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The Bookseller's Boyfriend

Bookshop owner Jacob Moore can’t believe his longtime celebrity crush, author Rasul Youssef, is moving to Copper Point. For many, the chance to meet the playboy novelist would be a dream come true, but Jacob dreads it. You should never meet your heroes.

You definitely shouldn’t pretend to be their boyfriend.

Rasul came to this backwater town for an academic residency—a necessary evil, since he’s burned through his advance without finishing the book that goes with it. But he’s also getting distance from a toxic relationship. Quiet, reserved Jacob isn’t his type, but their charade gives Rasul a respite from the social media circus surrounding his breakup, and Jacob’s charming apartment proves the perfect setting to write.

Of course, prolonged exposure reveals that Jacob’s reserved exterior hides a thoughtful, intelligent man who sets Rasul’s imagination—and heart—alight.

Every day Rasul reveals himself to be more than Jacob ever dreamed he could. Jacob tries to be content with friendship and the professional overlap between author and bookseller, knowing a shooting star like Rasul could never make a home with Jacob in a small town like Copper Point.

Could he?



RASUL YOUSSEF knew he’d gone a bridge too far when his literary agent said, “Either throw away your phone, or consider our relationship terminated.”

Rasul smiled even though Elizabeth couldn’t see him. “You want me to throw away a brand-new fifteen-hundred-dollar phone? While I’m talking to you on it?”

He’d been trying to charm her into calming down, but Elizabeth wasn’t playing. “You’re getting a burner that can’t do anything but text and make or receive calls.” He heard clicking in the background. “There’s a store in campus town, four blocks from you.”

Rasul sobered. “I’m not going to throw away my phone.”

“I busted my ass to get you this gig at the university.”

“It has seven thousand students. It’s hardly a university.”

“Quit trying to get out of this through semantics. This is the end of the line for you in every way, which you well know. It’s taken every ounce of my leverage to get your publishing house to give you a fourth extension instead of insisting on the repayment of your advance.”

He truly hated being reminded of this. “I spent that a long time ago.”

“You think I don’t know that? You’re on the hook for a staggering chunk of change if you don’t provide them with something to publish. You’re out of options. You either write this book, or you’re heading toward an end I will not, and I say this with love, follow you down.”

Rasul sat on the couch that came with the furnished apartment. A cloud of dust rose around him.

Elizabeth kept delivering the hits. “I wish I could say I’m surprised you’d try to sandbag yourself when you’re this far against the ropes, but sadly I’ve come to know you too well for that. This is it, kid. I’m done watching you let that two-bit model stand on your back to get herself a better patch of mud in the gutter. I’m done explaining away the wild parties and Instagram stories when you should be working. And I’m absolutely done running damage control on paparazzi spreads of you and your damn ex partying so hard you missed your flight to Wisconsin.”

His flight had been to Minnesota, with a two-hour drive into Wisconsin, but he had enough self-preservation instinct not to point that out. “That wasn’t planned. Adina called me when I was low, and she was low too, and so…. Anyway. I’m in Copper Point now. I’ll send you pictures. It’s ridiculously small. And Bayview University is a joke.”

“The university, with its stipend, furnished apartment, and cushy teaching schedule, is your last chance at a career. You’re lucky the president is an eccentric old man who doesn’t read gossip magazines but did see your book in an airport once.”

Rasul couldn’t argue with this, which he hated. He still stung from his damn alma mater turning down his request to be visiting faculty. They bragged about him and his awards on their website, but they couldn’t let him come back and coast through some seminars while he finished his work?

Elizabeth kept going. “You’re an amazing writer, and you could be an excellent teacher. Yes, you received international acclaim for your freshman and sophomore novels. But your last work was out six years ago, and your third book is long overdue. As far as everyone else is concerned, you’ve been whoring around the globe instead of working. You and I know it’s more complicated than that, and I’ve done my best to be patient. At the same time, your decisions affect my career. If you can’t show me you’re serious, we’re going to part ways. This is our last conversation on the phone in your hand. It’s up to you whether or not we reset on another device. What will it be?”

