Lizzie Smith had been Lizzie since before she could remember. When she moved back to Texas a few years ago—new job, new friends, new city—she tried to make the change to the grown-up version of her name. But Elizabeth hadn’t stuck. She also cut her long curly locks to what she imagined was a more mature medium-ish length. Over thirty and still answering to Lizzie seemed to scream perky—and Lizzie wouldn’t describe herself as perky.
But her name and her shorter curls stayed. She was still Lizzie Smith at thirty-four. A not particularly perky, not especially young, but not very old, Lizzie. She liked herself. Well, for the most part—everyone had flaws. But she didn’t think of herself as particularly unusual in any way. She wasn’t brilliant, artistic, or gorgeous. Just average.
When she received a large padded envelope, addressed in handwritten capital letters to Elizabeth Smith, a name not one friend or family member used, it stood apart from the similarly addressed bills and junk mailers. Not a bill, not from a close friend…
She picked up the padded envelope along with several bills, a fundraiser request—it was from her alma mater, so what else could it be—and the normal assortment of miscellaneous junk mail. She thrust everything under her arm and hurried into the house. Austin, Texas wasn’t cold often, but the temperatures had been abnormally low, record-breaking even.
Several minutes and two happily-pottied dogs later, she sat at the kitchen table to investigate her unusual mail. Hand addressed packages weren’t common, and receiving one was an event. She planned to savor the moment. As she’d set the package down on the table earlier, she’d recognized the unique heft and size of a hardcover book.
Hot tea ready at her elbow, she opened the package. Carefully slitting the package open, she discovered she’d been partially correct. When she tipped the contents out on the table, a book emerged. But not a standard, mass-produced hardcover. The cover was dark green, worn leather. The edges were battered and faded to a lighter mossy green. But, even showing its age, it was a gorgeous old book. Thumbing the edge, she discovered the pages were thick and likely hand cut. Seeing no title or author printed on the cover, she flipped it open to examine the title page.
Lizzie’s eyesight wasn’t perfect. A few too many late nights cuddled in bed with her Kindle, or one too many paperbacks read by flashlight under the covers as a child—who knew? But she passed her driver’s eye exam every time it came up, and really, who could read the tiny white letters on street signs? That’s what GPS was for. Still, it was possible her eyesight was more impaired than she thought. Because those tiny, faded letters, swam on the page.
She closed the book, rubbed her eyes, then got up and flipped on an extra set of lights. Once again sitting in front of the book, she flipped the front cover open…and couldn’t believe her eyes. Bold red ink, where there had been faded blue. And there was no question—the words on the page swam…and flipped…and maybe even glowed. Thump. She let the book fall closed.
Confused by the book’s contents, several competing questions pushed into her mind. “Who might have sent it?” won the contest, since that was a question she might be able to answer. Standing up, she walked over to the recycle bin and retrieved the discarded padded envelope.
Just as she’d seen on her initial inspection, there was no return address to mark the sender, and no postage mark. She shook the envelope sharply, cut side down. But no note appeared. She reached her hand inside and swept from side to side to ensure no message was hiding or stuck inside. Nothing.
This was the moment when average Lizzie Smith might have decided she’d been the victim of mail tampering—perhaps LSD? Average Lizzie might think she was hallucinating, maybe feverish? Average Lizzie might have decided she needed medical attention.
But she didn’t call a friend for a ride to the hospital. She didn’t call her doctor to schedule a checkup. She didn’t even make an eye appointment with the ophthalmologist. What Lizzie did was sit down, drink her tea, tuck her feet under a napping dog…and study a book.
This was the day Lizzie Smith decided that, while she might not be perky, brilliant, artistic, or gorgeous—she might not be average, either.
Two years later…
When does magic become commonplace? Lizzie contemplated the question. Was there a tipping point? After a certain amount of exposure, was it simply no longer the fascinating stuff of wishes and dreams?
