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"So? How many came? Did you get a lot of sales?" Tisha scanned the cases eagerly, her eyebrows pulling together as she saw the full stock still sitting inside.
Ashley lifted her blond hair off her neck, her shop's small air-conditioning unit no match for south Florida's heat and humidity. "Sorry, Tisha. Nobody came to the store and no sales on the Web site."
Tisha's shoulders slumped as she plopped into the pale-peach plush customer's chair, her expensive white linen pantsuit taking a beating. Ashley wasn't sure who should console whom. It was Ashley Craig Jewelry, Inc. that was struggling, but Tisha was making a herculean effort to talk up her jewelry designs among her well-to-do acquaintances.
"Why isn't your stuff selling?" Tisha demanded, brandishing her arm, which bore a white-gold bangle shaped like a dolphin with sapphire eyes. "It's gorgeous. It's unique. It should be the hottest thing out there. What's the deal?"
Ashley shrugged. "I haven't hit the tipping point yet—the one magical marketing device that will take me over the top. When I do I'll move to a new shop on Worth Drive where all the rich Palm Beach matrons can buy my wonderful jewels."
Letitia looked around the small, stuffy shop but didn't say anything. Ashley appreciated that. They both knew Ashley's problem wasn't just marketing, it was money. She sighed. "I should have picked a cheaper career. Maybe I ought to have stuck with making hemp bracelets for the surfer guys on Palm Beach Island."
Tisha made a face. "Yeah, nothing says classy like a fishy-smelling, sand-encrusted piece of wrist macramé."
"You certainly wore yours long enough." It was the first piece of jewelry she'd made for Tisha, and it had fallen to pieces eventually.
"I have the bits in my case at home."
"Really?" Ashley was touched. "Do the other pieces of jewelry make fun of it?" Tisha's husband Paolo came from a wealthy South American family and had bought her some lovely pieces, especially after Tisha gave birth to twin boys a couple of years ago.
"No, because they know my hemp bracelet will kick their prissy asses. We working-class girls have to stick together." She patted Ashley's shoulder and Ashley squeezed her hand.
"Please don't feel bad, Tish. Word of mouth takes time, and you've done a wonderful job bragging about me around your friends, even hosting that trunk show for me. Why don't you cool it for a while? You don't want them to start avoiding you, like somebody who's trying to sell them food-storage containers or vacation time-shares."
"All right," Tisha said grudgingly, but Ashley knew her friend needed to stop acting as a commissioned saleswoman. Tisha had not been born into the jet set that Paolo's family inhabited, and she was still scrutinized for her behavior, although her adorable male heirs had gone a long way toward giving her acceptance. "But if you need any help with expenses, tell me. Paolo is generous to a fault and wouldn't care if I gave my oldest friend a hand."
"No." Her refusal came out more harshly than she intended. "No," she repeated, giving Tisha a smile she didn't quite feel. "I will be fine. There are several other ideas I haven't had a chance to try."
"If you're sure…" Tisha handed her the dolphin bracelet to put back on display.
"Positive." She came around the case to give Tisha a hug. "You are a sweetie, Tisha."
Tisha scoffed, but looked pleased. "I mean it. You let me know what I can do."
"You can kiss my godsons for me tonight at dinner." Ashley ushered Tisha toward the front door and waved as she drove away in her expensive German sedan.
Ashley flipped the lock closed. It was almost five o'clock anyway, and a storm was powering up over the horizon if she was any judge. She tucked away the jewelry into the safe in the back room and straightened the cash-register area. Unfortunately, that area hadn't gotten much action during the day—i.e., none.
She made sure the burglar alarm was set and ducked out the back door. Her shop wasn't in an awful neighborhood, but it wasn't ritzy either.
Same with her car. Compared to Tisha's German sedan, Ashley's compact car was a horse and buggy. But it got her where she needed to go, namely her apartment building.
She parked and smiled at one of the few neighbors that she knew, Mrs. Weinstein, who was out on her terrace pruning tomatoes, and who called out, "Come by for some vegetables when you change out of your work clothes." She continued clipping away, dropping leafy stems on the concrete. "It'd be a shame to get tomatoes all over your fancy blue dress, especially when it matches your eyes so well."
