“I love you, Cassie Fields,” Derrick Garner said as he pulled in front of C & N Rare Books. He stopped at the curb next to the red brick building. Flower planters of purple and red petunias adorned each side of the entrance door, and large picture windows displayed an assortment of old books and antique writing tools behind the glass. With a warm smile, he turned to Cassie seated next to him and planted a soft kiss on her warm lips.
Cassie smelled the early morning coffee on his breath and endured the prickle of his growing rough beard. In a rather unemotional tone, she replied, “I love you, too.”
“I’ll take you out to eat at Aubree’s when I pick you up after work,” Derrick said, acting a little too excited for a simple dinner date, something they did a lot but not at Aubree’s, a high-class restaurant.
“Aubree’s is expensive, what’s the occasion?” Cassie could tell he had something special planned by the way he was wiggling in the driver’s seat.
Derrick shrugged as he took her left hand, giving the smooth skin a gentle stroke along her fingers. “I have something important I want to talk to you about.”
Something important? What was he going to do, propose to her? They have been dating a few years, so it was time he popped the question, but Cassie was not sure she wanted to accept the offer. Sure, he was kind and caring and would do anything for her, and not to mention the fact that she was nearing the end of her childbearing years and she so desperately wanted children, but she just wasn’t sure Derrick was the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. In the back of her mind she thought there was someone better out there; someone more attractive, more cultured, basically not so common. Of course, Derrick would be a good father but the passion—the passion was not as strong as she dreamed it should be. Shouldn’t a woman be passionately in love with her husband? Happily slaving away in a hot kitchen preparing his favorite meals, then off to the bedroom—or someplace else—to make intense sexual love. Isn’t that what marriage was all about? Or was procreating the main point, filling a house with offspring—cooing babies and children running around? Cassie wanted both and Derrick was lacking in the first one. No, strike that, it was not that Derrick was lacking, it was Cassie thought that it could be better, more exciting; that was the problem.
“Well, I’d better be getting inside.” Cassie slid her hand from his loose hold and opened the pickup door, the hinges squealed from age and their need to be oiled. She could not look him in the eyes for very long because if he was going to propose, she just might say no.
“See you tonight.” Derrick’s face almost glowed. If he was going to ask her to marry him, he certainly expected her to say yes.
“Yeah, see you tonight.” Cassie waved as she watched the rusty old Ford drive away, leaving a puff of exhaust fumes to linger in the air. She held her breath and walked inside the shop; the door’s bell jingled, signaling her arrival.
Nicole Kent looked up from behind the front desk. “Hey, partner, our monogrammed scarves came in today.” She pulled a silky scarf from a box. The beige lightweight nylon flowed over her hand. “Aren’t they gorgeous?”
Cassie walked up to Nicole, sat her purse on the countertop next to receipts, and took the scarf that Nicole handed her. “They’re very nice.”
“Put it on.”
Cassie loosely wrapped it around her neck, letting the ends fall forward over her chest.
Nicole groaned. “You’re not acting very excited. What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on.” She and Nicole co-owned C & N Rare Books. They saw a need for an independent bookstore in Black Water, Michigan, one that specialized in rare and antique books, so they decided to open one themselves. With Black Water’s colorful history as a port on Lake Michigan, it has seen ships of all kinds dock at its shore. Shiploads of lumber, Christmas trees, and sightseeing passengers have kept the town thriving and diverse through the decades. A famous author of science fiction would spend summers writing at a cottage on the sandy beach and architects spent time designing extravagant mansions for wealthy lumber barons. Even a railroad, now barely functioning, would haul cargo to Chicago and Detroit, keeping the flow of money going strong.
Nicole frowned. “I can tell that something’s wrong.”
“Nothing’s wrong.” Cassie tapped her fingers on the brown granite while she looked at the papers, pretending to be concerned with Nicole’s bookkeeping task.
“Spill the beans, Cassie. I know something’s wrong. Is it Derrick?”
Cassie sighed. “I don’t know. He’s going to take me out to a special dinner tonight after work.”
“That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“What are you worried about? Was he acting like he was going to break it off?”
