If a ridiculously handsome man talks too loudly in a library and no one’s there to hear but a repressed librarian, an old lady with a hearing aid, and a plastic pageant queen, does he still make a sound?
Cissie Rogers–who bristled at all stereotypes, even if they might ring true–decided then and there that a librarian doesn’t entertain such questions. A librarian shushes people, no matter how hot they are. It’s her job, even if the man is Boone Braddock, local mayor, football coach, and town stud.
She was back in large print fiction with Mrs. Hattlebury when the front door of the Kettle Knob library opened and a woman’s laughter fill the air–a woman’s fake laughter, which trailed off on an artificial sigh.
Cissie’s skin prickled. There was only one person in western North Carolina who laughed like that: Janelle Montgomery.
“Boone Braddock,” Cissie heard Janelle say, “Stop it. Stop it right this instant.”
What did Janelle want Boone to stop? Kissing her? Being too sexy for his own good?
“Where’s the librarian?” he asked in his whiskey-and-gravel voice.
Boone Braddock had never been in the library. Ever. And he was looking for Cissie.
She stopped breathing. Her palms instantly dampened. And her lower belly—contrary to her wishes—began a slow tingling burn of awareness.
She prepared to round the corner with her finger to her lips, but Mrs. Hattlebury grabbed her arm. “Rumor has it those two were caught doing it like rabbits up near Frazier Lake in broad daylight last week,” the old woman whispered loudly in Cissie’s ear. “But Chief Scotty let ‘em off the hook. He has to, don’t you know.”
“I hate mayors,” Cissie whispered back. Sexual frustration made her ornery. “They think the rules don’t apply to them.”
She wished she could have sex by Frazier Lake—but not with Boone, not if he couldn’t even remember her name. With Mr. Darcy. Too bad he wasn’t real. Maybe if she dressed up Boone like Darcy—
No. They were nothing alike.
“All politicians are that way,” Mrs. Hattlebury reminded her in her strong Smokey Mountain drawl.
“Especially mayors.” Cissie’s words were soaked in Southern inflections, too, like warm bourbon cake. But Mother was from Vermont, so Cissie sounded a little less local than her Kettle Knob neighbors.
As for her declaration, she knew she was making no sense, but she didn’t care. When it came to Boone and Janelle, she was a mass of petty insecurities, and she indulged them freely, the way she couldn’t stop herself from eating freshly popped popcorn, no matter how full she was.
“You don’t really hate all mayors, do you, dear?” Mrs. Hattlebury asked too politely, which meant she thought Cissie might be a tad touched, as they said around here–like Cissie’s grandmother Nana Fielding, who actually wasn’t touched at all. She managed the local community theater, but you know theater people…they’re crazy, in the best way.
“No.” Cissie made a comic face and tried to chuckle. “Of course not. I didn’t hate his grandfather. He threw good candy at the Christmas parade. No wonder we elected Boone. He brought the tradition back.”
“Yes, the Christmas candy angle,” Mrs. Hattlebury said faintly. “That must be the reason a Braddock has been mayor of Kettle Knob for almost sixty years–except for that short-lived era we had a no-name mayor who threw stale, cracked peppermints at the holiday parade.” She paused. “Are you sure you’re okay, dear?”
“I-I need caffeine. The library coffee pot broke.”
She needed a man, too, but surely her bitterness was all about temporary chemical withdrawal.
“Maybe it’s just Janelle who gets on your nerves,” Mrs. Hattlebury said thoughtfully. “She’s a bit full of herself these days. But not Boone. We’re glad he’s mayor, aren’t we?”
Cissie turned red. “He’s an, um, adequate public servant.” But she was thinking of him in those jeans of his and that indescribable place where his faded zipper flap rode like a rollercoaster over some pretty impressive terrain. He was more than adequate in that department. She was evil for having noticed, but she had sunglasses on at the time, so it was okay.
