CountryRush is the first book in the Bookstore Romances series which centers around the characters who work in, or pass through, Highway's Book Emporium, a bookstore in a city very much like Melbourne.
When Taylor helps a tall, dark stranger hide from men pursuing him, she embroils herself in the seedier side of city life. With her mother watching over her seriously injured father in hospital, Taylor has dropped out of university to help pay the bills, taking on a second job to do so. The last thing she needs is a rapid exit from the city and a quick trip to the country, but that's exactly what her tall-dark-and-handsome insists on. With a nasty criminal element on their heels, the pair of them take a fast train and a slow bus out of town, before fleeing to a country property to try to work out how to escape their dilemma.
First Chapter: An Interesting Afternoon
Taylor hadn’t intended to drop out of university, but her father’s accident had seen her mother unable to meet casual work hours, and Taylor’s wage was soon all that kept them afloat. She’d seen the writing on the wall early, and left before her marks could really suffer.
Highway’s Book Emporium had been only too happy to grant her extra hours at the store. Taylor was a good worker with the knack of being able to find the very book her customers needed, and then convince them to buy it. If owner and manager, Stella Highway, had wondered what had happened to Taylor’s study schedule, she didn’t ask.
No one at the university called to see what had happened to Taylor but, in the weeks following the accident, Taylor didn’t notice. She lived in a cloud of hurt and worry that blinded her to all but the need to provide for her parents, and hide the enormity of her sacrifice from her mother and the world at large.
Standing outside Stella’s office one morning, Taylor sighed, pushing down her regret at abandoning her studies and whatever else might have been as she tapped on the door.
“What is it?” Stella asked, looking over her computer. Her eyes were bright with curiosity as she waved Taylor in.
Taylor swallowed nervously, and hoped her boss wouldn’t take this request the wrong way.
“I was wondering if you’d be willing to give me a reference,” she said.
“Leaving us already?” Stella’s tone was light, but her expression held the slightest tinge of anxiety.
“I’m not leaving you,” Taylor hastened to reassure her. “I’m saving up for a house.”
Stella raised an eyebrow.
“I thought you were studying.”
“I’ve taken a year off,” Taylor said. “With dad’s accident…”
“I see,” Stella replied, her face sympathetic.
Watching her expression, Taylor thought her boss might, for the first time actually see, that Stella might now understand why she’d asked for more hours and be looking at a second job. Taylor prayed she was wrong, or that her boss wouldn’t ask any awkward questions. She didn’t think she could face questions right now. The reality of her situation was hard enough.
Fortunately, Stella seemed to also understand Taylor’s need for privacy, for she nodded.
“I’d be glad to give you a reference. You know the store number, and I’ll give you my mobile in case they try to get in touch with me when I’m out. Put both on the application. I’ll be waiting for their call.”
“Oh, thank you.” Taylor smiled in relief and turned to go.
“Where are you applying?” Stella asked, and Taylor paused at the door.
“Lycees,” Taylor told her, “as a night waitress. They’re not far from here.”
“I know it well,” she said. “It’s a good place to eat. You can change here, if you need to… or not,” she added, seeing Taylor’s frown. “It’s up to you.”
“Thank you.” Taylor had turned to go, when another question from Stella stopped her in her tracks.
“How’s your father doing?
For a minute Taylor’s calm façade almost cracked. With an effort, she kept her expression smooth and her tone matter-of-fact. “He’s still recovering.”
“Your mum’s looking after him?”
For a long moment it looked as if Stella would ask her how her mother was, and Taylor steeled herself against telling a necessary lie. Her mother was definitely not ‘okay’, but there was very little she or Taylor could do about it. Giving up her job and almost losing her husband had pushed Taylor’s mum to the edge of what she could endure. If Taylor was going to be honest, she’d have to answer ‘fragile but managing’, and even that was close to stretching it.
Her mother had always been good at keeping herself busy. When she was at home, the house shone and the garden was well-kept. If she sat, her hands were busy with knitting, or sewing. If she relaxed, there was cross-stitch or quilting, which ended up adorning walls or on someone’s bed. At the hospital, her mother just sat, her knitting needles idle and balls of wool left tucked in her bag. She didn’t even read the novels Taylor brought her to pass the time.
No, Taylor thought, her mother was not ‘okay’, and father… Well, ‘recovering’ wasn’t quite a lie, but it tended to give people the impression he was up and walking around. He was, in fact, still unconscious and still on life support. Her mother rarely left his side, and then only when pressed. Taylor quelled the urge to sigh. There was no point in worrying others. She and her mum would get through this, and with any luck, her father would, too.
