“Em, are you all right?” Samantha Gale, my very best friend in the entire world, answered her phone on the fourth ring. Her voice was rough with sleep and it belatedly occurred to me that nine o’clock in the morning in Finn’s Hollow, Ireland was four o’clock in the morning in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Damn it. I woke you up, didn’t I?” I asked, knowing full well by then that I had and feeling awful about it.
“No, it’s fine,” Sam said. “I told you when you left that I’m always here for you.” There was a low grumbling in the background and she added, “And Ben says he’s here for you, too.”
That made me laugh. Sam and Ben had become couple goals for me. Not that I thought I’d ever find anything like the connection they’d made but they kept the pilot light of my innermost hope aflame.
“Thank you and thank Ben,” I said. “I’m going to hang up now and let you go back to sleep. Forget I ever called.”
“Emily Allen, don’t you dare hang up on me,” Sam said. Now she sounded fully awake. Oops.
“No, really I—” I began but she interrupted me.
“Tell me why you’re calling, otherwise I’ll worry and no one wants that.” There was more grumbling in the background. Sam laughed and said, “Ben says he’s begging you to tell me so that I don’t drive him crazy with speculation.”
I grinned. She would, too. Then I grew serious.
Glancing around the Last Chapter, the quaint bookstore in which I was presently standing, I noted objectively that it was a booklover’s dream come true. A three story brick building chock full of books of all kinds with a small café at the back of the first floor, where the scent of fresh brewed coffee, berry filled scones, and cinnamon pastry permeated the air. I felt myself lean in that direction as if the delicious aromas were pulling me toward them.
One of the store clerks had just unlocked the front door of the shop a few moments ago, and I had drafted in behind a handful of customers who’d been waiting. I’d been agog ever since.
This was it. The bookshop where I’d be working for the next year. My heart was pounding and my palms were sweaty. The black wool turtleneck sweater I was wearing, in an attempt to defeat the early November chill, felt as if it were choking me and I was quite sure the pain spearing across my head meant I was having an aneurysm.
“I’m supposed to meet my boss in a few minutes, and I think I’m having a heart attack or potentially a stroke,” I said.
There was a beat of silence on the other end of the phone. Then Sam said, “Tell me your symptoms.”
I listed them all and she noted each one with an “uh-huh” which told me nothing whatsoever as to what she was thinking about my condition. I was three thousand miles away and starting a new job in a bookstore, having put my career as a librarian on Martha’s Vineyard on hold to chase some crazy fantasy where I traveled to a foreign destination and lived a life full of adventure.
“I think I’m going to throw up,” I groaned.
“Take a deep breath,” Sam said. “You know the drill—in for eight seconds, hold for four, out for eight.”
I sucked in a breath. My head pounded. “I can’t. It makes my head throb. See? Aneurysm.”
“Or a lack-of-caffeine headache,” she said. “Have you had any coffee yet?’
Come to think of it, I had not. I’d been too nervous to make any before I left my cottage this morning so the potential for this skull splitter to be from coffee deprivation seemed likely.
“No,” I said. “And I see where you’re going, but I still have brutal nausea and I’m sweating. I bet I have a fever. Maybe it’s food poisoning from the airplane food last night. I did have the beef stroganoff.”
“You ate airplane food?” Sam sounded as incredulous as if I’d confessed I ate ice cream off the bathroom floor. She was a professional chef, so not a big surprise.
“I know, I know,” I said. “It’s pure preservatives. I’ll likely be dead within the hour.”
There was a lengthy pause where I imagined Sam was practicing her last words to me, wanting to get them just right.
“Em, you know I love you like a sister, right?” she asked.
Hmm. This did not sound like the beginning of a vow of friendship into the afterlife.
“I do,” I said. “I also know that’s how you would start a sentence that I’m not going to like.”
“You’re panicking, Em,” Sam said. Her voice was full of empathy and patience. “And you and I both know that the bout of hypochondria you dealt with last summer was how you coped with your anxiety and your unhappiness.”
“But I’m not unhappy,” I protested. “I’m living the dream, thousands of miles away from everyone I’ve ever known and loved, in a quaint village in County Kerry where the green is the greenest green I’ve ever seen and there’s an adorable sheep staring at me over the edge of every stone wall. Seriously, I’m drowning in charm, which is probably why I’m about to keel over dead.”
A sound came from my phone that sounded like someone stepping on a duck.
“Are you laughing at me?” I asked. Rude but understandable.
“No, never,” Sam said. She cleared her throat. “I just think you might be freaking out a little because it’s your first day of work at your new job.”
“I’m not,” I protested. I was. I absolutely was. “I just think I need to get on the train back to Dublin and hop on the next flight home before they discover I have some highly contagious pox or plague and I’m quarantined to a thatched stone cottage to live out my days in a fairy-infested forest, talking to the trees and hedgehogs while farming for potatoes.”
“Have you ever considered that you read too much?” Sam asked.
“No!” I cried and I heard Ben, also a librarian, protest as well.
Sam laughed. She did like to goad us.
“Just think if I leave now, we can meet for coffee and pastries at the Grape tomorrow morning. Doesn’t that sound nice?” I asked.
“While I’d love to see you, you know that, you have to stay in Ireland and see your journey through,” Sam said. “Besides, if you go home now your mother will guilt you into never leaving again not to mention clobber you with the dreaded ‘I told you so.’”
“Fair point.” I sighed. “I still think I might pass out and then I’ll likely lose the job and this entire conversation becomes moot.”
“You’re not going to pass out,” Sam said. “Find a place to sit down. Can you do that?”
“I think so.” I was standing in the stacks, okay, more accurately hiding in the fiction section. The shelves were dark wood, long and tall and stuffed with books. They comforted me. Scattered randomly amid the shelving units were step stools. I found one and sat down.
“Are you sitting?” Sam asked.
“Good, now put your head between your knees,” she ordered.
“Um.” I was wearing a formfitting, gray wool pencil skirt. I tried to maneuver my head down. No luck. The skirt was too snug. The closest I could get was to look over my knees at my black ankle boots. “Sorry, Sam, nothing is getting between these knees not even a hot Irishman.”
Sam chuckled, but over that I heard a strangled noise behind me and I straightened up and turned around to see a man in jeans and an Aran sweater, holding his fist to his mouth, looking as if he was choking. He had thick, wavy black hair and blue eyes so dark they were almost the same shade as his hair. Also, if I wasn’t mistaken, judging by the picture I’d seen on the Last Chapter’s website he was my new boss Kieran Murphy.