“Adequate?” Mrs. Hattlebury drew in her chin. “Why, Boone’s smile lights up every room he enters! And don’t forget what his great-great-great-great-great granddaddy–”
“I know,” Cissie interrupted rudely, but how many times in her lifetime was she going to hear about Silas Braddock leading a ragtag unit from Kettle Knob down to King’s Mountain during the Revolutionary War and springing a surprise attack on an isolated British outpost and soundly defeating them?
The Revolutionary-era Rogers clan had been reading books, writing letters, and analyzing poetry at the time of the raid in the privacy of their home in Kettle Knob. No one had knocked on their door to ask for help at Kings Mountain. But avid scholars that they were, they made sure to record the event after interviewing every man who’d gone. And they’d dutifully archived the account, which was given by future Rogers to the library for safekeeping.
Mrs. Hattlebury pressed on. “Becky Lee and Frank, God love ‘em, bought Kettle Knob Academy brand-new band instruments last week.”
Boone’s father Frank and his mother Becky Lee were the Tasmanian devils of western North Carolina. Wherever they spun their influence, dirt clods went flying—usually at the groundbreaking of one of their mountain golf resorts–and they made lots of money.
“They’ve never contributed a dime to the Friends of the Library fund.” Cissie couldn’t believe she said that out loud. You weren’t supposed to talk bad about that family.
“But honey.” Mrs. Hattlebury eyes softened in pity. “They’re Braddocks. You’re a Rogers. And ne’er the twain shall meet. Surely, you understand. We’ve all learned to appreciate the distinction. You each bring your own special gifts to Kettle Knob and live in harmony.” She paused. “Don’t you?”
If totally ignoring each other was harmony, then yes.
Mrs. Hattlebury kissed her goodbye, and Cissie sighed. She was tired all of a sudden—tired from staying up late with Nana last night stapling show pamphlets and tired of the way everyone in this town was slapped with a label like a bunch of canning jars lined up on a shelf from the time they left the womb. She didn’t know why she’d ever come back–except of course she knew why.
She loved the smell of pine sap in the morning. The call of a mama bear to its cubs from far off. The way the mountains rolled like giant waves toward the Rogers home, humble as it was. And she loved the people here. There were only a few phonies. They looked out for each other, yet they were also fiercely independent.
There was nothing like it.
“Well, hello, Miss Librarian,” gushed Janelle in her tight pink sweater, fluffy silk scarf, white jeans, and heels better suited to Manhattan than the mountains. A big wad of pink bubblegum flashed in her mouth.
Nowadays, Cissie was great with comeback lines–but mainly with older people. She still felt like a dork around cute single guys and some women her age, the rare few who hadn’t lost their youthful mean girl competitiveness.
Janelle was one who maybe hadn’t. Cissie wasn’t sure. As a kid, Janelle had been just as smart as she was pretty, but starting in sixth grade, she’d given up trying to win the spelling bee and the science fair. Pageants became her thing, that and wrapping boys around her little finger. Now she had the whole town of Campbell enthralled as their mayor.
And then there was Boone in those inappropriate jeans of his and brown boots. A serious mayor didn’t wear Levis and Carhartts–and then have the temerity to look like an Abercrombie and Fitch model! Nor did he have dimples when he grinned. And he most certainly didn’t spend half his time on a football field exhorting boys with perfectly good brains to smash into each other and risk getting concussions.
Inside, Cissie’s heart thumped madly. Unlike Janelle, she wasn’t much into beauty tricks. Or fashion. But she was into books. She could go on Jeopardy and win the Daily Double if it was about books. She could beat anyone in a book take-down. She didn’t know what that was—yet—but it sounded kind of fun. Something involving a boxing ring, a roped boundary she could bounce off, and an opponent to shout down in the middle of the ring when the ref asked questions about the top ten hardcovers on The New York Times list.
“How can I help you?” she asked.
If Boone hadn’t been so lucky all his life, his gaze these days should have turned slightly stupid, even cross-eyed, considering all the tackles he’d endured in high school.
