“Welcome, folks. Can I have your attention, please?”
I stop my conversation with Holly to listen as Mayor Windham stands at the podium, tapping the microphone. The screech of the feedback from the mic gets our attention more than his voice.
“Thank you, everyone, for coming out here tonight to help us celebrate Ms. Sylvia Andrews’ retirement. Ms. Andrews, would you come up here and join me?” he says as he leads the round of applause. The frail Ms. Andrews struggles to get up from her chair, but would hit you if you tried to help her. I’m sitting next to her, so I’m on guard to catch her if she falls. Everyone in the banquet room keeps applauding as she slowly makes her way to the stage, when out of nowhere, a handsome man in formal military dress comes up to her and offers his arm to help her onstage.
“Holly, who’s that with Ms. Andrews?” I whisper to my sister-in-law, who’s sitting to the left of me at our dinner table.
“I think that is her nephew or great-nephew. Hell, it could be her great-great-nephew, knowing how old she is. All I know is he is pretty cute in those dress blues.”
“Don’t you think I’m cute in my dress blues?” my baby brother Mike asks his new bride. They have only been married for five months now and are definitely still in the honeymoon stage as she adoringly looks at him.
“No, I think you’re handsome in your dress blues; you’re cute when you’re in uniform.”
“I thought you said I was sexy in my uniform?” he teases her before kissing her cheek.
“You’re sexy when you’re wearing nothing at all.” She bats her eyes before giving him a kiss on the lips.
I turn away from the two lovebirds’ make out scene. Living with them these last few weeks has been filled with awkward moments just like this. Trying to explain to my five-year-old son Mason that the noises he hears at night are not monsters breaking into the house, but Uncle Mike and Aunt Holly redecorating their bedroom, has me searching quickly for a home of my own. Plus, seeing the two of them in newlywed bliss brings back a flood of memories of when Brent and I were first married.
The handsome nephew helps his aunt to the podium before standing proudly in the corner of the stage. I recognize the uniform as an Air Force branch officer’s uniform. While Holly thinks he’s cute, I think debonair is a better way of describing him.
Ms. Andrews is speaking away, but I can’t stop staring at the attractive officer. I begin to daydream of him walking toward me and whisking me up in his arms, just like Richard Gere did to Debra Winger in An Officer and a Gentleman. I’m so caught up in my daydream that it doesn’t even register when she announces my name and the audience begins applauding. So does the young officer, who is now staring directly at me.
“Sis, go ahead, they want you to go up there,” Mike says as I try to cover my embarrassment that I have no earthly idea what Ms. Andrews even said.
Making my way up to the stage, I join my hands together in front of me, twisting my wedding band set back and forth. At times when I need an extra boost of courage, such as now, they are my comfort, my talismans. I still continue to wear them, even though it’s been almost four years now.
I’m so focused on what I’m going to say when I get up there that I don’t even realize that the officer has walked down the steps to greet me at the bottom.
“May I?” he says, smiling and offering me his arm. His smile and the most gorgeous set of brown eyes I have ever seen are as inviting as a warm cup of coffee on a cold winter day.
“Thank you,” I respond before releasing my hands and taking his arm as we head up the steps. No sooner than I take my first step and I start to wobble and lose my balance, preparing to fall face-first into the second step. Suddenly, I feel a strong arm wrapping around my waist and steadying me as I grab onto his coat jacket, holding on for dear life.
“Easy there, you okay?” his deep voice whispers to me as he releases me. I catch him staring at my hand that still has a tight grip on his uniform. The diamond in my wedding set is sparkling like a reminder to me. I quickly release my hold on him. He is no longer smiling at me as before, but he once again offers me his arm.
“Just clumsy,” I try to joke, the heat rising to my cheeks. I take his arm once more and we continue our way up onto the stage. Mayor Windham and Ms. Andrews are still applauding and take a step back when I finally make it to the podium. “Thank you,” I say to him, wishing for the smile he had only seconds ago, but all I get is a polite nod.
