Page 2 of A Sexy Time Of It

May 15, 2008

ManhattanLINC MATTHEWS plucked the shilling out of Neely’s hand and scrutinized it. While she’d poured out the story of her visit to Mitre Square, he’d made them each an espresso at the coffee bar, and he’d listened to every word without interrupting.

They were seated opposite each other on leather couches in the front room of the brownstone. It had always been Neely’s favorite room. Until her grandmother’s death a year ago, the space had functioned as a formal parlor where Cornelia entertained her friends from the neighborhood. The coffee table separating Neely from Linc had been the site of countless Scrabble games and hands of euchre. She’d even been invited to participate in them.

Now the room provided a cozy setting for the bookstore that she and Linc had created and named Bookends. The idea for the bookstore had been born out of desperation. When Cornelia had become ill a year and a half ago, Neely had taken a leave of absence from her graduate work in library science to nurse her grandmother.

Although she’d been aware that the illness was draining Cornelia financially as well as physically, she hadn’t realized the seriousness of the situation until her grandmother’s death. She’d not only inherited the home she’d grown up in, she’d also become responsible for two years of back taxes and Cornelia’s medical bills. And she didn’t even have a job. The attorneys had advised her to sell the brownstone.

Neely had balked at the suggestion. Not only did she love the place with its airy ceilings, intricate carved cornices and expanses of honey-colored parquet floors, but she also felt that if she sold the house, she was somehow letting Cornelia down. So she and Linc had put their heads together to come up with a solution, and Bookends had been the result. After all, she knew books and loved them. And Linc was a good salesperson, as well as a certified accountant. He’d had some money put aside to invest. And she’d taken the funds her grandmother had left her, paid off the medical bills, put some money down on the taxes and then used the rest of it to open the store. Together, she and Linc had redesigned the parlor, lining the walls with books and adding groupings of comfortable couches and chairs so that customers would feel as if they were invited to linger, to read, to drink coffee, and most importantly, to come back.

It had been a year since the doors of Bookends had opened, and they’d worked six days a week together to build a good-size customer base, starting with the neighborhood. And finally their reputation had spread uptown so that they were getting a tourist trade, as well. The taxes were paid off, and she and Linc were each drawing a comfortable salary.

But deep down in her heart, Neely had known from the start that running a bookstore wasn’t her destiny. Becoming a librarian hadn’t been her destiny, either. It was just something to do. All through college and her first semester in grad school, she’d felt as if she were treading water, waiting to figure out what she was really supposed to do.

Finally, Linc set the coin down on the table in front of him and met her eyes. “It looks authentic.”

“It is.” She’d already searched through images on the Internet and had convinced herself that the coin was genuine.

He nodded, then returned his attention to the shilling.

Neely glanced around the room. At eight-thirty, with light pouring through the windows, her experience in Mitre Square seemed far less real—more like a dream. But it hadn’t been. She’d actually been there. And a man she couldn’t see had chased her.

“Well.” Linc rested his hands on his knees and leaned back in his chair. “I suggested that you bring proof and you did. I guess you’d call it an example of—be careful what you wish for.”

“There’s a part of me that really wanted you to pooh-pooh the coin and tell me that I’m crazy.”

Linc met her eyes squarely. “There’s a part of me that wants to do that. But you’re not crazy, Neely. If you believe that you’re traveling to the past, and you can bring back a coin, then we have to explore the possibility that you really are. Dr. Julian Rhoades certainly believes it could happen.”

“In the future.”

Linc shot her a grin. “I always did figure you were ahead of your time. Speaking of Rhoades, he’s getting a lot of mileage out of his theory. I caught him on The Today Show this morning before I left. A lot of his fans, mostly women, were gathered outside the NBC Building, chanting his name. He’s going to be speaking at the Psychic Institute in Brooklyn tomorrow afternoon.”

“I’ll go. Maybe I can talk to him.”

“Maybe you can convince him to do a signing here at Bookends and we can both talk to him.”

