Mary Higgs could be the poster girl for the buttoned-up librarian. She follows the rules. Stays 'til closing. Her kindness and dedication to her patrons is legendary. But those patrons have no idea what she’s typing to the mysterious shut-in who emailed the library needing a library card three months ago . . .
When the elusive Miles O’Connor shows up, he’s no invalid. A year ago, he was the gleaming, ab-sational star of the small screen. Then came the accident. Now he’s a wounded recluse with a pizza habit and fears so unshakable that only the thought of losing Mary to an online date could lure him out of his cabin.
Soon their email rapport has turned into weekends on the couch, watching tearjerkers and driving each other insane with red-hot makeout sessions. But as the desire grows and their horizons expand, the life that brought them together might not be enough for either of them . . .
“Love is never out of reach for the librarians of the Nice County Library System . . . Sarah's charm and humor are perfectly suited to a beach read.” —Publishers Weekly on Ready to Fall
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By Olivia Dade
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Olivia Dade
All rights reserved.
"Quick question, Mary," Angie called out from the workroom. "Let's say five movies were playing at Niceville Cinemas, all starring different hotties. Idris Elba, Chris Pratt, John Cho, Oscar Isaac, and Jason Momoa. Which one would appeal to you the most? And would you avoid any of them?"
Mary glanced up from the circulation desk and swiveled to face her boss. Angie, seated at their lone behind-the-scenes computer, appeared especially wide-eyed and innocent. In Mary's experience, that wasn't a good omen. "I'm not entirely sure what you mean."
"They're all so enticing. I don't think I could choose one over the others." Angie tapped her chin in thought. "Optimally, I'd want at least two of them. If Grant agreed, of course."
"Agreed to what?"
"To let me see those movies. What else would I mean?"
That didn't sound at all like Grant, a steadfast man who adored his wife's independence and spunk. "You need permission from him to see movies?"
"Not if they're on my preapproved freebie list," Angie said. "Hmm. Happy thoughts."
Over her two years at the Battlefield Library, Mary had participated in quite a few confusing conversations with her supervisor. This one, however, was more confusing than most. "I'm sorry?"
"Nothing." Straightening in her chair, Angie cleared her throat and refocused. "Anyway, which guy would you choose?"
A quick shake of her head didn't clear Mary's thoughts at all. "Any of them, I guess. As long as their films got decent reviews. Why?"
"Just curious." Angie flashed a bright smile. "Maybe we'll have a girls' night out at the movies soon."
Okaaaaay. Mary turned back to the computer behind the circulation desk, shaking her head again. One thing you could say about working with Angela Burrowes: It was never boring. Bewildering, frequently replete with way too much information about Angie's sex life, and intermittently terrifying, yes. But never, ever boring.
Mary had understood that fact as a part-time employee at Battlefield. But now that she was working full time, she really, really got it.
And it was a good thing, given the circumstances.
She'd never shared the thought with a soul, and she never would. But sometimes the daily work of keeping the library running and well-organized could get a little ... well, tedious. Far removed from how she'd pictured her life and professional future as a young woman.
Luckily, Angie — along with Mary's other coworkers, Penny and Sarah — ensured their shifts stayed interesting. And goodness knew, Mary couldn't ask for better friends.
An occasional longing for more only wasted time and energy, both of which she owed to her patrons. The Nice County Public Library system was paying her to serve the community, not contemplate the inevitable compromises that came with adulthood and a stiff dose of reality.
Time to get back to work and help someone.
Before Mary could do more than click on the lone new e-mail in the library inbox, though, Angie spoke again. "If you had to decide between basketball players and horse jockeys, which would you choose?"
So much for concentrating on work.
Mary got up from the circulation desk and walked to the workroom doorway. "Angie, what in the world are you talking about?"
"It's a simple question." Angie spread her hands. "Can't I ask my friend and colleague a few things to get to know her better? Especially if we might attend a sporting event together at some point?"
"In that case, none of the above. I'm more of a hockey girl." On television, at least. She still hadn't made it to a game, since navigating crowded city streets didn't appeal to her anymore.
"So you like 'em muscular, but not burly. Tall, but not too tall." Angie jotted something down on a notepad. "Do you consider hand size very important in an athlete? Or do you care more about how he uses his hands?"
Mary was beginning to have suspicions concerning the true nature of the conversation. Grave suspicions. "What does that have to do with going to a game? Why would I care what the players looked like? And why are you talking about hand size, for heaven's sake?"
"Nothing. Forget I asked." Angie waved Mary back to the circulation desk. "Don't you have e-mails to answer?"
Forgetting her supervisor's questions was easier said than done. Especially since the library was empty, all books had been shelved, and the only new patron e-mail they'd received didn't require a lot of thought. Yes, Mr. O'Connor could check out e-books without stepping foot in the library — but only after Mary or one of her coworkers had issued him a library card. And getting a card required ID, which meant at least one in-person trip to Battlefield or another Nice County Public Library branch.
She tapped out her response quickly, making sure she thanked him for his interest and emphasized the branch's generous opening hours and easy-to-find location. One cursory check for typos, and then ... send.