After releasing his arm, the officer once again takes his place in the corner of the stage as I turn my focus to the audience. As I talk about how honored I am to be Clover’s new librarian, in the back of my mind, I wonder if the officer continues to stare at me. I’m sure my face is still as red as a tomato. I wish I had known they would be calling me up onstage. After a couple of photos taken with the mayor and Ms. Andrews for the newspaper, the officer returns to take his aunt’s hand to help her as she exits the stage. A part of me longs to wait for him to come back up and help me, but Mayor Windham steps in first, and we exit right behind them.
I lose track of Ms. Andrews and her attractive nephew as many of the townspeople gather around me. I’m caught in a trap of well-wishers and some busybodies, offering me congratulations and overwhelming me with questions. How long have you been a librarian? How does it feel to be back home? Is your son starting school? How are your mama and daddy? How long has it been since your husband died? Are you seeing anyone?
After it quiets down, I look around the banquet room of the Farmer’s Co-op, searching for Ms. Andrews with hopes of an introduction to her nephew. I want to thank him once again for saving me from the embarrassment of falling. I finally spot Ms. Andrews talking with the ladies of the Red Hat Society, who are all decked out in their purple feather boas and red hats. To my disappointment, the officer is nowhere in sight.
* * *
There’s no place like home. I have been chanting that phrase over and over in my head ever since I returned to Clover, Alabama a few weeks ago. I knew moving back to the small town was going to be an adjustment, but I hoped by now I wouldn’t be so homesick. I felt it the moment I first saw the Welcome to Clover, Alabama sign on my five-day drive from Walnut Creek, California. While I loved visiting my folks and my brother Mike, I always felt out of place here. Maybe it was partly because my parents had moved us away from California my senior year of high school. I had tried not to be a brat about it and had accepted the fact that my dad had to transfer because of his job, but leaving all my friends had been hard on my social life. Instead of becoming a troubled teen, I had focused on my studies and had made sure I was accepted to a California college, so I could move back.
That is where I had met Brent Kennedy—at a coffee shop downtown, when my natural born clumsiness had caused me to bump into him. His espresso and my cappuccino had hit the floor with a loud crash as ceramic cup pieces had scattered everywhere. We both had tried to hide our embarrassment and had quickly started to clean the floor, but when our eyes had met, I knew it was over. It had been love at first sight for both of us.
He was a few years older and in his final years of studies as a law major. When he had passed the bar and had accepted a job with one of the leading law firms in the area, he had asked me to marry him. After my dream wedding in Carmel, we had bought a home in Walnut Creek, where I had taken on the role as the wife of the hotshot rookie lawyer. I had earned my degree in library science, but Brent had insisted I stay home, especially when I had become pregnant with Mason.
After Mason had been born, I had truly thought that this was it, there was no way I could ever be any happier—I had a handsome and successful husband, a gorgeous home, and a beautiful son—I was living my fairy tale.
Then, as though the world had decided that fairy tales weren’t meant to last forever, tragedy had happened. The knock on the door … the police officer informing me that Brent would not be coming home that stormy night in May. He was in accident, the officer had said. I’m sorry, but he is gone, he had said.
As much as my family had begged me to come back to Clover after Brent’s funeral, I couldn’t. Even though my loving husband was gone, I couldn’t leave him. He was buried here. Our home was here. How would my beautiful son remember his father if I moved? I could manage, somehow. Brent’s life insurance would help. I could do this, I would tell them, and they would let it go, until the next time we visited one another.
This went on for the next three years, until I visited my family for my baby brother Mike’s wedding. He was finally marrying his high school sweetheart Holly Winston. Being back in Clover again, for some odd reason, felt right somehow. I couldn’t explain it, but for the first time, I wasn’t in a hurry to get back home to California. I noticed how Mason really enjoyed being near family, and I felt I was somehow robbing him of that. Brent’s parents lived in Europe so Mason only had me. Maybe I needed to come back, for Mason’s sake.