Rasul ran a hand through his hair, letting his fingers tangle in the long curls. “I can’t go on a boozy bender with Adina while I’m in northern Wisconsin. There’s no need to get rid of my phone.”

“But you can get drunk and sext her, and you’ll put it on Instagram the same as last time.”

“I’ll uninstall Instagram and delete her number.”

“As if that will stop you when you hit a low. That woman is worse than any drug for you. She manipulates you, you know it, and you let her.”

He desperately wanted to argue that wasn’t true, but he was done lying to Elizabeth. He grunted noncommittally instead.

“Besides, you told me three times already you deleted her number. Either you’re lying, or you have it memorized.”

Best to get her away from this line of conversation where he had no chance of calming her down. “I need to be able to do research. Take photos. Look things up on the fly.”

“Last I checked, your book wasn’t set in Wisconsin, so the photo argument is bunk. As for research, you can use your laptop. You can go to the library. There’s no argument you can make that will change this condition. And as a bit of warning, if you try to tell me you need social media to promote yourself, I’ll hang up and send you the papers breaking our partnership immediately.”

He had considered that argument. She’d been frustrated with him for years for his inconsistent, unremarkable presence on social media, except for when he got drunk or angry with the state of American politics. His Twitter was him yelling at trolls. His Instagram was filled with drunken party photos. He’d cameoed on Adina’s YouTube channel, letting her put him in makeup, endured getting quizzed by her fans, and so on.

God, he’d put Elizabeth through the wringer. Maybe he should just let her go now and be done with it.

Except if he did that, he’d truly be out to sea. Even he could acknowledge he was on thin ice, career-wise and… well, in every manner possible.

But damn, his brand-new phone.

He leaned his forehead against the window of his apartment, staring at a group of leggy college girls as they sauntered by. They were hot. So was the guy with them. So young, though.

Probably he shouldn’t let himself think things like that—they could be his students.

Man, but they were young. Little babies starting out in the world. They had no idea what hell waited for them.

Sighing, Rasul shut his eyes. “How about a compromise? I’ll mail you my phone.”

More clicking. “There’s a post office a block south of the cellular store. Seal your phone in an envelope, take it with you to the cellular shop. I’ll call ahead and arrange everything. You have forty minutes to comply. Call me on the new phone.”

She hung up.

For five minutes Rasul grumbled around the apartment. It was sterile and unwelcoming in the extreme—he’d never write a word here. It smelled funny, like the previous resident had cooked nothing but hamburgers and french fries, and the decor was abysmal. Why couldn’t Elizabeth have put him up in some quaint waterfront cabin?

Because you don’t have the money for that, and thanks to you, neither does she or her agency. No one else is going to bail you out either. You’ve spent the last few years subliminally sabotaging your career and all your connections. She’s the last person willing to stand by you, and she’s about to walk out the door. Get your ass out of this apartment and to the post office.

His first instinct was to defy that chiding voice, to go find a bar and get wasted. It was difficult to turn away from that impulse, but he had enough self-preservation left to understand this was his last shot. Time to commit to a career and a liver and a chance at happiness that lasted beyond a drink, a joint, or the hit of a pill. This was his final opportunity to stop disappointing his friends, his family, and himself.

It was humiliating as hell, and he hated it with every fiber of his being, but Rasul grabbed his keys and wallet—and phone—and headed out the door, ready to do as Elizabeth told him.

The one consolation was that it was nice outside, and while the apartment complex left a lot to be desired, the neighborhood was quaint, charming even. The walk to the post office was tree-lined, and amazingly, some of the leaves had already started to turn. To be expected, he supposed, since he was so far north. The post office itself was a combination of ancient and clumsy modern renovation that amused him. He did have to fight the clerk when he said he wanted to take the envelope with him unsealed.

“They’re real strict about you taking metered postage out of here.” The clerk, a pretty woman in her twenties, regarded Rasul with apology. “You can’t add any weight to it at all, and it has to go out today or it’ll be a mess.”

