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Hidden Treasures would soon belong to her. Marissa held her red knit beanie on her head and sighed in satisfaction as she looked up at the sign over the small town antique shop on a corner in downtown Grace Springs. She’d only been into the other antique shop in town, so it made sense that this one was going out of business. It would become a better tea house anyway, allowing her to carry on Grandmother Ettabell’s tradition of bringing beauty and elegance to the world. Her previous attempts hadn’t worked out so well, but she’d put the past behind her and…
Her ankle snagged some kind of band or strap, throwing her stride off balance. Her hands splayed to catch her if she fell, which experience told her she would, though she still looked down in an attempt to find her footing.
Instead she found a black leash. Attached to a furry varmint. The dog yapped and dove between her legs, entangling her even more.
Marissa twisted, bent her knees, and plopped onto cold, stone steps. If only she’d been this graceful when stumbling off the stage at the Miss Ohio pageant last summer.
A dark-haired woman, supposedly in control of the leash, wore what looked like yesterday’s eyeliner, a high ponytail, hoop earrings, and a little leather backpack in place of a purse. One fine eyebrow arched in cynicism. “You okay?”
Marissa stiffened for two reasons. First because the stranger could at least pretend to care. And second because her accident was really the other woman’s fault. “You need to watch where your dog is going,” she said before she could sugarcoat her words with the artificial sweetener ladies in her family were so well-known for serving.
The dog owner lazily untangled the leash, dropping it low enough for Marissa to step over like they were playing a game of jump rope. “Cocoa wasn’t going anywhere. The two of us were just standing here. I expected you to stop or go around us.”
“Oh.” Warmth burned Marissa’s cheeks. She ducked her face, pretending to look at the fluffy little dog. He was kind of cute. A Pomeranian perhaps. Marissa would have expected this woman dressed in black to own an attack dog. “Sorry, Cocoa.”
Cocoa’s owner extended a hand to help her up. “I take it you’re heading into the antique shop?”
Marissa eyed the black leather glove warily. She didn’t want to accidentally pull the other woman down on top of her, but to salvage her pride, she accepted the offer by clasping hands. “Yes, thank you.” She carefully shifted her weight forward to stand. Her tailbone only stung a little. At least her knee-length wool coat had softened the landing.
The other woman released their connection and led Cocoa to the side of the stairs. “I’ll get out of your way.”
Marissa gave a weak smile, though she should be used to jokes like this. She always did her best to play along. “Well, nice meeting you. Maybe we’ll run into each other again sometime.”
Lips smirked, but green eyes lightened in a brief flash of humor. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
The other woman couldn’t just leave it alone, could she? Marissa hoped she never had to deal with this snarky pet lover again. “Watch your dog, and we won’t. Who wants a dog that little anyway?”
One of the owner’s shoulders lifted lazily. “Who doesn’t?”
“Normal people.” Marissa brushed off her rear, pivoted on the toe of her high-heeled boot, and returned to the task at hand. Hopefully she’d gotten all the clumsiness out of her system, but just in case, she’d be careful in the store. Some of the antiques were sure to be both expensive and fragile. She gave her image a once over in the glass door to be certain she was presentable before ushering herself inside the building’s warmth to the sound of a tinkling bell.
The place smelled like musty wood, but before long it would smell of cranberry scones and citrus spice tea. If only she’d been able to open shop before the holiday season. She would have decorated with Grandmother’s Christmas village and teddy bear collection. The owner, Virginia Pierce, had stuck with a traditional snowflake and twinkle light theme. Not very original for someone who valued vintage beauty.
“Marissa Alexander, it is you.” An older woman dressed in a high-collared blouse with her hair piled on top of her head stepped through a door at the back of the room and wound through the maze of furniture. “I recognized your name from the Miss Ohio pageant.”
Marissa would have preferred if Virginia only recognized her name. The Alexander name had been well-known since the town was founded by J.D. Alexander in 1849. It had an honorable reputation until Marissa had become known as Miss Graceless Springs. With the way Virginia said the name Alexander, she certainly considered it tarnished.
