Aubrey reached up, stretching to place the last book on the top shelf. She inhaled deeply, in love with the aged-paper scent of the books she’d recently acquired, then hopped off the stool to admire her handiwork. The new bookshelf filled the void on the back wall just right. The other half of the wall was taken up by the mismatched clocks mostly set to incorrect times. Their rhythmic clicks were their own sort of melody, competing with the voice of Billie Eilish playing from the speakers behind the front counter.
Maybe adding the book section would bring in more customers. What it if doesn’t help? The constant, dull knot under her ribs contracted at the thought. Relics needed to earn more money—yes, it was an antique store and if she’d wanted to be a millionaire she should have gone into stocks. But her determination might not be enough. If she depleted any more of her nest egg, she could be forced to close the store.
She’d survive, but she didn’t want the lawyers who had sneered at her as she signed the inheritance papers to be right—that she’d squandered the second chance she’d been given.
Wrapping her arms around her middle, she exhaled a slow breath. Eight years ago, Lina and Charles had given her a gift she never deserved, never asked for. They were the first two people besides Finn who’d given a shit about her, and the only parental figures she’d ever loved. And now they were gone. Closing her eyes, she inhaled deep, then exhaled slowly, counting to eight, repeating the practice until she could breathe easier.
She didn’t want to fail her foster parents, couldn’t fail them. They’d believed in her enough to give her a new start. Since their deaths, she’d felt like they watched over her, an abandoned item searching for her place. It wasn’t lost on her that she did the same for the unwanted objects in her store. All of them deserved good homes, just like she had. Even if it had only been a brief time.
On a sigh, she circled to the front counter and display case where a computer took up a quarter of the space. Her phone lay atop the glass surface, the screen turning black as it went into sleep mode, hiding the word “welcome” that had been glaring at her for the past few minutes. She used the computer as her cash register, but it was five years old, already refurbished when she bought it, and needed to be replaced. Seeing there weren’t any new orders on her website, she picked up one of the three macrame plant holders lying beside the keyboard. The glass surface of the display case fogged, a smiley face forming in the haze.
“I’m okay,” she said to Finn. Since the ghost of a twelve-year-old boy had been hanging around her since she was a kid, he seemed to know exactly when her mood was about to take a turn and would often draw a heart or a smiley face on surfaces to cheer her up. Symbols were the easiest for him—anything more complex became less and less visible.
“It’s nothing important,” she added with a firm tone, making sure he knew she meant it.
Since no shoppers occupied the store at the moment, it allowed her to talk to Finn aloud.
She didn’t know why the ghost had stayed with her for so long, but his presence comforted her, in good times and in bad. Her best friend Stella had offered more than once to use her witchy powers to help Finn pass to the other side, but Aubrey always refused. If her ghost wanted to move on, he would. It was that simple.
Stella had been in the store earlier but had gone to “lunch” with Lucas. If Aubrey caught the pair making out on her front counter again, she’d need to put up a “no kissing” sign on the front door. The way they had been getting into it, she didn’t think the glass case could take it.
A sigh rolled through her. She was happy for her friend, she really was. Stella deserved all the joy in the world. But sometimes, sometimes, when Aubrey saw them together, her chest would squeeze hard and hot—and it had nothing to do with the panic attacks that plagued her.
She set down the macrame holder and pressed the button on the side of her phone to wake it. The logo for the dating app she’d downloaded a while back, Simmer, filled the screen, waiting for her to make an account.
For the past three years, the antique store had consumed her life. She kept thinking business would pick up, and it did in spurts, allowing her to pay her rent, bills, and the mortgage on the house she shared with Stella. But then business would settle back down, keeping her up at night. By only focusing on the store, she’d pushed the rest of her life to the side. She hadn’t dated, hadn’t gone camping with Stella in forever. Every aspect of her life wrapped around the store. In a moment of weakness last month, she’d downloaded Simmer, thinking maybe it was time to get a life. And after catching Stella and Lucas making out on the counter this morning, she’d opened the app up. Could she join the dating world again? It had been so long.
The bell above the front door tinkled, announcing someone’s arrival and she closed the app. A man entered, a big man whose muscular shoulders were so wide he blocked out most of the light coming through the door.
“Oh, hello there,” Aubrey said, her smile faltering a little. This guy was really big, like linebacker big. “Can I help you find something today?” Outside, a gust of wind rustled through the changing leaves of the sassafras trees that lined the boulevard. Traffic hummed along, then became muffled as the door closed behind him.
The man didn’t answer. A frown tugged at his features. His short brown hair caught the morning sunlight and the angles of his square jaw looked like they could cut through concrete. A brown military-style jacket, gray T-shirt, and black jeans hugged his muscular frame.
He didn’t look her way, his eyes riveted on something in her display window. She didn’t have much there, mostly plants and a couple larger furniture pieces up on a platform. She thought the greenery conveyed a fresh vibe, drawing window shoppers inside. Was he interested in the pair of Hepplewhite chairs? He honestly didn’t seem the type. Maybe more of a Louis XIII kind of guy.
After a moment, he tore his gaze away from the window and continued into the store. The hardwood floor creaked under his footsteps. He passed her by, barely glancing in her direction, his eyes quickly skimming everything else in the store. A distinctive scent followed him, something woodsy mixed with the fragrance of fresh soap. Rattled by his presence, she couldn’t tear her eyes away. His rugged appearance lent to ideas that he spent a lot of time outdoors chopping logs without his shirt on, or perhaps as a pirate captaining a ship. Again, without his shirt on. Aubrey’s stomach twitched at the image she’d created in her mind. An entirely different type of nervousness competed for her attention.