She smiled slowly. And for the first time, some of the tension that she’d been feeling since she’d awakened in her bed dripping wet eased. “Good idea.”

“In the meantime, I think it might be better if you didn’t travel back to London. If you’re right and you did have a little episode with Jack, it’s too dangerous.”

She clasped her hands tightly together. “I know it’s dangerous. But—”

Linc held up both hands, palms out. “Don’t make a decision now. Think about it. You have a long day ahead of you. I’m taking a couple of hours off to have lunch with a friend, so you’ll be on your own.”

She raised her brows. “I think I can manage.”

“Perhaps.” He shot her another grin, causing one of his dimples to wink. “But our regular female customers will miss me.”

And they would, too. In addition to charm and brains, Linc Matthews was no slouch in the looks department. Tall and slim, he wore black trousers and a black silk shirt that provided a dramatic contrast to his fair skin and nearly white-blond hair. Several of their regular female customers had confided in her that he reminded them of Spike in the popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series.

“Then we have the meeting of the armchair detectives tonight, and they’ll be peppering you with questions about Jack the Ripper.”

He was right. The armchair detectives was what she and Linc had dubbed the group of three seniors from the neighborhood who met every Thursday night. Though the subject had never come up, Neely figured Sally was the oldest of the trio and that both Sam and Mabel were in their mid-seventies. Unlike other discussion groups that selected a book and talked about it, the armchair detectives chose a murder—or a series of murders—that had occurred in the past and tried to find the killer. Last year they’d proven Shakespeare’s Richard the Third innocent of the murders he’d been accused of.

Linc rose and took her hands. “Last, but not least, it might be better to get a good night’s sleep before you go to the Rhoades lecture.”

“I always forget how good you are at persuasion.”

“Was I successful?”

She smiled at him. “I’ll think about it.”

The grandfather clock in the corner chimed.

Linc squeezed her hands before releasing them. “That’s our cue to open up and start the day.”

IT HAD BEEN the longest day of her life. And it wasn’t over yet.

The armchair detectives, consisting of her grandmother’s two best friends and a burly retired NYPD sergeant, were still firmly ensconced in the front room of Bookends. Currently, they sat in stony silence on leather couches doing their best to ignore each other. The only sound in the room was the ticking of the grandfather clock. In Neely’s mind, it sounded like the clanging of Big Ben.

Mabel Parish, a tall, thin woman who’d been her grandmother’s closest friend and confidante, had lost her temper and swung her book bag at Sam Thornway, but Sam—thanks, no doubt, to excellent police training—still had some good moves in him. He’d pivoted, ducked and avoided the blow.

Neely had grown up knowing Mabel. Keeping her temper under wraps had never seemed to be a problem for the woman until she’d rented one of the rooms in her nearby brownstone to the retired policeman. The two of them just seemed to rub sparks off each other. True, Mabel was strong-minded and Cornelia had once said that she had the personality of Alice’s Queen of Hearts. But usually, she got her way by using more subtle strategies, such as staring people down.

Sam seemed to be immune to her stares. A large, imposing man, he was every bit as stubborn as Mabel and rarely gave an inch. Whenever the two clashed, Sally Lansing, the third member of the group and also one of Mabel’s tenants, threatened to hyperventilate—which added a lot to the drama. A tiny, frail-looking woman, Sally reminded Neely of an absentminded fairy godmother, but she frequently provided the voice of reason that calmed down the other two.

Not tonight, however. The way Neely saw it, Mabel, who’d been a single woman all her life, was used to being the boss—a role that no one had challenged before Sam. Neely had checked into Sam’s background and discovered that he’d been a widower for eight years—a long time to live without the challenge of dealing with a woman.

This wasn’t the first time that he and Mabel had gone head to head, and Neely was beginning to wonder if they were both enjoying the clashes on some level.

Tonight’s argument had centered on just how many victims could be attributed to Jack the Ripper’s killing spree in the Whitechapel district of London. None of the criminologists who’d made it their life’s work to study Jack the Ripper could agree. But both Mabel and Sam were positive they were right.