“Yes, that’s me.” Marissa extended a hand with all the graciousness of a Disney princess. Though Disney should really make a movie about the girl who didn’t get the crown and aged past the point where it would be a possibility. Because that was a better fit for her life. “And you must be Virginia Pierce.”
“I am.” Virginia pinched the tips of Marissa’s fingers before pulling away. “Come on back to my office, dear.”
Marissa followed, taking in the overhead chandelier she would keep for the tea house and the cracked glass display cases she would get rid of. The loft at the top of the staircase would make a great spot for tea parties. Did the antique shop sell old hats? Because those would be fun to offer her customers as costumes to wear during high tea.
Marissa entered the fancy office with its Oriental rug and the Tiffany lamp set on a writing desk. Virginia had classic taste.
“Can I get you any coffee?” the shop owner asked.
“Oh no.” Coffee would never be served in this place again. “I only drink tea.”
Virginia gave a knowing smile. “Of course, of course.”
Marissa sank into a padded wooden chair painted off-white with gold trim. She clasped her hands over her crossed knee. “Your shop will make a lovely tea house. I’m super excited you accepted my offer.”
“Actually...” Virginia didn’t sit but looked out into the larger room.
Actually? What did she mean by actually?
“I’ve had two offers.”
Marissa’s brain buzzed with the sound of static. “Two offers?” she asked as if trying to adjust an old, rabbit-ear antenna to catch a better signal.
“Yes.” Virginia placed a hand over her heart. “So I thought I’d bring in the other party, and the two of you could have a bidding war right here in my office.”
Oh no. No. No. No. Marissa didn’t have any more money to bid. And she didn’t have any way to make more money since she’d put in her two weeks’ notice at the bank when Virginia invited her in to negotiate a contract. Why hadn’t the shop owner been more clear? This was so sneaky.
The bell over the front door rang.
“Excuse me while I greet your competition.” Virginia’s voice almost purred.
Who else had put in an offer? Did they have the money to outbid Marissa? Would she have to wave the white flag and admit another life defeat?
Tandy Brandt made sure Cocoa did his business outside before bringing him in the antique store to stay warm. There wasn’t much space to secure his leash with all the old furniture and knick-knacks, so she’d just keep the Pomeranian with her. When she started her coffee shop though, she’d make sure to have a corner for animals. She’d even make them homemade doggie treats.
“What is that?” an older woman at the back of the store asked in disdain.
Tandy glanced around and didn’t see anything disdainful, but she lifted Cocoa into her arms to be safe.
“What you’re holding.”
“Oh.” Tandy looked up from her pup to meet the woman’s narrowed eyes. She was probably a cat person. “This is Cocoa. And you are?”
“I’m the owner, Virginia Pierce.” The woman said it like it made her more important. She really needed to work on her sales pitch.
“Nice to meet you, Ginny. I’m Tandy.”
The woman grimaced the way Tandy knew she would. “Ahem.” She cleared her throat and disappeared behind a curtain into what Tandy assumed was a kitchenette area by the humming of a refrigerator.
“Can I get you any coffee before we begin?”
Coffee? Tandy could use a cup of coffee. When she opened the shop, the whole place would smell like dark roast, but at the moment, the air was suspiciously absent of its warm aroma. An empty jar of instant granules stuck out of the trash can by the curtain, confirming her suspicions. She barely refrained from gasping in horror, but her toes curled inside her fuzzy socks and biker boots. “Um…no thanks.”
“Well then.” Virginia reappeared with a white mug then paused to sip her imitation brew. She licked her lips and peered into her cup with a scowl. “Not the best cup I’ve ever made, but let’s get down to business.” She led the way toward an office at the back of the shop.
“Sure.” Tandy studied the interior of the shop as she followed Virginia. She liked the brick wall. It would add to the retro vibe she hoped to create with reclaimed timber and chair cushions made out of burlap coffee bags. Though that ostentatious chandelier overhead would have to go in favor of something more industrial.
“Tandy Brandt, I’d like you to meet Marissa Alexander.”
Tandy stepped through the doorway to find the klutzy blonde beauty she’d met earlier, sitting in the office. She was the kind of person who might not be relatable if she didn’t trip over things. But she had tripped, which made Tandy like her more than she liked most people.
