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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 12


Livin’ La Vida Library

Sloane

The library was my happy place, not my horny place.

Despite the action my vibrator had seen last night, I still unlocked the door feeling edgy and unsatisfied. And I blamed him.

I relocked the door and flicked on the first-­floor lights. My shoulders instantly relaxed as the quiet and natural order soothed me.

I loved being the first person here in the mornings. Loved soaking up these precious moments of silence while gearing up for another day. Despite the stereotypes, the library was rarely quiet. There were two quiet rooms tucked away at the back of the first floor for studying or reading or the weekly meditation class. But there was life in these walls.

When I’d first become head librarian, we’d been crammed into a musty municipal building with peeling linoleum floors, flickering fluorescent lights, and creaky metal shelves. The entire catalog was about a decade out of date, and the staff and patrons had to share two eight-­year-­old laptops.

Now, the citizens of Knockemout entered a bright, airy space with cozy seating nooks, lightning fast Wi-­Fi, two entire floors of books and media, and all the technology a reader could want.

Books on every subject sat neatly on the white oak shelves lined up like a precision marching band. The long, low circulation desk was clutter-­free and ready for business. We’d gone with a wheelchair-­friendly low-­pile carpet in a soft green that made me think of grassy pastures. Tuesday morning sunlight slanted in through the generous windows, bathing several varieties of houseplants in its beams.

Dumping my tote on the circulation desk, I cued up a fun playlist of instrumental versions of pop songs over the sound system and booted up the two desktop computers.

I checked the events calendar posted on the wall against the internal calendar to make sure the listings were up-­to-­date and made mental notes to send a confirmation email to the animal rescue for our Caturday event and order extra cookies for Drag Queen Story Hour since we’d run out early last month.

Two organizations had the upstairs conference rooms booked for meetings today, which meant I needed to make sure the tables were configured correctly and the whiteboards were free of teenage graffiti.

The fish girl was coming to rebalance the water in the children’s section fish tank. I fired off a quick text to Jamal, the youth services librarian, to ask him if he’d run the UV wand over the floor cushions since the elementary school had reported an outbreak of pink eye yesterday.

Coffee came next.

I stowed my bag under the desk and headed for the coffee counter. We’d sprung for one of those fancy instant espresso machines and a dishwasher to deal with the mugs. Not only did patrons enjoy the step up from regular drip coffee, it was just another experience that encouraged them to stay a little longer. To take a breath and enjoy themselves with a book or socialize with staff and patrons.

Machine levels checked and coffee condiments restocked, I unloaded the previous day’s mugs from the dishwasher and organized them on their hooks.

I wondered if Lucian felt like this when he strode into his offices every morning. Was it pride like I felt?

Not that I was thinking about him again, because I definitely wasn’t.

Except now I definitely was. Had he even thought about me after I’d left his office yesterday?

“Oh my God. Stop!” I said to myself out loud.

“Stop what?”

“Mother of dragons! Where did you come from?” I demanded, immediately dropping the hands I’d raised in a protective stance.

Naomi, pretty in a long-­sleeve ribbed dress and tights, stood clutching a gallon-­sized to-­go coffee.

“That depends on how far back you want to go. I woke up to my naked husband—­”

I held up a hand. “New rule in our friendship. No bragging about your stellar sex life when your friend is in the middle of a dry spell.”

“That’s fair,” Naomi agreed. Despite the fact that she already had a cup of coffee in hand, she headed straight for the espresso maker. A swing of chestnut hair fell over her face in a perfect wave.

“Your hair looks good,” I noted.

“Thanks. Waylay did it. Jeremiah got her an astronomically expensive curling iron for Christmas, and she’s already mastered it. So what are we stopping?”

“Hmm?” I feigned innocence.

“You were standing there lost in some sort of reverie and then ordered yourself to stop.”

I hadn’t mentioned yesterday’s “unfortunate incident” with Lucian to Naomi and Lina. Mainly because I didn’t want to deal with their demands for a play-­by-­play or their misguided hopes that this was the beginning of the end of our feud. I also didn’t want to admit to anyone that Lucian Rollins had made my lady parts feel things they had no business feeling where he was concerned.

