JULIA WOKE TO THE tinkling of her cellphone.
Go away, she told the noise. She wanted to return to the dream. She had to! Something important was happening. Someone vital was there. A room, a table set for tea, a dark-haired man in a suit who needed her help—
But the noise won. Telephone, she thought. Emergency.
Because you weren’t supposed to sleep with a cellphone next to your head, Julia kept hers on the chest of drawers across the room. She stumbled out of bed and crossed the floor, locating the phone more by instinct than conscious thought. For an instant, just before her fingers touched the screen, a shiver passed over her. The dream—the dark-haired man—something was terribly wrong.
“Hello?” she whispered.
“Hey, honey. It’s me.”
Julia exhaled. “Victor. Jeez. What time is it?”
“A little past midnight? Sorry to wake you.”
“No, it’s fine. I went to bed early, that’s all. Everything okay over there?”
“Fine. I mean, I’m fine. But I’m going to have to hang out here a little longer, all right? Big charter bus wrecked on I-91. Bunch of skiers. They’re sending some of them our way.”
“Oh, my God. That’s terrible.”
“Yeah, we’re standing by. Any minute now. I would’ve just texted but I wanted to make sure you knew before you went to sleep. So you wouldn’t worry or anything.”
“That’s—that’s—thank you. I’m glad you did.” Julia rubbed her forehead. “What time are you thinking?”
“I don’t know. Depends on the situation. Maybe not until breakfast.”
“Okay. Wow. I’m sorry.” Fog hung over Julia’s brain; Victor’s voice seemed to be coming to her out of a dream. “Hope everyone’s going to be okay,” she added.
“Me too. Love you.”
“Love you too. Go save some lives.”
Julia crawled back into bed and stared at the ceiling, waiting for sleep to drift down from the rafters. She tried not to think about the charter bus and the thousand ways it might have crashed, or the scene inside—the terror of the passengers, what happened on impact. She tried not to think about Victor in his clean blue scrubs, standing by with all the other doctors and nurses, each one of them listening for the first faint cry of an ambulance siren. Her heart made giant thumps in her chest. Until last summer, she’d never imagined sharing her life with a doctor. She didn’t even like watching medical dramas on television, or movies about people with devastating illnesses or anything like that. Hospitals unnerved her. No, worse. They gave her a feeling of wrongness, of terror almost, that she had to shove down firmly like a cartoon character jumping on a trapdoor to keep the villain from popping out.
Of course, in cartoons, the villain always did pop out. Eventually you had to defeat him face to face. Julia tried not to think about this, either.
But she hadn’t known Victor was a doctor when she met him early last summer. She was working mornings as a barista at a cute coffee shop on Cape Cod and Victor came in one Saturday at seven o’clock, when nobody else was there, and ordered a large dark roast, an iced vanilla latte with almond milk, and two blueberry muffins. The next day he had appeared at exactly the same time and ordered exactly the same thing. On Monday they got to talking. He was staying at his mother’s house for the week; the iced latte was for her; he liked to go out for his daily bike ride at dawn, because of traffic, and that was why he came in for coffee so early.
If Julia was already smitten by his tall, sturdy build and slow smile, the easy way he wore his blue Henley T-shirt and frayed khaki shorts and canvas bucket hat, she now went into full-on crush mode. On Tuesday they went out to dinner. This was Julia’s only night off from the restaurant where she waitressed in the evenings, and her roommate was intrigued. Where was his mother’s house? Was he there for vacation? Where did he live? What did he do? Where did he go to college? Julia had to admit she didn’t know any of these details. Victor just felt right to her. Who cared about his biography?
Over dinner, she’d noticed how friendly he was to the restaurant staff, even when the waitress knocked into someone’s elbow and spilled the tray containing their beers. He said not to worry, he was kind of a klutz himself. (Julia later discovered this wasn’t true at all, that Victor was extremely precise in all his movements, the way trained athletes usually are.) In the course of the evening, she found out that he lived in Chicago but grew up in the Boston suburbs, that his parents were divorced, that his mother’s family had summered at the same place near Chatham since the 1920s. Not until their second date on Wednesday did she find out that he’d been living in Chicago for medical school, and that he would be starting his residency at a regional New England hospital in a few months, and by then it was too late. She was a goner.
They saw each other whenever she had a break from her two jobs. He would take her to lunch when she had the dinner shift; they would go to the beach or the bookstore or out for ice cream. Sometimes he brought his mother’s dog, a golden retriever who adored him. He didn’t seem to care that Julia wasn’t a lawyer or an investment banker or a magazine editor, or some other prestigious career that would reflect brilliantly on him. In fact, he loved hearing her stories about diners behaving badly, about the scary truth behind movie theater concessions, about the week she spent training as a flight attendant before she was forced to accept that her airsickness was a permanent thing.
