In a typical gesture, Aunt Shug threw a little dinner party the night before Charlie Ann moved into the apartment over the flower shop. Miss Caroline came over and, for some reason, Aunt Shug invited Rick Taylor and Thomas Shawcross, the two developers.
Charlie Ann wondered why her aunt had asked them, but the penny dropped when she found herself sitting between Rick, the young man, and Miss Caroline.
Oh, no! Surely Aunt Shug wasn’t trying to be a matchmaker? How could she?!
Bennett had been out of Charlie Ann’s life for two years, but she still hadn’t gotten over their wretched marriage. She had decided never – ever – to get involved with another man.
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Charlie Ann didn’t deliberately cold-shoulder Rick, but for most of the meal she engaged in animated discussion with Miss Caroline. Thomas, sitting on Miss Caroline’s right, listened with interest. One of his relatives had owned a flower shop, so he knew a bit about the business. After assessing the mood, Aunt Shug plied Rick with food and kept him laughing with savvy remarks. Jasper ate quietly, putting in a word here and there, but apparently content to sit and watch.
Everything seemed to be going hunky dory until the meal ended and Miss Caroline apologized and said she really had to go. She had so much to do. She hugged Charlie Ann and Aunt Shug and bade Jasper and Thomas farewell, much, it seemed, to the latter gentleman’s disappointment. Charlie Ann allowed Rick to help her clear the table, but then she shooed him off to the lounge.
He hovered a moment, gave her a wry smile and reluctantly moved away.
It was when Charlie Ann started rinsing the dinner plates before handing them to her aunt that she began to feel that things weren’t quite right. Aunt Shug was gnawing her top lip while loading the plates, one-handed, into the dishwasher. Apprehension drenched Charlie Ann. She remembered the time, 15 years ago, when a dreadful storm had swept most of the shingles off Aunt Shug’s roof. Her aunt had stood surveying the damage, gnawing her lip like crazy, and Charlie Ann had tried to mimic her when she got home.
“Don ‘t do that!” her mother had scolded.
“Why not? Auntie does it.”
“We all give ourselves away when we’re thinking about something we’d sooner not talk about. I twiddle my hair. Dad tugs his ear. Your aunt gnaws her lip. She’s probably wondering how she can afford to mend her roof.”
Without meaning to, Charlie Ann bit her own lip. As if feeling her niece’s stare, Aunt Shug straightened up.
“Is that it?” she asked, forcing a wide smile.
“I’ll finish here,” Charlie Ann said. “Then I’ll set the tables for morning, just one more time. You go and put your feet up. Talk to Jasper.”
As she put the last dishes in the machine, thinking over the events of the last week, inconsistencies popped in Charlie Ann’s mind, like bubbles bursting over a just-opened soda.
Why was Jasper Ragsdale here? What was it about him that made her feisty, fiercely independent aunt, a widow for twenty years or more, refer to him as her boyfriend? And she was older than him, too.
How long had he been here? What had made him leave his home 250 miles away in another state to come to Willoughby? As far as she knew, he had never been here before in his life. His son had been her sweetheart in college. After she and Bennett graduated, they had stayed friends and married when she turned twenty one. Just four years ago. Four miserable years when nothing seemed to go right for her.
First she found out what Bennett was really like and they grew to hate each other. Then Glenda, her only friend in the Ragsdale family, died. After that, Bennett seemed to go right off the rails. One day he packed his bags and said he was going to California. God knows what for. Charlie Ann went back to calling herself Huckabee and concentrated on building a name for herself in the investment company where she worked. But it had been hell. Jealous coworkers consistently stabbed her in the back, just because Charlie Ann had made fortuitous stock choices for an influential client. Then she had been set up in an insider trading smear. The firm let her go and gave her three months’ compensation in lieu, although there was no evidence at all that she had been the mole.
That was when she’d called Aunt Shug, to pour out her woes, expecting to be comforted, only to hear her aunt sound really down and in need of comfort herself.
Charlie Ann scrabbled in the cutlery drawer and counted out ten place settings. She moved from table to table in the dining room, mechanically laying knives, forks and spoons on the crisp linen cloths. As she worked, more questions presented themselves.
How had Aunt Shug really broken her arm? Skateboarding? Skateboarding, my eye! She probably said that to make me laugh, Charlie Ann thought. And she had laughed. But not even Aunt Shug would do something that crazy. And when did she break it? She was still wearing the cast, so it couldn’t have been more than four, five weeks ago. During Charlie Ann’s phone call she’d brushed off questions about her accident.
The one thing that stuck in Charlie Ann’s mind was how eagerly Aunt Shug welcomed her niece’s request to come and stay for a while. And, even more strange, why hadn’t Aunt Shug mentioned Jasper during the phone call? It looked as if his feet had been under her table for several months so he must have been here when she broke her arm.
The more Charlie Ann thought about it, the more convinced she became that her aunt was caught up in something she had no control over. Instead of putting the last spoon on the table, Charlie Ann stood tapping it in the palm of her hand, lost in thought. She jumped, startled as a jack rabbit, when a heavy hand landed on her shoulder and a husky voice whispered in her ear:
“Penny for them.”
Dorothy J. Piper is a resident of Indian Land. A native of England, she came to the U.S. in 1995, when she relocated to New Hampshire. IN 2007, Piper, 71, self-published a children’s book, “The Gift.” She works part-time at the Wal-mart in Tega Cay.