by Claire Gem
Soul Mate Publishing
Ebook ISBN: B00TR7ICIE
Print ISBN: 978-1619359758
[ Paranormal Romantic Suspense, MF ]
A history professor in a tweed jacket, a cheeky Goth chick, and a pipe-smoking, book-hurling ghost. Put them all together in an antiquated library and, well…
[bctt tweet=”Read #excerpt of Phantom Traces by @gemwriter #PNR #romsuspense”]
Abigail Stryker heard all the rumors about the pipe-smoking, book-hurling ghost who chased off Harvey Library’s last two librarians. She took the job anyway.
The first, Liz Carter, resigned down at city hall sporting a golf ball-sized lump on the side of her head. She suffered a whack from War and Peace, the unabridged copy. A few weeks later her successor, Norma Porter, abandoned her post on a chilly spring evening. A group of students from the community college were on their way in to work on term papers when they heard a scream. The door burst open, and Norma raced past them—almost through them—jowls and flaccid arms flapping as if the place was on fire.
Abby walked the block and a half from her apartment just before nine a.m. on her first morning as the Harvey’s new head librarian. No one else was stirring in Caldwell, North Carolina. A beautiful April morning, the square was still hushed, sleepy under the hazy chill that habitually settled over the Blue Ridge foothills.
So this is small town life. Huh. A bit of a change from the busy college town where I grew up.
After what happened, she wasn’t ready to be completely on her own, though she hated to admit it. Her Aunt Dianne just happened to have an empty efficiency over her shop on Main Street. Just up the street from the library.
So, she might have to deal with a restless spirit. He couldn’t possibly be as unsettled as she was, so it really didn’t matter. Abby needed a new start, and the Harvey Library seemed the perfect choice. Away from Boone, away from the memories, away from her parents and their “helpful” connections.
She suspected this ghost was nothing more than the fabrication of a town mourning Dana Laramy’s retirement. After running the place for almost thirty years, she’d become as permanent a fixture as the old school bell mounted in the lobby. There were no reports of any abnormal activity until the day she left. After that, talk surfaced about closing the Harvey Library permanently.
Abby crossed the empty street at the corner near Murphy’s diner and covered the remaining half-block with a bounce in her step. Okay, so she was a little nervous, but she decided to channel it into something more positive—excitement. After all, this was her new beginning.
The town’s county commissioner, Dennis Ludwig, waited for her, but he was not alone. A thin, sharp-featured redhead in an expensive-looking suit stood by his side, one of her hips cocked. She looked to be at least a decade younger than the commissioner. As she drew closer, Abby noticed the woman’s bright pink talons clutching his elbow.
“Commissioner Ludwig. So nice to see you again.” Abby guessed Dennis to be around sixty, tall and lanky under his tailored jacket.
His smile briefly lifted drooping, tired-looking features. With his pure white hair and matching eyebrows, Dennis made her think of a worn-out, poorly fed Santa Claus. She shook his hand firmly and beamed her most confident smile. Then she tipped her head toward his companion and raised her eyebrows in question. “Ma’am?”
“This is my wife, Leda.”
Leda leaned in and shook Abby’s hand with cadaver cold fingers. “Charmed, Ms. Stryker. Dennis told me a lot about you.” She didn’t smile.
Civil enough, but Abby didn’t miss the curt look Leda slanted toward her husband as she uttered the practiced line.
He cleared his throat. “I’m glad you accepted this position, Abigail. We need new blood here in Caldwell to invigorate the old town.” He glanced at his watch, then toward the front door and said, “I’ll walk you in.”
When he turned and took a step toward the library entrance, Leda didn’t budge. Her grip caused a crinkle in the arm of his jacket.
“I’m not sure if Dennis told you, Ms. Stryker,” she chirped, “but we have a lovely new library at the community college. I’ve worked hard to make it the area’s cutting edge resource. In case you need any pointers.” She flashed a crimson-rimmed smile before finally releasing his arm. “I’m off to a faculty meeting. I’ll see you later, darling.” She rose to peck his cheek, then turned on one spiked heel and clicked away toward the red sports car parked at the curb.
Not exactly Lancelot and Guinevere.
Dennis closed his eyes on a long breath and swiped a hand down over his face. He herded Abby toward the steps with an open arm. “Let’s get you settled, Abigail.”
“Please, call me Abby.”
