Aidan Wilson was a widower, but he detested that title. Widower made him feel like an old man, since that’s typically when something like that happens. Men in their sixties or beyond lose their wives after fifty years of marriage because of an illness or natural causes. Not a thirty-year-old who was married for a mere three years to his college sweetheart. Happily, and about to start a family. He wanted to invent a new word for a man who deeply loved his wife but lost her entirely too soon. Some term or phrase for the world to know not only was it the worst time in his life, but widower wasn’t sufficient for the heartbreak he had suffered.
He should’ve left Arroyo Grande after Kendra died. He planned on moving to a bigger city, somewhere away from the memories of her and their life together—but he couldn’t. This small town Kendra wanted to move to right out of college was his home. The community had become like family, and when she died, they all mourned her along with him.
He unlocked the door to the bookstore and turned the sign around to OPEN. He balanced the books in his hands along with his coffee.
The store was dim and dingy, like any respectable used bookshop should be. The darkness, suspended by natural light coming in from the front windows and sporadic lighting hanging from the ceiling, gave it an ambiance of mystery and romance.
Aidan walked back to his office and heard the bell ding over the front door. Sounds of Panic! At the Disco were sung by Nika, coming in for her shift. She was nineteen and had more piercings in her face than in her ears.
She poked her head around the corner, her black-and-pink hair in pigtails at the top of her head, displaying her metal jewelry with pride.
“Hey.” Aidan barely looked up. “You forgot to empty the trash cans again.”
“On it.” She disappeared instantly.
Kendra had hired Nika. They loved the kid, but her moments of flightiness annoyed Aidan to no end. There were times she’d forgotten to lock the back door or miscounted the register, making Aidan’s job more difficult, but she was honest and fixed her missteps directly. Still, Aidan would have to have another talk with her about her duties at the store.
Aidan worked in his office most of the morning. There was a steady stream of customers for the sidewalk sales in the Village. Nika would whine about lunch soon, and he was getting hungry himself.
He grabbed his jacket and walked to the front of the store. “I’m gonna grab a sandwich from the deli. Want anything?”
“Vegetarian on gluten-free bread, please.” Nika didn’t look up from her phone.
Aidan shook his head, smiling, and walked out.
When he came back, the store had cleared except for a man strolling around and a brunette woman in the corner looking over his vast Jane Austen collection.
Aidan walked around the counter where the registers were and laid Nika’s food by her. She hadn’t moved an inch since he’d left.
He sat on the stool behind the counter and unwrapped his sandwich. Since it had died down, he figured he would eat with Nika out front. Aidan wasn’t a strict boss; the store was a labor of love for him. He didn’t want to make his employee miserable with dumb rules he didn’t agree with himself. He was, however, thinking of enforcing a no phone rule on the floor. Nika never looked up from her device while unwrapping the sandwich and taking a bite.
“Seriously, what’s so interesting that you can’t put it down for five minutes? What could you possibly miss?” Aidan asked.
“The internet is fast, Aidan. You could miss a lot in a matter of seconds,” she responded.
Aidan stood and looked over her shoulder. She was watching videos of people doing made-up dances repeatedly. He shook his head and sat, taking a bite of his sandwich.
Aidan realized Nika wasn’t going to be much for conversation and started gathering his lunch when he glimpsed the brunette again. She had moved to the romance section towards the front, scanning titles, stopping to pull a book from the shelf, then putting it back exactly where it belonged.
She was radiant. Her coral sweater was slipping off her shoulder, and he could see part of her beige bra strap laying against her warm, golden skin. Her profile highlighted her long dark lashes and pouty lips. When she pulled a book from the shelf and read the back, the side of her mouth pulled into a mysterious smirk that made Aidan smile.
He was positive he’d never seen her in the store before. Maybe she was visiting someone. Or maybe she was a tourist, but there weren’t any festivals for a few weeks as it was still too cold for Californians to do anything outdoors.
He continued to watch her float around the different stacks, trying to see which books she was interested in. See if she was an avid reader or just someone who collected books to make themselves seem well versed.
Wanting to get a closer look, he grabbed a few books to return to the shelves and moved from behind the counter.
Aidan didn’t want to make it seem like he was checking her out, so he saved the books in her row for last. Every time he passed where she stood, he merely glanced in her direction. She was tall but had on wedge sandals. Still, she was far from petite. His wife was 5’9” and almost met Aidan eye to eye. This woman was maybe an inch shorter than her.
