There was a low wind howling through the quiet rooms, echoing the unsettled feeling in her gut. It was still early when she opened for business and got to work on the preordered arrangements that were due that day. Russell didn’t show up to help. She knew he wouldn’t show up until well after noon. And when he did, he’d be out of sorts and unhappy, as he had been from the day Paul had moved to Vegas without him.
Ever since their breakup, Russell kept talking about the shop’s lack of profit, and how he wanted to close up. But Ali still believed the place had something to offer Lucky Harbor. If Russell would only give her some of the reins that she’d been begging for, she’d show him how much.
But he’d taken the business over from his sister. It wasn’t a life’s passion for him, and he’d not put much, if anything, into developing the business. He had a base of fairly steady customers, but hadn’t shown any particular interest in catering to them. Nor had he put any effort into attracting new customers or cultivating more business.
Ali had all sorts of ideas, but no power. She wanted to create a website where people could order online, from the convenience of their own home or work. But Russell wasn’t interested. He didn’t want to be bothered with computer work, no matter that Ali had offered to do all of it.
Stymied there, she’d toyed with some changes, incorporating live plants, ceramics, and other local artists’ work too, but Russell had been frustratingly resistant. Determined to show him, she spent some time now clearing space to make some displays. She worked hard at it and was proud and breathless when Russell showed up.
But he went straight to his office without a word, not even noticing that Ali had rearranged the shop.
“Hey,” she said, following him back, “you okay?”
“I talked to Paul last night,” he said, turning to her with a light in his eyes that she hadn’t seen in a while: excitement. “He said he was sorry for being such a crazy, possessive bitch, can you believe it? A man who can admit he was wrong.”
“That’s sweet,” she said.
“I know. And he thinks we should make up.” He plugged his cell phone into the wall. “My battery died, and I’d left my charger here. I want to see if he called or texted.”
“I hope he did,” Ali said. “Um, about the shop…I rearranged some of the front. I wanted to show you—”
“Be a doll and get me some coffee?” Russell asked, eyes on his phone.
“And see if Leah has any pastries? Get a dozen assorted shipped to Paul, but make sure there are palmiers. Paul loves palmiers.”
“Okay,” Ali said. “And speaking of Leah, I was thinking it might be cool to offer a same-day delivery special. Flowers and pastries. We could do themed baskets, like birthdays and—”
“O-M-G!” Russell squealed.
“You like it?” Ali asked, relieved. “I’m so glad because—”
“No, Paul texted! He bought me a ticket to Vegas for next weekend!”
“But…” Ali’s mind whirled for a reason to not close the shop again. “You’ll miss the big ground-breaking ceremony for the new rec center.”
“Let’s see…” Russell held out both hands, miming weighing something between them. “Getting laid…watching a bunch of pretentious town council members slap themselves on the back and pretend to shovel some dirt around…” He grinned and rose to his feet and swept Ali off hers and kissed her soundly. “Long weekend alert ahead, Doll! Woot!”
Later that afternoon, after a long day on her feet, Ali was sitting on the back-office work counter. Leah had come over with the leftover custard puffs for the day, and the two of them were inhaling them like they were going out of style. A daily tradition.
“Can’t believe how busy we were today,” Ali said. Their afternoon had been wonderfully successful for a change.
“It’s you,” Leah said, also on the counter, mouth full.
“Yeah?” she asked. “You think it’s the way I rearranged the shop floor and displayed ceramics as well?”
“No. Well, yes. But you know the police are getting really close to an arrest, so I also think people are coming in to appease their curiosity. They want to see if you’re looking guilty. Or wearing twenty-dollar bills.”
Ali blew out a breath and eyed the last puff. After what Leah had said, reminding her how close she was to jail, she suddenly needed that last puff more than air.
“Go ahead, have it,” Leah said. “Probably you need the strength to keep boinking Luke.”
Ali, who’d just taken an unfortunately big sip of tea, choked.
Leah had to hop off the counter and pat her on the back. “You don’t blink at the idea of wearing twenty-dollar bills,” she said, “but you nearly asphyxiate yourself on the thought of boinking Luke?”
“Stop saying that!”
“Which part?” Leah asked innocently. “The wearing twenty-dollar bills, or the boinking Luke?”
“You know what part!”
Leah smiled. “The boinking then. Probably I should have mentioned that my custard puffs are aphrodisiacs. So really, it’s not your fault.”