It was like fate had intervened when my mom called to let me know that Ms. Andrews, Clover’s head librarian, was retiring. I quickly filled out my application, and three weeks later, I was interviewed by the city board. A week later, I was offered the job. I sold my house, packed us all up, and moved back to Clover. Mom and Dad were in the middle of a remodel of their house, so Mike and Holly graciously offered me a room at their place until I could find us a home of our own.
* * *
It is only a ten-minute commute from Mike and Holly’s to Clover Public Library. Still sitting in my car, staring at the building, I am surprised by how much it has changed. It is the same brick building with windows facing the parking lot, but signs of neglect are obvious—the parking lot is littered with potholes and faded white parking lines, the handicapped spot is really in need of more blue paint as well as a new sign. The wooden library sign hanging on the porch entrance is weathered and faded. I remember this being one of my favorite places to be when I was so miserable in school. It is sad to see the condition of it outside.
Grabbing my keys, I head inside the building. It’s barely seven o’clock, but I want to get myself reacquainted with the small library.
Ms. Andrews had handed me the keys last night at her retirement dinner. “Good luck, my dear,” she’d said.
As I unlock the door and switch on the lights, luck is just what I’m going to need. The library looks the same as it did all those years ago—same carpets, same bookshelves, same arrangement—nothing has changed. It looks old and is in desperate need of a remodel.
No wonder the mayor was complaining last night about how it is really necessary to have it remain open. Many citizens are driving twenty minutes out to visit the larger library in Middleton. Why? Because it is probably updated and more inviting.
“Lovely, isn’t it?” a voice behind me says, startling me and causing me to drop my lunch bag. “Whoops,” she says, bending over and picking up my bag and handing it back to me.
“Hello. We’re not quite open yet,” I say to the woman as I take my lunch bag from her and set it on the counter.
“I know. I’m Amy, your assistant. I wanted to meet you last night but my daughter was teething so I couldn’t make it.”
Ms. Andrews had mentioned Amy Forrester last night. She’d warned me that Amy was a good assistant but liked to talk too much, especially around football season time. She was a die-hard Crimson Tide fan, along with her husband Brandon and their three kids. Ms. Andrews had joked that every time AU won, Amy got pregnant.
“Oh, hi. I thought Ms. Andrews said you didn’t come in until ten o’clock?” I offer my hand to shake and she just looks at it.
“Girl, we don’t shake hands in the South, we hug,” she says, grabbing me up in a mama bear hug. “Thank you for not being an old fuddy-duddy boss,” she adds before finally releasing me.
“It’s nice to meet you, Amy,” I say as I regain my composure after the unexpected, but yet warm and friendly hug. I have to remind myself that folks are different here, more touchy-feely than I remember.
“She’s right, normally I don’t come in until ten, but I just wanted to be here to stop you, in case you decided to turn tail and run back to California.” She smirks.
“I can’t believe it is still the same after all these years.”
“That’s right, you used to volunteer here when you were in high school, right?’
“Yes, it seems like a lifetime ago.” I gaze around the room, wondering where I’m going to start.
“Yup, Ms. Andrews wasn’t one much up for change. You should have seen how hard she fought it when they insisted on the electronic book checkout for the library system.”
“Speaking of which, where are all the computers?”
“Over there in the corner, and it’s just one computer.”
“Yep, I call it the dinosaur.”
“We do have Wi-Fi, right?”
“Oh, yes, and that’s what most people come in here for, the ones who are patient enough to wait for the computer to work.”
“Where’s the children’s section? I thought it was in here.”
“The room next door.” Amy points.
I walk back into the hallway and peek inside the children’s library room. It’s not bad, but compared to the library I worked at in Monterey, it is need of much improvement. “Wow,” is all I can manage to say.
“So, what do you want to start doing today, boss?” Amy chuckles.
“Please, call me Olivia.”
“Okay, Olivia, what’s first?”
“A pen and notepad. I need to make a list.”
