Taking the Heat
by Victoria Dahl
Book 3 in the Jackson: Girls' Night Out series!
OUT OF ALL the mistakes Veronica Chandler had made in her life, this was definitely the worst. Worse than moving to New York City after college, worse than dating that guy who’d dumped her via text after a hand job, worse than crawling back home to Wyoming with her tail between her legs and even worse than becoming a complete fraud of an advice columnist.
What the hell had she been thinking? She should have said no to her boss. She should have told him to take his horrible idea back to whatever hellish place he’d found it. But she’d been too afraid to say no.
Veronica lived every single day afraid that her boss was going to realize the truth about her. Each email she received from him seemed to pulse with menace, and when he’d called and asked her to stop by his office two weeks earlier, she’d known that had been the end of her charade.
But instead of firing her, he’d presented her with an opportunity. In her state of shock and relief, she’d stammered out a yes instead of screaming “Hell, no.” Maybe she’d been in denial since then. Maybe she hadn’t wanted to think about it. But there was no denying the truth anymore. She was supposed to put on a live performance tonight, and now she was racing to the Jackson Town Library as if the stacks of books inside could save her.
She rushed through the glass doors, head already swiveling to scan the main room of the library. Lauren Foster was a great friend, so when she hadn’t answered this morning’s panicked texts, Veronica had known she must be working. If she could just find Lauren, surely she would say it was okay for Veronica to back out of this mess and hide from the world in her apartment for a week or two.
She walked past the circulation desk and looked into the children’s area, but Lauren wasn’t hidden between the stacks of kids’ books. What if she wasn’t really working today? What if she was on a hike deep in the woods and wouldn’t be home until late?
“No,” Veronica said. No, that wasn’t possible. Veronica needed her too much.
She adjusted the sunglasses hiding her bloodshot eyes and took a deep breath. She had to stay calm. She couldn’t let anyone see her panic. Veronica Chandler was a goddamn bastion of good sense and cool remove. She’d handled New York City. She handled other people’s problems every day. She could handle this.
After smoothing a hand over her newly cut hair, she walked to the circulation desk and did not trip over her own high heels. “Is Lauren Foster in today?” she asked the older woman she recognized from one of her previous visits to the library.
“I think she’s over in Periodicals with the new librarian. Wish I could join them.”
Veronica wasn’t sure what the woman’s waggling eyebrows were trying to convey, but she smiled with relief. “Thank you so much.”
The smile fell away as soon as she turned and headed for the opposite side of the library. Logically, she knew her friend couldn’t save her from this awful mistake, but Veronica’s body still strained toward her as if Lauren were a life preserver.
Tucked into the far corner of the building, the periodicals section was arranged around a cozy grouping of armchairs and couches, and in the middle of it all stood Lauren and a stranger. Not a new librarian, though. This stranger had a beard and dark hair and a plaid tie and a hot lean body that immediately dried Veronica’s mouth to ash.
The royal blue heel of Veronica’s leather half boot caught on the weave of the industrial carpet and jerked her to a halt. She lurched forward, catching herself on a shelf of autobiographies before she could hit the floor.
“Oh, God,” she breathed, bent over and staring at the carpet. At least she hadn’t landed flat on her face or jammed her skull into the corner of a shelf. She glanced up, face already hot with color, but miraculously, they’d turned away from her. Lauren was gesturing toward a rack of magazines as she spoke, and the man was nodding. Veronica stood straight so quickly that the blood drained from her brain and left her dizzy.
She was not going to meet this gorgeous man like the spastic mess of a woman she was. In fact... Veronica set her mouth in a straight line. She wasn’t going to meet this man at all. If there was anything that could make her current situation worse, it was introducing a hot guy into the equation. She actually winced at the thought.
Nope. She was going to be cool, ignore the way his wavy black hair flopped onto his forehead when he laughed at Lauren and pretend his trimmed beard didn’t make Veronica want to pet his face.