The freakishly cold winter reminded Lizzie of a similarly cold winter two years ago, when she received what she thought was a wondrous gift. A magical book containing ever-changing, handwritten text—her first peek at what she believed to be magic. Each time Lizzie opened the book, a new entry appeared on the first page. Sometimes in red ink, sometimes black, occasionally in unusual shades of violet or green. The writing ranged from loopy, feminine cursive, to printed block letters.
Each entry was different, of that Lizzie was certain. Her logs recorded the date she opened the book, the color of the ink, and descriptions of the writing. She spread the records out on the table in front of her. Looking at them, she assured herself that, indeed, the entries were never the same. Beautiful script—and that was one constant, the writing varied but it was always beautiful—colorful messages, magically changing. How could Lizzie not be in awe? The words turned on themselves, swam and flipped on the page. So Lizzie concentrated harder and looked more closely at the page. But, two years later, the words still swam. She was no closer to reading its contents than when it had arrived.
Lizzie—never one to give up on the first, tenth, or even fiftieth try—experimented with a variety of techniques to still the moving words. During various attempts, a mirror, a feather, a candle, steam, ice cubes, and spit were employed. The last involved a late night, a few stout homemade margaritas, and an especially high level of frustration. So to say that the wondrous magical-ness of the unreadable book had become somewhat less wondrous over the intervening two years, was not incorrect.
After an especially disappointing late night of book gazing—she could hardly call it reading—Lizzie decided she needed reinforcements. For some unknown reason, she felt a strong push this week to solve the old mystery. Who did a thirty-six year old, relatively sane—she thought—woman call, when she needed to consult on the interpretation of her magical book? Not anyone who would immediately recommend institutionalizing her. That only left her best friend of twenty years.
If she couldn’t rely on twenty years of sane, shared history to prevent an immediate call to emergency services, then she decided the book itself would provide evidence of her story. So after a good night’s sleep, she called Kenna McIntire, her best friend. Then she packed up the book and headed to Kenna’s house. The result was one newly invigorated woman, a magical book, a long-time friend, and some excellent coffee, all converging early on a Saturday morning.
“Two years ago, you received an anonymous package with a mojo book inside? And you’ve kept this from your very best friend for two years? Two years?” Kenna responded to Lizzie’s tale of wonder, magic, and mystery with a tiny bit of surprise…and annoyance.
Lizzie knew she should have left out the dates.
“I would have told you sooner, but I didn’t think any rational person would believe the flying, changing words, part of the story. It’s a stretch for me to believe, and I’ve seen the book.” Lizzie’s words held a distinctly defensive tone.
Kenna clarified. “Oh, don’t be confused. I think you’ve gone around the bend. I just can’t believe you kept such a huge secret from me for so long. For two years. Even if there is no such thing as magic—and I’m not saying there is or isn’t—you believe there is. And if a friend has a life-changing experience, like, oh—say, getting a magic book, she should share that life-changing experience with her best friend. Immediately,” Kenna concluded.
A little concern peppered with humor, that was Kenna. But her flippant attitude about magic—maybe there was, maybe there wasn’t—was very unlike her. Kenna, with her sleek blond bob, trim figure, and attention to detail, was no nonsense…except in her persistent efforts to set Lizzie up on the perfect date. She was all nonsense when it came to Lizzie and men, or so Lizzie thought. And, apparently, in her belief that magic might exist. That was news to Lizzie. If she’d known her friend secretly watched Supernatural, and believed it, she’d have considered fessing up much faster.
“You haven’t mentioned medicating me yet. That’s a good sign, right?” Lizzie decided that clarifying whether or not Kenna intended to call 911 should be a priority in this conversation.
Kenna looked at her steadily and refrained from comment.
Uh-oh. Time for the evidence.
She pulled out the Book—when she’d started thinking of it as Book with a capital B, she wasn’t entirely sure—and flipped it open to the first page.
After turning the Book around and presenting the first page to Kenna, she said, “Other than the dancing words, there is also the changing text. Every time I open it, there’s a different entry.”
