It wasn’t love at first sight.
Sarah, Tolliver’s kid sister, saw him first. Perched on the Old Curiosity checkout counter doing her homework, she swung her heels and nudged Tolliver with the toe of her sneaker. “Incoming customer.”
Tolliver reluctantly turned away from the page of the old book he’d been halfway through, its faded type and strange serifs tempting him back in. “I got it. Keep working.” He closed the book and lifted his chin in the customer’s direction, his eyes still on the book’s worn leather cover. “Can I help you?”
“Hope so,” the man said, his voice a deep, melodious tenor that shaded toward baritone. “I was told you might have some hard-to-find tarot decks in stock. There’s one, a local artist -- Judy Schuyler. She did an abstract Impressionism set. Do you have that deck?”
“We might have sold hers,” Tolliver said, not really paying attention to the guy and registering no more than a vague impression of height, tousled brown hair, and bare arms. He kept one eye on the flyleaf of the 1891 edition of Great Expectations
, pencil poised to sketch his reseller’s price. Amazing
. He almost wanted to keep this one for himself.
“Can you check?” The customer was persistent, and patiently unruffled. “Maybe for Sharice Donough, too? She’s not local, but she did a mountain-music-inspired. There’s a stringed instrument on the front --”
“Right. It was a mandolin, I think?” He’d caught Tolliver’s attention at last. Tolliver reached for an inventory log, still kept on paper for the most part -- he was a traditionalist -- and started flipping through pages. “I’d swear I remember getting one of those last year. Wait. Do you mean the Wisconsin Sharice or the Montauk Falls Donough?”
Tolliver’s fingers slipped on the light-lead pencil he held and sent it clattering to the floor. “Sorry, let me get that.”
“No problem,” the customer answered, his stance relaxed. “I’m not in a rush.”
Tolliver crouched, scanning the flotsam and jetsam he kept stashed under the old four-legged breakfront he used as a checkout counter. “Did you check in the glass cases on the back wall?” he called. “Ha. There you are.” The pencil had come to a stop halfway in, halfway out of the desk’s boundaries.
“Hang on, I think I see it.” The tip of a sneaker, encasing a foot of amazing length, prodded the pencil. “Is this what you’re looking for?”
Tolliver had reached for the pencil at the same time. Together, they sent it skittering across the shop floor.
“I’ve got it,” the customer said, rich amusement lacing his tone. He crouched. “Do you always work this hard for this little?”
“I pay attention to detail,” Tolliver replied, slightly annoyed. He caught a glimpse of long, tapered fingers with solid knuckles snaffling the pencil.
He stood, brushing the layer of dust he’d acquired down there off the knees of his khakis and reached, still not looking, for the pencil. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.” The customer tipped his head to one side and studied Tolliver. Tolliver noticed, sort of, the lionlike amber of his eyes and the generous width of a smile over white teeth. “The Schuyler?”
“Back wall, glass case,” Tolliver said, already drawn back to the Dickens. He ran his fingers reverently over the binding. Ruined from years of handling, but a piece of history all the same. “What you see is what we’ve got. If it’s not there, sorry, you’re out of luck.”
The customer laughed, low and rolling.
Tolliver frowned up at him over the book. “What?”
“It’s nothing.” The customer swung around, loose limbed and graceful, and tossed a casual wave at him.
“No, what?” Tolliver held his pencil point down on the counter. “Share the joke.”
The customer shrugged and half turned, the leonine cast to his features shadowed. “I’d heard the owner of Old Curiosity was cranky, but it was still worth shopping here. You never know what you’re going to find.” His grin was still bright. “Back wall?”
“Back wall,” Tolliver confirmed, frowning. He kept an eye on the customer as the man ambled away, long feet, lengthy stretch of legs, and arms held loosely comfortable at his sides, thumbs tucked into his belt loops.
So, no. Not love at first sight.
Intrigue, though. That was part of it.
* * * * *
“You think you’re ready for that kind of responsibility?”
“Ready, willing, and able.”
Tolliver rubbed his forehead and scratched his jaw. He shook his head. “Yeah, well, I’m not. I’m sorry, but the answer’s no.” He used his box cutter to slice open a carton of midfifties classics he’d taken on consignment.
.” Sarah sulked.
God, Tolliver hated disappointing her, but he was her guardian. Doing the hard thing was his job. “Price these, would you?”
