Someone whispered her name. Secretively. Accusing.
Cold more bitter than a Rocky Mountain blizzard swept through Sage. She glanced in the direction the voice came from and her breath gushed out in a sigh. They’d used her pen name. Nobody knew. That life died years ago. Then she saw them. Three junior high school girls huddled together, giggling, and watching her. Once they noticed they’d drawn her attention, their faces flushed and they turned away. Sage’s breath caught. It couldn’t be happening again.
Someone placed a book in front of her, and Sage looked up, pasting a smile on her face. This was her book signing, celebrating her success. There was no way she’d allow anyone, especially three teenaged girls, to spoil it. “Sorry, I got distracted.”
A lady in a tailored red suit returned the smile. “I’m Emily.”
“I’m pleased to meet you.” With a stroke of her pen, she signed the book and handed it back. “Thank you, Emily. Enjoy.” A line of eight or ten people stretched out of the bookstore and into the mall. Sage accepted a book from the next person in line.
Sage Bush. The girls giggled again. One whispered. No. You do it.
Her temples throbbed. Those hushed tones between giggles were the same way Sharon and her friends had whispered it years ago. Sage swallowed past the lump growing in her throat. She’d been crazy thinking she could return home and her past would stay in the past. Her hand trembled, making her signature in the book unreadable. She set it aside and reached for one on the pile beside her and signed it. “That’s better,” she said as she handed it to its owner. “I wouldn’t have been able to read the first one myself.” As the lady strolled back into the mall still looking at the signed page in her book, Sage closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Get hold of yourself. You’re behaving like a child.
More people stopped at the book signing table. All wanting signatures. Some asking about sequels, others wondering when her next book would be available. The tension fell away. Sage loved this part of being a writer. It gave her readers an opportunity to meet the person behind a story, and her, a chance to see the people who made her career possible. She smiled at the next person in line. A woman wearing black framed glasses and a navy suit. Looks like a librarian.
A movement to her right caught her attention. Those girls. She caught her breath. If only she could disappear. They came closer. The one with long blonde hair took a book off the pile and thumbed through it. She handed it to the shortest of the three. “No, you do it.”
The girl’s features changed into a face from the past. Sharon’s face. Sage blinked, refocusing. This had to be a nightmare. That life ended years ago. Still, they were acting as if her book had leprosy the same way her classmates had done. Except in those days the chosen word was flees. She swallowed to relieve the growing lump in her throat.
Another customer set a book in front of her. Sage switched to auto pilot. Luckily, she’d done enough book signings to answer questions without thinking. The lineup lengthened and the giggling escalated. Sage reached for her water bottle and took a long drink.
A man in faded blue jeans and a white western shirt laid an opened book in front of her. “I’ve read all your books, and you’ve earned the title as my favorite author.”
Soothed by his gentle voice, Sage looked up. Warm green eyes met hers. An unruly lock of brown hair fell over his forehead and a smile touched his lips. Something about him tugged at her, as if she’d seen him before. But now wasn’t the time to ponder. She moved his book closer and wrote. Thank you for brightening my day. Sage Bush.
He read what she’d written, and smiled. “I’ll treasure this one.”
Warmed, Sage looked him in the eye before glancing at the line of customers. Her fans. Even after so many book signings, she struggled to believe her popularity. All these people were her friends, even if she didn’t know their names. Without them, she’d be teaching what she loved to do. Ten people filed past, chatting as she signed. When the line ended, Sage leaned back in her chair. The breather felt good. She glanced around for Lynn Holden, her agent, who had accompanied her on this trip.
Sage Bush. Tittering. Giggling.
In the bustle of customers, Sage had forgotten about the girls. The student with Sharon’s face. She slumped forward, burying her face in her hands, letting her long sandy hair fall forward. When she couldn’t see, it didn’t hurt as much.
The chair beside her moved, and Lynn plopped down. “Is something wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I wish I had,” Sage said, keeping her face hid behind her hair.
A book slid across the table, startling her. She looked up, and the students stood in front of her. A shiver started in her feet and spread up to her face. Her heart pounded and her voice refused to work. They were going to make a scene. Spoil everything she’d worked so hard to accomplish. If only the floor would open up and swallow her.
“Hey, are you okay?” Lynn shook Sage’s shoulder. “You have a customer.”
Automatically, Sage opened the book and signed it. “Sorry, a bad headache just struck.”
“That’s okay,” the tallest of the girls said, then giggled. “We’ve waited around all afternoon because we were scared to ask you to sign one for us.”
Sage’s stiff shoulders wilted. It had been a nightmare. Only this time she’d been awake. A smile reached her lips. “There are three of you and you are only buying one book?”
The blonde girl, the one whom she’d seen change into Sharon, played with her watch strap. “We had to pool our money to buy one.”
“No you don’t.” Sage took two more from the pile beside her. “Now, you’ll each have your own.” She opened the covers and wrote, Never be afraid to ask. Sage Bush. Then she reached for the one she’d already signed and wrote the same note in it.
The girls left, still giggling, hugging their books.
“That was nice,” Lynn said. “What brought it on?”
Only a few customers mulled about the bookstore, so Sage stood and stretched the kinks out of her back. “It’s a long story, and I don’t want to go there.”
Lynn rearranged the books on Sage’s table. “Maybe not, but those girls sure pushed your buttons.”
“I told you I don’t want to go there.”
A nearby customer turned in their direction, and Sage lowered her voice. “We’ve been good friends this long because we don’t pry into each other’s business, so let’s keep it that way.”