This time, when Taylor stepped away from Stella’s desk, her boss didn’t call her back. With what could have been an awkward moment behind her, Taylor felt her mood lighten. Now, if only she could go home and hear some good news about her father, she’d be happy. She pushed away the thought that good news about her father would mean she could go back to studying accountancy. Instead, she focused on the day ahead.
The first part of the day passed in a whirl of dusting, shelf tidying and customer assistance. As lunchtime drew near, the customer queries increased. The questions ranged from the grandmother looking for a children’s classic for her grandson, to a student of criminal law wanting the latest study in international crime.
Highways sold them all. Sometimes Taylor wondered how the store managed to maintain such a wide range and still stay afloat. In the book industry, there could be such a thing as too much variety. She was grateful that Stella didn’t think so, and the customers obviously appreciated it because they kept coming back.
Lunchtime was always their busiest time of day, and today was no different. Taylor did most of the assisting out on the floor, while Stella met customers at the sales counter. The two of them worked non-stop until almost two in the afternoon.
It was as Taylor directed a woman and her newly found QQHistory of Roman ArchitectureQQ to the counter, that she realized the shop had grown quiet. Glancing around, she saw it was almost empty. Only a mother and her fretful child were left as the front door closed behind the history buff and her latest purchase.
From behind the till, Stella sighed and shook her hands as though loosening up her wrists. She and Taylor shared a look of relief, and glanced curiously towards the mother.
“Oh I’m just browsing,” the woman said, and they smiled encouragingly at her, before turning to other tasks.
Taylor heard herself saying, “That’s okay. Just let us know if you need a hand,” as she bent to straighten a row of travel books. Honestly, she’d never know how people could be so careless with things that didn’t belong to them. None of them seemed to be bothered putting anything back, and they always complain if they couldn’t find what they were looking for.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the rattle of the bell as the door to the shop was flung open. Well, someone was in a hurry! Frowning, Taylor glanced up from the shelf.
Someone indeed was in a hurry. Six-foot-two, broad shouldered and well proportioned, he strode quickly down the nearest aisle, looking about him as he did so. Dark disheveled hair crowned a tanned face at odds with the well-tailored suit he wore. A linen shirt was framed by his jacket collar, but he had no tie.
Sensing her gaze, the man looked up, giving Taylor a clear view of his tension-etched face and brown eyes. He smiled, seeming to relax as he moved towards her.
“I was wondering if you could help me,” he began.
“Yes?” Taylor replied, but before she could say more, he had reached her side.
Placing an arm around her shoulders, he steered her towards the rear of the shop, and the door leading to the staff-only areas. When he spoke again, he bent his head close to hers and kept his voice low.
“Show me how to get out of here. I don’t have much time.”
The urgency in his tone stopped the protest rising to her lips, although it did little to reduce the resentment Taylor felt at the overly familiar placement of his arm. How on earth was she going to explain this to Stella? Given how stressed the guy seemed, she thought it best if she just showed him into the alley behind the store as quickly as possible.
Less stress on the customers, too, Taylor thought, catching the startled look on the face of the mother with the fretful child. No, she’d explain to Stella that she’d thought it would be safer all round if she just did as the stranger asked. She couldn’t see her boss being too angry at that, especially with a child at stake.
After they’d passed Stella’s office and the staff lounge, Taylor brought them to a second door opening onto a narrow corridor leading past the staff toilets. As soon as they were through the door, the man stepped behind her, propelling her forward by placing one firm hand on the small of her back. They were halfway to the rear entrance when Taylor heard the shop door slam open once more.
“Where is he?” cried a rough male voice.
“Which way did he go?” shouted another.
Stella must have pointed the way, for a second door slammed and Taylor heard the sound of hurried footsteps. She stopped outside the door to the Ladies’ toilets, resisting the hand on her back.
“In there,” she said, pushing the door open. “Quickly.”
Without waiting to see if he obeyed, she ran to the door leading into the street and pushed it open as far as it would go. The noise it made as it banged into the large garbage bin muffled the sound of the toilet door closing. She was turning to go back into the store, when two men burst into the corridor.
“Which way?” one roared, and Taylor pointed at the partially open back door. She did not have to pretend to be afraid. The men were brandishing pistols as they rushed towards her, and even though they held them pointed towards the ceiling, they were no less threatening.
“There!” she exclaimed. “He went that way!”
She didn’t need to say more, as both men pushed past her. They moved so swiftly, that she only caught a glimpse of dark eyes and hair, and the scent of sweat and cologne as they ran by. They wore dark clothes, jackets zipped shut against the weather, even though they were inside. Still, they were both in such a hurry that Taylor didn’t think they’d felt the need to remove their jackets. They hadn’t been in the shop long enough to register its heated interior.
“I don’t see him,” she heard one shout as the rear door closed for a second time. Holding her breath, she waited to see what they’d do. Terrified that they’d come back in and search the place, she leant against the wall and closed her eyes, listening for any sound heralding of their return.
