“O beautiful for spacious skies…” Taylor Lenore sang along with the first-grade class occupying her bookstore. Rows of eager children filled the community space. Their seersucker shorts, ruffled cuffs and monogrammed collars reminded her of her idyllic childhood, and she loved Ronan’s tiniest performers as much as she loved books.
The pudgy kid in the front row stuck his finger up his nose.
She stumbled over a verse but continued singing. Watching the kid made her nose itch, but she kept her hand pressed against her side, wrinkled away the sensation and exaggerated her participation. “From sea to shining sea!”
The kid sneezed and sent a green glob flying across the open space. The emission landed in front of the audience of grinning parents, doting grandparents and special guests.
Clapping, she rushed forward and placed her shoe over the snot. “Fabulous! Aren’t they just the sweetest?”
The audience lowered their phones, clapped and nodded.
The children shuffled on the risers.
She scanned the crowded store, but everyone looked happy so she exhaled. After her engagement to Josh had fallen apart, returning to Ronan felt like a smart move, but she’d struggled to envision her future. Her mother Nancy wanted to coddle grandbabies and her father Jack wanted to protect her. She wanted to go to bed each night knowing she made a difference in her tiny corner of the world. Maybe she should let the kid wipe up his own snot. She glanced at her shoe and smiled. We all have room to grow.
Looking toward the pastry case, she sought out Plucky’s encouragement. Her friend wore her shiny black hair cut in a chin-length bob. Long bangs swept over one eye like a brush of feathers tinged with blue. I liked the pink tips better, but she never could settle. Plucky’s response to the performance would tell her whether the bookstore had displayed Ronan’s germ-caked darlings to their full advantage.
They tried. Taylor swallowed and raised her eyebrows.
Plucky mimed gagging herself.
She slashed her hand across her throat. I get the point. I tried to do a good thing!
With a wink, Plucky turned back to the pastry case.
Clapping her hands together, Taylor turned back to the parents who were gathering their things. She inclined her hands toward the first-grade teacher’s black curls. “I just want to say that Mrs. Jenkins did an amazing job teaching the kids. I never knew that song had so many verses.” Avoiding her mother’s gaze, she extended her hands toward the children. “Y’all are so impressive!”
Her mother, the elementary school librarian, stood near the nonfiction section. Plastic reading glasses hung from her neck, and a soft purple cardigan accented her bright-blue eyes. Risking a glance, Taylor saw her raise her chin. She caught that fib about the song all right. I sang every verse at my first pageant. Brushing her bangs out of her eyes, she ignored Nancy’s reproach and focused on the stars of this show. “Kids, thank you so much for coming to our little bookstore and brightening our day.”
Mrs. Jenkins squeezed the shoulders of two first-graders. “Thank you for having us. The auditorium intimidates some of our special friends, but everyone loves Ronan Reads.”
She clasped her hand against her chest. If the elementary school wanted to utilize her space for a spring performance, who was she to turn away the free publicity? “Why, thank you!” She let the performance’s spirit wash over her and exhaled. Nerves kept her on edge, but the little darlings charmed her. “Plucky has cupcakes for the kids and coffee for the adults. Everyone, please stay and visit.”
The students leaned toward the sweets.
Mrs. Jenkins smiled. “Go, you little hellions! You earned it.”
The orderly rows dissolved into chaos. Elbows flew, and several children stepped on their classmates’ toes.
Holding the tray of cupcakes like a shield, Plucky skewed her mouth and turned her head to the side.
“Me first!” the pudgy kid yelled.
His suspender-strapped belly strained his shirt buttons, but he made his way across the room with admirable speed. A muscled little bruiser overtook him, snatched the first cupcake and shoved the icing into his mouth. Taylor covered a laugh.
“That one was mine!”
The children crowded around Plucky.
“Charles Brannon hit me!” a girl cried.
“C.B., mind your manners.” Mrs. Jenkins’s sing-song voice cut through the noise.
Charles Brannon mumbled an apology, but he gave his classmate side-eye.
Taylor sympathized with the girl. The first time she’d called that kid ‘Charles’, he’d shaken his head and turned his brown doe-eyes to his mother. “It’s okay, Mama. She doesn’t know me yet.” The mixture of innocence and sincerity charmed Taylor, but she wondered if the little tyke would throw her under the bus for a slice of cake. Today’s kids were so much worldlier than the kids from her dirt-tinged, polyester youth. Good thing I didn’t call the little tyke ‘Charlie’. Trusting Plucky to handle the first graders, she turned from the fray and keyed up the music.
