Although. She paused, biting her lip as her ancient PC booted up. If she were smart, she’d haul out the library budget and try, once again, to make the figures come out in the black instead of the red.
Agitatedly scraping her unruly blond curls into a loose topknot, Serena knew she now probably looked like the prototypical spinster librarian. But she couldn’t be bothered to care about that with the incomplete budget hanging over her. She shrugged out of her navy blue cardigan and wiggled in her rolling desk chair to get comfy. Might as well settle in for an hour of wrestling with finances, she decided glumly. That sick feeling in her stomach wasn’t going to disappear until she knew the Sanctuary Island Public Library would continue for another year.
But just as she clicked open her spreadsheet program, a loud knock banged on the locked library door.
Heart thudding quickly at the surprise, Serena stood up and walked slowly around the reference desk. She spared a fleeting thought for the fact that she was all alone in the library—but this was Sanctuary Island, the sleepiest little town full of the nicest people she’d ever met. There wasn’t even a bridge or a causeway connecting it to the mainland; the Virginia coastline was barely a gray smudge on the horizon, visible only from Honeysuckle Ridge, Wanderer’s Point, and the lighthouse.
Another knock made her jump and roll her eyes at herself. She didn’t have time for nonsense today. “The library is closed,” she called firmly.
“I see.” Even muffled, the voice through the door sent a strangely electric shiver down her spine. Brisk and British, but with a masculine, velvety warmth that made her want to wrap it around herself like a hand-knit blanket and rub her cheek all over it. The voice continued, “And what time will you be opening?”
Serena frowned. “The hours are clearly posted right beside the door,” she replied. “Come back at nine.”
There was an odd, awkward silence that lasted long enough for her to wonder if he’d gone away without another word. But then she heard a quiet, “Damn” before he raised his voice again. “Look, I’m sorry about this, but I’m not sure where else to go. I need your help. Won’t you let me in, please?”
Catching her fingers twisting in the hem of her messily untucked button-down, Serena stilled her nervous fidgeting. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
The voice went low and silky with amusement. “I promise, I’m perfectly harmless.”
Serena shivered again. That voice! He sure didn’t sound harmless. He sounded like he’d be a danger to any woman’s sanity—especially a woman who’d never had very good luck with men.
That was a decent point. After all, considering Serena’s luck, Mr. Hot Voice would no doubt turn out to be a hundred and five, stooped and balding, and with typically terrible British teeth. Deciding she was probably safe, Serena laughed softly at herself and unlocked the door.
Standing on the library doorstep was an impeccably dressed, broad-shouldered man about seventy years younger than her projection. He stood straight and tall, easily topping six feet, and the amber glow of the early morning sun turned his dark hair into a thick halo of fiery auburn waves.
The man smiled urbanely, showing a mouth full of perfect white teeth, and Serena bit back a sigh.
Her first impression had been completely correct. Despite the perfectly tailored James-Bond-style trench coat, the glossy leather shoes, and the lazy way he leaned on the handle of his sturdy umbrella, there was absolutely nothing harmless about this man.
“Thank you so much,” the man said, “I’m utterly in your debt. Miss—?”
“Serena,” she said dumbly, then flushed. This man wasn’t one of her pre-K storytime kids, who all called her Miss Serena in their little, piping voices. “Sorry, I mean, Lightfoot. Serena Lightfoot. Head Librarian of the Sanctuary Island Public Library.”
He had the good manners to raise his brows as if impressed by the title she’d insisted on when the town council voted to hire her. Maybe it was meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but it meant something to Serena. That title was an achievement—it meant all her hard work, all the loneliness, betrayal and personal sacrifice, had been worth it.
A smile twitched at the corner of the British stranger’s well-shaped lips, and Serena lifted her chin. Okay, so the Sanctuary Island Public Library was tiny, a brick shoebox of a building that obviously didn’t have room to house enough books to call for a fleet of librarians. But even if it was just Serena and her gaggle of part-time volunteers, she was still the Head Librarian!
“Miss Lightfoot,” he said, tone full of grave respect even if his light gray eyes were dancing with laughter, “May I be so bold as to introduce myself?”