When she looked into his eyes, she was brought back all the way to fourth grade, when he’d given her an apple from his lunchbox with a tiny heart carved into it with his thumbnail. He’d liked her for about five minutes. And then he’d moved on to some other girl–literally, by the time she’d finished eating that apple.
Maybe she shouldn’t have eaten it. Maybe he’d wanted her to save it until the skin grew wrinkled and the tiny heart yellowed.
What did she know about romance?
“We’ve got some interesting news,” he informed her.
His lethal levels of testosterone, combined with his clear-eyed confidence and scarily ambiguous use of the word interesting, made Cissie’s temples thrum.
Do you know my name? she wondered. How could you have you forgotten that apple? And why are you here with news of any sort when you don’t even have a library card?
“It’s good news,” said Janelle, her glossy pink mouth bowed up.
Uh oh. If Janelle thought it was good, Cissie would probably hate it. And the fact that they were here at all…
Something wasn’t right.
But Boone was here. Boone, in her library!
“And what news is this, may I ask?” Ugh. She sounded like a prissy schoolmarm, or a spinster librarian, which she was—but she wasn’t a fossil. She refused to be a fossil. That happened when you had no lusty thoughts left. She had lusty thoughts. She had them all the time.
And they were about this guy, who was currently skewering her with the most compelling look she’d ever seen in her life: powerful, calm, and somehow penetrating to her very soul—
As if he got her.
There was no way he got her. But it felt like it. Probably because she was desperate and imagining things.
“For budget reasons,” he said, “the county wants Kettle Knob and Campbell to merge libraries. They’ll share a new space off the interstate.”
Cissie’s heart froze. It felt like something very basic was being ripped out from under her, and she was falling through clear space. Did Alice feel like this when she fell down the rabbit hole?
“Sit down.” Boone yanked a chair out from a table.
She sat. Her knees knocked together. She was wearing black Mary Janes. All she needed was a blue skirt, a white apron, and long yellow blonde hair….
“It’s not a bad thing,” Boone said.
But this library was a huge part of North Carolina state history. It had stood for so much over the years: equality when people weren’t treated equally, opportunity when no opportunity could be found. It was a treasure. A gem.
It couldn’t merge…and disappear.
Why couldn’t she say that out loud?
“This place will always have the historic marker on the outside,” said Janelle in a bored voice, “in case you’re worried we’re forgetting the building’s significance. We’re not.”
That was exactly what Cissie was thinking! And she was ashamed to admit it, but another thought galloped through her head, too, like Paul Revere on his horse, a totally self-serving one: The legend of the library will end with me. The legend of the library will end with me!
No more librarians would find their true loves here.
“Do you need water?” Boone asked.
She couldn’t deny what was going on in her body—somewhere deep inside lived not only a principled, scholarly Rogers but a hopeful, naive youngish woman who’d just let Bride magazine slip out of her hands.
“Cissie,” Janelle said. “Take a Fruit Stripe.” She held out a pack of gum, one tin foil rectangle extended.
Cissie shook her head.
Janelle gave a gusty sigh. “It’s a good arrangement. Honest, it is.”
Cissie knew she shouldn’t be thinking of herself right now. She should be kicking Boone and Janelle out of the library onto the sidewalk.
Wait until Sally Morgan came in with her special needs teenager Hank Davis later to shelve books and heard the news. Sally thought the legend applied to volunteers, too. She might even drop to the ground, she’d be so devastated. She did that a lot, the dropping thing. She was big on emotion. And how would she and Hank Davis get to the other place? They’d need a car.
Cissie’s jaw locked like an anaconda.
“We’d use the storefront next to Harris Teeter,” Boone went on, “halfway between the two towns, so everyone can stop by when they pick up their groceries.” His dimples came out–as if that show of charm would make his statements less shocking and egregious.
Cissie’s face heated up like a hot plate. The legend didn’t matter. It was only a silly story, built on a fluke of fate. She’d explain to Sally that it wasn’t worth losing sleep over. What mattered was the preservation of Kettle Knob’s historic library.
