After decades of serving our community, today is Carla Denning’s last official day as Stonefield’s librarian, so stop by and wish her a very happy retirement! If you miss her, she’ll be staying unofficially for a few more days to help our new librarian settle in. Mr. Callan Avery becomes the keeper of the card catalog tomorrow, and we wish him the best of luck!
—Stonefield Gazette Facebook Page
One of Molly Cyrs’s favorite things to do was sit at the small window table in the Perkin’ Up Café with her journal open next to a rich, very caffeinated beverage, and watch people. Whether they were customers inside or pedestrians on the other side of the glass, it amused her to watch her fellow residents of Stonefield, New Hampshire—many of whom she’d known for her entire life—go about their business.
This morning, she was trying very hard not to stare at the hot guy who’d walked through the door a moment ago. She was failing pretty miserably, but at least she hadn’t been caught watching him.
The man was tall, but not too tall. Molly liked guys who could reach the top shelves at the store, but who weren’t so tall they’d always be looming over her. And this one was big without being bulky or too muscular. Not a dad bod, exactly, but he had nicely rounded edges and a great butt. Men who were super into their bodies weren’t Molly’s type. She’d dated one once, and the first time he’d gotten judgmental about her having a Little Debbie snack cake, she’d kicked him to the curb.
This man had hair almost as dark a brown as hers, and his skin was creamy pale under a neatly trimmed beard. They were all a little pale in Stonefield right now, even though it was the end of April. It had been a long, frigid winter and a cold rainy spring, so they all needed some sun.
Black-rimmed glasses were perched on his nose, and she wondered if he really needed them to see, or if they just completed the image that the black slacks and pale blue button-up shirt made. He looked like a businessman who’d forgotten his briefcase. Businessmen weren’t really Molly’s thing, either—too many schedules and phone alerts—but he was nice to look at.
After he’d been handed his coffee order and glanced her way, he held her gaze for a long moment and she got a better look at him. And when he started toward her, she got to see that he had dark brown eyes behind those glasses.
“You’re Molly Cyrs, right?”
Did she know this man from somewhere? She didn’t think so. She would have remembered him, business type or not.
“Callan Avery.” He didn’t wait for her to respond before he put out his hand.
The feel of his skin against hers distracted her for a moment. It wasn’t exactly soft, but he had no calluses and his nails were very well groomed. A second too late to keep it from being awkward, she remembered herself and dropped his hand. “Why does that name sound familiar to me?”
“I’m the new librarian.”
“Oh, right. That’s why.” So his look was librarian, not businessman. As far as Molly was concerned, the librarian vibe was one-hundred-percent more sexy.
“Thank you. I know Mrs. Denning held the position for a long time, so I have some big shoes to fill.”
“I’m sure you’ll do great.” She refrained from adding that a lot of people weren’t sad to see Mrs. Denning retire. She could be cranky and she should have retired a long time ago.
The search for a new town librarian after Carla Denning announced she was retiring had been very thorough and, though she wasn’t privy to all of the details, Molly knew her father—who was on the board of selectmen—had been very satisfied when they offered the position to Callan Avery because he was the best man for the job. To Paul Cyrs, that meant not only was the man qualified, but Paul thought he’d better the community in some way. And her mother was on the library committee and had been directly involved in hiring him, so she obviously thought so, too.
“I’m also your new neighbor,” he continued.
“That’s right!” She smiled brightly at the reminder. She hadn’t seen the buyer of Mrs. Bright’s little house next to her family’s home, but she’d heard from Daphne Fisk—the only and therefore the best real estate agent in Stonefield—that the new librarian had bought it. “Welcome to Stonefield, neighbor.”
“Thank you. I have a question, though, and it’s a little…odd.”
“Have a seat,” she said, gesturing to the empty chair across from her. “You’ve come to the right place for odd.”
When his eyebrow arched, she replayed her words her head and winced. That hadn’t come out exactly right, but she knew from experience that if she tried to explain, she’d only make it worse. He was sitting down, so she hadn’t scared him off, and her curiosity about his question was stronger than her desire to explain she wasn’t odd. Mallory Sutton, her best friend, called her quirky, which she much preferred. But mostly she had ADHD and an unsinkable positive attitude, so she could be a lot for people who weren’t used to her.
“I have some concerns about living next door to a funeral home,” he said, his gaze locking with hers as he turned his cardboard coffee cup around and around in his hands.
Good Lord, his eyes were dark. Molly was sure they must be brown, but they were so dark a brown, she could barely discern his pupils. Darker than chocolate, even. His eyes were the color of black coffee, she decided, and though she preferred her coffee with lots of cream, it definitely worked as an eye color.