“Oh, I’m just all up in my head about…stuff when I really need to be concentrating on…other stuff.” Smooth. Real smooth.

“Yeah. You know I know you’re lying, right? I have a twelve-­year-­old at home.”

“Pfft. I’m not lying,” I lied.

She pinned me with an earnest look. “You also know I’m here for you whenever you’re ready to talk about whatever it is you’re lying about, right?”

“Yeah. I know.” I said it mostly to my sneakers. I wasn’t required to tell my friends every single thing. I didn’t expect that of them. I did expect them to tell me the big, important things though. Whatever the hell Lucian and I had done yesterday didn’t qualify as big or important.

We’d barely touched. And whatever grazes or brushes or intense looks of fiery longing had passed between us before Petula came barreling in all meant nothing. Absolutely nothing at all.

Great. Now I was thinking about it again, and Naomi was looking at me expectantly as if she was waiting for an answer.

“Hey, do you know if Jamal disinfected the kids’ section last night?” I asked.

“A subject change. Not at all suspicious,” she teased. “You’re still coming to dinner tonight, right? Nash and Lina will be there.”

My social life consisted of me being the fifth wheel tagging along with two couples with smoldering hot sex lives.

Ugh. I really needed to make some changes in my life. I wanted to be the one making my friends uncomfortable with over-­the-­top PDA. I wanted to be making plans for the future with my hot life partner with a large penis.

A salacious memory of Lucian’s trouser-­covered erection immediately appeared in my mind. No! Bad, brain! Bad. Lucian was not life partner material.

“I’ll be there,” I said grimly.

The day was busy enough that I managed to table all thoughts of Lucian, except for the particularly steamy ones that popped into my head every ten to twelve minutes. By the time I called the afternoon staff meeting to order, I’d already tackled all my to-­do list, plus dealt with the elevator maintenance people for the annual inspection, the fish girl, and a hysterical toddler who refused to come out of the pillow fort. Her dad was recovering from knee surgery, which meant I was the one who had to crawl in after her. It had taken one bag of goldfish crackers and the promise that she could scan all the books at checkout to negotiate her surrender.

“Those are some great ideas on fundraisers for our free breakfast summer program,” I said, scribbling down the last suggestion on my iPad, then scrolling back to the agenda. “Let’s see. Ah. Book club. I heard back from Matt Haig’s agent. She said he’s happy to answer our five-­question Q and A for book club.”

The news was met with enthusiastic mumbles around the table. Everyone had their mouths full of baked goods, a staff meeting requirement.

“What’s next?” I asked.

Kristin, the adult services librarian, waved her cheese Danish in my direction. She was a curvy woman in her midfifties who had taken up dating bikers and pole dancing after her divorce. “I ordered the new Cecelia Blatch romance novel for the catalog, and my clever social media stalking of her reveals that she lives about an hour from here. What if we hosted a signing for her? Maybe something on Valentine’s Day.”

“I like it. She could give a reading and then sign copies of her books,” I mused.

I had read three of the author’s titles. The growly, alpha heroes were just overprotective enough without being assholey. The heroines were the perfect balance of feisty and endangered. And the sex on the page was straight up fire.

I wondered what Lucian was like in bed. Would he be as restrained as he was in everyday life, or did he let go of all pretenses between the sheets?

Oh, for fuck’s sake!

I brought a hand to my cheek. My skin felt like the surface of the sun. I needed to deal with this. I needed sex with someone who was not He Who Shall Not Be Named.

I forcefully evicted all thoughts of the man from my brain and focused on the last few agenda items.

“Good meeting,” I said, closing the cover of my tablet. “If anyone comes up with anything else—­”

“Your door is always open,” they said in unison.

“One more thing,” Jamal said. At twenty-­six, the youth services librarian was our youngest employee. The kids adored him. Not just because he wore cool baseball hats to work and played ultimate Frisbee. He was also a talented amateur artist whose sketches and caricatures entertained patrons of all ages. “We received Marjorie Ronsanto’s weekly email complaint—­”

Our collective groan interrupted him.

