It's no-holds-barred murder…
Lindsey Norris is finally getting married to the man of her dreams—but it's not all roses for Briar Creek's beloved library director, as town newcomer Aaron Grady gives the term "book lover" a whole new meaning. Inappropriate looks and unwelcome late-night visits to Lindsey's house have everyone from the crafternooners to Lindsey's fiancé, Sully, on edge.
When Grady's dead body is found outside the library and all the clues point to Sully, Lindsey knows it's up to her to find the real culprit and clear Sully's name. But becoming a thorn in the killer's side is not without its consequences, and the closer Lindsey gets to the truth, the more determined the murderer is to make her just a footnote.
About the Author
New York Times bestselling author Jenn McKinlay also writes the Cupcake Bakery Mysteries, the Hat Shop Mysteries, and the Bluff Point and Happily Ever After contemporary romance series.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Jenn McKinlay
“Too meringue, too low-cut, holy bananas, too high-cut!” Lindsey Norris sat at the reference desk of the Briar Creek Public Library and clicked through a website full of wedding dresses. Her mother had sent her the link in an email and wanted to know what sort of dress Lindsey was thinking of wearing for her upcoming wedding. Too many choices. There were just too many. She felt herself starting to melt down, so she closed the website. She’d get back to her mother on this soon. Really, she would.
It was the height of summer in Briar Creek, and she had a good five months before the wedding. It was going to be a very small holiday ceremony out on Bell Island, one of the Thumb Islands that made up the archipelago of over one hundred islands—some were just big rocks—in the bay off Briar Creek’s shore. Her fiancé, Captain Mike Sullivan, had asked that they get married on the island where he’d grown up, and Lindsey couldn’t think of a more romantic place to say “I do.” So the location was a go. It was all the other details that were killing her.
Click click click.
Lindsey turned around to see a bat fluttering through the book stacks. She was a pretty big bat. With large ears pointing up from a wide headband and enormous pale gray wings made out of an old bedsheet and some wire, she fluttered her outspread arms while holding a mango in one hand. She also had merry eyes and shoulder-length dark brown hair and answered to the name of Beth Barker. She was the Briar Creek children’s librarian, and she was leading a parade of toddlers and their parents through the library, all fluttering their “wings” and making clicking noises.
Lindsey propped her chin on her hand as she watched the little bats flutter by. She met Beth’s happy gaze and said, “Practicing your echolocation, Stellaluna?”
Beth grinned and said, “Naturally, then it’s back to the bat cave to read Nightsong and Bat Loves the Night.”
“Flutter on,” Lindsey said.
“Will do. Don’t forget crafternoon is today,” Beth said. “We’re making tin can lanterns. And for the food, I ran with the Chicana theme since we are discussing The House on Mango Street.”
“Can’t wait. I love that book,” Lindsey said. Which was true, plus she had also seen the food that Beth had brought for lunch, and there were quesadillas, mango smoothies, and flan. There was just nothing better than flan on a hot summer day.
“Okay, little bats,” Beth said. “Let’s get back to the cave. Click click.”
Lindsey watched as Beth led her colony of bats and their parents back to the story time room. Then she glanced at the circulation desk to see Ms. Cole watching the commotion over the top of her reading glasses. Nicknamed “the lemon” for her occasional puckered disposition, Ms. Cole had come a long way since Lindsey had been hired as the library director several years ago. Instead of chastising Beth, she simply heaved a put-upon sigh, which was encouraging.
The lemon had lightened up on late fees, beverages in the building, and the exuberance of the story time regulars, but the one policy on which Ms. Cole did not bend was noise. She was a shusher of the first order, and Lindsey was surprised she hadn’t hissed at Beth to keep it down. Instead, Ms. Cole put her left index finger over her left eyelid as if trying to prevent it from twitching. Lindsey glanced down at the top of her desk to keep from laughing.
Lindsey turned her head to see a man standing at the corner of her desk.
“Hi, may I help you find something?” she asked.
“I hope so,” he said. He sounded worried.
The man was middle-aged with just a hint of gray hair starting at his temples. He was wearing a short-sleeved collared shirt in a muted plaid with navy pants and brown shoes. He looked to be somewhere in his mid to late forties, but his forehead had worry lines going across it and his blue eyes looked concerned.
“Well, let’s give it a try,” Lindsey said. She gave him a reassuring smile. “Tell me what you need.”
“I grow roses,” he said. “But I’m new to this area, and I’m not sure that my garden can survive the drought we’re having. Do you have any books on growing roses specifically along the shoreline or in drought conditions?”
“Thanks to our local garden club, we have an excellent collection on that subject,” Lindsey said. “I’ll see what’s available.”
“Thank you,” he said.
Lindsey searched the online catalog, limiting the results to the items that were currently available. She found three books on roses, but they weren’t specific to the region. Still, they might have something in them about dealing with drought conditions. She noted the call numbers and then did a quick check of the local community webpages that they had bookmarked on the reference database by organization. She found several local gardening groups and one that specialized in roses. She swiveled the monitor on its base so her patron could see it.
“We do have some books in, but they aren’t specific to the area,” she said. “However, there is a local rose club, and I am sure they can help you with your concerns about the current drought. Would you like me to write down their contact information for you?”
“Yes,” he said. “Thank you. This is great.”
Lindsey smiled. She took a piece of scratch paper and wrote down the name of the chapter president and her email address and phone number. She handed that to the man and then rose from her seat and said, “Let’s go see what’s on the shelves.”
As she led him through the stacks of books, she asked, “So, you’re new to Briar Creek?”
“Yes, my wife and I just moved here a few months ago,” he said. “Just in time for me to plant a rose garden, but then this dry spell hit.”
“It’s a bad one,” Lindsey said. “I’ve only been here for a few years myself, but the locals tell me that they’ve never seen anything like it.”
“I hear the town is planning to ration water,” he said. The lines in his forehead deepened.
“There has been some preparatory talk about that, Mr. . . . um, I’m sorry,” Lindsey said. “I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Lindsey Norris, the library director.”
She held out her hand. The man stared at her and then her hand for a moment, and she wondered whether she had offended him.
“Aaron,” he said. “Aaron Grady. It’s nice to meet you.” He clasped her hand and gave it a firm squeeze before letting go.
