“Let him go!”
Aunt Shug’s voice cracked. She tottered to her feet, pulled out a soft white handkerchief, and dabbed her top lip to stem the blood trickling from it.
“But he’ll get away!” Charlie Ann stared at the diminishing cloud of red dust.
“I’m not chasing after him. Or any man, for that matter.”
“But we’ve got to do something,” Charlie Ann protested.
“We’ll do it my way.” Aunt Shug tilted her chin defiantly, but her left hand crept to the porch rail for support. “I’ve been a stupid old fool. To think I nearly…Thank God I didn’t accept. He’ll find out he can’t cheat a Huckabee.”
“What’d you plan to do, ma’am?” Rick came up the stairs, to stand beside the old lady. He put a supporting hand under her right elbow.
Aunt Shug squared her shoulders.
“As soon as I get home, I’ll call the police and report my car stolen. They’ll find him without us running around like headless chickens. Then, when they do find him, I’ll sue him for… for… for every penny he’s got left!” She bit her lip and raised the hankie as the blood spurted again.
“Oh, Aunt Shug, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t married Bennett.”
“You’re right. It wouldn’t.” Charlie Ann recoiled at the spite in her aunt’s voice. “But it’s no good standing here crying over split milk. I’ve got a business to run. Or maybe not, depending on whether I still want to sell to the client that Bryant’s bringing over.”
“Bryant?” Rick dropped his hand from Aunt Shug’s elbow.
“That’s right, Rick. Your competitor. It doesn’t do to put all your eggs in one basket these days.” Aunt Shug’s chin tilted again and she started to descend the steps, slowly, clumsily. Rick replaced his hand under her elbow and led her down. “Now, if you’ll be good enough to run me home, young man, where I can make myself a hot drink…”
“I’ll do that, aunt. I didn’t realize you were sitting out here. I’ll make you one right now.”
“No, thank you.” Charlie Ann had never heard her aunt sound so icy. “As I was saying,” Aunt Shug turned to Rick, ignoring Charlie Ann, “I’ve got two hours before they’re due. Long enough to weigh up the pros and cons and come to a decision.”
Rick escorted Aunt Shug to his car and saw her comfortably settled in the front passenger seat.
As he clicked the door shut, Charlie Ann touched his elbow.
“Before you go, Rick, will you give me Bennett’s number?”
Rick’s head jerked up. “Ben’s? What for?”
“He says he doesn’t know anything but if anyone can guess where Jasper’s heading, it’ll be him. He’ll help us. I know he will.”
“I’m not so sure.” Rick’s brown eyes clouded. He hesitated before pulling out one of his cards and scribbling a number on the back. “Don’t let him talk you into anything,” he warned, handing the card over. “And let me know if there’s anything I can do, won’t you?”
“Yes, Rick. Thanks.” Charlie Ann smiled. “I appreciate your looking out for me.”
Rick squeezed her hand and their fingers twined until they heard an angry tapping on the car window. Rick hurried to the driver’s side. As the car pulled away, he waved. Charlie Ann dug her cell phone out of her pocket and sank onto the top step of the porch.
It took four rings for Bennett to answer and Charlie Ann wondered if Rick had given her the wrong number, but then she heard: “Charlie? Charlie! I’ve gotta talk to you.”
“I have a few questions for you, first. Where are you?”
“Still at Cindi’s. She’s made me a sandwich. I’m starving and…”
“Get out of there. What I’ve got to say is not for her ears. Go sit in your car, or in the park.
Anywhere. I’ll call you again in three minutes.”
“OK, OK. I’m gone.”
Precisely three minutes later, Charlie Ann redialed and Bennett picked up straight away.
“What’s up, honey?”
Charlie Ann gritted her teeth. “Your dad’s swindled my aunt out of fifty grand and you’re going to help me get it back.”
“I knew I shouldn’t have asked him…”
“Asked him what?”
“I’m in a jam, Charlie. A real mess. I lost my job, then the cops caught me speeding…”
“So you are in trouble with the police!”
“Speeding’s not trouble, honey! They fined me, not put me in jail! But they will if I can’t come up with five hundred dollars by next week. I was desperate. I called dad and begged him to lend me the money for a few months, but I shoulda’ known better.”
“He didn’t lend it to you, then?”
“Told me to get lost. But then I heard that aunt of yours talking to someone in the background and realized he was with her. Although I hate her guts, I didn’t want to see her get burned, like my mom, so I came to warn you.”
“How noble of you. And to con five hundred dollars out of me at the same time, huh? But why do you hate my aunt? What’s she ever done to you? What’s with the’ that aunt’ bit?”
“They’ve been in cahoots since our wedding day. I got fed up of having Shug this and Shug that shoved down my throat. My poor mom was hardly cold when he started talking about looking Shug up. He made me sick! And every time I looked at you, all I could see was Shug. You look just like her, y’know.”
“Is that why you cleared off?”
“I wish you’d said something, instead of making me feel it was all my fault. And, there’s another thing. Why go to Cindi’s? If you knew your dad was with Aunt Shug at Willoughby, why go all the way to Lanchester?”
“’Cos I thought you still lived here! Dad never let on. The last I heard you were the star performer at Fulcrum Financial. Sorry about what happened, honey. Cindi filled me in.”
Charlie Ann let out a long sigh. “Oh, Gordon Bennett, Bennett,” she murmured and immediately wished she hadn’t. It was an expression she had used in happier days. Half gentle reproach. Half affection. Bennett picked up on it immediately.
“Please help me, honey,” he pleaded. “I know it’s asking a lot but I’ve got no job, no money, nowhere to go and I’ve got this fine hanging over my head.”“What do you think I can do?”
“Let me stay in your spare room – or the garden shed, anywhere! Help me pay this fine. I’ll work my butt off to pay you back. And I’ll find a way to get Aunt Shug’s money back, too.”
“I still look just like her, you know.”
“Aw, please, honey! Please!”
“Give me a few minutes, Ben. I’ll call you back. I promise.”
Charlie Ann gently shut the phone and placed it on the step beside her.She hunched her knees, rested her elbows on them and covered her face with her hands while she wrestled with her options.
Charlie Ann saw Bennett’s blue eyes pleading with her, as clearly as if he were standing right in front of her. If he was telling the truth about Jasper, his behavior was understandable and she found herself wanting to help him. However, if she brought another Ragsdale to Willoughby, her dear Aunt Shug would never speak to her again. Then, there was Rick – Rick who had been the first to warn her about Jasper – Rick with the sincere brown eyes and eager smile, whose touch had made her tingle. How would he react if Bennett came back into her life?
The minutes ticked by. Charlie Ann’s hands crept into her hair, clutching it in clumps.
Oh, Jeez. Decisions, decisions.