“About the LGBTQ+ books in the children’s section being ‘dangerously inclusive,’” he continued, glancing down at the printout. “Actually we received the complaint meant for us and one she wrote to Target for using an interracial couple in their TV commercial. She also reminded us of her ‘generous donation’ of the break room trash can.”

“I hate that thing,” Kristin said.

It was one of those smart trash cans that wasn’t quite smart enough to open when it was supposed to. Six months ago, I had lost my temper and finally pried the lid off it.

“Can’t she take a week off from hating everything?” Naomi asked.

“Marjorie’s on a one-­woman crusade to be a gigantic pain in the ass,” Blaze said, crossing her tattooed arms over her chest. Blaze was one of our board members and volunteers. She also put the L in LGBTQ+.

“Her mother clearly didn’t love her enough when she was a child,” I said dryly. “All in favor of doing what we always do with Marjorie’s complaints?”

Everyone around the table raised their hands.

“I’ll send her the canned response,” Agatha, Blaze’s wife and fellow board member, volunteered.

“When you do, tell her that her copy of The Witch’s Mountain Lovers: A Dubious Consent Paranormal Reverse Harem was due back two days ago,” Kristin said smugly.

Agatha grinned and mimed dropping a microphone.


Back in the safety of my office, I cracked open my afternoon root beer and flopped down behind my desk.

It wasn’t shiny, sterile glass like Lucian’s. My office was furnished with what I liked to think of as generic administrator furniture: sturdy budget pieces that lacked personality. I made up for it by painting the walls a hunter green and cramming the shelves full of personal memorabilia. It was cluttered, colorful, and chaotic. Just like me.

A delightful hot mess such as myself did not belong with an emotionally stunted neat freak. Not even between the sheets.

No, if I was serious about finding my life partner, I needed to focus on that. Not the potential of really hot sex with a guy I didn’t actually like.

I remembered the dating app and perked up immediately. Perhaps my future husband was already in my inbox.

I pounced on my phone like my cat on her chicken-­and-­waffle-­flavored treats…and immediately deflated.

No notifications. How was that possible?

I checked my inbox and found it empty.

“This can’t be right,” I mumbled to myself. I scrolled through the history of male profiles I’d hearted. Seriously? How was a girl supposed to get laid, let alone fall in love, when none of the men I’d hearted had hearted me back?

Maybe the app was broken. I’d probably missed a button to publish my profile. I’d have to ask Stef or Lina and soon, seeing as how my “quivering sex” was so ready for action it was starting to consider Lucian Rollins as a potential candidate.

“When you’re finished scowling at your screen, I have something for you.”

I backhanded my tumbler off the desk and hurled my phone in a wide arc. I was halfway out of my chair before I came to my senses.

And my senses told me that Lucian Freaking Rollins was standing in the doorway of my office.

“What…why…er, how?” I croaked as I came to my feet.

He crouched down smoothly and picked up the water bottle I’d accidentally assaulted. “Funny, I remember you being more eloquent than this.”

“Don’t start with me, Lucifer,” I warned, snatching the tumbler out of his manly hand. “Why are you haunting my office instead of purchasing blood diamonds and selling stolen internal organs on the black market?”

He tossed a manga novel onto my desk. My manga novel. Well, technically the library’s.

“You left this in my office. I heard the librarian here is a stickler for late fees.”

“You know there’s this thing called the postal service,” I said, liberating my phone from the floor.

“Unfortunately for you, I was already going to be in town.” He tucked his hands into his pockets and prowled my office in a slow circuit, pausing to look more closely at my personal effects.

He was too big to be in here. He seemed to suck all the oxygen and color out of the room until the only thing I was aware of was his presence.

“What has you spoiling for a fight, Pixie? Did another squirrel get stuck in the book return?”

“You’re hilarious. So funny. I’m so glad we had this time together. Why don’t I open this second-­story window and assist you out of it?” I offered, rubbing the wrist that had connected with my water bottle.

“Interesting reading material,” he said, tilting his head at the book on my desk.

