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The bookstore sat on the corner of Thread Lane and Thimble Drive in the town of Button.
Tourists wandered the sewing-themed streets, bundled up in winter jackets to stave off the chilly January weather. Bags heavy with purchases hung from their arms as they scooted from one shop to the next.
Louisa Henry stood in front of the bookstore, a cat carrier at her feet.
Two large picture windows flanked the entrance and gave passersby a direct view inside, but the lights were off. The three-paned glass front door offered another glimpse of shadowy shelves and books lined up, cover to cover. The building’s stained wood exterior had darkened with age, but the brightly painted trim around each large window kept it looking cheerful so it matched the adorable esthetic of the town nestled into the foggy Pacific Northwest.
Lou’s gaze traveled up to the windows along the second floor that looked out from the apartment. Her new home. As much as she wanted to investigate that space, Louisa felt a pull to start in the bookshop. She curled her fingers around the key in her hand until the metal bit into her palm. She needed the pinch of pain to remind her that this was all real.
After a deep breath that smelled of pine trees and woodsmoke, she stepped forward and used the key to unlock the front door of Button Books.
“Ready, Sapph?” Lou asked, glancing back at the cat carrier she’d set on the sidewalk.
She didn’t expect a meow or even a blink of an almond-shaped eye in response. The white cat asleep in the carrier was deaf—as some white cats are—and had a habit of sleeping through exciting moments—as many cats do. Tapping on the side of the crate, she continued until he noticed the vibration. The cat peeled opened one jewel-toned blue eye, then two.
“Time to go in, buddy,” she said.
Sapphire stretched and yawned, but immediately curled up again and went back to sleep. Lou chuckled as she picked up the crate. Her expectations about this moment piled up behind her and pushed her forward as she opened the door. A bell hanging around the handle jingled as the door closed behind her. She set down the cat crate and gave herself a moment to take it all in.
Lou could just barely discern the delightful, familiar smell of new bindings and freshly printed pages through the overwhelming scent of dust. The less-than-pleasant smell was to be expected. Willow warned Lou that the last owner had let the shop fall into disrepair. She’d been right. Button Books was a far cry from the adorable, cozy bookstore Lou remembered from her last visit to Button three years earlier.
Shelves that had been stocked full now contained more bare spaces than books. There were no longer any fancy pens or bookmarks for sale next to the register. Three of the five overhead lights didn’t work when she flicked on the light switch. A layer of dust covered the love seat and two armchairs in the reading nook near the center of the shop. Haphazard stacks of books littered the table to her left, which she assumed was for customers to sit around. The floorboard she stood on creaked when she’d first stepped on it. A long cobweb wafted down from the corner of the ceiling.
Dozens of other differences announced themselves as Lou surveyed the rest of the space. It was at times like these that she was acutely aware that her unique attention to detail was both a blessing and a curse. Sure, it had made her a successful editor at a New York publishing house, but outside of work, it meant her mind often latched on to minutiae easily overlooked by others.
Despite the list of improvements she was still making in her mind, one feeling stood out among all the rest, fighting for purchase inside Lou: adoration. She’d loved Button Books ever since the first time she’d visited the small Washington town a decade earlier, when her best friend had first moved here. The shop had been on her must-visit list during each subsequent trip. Purchasing it was one more step toward making a longtime dream come true.
She only wished her decision to buy the shop and move across the country hadn’t come on the heels of so much loss. Ben’s life insurance money had paid for the bookshop. The low ache of pain she carried with her at all times spiked at the thought of her late husband. She pictured Ben’s smiling face. She could still hear his booming laugh and his baritone voice that carried across whole rooms—it had to when he taught Intro to English courses at NYU and lectured to classes full of freshmen.
As much as she and Ben had loved their life in New York, it had only ever been temporary. Their collective dream had been to work together, running an independent bookstore in a cozy small town.
“One day, it’ll be just you and me, reading our lives away, LouLou,” he’d said to her over and over throughout the years, so much so that it felt like a recording she could replay anytime in her mind.
“I did it, Ben,” Lou whispered. “I just wish you were here.” Her voice broke. She pressed her lips together.
