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“This is happening.” I forced my hands to loosen from the steering wheel. My knuckles were white from nerves, which was silly. This was an exciting day, or at least that’s what I kept telling myself. Tomorrow might be the beginning of a new life, or possibly my biggest failure ever.
And trust me, I’ve had some doozies.
“This isn’t just a new job. What if no one shows up for the grand opening? What if those poor people helping my dream come true don’t make any money? They deserve to be recognized for their artistic talents, too. If this business is a colossal failure, I’ll be laughed out of town.
“If I fail, I. Lose. Everything,” I said to George Clooney. When I needed him, he was always there. We’d become close over the past several months. Well, really, since the day we met.
He stared at me in the rearview mirror with his one blue eye and one green eye from his favorite position in the middle of the back seat. Then he cocked his head, leaned forward, and licked from my chin to my eyebrow.
I should have seen it coming. My giant Great Dane was the friendliest dog on earth. I know that sounds boastful, but it’s true. He’s never met a stranger, much to my chagrin.
“George, we’ve discussed this. No licking. You’re a very large dog, and licking is inappropriate at all times. And most definitely do not lick the customers. It’s a good thing you’re so handsome.”
After grabbing a tissue from my bag and cleaning my face, I peered up at the large Gothic Revival structure that had once been a mill on the end of Sweet River’s Main Street. Look next to Quaint Little Town, and Sweet River will be listed. The stone buildings have so many details, and when I saw the mill had a couple of gargoyles on the pointy roof, well, it was a sign. I’m a big fan of weird. And who doesn’t love a gargoyle?
After standing abandoned for the last forty years, it was now Bless Your Art, and I was the owner and proprietor, which meant I was either a genius, or doomed.
I wanted to open an art gallery, but the old building with its lime-washed walls and thirty thousand square feet was more than I originally had in mind. After talking to a lot of the local artisans, I realized I needed to think bigger. One-stop shopping for the tourists who came to Sweet River for wine tastings and the many festivals held in the parks behind Main Street. All of my venders either sold out of their homes, or only had booths at those events. This gave them a chance to sell their wares year-round in one spot with, hopefully, a lot of foot traffic.
When I told my brother, who happens to be the sheriff, what I was thinking about doing, I expected him to tell me I was nuts. But all he asked was if I needed help buying the building.
It wasn’t easy, because I’m so not rich, but I made it work.
Between my savings and dirt-cheap Texas real estate, I’d gotten the place for a third less than I’d sold my condo for in Chicago, leaving me enough money to also restore the old farmhouse my grandmother had left me in her will.
My brother and I were raised in Dallas and spent many summers at my grandmother’s home. It was an elegant old farmhouse with tons of character, but few modern amenities, like central AC. I’d left Dallas directly after high school and went to the windy city of Chicago for college.
My brother, Greg, had stayed in Texas and worked for the Dallas Police Department, after ten years, he’d moved to Sweet River and we had drifted apart a bit until I decided to move here. I never thought I’d return, but events had conspired to push me back into the safe arms of my small hometown and my family.
Converting the old building for the shop, well, that was costly. I couldn’t have done it without the help of my future tenants. The tried-and-true barter system—they’d get free booth space until what I owe them is paid off, and I’d get ten percent of their sales to help cover the cost of utilities and maintenance. It was a bit of a risk, but worth it. They had helped bring my vision to life.
And it was beautiful.
I’d left the lime-washed brick walls inside and out intact. They’d just needed a good power washing. The hundred-year-old hickory floors we’d brought back to life, and we had all new electric, so it was no longer the dark, dank place it was when I’d first walked in. Oh, and new plumbing. All the new pipes had gutted the budget, but we needed kitchen areas for demos, and bathrooms in a place this big were non-negotiable.
It could take hours to meander around all the booths. At least, I hoped that’s what people would do, because I’d never been prouder of anything in my life. I’ve been to a few markets like Faneuil Hall in Boston, but none of them were quite like what we’d created here with the local artists.