Housed on the main floor of an old, three-story brick building, Ronan Reads offered everything from thrillers to obscure local publications. Online sales kept the balance sheet healthy, and a casual space in the middle of the store let customers read, nibble cookies or linger over free Wi-Fi.
She envisioned the bookstore as a gathering place and a hotspot for book releases. After a year of business, her dream felt naïve, and she struggled to keep the store afloat in the digital age. Sparrow County’s population topped sixty thousand, but only a few thousand people lived within the city’s limits, and even fewer of them cared for books. Bankers and health-care workers toiled away in the Historic District, but Thirsty Thursday remained an Atlanta gimmick. Given free time, Ronan’s residents spent their hours praying, gossiping or binging television shows. Taylor could never pin down the right order.
Nancy walked up to her side. “How many verses does that song have, Taylor Lenore?”
She swallowed and met her mother’s gaze. “Three?”
Nancy raised an eyebrow.
She focused on the children’s shrieks and laughter. Despite Nancy’s public-facing job, she was an educator and an introvert who hid behind picture books and manners. Once strangers broke through her prim exterior, they found a loyal woman who loved her job. Taylor loved her, too, but she never had the luxury of distance. “I wanted to flatter the kids for a job well done.”
“Do they look like they need your flattery?”
She considered the kids wreaking havoc in her store. Two boys finger-painted chocolate icing on the floor and a pair of girls chased each other with napkins. Their parents clustered around the coffee urn and exchanged pleasantries over cream and sugar. They might not need my flattery, but I’m going to need a few hours to put the store back together. “No, they’re doing just fine without me.”
“Those who flatter their neighbors are spreading nets for their feet,” Nancy said, quoting the Bible.
After two-and-a-half decades of experience with Nancy’s wisdom, Taylor wisely nodded. I love Jesus, but the Bible doesn’t get into detail about running a bookstore, balancing the bottom line and maintaining the goodwill of the online community.
Nancy pushed her glasses up her nose and picked up a new release. She flipped through the first few pages. “You did good hosting the concert, but you don’t need sweet talk to turn a profit.”
Setting her phone on the table, she let a playlist direct the tracks. “Mama, I’m running a business.”
Nancy looked up from the book. “Goodwill will come back to you in spades.”
She frowned. “I don’t recognize that verse.”
“I made it up.”
Exhaling, she met her mother’s gaze. “Mama, please…”
“Is this book any good?” Nancy asked.
She considered the question. Llama Serenade was the story of a couple who abandoned their one-bedroom apartment in New York City for seventy-five acres in Flagstaff, Arizona. In poetic, reverent detail, Bunny and Brunswick Kissimmee explored their relationship with the llamas they raised, the land they owned and the clothing-optional hot tub parties they hosted in the desert. “I’m not sure ‘new-age mecca’ is quite your style.”
“People have alienated themselves from the animals that feed them.”
Her mother raised chickens but not the kind kids cuddled for backyard photo opportunities. “True.”
Nancy turned to the back cover. “Whew. Twenty-four dollars. The authors think highly of themselves.”
“Publishers set the price,” Taylor said. “You know you get a twenty-percent discount.”
“You’re a good girl.” Nancy tucked the book under her arm and walked toward the coffee urn.
Am I? She considered her mother’s admonishment about flattery. Instead of waking to a cartoon alarm clock, she’d spent her first eighteen years opening her eyes to Nancy’s steady inspiration. After she moved out for college, Nancy’s inspiring messages came by text, but she often liked their comforting support, responded with an emoji and went about her day. Now that I’m back, a little less maternal influence would be nice. Remembering her bookstore audience, she shook off her personal issues. “Oh, Mama?”
Lifting her shoe, she revealed the green mess. “Would you do me a favor and get the sanitizing spray from the cleaning closet?”
Nancy stared at the glob and wrinkled her nose. “What is that?”
“Oh, my,” Nancy said.
“Aren’t children precious?”
Nancy smiled. “You were.”
Her heart and her stance softened. “Thanks, Mama.”
The door opened, and Ronan’s city manager stepped into the bookshop. Jonathan O’Connor meant well and smelled pleasantly of cigar smoke, but he rarely ironed his shirts. A local dry cleaner offered him discounted services, but he’d shrugged off the offer. “If I wanted pressed shirts, I would have married a woman who liked to iron.” Instead, he’d married a woman who spent most of her time getting her nails done, and they both seemed happy with their arrangement.