* * *
Amy and I begin by going over the book inventory. There are so many out-of-date books and so many updates that need to be done and my list grows every moment I walk around. Only a few patrons come by before lunch. Amy calls them the regulars—a little old lady who loves romance books, even the more erotic ones, and an army veteran, who loves reading westerns and anything about the wars. I don’t know either of them, but they welcome me like I am an old friend.
There are only two people I recognize today and they are my brother’s friends, Tyler and his girlfriend Jackie, who is also my sister-in-law Holly’s sister. Mike had told me about her car accident on the Fourth of July and how she was lucky to be alive. I happen to see them from the window near the counter, struggling in the parking lot, and hurry out there to help them. Tyler pushes her wheelchair, while I hold the door open for them. I remind myself to make note for better handicapped provisions as this is absolutely ridiculous.
“You definitely need to do something about the handicapped ramp,” Tyler says as he stops and catches his breath.
“Easy, tiger, she just started today. Give her a break,” Jackie says, making me feel a little better about the situation. “Don’t mind him, he’s always a grouch in the mornings,” she adds, smiling and looking as lovely as ever.
I haven’t seen her since Mike’s wedding in February, but I remember how kind she was to me, as well as her entire, and very large, Winston family. “How are you doing?” I ask her.
“Getting better every day, thanks to my therapist.” She smiles as Tyler leans down and kisses her.
“Of course, you are, darlin’, and soon you will be running circles around all of us again,” Amy chimes in with her positive affirmation, even though we all know Jackie has a long road of recovery ahead of her.
“Can I help you two find something?” I ask, trying to take the focus off of Jackie.
“Yes, Ms. Andrews said she was going to bring in that new book by Dr. Lowe about the latest orthopedic therapy,” Tyler responds.
“Amy?” I look at her, hoping that Ms. Andrews hadn’t forgotten to order it.
“I have it behind the counter, saving it for you,” Amy says as she goes to retrieve it.
Tyler and Jackie stay for a few more minutes, and I pick his brain on how to make it more handicapped accessible in here. I write down all his suggestions on my quickly filling notepad.
After they leave, Amy and I enjoy a quiet lunch as she tells me about her babies.
“Brandon Jr. is five, and looks just like Brandon. Christopher is in his terrible twos right now, but I love the little stinker. And here’s my sweetheart Maggie, who just turned six months today,” she says, showing me the many pictures she has on her phone.
“They are precious,” I tell her as we bond over our kids.
“Do you have any pictures of Mason?” she asks.
“Of course,” I reply, before pulling out my phone. “Mason is five. He will be starting kindergarten in a few weeks.”
“He’s so handsome. I bet he looks just like his daddy, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, he is the spitting image of Brent.” I sadly smile at the photo of my son. If only Brent could see him now.
“I’m sorry, hun, if it’s too painful to talk about him, I understand,” Amy says, patting my hand.
“It’s not. I mean, it is, but I don’t want to act like he never existed. My friends … well, I mean the people I knew back home, would avoid talking about him or just avoid me all together. I think that hurt almost as much as losing him.”
“Is that why you decided to move back to Clover? Rumor has it you weren’t a fan of our town several years ago.”
“I guess I’m never going to live that down, am I? One thing can sure be said, is that this town remembers everything.”
“Yeah, we do, but we’re glad to have you here, and I think you are a great addition to our town. We need a little different culture to shake things up.”
“Well, I’m not for shaking things up. I just want a stable home for Mason and me. He loves it here so much. I’m doing this for him. He needs to feel wanted and accepted.”
“You should have him join peewee football.”
“Oh, I’m not so sure about that.”
“Come on, he would make lots of new friends. Brandon Jr. just loves it.”
“I’m afraid of him getting hurt.”
“Honey, they’re boys—rough and tough and always dirty. I’ll get you the application just in case you change your mind. Oh my word, look who is in the paper this week!” she says and I’m thankful for the change in subject.
“Tom Sullivan is coming home.” She smiles.
