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Comfort and Joy
By FERN MICHAELS Marie Bostwick Cathy Lamb Deborah J. Wolf
ZEBRA BOOKS Copyright © 2007 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter One Angel Mary Clare Bradford, Angie to her friends, looked over at her assistant, who was stacking rolls of colored ribbon onto spindles. Satisfied that the rolls of ribbon were aligned to match the spindles of wrapping paper, she turned away to survey her domain.
The thirty-foot-by-thirty-foot room with its own lavatory was neat as a pin because Angie Bradford was a tidy person. The room she and her assistant, Bess Kelly, were standing in was known as the Eagle Department Store gift wrap department.
Eva Bradford, Angie's mother, had a lifetime lease on this very room, thanks to retired owner Angus Eagle, something that rankled the current young department store head, Josh Eagle, Angus's heir.
Angie and Josh had gone to the mat via the legal system on several occasions. Josh wanted the lease canceled so he could open a safari clothing department. He claimed the paltry, three-hundred-dollar-a-month rent Angie paid for the gift wrap space was depriving the Eagle Department Store of serious revenue. Another set of legal papers claimed his father had not been of sound mind when he signed the ridiculous lifetime lease.
Angie countered with a startling video of Angus playing tennis and being interviewed by the New York Times talking about politics and his philanthropic endeavors on the very day he signed the lifetime lease. In a separate filing, Angie charged Josh Eagle was a bully, and presented sworn testimony that he repeatedly turned off the electricity in the gift shop as well as the water in the lavatory just to harass her. On occasion the heat and air conditioning were also turned off. Usually on the coldest and hottest days of the year.
Josh retaliated by saying Angie should pay for the electricity, water, heat, and air-conditioning. He said there were no free lunches in the Eagle Department Store in Woodbridge, New Jersey.
Judge Atkins had glared at the two adversaries and barked his decision: Josh Eagle was not to step within 150 feet of the gift wrap department. Angie was to pay an additional thirty-dollars-a-month rent for the utilities, and a new heating unit was to be installed at Eagle's expense.
At that point the Eagle-Bradford war escalated to an all-time high, with both sides doing double-time to outwit the other. The present score was zip-zip.
"So, are you going to the store meeting or not?" Bess asked as she gathered up her purse and jacket.
"Nope. I don't work for Josh Eagle or this store. I work for my mother. I'm just renting space from Eagle's. It was toasty in here today, wasn't it?" Angie asked. It had been unseasonably cool for September.
Bess eyed her young employer and laughed. She'd worked for Eva Bradford for twelve years before Eva turned the business over to her daughter, 110 pounds of energy who was full of spit and vinegar, five years ago. Angie had jumped right into the business, played David to Josh's Goliath, and come out a winner. At least in Bess's eyes. With the Christmas season fast approaching, Bess knew in her gut that Josh Eagle would pull out all his big guns to try to get under Angie's skin and make her life so miserable she would give up and move out. She laughed silently. Josh Eagle didn't know the Angie Bradford she knew.
"Come on, boss, I'll walk you out to the parking lot. How's Eva today?"
Angie slipped into her jacket and hung her purse on her shoulder before she turned off the lights. She pressed a switch, and a colorful corrugated blind came down, totally covering the entrance to the gift wrap department. She waited a moment until she heard the sound of the lock slipping into place. She'd installed the sliding panel at her own expense, much to Josh Eagle's chagrin. She then locked the walkthrough door to the gift wrap department. Not just any old lock, this was a special lock that Josh Eagle couldn't open with the store's master keys. She'd also installed her own security system with the ADT firm. Josh had taken her to court on that one, too, and lost, with the judge saying Angie was protecting her investment and as long as she wasn't asking him to pay for her security, there was no problem. Back then the score had been one-zip.
"Uh-oh, look who's standing by that big red X you painted on the floor!"
Angie looked ahead of her to see Josh Eagle glaring at her. "You're late!"
He was good-looking, she had to give him that. And he had dimples. Right now his dark brown eyes were spewing sparks. He was dressed in a power suit and tie, his shirt so blinding white, it had to be new. It was all about image with Josh Eagle.
Angie looked down at her watch. "Actually, I'm leaving right on time, Mr. Eagle. My lights are off, the heat has been turned down, the security system locked and loaded, and my door is locked. It's one minute past six. The store closes at six."
"I called a meeting for six-fifteen for all department heads. That means you're supposed to be in the conference room promptly at six-ten. You're still standing here, Ms. Bradford. What's wrong with this picture? Well?"
Angie sighed. "How many times do I have to tell you, Mr. Eagle? I do not work for you. Judge Atkins sent you papers to that effect. I have copies in case you lost yours. What part of I-am-not-one-of-your-employees don't you understand?"
