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A Gift to Remember
By Melissa Hill
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Melissa Hill
All rights reserved.
She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.
Louisa May Alcott
Anyone who says that money can't buy happiness has clearly never been inside a bookstore. And certainly not one like Chaucer's, Darcy Archer thought proudly, glancing around the gorgeous place she was lucky enough to work in.
The space was snug and inviting, with a vaguely Dickensian feel to it by way of its floor-to-ceiling hardwood shelves and filigreed gold signwriting above each section. The Victorian panelled bay window and festive-themed window display evoked old-fashioned storefronts of times gone by, as did the scroll-effect store sign hanging just outside the entrance.
Catering to its well-heeled Upper West Side neighbourhood, the little shop carried an eclectic mix of literature in a variety of genres, early edition classics as well as popular bestsellers for adults and children. Booklovers and gift-seekers alike adored Chaucer's; its cheerful, experienced staff and homey atmosphere made it the perfect place to spend an afternoon wandering amongst the shelves or hunting down an elusive title.
At this time of year, with just over a week to go before Christmas, the store was decked out in its holiday finest: fairy lights strung along the shelves, homemade glitter snowflakes hanging from the exposed rafters above, and the evocative aroma of cinnamon wafting from the tiny café on the first-floor.
'Excuse me, I'm looking for a book ...'
Darcy glanced up from the shelving cart to see an older woman hovering uncertainly nearby. She looked to be in her late fifties, well-maintained and manicured, dressed in an expensive coat and scarf and clutching one of the last decade's most luxurious handbags, which Darcy knew, thanks to her fashion maven Aunt Katherine, was easily worth at least three of her monthly pay checks.
Looking for a book in a bookstore? If she only had a dollar for every time she'd heard that one, Darcy thought to herself.
But she gave the woman a warm smile. 'Let's see if I can help. What's the title?'
The woman bit her lip. 'That's it – I can't remember, but I know it's by a female author with three names ... and there are four daughters in it, although one has a boy's name, I think. And it's Christmas-time, and as far as I know they want to buy themselves presents, but then think better of it and buy one for their mother ...' The woman's voice trailed off, and she stared at the shelves helplessly.
Darcy slipped a stray lock of raven-black hair behind one ear. No matter what she did with it – which admittedly was little – it would never stay put. 'Is this a new release?' she asked.
'Oh no, my dear, it's a classic.' The woman's eyes refocused and her voice grew almost haughty. 'I'm surprised you don't know it. Have you been working here long?'
Darcy had to smile. Actually she was manager of Chaucer's and had been working in the store for almost six years. Yet she was supposed, with minimum description, to magically identify the book in question amongst the millions published.
Still, she did love a challenge ...
'Now, you say there are four sisters, and an author with three names?' she said, gently guiding the woman towards the classic literature aisle. The customer nodded. Overhead, a smooth jazz rendition of 'It Must Have Been the Mistletoe' played softly through the speakers. 'Well, I'm going to go out on a limb and say you may well be looking for Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.'
The woman grimaced. 'I'm not sure.'
'There are four sisters in the book, and one of them – Jo – has a vaguely masculine name.' Darcy pulled a thin red book from the shelf, the pages edged with gold, and presented it to the woman.
'Oh,' she said, taking it. 'That is beautiful.' She examined the book from bottom to top and inside and out, marvelling at its rich leather binding, and the original illustrations scattered throughout.
'Is it intended as a gift?' Darcy asked.
The woman smiled. 'Yes. A Christmas present for my twelve-year-old granddaughter.'
Darcy guessed that the girl's grandmother was acting on a recommendation and had never had the pleasure of reading Little Women herself.
Which was a shame.
It was one of Darcy's favourites, and Alcott's famous quote about books turning the brain described her pretty well. Darcy was indeed too fond of books – a condition known as 'bibliolatry'. She always had at least one book on the go close by, and felt almost naked without a novel on her person. Darcy had been enveloped in a story every single day of her life for as long as she could remember, and tended to use every opportunity – waiting in line, eating, occasionally even while brushing her teeth – to indulge in her greatest pleasure.
It was one of the reasons she loved working in Chaucer's.
Darcy had first made the move as a teenager to Manhattan from Brooklyn where she lived with her Aunt Katherine, to attend Columbia University and get a Master of Fine Arts in Writing – the closest form of study relating to her passion that was available. Only to quickly discover that trying to create stories herself was a world apart from the joy of reading them. Easy reading definitely didn't equate to easy writing, and the weight of her own expectations, combined with insecurity regarding the extent of her talent (or lack thereof), soon resulted in writer's block, after which Darcy had to admit defeat. Following graduation, she spent some time working on Celebrate, a glossy New York women's magazine. Her Aunt Katherine – via her hugely successful corporate events business – was good friends with the Editor-in-chief, and had pulled in the favour for Darcy.
