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The chilly January morning seeped into Gemma Valentine’s bones. Her brisk walk from her car at the town square hadn’t outpaced the swirl of gusty winds at her feet.
Reaching up with her gloved hands, she tugged the red knit scarf her gram had made her a little tighter and then smoothed down the fringed ends tickling her chin.
If only they made nose warmers. Hers was turning cold fast.
Standing on the quiet faded red-brick sidewalk, she tilted her head up to gaze at her family’s antique shop. Valentine’s At Vine beckoned in gold letters against the dark green painted wood and above the tall, large windows. The store had been the cornerstone of this block of buildings for six decades.
In her mind, closing the declining business in four short weeks proved necessary and practicable.
Yep, one thing I am is sensible.
Although a teensy tiny part of her heart pinged at the thought of never ever returning here again. It was her home away from home growing up in Cupid’s Corner. Her grandparents had made a little nook just for her and her array of favorite books—and assortment of dolls and stuffed animals—to entertain herself to her heart’s content.
And later, she and her friends worked part time here dusting, sorting, ringing up sales, and sweeping to earn extra money for the movies or a new dress for a high school dance.
Even her best friend Molly’s annoying, handsome, and near-perfect older brother Sean pitched in with the moving and lifting the heavy stuff every summer to pay for his football camp gear.
But she swept away the sudden, unexpected, and unwanted wave of sweet memories at her family’s shop.
It had to be done. The closing, as they called it.
Gemma yearned to give her grandparents their much-deserved safe, secure golden retirement years. They were far too generous by not raising the rent in the last decade on businesses leased in the block of buildings they’d owned. Add that to the increasing repairs, sky-rocketing insurance premiums they shouldered, and everything else with hefty prices and they were dipping deep into cash reserves they couldn’t afford. Next, it would be their retirement nest egg. It was time to save them. Again.
Her belly ached at how much it reminded her of when she was growing up and finding out they were in dire straits. At twelve, she’d come upon her gram crying over the pile of mounting, overdue bills.
Her grandparents and parents were wonderful, creative, and outgoing. However, that day she’d been hit with the cold, hard reality that they didn’t know the business end and they could lose everything. Fear had risen, her chest tightening, and it had been all she could do to breathe.
With no other option, Gemma had offered her college fund. She’d planned on going to her favorite college and living on campus like all the other students. She never did. Instead, she stayed at home, worked through high school and beyond, changed her major, attended community college, and paid her way—with as much help as her family could provide when she transferred to a local university to finish her degree.
“I did it then. I can do this now.”
At least they’d all get one last Valentine’s Day festivities—her family’s favorite holiday—in before they’d shuttered the store for good.
She clutched the new planning notebook in her left arm. It was all there in black and white, each step down to the very last detail they had to take until the final moment.
Someone had to do it.
How could she get her parents on board when they’d been busy with redoing their huge detached garage and then moving their furniture salvage, refurbishing, and upholstery shop there? They’d been against selling the property—even the alternative of splitting up the block of buildings—but had little know-how to turn slumping sales around. People weren’t buying antiques like they used to.
A sad and true fact.
It had taken months of reality to set in for her family. She, on the other hand, had known much longer. Numbers didn’t lie, even if she wanted them to.
So, Gemma had presented the evidence and slowly convinced them all it was time to let go.
“Now if only Gram and Gramps will follow along with the clear, concise steps I’ve written up.”
Her grandparents’ future depended on this. No hitches or hiccups allowed.
They didn’t have to retire fully, just not stay here so they were pouring in more money than they were making the last year.
Overhead, utilities, taxes, oh my!
A crisp breeze picked up, whipping the fringe on her scarf enough to brush along her left cheek and shift her precariously positioned hat. Gemma reached up and straightened her matching red knit cap.
Suddenly, she noted a movement in one of the large, wide windows to her right. A beautifully dressed mannequin in classic Gibson girl attire—long white gown and her hair swept up in the famous style—swayed.
“Nope. That was her hand. And it’s loose!” Gemma giggled as it seemingly moved on its own.
Looking closer, she noted her petite, spry gram—short in stature, but strong in every other way—behind the figure, attempting to adjust it. But the arm, from the elbow to the fingertips, moved up and down as if waving to her.