He nodded. “Monica Browning is due in anytime. She’s been an integral part of our staff for a number of years now. She can fill you in on much more of the operations here than I possibly can.”
They climbed the stone steps of the boxy, federal-style building. A peaked porch roof perched atop massive pillars, and she noticed how their once-white paint was now yellowed and peeling in spots. Still, the building held a regal air, solidly bound in red brick. Plentiful tall, multi-paned windows flanked the entrance, promising great natural light, at least in the front rooms. She waited as Dennis fumbled through a huge ring of keys and chose one, fitting it into the lock. As the door creaked open he reached into his breast pocket and handed another, single key to Abby.
“This opens the doors of the building,” he said. “Front and back.”
She folded the cool, metal shape into her palm, and then followed Dennis through a tiny foyer. On one side a curved, varnished wood counter defined the perimeter of the reception area. On the other, an open doorway revealed a small room with a central table set amid book-lined walls. A brass plaque on the jamb declared Reference in elegant black script.
He flipped on light switches in the short hallway. They snapped with the audible declaration of far-from-modern technology. Abby squinted above her, into the pale glow of yellowed fluorescent tubes suspended high over the book stacks.
First item on the list. Brighter lighting.
“We have a children’s section upstairs, in the loft.” He motioned toward the steps to the right. “And a private office on the other side.” He pointed to a door at the head of another staircase on the left. “I believe it’s been cleared of all of Ms. Porter’s things by now. Would you like to take a look?”
Abby shook her head. “I should be fine with the common area,” she said, a little distracted. Her gaze settled on the iron bell mounted beside the staircase. Although it wasn’t large, it was fastened to a polished mahogany plaque, and displayed in a place that demanded notice. “Where’s the bell from?”
“That’s a solid old piece of our heritage.” Dennis lifted his chin, standing a bit taller. “It’s from our first private school here in Caldwell. Established in 1847. Served the entire county for over twenty years.”
Sensing his pride, she stepped closer and studied the bell with new interest. “Where is the original building? I’d love to see it.”
Dennis crammed his hands in his pockets and shook his head. “Gone. The school closed in 1868, and the building burned to the ground several years later. All that remains is that bell.”
“What a shame.”
She’d known about Harvey Library way before she applied for the job. It had a history. Abby respected history. She’d been so intrigued when Commissioner Ludwig led her through the first time, just two weeks ago. A tingle from that initial excitement came back to her now. From the moment she stepped over the threshold, she felt the building’s energy. It oozed out from the shelves, invisibly electrifying the musty air. The place exuded an almost palpable need.
Heritage established its character, but it wasn’t the architecture or the history of the place that made her fall in love with the Harvey. It was the collection of texts. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t downplay her awe that first visit as she perused the small yet precious collection of antique volumes. Although Harvey Library was stuck plumb in the middle of navigable nowhere, there was no denying one fact—someone, at some time in the history of the tiny town, had a firm handle on the importance of fine, recognized literature.
Abby jolted from her reverie when Dennis cleared his throat. Blinking up at him she asked, “Will Ms. Porter be coming in for my orientation?”
“No,” he snapped, and she blinked again in surprise. Then in a calmer, more measured tone he continued, “No, Ms. Porter had some health issues. She was a nervous type. She won’t be back, I’m afraid.” He angled his body away from her as if to say case closed.
Hmm, I wonder what the real story is?
The old school bell wasn’t the only one in the building. A cluster of small, brass bells hung from the doorknob. Odd. She didn’t remember hearing them when she and Dennis came in. But now they jingled cheerfully as a tall woman wearing khaki slacks and a crisp, tailored white shirt entered and clicked the door shut behind her.
“Hi, Mr. Ludwig.” The pretty blonde smiled at Dennis, then turned her gaze toward Abby. “You must be Ms. Stryker,” she said, extending her hand.
“As I’ve told you, Monica,” he began as though Monica had been standing there all along, “I’m counting on Ms. Stryker to be our new blood for the Harvey Library. I’m hoping you’ll help her all you can toward that aim.”
Monica Browning was willowy—an attractive woman in her mid-forties, Abby guessed. She noticed how the woman’s face lit up, how her eyes glittered when he spoke. When she turned to address Abby, her warm expression evaporated.
“Mr. Ludwig has told me so much about you. I’m looking forward to working together,” she said in a tone as flat and cold as marble.