This wealthy-looking, extremely cultured stranger reminded Serena of how she used to feel in school when the popular kids would approach her solitary cafeteria lunch table and ask for help with their homework. Shrugging grumpily, Serena jammed her hands into the pockets of her faded corduroy slacks. “Knock yourself out.”
Another slight, suave, glittering smile. “I’m Leo Strathairn, a visitor to your fair island, and I’m ever so pleased to meet you.”
He held out his hand and, reluctantly, Serena took it. The touch of his smooth, strong fingers sent a jolt of heat up her arm, even in the chilly winter air.
A flicker of awareness glowed in the depths of Leo Strathairn’s silvery blue eyes, and he held onto her hand as he said, “Thank you for opening your doors early—I understand what an imposition this is, but I simply didn’t know where else to turn. I need a favor.”
Unwilling to be charmed—in her experience, charming people always wanted something from her—Serena worked her fingers free of Leo’s light grasp and stepped back over the threshold and onto her home turf. “Come on in and tell me what you need, then we’ll see if I can help you.”
Leo sauntered past her, idly swinging his umbrella, and the moment the library door closed behind them, Serena knew she’d made a huge tactical blunder.
Enclosed within the musty silence of the old library, surrounded by the row upon row of books, the sheer, solid presence of Leo Strathairn was overwhelming. He seemed to suck all the air out of the room, simply by standing there and breathing as he glanced around the stacks with an odd, indecipherable expression tightening his chiseled features.
For the space of a heartbeat, Serena simply watched him take it all in, from the high, arched casement windows that were such a pain to clean, to the colorful crayon art lining the wall behind her desk. If he made fun of this place she’d poured her heart and soul into, Serena knew she wouldn’t be granting him any favors.
But for the first time since she opened the door and laid eyes on him, all trace of a smile melted away from Leo’s face. The sardonic glint in his eyes was overshadowed by something darker yet softer—something like yearning. Serena caught her breath at the man’s odd wistfulness as he stared at her cherished books, but when he met her gaze again, it was gone.
“Lovely building,” he said, neutral and polite enough to make Serena blink. Had she imagined that fleeting ache of emotion in his eyes? Maybe. Those light eyes were flat silver now, completely shuttered in the glare of the buzzing overhead fluorescents.
“Thanks,” Serena said slowly. “It’s on the historic register, but then, so is most of the island. Sanctuary is chockablock with old stuff.”
“Americans have such a charming concept of age,” Leo drawled, a little mocking but also fond. “Anything more than fifty years old gets slapped onto the historic registry, doesn’t it? But I suppose it’s all relative.”
Serena stiffened. “So what brings you to our upstart little nation? I’m sure there are plenty of bigger, fancier libraries in your neck of the woods.”
“I wouldnʼt know. I’m not much for libraries.” He flicked an invisible speck of dust from the belted cuff of his immaculate trench coat.
Scowling, Serena crossed her arms over her chest. No matter how gorgeous he was, and how much that accent made her knees wobble, she couldnʼt be attracted to a man who didnʼt care about libraries, reading, and books. “And yet, here you are.”
Leo smiled engagingly at her, and even the fact that Serena could tell he was exerting himself to be deliberately charming didnʼt completely negate the effect. “Because I’m in dire need of your expertise, Miss Lightfoot. Iʼve been given an assignment, you see, and I havenʼt the foggiest idea how to go about it.”
An assignment. Okay, that sounded like they were heading toward solid ground. Smoothing down her messy hair into something a little more businesslike, Serena stepped quickly around her desk and perched on her high chair. More comfortable with the width of the wooden research desk—and the metaphorical professional distance it provided—between them, she was able to return his engaging grin with a tight, cool smile of her own. “Iʼm glad to help. Is this an assignment for work or for school?”
His rust-colored brows arched up in surprise. “I’m a little old for a schoolboy, donʼt you think?”
He seemed to be a bit obsessed with age. Funny, considering he couldnʼt be much older than thirty-five. “My Masterʼs program was full of students of all ages,”
Serena told him. “Thereʼs no such thing as being too old to keep learning.”