Hoping to stay half-hidden in the stacks, she waited for Lauren to turn in her direction. When that didn’t happen, she waved a hand, hoping she was at least in Lauren’s peripheral vision. If she could just get her friend’s attention and lure her away from this bearded wonder...
But of course, he was the one who turned toward Veronica. As his gaze rose toward her, she slapped her waving hand to her head and pretended she was only smoothing down her hair as she stepped forward. She kept her eyes off him and locked on Lauren, and her friend finally noticed her. “Oh, my God!” Lauren cried out in the hushed tone she used only at work. “Your hair looks amazing!”
“Do you think so?” Veronica asked, touching the blunt edges at the back.
“I love it. Did you lighten it?”
Veronica nodded. She was naturally blonde, but she’d had her stylist lighten the front to a shade closer to platinum. She’d been worried it had been another big mistake, spending the last of her savings on such a frivolous expense. “I did it for tonight,” she said.
“Good idea. You’re going to blow them away.”
Veronica shook her head and tried to ignore the fact that Hot Guy was watching her with a friendly smile. “Do you have a minute, Lauren?” she asked. “If you’re too busy, I can come back later.”
“Sure, I have a minute. This is Gabe, by the way. Gabe MacKenzie, the latest addition to our little library. Gabe, this is Veronica Chandler.”
He really was a librarian. Wow.
He reached out a hand, so Veronica had no choice but to take it. His hand was warm and strong and rough at the edges, as if he built the shelves he later stocked with books. “Nice to meet you,” he said, his voice pleasantly rough along the edges, too.
Veronica didn’t want to know any of that about him. She didn’t want to know how he felt or sounded. He was way too tempting. She pulled her hand away as quickly as she could. “You’re the new librarian?” she asked, not able to keep the shock from her voice.
“I am,” he answered as if he was used to people being surprised by this librarian’s hot young maleness.
“Veronica is a bit of a local celebrity,” Lauren offered.
“No, I’m not,” she said as quickly as she could.
Lauren snorted. “In fact, Gabe, you’re standing right by some of her work.” She gestured toward the local newspapers spread out on a table. “She’s Dear Veronica.”
His white teeth flashed in a smile. “I’m afraid I’m not familiar.”
Veronica crossed her arms and shook her head, but Lauren kept talking. “She writes the local advice column. A smart take from a big-city girl, that kind of a thing.”
“Cool,” he said, looking at the papers now instead of Veronica. That was an improvement, at least. She shifted impatiently, jerking her head toward the door of the conference room to try to get Lauren to move along, but Lauren seemed to be on a mission.
“He’s from New York,” Lauren said. “You two probably have a lot in common. Veronica’s a local but she lived in Manhattan for years.”
Oh, God. Not a New York guy. No. No, no, no. She shook her head as if that could ward him off. When Gabe looked up, he was shaking his head, too. “I was born there, but I’ve been away for years. I came here from Cincinnati.”
“Right,” Veronica said. “Sure.” She crossed her arms more tightly and waited until Lauren finally sent Gabe back toward the small office behind the circulation desk to fill out some paperwork. Then she led Veronica to the conference room.
“Good Lord, girl,” Lauren said as soon as the door closed. “What the hell is wrong with you? If I was ten years younger and single... Did you see that boy?”
Veronica waved a frantic hand. “I don’t have time for that right now!”
“Seriously? I think there really are too many hormones in our food these days, because you’re not okay. And here I thought having firefighters right next door was distracting. Now none of us will get any work done.”
Veronica shot a mournful glance toward the door as if she could see through it. “Did he just start today?”
“Yes, Jean-Marie sprung him on me. I knew she’d been interviewing for Sophie’s replacement, but I didn’t know she’d decided to import a little testosterone from Cincinnati. He’s here to drag us into the twenty-first century, I gather. Ebooks. Digital audio. Maybe even a 3D printer. Basically, he’s going to be a giant pain in my ass, but regardless, I’m going to hook you two up if it kills me.”
“What?” Veronica gasped. “No, you are not! I have problems. Big problems!”
Lauren immediately sobered. “What’s wrong?”
