Excerpt from The Bride and the Bandit
Frank forced himself to stand still and look down the length of the main street of Maple Falls. The back of his neck prickled, even though it was broad daylight. Instinct warned him to wait in the woods until it got dark. Obligation dictated otherwise. He’d shaken hands on it. He’d see it through.
A wooden sign jutted from the corner of the grassy town park. Maple Falls, Oregon. Population 986. Christ, nine hundred and eighty-six people. He pressed his lips into a thin line. That was nine hundred eighty-five too many.
He shifted the leather valise to his left hand and with his right, lifted his spectacles and wiped the sweat from his eyes with his starched shirt cuff.
He ordered his feet to move on down the block. Encased in uncomfortably tight city oxfords that broiled his toes and made his blistered heels burn, they obeyed only because he promised them an entire day—maybe an entire week!—with no shoes at all.
Two doors past the neat-looking, red brick library on the shady side of the street, his rented building waited for him.
Something about the library caught his attention. Its square, solid shape, maybe. Like a prison, except for the white jasmine climbing up the walls.
The front door of his rented studio opened only when he gave up and pocketed the rusty key he’d been given, jimmied the lock with the blade of his jackknife, and gave it a sharp kick. A rush of hot, stale air rolled over him.
A red velvet settee and two matching chairs faced a mahogany armoire and a large mahogany table flanked by two oak file cabinets. Looked like everything he’d ordered from Chicago had been delivered. He didn’t bother to check the contents of the drawers. He already knew what was inside. The armoire might be another story. God knew what that might contain.
He shrugged out of his linen suit jacket, dropped it in a heap on the floor and unknotted his tie. The trappings of civilization pinched worse than steel handcuffs.
Pushing his spectacles up over his forehead, he surveyed the furniture-jumbled space. By tomorrow morning, he’d be ready.
The main door swung open, and Geneva froze, one hand dramatically positioned over her heart. A tall man with horn-rimmed glasses stepped in, paused to let his eyes adjust to the dimness, and then came toward her. He walked stiffly, as if his feet pained him.
Wonder of wonders, a library patron.
“Good afternoon.” Geneva offered her most welcoming voice. She would do anything to encourage book reading in this tiny frontier town. The citizens of Maple Falls weren’t illiterate exactly. Aunt Fleur assured her they could read and write. The problem was that they didn’t do it very often. Since she’d come to Maple Falls six months ago, exactly seven books had been checked out of her library. Four of them were about steam engines.
“You the librarian?”
“Yes, I am. Geneva Stanton. And you are?”
The smoky blue eyes behind the lenses narrowed, but the man said nothing.
Hmmph. People could be so uncommunicative out here in the West. Not like Philadelphia where she’d been taught that it was impolite to glower at someone.
Undaunted, Geneva gave him her warmest smile. “I ask because you must be new in town. At least I’ve not seen you before. Perhaps you are visiting someone?”
“Nope. I’m here on...business.”
“How interesting! What sort of business?” She did hope it had something to do with books.
He surveyed her with a deepening frown. “You always ask so many questions?”
“Always. Usually even more, but you don’t seem inclined to conversation.”
“Hate small talk,” he said in a grumbly tone.
“Oh, so do I! I’d much rather speak of meaningful matters, such as...well, Reverend Nodding’s sermon on charity last Sunday. Or who will win the apple pie competition at the fair this year. Or...what your name might be.”
She slid open the drawer beneath the counter. “You might as well tell me and get it over with. Otherwise, I can’t issue you a library card, and you have the look of a man hell-bent on reading a book!”
The man blinked at her profanity, and his mouth quirked into a lopsided grin. “Franklin Burkett.”
Geneva extended her hand across the counter. “I am pleased to meet you. May I show you the library collections?”
Mr. Burkett grasped her hand and instantly released it as if it were a red-hot rock. “Mind if I just look around on my own?”
“Oh, I see. Of course I don’t mind.”
But she did mind. She wanted to show off the literary treasures Uncle Sol had left her—Shakespeare and Milton and the other great poets. After her summer charity theatrical, she would be able to purchase Aesop’s Fables and Greek mythology. Maple Falls would have the best library in three counties.
“Are you looking for something in particular?”
