A Ruthless Russian Arms Dealer crosses paths with an innocent Librarian student and decides to claim her for his own, despite the consequences.
“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine.”
- Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
He’ll probably call the cops.
Maybe he’ll slam the door in my face?
Oh hell, what if he has dogs?
Do people still sic dogs on you?
What about a gun?
I hadn’t even considered him owning a gun!
My fingernails cut into my palms as I gripped the handle of the book cart too tightly and gave it an inelegant shove. The rickety wheels screeched in protest as the cart zagged down the narrow path between the bookshelves before slamming into a section of books, knocking them askew.
Biting my lip, I fell to my knees, ignoring the sting of pain the moment my bare skin hit the cold linoleum as I nervously inspected the spines of the ancient books for any damage.
My shoulders hitched at the grating sound of my name on her pinched, thin lips. Using the edge of the bookshelf for balance, I rose off the floor and turned. Keeping my head lowered, I stared at her brown orthopedic shoes. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Sowerberry. It won’t happen again.”
Mrs. Sowerberry’s bony fist covered her mouth to suppress a harsh, hacking cough. The stale scent of menthols and rose perfume clung to her sweater, permeating the surrounding air. The smell, an early warning for whenever she was skulking among the stacks. Her stiffly puckered lips lifted in a sneer. “A good librarian always respects the dignity of silence.”
Knowing from experience, she didn’t want a response. I kept my gaze lowered as I brushed a small dust bunny from the pleats of my grey and pink plaid skirt. Peeking beneath the fringe of my bangs, I waited till Old Sour Berry was out of sight before returning to my task.
After straightening the books on the lower shelf, I gathered a small stack from the cart into the crook of my left arm and scanned the neatly typed white labels on the bottom of the spines of each book. Properly shelving a slim volume of critical essays on the writings of Thomas Hardy, I moved to the next section.
The familiar routine soothed me as I inhaled the comforting scent of musty old leather and dusty paper. I really couldn’t imagine a better job in the world than being a librarian. Spending every day surrounded by the thoughts and imaginings of the greatest minds of civilization. Reverently running the tips of my fingers along the smooth leather bindings, the words coming to life in my mind as I pictured each story.
Books have been the only constant companion of my life. My only genuine friend. Through their pages, I had lived a thousand lives and had countless adventures.
I had faced down marauding armies, braved thunderous storms on the high seas, sliced an opponent to ribbons with my rapier wit and dared to kiss the dangerous man who crept out of the shadows to steal a forbidden embrace.
Through books I was beautiful, confident and brash. Between these pages, I filled my life with color, music, laughter and passion.
I risked it all.
Why would anyone settle for the dull drudgery of reality?
In books the handsome guy saw through the reserve of the shy, unpopular girl and intuitively knew the person she was within. He looked past what others saw and realized she was smart and funny and charming. In books, the wallflower got the guy.
Too bad that didn’t happen in reality.
No matter, I had my books and my future career.
My eyes welled up at the reminder. Brushing a tear off my cheek, I tried to focus on the task at hand, but the letter kept coming to mind. That dreadful letter. Just a few lines on a single page in a simple envelope, and yet it had sent all my dreams crashing.
Dear Ms. Doyle,
We regret to inform you, due to the untimely death of Mr. Linus Fitzgerald II, your library studies grant has been cancelled. We wish you all the best in your future endeavors.
Donald Rumbleton, Esq.
I failed to see how the death of an eighty-nine-year-old man could be construed as untimely, but that wasn’t even the point. Mr. Fitzgerald had promised me in the event of his death, his son would see my education through.
I just had one semester left at Loyola.
Somehow I had to persuade his son to continue to help me, otherwise I was screwed. There was no way I could afford the graduate tuition, not on my part-time salary from the Newberry Library.
Biting my lip, I once more went over my plan. After work, I would surprise his son at home. I knew I may only have a few moments before he slammed the door in my face, so I had carefully rehearsed my speech. Hoping to appeal to his compassion and humanitarian side. And if all else failed, maybe guilt him into not following through with his dead father’s promise. I hated to do it. It felt mean-spirited to trade on the death of a man who had meant so much to me and my future, but desperate times called for desperate measures.
I took a deep breath. For once in my life, I needed to behave like one of the heroines I so admired in my books. Where would Austen’s Catherine Moreland be if she hadn’t dared to venture away from her tiny village, from her comfort zone? Or any of Jane Austen’s heroines, for that matter?
In the proverbial words of John Heywood; nothing ventured, nothing had - if you don’t speak, you don’t advance.
Pushing a book aside, I made room for the two books I was holding, a treatise on the use of the comma in poetry in two volumes, as once more my mind wandered.
What if I were arrested for trespassing?
What if he threw his brandy in my face?