Her grandmother peeked out and grinned. Gram pointed the hand—index finger slightly raised—and then marched away.
Gemma shook her head and then rushed up the stone steps, opening the door at the same time her gram did. The cheerful tinkling bell overhead made Gemma smile just as it always did.
Warmth stole over Gemma. The inviting hot-chocolate scent welcomed her as she stepped over the threshold and quickly closed the door to stop the cold air from rushing in behind her.
“Would you like a hand, dear?” Gram held out the strange bisque-colored appendage.
“How can you even ask that with a straight face?” Gemma chuckled.
“Give your ol’ grandmother a hug.”
“Gladly.” Gemma leaned down and wrapped her arms around her favorite person in the world. The mixture of choking hairspray and stiffly curled blonde hair struck her head-on. “New do?”
She got a big squeeze in return and something thumped her on her back a few times. The hand!
“How about a pat on the back?” Gram giggled in her ear.
It was the sweetest sound.
Pulling back slightly, Gemma tried to smother her grin as she gazed into her grandmother’s twinkling blue eyes. “Great backscratcher for Gramps, too, wouldn’t you say?”
“Oh, sweetheart, how I love when you let down that stern librarian look and play along. I’ve raised you well, most of the time. The rest, don’t blame me.”
“Speaking of Moms and Pops…”
“They’re not taking things well.” She shrugged. “None of us are really.”
Her soft sigh wiggled into Gemma’s weak spots. “I’m sorry I didn’t do something sooner.”
“Me, too. I mean us, not you. Never mind. What is is and what will be will be.”
“That makes so much sense. I think.”
“Code talking, your grandfather calls it. I’ll teach you everything I know for when you get a husband.”
“Not that again, Gram. You know I don’t believe in the Valentine’s At Vine folklore—”
“Oh, my heart. How could you?!” She swatted Gemma lightly with the poor Gibson girl’s hand. “Take it back.”
“Okay, so you and Gramps met and fell in love here. Moms and Pops, too. But that’s not me.”
“I know. You say practical. I say stubborn.” She winked. “We’ll see who wins that debate.”
“Me? I’m not even dating anyone. And there’s only four weeks left until the store closes for good.” Gemma’s muttering wasn’t so soft. “No way that is happening to me.”
Gram harrumphed. “You’re a Valentine, aren’t you? It’s required.”
“See? I win.” Gram took the hand and patted her shoulder. “I’m that good.”
The cozy warmth of the shop seeped into Gemma, chasing away the winter outdoor chill. The scent of a burning cherry candle drifted to her now, making it feel more inviting. “Hmmm… Did you say hot chocolate?” Diverting her eager grandmother seemed best at the moment.
“Don’t think I don’t know what you just did, dear.” She smirked.
“Coming right up.” Gram went to the sidebar where she had an array of coffees, teas, and her even larger hot chocolate dispenser. Two plates of nearby cookies—sugar and iced lemon—were piled high.
Setting down her notebook and black crossbody messenger bag on the worn wooden checkout counter, Gemma shucked off her hat, scarf, and coat and then hung them on the nearby coat stand. “Is Gramps here? I wanted to go over the schedule.” Maybe if she could get them to see this in black and white it would give them the sense of urgency she dealt with. There was a lot of work to do and only four weeks to do it in.
Her gaze wandered past the quaint antique furniture groupings as if they’d been taken from a different century and plopped down here, along with crystal chandeliers, displays of gorgeous, multicolor and multi-designed quilts on special racks, the rows and rows of tall shelves stuffed with knickknacks and bric-a-brac to the little cubbies of specialty items—clothes, collectibles, and toys—and down the long length of the shop to the back where noises came from.
Gram brought the red with white heart mug of hot chocolate and a matching plate with two cookies on it to Gemma, setting it down at the counter. “He’s just getting a ladder. Those back shelves are crammed with boxes of who knows what.”
Before Gemma took the offered stool, she hesitated. “He’s thinking of climbing up there?”
“His bad knee won’t let him. Not that it’s his age or anything.” She huffed. “He’d never admit he’s getting older. He still feels—and acts sometimes—like he’s that young college boy who I fell in love with right here at Valentine’s At Vine all those years ago.”