George Clooney grunted behind me.
“I know,” I said. “It is really beautiful. So much better than even I had imagined.”
A tap on the driver’s window made me jump.
“Ainsley McGregor, are you going to open our market, so I can finish setting up my booth?” asked Mrs. Whedon. As usual, she was dressed from head to toe in her signature color of avocado green. I sometimes wondered if clothing was still made in that color or if she sewed and knitted them herself. “Or are you going to sit in your car and talk to George all day? You know, that might be why you don’t have a decent man in your life. Strange behavior, talking to dogs. Men don’t like that sort of thing.”
Like I hadn’t seen her sweet-talking George when she thought no one was looking.
I gave her a sweet smile. She is kind of fussy, but she has a good heart. A nosy into everyone’s business kind of heart. But I adore her when she isn’t digging into my love life and why it sucks.
Her words, not mine.
“Good morning, Mrs. Whedon. I’ll get George out and unlock the door for you.”
I’d been in Sweet River almost a year, and I still didn’t understand why the residents were so interested in my love life. No matter where I went, they felt it perfectly sane to give me relationship advice. I mean they were sweet about it, but just the same. The last thing I needed right now was a man in my life.
Been there. Done that. Have the giraffe tattoo to prove it.
After unlocking the door, I held it open for Mrs. Whedon, whose booth was full of hand-spun yarn divided into colors. She knitted, crocheted, and taught lessons. Her workshop would kick off the series of events—art classes, cooking demos, book clubs—I’d planned, to bring people into the market. I wanted traffic, sure, but I also wanted Bless Your Art to be a hub for creative people in town.
Following her in was my friend Michael, who carried a case of wine. “Thanks again, Ains, for letting me do the wine tastings this week,” he said.
“Well, you’re engaged to my best friend, so it was kind of a no-brainer.” I held the door open for him. “Besides, it kind of goes along with your furniture, and wine will most definitely be good for sales. The more relaxed the customers are, the more they might buy.” We’d had to get a special license but in a town this small, it hadn’t been that big of a deal. That, and the county clerk was a big fan of Michael’s wine.
And hello? Wine is welcome as far as I’m concerned.
“There is that,” he said. “Shannon said to put your lunch ticket in early today; they have a big order for one of the women’s groups at the First Baptist.”
“Good to know.” Shannon was the best friend, and she ran the coffee shop just down the road. Michael had a winery three miles outside of town, but they hoped to get tourists interested enough with the tastings to take a trip out to buy more. He’d won awards, several for the quality, and it was just a matter of time before he hit the big time. Michael’s furniture was made out of wine crates, rustic and beautiful in a simple way. There was a reading chair where the arms and base were bookcases that I already had my eye on.
“What’s he doing here?” He was glancing out a window at a man I didn’t recognize. The guy wore a pinstriped suit and had slicked-back hair. I never trusted a man who used more gel than I do in my hair. And he definitely did not look like a local. He tried the door, and then banged on it. “I’ll be back to pick this up in a minute,” Michael said as he put the case of wine on the checkout corner and went to the door. Then he went out to say something to the man.
I was busy making sure George settled in on his fancy bed I’d bought him. He had one at the store and one at home. In addition to being the friendliest dog, he was incredibly lazy and picky about where he put his brittle Great Dane bones. Though, he preferred the couch most of the time at home. I made sure his water and food dishes were filled and hidden so they couldn’t be seen from the front counter.
George’s ears perked up and he turned his gaze in the direction of the front door. I could hear raised voices, but after a few seconds it tapered off.
Then I went to work on the inventory list I had spread out on the front counter. Not the most exciting job, but every item in the store had a number and that was the way we kept track of sales.
The shouting outside escalated. I swear, I wasn’t trying to listen, but only a window separated me from them. I angled my head for a better view of the sidewalk out front.
