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"Of course I want to sell the yarn shop. It's just that"
Libby Cartwright would have liked to continue her phone conversation, but at that moment she noticed a man standing outside her office door. He was holding a clipboard that con-tained an official-looking form, and something told her she was going to need two free hands, so she mumbled an excuse to the real-estate agent on the other end of the line. She propped the phone between her ear and her shoulder and motioned for the man to come in. She accepted the clipboard and pen he handed her, and when she scrawled her name and the title Office Manager on the line above where it read Responsible party, her hands didn't even tremble. At least not too much.
While the man tore off one sheet of the form she'd just signed, dropped it on her desk and backed out of her office, she returned to her conversation.
"I told you, Mr. Harper, getting rid of the knitting shop has been priority number one ever since I found out about the inheritance." The noise of a scrape and bump from out in the hallway attracted her attention, and Libby glanced out her door to where two men struggled to haul away the just-delivered printer/fax/copier she had ordered three months earlier. With everything else that was happening at Cart-wright, Remington and Hawes, no one in the office had even had a chance to read the how-to manual, much less learn to operate the behemoth.
The equipment was unused. Practically untouched. And far easier to return because of it.
"I hear what you're saying, Mrs. Cartwright." The sound of Will Harper's voice drew Libby's attention away from the commotion in the hallway. "But what you're saying and what you're doing sound like two different things to me."
"What I'm saying is that I want to sell the yarn shop. What I'm doing, "
Libby drummed her fingers against the windowsill. What she was doing was hesitating, plain and simple.
She twitched her shoulders to get rid of the thought, scolding herself as she did. By now she should have known betterthere were some things she couldn't so easily shake.
"I have no intention of ever reopening the shop," she told Will and reminded herself. "I don't want to run it. For one thing, the shop is in Cleveland and I live in Pittsburgh."
"Which is exactly why you should be up on your desk doing the happy dance right about now." She heard the click of his cigarette lighter and his quick intake of breath. "Tip-Top is all over the West and they claim they're going to own the drugstore market in Ohio, too, in just a few years. Lucky for you, they want to start in Cleveland and they're not looking for some pristine parcel out in the burbs. They want an established neighborhood and they're willing to raze a city block to build one of their stores. Your mother's property isn't the only one they're looking at, remember. We need to jump on this as quickly as we can. The offer they're making, well, honestly, as I told you before, I don't think you'll ever do any better."
"They're lowballing me."
Were they? Libby wasn't sure. In the two years since she'd taken over the job of office manager for the law firm, she'd discovered that she was a whiz at scheduling, a crackerjack manager of people and something of a genius when it came to finding the best prices on supplies and equipment. But real estate was a whole new ball game. Still, talking money seemed like the appropriate thing to do at this stage. As for balking at the price, wasn't that what real-estate deals were all about? Besides, it was a plausible excuse for her hesitation. And a better comeback than the truth.
The knit shop is the only thing I havethe only thing I've ever hadfrom my mother. Once I sell, it means I'm severing this one last tie and quitting. For good. Forever.
"Mrs. Cartwright? Don't you agree?" Libby snapped out of her thoughts. "I'm sorry. This con-nection isn't all that good," she said, because it was better than admitting she hadn't been listening. "You were saying" "That I'll bet the money from this deal would come in handy right about now. For you and for your husband."
As if Will could see her, Libby looked at the receiver in wonder. "How do you know about Rick?"
"Hey, I know the economy stinks. I'll bet it's hit you folks hard."
Hard was putting it mildly.
Libby dropped into the chair behind her desk, and though she didn't know how, she sensed that Will was reading her mind.
"A big influx of cash might help out, right?" he asked.
"Am I onto something here?"
He was. Libby could take the cash from the sale of Barb's Knits and dump it right into the firm's account. It wasn't a magic bullet, but it would help staunch the sea of red ink.
Sending back the mother of all printer/fax/copiers was just the tip of the iceberg. There were staff cuts yet to be made and that meant employeesfriendswould spend the summer, the worst job-hunting time of the year, pounding the pavement.
"So, " Will eased back into the subject. "You climbing up on that desk of yours? Is that why you're so quiet? Should I put on the music so you can start dancing?"
Libby managed a weak smile. "Not yet. Maybe if I just" She caught herself before the words slipped out.