Lindsey smiled and continued along the shelves until she reached the gardening section. She followed the Dewey Decimal numbers until she found books specifically about roses. The three books the online catalog had listed were there, as well as two more that she hadn’t seen. She pulled them from the shelf and turned to find Mr. Grady right beside her. He was a bit too close, making her feel crowded, so she eased back a step. Instead of looking at the books she was holding, he was staring intently at her, with his hands down by his sides.
She’d had this sort of patron before, and they always amused her. They asked for books and she showed them the books, but when she took the books off the shelf, they didn’t reach for them. They just stood there. Lindsey often wondered whether they thought she was planning to read the books to them. She usually broke the stalemate by forcibly pushing the books at them.
“Here you are,” she said. She handed him the stack, keeping the most recently published book so that she could check the index. She flipped to the back and scanned for the word drought. The book referenced several pages on it, so she opened the book to those pages and skimmed the content. It listed different methods to maintain roses in a drought situation and even included a watering schedule. She handed Mr. Grady the open book and said, “This one looks like it will answer your question.”
The lines that had been deepening on Mr. Grady’s forehead eased and he gave her a closed-lip smile as he took the book and studied the pages.
“This is perfect,” he said. “Thank you so much, Lindsey.”
“You’re welcome,” she said. “Let me know how it goes, and if you have any more questions, I’m happy to help.”
He smiled at her again, and Lindsey turned and headed back to the reference desk. She was relieved one of the books had answered Mr. Grady’s questions. She always felt like it was a win when she could get a patron the answer they needed.
Back at the desk, she found Laura Hogan waiting for her. She was a tiny little thing but had the biggest heart in Briar Creek. She came in every week with her dog, Buck, and together they helped elementary school students who were struggling with learning how to read. Buck was a reading-therapy dog; essentially he sat on the floor with a student and listened while the child read aloud to him.
Buck was a beautiful black and brown dog with long legs and the softest ears Lindsey had ever felt. He was great friends with her dog, Heathcliff, and the two of them cavorted and carried on when they met up at the dog park. As soon as Buck saw Lindsey, he started wagging his tail and let out a small whimper.
“Sorry, Buck,” she said as she scratched his ears. “Heathcliff isn’t here. It’s just me.” She glanced up at his human, who was smiling at her. “Hi, Laura, how are you?”
“Great, I’m looking forward to today’s reading,” she said. “We’re halfway through Gregor the Overlander, and I can’t wait to hear what happens next.”
“The room is all set up,” Lindsey said. “I’ll just walk you over and unlock it for you.”
“Thanks,” Laura said. She patted her thigh, and Buck fell in beside her as they crossed the library to one of the study rooms. Lindsey unlocked the door and pushed it open.
They both turned to see Mr. Grady hurrying toward them. Buck’s ears went back and he growled low in his throat. Laura grabbed him by the collar and held him still.
“Weird,” she said. “He’s never done that before.”
“He’s likely more used to children,” Lindsey said. She stepped forward and intercepted Mr. Grady so Buck wouldn’t get more protective. “Yes, did you have another question?”
“Yes, actually,” he said. He looked sheepish as he clutched the rose books to his chest. “I don’t have a library card. Is it possible for me to check out these books?”
“Absolutely,” she said. “I’m sorry—I should have explained. To sign up for a card, we just need proof of your local residence, and then Ms. Cole at the circulation desk will sign you up and you’ll be able to check out.”
“I can do that,” he said. He gave her a small smile and then backed away, watching her as he went.
Lindsey turned back to Laura and Buck. “Can I get you anything? Coffee? Water? Dog biscuit?”
“Coffee would be fantastic,” Laura said. “But no treats for Buck, thanks. He’s on a diet.”
“Coming right up,” Lindsey said.
She turned and headed for the staff break room. She grabbed a cup of coffee for Laura and a bowl of water for Buck. By the time those were delivered, her desk replacement, Ann Marie, had arrived, and Lindsey went to the back of the library, where her favorite activity, Thursday crafternoon, was held.
She brought her well-loved copy of The House on Mango Street, in which she’d stuck several sticky notes to mark the particularly pertinent passages she wanted to share. As she pushed open the door, she found that she was the last to arrive.
Beth was standing behind the table, dishing out quesadillas, while Nancy Peyton and her best friend, Violet La Rue, were seated on the couch, holding full plates. Paula Turner, one of the circulation attendants, was pouring out the smoothies while Mary Murphy, Lindsey’s soon-to-be sister-in-law, was standing with her baby, Josie, on her hip. Mary was swaying back and forth in her mama’s stance while trying to eat. Lindsey headed right for her and held out her arms.
“I’ll take her,” she offered. Mary gave her a grateful look and handed off the baby.
“Thank you,” she said. She studied Lindsey for a second, and then she grinned. “You look good with a baby in your arms.”
Lindsey pressed her cheek to Josie’s soft hair and laughed, “I said I’d hold her, not that I wanted any of my own.”
“We’ll see,” Mary said. Then she grinned, a wide, warm smile just like her brother’s, and sank into a nearby chair.
Lindsey moved around the room with Josie in her arms. A few months ago, she would have avoided holding her future niece as if she carried the plague. Lindsey wasn’t really baby friendly, or she hadn’t been until this kid came along. But Josie had the same sparkling blue eyes as her uncle, and her hair was already beginning to thicken into a cascade of dark curls just like his, and Lindsey had to admit she was smitten.
While Josie tugged on Lindsey’s long blond curls, she joined Beth by the table and glanced at her friend. Beth had ditched her bat wings and the headband with the big ears. There was something about her that looked ethereal and lovely. She was watching Josie as if trying to understand the inner workings of her little mind.
Lindsey glanced from Beth to Josie and back. It occurred to her that she’d seen only one person glow like that before, and it was Mary when she was pregnant with Josie. Her eyes went wide, and she looked at Beth and said, “Oh my God, you’re pregnant!”
She hadn’t meant to say it so loud, and she cringed, aware that her guess could be wrong but also that Beth may not have wanted to share this news just yet. The entire room went quiet, and everyone turned to face them. Beth turned a deep shade of pink and then grinned. “How did you know? Am I showing already?” She hugged her belly. “Or is it my nose? Is it wider? I heard noses get bigger when a woman is pregnant.”
