Charlie Ann straightened her tousled hair and picked up her cell phone, having finally come to a decision. Aunt Shug wouldnt like it.
Bennett probably wouldnt like it either, but he had two choices. And Rick? He would jump to the wrong conclusion, of course. Who wouldnt? She flipped open the phone and punched in Bennetts number.
Charlie? What kept you? You said three minutes
Ill help you if youll help me. Get your butt over here.
Miss Carolines old flower shop. Its called Lady Hillingtons now.
She snapped the phone shut, cutting off his eager questions. Dusk was falling. Inside the shop it was gloomy and smelled like an undertakers. Charlie Ann shivered. Why, oh why, had she bought this shop from Miss Caroline, especially after the old lady had told her straight: "Honey, theres no more business here"?
Childhood memories? Wanting to preserve a piece of the past? Shed been kidding herself.
Running away from scandal that was more like it. She belonged behind a desk, using a computer, analyzing trends - not running a flower shop. Well, she wouldnt run it much longer if Bennett agreed to her plan.
She trudged upstairs and flicked on the kettle.
Bennett arrived early the next morning and pressed the bell. He was peering through the window, tapping on the glass, when she went downstairs to let him in.
Half an hour later, while he was sipping coffee and she plucked dead petals off flowers, Ben lost patience.
Come on, Charlie. Dont keep me in suspense. What dyou need help with?
Charlie Ann tugged at another petal.
Ive made a mistake, Ben. A big one. I shouldnt have bought this place. I realize that now. If I pay your fine, will you run the shop for me? I cant pay you, but youd get free board and board until I find a business analysts position
Bennett stared at her.
Omigod, Charlie. Whereve you been? Theres a million other people looking for work here. Youd be better off selling beans than trying to count them. A business analyst isnt a bean counter.
Sorry, thats an accountant. Not much difference.
Maybe not to you
Lighten up, Charlie! Do what you wanna do! Ill sell your flowers. Itll be a doddle.
Bennett grabbed a container of long-stemmed roses, propped it on his hip, and wandered around the shop crooning "Oo will buy my boo-i-ful ro-ses Charlie Ann burst out laughing. Shed forgotten how funny he could be.
The shop door pinged and Rick stepped inside. He looked from one to the other. Am I intruding? I mean, I can come back Charlie Ann tutted.
Stop that, Rick. Come and meet my new business partner.
Rick lifted his eyebrows. Business partner? O-o-o-okay. Hows things, Ben?
Better than yesterday. Hows it with you?
Not good. But I came to tell Charlie Ann that someone brought Shugs car back overnight and left a note from Jasper on the dash, thanking her for the loan.
Charlie Ann pursed her lips. Hes got a nerve. Any idea where he is?
Not a clue. It made your aunt look a bit silly when the police came round. There she was, claiming Jasper had stolen her car, when it was sitting in her own parking spot all the time.
Ill kill him, I swear. Hows my aunt taking it?
Shes mad, real mad, but shes got other things on her mind. Dont suppose she told you she accepted Bryants offer? Thats good, isnt it? Charlie Ann impulsively put a hand on Ricks arm. Bennett eyed it and swung round to replace the roses in their display. Now shell be able to buy the house by the lake and youll get some commission.
I wish! She says shes going to live in that old house until she dies its part of the deal and maybe give a hand running the rest home. Thats what its going to be.
Bummer! What will you do?
Rick shrugged. Norm and Ill move back to our office in Fort Mill and sell houses from there. Or try to. Nothings moving in this economy. Oh, Rick. Im so sorry.
Charlie Anns voice was soft and full of sympathy. Bennett turned to watch her again before addressing Rick.
Hey, bro. Off the top of your head, what would you do to drum up more business in this establishment?
Rick looked around him. You could take on a franchise. Say, Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts. But youd need more parking. Those three places out front wont hack it.
Charlie Ann scratched her chin. What about down the side? Could I knock down the fence and convert the back yard into a parking lot? It might be worth a try.
An elegant blue car slid into the empty slot between Ricks and Bens vehicles. It looked like Miss Carolines. Come to check out the renovations, I bet, thought Charlie Ann. Jeez. Last thing I want is for her to know Ive got cold feet already. She turned to Rick.
Why dont you and Ben go check out the yard and see what Id be letting myself in for?
The two men disappeared out the back door as Miss Caroline stepped through the front. Charlie Ann greeted her with a hug. This is a surprise! What are you doing here so early?
The visitor settled herself importantly into the velvet-upholstered chair placed beside the desk, and regarded her gravely.
Ive come about your aunt, dear. Shes becoming impossible. Quite impossible
What are you talking about? Aunt Shugs fine!
Shes far from fine, dear. Surely youve noticed her er confusion.
Confusion? No way! Shes as sharp as a needle.
No, my dear. You havent been around. Some of the things Jaspers been telling me
Jasper! Hes with you?
Yes, dear, he is. And hes in a dreadful state.
I bet. Whats he been telling you? Did he bring my aunts car back?
No, dear. We both did. He drove it while I followed in my car. Then I took him home. All very cloak and daggerish. I never thought Id be doing something like that at my age.
Miss Carolines eyes gleamed and she gave a girlish giggle.
As I was saying, dear. Hes been trying to move out, almost since the day he got here, but didnt want to hurt Shugs feelings. She wanted him to marry her, you know. And theres been lots of times when hes been able to stop her making a fool of herself, except that time she decided to go skateboarding. But then he needed to borrow some money to help out that good-for-nothing son of his. Well, she lent him five hundred, but now shes saying it was fifty thousand! Poor dear. Shes so confused. She should be put in a home, before shes too far gone. It all came to a head yesterday. He came to see me, so distressed
Miss Caroline, you dont know
Oh, yes I do, dear. Jaspers been keeping me up to date for months. Now, about the money. Miss Caroline opened her handbag and drew out several bills which she handed to Charlie Ann. Jasper decided to give it back to her. He drew out every penny he had in the bank and I added three hundred to it
Youll never get that back
Will you stop interrupting me? Its not like you to be so rude. Jasper said hed give it back to her himself, but I told him not to be so silly. Somebody else should do that. Somebody who is not involved.
Ill give it to her, Miss Caroline, but I need to warn you that Jaspers
Jasper will be just fine, dear. Hell get over this. Hes going to be living with me for a while. Now Id best be going. You make sure you give that to Shug straight away, and try to persuade her to see a doctor. Poor dear.
Charlie Ann watched her leave, her thoughts churning.
How could she bring herself to tell her aunt that Jasper was spreading rumors that Shug was losing her mind? And that hed found a new victim her aunts oldest, dearest friend?