Mandy Thompson balanced a stack of books on her hip while reaching for the phone. She hadn't hooked up an answering machine at the temporary library yet, and whoever was trying to reach her was letting the number ring, and ring, and ring...
"Hello," she answered breathlessly, setting the children's books down on an unopened box of paperback donations.
"Mandy, dear, I'm so glad we reached you," Millicent Gardner said in her singsong, sweeter-than-pie voice. "Greta told me to call when he first left, but I got another phone call from--"
"Before who left, Millicent?"
"Oh, our nephew. He's on his way over to see you, riding that new bike of his. You remember the pledge we made to the library building fund? Well, he's coming by with the check."
"Oh, that's great, Millicent. Thank you, and please thank Greta for me also." Mandy craned her neck to look out the front windows of the former bookstore. She didn't see any children approaching, but the boy would probably be here any minute. Greta and Millicent didn't live too far away.
"We're really pleased that you've taken on this project, Mandy. Scottsville needs a new library, but that awful fire was a bad way to get one."
"Yes, I know." As Mandy searched for the Gardner sisters' nephew, she saw something quite out of place in Scottsville. Quite unusual for any small, East Texas town. Quite... interesting.
"I need to go, Mandy. Greta is looking for the remote control, and you know how grouchy she can be when she can't find something."
Mandy knew no such thing, but absently agreed as she said good-bye and hung up the phone. Or at least she though she'd said good-bye. Her attention was so riveted by the man outside the window that she wasn't real sure.
Dressed in a black leather jacket, his hair windblown, his angular face shadowed by at least a few day's stubble of beard, he looked like something from a Harley-Davidson poster. Falling yellow and orange leaves swirled around him as sunlight filtered through the pine trees and gilded him in gold. He straddled the massive bike like a knight of old sat his trusty warhorse. Even more than thirty feet away, through a closed door and a plate glass window, Mandy felt the vibrations of the powerful machine as it idled in the autumn afternoon.
Why was he stopped there so long? Granted, the intersection boasted one of Scottsville's few four-way stops, but there was little traffic this late in the afternoon on Sunday. Most people were either getting ready for evening church services or eating dinner with their families.
He ran a hand through his dark, already tousled hair. Mandy's pulse rose a few beats as she watched him take a deep breath. His white T-shirt molded to a broad chest and a flat, muscular abdomen. She swallowed a lump in her throat as her gaze roamed down his long, jeans-clad legs to the black boots that were braced arrogantly on the pavement.
Definitely advertising material. Mandy tore her gaze from the man for just a moment to make sure a camera and crew weren't filming the very sexy, very bad boy on the gleaming motorcycle.
Nope. Not another soul around. He must be lost. Maybe he needed directions. Maybe she should stick her head out the door and ask if he needed help. After all, that would be the neighborly thing to do.
As if a small-town librarian was the type of "neighbor" this bad boy would find interesting.
With a sigh, Mandy realized she'd allowed herself to get distracted again. Darn it. She'd come to Scottsville to avoid this sort of thing. She couldn't allow herself to give in to her weakness.
She turned away from the window and retrieved the stack of books, hoping the stranger found his way out of town before she was tempted to walk outside, throw her leg over the big chrome machine, and ride out of town with the dangerous bad boy.
Besides, she had to get these books sorted into early readers and picture books. Some of the people who had packed the salvaged books after the fire in the old library hadn't been too particular about which books they'd thrown in the boxes.
And the Gardner sisters' nephew was on his way over with a donation for the new library. Watching the town's upstanding librarian riding off on the back of a motorcycle would not be a good sight for a young boy to see.
Perhaps the boy would like to borrow a few of the books while he was in town visiting his aunts. Mandy didn't know the Gardner sisters real well, but who could be unaware of two of the town's most recognized citizens? She'd realized early on that the elderly women cared deeply about this town. They also baked absolutely wonderful cookies, muffins, and rolls in their bakery on the square.
