Chapter Fifteen

After a full-night’s sleep and a breakfast of bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy, Ellie and her father drove to Spencer’s Antiquated Books. Most of the shelves in the small shop stood empty. The books that hadn’t sold yet were arranged alphabetically in the bookcases nearest the checkout desk.

Two men were sitting in leather chairs leafing through the books they held. Her gaze lingered on one of them, a young man with dark, wavy hair, until he seemed to sense her perusal and glanced up. She broke the eye contact immediately and hurried over to the bookshelf.

Ellie grabbed a book, without looking at the title, and returned to take a seat across from the cute guy. Her father settled into another chair to wait for Uncle Jim who was having a discussion with a customer.

She opened the book and pretended to read. He was gorgeous. Her eyes strayed from the page to travel over his face and hair once more. Those curls, framing his oval face perfectly, kept derailing her thoughts. Dark brown hair brushed his collar at the nape. Not too long and definitely not too short either. He had thick, dark eyebrows and a clean-shaven face. He looked to be around her age, maybe a few years older, and most importantly, there was no ring on his left hand. Would it be completely horrible to ask for permission to take his picture? Of course, her camera was in the truck. She could run and get it if he agreed, though. What would her father think? A plan formed.

“Dad, would you mind grabbing my camera from the truck? I’d like to grab a couple of shots of the bookstore.” While he was gone she honed her strategy. She’d introduce herself as an amateur photographer and say something intelligent and flirty, Jane Austen-like. Unfortunately, she couldn’t come up with the perfect words yet. But surely she’d think of something. What good was reading if you couldn’t use your knowledge when it was most needed?

Her father returned, handed her the camera bag with an indulgent smile, picked up his book, and settled back into his chair. Ellie closed her eyes, picturing Elizabeth Bennet smiling warmly in encouragement, and decided that she’d better keep it simple and straightforward. Elizabeth frowned and shook her head, dainty curls dancing. “Oh, shut up,” Ellie muttered under her breath, opening her eyes to banish the fictional character.

Her father cocked his head toward her. “Did you say something, Rosie?”

“Just talking to myself, Dad.” She unzipped the camera bag and picked the lens she wanted to use. When everything was ready, she took a deep breath, let it out, and scooted to the edge of her seat. His eyes were already locked on the camera when she cleared her throat.

“Excuse me,” she said to him, “but I’m an amateur photographer and I wonder if you’d let me take a couple of pictures of you here in the bookstore.” His lips twitched up. He seemed amused. Which was much better than being irritated, she supposed. She took it as a good sign.

His Adam’s apple bopped on his throat as he swallowed. “You want to take my picture?”

“Well, yes. You are practically perfect in every way.” Oh no. Did she just say that out loud? The man in the chair beside the cute guy lifted his hand to cover his mouth but his eyes crinkled and she knew he was hiding a smile. She wanted to smack her forehead. Against a wall maybe.

The object of her infatuation was smiling fully now. “Thank you. I’ve never been compared to Mary Poppins before, but I’ll take it.” The smile faded from his lips but his eyes still sparkled. They literally did! Maybe he was holding back tears of embarrassment, like she was. “Do you want me to keep reading or smile for you or what?”

“How about both?” She could berate herself later. Although if she got her pictures maybe not, since she’d have something to drool over.

He raked a hand through his hair and those gorgeous locks rearranged themselves perfectly. She wanted to touch them, just to see if they were as soft as they looked. He squared his shoulders and smiled. A full-on, beauty of a smile that made her amateur photographer’s heart pound erratically.

She held the shutter release button down, hearing the shutter click several times within a matter of seconds. “Now reading?” His gaze lowered to the book in his hands. She forgot her embarrassment and slipped into business mode. Lighting, background, and capturing her model’s best characteristics became her priority. She stepped to the side and back, dropping down on her good knee for a couple of shots. Finally, she lowered the camera. “Thank you. I think I have enough.” She quickly scanned through the digital photos.

“May I see?” He stood up and approached her.

“Sure.” She handed him the camera and pointed at the buttons he’d push to scroll forward and backward.

“Hmmm, I think it’s time for another haircut. Or a ponytail.”

She longed to touch his hair so badly her fingers twitched.

“I see you’ve finally met.” Ellie jumped at her uncle’s voice.

She spun around. “Wh-what?”

“You and Bradley. It’s nice that you’re taking some pictures of the place before it’s closed, too.”

“Oh, yeah.” She turned in a slow circle, snapping pictures of the store.

“We haven’t actually been introduced, sir. She just asked to take some photos.”

“Oh, well did you overhear my conversation with Cecelia?”

“Most of it. What did she offer?”