The line sounded so rehearsed, Abby’s silent reply was, Yeah, right. She chose to keep her reaction to herself, concentrating instead on the question foremost in her mind.
“Okay, so what’s the deal with this library? People are saying it’s haunted.” She kept her tone light. “That’s why you haven’t been able to keep the place staffed, isn’t it?”
She caught the flash of eye contact that joined Dennis and Monica, blatantly dogging it with her own glare. It was as though she’d dropped the F-bomb. Monica lowered her head and clasped her hands behind her back. Dennis tipped up his chin, studying the hammered tin ceiling as if searching for his reply there.
Okay, so apparently I’ve hit a nerve.
Abby’d heard the talk from her aunt, who had lived in Caldwell for over twenty years and operated a business on the same street. Who did these people think they were fooling? She folded her arms over her chest, tapping one sneaker-clad foot silently on the worn carpet runner.
She needed to remember she was the fresh out-of-grad school newbie. This was her first real job in her field. All the more reason she needed to know what she might be getting herself into.
The silence ensued a little too long.
“Exactly how many librarians have you had here in the months since Dana Laramy retired? Two? Three? What’s wrong with this place?” she asked.
Dennis leveled his gaze on hers, holding it silently for another beat.
“I’m sure your aunt has filled you in on the rumors,” he rumbled.
“Rumors. Yeah. You mean the ghost stories? Aunt Dianne, of all people, doesn’t take much stock in supernatural phenomena without investigating their feasibility. She wouldn’t have repeated any rumors, I don’t think, unless—”
“Well, this particular, um, phenomenon has allegedly run off our last two librarians.”
“He’s even got a name, doesn’t he? So what does this ‘Harry’ do? Scramble words on the pages? Misfile titles on the shelves?” She flipped her hands in the air. “What? Flick the lights on and off?”
Monica said nothing as she wandered off toward the reception desk. She slipped behind the waist-high counter, where she nonchalantly checked in a stack of returns. Abby stared after her, amazed.
Certainly not the helpful, friendly assistant Dennis had described. Wonder what else he misrepresented?
Abby turned back to him. “And why isn’t everyone spooked by this ghost? Is it just nice little old ladies like Norma Porter? My aunt says Dana Laramy ran the place her whole life. No problems then, right? You said Monica’s been here a long time. She doesn’t seem freaked.”
He cleared his throat again. A nervous habit, no doubt, but Abby found it irritating. And more infuriating yet, he now appeared to be stifling a smirk.
“No, Ms. Browning is not ‘freaked,’ as you put it,” he scoffed. “She’s been with us for almost ten years. She’s smarter than to listen to any silly chatter about a ghost.”
Monica looked up. Her eyebrows arched, forming two crescent moons beneath a golden, peaked hairline. When she spoke, her gaze dropped back to the pile of books. “That’s right, Ms. Stryker. The last two librarians were both, well, much older than you and perhaps a bit superstitious.” Her lips pressed into a thin line that quirked up on one side.
Staged. This entire conversation has been practiced and performed, for who knows how many others before her. She didn’t buy a word of it. It was obvious she wouldn’t be getting any straight answers from these two. At least not today.
Planting both hands on her hips, she scanned the space around her. The place didn’t feel creepy. Not even mildly mysterious. What it felt was familiar. A library is where she grew up, literally. Most kids go to daycare. Not Abby.
Her parents, both professors at Appalachia State University, spent more time on campus than in their rambling Tudor-style home on the edge of Boone. The university’s library housed both Mom and Dad’s offices, fourth floor. Since Abby was reading by age four, Mom came to think of the stacks as a handy, and essentially free, babysitter. Ever since she could remember, books had been Abby’s best and, for the most part, only friends.
She was standing in a place she thought of as home. The Harvey was almost 150 years old. Scents of aged leather, woody paper, and dust hung on quiescent air. To Abby this was incense. All around her, thousands of words lie suspended on pages, patiently waiting for her perusal, her attention, her loving care. The place bore signs of neglect, yes, but essentially, the Harvey was no different from any other old library.
Then a little thrill of excitement balled in her chest. Ah, but this one could be different. This one can be mine.
“Well, I guess I’d better start getting acquainted with Harry,” she blurted, “since he and I will be spending a lot of time together.”