This nephew must be their great nephew. Surely they didn't have siblings young enough to have a child. Unless, of course, a brother had married a much younger woman. That would explain...
A blast of crisp autumn wind blew through the temporary library, startling Mandy out of her contemplation. She turned, a smile on her face as she anticipating meeting the Gardner nephew.
The bad boy standing in front of her didn't resemble a child in the least. All black leather, tight jeans, and lean, muscular male, he was far too dangerous for her peace of mind, far too tempting for any mortal woman. He definitely wasn't from around here. Her eyes widened as a slow smile creased his lean, stubbled cheeks.
"Hi," he said in a deep, sexy voice that vibrated through her just like the throbbing of his big motorcycle. "You must be the new librarian."
"Yes," she managed to say, blinking her eyes when she realized she'd been staring. "Yes, but how did you know...?"
He reached inside his black leather jacket and pulled out an envelope. "There aren't too many secrets in a small town." He grinned, probably at the confused look on her face. "I'm Case Gardner, Greta and Millicent's nephew, in town for a visit, and I sure am glad to meet you, Miss Mandy Thompson."
Case had figured his aunts were up to something when they insisted he take their Scottsville Public Library building fund donation to the new librarian before he'd finished unpacking. He just hadn't figured on his own interest in the new librarian Greta and Millicent had raved about.
Mandy Thompson was attractive, but she sure went out of her way to downplay her big brown eyes, shiny hair, and slim figure. Dressed in rather baggy chinos and a rust-colored sweater, she appeared awfully young to be hidden away in a library. Her brown hair held a hint of red highlights. Since she'd secured it in a low ponytail, he couldn't tell how the strands would feel when he ran his fingers through them. But her skin... she had a creamy, ivory complexion he longed to touch.
"You're the nephew?" she asked, her eyes round with surprise, her right arm holding several oversize children's books in front of her like a shield.
"The one and only," he replied, hoping she wasn't going to be this nervous or confused around him for the rest of his stay in town. He loved libraries, especially small, cozy ones run by single, attractive librarians.
"I was expecting someone a little... younger," she said as she held out her hand for the envelope he'd offered.
Case chuckled and shook his head. "That's just like my aunts. They aren't real good on details." He passed the donation to her, wishing he could get a little closer without frightening her. He supposed he did look disreputable, with his black leather jacket, motorcycle boots, and three-days growth of beard.
"I just got into town this afternoon, but they insisted I come by right away. Something about forgetting to bring the donation to the last meeting of the Friends of the Library."
"Yes, well, I'm glad you came by." She shifted the books closer to her chest, tilting her chin up ever so slightly. At the moment, she looked more like a prissy schoolmarm than a modern librarian.
"Need any help?" he asked, hooking his hands in his back pockets so he wouldn't be tempted to reach out and pry those picture books out of her white-knuckled grip.
"No!" She said the word so quickly, so emphatically, that a less persistent man might be tempted to walk out and dismiss any hopes of courting Miss Mandy Thompson. But she gave off a host of clues he couldn't ignore, and he was one man who couldn't ignore a good mystery.
He was just about to offer again when he noticed her gaze drifting southward, roaming over him with the sensation of a dozen soft feathers. Her eyes seemed to memorize him. As a matter of fact, he felt darn near consumed by her hot look. The image caused an entirely predictable reaction, which he tried to hide by shifting his weight and unhooking his hands from his back pockets.
She turned guilty eyes upward, meeting his gaze with a startled one of her own. A delicate peach blush lit up that ivory skin, making Case think of rosy dawns and rumpled sheets.
"On second thought, I'd better get back to the house. Greta might need some help."
Mandy nodded, swallowing hard. "It was nice meeting you, Mr. Gardner," she managed to say, although her voice sounded a bit husky.
"My pleasure," he said with a slow smile he couldn't hold back even if he'd wanted to. Which he didn't. He hoped to cause her just a fraction of the discomfort she's inflicted on him with those ravaging eyes of hers.
