Rather Be Reading
Never had I so dreaded a trip to the library.
Me, Ellie Christie, devoted reader, bookseller, bibliophile, and library patron since infancy. In fact, had I ever approached a library with anything less than delight? I recalled only joy and anticipation.
Now, however . . .
From my frosty nose to my mitten-clad palms, I yearned to turn in my boots and flee. I knew exactly where I’d go. Home to my loft above my family’s bookshop, the Book Chalet. Once there, I’d dive into flannel PJs, curl up with Agatha C. (as in Cat) Christie, and read.
It was the perfect evening for a fluffy friend and a good book. Late January snow, fine as icing sugar, pirouetted to my eyelashes. I sighed. Wistful sentiment froze into a mocking cloud.
A night in with a book and your cat? No, no, no . . . Not for you. Not until you’ve endured this date!
I sighed, launching another taunt.
Hee, hee, ha, ha! Not just a date. A blind double date! In the library!
Every bit of that seemed wrong. Date. Double date. Blind date. Most of all, the involvement of the library. The library was a readers’ sanctuary, like the Book Chalet. It shouldn’t be sullied by potentially (no, almost definitely) stressful blind meetups.
I consoled myself. The library had always helped me out. It would tonight too, right? If the date went south, I could . . . what? Excuse myself and hide among the books?
No. I’d be found. The library was open and orderly. At the Book Chalet, I could disappear for days. Shelves reached for the ceiling. Aisles twisted like a maze. Customers could literally find themselves lost among the books.
My imagination turned fanciful, or perhaps just desperate.
A magical library cart, that’s what I needed. I pictured a metal cart, rattling to my rescue. I’d jump on. Together, we’d bump down the library steps and clatter through downtown, speeding for the gondola station, where a glass carriage would await to carry me up to the upper hamlet and home. I glanced over my shoulder. Midway up the mountain, lights twinkled through the snow, beckoning like summer fireflies.
I smiled under my scarf. Riding the gondola was always special. But I had a magic library cart! We’d fly!
A bookish woman could always dream.
A frigid gust carried away my fantasy. I turned back to reality and my companion in blind double-date dread, striding a few yards ahead.
“We’ll be early!” I called to my older sister.
Meg was approaching this evening like an impending root canal or cream pie aimed at her nose: Hurry up and get it over with.
I tried again. “We’ll look overeager!”
Meg stopped in the middle of Galena Street, thankfully free of traffic.
“Can I admit something?” Meg asked when I caught up.
“Of course,” I said and admired the long views from the middle of the road.
“I’d sooooo rather be home reading.”
“You and me both! Let’s go hide in the Book Chalet! You can sleep over in the loft and tell me ghost stories like when we were kids.”
“Stop,” my sister groaned. “Too tempting . . .”
I piled on cozy lures. “Flannel PJs, hot cocoa, a fire in the hearth, Agatha on your lap . . .”
“Now you’re just being cruel,” Meg said. She countered. “My place is closer. We run there. You’ll stay overnight. We’ll watch a Masterpiece Mystery and eat cookies. Gram and Rosie are making a batch right now. Chocolate chip . . .”
It was my turn to groan. Cookies, a mystery, Gram, and my niece . . . that combo sounded divine. Meg and my niece—somehow transformed into a fourteen-year-old—had lived with our grandmother since our beloved Gramps passed away over a decade ago.
The arrangement suited everyone. Gram adored the company and her grandchildren. Meg, a single mom since before Rosie was even born, enjoyed parenting support. Rosie saw Gram as her BFF from another era and was soaking in Gram’s secrets to life, bookbinding, and legendary baking.
Since moving back home, I’d benefited too. Delicious dinners. Luxurious leftovers. Movie nights and sleepovers in the coziest guest bedroom in town . . .
“Or, hey, we start on the taxes?” Meg suggested. “That sounds like more fun. Pluck our eyebrows? Except Rosie already tortured my brows and convinced me to wear contacts. If my eyeballs freeze, that’s it, I’m going home.”