On Saturday he stopped by the restaurant at the end of her shift, and she ended up spending the night with him. When the sun rose on Sunday morning she found out that “his mother’s place” was one of a cluster of large, shingled beach houses, all of which belonged to various cousins and aunts and uncles. Victor returned from his bike ride, showered, and drove her to work, and during the drive he told her he was thinking about staying on the Cape for another week. That week stretched into another week. By the end of the third week, he was asking her how she felt about moving to Vermont with him. She said she’d have to think about it. The next morning she said yes.
Long story short, the whole affair had been a whirlwind, a storybook in real life, and she wasn’t for a second sorry that she had said yes to Victor and to Darlington. She was in love!
But that didn’t mean she had to like lying here awake in a Shaker bed, keeping company with a plump white duvet, while Victor kept busy saving lives in a hospital emergency room that she had visited only once.
BECAUSE HER HEART SEEMED to be pounding through her skin, Julia didn’t expect to fall asleep at all, until she startled awake at some noise in the bedroom and saw the winter light streaking through the window.
“Sorry to wake you,” said the man who stood by the chest of drawers.
He was blond and tall, dressed in blue, and he looked at her tenderly. Julia knew he wasn’t a stranger. But she couldn’t remember his name, couldn’t remember how she knew him or what she was doing here in this bedroom that seemed to be his. She belonged somewhere else, she belonged with Max. Where was Max?
“Julia?” the blond man said. “You okay?”
She thought, Who’s Julia?
A CUP OF COFFEE later, and Julia was herself again. The dream had faded, though it still hung around the back of her head somewhere. Victor was fast asleep, hair damp from his shower. They’d lost one patient, he’d told her numbly, a man in his thirties with a wife and kids back home in Boston. Victor had made the phone call himself. No, he didn’t want to talk about it. He wanted to sleep.
Outside, a few tiny flakes had begun to whir past the window. Julia remembered that a nor’easter was supposed to be kicking up, six to nine inches of snow forecast over the coming hours. She refilled her coffee cup and sat down at the little desk in the corner of the kitchen. Julia was a stickler about admin. Never let it pile up, that was her rule. Don’t be like Gran, who tottered around stacks of alarming paper that she periodically tossed in the trash, once she figured the contents were too old to matter anyway. Last night, Julia had made sure the desk was clean, except for the stamped envelope containing next month’s rent check (the landlord was eighty years old and didn’t know from direct deposit) and the Lands’ End catalog she meant to scout for rain boots, because Victor had warned her that something called mud season was just around the corner.
But the desk wasn’t altogether tidy, after all. In the middle lay a square envelope addressed in familiar handwriting to Miss Julia Dalrymple, and as Julia stared at the crisp black loop of the y, perfectly symmetrical, sort of old-fashioned if you thought about it, she remembered her dream.
She remembered the face of the dark-haired man within that dream, the man who’d needed her, the man whose name was Max.
She also remembered where she’d seen him before.
Inside the room she’d glimpsed at the Darlington Town Library, through a triangle of peculiar golden light, between two books shelved on the third floor.
VICTOR DID NOT WANT waste his few precious hours off visiting some library, especially during a snowstorm. Julia had to promise they would stop by the coffee shop on the way there and buy his favorite blueberry muffin.
“Except they won’t be open anyway,” he said.
“Then I’ll bake you some muffins when we get home,” Julia promised him.
“I wasn’t talking about the Beanery. I was talking about the library. Libraries and schools, they’re the first to close in a blizzard, trust me.”
Julia glanced out the window at the swirling white world. “I have a feeling they’ll be open,” she said.
They put on their parkas and boots and hats and trudged outside. The snow was falling thick and fast, and the boots made crumping sounds as they picked their way down Oxford Street toward the center of town. When they turned east down Main Street, it was like the wind switched on. “Jeepers!” Julia gasped, digging her chin into the shelter of her scarf.
“Told you,” Victor said, as smug as any New Englander. But he looped his arm through hers anyway, as if to anchor her down so the wind wouldn’t carry her away.
The Beanery was dark, door shut tight, CLOSED sign hanging cockeyed in the window above the new snow piled on the sill. Victor arched his eyebrows and assumed a martyred air. His cheeks were like raspberries and Julia felt a surge of guilt. She went up on her toes to kiss him through the scarf.
