|Book Cover for Store Wars by Vicki Batman|
"This stuff is crap." I ran a finger along the edge of a faux-finished table parked inside the store's entryway, flicking more than a hint of dust from my fingertip. My best girlfriend, Tracy, and I were scoping out the competition in the Sommerville Historic Depot District, one of which was Tejas Souvenirs owned by an old flame's mom. So far, no business we'd visited had measured up. The other stores all looked...tacky touristy.
I walked through to the next section, thoroughly disgusted with what lay before me. This store needed major first aid. No quality merchandise anywhere. The overpowering scents of vanilla and cinnamon from the cheap candles loaded on another table top caused me to have a major sneezing fit.
Tracy passed a tissue. "Janie, need this?"
"T'anks." I stuffed the used wad in my pant’s front pocket, praying the urge to let loose again would bypass. "Why in the world is a huge candle display by the front door, assaulting a customer when he-slash-she walks in? I can't be the only one who's allergic. And look..." I pointed to the section at the top of four steps, "room diffusers up there. Another brand of candles over there. And yes, people, let's combine those with scented bath products. A whole lotta stinky people and stinky homes are out there in the big wide world."
Tracy scribbled notes as I surreptitiously took pictures of the store's contents. "Undoubtedly," she said in a hushed tone. "So what else turns you off?"
In one corner, imitation leather purses embellished with rhinestone crowns had been stacked on a glass and chrome shelving unit. Cheap, gemstone bracelets decorated a nearby display stand. I pointed to a shirt rack and said in a soft voice, "I'd never wear these clothes."
With a frown, Tracy cupped her mouth. "Me, neither. They're aimed for the nighttime crowd—if you catch my drift."
"I do. Yuck." Taking in the whole enchilada, I stopped when I spied the jean-clad backside of a male employee sweeping the floor. God, I hope he hadn't heard us. I steered Tracy aside and whispered, "We'll have no problems with Twinkle Toes succeeding in the Depot District. Even better than the mall."
"I agree. Let's split up, take mental notes, and meet out front in fifteen minutes."
I peeled off to the left, and she went to the right. The man cleaning glanced over his shoulder and straightened. "May I help you?"
Instantly, my body froze like an icicle. It couldn't be— Could it? Fletcher? As in my once upon a time boyfriend, Fletcher Babcock? When had he abandoned the bright lights of Big D and return to Sommerville?
I pressed a hand to my stomach. The same twisting sensation I'd felt when he'd left eight years ago after he'd said, "I can't be with you anymore," had returned. He'd prefaced that statement with, "I'm going to architecture school in New York, and we all know how well long distance relationships work out. They don't."
His words had demolished me like a sledgehammer taken to a plaster wall. All breath had been ripped from my entire being. I remembered how my legs had gone wobbly, how trembles wracked my body, and how I wanted nothing more than to bolt out of his car and run for the security of home.
"Hi, Janie. It's me, Fletcher."
Stretching my spine, I regained my composure and slid the camera into my pocket with care. "Oh, hey, Fletch," I said with a je ne sais quoi preservation attitude while fluttering fingers his way. "Funny seeing you here. When did you come back to Sommerville?"
"Two weeks ago."
"I'm surprised I hadn't heard."
He propped the broom upright and tilted toward it."What are you doing?"
"Me? Oh, I never left Sommerville. I went to State Tech—"
I blew a breath and continued, "After working for other retail establishments over the last four years, I decided to leap and open my own business. Perhaps you've seen it?" I pointed down the street. "Twinkle Toes?"
His immovable stance told me he wasn't overly thrilled about my news, maybe because I would be a strong rival to his mother's store. Who knew? All I knew was I needed to finish my assessment and get back to work. "I thought you became an architect."
Typical irritating male. His uninspired answers drove me batty. "What brought you back?"
"This and that."
I'd had enough of his one-sided conversation and decided to go for broke. "Something's obviously going on. You can tell me."
He gave a barely-there squint. "Tell the competition?"
He shoved his hands in his pockets and sauntered toward me. This man wasn't entirely the same boy who'd abandoned me. Some details about him were as familiar as my own name; others, new. I'd always admired his lengthy frame. Since then, he'd filled out. His shoulders wide, his muscles hard. The sharp edge of his nose. His short blond hair had been messily styled as if some woman had run her fingers through it.
"I had no choice," he said. "Mom was running this place and the Sommerville Historic Depot District by herself since Dad passed. You heard?"
"I went to the service."
He pulled a dusting cloth from his back pocket and polished a wooden banister. "I didn't see you."
"For obvious reasons."
A smidge of compassion replaced my frustration. Softening my stance, I lifted a shoulder. "You didn't see me because you needed to help your mom. Did she say I called on her a few weeks later?"
He was so close now, I saw lightening flare in his grass green eyes, and caught the waft of the lemon-scented soap he'd used. His cutie-pie factor roused my long-shelved heartache from the ashes of despair. That, too, mixed up my brain.
"She did. She appreciated your zucchini bread." With a mischievous tilt to his head, he said, "I ate all of it."
There was only one thing to say. "Pig."
He chuckled. "I'm sure I am in many ways."
If he only knew.
* * * *
Stepping outdoors, I blinked in the bright sunlight. Tracy grabbed my arm. Positive it had to be bruised from her grasp, I pulled away and rubbed the spot.
"What took you so long, and why are you quaking like a leaf?"
"I-I have to go." We walked down the wide pavestone sidewalk. Turning a corner, I picked up the pace, making for a bench in front of Sommerville First Methodist Church, a white wooden structure from the 1870's. I plopped on the bench I'd spied and dropped my head between my knees.
"What's wrong, Janie?" Tracy edged in next to me, setting her hand between my shoulders, pushing in an up and down, up and down massage. "Did the strong scents make you dizzy?"
"No." I shouldn't be feeling so odd about Fletcher. "You didn't see him?"
"Who?" When I didn't answer, she asked in her smart aleck way, "Shall I use a can opener to pry the name from you?"
"Let's just say a guy from my ugly past."
"I wouldn't say your past is ugly." Then cha-ching! She knew. "Not—"
Arching my back, I heaved in a long slow breath. "Yep, the very same. Fletcher Babcock."
"The low-down snake." Rising, she said, "I'll go give him a piece of my mind."
I dragged her back down. "Don't say anything. It's been eight long years. I'm over him. Way over."
"Then why act this way? Why are you nervous?"
"I don't know. Maybe because I was caught...off-guard."
"You cried for two months straight after he dumped you."
"Silly me thought my first love would be the man I'd marry someday. Color me stupid. Eventually, I toughened up."
Twitter: @Vicki Batman
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