Felicity Miner balanced the steaming cup of hot chocolate and the blueberry muffin with one hand as she unlocked the door to the bookshop. The late September wind had turned chilly overnight, and Felicity wished she would have worn her autumn sweater. Currently she had her summer sweater on because Pine Valley had been unseasonably hot the last few days. That had changed today, it seemed.
And yes, Felicity had sweaters for all seasons, even summer, because she worked in the Reading Nook. And it was always cold. Mr. Smithson, the owner, said the cold air preserved the books, and apparently sixty-five degrees was the optimal temperature. But Mr. Smithson was out of town. Again. Felicity supposed that if she owned a bookshop and had a reliable employee such as herself, she’d travel too.
This month her boss was on his eighth cruise of the year. Yep. He had a problem. Was it possible to be addicted to cruises? Felicity supposed it was. She was pretty much addicted to hot chocolate, and drank it every day of the year, rain or shine, snow or heat waves.
Felicity set her to-go breakfast on the counter by the register, then went into the back room, where she stopped in front of the thermostat. It was, of course, set on sixty-five degrees. She had once changed the temperature, and she’d never seen Mr. Smithson so upset. It was then she realized that he cared for the books in his bookshop like some people cared for their pets.
Upon threat of termination, Felicity had promised never to touch the thermostat again. All right. Mr. Smithson hadn’t been that drastic, but Felicity had felt terrible. She stared at the thermostat for a moment longer and knew the next eight hours would be incredibly long and cold. And she couldn’t keep leaving the shop and buying hot chocolate every hour. So . . . she lifted her hand and pressed the up arrow. Sixty-six, sixty-seven, sixty-eight, sixty-nine, seventy, seventy-one, seventy-two, seventy-three.
The system kicked on, and by the time Felicity returned to the register, the air had already started to warm. Or maybe it was the heat of guilt that had spread through her. Regardless, tomorrow she’d repent and bring a warmer sweater.
Felicity still had thirty minutes until the shop opened, so she busied herself with checking the company emails, then the phone messages that had come in after closing. She returned calls to two people and answered their questions about when some newer bestsellers would be back in stock. She unlocked the bookshop door, then she sipped her hot chocolate as she browsed Amazon book prices on the company laptop. If Pine Valley wasn’t a popular tourist spot, Felicity had no doubt the bookstore would be out of business. Amazon was killing it.
September and October were the dead months at the shop because the winter skiers didn’t arrive until early November, and the summer vacationers were all back to work and their kids were in school. So . . . it gave Felicity plenty of time to read, which she had no problem with.
She picked up Elana Johnson’s romance Beloved in Blue from the new release display and settled on the stool behind the register to start reading. Fantasy was her go-to genre, but she liked to mix it up and read a different genre in between each fantasy novel. Plus, she considered being well-read as part of her job requirement. This particular romance novel had a cop as the hero, which of course brought in the tough-guy stereotype.
But this novel was different, and Felicity found herself caught up in the cop’s characterization and motivations of why he joined the police force in the first place. And it didn’t hurt that he was tall, dark, and handsome. Of course. It was a romance novel. Felicity smiled more than once as the story unfolded, and she realized this book was exactly what she needed. Light, sweet, and charming, with the knowledge that there would be a happy ending. Something Felicity had yet to experience with any guy she’d dated. The current mode of dating was to connect on dating apps, which Felicity abhorred. Thus . . . she’d been dateless for almost a year, since moving to Pine Valley. Probably a record for a single woman of twenty-seven.
So what if her outlet was reading a romance about a gorgeous cop? Or a fantasy novel with shape-shifters? There were worse vices in the world, right?
Felicity was still sitting in the same place an hour later when he entered.
In her mind, Felicity referred to him as Ben, but she didn’t know his name. All she knew was that he came into the bookshop every few days and never bought anything. He was probably close to thirty, but the hollows beneath his eyes made him look older. His hair was dark, his eyes darker, and his complexion olive.
“Hi, can I help you find anything?” Felicity asked, as she always did, rising from her stool and shutting the book.
“I’m just looking,” he said with barely a glance in her direction.
Felicity watched him browse the new release table, then pick up a book, leaf through it, and set it back down. When he’d first come into the shop a couple of weeks ago, she had thought him homeless, but then she’d seen him climb into a car and drive away. And although his clothing was well-worn, it was clean.
