Closer Than They Appear

Closer Than They Appear

Sabrina Jeffries

September 2014 $1.99
ISBN: 978-1-61194-5-317

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A Mossy Creek Short Story

 
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He’s sexy, Scottish, and too good to be true.

That’s the problem.

David Crogan’s got the voice, the looks, the charm, and he loves to read. Mossy Creek librarian Hannah Longstreet can’t resist that combination, though it’s the first time in years this single mom has let her guard down. She allows herself to be romanced by the handsome, if mysterious, photographer, who’s in town for a few weeks to photograph Mossy Creek’s colorful people and places. But just when she’s about to toss all caution to the wind, she finds out who he really is. And his real purpose will break her heart.

Sabrina Jeffries is the NYT bestselling author of 36 novels and 9 works of short fiction (some written under the pseudonyms Deborah Martin and Deborah Nicholas). Whatever time not spent writing in a coffee-fueled haze of dreams and madness is spent traveling with her husband and adult autistic son or indulging in one of her passions--jigsaw puzzles, chocolate, and music. With over 7 million books in print in 18 different languages, the North Carolina author never regrets tossing aside a budding career in academics for the sheer joy of writing fun fiction, and hopes that one day a book of hers will end up saving the world. She always dreams big.

 


 

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Excerpt

 

"HE’S HEADED THIS way, Mrs. Longstreet,” my intern Linda Polk announced from the glass front door, which she was supposed to be cleaning. "He’s, like, three blocks away now.”

I scowled at her from behind the circulation desk. "He who?”

"You know who.” Linda faced me with a self-satisfied smile. "Mr. Crogan has a thing for you, you know. That’s why he comes here after he’s done for the day.”

"He comes here because he likes to read,” I said firmly as I keyed in an interlibrary loan request and tried to ignore the silly skip in my pulse. "He comes here because there’s little else to do in Mossy Creek at night at the Hamilton House Inn. To my knowledge, it doesn’t have cable.”

"He could go to the movies down in Bigelow. Or watch a basketball game on the big-screen TV at O’ Day’s Pub. Shoot, he could even read in his room, instead of hanging out here whenever you’re working. Or hadn’t you noticed?”

Of course I had. Every night for the past three weeks, the New York photographer had entered the library precisely at sunset, like some reverse vampire who hid when the sun went down. He’d chosen a book, lounged on the couch to read it, and then checked it out right before closing. I could only assume he finished it back at the inn, since he always returned it the next night promptly at sunset. "Maybe he doesn’t find his room comfortable.”

Linda snorted. "He’s got 101, the biggest suite in the whole hotel.”

"You’ve been to his room?” I exclaimed, thoroughly shocked.

"No!” She shot me a superior glance. "Katie Bell told me.”

Katie Bell, columnist at the Mossy Creek Gazette, was definitely the person to go to for gossip. "I see.” I worked hard to sound nonchalant. "And I suppose she told you plenty of other information about Mr. Crogan.”

Linda was no fool. With a little smirk, she sprayed cleaner on the door. "Maybe.”

When she said nothing more, I gritted my teeth to keep from begging.

After a moment, Linda cut her eyes at me. "Mr. Crogan is a hottie, don’t you think?”

Absolutely. And I lusted after every lanky, dusky-skinned inch of him.

It was mortifying. Mothers of middle-school children were supposed to limit their lusting to the latest Kenmore appliances and brand-new Beemers, not photographers with gymnast physiques. Which was why I wasn’t about to admit my weakness to Linda.

Bad enough that my eleven-year-old, Rachel, had also been on my case lately about starting to date again. Just tonight, she’d ragged me so hard I’d had to banish her to the break room, where I knew she’d get engrossed in playing computer games on my laptop. Valentine’s Day was fast approaching, and it was infecting every female in sight, even my daughter.

That was my only explanation for why she was so adamant about pairing me off. All right, so her dad had been dead for over eight years, and I was a bit too prone to bury myself in my work, but that didn’t mean I was itching to find another mate. Between my work at the library and my determination to maintain a safe and comfortable home for my clumsy daughter, who had time to date?

Too bad I couldn’t say that to Rachel. Or Linda, for that matter. "Don’t you leave at five?” I told my intern irritably.

Setting the cleaner aside, Linda planted her elbows on the circulation desk. "Katie Bell says she’s pretty sure Mr. Crogan isn’t married. He doesn’t wear a ring.”

