imagination, which by this point and after being entirely too close to his gorgeous male body for way too long, had kicked into overdrive. The or something held so many delicious possibilities to my-saving-myself-for-marriage. To cover my confusion, I remembered I was angry with him.
Grayson Stone looked me in the eye, saw the coming storm, and chose to leave me alone at last.
“ I’ll just wait for you outside in the waiting room.” He didn’t give me a chance to answer before walking out the door, and closing it softly.
It was at this point, that I did something I’d really wanted to do since meeting him. I threw the first thing I could find at the closing door.
Even though I felt a small amount of relief at the loud clattering the instrument tray made hitting the wooden door, once I heard Grayson’s infuriatingly seductive laughter, I did the second most popular thing I’d wanted to do today. I started to cry.
© Mary Eason
The Book Of Love
Author: Mary Eason
Publisher: Whiskey Creek Press
Genre: Erotic Romance
Had Lila Taylor Known the fate waiting her outside her door that morning, she would have pulled the covers back over her head, dismissed the cat’s complaining entirely, and ignored the flood on the first floor. But you see, Lila wasn’t expecting anything life changing to happen to her. Why you might ask? Because nothing exciting ever happens in Endsville, Texas!
Or so Lila thought, until the day Grayson Stone walked into her otherwise boring little world and turned reality into one very exciting fantasy.