Rasul had no idea this was a thing. Frowning, he tried to decide what to do. “Do I have to buy different postage, then?”

“It’ll be tricky with the insurance. Sorry.” Tapping a manicured nail against her cheek, she considered the metered envelope between them. Coming to some kind of decision, she leaned forward and spoke in low tones. “Tell you what. You go ahead and take it with you. But you gotta promise you’ll mail it today, and don’t tell anybody else I did it.”

“You’re an angel. Thank you so much.” He picked up the envelope and tucked it into his shoulder bag. “Should I bring it back here to be mailed?”

She waved a hand. “Nah, just take it into any mailbox by five.”

After thanking her again, he headed back to the street to head to the cellular store. Strolling beneath the tree canopy again, he followed his phone’s GPS to the mobile phone retailer on University Avenue. Damn, but that was actually going to be a problem. He could get lost in a paper bag.

He received a few long stares as he meandered. A couple of people seemed to know him on sight, which wasn’t surprising. He’d been in the scandal junket a lot during the year with Adina, and of course there was the news fresh off the presses from last night. Elizabeth hadn’t called him because she’d been trolling his ’gram. He was wearing his “disguise” outfit—sunglasses, hair pulled back in a ponytail, grungy clothes—but since that’s what he kept getting photographed in, it was more advertisement than camouflage.

Man, but he really didn’t want to give out any autographs right now, or field any curious questions. He double-timed it for the cellular store.

The place was busy as he entered, but a manager came from behind the counter, smiling. “Mr. Youssef, this way, please. I already spoke to your agent and have your purchase waiting, and I’ll be mailing her your phone.”

Several people watched him, a few only perking up at his Arabian surname. Rasul did his best to ignore them. “I need to transfer a few numbers before I hand over my other phone, though.”

“She already gave me the numbers she says you’ll need and had me preprogram them. Would you like to check them to verify?”

Goddamn it. Yes, he would, but he knew better than to try. Odds were good she’d ask the manager if he added any. “No, it’s fine. Thanks.”

If the manager caught the annoyance in his tone, he ignored it. “Very good.” He handed a small black object to Rasul. “Here you are.”

A flip phone. An actual flip phone, as if it were 2007. To send a text, he’d have to fumble through the dial pad. Seriously, she couldn’t even let him text? He wanted to toss the phone and storm out.

Instead he opened it, verified the only numbers listed were Elizabeth’s, his parents’, and the dean of Bayview University. He pocketed the device. “Thanks.”

The manager’s smile didn’t dim. “And your envelope for me?”

With a heavy sigh, Rasul passed over the envelope and his smartphone. “The woman at the post office was incredibly insistent this had to go out today with the postage I put on it with no weight added.”

The manager took it. “Thank you. I’ll get this out right away, as is.” He hesitated, and Rasul knew what was coming before the man spoke. “Would it be rude of me to ask for your autograph?”

Oh, but it would have been satisfying to snarl and refuse. Instead Rasul inclined his head and waited as the man scrambled for pen and paper. The people who’d seemed concerned at his surname now looked vaguely interested. Rasul didn’t stick around to let them query him.

As soon as he was out of the building, he called Elizabeth on the new, terrible phone.

“Well done,” she said, not even bothering with a greeting. “You still had fifteen minutes to spare.”

“How much did you pay that guy to do your bidding?”

“Hmm, let’s see. I can’t remember, but it was less than the amount of money I’ve lost trying to prop up a selfish playboy, so it seems an investment well made.”

Touché. “Just don’t take my laptop, all right? Otherwise you’ll never get a novel.”

“Oh, if I don’t get a satisfying update within the next ten days, I’ll have the campus tech guys restrict your search ability so narrowly you’ll be using the card catalog to look things up.”

“I don’t think they actually have those anymore.”

“It’s interesting how you’d rather argue about these conditions instead of work.”

“Look, you know damn well creativity isn’t a tap you turn on and off. I can’t just suffer this kind of humiliation and then cavalierly whip out another chapter.”

