That infernal bell chimes above the entrance to my bookstore, breaking into my reverie. I’ve tried to take it down before but Cherie (who’d renamed herself when she’d learnt her mother had named her after her favourite pie flavour), who mans the register when I’m not in, informed me that without it, she’d never hear a new customer walk in. We both know that it wouldn’t be an issue, except for her wont to slip into the backroom at every opportunity. She’s obsessed with her new boyfriend, and I don’t say that lightly. She told me the other day that she’d slipped an AirTag in between the tongue and top of Marv’s shoe, so she always knows where he is. I shuddered and muttered “Creepy,” letting her know of my distaste but it did little to deter her. Despite Cherie’s numerous eccentricities, she was one of the sweetest people I’d ever known, and she was also my best friend, so despite my intense dislike of the bell, it stayed.
I had attempted to brainstorm a way to tell Marv about her undercover surveillance of him without breaking her confidence but it became clear to me that he already knew when I saw him wiggling the disc back into position one day and he winked at me when he saw me notice. Whew, I’d thought, at least I was no longer aiding or abetting stalking. I wouldn’t do well in prison.
I set my latest thriller aside, one of the best perks of working in a bookstore was the ability to read almost whenever I wanted, and looked up to greet whoever had just entered The Book Haven. I’d tried to make it true to its name, and had included little sconces containing armchairs, low tables, and gently glowing lamps in every corner for people to make themselves comfortable. There was a smaller childrens’ reading corner set up near the back of the store, a thick mat covered by a lush rug providing padding for the little ones to settle down on with their Julia Donaldsons or Enid Blytons.
“Hey, Turner,” a low voice muttered, and my surprised eyes flew up to identify its owner even though I already knew who it must be.
My brown eyes met green, and my traitorous heart started hammering in my chest, the room shrinking in size so it was just him that I could see.
“Hey,” I said back, not willing to let him know how he was affecting me. The faint tremor in that single syllable betrayed me, and the slight lift of his lips told me he’d heard it. Damn it all.
“What’re you doing back here, Mason? Your sister didn’t tell me you were coming,” I continued in a rush.
He quirked an eyebrow at me, amusement radiating from him like a ray of light from the sun.
“Well, Paige, I don’t tell Cherie everything. And I really like what you’ve done with the place,” he finishes, gesturing with an open hand around the room.
I had completed work on The Reading Refuge a couple of weeks ago, and we were still in the soft launch stage, our official opening scheduled for the upcoming Friday evening, three days away.
“I still think you should have used your name for the store, though,” Mason commented, his eyes glinting and crinkling at the corners.
I groan. Cherie might’ve changed her name, but we all knew it was mine that was the real tragedy. My name is Paige Turner, and I run a bookstore. The jokes practically write themselves. Instead of running towards a career I had no affinity for, I decided to lean into it, and after completing my MFA in creative fiction, I came back home and used a combination of my savings and the money left to me in Dad’s will to take over the lease for my bookstore, a space that was formerly an Internet cafe in our small town. But calling it anything similar to The Paige Turner, as Mason impishly suggested when we first discussed my vision for the store, was where I drew the line.
“And I think I was quite clear when I told you hell would freeze over first. I can’t believe we’re arguing about this,” I replied, unable to keep a smile from my lips.
He leaned over and gently rubbed at the corner of my mouth, as if smudging away a crumb.
“There it is,” he whispered, talking directly to my dimple, “I missed you, sweet girl.”
It broke the spell his entrance had cast over me, and I took an abrupt step back, not wanting to but noticing the disappointment that passed over Mason’s face.
“I’m sorry, Mase,” I said, “I can’t do this again.”
“I know, Turner. And you have nothing to be sorry for. Cherie told me about the opening, and asked me to come. I thought I’d stop by and make sure you’d be okay with it first. This is a really big deal, and I’m so proud of you.”
I know he means it, but that doesn’t stop a stab of pain that runs through me at his words. We were supposed to open the store together. But that wasn’t the way it turned out, and while I still resented his absence, I was also grateful for it because now I had this place that was all mine. My own little haven through the highs and lows of life.
