Finn Casella stood outside of Fitzgerald’s, located near the famous MacDougal/Bleeker Street where the likes of Jack Kerouac, W.H Auden, James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg had once lived. The bookstore was his baby. His life for a long time. Maybe too long. Eight years ago, he’d rented a small storefront on the ground floor, then expanded when the store next to him became available. Now his business took up twice the space. He’d sunk a lot of his own cash and his inheritance into the store he now loved.
He took the time to appreciate the newly refurbished red brick of the façade which rose to the four floors above him. He moved to the larger window, decorated by his manager, Millie Morrison. This week they were featuring mystery authors in preparation for a book signing coming up soon. But…what was that in the corner? Hell, what had she done?
He walked inside. Finn didn’t storm in anywhere, except maybe that time when he decked his estranged brother Ronan.
At the cashier’s desk, he asked Judy Shannon, “Who put the flyer in the window?”
Judy raised her gaze from the computer and watched him through reading glasses. “I didn’t see one, but I don’t check it out regularly. Erin’s the one being trained by Millie to assist her.”
“Where is Millie?”
“In the back, working on the rare book collection.” Which was one of her jobs as manager of the store and hugely lucrative.
He found her at the computer. “Millie?”
She looked up, those pure chocolate eyes a bit annoyed. “Yes, Finn?”
“There’s a flyer in the front window, which I didn’t okay. I don’t want flyers in our displays.”
When she leaned back, her long braid fell across her shoulder. “You never okay the windows. But to answer the question, I put it there.”
“A new soup kitchen opened up on Broome Street and needs donations.”
“I can’t have you soliciting donations from our clientele.”
“Hungry people need help.”
“Not this way. Besides, the thing is so small, nobody will see it.”
“Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll make it more visible.”
She did this to him all the time. Misinterpreted what he said to get her own way. He pulled over a chair. “Millicent, what’s going on?”
“Uh-oh, the use of my real name.”
“I’m trying to have a serious conversation with you.”
An intense gaze narrowed on him. “It’s pretty serious that people on the streets of New York don’t have enough food to eat.”
“I know. And you know that we give sizable donations to food banks in the area every month.”
“Which I appreciate. However, hunger needs more attention to be eradicated.”
Much as he tried, he couldn’t figure this girl out. And she was a girl, even at twenty-six. “What brought this on?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why did you do this now?”
“I, um.” She glanced away. Her tell, when she didn’t want to answer a question. “I volunteered at the new soup kitchen.”
“You volunteer at one uptown, don’t you?”
“I’m surprised you remember.”
“Why another one?”
“None of your concern. In any case, the man heading the Broome Street one said we needed to get more monetary donations for the pantry.”
“You did this for a man?” If he sounded shocked, it was because she’d gone through men as disposable commodities in the eight years he’d known her.
Her laughter filled the office. Usually he liked the sweet sound of it. “Hardly. I did it for the hungry people in the Village.”
“Let’s compromise. Come up with a few other suggestions on how the store can help get more money for this new location. None should include the clientele coming into Fitzgerald’s.”
Her eyes ignited with anger. “God forbid somebody in need take precedence over sales.”
He pushed himself up out of the chair. “This conversation is over, Millie. I’m taking down the flyer.”
Quietly, she said, “So be it.” He knew that voice. It was the one she used whenever she was mad at him. Finn was an expert in reading women’s signals. He couldn’t have survived his upbringing with his mother, Bridget Sullivan, if he hadn’t.
“One, two, three, four, five…Shit.” Counting to ten wasn’t working this time. She was really pissed at him.
Don’t let your feelings get in the way of helping people.
Her feelings for Finn had gotten in the way of everything up until eighteen months ago. But that was over now. Done! Done! Done!
Still, she had to give herself advice every day that she worked with him. Don’t piss him off. Don’t get too haughty. You need this job. And most important, do not let your attraction to him show. Men used that against you. But when she was with him in the office, his woodsy, outdoor scent filled the small space and he was hard to ignore.
