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“George Clooney, if you don’t get in here right now, I’m never speaking to you again.” My throat was raw and my head hurt, but I refused to give in to the head cold I’d been battling for two days. This was a big day at Bless Your Art, and I had to get there fast. Nerves tightened into a ball in my stomach, and I shoved a hand through my messy hair.
Today has to be perfect.
Unfortunately, George’s new friend Mr. Squirrel was running back and forth across the fence line, driving him mad. “No more treats—ever—if you don’t come inside right now.” George stopped his incessant barking. He glanced at me, and then at the squirrel, and then promptly trotted back into the house.
“Amazing what the word treat can do for a certain someone.” I laughed, thinking that it was good this dog kept my feet on the ground. Otherwise, I’d be a giant pile of worry.
He sat, and then stared at me expectantly, as I opened the jar on the counter and pulled out a large chew for him. Gently, he took it into his mouth and gave me a weird smile around it that might be scary to some people, but for me, it was nothing short of heart-melting.
George, my harlequin Great Dane, was the best dog on the planet—when he behaved, which was most of the time.
After running upstairs to change into dark jeans, my favorite boots, and a soft blue sweater, and taking some more cold medicine, I loaded him into the back seat of the Explorer.
He put his enormous head on my shoulder. “Do not drool on me. Today will be one of our biggest days ever. If everything goes as planned.”
I glanced at George Clooney in the rearview mirror, and he cocked his head as if he were listening to every word. I’m pretty sure he knew exactly what I said.
A few minutes later I drove down Sweet River’s picturesque Main Street. I loved this Texas town with its quaint buildings and friendly people. Warmth blossomed in my chest, easing the tightness there a bit. I’d been here two years and it felt like home.
My grandmother lived here, and some of my best memories from childhood were hanging out at her house. The very one I inherited from her. But it was the people here who made Sweet River special.
“Wow. Look at that, George.”
There was no parking left on the street and there was a double line of people down the block to my friend Shannon’s coffee shop. All of those people waited to get into my store, Bless Your Art. “Whoo-hoo!” I shouted, as I did a fist pump.
George woofed, as if he understood my excitement. The tight knot in my stomach loosened. And for the first time in weeks, I relaxed.
This might work. There’d been so much planning and the special guest of honor, Yarn Goddess, who would arrive in exactly an hour and a half, liked everything a specific way for her book signings and the classes she’d teach afterward.
But it was worth the headaches and working myself to death to see that line wrapping around the building. Yarn Goddess had lived up to her hype. I’d been told that she was the Jennifer Aniston of the world of knitting and crochet. I hadn’t believed it. When her assistant first contacted me, I thought I was doing them a favor.
I was wrong. Turns out that she has a multibillion-dollar yarn empire.
No one was more surprised than me when they wanted to do a book signing here. I still didn’t know why.
“But lucky us.”
George grunted again.
I parked in back and led George through the break room. The store was bustling on the inside, with each booth filled to the brim with crafts and artisanal items. This was my happy place. Even today with a spring cold and a headache that would kill a cow, it brought a smile to my face.
“Morning, Ainsley,” said Mike, my favorite winemaker and fiancé of my bestie, Shannon. I’d helped him a few months ago when he was accused of murder, and ever since he’d been my right-hand man, making sure the store was clean and always organized. He had a winery to run, and I kept telling him he didn’t need to help out so much here, but he and Shannon had insisted.
Today, I was more than grateful. Sleeping in had helped with the cold, even though the jackhammer continued to pound in my head. “Hey, thank you for everything. I can’t believe how organized this place looks.” With a myriad of booths selling everything from wine to yarn, to fake medieval weapons, art, and antiques, the place sometimes looked a bit hodgepodge, but not today.
“No worries,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of help this morning. Everyone knew how bad you’ve been feeling, and they really pitched in.”
My little gang of crafters and artisans had become a cheery, if somewhat dysfunctional, family. With that came a lot of nosing around in my business, but it was worth it. I had a group of friends who never let me down.
“Oh, and fair warning…” Mike followed me to the front of the store. “Mrs. Whedon has been grumbling all morning about how she’s going to give Yarn Goddess a piece of her mind.”
I rolled my eyes. I loved Mrs. Whedon. She was a curmudgeon of the highest degree but had a heart of goodness and light under all that crustiness. The chicken soup she’d made me yesterday was the only reason I was able to get out of bed this morning.
She had a popular booth in the store where she sold yarns from all over the world, and some that she spun herself. People came from all over Texas to take her classes. But man, when she had something in her craw (they like to say that around here) she was like a badger on steroids—never letting go of her prey.
I was about to go have some words with her when my phone rang. I waved bye to Mike and headed behind the counter, which was slightly raised so I could see the whole store from there. I got George settled while I talked.
