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Authors: Lori Copeland

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BOOK: A Perfect Love
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This wasn't a men's magazine at all.

“Buddy, are you going to buy something or stand here reading all day?”

Lowering the magazine, Buddy gulped as Vernie's broad face came into view. She stood twelve inches in front of him, and by the look in her eye, he'd better buy the magazine or come up with an awfully good excuse about why he needed to read this article . . .

His hand reached into his pocket, fumbling for change. No sense in even trying to think of a retort; he'd never been quick-witted.

“Um, put it on Dana's tab,” he said, finding nothing in his pocket but lint. He folded the magazine and took a quick half-step back. “I'll read it at home.”

Vernie's eyes narrowed. “Your sister know you're down here running up a tab?”

“She won't care.” Buddy took another step back, sending his elbow into a tower of spice canisters. Red and white jars of spices flew in every direction as he back stepped out of the mess.

Flushing, he caught Elezar's eye. “Sorry,” he said, feeling heat at the back of his neck.

“Buddy, you're an accident waiting to happen,” Vernie scolded as she bent to help her clerk replace the spices.

Buddy sidled away, momentarily wondering why the mercantile needed a tower of spice canisters to supply a town with a population of less than thirty, then he turned and pushed his way through the front door.

Might as well get away before he had a chance to do more damage.

Vernie's head snapped up when she heard the jangling bell over the Mooseleuk Mercantile's door ring again. She'd been filling the de Cuvier order, trying to figure out what Olympia was going to do with five cans of black olives. Was she having a party?

She hadn't mentioned a word about it to Vernie or Cleta.

What kind of party did anyone have in January? And was Olympia not going to invite her? If not, why, that was a lousy way to show her gratitude for all they'd done. Since Edmund's passing at Thanksgiving, everyone on the island had been so concerned with keeping Olympia occupied they'd let their own work go, but now Olympia must be forging on past her grief, if she was ready to throw parties and the like . . .

Barbara Higgs entered the store, closing the door behind her.

Vernie nodded in the young woman's direction. “Mornin', Barbara.”

“Morning, Vernie.” Barbara paused to pet MaGoo, scratching behind the feline's ears. The lazy cat purred without moving a muscle.

Elezar chuckled as he stacked bags of potato chips in a wire bin. “That cat's so lazy he has to hire somebody to scratch him.”

Barbara giggled and agreed with Elezar's affectionate assessment. MaGoo stared at her beneath shuttered lids, his tail lackadaisically sweeping the floor.

Straightening, Barbara moved on to the small corner that served as the infant section. Vernie scratched her head. Everything in that corner needed dusting; she didn't think Elezar had put out any new baby stock since August. There were no babies on the island this winter; and none were expected . . . yet.

She narrowed her gaze at Barbara. The younger woman was examining the cans of baby formula, bottles, and teething rings. She picked up a can of Similac and read the label.

Vernie's gaze shifted back to Elezar, who raised his shoulders in a “Who knows?” shrug.

She lifted her voice. “Just browsing this morning, Barbara, or did you need something particular?”

“Just browsing, thanks.” The young woman continued to peruse the baby formula ingredients as if the can might contain toxic waste.

“Nice haircut, by the way,” Vernie called. “Very modern looking.”

Barbara flashed her a smile of honest appreciation. “Thanks, Vernie.”

“There's something else different about you, too.” Vernie pressed her fingers to her lips, thinking.

“It's the contacts.” Barbara gave her a timid smile. “No more glasses.”

Vernie nodded. “Maybe that is it. Nice to see your whole face for a change.”

She kept an eye on the girl as Barbara looked over the baby shelves, then reached out to finger the soft bunting material of the infant sleepers.

The mercantile owner paused, studying Cleta and Floyd's only child from beneath lowered lashes. She didn't make a habit of ogling her customers, but Barbara was acting strange this morning.

Vernie let out a long, low whistle. Could Barbara finally be in the family way? Cleta hadn't breathed a word . . . but Cleta must not know. If Cleta knew her Doodles was pregnant, she'd have rented a skywriter by now.