Trying to let go of the issue until she calmed down, she went back to her favorite thing, the store’s rare book section, on the website. This was her creation when Finn decided she was old enough to take on a serious role here.
She’d been eighteen when she started working at Fitzgerald’s. She’d been a cleaner, a stocker, anything so she could be around books and make some money. In college, she majored in literature, then took two years to get a business degree. All the while she worked here. Eventually, she hoped to open her own store, but now, she was still saving money for a down payment on it. And she was still learning the rare book trade.
Two years ago, she’d applied for and gotten a grant given to women under forty to build up rare book collection. She’d poured cash and most of her time into Finn’s store.
At her bookstore flyers would be allowed in the windows.
Her phone buzzed. Glancing at where it lay on the desk, she didn’t recognize the number. “Millie Morrison.”
“Hi, Millie. This is Emerson Clark.” The manager of the soup kitchen she’d defended so vehemently to Finn. “I hope it’s okay to call you at work. I got your contact information from the volunteer sheet.”
“Sure. Is something wrong?”
“No, not at all. I was wondering if you could meet me for lunch somewhere between your work and the soup kitchen. I want to run some things by you. And, um, I’d like to get to know you better.”
Hmm, was he asking for a date?
“Sure. Where and when?”
This was fortuitous. Maybe Emerson could help her come up with some options for getting more funding.
Back at the computer, she clicked into a website of an elderly man in Utah who had collected books all of his long life and was selling some titles now. She discovered he put up two anthologies of Victorian poets, in perfect condition and signed, books she knew a patron of Fitzgerald’s would be interested in.
She phoned him and he gave her a definite yes. But since the books were over $5,000, she grabbed an authorization form from the drawer, scribbled down titles and added the seller’s information.
She went to the entry to the bookstore proper, and from the back, she surveyed the store. The interior of Fitzgerald’s was perfect. Since she’d worked here so long, she’d had a hand in its evolving décor.
In the remodel, he’d wanted the traditional books on each of the side walls. Between them she’d wanted S-curved shelving which she’d seen online. He balked at the shape, but liked her idea of moveable interior. When she drew out the floor plan, he saw that the curved front windows and the rounded endcaps, which he’d also picked out, would echo the S shape. So, he relented.
She remembered the two of them being here when they were installed and the fun they’d had over placement. Fun and some fights. Shaking off the reminiscence, she strode to the front and found Finn at a table in front of the right side of the store.
With one of his women. One of his older women. She recognized Sabrina Knight as the author of a very popular mystery series. She was a looker, too, with long blond hair, blue eyes and a Texas drawl. Fitzgerald’s was sponsoring a book signing for her over the weekend.
Millie crossed to them. Finn frowned. His eyes were so green sometimes they startled her. “Millie, is something wrong?”
“No. I’m sorry to disturb you two, but I want to buy some books that are over my limit. I need your approval. This is time sensitive.”
“Let me see.” He read the form. “Do you think you can sell these?”
“I called a customer. He said he would, but he’d have to see them first.”
“Then, go ahead.”
She was about to apologize for interrupting them, but didn’t. If she said she was sorry every time she did something to displease him, she’d be hoarse by the end of the day. Instead, she strode back to the office, bid on the books and received an acceptance in a half-hour. Then she phoned the customer for an appointment to come to the store later in the week.
At 11:30, she stood and went into the bathroom off the office. She carried a case. Once she closed the door, she untucked the red blouse so it fell over her black skirt and appraised herself in the mirror. She opened one button on top. Then she unbraided her hair and shook it out. She fluffed the locks out with her hands and it rippled down her back. She thought a lot about cutting it now that she was older, but she never quite got there. She smoothed on lipstick, then a bit of blush and was ready to go.
She called the front desk. “Hey, Judy, I’m taking lunch a bit early. I have a…meeting.”
“The guy from the soup kitchen I told you about. I’ll fill you in when I get back.”
“I’ll mark it down. See you soon.”
Millie exited through the back door of the store. And inhaled the early October air. She could breathe better outside, because in the store, Finn Casella seemed to suck up all the oxygen.