After two miserable years of cutting down bland, 3,000-word descriptions of shoes and handbags into even blander 300-word descriptions, as well as struggling to fit in amongst her über-cool and effortlessly chic workmates, Darcy had just about given up on turning her passion into a way of life – until one day, when she had stumbled into Chaucer's with the aim of finding a guidebook that could help with her hopeless lack of fashion nous. Being unable to pass by a bookstore without venturing inside had always been one of her major weaknesses, but this time it had turned into a blessed stroke of luck.
There had been a 'Help Wanted' sign on the door and, on impulse, Darcy had applied there and then. She was interviewed on the spot, upstairs in the café, over a cup of caramel mocha. The following morning when she got the call from the owner telling her the job was hers, she felt as though all her Christmases had come at once. Imagine spending her days surrounded by books, being able to pick one off the shelf whenever she wanted, caress the spine, smell the paper ... heaven!
Darcy quickly discovered that working in a bookstore was in reality more about unpacking boxes and rearranging shelves than sitting curled up in a corner sampling the merchandise. Even so, she felt that she'd finally found her calling. She quickly forgot the long hours, the lousy pay, the paper cuts and the doom-laden prophecies that books were finished.
This sudden development came as a blow to her Aunt Katherine, who considered it a huge step down in both pay and career prospects. And while there was certainly some truth in the former, Darcy wasn't the least bit interested in climbing the media ladder. Unlike the formidable, high-achieving Katherine Armstrong, Darcy just wasn't made that way, and when growing up had always been happiest with her nose in a book. One of her earliest and fondest memories was of her mother reading to her before bedtime, all tucked up and cosy together on Darcy's bed. A love of reading was something her bookworm parents had instilled in her right from the start, and the family had spent many happy times curled up together escaping into wonderful fictional worlds.
Like her mother Lauren used to say, books were solid proof that ordinary people were capable of creating magic.
Sadly, Darcy's beloved parents had both died in a car accident when she was twelve years old, after which she and her aunt had been thrown together by circumstance and familial duty. As per her parents' wishes, Lauren's sister Katherine had taken her niece in and overseen her upbringing until Darcy finished school and then at seventeen moved to Manhattan to attend Columbia. During their years together the two of them had somehow muddled along – as well as a traumatised teenager and a single, thirty-something career girl could.
A formidable figure in New York society, for over fifteen years Katherine had been at the helm of Ignite – one of Manhattan's most prominent event-management companies with offices close to Union Square. Hence her interest in her niece's career, and while Darcy had known from the outset that nobody got into bookselling for the money, for the sake of passion she was prepared to forego a healthy pay cheque for one that just about kept a roof over her head. Her response to her aunt about quitting the magazine six years before had been a quote from Albert Camus: When work is soulless, life stifles and dies.
'Oh, for heaven's sake, Darcy! Albert Camus won't pay the bills, whereas a nice two-page advertorial on the latest Dior collection will,' Katherine had said. 'If you must, then at least aim to work in one of the conglomerate bookstores or publishers even. Yes, I'm sure being surrounded by books sounds great in theory, but really, what kind of prospects can you expect from working in a tiny independent?'
'The prospect of spending my days doing something I love and being happy,' Darcy had retorted sunnily. 'That's really all anyone can ask for, isn't it?' But Darcy knew her commercially-minded aunt didn't lend herself to impractical notions such as finding joy in work simply for the sake of it, and certainly not without some kind of tangible accompanying reward. She was aware that Katherine had worked (and continued to work) ferociously hard over the years to build Ignite into the successful corporate event management company that it was today, but she often wondered if any of it actually brought her aunt contentment or satisfaction, because she eternally seemed to have her eye on the next hurdle or challenge.
Darcy knew in her heart and soul that finding joy and satisfaction in her work was undoubtedly what she wanted. And she had yet to regret her decision. Besides, she had in the meantime worked her way up to manager, a dubious promotion that in reality meant more responsibility and not a whole lot more money. However, what it also meant was that she had greater creative freedom over window displays, shelf arrangements and, most importantly, free rein to choose and order any titles she felt would suit Chaucer's customers.
Now, Darcy watched the woman walk away with a copy of Little Women housed in one of the store's trademark purple and gold striped carrier bags and sighed contentedly. Another satisfied customer.
Just then, the front door swung open and Darcy turned to find Joshua, her workmate and relief for late opening hours, standing there with a green elf hat on. An attractive guy in his late twenties, his hair was close cropped against his mocha skin and his grey sweater tight against his thin frame, while his maroon-coloured cords threatened to slide down his narrow hips at a moment's notice. He looked like a walking Gap advert.