“It’s for a teenage boy with dyslexia. I figured he’d like all the fight scenes, but I wanted to read it first before I recommended it to him.” I didn’t know why I was explaining myself to him. It wasn’t like he actually cared what I read, and I certainly didn’t put any stock in his opinion of me or my reading habits.

“Nearly every memory I have of you involves books.”

It came out of him sounding like a confession. We stared at each other for a long, silent thirty seconds.

I shook my head. “You know, sometimes I think I imagined it all.”

He put down the framed photo of me and my parents at the ribbon cutting for the library and fixed those assessing gray eyes on me.

“Imagined what?”

“You. Me. The cherry tree. I thought we were friends.”

“We were. Once.”

He layered blame on top of that one syllable until it was all I heard.

“I don’t get you. I didn’t get you as a high school senior, and I don’t get you as a business mogul. And I sure as hell don’t get what happened yesterday.”

His eyes changed. It was an almost imperceptible shift, but I’d spent a lifetime studying him and didn’t miss the glint of silver.

“Let’s add yesterday to the long list of mistakes better left in the past,” he suggested.

“I’ve already forgotten it,” I boasted.

“Which is why you were the one to bring it up five seconds ago,” he pointed out.

I’d forgotten how deftly he played his enemies. He and my father had spent countless hours with a chessboard between them.

“I may have brought it up, but we both know it’s no coincidence that yesterday happened and now here you are, paying me a visit in a place you’ve never once set foot in.”

The air in the room was electric. I could practically see the sparks flying between us. But they weren’t the romantic, will-­they-­won’t-­they sparks. These were the kind that burned things to the ground. The kind that destroyed everything in their wake.

Through my window, the late afternoon sun bathed his face in golden glow and shadows.

“How’s your mother?” he asked before turning back to the next piece of me that caught his eye.

“She’s fine.”

His expression shifted to irritated patience.

“She’s okay,” I amended. “I helped her go through some of Dad’s things yesterday after dress shopping and it was…” What? Excruciating? Heartbreaking? Even though we each set aside favorite pieces, boxing up his clothes added another layer of pain to our goodbye. “Difficult,” I decided.

“I was thinking the other day about Simon’s gardening T-­shirt,” Lucian said. “From the one and only 5K he ever completed.”

I was relieved he was looking away from me because I had to bring my fingers to my mouth to keep the unexpected sob inside.

“Knockemout Runs for Breast Cancer,” I said when I’d regained my composure.

It was a hot-­pink, double extra-­large freebie T-­shirt with cartoon breasts emblazoned across the chest. My father’s medium frame swam in it. But he’d been so proud of his accomplishment and the money he’d raised that he turned it into his gardening shirt, knotting it on his hip like he was a teenage girl. I’d spent years in agonized humiliation because of that shirt. It was the only item of his clothing I’d kept.

“The first time I saw him in it, he was attacking that bush in your backyard—­the one with the red berries—­with electric hedge trimmers and telling your mother that he was Simon Scissorhands.”

My laugh, watery though it was, surprised us both.

His lips curved, and for a moment, it felt like there was no desk between us, no ugly history. He used to make me laugh, and I used to make him smile.

“I don’t know how to react when you’re nice to me,” I announced.

“If you didn’t make it so difficult, I’d be civil more often,” he said dryly.

“It’s probably better this way. You might sprain something pretending to be human.”

The ghost of a smile remained on his mouth.

“About yesterday,” I prompted.

What about yesterday? What the hell was I thinking bringing it up? Again.

“What about it?” There was a dare in his question.

“I met Holly,” I blurted out, going for the first topic that didn’t involve us touching each other. “She seemed very grateful for the job. Lina told us how you hired her. Maybe you’re not a complete asshole.”

“No one gives a compliment like you, Pixie.”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, shut up. I’m trying to be nice.”

“The only nice thing you can say about me is that I hired someone to do a job?”

“Maybe I’d have more to say if you’d tell me why my mother is so grateful to you,” I reminded him.

“Leave it alone, Sloane,” he said wearily.