Yes, that was what mattered!
“But that place used to be a tattoo parlor,” she croaked, “and before that, a bar.”
There. She’d spoken. Her ancestors would roll over in their graves if their precious historical documents were housed in a place that lacked dignity and decorum.
“Think how many more book customers you’ll get,” Boone said. “Plus, your inventory will increase when you team up with Campbell. The budget for new books will go down thirty percent, I’m sorry to say, but that’s okay. Because if we stay here, we’ll lose fifty percent of it. The rest would have to go to upkeep of this old house, and the county thinks that’s not an efficient use of funds.”
Blah blah blah. Too much information, way too fast. But Cissie was a Rogers. She could think on her feet….
Too bad she still couldn’t think. It was that wretched legend her heart was hammering about. Sally would lose hope of finding the right man to be both father to Hank Davis and a red-hot lover for herself. Nana would go to her grave without dancing at Cissie’s wedding. And Cissie would never meet her soul mate.
Not that the legend was real.
But what was?
Think, Cissie, think!
Books were real. Books and historical documents. Same with Sally’s lack of car and Cissie’s almost-virgin status, which she wished she could pretend wasn’t true, but it was.
“I-I can get the Friends of the Library to help with the upkeep,” she insisted. “They already do help a lot”—bless their six elderly, gossip-loving hearts, they’d raise three hundred dollars last year–“but we can raise more money. If everyone chips in, we should be fine.”
She looked pointedly at Boone, whose family could save the library by writing a single check, but his handsome brown-eyed gaze merely flickered with mayoral impatience and sex static, which was always humming within him, like an old transistor radio left on by accident.
“We’re looking into moving the county waste management office here.” Janelle tossed off the library’s long history with the same insouciance she flung her shiny, hair-sprayed curls over her shoulder. “They’re so cramped where they are.”
“What?” Cissie heard her, but she didn’t believe her.
“Uh huh,” said Janelle. “We’re getting creative. As for the new library location, it’s time we have a place where the communities of Campbell and Kettle Knob can interact and share resources.” She sounded so phony. Like that’s a big surprise, thought Cissie. “We’ll have the opportunity to read, research”—Janelle cast a smoldering look at Boone —“and enjoy our archival documents. Together.”
Only Janelle could make going to the library sound like a sex act.
Cissie was about to sneeze. She turned away, held her breath, and by some miracle got the sneeze under control. But the tiny break was enough to remind herself that a Rogers always sounded reasonable. They won things with their heads.
“Those were Rogers papers,” she reminded Janelle, “bequeathed to the town of Kettle Knob. Campbell didn’t send anyone to King’s Mountain, nor are they represented in any of our archival documents, except in passing reference as a neighboring town.”
Campbell thought it was hot stuff because a super famous female pop star with current hits used to go grade school there.
And a lot of rich people lived in Campbell, too, in Boone’s parents’ original fancy golf resort, which was now old enough that it was described in the newspaper’s crime column as an “established high-end neighborhood” every time someone got their leaf blower stolen or their Mercedes keyed. Most Campbell residents commuted to their doctor and attorney jobs in Asheville and only came to places like Kettle Knob to feel like they’d gone backwards a hundred years for a few minutes.
And now Campbell had attracted a high-tech research facility with international connections.
But apart from that, Campbell was boring.
“Campbell doesn’t even have a good scenic overlook for couples to make out at,” Sally said every Valentine’s Day, which was when the Campbell Country Club held its annual two-hundred-fifty-bucks-a-ticket black-tie gala to benefit heart research. “Every mountain town should have at least one.”
“That Kings Mountain raid was definitely a Kettle Knob thing,” Boone agreed with Cissie now. “But….”
His family had led the local charge in the historic battle. Cissie’s family had documented it.
There were no buts!
She told him all that with her eyes. But he didn’t appear to be able to read her anymore, if he ever had. Probably because Janelle crossed her arms so that her breasts nearly spilled out of the top of her sweater. Boone didn’t exactly look at them, but they were like the elephant in the room—two DD-sized elephants.
