The Baxter Boy’s Secret
Harris Winsted opened the heavy library door, shifted the massive bulk of papers and books in her arms, and stepped out into the brisk evening air. It had cost her a modest fortune, which was no insignificant thing on her small-town librarian’s salary, but she had printed off the copyright-allotted thirty copies of the production of Anniethe community players were doing to raise money for a children’s library at the new pediatric cancer hospital.
Two opposing pangs pushed through her chest. Excitement and fear. Being able to sponsor a library for kids in the hospital was a dream come true for her. After all, she knew exactly how it felt to be cooped up for months on end having read everything in sight, including every word on the shampoo bottles, at least five times. But she’d never directed a play before in her life. At least she wasn’t acting in it. Getting up in front of people was a phobia she’d never conquered.
After juggling her keys and locking the door, she started down the small flight of steps that led to the sidewalk. A man’s shout broke the stillness of the early fall air. A child’s higher-pitched yell followed, then what sounded like a war-hoot from an elderly man. Harris smiled. It sounded like a family was having fun down the side alley that ran along the library. The next best thing to a family reading together was a family playing together.
She shoved down the tiny thread of longing that surged in her chest. The cancer treatments she’d had as a child had wiped any hope of having her own children from her life. She was too studious and serious to have children of her own anyway.
The stomping of footsteps declared they were now running. It almost sounded like the whirl of a bike tire back there too.
Her high heel clicked on the cement as she stepped off the last step onto the sidewalk. The laughing and shouting had gotten closer. She shifted the heavy stack of papers, wishing that the hole punch hadn’t chosen today to get stuck in the closed position. No amount of grunting, pushing, or under-her-breath—because it was a library after all—swearing had managed to get it to work. So her precious, expensive copies of Annielay stacked, alternated by long and short edge, on top of the pile of books she was delivering to the assisted care facility on her way home.
The shouts got louder as a blur from her left made her turn her head. Barely able to see over the top of her pile of books and precious papers, she blinked. Then squinted. It wasn’t every day one saw a wheelchair rounding the corner on two wheels. She looked just as the man in it was smiling so hard his teeth popped out. They fell to the cement as the much younger man pushing it cornered sharply, the chair almost horizontal to the ground. The man’s biceps bulged. A helmeted boy on rollerblades, legs churning, screamed, “I’m going to win! You can’t beat me!” as his right skate hit the dentures. His hands windmilled, florescent green sleeves a blur as his shouted challenge turned to a startled yelp. The dentures skidded to the side where one of the younger man’s scuffed brown boots nicked them, throwing him off balance. Harris’s eyebrows flew up to her hairline. Her brain shouted at her feet to pedal backward, but in the heels, they were slow to respond.
The boy grabbed the wheelchair handle to keep from falling. Able to right the chair despite the added pressure, the man pushing the chair overcompensated, and he took two wild, uncoordinated steps before his body crashed into Harris.
Papers and books flew everywhere.
As she flew downward toward the ground, she couldn’t help but try to search her memory…were the pages numbered?
Fully expecting to crack her head on the cement steps, Harris was surprised to land with a thump on the solid chest of the pusher.
She had no idea how he’d managed to reverse their positions before they hit the ground, but she was grateful, except…
The man’s ball cap had gone askew, and his curling brown hair and laughing brown eyes were now visible. Turbo Baxter.
Harris felt her cheeks heat and knew her entire face would be as red as her hair. All seven million of her freckles would be camouflaged under that brighter color. Unfortunately, her complexion looked even worse as fire-engine red than it did as the regular porcelain white splotched with enough freckles to cover the north side of the Empire State Building. Twice.
“I should have known when I heard that unholy screeching that you had something to do with it,” she said to the man under her. She blew a hair out of her eyes and tried to figure out how she was going to get off him since she’d foolishly decided to wear a pencil skirt and skyscraper heels today.
She couldn’t look at Turbo again. With amusement crinkling his eyes, and with his sharp Roman nose and angled jaw, the man was sinfully handsome—cover model material for the romance novels she loved to read at night—but he had the maturity level of a two-year-old. She wouldn’t be horizontal with her papers scattered to the four winds if he had the sense God gave a squirrel.
He grunted under her. “I should have known that you’d manage to turn a simple footrace into an obstacle course.” His biceps flexed, stretching the sleeves of his t-shirt as he shifted, pushing her off and up, away from the intriguing scent of raw masculinity overlaid with just a hint of fun. A scent she remembered clearly from last summer’s wedding when she had the misfortune to be in the same bridal party as Turbo. She had been lucky enough to have not seen him since.
