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Fashion should never be more important than comfort. Coco Chanel never planted ten acres. If she had, she'd have darn sure wore sensible shoes to do it in.
—Grandmother Tucker to a seven-year-old Nellie when she wanted to wear her Sunday shoes to water the garden.
Her eyes caressed the barbarian, eating up every inch of his naked torso from the top of his broad shoulders to the sculpted six-pack disappearing tantalizingly into the plaid wool wrapped tight around his waist. Wild, amber locks framed blazing blue eyes, a sensual mouth and a terrify-ingly masculine jaw. Muscled arms cradled the buxom blonde straddling his thigh.
Very nice. Nellie Hughes loved rugged Highland lairds. Still, she shoved the book with the yummy cover onto the crowded shelf in the romance section. Scottish boy was tempting, but no more than the lunch—turkey tetrazzini leftovers—waiting for her in the back of the library.
Her stomach rumbled, confirming her thoughts.
She pushed the cart through the romance section of the library toward the break room, swerving around blue-haired Mrs. Davis, who was holding a stack of similarly illustrated books.
A giggle interrupted her pilgrimage.
Nellie inwardly groaned. The high school juniors were at it again. She would nip their chat session in the bud before it escalated into another gigglefest like the day before.
Working on their research papers? She gave a snort as she pushed past the Nonfiction section and headed toward the lone study room in the back. Yeah, right. If the English III teacher knew the girls had been researching the spring's coolest prom dresses rather than Pope's "Rape of the Lock," they'd be back at the high school before they could even bat their heavily made up eyes.
Out and out laughter reached Nellie's ears as she approached the room, but the girls' words stopped her.
"Did you see that librarian's dress? Oh, my God, like my grandmother has the same one."
Wow, way harsh on Rita. Nellie had just placed her hand on the doorjamb when she realized Rita was wearing pants. Surely they couldn't be talking about… her?
She looked down at her flower-print dress. Wait, they were talking about her! A little dagger of hurt fishhooked her heart. Grandmother's dress? It wasn't that bad. She'd picked up the dress in the career section of a store two months ago, thinking it was perfect for work. It was totally appropriate, designed to look businesslike. Like a librarian should.
"You'd think someone could help her out," another girl piped up. "She's wearing panty hose with sandals. What the hell was she thinkin'?"
Nellie's gaze slid to her feet.
Okay. Score one for the juveniles. She was wearing a pair of knee-high nylons with her peekaboo espadrilles. A good idea that morning when the weatherman predicted above-average temperatures, the combo now seemed a bit dowdy. Big deal. Wearing panty hose was in the uniform code for the county library system. She'd rather be comfortable than fashionable. Early May in Texas could be brutal.
"Well, she's old, Natalie." There was a pause. "That's, like, how old people dress."
Nellie couldn't stop her shoulders from sagging. Old? She was only twenty-nine! Okay… she would be thirty in a couple of months, but that wasn't old.
"Well, if she wants to catch a guy, she needs like a serious spa day and a whole new wardrobe. She has no prospects. I've never even seen her talking to a guy. Plus, I'm getting tired of her bustin' our balls every time I pick up a Cosmo."
Someone sniggered. "You don't have balls, Marcie."
Bleats of laughter followed the last statement.
Nellie abandoned the empty cart and strolled into the room. "Excuse me, ladies. You need to hold it down or I will put in a call to your teacher this time."
The girls froze, à la deer-in-the-headlights. The room fell silent as all three guiltily raised their eyes to Nellie.
She arched one brow, crossed her arms and pierced each girl with the dreaded librarian stare—the one known to cause death or, at the least, extreme frostbite.
With a roll of her eyes, one girl closed a fashion magazine. Another shuffled paper around, trying desperately to look busy with research, while the ringleader, Marcie Patterson, flashed a mouthful of braces at Nellie.
"Sorry, Miss Hughes. We'll be quiet. Promise."
Nellie frowned. Marcie was just the sort of girl she remembered from her own days at Oak Stand High School. Guileless baby blues that feigned innocence, slim tanned shoulders that shrugged demurely beneath a junior varsity cheerleading uniform, and a vicious tongue designed to slash chubby sophomore girls to shreds. Yeah, she knew the type. Piranha.
"This is your last warning, ladies," she said, leveling her gaze at them.
Then Nellie spun on her heel and stalked past the abandoned cart toward her office. Giggles erupted behind her.
The phone was in her hand before she realized it, and she punched the numbers she knew by heart. Why it had taken her so long, she couldn't fathom. She knew she'd grown set in her ways, pulling out the same old clothes, letting her hair go back to plain brown, spending her nights doing nothing more exciting than watching the Oxygen channel. Stuck in a rut, sure, but she didn't want to make a home there.