“Okay, I’ll bite. Who is Tom Sullivan?”
“Only our local hero and he’s gorgeous to boot. He’s an Air Force pilot.”
The mention of Air Force pilot sparks my interest. Could it be him? “Can I see that?”
Amy turns the paper to show me the front-page article of our small hometown paper. There, plastered on the front page, is the officer from last night, and Amy is right, he is gorgeous. It’s his smile that captures my attention the most, just like last night. Once again, I feel the butterflies in my stomach.
“That’s Ms. Andrews’ nephew. I met him last night at the retirement dinner.”
“Well, sort of. He helped me up onstage last night.”
“Oh, he did, did he?”
“Yes, he was just being a gentleman.”
“Like An Officer and a Gentleman?” Her eyes grow wide, and I realize what Ms. Andrews said last night is true, Amy does loves gossip. “I love that movie. So, did you two hit it off?”
“It was quite innocent, I assure you,” I reply.
Her smile drops. “That’s too bad. I hear he’s quite the catch.”
“Why is he in town?”
“Actually, he is going to be in Panama City this weekend. There’s an air show on the base.”
“Air show? I think Mason was asking me about an air show this weekend before I dropped him off at Ms. Winston’s.”
“You should go. I’m pretty sure Tom is still single,” Amy chimes.
“That’s great, but I’m not looking,” I chime back. “I think I will let Mike take Mason. It would be fun for them.”
“It could be fun for you, too, if you would go.”
“Let’s just focus more on the library and less on my social life.”
“Well, you’re no fun.” She smirks.
After lunch, I begin working on our social media reach. I create a Facebook page and a book of the month reader group. The response is overwhelming with so many local members who are happy to see new programs. I list five newly released books and create a poll to vote which one they would choose from among the action thriller, the biography, the inspirational romance, the crime solver, and the military romance. The military romance wins hands down. I quickly download the book on my e-reader to try to get in some reading this weekend so I can keep up with the reader group. Personally, I would have preferred the crime solver over a romance novel, but if I’m going to be in tune with the library patrons, I need to know what they like.
“I see author Teena Hayes’ latest release is the book of the month,” Amy says.
“Yes, I was surprised.”
“Oh, I’m not. Which one did you think they would choose?”
“I was thinking the inspirational one or maybe that celebrity biography.”
“Hmm, well I think the inspirational one they would have probably already read by now, and as for the celebrity biography, all you have to do is Google or YouTube her name and you will find more than what you wanted to know.”
“True.” I look up at Amy, realizing I can learn a lot from her since she knows this town so well.
“I can’t wait. A Hero’s Welcome. Did you read the blurb? The story reminds me of Top Gun. Tom Cruise is so hot, even if he’s older now.”
“Top Gun?” I laugh.
“You know, that movie from the late eighties?”
“I think I remember my brother watching it a long time ago, but I never watched it. I do like Tom Cruise though, especially in Jerry Maguire.”
“He was sexy in that one, too. Don’t tell me you have never watched Top Gun?”
“Sorry, afraid not.” I shrug.
“Oh, girl.” Amy steps away from the office, heading over to our DVD section and returns. “Do yourself a favor and watch this,” she says as she sets the movie on the counter.
“I’m more of a The Breakfast Club girl,” I joke.
“Come on, it’s cheesy but good. It will get you in the mood to read the reader group’s book.”
“Okay, fine.” I sign into my account and check out the DVD.
“I promise you won’t regret it.”
* * *
I am busy putting old books on the sale table when a uniformed deputy from the sheriff’s department walks in. I can’t help but notice how attractive he is; he’s tall with light brown hair and looks like he is lost. “Can I help you, Officer?” I smile at him.
He removes his shades and I see a kind pair of brown eyes sparkle as he steps toward me. “Hi, Olivia, it’s been a long time.”