Cassie looked up. “No, quite the contrary. I wouldn’t be surprised if he asks me to marry him.”
“That’s great!” Nicole ran around the counter and hugged Cassie. Then she released her grip and gave Cassie a confused look. “No, don’t tell me you don’t want to marry him. Derrick is a great catch. I can’t think of a better man for you; he’s smart, caring, and goes to work every day. Something that can’t be said of every guy around town.” Nicole paused, then added. “You’re just having the pre-wedding jitters.”
Cassie looked away, not wanting to talk about it. “Did Professor Brunswick confirm whether he wants us to find him Gems from Longfellow yet?”
Nicole walked back behind the counter. “He has, he wants it for the class he’s teaching at Black Water College next semester. Luckily, Harry has it at The Antiquarian Bookseller. The professor is not in a hurry for it, so I’ll drive up there tomorrow morning.”
Cassie nodded as she picked up her purse from the counter and walked to the adjacent office. She put her purse in a desk drawer and sat down on the black leather chair. In front of her, next to the pencil cup, was a framed selfie picture of her and Derrick laughing as they each held up colorful stones that they had found along a Lake Michigan beach. The sun sparkled on the waves of the water in the background and even though it sounded corny, there was a sparkle in both their eyes. A sparkle of love.
“What happened to us . . . to me?” she whispered. “I do love you, Derrick, with all my heart and soul, so why am I so . . . unsure about all this?”
The door to the bookstore jingled; she recognized the voices of Marie and Samantha, Nicole’s daughter and granddaughter. They would stop by often on their way to preschool. Sometimes they would give Nicole a picture that Samantha had drawn or a few cookies that they had made the day before.
Cassie walked out of the office to greet the happy family. Samantha squealed with joy as Cassie knelt and gave the exuberant child a bear hug. Cassie’s heart swelled with happiness and quickly deflated when she caught a whiff of strawberry shampoo. Oh how she wanted a child and by the way things were going there was a possibility that was not going to happen. Cassie would die an old maid, bitter and sad over decisions made.
Cassie released her grip as she looked up at the plate of cookies in Marie’s hand. She kissed Samantha on the forehead. “Hey beautiful, what kind of cookies did you and your mom bring today?” Cassie stood up and looked at cookies layered neatly underneath the plastic wrap.
“Chocolate chip,” Samantha said in a serious tone. “We used Grandma’s recipe because they have lots of chocolate and they are the bestest cookies in all the world.” Samantha looked up at her mom. “May I have a cookie, please?”
“You’ve already had a bunch, silly,” Marie said, looking down at the bouncing child. “I suppose, but only one.” Marie slipped one out from underneath the transparent wrap and then handed the plate to Cassie.
“I’ll heat the water and we can have tea and cookies,” Nicole said, walking over to a side table where they kept an electric tea kettle. Both Nicole and Cassie believed in making the bookshop into a homey and comfortable space for whoever might venture inside, whether they bought anything or not. Of course the whole point was to make a sale, but they did appreciate the fellowship they were developing with the residents of Black Water.
“Don’t heat it up for me,” Marie said. “Sam and I are already late for preschool.”
Nicole stopped filling the teapot from the free-standing water dispenser and sat it back on the tabletop. She walked over and hugged Samantha. “Thank you for the cookies and have a great day at school.”
“You’re welcome and I will. I love you, Grandma.”
Cassie’s heart sank once more as she waved goodbye to the departing mother and daughter. Nicole was a grandmother and yet she herself had not even managed to bear a child. She was getting old and time was running out. If Derrick was planning to propose she would say yes, there was no other logical answer to the question. It was decided, she would accept Derrick’s proposal.
While Nicole took her bookkeeping chore into the office, Cassie began dusting the shelves. She loved the scent of aging cloth and paper. Even the sound of covers sliding against each other as she removed them from their shelves bore witness to their fragility. It always felt as though she had stepped back in time, to an age where all books were solid objects and not electronic bits in a machine. The most precious of their books, such as the first edition of Uncle Remus and His Friends, coming in at close to five-thousand dollars, were stored away in the office safe. But the ones on the shelves, even though aged, were there more for enjoyment and atmosphere than anything else.