Cocoa barked in recognition.
Running into familiar faces probably happened more often in small towns. Tandy certainly wasn’t in Cincinnati anymore. “Hi.”
The blonde stared at her in revulsion. Was she afraid Tandy was going to spill the beans on her embarrassing moment?
Tandy had her own embarrassing story to keep to herself, so she wouldn’t gossip. She gave an encouraging nod. They were on the same side.
Virginia motioned for Tandy to take a seat then crossed to a studded leather chair behind her desk, downing her coffee like an addict. Why else would someone drink instant coffee? That was like baking pastries in a microwave. As much as Tandy loved coffee, she considered herself more of a connoisseur than an addict.
Virginia finally set her mug down. “The reason I’ve invited you both here today is because I can’t decide between your two offers.”
Tandy froze mid sit. “Wait. What?” The blonde had made an offer on the shop as well? Then they were not on the same side after all. She shot to her full height so she could look down on the other woman.
Virginia smoothed her hair. “I believe Grace Springs could use both a tea house and a coffee shop.”
“A tea house?” Tandy turned on Marissa. “How are you going to serve drinks in China cups when you can’t even climb stairs without tripping?” Okay, that’s wasn’t fair, but her future was at stake here. The antique shop was the only commercial real estate available downtown, and Tandy had come to this town because it was the last place she’d made any good memories. Back when she was twelve. She was due a few more.
The blonde stiffened the same way she had on the steps outside. “I only tripped because of your silly varmint.”
Oh, so Marissa was back to blaming Cocoa again, not to mention the name-calling. Tandy would have loved to release the hound with a “sic her,” but nobody was in any danger from Cocoa unless they were afraid of being licked to death. The pup hadn’t even mastered the game of fetch yet.
Marissa turned toward Virginia as if Tandy and the “varmint” weren’t worth her time. “Ms. Pierce, Grace Springs is so quaint and charming with Victorian homes and cobblestone streets and the historic riverboat cruises. Tourists are going to want tea house parties over the kind of cup of Joe they can get back home.”
“Really? Who says cup of Joe anymore?” Tandy challenged. Not the best argument, but the first thought that came to mind.
“Joe does,” Marissa responded just as quickly and ridiculously.
Virginia lifted her cup again and watched them over the brim.
Why was the woman still drinking that stuff? “Virginia, uh…I mean Ms. Pierce.” Tandy certainly wouldn’t call her Ginny anymore. Hopefully the nickname wouldn’t kill her chances here. She had to make up for it. “Not everyone can brew a good cup of coffee. Let me show you how it’s done. I brought you a bag of beans that I roasted myself.” They had coffee in common. At least that was a start.
Virginia tilted her almost empty cup Tandy’s way with a shake of her head. “I’m supposed to be cutting back, so I really shouldn’t have any more.”
Marissa sank deeper into her seat. Probably in relief. Though what did she have to worry about? She had hometown advantage. Even if it didn’t give her priority with Virginia, it meant she had family or friends nearby who could help out.
If Virginia was setting them up to go head to head, hoping to wring every last dollar out of them, she’d be sadly disappointed. Tandy had no more dollars to be wrung.
She dropped into a rickety old chair in resignation. “I gave you the highest offer I could, Virginia.”
Marissa observed her, dark brown eyes wary. She finally faced forward again. “So did I.”
“Well, girls.” Virginia drained the rest of her mock coffee and set the mug on the table. “Looks like we have ourselves a conundrum.”
Really? Tandy wanted to ask again. Who says conundrum anymore? But she kept her mouth shut. The shop owner apparently enjoyed creating conundrums.
Virginia reached across her body to rub her left shoulder. Her mouth opened as if to continue, but she only sucked at the air.
“Virginia?” Marissa prompted.
Tandy leaned forward, studying the older woman’s face.
The contemptuous glint in Virginia’s steely eyes glazed over. She shuddered then slid off her seat onto the floor. Tandy scrambled to check her pulse as Marissa called for an ambulance. But it was too late.
This story is a little different from what I've written in the past, but if you enjoy characters like Shawn and Gus in the TV show Psych, then you should get a kick out of Tandy and Marissa. I know I did!