She closed and reopened the Book, then she showed Kenna the first page a second time. Lizzie’s eye caught on the bold, black, slanted writing on the page as she turned it toward her friend. She looked up and, for the first time during the conversation, she saw real concern on Kenna’s face.
“Honey, there’s nothing on the page. It’s blank.” Kenna reached a hand out to her and pressed Lizzie’s fingers reassuringly.
The Book fell to Lizzie’s lap. She glanced between Kenna and the Book.
“No. That’s insane! How can you not see it?” Lizzie was slowly shaking her head over and over. “I don’t feel like I’m crazy. Delusional for two years and no one notices? You didn’t notice?”
Her voice had slowly escalated in speed and volume as she spoke. Realizing this, Lizzie stopped and took a slow, deep breath. “The Book has always seemed real to me – weird, but real.”
She handed Kenna the Book.
“Look again. Please,” she begged.
In the back of her mind, the specter of mental illness slowly rose. It was shocking, really, that she had never seriously considered something was wrong with her. That someone might think she was crazy? Sure. But not that she actually was crazy. Not since that very first day when she received the Book. Wasn’t the total commitment to belief in the face of something so entirely abstract and unreal, evidence itself of mental illness? Lizzie’s hand went to her midriff as a sick feeling started in the bottom of her stomach.
As Kenna’s hand closed on the Book, she made a small sound of pain and dropped it. Looking at the Book on the floor, she slowly rubbed her fingertips together.
“What—” Lizzie began, but Kenna interrupted, the surprise on her face clear.
“I think your book has an alarm system.” Kenna straightened and took a step back from the Book.
“I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.” Lizzie frowned in confusion. “Did it hurt you?”
Great. Not crazy, just stupid. She’d brought an evil and dangerous object into her best friend’s house and placed it directly into her hands. Excellent friendship skills officially displayed.
Both women looked at the Book resting innocently on the patterned wool rug. Another moment of silence passed. Kenna seemed to be lost in thought.
When she didn’t reply right away, Lizzie said, “Kenna? Hey.”
“No. No, it didn’t hurt me. Not really.” She blinked a few times, as if clearing her head. “Before I touched it, it hummed or vibrated a little. Like a cell phone on silent. But then it was hot to the touch and the vibration increased.”
“It was hot but didn’t burn you?” Lizzie asked, as she inspected Kenna’s hand.
“My hand’s fine. As soon as I let go, the feeling stopped. Like no burn I’ve ever experienced, that’s for sure.” She waited patiently, hand held out, until Lizzie was done.
If Lizzie was looking for evidence of magic that would convince her friend, this was it. However unexpected it was.
Kenna reached down to pick up the Book again. Before she could pick it up, Lizzie said, “Do you think that’s a good idea?”
Kenna replied with a shrug, “I have no idea. But it doesn’t actually hurt.” She looked down at the Book again.
“I can’t see the words. You can’t feel the heat or vibration. Something bizarre is definitely happening with this book. Besides,”—she gave Lizzie a cheeky grin—“I may be mostly practical, but I find the idea of magic completely fascinating. So I’m willing to admit there may be mojo involved.”
Several trials later, Kenna and Lizzie reached a few conclusions. Lizzie could pick up the Book with no effect, but Kenna experienced the “alarm.” Kenna described the pages inside as hazy. No words or characters were visible, the pages were simply unclear, like an out-of-focus picture.
After repeated trials with no new information, they set the Book aside. Both were convinced that there was something unexplainable about the Book. Magic? Maybe.
Kenna spoke first. “We can’t tell anyone about this.”
Lizzie nodded emphatically. “Agreed. They’d think we’re nuts.”
Kenna nodded her head with a thoughtful look on her face. “Or want the book.”
