I opened the envelope and nearly tore the worn letter as I removed it. I gently held the tissue-soft paper as my eyes focused on the signature at the bottom: Wesley. Just reading it stirred memories inside I would rather leave buried. I read the brief message.
Dear Anne, There is something that has been troubling me and we need to talk. When I get back from New York, we will get together, during the holidays. I know you think I've been avoiding you, and I have, but for a very good reason. After this trip I will be able to tell you all about it. Until then... Wesley
I fingered the yellowed edges of the paper for a moment, and then placed it back inside the envelope. I hid it in the small space between two dresser drawers that had kept my secret for many years. Like a robot I then went back to preparing for the work day. Thursdays were my long days at the shop. I wouldn't leave until ten tonight. Fourteen hours. I sighed at the thought. I wondered how many that would make after fifteen years. Too many. Too tired. Still, I readied myself for the day.
"Are you going to meet me for dinner?"
I jumped at the sound of Bill's voice. "Sure. Six sound okay?" I tried to sound normal, cheerful. It was a labored effort.
"Yep. See you then." He waved and turned to go downstairs.
"Sure thing." I mumbled the words under my breath and jerked open the closet door to find a matching pair of shoes, tossing out several pair before I finally settled for some old but comfortable flats.
Bravo Boutique. The sign illuminated as I flipped the switch. I couldn't recall the exact moment I'd decided on the name all those years ago. I could remember the situation though. The where, the who. Senior year, Barton University and the school's eatery. Wesley and I sitting in a dark corner, huddling close together and talking about the future. I wanted to own a clothing store selling haut couture. He wanted to help me with the finances, be my investor and my financial advisor. We made plans. He thought of the name. And it stuck. All these years.
The phone rang and I steadied my voice to answer it. "Bravo Boutique."
"Hey! Ready to weather the long haul today?"
It was my best friend and colleague, Stephanie. "Well, yeah. And where, may I ask, are you? I thought you were going to help me open today?"
"Don't worry. I'm just stuck behind some fat ass truck doing twenty up Crestwood. It shouldn't be more than five or ten minutes."
She knew I wasn't mad. Stuck in traffic was a common excuse for Stephanie. Plus, when she called to say she'd be late, I could capitalize on the situation.
"Hey, you want me to stop at Freda's and grab some doughnuts and coffee?"
"You read my mind, sweetie. See you soon." I hung up the phone and smiled. Stephanie kept me sane. She was the one who would say something funny or off-the-wall to make me laugh when all I wanted to do was cry. Like when Wesley died.
I pulled some dated sales signs off the display racks to make room for the new ones. The two-for-one sale was on today. I hoped and prayed for major sales profits and the cash drawer to be full by the end of the day. We needed it; the end of the month meant rent was due. The current economic slump kept us treading water. All the repairs and redecoration I had planned for this year had been postponed. Right now, staying out of the red kept me from putting a gun to my head. Nothing else.
The phone rang once more. "Stephanie, no more excuses. If you're still behind that fat ass truck, I don't want to hear it. Forget the doughnuts. I need you now." I watched the clock tick forward, closer to ten and opening hour. A woman spoke.
"I was asking to speak to the owner. Anne Benson?"
"I'm sorry. This is she." My voice turned professional, the tone calm and cool.
"Hello, Mrs. Benson. I called to see if I could meet with you and talk?"
The buzzer sounded. I crossed the store to open the back service door and let Stephanie inside. She handed me a cup of coffee and a jelly doughnut.
"Do I know you?" My head cleared with the first few sips of caffeine.
"No, but I think you will want to hear what I have to tell you."
"I don't arrange private meetings with people I don't know." I started to hang up.
"Please. I knew Wesley."
Once more I placed the receiver close to my ear. "Wesley?"
"Yes. Wasn't he a close friend of yours?"
My heart pounded and I put the doughnut on the counter, untouched. "So, how do...did you know Wesley?"
"He was my accountant."
I decided that made sense, or at least I wanted it to. "And your name?"
"Greta. Greta Allstein. Wesley handled my family's money, or maybe I should say inheritance."
The name Allstein didn't have to be explained to anyone in Creston. Every newspaper business section, social section, and many times on the television's evening news, the name, Allstein appeared. The billionaire empire had everything to do with the success of Creston, its people, and in fact, its very creation.
"And why would you want to speak to me?" I myself couldn't think of any reason. I wasn't sure if I even wanted to discuss Wesley, let alone with a stranger.
"I don't want to do this over the phone. It's not...safe. Please. I am sure you will want to hear what I have to tell you. It's, it's -- you should know this...if you cared at all about Wesley and what happened to him."
Those last few words. "Fine. Meet me at nine-thirty this evening, here at the boutique. We close then. That's really the only time I have, Miss Allstein." I was curt, abrupt to the point of rude, but I didn't care. Greta had salted old wounds.
"Of course. Thank you. I will be there then."
