It was the time of day Claire liked best. The library was quiet. All of the patrons had departed and she was alone with the books. Her books. That was the way she thought about them anyway, and to a degree they were. She was the librarian. Except for the two young women that helped her out during the afternoons when the library was at its busiest and, of course, their patrons, the library and all its wealth of books were entirely her domain. She was the one who kept up with the books, took care of them, and primarily the one who made certain they were kept orderly. There wasn't a single book in the library, she was certain, that hadn't passed through her hands at least once in the five years since she'd taken over the position of librarian in the tiny library that belonged to the tiny hamlet of Folkston.
Loading the last of the returned volumes to her cart, she pushed the book trolley from behind the returns desk and headed to the nearest shelf. She was tired, but pleasantly so. The hour or so that it took her to set the library to rights after it had closed was her time to unwind before she went home to her empty house.
Well, not entirely empty. She had her cats, of course. It was almost a prerequisite, she mused with a touch of self-depreciating humor, for a woman living alone to have a passel of cats. She certainly hadn't set out to. The old tabby had come with the quaint little Victorian she'd bought when she'd moved to Folkston. To his way of thinking, she supposed, it was his house. The realtor had told her he'd belonged to the woman who'd owned the house before her and advised her to get rid of him since he was such an unpleasant and unsociable old man, but she hadn't had the heart.
He wasn't pretty or cuddly by any stretch of the imagination, but she'd felt that he'd earned the right to live out his days in the house he considered his home. He'd obviously seen more than his fair share of battles. One ear was mangled, as if the tip had been chewed off. A section of his tail was missing and a scar ran across one eyelid that hadn't healed as it should, making it seem as if he was always squinting one baleful, yellow eye at her. He'd never allowed her to touch him or even come closer than three feet of him, but he was always at the back porch demanding to be fed at meal times, watching her suspiciously as she doled out his food, letting out a low, threatening growl if she encroached any closer than the distance he allowed.
She called him Tom. She thought of him as the old bastard, though--for a number of reasons--mostly because the old bastard had impregnated her prized Abyssinian, damn his hide! She'd had no notion Sugar was even old enough to think about humping. It seemed that one moment she was only a kitten herself and the next, while she was still trying to decide whether to have her fixed or breed her so that she could sell the pure breed kittens for a little extra cash, a mommy with three half Abyssinian half mongrel tabby kittens of her own.
She still hadn't figured out how the old bastard had managed to get his dick into her darling Sugar--the little slut! But she strongly suspected it was Sugar who'd figured out a way to get out to old Tom, not Tom who'd figured out how to get inside to get hold of her precious. She was a clever girl, very good at opening doors, which was why Claire always made sure the doors were locked when she left for work. She didn't think Sugar could unlock doors, though, just turn the knobs, which meant it was still a mystery as to how the pair had managed to get together for romance.
Regardless, she now had Sugar, Old Tom, and three kittens--which she hadn't had any luck finding homes for.
Reaching the first row of bookshelves, Claire dismissed her thoughts and picked up the first book, scanning the shelf until she found the spot where the book belonged. Naturally enough, she found a half a dozen other books that were out of place. As much as everyone seemed to love the books--and the library, as one of the few sources of local entertainment, saw a lot of use--no one wanted to be bothered with putting them where they belonged.
She'd worked her way almost halfway across the library and emptied the biggest portion of her cart when she spotted the book that didn't belong--totally didn't belong. It was tilted slightly, as if someone had tried to push it into a spot too small for it and only managed to partially wedge the book in, but she would've noticed it immediately anyway. The spine was not only far more worn than the spines of any of the other books, but, aside from being roughened from age and probably handling, it was smooth. The title should have been tooled into the leather at the very least. Beyond that, if it was a library book someone had either removed the label she always very carefully attached to each and every book with the identifying code, or it had never been tagged at all.
Finding the spot where the book she was holding went, she pushed it into place and then grasped the stray book and pulled it off the shelf. The softness of the leather was her first impression, but even as a pleasant jolt of surprise went through her at the texture against her hand she was distracted by the craftsmanship of the book itself. Regardless of the plainness of the spine, the front of the book was anything but plain. Some intricate, unidentifiable design had been tooled into the leather, framing the title of the book--Bless the Beasts.
A frown marred her brow.
Well! It certainly didn't belong in non-fiction! Obviously, it was a work of fiction with a title like that!
A sudden, prickling awareness of a presence pierced her focus on the book. She glanced up, fully expecting the sensation to be nothing more than imagination. In the shadows at the end of the aisle, there was a man standing not six feet from where she stood, studying her intently. Claire sucked in a sharp, startled breath, dropping the book from suddenly nerveless fingers and clutching at her heart.
"I didn't mean to frighten you," he said in a deep, rumbling voice that made the fine hairs on her body prickle as if she'd encountered a field of static electricity.
The instant impulse to deny having been taken by surprise, or frightened, flickered through her. "The library's closed," she said a little more sharply than she'd intended, her thoughts fleeing chaotically from one thing to another. She'd been certain she'd locked the doors, equally sure she'd seen the last of the patrons to the door before she'd secured them. Could she have overlooked him? And, if she hadn't, how had he gotten in?
Most importantly, why was he here?
Her mouth felt dry as she stared at him, her lips drier. Unconsciously, she licked her lips to moisten them but the moment she did his gaze flickered to her mouth, drawing her attention to the act. A strange lightheadedness wafted over her as he shifted and the motion brought him from the shadows and into the light.
