No sound was quite as satisfying as the little bell hanging above the front door of the shop. Emma Green looked up from the book she was reading, marking the page in the crisp-spined hardcover with a fingertip as she looked for the new customer. The young woman paused right inside the door, blinking to adjust to the dimmer light after the bright outdoor sun, scanning the quiet bookstore. Her gaze landed on Emma, leaning on the glass countertop and smiling in welcome, finger still marking her page. The girl’s answering smile was too quick, all thin lips and anxious eyes, the “please don’t notice me” evident in her drawn posture. She was in her early twenties, probably attending one of the local Boston universities near the shop. Emma recognized the look well, her anxiety all too familiar.
“Let me know if I can help you find anything.”
The girl’s nod was nearly imperceptible. She lingered near the day planners at the front of the store for a while, long fingers worrying the edge of her infinity scarf. She had a wan, studious look, the kind of student who could spend hours in a bookstore. Emma opened her book and found the line where she’d left off.
When she looked up again, the girl had wandered past the counter and was staring with great focus at a bookcase of home repair books. What she really kept glancing at, though, was the “Relationships and Sex” section one bookcase over. Putting that bookcase within eyesight of the register was one of the first things Emma had learned in designing the store layout. Initially she had preferred to give people privacy to browse, but after pulling the third pair of panties out from the shelves, she’d moved it up front. Some people had no class. Unfortunately, it caused a fair amount of anxiety for customers like this one.
To ease the young woman’s mind, Emma made a show of flipping the pages of her book, even turning slightly away on her stool. As if she cared where this girl browsed, so long as she didn’t slip her panties in between the books. Hopefully she’d actually buy something, or several somethings, and maybe she’d come back with a dozen friends who would all buy five books each, and Emma would be able to pay the heating bill. Sighing, she held her novel splayed open on the counter with one hand while she took a sip of coffee from the mug next to her.
Emma became so caught up in pretending to be absorbed in her book that she actually did become absorbed in her book, somehow missing the sound of the bell over her door.
The voice right in front of Emma made her jump, her flailing hands knocking her coffee mug forward on the counter. The man jumped backward but wasn’t fast enough, coffee splashing up onto his shirt and pants.
“Shit!” Leaping to her feet, Emma jerked the book out of the way of the spreading puddle. “Oh, shit, Ian, I’m so sorry. I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Yeah, I figured.” Ian Cooper stared down at himself. The stain went down one side of his blue button-down and onto his pants. “Well, at least the pants are brown.” She could hear the wry amusement in his voice, and she relaxed. At least it wasn’t a stranger. She and Ian had never developed more than a casual acquaintanceship during the misery of Catholic high school, but now he was a frequent customer, and they had the kind of superficial ease common to people who saw each other frequently but spent little time together.
He looked around at the counter and behind him, then back down at himself. “Do you have a bathroom in the back or something? I know I’m not an employee, but maybe you could make an exception since you assaulted me?”
“It was an accident.” Emma led him past the girl, who was now sitting in the “Relationships and Sex” section, an erotica anthology open on her lap. Emma slid open the curtain to the back room and gestured to a door in the corner while she gathered up some paper towels for the front counter. “Take your time.”
While she mopped up the spill, the only customer got back to her feet with the anthology and a copy of Sex Matters for Women. The girl’s posture had relaxed quite a bit in the interim; apparently watching the shop owner dump hot coffee on a customer was a good cure for social anxiety. “Is he okay?” She set her two books down on the counter in the spot Emma had just cleaned.
“Oh, yeah. Probably. I know him, though.” Emma tossed the wet paper towels in the counter and picked up her mug, which fortunately hadn’t fallen off the counter. It was one of her favorites, a white Etsy ceramic mug with black script that said “Prufrock Is My Homeboy,” referencing her favorite T. S. Eliot poem. She set it aside and began scanning the books.
The girl looked off toward the back room, tucking a few strands of blond hair back under her loose knitted cap. “He your boyfriend?”
“What? Oh, no. Ian? No. He’s just a friend.” Even “friend” was generous: He was someone who bought books on a regular basis.
“Oh. He’s kinda cute.” The girl looked Emma up and down as if seeing how she measured up to Ian. Emma flushed, conscious of how her sweater didn’t disguise all her excess softness, the curves of her body and generous hips that were impossible to hide without wearing two sizes too big all the time. Another reminder that, despite their both having been a little socially awkward in high school, she wasn’t exactly in Ian’s league. Or anyone’s league, probably. Books and business, she could handle. Dating? Not in her wheelhouse.
“That’ll be twenty-nine seventy-five.” Emma managed to keep her own sudden discomfort out of her voice. This conversation could not end soon enough. She might have broken some customer service records with her speed in running the debit card and finalizing the transaction. Her farewell “Come back and see us again!” was friendly enough after years of working retail, but she wasn’t sad to see the store empty again.
Except for what that meant to her heating bill, of course.
Ian emerged from the back room a minute or two later, shirt damp but a bit less brown, dabbing at the fabric with a hand towel. “Wish you had one of those air dryers.”
“They’re unsanitary.” Emma winced as she studied his shirt. “Sorry about that again, Ian. Do you have a jacket or anything?”
“I left it back at the office. It looked sunny enough.” He pushed his square-framed glasses back up his nose, a gesture so familiar that Emma expected it every time. “Isn’t March supposed to be going out like a lamb or something?”