The door’s bell jingled. Cassie turned to see a man, a man who had an air of royalty even though he did not dress the part. The way he carried himself overshadowed his black goth clothes and well-groomed dark hair.
“Hi, I’m Cassie. May I help you?” she said, turning toward him.
The man smiled as he removed his dark, round-lensed sunglasses and slid them into an inside pocket of his black leather jacket. Then he walked toward Cassie, stopping rather close to her. If she was not so intrigued by this man’s demeanor, she would have thought her personal space was being invaded. But she had no problem letting him encroach; he was trim and nice to look at with no rolls of fat like Derrick. Tattoos showed past the scratched and discolored leather of the sleeves and painted his wrists and hands. But it was the rings he wore on every finger that most caught her attention. She caught herself staring at the sculpted silver rings embedded with stones. She quickly looked up at his warm eyes.
With an unrecognizable accent, possibly French, he said, “Yes, mademoiselle. I am looking for a pamphlet called An Impartial Account of the Trial of Lord Conwallis. It’s about a murder in 1679.” The man looked amusingly toward the floor and then back at Cassie. “Would you happen to have it in your store, or would you be able to find it for me?”
Cassie sensed a magnetic draw toward him; was it animal magnetism? She could not describe why she was so drawn to this stranger, but she wanted to reach out and touch him. She had never known this attraction before, not even toward Derrick. The man did not have coffee breath like Derrick and the slight growth of beard on his face was a contrast to Derrick’s uneven bristly whiskers. His scent was unusual, maybe a type of musk, an expensive blend; not like Derrick’s grocery store brand.
“Ah, yes, I mean no, we don’t have that manuscript here but I’m sure that I can get it for you. We are associated with other rare booksellers. I’ll check the database.” Cassie felt like she was going to faint.
The man reached out and touched her arm. “Are you all right? You looked like you were going to fall.”
No, Cassie was not all right. His touch was gentle, and she had to pull herself away from him before she said or did something she would certainly regret. Cassie cleared her throat and looked away. “Yes, I’m fine. Sorry.”
“Quite all right,” he said, escorting Cassie to the checkout counter.
Cassie used the countertop for balance and walked around it to the laptop computer sitting to the side. She blinked hard, trying to refocus her eyes as she typed. “I found it. An Impartial Account of the Trial of Lord Conwallis is available and I can get it for you. I’ll have to check with the other bookseller, but the cost will probably be three to five-hundred dollars.”
The man nodded. “That is acceptable.” He reached into an inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a folded bundle of money and proceeded to count out five one-hundred-dollar bills. He held them out for Cassie to take. “Here, mademoiselle.”
“Thank you,” Cassie said, taking the money from his hand. “I’ll get you a receipt and I’ll also need to get some contact information from you.”
Cassie noticed Nicole watching from the office as she took a notepad and pen from under the counter. “What is your name?”
An unusual name to suit the unusual accent. “Can you spell that, please?”
Gustave spelled it out along with his phone number.
The pen in Cassie’s hand began to wobble, just like her knees. She turned the notepad toward the man. “Gustave, would you mind writing down your address?”
“Not at all.”
She could not take her eyes off his rings and the tattoos as he wrote with a flourish. A type of fancy script, like the kind written in several old manuscripts they kept in the shop. Then to her surprise, he slid off one of the decorative rings, the one that was a silver skull with dark eyes and a row of teeth.
“I noticed you have an interest in my rings,” Gustave said, holding it up for Cassie to see. “Please, don’t be afraid. You may inspect it if you like.”
Cassie reluctantly took the silver ring from his hand. She was not sure what to do with it because his rings were none of her business. She quickly handed it back. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to intrude on your personal belongings.”
Gustave took the ring; his fingers slid gently along hers, almost like how Derrick had touched her hand earlier. An electric charge surged through her before his touch was gone. It was not a shock but rather an almost purposeful charge. “Mademoiselle, if you don’t mind, I would like the book delivered to my address. I am busy and do not plan to travel back to your town of Black Water.”