“It’s only another block to the library,” she said.
Actually, it was two blocks, on the other side of the street. The snow buffeted them as they crossed the empty intersection. Julia couldn’t even see the building until they came to the bottom of the steps. Victor stopped and frowned.
“I thought this was the post office,” he said.
“So did I. Trust me, it’s a library. Come on.”
“The windows are dark. It’s got to be closed.”
“They’re not dark. It’s just the weather. Please, Victor? I really need to take care of this. It’s driving me crazy. I need closure!”
“Closure for what? A stupid library notice? For God’s sake, Jules! We could be cuddled up indoors right now, nice and warm. Hot chocolate and everything. I’ll build a fire.”
“We can do all of that when we get back.” She tugged on his arm. “Please. It’ll just take a minute, I swear. And I need your help.”
Victor made an exasperated noise, but he followed her anyway. The granite stairs were piled with snow and impossible to judge; she had to find each step with her boot. Victor climbed with more confidence. Julia leaned on his arm for balance, and when they arrived at the top she drew in a long sigh. Victor reached out and pulled the door handle, then pushed. It didn’t budge.
“See? It’s closed,” said Victor. “Let’s go.”
“That’s impossible. It’s got to be open.”
“How do you know that?”
“I just do.” Julia grasped the brass ring and pushed with all her might. The old oak door gave way with a groan, and the rush of hot, dry air felt like the scirocco.
“What the hell?” said Victor, offended. “What is this, your own private library?”
“Just hurry, okay? It’s freezing out here.”
Julia half-expected to find the front desk empty, but Mr. Spooner, round and pale, still slumped in his chair and frowned at them over the top of his eyeglasses. He seemed to be wearing the exact same brown suit as he had three days ago, although Julia couldn’t say how she remembered that detail.
He looked at Victor and then at Julia. “I’m afraid the library’s closed until tomorrow,” he said.
“We’ll just be a minute.”
“Miss Dalrymple, you can’t just bring—”
Julia grabbed Victor’s gloved hand. “Come on!”
“Jules, what are we—”
Victor gave in and jogged along beside her, across the reading room to the main staircase. He tore off his hat and gloves as he went, because the library was warm—not just in comparison to the weather outside, but an absolute eighty degrees, maybe more. By the time they reached the third floor, Julia was pouring sweat into the lining of her down jacket, though her breath was strangely calm, her heartbeat steady.
“Holy crap,” Victor gasped. “What was that about?”
She held up her hand and inhaled deeply. The scent of wood and dust filled her nostrils. “Do you smell violets?” she asked.
Victor sniffed. “No. Why?”
“Huh. Neither do I.” She took his hand again. “Follow me.”
But Victor tugged her back. “Stop a second. Seriously. What the hell is going on with you? Violets?”
“I thought you said you didn’t smell them!”
“I don’t! But why am I supposed to? Come on, talk to me. You’ve been acting strange for days now.”
Julia glanced at the stairs. She heard a clicking noise, not like footsteps. More like machinery. The elevator? She glanced around and saw a brass door. Above the door was a brass dial marked with Art Nouveau numbers. An arrow pointed left. Just as Julia caught sight of it, the arrow jiggled, as if startled awake, and began to climb.
She yanked on Victor’s arm. “I’ll explain later, okay? Just follow me!”
“Jules!” But he lumbered after her from the top of the staircase to the alcove formed by the Victorian tower at the library’s corner.
Just like three days ago, the alcove was lined floor to ceiling in bookcases that precisely fit the curve of the tower itself, each one labeled by a small, tarnished brass plaque on which a letter was engraved. But Julia didn’t need to read the letters. She knew exactly what she was looking for, and where it was: Bookcase D, Shelf 3. She stopped a few feet away and ran her gaze along the row of books, from left to right.
“There’s no light,” she said.
“Light? What light?”
“It was there. Between those two books.” She turned her head to look at Victor, who stared back quizzically. “A light, like a lantern.”
“A light,” he repeated. “Like a lantern.”
“Yes. Or sunlight. Just really bright and—and golden.”
Julia dropped his hand and stepped closer. She was conscious of the elevator lurching and clanging upward somewhere behind her, the arrow edging around the dial. All along the shelf, the books stood upright, exactly as they had three days ago, except for a gap between two of them on the right side. Two Hundred and Fifty Varieties of Fern tilted against A Concise History of the Island of Atlantis, and in the wedge between them…the wedge between them…
She leaned forward and peered into the shadowed triangle.
“Jules, are you—”
“It’s not there.”
“What’s not there?”