If he wasn’t so big, he might have been less intimidating, but as it was, Aubrey’s heart rate kicked up a few notches. Yes, definitely has to do with his size and not my stagnant sex life.
“Well, if you need any help, please let me know,” she said to his back. Her eyes were drawn to the gloves he wore. Strange. The late-summer weather didn’t really call for it. Maybe he owned a motorcycle. That had another image forming in her mind, one where he straddled a low-rider with his shirt off.
Aubrey shook her head to clear it. Why did she keep imagining this guy with his shirt off? It really had been too long if she was fantasizing about random men who’d been in the store less than five minutes and hadn’t spoken a word to her.
The man continued to ignore her, kept walking through the store, then headed straight for the new shelf and books at the back.
Oooookaaaaay. Well, she had work to do if he didn’t want help. Throwing the three macrame plant holders over her shoulder, Aubrey retrieved her toolbox and tallest ladder from the supply closet, then set everything up next to the front window. Three potted plants sat side by side along the edge of the display platform, waiting to be hung. The lower half of the front window already contained many overflowing terracotta pots, but she liked the idea of having some hanging, filling the space entirely with green. She must have caught Stella’s green thumb or something.
Aubrey climbed the ladder with drill, hook, and plant holder in hand, stopping when she could reach the ten-foot-high ceiling. She marked where she wanted the hook with the pencil in her back pocket, then heard movement behind her.
The man was leaving.
“Thanks for stopping by,” she said automatically, disappointed the visit hadn’t resulted in some sort of sale. Maybe she hadn’t been helpful enough? But he’d definitely been sending a “don’t bother me” vibe. Usually, she felt she gauged a customer’s level of need accurately.
Maybe she’d been wrong.
Maybe she was losing her touch.
Maybe she was the worst store owner in history.
Maybe she should quit and finally admit defeat.
At the door, he hesitated again, distracting her from her spiraling thoughts. His eyes focused on the window. Drill in hand, the hook positioned where the pot hanger should go, Aubrey leaned forward, twisting to see what he stared at. Was it something outside? She set the drill on the top of the ladder, and leaned over further.
Abruptly, he looked up at her. Piercing blue eyes met hers. She pulled back and bumped the drill. It tipped off the edge of the ladder—and headed straight for his face.
“Oh no!” Aubrey shouted, reaching out to catch it.
She missed, and watched helplessly as the butt of the accidental weapon bounced off his forehead. The momentum of her trying to catch it knocked her off balance, and the ladder tipped…tipped…
“Whoa!” she gasped, grabbing onto either side to steady herself. Too late. The ladder kept tipping—right toward the man.
She tumbled down, unable to stop herself. Strong arms wrapped around her ribs, spinning her away from the falling ladder. She flinched against him when it crashed to the floor with a bang.
Then silence fell, but for the clicking of her clocks and soft music mocking her clumsiness.
Her clammy hands gripped his shoulders. “Oh my God, if the drill had landed the other way, I could have killed you.” Breathless, she looked up at him. “The bit could have gone
straight into your eyeball.” She’d almost killed a man in her store. That was a call she never wanted to make to Lucas—or any police for that matter. “Please don’t sue me,” she whispered.
Warm, strong arms around her body, the man supported her, the tips of her toes only touching the floor. When he leaned away, their gazes met again. Puzzled eyes searched her face. His eyes. They were a beautiful shade of blue, icy but warm at the same time. This close to him, she could see amber encircling his pupils. Blue and amber. Such an unusual combination. His woodsy scent enveloped her, making her heart race at top speed.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, swallowing. “Are you okay?” She brushed her fingers over the red bump forming on his head. They both sucked in a breath at the same time. Tingles shot up her arm as he squinted at her, then blinked like he was seeing her for the first time.
“You need a keeper,” he murmured, setting her away from him, his voice so low and gravelly she shivered.
“Are you applying for the job?” She straightened her shirt, then winced. “Did I say that aloud?” Why did she always have to do that? Blurt the first thing that came into her mind without thinking too hard about it? A nervous laugh escaped her. She pressed her lips together to stifle the sound.
He hesitated, staring, then pushed through the front door, leaving her to gape after him. I really hope he doesn’t return with a lawsuit in hand.
“Have a nice day,” she called belatedly, the door already closing behind him.
She watched as he strode down the sidewalk, athletic purpose in every step. The man was built and she couldn’t take her gaze away until he disappeared from sight.
The window in front of her fogged, a sad face appearing in the glass. “I know, I know,” she muttered to Finn, righting the ladder and picking up the mess of macrame plant holders. Next came the drill and hooks, then she stacked everything neatly beside the window. “I’ll do my best not to almost kill the customers in the future.” Her business relied on return customers and word of mouth—and that man was definitely not coming back.
But her body was still warm from where he’d held her.
And those eyes. She’d never seen such an alluring combination of colors before. There was something in those eyes she couldn’t describe, but felt some affinity toward. Kindred spirits? It was hard to think she had anything in common with a guy who looked big enough to crush her and barely uttered a word. Even as the thought surfaced, another shiver of awareness shimmered through her with the memory of her body slamming into his.
Shaking off the sensation, she headed to the front counter. She’d finish hanging the plant holders when Stella returned. No more attempted murder for me today, please and thank you.
Her phone sat where she’d left it, and she clicked the button to turn it on. After a brief hesitation, she touched the icon for Simmer, ready to sign up for an account.
If she was already having fantasies about a mysterious dude who looked as likely to rob the place as buy something, then it was time for her to get laid.