There were even more marvelously beautiful sights to sigh over once she was inside the shop; the ceiling-high bookshelves, the gorgeous first-edition tomes displayed in one corner, and the reading nook in another. It was like being transported to a bookish slice of heaven, and all she could do was stare and stare and stare---
The words startled Blake, and as soon as her head jerked up, her gaze automatically clashed with a pair of onyx black eyes.
Oh my gosh.
Growing up, she had heard, seen, or read people saying that 'love at first sight' wasn't real, and because there were so many of them, it was the one thing Blake, despite being a hopeless romantic, had never allowed herself to believe in. True love was real. Second-chance love was possible. But love at first sight?
---this moment, in which her dream man come to life was staring at her like she was a couple of bricks shy of a load.
Blake quickly moved forward, eager to rectify his less than stellar first impression on her. "Mr. Blackwood?"
Instead of answering, Dream Guy asked mildly, "Who are you?"
"I'm Blake Golding, Mr. Blackwood. Frankie told me you were looking for a shop assistant and---"
"I didn't realize you were female."
"I..." His interruption had her blinking in distraction. There was something about the way he spoke - or rather, the way he drawled each word out, like he had all the time in the world to speak. It reminded her of something, no, someone---
"Oh my gosh!"
While the joke never failed to crack his brothers up, Thornton privately felt it was a little too close to the truth. Everything was too damn predictable these days - had been so for years, and it was why he had been sold on the spot once he found out what the Hartland Initiative meant to accomplish.
With its remote location and artificially low GDP, their small town in Wyoming could only be seen by many as a place to visit but never to stay in. Moreover, with signal jammers secretly installed to keep the place free from the shackles of the Internet, Hartland also allowed Thornton and his brothers to lead ordinary, private lives and never be pestered by the assholes, gold-diggers, and sycophants that were steadily gobbling up the cities.
There were still times, of course, when annoying tourists would find their way to his bookstore, but since they rarely stayed long, Thornton was able to tolerate their presence. It was only when he received Oliver's letter about a Hollywood crew filming in Hartland for three months that he knew he had to make a few changes.
The rules of Hartland Initiative were clear: in any situation where the truth about their precious town was in danger of being exposed, members were given two choices: leave until it was safe to return...or stay in character and play their respective roles to perfection until countermeasures had been put into place.
According to the local grapevine, Slade and Farica, co-owners of the Redwood Cafe, had already flown out of Wyoming. The American tycoon had taken with him his part-time waitress girlfriend Kady for a honeymoon (never mind if they weren't married) while the Dutch heiress had simply left a few days earlier for a scheduled business trip.
Thornton knew he could do the same. He just didn't want to. But at the same time, he also knew he still had to play by the rules. If filming were to take place at his street, and any of the crew members or even the cast decided to enter the shop...
Just thinking about it had been enough to have Thornton call Oliver's office to take the other man's offer. He definitely needed a shop assistant to take over during those crucially intolerable times. That way, he wouldn't need to control his temper and force himself to bear the presence of fools. And since the mayor's secretary, Frankie, was supposed to be extremely reliable and resourceful, he had been hoping that the recruitment process would be quick and painless.
Instead, it had been the opposite.
All the women Frankie had him interview were terrified of him, and Thornton hadn't the patience to wait for them to realize he wasn't quite the hardened brute his gruff demeanor made him out to be. He had been close to throwing the towel on the whole thing altogether when Frankie suggested one last candidate, and one she personally vouched for to boot.
The moment he heard the name, he had instructed Frankie to offer the person an employment contract, thinking that Blake was a bloke...
But obviously, she was not.
Instead, she was this petite brunette with nerdy-looking eyeglasses and a smile that lit up her entire face. The whole time they had been talking, her smile hadn't slipped a single time, and it was this which threw him off. For the first time in years, he found himself perplexed, off-kilter even, and when she suddenly gasped---
"Oh my gosh."
A rapid rewind of their entire encounter blitzed through his mind, but for the life of him, Thornton couldn't figure out what the girl was oh-my-goshing about.
"I just realized why your voice sounds so familiar..." Eyes sparkling with merriment lifted up to his.
"Has anyone told you how much you sound like John Wick?"
"It's like every sentence you drop comes with a serious amount of gravitas," she told him helpfully.
The girl was already grinning even before he was done speaking. "See?" she crowed. "You just did it again!"
Thornton frowned. "Did what?"
"That! A normal person would've said it like this - did what?"
Thornton winced. Those last two words had been uttered in a somewhat shrill, questioning tone that hurt his ears.
"But when you say it, it's like did what." This time, she intoned the words in a deep, grave voice like...
Thornton frowned. No. This girl's insanity was obviously contagious. She almost had him convinced he really did sound like John Wick.
Which he did not, he thought forcefully.
"I see it in your eyes," she teased. "You see it now, don't you?"
"No," he rejected flatly. "I don't." He punctuated his words with a cold, hard stare, but instead of having her run away like most others did, she just kept grinning and talking, enumerating all the ways he resembled a certain fictional assassin.
Thornton was incredulous. And amazed. Maybe she was a little dense, maybe it was something else, but either way it didn't matter. This girl was not scared of him at all, and while it was unfortunate that she had to be female, he could work with that.
"...and don't even get me started on your beard, Mr. Blackwood. It's as if your barber---"
She immediately stopped speaking and flashed him a smile. "Yes, sir?"
Frankie knew her friend was just joking, but she had a feeling there was a grain of truth in Blake's words. She had once admitted to Oliver that Thornton was a little too intimidating for her, and her boss had told her that the bookstore owner was far from what most people imagined him to be. What didn't help, however, was Thornton's lack of patience and interest to correct everyone's first impressions of him.
Could that be why he had ended up hiring Blake over all the other candidates? Many of them had better qualifications than her friend did, and there was also the fact that he had been expecting Blake to be a guy.
He had every reason to reject Blake, but instead the opposite had happened, and the more she thought about it, the only reason Frankie could come up for this was the fact that Blake was the only one who wasn't intimidated by the ex-SAF billionaire.
There was just something about these two. Something undefinable but tremendously palpable...that it had all the locals talking. Like Frankie, everyone couldn't help noticing the way Blake was always all smiles whenever her boss was around, and how she tended to, well, glow a little less brightly when he wasn't.
While Hartland's secret tycoons and heiresses seemed able to easily shrug off Thronton's occasionally sinister ways, Frankie and the other ordinary folks working in town couldn't find it in themselves to be just as unconcerned. Or at least that was how it used to be...until Blake, who from the very first day appeared completely immune to the frightening impact of Thornton's scowls or the menacing softness of his voice.
Blake was just so obvious about so many things, so careless with having her heart so blatantly worn on her sleeve, that everyone in town became certain of two things.
All the signs pointed to Blake's infatuation with her boss...and Thornton saw all those signs, too.