“Another baby,” Nancy said. She clapped her hands in delight. She tossed her gray bob, and her merry eyes twinkled as she turned to Violet and said, “You owe me five dollars.”
Violet tutted. “That was a sucker’s bet. We knew she’d get pregnant. I just thought it would be after summer.”
A retired stage actress, Violet was still a great beauty with dark skin, high cheekbones, and a full and generous smile. She opened her purse and pulled out a five-dollar bill, which she slapped into Nancy’s hand.
“You were betting on me?” Beth asked. She stared at the two women in amusement. “That is hilarious. What else are you two gambling about?”
Nancy and Violet both looked down at their food. As one they took bites of their quesadillas, and through a mouthful, Nancy mumbled, “Can’t talk. Eating.”
“Hmm-mmm-mm,” Violet hummed in agreement.
Beth shook her head at them and then turned to Lindsey. “They are not fooling me one bit. You?”
“Not for a second,” Lindsey said. She was about to question them when Nancy spoke first.
“Did you think the lead character, Esperanza, was aptly named?” Nancy asked.
“Yes, because it means hope,” Violet said. “And her story is one of hoping for a better life.”
Beth looked at Lindsey. “Those two are starting the book discussion instead of gossiping? They are definitely up to something.”
“Agreed.” Lindsey propped Josie on her hip and took a bite of the quesadilla Beth put on her plate. The tortilla had a little crunch, and stuffed with seasoned chicken and melted cheese and topped with pico de gallo, it was perfection. She turned to Beth and said, “This is amazing.”
“Thank you,” Beth said. “Aidan’s grandmother is from Mexico, and she’s been teaching me how to make some of his favorites. He’s better at it than I am, but I think I might have finally nailed the quesadilla.”
“Yeah, you did,” Mary said. This was no small praise, given that Mary owned the Blue Anchor, the only restaurant in town.
It was Paula who cracked the two older women. Having finished her lunch, she started to put out the craft supplies. While giving side-eye to Nancy and Violet, she asked, “So, if a library clerk wanted to get in on the action, what would she be betting on?”
Violet pointed to her mouth in a gesture that said she was still chewing. Nancy, having finished her food, was left to consider whether she should answer or not. The lure of having one more purse in the pot won.
“Nothing, really,” she said with a shrug. She glanced at Ms. Cole, who had just arrived since she’d had to wait for another staff person to cover the circulation desk. “Do you ever gamble on silly things? You might want a piece of this.”
“No,” Ms. Cole said as she filled her plate. “Thank you.”
Paula, who was Ms. Cole’s assistant on the circulation desk, just smiled, clearly not surprised by her answer.
“We may have debated the possibility that Lindsey was going to elope for her wedding,” Nancy said. She looked inquisitively at Lindsey. “So, care to tell us who owes whom a fiver?”
Josie grabbed a fistful of Lindsey’s hair with her chubby fist and stuffed it into her mouth. She made a squinched-up face, which made Lindsey laugh because hair—ew.
“No, I don’t. Did you know that author Sandra Cisneros is a Buddhist?” she asked the group.
Beth shook her head. “Nice try. There’s no way you’re going to change the subject on this one.”
“I had to give it a go,” Lindsey said.
Paula tossed her green braid over her shoulder. She was the hippest library staff member, with a sleeve of tattoos and colorful hair that she changed when the mood hit her. So far it had been purple and blue. Lindsey realized that if Paula ever went natural, she might not recognize her.
“Would you really elope, boss?” she asked Lindsey. “I mean, you only get married once.”
“Statistically, that’s not true,” Ms. Cole said. When Beth gave her an exasperated look, Ms. Cole shrugged. “Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce.”
“I’m not going to elope,” Lindsey said. “In fact, my mom is coming to town in a few days, and we’re going wedding-dress shopping. Also, Sully and I are having a small ceremony on Bell Island in his parents’ backyard.”
“Oh,” Nancy said. She looked cranky and slapped the five-dollar bill back into Vi’s hand.
“Nancy!” Lindsey cried. Then she laughed. In truth, she would have bet she’d elope, too. Being an introvert, Lindsey wasn’t really into the whole princess-for-a-day thing, and she was finding even the planning of a simple wedding to be a bit much.
“How small?” Nancy asked.
“Don’t worry,” Lindsey said. “You’re all invited.”
Josie made a hungry garble, and Mary immediately held up her arms. Lindsey handed over the baby, and they all moved to the craft table, where Paula had laid out the materials for this week’s craft.
She’d put towels down on the table, and a tin can with water frozen inside of it was placed at each seat. Picking up an awl and a hammer, she demonstrated how to punch a hole in the can.
“Once they’re finished and dry, you can paint them or not, then put a candle in them or tiny little battery lights. You can make a pattern or just punch random holes in them. The ice will keep the cans from denting while you tap in the holes, but you want to work fast so the ice doesn’t melt, or you’ll be sitting in a puddle.”
The next few minutes were spent with everyone punching holes in their cans. Lindsey, who was not crafty at all, discovered that there was a certain stress release to be found in tapping the awl through the metal to make a hole. She decided on a starburst pattern and was actually eager to see how it would come out when the ice melted. It occurred to her that these would make really cool centerpieces for her wedding.
She blinked. This was the first time she’d gotten excited about something for the wedding. Did this mean she was about to morph into a bridezilla? She scanned through all the things she had to do for the wedding. Nope. She still wasn’t that jazzed about all the work involved. Okay, phew. Maybe she just liked punching holes in the can. It was rather therapeutic.
Her thoughts strayed to the book they’d read. She glanced around the table. The heroine in Cisneros’s book wanted to escape Mango Street, her neighborhood in Chicago, and desperately longed for a house of her own. Lindsey glanced around the table and wondered whether all the women here felt the same way.
“What did you think about Esperanza’s desire for her own home?” she asked.
“I thought it was very relatable,” Nancy said. “When Jake and I bought our house, he insisted that the house be put in both of our names. He wanted to be sure it became mine in case anything happened to him. He was afraid one of his brothers would try to take the house, claiming I couldn’t handle it by myself. Pfff.”
She looked irritated for a moment and then sad, and Lindsey knew the memory of losing her captain husband when his boat went down during a storm haunted Nancy to this day.