Kenna didn’t have to explain who “they” were. Bad-guy, magic people, the authorities… “They” could mean almost anyone, because a book like this held appeal and value for a vast array of individuals and organizations. She could only hope that her and the Book’s safety would be ensured through secrecy. She hadn’t really worried up till now, because the Book had been hers alone. It was as if by sharing it with Kenna, she had somehow let the secret out into the world to be discovered. Silly. But that was how she felt.
Kenna interrupted Lizzie’s troubled thoughts when she said, “Have you thought about where it came from? Why it came to you?”
Lizzie rolled her eyes. “It’s been two years. Of course I’ve thought about that. Also, what’s it for? What’s written in it? Are there other magical books? I stopped myself at some point, because the questions really can become all-consuming.”
“That book may have come to you for a reason. Until you either understand what’s in it or know why you have it, I think keeping it under wraps is a good idea,” Kenna said.
“And if it’s dangerous?” Lizzie asked. The question had been buzzing around in her brain ever since Kenna had set off the Book’s “alarm.”
“You don’t truly believe that. If you did, you’d never have brought it here and invited me in on the secret.” Kenna paused and grinned. “Or you would have at least warned me first. And you have excellent instincts. ”
Lizzie hoped her instincts were correct this time. Because Kenna was right. She didn’t sense anything evil or wrong in the Book.
A few months passed without any significant progress. Occasionally, Lizzie caught a word out of the corner of her eye. But any focused attention produced the same disappointing result. The thrill of discovery—even discovery of magic—faded as time marched on and the book remained unreadable.
So on this particular and in every way unremarkable Tuesday, the wondrous and magical book, with ever-changing text and a built-in alarm system, was gathering dust in the bottom drawer of her desk—the only drawer that locked. She still recognized its value, but simply couldn’t maintain a high level of enthusiasm in the face of no perceivable progress. The book had finally lost its proper pronoun status in Lizzie’s mind. A perusal of her log would show the last entry dated a good two weeks previous. Life had intervened in the guise of bills, work required to pay bills, dog walks, and the occasional margarita night with her girlfriends. So, while not forgotten, the book and magic was far from the fore of Lizzie’s mind.
She certainly wasn’t thinking of magic books as she hushed her frantically barking dogs that evening. Her dogs weren’t big barkers, so she got up with some curiosity to see what all the fuss was about. Their attention was focused intently on the backyard. She squinted, looking out into the darkness. Her yard butted up against several acres of undeveloped land. Not a public green space, unfortunately, so the land wasn’t maintained. Just a property with overgrown grass, and trees scattered throughout.
Lizzie brought the dogs with her as she stepped out into the yard. She lived alone and was accustomed to handling minor household and neighborhood upsets, but the dogs were a comfort and made her feel a little braver. Not that she thought there was a burglar. Ha. Laughable. She quickly decided that turning on the backyard lights might be a good idea.
As she was turning back to the house, she saw a large animal loping away. She didn’t get a clear view, since she saw him through the wrought iron bars of her fence. But he didn’t look scared or in a hurry. Coyotes were bold and not particularly scared of humans—just cautious. So Lizzie thought it must have been a coyote. A large coyote…
At least it wasn’t a burglar, she thought, as she headed into the house. Silly to have worried over nothing.
Later that night, Lizzie lay in bed thinking about the coyote she’d seen. This was Austin. Central Texas was overrun with coyotes. They trolled suburban neighborhoods looking for easy prey, like neighborhood cats, small dogs, even garbage. Lizzie knew all about coyotes. Anyone living in Austin for very long could spot the leggy, spare creatures.
But the more she thought back, the more she questioned her conclusion. What she’d seen was more than three times the size of a coyote and much more densely furred. In that moment, standing in the darkness and with poor visibility, her mind had leaped to the most likely answer—coyote. But the animal she saw had looked much more like the neighbor’s Malamute, Spencer, than a coyote.
Spencer was a love. Big and slow at about 100 pounds, he was a fluffy, friendly, teddy bear of a dog. As she rolled over in bed, hunting a more comfortable position, she wondered if it was possible it had been Spencer she’d seen. She’d have to call the Cooks early tomorrow and double-check that Spencer hadn’t escaped.
