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Laura Holland climbed out of her jam-packed Volkswagen bug and squinted toward the windows of the bookstore across the Claremont town square. During the entire four-hour drive from Nashville to this tiny North Alabama town, she'd attempted to convince herself that she'd made the right decision. Staying with her parents, especially with her mother threatening to leave again, was out of the question. But now she wondered what made her think she could show up here, reconnect with her old friend and somehow convince him to give her a job?
What if David sent her packing? Then where would she go?
Laura took a step toward the bookstore but halted when an elderly gentleman made his way to the entrance. He stood out from the other shoppers with his slow and steady gait. A shadow passed in front of the window as someone went to greet him when he entered.
Was that David? Laura remembered the tall, dark-haired guy who'd been Jared's college roommate the entire time he and Laura dated. Nice-looking in a Clark Kent kind of way, David wore dark-rimmed glasses, dressed impeccably and jogged regularly. He would be twenty-five now, merely two years older than Laura, and yet he'd already "made it" in the world, was self-sufficient and running his own business. A far cry from where Laura was now. More shadows passed in front of the awning-covered window, and then a man carrying a briefcase entered. How many people were in the store? And did she really want an audience when she begged for a job?
Spotting a rack of free classifieds outside of the five-and-dime, Laura grabbed a copy and sat on a wrought-iron bench while she waited for a few of David's customers to leave. Ifand that was a big ifDavid was willing to hire her in her current state, she'd also need somewhere to live.
The unseasonable weather was nice enough that she could probably sit and browse the paper until dark. In Nashville, it'd already turned too cold to spend time outside. But here the first Monday in November felt uncommonly pleasant, with merely a slight chill in the air. Then again, Laura stayed warmer these days due to the extra weight she carried. She wondered if David was still the same big-hearted guy he'd been in college. Would he be willing to help her out? She suspectedand hopedthat he hadn't changed.
Laura rubbed her swollen belly. She sure had.
David Presley flipped the page of the quarterly report his accountant personally delivered and saw the nasty numbers on the P&L sheet identifying the sad state of his bookstore. He closed the folder, but the image of those red numbers wouldn't go away.
"I'll borrow more from my line of credit." The muscles in his neck immediately tightened, and he shifted his shoulders to relieve a little stress.
"Can I be honest with you, David?" Milton Stott had inherited the bookstore's account when his father retired, in much the same way David had inherited A Likely Story when his grandmother passed away. However, Milton's inheritance gave him the accounts of most everyone in town, so it wouldn't be all that terrible if he lost the bookstore as a client. David's inheritance, on the other hand, plopped all of his eggs in one basket. A basket that was, based on these numbers, almost empty.
Somehow David managed a smile. "I'd love to think that you weren't being honest and that those numbers were lying, but I know I can count on you giving me the truth. And since you've already delivered a painful dose, you might as well add the rest."
A noise in the back of the store caused Milton to turn. "You have a customer?"
David nodded. "Zeb Shackleford, but he wouldn't spread news of my financial state even if he heard it."
Milton heaved a sigh. "Okay, then. I'm going to tell it to you straight. Your grandmother barely got by with the store. I told Vesta she should sell the thing before she passed away so the family wouldn't be burdened. Your parents weren't interested in it ."
"They were pretty excited when Dad got the job opportunity in Florida." David's folks had been thrilled about the potential for a year-round warm climate, but even if they hadn't been tempted by the beach, they wouldn't have taken over running A Likely Story. They'd never appreciated the old store on the square the way he had.
"Well, Vesta knew they didn't want it and insisted you could breathe life into the old place. Back then, I told her that probably wasn't possible," Milton said, then added somberly, "I'm sorry that it appears I was right." He placed his copy of David's financials back in his briefcase and snapped it shut. "I don't see how you can keep the place open more than a couple of months, and that's only if you get enough holiday business to boost your numbers."
David swallowed past the bitterness creeping up his throat. He'd tried so hard to make the bookstore work, but Milton was right. He lost money every day the doors were open. He scanned the multitude of shelves lining the walls, the tiny reading corners his grandmother had insisted on having for customers to sit and enjoy their booksall of them persistently emptyand his sole customer, Zeb, gingerly perusing the packed shelves. "I'm not ready to give up," he told the accountant. "My grandmother thought I could make this place work, really believed it could be done, and that I was the one to do it. You said so."
"I also said that it probably wasn't possible," Milton reminded.
Zeb rounded the end of one of the stacks and held up his plastic basket. "Found some good ones today," he said with a grin.
David's heart moved with a glimmer of hope. "I had several bags of used books turned in this week for credit, so I thought you'd be able to find quite a few."
Zeb's face cracked into more wrinkles as his smile widened. Oddly, the weathered lines made him even more endearing. "Any of those suspense ones I've been looking for? Miss Tilly at the nursing home has been asking for some."
David pointed toward the other side of the store. "I think so. Look over there, about halfway down."
"Thanks." Zeb nodded at Milton. "Good to see you, Mil."
"You, too, Zeb." He waited for the old man to move a little farther away, lowered his voice and said, "Credit? You're still taking books for credit? I told your grandmother years ago that she should stop that. It makes no business sense whatsoever."
"That's the way used bookstores typically work. And I carry new books, too, but there are folks in Claremont, like Zeb, who like the used ones." David said a silent prayer that Zeb would take his time finding the books he wanted so Milton wouldn't also learn the elderly man got his books for free.
Milton tsked and tapped David's folder on the counter. "Listen, I'm not charging you for my services this quarter. I know you can't afford it right now."
"I can't let you do that," David began, but Milton shook his head.