She threw her other arm around the books and hugged them to the center of her chest. Case was certain her breasts were squished flat against her ribs.
"Please thank your aunts for me. We can use all the donations we can get."
"Really? Well, I'll just see what I can do to help."
She opened her mouth to speak. Case had the feeling she was about to say "no" again, but thought better of being so hasty or rude. Not that he'd take offense. He found her reaction to him just one more tantalizing clue to the mystery of Mandy Thompson, small town librarian.
She offered a weak smile as she backed up, almost tripping over a box. Case took that as his clue to leave. No sense in making her fall all over herself. She already seemed nervous enough around him.
"Have a nice visit in Scottsville."
"Oh, I'm sure I'll be seeing you again. You see, I'm going to be here for a while. With Greta's broken ankle and Millicent's--well, let's just call it her lack of business sense--I've got my work cut out for me."
"Yes. This isn't just a weekend stay. You see, I'm going to be helping out in the bakery until Greta is up and around again." Case grinned at Mandy's dumbstruck expression. "Since both my aunts told me you're a regular customer, I'm sure I'll see you often."
"You're going to bake?"
"Now don't be so skeptical. I've worn many hats in my lifetime. I think I can manage to stir up some flour and sugar and whatever else. And I know how to make change and smile at the customers. What else do I need to know?" he asked.
"I'm not sure. I've never worked in a bakery."
"Neither have I, but there's a first time for everything."
"And a last time."
Case shrugged. "Maybe I'll be a really great baker. I might have a new career."
Mandy looked even more dubious about that idea. "Then I wish you luck, Mr. Gardner, because I'm sure there's more to running the bakery than you might imagine."
"Please, call me Case."
She nodded, clutching the books even tighter. He noticed she didn't invite him to call her Mandy, but then, he didn't feel he needed an invitation.
"I'm an optimist," he explained to her earlier comment about the rigors of running a bakery. "I'm looking at this as an adventure."
She shuddered, but her eyes seemed bright with excitement. "You probably have lots of those."
"As many as I can. Haven't you heard? Life is short."
"So are some people's memories."
Case chuckled and shook his head. "I can tell you're a cynic. I think maybe you've been working too hard."
"Yes, and speaking of that..."
"Okay, I can take a hint," he said with a smile. If he'd been wearing a cowboy hat, he would have tipped it as he headed for the door. But today, he was a biker, even if he was in Texas. "Good afternoon, Mandy Thompson," he said, unable to keep the humor out of his voice as he took one last look at her confounded expression.
She didn't look like a cynic when she devoured him with her big, expressive brown eyes. More like she was optimistic about getting to know him better even as she told herself she shouldn't.
He walked down the three steps to the cracked concrete sidewalk leading from the street to the temporary library. The crisp autumn air felt good against his heated skin. If he'd looked in a mirror, he'd bet he appeared as flushed as the woman inside.
Of course, he thought, running a hand over his scratchy cheeks, she probably hadn't noticed since he was a bit grubby to begin with. First thing on his agenda after he finished unpacking was a long, hot shower and a shave. He might not live a totally conventional life, but he did have some pretty high standards. One of them dictated cleanliness whenever possible. Another one said he never let a good mystery go unsolved. He had a feeling that once he looked a bit more presentable, he'd make a lot more headway with the other.
Smiling into the lengthening shadows of afternoon, he dug his keys out of his front pocket and swung his leg over his new Harley. He turned the key and the bike roared to life with a pulsing rhythm Case found intoxicating. He'd have to get Miss Mandy on this monster machine, he thought as he kicked off the stand and pulled away from the curb. She'd probably crush him to her in the same way she'd held those books. He could almost feel her breasts pressed tightly against his back.
Shifting in the seat, he revised his earlier plan. Perhaps a short, hot shower to get the road dirt off, followed by a long, cold one to get his mind off the small-town librarian who had caught his interest as surely as a Casey Flannigan novel.