I listened to the click and then the drone of a dial tone. In a slow, mechanical move I lowered the phone to the counter. I stared at the doughnut.
"Are you going to eat that or just study the jelly glaze? I mean if you aren't hungry, I certainly could use a few more pounds to add to this fabulously trim figure."
I watched as Stephanie did a perfect imitation of a model strutting across the catwalk. I smiled and shook my head. "Here." The doughnut was hers.
"So who was that? You having another Bill moment? Maybe I need to go kick his ass." The words muffled through a full mouth came out in incoherent babble, but I managed to decipher them.
"Not Bill. Greta Allstein."
"Greta Allstein." I nodded.
"What did she want? I mean why would she be calling you?"
"Oh, so you think our little boutique is beneath her taste in clothing?" I tried to match her gay mood but Stephanie wasn't buying it.
I shrugged. "Guess I'll find out tonight." I explained about the meeting and how Greta wanted privacy.
I knew that look and frowned. "Forget it, Steph. I'm sure it's nothing. And we are not going to do this again."
"What?" Her eyes grew wide and innocent.
"What? You know what. That why-do-you-think or what-do-you-think mood you're in is what. And this is not some game, one of your mystery novels come to life. So, forget it."
She shrugged. "This town's boring. Gotta spice it up somehow."
"Not this way. Remember the last time? You know, I'll never forgive you for talking me into visiting that old bat, Mrs. Gesler. Just because she hadn't been into the store for a few weeks and no one in her neighborhood had seen her walk the dog...that was no reason to go snooping. And the look on her face when we peeked in the window? I thought for sure she'd have a heart attack."
Stephanie shrugged. "How was I supposed to know she just got back from visiting her sister in Florida? Or that she'd freak and call the police?"
"Spending the night in jail is not my idea of having a relaxing girls' night out, Steph. Why can't we do normal stuff, like make popcorn and watch a movie?" I shook my head. "Now, help me put up the signs. We'll be letting customers through that door in the next minute or two." I glanced nervously at the small crowd on the other side of the glass front.
"Popcorn and movies, boorringggg," Stephanie mumbled as she plopped signs on top of the tables.
"This is your store, too, you know," I called out as she traveled to the stockroom for more signs. "Let's just concentrate on business," I finished. Work and play. Sometimes we had too much of each other, I thought, but then smiled when I remembered how she'd sung "Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall" for six hours in the jail cell, just to pass the time. "Love you, Steph!"
"Love you, too, dork!" she called from the back of the store.
I laughed and walked to the front doors, letting the small crowd inside with Mrs. Gesler in the lead.
The day flew by and I barely had time to think about tonight. As the clock crept up to reach six, I remembered dinner with Bill. I finished with Mrs. Gesler's purchase -- trying not to picture the hideously frightened look on her face that night so long ago -- and with a goodbye to Stephanie I was out the door.
"Good day?" Bill sat across the table with his usual order of chicken salad and soup.
I chewed on my lower lip. I knew he meant, "How are sales, Anne?" Nothing else seemed to matter. "So, so. Most of the customers will be in this evening once they're off work."
Bill nodded. He chewed his food in silence. I chewed my lip some more. Once again, the thought of Greta popped into my head. I couldn't imagine what she'd have to say about Wesley. My imagination got the better of me. Maybe she wanted to confess some secret love affair. I frowned. That's one thing I wouldn't want to hear. Or perhaps she wanted to tell me something Wesley had told her in confidence, something about me. I smiled. Now, that I would welcome.
I glanced up to see Bill staring at me. I couldn't decide if the expression revealed curiosity or annoyance. I chose the latter. It seemed more fitting. "I was just thinking of something Stephanie said today. You know how she can make me laugh."
Bill nodded, and went back to his salad and soup.
I sighed and picked at my chicken piccata. Why I ordered it made no sense. I called to the server and asked for a doggie bag. He returned with a box and the bill. I watched Bill sign for it and place his card on the tray.
"Not hungry? You feeling well?" Bill looked up then to ask.
"I just need to get back to the shop. Stephanie's working alone and if we do get a rush, I want to be there." I stood up and grabbed my purse and boxed piccata. "See you this evening. It will probably be late, so don't wait up."
"I'll probably be home pretty late myself with all those extra accounts to finish." He smiled.
I noticed a piece of parsley stuck between his front teeth, but didn't say anything. Then I rushed out of the restaurant. The ride back only took ten minutes. Almost everything in Creston is sandwiched together so that you can either walk there or drive to it in less than ten minutes. That was the nice part about small towns, I thought. The closer I got to the shop the easier I could breathe.
Stephanie raised an inquisitive eyebrow when I walked through the door. I knew she was gauging my Bill moment. Sometimes I shared. On other occasions, I told her to mind her own business. He wasn't her problem. This would be one of those times, but she didn't ask.
"Mrs. Gesler has come back twice already to exchange what she bought from you. Twice, Anne." Stephanie shook her head. "That lady is a nut case. Maybe a couple dozen nuts, if you ask me."