“I told you I wasn’t interested and I’m not going to change my mind,” Michael yelled angrily at the other man. “Don’t ever come around me or my vineyard again. I mean it. You won’t like what happens if you do.” Michael shoved a finger in the other man’s face, something I’d only seen people do on TV, and definitely not anyone as good-natured as Michael.
I’d never seen him so much as raise his voice before. He was honestly one of the kindest, most loving men I’d ever met. When he and Shannon were engaged a few weeks ago, I’d been almost happier for them than they were themselves.
Michael came back in and locked the front door.
“Is everything okay?” I asked, worried.
He shoved a hand through his hair. “Yes, sorry, if you heard that. He’s—there aren’t really polite words for a guy like that. How about you? Are you doing okay?”
I guess he wants to change the subject.
I shrugged. “A bit nervous about tomorrow. What if we open the doors and no one shows up?”
He laughed. “Ainsley, you’ve only lived in Sweet River a year, but even you know that everyone has been talking about Bless Your Art since you bought the building. It’s the best thing to happen to Main Street in years. It will be great, you’ll see. I better get finished setting up.”
I blew out a breath and nodded.
He headed to the back.
“Ainsley McGregor, I need help with my boxes,” said Mrs. Whedon, “and Maria says she’s on the way with her cross-stitch patterns. You really need to give another one of us a key. Then we wouldn’t have to bug you all the time.” I didn’t know why she used my full name every time she said it. Maybe it was a Texas thing, but it was just one of her many quirks. You’d never know from her grouchy outside, but there was a great big mushy heart under that avocado-green track jacket.
Not just because she was sweet to George, but if you love my dog, it’s really tough for me to not like you. Besides, he’s a great judge of character, and he adored Mrs. Whedon.
“It’s no problem at all,” I said. “The key is in the door, but I’m happy to help you.”
I followed her outside to her pickup truck, which was also green, to grab an armload of boxes, and a loud voice made me look down the sidewalk. The man Michael had been arguing with was yelling at someone on his cell phone, but this end of the conversation wasn’t clear, and I couldn’t make out what he was saying. When he hung up, he stalked down the street to the coffee shop, opened the door, and walked in.
The man sure was angry about something. And he was taking it out on the people in town, which I just didn’t care for. Mess with my people and you mess with me.
I quickly took in the boxes and set them in the booth for Mrs. Whedon. Then I handed Michael the keys. “Can you keep an eye on things? I’m going to run and get some coffee.”
Something was off about the screamer, and my curiosity got the best of me. It usually did. What if the guy had gone there to try and talk to Shannon? Sometimes she was too nice to tell people to take a flying leap. I’m no ogre, but after living in big cities and dealing with grumpy students and faculty at the university where I worked until a year ago, I didn’t have such a hard time telling people to bugger off.
I’d learned “bugger” during grad school from one of my professors, who was from Northern England. And yes, maybe I had a crush on him. Hello? British accent?
“George, do you want to come with?”
He opened one eye and put his paw over his nose.
“Well, all right, then. I’ll be back in a bit.”
I opened the door, and then jumped back as Maria bustled in, her long black hair piled on top of her head and wearing her customary yoga clothes. She was a mom of five, so who knew when she found the time to make beautiful jewelry and be a cross-stitching queen. Right now, she was carrying a tower of clear cases full of thread and beads. I wanted to get to the coffee shop, but I also didn’t want to be chasing down beads all morning. “Do you need help with those?”
“I’ve got it. Thanks for getting the door. I nearly dropped it all when some nasty man on his phone ran into me. He was too busy getting red in the face to notice he nearly ran over me. Guys like that should be strung up and—” She blew out a breath. “Sorry. Crazy morning. The kids are a handful today and I am becoming triggered and that just won’t work. Remind me again why I have five children?”
“Because you love and adore them, except when they lose their shoes before school.” No one was better at the kid thing than Maria. She managed to be part drill sergeant and Mother Nature all at the same time. Her house was always immaculate, her children well behaved, and she made the most amazing family meals.