The awkward truce between us was cracking, crumbling. I didn’t know if I was relieved or disappointed.

Lucian turned his attention to the contents of the bookcase.

His gaze landed on the display case containing a bronzed softball. Those lips went flat again.

“What’s this?” he asked, eyeing the acrylic case.

“It’s the ball from my last game. Maeve had it bronzed as a joke.” It had been my first real, fall-­on-­the-­floor, couldn’t-­catch-­my-­breath laugh after my injury. After finding out that my plans for a softball scholarship were officially over.

I didn’t know if the twinge in my wrist was real or just the echo of a memory. And I didn’t realize I was massaging it until Lucian looked down.

His eyes went storm cloud gray. He opened his mouth, then closed it with a snap.

“What?” I asked, not bothering to keep the annoyance out of my tone.

“I don’t have time for this. For you.”

“Like I said, no one asked you to play delivery boy.”

“And I didn’t ask you to get involved and end your softball career,” he said.

“Clearly, we’re even then,” I joked.

“As always, you’re infuriating, irresponsible, and immature.” His tone was flippant, as if I were barely worth the effort to insult.

“And you’re a mercurial pain in my ass,” I pointed out, feeling the sting.

“Always so charming. It’s such a mystery why you’re still single.”

The man wielded sarcasm with the dexterity of a master manipulator. I had the urge to pat myself down and search for physical wounds.

“You’re late for your next ritual sacrifice, Lucifer. You’d better be going.”

He smirked. “Thank you for reminding me why our relationship is what it is. Every once in a while, I manage to forget what you really are.”

“Is that so? And just what do you think I am?” I asked.

“Dangerous.”

I flashed him a saccharine-­sweet smile. “Do you think you can find your way out, or do you want me to help you down the stairs face-­first?”

“I think I can manage. Keep your things out of my life.”

“Yeah? Well, keep your life out of my work,” I shot back, crossing the room and gesturing toward the open door.

“Hey, Uncle Lucian,” Waylay called from behind the community desk where she was working on a laptop. The two teenage boys leaning against the desk looked at Lucian with wide eyes.

“Hey, Way,” Lucian said, stalking toward the stairs.

“Do you need us to escort him out, Ms. Walton?” Lonnie Potter offered, hooking his thumb in the direction of Lucian’s retreating back.

His friend’s eyeballs doubled in size behind his glasses.

I would have laughed if I hadn’t been too busy breathing flames.

“No. But thank you, Lonnie. That’s very gentlemanly of you.”

I stomped back to my desk and pressed the heels of my hands to my eyes.

“What the hell does mercurial mean?” I heard Lonnie whisper to his friend.

“For fuck’s sake,” I muttered.

I needed a meditation class. Or hypnotherapy. Or some kind of drug that rendered me immune to Lucian Rollins. So what if he hated me? So what if he went out of his way to piss me off? Every time I reacted, I was giving him what he wanted. That alone should be enough to stop me.

“Knock knock?” The tentative greeting came from Naomi, who entered my office with my sister. “I was bringing Maeve up to you, and we ran into Lucian on the stairs,” Naomi said. “I think he actually snarled when I said hello.”

“Please don’t speak that name in my presence ever again,” I begged.

“Wow. You two really can’t stand each other, can you?” Maeve observed. “You guys used to be so tight.”

“They did? When?” Naomi pounced on the information like a cat with a catnip taco.

“I’m going to ask you both a huge favor that involves changing the subject immediately,” I interrupted.

“She doesn’t like to talk about whatever it is that happened with Lu—­that guy,” Naomi whispered to my sister.

“I just so happen to have the perfect subject change,” Maeve said, eyeing the visitors’ chairs that were buried under books and the remains of a children’s diorama of the first public library in Knockemout.

“Let’s take this to the conference room,” I suggested, wanting to get away from the Lucian-­y vibe of my office.

“I need to get back downstairs,” Naomi said. “Neecey’s coming in when she finishes her shift at Dino’s, and I’m helping her find some Medicare information for her dad.”

“Thanks for bringing me up,” Maeve called after her.

