By all reports, the retired librarian she replaced was a straight-laced practitioner who kept everything in impeccable order but didn’t venture outside old-school, traditional library protocols. Cara hurried to add drama and reading programs for little children and teenagers, organize new book clubs and book drives, and refashion the library into something of a meeting hub for the town’s social and professional clubs.
The clubs responded with a cash infusion, raising funds allowing her to completely remake the building’s interior. She transformed what was once a dark and austere space into a light-filled place of comfort and energy with colorful chairs, area rugs, and murals replacing the dark, uniform arrangement of the prior administration. She reorganized the shelves to create semi-enclosed reading areas containing soft, cozy seating options. Outside, she enlisted the local gardening society to replace the lawn completely with flowers. She even tilled the wide boulevard running alongside the building to accommodate a community vegetable garden, an act that cemented her place in the hearts of the townspeople forever.
“It’s like Eve’s garden out there,” a woman commented to Cara one afternoon. “My sister and I come here every single morning with our boys to pick that berry patch clean. You’ve given us a treasure, I kid you not.” Volunteers flocked to help.
Socially, Cara still felt like a loner, mostly owing to the fact she was single and relatively young with everyone else in town her age coupled in long-term relationships. She suffered through several awkward attempts to set her up with a brother or uncle or cousin but nothing ever came of it.
When Kate was in the fourth grade, she questioned why this was. “Do you not like any of these guys, Mom? Don’t you want a boyfriend?”
“Despite how I’ve been acting, I would like to meet someone. It’s just not as easy as it was before. I mean, I’ve always been shy, and then when I’m with these guys, all I can think about is what things would be like long-term. And then I come up with a thousand ways I or you or he can be disappointed and stuck and miserable. I can’t even get to the short-term part.
“End of the day, it’s too complicated and I’m too difficult,” she concluded. “But, ugh. I know I’ll never get anywhere thinking like this.” At that point, she began wearing her wedding ring again when she went out, which did nothing to deter the people who knew her but did fool acquaintances who didn’t. The charitable dating set-ups came to a halt.
She found the Blakes a curious exception to the let’s introduce Cara Sweeting to someone campaign. Despite the presence of any number of male relatives continuously cycling in and out of their house—and her own company—Carmen and Michael never once tried to orchestrate a romantic encounter. Cara mentioned how she was actually relieved to go somewhere without the nerve-wracking prospect of a potential date showing up, with everyone in town watching on the sidelines.
Part of the challenge with the Blakes, Cara believed, was none of their male company stayed for long. She found all of the Blake men attractive but they were also strangely unforthcoming emotionally, and they were always on their way to somewhere else. At any rate, even Kate acknowledged nothing was going to happen during the three and four days the Blakes had these visitors.
But the summer Kate turned fifteen, Cara surprised them both by responding to someone. She’d brought Kate to the beach by the Blake house in the early evening for one of their typical Sweeting-Wilkes-Blake gatherings around a bonfire. Carmen and Michael also played host that evening to several men who appeared to be relatives.
The air cooled after the sun set, driving her and her daughter to their car for an extra blanket. As they walked back, a crab scuttled at Kate’s feet, startling first her and then Cara, who jumped backward, stumbled, and laughed.
Before she could catch herself, she backed into a man facing the fire. He spun around, bracing them both reflexively before stepping away and placing his hands in his pockets. Cara blushed and laughed out an apology.
His face broke into a lopsided grin. “No problem.” He was obviously a Blake of some sort, evidenced by the wave in his hair, and more obviously, his thick, rectangular glasses. “I’m John Blake, one of Michael’s cousins,” he confirmed.
“Cara Sweeting,” she responded. “I’m the town librarian.” She felt her cheeks flush as she smiled at him. She shook his hand and glanced at Kate. “This is my daughter, Kate.”
John’s attention never left her, and he kept her hand. Cara felt a growing sense of astonishment as he lifted it to his chest, wrapping his other hand around her wrist. His expression become pained. He studied her face with absolute concentration. Then he sagged with what seemed like relief, released her, and put his hands in his pockets again. She couldn’t manage to breathe properly, and her smile felt frozen.
John smiled warmly at her then, and Cara was grateful he’d gotten over his discomfort. She wondered what she had done to cause it.
“It’s nice to meet you, Kate,” he said to her daughter.
“My mom’s not married,” Kate blurted out. “She just wears her wedding ring so she doesn’t have to get set up on dates.”
“Catherine!” Cara groaned. “For crying out loud!” She pinched the bridge of her nose and squeezed her eyes shut.
John nodded sagely. “Good to know. I promise not to set her up with anyone. Although,” he peered at her, “pretending to be married seems a little extreme?”
“No, no.” Cara waved her hands. “It’s my old wedding ring… my husband died when Kate was three. I just wear it sometimes when I go out. I know it’s probably silly.”
John inclined his head to one side. “I know how that is. I lost my wife too.” The look they shared thickened the air around them with intimacy.
Carmen and Michael joined them then. “Hi, guys. We saw you, um, shaking hands with Cara, John,” Carmen said, her eyes glinting with amusement. “Yes, Cara, we thought we’d better come fill you in on this guy.” Michael’s grin was devilish. John stared hard at him. Cara thought she heard him say, “Leave. Now.”
She would have preferred privacy as well but Michael and Carmen seemed disinclined to leave them alone. Which didn’t need to deter her from making conversation, she decided. “So,” she addressed John, “at which university do you currently teach marine biology?”
He frowned. “Marine biology? Who told you I taught marine biology?”
Her eyes widened. “I have met approximately four thousand of your relatives, and with the exception of Carmen here, every blasted one of them is a marine biologist. So, I figure you’re either a marine biologist or you’re not really related to these people.”
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