Still, Felicity clicked to the video mode on the company laptop that connected with the security surveillance system so she could watch all the angles of the stores. “Ben” walked down one of the aisles, picked up a book here and there, leafing through pages, then set the book back on the shelf exactly how he’d found it.
Next, he picked up an older Jeff Savage mystery paperback, and instead of putting it back onto the shelf, he lifted his shirt and slipped it into the waistband of his jeans.
Felicity blinked and leaned closer to the laptop screen. Ben picked up a second book, leafed through it, set it back, then walked around the end of the aisle.
Felicity straightened. Ben didn’t make eye contact as he walked toward the front of the store. He was leaving. With the book.
“Wait!” she called after him.
Ben started to run.
“Stop! You can’t steal a book!” She grabbed her phone and ran after Ben. Once she reached the sidewalk, he was near the next corner. She pulled up her camera app with trembling hands and clicked a few pictures.
But Ben had already disappeared, so her pictures amounted to blurry photos of a flower planter on the sidewalk.
“Are you all right, hon?” a woman said.
Felicity looked over at the woman and recognized her as a regular customer at the bookshop. But her name had completely escaped Felicity.
“Someone just stole a book and ran out of the shop.”
“Oh, goodness,” the woman continued, her painted-on eyebrows rising so high they met her dyed-blonde bangs. “Did you call the cops?”
“Not yet.” She took a shaky breath. “I guess I need to.”
“I’ll wait with you for the cops to get here,” the woman said. “I mean, I was almost a witness to a crime.” The woman’s voice seemed way too pleased at the prospect.
“Okay, thanks,” Felicity said, suddenly remembering the woman’s name was Nadine Harris. Nadine was sixty-something, tall, willowy, and blonde. She always dressed well, and she belonged to a local book club. Her son Dawson was an esteemed lawyer in Pine Valley.
Nadine walked into the shop with her. “You look a little shaken up, dear,” she said. “Maybe we should put out the CLOSED sign until the cops get here.”
“Good idea,” Felicity said, although her heart rate was calming down. “Thanks again for being here.”
Nadine waved a manicured hand. “No problem. You make the call, and I’ll browse. Maybe I can look for clues?”
Before Felicity could answer, Nadine continued, “Do you have a coffee machine? It might do us both good.”
“No, Mr. Smithson doesn’t want any aromas in the store that might take away from the new-book smell.” Felicity was rambling.
Nadine laughed. “That Mr. Smithson. He sure is something.”
Felicity couldn’t agree more. She looked up the police department number on her phone, then pressed CALL. A female officer answered, and after Felicity explained about the theft, the officer said that she’d send someone right over.
While they waited, Nadine kept up general chitchat, which Felicity was grateful for. When she saw a cop car pull up in front of the shop, she walked to the front door and unlocked it.
A police officer climbed out of the car and approached the shop. She hadn’t seen this officer before, but it wasn’t like she’d ever called the police station to report a crime either. His hair was short and dark, and his olive skin made him look like he spent a lot of time in the sun. He was well built, as if he spent his fair share of time in the gym—or maybe chasing bad guys. The cop’s dark uniform only emphasized his broad shoulders and the strength of his arms. He was handsome, aided in part by his chiseled jawline, full lips, and dark sunglasses.
Am I really checking out a cop?
She blamed it on the aforementioned romance novel she’d been reading that morning. The cop opened the door and strode in, glancing about. He looked as if he’d sprung right from those pages. But this wasn’t Adam Herrin from Beloved in Blue. Felicity blinked. Yep. The cop had stopped in front of her. She looked up. Yep. He was definitely the tall, dark, and handsome type. This close, she caught his clean spice scent. It was subtle, but Felicity liked subtle. He was also holding out his hand, waiting for her to shake it.
Was she supposed to shake a cop’s hand? She guessed if he was the one offering, it was okay.
“Hi, there,” the officer said, his warm hand enclosing over hers in a firm grip. “I’m Officer Russo. Are you Felicity Miner?”
“Yes.” It sounded like a croak.
Officer Russo released her hand and slid off his sunglasses.
“Oh.” Felicity breathed. The warm, brown eyes that connected with hers were striking. She didn’t know how to exactly describe their color—maybe hot-chocolate brown? The dark chocolate kind. With a dusting of cinnamon.