She was asleep before she could consider what the too-big, too-fluffy, not-a-coyote, animal could have been, if not Spencer…
Lizzie woke up with a feeling that she was supposed to do something. Dang it. That’s why there was a notepad by her bed. She could never remember her late night to-do lists. Right before sleep, seemed to be a productive time for her brain. But if she didn’t write her thoughts down on paper, it took her ages to remember them again. Grocery list, gone. Awesome idea for redecorating the guest room, gone.
Lizzie had been working on a client’s website for several hours before she remembered—Spencer! She rushed to her cell and called up the Cooks. Mrs. Cook answered on the first ring.
“Hi, Lizzie! How are you sweetie?”
Lizzie would be surprised if Spencer was missing. Otherwise, Mrs. Cook wouldn’t be so chipper. Spencer was her and her husband’s darling. Their kids were grown and out of the house, and Spencer reaped the benefits of all their spare time and attention. If Spencer were missing, Lizzie was sure she’d hear it in Mrs. Cook’s voice.
“Hi, Mrs. Cook. I’m good. Um, how’s Spencer?” Lizzie didn’t want to upset her for no reason. But it really had looked like Spencer. Mostly. Maybe a little bigger, a little darker than Spencer. Well, the more she thought on it…
“He’s just fine. Getting a little fat, the vet says, so he’s grumpy about his new diet. But otherwise, great. Why do you ask?”
“I saw a loose dog out behind my house. I just wanted to be sure it wasn’t Spencer. It didn’t occur to me that it might be him until really late last night, or I would have called earlier. Sorry, Mrs. Cook.” Lizzie said guiltily.
“No problem. Thanks for thinking of us. Oh! You don’t mean that big dog, the one running out back around ten o’clock? Robert swore it was a wolf-hybrid. I told him he was silly. This close into town, none of the neighbors would have a hybrid. Maybe out in the country, but not here. Spencer growled and barked like crazy, or we wouldn’t have even seen him.”
Lizzie knew Mr. Cook to be a reliable, practical sort of man. He was also an avid outdoorsman. If Mr. Cook said wolf-hybrid, he was probably right. A shiver went up Lizzie’s back. The thought of a wolf right outside her door was deeply disturbing, though she didn’t know why. Coyotes abounded, and she never worried about them. And wolves were supposed to be much shyer of humans. Still—she didn’t like it.
“Thanks, Mrs. Cook. I’m sorry to bother you.” Lizzie was ready to put the whole thing behind her, both the unsettled feeling, and the image of the unknown animal. One she was coming to realize was definitely not a coyote. And clearly not Spencer, the friendly malamute.
Mrs. Cook’s reply was cheerful. “No bother at all. I’m always glad to hear from you. We’ll see you at the neighborhood BBQ next month, right?”
Mr. Cook was fabulous with a grill. He even had his own custom BBQ trailer that he took to cook-offs. Lizzie wouldn’t miss it, and she told Mrs. Cook so.
Lizzie said her goodbyes, ended the call, and put the whole odd experience from her mind.
Lizzie was finishing up some logo designs for a client that night, when a knock at the door started her dogs barking. Ugh. What was with all the barking lately? Was her life getting more exciting or her dogs naughtier?
After hushing the dogs and herding them into the back bedroom, she straightened her crooked T-shirt, made a quick check of the floor for underwear or other inappropriate clothing items, then walked into the front hall. She grimaced as she remembered exactly what the dogs dug out of the laundry bin the last time she’d forgotten to check the floor.
Her neighborhood didn’t allow soliciting, and she hadn’t ordered from Amazon even once this month. She smiled. She was just a little bit proud of her restraint. But that meant no package deliveries. “Who arrives at the front door without at least dropping a quick text?” she thought absentmindedly, as she opened the front door.