But she often wore mismatched shoes, and usually two pair of readers on top of her head at a time and could never find her glasses.
“Got it in one.” Maria winked at me.
“I’m running off to get some coffee. Can I get you a chai latte?”
“Yes, please. Dirty. A double. I want a triple, but I also don’t want a heart attack from so much espresso. I’m so excited for all of this. I can’t believe we open tomorrow. It feels like it’s taken forever and has gone so fast at the same time.”
“I feel the same way,” I said as I headed out. “Can you keep an eye on George for me?”
“Absolutely.” Maria waved at my dog with her free hand. “Hello, sweet George.”
He grunted, but actually opened one eye, which meant he liked her.
It was a Tuesday morning in November, and the streets of Sweet River were busy. I waved and smiled, as people greeted me. It was so different than Chicago, where people kept to themselves and very seldom said hello to strangers. The weather was mild, and the sun shone over the quaint town. It was truly a storybook kind of place. As long as you don’t mind a few quirky folks in your stories.
There were posters on some of the windows featuring the homecoming and fall festival events. I’d honestly liked Chicago a lot, except for a few scary things that had happened there and the winters—I never want to be that cold again—but in Sweet River I felt a part of something. They’d accepted me into the community. Embraced me with a love and support I’d never felt my entire life. Of course, it didn’t hurt that my brother and best friend lived here.
I only hoped I didn’t fall flat on my face in front of the whole town tomorrow. Everyone was rooting for me and I sensed I’d given a new hope to the community that they hadn’t had in a very long time: optimism. And I didn’t want to let them down.
The bell over the door of The Perk rang as I stepped inside. The lovely scents of coffee and tea assailed me.
I love coffee. Tea is a close second, but coffee is my drug of choice. We keep a pot always brewing in the break room at the shop, but nothing tastes as good as The Perk’s. I’ve asked Shannon’s secret more than once, but she promised it was one she was taking to the grave.
I came around the corner to find that same man who had been bugging Michael talking with Shannon. They were off to the side of the counter by the big espresso machine.
“What can I get you, Ainsley?” asked Ben, who worked the counter and made a mean cup of coffee. “Your regular today?”
I nodded. “Yes, and a double dirty chai latte for Maria. You know how she likes it.”
“I do. Double shot of espresso for her. With all those kids, I’d need a quadruple.”
He had a point.
“Who’s that guy talking to Shannon?”
He frowned. “Don’t know, but she’s been trying to get rid of him since he walked in the door. I wasn’t sure if maybe I should act all tough guy or something. He nearly knocked Maria down when she was turning the corner to go to your place.”
Ben was a college freshman who was about six feet tall but probably weighed a hundred and thirty pounds.
Shannon had a fierce look, and I had a feeling the stranger wasn’t saying anything nice to her. My friend appeared upset and I wasn’t going to let him take advantage of her. I had just enough Chicago in me to go toe-to-toe with the biggest and the baddest.
I called over to her without waiting for a break in their conversation. “Hey, Shannon, I need to talk to you about the lunch order.” It was rude of me to butt in, but no way was I letting some guy bully my friends.
She glanced toward me and waved. Maybe she even looked a bit grateful at my interruption. “Be right with you.” When she turned back to the man, she made a sharp gesture, clearly telling him to get out.
Ben set about making my coffee, and Shannon came over. “Sorry about that,” she said.
“Who is that guy? Michael was arguing with him this morning.”
She looked stricken. “Again? He’s going to get Michael’s blood pressure boiling, and then what am I going to do?” She wiped her hands on the rag she had hanging over her shoulder. “He’s no good that one. His company wanted to do some kind of partnership deal with Michael. But Michael thinks there’s something fishy going on and that jerk-dude wouldn’t open his books and share figures. The guy gives me the creeps, and he’s just too slick.”
“Ugh is right.”
