* KELSEY *
I took another sip of my beer and tried to keep a bored expression on my face. I didn’t want to look like a total desperate loser who was hiding alone in a dark corner of Joe’s Sandbar on a Friday night, but I had a feeling I wasn’t doing a great job of appearing like I could care less that I was sitting by myself.
Not that it really mattered all that much what I looked like. It’s not like anyone was actually paying any attention to me. Across the bar, the dance floor was packed to the brim. The live band was playing an upbeat tune, and at least half of the Driftwood Island locals were bouncing around to the beat. My friend Ruby was out there, shaking her hips like she wasn’t the least bit sore from her job as a maid, cleaning hotel rooms all day long at the Driftwood Island resort. I guess I couldn’t blame her. As a single mom barely making ends meet, it wasn’t often that Ruby was able to get a sitter for her four year old daughter, Chloe. She was taking full advantage of the evening. Still, she could have dragged me down to the dance floor to boogie with her, instead of snatching up the first guy who looked her way.
I sighed and took another sip of my beer. I knew I was just jealous. None of the local guys ever looked my way. Why would they? To them, I was just Kelsey the mousy librarian. I was still in my twenties, but I could already see the writing on the wall. I was going to end up as a stereotypical old cat lady, sitting around whining about the good old days when kids used to actually read books instead of just playing on their Smartphones all day.
All my friends were pairing off. My best friend Abby had snagged a handsome billionaire, and had just had his baby two weeks ago. My friends Julia and Megan had also paired off with their own gorgeous billionaires, and had quickly jumped on the baby wagon as well. Ruby was the last of my good friends to still be single, and it wasn’t for lack of offers. She was just really careful about who she let into her life, since she had her daughter to think about.
Me? I didn’t even have offers to dance, let alone to pair off on a permanent basis. I’d had a few wild flings back in high school, but once I’d settled into my role as the town’s librarian, I might as well have set up a “Keep Away Boys” sign around my neck. It felt like forever since I’d done anything more exciting with a man than make boring small talk about the news or weather.
I drained the last of my beer, and was about to call it a night and leave Ruby to her dancing revelry, when a tall, dark-haired stranger approached my table. I looked up in surprise, and tried to remember if I’d seen him somewhere before. He looked vaguely familiar, but he definitely wasn’t a local. A relative of one of the locals visiting from out of town, perhaps? I could have sworn I’d seen him somewhere before.
“This seat taken?” he asked, gesturing to one of the chairs at my table.
I shook my head no and he sat down, leaning back like he was in a comfy recliner in his living room instead of a stiff wooden chair in a bar. His golden brown eyes scanned across the room before landing back on me. He glanced down at my empty mug.
“What are you drinking?”
“Driftwood Ale,” I said, frantically trying to remember his name or where I’d met him before. He was acting so familiar with me that I was sure he must be someone I knew. I squinted at his tanned, chiseled face, trying to see whether he looked similar enough to any of the locals I knew that he might be a relative. But I couldn’t match him with anyone. He didn’t look even remotely similar to any of the people I hung out with.
Surely, he wasn’t a resort guest, though. The resort guests had started to frequent Driftwood Island’s local businesses more over the last year, which was good news for us locals. We needed that tourist income. But the tourists still stayed away from Joe’s Sandbar for the most part. The cheap beer and rustic décor didn’t seem to be their style. Every now and then one wandered in, but he or she usually wandered back out after a few minutes.
The mystery man sitting across from me didn’t look like he was planning to wander out. He didn’t look like a tourist, either. His clothes weren’t kitschy enough. Instead of the usual tropical print button down shirt and khaki shorts that all the tourists seemed to wear, this guy was wearing a pair of expensive-looking jeans and a fitted black t-shirt that showed off his broad chest muscles and impressive biceps. He grinned at me with an easy familiarity that only made me surer that we knew each other and I was just forgetting his name.
“Well, then. How about a round of Driftwood Ale, on me?”
I hesitated. A guy was actually offering to buy me a drink? I was not used to that sort of attention at all, and I panicked.
“Close enough to a yes,” he declared, rising from his seat and heading for the bar. I watched him, desperately racking my brain for a name or a clue as to how I knew him, but I kept coming up blank. He must know me, though. He hadn’t asked for my name or offered his, which is generally one of the first things you do when meeting someone new, right?
He appeared back at the table a few minutes later, setting a mug of beer down in front of me. He held his glass of whiskey up for a toast, then settled comfortably into his chair again, scanning the room without saying much.
Ironically, his easy manner unnerved me. I was more convinced with every passing second that we already knew each other. He would have introduced himself by now if not. But I couldn’t remember meeting him, and I was beginning to wonder how it was possible that I had ever met a man like him before and forgotten.
He was hot. Smoking hot. Not only were his muscles and tall frame impressive, but his face was gorgeous. His eyes seemed to sparkle with life, and the hint of stubble on his chin made him seem extra manly. Looking at him made my stomach do funny flip flops, and I could feel my heart beating faster in my chest. How was it possible for me to feel this way about a man and have forgotten his name? I furrowed my brow in confusion. Perhaps I hadn’t met him before, after all.
But then he turned to look at me with that easy smile, and asked. “So, read any good books lately?”