Ali grimaced. “That’s not what we did. Boinking.” She paused. “Not exactly.”
Leah’s auburn hair was piled on top of her head, tendrils slipping free to frame her face and her startling green eyes. She looked at Ali for a long moment before her smile slowly faded. “Uh-oh.”
“No.” Ali shook her head. “No uh-oh.”
“Oh there’s definitely an uh-oh,” Leah said. “If you can’t joke around about the boinking, then there’s a huge uh-oh.”
“And why is that?”
“Because that means it’s not just boinking.”
“Okay, you have got to stop using that word,” Ali said.
“I mean who could blame you,” Leah mused. “Luke’s hot as hell. But…”
When Leah trailed off, Ali looked at her. “But what?”
Ali’s stomach tightened uncomfortably. Most likely that was not panic, but the four custard puffs she’d just consumed. “Too good for me?”
“What? No.” Leah leaned in and gripped her hand hard. “Hell, no. If anything you’re too good for every man on the planet. It’s just that Luke’s not exactly diamonds and heartstrings, you know? And you are.”
“No, I’m not.” Diamonds and heartstrings implied being a keeper, and she wasn’t sure she was cut out for that. But Leah gave her a long look, and Ali sighed. “Okay, so I dream of that eventually, but—”
“No buts,” Leah said firmly. “Look, Luke is tough and hard and badass, and everything else that makes up the fantasy, you know? But you need the reality, Ali. You deserve the reality.”
On Monday, Ali was behind the counter putting together a happy birthday bouquet of roses for a customer when Aubrey walked into the flower shop wearing a perfect dress, perfect high-heeled sandals, and perfect, smooth, straight blonde hair.
Ali hadn’t seen her since Teddy had dropped his little I’m-also-doing-Aubrey bomb, and frankly, she could have gone a lot longer without seeing her. Like, say, forever. Instead she tightened her grip on the roses and accidentally stuck herself with a thorn. “Ouch!” She put pressure on the wound with a napkin and glared at Aubrey.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Aubrey said. She held out a brown bag. “Here.”
Aubrey sighed. “Teddy told me he told you. So I guess it’s an I’m sorry present.”
Ali came around the counter and peered into the bag. It was a tube of hair anti-frizz.
“It’s the stuff I use.” Aubrey ran a hand over her hair. “It costs nearly a million dollars, but I figured I owed you.”
“Since you slept with Teddy, you mean.”
Aubrey winced. “Okay, yes. Yes, I slept with him. But in all fairness, he really did tell me that you and he weren’t a thing. I’d never have slept with him otherwise. I can promise you that.”
“Hell, no,” Aubrey said, looking pissed off. “I actually thought I had a shot with him. With his heart, I mean.” Disgusted, she leaned on the counter. “He was always so sweet and kind and warm and funny. And charming! I mean, I really thought…” She sighed and shook her head. “Look, for what it’s worth, I asked about you. He said he was moving out. But then after the auction, everything came out about you, about Melissa, and I felt so stupid. I really thought I’d been his one and only. But I wasn’t even his number two and only,” she said tightly.
Ali set down the napkin and studied Aubrey more carefully. “So you didn’t know about Melissa either?”
“No. When I found out, I dumped him. I even threw his phone at him. Broke it too.” She winced. “Apparently I have a temper.”
“Enough to steal the money?” Ali asked hopefully and already knowing the answer. Aubrey might be too pretty, but she wasn’t a thief.
“No. I didn’t steal the money.” Aubrey’s eyes narrowed. “Hell no.”
“And for what it’s worth,” Aubrey said, “I don’t think you did either. Or Melissa.”
“So who does that leave?”
Aubrey shrugged. “Half the town?”
“So we’re still…friends?” Aubrey asked.
“We weren’t ever really friends,” Ali admitted. “I’m too jealous of your hair.”
Aubrey pointed to the anti-frizz. “No longer a problem.”
After Aubrey left, Ali went into the bathroom and flipped on the light. Eek. She read the directions and squeezed out a dime-sized dollop, and like magic, the frizz vanished. It didn’t end up quite as smooth and shiny as Aubrey’s, but Ali stared, entranced by her own hair. Nice. “Best breakup ever,” she announced to her reflection. “Lost a man. Gained a maybe friend.” And the best hair product she’d ever had.