“Hi, Ainsley, it’s Hilary.” The shrill voice sent the muscles tightening in my shoulders. I’d had at least thirty calls from her in the last two days. Yarn Goddess was demanding in a way I’d never experienced before, and her assistant, Hilary, was the messenger.
Maybe all CEOs with multibillion-dollar businesses and best-selling books on knitting patterns were like this. It was our first book signing, so I wanted things to be perfect, but even I had my limits.
“Hi,” I said quietly. Is she going to ask for pink elephants and giraffes next? Mrs. Whedon had said that yesterday and it made me smile. “Are you guys excited about today?”
Hilary chuckled but it wasn’t a happy sound. “I just wanted to give you a heads-up that we’ll be coming about an hour early. She wants to make sure everything is done exactly the way she wants.”
“Oh.” Thank goodness Mike had come in early to make sure it was all organized. We only had thirty minutes until she arrived.
“And were you able to get her special water? If it’s not exactly a No. 3 alkaline, she’ll refuse to sign anything.”
Even though she couldn’t see me, I stopped myself from rolling my eyes. Poor Hilary was kind and often embarrassed by her boss’s many demands. None of this was her fault.
“I did. I have a case of it.” I’d had to drive to Austin, which was about forty miles away, to find it. We’d also ordered special tablecloths because she had to have all-natural fabrics around her. There were two vases of peonies, in pink, sitting on the table, and special handwipes she liked to use that were scented with lavender.
Did I mention Yarn Goddess was high maintenance?
“Great. Okay, well, we’ll see you soon. And, um, Ainsley?”
“I apologize in advance,” she whispered. “She’s having one of her bad days.”
Then she hung up.
Um. Great. What did that mean?
Thirty minutes later, loud voices from the back of the store had George sitting up from his nap.
Mike’s face was priceless. His eyes wide, and his eyebrows nearly disappearing into his hairline.
“Let me guess,” I whispered as he neared the counter. “She’s here.”
“Um. Yep. And she’s not happy,” he said. “Something about the peonies not being large enough and it’s messing up her feng shoo shoo something for the signing.”
The woman was impossible. Who needed fêng shui for a book signing? She couldn’t cancel the signing this late. All of those poor people were standing in line to see the woman. Surely, she wouldn’t disappoint them.
I guessed this is what Hilary meant about her having a bad day.
I grabbed a sip of water to push down the knot of terror in my throat. We’d bought several hundred copies of her books, and they were nonreturnable. I’d be out all of that money.
“I guess, I should say hello,” I croaked.
George followed me to the middle of the store where several of the booth owners worked to move things around.
Yarn Goddess, who was at least sixty but thanks to a great plastic surgeon, could pass for forty, wore a Chanel suit with pearls. Her dark hair had been styled into a chignon, giving the appearance of an elegant woman one might see shopping on Fifth Avenue in New York.
I’d watched her videos and she seemed so friendly on camera. But nothing could be further from the truth.
“I don’t want my fans to see any other yarn than my own,” she shrieked. “Do you have morons running this place? Why would you try to take away from my business when I’m doing you a favor?”
Maybe, I’d just go back to the checkout counter.
Sensing the tension, George barked.
“Ahhhhhhhh!” Yarn Goddess screamed. “What is that beast doing in here? It’s contaminating my yarn.”
“Hello,” I said, forcing my voice to stay calm. No one called George a beast, except me. “I’m Ainsley, the owner of Bless Your Art. I wanted to thank you for being here,” I said. “We’re very honored to have you.”
Her eyebrow lifted, not too high, as I’m sure there was a bunch of Botox keeping her from having many facial expressions.
I reached out a hand to shake, but she just stared at it.
“Why is your nose red? Do you have a cold?” She grabbed one of her wipes. “Did you touch anything in here? What is it with this place? Animals and sick people. Hilary,” she shrieked as she waved toward me and George, “take care of this. Now. Or I’m leaving.”
Nerves boiled deep in my belly.
“I’ll take George for a walk,” Mike said.
I took a deep breath. “Can you see if maybe Jake can watch him for me? Just until the signing and classes are over?”
Jake was the fire chief and a great friend. His place out in the country was next to mine, and he loved George.
“Got it,” he said.
Hilary guided me back to the front of the store. “I’m so sorry. I know I keep saying that,” she said. “I’d like to say she’s just nervous. This is her first time in public since her—um, procedures. She’s worried people will think she had work done, even though she did.”
I bit my lip to keep from laughing.
“But she’s never the most pleasant person to be around.” Hilary was dressed in a black suit and white blouse. Her heels were sensible, and I had a feeling that, unlike Yarn Goddess, she was trying to look older than she actually was. She had a sweet smile but a stern appearance.
“Her fans seem to adore her,” I said, as we neared the counter.
“Wait, you’ll see. With them, she’s an angel. That’s why I’m glad she’s getting back out in public again. She needs them—or her ego does. I know that sounds terrible, since she gave me a chance when few would. But she feeds off that adoration, and it’s been months. It’s why, when I saw your email, I jumped on it.”