“I was a single young woman in the early seventies, and while I didn’t much care about owning a house, I did want to get a credit card in my own name,” Violet said. “It wasn’t allowed. Even though I was starring as the lead in a Broadway play, a woman had to have a husband to get a credit card. Huh. Now I have ten.”
“I know what it’s like to want to leave your past behind you,” Paula said. “But I don’t know that you really can. It shapes you, whether you like it or not. I think Esperanza learns that in the book. No matter how far she goes, Mango Street will always be part of her, even after she leaves.”
“Sort of like Briar Creek and the Thumb Islands,” Mary said. “I could travel anywhere in the world, but the years I’ve spent here have made me who I am. When I read the book, I realized how lucky I am to live here.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Ms. Cole said. She was tapping away on her tin can, and Lindsey glanced over to see the pattern she was making. It was the outline of an open book.
“That’s brilliant,” Lindsey said. She pointed to Ms. Cole’s can, and the rest of the crafternooners took a look. As they heaped on the praise for her cleverness, Ms. Cole blushed a faint shade of pink. It looked pretty cute on her.
Lindsey glanced at the door to see Ann Marie there. She was holding a small piece of paper in her hand.
“This was left for you,” Ann Marie said. She came into the room and handed Lindsey the note. “The patron wanted to give you the note himself, but I explained that you were at lunch.”
“Oh, thanks,” Lindsey said. She opened the note. In a small, tight script it read, Lindsey, Thank you so much for your assistance today. I enjoyed our interaction and appreciate your help more than I can say. Fondly, Aaron Grady.
“What does it say?” Ann Marie asked.
Lindsey glanced at her. “It’s just a thank-you from Mr. Grady.”
“The guy with the rose bushes,” Ann Marie said. “He told me how your excellent research was going to save his precious roses.”
“Well, that was thoughtful,” Ms. Cole said.
“I don’t know,” Ann Marie said. “Maybe I’m paranoid because I read too many women-in-jeopardy thrillers, but I got a weird vibe off him.”
“He seemed okay,” Lindsey said. “A little socially awkward perhaps, but there’s no harm in that. Right?”
“If you say so,” Ann Marie said. With a wave, she exited the room.
“Looks like you have an admirer,” Nancy said. She winked at Lindsey.
“What can I say?” Lindsey asked. “I give good reference.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice if all of our patrons took the time to write such nice notes?” Beth asked.
“Yes, because manners matter,” Ms. Cole said. No one argued the point.
By the following week, the weather in Connecticut hadn’t improved. The days were long and scorching hot. There had been no rain, and the normally lush green grass lawns in the center of town were now brittle, yellow, and parched.
Lindsey left the town hall, which was just down the street from the library, wearing her summer business attire, which consisted of a sleeveless blue and white cotton gingham dress with white sandals. It was midafternoon, the sun was dialed to optimum bake, and there wasn’t even a breeze blowing in from the bay, which was utterly flat, as if it didn’t have the wherewithal to form a wave.
It wasn’t a long walk, but by the time she reached the automatic doors of the library, she could feel the perspiration in her hair and running down her back. All she wanted was an ice-cold glass of water and a fan. She trudged into the building, knowing that her face was red and she was covered in perspiration.
She had almost reached the circulation desk when a voice called out, “Lindsey!”
She thought about ignoring the person and just going for the water cooler, but the manners her parents had instilled in her wouldn’t let her. She pushed a heavy hank of hair out of her face and turned around.
“I brought you these.” Mr. Grady, the patron she had helped several days before, was standing there with a batch of roses.
Lindsey blinked, feeling a little woozy from the overpowering smell of the roses combined with what she was beginning to think was a mild case of heat stroke. Still, as Ms. Cole had said, manners mattered, and she said, “Thank you, Mr. Grady. They’re lovely.”
“Call me Aaron,” he said.
“Okay,” she said. But she didn’t say his name. Maybe the heat was making her feel contrary, or perhaps it was that his presence was becoming an impediment to her getting water, but she just nodded. She took the flowers and put them on the far side of the return desk. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to go.”
She let her voice trail off, and she staggered into the workroom where the water cooler was. She poured herself a glass and downed half of it, then pressed the cup she had used against her cheek, as if she could lower her body temperature from the outside.
“You look like you’re going to pass out,” Ms. Cole said as she came into the workroom.
She grabbed a paper towel and doused it with cold water. “Put this around your neck, and go sit down before you fall down.”
“Thank you,” Lindsey said. She filled her cup again and went into her office, where she put the free-standing fan on high and let it blast her with its breezy goodness.
Ms. Cole watched from the door. When Lindsey sat down, she said, “Mr. Grady arrived shortly after you left and has been waiting for you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry if I was rude to him, but it’s just so hot out there,” Lindsey said. She made to rise, and Ms. Cole waved her back down.
“No, you were fine,” she said. “You were clearly overheated. We’re having record heat today. If anything, he was rude to detain you when you were clearly about to faint.”
Lindsey drank more water. She could feel Ms. Cole staring at her. “What’s the matter?”
“I think Ann Marie might have been right about him,” Ms. Cole said. “There’s something off about that man.”
“Has he done anything specific that makes you think he might cause harm to the staff or the library?” Lindsey asked. She was finally feeling a bit cooler now, and she could feel her brain kicking into library-director mode.
“Not the staff or the library,” Ms. Cole said. “To be honest, he seems fixated on you.”
“Me?” Lindsey asked. “But why?”
“I don’t know,” Ms. Cole said. “But he waited here for two hours, and every chance he got, he tried to engage the staff in conversation about you.”
Lindsey felt her stomach drop. She was already nauseated from the heat. This did not help. “What did he want to know?”
“All sorts of things,” Ms. Cole said. “What your favorite color is, where do you live, do you have any hobbies, that sort of thing.”
Lindsey pressed a hand to her forehead. “Okay, that is weird.”
“No one told him anything, of course,” Ms. Cole said. “And Beth was very clear that it was inappropriate of him to be asking about you.”
“Good,” Lindsey said. “How did he respond to that?”
“He completely ignored her,” Ms. Cole said. “I think you’re going to have to be very firm with him.”
“Okay,” Lindsey said. “Thanks for the heads-up. Maybe it was a good thing I was on the verge of passing out when I arrived.”
“Just . . .” Ms. Cole paused and then said, “Be careful.”
