Authors: K.J. Emrick
Christina came out from the back wearing a green apron over her shirt, a pencil stuck in behind her left ear. "Hey, sis. I was wondering if you'd stop by today. I so wanted to show you the store. What do you think? Not bad, right?"
"It’s amazing, Chris, it really is." She spread her hands like she was taking it all in. "This is your dream come true."
"Well, I don't know if I dreamed of growing up to sell wine when I was a little girl, but yeah. I've always wanted something to call my very own." She smiled proudly, but Rysen noticed how her eyes were a little distant. Maybe she was remembering when the two of them actually had been little girls, like Rysen had been doing since she arrived.
Then her sister snapped her fingers together. "Say, I've got an idea. Why don’t you come and work here with me while you're in town?"
"What?" Rysen asked. "You can't be serious."
"Sure I am! Oh, Rysen it will be perfect. The two of us working together. I can't imagine anything more fun. It will be just like old times. You, and me."
She really hadn't been looking for a job here. She needed work, sure, but she was hoping to set herself back up on her feet on her own. Still, the look in Christina's eyes told her this was going to mean a lot to her. And she really didn't have anything else to do right now…
"Okay, I'm in," she said with a smile. Christina rushed her with a big hug and the two sisters fell into an easy laughter. When they finally stopped, Rysen was out of breath. "I'm glad you've been able to do this, sis. And, thanks. Having something to do to keep my mind off of what happened might be just what I need."
"Are you kidding? I could use the help around here. Um. I can't pay you much."
"You're paying me in room and board," Rysen corrected her. "Don't worry about the rest of it. I'll keep looking for something else while I help you and if anything comes along, I'll talk to you about it first."
"Good." Her sister sighed, and her voice turned serious. "Truthfully, I need another set of eyes more than I need another set of hands. The shop, well, it's not doing as well as I'd like."
"Is it hard to keep it going? I mean, in wine country like this there must be a lot of shops to compete with."
Christina nodded. "There are, but I've always carved out a special niche for myself. I've partnered with some of the other shops so we can promote each other. Plus, I sell craft wines from local individuals. They've become a big hit, even if I don't make a lot of money from them. The big sellers are always the high-priced wines."
Her voice trailed off at the end of that sentence, and Rysen got the feeling she was missing something. "Chris? What is it?"
Tears brimmed in Christina's eyes and it took her a moment to answer. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to keep the shop open for very much longer.”
"What?" Rysen was shocked. "You're kidding! What's wrong?"
"It's terrible, Ry. My wine shipments aren't making it to the shop. I've even had break-ins here where whole cases have been stolen. I'm still getting my orders from the local guys who make wine in their closets but that's not enough. If I can't stock my shelves, I won't be able to make any money."
The empty spaces on the shelves, Rysen thought. Suddenly they had a more ominous look to them. They didn't represent healthy sales. They represented no sales at all.
"This shop is my only income," Christina continued. "If it goes under, I don't know what I'll do."
Right, Rysen thought to herself bitterly. Because Christina wouldn't have a great sister to fall back on like Rysen had done with her. Rysen had messed her life up to a point where she wasn't any good to anyone. Well. If she couldn't help herself, she was going to help her sister.
"I'm here now, Chris," she said, putting her hands on her sister's shoulders. "I'll help you. I will not let you lose this place."
"Thanks, sis. That means a lot." Christina wiped tears from her cheeks and turned away so Rysen wouldn't see her crying. "But what are we going to do?"
The door to the shop opened, and a couple of tourists walked in, hand in hand, happy and smiling, obviously in the mood to buy something. "For right now, let's make you some sales," Rysen told her sister. "We'll figure the rest of it out later."
It took no time at all for Rysen to learn what she needed to know to help out in her sister’s shop. Smile at the tourists, show them the selection, and promise they could get anything a customer might ask for. Write down special orders and pass them to Christina. Do not sample the wines. Do offer samples to the customers in little paper cups shaped like ice cream cones.
The four days went by very, very fast. She couldn't believe she was having this much fun here. She liked the shop. It was almost like she’d found a place to hide from the world. A place where she mattered. It didn't escape her attention that she had completely given up looking for another job. This was where she was going to stay. For now, anyway.
The trouble her sister was having with her shipments still bothered her. Christina was being pretty tight-lipped about it, staying up well past midnight at the kitchen table every night, going over the account books, and not telling Rysen much of anything. The one thing her sister had shared with her was that she was saving up to pay for a security consultant. Rysen had arched an eyebrow at the idea but Christina had just shrugged her shoulders and said she had to do something.
Rysen had suggested buying a good security camera system, currently lacking in the store, but Christina had pointed out the wine shipments weren't ever getting to her store. Video recording the wine bottles she still had wouldn't do her any good.
"Have you asked dad for help?" Rysen asked Christina last night.
"Have you gone to see him yet?" her sister had countered, and that had effectively ended the conversation.