'Merry week before Christmas!' he intoned in a voice full of rich humour and warmth. No matter what mood Darcy might be in, Joshua always cheered her up. He'd been wishing everyone a Merry 'something' before Christmas since pretty much Thanksgiving weekend: 'Merry month before Christmas' or 'Merry three weeks before Christmas.'
It had been exasperating at first, but now it was something she looked forward to every week; her own personal Advent calendar.
And he was the best kind of workmate – a fixer. If he suspected or sensed that Darcy or Ashley, Chaucer's other store assistant, were feeling hassled, down in the dumps or full-on exhausted, then look out: the place would be full to bursting with his own personalised 'Joshua bucks' – handwritten coupons he'd slide into pockets or beside the cash register. They were always for cheery little things, like This entitles the bearer to one free back massage or Cover for one half-shift. In short, Joshua was a sweetheart, a pleasure to manage and great fun to work with. Plus his literary knowledge was extensive and he had a particular talent for obscure cult books which, combined with Darcy's more classic bent, made them a fantastic team.
Dropping his sheepskin jacket behind the counter, he put on the purple and gold striped Chaucer's apron, and Darcy in turn went to untie hers. Up close, he smelled like the holly-berry hand wash he'd been using ever since it went on sale at the nearest Bath & Body Works. Joshua was truly the most effeminate straight man she had ever met, and Darcy had been truly astonished when she'd first met his girlfriend a couple of years back – a stunning long-legged blonde who would have looked right at home on the fashion pages in Darcy's old magazine job.
'So what are you up to this evening, boss?' Joshua asked. 'Besides Today's Special from Luigi's?'
Darcy's apartment was situated over a popular little Italian restaurant just off West Houston Street, a good twenty minutes from the store but worth what she paid in rent to be within cycling distance to work. She'd lived in three different apartments in Manhattan since making the move from Brooklyn, and although by far the smallest, her third-floor walk-up over Luigi's was easily the best location, close as it was to Hudson River Park, a riverside oasis amidst the hustle of bustle of the city.
She loved going down there on her days off, taking long walks along the water with views out to Lady Liberty and Staten Island. And of course in the summer months, the grassy areas amongst the pretty flowerbeds were ideal for reading, and the welcoming river breeze perfect for surviving the worst of the city's heat and humidity.
'Actually not tonight,' Darcy told Joshua. For once she had somewhere to be. 'I'm headed to a book launch.'
'Ooh, anyone we know?' Due to the shop's minuscule dimensions, Chaucer's didn't hold launch parties or literary events, but even if they did, Darcy guessed that this particular author wouldn't draw too many of their regulars.
'Oliver Martin, science-fiction author?' she said to Joshua's blank look. 'He's just hit the Times bestseller list and according to Aunt Katherine he's a "big deal".' She mimed quotemarks with her fingers. 'I'm only going because I haven't seen her for a while and we're long overdue a catch-up.' Oliver Martin must certainly be a very big deal indeed if Katherine Armstrong was deigning to attend his book launch.
While her aunt was forever extending invites to various glamour-filled events and gatherings which her company hosted all over the city, Darcy tended only to favour the ones with a literary bent. She loved meeting authors, although it had to be said that the more successful ones were often insufferably pompous, but still it was nice to occasionally be able to dip her toe into the glossier side of her industry.
'And you're going like that?' Joshua glanced meaningfully at her.
Darcy looked down at her grey trousers, forest-green woollen sweater and chunky leather boots. 'What's wrong with it?' She pulled out the elastic from her ponytail and fluffed out her black curly hair, letting it fall loose around her shoulders. A pointless action as it would very quickly be flattened by her bike helmet on the journey downtown.
Joshua smiled fondly. 'Like I keep telling you, if you tried making an effort now and again – maybe some eyeliner and a touch of lipstick – you could almost pass for Megan Fox's older, chunkier sister. Oh, and lose the spinster glasses, for tonight at least?'
Darcy was well used to his teasing. 'Not all of us are lucky enough to possess your rather ... unique eye for style,' she said wickedly, eyeing his drainpipe trousers. 'The literati will just have to take me as I am.'
It was true that she had no fashion sense whatsoever. Also, there was barely enough room to move in her tiny apartment, and for Darcy the choice was simple. She'd happily sacrifice anything, even food, if it meant she could fit in more books.
While her wardrobe consisted mostly of functional work clothes (in a bookstore, paper dust clung to everything), she did possess a few items for special occasions – a seventies-style wrap dress she'd found in a cute little vintage store down in Greenwich, and incongruously a pair of unworn Jimmy Choo heels that her aunt had bought her a couple of Christmases ago.
Still, now that Joshua had openly pointed out her sartorial shortcomings, she guessed she was due for a similar earful from Katherine on arrival at the party, which was being held in fashionable Chelsea.
Excerpted from A Gift to Remember by Melissa Hill. Copyright © 2013 Melissa Hill. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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