Lindsey watched her leave and wondered what that was about. She didn’t know a lot about Ms. Cole’s past. She had been born and raised in Briar Creek, and as far as Lindsey knew, she had never married or had children. Presently, she was dating Milton Duffy, library board president, yogi, and town historian, but other than that, Lindsey didn’t know much. She wondered what made Ms. Cole look as nervous as she did about this situation. She knew it was none of her business, but she’d become quite fond of Ms. Cole, and she didn’t like the thought that somewhere in her past lurked a terrible hurt.
She supposed she could go talk to Mr. Grady and make it clear that she was unavailable and that while she appreciated the roses, she thought they were inappropriate. She felt a trickle of sweat run down her back. Ugh, or she could just wait until she saw him again. Maybe he was just a lonely guy in a new town and she was the first friendly person he’d met. Not being a huge fan of confrontation, Lindsey sincerely hoped this was the case and opted to stay in her office until she felt like she wasn’t going to throw up.
Heather Cooper, one of Lindsey’s favorite patrons, was visiting the library with her husband, Brett. They were checking out a bunch of travel books for an upcoming trip to Disneyland. Heather was Lindsey’s go-to source for horror books and cozy mysteries, and they always had a nice long chat about the books they were enjoying.
“At least you’ll be escaping this drought,” Lindsey said. “Think of us when you’re riding Pirates of the Caribbean.”
“Meh, I’m originally from Arizona,” Heather said. She tossed her long light brown hair over her shoulder and pushed her glasses up on her nose. “This is nothing. And Brett’s from Australia, so he’s seen worse, too.”
“I can’t even imagine,” Lindsey said. She dreaded the thought of going out in the heat, but at least she was closing the library and it would be after dark with no more scorching sun when she left work.
After Heather and Brett checked out their materials, the staff checked the building and began locking up. When they stepped through the back door, the heat was like a punch to the face.
The drought continued with no rain in the forecast, and it was making everyone cranky and irritable, including Lindsey. She was on her bike tonight since Sully had an evening boat tour scheduled. He told her the only good things about being out on the water were that he could make his own breeze with the speed of the boat and that the splash from the waves actually cooled things down. Lindsey envied him that right now. As she dropped her book bag into the basket on her bicycle, she dreaded the sticky ride home.
The summer sun was finally setting, and once she got the bike up to speed, the air did feel good against her slick skin. She took a shortcut through town to the gray shingled beach house she shared with Sully near the shore. Her dog, Heathcliff, would be waiting for her, and she couldn’t wait to take him to the beach for his nightly walk. She might even go for a swim in the ocean just to cool off.
She turned onto their road, which ran along the shore. The houses were small, but the yards were big. Sand dusted the pothole-marked road, but she had ridden this route enough to know exactly where to swerve even in the dimming light. She rode up to the deck that surrounded the house and parked her bike beside the stairs. She could hear Heathcliff barking, and she quickly locked her bike to the rail and grabbed her book bag.
She hurried up the steps, eager to get out of the heat. She unlocked the door and strode into the house. She had just enough time to drop her bag and brace her legs before he saw her. Heathcliff let out a delighted yip and ran full speed for her, launching himself at her and nearly knocking her to the floor.
“Easy, fella,” she said. She rubbed his sides and his ears and noted that his tongue was hanging out as if he, too, was suffering from the heat. His furry black body was all aquiver, and he used his front paws to hug her leg, a habit he had that melted Lindsey’s heart every time. She bent down and hugged him back.
“Just let me change, and we’ll go for a walk,” she said. Heathcliff pranced, clearly fully aware of what the word walk meant.
She flicked on the living room light and strode down the hall to her bedroom. She shucked off her work clothes and pulled on her bathing suit. Then she grabbed an old T-shirt of Sully’s and pulled it over her head.
She was about to grab a towel out of the linen closet when there was a knock on the door. Heathcliff barked, letting whoever was at the door know he was there. Heathcliff was a total mama’s boy and took his job protecting Lindsey very seriously.
She walked back to the front door, patting Heathcliff on the way. “It’s all right,” she said. “You can stand down for the moment.”
He sat, but he kept growling a low menacing rumble that was accompanied by one of his furry black eyebrows being raised as if he was suspicious of whoever was knocking. It hit Lindsey, as it often did, how much she loved this dog. She patted him again and turned to the door.
She glanced through the window beside the door to see who it was. She felt her heart sink into her feet. It was Aaron Grady, holding another enormous bouquet of roses.
Lindsey debated pretending she wasn’t home. She didn’t want to answer the door in her bathing suit, even with a shirt over it, to anyone, never mind a stranger. And she really didn’t want to have a library patron standing on her doorstep. Yes, Briar Creek was a small town and everyone knew everyone, but there were still boundaries that needed to be maintained—and not showing up at her house uninvited late in the day was one of them.
For that matter, how did Grady know where she lived? Had he followed her home? She knew her staff wouldn’t have given out her personal information, but maybe he had asked someone in town. Since she lived with Sully and the house was in his name only, her address wasn’t publicly available. She felt her inner alarm system go off like a high-pitched siren. She grabbed her phone and called Beth.
“Hey, Lindsey,” Beth answered on the second ring. “What’s up?”
“The patron that Ann Marie got the weird vibe about? He’s standing at my front door, holding another vase full of roses,” she said.
“Oh no, do not open that door,” Beth said. “Where’s Sully?”
“Giving an evening boat tour around the islands,” Lindsey said.
“I’ll send Aidan over. He can be there in ten minutes,” Beth said. “Ann Marie was right. The guy is a weirdo.”
“I’m going to explain to him why this is bad,” Lindsey said. “But I want you on the line just in case.”
“Don’t,” Beth cried. “Seriously, he’ll go away if you don’t answer.”
“Yes, but I need to make it perfectly clear that this is unacceptable,” Lindsey said.
“I wish Sully was there,” Beth said. Then she gasped. “Do you think he waited until he knew you were alone?”
Uneasiness rippled through Lindsey. Had he? That was even creepier than she’d been thinking. She could hear Beth talking to someone, presumably Aidan, in the background. Ugh, she hated being put in this position, but there was no doubt that Grady was crossing a line.
“Just stay on the phone, okay?” Lindsey asked.