And…wow, hot guy, was her first thought. Tall, really tall, she thought as her eyes traveled up…and up. Six-foot-two, six-foot-three? His muscular frame took up most of the open doorway. Short cropped, dark brown hair, bright blue eyes set in a lightly tanned, very attractive face. Just a hint of shadow on his jaw, like he’d overslept that morning and rushed out the door. But wait, her eyes skittered back down to a broad chest and muscular arms. A T-shirt in March. How she loved warm Texas weather. It gave her the opportunity to admire bulging biceps at least eight months out of the year.
While she was still staring—and probably drooling, for all she knew—Hot Guy slipped his foot over the threshold of the door and braced it against the frame. What? Get that hot butt out of my house.
But what she actually said, was “I’m sorry – you must have the wrong house. This is number 4920. Which house are you looking for?”
When placed in socially awkward or stressful situations, why did she always apologize? Lizzie wasn’t sure, but apologize she did. Even though this was her house, her door, her personal space being invaded. Wait a minute.
“Sir, you need to step away from my door.” Dang it. Sir? Really? Why was she so polite?
“If you don’t immediately step away from my door, I’m going to call 911.” Much better. Calm, assertive …okay, maybe a tiny bit panicky—but, hot or not, he was a really big guy.
During this entire inner monologue, the strange and rather large man on her doorstep said not a word.
Hot Guy paused another few heartbeats. Then he said, “Lizzie Smith?”
She slowly nodded, her brain still trying to process that a very attractive man, who was oddly pushy, stood on her doorstep calling her by name.
His startling blue eyes stared calmly at her. “I’m here about the book.”
There is a moment in movies when the heroine experiences an unpleasant surprise. She flutters her eyelashes as her eyes glow with tears. Or perhaps she gracefully swoons onto a conveniently placed sofa. Why was life not a movie? Lizzie wondered. Because she got sweaty, nauseous, and turned a rather unattractive shade of green, when shocked. Lizzie knew this because of a public presentation made at age fifteen, a sprained ankle at twenty-three, and a horribly embarrassing public break up at age twenty-nine.
She and Kenna had worried about what a motivated someone might do, to get the book. This was not good.
Convinced she was slowly turning a minty green color—not a shade that flattered her pale skin and dark hair—Lizzie considered her options.
A) Lie. Admittedly, not Lizzie’s best skill.
B) Misunderstand. “Oh, my library book is so far overdue that you’ve come to collect it?” This had the advantage of truth. It had been a good two months since she placed it on the front seat of her car, intending to return it. This option had a very low probability for success, unless Hot Guy was also Not-So-Bright Guy.
C) Misdirect. “Come on in; I’ll just run into the kitchen and retrieve it”…while in fact planning to leave by the back door, located conveniently in the kitchen. But, then what? This was her house, and he—scary, large man who happened to be hot—knew where she lived.
So in moments like these, Lizzie did what she always does. She chose option D) Improvise.
“Okay. Tell me about the book.” She paused, thinking. “And if you’ll remove your foot from the door, I’ll get you some tea. That you can drink on the porch.” Lizzie gave the man a disapproving look, so he wouldn’t think tea meant she was a pushover.
He nodded curtly in response. Apparently, a man of few words. Annoyingly so.
She’d been polite, direct, and honest, with just a dash of please-don’t-murder-me-on-my-own-front-porch expressed only through the higher pitch of her voice. And the minty green face. Well, to be perfectly honest, also the shaking hands. But all in all, a pretty good effort, considering she just invited a unknown person to tea on her porch to discuss a mysterious, magical book no one should know she has.
Darn her curiosity! Well, she didn’t have many other choices. She couldn’t exactly call the police and report the as-yet-to-be-committed crime of theft…of a magical book. Right.
Offering tea had been her attempt at a little privacy, so she could get her shaking hands under control and let her brain catch up to events. Having a task always seemed to help calm her nerves. She also needed a minute of privacy to text Kenna.
Man at door about book. Didn’t let in. Call in 5.