I kept imagining Mr. Fitzgerald’s son answering the door dressed in a crimson and black smoking jacket with a well-used pipe in one hand and a glass of brandy in the other. I worried he would look down his considerable nose at me. His white hair bristled and standing on end at the unexpected intrusion, defying the vain attempts of his valet.
For some strange reason, in my mind, he had one of those snooty English accents, even though I knew he was American. He would reek of old money and intolerance. With Mr. Fitzgerald’s advanced years, and from the snippets of information he had passed on during our long conversations about Shakespeare’s Comedies over the years, I knew his son had to be at least in his sixties. He was a disappointment to Mr. Fitzgerald, so he rarely liked to talk about him when he visited the Newberry Library’s reading rooms.
What if I had the wrong address?
My attempts to contact his attorney all went unanswered, so all I had to go on was a single congratulatory note Mr. Fitzgerald II sent two years ago when the Masters of Library and Informational Sciences program accepted me. Despite his shaky scrawl, I could just make out the Lincoln Park address. It was my only hope. I had already sifted through every piece of paper I had related to my grant, but there were no other names or contact information. And it wasn’t like Mr. Fitzgerald was the type to have any social media accounts. Nope, this watery black-inked address on an old note card was my only lead.
Tuition was due next week.
I had to fall on the mercy of his son tonight if I had any chance of getting the money in time.
What if he yelled at me?
The house was enormous! It stood shoulder to shoulder, with the other similar mansions which graced the landscape of the exclusive Burling Street address. Each one looked like a disgruntled giant sneering down on the rest of Chicago, as if the houses were angry for not being located some place more posh like the Hamptons.
The beautiful limescale facade seemed to glimmer in the fading sunlight. The tall windows glared an angry orange as they reflected the setting sun.
My vision blurred as a wave of dizziness washed over me.
Reaching out, I gripped the cold, wrought-iron fence railing and tried to calm my breathing. Nervously, I reached up to straighten my bangs as I checked to make sure the top-knot securing my hair was still in place. Usually I just threw my hair up in a messy bun with two twists of a scrunchy, but today I took the care to smooth it into a tight, elegant bun. I had hoped it would make me look older and studious. The effect was almost worth the headache the tight hairband and bobby-pins were giving me. I couldn’t wait for this to be over. The first thing I would do was take my hair down.
Giving myself one last inspection, I bent down to wipe a small smudge off the toe of my Doc Marten Mary Janes. I wore the platform shoes to give me a little extra height and confidence. I wanted a little more advantage than my five-foot-five frame usually gave me.
Hefting my leather backpack onto my shoulder, I swung open the gate. Wincing as it squeaked, I paused, waiting for… I’m not sure what. The sounds of angry dogs barking? A warning gunshot over my head?
Sliding one foot along the brick-paved walkway, then the other, I forced myself to walk up the short set of stairs.
Rolling my eyes, I sighed. Of course, the house would have an imposing glossy black door with a massive brass lion’s head clasping a heavy ring in its jaws for a door knocker. All I was missing was some misty fog and the sound of the Thame’s lapping at the shore to be in some Dickin’s novel, me playing the part of the poor urchin begging for scraps.
I wasn’t the poor urchin.
Squaring my shoulders, I reminded myself that I was the heroine of my story. And like most of Austin’s heroines, this particular heroine desperately needed this man’s money! As Lizzie Bennet said to the intimidating Mr. Darcy; My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.
With more boldness than I felt, I raised my arm to grasp the metal ring. Before I could, the door swung open with such force, a blast of air ruffled my bangs.
With a small cry, I took a step back.
In my vivid imagination, the person in the doorway seemed more beast than man.
With his legs planted wide, his shaved head barely missed hitting the top of the doorway. The thick black goatee covering his upper lip and chin only highlighted the sharp planes of his jaw and nose. Beneath his right eye there was some sort of slash mark or scar which gave the already pretty freaking scary-looking man an even more ominous appearance. Naked from the waist up, his heavily muscled chest was covered in brightly colored tattoos. Good Lord! Was that an image of a dagger dripping with blood on his neck?
A grim scowl clouded his features as he stared down at me with cold, stormy eyes.
“I… I… I….” My brain froze. I could barely move my jaw to form any words.
In reality, I knew he had probably spoken some normal, English-language words, but all I heard emanating from his lips was the deep, threatening growl of a beast. It didn’t help that he had the distinctive guttural purr of a Russian accent.
This man was definitely not Mr. Linus Fitzgerald III!
My tongue felt thick and awkward in my mouth. “I’m so sorry. There’s been a mistake.”
My body jerked off-balance as my heel slid out over the edge of the top step in my effort to back slowly away from the angry, bear-like man.
His giant paw snatched me by the upper arm and dragged me over the threshold. I fell against the hard heat of his body.
“There is no mistake, моя крошка. You’re mine for the night.”
The heavy black door swung shut, cutting me off from the safe sounds of civilization.
It was too late.
I was alone with the Russian beast… inside his lair.