“Sure, but Aidan and I are on our way,” Beth said. She was huffing and puffing, and Lindsey could tell she was running.
“I don’t think that’s necessary, but okay,” Lindsey said. She knew telling Beth not to come wasn’t an option. In truth, she’d do the exact same thing.
There was another sharp knock on the door. Lindsey drew in a steadying breath and opened the door just a crack. She peered out with the phone visible at her ear. Then she said, “Hold on, I have someone at the door.” She glanced at Grady without smiling and said, “Yes?”
Grady’s eyes shifted from side to side. He licked his lips, looking nervous. Lindsey hoped he was feeling as uncomfortable as she was.
“I brought these for you,” he said. He thrust the bouquet of roses at her. In the heat the smell of the blooms was a bit overpowering. Lindsey didn’t take them.
“I’ll just put them down,” he said. He looked so earnest, like a kid offering a fistful of wildflowers to his mom. “I picked them just for you as a thank-you for helping me and because you seemed to like the ones I brought to the library. I thought you’d like some at your home, too.”
Grady was in his usual pressed pants and button-down shirt. If he were in a lineup, he’d look like the feckless accountant thrown in just to have another body present. Was he really so socially inept that he thought finding out where a woman lived and bringing her flowers at night was okay? It wasn’t. It made Lindsey feel vulnerable in ways she didn’t like, and she wasn’t doing him any favors by playing nice and letting him think it was all right. If he did this to someone else, he could get a black eye or worse.
“Mr. Grady, this is very inappropriate,” Lindsey said. “I don’t know how you found out where I live, but showing up at my house uninvited is not okay. Please leave.”
Grady’s eyes went wide, as if he hadn’t even considered the possibility that what he was doing was impolite. His face turned pink and then red and then pale. He looked mortified.
“I . . . oh . . . I am so sorry,” he mumbled. “I didn’t . . . I would never . . .”
Heathcliff pressed up against Lindsey’s leg. He growled low in his throat, the sound carrying through the crack in the door and out into the night. Grady’s eyes widened in alarm. So now she and her dog had embarrassed and scared him.
Having been an introvert most of her life, Lindsey felt a pang of sympathy for him. Clearly, he hadn’t thought his gesture of gratitude through. She felt her shoulders drop and she tried to soften her words.
“Listen, I appreciate the gesture, but you can’t just show up at my house,” she said.
“Oh, but I thought we connected,” he said. He gestured between them. “I thought you were my friend.”
He had a little-boy-lost look about him that, again, made Lindsey feel unduly harsh, but she felt as if she had to be clear; otherwise he might think he could show up here whenever he liked, and that wouldn’t do. This was her sanctuary away from work and people and life. She was a solitary person. She wasn’t even on any social media, preferring books as her escape, and she guarded her privacy fiercely.
“No, we’re not friends,” she said. “I am a librarian and you are a patron. That’s as far as it goes.”
“Yes, of course,” he said. He didn’t make eye contact with her. He bobbed his head and stepped back across the porch and down the steps.
“Don’t forget your roses,” Lindsey said.
Heathcliff continued to growl.
Grady glanced at her quickly and then away. “Please keep them as an apology. I’m sorry to have interrupted your evening.”
Lindsey was about to tell him it was all right when she noticed he had lowered his gaze to her body and was staring at her in a way that made her distinctly uncomfortable. She stepped quickly behind the door so that only her face was visible.
“Good night, Mr. Grady,” she said.
“Good night, Ms. Norris,” he said. He turned and hurried to a silver sedan parked on the street in front of her house. Lindsey took note of the license plate just in case.
As his car shot down the road, it passed a pickup truck coming in the opposite direction. Lindsey felt the tension in her ease as she recognized Beth and Aidan. A part of her felt ridiculous to be so unnerved by a library patron who appeared to be trying to be nice, but as Ms. Cole and the others had noted, there was something off about Aaron Grady.
The truck parked in the drive, and Beth and Aidan popped out. Aidan stood behind the open driver’s-side door and asked, “Was that him? Should I go after him and knock him around a bit?”
Beth looked at her husband with adoration, and Lindsey was grateful for the offer, too, but like Beth, Aidan was a children’s librarian, and she knew he didn’t have the sort of personality to rough up a stranger. Besides, it would have the potential to destroy his career.
“I really appreciate the offer, but I think I made my feelings known to him,” Lindsey said. “I don’t think Mr. Grady will be bothering me anymore.”
Beth held up her phone as she crossed the yard to Lindsey. “You were great, but people like him, who get fixated on a person, don’t always hear what you say. You’re going to have to keep your guard up.”
“I will,” Lindsey said. “I promise.”
She noticed that both Beth and Aidan looked hot, and she said, “I was just about to take Heathcliff for a walk on the beach. Want to come?”
“That sounds lovely,” Beth said. “How about you, honey?”
“Count me in,” Aidan agreed. “Not for nothing, but I think we should stick around until Sully gets home, just to be on the safe side.”
Lindsey was about to protest but then thought better of it and said, “Thanks. I really appreciate it.”
She opened the door to let Beth and Aidan in, much to Heathcliff’s tail-wagging, knee-hugging delight. She glanced down at the vase of flowers. She didn’t pick them up.
Sully arrived home before they were back from their walk on the beach, and Lindsey let them into the house to find him in the kitchen. The roses were sitting on the counter. Lindsey picked them up and put them back outside while Beth and Aidan greeted Sully.
Sully watched her with his eyebrows raised. “Is there a reason those are supposed to be outside?”
“Yes, they came from a creepy patron,” she said.
“Oh?” He looked like he wanted the rest of the story.
“And on that note, we’ll head out and let you two talk,” Aidan said. He took Beth’s hand and steered her toward the door. “If you need us, call us.”
Beth paused beside Lindsey to give her a hug. “It’ll be okay. You were very firm. I bet he gets the message now.”
“Let’s hope,” Lindsey said. She closed the door after them and locked it.
She turned to find Sully rubbing Heathcliff’s belly. Her man and her dog. She never got tired of watching the mutual affection between them.
“Creepy patron, huh?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m sure it’s nothing, but I helped him a few days ago with a reference request about maintaining his roses during this drought, and he brought me some roses at work as a thank-you.”
“That seems nice,” he said.