She slipped her bristly black sweater off her shoulders and reached to hang it on the wooden tree at the base of the stairs. As she turned, her fingers trailed along the rim of the old schoolhouse bell. The pitted metal surface felt unusually warm, and left her skin tingling like a lover’s touch.
Her first day was turning out to be one of the longest of her life.
As she struggled to gain dexterity with the Harvey’s software program and memorize the layout of the holdings, barely a half-dozen browsers drifted in and out. Abby couldn’t believe how much slower the pace was. Here, an hour passed without a single soul venturing through the front door.
Many who did come in headed straight for the meeting room table, plucking the Hickory Herald or Blue Ridge Country Magazine off the rack on their way. Around one o’clock, a man in a dark suit wearing black-rimmed glasses over his dour expression carried his bulging briefcase into the reference room and parked behind a stack of papers for an hour and a half. Later, a few younger patrons wandered through the fiction stacks for a time before leaving, empty handed, looking disappointed.
It didn’t help that Monica acted as though Abby were invisible. Neither of them took a lunch break, a fine point Abby had failed to establish in advance with Dennis. It didn’t matter, since she was so wound up she couldn’t have eaten anyway.
When she asked Monica what time she usually ate lunch, she got a shrug and a simple reply—“I don’t.”
This was Monday, one of the two days the library stayed open late. Dennis had supplied Abby with Monica’s schedule, so she was not surprised when, promptly at five o’clock and without preamble, Monica left. She slung her purse over one shoulder, draped her sweater over her arm, and then headed for the front door. She hadn’t said more than ten words to Abby all day. She tossed a casual “G’night” over her shoulder as she clicked the door shut behind her.
“Hmm,” Abby said, looking around her.
The library was completely empty, and had been for at least the past half hour. Although it was quiet enough even with Monica there, now the silence thickened. The clock on the wall above Abby’s head ticked louder, as though declaring its existence. She wondered if Monday evenings were ever busy, and what on earth she should be doing until closing time—three long hours to kill. Sighing, she pulled a granola bar out of purse. Then she flipped open an older John Grisham hardcover and, crunching away on her oats-n-honey dinner, began to read.
She was diving into the story when the bells on the door jingled. A tall man in a brown tweed jacket made an exaggerated effort to close the door behind him quietly. He carried a stack of books under one arm. Meeting his gaze she smiled, holding a hand over her mouth and hurrying to finish chewing her last bite.
History professor, Jack Wood, wasn’t concerned about an alleged ghost, but he did worry about losing his favorite hangout. He was certain the local old biddies conjured up this notion about an unhappy spirit.
Now, here was Head Librarian contestant number three standing behind the reception desk. She glanced up as Jack came in.
“Good evening,” she said. “Got some returns there?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He kept his voice low, glancing around to see if anyone was seated in the reading area.
“No worries. We’re the only ones here. So far, anyway.”
He slid the stack of books out from under his arm and pushed them across the counter. “You must be our new librarian.” He extended his hand and flashed a smile. “Hi. I’m Jack Wood.”
Her eyes were dark, their almond shape exaggerated even more by the black, Cleopatra-style eyeliner.
She scanned him, unabashed and evaluating. When her gaze flashed to his hair, she blinked. All the while, her slight smile remained politely impassive. “Abby Stryker. Pleased to meet you.”
That seemed sincere enough.
She began passing the book’s barcodes under the scanner. “Pleased to see you, actually. It seems Monday nights can get pretty lonely.”
Jack nodded. “I know. But you can count on me being here. It’s my favorite night to come in and get some work done. Tonight,” he lifted his leather tote up for her to see, “I’m grading term papers.”
Abby cocked her head. “You’re a teacher, then.”
“Yes, ma’am. Humanities and History.”
The screech of the scanner interrupted them. The computer refused to recognize the last book in his pile of returns. Abby ran it under the glittering green beam again but the same annoying squawk resounded. She squinted at the label. “I don’t think this is one of ours,” she said, tiny furrows appearing between her eyebrows.
He took it from her hand. “Oh, that one must be from the college library.”
One of Abby’s eyebrows drifted up toward her hairline. “So … is it Professor Wood?”
“That’s right,” he replied. “I’m sorry. This one must have gotten into the wrong pile.” He tucked the book back under his arm and raked his fingers through his hair.
Seems a little warm in here tonight.