Time to do something drastic.
A harried voice answered on the second ring, though raucous laughter shot out from the earpiece so that Nellie couldn't hear the greeting.
The phone clattered. "Sorry. Fantabulous Hair Salon. Can I help you?"
Nellie hesitated. "Kate?"
"Yeah. Who's this?" The voice sounded guarded.
"Oh, hey girl. I thought it might be Mrs. McNeil. She started complaining this morning to Donna about her hair color. I thought she was callin' for a reschedule. What's up?"
Kate Newman was just what Nellie needed. Hip and edgy, she had been Nellie's best friend since they toddled into Oak Stand Baptist preschool together. Night and day—that's what everyone in their small Texas town had called them. Nellie's light brown hair and quiet disposition contrasted sharply with Kate's wild, dark beauty. Yet they'd been joined at the hip. Kate had moved just outside of Las Vegas two years ago. Nellie missed her audacious friend desperately, especially since she now lived alone in the rambling Victorian house on the town square.
"You know that trip to Vegas you've been bugging me about?"
"The one I can't get you to take?"
Nellie closed her eyes before blurting, "Well, I've changed my mind. I want to come."
Nellie smiled at the incredulity in Kate's voice. She'd been begging Nellie to come on her annual "Girls and Glam" getaway in Vegas ever since she'd moved. And when Nellie's grandmother had died six months ago, Kate had doubled her insistence that Nellie needed a change of scenery.
"Nope. I'm signing on for your crazy weekend."
"I can't believe it! What made you change your mind?"
Nellie hesitated. She didn't want to tell Kate just how frumpy three teenagers had made her feel. That in itself was pathetic. Why should the words of mere high school juniors make her feel so inadequate? But the truth was they'd made her feel as old as the dog-eared Dick and Jane books in the Children's Literature section. And that frightened her.
Because she was almost thirty. And she was wearing knee-highs. And she hadn't had a date since the town Christmas parade two, no, scratch that, three years ago.
Very sad indeed.
She shouldn't have needed the hurtful words of a few petty cheerleaders to spur her on. All she had to do was take a look at her nonexistent social calendar. "Never mind the why. I just want to do it. Oh, and by the way, let's do that makeover too."
A shout of jubilation erupted from the receiver. Nellie yanked the phone from her ear and held it away.
A flash of blue caught her eye and she pulled her attention from the shrieking phone to see Mrs. Davis standing just outside her door, eyes agog at the screeching coming from the phone.
Nellie put her hand over the mouthpiece. "Just found out the book she wanted came in."
"Must be a damned good book," the old lady groused as she shuffled toward the checkout desk.
The noise at the other end of the line subsided and Nellie held the phone back to her ear. "Kate, calm down."
"Okay, it's just that I've been after you to do that makeover for a while, so I know something's up, but I'm too thrilled to interrogate you now."
"Nothing happened. Really. I just want a change, that's all." She twisted the tassel on the bookmark Grandmother Tucker had given her. Grandmother Tucker. She was part of the reason Nellie had put her life on hold, trimmed her own hair and blown off the few dates that had come her way. Still, she had no regrets. Grandmother Tucker had been the only person who loved her.
"You bet your sweet penny loafers you need a change," Kate drawled, her trademark sultry laugh following.
"I don't own penny loafers."
"Shocking." Kate laughed. Nellie could hear her tapping her ever-present BlackBerry. "When can we get started? Hmm… we're going in… two weeks. That means we don't have much time. My friends Trish and Billie are coming too.
You remember them? Well, they're sharing a room. I think I'll get a suite, so don't worry about any other reservations. Just get your plane ticket. You better call as soon as—"
"Stop. I'll call you tonight and we'll set it up."
Kate ignored her. "I'm gonna clear my books for Thursday. Do you think you can get here then? If we're going to do a makeover, we're going to do it right."
Nellie's stomach plunged at the thought of Kate getting her hands on her overgrown hair, not to mention every other part of her body. God, she'd be waxed, streaked, tattooed and pierced before the petite fireball got through with her. She could end up looking like she belonged in a rap video. A picture of herself in a barely there dress gyrating next to Snoop Dogg popped into her mind. She shuddered.
"Look, Kate, I am up for the makeover, but I need to keep my job, so nothing too outlandish. Okay?" There was no answer. "Kate?"
"Yeah, okay. But you have to be willing to go for something different. I'm thinking sexy, hot and vampy." Kate sounded determined—wouldn't-take-no-for-an-answer determined.
Nellie coughed. "I'm thinking chic, cosmopolitan librarian."
"Like those even exist, Nell," Kate said, disgust in her voice. "But we'll try for something in between."