“Oh, right.” Her cheeks heated because losing track of time was the usual for her, but losing track of time because she was staring so deeply into a man’s eyes was new. “The funeral home. Well, it’s been there well over a hundred years, so it wasn’t a surprise.”
The brows over those delicious eyes dipped. “What do you mean?”
“You knew the funeral home was there when you bought Mrs. Bright’s house.”
“Of course I did.”
Molly was growing more confused by the second. “If you knew it was there, what’s the problem?”
He was frowning now, shaking his head. “I didn’t say there was a problem. I said I have an odd question.”
Of course he had. Molly took a sip of her latte and then smiled, determined not to derail the conversation again. “What’s your odd question?”
He considered for a long moment, and then sighed. “There’s really no delicate way to phrase this. How will I know when there’s going to be a funeral?”
“Well, somebody will die.”
The low growling sound of frustration he made was one she was very familiar with. Her father made it often, her teachers had practically worn out their vocal cords doing it, and sometimes random strangers she had to deal with made it. “Molly, I’m being serious.”
“So am I,” she replied. “If somebody dies, you’ll know there’s likely going to be a funeral at Cyrs Funeral Home because we’re the only one in town, and if nobody dies, we probably won’t be having a funeral because that’s…not how it works.”
“I am aware of how funerals work,” he said in a terse voice, and Molly sighed.
It was a shame he didn’t appear to have a sense of humor. It was very difficult to date in a town with such a limited pool of available men—men she knew too much about, seeing as how she’d grown up with most of them—and it was even more difficult when the funeral home was factored in. Even though she only helped her mother in the office, handled what little marketing they did, and assisted loved ones during viewings and funerals, her job made prospective boyfriends uneasy. She had almost no luck bringing men home with her, even when she explained she had her own apartment over the long garage where the hearse and two dark sedans were parked.
For the most physically attractive man she’d seen in years to not only have a personality that would clash horribly with hers, but a possible aversion to the family business was just mean.
And disappointment had a way of coming out in her voice as annoyance. “We don’t have a neon open sign, if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s not at all what I mean.” After a few seconds, the corner of his mouth tilted up in what was almost a smile. “I’m sorry. I get tense when I’m uncomfortable with a conversation.”
“Fair warning, then. You’re probably going to be pretty tense around me a lot. I’m great at talking, but not so great at conversations.”
“I don’t understand.”
“My impulse to talk works faster than my brain can process what’s been said and figure out what I should say next.” She gave a little shrug. “I usually think of the right thing to say hours later. Usually at two in the morning when I’m trying to sleep.”
His body relaxed and amusement warmed his eyes. “Tell you what. If you don’t knock on my door at two in the morning to respond to something I said hours ago, I’ll keep in mind conversations with you will be an adventure and try not to be tense.”
She wouldn’t mind having future conversations with him. There was something about the way he looked at her that made her want to squirm in her seat, and she wondered if he looked at everybody that way. Surely not. “It’s a deal.”
“Good. So I’ll start over,” he said in a much more relaxed tone. “I’m remodeling the house, and I don’t want to have power tools running or the music too loud or anything while a funeral is going on. I want to be a respectful neighbor, but I’m not sure how I can plan for that other than reading the obituaries every morning, and that’s not how I like to start my day.”
“Oh.” And here she was thinking he was being a jerk when all he was trying to do was be kind. “That’s really considerate of you.”
“If there was a way for me to find out in advance when you’ll be having a service, that would be helpful.”
This was her opening. She barely managed to get a hold of her facial expression before a triumphant grin took over, but she cleared her throat and tried to sound serious. It wasn’t her natural state of being, so it took some effort. “You and I can exchange cell phone numbers and I’ll text you when we’ll be hosting a viewing or a funeral.”
“That would be wonderful, thank you.” He recited his number and after punching it into her phone, she sent him a text with her name—bonus, he’d have the correct spelling, which wasn’t Sears, just in case he hadn’t noted it on the elegant sign at the house—and watched him save it to his contacts.
She thought he’d get up then, but he gave her a curious look. “Since I already asked one odd question, I guess I’ll add another out of sheer curiosity. Do you write the obituaries?”
“No, my mom helps the family craft them.” She sighed. “She tried to hand that off to me once because it’s time-consuming and she’s busy with other aspects of the planning, but I guess my creative flair for drama and writing obituaries aren’t a good match. They’re not really meant to be entertaining.”