That seemed better than any phone conversation she could imagine having with her friend.
Several minutes later, mystery man and she were seated on her porch, steaming mugs of tea in hand.
“You clearly know who I am. Who are you?”
“Okay, John with no last name. I texted my friend. She’s heading this way in ten minutes and calling the police if she doesn’t hear from me in five. So no funny business.” No funny business? Who said that? Stupid nerves.
Lizzie wasn’t sure if contacting Kenna was a great plan, but that was the best she had with five seconds of prep time. Mysterious men drinking tea on her porch hadn’t been covered in her short self-defense class. Or maybe not inviting the prospective thief/murderer/kidnapper to converse and drink tea had been a part of the first fifteen minutes she’d missed. Oops.
John seemed unconcerned. “Okay. I recommend against discussing the book with the police.”
She mentally rolled her eyes. She liked her unmedicated, psych-ward free existence. But no need for him to know it was a bluff, so she tried to keep a straight face.
“So—why are you here?” she said.
“I’ve already told you—the book. I know you have it, and I want to know why you haven’t contacted us.” His eyes narrowed slightly as he spoke. Lizzie guessed it was involuntary and probably meant he wasn’t particularly pleased with her. He could go jump in a lake. She didn’t even know who he was.
Although, still big and broad, John appeared less intimidating seated. Equally hot, but less…large and manly. It didn’t hurt that she’d taken the broad, nicely-cushioned swing, leaving him with a delicate wicker chair. She had to remind herself that John’s handsome profile was a charming lie, a façade hiding a rude bully. Only a bully would wedge his foot in the front door like this guy had.
She answered his question with a tight voice. “Not possible, since I don’t know who you are.” It’s not like the thing had come with a return address. What an ass.
When John failed to respond immediately, Lizzie kept talking, her usual good temper fading the longer she interacted with him. “Tell me why you’re here, and what you want. Be specific. Or I skip my friend and call the police directly. Remember, you’re the one who tried to shove his way into my house.”
“And I could stop you before you even reach the phone.”
She narrowed her eyes, giving him a hard look. Condescend much? What a total ass. And she was definitely right—a bully.
While the front of Lizzie’s brain steamed and pointed an accusing finger at John, the Bully, the back of her brain wondered why she was wearing a T-shirt, her fifth best bra, no makeup, and wanted to run a hand over John, the Hot Guy’s, bicep.
John had clearly made an error. In his search for, and eventual discovery of the book and Elizabeth Smith, he had failed to uncover an important piece of information. As Alpha of the largest North American pack, he wasn’t accustomed to making mistakes, much less admitting to them—but he did his damnedest to be honest with himself. Elizabeth, Lizzie, had no idea what the book was or what information it contained. Had she attempted to read it, and if she had—had she failed?
Also obvious, Lizzie Smith had no idea who or what he was, as demonstrated by her threat to phone the police. He smiled to himself. That’s all it was, a threat. He could smell the lie. She was as reluctant to involve the police as he was.
She looked downright pissed. A change in tactic was required. He had to make nice or he’d get nowhere—and that meant an apology. Damn.
He had to stiffen practically all of his facial muscles not to grind his teeth together. “I apologize.”
That book belonged to his family, his people. Apologizing for attempting its recovery went against his nature. He had to remind himself, the book alone wasn’t nearly as valuable to him as the book and the girl together. And this was a situation requiring some finesse; commands would fall on deaf ears.
“For what, exactly?” she replied, lips pursed together. Oh, she was pissed. He thought back quickly.
“I shouldn’t have tried to push my way into the house.” Shit. Please let none of his friends, or worse, his pack, ever hear about this. He would never live it down. “I just wanted a minute to speak with you, and it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Because it had been a good idea. He was here. They were talking. Hell, she brought him tea. Unpoisoned tea, no less…he’d checked.