“It was,” she agreed. “Until he showed up at the house tonight with those.” She pointed at the door with her thumb.
He frowned. “How did he know where you live?”
“Exactly,” she said. “So I explained to him that there were boundaries and he was crossing them. He said he just wants to be my friend, but I said no, that I was just a librarian and he shouldn’t do anything like this again.”
Sully blew out a breath and put a hand on the back of his neck. “Do you think he understood?”
“I hope so,” she said. “I mean, if he asked someone about me and where I live, I’m certain they would mention that I’m marrying you. Plus, when I first helped him, he said he was married, so it could be that he really does just want to be friends, but it feels weird and awkward and I don’t like it.”
Sully opened his arms, and Lindsey stepped into them. He rested his cheek on her head, and she felt herself relax against him. It wasn’t that she expected Sully to fight her battles for her, but it felt good to have him here with her, a solid presence against the vulnerability she was feeling.
“Do you want me to talk to him?” Sully asked. “I can be very persuasive.”
Lindsey leaned back and met his bright blue gaze. A former navy man, he owned a tour-boat and water-taxi company servicing the islands in the bay. He was tall and broad with a sailor’s build, and his calloused hands and suntanned skin marked him as a man of the outdoors. Despite Grady’s love of gardening, he stood no chance against a man like Sully.
“No, I really think he heard me tonight,” she said. “I was very clear that showing up at the house was inappropriate. I can’t imagine that he would persist after that.”
“Tell you what—Charlie is helping out with the tours over the summer, so that frees me up to be your chauffeur,” he said. “I’ll do drop-off and pickup duty with you until we’re sure that this guy isn’t a problem.”
“I don’t want to put you out,” she said.
“Don’t worry about it. Charlie needs the money. His band broke up again.”
“Poor Charlie,” Lindsey said.
Charlie Peyton was Nancy’s nephew, and when Lindsey had rented an apartment from Nancy in her three-family house, Charlie had lived in the apartment between them, like the peanut butter holding together the bread in the sandwich. He’d been a delightful neighbor, except during band practice. Lindsey still wasn’t sure her hearing had recovered.
“Yeah, he’s pretty bummed out, but the extra work will keep him from overthinking it,” Sully said.
“All right,” Lindsey said. “I’ve read enough crime novels to know to err on the side of caution.”
“That’s my girl,” Sully said. He let her go and reached for his water bottle on the counter. He gave her side-eye when he asked, “What did you say his name was again?”
“I didn’t,” she said.
He grimaced as if he’d been hoping to slip that by her. Lindsey smiled.
“His name is Aaron Grady, and he just moved to Briar Creek a few months ago,” she said. “All I know about him is he loves his roses.”
“What are you going to do if he disregards what you said and brings you more flowers?” Sully asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I mean, he’s creepy, but he doesn’t say anything inappropriate or threatening. I’m not really sure why he’s bringing me flowers. Do you think I’m overreacting?”
“Did it make you feel weird when he was at the door?” Sully asked.
“Then you’re not overreacting,” he said. “Always trust your instincts. I learned that in the navy. If something didn’t feel right in my gut, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, my gut was right.”
“And it’s weird, right?” she asked. “Showing up at someone’s house when you hardly know them? I mean, what did he think was going to happen? We were going to hang out and be besties?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not what he was thinking,” Sully said. Lindsey gave him an Ew face, and he shrugged. “Let’s just be hypervigilant for a while, okay?”
“Okay.” Lindsey sighed. How had she gotten here? She was just doing her job as a reference provider. Why did it have to get weird?
For three days, Lindsey watched the front doors of the library, tensing if she thought Grady was entering the building. Usually, it was just another man with pressed pants and a short-sleeved dress shirt. On the third day, she finally felt as if she could relax her guard. Clearly, her message had gotten through to him. She felt the teensiest pang of guilt that perhaps she’d been rude, but then she remembered that the guy had shown up at her house, late in the evening, and she still had no idea how he had discovered where she lived.
That alone checked any worries she had that she’d been uncivil. She didn’t know him. He didn’t know her. And this notion that he thought they could be friends made her uncomfortable. Friendship wasn’t something that switched on and off like a light switch. Friendships took years to develop, requiring time spent together and secrets shared and trust built. It wasn’t something that happened because a librarian helped you find some books.
Sure, Lindsey had patrons who had become friends, but it had taken months and sometimes years for those relationships to form. Despite what Grady said, she couldn’t shake the feeling that his interest in her was inappropriate at best and downright creepy at worst.
Luckily, she was now off for a long weekend and could put some distance between herself and the awkwardness. She dreaded having Grady show up at the library, as she wasn’t really sure how to treat him. She was leery of being too friendly but didn’t want to be unduly harsh either.
Her weekend started with the arrival of her parents in Briar Creek and a cookout at the house with Sully making his famed barbecue ribs. From there, her parents went to stay on Bell Island with Sully’s parents in a getting-to-know-you parental weekend that she was certain would make the four of them as close as in-laws could be.
And now Lindsey’s mom and Sully’s mom were with her and Beth while they went wedding-dress shopping in New Haven. Lindsey had left her entourage in the lounge outside the dressing room while she tried on gowns. While she appreciated the help, there was a large part of her that would have preferred to be out fishing with her dad, Sully, and his father. Still, immersed in all of these very normal pre-wedding events, and it made Lindsey feel as if she could put “the Grady Incident,” as she had begun to think of it, behind her.
Being medium in build in both height and shape, Lindsey wasn’t sure what dress would make the most of her average assets. Because the wedding would be in December, she needed to find a dress quickly if there were going to be any alterations required. She wished she was the type of woman who’d had her wedding planned from the day she was five years old. She was not.
Lindsey’s life had been lived in the pages of books. In that regard, she’d been married a thousand times, in every possible ceremony and every possible bridal gown, from outer space to a fantasy wedding where she was a Druid bride, all the way through history to a modern-day wedding where the bride was actually in love with the groom’s brother. Drama! Truly, within the pages of books, she had the wedding thing down. In real life, not so much, as evidenced by the fact that she was in yet another fitting room in yet another bridal salon, trying on yet another mountain of dresses, none of which said, Pick me. Choose me. I am your dress.
“Arms up,” Diane, the petite owner of the shop, ordered.