A spasm of darkness flickered across his handsome face. The way heʼd tilted his head down threw shadows across his sharp cheekbones and elegant jawline, and the sweep of his lashes was like a fan of cinnamon against his fair English complexion. “What a pretty thought.”
Trying not to bristle at his casual dismissal of one of the most deeply held convictions of her life, Serena kept her voice neutral. “I’m full of pretty thoughts. But Iʼm afraid weʼre too pressed for time for me to share more of them—Iʼll have to open the library soon, and my first appointment of the day is with a group of patrons who do not like to be kept waiting.”
It was absolutely true—the five-year-olds who had storytime on Tuesdays hadnʼt learned patience yet. They were liable to stage a riot if she wasn’t ready and waiting with the next chapter of Charlotte’s Web.
“Forgive me.” Leo inclined his head and leaned one insouciant elbow on her desk. “The assignment is neither for work nor study—itʼs for a wedding.”
Serena blinked at her screen, fingers poised above her keyboard. “What?”
“A friend of mine is getting married on this island: Miles Harrington. Perhaps you know him?”
“Everyone knows the Harringtons,” she said, mind racing. “The family has owned a big chunk of the island for generations.”
And until recently, the three heirs to the Harrington fortune had never set foot on Sanctuary. Then, last summer theyʼd arrived one by one, each handsomer than the last, and set the town gossip machine to buzzing. Serena wasnʼt a big fan of gossip, and as a relative newcomer to the island, she didnʼt have a ton of friends, but even sheʼd heard all about how the Harrington brothers had swooped in and swept three lucky ladies off their feet and into the lap of luxury.
What she wouldn’t give to have half an hour with a Harrington—any of them!—to tell them why they should pour just a tiny portion of their billions into sponsoring the local library.
“My friend, Miles, is the eldest,” Leo explained. “And from what Iʼve seen since I arrived, heʼs fallen arse over teakettle for his bride-to-be. He wants everything about their whirlwind wedding to be perfect, and of course, as his friend, Iʼm eager to oblige.”
A tiny thrill of excitement rippled over Serena. Who didnʼt like a wedding? “Iʼm happy to help, if I can.”
“Oh, you can.” Leo smiled right into her eyes, his voice dropping into the thick tension between them like stones into a river. “You see, Iʼve been tasked with choosing a love poem to read aloud during the ceremony. And Iʼm certain you’ll be able to find me the perfect one.”
A switch clicked in Serenaʼs head, flipping through her mental files faster than her fingers could type in the search parameters for the card catalogue. “Absolutely, Mr. Strathairn. Let me just pull up a few anthologies and poetry collections, and you can start reading through them. Were you thinking modern poetry or classical? English or translations? Our poetry collection is small, but well curated.”
Leo surprised her by reaching across the desk to still her typing fingers with a touch. Freezing, Serena looked up into his gray eyes. “Actually, love, I had something else in mind.”
She swallowed, vividly aware that the jump of her pulse was probably visible at the base of her neck. “Oh?”
Another brilliant smile. “I was thinking that you could go ahead and simply choose a poem for me.”
Serena felt the flush of heat in her cheeks the moment before she consciously understood what he was asking.
It was like high school all over again, the hot jock flirting just to get her to do his homework for him. And it hadn’t ended there.
Sick to her stomach at the memory of the last time she’d fallen for a persuasive man who only wanted to use her for her brain, Serena’s voice shook with anger. “You want me to choose the poem you’ll read at your friend’s wedding for you. Why, because you’re too busy and important and…and…British to do the work yourself?”
Surprise widened his eyes. Geez, when was the last time anyone had said “no” to this guy?
“I beg your pardon,” Leo said stiffly. “I was under the impression that you’re a research librarian at a public library. Isn’t it your job to…well, research?”
“Research? Yes. Perform an incredibly personal and important service that ought to be between you and your friend, the groom, with zero help or input from you? You must be out of your mind.”
Nobody was that charming or handsome without also being an entitled jerk. Serena had learned her lesson early and well.
But as Leo Strathairn drew himself up to his full, impressive height and stared at her with the morning sun streaming over his perfect, striking features, Serena felt a coil of heat tighten low in her abdomen.
If anybody was handsome and charming enough to make her forget the past, it was this gorgeous Englishman.