“That’s not a problem,” Cassie said as Nicole walked out of the office. “I’ll give you a call and let you know the expected delivery date.”
Nicole extended a hand. “Hi, I’m Nicole, Cassie’s partner in crime.”
Cassie could not help but notice that Gustave’s smile faded when he looked at Nicole. He momentarily held her hand, then looked back at Cassie. “I will see you soon.”
Cassie and Nicole watched as the man replaced his John Lennon shades and walked out the door. Cassie rushed to the window to see what kind of car he drove but instead of getting inside a vehicle, he walked down the sidewalk, mingling in with a crowd of sightseers until he was no longer visible.
“That was strange,” Nicole said, putting her hands on her hips. She looked at Cassie who was walking back to the desk with a smile on her face. “No, don’t tell me you’re infatuated with that weird guy.”
“Maybe.” Cassie playfully nodded as she walked behind the desk. She turned the notepad to inspect the man’s contact information.
“Well, I think Ringman is someone you need to stay away from. He seems so . . . pompous.”
Cassie shook her head and looked back down at the address. “He lives up by Anisteem. That’s in driving distance.”
“Don’t get any ideas,” Nicole said as the black rotary dial telephone rang. She reached for the handset. “C & N Rare Books. How may I help you?”
While Nicole spoke on the phone, Cassie noticed the skull ring sitting on the countertop next to a stack of books. Gustave must have sat it there and forgotten about it while they were talking. She picked it up. It was cold in her palm. She closed her hand around it when Nicole asked her a question.
“Cassie, what was the name of the book Ringman wanted?”
“Gustave wants a pamphlet called An Impartial Account of the Trial of Lord Conwallis.”
“You mean Cornwallis.”
“No, he said Conwallis. No ‘r’.”
Cassie opened her fist and looked at the ring again; it was making the palm of her hand itch.
Nicole hung up the phone. “Harry has it, I’ll pick it up along with Professor Brunswick’s book tomorrow.”
“I’ll pick them up. You’re busy with the quarterly taxes.”
Nicole gasped when she saw the ring in Cassie’s hand. “How’d you get that? Did Ringman give it to you?”
“No, he accidentally left it on the counter. He was showing it to me.”
“You’re thinking of returning it to him personally, aren’t you? That’s a bad idea. A guy doesn’t just leave a ring lying around.”
Cassie shrugged. “I don’t see what the big deal is. I’ll take him both the ring and the pamphlet; he did say he wanted it delivered.”
“We’ll FedEx them both to him. It’s a big mistake to hand-deliver them to some strange guy’s doorstep. You never know what he could do,” Nicole said firmly. “I’m calling him.”
Cassie slid the ring into her pants pocket.
Nicole dialed the man’s phone number. She stood there a moment. “An automated message said that it was not a working phone number.” She dialed it again with the same result. She shook her head. “We’ll send a letter to his address letting him know we have his things and he can either come to pick them up or have us ship them to him. Did I see him pay you?”
“Yeah, he paid five-hundred,” Cassie said, fiddling with the ring in her pocket. “I’ll take both the book and the ring to the customer tomorrow. He’s already paid for it. Besides, who knows how much this ring is worth. It could be invaluable and not covered by insurance if we were to send it by FedEx.”
“He’ll probably come back for it,” Nicole said, holding out a hand, expecting Cassie to deposit the ring onto her palm. “We’ll lock it in the safe in the meantime.”
“I’ll just take it to him. I’m going to be in the area anyway. If the address is wrong I’ll bring both the ring and book back here and put them in the safe.”
Nicole opened the cash register and looked at the five well-worn benjamins. “Take Derrick with you. I’ll feel better.”
“He has to work. But don’t worry I have my cellphone.” The ring almost slipped onto Cassie’s finger as she played with it. “So it’s settled; tomorrow I’ll drive to Lolly and then to Anisteem. It should be a nice ride.”
“I’ve got a bad feeling about Ringman,” Nicole said, closing the register drawer.
“I don’t. I think Gustave is rather intriguing.”