I smiled. Misery did adore company. “You’ll need your sister to guide you.”
“Noble of you. Maybe one of us could slip and sprain an ankle?” Meg slid a boot over snow packed to ice. She looked almost hopeful.
Headlights turned our way a few blocks up. “Get hit in the road?” I suggested.
“Fine by me,” my sister muttered.
I slipped my mittened hand through Meg’s elbow and tugged her along. As we strolled, I told her about the magic library cart. Her laughter warmed me. The five years that separated us seemed like nothing in our thirties, but a part of me would always be the little sis eager to make her big sister chuckle. I was glad to have her at my side tonight and even happier to be reunited after my years abroad, traveling the world on bookish gigs.
“So,” Meg said. “There is some hope for this evening?”
“The magic of the library.” Carts wouldn’t fly, but I believed in the enchanting powers of buildings filled with books.
“Bet I’ll still win,” Meg grumbled.
When it came to dating, Meg and I lugged around baggage heavier than trunks of books. Since learning of our impending blind dates, we’d been engaged in a bit of dark humor in the form of sisterly competition. Who had the worst dating record?
Meg, hands down, held the lead. Fifteen years ago, she’d been stood up at the altar by Rosie’s dad.
Few could compete with that heartbreak and humiliation. However, I’d had a recent surge. First there’d been my long-term boyfriend. I’d thought we loved the same things. Bookshops, travel, literary landscapes, each other. I also secretly—foolishly—assumed he’d propose. Any day now, I’d think, every few years or so. Only when I stepped up and asked did I learn he wasn’t the marrying type. Turned out, he wasn’t the one-woman type either.
Our breakup left me adrift, but after some wallowing in tear-jerker novels, I moved on. Literally. Last October, I winged back home to little Last Word for my dream job, working with my big sis as fifth-generation caretakers of our family’s historic bookshop. I vowed to start a fresh chapter, to seek out new friendships and rekindle old acquaintances. A budding romance even seemed possible.
But then . . . I hadn’t even unpacked when murder struck my seemingly idyllic hometown.
My boot slipped. I steadied myself, physically and emotionally.
It was too soon to prod at the scars of last November. Way too soon to think about dating, too!
I returned to the fun fantasy. “We need an escape word. If either of us says it, we bolt for the nearest cart.”
“Great idea.” Meg pondered. “How about ‘book’? ‘Book it’?”
“Mmm . . . Nice, but we’ll be in the library, and supposedly our dates are bookish matches? Presumably, they’ll talk books?”
“Dare we hope?” Meg thought some more. “Okay, how about ‘ostrich’?”
I laughed. When we were young, our parents swapped out any foul word with “ostrich.” Not that our quiet father or love-the-world hippie mother made a habit of cursing, but they got a kick out of “ostrich.”
What the ostrich? Oh, ostrich! We’re up Ostrich Creek now, girls.
“Perfect,” I said, “both in meaning and rarity.”
Meg and I stopped in front of a grand-dame Queen Anne with gingerbread trim and fish-scale shingles painted in purples, golds, and leafy green. The Last Word Free Library began its life as a gold-baron’s abode. Now, like the Book Chalet, it was a treasure-trove for bibliophiles.
And I wanted to run from it.
“Remind me why we agreed to this?” I asked. Rhetorical question. We “agreed” because we loved our cousin Lorna. Also, because we were too nice and thus susceptible to Lorna’s guilt-tripping.
Lorna fell between Meg and me in age, thirty-five to my thirty-three and Meg’s thirty-eight. She had a husband, two kids, a nice house, and a Great Dane. What she hadn’t found was her thing, her life’s work. I’d lost count of Lorna’s self-started enterprises. Each time, she’d swear she’d found The One. That is, until problems sprouted and Lorna careened like a moth toward the flames of her next big idea.
Copyright © 2023 by Ann Claire. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.