“He was moving pretty fast when he went in,” came the reply. “He’d have bolted as soon as he hit the street. Go that way!”
When the sound of their footsteps had died away, Taylor made her way back to the store. While she wanted to go and check on their unexpected visitor, she needed to make sure Stella was okay. She also needed to make sure the mother and her child had taken no harm, and she needed to call the police.
Setting her mind to these tasks, Taylor hurried back along the corridor and into the bookstore. When she arrived, Stella had one arm around the mother, and was looking anxiously at the staff entrance. When she appeared, Taylor waved, and Stella’s look of apprehension melted into relief. Taylor mimed going for the telephone, and Stella nodded, speaking softly to the mother and her child. The other woman raised a tear-stained face in Taylor’s direction, and some of the tension went out of her body.
Taylor gave them all a quick smile as she reached the counter and began to dial. She had every intention of making tea and coffee in the kitchenette opposite Stella’s office, but the policewoman kept her on the line until the first patrolman arrived. Stella closed the shop for the afternoon, and seated them in the staff lounge upstairs. The officers agreed to interview them in her office.
In the fuss that followed, Taylor managed to forget about the man she’d hidden in the Ladies’ room… until he came up in the interview.
“And where is he now?” the policeman asked.
“He’s…” Taylor felt the blood drain from her cheeks. “Oh! I left him there.”
She was up from her seat and out of the door before she could be told not to go anywhere. Ignoring the cries of ‘Wait!’ behind her, she hurried to the staff toilets. The sound of footsteps behind her told her the police officers were hurrying in her wake, but she didn’t stop. How could she have forgotten? Taylor whisked through the door into the Ladies’ and didn’t see him.
When he didn’t her call, she tentatively opened one cubicle after another, only to find he wasn’t in any of them. Nor was he in the single locker where staff could store a change of clothes. He wasn’t in the shower bay around the corner, either. With one police officer right on her heels, and another at the door, she went through the bathroom again.
“But, he was in here,” she murmured, turning to look at the policeman in confusion. “Where did he go?”
“He might have left when he thought it was safe,” the officer told her.
“Or when he heard the sirens,” his colleague added, ushering her into the corridor to inspect the rear door.
“Did you lock this?” the first officer asked, testing the handle and opening the door to peer cautiously outside.
“No.” Taylor answered softly. “I was in too much of a hurry to see if Stella and our customer were all right.”
Feeling relieved and worried at the same time, she let the two officers lead her back to Stella’s office.
“He wasn’t there,” she explained, in response to Stella’s questioning stare.
“And I’m making coffee,” Stella added glaring at them, “or tea. Whatever people prefer.”
With a small gesture of surrender, the policeman questioning Taylor asked for coffee, and nodded encouragingly to his partner when the man glanced at him as though for permission.
The young mother’s name was Helen; her child was called Michael. During the interviews, Michael had stopped fretting, curled up on Helen’s lap and gone to sleep. Coffee in hand, Helen went through the interview and returned to the office where Stella was waiting. By the time Stella’s interview was over, Michael had started to stir.
Taylor saw the officers to the front door and then locked it behind them. Stella had said she wouldn’t be opening for the rest of the afternoon, but Taylor was surprised to find the afternoon had already given way to the soft light of evening. A quick glance at her watch confirmed the time and Taylor felt her spirits drop. If she didn’t hurry, she was going to be late for her interview. It was a good thing Lycees was just across the road. When she’d asked for Stella to be her referee, she hadn’t mentioned she’d be dropping her resume off that evening.
Quickly turning the key and testing the handle to make sure the door was firmly locked, Taylor hurried back to Stella. When she arrived, Stella and Helen were deep in conversation, and Michael was happily sipping hot chocolate from one of the work mugs.
“It’s past six, Stella,” Taylor said, “and I need to drop my resume off. Do you mind if…”
“No, you go,” her boss replied. “I’ll be fine to lock up here, and then I’ll take Helen and Michael home. Are you sure you’ll be okay? I could ring them and let them know we’ve had an interesting afternoon.”
Taylor shook her head.
“It’s okay. I’m sure I’ll be fine. I’ll lock the back door as I leave.”
She said a brief goodbye to Helen and Michael, then hurried to get changed. In her rush, she forgot completely about the stranger she’d hidden in the Ladies’ toilets, and did not see the tall shadow that slipped out of the Men’s room, unlocked and locked the store door behind her, and followed her into the night.
END FIRST CHAPTER
If you would like to read more, Country Rush is now, or very soon will be, available from Smashwords, Amazon-Kindle, Kobo, AllRomanceEbooks and CreateSpace, as well as being distributed from Nook, Kobo, Barnes and Noble and iTunes.