Sapphire let out a loud meow as if he could sense she was thinking of his favorite person. Now that he was awake, Lou knelt next to the crate and opened the door, letting the cat inspect his new home. At first, he stepped along the worn wooden floors as if they were made of lava and might burn him. After a few minutes, the white cat strutted around the place like he’d lived there his whole life.
Goodness knew he was used to being surrounded by books. Living with an editor and an English professor had meant there was invariably a good stack of books on which to fall asleep—and books had always been Sapphy’s preferred napping location. True to form, he gracefully jumped up onto the crowded table to her left and curled up on the shortest stack of books.
“Looks like you approve,” Lou said with a laugh. Hanging her winter coat on the rack by the door, she pushed up the sleeves of her sweater and got to work.
She’d made a list of tasks and had dusted half the shelves by the time her best friend, Willow, showed up a few hours later. Willow blew inside like a winter gale had chased her down the street. Sapphire peeked open one eye at the rush of cold air.
“Hello!” Willow announced herself.
“Hi!” Lou called from where she knelt behind a bookshelf.
When Lou stepped out, a woman she’d known for thirty of her thirty-seven years on the planet was peeling herself out of a thick winter jacket. Although Willow was tall and lithe like the tree she was named after, that was where the similarities ended. She didn’t sway or drape or rustle softly through life. Willow, much like Ben, was loud and commanding—some might even say stubborn.
“I’d say you’re settling in nicely, Sapphy,” Willow said, greeting the cat with a delicate kiss on the head. Willow let her bag drop into an empty chair at the table and hung up her jacket. “Sorry I’m late. It takes so much longer than I expect to get ready for these sales.”
Willow, a horticulture teacher at Button High School, held a plant sale each trimester to help raise money for upkeep on the school’s greenhouse. Their late-January sale would take place tomorrow, and Lou was excited to grab some greenery to spruce up the shop. All the plants from her condo had stayed in New York. She’d been concerned they wouldn’t survive the cross-country trek, so she’d scattered them among friends in the city as farewell gifts.
The two women’s gazes finally met. Lou gave her friend a small smile. Willow lunged forward, wrapping her long arms around Lou. She squeezed tight—too tight, if you asked Lou—just as she always did.
“Honest three,” Willow said into Lou’s hair, repeating the phrase they’d used for decades to elicit a candid emotional check-in.
“Overwhelmed. Hopeful. Hungry,” Lou responded, her words muffled by Willow’s shoulder. Her friend invariably smelled like fresh air and soil, and Lou sank into the embrace.
Stepping back and releasing her, Willow said, “I can fix that last one.” She returned to her large messenger bag and fished around for a moment before presenting a foil-wrapped burrito. She produced a second one after she’d handed the first to Lou. “It’s either an early dinner or a late lunch, but I figured you would be too focused on the shop to think about food.”
“Thank you. Have a seat.” Lou grimaced as she gestured to the messy table in the front window.
Together, they moved most of the books to the floor nearby so they would have space to eat. They left Sapphire and his bookstack in place, knowing he’d had a long day of travel.
“Have you been upstairs yet?” Willow asked after she’d swallowed a bite.
Lou shook her head. Cassidy, the real estate agent, had taken her through a virtual tour of the two-bedroom apartment upstairs. It was lovely, but it wasn’t what had pulled her here, and it could wait. Plus, Cassidy had met the movers here yesterday when Lou’s flight had been delayed, and she’d reported that everything seemed in order. Cassidy had even convinced the movers to set up Lou’s bed frame and mattress, so at least she would have a place to sleep tonight.
“I got distracted down here. I wanted to make some headway on my list before going upstairs.” Lou took a bite of her burrito.
“Lou with a list.” Willow clicked her tongue in a good-natured, teasing way. Her eyes widened. “Oh no. Speaking of lists. I’m just remembering there’s one more thing on mine for tonight. I still have to print out the price stickers.”
“Don’t let me keep you,” Lou said, waving a hand at her friend. “I should head up to the apartment soon, anyway.”
“Okay, have a good first night.” Willow stuffed her arms into the sleeves of her jacket and ducked under the strap of her messenger bag. “Call me if you need anything.”
“I will.” Lou waved as her friend took her half-eaten burrito and headed for the door.
“Oh …” Willow stopped, one hand on the doorknob. “I forgot to say welcome to Button. I’m so glad you’re here.” She scrunched up her shoulders and grinned at Lou before leaving.