Julia turned toward him. “The room!”
“Room? You mean a room room? With people inside?”
She grabbed his elbows. “Listen, I know it sounds crazy. But three days ago, when I came here to tell them to stop sending me notices—you know, those notices they kept sending about a book I never ordered—the head librarian sent me up here. And there was a light shining between those two books, I swear it, and when I looked inside I saw a room with people in it—”
A bell dinged softly from across the room.
Victor frowned and stepped past her. “These two books?”
“Yes. The one about Atlantis, and the one leaning against it. The one about ferns.”
He leaned down, shut one eye, and peered between the books. “I don’t see anything. Just the back of the shelf.” He straightened and stuck his hand inside.
“What? There’s nothing there. Wood, that’s all.” He turned and crossed his arms over his chest. “Jules, are you sure about this? An actual room?”
“Victor, I swear it was there! There were people inside, dressed in suits and dresses, and they were drinking tea or something—”
The elevator! Julia spun around. But it wasn’t pale, round Mr. Spooner who stood reproachfully before her. It was a woman, tall and angular, with green eyes and short, dark hair that curled around her ears.
“Dr. Freeman!” Julia whispered.
“Miss Dalrymple. How very nice to see you in this inclement weather. And you’ve brought a friend, too.” Dr. Freeman shot a glance toward Victor.
“Yes! I’m sorry. This is—this is Vic—this is Dr. Leighton, my—”
Victor stepped forward. One thing about Victor, you could always count on him in social situations; it was like he didn’t know the meaning of the word awkward.
“Dr. Freeman, is it? Victor Leighton. I’m Miss Dalrymple’s fiancé.”
Julia choked. Victor took her hand and squeezed it.
“I beg your pardon. Your fiancé?” said Dr. Freeman.
“Sorry to barge in like this. Julia remembered this book she wanted to check out, before the storm set in. Blizzard reading, I guess.” Victor smiled his slow smile, the one that always mesmerized Julia. “Only we seem to be having some trouble finding it.”
Dr. Freeman lifted an eyebrow. “Were you, now? How unfortunate.”
“Maybe you could help us?” Victor said.
Dr. Freeman transferred her challenging stare to Julia. “Well, Miss Dalrymple? Were you looking for something? Something—let me hazard a guess—that you might have left behind when you departed the premises so hastily the other day?”
Her eyes were narrow and very green. She leveled them directly at the point between Julia’s eyebrows. She did not so much scowl as snarl, as if she wanted to eat them both for tea. Julia’s every instinct yearned to flee, to get the hell out of this place while she could, back to her cozy cottage on Oxford Street, never to venture out again. Her toes actually twitched inside her boots.
But she did not flee. Maybe it was Victor’s reassuring hand in hers; maybe it was her own native doggedness. She straightened her spine—Gran would be so proud—and lifted her chin and said, “Yes, as a matter of fact. It just so happens I have this intense fascination with the lost island of Atlantis. I thought I saw a book about it around here somewhere?”
Victor’s hand loosened in surprise. “Jules, isn’t it—
Julia curled her fingers around his knuckles and dug the nails into his skin.
“Yes, Dr. Leighton? You were saying?”
“Nothing,” said Victor.
“In that case,” said Dr. Freeman, “I’m afraid I must be the bearer of bad news. Another patron checked out that very book earlier this morning, if I’m not mistaken. But I’d be happy to let you know when we have it back on our shelf.”
“You mean you’ll send me another notice?” Julia said.
“I certainly will.”
“Um, I don’t mean to start a revolution or anything,” said Victor, “but wouldn’t a phone call be more efficient? Or even a text message?”
“I’m afraid we do things differently here at the Darlington Library, Dr. Leighton.”
“I’ll say,” said Julia.
“Indeed. And now, if you’ll forgive me, I regret to remind you that the library is closed to visitors, due to the inclement weather.” She glanced toward one of the windows, cloaked in white, and back to Julia. The corners of her lips turned upward in a vague, sharp-toothed smile. “If the two of you leave promptly, you might just make it home in one piece.”
“WELL, THAT WAS WEIRD,” Victor said, when they stomped through the front door at last. He pulled off his gloves, but he didn’t take off his coat and hat. Instead, he reached in the inside chest pocket for his phone and started tapping away at the screen.
Julia tossed her gloves and hat in the basket and hung her coat on the hook. They’d entered the house through the side door, next to the kitchen, because it opened into a vestibule that Victor called a mudroom. A New England thing, he told her. Like a decontamination chamber, except that instead of germs you removed the weather. “Weird?” she said. “Weird doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to me. I don’t know what to think. I—are you listening to me?”