Veronica grabbed her arms. “You know what’s wrong!”
Lauren looked so surprised by Veronica’s freak-out that Veronica felt immediately embarrassed. This was who she was on the inside. This wasn’t the Veronica she let other people see. She didn’t want even her friends to know how weak she really was. She managed to lower her voice but she still couldn’t stop the fear from bubbling up. “That stupid show is in eight hours and I can’t do it.”
Lauren rolled her eyes and then carefully extracted her elbows from Veronica’s grip. “Calm down. You’re going to be great. We’re all coming.”
“No. You don’t understand. I...” She stared at Lauren’s face, wanting to tell her the truth. Wishing she could. But this lie was all she had anymore. It felt like all she’d ever had.
She’d spent the first twenty-one years of her life waiting for her real life to start, planning and saving for it. She’d put off making close friends and falling in love and doing crazy things and taking chances, because she’d thought she would do all that once she got to New York. And what if she got so cozy and tied down in Wyoming that she never went? No. Too much of a risk. So she’d waited.
But then she’d finally gotten to the big city, and...none of that had been real, either. And now here she was back home, living the biggest lie of all.
So instead of saying, I’m a complete impostor, and I can’t pull that off in a live show, she went with the almost-true version of it. “It takes me days to write a column and do research and get everything right and still be entertaining. I can’t do all of that in front of people!”
“Then why did you arrange these shows?”
“I didn’t! It wasn’t my idea. My boss told me I was going to do them, and I needed the extra money, so I said yes instead of sobbing and running into the hills!”
Lauren was clearly trying to look patient, but she had to press her lips together to hide a smile. It didn’t work.
“Help me,” Veronica begged. “Laugh if you want to, but tell me I can back out.”
“You can’t back out,” Lauren said immediately. “And you’re going to be great. People like you. You’re nice. You’re funny. And it’s at a martini bar. Everyone will be drunk and ready to laugh at anything.”
Veronica nodded, trying to psych herself up. “Yes. All right. Count on drunkenness.”
“Exactly! And didn’t you say that you get to choose the questions?”
“Yes, but I only have a few minutes. Everyone will put their questions in a bowl, and I get to read them before I start.”
Lauren’s face brightened as if the whole problem were solved. “Perfect. Just pick some questions that are close to ones you’ve dealt with in the paper. Death of a parent, cheating spouse, best-friend drama. You already know those answers.”
Lauren was right. Veronica did know those answers. Maybe she could handle this. “So I shouldn’t back out?”
“Oh, my God,” Lauren groaned. “Get out of here. I’ll see you tonight.”
Veronica didn’t move. She couldn’t actually think of a way to back out of the show, but she’d thought her more experienced, smart-as-a-whip friend would come up with a plan, and all she’d come up with was encouragement. “I have to do this?” Veronica tried one more time.
“Yep. No choice.”
“Okay,” Veronica whispered. “I’ll be fine, right?” When Lauren’s eyebrow rose in impatience, Veronica nodded. “I’ll be fine,” she said more firmly.
“You’ll be great,” Lauren insisted.
“Right. Thank you for the good advice. And thanks for trying to fix me up with the new guy. He really is hot, but I can’t deal with that right now. Still...a boy librarian?”
“A supersexy boy librarian. Who just moved to town and probably needs new friends.”
Veronica waved her hand. “I can’t. Really.” For so many reasons. “I’d better go. I’ve got to spend an hour picking out an outfit and then I’ll reread my old columns. You’re a genius.”
“I know. See you tonight.”
Veronica tried not to feel panic at those last words, but she was a failure at that, too. There was no escaping the fear, but at least Lauren had talked her out of an outright breakdown. All Veronica had to do was pick already familiar topics and she could fake her way through this just as she’d faked her way through everything else.
Tonight was going to be fine.
* * *
Return to VictoriaDahl.com
Taking the Heat will be available everywhere on Juy 28, 2015!
For more information about all of Victoria Dahl’s books, please visit her website at www.VictoriaDahl.com.