With a heavy heart I placed the sign in the display window.
All books 50% off.
If things didn’t pick up soon, it would read Closing down sale. The thought alone was enough to make me shiver. The autumnal sky was awash with purples and smudges of orange, as I stepped outside to survey the display window from the sidewalk.
Star-shaped leaves crunched underfoot. I forced a smile. A sale wouldn’t hurt, and maybe it’d take the bookshop figures from the red into the black—which I so desperately needed. My rent had been hiked up. The owner of the building, a sharp-featured, silver-tongued, forty-something man, had put the pressure on me lately—to pay more, to declutter the shop, claiming the haphazard stacks of books were a fire risk. The additional rent stretched the budget to breaking level. Something had to change.
The phone shrilled, and a grin split my face. It could only be Ridge at this time of the morning. Even after being together almost a year his name still provoked a giggle. It suited him though, the veritable man mountain he was. I’d since met his mom, a sweet, well-spoken lady, who claimed in dulcet tones, that she chose his name well before his famous namesake in The Bold and the Beautiful. In fact, she was adamant about it, and said the TV character Ridge was no match for her son. I had to agree. Sure, they both had chiseled movie star cheekbones, and an intense gaze that made many a woman swoon, but my guy was more than just the sum of his parts—I loved him for his mind, as much as his clichéd six-pack, and broody hotness. And even better, he loved me for me.
He was the hero in my own real-life love story, and due back from Canada the next day. It’d been weeks since I’d seen him, and I ached for him in a way that made me blush.
I dashed inside, and answered the phone, breathlessly. “The Bookshop on the Corner.”
“That’s the voice I know and love,” he said in his rich, husky tone. My heart fluttered, picturing him at the end of the line, his jet-black hair and flirty blue eyes. He simply had to flick me a look loaded with suggestion, and I’d be jelly-legged and lovestruck.
“What are you wearing?” he said.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” I held back a laugh, eager to drag it out. So far our relationship had been more long-distance than anticipated, as he flew around the world reporting on location. The stints apart left an ache in my heart, a numbness to my days. Luckily I had my books, and a sweeping romance or two helped keep the loneliness at bay.
“Tell me or I’ll be forced to Skype you and see for myself.”
Glancing down at my outfit, I grimaced: black tights, a black pencil skirt, and a pilled blue knit sweater, all as old as the hills of Ashford. Not exactly the type of answer Ridge was waiting for, or the way I wanted him to picture me, after so many weeks apart. “Those stockings you like, and…”
His voice returned with a growl. “Those stockings? With the little suspenders?”
I sat back into the chair behind the counter, fussing with my bangs. “The very same.”
He groaned. “You’re killing me. Take a photo…”
“There’s no need. If you’re good, I’ll wear the red ones tomorrow night.” I grinned wickedly. Our reunions were always passionate affairs; he was a hands-on type of guy. Lucky for him, because it took a certain type of man to drag me from the pages of my books. When he was home we didn’t surface until one of us had to go to work. Loving Ridge had been a revelation, especially in the bedroom, where he took things achingly slow, drawing out every second. I flushed with desire for him.
There was a muffled voice and the low buzz of phones ringing. Ridge mumbled to someone before saying, “About tomorrow…” He petered out, regret in each syllable.
I closed my eyes. “You’re not coming, are you?” I tried not to sigh, but it spilled out regardless. The lure of a bigger, better story was too much for him to resist, and lately the gaps between our visits grew wider. I understood his work was important, but I wanted him all to myself. A permanent fixture in the small town I lived in.
He tutted. “I’m sorry, baby. There’s a story breaking in Indonesia, and I have to go. It’ll only be for a week or two, and then I’ll take some time off.”
Outside, leaves fluttered slowly from the oak tree, swaying softly, until they fell to the ground. I wasn’t the nagging girlfriend sort—times like this though, I was tempted to be. Ridge had said the very same thing the last three times he’d canceled a visit. But invariably someone would call and ask Ridge to head to the next location; any time off would be cut short.
“I understand,” I said, trying to keep my voice bright. Sometimes I felt like I played a never-ending waiting game. Would it always be like this? “Just so you know, I have a very hot date this afternoon.”
He gasped. “You better be talking about a fictional date.” His tone was playful, but underneath there was a touch of jealousy to it. Maybe it was just as hard on him, being apart.
“One very hot book boyfriend…though not as delectable as my real boyfriend—but a stand-in, until he returns.”
“Well, he better not keep you up half the night, or he’ll have me to answer to,” he faux threatened, and then said more seriously, “Things will slow down, Sarah. I want to be with you so much my soul hurts. But right now, while I’m freelance, I have to take whatever comes my way.”