“I thought the winery was doing well?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s great. Michael’s just been wanting to branch out into different markets. But he can’t do sales and run the place, plus he really likes making the furniture. So, he thought if he partnered with someone who was already distributing—well, you don’t want to know all of that.”
“Maybe make sure Michael comes down to get you this afternoon when you close the shop. You don’t need more harassment.”
She smirked. “This isn’t Chicago, Ains. And I have four brothers, two of whom are in the NFL. I can hold my own.”
“Coffee’s up,” Ben said. He’d put everything in a carryall for me.
“You nervous about tomorrow?” Shannon asked.
“Yes. I thought by the time I reached this point—”
She reached over and put her hand on mine. “I felt the same way, and it’s worked out really well for me. We have more business than we can handle most mornings. You’ll be fine.”
By the time I returned to the store, almost all of the booths were filled with people putting on the last-minute touches. They each had two walls dividing them from the other spaces, but each one was designed differently. As I stepped up to the counter, which was set a little higher, so I could oversee everything, George raised his head.
I put the cup of whip cream that Ben included with every order on the floor for him.
I snorted. “Yes. Yum,” I said back to my dog. Then I started working on inventory again. It was almost seven hours later when I looked up and realized everyone was gone. The sun was going down, and it wouldn’t be long before darkness set in.
“It’s six. How about we take a walk before heading home?”
I grabbed George’s leash from the hook by the back door to the shop.
It wasn’t so much that I walked him, as he did me. I wasn’t the best at getting exercise, but that had changed in the days since George came into my life a few months ago. I’d already lost two pounds, and my fat jeans weren’t cutting into my waist anymore, so I wasn’t complaining.
I’d been eating my feelings for months, so a little exercise wasn’t such a bad thing.
Behind Main Street on the north side of our building, was a huge park with the Sweet River running through it. There were walking and bike paths, and it had old-fashioned gaslight-style lamps that made it almost as bright at night as during the day. The sidewalks were bordered by gardens, each tended by a different group. The open, green areas were where many of the town’s festivals were held. Handy, since people visiting said events could come through the back entrance into our building. That’s why I’d also had a sign painted on the back.
George dragged me toward his favorite tree. But he stopped a few feet away and whined a bit. I hadn’t heard him do that before.
“George, I need you to hurry it along, buddy. I don’t have time for you to be super picky about the tree. Let’s get it done.” I kept a firm tone with him when we were outside. But I never yelled. He’d pout for days if I did, and besides, who yells at a dog?
He growled. He’d never done that, either. And it wasn’t at me, it was at whatever was on the ground under the leaves.
A shiver ran through me.
Oh, no. That was my internal scare-dar. My gut always told me when danger was near or when something wasn’t quite right. The night I’d been mugged in Chicago, I’d had shivers just a few minutes before. That same sense of dread I’d experienced then slithered through me now.
Whatever was about to happen, I just wanted to run back to the shop and reclaim my happy space.
Think logically. There are no muggers in Sweet River.
The weather was cooler, and creepy crawlies were looking for places to hibernate. I’d watched enough Discovery Channel to know they liked leaves to get warm.
Could it be a snake? There were tons of leaves piled there.
The dog growled again, a deep and sort of mean sound.
“George?” I tugged gently on his leash, encouraging him to back away. “Please,” I whispered. Nerves jangled through me. I was scared he might get bitten. “Back away slowly. I don’t want whatever is under there to get you.”
He grunted and sniffed the ground.
Then he sat and wouldn’t budge. He outweighed me by a good sixty or so pounds, depending on how much chocolate I’d eaten the day before.
Stupid dog. The snake was going to strike any second. I pulled him hard, and as I did, his tail swept across the leaves and something popped out. He moved back then.
“Sit, George,” I said firmly, as my heart pounded against my chest.
Not a snake.
A very dead-looking hand lay in the leaves, and it was attached to an equally dead-looking arm.
End of Excerpt