A quick loop around the library established that no patrons were hiding in a nook somewhere, and the curtained-off, adults-only erotica section — popularly known as Angie's Smut Room — was gloriously empty. So she didn't bother to lower her voice when she headed behind the circulation desk and stopped again in the doorway to the workroom.
"By hand size, are you really talking about" — she faltered for a second — "um, penises?"
Angie minimized her browser window with one swift click. "What? Of course not."
Over the past two years, Mary had found that simply looking at Angie in calm silence often produced answers that loud badgering could not. She'd tried to explain the trick to her coworkers, but no one listened. Not even Sarah, her best friend. Loud badgering was Sarah's MO, effectiveness be damned.
Angie's chair squeaked as she swiveled restlessly under Mary's gaze. After several awkward seconds, though, she brightened.
"I was thinking about hand size because I'm buying Grant a baseball glove. Which might prove tricky, since he has absolutely enormous hands." Her eyes brightened with a lascivious gleam Mary had seen far too often. "Gargantuan. And God, do I love 'em. But not everyone cares about finger length. I know small hands can get the job done too. In sports, I mean. I was wondering what you thought."
Mary stared at her supervisor for a few moments, but this time, Angie's smile remained steady. "I don't really have an opinion," Mary finally said. "Although I suppose large hands could prove useful when dealing with balls."
Angie choked a little, coughing as she jotted more notes. "Very useful, from what I hear."
"Is that everything you wanted to know?" Mary didn't want to seem impatient, but she should probably straighten up the children's area before the next wave of patrons arrived. The post-lunch lull wouldn't last forever.
"One last thing. I'm considering new greenery for our entrance. What do you think? Should I choose plants that are growers or showers?"
"I ..." Her brows drew together. "I'm lost."
"I mean, would you rather buy small plants and watch them grow? Or would you rather buy ones that have already reached their full size at time of purchase?" Angie blinked, her green eyes limpid pools of virtue. "Different people have different preferences, you know. They often find one type of plant more, um, satisfying than the other."
This conversation needed to end before Mary's head exploded. "Growers, I suppose. For the sense of accomplishment. I'd enjoy watching them get big."
With a nod of satisfaction, Angie wrote a few more words. "I had a feeling you'd say that."
Before her supervisor could come up with any further bizarre questions, Mary returned to the circulation desk, opened a search-engine window, and typed "growers and showers" into the search box. Just in case Angie's inquiries weren't quite as innocent as she claimed. But before Mary could hit enter, she saw that the library had received another email.
Patrons took precedence over personal concerns. Even concerns that might possibly involve growing — or showing — manbits.
Mr. O'Connor had written back, his e-mail brief and pleading.
Dear Ms. Higgs: Can't get to the library. If you issue me a card, I promise never to check out a physical item. No possibility of late/lost/damaged library property. Please.
Her mental image of Mr. O'Connor took shape. Homebound. Probably elderly. Polite. Savvy enough about technology to communicate via e-mail, so a good candidate for e-books.
Dear Mr. O'Connor: I completely understand. Since you can't make it to the library, I'd be happy to talk to the Bookmobile manager, Constance Chen, and ask her to drop by your residence. She can issue you a card during her visit. If you're comfortable giving me your address and other contact information, I'll pass it along to her.
Right after she sent the message, another new email arrived, this one from the head of HR about upcoming staff training. She was halfway done reading Winona's lengthy missive when Mr. O'Connor responded.
Please, he wrote again. No visit.
Mary sat back in her chair and rubbed her face with both hands.
Well, shoot. When the library's rules conflicted with a patron's needs and she got caught in the middle, her stomach always hurt. At least a little.
That's the price you pay for being both a rule-follower and a people-pleaser, she told herself. You should pick one or the other, Mary Louise.
Her first instinct was to have Angie deal with the situation. She knew her supervisor would give him a card without hesitation. Problem solved. Except that if this man ended up owing thousands of dollars to the library and she'd issued him a card against regulations, Angie's oft-tenuous employment might come to an abrupt end.
So maybe Mary should simply tell him no. But how could she deny library access to a lonely old man mired in his home? Couldn't she simply keep track of his account and check that he'd kept his promise and wasn't borrowing physical books or movies?
She reached for a sticky note, wrote his name on it, and stuck it to the side of her usual monitor at the circulation desk. There. That should be enough of a reminder. Then she wrote another e-mail:
Dear Mr. O'Connor: I'll need your address, birth date, and phone number. Obviously, I already have your e-mail address. Once I receive your additional contact information, I'll assign you a library card number. If you find yourself able to schedule a Bookmobile visit, or if you can come in person to the library, however, please do. We're supposed to check your ID. But I think we can bend the rules a bit, just this once.
Once the message had been sent and she'd greeted a few patrons, she clicked back to the search engine window she'd opened minutes before. As she'd expected, the top results for "growers and showers" did not involve greenery.
Suspicions confirmed, she returned to the workroom, keeping her voice to a whisper. "Angie, if you're doing what I think you're doing, please stop."
"Oh, hi, Mary." Once again, Angie minimized her browser window in one smooth movement. "I have no idea what you mean."
