The Fake Out by Sharon M. Peterson
Are you from Tennessee, because you’re the only ten I see.
There was a man sleeping in my library.
Well, not exactly my library. The Two Harts Public Library didn’t belong to me personally. I was, however, its only employee. Not by choice, mind you. It had been a year ago when the city council in all its brilliance (which is to say, none), led by its fearless (idiot) mayor, decided to slash the library budget to bare bones. As a result, I was a one-woman show. Book circulation? That was me. Afterschool homework club? Me. Genealogy classes? You’re looking at her. Hall monitor, light housekeeping, budget maker. Me, me, and me. All that on a salary that would make most people cry.
But, like most librarians, I wasn’t in it for the money.
The Two Harts Public Library had always been a special place for me. We’d moved here – my mom, baby sister, and me – when I was ten. The three of us were nothing more than a huddle of raw nerves and exhaustion after years on the road with my father, none of them good.
Here at the library, I’d found friends among Anne who lived at Green Gables, or Laura Ingalls in the Piney Woods. I didn’t have to worry that I was That Girl whose dad was in and out of prison. Or when he wasn’t locked up, doing all the things that landed him in prison in the first place. No one whispered about my mama and how she had to work three jobs to get by. No one felt sorry for me and my hand-me-down clothes. Here, I was just… Mae Sampson, the girl who liked to read.
As far as I was concerned, the library was sacred ground, the same way some people felt about a church building or how most Texans felt about a football field.
So, it really pissed me when I found a man sleeping in the non-fiction section.
I’d just ushered little Jordan Hunter—age six, big fan of dinosaurs—into the warm March sun and had given the front door lock a satisfying click. I kicked my sandals off and groaned in delight.
Although I loved my job, the hours I spent here added up. As the one and only employee, I couldn’t slack. If I didn’t do it, no one else would. It’s not how I’d expected my library career to go. I’d hoped to find a position at a large library system far away from Two Harts where I could work as a children’s librarian. The thought of living in anonymity where no one knew of the Sampson family sounded like a dream. Extra points if it was in an entirely different state.
But as much as I wanted to believe dreams could come true in real life and not only in books, the truth was few of us ever got anywhere close to achieving them.
The book return cart was overflowing so I pulled up my latest audiobook on my phone, turned the volume up as loud as it could go, and tossed it on the cart. The historical romance had come to the first kiss, and I was a bit distracted by the Duke of Fellows’ prowess. The poor bookish second daughter of a disgraced viscount was certainly not complaining.
I turned the corner to make my way to the 600s (Applied Sciences) with a copy of Old Tractors and the Men Who Love Them. I’d purchased it after a special request from Mr. Conway, who has since checked it out every couple of months. “To look at the pictures,” he said.
And there he was.
A big oaf of a man, slouched in the armchair I’d gotten from an estate sale after old Mrs. Friedman went to the Great Beyond. It should be noted she passed away while sitting in said chair, but I thought that gave it character.
I shrieked. The book slipped from my hand and landed with a thud on the floor.
Shockingly, the man did not budge.
Or at least, it didn’t look like he did. It was hard to tell with the baseball cap pulled low on his forehead, dark hair peeking out around his ears. His jean-clad legs were stretched out and crossed at the ankles where he blocked the 750s (Art and Recreation).
Everything about him seemed oversized, in a long, lean sort of way. The arm dangling to the side almost reached the floor. His enormous tennis shoe-clad feet. A hand the size of a dinner plate splayed across the open book on his chest. I didn’t recognize him, and he seemed memorable by sheer size alone.
Two Harts was a small dot on the Texas map, about forty-five minutes west of Houston, and this library was the only one for four towns. I knew everyone who visited the library; I knew their reading tastes, their family tree, and (unfortunately for some) their internet search history.
What bothered me the most was that he’d gotten in here without me noticing. This was exactly the reason I’d asked the city council to consider putting in one measly security camera, especially now I was here alone. After all, this man could be a criminal or violent or request to check out a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.
The man shifted a bit, his hat moving enough to give me a glimpse of one dark eyebrow and a jawline dusted with at least a day or two of growth. From where I stood, he looked like he could use a shave and a haircut. But for all his scruffiness, he didn’t appear dirty.
Annoyed, I inched closer and nudged one of his giant feet. He didn’t so much as flinch. My eyes narrowed on his chest to make sure he was still breathing. The last thing I needed was a dead guy in my library.
Good news. Still alive.
I cleared my throat. “Excuse me.”
