Charlie Ann was devastated by the revelation that she shared blood with the smug Artie. Instantly, she was overcome with a strange feeling. Nausea? Dizziness? Anxiety? Perhaps a combination of each. She closed her eyes.
Then, it happened.
Her eyelids locked, and she was unable to pry them apart. Seated in the chapel pew at Aunt Shugs funeral, she lost the ability to sense her surroundings, except for the uneven tones of peoples voices. The conversations around her swirled, creating a cacophony of echoes and noise.
Suddenly her lids released. Pain overcame her. The glow of red emergency lights prevented her eyes from focusing fully on Aunt Shugs comforting face.
Dear, they pulled you out of this joint in the nick of time.
Confused, she blurted, Youre alive! Aunt Shug, youre alive.
Of course I am!
"Youre the one whos lucky to not be coasting toward the pearly gates. Were all lucky youre still here.
What happened? Charlie inquired.
Gas leak dear. You think owning an old home is romantic, and it is― if it doesnt kill you. If its not toxic mold dating to the Carter Administration, its a faulty gas line. You hit your head real hard when you collapsed, so theyll have to take you in for observation overnight. But Jake, that ever so delightful fireman over there assures us youll be fine.
As she spoke, Charlie interpreted Shugs expression. Shug never did shy away from the attention of younger men. Especially when they spent their days pumping iron and tossing around a football, just waiting for the alarm to sound to go save lives.
Aunt Shug, stop it! I know what youre thinking.
Charlie Ann. Now, Im a grown woman. And I dont know anybody whos ever been harmed by enjoying the scenery.
Shugs words were matched with the most mischievous of grins.
The fire engines red beams reflected off the glass door of Lady Hillingtons. Questions churned in Charlie Anns mind. Im just glad Bennett and Rick pulled you out of that building in time.
Bennett saved me?
God, dont make them start up again, Charlie!
Aunt Shug, what are you talking about?
Well, Rick claims he found you and alerted Ben. Ben, though, says Rick was too busy sizing up that back yard of yours to even notice something was wrong inside the flower shop. Ben says youd be dead if it werent for him. All that testosterone. Geez, male egos. Ill never understand them.
Meanwhile, Rick and Ben stood near blows behind one of the fire trucks. Separated only by Pox, the affectionate Dalmatian rescued by the Willoughby fire department several years back. Poxs attention was not on the mens heated discussion of who saved Charlie. He instead had rolled over, wanting both to call a truce and rub his tummy.
As he always did, Pox won the day, proving to provide the truce that the mens egos hadnt allowed to this point. After a couple minutes of petting Pox, Rick and Bennett joined Shug and Charlie.
We were so worried about you Charlie Ann. You were limp. I pulled you out of this place and sent Rick for help, Bennett chimed.
This comment was met with a glare from Rick, but he decided to maintain their canine induced truce.
Rick said, Were glad youre okay Charlie. You gave us a scare.
The next day, Charlie left the hospital, clean bill of health in hand. Her first stop was Aunt Shugs. It was time for her to sort out this mess. While, she had narrowly escaped a blighted fate, Lady Hillingtons future was now very much in doubt. Shug gave Charlie the bad news.
Fire chief says Miss Carolines old place is in worse shape than we all realized. The gas leak may have just been the beginning, dear. Theyre going to have to do a series of inspections. Probably will be weeks, maybe longer, before youll know if theyll condemn it.
Charlies emotions overwhelmed her.
Oh, Aunt Shug, coming back to Willoughby was such a mistake. While I was unconscious, I had the strangest dream. You died. We were sitting right here, in your house, and you died. And I found out you and Jasper have a son.
What? Ha! A son? Thats the best one Ive heard in quite awhile there Charlie Ann. Me and Jasper? Dear, I need to tell you something.
Oh no, you both have a daughter, instead?"
Charlie Anns attempt at humor was met coldly by her Aunt.
No! Listen to me. Willoughby isnt the same as it used to be. You know that already. But, the change isnt simply in the aesthetic. Theres something dark happening here. And I need your help, Charlie.
Anything, Aunt Shug. It looks like Ill have some extra time on my hands while Lady Hillingtons is out of commission.
Shug lowered her head. Bit her lip. Charlie braced herself for what Shug was about to say.
I know this is confusing for you. It is for all of us. Bennett rolling back into town. Jasper living here now. The truth is that your mother-in-law isnt dead. She got caught up in a mess. The whole Ragsdale family did.
Shocked, Charlie Ann probed for more answers.
What are you talking about? Glenda is alive? How do you know?
Jasper dear. He told me. Bennett doesnt know his mom is alive. Jaspers trying to protect him. Come on inside.
Both women arose from their seats on the porch. Shug entered the kitchen and put on some tea. A couple minutes later, she emerged with two cups of the hot, percolated beverage in her hands.
Here, Charlie Ann. This will make you feel better.
Aunt Shug, its going to take me awhile to absorb this. But I need to hear more.
Shug sat next to Charlie Ann, looking her straight in the eye.
Jasper was short on money several years ago. He began moonlighting. Selling real estate, or so he thought, to retirees. Trying to make a few extra bucks, you know. He thought it was an honest investment deal, but things went bad, and fast. Turns out his employers had unsavory connections. They were money launderers for the Desordenado drug cartel.
These words caught Charlie off guard.
Well, a deal went bad. Some powerful, well-armed men got screwed out of a lot of money. Threatened the Ragsdale family. These are the types who follow through on such threats. Jasper knew the only option was to send his family into hiding.
Charlie Ann lit up.
Is that why Bennett left me?
Dear, Bennett doesnt know anything about this. I can tell you that Jasper filled his head with a lot of things. Bad things about you. All to try to coax him into moving far away. He didnt want you or Bennett to get caught in this. As they say, youre safer if you scatter than if you stay together. Now, Jasper is worried that theyre onto him. Those thugs may know hes been living in Willoughby.
Charlie Ann slumped in her seat. The gears of her mind spinning. Her heart breaking as she thought of her failed marriage. Where were those damned guardian angels when all this went down?