“I know. I just feel a bit lost sometimes. Like someone’s hit pause, and I’m frozen on the spot.” I bit my lip, trying to work out how to explain it. “It’s not just missing you—I do understand about your job—it’s…everything. The bookshop sales dwindling, the rent jacked up, everyone going on about their business, while I’m still the same old Sarah.”
I’d been at this very crossroad when I’d met Ridge, and he’d swept me off my feet, like the ultimate romance hero. For a while that had been enough. After all, wasn’t love always the answer? Romance aside, life was a little stagnant, and I knew it was because of my fear of change. It wasn’t so much that I had to step from behind the covers of my books, rather plunge, perhaps. Take life by the scruff of the neck and shake it. But how?
“You’ve had a rough few weeks. That’s all. I’ll be back soon, and I’m sure there’s something I can do to make you forget everything…”
My belly flip-flopped at the thought. He would make me forget everything that was outside that bedroom door, but then he’d leave and it would all tumble back.
What exactly was I searching for? My friends were getting married and having babies. Buying houses and redecorating. Starting businesses. My life had stalled. I was an introvert, happiest hiding in the shadows of my shop, reading romances to laze the day away, between serving the odd customer or two—yet, it wasn’t enough. In small-town Connecticut, there wasn’t a lot to do. And life here—calm, peaceful—was fine, but that’s just it, fine wasn’t enough anymore. I had this fear that life was passing me by because I was too timid to take the reins.
It was too hazy a notion of what I was trying to say, even to me. Instead of lumping Ridge with it, I changed tack. “I hope you know, you’re not leaving the house when you get home. Phones will be switched to silent, computers forgotten, and the only time we’re leaving the comfort of bed is when I need sustenance.” A good romp around the bedroom would suffice until I could pinpoint what it was that I wanted.
“How about I sort out the sustenance?” he said, his voice heavy with desire. “And then we’ll never have to leave.”
“Promises, promises,” I said, my breath hitching. I hoped this flash of longing would never wane, the sweet torture of anticipation.
“I have to go, baby. I’ll call you tonight if it’s not too late once I’m in.”
“Definitely call tonight! Otherwise, I can’t guarantee the book boyfriend won’t steal your girlfriend. He’s pretty hot, I’ll have you know.”
“Why am I jealous of a fictional character?” He laughed, a low, sexy sound. “OK, tonight. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
He hung up, leaving me dazed, and a touch lonely knowing that I wouldn’t see him the next day as planned.
I tried to shake the image of Ridge from my mind. If anyone walked in, they’d see the warm blush of my cheeks, and know exactly what I was thinking. Damn the man for being so attractive, and so effortlessly sexy.
Shortly, the sleepy town of Ashford would wake under the gauzy light of October skies. Signs would be flipped to open, stoops swept, locals would amble down the road. Some would step into the bookshop and out of the cold, and spend their morning with hands wrapped around a mug of steaming hot tea, and reading in any one of the cozy nooks around the labyrinth-like shop.
I loved having a place for customers to languish. Comfort was key, and if you had a good book and a hot drink, what else could you possibly need to make your day any brighter? Throw rugs and cushions were littered around seating areas. Coats would be swiftly hung on hooks, a chair found, knitted blankets pulled across knees, and their next hour or two spent, in the most relaxing of ways.
I wandered around the shop, feather duster in hand, tickling the covers, waking them from slumber. I’m sure as soon as my back was turned, the books wiggled and winked at one another, as if they were eager for the day to begin, for fingers of hazy sunlight to filter through and land on them like spotlights, as if saying, here’s the book for you.
Imagine if I had to close up for good, like so many other shops had in recent times? It pained me to think people were missing out on the real-life bookshop experience. Wasn’t it much better when you could step into a dimly lit space, and eke your way around searching for the right novel? You could run a fingertip along the spines, smell that glorious old book scent, flick them open, and unbend a dog-eared page. Read someone else’s notes in the margin, or a highlighted passage, and see why that sentence or metaphor had dazzled the previous owner.
Secondhand books had so much life in them. They’d lived, sometimes in many homes, or maybe just one. They’d been on airplanes, traveled to sunny beaches, or crowded into a backpack and taken high up a mountain where the air thinned.
Some had been held aloft tepid rose-scented baths, and thickened and warped with moisture. Others had childlike scrawls on the acknowledgment page, little fingers looking for a blank space to leave their mark. Then there were the pristine novels, ones that had been read carefully, bookmarks used, almost like their owner barely pried the pages open so loath were they to damage their treasure.
I loved them all.