Lou returned the smile. She was glad she was here too. Her gaze traveled around the room again as she finished her burrito. The shop needed a lot of work, but she had time. While Ben’s life insurance money had helped her purchase the building and the business, the sale of their Manhattan condo would be enough to give her the time and resources she needed to return Button Books to its former glory.
Shaking her head at that phrase, Lou said, “We won’t just restore this place; we’ll make it better. Won’t we, Sapph?”
The cat twitched a whisker at her but didn’t move besides that.
Once she threw away the foil wrapper from her burrito, Lou got back to work. The food had given her renewed energy. She was tucked behind another bookshelf, hard at work, when the front door opened again. The bell chimed. This time, instead of cracking open one eye at the change in temperature, Sapphy picked up his head. His blue eyes were wide as he stared at the door.
“Hello?” a man called. “Is there someone here?” His voice was tight.
Lou frowned. She warily pulled herself up off the floor.
“I’m here. What can I do for you?” Lou said softly, stepping out from behind the bookshelf.
The man locked eyes with her, rushing forward. He was tall, thin, and wore a beautiful navy suit. His hair was a light brown and was slicked back, like he belonged in the nineteen twenties. A crease around the crown of his head told her he had been wearing a hat until recently. Small red marks on either side of his nose told the same story about a pair of glasses. His movements were erratic and his posture rigid. In one hand, he grasped at what appeared to be a single book page. His other fist was closed, but Lou couldn’t see if he held anything in that palm.
“I must speak with the owner immediately. It’s very important, urgent, really,” he said without pausing once for breath.
“I’m the owner, but I’m afraid I’m not open yet. I just got the keys today, and it’s going to take me a while to get the shop ready.” Her gaze cut over to the door. She should’ve remembered to lock that when Willow left.
His hopeful expression fell. “You just bought it?”
“Yes.” Lou studied the delicate mustache that covered the skin above his lip.
He dragged a hand through his hair but kept his thumb tucked into his palm as he did so. Ah, so he was holding on to something in that hand.
The man let out a shaky breath. “This isn’t good. I must speak with the previous owner. Do you know where they are?”
Flinching at his intensity, Lou shook her head. “I’m so sorry. The last I heard, she’d moved away. Her name was Kimberly Collins, if that helps.”
“Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know.” He cleared his throat twice in a row before exhaling a wry laugh. “Is Diana Moon Glampers running my life or what?” he added under his breath, slapping his palm onto his forehead.
Lou jerked back in surprise. Diana Moon Glampers? The Handicapper General from Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Bergeron? Ben had loved Vonnegut and included that short story in his syllabus each school year. Whenever things weren’t going his way, he would jokingly wonder if Diana Moon Glampers had given him a mental or physical handicap.
“Hey there,” Lou said, compassion for the man rising in her. “It’s going to be okay. Would you like some tea?”
She’d noticed an electric kettle and some tea bags in the small kitchen in the back office earlier when she’d toured the space. Tea had always helped Ben calm down. Even though they looked nothing alike, there was something about him that reminded Lou of her late husband, and she wanted to help.
The man blinked at her. His shoulders settled an inch. “That would be lovely.”
She motioned to the table, scooping Sapphire off the stack of books and tucking him under one arm. “Have a seat. I’ll be right back.”
The agitated man settled into the same chair Willow had occupied earlier. His right hand tapped out a staccato rhythm on the tabletop with a brass dimple key. She recognized the type of key as soon as she saw the smooth edges. Her old office had used the same kind, with the different sized cones cut in the blade instead of the standard teeth along the edge.
So that was what he’d been holding, Lou mused as she brought Sapphire with her into the office. The man might remind her of Ben, but she still didn’t trust him enough to leave him alone with her cat. Settling Sapphy on top of the empty desk, Lou turned to face the wall that held a sink, cabinets, and a small refrigerator. She filled the electric kettle with water and clicked it on. Then she located a mug in the cabinet.
But just as she was fishing a tea bag from the box, the creak of a door opening was followed by the slam of one closing. Lou listened, frowning over at Sapphy.
“No bell,” she said after a moment. Weird … unless he went out the back.
She closed the office door behind her to keep Sapphire inside as she left to investigate.
The man was gone.
Outside the front windows, a winter sunset stained the sky a foreboding red.