"Maybe," Nellie conceded, remembering she was wearing knee-highs with sensible espadrilles. Perhaps sexy wouldn't be too bad. "Look, I got to go. Talk to you tonight, okay?"
As she hung up, she heard Rita call through her door that she was heading to lunch with her husband and she needed Nellie to cover the front. Nellie hurried to the checkout desk, passing tidy shelves and a display highlighting an East Texas author. Nellie loved the renovated antebellum mansion that served as the library. Located in the heart of the East Texas town of Oak Stand, the 120-year-old mansion stood as a testament that a state-of-the-art facility could be historically charming. Nellie was one of three librarians, and she adored her job. She ran most of the children's programs and also served as an automated systems librarian, planning and operating the library's computer systems. Basically, Nellie was an information architect.
She skirted the heavy oak-paneled counter and tossed a smile to Mrs. Davis, who was clicking her false teeth and puffing out little breaths of frustration.
"Sorry." Nellie pulled the stack of paperbacks toward her, grabbed the scanner and began passing it over the bar code on the well-read books. "These look good. I read this one several years ago. I think you'll enjoy it."
"I'm sure I will, honey. This author writes a hell of a good sex scene. And you're never too old to enjoy good sex," said the elderly lady, a slyness in her voice, though her eyes remained perfectly innocent behind her bifocals.
Nellie choked back a laugh. "Yeah? I wouldn't know."
"Honey, life's too short to miss out on the good stuff."
Nellie handed her the stack of books. "Just what I've been thinking, but sometimes it's hard to find the good stuff. Here you go, Mrs. Davis. Due back on the fifteenth of May."
"Thank you, dear. And if you don't mind my saying, you might have better luck finding the good stuff if you would wear something a bit more youthful. Honey, I have the same dress hanging in my closet and I'm eighty-two."
The blue-haired granny didn't stick around long enough for Nellie's response. Instead, she toddled right out the scarred cypress door. Nellie snapped her mouth closed. Darn it! Score two for the juveniles. They were right about the dress, too.
She sighed and tucked a hank of hair behind her ear as she maneuvered the computer mouse so she could shop for airfare. If she'd any doubts about her girls' weekend, they'd just vanished at the older woman's words.
Okay, Vegas, look out. Time to find the good stuff.
Two weeks later Nellie wasn't so sure about looking for the good stuff. She'd be happy with some mediocre stuff. Like her airplane leaving on time or relief from a pounding headache. Or maybe just a clean shirt. So far nothing had gone right and she hadn't even left Texas.
The airport bar was crowded, something that tended to happen when flights were weather-delayed. The smell of cigarettes permeated the place though smoking had been outlawed for several years. Not a great place to wait it out, but at least she could get a drink.
She sipped her wine. A fellow patron to her left jabbed her once more with his meaty elbow, causing her wine to slosh over the rim. Nellie stifled the irritation rising within her and drummed her nails on the scarred bar. She hated the airport, hated waiting, and hated sitting alone at a bar.
As she reached to take another sip of her chardonnay, the man next to her jostled her again. Her hand clipped the goblet of lukewarm wine and it flew off the bar, spilling its contents into the lap of the man to her right. The wineglass bounced off his thigh and smashed to the floor.
Nellie shoved her stool back and, in a belated effort, grabbed for the glass. "Oh! Sorry! Here, let me…"
Everyone in the small bar stopped what they were doing and stared.
Great! Just one more thing to go wrong with this stupid trip. Nellie stared at the mess lying at her feet. Then she looked up and her breath stopped.
Like literally stopped.
All the people around her blurred into the background and the apology she was about to repeat died on her lips.
Good God! He was magnificent.
Not even handsome, or hot, or any of the other words girls used to describe guys. Nope. Just plain magnificent. Like in the "on the front of the romance cover" way.
Her mind took a picture—irritated blue eyes beneath slashing black brows, dark shaggy hair, and a sensual mouth boasting a full lower lip Nellie strangely wanted to slide her tongue over. Magnificent.
"Oh, God! I am so sorry!" she squeaked after finally remembering to take a gulp of air.
The stranger ignored her and busied himself with shaking droplets of wine from his hand.
Nellie grabbed a handful of ridiculously small cocktail napkins from the holder on the bar and held them out to him.
He took them and dabbed at the spreading stain.
Nellie watched him swipe uselessly at the dark patch spreading over his crotch. Lord, it looked like he'd wet himself.
The bartender tossed a towel to the man, giving everyone in the bar permission to go back to whatever they had been doing before the glass shattered. Guilt settled in her stomach. "Sir, I'm terribly sorry. Is there anything I can do?"
He lifted his eyes. Electric blue eyes that pierced the depths of her soul.
She lost her breath. Again.