“I’m sorry my presence on the sidewalk confused you.” She brushed her skirt off and looked at the boy, who didn’t seem to be bleeding, then at the old man in the wheelchair who had somehow gotten his dentures off the ground and was using his shirt to wipe them off. He popped them into his mouth before holding out his hand in a somehow gallant gesture.
“That’s Mr. Pollack. But everyone calls him Pap,” Turbo said from above her shoulder. “Pap, this is the fussy librarian, Ms. Winsted.” Turbo ducked down and started picking up papers.
Harris cringed at his calloused unconcern for her precious play copies and narrowed her eyes, but she didn’t get a chance to say anything before Pap spoke. “I’m so sorry Turbo ran into you. Typically, he runs away from women.”
“I think you have that backward,” Harris muttered as she shook his hand.
“DeShaun, help Turbo gather the nice lady’s papers up, please,” the elderly man said, waving a gnarled hand around. Her papers littered the ground like a blanket. At least it wasn’t windy.
“I wouldn’t say ‘nice,’” Turbo mumbled under his breath. “Prissy, maybe.”
“I can hear you,” Harris spat out at him as she bent and picked up several papers. They weren’t numbered. Just her luck.
Her hand, holding a fistful of papers, stilled. She turned slowly. Turbo Baxter had just apologized. His face actually oozed sincerity.
“I shouldn’t have gotten so upset about you deliberately stepping right in front of us, on purpose. Then you shoved me down and fell on top of me, and you’re not exactly a lightweight.” Turbo lifted his hat and shoved a hand through his longish curls. His lip twitched, ruining the earnestness of his apology as if his words already hadn’t.
Harris’s lips compressed together. That’s exactly what Turbo had done at the wedding last year when she’d been stuck in the bridal party with him, and it’s exactly what he’d done in high school. Not that she’d spent much time with him then, either. Although her most unforgettable high school memory had to be when she’d been voted most studious and he’d been voted class clown. They had to get their picture taken together. The photographer thought it would be funny to snap a pic of Harris reading a book with Turbo on a chair behind her pretending to be about to pour red paint over her head. Apparently, among his other numerous faults, Turbo didn’t know what pretending meant, since he dumped the entire one-gallon can of fire-engine red paint on her. It made for a great picture, she supposed. But he ruined her dogeared version of Anne of Green Gables, which she had lovingly chosen from her numerous, beloved favorites to be the book in the photo. Then he spent the rest of the year making fun of her that he’d actually found something that was redder than her hair.
That might have been ten years ago, and she might have spent the last decade avoiding him, despite living in the same small town.
Keeping her back to him, she continued to pick her papers up. She’d learned in high school that the best way to deal with Turbo was to ignore him.
“Hey.” He grabbed her elbow. “You’re actually bleeding here. And I really am sorry.”
She yanked her arm away and continued to pick up papers. The little boy chattered, handing his papers to the old man who tapped the piles against his leg and straightened them out a little before stacking them on his knees.
Harris’s chest tightened. Hopefully she’d be able to put these scripts back together. She moved away from Turbo. He was probably just going to tell her he was joking, or she’d look up and he’d squirt ketchup on her or something equally annoying. Although her elbow did hurt. Like a brush burn. She’d look at it later.
Turbo appeared in her peripheral vision, knees bent, picking up papers and shuffling them together haphazardly. She turned from him and moved away before she said something really nasty.
He moved with her. “I’m serious. I didn’t mean to run into you.”
She didn’t look at him. “Okay. So you’re admitting it was your fault.”
“And I’m apologizing. The nice thing is to say ‘hey, it’s okay.’”
“Well, it’s really not okay. I just paid a fortune to buy the copyright to thirty scripts and print them off, and now they’re all mixed up and practically ruined.”
“I wish I could fix it. I really am sorry.”
“Stop saying you’re sorry!” She brushed her hair back over her shoulder. Her gaze fixed on a shiny, bright red drop on the paper she’d been about to pick up. Looked like blood. Great.
“I don’t know how else to get you to believe me.” He picked up the paper with the blood, looking at her. His nearness was distracting, and she went back to swiping papers from the sidewalk in order to keep from meeting his gaze.
The little boy had gathered all her books and straightened up after stacking them in a pile on the library steps.
She scooted away from Turbo, holding tight to her irritation. “If you’re really sorry, you can help me arrange these papers in order and put them all back together.” It would take hours. All night possibly. And she had wanted to hand out the scripts tomorrow evening at the first rehearsal. She held tight to a fistful of papers and stopped long enough to see Turbo’s reaction.
He sighed and looked down at the papers. “Aren’t they numbered?”