"You want to find me a boyfriend, so you're attempting to figure out what sort of man I'd prefer. His race. His height. His ... um, other qualifications. Since you know I'd object, you're going about it in a really roundabout and confusing way. And since you're you, many of your questions have involved" — Mary lowered her voice from a whisper to a mere thread of sound — "personal endowments."
"Personal endowments?" Angie kept her voice low, too. "That's the most genteel euphemism for penises I've ever heard."
With an effort, Mary resisted sharing the other terms she'd used for that area in the past. Such as, well, "that area." Or "privates." Or "man parts."
"I'm not looking for anyone. And if I change my mind, I can conduct the search myself." Pleased with both her restraint and her uncharacteristic assertiveness, she smiled at her boss. "But thank you for thinking of me."
Angie's eyes widened in appeal. "Come on, Mary. As far as I know, you haven't been on a second date in months. Maybe a year."
"Umm ..." She shifted from foot to foot. "Two years."
"And I know you. You're not a one-night-stand sort of woman, so that means you're experiencing an epic dry spell. Under the circumstances, what could a little online dating hurt?"
An involuntary flinch drew Mary up against the doorway. "Online dating? No. No online dating. I've heard so many horror stories, Angie, I can't even tell you."
"You're a sensible woman. And I'd be happy to vet any contenders before you met them. So would all of our friends." Angie clicked to maximize a window, and a colorful, half-completed form suddenly appeared. "Besides, it would be so easy. You already have a profile."
Mary covered her face again and spoke through her fingers. "Angie. Please tell me you didn't."
"I thought you needed a little nudge." A gentle hand patted her arm. "And I was delighted to be the bearer of good nudges. Especially since you're the sweetest woman I know. You deserve an amazing man in your bed. Or an amazing woman, I suppose."
"Man," she mumbled.
"Oh, good." Angie sounded pleased. "That's what I chose for the profile."
"Again, I appreciate your thinking of me." She dropped her hands and did her best to appear stern. "But I'm not looking for someone in my bed."
"How about someone across a dinner table? Or beside you at a movie theater?"
With a sigh, Mary admitted, "That sounds nice."
"I know you're a strong, independent woman who doesn't mind being single. If you want me to delete your profile, I will." Angie met her gaze directly. "But I'd love to see you give this a shot. I promise you, I wouldn't encourage you to do anything unsafe. You're my coworker and friend, and I'd never put you in harm's way."
And she did know. Angie had a huge heart and endless reserves of loyalty for the people she loved. Also a strong streak of recklessness, but Mary had grown to love that too. As far as Mary was concerned, her boss should serve as a model for timid women everywhere.
"And have you considered the Singles Skydiving event we saw in the paper yesterday?"
Well, maybe not a model, exactly. More like inspiration, tempered by common sense. Heavily tempered, until death-defying feats were no longer involved.
"I might be willing to try online dating. But if you try to sling a backpack on me and shove me off a plane, I'll haunt you from beyond the grave." Mary raised her brows at Angie. "And you know I'm a woman of my word."
Angie snorted. "So dramatic. You've been hanging out with Sarah too much."
"Most likely." A smile spread across her face at the thought of her best friend. "Her mannerisms were bound to rub off sooner or later."
"So you'll keep this profile?" Angie's head tilted toward the computer screen.
"I'll keep a profile," Mary corrected.
"Not necessarily yours. Heaven only knows what you said in it."
"Not much. Just that you're lovely, intelligent, hardworking, and sweeter than any of them deserve. Also that you appreciate men in a rainbow of delicious colors."
She came closer to the monitor, curious what else her boss had entered into the form. "For pity's sake, Angie. I have never, not once in my life, described myself as 'Beyoncé's more beautiful and talented twin.' I don't look anything like her!"
If only. That sort of effortless glamour and polish had eluded Mary her entire life.
Angie shrugged. "Just trying to approximate your babeliness in a way most people would understand."
"What about the 'more talented' bit?" Mary gaped at her. "Don't you remember that program last year? The one where I sang Christmas carols?"
A small wince creased Angie's forehead. "Talent doesn't have to mean singing. Which is a good thing, in your case. I think we attracted feral cats from miles around that night."
Leaning over Angie, Mary wrestled the mouse from her boss's grip and exited the form without saving. "I'll fill one of these profiles out on my break. By myself."
Angie's lower lip poked out. "But I was enjoying myself."
"All by myself."
Satisfied that the profile-in-progress had disappeared forever, Mary settled back behind the circulation desk and gazed blankly at her computer screen.
Online dating. She'd never, ever pictured herself trying to find strangers to date via the internet. But heck, it wasn't as if she were locating lots of good options in the flesh. And she couldn't help but be touched by her friend's efforts on her behalf.
Angie, who was rinsing an empty yogurt carton in the workroom sink, looked up when Mary spoke quietly. "I'm sorry I won't let you help me with my profile. But thank you for caring enough to give me the kick in the pants I needed."
Excerpted from Hidden Hearts by Olivia Dade. Copyright © 2017 Olivia Dade. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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