My smile drops and my heart races as I realize this gentleman recognizes me, but I have no clue who he is. Did I meet him last night at the dinner? Has he seen me in town? Wait … he said a long time … do I know him from school? I quickly look at his name tag which reads Cowen. Cowen, Cowen, I repeat the name in my head. The name is familiar, but I can’t think of his first name for the life of me. I decide to fake it, hoping my memory will return. “Oh, hi. How are you?”
“I’m good, how about you?” he says as he continues to smile.
A good sign so far. Geez, why can’t I remember this guy? “Good, it has been a while.” I nod, hoping he will throw me a bone soon.
He looks at me, shaking his head and starts to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” I ask him.
“You have no earthly clue who I am, do you?”
I nervously laugh with him. “Sure, I do,” I say too quickly. He’s on to me so it’s best to just admit he’s right. “I’m sorry, you’re right. I don’t remember. It’s been a long time.”
“Remember you helped me after school with English, right here at the library? If it wasn’t for you, I would have never passed senior year.”
Like a light bulb, my memory turns back on. I remember him now—Ricky Cowen who had dark-rimmed glasses and had been slightly overweight. He had a reading comprehension problem and our English teacher Mrs. Burke had asked me to help him. The years have been good to him—no more glasses, and if he has an ounce of fat on him in that tight uniform, you would have to prove it to me. “Ricky?”
“Oh, wow, it’s so good to see you.” I give him a hug, hoping to smooth over my embarrassment of not recognizing him in the beginning.
“It’s good to see you, too. You look great, by the way,” he says as he eyes me up and down.
“So do you,” I blurt out, hoping I didn’t just offend him.
“I’m sorry about your husband.”
“Thank you. It’s been a while.” I look down at the books, pretending to straighten them, knowing that if we start talking about Brent, I will cry.
“I’m friends with Mike. He told me you had moved back home with your son. Mason, right?”
“Yes, he’s five.” I look up at him.
“I was the one who helped Mike put your things in storage a few weekends ago.”
“You were? Thank you so much, that was nice of you. Mike insisted I stay home and rest after my long drive.”
“It was no problem. I was glad to help. Are you going to stay with Mike and Holly for a while?”
“For now, until I find a home.”
“Buying or renting?”
“In town or in the country?” he asks.
“Um, I’m not sure. Is this an interrogation or are you a realtor, too, Deputy Cowen?” I tease him.
“Sorry, occupational hazard.” He laughs. “No, but my sister is a realtor. You remember Nora, right?”
“Maybe? She was a few years younger, right?”
“Yeah. I can tell her you are in the market. She will show you some great houses. She’s the best in the area,” he boasts.
“That would be great, thank you.”
“Hi, Ricky, are you here to check out some hunting mags?”
“Hey, Amy. No, I was just here to say hi to Olivia.”
“Really? I didn’t realize you two knew each other.” She smiles at me, and I know exactly what she is thinking right now. Great, not only is she my assistant, but now she is going to be my cupid.
“Was there something you needed in the library?” I ask, trying to put my professional face on. “We did get some new magazines in today. Not sure on hunting ones, though.”
“No, most of them I have a subscription to now. Or I just check them out on my phone. Well, I just wanted to come by and say hi. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to come to the dinner last night but I was on duty.”
“Okay, well, I guess I will see you later.”
“See you later, Ricky, I mean Rick.”
Amy and I watch as Rick leaves the building.
“That man is some kind of hot,” Amy says under her breath.
“You’re a married woman.” I laugh at her.
“But you’re not. Besides, I’m just appreciating the scenery.”
“He’s definitely changed from when I last saw him.”
“Girl, you’ve barely been here a few weeks and managed to catch the eye of the local hero and Clover’s most eligible bachelor.”
“I didn’t catch anyone’s eye. Ricky and I went to high school together. We’re just friends.”
“Maybe you’re the reason he’s not married with three kids by now. Maybe you’re the one he’s been pinning for all these years,” she teases.
“Doubtful. Besides, I only have one man in my life that I’m worried about and that’s my son. Speaking of which, we should get ready to close up. I have to pick him up from Ms. Winston’s before heading home.”