"It doesn’t matter. A man like that has to have a girlfriend somewhere.” Probably several, all of them young and buxom photographer’s models. Why should he even look at a modestly proportioned librarian, even one who kept in shape with biweekly workouts?

"Katie Bell found out that he’s in town taking stock photos.”

I’d heard that already. I just didn’t believe it. Sure, he did spend from dawn to dusk snapping shots of people and fields and even our famous Sitting Tree, but he did it with a large format camera. I’d read enough to know that most photographers these days had gone digital. Hardly anybody used ten-thousand-dollar Hasselblads with massive tripods and actual film that had to be Fed-Exed to some lab for dark room printing.

I’d even Googled his name, along with the words photographer and Hasselblad, but if there were any professional photographers named David Crogan, Google couldn’t find them. That alone made me suspicious. Not to mention even more obsessed.

"How old do you think he is?” Linda asked.

"I couldn’t begin to speculate.” I’d heard guesses anywhere from twenty-five to thirty-five. I prayed it was the upper end, because the idea of my lusting after a guy more than ten years my junior was worrisome in light of the gossip-fest that erupted when our fiftyish mayor and thirty-fiveish police chief were caught kissing last month.

"Well, I don’t think it matters.” Linda surveyed me up and down. "You’re really pretty, you know, even with the glasses and the khakis. And I bet that if you asked Jasmine Beleau, she’d be happy to give you a few tips on—”

"Thank you, but I’m not looking for a makeover just now.”

The door swung open, and we both froze as the object of our speculation entered. Blessedly oblivious to Linda’s not-so-subtle wink in my direction, he approached the circulation desk and slid a copy of Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol into the Return Books slot.

"Good evening, Mr. Crogan,” Linda chirped.

"Evening, Miss Polk,” he answered in his deep, whiskey-rough Scottish brogue. Then he acknowledged me with a nod. "Mrs. Longstreet. I hope you’re well this evening.”

"Fine, thank you,” I said in my professional librarian’s voice.

Meanwhile, my knees were going weak. I admit it—I’m no different from any other American female. I’m a complete sucker for a British accent. Make it Scottish, and you might as well douse the guy in pheromones. It even trumped the red-brown dreadlocks he wore tied back with a strip of black leather.

"Has that interlibrary loan copy of The Smoke Ring come in?” he paused to ask.

"Not yet. I suppose you’ve read the rest of our Nivens?”

Amusement made his unusual grey eyes gleam like freshly polished silver. "You ought to know the answer to that. You’re the one who introduced me to his works.”

Linda’s winking was practically a twitch now, which I determinedly ignored. "I’m sorry we don’t have more of his. But you could always try something other than hard science fiction. Perhaps some Terry Brooks?”

"Thanks, but fantasy isn’t my cup of tea.” He pronounced cup as "coop.” He leaned one leather-jacketed arm on the front desk in a move that curled my toes like raw potato chips hitting hot oil, then added, "Don’t worry about it, luv. There’s a Heinlein over there I haven’t read in a long while.”

Luv. I turned to mush. Or moosh, as he would probably say it.

"How’s the photography going?” Linda asked before he could leave the desk.

He clammed up tighter than a book with new binding. "Pretty well,” he said tersely. "The light was good today.” Then shoving away from the desk, he headed off to his usual spot on the worn couch in the reading area.

"Thatwas rude,” Linda muttered under her breath.

"He doesn’t like talking about his work.” And I should know, since I’d tried questioning him about it a few times. Invariably it got me the cold shoulder, though he was more than happy to discuss books and art and music.

A mysterious man, our Mr. Crogan. Unfortunately, that did nothing to subdue my rampant interest.

"I guess I’d better go,” Linda said, handing the window cleaner over the desk. "Sorry I can’t stay until closing tonight.”

"No problem. The place is practically deserted anyway.”

But that was fine by me. To tell the truth, I preferred the library to just about anywhere else in town, especially when I had Rachel with me. It was safe and bright and blessedly devoid of sharp objects, so I never had to worry about her getting hurt. Knocking stuff off shelves, yes, but not getting herself hurt.

Minutes after Linda headed out, the front door opened again, and Mossy Creek police officer Sandy Crane hurried in, towing a thin blond woman whose wan cheeks showed the strain of late nights and long hours. "You haven’t changed your mind about taking in one of the Cirque d’Europa people, right?”