He was a decent enough manager for the city, but Ronan’s citizens expected him to submit budgets, shake hands and cut ribbons. If they needed someone at the bargaining table, they redirected their figurehead and turned to their lawyers and the board of commissioners.
“Peaches!” Striding across the room, he stopped short and looked at the icing-smeared chaos running rampant through her bookstore. “What on earth is going on today?”
“School performance.” The old nickname irked her, but her fourth-grade reign as Little Miss Georgia Peach Queen had delighted the town. “Did we forget to invite you?”
He frowned and patted his empty pocket. “No, no… It’s just we have a special visitor.”
“We?” she asked.
“Ahh-h.” In her experience, silence yielded answers.
“Christopher Durand is here.” O’Connor checked his pants pockets. “All the way down from Atlanta.”
She smiled. “I’m sorry, but who is Christopher Durand?”
“Owns Ocelot.” Smacking his lips, O’Connor rolled his tongue across his teeth and patted his pants. “Heavy machinery and big bucks.”
If he keeps digging in his pockets, I’ll have to turn my back. “Sir, can I get you something?”
He looked up. “I ran out of nicotine gum. Do you sell that stuff?”
“Oh.” Laughter slipped past her lips. Amid the screaming kids and chattering parents, the city manager’s dependency reminded her why Ronan’s residents banded together. When a family hit hard times, neighbors and church members stepped in to help. If O’Connor wanted to quit his cigar habit, she would help. “Is that all? I’m sure the pharmacy’s open.”
He shook his head and exhaled. “No time. Durand’s on his way here from the chambers.”
She frowned. “Why?”
“Dog and pony show touting Ronan’s charm. He wants to build a new factory, and Ronan’s in the running.”
A little boy tugged O’Connor’s pants. “Hiya, Mr. Manager.”
He patted the boy’s back. “Hiya, Smith. Where’s your mama?”
“At work. My mamaw’s here.”
Making a face, O’Connor nodded and sent the boy back into the fray. “Hell of a day to have the kids over for snacks.”
She crossed her arms. “Nobody told me the great Christopher Durand wanted to tour my bookstore. He doesn’t like kids?”
“The kids aren’t the problem.” O’Connor lowered his voice and leaned in. “He’s supposed to be incognito.”
The rich, lingering cigar smoke used to intrigue her, but now she worried about his health. The man was active with the Kiwanis Club, the Salvation Army, the Historical Society and Uncle Brent’s church, but his common sense went the way of his ironing board. “So, take him somewhere else for coffee and local-interest books.”
O’Connor glanced at his watch and shook his head. “No time.”
The door opened, and three adults stepped into the bookstore. She recognized the department directors in their power suits and high heels, but the man in jeans looked as inconspicuous as a cougar on a playground. A hat obscured most of Christopher Durand’s face, but his bronzed cheeks and strong jawline cut a nomadic cowboy’s striking, cinematic profile. Trying not to be rude, she looked away from him but risked a second glance. His weathered skin had bypassed Hollywood’s warm glow, but if the sun’s heat had hardened it to armor, he wore the look well.
Scanning the room, Durand looked at her.
She returned his stare, but his hat’s shadow disguised his eyes’ color. Are they blue? She watched his face for signs of emotion. Not a tic. “No time, indeed.”
The girls chasing each other with napkins rounded a bookshelf and collided with Durand’s legs.
Little Cecilia Williamson looked up, locked eyes with the man and screamed.
Every person in the bookstore turned and stared.
Durand frowned but stood resolute.
If the man wanted to go incognito, he picked a fine day to do it. Abandoning the slimy mess beneath her foot, Taylor strode up to the trio of adults, pulled the precocious girl against her legs and crossed her arms over the child’s vibrating chest. “That’s enough, Cece.”
The girl looked up and quieted.
She smiled at Durand. “Welcome to Ronan Reads.”
He removed his hat, placed it on the counter and inclined his head.
His eyes were as gray as a roiling thundercloud.
“Quite the welcoming committee,” he said.
“Well”—she waved her hand toward the crowd—“we weren’t expecting tourists.”
“I’m not a tourist.”
She tilted her head. “Who are you?”
“Peaches, this is Christopher”—the department director swallowed—“and we told him your store stocks local-interest books.”
She kept her gaze locked on Durand. “Is that so?”
Cece’s mother stepped up and reached for her daughter.
Taylor released the first grader and patted her shoulder, but she felt Durand’s condemnation and refused to fold beneath his scrutiny. “Well, we aim to please, Mister…” She raised her eyebrows.