What a child Barbara and Russell would produce! Maybe a little boy with Russell's dark eyes and full black lashes coupled with Barbara's
heavy brows. Vernie would do a little tweezing here and there if they were her brows, and if she were Barbara she might have some of that collagen shot into her lips . . .

She nodded in approval as Barbara left the infant section and moved toward the cosmetics. The girl studied labels, opened a few tubes of lip gloss to examine their colors, and then set the lipsticks back in the holder. Browsing a minute more, she finally applied a dark color, Raisin Rum, with a disposable applicator Vernie kept handy for that purpose. Stepping back, Barbara pressed her lips together and peered at her image in the vanity mirror. Her brows lifted up and down while her lips pursed and slackened. She turned to catch a glimpse of herself from a side angle. Then she straightened again.

“That's a nice shade on you,” Vernie called. “How's Russell today?”

Barbara came forward and dropped the applicator into the trash bin. “Russell's fine. Mom's making chili for supper and she's out of tomatoes.”

“Got plenty of canned tomatoes.” Vernie stepped to the shelves to get the requested item, then turned and lifted her hand. “You know, you ought to run by Olympia's and get a sack of fresh ones.” She chuckled. “Annie's tomatoes are actually ripening. Caleb stopped by earlier and said they planned to have bacon-and-tomato sandwiches tonight. I haven't had any, but they sure look good on the vine.”

Barbara smiled wanly, and Vernie had to admit the girl looked a little streaky. Quite possibly pregnant. Saturday they'd been out looking at houses to rent.

She smiled in satisfaction. Barbara had to be pregnant. Now that a baby was on the way maybe Russell would put his foot down and they would get a place of their own. A change of scenery would be good for Barbara, and ought to erase the bored look off her features.

“Let me have two cans of tomatoes, please,” Barbara said, gesturing toward the shelf, “just in case Olympia doesn't have enough for Mom's chili.”

“Fine, honey. You get whatever you want. If you get a craving for something, it's best to satisfy it.”

Barbara paid for the tomatoes, then glanced back at the cosmetics display.

“Raisin Rum is a pretty color for winter,” Vernie said, trying to be helpful. “And it looks real good on you— brings out the sparkle in your eyes.”

Barbara shrugged. “I don't wear lipstick much anymore.”

“You don't?” Vernie sacked two cans of tomatoes, and then slid the bag over the counter. “That's a shame. You used to fancy up more.”

Barbara took the package. “I have to be going now. I promised Bea I would help with the angel mail.”

Angel mail—letters resulting from a crazy e-mail that had been zipping through the Internet—had been pouring into Bea's tiny post office since November. According to the rumor, angels actually resided on Heavenly Daze and could work miracles for those who took the time to write. The islanders took turns responding to the letters and praying for the various needs. Though Vernie had sent out dozens of e-mails to rebut the rumor, requests for heavenly intervention just kept coming.

Vernie gave her best friend's daughter a fond smile. “Have a good time with Bea, hon. And you take care of yourself.”

Grinning at the thought of a baby in Heavenly Daze, she returned to Olympia's order. Caleb would be by in a few minutes to pick it up, and she didn't like to keep her customers waiting. Behind her, the bells over the door jangled.

“Just a minute, Caleb,” she called, not turning around. “I've almost got everything together, but you're gonna have to tell me why Olympia wants five cans of olives—”

She jumped as a pair of arms slipped around her waist. Instinctively she reached for the hammer she kept next to the register, then she heard Stanley's soft rebuke. “Don't pound me! I've just dropped in to say hi, Sweetums.”

Her cheeks burned. Dropping the hammer, she spun out of the embrace. Stanley stood before her, with a smile the size of Texas and . . . wet hair?

“You scared a year's life out of me, Stanley Bidderman,” she snapped, straightening the bib of her apron. “You keep your mitts to yourself!”

Stanley backed off, holding his arms up in mock surrender. “Just wanted to bring you something.”

“You keep running around with a wet head, and you're liable to end up in the hospital.”

His grinned deepened. “Couldn't be helped.”

She glared, aware her heart was beating like a trip hammer and not from fright. He was starting to make a habit of bringing gifts every day—trying to butter her up, no doubt. “What is it this time?”