“Campbell never bothered to save local accounts from the Civil War, either,” Cissie went on doggedly. “We have nine leather-bound Civil War-era journals in our collection.”
All donated by the Rogers family.
Janelle’s mouth soured. “Campbell was too busy to record anything.”
It was too busy being high on itself, like you, Cissie wanted to say. But she was a coward. And maybe she was wrong about Janelle being a narcissist. After all, everyone had been wrong about Cissie in high school. She wasn’t nerdy. Much.
“Listen.” Janelle dropped her arms. With her boobs back into place, tension eased a tad. “It’s time to put old rivalries behind us. Think of it this way: The county sent a regiment to Kings Mountain. We’re not going to get nitpicky about where those citizens lived, are we?”
Okay, so Cissie was on the right track about Janelle, and surely, Boone wasn’t okay with this plan.
“You gotta admit, it’s hard to find this place,” he said.
He’d never found it, that was for sure. “It hasn’t changed location in over a hundred years,” Cissie snapped.
He shrugged his manly shoulders. “You’re tucked away behind Main Street. But if we move right off the interstate? The library will be hopping. Kettle Knob’s history will be more accessible than ever to more people. It’s a win all around.”
Cissie’s ears burned, and her tummy flopped around like a fish. Something was happening to her fingernails, too. She’d never felt them before, but now they were all tingly and buzzy, and the sensation was going up her arms.
“I know what this is about,” she said.
Getting into Janelle’s pants. Spreading the Braddock glory. That was Boone’s win-win.
“Better resources for Kettle Knob and Campbell,” he replied like it was a no-brainer. “Progress despite trying times.”
Cissie turned to Janelle, hoping she’d have better luck addressing her. Don’t think sleeping with our mayor means you’re going to get your hands on our precious Kettle Knob documents, she wanted to say. Don’t think that Campbell can boss us around. And don’t you dare think you can ruin our stupid legend.
But she couldn’t get the words out.
The truth was, some part of her must have really believed all the hoopla. Deep inside, Cissie thought she’d find true love here…with a stranger who walked across the threshold and swept her off her feet.
She was such a schmuck.
But who could blame her? Daddy had been the librarian, working on his British lit Ph.D. part-time, when Mother came to a writers retreat at nearby Appalachian State and ventured to Kettle Knob to check out the historic town, only to be smitten with Daddy instead.
They might be in Cambridge, England, now, researching esoteric subjects and lecturing for three years, but they wanted grandchildren. She knew this because last week Mother had called and said, “I’m writing a thesis on A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Did you know Milne went to Cambridge?” which surely was a broad hint.
And if Cissie had to sleep alone the rest of her life because karma boomeranged on her for not keeping the legend going, she’d be unhappy, to put it mildly. She imagined she’d start muttering under her breath and yelling at children. She might even die behind her desk at the beer joint turned tattoo parlor turned library.
Old maid librarian. Such a cliché. And from a different century. Modern librarians were hip and together….
“Start preparing,” said Janelle. “It’s gonna happen.”
Waste managers were going to take over this beloved space!
“That’s a bit premature to suggest,” Cissie eked out, but just barely. In her head she said, “Over my dead body,” the way a scary, possessed person would have, in a voice that came from the depths of hell.
But no. She couldn’t manage that. A Rogers stayed calm and logical. Except for Nana. She was a throwback to some earlier rabble-rousing generation, probably from medieval times.
“Suzie—“ Boone said.
“I meant Cissie—“
Too late. He was the mayor. And he’d given her that apple. He should be ashamed of himself. How many were in their high school graduating class? Seventy-five? And they’d been together for twelve years, many of them?
On shaking legs she stalked past him and Janelle to her desk, where she sat down with a plonk and stared stonily at the front door. She felt very alone.
If ever her soul mate was to show up, now would be a really good time. Especially as time was about to run out.