Charlie Ann straightened her tousled hair and picked up her cell phone, having finally come to a decision. Aunt Shug wouldn’t like it.
Bennett probably wouldn’t like it either, but he had two choices. And Rick? He would jump to the wrong conclusion, of course. Who wouldn’t? She flipped open the phone and punched in Bennett’s number.
“Charlie? What kept you? You said three minutes”
“I’ll help you if you’ll help me. Get your butt over here.”
“Miss Caroline’s old flower shop. It’s called Lady Hillington’s now.”
She snapped the phone shut, cutting off his eager questions. Dusk was falling. Inside the shop it was gloomy and smelled like an undertaker’s. Charlie Ann shivered. Why, oh why, had she bought this shop from Miss Caroline, especially after the old lady had told her straight: "Honey, there’s no more business here"?
Childhood memories? Wanting to preserve a piece of the past? She’d 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 wouldn’t 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. Don’t keep me in suspense. What d’you need help with?”
Charlie Ann tugged at another petal.
“I’ve made a mistake, Ben. A big one. I shouldn’t have bought this place. I realize that now. If I pay your fine, will you run the shop for me? I can’t pay you, but you’d get free board and board until I find a business analyst’s position”
Bennett stared at her.
“Omigod, Charlie. Where’ve you been? There’s a million other people looking for work here. You’d be better off selling beans than trying to count them.”“A business analyst isn’t a bean counter.”
“Sorry, that’s an accountant. Not much difference.”
“Maybe not to you”
“Lighten up, Charlie! Do what you wanna do! I’ll sell your flowers. It’ll 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. She’d 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. How’s things, Ben?”
“Better than yesterday. How’s it with you?”
“Not good. But I came to tell Charlie Ann that someone brought Shug’s car back overnight and left a note from Jasper on the dash, thanking her for the loan.”
Charlie Ann pursed her lips. “He’s 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.”
“I’ll kill him, I swear. How’s my aunt taking it?”
“She’s mad, real mad, but she’s got other things on her mind. Don’t suppose she told you she accepted Bryant’s offer?”“That’s good, isn’t it?” Charlie Ann impulsively put a hand on Rick’s arm. Bennett eyed it and swung round to replace the roses in their display. “Now she’ll be able to buy the house by the lake and you’ll get some commission.”
“I wish! She says she’s going to live in that old house until she dies – it’s part of the deal – and maybe give a hand running the rest home. That’s what it’s going to be.”
“Bummer! What will you do?”
Rick shrugged. “Norm and I’ll move back to our office in Fort Mill and sell houses from there. Or try to. Nothing’s moving in this economy.”“Oh, Rick. I’m so sorry.”
Charlie Ann’s 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 you’d need more parking. Those three places out front won’t 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 Rick’s and Ben’s vehicles. It looked like Miss Caroline’s. “Come to check out the renovations, I bet,” thought Charlie Ann. “Jeez. Last thing I want is for her to know I’ve got cold feet already.” She turned to Rick.
“Why don’t you and Ben go check out the yard and see what I’d 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.
“I’ve come about your aunt, dear. She’s becoming impossible. Quite impossible”
“What are you talking about? Aunt Shug’s fine!”
“She’s far from fine, dear. Surely you’ve noticed her er confusion.”
“Confusion? No way! She’s as sharp as a needle.”
“No, my dear. You haven’t been around. Some of the things Jasper’s been telling me”
“Jasper! He’s with you?”
“Yes, dear, he is. And he’s in a dreadful state.”
“I bet. What’s he been telling you? Did he bring my aunt’s 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 I’d be doing something like that at my age.”
Miss Caroline’s eyes gleamed and she gave a girlish giggle.
“As I was saying, dear. He’s been trying to move out, almost since the day he got here, but didn’t want to hurt Shug’s feelings. She wanted him to marry her, you know. And there’s been lots of times when he’s 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 she’s saying it was fifty thousand! Poor dear. She’s so confused. She should be put in a home, before she’s too far gone. It all came to a head yesterday. He came to see me, so distressed”
“Miss Caroline, you don’t know”
“Oh, yes I do, dear. Jasper’s 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”
“You’ll never get that back”
“Will you stop interrupting me? It’s not like you to be so rude. Jasper said he’d 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.”
“I’ll give it to her, Miss Caroline, but I need to warn you that Jasper’s”
“Jasper will be just fine, dear. He’ll get over this. He’s going to be living with me for a while. Now I’d 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 he’d found a new victim – her aunt’s oldest, dearest friend?