He was a big man, not just exceptionally tall, but brawny--with the sort of build one might expect on a man who made his living constantly lifting and carrying heavy things. Construction worker? Farmer? Pro football player? Without any conception that her thoughts were bigoted, she dismissed the interest of a man like that in books of any kind except maybe repair manuals.
He seemed as out of place in her library as the book she'd just found and not just because of his size. The moment her surprise and fear subsided enough to allow her to really look at him, she saw that he was a surprisingly handsome man in a purely rugged, manly sort of way. His harshly angular features bordered on ugly and still managed to miss it entirely, creating a face that made her heart flutter madly with appreciation, made her suddenly breathlessness and lightheaded.
She licked her lips again. "Were you looking for someone?" she asked shakily, wondering abruptly if that explained his presence, wondering why the thought disappointed her.
She'd never seen him before, she realized abruptly. As little as she got out, Folkston was a tiny community. She felt sure that, in all the years she'd lived in the small town, she would've seen him if he was a local, and it wasn't likely she would've forgotten if she had. He wasn't the sort of man that passed unnoticed by any woman from eight to eighty, she was certain.
"No," he said finally, a faint smile playing about his lips now that drew her attention to that infinitely appealing hard, well defined feature and made her heart rate climb another notch. "I'd been reading the paper. You locked me in."
Disbelief flickered through her. She found it impossible to accept that she'd overlooked him, but embarrassment quickly replaced the doubt.
He shrugged those massive shoulders as if he'd seen the suspicion in her gaze, looking vaguely embarrassed himself. "I fell asleep."
At his embarrassed admission, Claire uttered a chuckle before she could help herself, though she thought it was more from relief to discover so plausible, and unthreatening, an explanation for his presence. "I'm so sorry! I thought everyone had left," she said shakily, digging in her pocket for her ring of keys as she moved around the cart.
He didn't yield ground immediately, watching her with that same curiously intent expression as she moved closer until she discovered he hadn't moved and stopped to look up at him. A jolt rippled through her when she looked up at him and discovered him towering over her. Partly, it was the fact that she hadn't fully appreciated the size of the man until she was close enough to feel dwarfed by his sheer mass. Partly, it was the fleeting fear that she'd miscalculated dangerously and he was a threat, but mostly it was his eyes.
They were a strange color, more yellow gold than brown, which would've been startling enough in and of itself, but as she looked up at him, for just a heartbeat, she thought she detected almost a glow in them--like the nocturnal eyes of a predator. He blinked, stepping back slightly to allow her to pass in the next moment and his eyes looked perfectly normal--except for the color, of course--and she had to dismiss the glow as some trick of the light or excessive imagination.
"You must be new in town?" she chattered nervously at him over her shoulder as she moved past.
The questioning lilt to her voice seemed to amuse him.
Or maybe it was the none too subtle interest in him the question revealed?
Just that, nothing more. Claire wrestled with the temptation to pump him for more information, wondering if it would seem purely nosey, polite, but disinterested conversation, or if he'd see through it instantly as a keen curiosity to discover if he meant to join the nearly nonexistent ranks of available men the town boasted.
She hadn't noticed a ring on his finger, but that didn't mean anything in this day and time. Moreover, it seemed doubtful such a prime specimen of manhood had managed to elude interested females. He must be thirty, at least, she thought--a little young for her.
Not that she was looking, she chided herself.
Hadn't she told herself she'd had enough of that nonsense?
It always ended badly.
She was far better off to eschew male companionship altogether. She had enough bad relationships under her belt by now to need her head examined for even fleetingly regretting the decision to remain single the rest of her days.
Five years was a long time to go without feeling a man's touch, though, especially when one had known it.
Unconsciously, she sighed a little wistfully as she unlocked the door, opened it, and turned to look expectantly at the intruder, forming a polite smile on her lips. "Well," she said uncomfortably, "if you've just moved here, welcome to Folkston."
He chuckled and the sound twanged along her nerve endings, evoking an uncomfortable warmth. "I'll be around a while ... Claire."
Claire blinked in surprise, but before she could ask him how he knew her name, he strode through the door and down the steep steps of the library. She stood in the doorway, staring at his broad back, so fascinated just by the way the man moved that he'd paused at the sidewalk and turned back to look at her before she realized she was staring at him like some horny teenager with raging hormones.
Discovered gaping, Claire compounded her juvenile behavior by leaping back from the door and slamming it hard enough to rattle the glass. Wincing, both at the noise and her behavior, she locked the door, and retreated in complete disorder. A chill skated along her spine as the heat of embarrassment ebbed.
Shivering, Claire scrubbed her hands along her arms and turned to gaze across the library, struggling to remember what she'd been doing before the odd, ultimately embarrassing, encounter with the stranger. The moment she did so, she remembered the book she'd dropped and headed briskly back to the aisle where she'd been sorting books.
The thin volume lay where she'd dropped it, but she saw to her consternation that some of the pages were loose. Uncertain if they'd been loose before or if the damage was from dropping the book, she frowned as she squatted to retrieve it, lifting it carefully from the floor and then straightening. Cradling the spine in one hand, she lifted the cover to look inside.
There was no author listed, only the intro, which was scrawled in pen and ink in an almost illegible hand--Bless the Beasts, for, with this book, they are yours to command, and the demons of the underworld will bring you untold riches and power.