Pouting, Sarah nudged him with the toe of her sneaker. “I’m almost sixteen. You’ve got to accept sometime that your baby sister is nearly old enough to drive. We need to talk cars.”
“We need to talk your working extra hours to earn the money to buy your own.” Tolliver propped his loosely fisted hands on the counter and caught Sarah’s eye. “Hey. Look at me.”
Sarah sighed in a way Tolliver had learned came naturally to teenage girls and crossed her arms. “What?”
Tolliver had never pulled punches with her, and didn’t start now. “Even if I thought you were ready, sis, you know we can’t afford another car, not even a used one. We can barely manage upkeep on the junker we do have.”
“Okay, I get that. But maybe if I got a second job outside the Old Curiosity, waiting tables or serving coffee or something, I could earn tips.” Sarah brightened, painfully eager, her bright blue eyes lambent behind her thick-rimmed, black cat’s-eye glasses. She tucked her hair behind her ears. “Tolliver, please?”
“I’m sorry. No. You need to stay where I can keep an eye on you.” He shrugged. “It is what it is, Sarah. I’m responsible for you.”
“And you’re still thinking about how I screwed up,” Sarah said. She grabbed an old pulp novel and picked at the remnants of a flea-market price tag. “I’ve done everything you said, Tolliver. Studied, worked hard, spent all my free time here. I haven’t even talked to Silver, not once.”
“I know. You’ve done good with Ella, too.”
Sarah bit her lip. She tugged her baggy sweater, loosening it further. Never wore anything that didn’t cover her from neck to wrists to waist. “I saw her this morning,” she said. “Mrs. Thompson was in the park with a stroller. She’s got hair now. Curly, but dark like mine, with a pink bow on top. She’s getting big.”
“Aw, Sarah…” Tolliver turned away from the books and gave her his full attention. “You didn’t --”
“No.” Sarah’s hair fell loose and covered her face. “I didn’t say hi. No one even knew I was there.”
“You’re the one who made the rules about giving her a chance to grow up without interference,” Tolliver reminded Sarah, careful not to chide her.
“Sometimes I wish I’d gotten a chance to know her before I gave her to the Thompsons,” Sarah said.
“You made the right choice.”
“Whatever.” She slid off the counter. “Okay, are we done here?”
“Not yet, no. You already know, so don’t even ask, but you’re not going to the coffee shop to ‘study.’ Not on a school night.”
“Tolliver, God!” Sarah heaved her full knapsack off the floor and slung the strap over her shoulder. “Have you ever had fun once in your whole life?”
“I’ve been busy raising you.” Tolliver tried to stop Sarah, to ruffle her hair the way he’d done when they were both still kids. Before he’d been named the man who had to raise her and do right by her when their parents passed. “It’s a full-time job, and with this place to keep afloat, too? No time to play around. I still know how to have fun, though, and I enjoy myself. I make do.”
Sarah let Tolliver block her path. “It’s not fair,” she said. “You should have your own life.”
“When did this become about me? Besides, I have a life. Plenty of it.” He waved around at the interior of Old Curiosity, the jumbled mix of old scarred wood and light corkboard, worn books in six dozen cases arranged in a labyrinth, and walls full of glassed-in treasures. Flyers papering the walls and bizarrely cubist art done by local college students. “This is my life.”
“Tolliver,” Sarah started, shaking her head.
“It’s enough life for me.” He tugged her ear. “Go home, get your homework started. Finish by seven and you get an hour of phone time.”
“What about dinner?”
“If you can wait until eight, I’ll cook. Anything you want.”
Sarah brightened. “Macaroni and cheese with ketchup and sliced hot dogs?”
“And economy-sized antacids on standby, yes.” Tolliver kissed the shining top of Sarah’s head and gave her a gentle push. “Go. I have customers.”
“Okay.” Sarah walked away with a lighter gait to her step.
At the door, she paused and looked at Tolliver, her eyebrows drawn together.
“Name one time.”
“One time what?”
“One time you had fun in the past year,” Sarah clarified.
Tolliver opened his mouth to reply. Nothing came to mind. He closed it.
Sarah made a humph
noise and let the door close firmly behind her with a jingle of silver bells.
* * * * *
“She’ll be okay, you know.”