Nothing. Yet, I was reminded of the millions of times I’d played hide-and-seek with my sister when she was very young and believed that if she kept her eyes shut and couldn’t see me, I couldn’t see her. Surely this grown man wouldn’t be playing the same kind of silly game.
After glaring at him for several seconds, I stomped to a small closet and retrieved a broom. Standing as far back as I could, I poked his arm. “Hey, wake up. Library’s closed.”
Still no reply.
I stuck a hand on my hip, gripping the broom in the other like some kind of book witch. Oooh. Book Witch. I needed that on a t-shirt.
“The Duke’s lips trailed along her cheekbone, his tongue traced the delicate shell of her ear,” my phone read aloud.
“Oh, crap,” I jolted, remembering the audiobook that had been playing the whole time.
“‘Fellows, you must stop,’ she protested and then, belying her words, leaned into him. ‘I’ll be ruined if someone see us.’ But she didn’t pull away when his fingers began to touch—”
My heart racing, I tossed the broom and scrambled to get my phone from the cart. Frantically, I jabbed at the screen until the audio stopped.
“Now why’d you go and do that? It was just getting interesting,” a deep voice said, a touch of humor laced in his words.
I gasped; my gaze darted to the man. Nothing about his position had changed, save for his eye, which was now open, and the corner of his mouth I could see was tilted up.
For some reason, this half-smile irritated me. My spine straightened and I whisper-screamed at him, “Why are you sleeping in my library?”
It should be noted that all librarians learn to whisper-scream. And to shush people.
Lazily, he stretched his arms, taking his baseball cap off to reveal a head of dark hair that was just a shade too long. It curled around his ears and dusted his forehead. The scruff on his face was equally dark. All of that should have made him look unkempt and messy. But it did not. Not at all.
He gestured toward the book he now held in one hand. “Sorry about that. Thought I’d do a little reading.”
My eyes darted to the book, and I frowned. “The American Medical Association Guide to Preventing and Treating Heart Disease?”
“Knowledge is power,” he said, his voice deep and tinged with a drawl of the Southern variety. It drew my eyes right back up to the source, his mouth. A wide grin met me there, still a little sleepy around the edges.
That smile. Friendly. Open. Charming.
But I’d spent twenty-six years on this earth. While I knew I still had a lot to learn, I did know one thing: that smile meant trouble and I didn’t want trouble. My own mother had spent all my life playing with trouble and all it had gotten her were a world of heartache, a few extra callouses on her feet, and nothing in the bank.
So no, I wasn’t impressed with that smile. It didn’t cause any sort of tingling anywhere in my body. That was just irritation racing down my spine.
“The library is closed,” I snapped. “Didn’t you hear the four announcements I made?”
His smile slipped a bit as he sat up in the chair. “I guess I missed them. I honestly didn’t mean to.”
I waved a hand in the air. “Nap time is over.”
He nodded and stood. It took a while because he was about twelve feet tall. And not the skinny, beanpole kind of tall either. The strong, lean, wide-shouldered kind of tall, like he ran five miles a day as his warmup and then worked out. He stretched an arm, settled his hat back on his head, and took a curious look at me, from the tip of my toes to the top of my hair. “Nice shirt.”
It was my I Will Dewey Decimate You shirt—I’d gotten it for myself on my last birthday.
“Thank you, and goodbye.” I took a step back so he could walk by.
He shrugged, looking a little confused, but he took the hint and held out the book in my direction. I had to tip my head back a bit to see his face, which was saying something—I was 5’10” barefoot.
“I’m sorry for any inconvenience I may have caused you,” he said. His voice sounded sincere.
I blinked, not expecting his words. This close I could see his eyes were a brown so light and warm they reminded me of fresh honey on…
Knock that off right now. I was not waxing poetic about his eyes. They were brown. Normal, brown eyes. The most common of all eye colors. Cows had brown eyes. He had cow eyes. Nothing remotely interesting about that. Unless you were a female cow on the prowl. Which I was not. Obviously.
I snatched the book from his hand. “It’s fine,” I said, my tone implying it was anything but.
He nodded solemnly but I swore his eyes crinkled at the corners like he was stifling a grin. I trailed behind as he made his way to the door. On the way, I grabbed my keys off the circulation desk and scurried around him to jam them in the lock. Holding open the door, I waved him through. He paused in front of me, his brow creased like he was trying to figure me out.
No, thank you.
With a shrug, he took a couple of steps and then stopped and turned around. “I did have a question, if you don’t mind.”
I did mind. I minded so much. “What?”
“So, where do you think that Duke was gonna put his hand? I’m thinking he was about to touch her—”
With a growl, I pulled the door shut. He was still laughing as I locked it.