“Or something.” Emma peered out the glass door. “There’s still snow out there. So what’s up? I haven’t seen you since . . . I don’t know, a few weeks, maybe?”
“It hasn’t been that long, has it?” Ian rubbed his smooth chin. “Huh, maybe you’re right. Anyway, I came in for something to read on the plane. Doesn’t Malcolm Gladwell have something new out?”
“Yeah, I’ve got it up here on display.” Emma took the glossy red hardcover from the feature table up front and handed it over. “Where’re you headed?”
“Ohio. Only for the weekend.” He flipped the book over to read the reviews on the back. “Have you heard anything about this?”
“I read it last week. I liked it.” Emma shrugged. “You’re going away for business? It’s weird that they’d send you now. Isn’t it, like, prime tax season? I thought that was ‘all hands on deck’ for accountants.”
“No, not for business. Just for fun.” He thumbed through the book, stopping to skim a few chapter headings, his lips pursed in thought.
“Nobody goes to Ohio for fun.”
Ian looked up, a half smile on his face. “People go to Ohio. I’m going to Ohio.”
“No accounting for taste.” Emma returned his smile. Casual conversation was easy when there was no relationship pressure, nobody’s expectations to try to fail to meet.
Ian tossed the book down on the counter and grabbed the one she’d been reading. “Speaking of no accounting for taste—I didn’t even know they made romance novels in hardcover. Must be fancy.”
Emma grabbed it back, feeling herself flush. “I try to keep up on all the bestsellers. It’s my job.”
“Sure, sure.” He took off his glasses and looked at them, frowning. “Look, there’s coffee spots on here.” He began cleaning them with the dry, coffee-free side of his shirt.
Emma rang up Ian’s book and bagged it. “Twenty-eight fifty.”
“What a rip-off,” he said, but his smile indicated that he was teasing. While Emma scanned his debit card, she could feel him watching her. Not in a creepy way, or even in a sexual way, just . . . watching. She wished he were looking somewhere else. His forehead was creased in thought as she slipped the receipt into his bag and handed him back his card. “Emma, what do you use that back room for?”
Emma raised her eyebrows. “Storage?” Wasn’t that obvious?
“It’s big. You’re barely using any of it. You should have events back there or something. It’s a really nice space.”
Emma looked over toward the back room in reflex. It was all right: hardwood floors, exactly like in the main shop, decent lighting, but nothing special. There weren’t even any windows. “I never thought about it.”
Ian raised one shoulder in a shrug. “Something to think about.”
“Have fun in Ohio,” she called after him. “If that’s possible.”
His laugh seemed to fill the space even after he was gone.
When Ian got back to the office, he took the last fifteen minutes of his lunch break to thumb through the Malcolm Gladwell book. He probably could have gotten it cheaper on his iPad, but then he wouldn’t have a reason to stop by Emma’s shop. Of course, his visits didn’t usually involve having hot coffee spilled on him.
His phone beeped, the reminder he’d set earlier to check in online for his flight. As he printed out his boarding passes and conference paperwork, he imagined Emma’s reaction to the real reason for his trip to Ohio. Sweet, straitlaced Emma would probably fall over if he told her he was leading rope bondage workshops at a kink conference. It wasn’t something people expected of him: As an accountant, he was supposed to fit the stereotype of an accountant.
Ian pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. Well, he was geeky enough for some of those stereotypes, but his interests in kink skewed those perceptions quite a bit. The women usually interested in him weren’t the kind to get on board with rope bondage. And Emma? He’d even thought about asking her out a few times, but the thought of broaching that subject with her was enough to keep him quiet. Plus, she’d never responded to his casual flirtations and seemed content that they remain friends. She’d never found out about the secret crush he’d harbored for her in high school, and in the intervening years, he’d set those feelings aside.
Coming out of his reverie, Ian tucked the paperwork into a folder inside his briefcase and scanned his calendar. After the kink workshop, he’d be hung up for the next couple of weeks during the height of tax season. He wasn’t going to host any workshops until after the fifteenth, but if he hoped to have a beginners’ class at the end of April, he should probably book the room now. Checking the clock, he realized he had ten minutes left in his lunch hour. He called the hotel where he usually held his workshops, dialing the extension for the event sales coordinator.
“Hey, Linh. It’s Ian Cooper.”
Linh’s familiar lilting voice answered him. “Mr. Cooper, it’s good to hear from you. What can I help you with?”
“I’d like to book my usual room for the end of next month. What dates do you have available?”
There was a pause, then some clicking sounds as Linh searched through the inventory. “We have open availability every weekend except the seventeenth. I should let you know that there has been a rate increase since the last time you booked.”
It was certainly any business’s prerogative to raise rates for inflation. “What’s the new rate?”
Linh quoted a price and Ian almost dropped the phone. “That’s almost double. What happened?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Cooper, but it’s beyond our control. Corporate changes.”
Ian did some quick mental math. That would cut in to his profits significantly. “I’m going to have to get back to you, Linh. That’s a significant increase.”
Her voice sounded polite and apologetic. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cooper. Can I help you with anything else today?”
“No, that will be all. Thank you.”
Ian checked the clock. He didn’t have time to pursue this any further now. Surely he could find another meeting space in the area when he got back from Ohio, and in the meantime, he had a client meeting to attend.