“Thank you. And I would love for you to come on Friday,” I responded, lying through my teeth.
He accepts me at my word, the way he always has, and nods again.
“I’ll see you then.”
He turns slowly and walks back out, aiming a glance backwards at me, as the bell rings again, adding to my misery.
I took a deep breath and moved my shoulders up and down, trying to shake off some of the gathered tension. The breakup hadn’t been all Mason’s fault, I knew that. When he’d come to me with news of his dream job offer in New York City, I’d encouraged him to take it. When he’d proposed we try long-distance, I’d told him it wasn’t something I thought could work. It’s not that I didn’t love him, I said, it was just that the timing wasn’t in our favour. And that was what I truly believed, it really was. Knowing it was an unfair expectation, I still wanted him to fight for it, to fight for us. But that wasn’t who Mason was. He’d accepted my reasoning, said he would miss me, packed up his belongings, and left. Just like that.
That had been six months ago, and while I had been too busy to pine after him, I would be lying if I said I had no regrets over how it’d ended. Maybe we should have tried; we could have taken turns to drive the six hours between us at least twice a month. We could have FaceTimed a few times a week. I know I would have made the time. Why was I so afraid he wouldn’t?
Cherie brushes past me as she exits the back room and comes to stand beside me at the register.
“You okay, P?”
The concern in her voice threatens to unmake me, and I fight against the tears welling up in my eyes.
“Why did he come back?” I ask, hating how plaintive the question comes out.
She looks at me, worry clouding her hazel eyes, her usually generous lips pressed in a thin line.
“You know why, P. He came back for you.”
“Um,” she amends slowly, angling her head at her left hand. “He might’ve also come back because of this.”
Something sparkling on her finger catches the light, and I do a double take, happy gasps slipping out of my mouth.
“Cherie! Oh my gosh, when did this happen?!”
“Last night. I was just going to tell you and then Mason walked in so I wanted to give you guys some space.”
I wave away her explanation.
“No, no. That’s okay, but I want to hear ev-er-ything,” I say with heavy emphasis. “How did he propose? Where did he propose? Did he get the ring right?”
“Yes,” she says laughing, “And I know you helped him so thank you for that.”
I accept her thanks humbly, and urge her to tell me more, all the awkwardness and unfinished business with Mason forgotten. There was no one who deserved this happiness more, and I could not wait to help her create the wedding of her dreams.
The days went by quickly, and I was caught up in the exhilaration of Cherie and Marv’s upcoming nuptials (she wanted to get married in three months) and in perfecting the details of our launch party. My mom and stepfather were flying in and I had to arrange for their stay at the same time.
Friday evening rolled around, and I stood at the front of The Reading Refuge, arranging champagne glasses and bite-sized pastries on the table that usually displayed our recommendations of the week. Cherie was in the back, ostensibly doing some stock-keeping in advance of the increased sales we were anticipating at the event. Marv was also there, so I imagine she might be busier with him than our books. I didn’t mind, the setup was basically complete, had been for hours.
I propped the main door open with one of my favourite paperweights, a cast iron rendering of the Hogwarts Castle, heavy enough to withstand the pressure of the wind whistling against the door trying in vain to slam it shut. I stepped back just in time for Mason to step inside, solidifying his position as the first official customer at our opening. He rocked back on his heels, taking in the store, and let out a low whistle.
“It looks even better than it did the other day, Turner,” he states.
I thank him and busy myself straightening out some already-straight book displays to the side, hating how my body reacts to his mere presence. My spine has instinctively become straighter and I can feel a familiar tingling at the nape of my neck, causing me to shiver involuntarily.
He takes the hint and starts to walk back towards Cherie, but not without brushing against my side first. His hand drifts past my thigh, sending goosebumps through my body, and I could swear I heard him take a quick inhale as his nose brushes my cheek. “It’s a bit tight in here,” he whispers as if in explanation.
I don’t respond, having no idea what to say.
He continues, in a whisper, “We’re going to talk later, Paige. I think we have a lot to clear up, and I’m not going to walk away without knowing what you want tonight. What you really want.”
I nod, able to admit to myself that this is what I wanted.
And this time, I think, I’m going to actually tell him.