“I’ve been an agent for twenty-three years, and my wife is a painter. I understand the whims of creativity painfully well. But you’ve proven partying and destroying your image online isn’t giving you the pump-priming you need. My gift to you is a new source of potential inspiration. Take walks. People-watch. Pick up a new hobby. Make friends who don’t want to use you. Go find something new to read. I hear they have a lovely bookstore there.”

Rasul pinched the bridge of his nose. It wasn’t as simple as a lack of inspiration, not at all, but he wasn’t going to bring that up. In fact, the one thing he’d figured out was all the partying was an effort to keep from thinking about the problem. Giving Elizabeth the corner of his mental carpet meant she’d wrench it up with one yank, leaving him no choice but to examine the mold and writhing insects beneath.

“Ten days,” she said. “I’m going to contact you in ten days, and you’re going to tell me about your progress. I won’t tell you what that has to look like except that you’ll have to convince me you’re moving forward enough for this to continue. It goes without saying that if I see a single social media post from you or about you, it’s over.”

That made him panic. “Look, I can’t help it if other people talk about me.”

“Let me rephrase: if I see a post that makes me think you’ve end-run me, we’ll have a problem.”

He didn’t relax. “Adina has a lot of photos. A lot.” And a few naughty videos, some of which made him sweat at night.

“Oh, trust me, she’s receiving a similar call from her agent, though I think that relationship is beyond saving. If I see any photos from her, I’ll do my own investigations. Don’t worry about her or anyone else. Do whatever you have to in order to finish this book.”

With that, she hung up on him.

Grimacing, Rasul pocketed the phone and stuffed his hands in his pockets, no longer interested in the quaint scenery. Which direction was his apartment? Of course, he didn’t want to go there anyway. He had some welcome gala for new faculty that night, but that wasn’t until eight. It was four in the afternoon now. Way too many hours to kill.

He started wandering.

There were a lot of shops on University Avenue. An Indian restaurant, Italian restaurant, a Wiccan shop, comics store, art gallery… huh. This place had a little more culture than he would have suspected. There were a lot of bars, and they were tempting, but going there was a step backward, not forward. He considered Café Sól, a charming, understatedly elegant coffee shop, but it looked more crowded than he was ready for right now.

University Avenue eventually led to a small highway, and after crossing at the light, Rasul noticed the street name had changed, as had the businesses dotting it. Main Street Copper Point was more what he’d expected to see in this one-horse town. A community center, Lutheran Church, library, tae kwon do club, and Christian book and supply store. He wondered what the people who shopped there thought of the Wiccan store on the other end of the street.

There was also a bookstore, as Elizabeth had suggested, and the name made him laugh. Moore Books. Twenty dollars said the owner’s last name was Moore, and what a quaint but understated pun. It was a proper ramshackle bookstore too, the towering, overcrowded shelves visible through the tall antique windows. As Rasul approached, he saw that though it was clearly a historic building, the stairs had been replaced with a sloping ramp to the side with a reasonable gradient.

Rasul ascended the ramp and pushed open the door, his heart sighing with a sense of rightness as a slightly discordant bell announced his arrival and the scent of old paper hit him in the face. The floors creaked too, a well-polished but ancient hardwood, and the ceiling above him was made out of legitimate tin. The shelves were packed with books, but they were well-organized and clearly labeled. A small front-facing shelf boasted new releases, but also store favorites and local interest titles.

Both of Rasul’s books were included, with prominence, in the store favorites section.

Only a handful of patrons were visible in the maze of shelving, and the few in his line of sight barely spared him a glance before resuming browsing. The middle-aged woman in one of the armchairs near the front window regarded him slightly longer, but even she soon returned to her own business.

This bookstore, Rasul decided, feeling the truth ring in his soul, was a good place.

“Hi. Welcome to Moore Books. Can I help you find anything?”

Rasul turned to the speaker, a white man about his age wearing a button-down blue shirt and a tan cardigan. Except for his light brown hair, he looked like a young Fred Rogers, down to the navy sneakers.

“Just browsing, thanks.” Rasul ran a hand through his hair and tugged at his ponytail. “Nice store.”