I stifled my groan. I’d completely forgotten about our phone conversation earlier. "Of course not.” I managed a smile for the thin woman, who returned it tentatively. "Rachel said she’ll give up her room and sleep with me for as long as necessary.”

"Good.” Sandy turned to the woman. "This is Mrs. Longstreet. You’ll be staying with her and Rachel.”

"Rachel. Yes,” the woman said.

Sandy frowned. "No, Rachel is her daughter. This is—”

"Hannah,” I corrected her, wanting to put the woman at ease. "Call me Hannah.”

"Hannah?” The woman looked confused.

Sandy’s cell rang, and she answered it. "Yes, Chief. I’m headed over there now.”

As she pocketed the phone, she glanced at me. "Gotta go. This lady’s name is Monique Laplante. That’s about all I can tell you.”

"But what—” Too late. Sandy had already sprinted out the door, leaving me with a circus performer who was starting to look a little panicked.

"I can’t leave until closing,” I explained to Monique, "but until then you’re free to read or use one of the terminals to check your e-mail.” I noticed Mr. Crogan listening in on the conversation as the woman just stared at me. "Are you hungry? Have you had anything to eat?”

Her lips quivered. "Parlez-vous Francais?”

My heart sank. Sandy had conveniently neglected to mention that the woman didn’t speak English.

"Je parle Francais,” said Mr. Crogan, unfolding his angular body from where it was sprawled on the couch.

"You speak French?” I said as he headed for us. "You told me you were born and raised in Scotland.”

"Yes, but my mother was originally from Burundi, where French is the state language. I grew up bilingual.”

"I grew up uni-lingual, I’m afraid. Would you mind telling Ms. Laplante that she’s staying with me and my daughter?”

"You and your daughter and... er... your husband?”

Oh, Lord. It had never occurred to me that Mr. Crogan might not know I was a widow. "My husband passed away some years ago.”

"Ah,” he said with what I would have sworn was relief. "I wasn’t sure.”

I liked that he didn’t say he was sorry, as if it could possibly be his fault. I never knew how to answer people who did. Luke’s aneurysm wasn’t anybody’s fault... not even Luke’s.

I lifted my left hand and wiggled my fingers. "No ring. I guess you didn’t notice.”

"Oh, I noticed. But divorced women don’t usually go by Mrs. these days and you’re so young to be a widow that—” He halted, as if realizing he’d just revealed how thoroughly he’d considered the matter. "Anyway...” he mumbled, and abruptly turned to Monique.

He said something in French, and she nodded vigorously, casting me a shy smile as she replied.

"She says to call her Monique,” Mr. Crogan explained.

"Would you ask if she’s eaten?”

A short conversation ensued between him and the Frenchwoman, in which the only words I picked out were "McDonald’s” and "café.”

Mr. Crogan turned to me. "It seems she and her companions stopped for a bit of lunch, but the poor lass has had no more than coffee since then.”

"That won’t do.” I gestured toward the back of the library. "There’s yogurt in the refrigerator in the break room. That might hold her until the library closes. Rachel’s back there—she can show you where I keep the potato chips.”

He arched an eyebrow. "Potato chips and yogurt? Quite the interesting diet you have there, Mrs. Longstreet.”

"The potato chips are for Rachel.”

"A likely story.” His eyes glinted with mischief. "Are you sure you don’t dip them in yogurt whenever no one’s looking?”

Oh my God, he was flirting with me. Wasn’t he?

I struggled to keep my tone light. "Hey, the only weird food I will admit to is my dad’s toasted peanut butter and ketchup sandwiches.”

"That’s a vile-sounding combination.”

I shrugged. "They’re not as bad as you’d think. Besides, don’t you Scots eat haggis and kippers?”

"Ah, but haggis and kippers are delicious, something you’d realize if you ever tried them. In fact—” He cast me a challenging glance. "We should do more than speculate about our respective cuisines. If you’ll agree to try kippers, I’ll agree to try your horrible sandwiches.”

"You’re on,” I said blithely.

"Really? I expected to have to do a bit more convincing.”

I laughed. "You’ll never find kippers in Mossy Creek.”

The sudden devilish grin transforming his dusky features gave me pause. "I wouldn’t lay odds on that if I were you.” He lifted one eyebrow. "So it’s a date, is it?”

My heart began to pound. "Sure. A food-tasting date.”

"I won’t forget,” he said, then winked as he led Monique to the back of the library.