He obviously didn’t know what to say to that—and honestly, what could he say—but she got another smile out of him. A genuine one this time, with his teeth showing and his eyes crinkling at the corners. And his gaze lingered on her face, dipping to her mouth before returning to her eyes. She suddenly felt too warm in her sweater and she could feel the rush of heat showing on her cheeks.
“I should run,” he said abruptly, standing. “It was nice to meet you, Molly, and thanks for your number. I’d say I look forward to hearing from you, but that would be weird.”
She laughed, making heads turn in their direction. “It was nice to meet you, too, Callan.”
When he walked away, a quick glance around the café told her everybody had gone back to what they were doing, so she was safe to watch him walk. Not only did he have a really great butt, but he obviously liked books and did have a sense of humor, after all.
Maybe he was more her type than she’d initially thought.
Callan wasn’t sure he’d ever met a woman as confusing as Molly Cyrs, but he thought about her during his entire walk back to the new house he was determined to turn into a home.
She was beautiful, with long dark hair pulled into a ponytail, and dark eyes that sparkled with humor. Even though she’d been sitting, he could tell she was tall and slim, and she’d been wearing a sweater with a mermaid on it. If asked an hour ago, he would have said a grown woman wearing a mermaid sweater was ridiculous, but somehow it suited her. It was colorful and fun, and she seemed as if she had a fun sense of humor. And she was definitely cute.
As he turned the corner onto the street, his gaze caught on the sign for Cyrs Funeral Home, which was a massive Queen Anne–style house that dominated the corner. Like most funeral homes, the property was immaculately kept, with gardens and a lot of parking. It was on a lot equivalent to at least four of the usual residential lots in the area.
Then he reached the tall white stockade fence that separated the Cyrs property from his. It was obviously meant to offer some privacy for mourners. And also for him, because large numbers of people tended to mill around outside funeral home events when the weather was nice.
And then he was past the nice white fence and his not-as-nice white house came into view. The clapboards needed paint—or vinyl siding—and the dark green shutters had faded and chipped. Considering the condition of the house, he’d been surprised by how well the yard and small flower beds had been kept, but at least that was one thing he could cross off his renovation to-do list. And maybe it was a small thing, but he’d take anything he could get.
When he’d been informed the position at the library was his, he’d reached out to the local real estate agent for help in finding a place to live. Daphne had found several places for rent, but they were all small apartments downtown, above businesses or in old homes that had been converted into apartment buildings. Callan was tired of apartment living. He wanted to put down roots, so after several thorough video tours and a lengthy email Q&A, he’d bought this house sight unseen. He had no regrets, but he’d definitely taken a dive straight into the deep end and was in over his head.
Right now the house was nothing more than a mostly empty and very outdated box. And it was a small box, too—just a tiny Cape with two small bedrooms upstairs, made even smaller by the slanted ceilings due to the roofline. The only bathroom was at the top of the stairs, and it was barely big enough for the toilet, vanity, and the tub-and-shower combo he’d bleached until he almost passed out from the fumes.
Downstairs, there was a kitchen and dining area combined, a living room, and a family room he was using as a bedroom for now. While he’d have to navigate the stairs many times a day because there wasn’t even a half bath downstairs, he didn’t want to hit his head on the ceiling when he got out of bed every morning.
Buying a house with one bathroom and appliances as old as him hadn’t been ideal, but it had a garage and he could walk to work. The only other property he’d considered had two and a half bathrooms and had been remodeled in the current century, but it was a huge Colonial that would have cost half his salary to heat and he would have had to drive to work every day.
So he’d make do, and slowly fix it up. Maybe by the time he was done, he’d be ready to flip it and move on to something bigger. Something with a proper library, maybe. For the foreseeable future, his car would have to stay outside in the driveway because the movers would be arriving in a couple of days with so many boxes of books, he would have to put them in the garage.
Today’s mission was a drive into the city. Stonefield had a decent-size market and he’d been told the local thrift shop had an excellent collection of almost anything he could need. But for a major stocking up, it was worth the time and gas to have a bigger selection and lower prices. He’d been adding things to the shopping list on his phone since he arrived in town, and he winced as he scrolled through it, doing a final check.
Five hours and an obscene amount of money later, he sank onto the pastel floral couch Mrs. Bright had left behind, too tired to even wince anymore.
But he had a fairly well-stocked kitchen now, and new linens to add to what he’d packed in his car. Cleaning supplies. And, of course, the biggest television he could fit in the car with everything else. It wasn’t very big, but he didn’t watch a lot of TV. It would do for now.
After a short nap on the world’s oldest and least comfortable couch, Callan forced himself to make some dinner. It had crossed his mind to walk to the diner because he wasn’t going to meet people by staying in, but he didn’t have the energy tonight.