Josh Eagle looked like he was about to say something, then changed his mind. Angie started walking again, and when she got to Josh and he didn't move, she stiff-armed him.
"You touched my person," Josh said dramatically as he pretended to back away.
"Will you get off it already! Do you sit up there in your ivory tower and dream up ways to torment me? I did not touch you. I put my arm out so you wouldn't touch me. In case your vision is impaired, I have a witness. Now, I suggest you get out of my way and don't come down here again with your silly demands. This shop is off-limits to you!"
"Just a damn minute, Ms. Bradford. If you want to go to court again, I'm your man. I want to know what you're going to do about wrapping my customers' Christmas gifts this year. That's the main topic to be discussed at tonight's meeting."
"We've had this same discussion every September for the past five years. You had the same discussion with my mother for the five years prior to my arrival, and the outcome has always been the same. This year is no different. Pay me to wrap your customers' gifts, and we're in business. If you don't pay me, I cannot help you. I'm in business to make money just the way you are. Try to wrap your feeble brain around that fact, then get back to me or have your lawyer call my lawyer. Good night, Mr. Eagle."
Outside in the cool evening air, Angie dusted her hands together. "I thought that went rather well." She sniffed the air. "Someone's burning leaves. Oh, I just love that smell."
Bess opened her car door. "I think you enjoy tormenting that man. I agree he's sorely lacking in the charm department, but my mother always told me you can get more flies with honey than vinegar. The guy's a hottie, that's for sure."
"Ha! Eye candy. The man has no substance, he's all veneer. On top of that, he's greedy and obnoxious. With all that going against him, I wonder how he manages to charm that string of women he parades around all the time," Angie sniffed.
"His money charms them. Josh Eagle is considered a good catch. You know, Angie, you could throw your line in the pond. You reel him in, and all this," Bess said, extending her arms to indicate the huge parking lot and the department store, "could be yours!"
Angie started to laugh and couldn't stop. "Not in this life time. See you tomorrow, Bess."
"Tell your mother I said hello."
"Will do," Angie called over her shoulder.
Angie sat in her car for ten minutes while she played the scene that had just transpired back in the store over and over in her mind. Would Josh Eagle drag her into court again? Probably. The man had a hate on for her that was so over-the-top she could no longer comprehend it. In the beginning she'd handled it the way she handled every challenge that came her way: fairly and honestly. She fought to win, and so far she'd won every round. Remembering the look on Josh Eagle's face, she wondered if her luck was about to change.
Well, she would think about it later. Right now she had to stop for pizza and go to the rehab center on New Durham Road, where her mother was waiting for her.
Angie reached for her cell phone to call Tony's Pizza on Oak Tree Road. She ordered three large pepperoni pies and was told they would be ready in ten minutes. That was good, the pies would still be hot when she delivered them to Eva and the other patients at the rehab center.
On the ride to the pizza parlor Angie thought about her mother. A gutsy lady who had worked part time to help with the family bills. Back when she was young, with a family to help support, she'd worked three days a week for Angus Eagle, a man her own age whose wife deplored housework. Her mother had cooked and cleaned for Angus, and in doing so they had forged a friendship that eventually resulted, one Christmas morning, in his turning over the gift wrap department at his store to her with a lifetime lease.
Her mother never tired of telling her the story of that particular Christmas that changed her life, even though Angie, who was fifteen at the time, remembered it very well. Angus's wife hadn't wanted to be bothered wrapping presents for Josh and her husband, so she'd turned the job over to Eva. Each time her mother told the story, she would laugh and laugh and say how impressed Angus had been at her flair for gift wrapping.
It was always at times like this, when Angie grew melancholy, that she thought about her own life and why she was doing what she was doing with it. She'd gone to work on Wall Street as a financial planner, but five years of early mornings, late nights, and the long commute was all she could take. Then she taught school for a couple of years but couldn't decide whether or not teaching was a career to which she wanted to commit herself. Five years ago, she'd happily given it up without a second thought when, after her aunt Peggy got into a serious automobile accident in Florida, her mother suggested that Angie take over the gift-wrapping business. Eva had rushed down to care for Peggy, knowing she was leaving her little business in good hands, and was gone four years.
After her aunt's passing, Eva had remained to take care of her sister's estate, returning to New Jersey only a year ago.
It was nice having her mother home again, in the big old house on Rose Street.
Angie giggled when she thought about all the young guys, the sons of friends her mother had invited to dinner on Sunday in the hopes one of them would be suitable for Angie. So far, she'd made a lot of new male friends, but none of them was what she considered blow-my-socks-off material.