Mr. Crogan had winked at me. And flirted. And asked me out on a date. Well, a sort of date.

I wiped my clammy hands on my slacks. I must be out of my mind. He was in town temporarily. Nothing could come of this.

Freelance photographers can live anywhere.

I groaned. That line of thinking was dangerous. And here I’d thought that the library was safe—apparently sharp objects came in more than one guise.

For the next hour or so, I tried not to feel left out as sounds of a party going on in the break room wafted out to me. My daughter’s high-pitched Southern accent mingled with the low rumble of Mr. Crogan’s Scots English, which was interrupted by bursts of melodious French in both his and Monique’s voices. It was like listening to a multi-national orchestra from outside the auditorium.

But I didn’t dare leave my post. Someone had to man the desk. Besides, I had work to do.

For one thing, I had to Google "David Crogan” and the word kippers.Unfortunately, that led me in every direction except the one that told me more about my mysterious photographer.

With a sigh, I glanced at the clock. Almost closing time, thank God. Remembering what Linda had said about a makeover, I whipped out my compact and put on the lipstick I rarely used, then finger-combed my spiky blond hair.

My daughter suddenly dashed from the break room. As I whisked my makeup away, Rachel stumbled over a chair, reeled toward a bookshelf, then caught herself before she sent books flying. She finished off by rushing breathlessly up to the desk. "Mom, did you know Mr. Crogan’s dad is Scottish?”

"Is he?” I said, trying to sound cool and professional as he and Monique emerged from my office behind Rachel.

"Yep! And Ms. Laplante is from Provence. Isn’t that cool?”

I eyed Rachel askance. "Do you even know where Provence is?”

"Well, no, but it sounds really pretty. Mr. Crogan shot pictures there for a month, and he told me all about it.”

Provence. Something else to Google with his name.

I winced as I glanced over to where he chatted in French with Monique. The man was turning me into a cyber-stalker. "I hope you had Mr. Crogan explain to Ms. Laplante that our house will be nothing like Provence.”

Mr. Crogan heard me and smiled. "She won’t care—she’s grateful for the place to stay. They feared they’d have to spend the night on the tour bus.”

"Ms. Laplante is a knife-thrower,” Rachel exclaimed, fairly bouncing on her toes at the prospect of having a circus performer in our house. "She says she’ll show me how to throw knives, too.”

"Wonderful.” I stifled a groan at the thought of my clumsy daughter sending any kind of missile flying through the air, much less one with a bladed edge.

"And I told Mr. Crogan that he has to come home with us for dinner,” Rachel added, "so he can explain things to Ms. Laplante in French.”

My heart snagged in my throat before I got hold of myself. "Now, Rachel, I’m sure Mr. Crogan has better things to do this evening than spend it interpreting for us.”

"Truth is,” he broke in, the burr of his brogue humming along my senses, "I’m happy to work for my supper. Though I do hope you’re serving something more traditional than peanut butter and ketchup sandwiches.”

"You eat pb-and-k sandwiches, too?” Rachel exclaimed. "Cool! Mom, now you have to make—”

"We’re having pizza, Rachel, and that’s final. Why don’t you show Ms. Laplante to the car while I close up and talk to Mr. Crogan for a second?”

As soon as my daughter had tugged Monique out the door, I turned to the photographer. "Pay no attention to my daughter. She’s always eager to impose on people, and I don’t want you to feel as if you have to indulge her, Mr. Crogan.”

"I don’t. And call me Dave. Please.”

My mouth went dry. "All right. But only if you call me Hannah.”

His smile dazzled me. "The name suits you.”

"Does it?” I said inanely, feeling as if I were thirteen again and sitting tongue-tied while Bobby Jackson, the most popular boy in school, asked me the time in study hall.

"Besides, I’d be the one imposing. Much as I enjoy Rosie’s fried chicken, I’m ready for a change. I’ll even pay for the pizza.”

"Pay?” I drew myself up with a mock sniff. "I’ll have you know, sir, that we make our pizza from scratch.”

"You must be joking. No one does that anymore.”

"Well,” I admitted, "we don’t have any choice. Domino’s doesn’t exactly carry the ingredients we like to eat.”

He groaned. "Please say you don’t make them with peanut butter and tomato sauce.”

"Don’t worry,” I teased. "You can always order the standard old boring pizza if you don’t like our version. But you will like it, I promise.”

"I will?” he echoed, obviously skeptical.

"Trust me.”


 

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