Her soft blue eyes sparkled and her cheeks brightened with a hint of pink.
Something tugged in Gemma’s chest. What her grandparents found was very rare indeed.
“I wish you—” Gram shook her head. “I know. You don’t believe in love. Where did all of us go wrong with you? Maybe it’s because you didn’t stay at the store, less opportunities…”
“Guilt does not become you, Gram.” Gemma sipped her hot chocolate. The creamy, hot liquid hit the spot. “Perfect as always.”
“And sidestepping my obvious interfering doesn’t work, either. No one special?”
“Me? I love my work.”
“That’s what we get for sending you off to that stuffy college.”
“I will be forever grateful. Library sciences are forever grateful.” She loved working at the small library less than a half hour away. So, who needed to be that globe-trotting journalist she dreamed of as a kid with her best friend, Molly, as her photographer sidekick?
“But did you have to move so far?”
“It’s forty minutes tops with traffic lights and Mrs. Trumble isn’t ready to retire yet.”
“There’s always the middle school librarian position.”
“Maybe after this school year ends, if there’s an opening, I can look into it.” She’d love to be here close to her family, but there were so few positions at her level, well, at any level.
The far-off scraping sound and metal noises stopped. “Gramps? You okay back there?”
Only muffled words came.
“He said some not-so-nice things about the ladder.” Gram cringed. “I’ll go back—”
“Let me. I’ll persuade him to have a little snack and we can go over this.” Gemma patted the black binder.
“Countdown to closedown?”
Her grandmother’s sad look nearly undid Gemma.
“It’s hard, I know.” Gemma tried to smooth things over. “But business isn’t getting better.”
“Worse, in fact. If only we had a miracle, you know, a Valentine’s miracle.” She winked at the connection to their name and the holiday.
“I don’t believe in those, either, Gram.”
“No, but I do, honey.” There was a gleam in her eyes now.
“You’ll have to believe for both of us.” It was the only way Gemma could soften the upcoming blow being dealt to her grandmother.
Gram tapped a finger on her chin. “What could it possibly be, I wonder?”
“Gramps, on my way! Watch out, she’s plotting something.” Gemma grabbed both cookies and raced to the back of the store, much like she’d done thousands of times before when her grandmother decided on some scheme or another.
She thought she’d escaped strange ideas, but Gemma came upon her grandfather eyeing the ladder. Her heart skipped a beat or two. “Don’t even think about it, Gramps. A trip to Doc’s is not on my schedule.” I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you.
Red crawled up his cheeks. “Don’t tell her I didn’t climb up there, all right? She still thinks I’m twenty-one with all that feisty spirit she fell for. I wouldn’t want to disappoint her, sweetheart.”
“Oh, Gramps.” Gemma stepped near and gave him a hug. Tall and willowy thin, he patted her on the back. Somehow neither one of her grandparents wanted to appear less than in the other’s eyes. There goes another tender spot shooting off in my center. “I won’t tell her.”
“You’re a good girl, Gemma, not wanting to hurt your grandmother.”
Yep, that little speck of guilt grew. She was hurting both. Why hadn’t she studied history or art history or business something or other that would benefit keeping the antique store going? But she hadn’t. She’d realized early on she didn’t have the knack for selling things.
Books and everything about them captivated her attention. Every chance she could get, she’d read and got lost in the story, so much so she’d block out most everything else. She’d longed to live those stories by roaming the world, but she’d buried those fanciful dreams away when real life took hold and shook her until there was nothing left but practicality.
Facts were important, too. The fact that her grandparents’ livelihood wasn’t sustaining them any longer came to light several months ago.
Gemma stepped in then, going over the books, the sales, the buying trips, and nothing added up to a profit.
Presented with the cold hard numbers, her family relented. With their collective input, they decided on the day—their special one—to end with a bang.
Now, Gemma realized as she gazed at her grandfather’s sad expression, it was going out on a whimper.
“Here, take two of these and get some hot chocolate.”
He chuckled as she handed over the cookies.
“I’ll attack from above.” She gazed up, seeing the dusty cardboard boxes all along the top shelf.
What could possibly be worth keeping in them after all these years?
End of Excerpt