“No.” She set her jaw against his crestfallen look.
His Adam’s apple bobbed, and a muscle twitched in his jaw. “Oh.” He turned away, bending over and grabbing the last few papers off the sidewalk. He shuffled them into a pile, reached down, and took the papers Pap handed him, awkwardly smoothing them altogether. “Here.”
“You’re not helping?” She didn’t really want him to; he’d find a way to set her house on fire or defrost all the food in her freezer or paint her car pink or…something. After all, it was Turbo. But it was his fault that she had all the scattered papers to begin with. Although…
She looked at Pap, sitting in his chair while the little boy showed him something on his phone. Really, she needed to give Turbo points for hanging out with an elderly man and a young kid. It was Friday evening. He could be at a bar, trying to find a date for the night.
“No. I…” Turbo glanced at the man and boy. “I have plans for this evening.”
Pap looked up from his chair. “Humph. Your only plans for this evening involved taking me back to prison, ahem, the nursing joint my daughters dumped me in then never visit, and flirting with Mrs. Silcrest while we play bingo. And trust me, Sally Silcrest will miss you, but your so-called ‘stuffy librarian’ is much better looking, not to mention about seventy years younger.”
“Sally was going to bake me cookies,” Turbo said. He shifted and shoved a hand in his front pocket. “Nothing’s better than Sally’s fresh-baked chocolate chips.”
“Of course, Mr. Baxter.” It hurt more than she cared to admit that he’d rather spend the evening at the nursing home watching the elderly residents play bingo than have to be in her presence for a few hours. But he probably did liven up the old folks’ home. Wherever Turbo was, people were laughing. “I wouldn’t want you to miss cookies, bingo, and flirting with a 90-year-old. I’ll organize my own papers.”
Harris put her nose in the air to hide her hurt and turned, bending to pick up the stack of books. Blood dripped from her arm to the step.
“She’s bleeding all over the place,” Pap said.
“Wow. She definitely needs a couple band-aids.” The little boy scrunched up his face. “That’s nasty.”
“You’re right, DeShaun.” Turbo reached into his back pocket and pulled out a blue rag. “Let me see that.” He reached for her elbow.
She would bleed out before she let him touch her with that dirty rag. Whether he used it to wipe his hands after working on his truck or to wipe his nose, the rag looked well-worn. “No thank you.” She tried not to sound stuck-up, but she wasn’t going to risk contracting flesh-eating bacteria by being polite in this instance. “I’ll be fine until I get home.”
“But…” DeShaun said.
Turbo’s hands paused midair, and she was pretty sure he was offended.
“I’ll be fine. Really.” She tried to speak in a kind tone but to still be very firm. That rag was not touching her arm. She forced more words out. “Thanks for helping me clean up my papers.” Even if it had been his fault they were dropped in the first place.
Guilt squeezed her throat. She’d known the hole punch was on its last legs. She should have replaced it before it quit.
Her arm burned.
“I can carry those books for you,” Turbo said in a low tone as she started to walk away. “You taking them to your car?”
“No. To Redbud Manor.”
“That’s where we’re going,” DeShaun sang out. “Come on, Pap. We’ll beat the slowpokes.” He pushed the wheelchair down the sidewalk, gliding behind on his rollerblades.
Harris tightened her lips. If only she had known. She would have said she was going in the opposite direction, just to get away from Turbo. Too late. Although, if she had to walk in the same direction as him, she might as well let him carry the books. Not the papers.
She turned back around to see him watching her. Turbo with those brown eyes hooded under his ball cap. Probably his next prank was simmering in his brain, and she’d be on the receiving end. Well, he could still carry the books.
As soon as she looked at him, he stepped forward with his hands out, reaching for her books. Against her better judgment, she held them out, trying to separate them from the stack of papers under them. How could she not notice his hands which were strong and tanned with long fingers? Capable hands. Hands that knew how to work. Hands that could grip an old man’s wheelchair and race down the street, making the fellow laugh while racing with a young boy who seemed to be having a great time. His fingers curled around her books, and a surprising bit of heat curled in her stomach.
One of the books started to slide, and they both reached for it. Their hands clashed together. Shockwaves rolled up her arm, intensifying the burning in her elbow. Her startled gaze flew to his. Close enough now that she could see his eyes under the curled brim of his cap, she watched as they widened as though mirroring her own.
She searched his face, noticed the tightening of his jaw, the small twitch of his lips, before feeling the shifting pile of books and grabbing for them. Turbo’s hands reached out at the same time, and they collided again, only this time she lost her grip on everything, and it all fell down again. Papers and books back in a heaped-up mess on the sidewalk.