She waited, but he said nothing further, just pivoted away and headed for the first row of shelves. She watched him stride up and down the aisles, scanning titles, checking the printed subject cards on the tall bookcases. He passed up Science, then History, then Literature. What a fussy reader!
Then he disappeared down the last aisle. Industrial Arts. How curious. He didn’t look the least bit industrial, more like a Back East professor with those spectacles. Except for the way he was built. Slim, except for his shoulders, and he had an odd way of carrying himself that made her think of a furtive wild animal. A leopard, maybe. One with sore feet. But the way he moved, she got the impression he was uncomfortable in his suit and starched collar.
Hurriedly, she sketched his torso into her notebook. If she squinted her eyes just a little, she could see him in a Roman toga. Maybe he would be an actor in her theatrical?
He reappeared, bypassed the counter, and headed for the door. Empty-handed, she noted.
“Did you not find anything that suited?” she called after him.
“’Fraid not. Thanks anyway.”
“Wait! Mr. Burkett, do you know anything about Egypt?” She blurted the question without thinking, and he turned to stare at her as if she had turnips growing out her ears.
“I was about to embark on some historical research,” she explained.
“Uh-huh.” Again Frank moved toward the door.
The voice behind him rose. “Research about Egypt.”
“Hot,” he called over his shoulder. “Sandy. Lots of camels.”
She appeared at his elbow in a swirl of blue skirts. “Have you actually traveled there?” Her voice was so breathless he had to bite back a laugh.
“Then how do you know those things, about the camels and all?”
“Hell, Miss. I read books, just like you do.”
The bluest eyes Frank had ever seen inexplicably filled with tears.
“Sorry,” he barked, louder than he intended. “Didn’t mean to upset you.”
She sniffled into a dainty pink handkerchief. “It isn’t that, Mr. Burkett. It’s just that...that I had such high hopes you would be a person of experience...”
Experience? What kind of experience was she talking about?
“...And it turns out you’re no better than a book.”
He had to laugh at that one. He’d been called a lot of things, but a book took the prize. “High hopes for what?”
“Finding out things about Egypt. You see, I am writing a theatrical play, set in...Mr. Burkett, have you ever done any acting?”
Frank managed not to choke. Not on the stage, he hadn’t. But what he was doing now was the same thing. The performance of his life, if he was lucky. If he wasn’t lucky, he’d be locked up for the rest of his days.
“Sorry, Miss Stanton. I’m not your man.”
“Oh.” Her disappointment dropped a small lump of guilt onto his heart. He didn’t like hurting her feelings, but he wasn’t about to tell her the truth.
She crumpled the handkerchief and stuffed it into her skirt pocket. “Will you be in town long?”
“Nope.” At least he hoped not. He felt like a hog-tied horse in a town like this where everybody knew everybody else and yesterday’s secrets were today’s gossip. Besides, he had other fish to fry.
“Oh,” she said again, her voice dropping even lower. In the next instant she brightened, blue eyes snapping with interest. “How long will you be in town?”
She sure had perseverance. Another part of him was beginning to feel cornered. “As long as it takes,” he muttered.
She opened her mouth again, but he touched his hat brim and moved out the door before she could speak.
Geneva pressed her lips shut. “Of all the rude, unfriendly...” She bent over her notebook. “Casting,” she murmured as she wrote. “Franklin Burkett, Roman soldier.”
After a moment she raised her head. “I wonder what book he was looking for?” On impulse she skimmed over the polished wood floor to the Industrial Arts section. The entire collection took up barely half a shelf. Her curiosity dictated that she inspect each book. Four volumes on steam pumps, three on sawmills, then farm machinery, power looms, and three works on photography. One of which, Henry P. Robinson’s Pictorial Effect in Photography, was missing.
She narrowed her eyes. It was there yesterday, when she dusted that section. Now the books on either side had been shoved together to fill the space where the missing volume should be.
The instant Geneva had laid eyes on that man, she knew she didn’t trust him. One fraud could always spot another. She was still alive because she had learned to trust her instincts back in Philadelphia.
How dare he filch a book right under her nose! She kept her library in perfect order at all times. It would never do to have volumes just disappear. Geneva sped back to the counter, snatched up her notebook, and flipped to a fresh page. Roman slaves, she printed in large block letters. Underneath the heading, she penciled the name Franklin Burkett. That would teach him to steal books from her library.