She slid her gaze away from him, and he detected a faint sigh. “I hear the college has quite a nice new library.”
“It does. Big, modern. But it’s a wide-open floor plan, high ceilings. It’s … cold. Can get kind of noisy.” He waited until she looked up. “I’m more that kind of guy.” He pointed with one thumb over his shoulder toward the small, cozy reference room, then reached to tug at the collar of his shirt.
Yes, unusually warm in here tonight.
“How long have you taught there?” she asked, pushing back the longer swatch of her hair. Her style was odd, one side nearly skimming her chin, the other clipped close, almost as short as his own.
Light bounced off three, tiny silver balls edging her ear. Such a delicate, feminine ear. Like a gracefully curved, pink shell.
When Abby tipped her head Jack realized she was waiting for a reply. “I’ve been with Caldwell’s college since they opened. I graduated from Duke, and taught a couple of years there, but I’m not really a fan of big cities.”
She was still staring at him, curiosity widening those exotic eyes, saying nothing. He slid the remaining book higher up under his arm and shifted from one foot to the other.
God, this is awkward.
He swallowed and twisted his shoulders. “I grew up in Blowing Rock. When they opened the college here, I was thrilled.” Lowering his gaze, he shrugged. “I love this place. This library. There’s stuff in here you can’t find anywhere else. Like a treasure hunt, every time I come in.”
Okay, idiot, quit babbling. She’s probably being polite, waiting for you to go away and stop bothering her.
The front door opened, much to Jack’s relief. Four preppy-clad students, three boys and a girl, came barreling in toting their tablets and backpacks.
Glancing over his shoulder at the group, Jack patted the counter in front of Abby. “I’ll let you get back to work,” he said, then turned and strode away a little more quickly than he intended.
He slid out the bundle of freshman term papers and stacked them on his left, then laid the scoring sheets on his right. The library was the best place for him to grade these local history papers, since it was easy for him to check the annotations the students recorded for accuracy—or determine if their references even existed. He’d gotten halfway down the opening page of the first report when he realized he probably wasn’t going to accomplish much tonight.
From his seat in the reference room, he had a full-on view of the reception desk where Abby was perched. Her dark, smoky eyes flashed back and forth between a computer screen and whatever paperwork was on the counter before her.
And he couldn’t seem to keep his gaze off her.
Wow. This is the youngest one the commissioner’s ever hired. Edgy too. Her satiny hair oscillated around her face, the asymmetrical cut revealing an ear on one side, intermittently obscuring an eye on the other. An inky sheet of dark hair. From what he could see, her whole body was draped in black. A voluminous, scratchy-looking knitted creation covered her upper half in nondescript folds. She was a petite sprite, and the sweater was obviously designed for someone four times her size.
Abby Stryker was certainly a change in protocol for the Harvey Library. She didn’t even look old enough to have earned the credentials. Yet he knew she had to be at least mid-twenties, because Dennis Ludwig wouldn’t have hired anyone without a Master’s degree. His high-browed wife would never have allowed it.
Young perhaps, but this Abby did seem to know what she was doing. When the awkwardly shy students approached her, she tactfully prodded for the information she needed to help them. Jack found something unexpectedly provocative about the contrast between her trendy, cutting-edge look and her mature, confident air.
And boy was she attractive. Her expression was sultry, almost sleepy looking. She rationed her smiles. When she did let one go, a sort of glow enveloped her.
Graceful and swift, she swept out from behind the counter. Her full, gauzy black skirt swished inches above her ankle, the hemline either chopped ragged or lacy—hard to tell from a distance. That’s when Jack caught a glimpse of her footwear. Black and white Converse sneakers, topped with lace-trimmed, white ankle socks.
He grinned and shook his head. Charisma. If nothing else, this one was sure to inject some life into the place. Abby passed outside the reference room door and paused, cocking her head toward a question a female student was asking. A sparkle caught the light above the flare of Abby’s left nostril. It was a tiny diamond stud he hadn’t noticed before. He wondered absently if her tongue was pierced too.
Stop it. Stop it, right now. You’re probably at least ten years older than she is. There might even be as many years between you and this Abby as there are between …
Between Dennis and Leda Ludwig. And no one had to remind Jack how that relationship was working out.
[bctt tweet=”Read #excerpt of Phantom Traces by @gemwriter #PNR #romsuspense”]