He finished putting all the books back except for the two that went in the aisle where she stood. He tried to keep a respectful distance, but the last book needed to go right in front of her. Aidan could place the book somewhere else for the time being, but that thought drove him mad. Books belonged in their place.
“Excuse me,” Aidan said to the woman.
She looked up at him with the most flawless gray-blue eyes he’d ever seen. They stopped him in his tracks and reminded him of the ocean after a storm. He tried not to, but he couldn’t help but stare.
The tiny, delicate freckles on her nose were cute and sexy at the same time. He focused on the full pink softness she pulled between her teeth.
“I’m sorry,” she said and immediately moved out of his way.
He found the spot where the paperback belonged but turned his head to watch the woman scan the shelf behind her. Aidan saw an Emily Bronte novel in her hand, then watched her grab a Neil Gaiman book—he smiled at the difference in her choices.
Aidan tried not to linger, but he needed an in, a way to talk to her.
She picked up another book.
“Oh, don’t get that, you’ll hate it,” he said from behind her.
She looked back at him.
“Unless women having sex with mermen is your thing.” He smirked.
“Oh.” She made a face at the cover and put the book back on the shelf.
He chuckled. “I’m Aidan.”
“Hi.” She shook his hand. Her skin was cool and soft.
“Is that your name? Hi?”
She smiled. “No. Elle.”
“Thanks,” she said and moved away from him slowly, returning her focus to the shelves in front of her.
He could see he was making her uncomfortable. He walked backward to give her space. “Let me know if you need anything.”
She nodded and gave him a shy smile.
Nika had put down her phone and was watching Aidan with a smirk, indicating she had seen his interaction with Elle. He smiled when he came around the counter. He sat and took another bite of his sandwich. He was proud of himself. He hadn’t approached anyone in a while.
The cordless phone in the cradle on his office desk rang. Aidan noticed Elle coming towards the register at the same time. He exhaled and went to grab the phone to bring it out in front. He wanted to talk to Elle again before she left. Maybe not ask her out just yet but flirt a bit. He’d been out of practice lately, and he legitimately worried he’d forgotten how.
The customer on the line wanted to know if there was a book available, causing Aidan to stay in the back on his computer. He didn’t mean to rush the person off the phone, but his sense that Elle was about to leave caused him to hang up after a fast goodbye.
Once done, Aidan quickly walked out of his office and around the corner. She was at the register with Nika. He couldn’t say anything now, he would look like he was trying too hard. He hung back and studied her.
Her smile brightened the room and made those gorgeous eyes sparkle. Her brown hair was curled in natural waves that cascaded down her back. She was genuinely beautiful.
“We should get that in about a week. Would you like us to ship it to you?” Nika asked, handing the books Elle had purchased back to her.
“No, I’ll just come in, but thank you.”
The brass bell over the door jingled as Elle carefully walked out of the store without looking back.
Aidan came around the register. “Have you seen her in here before?” He nodded at the door.
Nika answered while writing something down. “A few times.” She looked at Aidan, then noticed his expression. She twisted her face at him.
“Does she have a member’s account with us?” Aidan stared at the door.
“Ew, yes, perv. That’s an invasion of privacy.”
He turned to Nika. “Do you want to get fired today?”
“Please, you’d die without me,” she said.
He walked past her, grabbed his lunch, and started back to his office.
Nika turned towards the door. “Don’t look now, but your stalker’s here,” Nika whispered to him.
Aidan closed his eyes and tried to sneak away.
The door jingled again. Familiar clicks of high heels against the wooden floor walked towards him.
“Aidan,” the blonde purred.
Aidan silently cursed himself for not moving faster before turning around. “Hey, Shelby.”
Her familiar scent intruded on his senses as she walked over to him. It was too floral, too strong.
“Lexi and Erin will be with their father this weekend. I was hoping I could entice you to come over for dinner?” The tall blonde invaded Aidan’s space as usual.
Nika leaned against the counter with her head on her fist, eavesdropping on their conversation. Aidan gave her a frustrated look over Shelby’s shoulder.
“Thanks, but I’m going to be in-between stores doing inventory this weekend. Not really gonna have the time.”
“Oh, come on. You can spend an hour or two away from this place.” She came closer and put her hand on his chest.
He looked away uncomfortably, then stepped back from her. “I’m sorry, Shelby, not this weekend.”
She took a breath, then smiled like it was no big deal. “Okay. Next time.”
She turned around to walk out the door and noticed Nika watching. Shelby threw narrowed eyes at Nika, making Nika laugh.
Aidan exhaled in Nika’s direction after the door closed. “Really?”