I pursed my lips together. “Is she maybe put out that we’re such a small town? I’m sure she’s used to big signings all over the world.”
Hilary nodded. “I convinced her this was a great way to get back in the limelight. Do people even say that anymore?” She laughed. “Anyway, it’s all show. She’s a diva to the nth degree but she’ll do the signing. She’s also a professional. Just, maybe, keep your dog away from her. And you may want to steer clear.”
“The crowd is winding down,” Mike said four hours later. “Finally.”
Thank goodness. Now we just had to get through the demonstrations at the community center and I could send Yarn Goddess on her way. The woman was a tyrant. Hilary was right. While she was quite kind to her adoring public—and wow, did they fuss over her—behind the scenes, I was more than willing to strangle the woman.
That’s not nice. She’d brought a lot of business to the store, but it came with a price. At the last minute, we had to rearrange the booths to make sure she had plenty of “breathing space,” and find her a closed tumbler for her water so people couldn’t spread their germs.
I’m pretty sure that was directed at me.
Oh, and making poor George stay with my friend Jake, because she “abhorred animals of any sort, and they didn’t belong anywhere close to her yarn.” That had been screeched so loudly when Mike brought George back to wait for Jake, that it was audible from the front of the store.
I was ready to send her packing. Ugh. I’d never met a more disagreeable woman.
“Shannon set up coffee and desserts at the community center,” I said, “and I made sure with Hilary that we have the demo table just as Yarn Goddess likes it.”
I may have said her name a bit more sharply than I’d meant to, and Mike smiled.
“Who changes their legal name to Yarn Goddess? I mean, for real.”
He laughed. “She is…something.”
“That she is.”
She smiled and shook hands, and even took selfies with her fans.
And then she glanced up and gave me a death stare.
I turned away and gave Mike a tight smile. It was the best I could do. “I appreciate it.” I coughed, which was another reason I’d been working the registers at the front of the store. About two hours ago, I’d gone to check on her. Yarn Goddess took in my red nose and pale complexion, and pointed a finger and just said, “Go. I told you I don’t want you anywhere near me.”
Which was fine by me, really. Alaska wasn’t really far enough away from her.
A few more hours, and she’d be out of my hair.
I couldn’t wait.
Before she could get out the back door to head to her hotel for a nap, Mrs. Whedon stepped in her path. The older woman crossed her arms and gave Yarn Goddess a hard stare.
More surprising was that the mean billionaire stopped to listen. I stepped down from the register and crossed the store quickly, prepared to tackle Mrs. Whedon if things became physical.
“You’re hurting people,” Mrs. Whedon said.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Everything in my company is made in America, and we use top-of-the-line dyes.”
Mrs. Whedon was in her eighties—at least—but she had a fancier cell phone than I did. She popped her phone in front of Yarn Goddess’s face. “These are pictures of people who have had reactions to your new line of yarn. You’re selling it at an idiotic price and you’re hurting your customers. You used to stand for something. But people need to know the truth and I’m going to lead the charge.”
“People are always trying to sue people who have money. It’s nothing new. They could have touched poison ivy or any number of things. Doesn’t mean it came from my yarn.”
Mrs. Whedon’s jaw tightened. “All I’m asking you is to do a bit of research. You know what something like this could do to your business. I realize you’re probably richer than Oprah by now, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put out a quality product.”
Hilary came in from the back of the store, with a look of sheer panic. She’d probably been waiting for her boss.
“Ma’am,” Hilary said to Mrs. Whedon, “I’m sorry but we have to keep moving.” She’d moved around to put a hand on her boss’s back.
The octogenarian—or perhaps nonagenarian—didn’t budge. Part of me was proud of her, the other part mortified.
I was about to move forward but stopped when Mrs. Whedon held up a hand. “Promise me you’ll look into it.”
“I will,” the billionaire said. “I promise.”
I almost fainted.
Two hours later, a crowd of nearly two hundred awaited Yarn Goddess at the community center for a VIP event. She’d insisted on resting for two hours before taking the crowd through some of her favorite knitting patterns from her latest book. I couldn’t blame her for needing a nap. She’d signed books for four hours.
But when she didn’t arrive on time, I sent Hilary to look for her. The young woman, whose prim suit and thick glasses gave her the appearance of a harried librarian, came back perplexed.
“I left her at the hotel to rest, but she’s not there. I’ve gone into every shop, but I can’t find her. This isn’t like her. She’s a pain in the—well—but she always shows up for her fans. I’m going to check the hotel again. Maybe I just missed her. I’ll be back in just a minute.” She rushed off.
That knot in my stomach came back and twisted so hard, it stole my breath.
“We’re going to need a plan B,” I said.
Yarn Goddess was missing.
End of Excerpt