I smiled. "Well, that nut probably purchases at least five-hundred dollars of clothing each month from Bravo. So, bring on the nuts, I'd say."
"Okay. You got me there. And speaking of dollars, we've done fairly well in the past hour."
I noticed how full the store was. "We better put out more of those Capri pants delivered yesterday. The rack's looking pretty bare."
Stephanie nodded, and without another word took over the task. While she went to the stockroom, I focused my attention on a group of older women I recognized. Regular customers and good friends with Mrs. Gesler. I strolled over slowly and stopped to straighten out a table of sleepwear items.
"I told you. Marie heard it for herself. Allstein, Brock Allstein. He's the brother of Greta Allstein. It's been in the news all week. You read the Times, don't you? He's ruined, I tell you. I hope there will be a trial. Let him go to jail!"
I smiled at how Mrs. Ralston leaned in close to her friend, as if she told a secret. Yet, her voice nearly shouted for everyone to hear. "Ladies. How are you this evening?" I asked.
"Oh, Anne!" Mrs. Ralston said. "We were just discussing the Allsteins. You've heard of Brock Allstein? Well, it seems he's in financial trouble. Humph. More like shady dealings, I'll bet."
I raised an eyebrow, but remained polite. "That's too bad. Is the family willing to help him out?"
"I'd hardly think so. He's the black sheep of the family. This isn't the first time he's been at the bottom, you know." Letta Ralston nodded knowingly.
"I wasn't aware." I figured it was time to move things along. "So, what are you ladies looking for this evening? We have some beautiful leather designer bags just shipped from Italy. Genuine Italian leather." I led the group over to the accessories corner, and then left them to explore. This was our policy; give the customer some breathing room, time to think. Then, approach cautiously to ask if they needed any more help or had any questions. Never, ever pressure.
As I walked to the front counter I thought about Brock Allstein and his financial woes. Could this have any connection to Greta's phone call? I doubted it, but still... And how did Wesley figure into all this? I puzzled over it, but couldn't find any explanation.
"I'll take this bag."
Mrs. Ralston's friend smiled at me. "I want to apologize for Letta's behavior. She's upset because her family's business was destroyed by Brock Allstein many years ago."
"It's okay. I understand Mrs. Ralston can be somewhat dramatic at times. No harm done."
"Still, it wasn't polite, spreading rumors. She really shouldn't. You have a good evening, Mrs. Benson."
Soon, the rest of the geriatric crew came up and made their purchases. I was pleased. The register full, I could breathe easily once more. Nearly nine o'clock. I looked around for my partner. Stephanie was sorting misplaced clothing items.
"I'm going to start counting up the check money, Steph. Will you be okay ringing out alone? I want to be ready for Mrs. Allstein when she arrives."
"Sure, no prob. If you guys want some privacy, I can take the drawer in the back to count."
"Yeah, maybe so. We'll see." I laughed. "Maybe I won't want to be alone with her."
"You are worried about this, aren't you? And you told me not to be so dramatic."
"Well, the family has been known to have a few loose screws." I considered how the black sheep, Brock, counted in this.
"Don't worry!" Stephanie called out as she headed for the stockroom. "I'll be close by if you need me. Just holler. Or should we set up a secret code? That would be fun."
I listened to her laugh and shook my head, then continued adding check dollars on my calculator for the next half hour. Thoughts of Wesley and Brock occupied my mind. Nine-thirty inched closer and my anxiety grew, although I couldn't explain it. Maybe it was the not knowing, or perhaps it was because I had never met Greta Allstein. Whatever the reason, I grabbed a bottle from the bottom drawer and poured myself a shot of brandy. Just to take the edge off, I told myself. The warm brew triggered a familiar memory of Wesley.
Late spring and the last evening before graduation, we had gone out with a group of college friends to celebrate. I had drunk more than my share of brandy. I remember my mood soured, the envy growing in me like an ugly blister wanting to burst, as I watched Wesley flirt with Allison. In fact, he had been talking and flirting, it seemed to me, with Allison all spring semester. Before long, I started blathering on about loyalty and betrayal. Nonsense mostly. After I knocked over his glass, Wesley argued that he should drive me back to the dorm. I claimed to be just fine on my own. The shouting match ended with my last brandy thrown in his face. Truth be told, I make a mean drunk. And a stubborn one. At that point I had turned to leave, slipped on the puddle of wet left by someone's spilled drink, and fell straight into Bill's arms. Fate has some serious twists to it, I thought. A week after graduation, I had a date with Bill. And here we were, decades later. Ironically, as fate would play it, on my wedding day Allison confided how Wesley had been such a good friend, helping her through a rough time with her fiancé that last year at school. Fate.
I remembered how Wesley kept quiet through it all. The dating, the engagement, the wedding day. He never once gave an opinion or protest. I admit that I waited for one. Now, I think back and wonder...what if he had?
To be continued...