That’s when I knew that he had to have met me before. If he was asking me about books, he must know I was the town librarian, a.k.a. the resident book nerd on Driftwood Island. I decided to just jump into a book conversation with him, and perhaps he’d drop some hint that would jog my memory as to who he was. Besides, if I was going to sit here at a bar, I’d much rather talk about my favorite books with someone than stare awkwardly around trying to act like I was bored with everything.
“Actually, I have read some good books.” I couldn’t help but grin, thinking about the latest mystery novel I’d just finished. “Have you read The Stolen Post? It’s Alexa Botwright’s latest?”
He raised an eyebrow in surprise. “I haven’t had a chance yet, but it’s definitely on my list. Anything by Botwright is on my list of things to read. But her latest just came out this week. You must be a quick reader if you’ve already finished it.”
I shrugged modestly at the praise. I was a quick reader, but I’d actually finished the novel a week ago. The library’s copy had come in before the official release date, and I’d helped myself to it since I wasn’t allowed to put it on the shelf until release day. I didn’t see any reason to explain that to my new friend, though. If he wanted to praise me for being a quick reader, I wasn’t going to stop him.
“You should move The Stolen Post to the top of your reading list,” I said confidently. “Her use of foreshadowing was out of this world.”
“Really?” he looked surprised. “Because I thought that she was too heavy handed with it in her last novel.”
I shook my head, and launched into a full analysis of which of Botwright’s books did a good job of foreshadowing. A funny thing happened as I yakked on and on: the man across from me actually seemed interested in what I had to say. I wasn’t used to this. I had a bad habit of talking about books to anyone and everyone, and most people didn’t seem to think that book debates made interesting bar conversations, for whatever reason. But this guy was eating up every word I said. Not only that, but he was responding with intelligent analysis of his own. We moved on to round two and then round three of drinks, and I still didn’t know his name. But I did know his opinion on the latest trends in the action and adventure genre, and whether he thought using plenty of adverbs when writing was a good or bad idea.
In other words, I was in heaven. I hadn’t enjoyed an evening out at a bar this much in months.
Then, Ruby showed up again. She was sweaty from all her dancing, but she somehow didn’t look like a complete hot mess. She looked more like she was glowing. I wasn’t surprised, though. Ruby was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever met. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the fact that she had a child already, she probably would have been married long ago. But apparently most men were terrified of committing to a kid that wasn’t biologically theirs.
That didn’t stop men from ogling her, though. And my new literary friend was no exception. The moment Ruby sat down, his eyes instantly turned from my face to hers—and stayed there.
“Well, hello,” he said, giving her a wink. “You look like you’ve been getting a workout on the dance floor.”
Ruby grinned, her blue eyes lighting up. “Yeah. The band’s been killing it today.”
I felt a surge of anger rising up in my chest as I watched the mystery man staring at Ruby. I should have known better than to think that he was actually interested in me. He might be good at talking about books, but otherwise he was just like all the rest of the men I knew: easily distracted by a pretty woman. Ruby was a pretty woman. I was not. I was a plain-faced nerd who didn’t know how to do makeup properly. It didn’t matter how many tutorial videos I watched on YouTube, makeup always ended up looking weird and blotchy on me. I’d given up even trying. And I guess this guy was like all the rest. He couldn’t look away when someone better came along.
“Please excuse me,” I said, rising quickly to my feet. I could feel hot tears rushing to my eyes, and I knew I had to get out of the bar before they spilled over. The only thing that could make this moment more humiliating was if I started crying.
Ruby glanced over at me, and before I looked away I saw the concern in her eyes. “Are you alright?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” I said, over my shoulder. “Just need a bit of air.”
I squeezed through the crowds gathered by the bar’s entrance, and managed to make it out the front door before the hot tears started rolling down. I climbed into my little sports coupe and revved the engine, speeding out of the parking lot and toward home before Ruby could chase me down. When I got home I’d send her a text to let her know that I’d left the bar, but I doubted she would even notice for a while. That guy, whoever he’d been, had been pretty intent on talking to her.
I let the tears fall freely as I drove down the coastal road toward my house. I should be happy for Ruby to hit it off with a guy, but jealousy was an awful master. Out of all the men in the bar tonight, why did the one I was actually having a decent conversation with decide to fall for Ruby? It wasn’t even her fault. She wasn’t trying to lure the guy in. All she had to do was stand there and be beautiful, and somehow I was invisible. Like always.
I pulled into my driveway and wiped my eyes as I got out of the car. Maybe it was time for me to get away from the island. I’d been here my whole life, and nothing much had ever happened to me in the romance department. Perhaps I should branch out and move to a big city. I loved the open space of the island, but I was beginning to think I didn’t fit in here. That I would never fit in.
With a determined grunt, I headed into my house to get ready for bed. I had plenty of work to do at the library tomorrow. I’d just purchased several hundred new books for our collection, thanks to a generous grant from one of Driftwood Island’s billionaires. Those books all needed to be catalogued and shelved, which would take a while. I didn’t mind. I planned to throw myself happily into the work and do my best to forget about the dark-haired stranger who had captured my heart for a brief moment.
But somehow I had a feeling that forgetting wasn’t going to be an easy task.