“Durand,” he said.
At least he doesn’t lie. “What types of books interest you, Mr. Durand?”
He rubbed his thumb along his lip. “I hardly know. Show me what you have.”
His quiet concentration turned the request into a command. Who doesn’t know what type of books they like? She opened her mouth to sass him, but the intensity of his stare sent a chill racing up her arms. Glancing over her shoulder, she considered her audience. Half of the first graders were barefoot, short one shoe or trailing laces. Their parents tilted their heads, offered slight smiles or whispered to their neighbors. Standing tall, she plotted a course through the crowd. “When in Ronan.”
He cleared his throat. “I believe the phrase is ‘When in Rome’.”
“Hmm-m.” She managed a smile. “I’ll remember that fact.”
Falling into step, he followed her through the crowd.
She strode past O’Connor. “You owe me.”
The city manager nodded. “You’re the best, Peaches.”
Smiling, she found her gait, skirted the tables in the center of the store and led Durand to the local-interest books.
“Are you?” he asked.
She missed a step. “Excuse me?”
“Are you the best?”
Straightening her shoulders, she paused. “Ronan Reads is a community resource. We offer a variety of new and used titles, educator discounts, community events, bulk orders and book trades.”
“I asked about you,” he said.
Two children raced down the aisle.
Immune to her tension, the tumble-bumble first graders turned the corner and rolled through the store.
She wished she could slip away as easily, but she felt every inch of the stakes. Catching her reflection in the window, she saw the stiff-shouldered silhouette of a confident woman. Or one who took too many dance classes and tried to live up to her parents’ expectations. Looking up, she met Christopher’s gaze. His gray eyes intrigued her, but the sheen of steel-kissed flint looked too intense for life in Ronan. “I try my best.”
He inclined his head.
If I had warning, I could have staged this tour better. She picked up a large-format book. “Ronan looks sleepy, but the city has a vibrant past and a promising future. General Dick gave one of the most important pre-war Secession speeches from Ronan’s courthouse steps, and Georgia’s largest Confederate training camp occupied the site of the new high school.”
“You condone slavery?”
She bristled. “No! But the historic city reflected the state of the nation.” She frowned. “The state of the South. One of the first paved sections of the Dixie Highway passed through Ronan, and our farmers pioneered advances in modern Southern agriculture.”
“When was this? 1856?”
She swallowed. “1888.”
He yawned and covered his mouth. “How modern.”
She moved deeper into the shelves and reached for another book. “Textiles.”
“Spare me.” He scanned the crowd milling in the center of the store.
Devoid of front-row tickets, the parents and special guests had resumed their chatter.
Gripping the books against her chest, she tilted her head. “Why are you here?”
He shrugged. “The tour’s part of the show. Local representatives lead me around town and show me the best and the brightest stars the town offers.” He cleared his throat and looked at her. “Usually, they pick an up-and-coming lawyer with corporate ambitions.”
She shelved the books. Freed from curt responses and a keen audience, his voice rippled like windswept grass. Amid her treasured books, their hushed conversation felt far too intimate. His rolled r’s spoke of intense meetings held beneath a midday sun, but his cultured drawl left room for the horizon. Judging by his tailored shirt, speed and efficiency meant more to him than her idealistic notions. “Lucky you.”
“Indeed.” Reaching across her, he pulled both volumes from the shelves.
His woodsy aftershave and masculine warmth smelled better than the fresh-cut paper.
“I’ll take these. Ring me up, please.”
The please sounded like a caress. Needing space, she slid past him.
“Ronan intrigues me.”
Turning, she tilted her head. “Why?”
He shifted the books to one hand, reached toward her and skimmed her upper arm.
“What are you doing?” She kept her voice to a whisper.
Holding up one finger, he smiled and held up his finger. “You’re wearing chocolate.”
Her cheeks warmed. “Thanks.”
Pulling a handkerchief from his back pocket, he cleaned up the mess.
At least he didn’t lick off the icing. Did I want him to lick off the icing? She swallowed. “Do you always carry a handkerchief?”
Folding the soiled cloth, he slipped it into his back pocket. “Are you always the center of attention?”
“No.” Clearing her throat, she wondered what had possessed O’Connor to bring this man into her bookstore. The devil himself would have been easier to ignore. “You picked a special day to visit. Despite the chaos”—she glanced at two boys tousling on the story-time rug—“Ronan is a lovely town.”
“I don’t need lovely.”