He looked up from his phone. “What’s that?”
“Aren’t you even taking off your coat?”
“Jules, I have to get back to the hospital. Remember?”
“What, in this blizzard?”
“Sweetie, I’ve got four critical care patients to check on. Anyway, that’s why we got the Subaru, right?” He shoved his phone back in his pocket. “You’ll be okay, right? Enough to eat in the fridge?”
“Hold on a second. Don’t you want to talk about this?”
“Hell, yes, I want to talk about this. You’re right, weird doesn’t begin to cover it. But I can’t think about it right now. Duty calls.”
Duty calls. Victor said that so frequently, she thought of the words as his catchphrase. This was something she loved about him, how he could set everything else aside and focus on his patients, on the work that was his passion. At this particular moment, though, Julia was the everything else he was setting aside. Julia and the library and Dr. Freeman and the bookcase, the light, the room that must have been her imagination, like the dreams. The dreams! Victor didn’t even know about the dreams. Everything that was making her head spin, making her question her own sanity. She needed to talk about it. She needed his level head, his logic, his physician’s training to diagnose and treat the problem. She needed reassurance.
Nope, sorry. Duty calls.
Julia opened her mouth and closed it again. She tried to capture his gaze, but his eyes kept shifting back to his phone. His brow was knit with worry, with that air of nervy distraction she recognized all too well. Four critical care patients, he’d said. Julia remembered the bus crash, the terrible injuries he had treated. The phone call to some poor young wife in Boston. Her heart fell from her chest.
“No, you’re right,” she said. “Go. I’ll be fine.”
“That’s my girl.” He kissed her, smiled, and kissed her again. “I’ll call you when I get there.”
“Drive safely!” she called after him.
Actually, Julia didn’t much worry about Victor driving through a blizzard. He was a New Englander; he could drive through anything, especially in that Subaru, a secondhand model that had already proven its chops in an ice storm just after New Year’s Day. What unnerved her was the quiet once he left, broken only by the hum of the refrigerator and the whine of the wind, up and down along some otherworldly scale. The snow blew past the windows. Julia wandered around the kitchen, wiping imaginary crumbs from the counter, putting away the dishes Victor had left in the drying rack. Her gaze fell on the fruit bowl. The bananas were starting to turn brown.
Banana bread, she thought. That’s what I’ll do.
Julia got out the butter and flour and eggs and turned on the oven. Outside, the wood groaned in the giant old oak tree that anchored the front yard. The wind wailed through the branches. She mixed the dry ingredients in one bowl. In the other, she measured the butter and the sugar. A memory flashed back to her—something she’d set aside at the time, because of more immediate concerns.
Fiancé, Victor had said. He’d called himself her fiancé.
Well, obviously that was just for show. That was just Victor gallantly propping her up in front of the formidable Dr. Freeman. It didn’t mean anything.
Still. It was strange to hear the word from his lips, to know that he wasn’t afraid to say it, right there in front of her. Hearing it again in her head, Julia felt her stomach whirl. Excitement? Anticipation?
Fiancé. It didn’t mean anything.
But it did. Because this, right here, was what she’d be signing up for. Evenings alone, making banana bread in the middle of a blizzard, while duty called to Victor. While the things that plagued Julia would be always and forever swept aside by the things that plagued Victor’s patients. As it should be, because someone had to do that. Someone had to save lives. But did she want to be married to that someone? Could she bear to be swept aside all her life?
She reached for the hand mixer. As her fingers touched the metal, her phone rang.
“Victor? Everything okay?”
“Safe and sound. Hold on.” His voice called out faintly to a colleague, then returned to her. “So listen. About what happened this afternoon.”
Julia forced herself to speak. “Yeah?”
“You don’t happen to have one of those library notices lying around, do you?”
“Not handy. I threw the last one away. Why?”
“Well, like I said, I thought it was all really weird, right? What you told me about seeing a light, you know, and then what happened. That woman, Dr. Freeman. Something seemed a little off about her, you know?”
“In what way?”
“I don’t know. Just…off. So I Googled her, for a start.”
Julia stared into the bowl. The sugar made a drift around the lump of butter, like the snow piling up outside. She could actually smell the sickly sweetness of it.
“Jules? You there?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m here,” she said.
“Listen up. I didn’t know her first name, obviously, so I searched for Freeman Darlington Library Vermont.”
“Jules,” said Victor, “there is no Darlington Town Library in Darlington, Vermont. Not any longer. It closed its doors in 1975.”