Uncle Jim and the young man continued their conversation. Ellie took photos from different angles, capturing the layout of the bookstore, before returning to her father’s side. Mortification had firmly settled into every bone in her body. Her uncle was obviously speaking to Mr. Spencer’s adopted son. The man she’d compared to Mary Poppins a few minutes ago. She groaned internally. What must he think of her?

“Counter by halving the difference and see what happens but if she doesn’t go for it then accept the offer. I think Mom just wants to be done.”

“Sounds good. Now, for the proper introductions. Bradley, this is my niece Ellie. Ellie this is Bradley Spencer.”

She held out her hand, properly contrite, to apologize and offer her condolences. “If I’d known who you were I would never have been so forward. Especially at this time. I’m so sorry.”

His handshake was firm, but not crushing. “Don’t apologize. I’m glad you didn’t know who I was. You were perfect.”

Déjà vu. It swept over her in a rush and her knees buckled. She was back in the wrecked Pinto and a man was telling her to hold on. That it would be over soon. So much pain. He called her name again and she opened her eyes.

“Ellie?” The bookstore lurched first one way and then the other before it finally seemed to stand still again. She blinked several times, gulping air and trying to calm her racing heart.

“What happened?” Her voice shook. It had seemed so real.

She was in the back room of the bookstore, lying on the floor, her head was cradled in the lap of the young man, who was taking her pulse, and now she recognized him.

“You were there,” she whispered. “It was you.”

“Yes. I was there.” His voice was calm, soft, and reassuring. “I’m surprised you remember.”

She glanced around the room, found her father’s worried face and smiled. “Dad, I’m okay. No pain or anything. It just kind of flooded back and overwhelmed me for a moment. Please tell me you didn’t call Mom.”

“I was just getting ready to when Brad told me to wait. He said you just needed some space.”

“Good. Let’s just keep this our secret. She doesn’t need more to worry about.” Her eyes found Bradley’s. “I can’t believe I forgot about you.”

“It’s the brain’s way of protecting us from painful memories. You can forget me again if you’d like.”

She laughed; it was such a ludicrous thought. And, as comfortable as it was to remain cradled in his lap, she knew it was time to get up. “Is my pulse okay?” He concentrated for several moments, and then nodded. She sat up. “If I didn’t thank you for rescuing me before, please accept my sincerest thanks now. You were my lifeline. I wanted to give up and you didn’t let me.” He stood, helped her up, and held her hand, perhaps to make sure she didn’t fall over. She wobbled, on purpose, to make sure he didn’t let go yet.

“I don’t think you really wanted to give up. You kept talking about your parents and my dad.”

“Your dad?”

“Yes, you kept asking about Murphy.”

She shook her head. “Murphy was my dog.”

“Your dog?” His brows knitted together. “Oh wait! Was he a black and white dog with longish hair?”

“Yes. For some reason I thought he was with me. It’s still a mystery.”

“He was there. He led us to you but we couldn’t find him afterward.”

“Do you remember where the wreck was? I’d like to go back some time and search for him myself.”

“Yes, I remember exactly where it was. GPS coordinates and everything. I can take you whenever you want.”

“It’s a date.” She froze. “Well, I don’t mean it’s a date date. Oh never mind. I should’ve stayed in bed today.”

“It wouldn’t have helped. I’m here all week.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re a glutton for punishment.”

“I respectfully disagree.” He was smiling, but there was sadness in his eyes.

“I’m very sorry about your father.”

“Thank you.”

“How’s your mother doing?”

“She’s handling it as well as she can. I’m trying to convince her to move in with me for a while. Until she decides where she wants to live.”

“She doesn’t want to stay here?”

“She developed rheumatoid arthritis shortly after I was born. Climbing the stairs were  very painful for her even before Dad died and they’re too narrow for a lift. It was only a matter of time before they were going to have to move anyway.”

“I’m sure that’s difficult. So many changes for her all at once.”

“That’s why I took a bereavement leave of absence. We need time to figure it all out.”

She squeezed his hand to tell him she was okay and he let her go. “I’m glad you’re here for her. I hope it all goes as smoothly as possible.”

“Thank you.” He reached behind him for a small stack of books. “These are for you. Dad wanted you to have them.”

She almost collapsed again when she saw what she held. “Oh my!” She flipped open the top book, fairly certain her first impression was correct. It was. In her hands were United Kingdom first editions of The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien. “Dad, look at these.” She wanted her father to hold them, just once, before they gave them back.

Her father carefully opened the book she gave him and read the title page. His eyes grew large and he looked up at her. He shook his head very slightly and she nodded just as carefully. She knew what they were worth and that she couldn’t afford them right now. Her father handed them over to her, with a look of sympathy, and left the room.