Mr. Rogers’s doppelgänger brightened slightly. “Thank you. I’ll let you wander around, but if you decide you need any assistance, find me at the checkout desk.”

The man turned and disappeared into the stacks. Rasul watched him go.

He certainly acted like the owner, but if this was who’d listed both of Rasul’s books as his favorites, he’d given no indication he knew who Rasul was.

Whatever. He was grateful for the privacy, however he got there.

Rasul wandered, taking everything in. The whole first floor was fiction, broken into genre: general fiction, mystery, science fiction/fantasy, romance, horror/thriller. It was a large area, both in width and length, running all the way to the back of the building. The upstairs, however—accessible via some deliciously creaking and curving stairs or a sleek, modern elevator—was all nonfiction and children’s books. The children’s area was charming and quite full of people. Another large recommendation area was on full display here, though these suggested reads were provided by the town’s librarian.

There were also two cats, a prim gray tabby with a white tuxedo belly, judging Rasul severely as he passed by its perch on top of a low shelf in the general fiction section, and a longhair gray tortoiseshell nested in the middle of an educational toys display upstairs. He also encountered a teenager in a store apron shelving titles, and when she saw him, she squealed and dropped everything in her hands.

Ohmygod, you’re Rasul Youssef.

He smiled his patented smile for fans: welcoming, charming, but not exceptionally inviting. “Hi. Sorry to make you drop your things. Can I help you—”

But she’d already run off, disappearing into an area marked STAFF ONLY.

Rasul picked up the books from the floor, slid them into the appropriate places on the shelf, and gave the cat a hesitant pat. The cat meowed at him, rubbed his hand, and burrowed back into the toys.

After this Rasul meandered to the first floor again, trying to decide what he wanted to browse first. The general fiction section mostly gave him angst at the moment, so he wandered into the genre shelves. He lingered over a book by Lois McMaster Bujold he hadn’t even known was out, set it aside to purchase, and picked up another title by an author he hadn’t heard of. He was leafing through it when Mr. Rogers reappeared, smiling in that helpful way bookstore owners had.

Rasul waved the book in the air between them. “You read this one, or hear about it? Any good?”

Rogers came over, focusing on the cover, then brightening. “Oh, yes. It’s excellent. Highly thought-provoking, but not at all heavy. I believe they were nominated for a Hugo.”

Good enough for him. Rasul put the book on his pile. “Any other recs?”

“Of course. Are you looking exclusively for science fiction and fantasy?”

“No, no. Thought-provoking but still fun and in no way pedantic is the mood I’m here for.”

“Hmm.” Rogers tapped a finger against his lips as he perused the shelves. “How about Here and Now and Then? Have you read Chen yet?”

Rasul hadn’t. “What’s it about?”

“Oh, it’s excellent. A time-traveling secret agent struggling to maintain a relationship with his daughter gets stranded in the past for eighteen years, though when his rescue team comes, he finds out it’s only been a few weeks in his proper timeline. And also he can’t remember his family.”

Rasul’s eyebrows rose. “That sounds perfect.”

“From what I know of your tastes, and given what you said you were after, I think it will fit the bill perfectly.”

So the man did know who he was, but he was playing it cool. God, Rasul wanted to live in this bookshop.

He did a quick perusal of the man beside him once again, but nothing lit up. Mr. Rogers chic just didn’t do it for Rasul.

The man missed Rasul’s cruise, too busy wandering to the opposite shelves. “Hmm. Please don’t be offended by my question, but have you read I Capture the Castle?”

Rasul’s heart instantly filled with longing. “Forty-five times, I think, but back when I was young. Put it on the pile. It’s time for a reread.” It would smart a little to have too much in common with James Mortmain, but perhaps that would be good for him.

Good God, was that why Mr. Rogers recommended it?

Before he could figure out how to ask, the bookseller had another volume, this one taken from the manga section Rasul had somehow completely overlooked. “This is a bit off the beaten path, but I honestly think you’d like My Brother’s Husband. I have both volume one and two in stock, but feel free to start with the first one to see if I guessed right or not.”