Nika straightened. “Oh, come on. She’s gross.”
“She is not gross.”
Nika shot him an oh, please look.
“She’s just… friendly.”
“Yeah,” Nika laughed, “and she wants to show you just how friendly she is… again.” She side-eyed Aidan.
Being home alone was something Aidan couldn’t bear the first year after Kendra died. He spent long nights at the local bar, and Shelby, who was dealing with her own issues, would show up too. She and Aidan had a camaraderie and shared stories—and alcohol—until they felt better. One night, Shelby took him to her home—then she took him to bed. He wasn’t proud of himself the morning after, or any other morning he’d ended up with Shelby.
He’d refused to take her back to his house. He wasn’t about to share his deceased wife’s bed with someone he didn’t love. Aidan wrote off his sexual exploits with her as loneliness, but Shelby wanted more, more than he was willing to give her.
A FEW DAYS later, Nika stuck her head around the corner into Aidan’s office.
“We got that shipment of used books from the other store, and your girlfriend’s book is here too. Did you want me to call her?”
“Yeah, that mousy woman that had your nose wide open. You’re so easy to read.” She laughed.
Aidan got up and went to the register. The book had a sticky note with Elle Jamison written on it; her phone number and address below it. Aidan nibbled on his lip, deciding if he wanted to be the one to call or make Nika do it.
Then he got an idea and grabbed the book. “Hold down the fort, I’ll be right back.”
Nika yelled after him. “Who talks like that? You’re such an old man!”
Aidan didn’t want to scare Elle, but he was also not one to shy away from grand gestures. He knew exactly where she lived. Ms. Addison had been looking for a tenant for that house for a while. She’d had Aidan come over to fix odds and ends before putting a FOR RENT sign on the place.
He parked his car in front of the two-story gray house and surveyed the yard. No bikes or toys were lying around, and only one car was parked in the driveway. He hoped his bold move of bringing the book to her personally wouldn’t be wasted on a boyfriend or husband opening the door.
Aidan walked up the steps to the covered porch and let out a nervous breath. Shaking out his arm to release the tension, he leaned forward and rang the bell.
The old hardwood floor made creaking sounds the closer someone approached. Thankfully, the door was opened by Elle. Her hair was up, with little pieces hanging around her face. She had a towel around her hands, and a faint smell of lemon dish soap lingered in the air. Her mouth fell open as she stopped and stared at Aidan.
“Hey,” he said with a lot more verve than intended.
“Hi,” Elle said, surprised. “What are you…?”
“Your book came in.” He held it against his chest, so she could see it.
“Oh, I was going to come pick that up.” She held onto the door frame with her free hand.
“I was on my way home,” he lied. “I thought I’d drop it off, so you didn’t have to go out of your way.”
The store was literally five minutes from her house.
She smiled shyly. “Thank you.” She reached for the book and looked at the cover.
“So, Stephen King fan?” he asked, swinging his arms by his sides.
“Yeah, yes,” she stammered. “I’ve never read this before. I’ve seen the movie, but…”
“Don’t read it at night.” She looked at him. “Or during a windstorm. You’ll think those twin girls are coming to get you.”
She laughed. “Noted.” She bit her bottom lip. “Do I owe you anything for this?”
“Oh, no, you paid for the book, the delivery is free.” Aidan felt a huge goofy grin on his face. He reminded himself to pull it back.
“Thank you,” she said, just above a whisper and smiled.
An awkward silence fell between them.
“Would you…” Aidan started. “Would you wanna go out to dinner sometime?” He surprised himself with his outburst. He wasn’t the type of guy to ask out a stranger like this, but he didn’t think about it, he just wanted to get it out.
She snapped her head to Aidan with a look of shock. There was no flattery or flirting. He had caught her off guard.
“Oh, um.” She flickered a stunned expression at him. “I don’t… think that’s a good idea.”
Aidan watched her look at the floor, to the side, anywhere but at him.
“Okay,” he said and gave her a genuine smile.
“I’m sorry.” She furrowed her brow.
He shook his head. “Don’t be. You’re not the first woman to turn me down.” His wife had said no the first five times he asked her out.
His smile grew. “Well, I’ll see you around.” He climbed off the steps. “Enjoy the book,” he called over his shoulder and walked back to the street where he’d parked.
When he got in his truck, she was still standing in her doorway, watching him—her face full of confusion. He waved at her through the open passenger side window. She tentatively held up her hand in response. As she closed the door, he noticed her smile.
He had made an impression. That’s all he wanted. Aidan put his truck in drive and headed back towards the bookstore.