Rysen was just finishing a sale to an elderly woman who bought four bottles of red wine. She smiled and kept herself from asking if they were all for the lady, but only just barely. It was a good sales day so far, but Rysen was worrying about the way the shelves were emptying out. There was in fact a cellar underneath the store, but there weren't that many boxes left, and the extra storage shelves down there were beginning to look just like the shelves up here.
There wasn't another shipment due for another four days. Rysen was still pushing her sister to do something, to let her know more about the problem, to let her help, but Christina still had all of her hopes set on—
"The security consultant's coming tomorrow," Christina practically sang as she entered the room from the small office in the back. "I worked out the finances with the bank this morning, and finally—finally!—you and I are going to get to the bottom of these thefts."
"Yes!" Rysen whooped as she bagged up the order for her customer. The old woman looked at the two of them oddly, then shook her head and shuffled her way out of the store, promising to be back in a few days. "Sis, are you really sure this is the best way to do this? What about the police?"
"I told you, Rysen. I reported all this to them. They said it was a problem for me to work out with the company. The company says the shipments are getting here even though they aren't, and here I am stuck in the middle. Oh, I suppose I could go down to the station and insist that the police do an investigation, but who knows how long that would take?"
Rysen knew her sister was right. She also knew several of the police officers who covered this area. She'd gone to school with a couple of them. She wasn't sure she'd trust them to guard a donut shop, let alone Christina's shop.
"Okay, okay. So we're getting a security consultant. I hope he’s rugged and handsome. We need a little eye candy to stroke with our eyes, don’t you think?” Rysen winked at her sister conspiratorially. That got her sister to laugh. Rysen was only half-joking. A guy to flirt with would be nice, actually.
Who knew? Maybe working at her sister's shop would have some fringe benefits.
The clock up on the wall in the wine store ticked the minutes away. It was just ten minutes before noon. Today was the day Christina's security expert was supposed to arrive to do the initial walk through of the store and make his suggestions for making sure her wine shipments made it here from now on. Rysen hoped he could do what he promised. She hoped he had a nice, tight ass too, and kind eyes. She'd always had a soft spot for kind eyes.
“Ok," Christina said, making Rysen blush to think her sister might have read her thoughts. "He’s supposed to be here at noon. I’m so worried, sis. What if he doesn't think my little shop is worth his time? What if he refuses the job?”
"Don't be silly, Chris. This is what the guy gets paid for, right?" She smiled and took her sister's hand. "And if that isn't enough, I promise to bat my eyelashes at him and make him do anything I ask."
"Don't you dare!" Christina laughed, shocked at her sister's brazenness. "This guy is here to do a job for us. He is not your summer romance."
"That remains to be seen, doesn't it?"
Christina rolled her eyes, but Rysen saw the smile she tried to hide. She had been trying to set her sister's mind at ease, at least a little, and it looked like it had worked. Things would be better now. Chris would see that soon enough.
In the front pocket of her jeans Rysen's cell phone buzzed. She took it out and checked the display. She was surprised when she saw who it was. "Hi Beatrice. What's up?"
"Hey," Beatrice greeted her warmly. "I was wondering if you could meet me for lunch? You and Christina? I have a huge wedding order and the people want a dozen or more bottles of champagne included. I was hoping we could talk details."
"Uh, this might not be a good day," Rysen told her. "We've got a guy coming over to the shop…"
"Who is it?" Christina asked.
"Beatrice, hold on just a minute. Okay?" Cupping her hand over her phone she whispered to Christina. "It's Beatrice Leary. She has a customer ordering flowers, but they want to buy some wine as well. I was just about to tell her about the guy coming over."
"Shh!" her sister hissed. "I don’t want anyone to know. The way rumors fly around this town? I don't want to hurt my business. Besides, if whoever is doing this to me lives here…"
She didn't need to finish that sentence. Rysen completely understood. If whoever was doing this to her sister found out about the security consultant, they would just disappear for a while until the heat was off. They might never find out who was doing this. "I just didn't want you to have to meet the guy alone," she said.
"Ry, I'm a big girl. I've been doing this on my own for a long time now. I think I can handle this."
Still, Rysen hesitated. "You're sure?"
"Yes. I'm sure. If Beatrice is offering to throw some money our way by buying our wine for her clients, let's not turn that down. Right now we need every dollar we can get."
"Well," Rysen had to agree, "it would mean a sizeable sale for your shop."
"Exactly! Now go make us some money."
She smiled and put the phone back to her ear. "Okay, Beatrice. I'll come right over. Um. Chris can't make it but I can make all the arrangements. Okay?"
"Great," Beatrice said. "Is…is everything going all right at the shop? Chris isn't in any trouble, is she?"
"No," Rysen told her quickly. "We're just busy here. See you in a few minutes."
They said their goodbyes and Rysen hung up. Giving her sister a quick hug and promising to come back as soon as she could, she headed out the door.
She almost ran into the man standing there.