Ellie caressed each book, opened them to read a few lines, leaned in to enjoy that old book smell, and then handed them, one-by-one, to Bradley. He smiled, seeming to understand, as she relished each of them for several minutes. When she handed the last one back, she had tears in her eyes. She could only imagine the time and trouble her grandfather had gone through to find these for her.

“Thank you.”

“Do you want me to wrap them up?”

“No. I can’t accept them.”

He recoiled. “What? Of course you can. They were meant for you.”

She held up her hands to cut him off. “Do you know what they’re worth?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Then how can you want me to take them? Your mother could sell them and use the money as a hefty down-payment on a new home.”

“Ellie, stop. My mother is fine. She wants you to have them, too.”

“But—”

“But nothing! Dad felt so strongly about this that he put it in his will. He’s had them for years. He said that he hoped you would think of him whenever you read them.”

“He put it in his will?”

“Yes. And not because he was worried we wouldn’t give them to you. He said he knew you wouldn’t accept them if he didn’t.” He held them out. “He was right, wasn’t he?”

She turned away. From him. From the books. “When did you find out about me? Who I really am to your father.”

“About ten years ago. You and your dad came in to pick up some items he’d found for you guys. He charged your father much less than what he’d paid for them and I confronted him. He told me the whole story. I was shocked, of course. I asked him if he loved you more than Mom and me since you were his biological granddaughter.” She heard him put the books down and then his hands were on her shoulders, turning her around.

He didn’t look angry, or even sad. His eyes were gentle. “He told me that when you have children, love multiplies, it is not divided. Yes, he loved you. He loved your mother, too, and missed her every day. But loving you two did not make him love me less. If anything, it worked the opposite. Loving you two made him love me more.” He shrugged. “Some of that I had to take on faith since I have no children of my own. Now will you accept the books?”

“I’m surprised you don’t hate me,” she muttered. “Can I pay you for them at least?”

His hands left her shoulders but she didn’t mind too much since they were now entangled in his hair. “You’re making me crazy.” He turned away and for the next few minutes he busied himself by wrapping each book, carefully. He dug through a basket next to the desk and found a bag to put them in. When he turned back to her his face was calm again. “It’s not a gift if you pay for it,” he said as he handed the bag to her. “Please accept this gift from my father with our blessings.”

What could she do? She took the bag. “I feel horrible.”

He rubbed his temples. “I’m pretty sure that’s not what Dad wanted.” He looked quite exasperated.

“No. I don’t mean it like that. It’s complicated. I’m excited and happy and overwhelmed all at once. But I feel like I’m stealing from you and your mom.”

“Oh good grief! If I show you our financial statements, will you finally believe that we’re fine and accept the blasted books?”

Yep, definitely exasperated but in a way that made her want to giggle. She tapped a finger against her lips. “Hmmm, yeah, maybe.”

He threw up his hands. “Oh for the love of—” He stepped around her and opened the door that led to the bookstore. “Let’s go. I think your Dad has been waiting long enough.” Her momentary humor fled. Was he really mad at her? “I’m sorry we took so long,” he said to her father.

“Ellie, did you accept them?” The incredulous look on her father’s face made her feel ten year’s old again.

“Mr. Thompson,” Bradley said, “they’re a gift. They were designated as such in my father’s will. She offered to pay for them but I won’t let her.”

Her father studied Bradley’s face for several seconds and then relented. “Well now, that’s quite a gift. Thank you. And please thank your mother for us, too.”

“Yes, please do.” Ellie added. Had she thanked him properly in the other room? She couldn’t remember.

Bradley escorted them to the front door of the bookstore and held it open. Worried, Ellie lingered in the doorway while her father headed for the truck. “Thank you very, very much for the books.” His eyes brightened. “I don’t feel like I deserve such wonderful gifts but I will remember him every time I look at them.”

“Good.” He nodded. “Call me when you’re ready to take that trip to the countryside.”

Relieved that he still wanted to see her again, she impulsively stepped in and wrapped her arms around him. It felt right, being so close. He hugged her tightly. She didn’t want it to end, but her father was waiting. “Umm, about that call . . .” He released her and she fumbled around in her purse for a pen and a slip of paper and wrote her cell number on it. “I think you’re busier than I am at the moment, so why don’t you let me know when you’re free.”

He glanced at the paper, folded it and stuck it in his shirt pocket. “I’ll do that. Bye, Ellie.”

“Bye.” She climbed in the truck, rolled the window down and waved at him as they drove off. She couldn’t stop smiling all the way home. Especially when she remembered that last glance, just before he turned away, when he’d withdrawn a slip of paper from his shirt pocket.

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