“Hmm. Okay.” Her eyes were still suspicious. Although…his nose twitched. I’ll be damned. If his nose was right, little Ms. Proper and Pissed was oozing lust. He smiled. His nose was never wrong.
Her face still had the tight, pinched look of anger. But he was feeling much more charitable toward Lizzie Smith. A nose full of aroused, attractive woman can have that effect.
His tone softened considerably and he said, “I know you’ve got the book. It appears you may be having some problems with it?” His voice raised slightly at the end of the sentence. He hoped she’d bite and give him some idea of why she hadn’t read the book. And if she had, why she hadn’t contacted the pack. His little Lizzie didn’t seem the extortionist or power hungry type, so he was betting she hadn’t read it. But why? What was her game?
She deflected, rather than answering his question. “First, it’s not here. The book, I mean. It isn’t here in the house. What do you want with it?” Her question revealed curiosity, but he could smell the much stronger scent of her increasing fear. And he could smell the lie. The book was in the house.
He may have hit on her discomfort. She thought he was here to steal it. He could certainly answer some questions if it made her more comfortable. The smell of fear was starting to overpower her arousal—and it was making his nose itch.
“If it’s the same book I’m searching for, it belonged to my family. We lost it a number of years ago,” John said.
“And now you want it back.” It wasn’t a question, and her concern was growing the longer he stayed. She was clearly not in the best state of mind for the full story. And he needed to tell her, if he was going to have any success.
“Not necessarily.” This was the difficult part. He didn’t want to lie, because a lie would cast an unpleasant pall on her future dealings with his family. But the entire truth wasn’t an option. Not now, here on her porch. He did want the book. But more than that, he wanted both the book and the girl.
He continued cautiously, “I would like your help. Help with reading the book and learning the contents. I can’t do that without your assistance. So the book on its own isn’t as useful to me or my family.”
“If it belonged to your family, don’t you already know what’s in it?” Lizzie’s question made it clear she didn’t know how the book worked. The information stored in the book was much larger than any one book, or even ten books, could hold. In that sense, the book was more like a computer holding a vast store of knowledge.
“Not exactly.” John could read the disappointment on Lizzie’s face, so he quickly continued. “But, I do know that it contains stories of my family and of their journey to the United States. For all I know, there are also recipes and dress patterns, alongside crop yield information and favorite horse shoeing methods.”
All true. He also hoped the book showed the patterns of changing cultural norms and laws over the last several centuries, as well as the marriages, births, and deaths of pack members. If he was right, there might be clues in the book that could help his pack thrive well into and beyond this century.
Lizzie was staring thoughtfully out into the yard, possibly considering her next question, when she stood up suddenly. “I just realized the time. I’m sure my friend will be here soon, and I think it would be best if you were gone before she arrives.”
John pulled a business card out of his wallet and handed it to her, intentionally brushing his fingers against hers. “My cell is on the back. I’d like to meet with you again. To discuss the book, and if you’d be willing to help.” He grinned. “Look me up. I’m a completely upstanding citizen.” No lie there. He paid his taxes. And followed the law. Mostly. When it was convenient.
Seeing her indecision, he said, “I won’t knock on your door again. Promise. Not unless I’m invited to.” He flashed his most innocent smile. He’d been told it made him look approachable. And he held up three fingers in the traditional Boy Scout’s honor sign. And he meant it—he wouldn’t be knocking.
John kept talking in the hope of pushing past any objections. “We can meet somewhere neutral. There’s a quiet little café, Full English, that serves breakfast all day long. It’s not too far from here. Meet there tomorrow around 11:00?” He’d noticed the difficulty she’d had being flat-out rude, and he was taking advantage of it.
She finally reached a decision. She’d been looking at his card for a long time. Maybe being a statistician—what many people believed to be an incredibly boring and respectable job—had worked in his favor. He wanted to laugh at that. No one who knew him at all, would consider him either boring or respectable.
She reached out her hand to him, saying, “All right, John—” she glanced down at the card, “Braxton. Tomorrow at 11:00.”