The customer stood at an angle to Tolliver, nearly as tall and broad in the shoulders as the oversized bookcase he’d stopped perusing. “Your sister. She’s a good kid. She’ll be fine.”
“Thanks.” Tolliver’s overprotectiveness kicked in. No one was allowed to comment on his sister but him. “I think you should leave now.”
“Whoa, wait.” The customer held up his hands. “Sorry. I was out of line.”
“Yeah, you were.”
“I’m sorry,” the customer repeated, glancing sideways, apologetically, at Tolliver. He raised one shoulder. “You don’t need to worry. Sounds like she’s had enough to deal with. I wouldn’t be the one to hurt her again.”
“Nope, you wouldn’t be.” Tolliver jerked his chin at the door. “Time to go.”
“Wait.” The customer reshelved the slim, frayed blue volume he’d taken out to examine. “Don’t kick me out. Not yet.”
He turned from the waist to look directly at Tolliver. Tolliver saw him in full view for the first time. He was tall, lean, and corded as a basketball player. His ribbed crimson sleeveless shirt was stretched tight over a firm chest and tucked into faded blue jeans. Cotton strings trailed from the worn cuffs and from a hole near the knee.
Tolliver’s wary anger died somewhere between intent and action. He scanned the length of the man, from sneakers to bed head, and couldn’t figure out what was different about him that made him want to keep looking.
Neither did he get why a wave of embarrassment swept over him or why he glanced sideways at a mirrored cabinet at his darker hair, cut short so the curls wouldn’t run wildly out of control, his jaw dusted with stubble and the horn-rimmed reading glasses he’d forgotten he was wearing the slightest bit askew. He was shorter than the customer by at least four inches and looked smaller in his dust-covered plain clothes. Too ordinary and too outlandish at the same time.
The customer approached, one hand extended. “Let’s start again. I’m Noble.”
Common sense told Tolliver not to take it, and instinct said otherwise.
He took Noble’s hand for a shake. When Noble’s dry, callused fingers grazed his, Tolliver flinched. Weirdest thing ever, but for a second, it’d seemed as if the warmth in Noble’s hand filled Tolliver’s body, heating his blood.
Then Noble let go, and the strangeness faded. Noble pushed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and stood with one hip cocked, studying Tolliver as Tolliver would study a first edition. Assessing him.
“What’s your name?” Noble prompted, interrupting the strange silence.
“Tolliver Bennigan. Like it says on the front door over ‘proprietor’ and on the insert in every book.”
“Growly.” Noble’s eyebrow quirked. “You really are every bit as cantankerous as they say you are.”
That stung, though it wasn’t the first time Tolliver had heard it. “They who?”
“People.” Noble’s grin reappeared. He stood his ground, studying Tolliver. “I’m not mentioning her name, because she’s not who I’m talking about, but she was right, wasn’t she? How long’s it been since you had fun?”
Enough. “Out,” Tolliver ordered, pointing at the door. “And stay out. Understand?”
“I’ll be back,” Noble said, calm as a lake on a day without breezes. “Soon. You’ll let me in and want to see me again. You’re here every day, all day. I see you when I walk past on my way to and from work, and you’re never not here. Is this place all there is to your life?”
Uneasy prickles juddered down Tolliver’s spine. “I’ll call the cops if I need to. Don’t think I won’t.”
“You don’t have to. That’s all I needed to say.” Noble ambled past him, the strange feline grace imbuing his every movement.
He stopped at the door as Sarah had, and looked over his shoulder at Tolliver. “You should have some fun, you know. Take some time for yourself and figure out what you want out of life.”
“What I want is what I do. I take care of my own,” Tolliver replied, an odd sense of breathlessness threatening to break over him. He didn’t like it. “Go.”
Noble tipped him a nod. “Later.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Tolliver muttered under the jingling of the bells as the door shut.
Without consciously knowing what he was doing, Tolliver massaged the hand Noble had shaken. His palm still tingled and his skin had heated.
“Weird guy,” he grumbled. The air still smelled of him, warm skin and faint, burned-cinnamon cologne. Made the walls close in a little too tight and his throat thicken.
Maybe it wouldn’t hurt him to call an early night for once. Go ahead and get out of here where he could breathe.
Not that it had anything to do with what Noble had said. Tolliver wanted
to take some time to wind down. End of story, right?