Maybe if I just went to Cleveland and looked at the shop. So many times in the past months she'd suggested it. And every time Rick had reminded her the trip was a complete waste of time and inconvenient as well. After all, she had the firm to worry about, as well as their daughter Meghan's schedule. Going to Cleveland to see a shop that didn't mean anything to her and that had been left her by a woman she hadn't seen in years, Why take the chance of reopening wounds that had taken so long to heal?
Face it, Lib. Inside her head, Rick's familiar words were a mantra. That rift is too wide ever to cross.
She told herself not to forget it, reminded herself that the past was gone and nothing could change it and got down to business.
"Maybe if Tip-Top ups their offer," she told Will.
He chuckled. "Even a miracle worker like me couldn't pull off that one. They've seen the property, you haven't. Maybe you'd feel better about the whole thing if you came to Cleve-land and"
"No." Libby answered quickly and refused to reconsider.
"But I could use more money. I thought the property would be worth more. It's the retail space on the first floor and the apartment upstairs, right? That's like getting two properties."
"Tip-Top doesn't give a damn about square footage. They're going to knock the place down! Believe me, this offer is a gift. And, remember, if we play hard to get, they've got their eye on a second spot across town. What do you say? It would be one less thing on your plate. A weight off your shoulders. An albatross from around your neck. A" "Okay, all right!" Libby had to laugh. There was nothing as over-the-top as a Realtor anxious to seal a deal. "I know it's the right thing to do. And it would really help us out."
It wasn't an outright surrender, but it was pretty close. "You'll talk to your husband?" Will asked.
"I'll talk to my husband," she promised. "But you know the final decision is mine."
"And I know you'll make the right one. How about if I tell Tip-Top we'll have an answer for them this afternoon?"
"That seems awfully quick. How about tomorrow? Or"
"They'll go somewhere else."
"Yes. Of course." Libby's breath was tight in her throat.
"This afternoon," she said. "I'll talk to you then."
"And we'll put this deal to bed. You'll be glad when it's over, Mrs. Cartwright."
She had no doubt of it. It was getting there that was, un-explainably, the painful part.
Libby hung up. She'd told Will she'd run the Tip-Top offer by Rick, but she really didn't have to. She knew what he would say.
She'd talk to Rick anyway. It was how partnerships workedhow their marriage had always worked and one of the reasons that, after sixteen years, theirs was as strong as ever.
She was set to leave her office when she grabbed the file folder that contained her thoughts on staff cuts. As long as she was going to have Rick's undivided attention, she might as well get as much business accomplished as possible.
The door to Rick's office wasn't closed, but Libby rapped it with her knuckles anyway. She'd already stepped inside when she saw that he was on the phone, so while he finished she toed the threshold.
She didn't mind waiting. It gave her the perfect excuse to step back and look at her husband.
At forty, Rick still made her heart skip a beat, and watching him, a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. As always, he was impeccably dressed in a charcoal suit His dark hair was touched with gray, and she suspected that over the next years he'd turn into a carbon copy of his handsome, silver-haired father. Rick's eyes were blue, and as he talked, the little dimple in his left cheek made a showing. She remembered that when they'd met in law school, that dimple was the first thing she'd noticed about him. That and the fact that she'd instantly fallen head over heels in love with him.
All these years later, nothing had changed. Oh, they'd had their rough patchesdidn't all couples?but they'd come through stronger and happier. Life was good even if it wasn't perfect.
Even if Rick insisted she sell Barb's Knits without once taking a look at it and maybe getting some insight into the mystery that was her mother's life.
The thought hit Libby out of the blue, and with a shake of her shoulders she got rid of it.
Logic, she reminded herself, was more important than emotion. Besides, any emotion she might have felt for Barb had evaporated years before.
Rick motioned to Libby that he'd be right with her. "You're sure?" he said into the phone. "Yeah. Of course. You know that's true. I just didn't think" He spun his chair toward the window. "I'll take care of it," he said. "Don't worry. We'll just need to move on this faster and hey, that's not such a bad thing, is it?"
As soon as he hung up, Libby stepped into the office. "Problems?"
Rick turned his chair around. "Nothing I can't handle." He looked her over, and for the second time in as many minutes, Libby felt her heart skip a beat. She swore she could feel a little lick of fire every time Rick looked at her.
This time, though, his gaze stopped at the file folder she carried.
"You want to talk business."
Libby dropped into the guest chair across from where Rick sat. "Is that so unusual?"