"Nope, not taking a penny. But what I am going to do is start praying that you'll think about what I've said and consider other options. You're a smart young man with a business degree from a great university and your whole life ahead of you. There are other things you can do, businesses that can make a profit and keep your head above water." Milton turned to leave. "However, if you're determined to give it a go, I'll pray for your success."
David agreed that a prayer wouldn't hurt.
Help me out, Lord. Show me what I need to do to breathe life into this place. I could really use some guidance here.
The bell on the front door sounded as Milton exited, and Zeb Shackleford edged his way toward David with books balancing over the top of his red plastic basket. He gingerly placed the basket on the counter and then reached to his back pocket and pulled out a worn leather wallet. "Now, I'm gonna pay you today, David. Please don't fight me on this. I got a lot of books, and I know you can't afford to keep giving 'em to me for free."
David suspected Zeb had gotten the gist of his conversation with Milton, even if he might not have caught every word. He loved the old man and the way he took care of so many people around Claremont. Right now he was trying to take care of David, but there was no way David would take his money. "We've been through this before. Those books are a donation."
Zeb opened the wallet and moved a shaky thumb across the top of a few dollar bills. "Please, David. Let me pay."
David placed his hand on top of Zeb's, and the trembling ceased. "It'd be different if you were keeping those books yourself, but I know that you'll be hauling them over to the nursing home and to the hospital and then to the shut-ins around town. You'll read the books to them, and then if they like the story, you'll let them keep them, won't you?" When Zeb didn't answer, David added, "My grandmother's last days were so much better because of your visits. She loved listening to you read. You've got a way of bringing stories to life. She had that gift, too, before the cancer got the best of her. But with your visits, she could still enjoy a good story." He pointed to the books. "I'm not letting you pay for them."
"She never would take my money, either," Zeb huffed, folding the wallet and sliding it in his back pocket. Then he lifted his eyes and said, "I know you need the money."
David didn't want the older man to worry, even if his own anxiety made his stomach churn. He placed all of the man's books in two plastic bags. "I'll be fine."
Zeb placed a hand on David's forearm and squeezed. "You have a blessed day, son."
"I will." The words had barely left David's mouth when he heard someone moving through one of the aisles from the front of the store. He hadn't heard the bell sound, but he definitely had another customer. "Hello?"
Zeb turned so that he saw the pregnant woman at the same time as David. But David was certain Zeb didn't recognize the lady, since she wasn't from Claremont. David, however, did, and his heart squeezed in his chest the way it always had whenever he saw the stunning blonde in college. Infatuation had a way of doing that, lingering through the years, and David's had apparently hung around. "Laura?"
"Hey, David." She continued toward the counter. "I came in when the other man left," she said, which explained why David didn't hear the bell, "and then I didn't want to interrupt you while you were talking to a customer."
"Well, I'm about to leave." Zeb extended a hand. "I'm Zebulon Shackleford, but folks around here call me Zeb."
"Laura Holland," she answered, shaking his hand and giving him a tender smile.
Holland. David didn't miss the fact that she was still Laura Holland. No married name. Why not? And who was the father of the baby she carried? So many questions, and he wanted to know the answers.
"I " She hesitated. "I hope it's okay that I came here."
Shell-shocked, David realized he hadn't said anything more than her name. He mentally slapped himself out of the momentary stupor. "I'm sorry," he said. "Yes, of course it's okay." Though he suddenly wondered why she was here, in his bookstore, when he hadn't heard anything from her in over two years. The last time he'd seen her, in fact, she'd been very much in love with his college roommate.
Zeb slid his arms between the loops of the bags then pulled them off of the counter as he stepped away. "David, if it's okay with you, I might sit a spell and read in one of your nooks before I head out. I'm feeling a little weary and think it might do me good to rest a few minutes."
David had to forcibly move his gaze from Laura, still amazingly beautiful, to Zeb. "Sure, that's fine. And let me know if you want me to drive you home. It isn't a problem."
"Aw, I drove today, wasn't quite feeling up to walking this time. It's just that I parked on the other side of the square, and I think I'll handle that walk a little better if I sit a minute or two."
"Take all the time you need," he said, glad that his mind began to work again, the surprise of seeing Laura finally settling in to reality.
She looked even prettier than he remembered. She had her straight blond hair pulled back, drawing even more attention to pale blue eyes and a heart-shaped face. Jared had often compared her to Reese Witherspoon, and David agreed they were similar, but Laura was Laura. Back then, he'd found an instant attraction toward the striking beauty, but as usual, he'd fallen into the role of second fiddle when she dubbed him her friend, and Jared her love. Then again, David was wise enough now to realize that his fascination with her had been merely that, a fascination. But beyond the intriguing element that'd always been a part of his relationship with Laura, had been the friendship that David had found with Jared's girl. He was certain that friendship was what brought her here now, because David knew she was no longer with Jared. His buddy had married in June.
Laura forced a smile, blinked a couple of times and then seemed to struggle to focus on David, as though she were afraid if she looked directly at him, he'd see too much. Which was probably true.
In college, he mastered reading her eyes. If Jared had hurt her, David could see it in those telling eyes. He'd seen that look way too many times. Even though he was close to Jared, David never believed his old friend treated Laura the way she deserved. She had a kind heart and would do anything for anyone. Jared took advantage of that; he'd taken advantage of her love. David hated seeing that look of emotional pain in her eyes back then.
He studied her now and didn't see pain, but he saw something else that bothered him almost as much. Fear.
"Laura, is something wrong?" he asked, then quickly added, "I'm glad that you're here, but" he decided it best to state the truth "I haven't heard from you since I graduated from Tennessee, so to see you now, over two years later " His gaze moved to her belly. "Do you need help?"
Her lip quivered, and then tears pushed free. She quickly brushed them away with two flicks of her hand. "I told myself I wouldn't cry."