“You picked up my favorite childhood novel. I trust your judgment. Put both on.”

Rogers nodded. “I’ll keep these at the front desk and wait for you when you’re finished shopping.”

Rasul lingered with the manga, picking up some volumes of series he’d forgotten to finish and starting another pile nearly as big as the one Mr. Rogers had taken away. This was going to get expensive, but he would rather eat ramen than have nothing to read. Plus this entire bookstore felt like church for authors. This was practically writing, shopping here.

He was pondering whether he could afford to buy the entire Fullmetal Alchemist series when a commotion at the front of the store drew his attention. The bell jangled constant peals of warning as the sound of many feet and an eerie chorus of feminine giggles filled the bookstore.

“Oh my God, do you think he’s still here?”

“I’m gonna get my picture with him.”

“I’m gonna make him sign my chest.”

“Sick. Get him to sign your tit and I’ll give you twenty bucks.”

Rasul’s stomach plummeted to his feet as he scanned frantically for an emergency exit. No question but this crew was here for him. The next thing he heard froze him cold, however.

“Don’t forget to tag Adina so we get the shout-out.”

No way. No way, this couldn’t be happening, not when Elizabeth had just handed him his ass.

Before he could spiral into a deeper wave of panic, Mr. Rogers appeared. He no longer looked like a demure children’s show host, however. His lips were in a thin line, and it was clear someone was about to get an earful.

Rogers nodded curtly to the front of the store. “My apologies, Mr. Youssef. It seems some young people in Copper Point don’t know how to behave. With your permission, I’ll help you leave the store undetected.”

Though Rasul nodded in relief, he also cast a sad glance of longing at his books.

Rogers swept them up at once. “I’ll get your books for you. Come, follow me up these back stairs. The first-floor rear door is alarmed, but I live above the shop and have my own entrance.” Rogers was already unlocking an unassuming green door with a sign reading PRIVATE, KEEP OUT. The door also had a small cat door at the bottom.

Once Rogers had the door open, he ushered Rasul ahead of him. “Up the stairs and to the right. I’ll take you out through the kitchen and get you to your car.”

“I don’t have a car—” Rasul broke off and swore as he tripped over something on the stairs. It yowled. A black cat swiped at his leg, then darted up the stairs and into the shadows.

Rogers sighed. “Moriarty likes to hide on the top stair. I swear one day he’ll be the death of me.”

He named his cat Moriarty. Rasul considered reevaluating his rescuer’s hotness potential once again, but then he remembered the sweater. Nope.

Rogers led Rasul into the kitchen, sat him down, and pulled up his pant leg with the no-nonsense composure of a kindergarten teacher. “I’m so sorry, he drew blood. He’s had all his shots, though. Let me get you some disinfectant.” He hurried away before Rasul could say anything, then returned with a tidy plastic box full of first-aid supplies, which he set down beside Rasul. “I’m going to run downstairs quick and sort things out. Please make yourself at home. There are glasses in the cupboard, as well as mugs for tea. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Without waiting for Rasul to say a word, Rogers was gone.

After staring for several seconds at the place where the bookseller had disappeared, Rasul fished through the first-aid kit, put some alcohol on a pad, and cleaned the cut with a soft hiss. After he put a bandage on the cut, he collected his garbage and stood to search for a trash can.

The apartment was the complete opposite of Rasul’s. It overflowed with things in a way that made Rasul feel comforted and safe while also being absolutely neat and clean. As he wandered from room to room, he saw the whole place was much like the main body of the bookstore, old but well-maintained and in several aspects modernized. The kitchen had a pokey feel to it, but the appliances were all sleek and modern, the countertops granite. The living room creaked as Rasul crossed it, and the overstuffed sofa came complete with a knitted afghan right out of the 1970s, but a small television mounted on the wall was the latest brand and connected to a Blu-ray player. The bathroom was the best, full of old white tile with an actual iron claw-foot tub, but also an impressive rainfall shower and a modern sink. It was as clean as the rest of the apartment, not so much as a hair on the floor.