Maybe tomorrow, he thought as he sautéed some chicken to go with the potato “baking” in the microwave. It was the one appliance that could be considered updated, and he was thankful for it. The dishwasher, on the other hand, was a lost cause, so he washed the few dirty dishes he’d made by hand and looked at the magnetic whiteboard hiding at least some of the lovely gold freezer door. There was so much to do, as far as unpacking and starting to remodel, that he had to write a few priorities on the whiteboard to keep himself from bouncing from task to task without finishing any of them.
He was debating on where he wanted to start—graphing out a new kitchen layout or unpacking the box of random living room things—when his phone rang. It was his FaceTime ringtone, so he knew before he fished the phone out of his pocket that it was Roman McLaughlin. He was the only person on the planet Callan would do video chatting with, outside of work meetings at his previous library.
Rome was a good friend—probably the best Callan ever had. He was the kind of friend who helped you move apartments three times in two years, and when you owned as many books as Callan did, that was a big ask.
“Hey, Rome,” he said after he’d hit the button to bring his friend into view. And the view was the same as it was 95 percent of the time—Rome’s office. He was in finance, and the very definition of workaholic.
“Hey, Cal. You look good. I was expecting you to be more pixelated and glitchy.”
Callan snorted. “I’m in New Hampshire, not the Alaskan bush.”
“If you can buy bear spray at the local gas station, I’m just going to assume the cell signal will be sketchy.”
Callan laughed, but he couldn’t deny the cell signal and internet options were among the first things he’d researched about Stonefield when considering applying for the library job.
“So what’s going on?” he asked, because he knew he had five minutes at the most. Rome wasn’t a call- and-spend-some-time-catching-up kind of guy. He touched base with frequent short calls that invariably ended with a quick I’ve gotta get this, so I’ll call you back and a disconnection beep.
“Have you met anybody yet?” Rome asked.
Callan rolled his eyes because he knew Rome didn’t mean anybody. He wanted to know if Callan had met any possible future dates yet, and it was startling when an image of Molly from the café flashed through his mind. She was not a possible future date, no matter how pretty she was, because they’d barely been able to get through one conversation without it falling apart in several bizarre and confusing ways.
Maybe if he’d been relaxed when he met her instead of all nerved up about approaching a stranger about an awkward topic, they would have started off on stronger footing.
“I’ve only been here a few days,” he pointed out.
“It took you a minute to answer that, so you have met somebody.”
If Rome didn’t love video chats, Callan could have lied and said he got distracted by putting milk away or something. But since Rome could see him, all he could do was hope he didn’t blush. “I haven’t met anybody I’m interested in dating, Rome.”
That was the truth, at least. He’d met an incredibly sexy woman whose laugh turned him inside out, and who popped into his head at random moments. But he wasn’t going to date her. Maybe he’d chosen Stonefield because it was the kind of place he’d like to raise the family he was ready for, but he wasn’t going to rush into anything.
“We’re not getting any younger,” his friend said. “And I’m pretty sure when you buy a house in a small town, getting yourself a wife is the next thing by default.”
“Who are you dating, Rome?”
“Yeah, I didn’t think so. If your office had a shower and a closet, you would never leave it.”
“Plenty of time, Cal.”
“Oh, so plenty of time for you, but not for me? We’re the same age, my friend.”
“Yeah, but you drink all that coffee. I’m going to live longer than you.”
Callan laughed, but the mention of coffee made him think about Molly again. He hadn’t dated in a while because he’d been busy, and then he didn’t see the point when he knew he’d be leaving NYC, but that still didn’t explain why he couldn’t stop thinking about that woman.
“Did you call just to give me a hard time?”
“No, I called to wish you luck on your first day at the new job tomorrow. I mean, also to see if you landed in a town full of attractive, single women who find books incredibly sexy, but mostly to wish you luck.”
“Thanks. I’m looking forward to being out of an admin office and back behind a circulation desk again.”
“I don’t understand the appeal of leaving the office and having to talk to people but— Damn, I’ve gotta take this. I’ll call you back.”
Callan smiled when Rome’s face disappeared, and he slid the phone back in his pocket. He had maybe a 20 percent success rate with getting a goodbye in before calls with his friend ended, but he didn’t mind. He liked it, even, because long conversations drained him and he found them difficult to extricate himself from. That was never a problem with Rome.
He would have liked a chance to argue the benefit of leaving the admin office behind, though. Being behind a circulation desk was different. There were a lot of conversations, but they were usually short, and centered around things Callan loved to talk about—books and information, and how to find it.
Tomorrow was going to be a very good day.