“Yeah, thanks,” I said belatedly. “Come on.” I led the way to the conference room and settled in at the table with my sister. “Okay. Lay it on me.”

“Mary Louise Upshaw,” Maeve said, removing a file from her slim, snazzy briefcase. “She was arrested for possession and transporting a controlled substance. She was sentenced to twenty years in prison. She’s eleven years into her sentence in Fraus Correctional Center about an hour south of here.”

“That seems unusually harsh,” I noted.

“It is,” my sister agreed. “The average sentence for similar charges is usually closer to three to five years.”

“Why would her case warrant such an excessive sentence? It was her first offense.”

“The judge hearing the case made a career out of being tough on drugs. He could have been making some kind of statement.”

I picked up the folder and looked at Mary Louise’s mug shot. She looked like a scared suburban mom who had no idea how she’d gotten herself into a predicament that involved a mug shot. “She doesn’t look like someone who would traffic a few pounds of weed and a couple tabs of ecstasy.”

“From what I could gather, Mary Louise claimed the drugs weren’t hers and initially pleaded not guilty. But a few weeks later, she changed her plea to no contest.”

I thought about what Allen had told me the day of Dad’s funeral. “My dumb stuff had consequences. Consequences my mom paid for.”

“Oh, Allen,” I sighed. “Why didn’t she appeal?”

“She has. Or at least she’s tried. She’s been through four public defenders since her arrest. I have the contact info for her current representation,” Maeve said.

I knew from my sister and my father that public defenders were notoriously overworked and the turnover was brisk.

“I’m sorry it’s not a deeper dive. I’ve been in court, and there were some other things demanding my attention, so I didn’t have as much time to dig into the case as I would have liked.”

I flipped through the paperwork. “I appreciate you doing this. I know you’ve got a lot going on.”

“Never too much for family,” she said.

There was that flare of guilt again. I had been too busy for family. Too busy to start one.

“Hey. How are you doing with everything?” I asked, reaching across the table and squeezing her hand.

She squeezed back. “I’m doing okay. Chloe is a good distraction. That girl can suck all the attention out of a room and leave its occupants too exhausted to think after she leaves. But I really miss him.”

“Me too,” I said.

I felt like there was more to the sad shrug, the forced smile. Something she wasn’t telling me.

“What else is going on?” I pressed.

An uninitiated observer would have missed the flicker in her eyes, but I was a nosy little sister. I saw it all.

“Nothing,” she said innocently.

“Liar. You’ve been off since before Dad died. What’s going on? You might as well spill it because you know I won’t leave you alone.”

She rolled her eyes. “Ugh. Fine. I was seeing this guy, and it didn’t work out. It was nothing. No dramatic breakup. No tearful confrontation.”

My eyebrows winged up. “You were seeing someone and managed to keep it a secret in this town?”

“It wasn’t exactly a relationship I wanted broadcast to the world.”

“You had a secret, taboo affair and managed to keep it quiet? I’m impressed. Why did you dump him?”

“How did you—­never mind. I’m too busy for a relationship. He wanted serious, and I didn’t—­don’t—­have the time for serious.”

My sister was the calm, collected person you’d want on your side in the middle of an emergency. She never let emotions get the best of her. The fact that she was pretending not to be upset about the breakup told me it was more than “nothing.”

“I’m sorry it didn’t work out,” I said, treading lightly.

“It’s fine. Thanks again for play rehearsal pickup. That’s been helpful,” Maeve said, reeling in her emotions.

I studied her for a moment, then decided to let it go…for now.

“Hey, do you and Chloe want to come over Sunday? We’ll make Dad’s chili and Mom’s cornbread and watch Erin Brockovich.” And I could sneakily work more information out of her about this mystery man.

“The Simon Walton Memorial Trifecta,” Maeve said with a smile. “Count us in.”

“Great.”

My sister packed up her tidy briefcase and got to her feet. “Listen. If you decide to dig into this Mary Louise case, let me know. I’m interested.”

“Thanks, Maevey Gravy,” I said wrapping her in a hug.

“Anytime, Sloaney Baloney.”


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