He hurried back to the kitchen, where the black cat had taken up the observation point on the top of the fridge and growled at him when he came too close. He didn’t want to get caught snooping when Rogers returned, but it was taking forever, so he took the man up on his offer and made himself some tea—a loose-leaf Earl Grey. He’d just finished steeping it and was having a sip when the door from the first floor opened and smart footsteps double-timed up the stairs.

Rogers wiped the residual look of murder off his face, but he was still stern as he entered the kitchen. “My apologies for taking so long. It seems my part-timer alerted her friends that you were here, and those friends told their friends, and the end result was a swarm of sixteen-year-olds. A friend of mine came over to mind the shop for a few minutes, and another is en route to escort you home.” He passed a sturdy polyurethane bag with MOORE BOOKS printed on the front and overflowing with books. “Please accept your selected titles gratis as an expression of my apology.”

“I can’t possibly take so many books for free,” Rasul said as the bookseller pressed the bag into his arms. The thought of having more money for food was tempting, but this was a bridge too far. These were the man’s livelihood. “I’m more than happy to pay.”

“I’m afraid I can’t accept your money today, but we welcome you back when you next need something to read, at which time I can assure you no one will harass you while you shop.” His expression suggested he might stand guard on the ramp with a shotgun, but then it softened slightly. “Both your novels are in my top-ten favorite titles. Please consider the books a gift from a well-contented reader as well.”

This guy was going to give Rasul a huge head. Damn shame about the sweater. “Can I sign your copies, then?” It didn’t feel presumptive to assume the man had his books in the apartment.

For the first time, the man’s demeanor cracked, and the fissure of delight and eagerness on Rogers’s face made something surprising curl in Rasul’s belly. The spark was gone as soon as it came, however. “I wouldn’t dream of imposing.”

“It’d be my pleasure, seriously. You have no idea how much you saved me there. My agent is not in the mood to see me splashed all over social media with a bunch of teenage girls. Please, let me sign them.”

The longing crept back in, and Rogers sighed. “If you insist.” His cheeks flushed adorably as he gestured to the living room. “They’re… in here.”

Rasul’s books had, in fact, pride of place on the top of a small bookshelf, both of them nestled next to works by Sir Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Sarah Waters, and—

Rasul grinned as he pulled out the volume. “I Capture the Castle.” He whistled and handled it more carefully as he felt the plastic cover and saw the faded landscape splashed across the spine and front. “First edition. Impressive.”

Rogers blushed like a proud parent. “A gift from my mom and dad when I graduated high school. They wrote supportive notes in the front panels, which scandalized me at the time, but I’m incredibly grateful for them now.” Before Rasul could ask what he meant by that, he took the book from Rasul, slid it reverently back into place, and withdrew The Sword Dancer’s Daughter and Carnivale, placing them in Rasul’s hands.

Rasul was patting his pockets when Rogers gave him a beautiful fountain pen he immediately wished he could ask for instead of the books. He didn’t, though, only cracked open The Sword Dancer’s Daughter and went into author mode. “How shall I make it out?”

“To Jacob, please.”

Rasul dutifully inscribed each copy: To Jacob, who has the loveliest bookstore I’ve ever seen, Rasul Youssef in Dancer; and in Carnivale he wrote To Jacob, my hero, Love, Rasul. He worried that might be a bit too familiar, but he did feel significant affection toward the man right now, for the rescue, the books, and the tea.

Jacob—though honestly, Rasul was going to think of him as Mr. Rogers forever—took a moment to blow across each inked page before whipping out an actual blotter to make absolutely sure nothing would bleed. With an air of satisfaction, he placed the books back on the shelf. “Thank you very much, Mr. Youssef. I’ll treasure them even more now.”

“Call me Rasul, please.” He winced inwardly at how flirty that came out. What in the world was wrong with him?

A strange expression passed over Jacob’s face before he replied. “Thank you, but I couldn’t.” Rising, he smoothed the front of his trousers and adjusted his sweater. He looked about to say something, but then a knock came at the back door. “Ah, that will be Simon, here to take you home.”

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