Stooping, he picked up a large vase of red roses he must have set on the floor before attacking her. Her eyes widened, then narrowed. What was this? Another peace offering?

He took her hands and wrapped them around the cool vase. His touch was oddly soothing. “Happy Birthday, Veronica.”

She stared at the beautiful flowers and blinked away a sudden rush of tears. Stan had brought her roses every year for her birthday . . . before he skipped town, that is. Roses and the largest Whitman's Sampler he could find.

She glanced up, half-hoping to spy a box of chocolates in his hand, then frowned at her own foolishness.

She quickly shoved the vase back at him. “It isn't my birthday.”

Ever so gently he wrapped her trembling fingers back around the vase. “I know. But I missed a few while I was gone, and a woman like you should never have been without flowers on her special day.” Then he reached inside his coat and withdrew a large box of Whitman's chocolates. Tucking them in the crook of her arm, he kissed her cheek and whispered, “Get used to it, Vernie. I have twenty years to atone for.”

She cleared the frog from her throat. “Don't you have somewhere to be, Stan? If you keep getting under my feet, I'm going to send you back to the Lansdowns'—”

“I do have a job. I'm helping the pastor with his bathroom.”

With a wink and a grin, Stanley left the store as quietly as he had entered.

Stunned, Vernie tiptoed to the front window. Stan was walking toward Ferry Road with definite energy in his step.

“The old fool,” Vernie murmured, bending to inhale the sweet fragrance of the roses. She swiped a tear away. If Stanley thought he was going to win her back with chocolates and roses, he . . . well, he was on the right track.

Burying her face in the bouquet, she giggled.

At noon, Vernie called for Elezar to mind the store, then pulled on her jacket. Her curiosity had been stirring ever since Barbara's visit, and she had to know if—and what— Cleta knew about her daughter's condition.

Stepping out into cool air that smelled of brine, seaweed, and fish, Vernie shoved her hands in her pockets and set out across the street, then stopped in her tracks as Russell Higgs crossed the front porch of the B&B and started down the paved pathway. He caught Vernie's eye and waved, then strode confidently toward Dr. Marc's cottage behind Frenchman's Fairest.

Vernie cocked her head and stared at him. Unusual enough to see Russell out and about in daylight hours, but to see him in jeans and a sweater instead of orange waders, coat, hat and knee-high gum rubber boots . . .

Russell wasn't working, he was going to visit the doctor.

Vernie's hand flew up to cover her mouth. Russell was ailing, and now, with a baby coming? Was it serious? Why, the boy looked the picture of health.

A moment later she jogged up the steps of the B&B and burst through the front door. “Cleeeeeta!”

“Up here!”

Vernie followed Cleta's
voice up the stairway to the second floor landing. She peeked in the open doors at empty bedrooms.

“Where are you?”

“Keep comin'!”

Propelled by curiosity, Vernie took the attic steps two at a time. She found Cleta in the attic room that Stanley had occupied before Christmas. “Cleta!”

About to shake out a clean sheet over the bed, Cleta jumped as if she'd been shot. She sank onto the side of the bed and pressed her hand to her chest, eying Vernie with a sour look. “Why are you screamin' at me?”

Struggling to catch her breath, Vernie sank into the chair by the door. “No special reason. Just thought I'd drop by and see what you were doing.”

Cleta gave her a doubtful look.

Vernie crossed her legs in an effort to be casual. “What's going on over here this morning?”

Standing, Cleta shook out the sheet and let it settle on the bed. “Not much. Of course, you've seen Doodles's hair, and I suppose you know about the contacts.”

“Barbara told me about them this morning. I saw her in the store.”

Cleta sighed wearily. “She hasn't said a word about the house she and Russell were lookin' at, and I haven't dared broach the subject. It was nothin', I'm sure. Just some silly little something to pass the time.”

“Maybe.” Vernie uncrossed her right leg, then crossed her left.

“So.” She propped her elbow on the arm of the chair, then dropped her head to her hand. “How is Barbara today?”

Cleta made a face as she tucked in the sheets. “Fine—didn't you just say you saw her? I worry about you, Vernie.”

“I'm worried about Barbara—she was looking a mite streaked today.”

BOOK: A Perfect Love
5.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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