He would be working in the bakery. Mandy let out a sigh of frustration as she sank onto her bed later that night. Greta and Millicent knew she came in nearly every morning for a cup of coffee and a muffin or roll. If she stopped, she'd appear childish. Petty. Or even rude, since the town square lay directly in the route from her house to the library.
Maybe she shouldn't be too worried, though. Millicent would be there, showing Case the ropes, even though Greta probably couldn't make it in yet. Her accident last week had caused the bakery to close for several days.
He'd said he'd never been a baker before. Surely he couldn't just ride into town and start running a bakery.
"He sure doesn't look like any baker I've ever seen."
As soon as she voiced the words, the image of Nicholas Cage, biceps bulging, sweating over a hot oven in the movie Moonstruck, flashed into her brain. She'd loved that movie, from the silly premise of Cher playing an aging, unattractive spinster to the intense chemistry between the two unlikely lovers. And now she had her own bad boy baker to contend with.
"I'm not an aging spinster," she said out loud. Not yet, anyway. If she lived in this town long enough, she might live up to the stereotype of the dried up, stern faced librarian. She'd discovered dating was darn difficult when one was trying to be the model of propriety. She'd received some offers from the town's leading citizens, members of Friends of the Library, and even casual acquaintances to date their brothers, friends, cousins, or sons. She didn't want the responsibility of saying either yes or no to friends or relatives of the people she associated with every day.
And if she did become interested in one of the men they tried to fix her up with, and the relationship didn't work out, she'd feel like a heel or a big-time loser. Either way, dating the guys who had been thrust at her for the past ten months hadn't seemed like a good idea.
With a sigh, she pulled back the sheet and blanket and swung her legs onto the mattress. Living a proper life was hard work--harder than she thought it would be when she moved here from Dallas last year. She'd thought she was ready to settle down, be a good, upstanding citizen and really contribute to the friendly town she'd chosen. But just one look at the hunk on the motorcycle had spurred some wild and crazy longings that she'd believed she left a little more than a hundred miles west of Scottsville.
The desire to leap behind Case Gardner, wrap her arms around his hard, sculpted stomach, and laugh into the wind caused a shudder to run through her. She could almost imagine the feel of the autumn leaves swirling past as they picked up speed on the farm road leading out of town. She knew if she inhaled deeply, she'd discover the scent of his cologne, or just the unmistakably arousing smell of a strong, male animal.
"Mandy Thompson, you are a naughty, naughty girl."
She reached over and turned off the light, settling back against the cool cotton-blend sheets and fluffy polyester-filled pillows, pulling the blanket up to her chin. Sensible, no nonsense bed linens. Just like the flannel nightshirt and white socks she wore to bed. Like the orthopedically sound walking shoes she used every day, and the clothes that she donned for work during the week. Her whole life was centered around propriety, schedules, and meaningful work.
Not the most exciting life, but that was just the point. If she'd wanted fun and games, challenges and diversions, she would have stayed in Dallas. There had been plenty of complications there.
Except she's never seen anything as tempting as Case Gardner, even at the hottest singles bars or the best fitness centers.
Punching her pillow and frowning into the darkness, Mandy rolled to her side. She didn't need the distraction of seeing Greta and Millicent's nephew every morning, but she wasn't about to change her schedule to avoid the bakery. She'd just learn to adjust, that was all.
The next time she saw him, she'd have herself under control. She'd be wearing the "uniform" of a small town librarian. She'd remind herself that bad boys with motorcycles should be avoided. She'd tell herself she loved her life: the quiet, small house she'd rented, the library that needed rebuilding, the good friends she'd made.
Then and only then would she be immune to his disreputable good looks and charismatic grin.
But as she drifted off the sleep, she couldn't help but wonder what other kinds of jobs he'd held, and if he even had a career he'd put on hold to become a baker in a small East Texas town.