He was reaching out for the handle as she pulled the door open, and her momentum combined with his made her stumble right up into his chest. He was strong. She felt the lines of his pectorals and his tight abs as she pushed herself back to get her balance. She had to look up to meet his eyes, and she could feel the way her cheeks flushed red when her gaze met his. Crystal blue eyes the color of a summer sky held a hint of mischief and amusement that Rysen had fallen into his arms like that. The chiseled lines of his face were striking. Dark hair hung in a stylish, rakish way across his forehead.
Hot, was the first word that came to Rysen's mind.
"Uh, sorry," she mumbled. "I didn't see you there."
"No worries," he said to her, with a subtle accent that might have been British.
Unable to keep herself from blushing, she stepped around him and quickly walked away up the sidewalk. A little fresh air would do her good.
The sun was shining. The warm breeze lifted her hair away from her neck, smelling of the ocean that was only a few miles away as the seagull flew. She lifted her face up to the sky and smiled. Sometimes the Universe brought you to good places, she thought to herself. She’d had no plans to stay in Cambria for very long but she was starting to enjoy this little vacation she was taking from her real life.
Then she reminded herself she didn't have a job of her own or a place of her own or a man in her life or any prospect at a career…
Rysen took a deep breath of the warm, scented air in front of Beatrice's flower shop, and told herself to stop. Stop worrying over what she couldn't control. Focus on the moment, on the very real problems her sister was facing, and worry about tomorrow when it came.
Into the flower shop she went, making the little bell above the door ring, and calling out for Beatrice.
"Who are you?" an annoyed man's voice challenged her. "Beatrice ain't here. Come back after lunch."
Rysen snapped her eyes around. Standing behind the counter was a tall, thin man with broad shoulders and sandy brown hair, the kind she liked to run her fingers through…
Her mind skipped a beat. He'd grown up, and the dress slacks with the white polo shirt were a big change from the ripped jeans and graphic tee's he used to wear, but there was no mistaking that face. She hadn't seen him in, well, forever, but no girl ever forgot the boy she gave her first kiss to.
"Josh," she said. Not a question. Not even a greeting, really. Just a word that summed up a thousand twisted feelings inside her core.
"Yup, that's me." He narrowed his pale brown eyes at her, thinking, until finally she saw him recognize her. "Oh. Hey, Rysen. I heard you were back in town. It's good to see you."
She shifted her weight and stared at him. It's good to see you? That was all she got from him? "I didn't know you were still in town," she said, moving closer, hoping to at least get a smile from him.
"I left for a little while but ended up coming back. No place like home, am I right?"
Sure, she thought to herself. Where all the people love you and hold fond memories of the times you spent together. Everyone, apparently, except Josh here. "Do you work here?"
He shrugged. "Twice a week. Beatrice doesn't really need the help but I enjoy working with my hands. Gives me something to do when I'm not on call at the hospital over in Thornsburg."
"Hard to believe, right? Well, not a doctor. A physician's assistant. We're something less than doctors, something more than nurses. At least that's how I explain it to my patients."
Rysen wasn't sure how long she stared at Josh. Talk about the one who got away. Good looking, in a boy-next-door kind of way, always good to her, and now he was a doctor? Hell. She might have stayed in town if she knew he would turn out like this.
No. No, she had to admit to herself, she was in such a hurry to get out of Cambria that she would have broken it off with Brad Pitt. That was how desperate she'd been to get away. Look what that got her.
"Did you want something?" Josh asked her.
She shook herself, biting her lip, hoping she wasn't blushing again. "Uh, yes. I was supposed to meet Beatrice for lunch. You said she wasn't here?"
He smiled sheepishly, but at least it was a smile. "Nah, she's in the back greenhouse cutting some fresh flowers. I just tell that to people during her lunch break so she doesn't get interrupted. I'll get her for you."
Stepping into the back to open a door, he leaned in and called out, "Hey, baby? There's someone here for you."
Rysen's heart stopped. Of course. Josh and Beatrice were dating. She'd never gotten around to catching up with Beatrice before now or she probably would have known that before it got dumped on her like this.
Just to hammer the message home, Beatrice came out from the back, holding long stemmed flowers in her gloved hand, and leaned up on her toes to kiss Josh quickly on his lips. "Thanks, Josh. You remember Rysen, don't you?"
"Sure, sure," he said. "Didn't recognize her right away."
They had come back up to the counter, and now Beatrice put the flowers and her gloves down, giving Josh a weird look. "Dear God, Josh, you two used to be an item."
He cast Rysen an uncomfortable look. "Come on, Beatrice. Me and Rysen dated for like, two minutes back in school."
"Oh, don't worry you big lug," she said, slipping her arm around his waist and batting her eyelashes. "I won't hold it against you. Rysen's a great girl. I always thought you two would end up together. She always had the best luck. Her and Christina both."
Rysen wanted to hate them both, but she couldn’t. Because Beatrice was right. She and Josh should have ended up together, and they would have—maybe—if Rysen hadn't thrown caution to the wind to chase a stupid dream in San Francisco.