As always, when she got to this point in her reverie, Angie's thoughts turned to her beloved father and his passing. It had been so sudden, so shocking, so mind-bending, it had taken her years to come to terms with her loss. How she missed the big, jolly man who had carried her on his shoulders when she was little, the same man who taught her to ride her first bike, then to drive her clunker of a car. He'd hooted and hollered at her high school graduation, beamed with pride at her college graduation, and could hardly wait to show her the brand-new car he'd bought her. It was all wrapped up in a red satin ribbon. Oh, how she'd cried when she'd seen that little silver Volkswagen Jetta convertible. These days she drove a bright red Honda Civic, but the Jetta was still up on blocks in the garage on Rose Street. She planned to keep it forever and ever.
Angie dabbed at her eyes. It was all so long ago.
Twenty miles away, Eva Bradford sat in the sunroom of the Durham Rehab Center, waiting for her daughter. The television was on, but she wasn't listening to the evening news. Nor was she paying attention to the other patients, who were talking in polite, low tones so others could hear the news. Her thoughts were somewhere else, and she wasn't happy with where they were taking her.
Eva looked up when the evening nurse approached her with a fresh bag of frozen peas to place on her knee. She was young like Angie with a ready smile. "You know the drill, Eva, thirty minutes on and thirty minutes off." The nurse, whose name was Betsy, reached for the thawed-out bag of peas Eva handed her.
Eva wondered if she'd ever dance again. Not that she danced a lot, but still, if the occasion warranted it, she wanted to be able to get up and trip the light fantastic. Knee replacements at her age were so common it was mind-boggling. She looked around the sunroom and counted nine patients with knee replacements, one a double knee, four hip jobs, and two back surgeries. Of all of them, she thought she was progressing the best. Another few days and she was certain she would be discharged with home health aides to help her out a few hours every day. She could hardly wait to return to the house on Rose Street in Metuchen.
Eva turned away from the cluster of patients who looked to be in a heated discussion over something that was going on in the Middle East. She did her best to slide down into the chair she was sitting on so she wouldn't have to look at Angus Eagle who, according to Betsy, had just been transferred from the hospital to receive therapy for a hip replacement he'd had a month ago. She knew the jig would be up when Angie arrived with their nightly pizza. At this moment she simply didn't want to go down Memory Lane with Angus or be put in a position where she had to defend her daughter's business dealings.
She hadn't seen Angus for a long time. At least five years-she really couldn't remember. She tried to come up with the exact year. In the end she thought it was five years ago, the same year her older sister, Peggy, a childless widow, had been in that bad car accident. She'd gone to Florida and stayed on for four years because her sister's health had deteriorated, and with no children to help out, it was up to her to see to her sister's comfort. Then, she'd stayed to handle all the legal matters, sell the house, the furnishings, and the car. She'd been home for a year now. She swiped at the tears that threatened to overflow.
Would Angie take care of her the way she'd taken care of Peggy? Of course she would. Angie had a heart of gold and loved her. She couldn't help but wonder who was going to take care of Angus Eagle. Not that hard-as-nails son whose mission in life was to make Angie give up the gift wrap department. Well, Angus could certainly afford in-home health care around the clock.
Eva looked up to see her daughter standing in the doorway holding three large pizza boxes, one for the two of them and two for the other patients. Angie was so kind. She watched as Angie handed two of the pizza boxes to Betsy and moved across the room to join her mother. Angie hugged and kissed her.
"How'd it go today, Mom?"
"Not too bad. I think I'll be out of here in a few days. Honey, Angus Eagle arrived today for additional therapy. He had a hip replacement a month ago, according to Betsy. He's sitting over there between Cyrus and Harriet. Don't look now."
"And this means ... what?" Angie asked as she sprinkled hot peppers on the pizza, then handed her mother a huge slice. She chomped down on her own as she casually looked around. She had no trouble locating the elegant-looking Angus Eagle. At seventy years of age, he still looked dashing, with his snow-white hair, trim body, and tanned complexion. It had been a few years since she'd seen him in the courtroom alongside his son. How angry he'd looked that day. Today he looked like he was in pain. A lot of pain.
"Well ... I don't know. I'm sure he hates us both. He's probably regretting giving me that lifetime lease. You know that old saying, blood is thicker than water. Josh is his son, so it's natural for him to side ... whatever," Eva dithered as she bit down into her slice of pizza.
"Business is business, Mom. Isn't that what you always told me? Sometimes people make deals that go sour. As long as it's done legally, the way your deal was done legally, you live with it and go on. Josh and I had a rather heated exchange as I was leaving the store this evening. By the way, it's cold out in case you're interested. I think today was the first day that shop felt warm.
Excerpted from Comfort and Joy by FERN MICHAELS Marie Bostwick Cathy Lamb Deborah J. Wolf Copyright © 2007 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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