Lindsey did as she was told, and Diane dropped the silky confection down over her head. As Diane fussed to make it hang just right, Lindsey hesitated to look in the mirror. She was reaching the end of her patience with trying on gowns, and she wanted very badly to feel like this was the one.
“Okay, what do you think?” Diane asked. She spun Lindsey around to face the mirror. Lindsey blinked. Oh. The dress was exquisite. A fitted gown of pale blue was just visible beneath the sheer white lace dress that floated over it. The cut of the gown flattered her figure, and the long sleeved lace was perfect for a winter wedding. All of the details were lovely, but it was how the dress made her feel that did the trick. This was the first dress Lindsey had tried on that made her feel like a bride.
“If winter comes early, the blue beneath the lace will look amazing against a snowy background.” Diane considered Lindsey in the mirror. “Will you wear your hair up or down?”
“Down,” Lindsey said. “But maybe pulled back?”
“Let’s see,” Diane said. She plucked two hair combs from her apron pocket and twisted up half of Lindsey’s hair, fixing it in place with the combs. “Yes, I’d definitely consider a half-up, half-down if I were you.”
She was right. It was only the second dress Lindsey had tried on in this shop, but it was definitely the one that got her vote.
“Come out already,” Beth called into the dressing room. “We’re dying out here.”
This was their third stop of the day, Diane’s Bridal, a tiny dress shop in central New Haven. It was located on the first floor of an old redbrick building that used to be a button factory. The wood floors were polished to a high gloss, and big bay windows looked out onto the street.
Lindsey pushed back the curtain of the dressing room and strode out into the main room, with the full pale blue skirt and lace overlay billowing around her. There was a gasp, and she looked up to see both Sully’s mother, Joan, and her mom, Christine, clasping their hands together and smiling. Beth, being the most exuberant of them all, was bouncing up and down on her feet as if she couldn’t contain her excitement.
“You are stunning! That’s the one!” she declared. She looked at the moms. “Don’t you think? That’s the one?”
The moms looked at each other, and then Lindsey’s mom spoke. “It depends on whether it’s the one Lindsey wants. Is it, dear?”
Lindsey picked up her skirts and climbed the steps to stand on the dais with the three mirrors. She checked her reflection from every angle. She turned around and faced them. “I think we have a winner.”
“Yes!” Joan clapped. “My goodness, Sully is going to keel over when he sees you in that.”
Lindsey laughed. “So long as he bounces right back up again.”
“Oh, honey,” Christine said. “You are going to be such a beautiful bride.”
A tear slid down her cheek, and Lindsey reached forward and hugged her mom. She was shorter than Lindsey, and her blond hair had lightened to white in recent years, but they shared the same hazel eyes, wide smile, stubborn chin, and somewhat prominent nose. When she looked at her mom, she could see herself in the future, and it hit her that like her mom had had her dad by her side for most of her life, Lindsey would now have Sully. The thought made her smile.
She looked at her mom with a bit of wonder and said, “I’m getting married.”
Christine laughed and hugged her close. Lindsey knew at that moment that all the things she’d been worried about in regards to the wedding just didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that at the end of it, Sully would be her husband.
She turned to see Diane standing in the doorway to the fitting room and said, “I’ll take it.”
After a grueling morning of dress shopping, the ladies agreed that only a pizza at New Haven’s Wooster Square would do, so they set out to enjoy a ladies’ lunch, which included a brick oven–baked white clam pie. Heaven.
It struck Lindsey as she and Beth listened to Joan and Christine reflect upon their marriages, both of which were approaching forty-year anniversaries, that while it was true that both Joan and Christine had chosen their mates wisely, there was also a level of stick-to-it-ness that was required for a marriage to survive.
Lindsey knew that her mom had to endure her father’s snoring; truly, he was a champ and hit decibels that other snorers only dreamed of. She hadn’t known until today that her mom had devised a system in which she sandwiched her head in between two pillows to drown out the noise. Joan shared that Sully’s father suffered from an acute case of male refrigerator blindness. Not a day passed that he didn’t stand in front of the open refrigerator and ask her where something was that was usually right in front of him. Beth glanced between the two of them as if taking notes.
Lindsey looked at her and said, “Nothing to report about Aidan?”
Beth glanced around the table with a worried expression. She bit her lip and said, “Well, we have had some discussions . . .”
“About?” Lindsey asked.
“Video games,” Beth said.
Joan and Christine both raised their eyebrows, and Lindsey knew this was likely a generational problem. She’d seen both Sully and Aidan get that glazed look in their eyes when Beth and Aidan came over for dinner and the two men busted out Sully’s gaming console. While she and Beth were happy to take them on in a tournament of Super Smash Bros., Sully and Aidan had the stamina to play Black Ops II into the night for hours.
“Since we found out that I’m pregnant, he gets up in the middle of the night and plays video games,” she said. “He says it relaxes him, but I’m afraid he’s doing it because he’s afraid that once the baby comes, he won’t have any time to himself anymore.” She was quiet for a moment. “We argued about it.”
Joan smiled. She tucked her silver hair behind her ear and reached across the table to pat Beth’s hand. “When I was pregnant, Mike used to go out night fishing. Scared the living daylights out of me, thinking he was going to fall asleep and fall in the water and drown.”
“When I was pregnant with you and then your brother, Jack, John used to get up and graph sentences and study the derivation of words,” Christine said. She looked at Lindsey. “Always the professor of etymology.”
“So this is normal?” Beth asked.
“Absolutely,” Joan said.
“Fatherhood is a big wake-up call for a man,” Christine said. “Even though times have changed and women contribute to the household income just as much, and frequently more, than men, they still have that be-the-provider thing. I think it freaks them out.”
“Oh, phew.” Beth collapsed back into her chair. “I was afraid deep down he was changing his mind about the whole parenting thing.” She gestured at her still-slim belly. “Too late.”
They all laughed, and Lindsey heard the notification chime from her phone. She wondered whether it was Sully reporting in from his fishing trip. Suddenly, she missed him with an intensity that was almost painful.
“Excuse me,” she said. She reached down into her bag and picked up her phone. She thumbed it open and glanced at the text icon. It indicated a new message, so she opened it. The number wasn’t one she recognized, and she assumed it was an advertisement. It wasn’t.
The message read, I liked you in the first dress. Choose that one for me.