"I will, Mrs. Weinstein." She covered a yawn quickly.
"You work too hard, Ashley." She gestured widely with her shears. "You're a beautiful girl, and this is Florida. I bet there are fifty handsome young men dying to meet you."
At least ten of those handsome young men were dying to meet each other, but Ashley was too polite to mention that aspect of modern dating.
Her neighbor continued, "You'd make somebody a fine wife, and he'd take good care of you."
Ashley couldn't help flinching, but hid it by pretending to swat away a bug. She made her excuses and headed upstairs, her neighbor's words echoing through her head as she tossed her mail on the white wicker table just inside the front door.
Sure, it would be easy to dress provocatively, go to the clubs where the rich guys hung out and try to lure one into "taking care of her." But that wasn't how Ashley worked. Her mother, now, that was another story…
She kicked off her white slingbacks a bit too vehemently—one crashed into the foyer wall, startling her hamster, currently the only male in her life.
"Hey, Teddy, did you miss me?" She made kissing noises at the black-and-white teddy-bear hamster in his cage. He looked at her with as much interest as a hamster was capable of and ducked into his wheel to run a few laps to nowhere. Just like Ashley.
She grimaced. Pity, your party of one has arrived.
Ashley gave herself a mental shake and moved through her evening routine, changing into a white knit tank top and pink boxer shorts. After she picked up some tomatoes from Mrs. Weinstein, Teddy got some hamster chow and Ashley made herself the human equivalent in the form of a microwave dinner.
She was sitting on her futon watching the jewelry segment of a cable shopping network when her phone rang. Dang, she didn't want to be envious of other people's success, but honestly, some of those items looked as though monkeys had designed them and gorillas had made them.
She answered the phone. "Hello?"
"Ash!" Tisha shouted.
Ashley jumped, spilling the pity-party potato-chip refreshments. "What's going on? Are the kids okay?"
"Fine, fine." She continued breathlessly, "Are you sitting down?"
Ashley gazed at the crumbly wreckage of her tank top and futon. "Yeah, so tell me what's going on?"
"Have you heard of Enric Bruguera?"
"Of course. He owns Bruguera Boutiques—one is on Worth Avenue, like we talked about earlier. They have super-popular boutiques in Palm Beach, New York, Paris, Rome…" Ashley couldn't remember where else except that no matter where a Bruguera Boutique was located, it had women flocking to wear the innovative designs.
"Bibi Herrera texted me that his boutique is helping sponsor the polo tournament at the Bella Florida Polo Club and the man himself will attend. He may even donate several pieces for the Polo Ball's silent auction."
"I'm sure they'll command a fortune." And take more potential sales out of her pocket. On the other hand, Enric Bruguera was a household—rather mansionhold—name among the polo set and she wasn't.
"Ashley, this could be the perfect opportunity to meet him! You're the one who told me that these kinds of boutiques are supplied by various designers. Maybe he needs a new designer."
"Designers flock to him—it's not as if he posts an online help-wanted ad."
"So, flock to the man!"
"My husband is a rich Argentinian, Ashley. He can get me—and a guest of my choosing—into any polo tournament in the world."
Ashley imagined herself and Tisha stalking the world-famous jeweler. "Maybe we can follow him into the men's room and I can slide my portfolio under the stall door."
"Don't be silly, Ashley. The doors are full-size. You can't slide anything under them."
Ashley rolled her eyes. If that was Tisha's only objection, they were in trouble. "Tell you what—I will call his headquarters and ask to make an appointment with him while he is here for the tournament."
Her friend blew her a raspberry through the phone. "Not good enough. Don't you remember that old saying we learned in high-school history class? Fortune favors the bold. Calling his office and trying to get through six layers of assistants is not bold."
"Really? We learned that saying in high school?"
"Chica, I took it for my motto. How do you think I got the nerve to sneak into that private party after I saw Paolo going into the club? I knew he was the one."
Ashley remembered it a little differently, as Tisha had texted her that she had discovered the hottest ass in south Florida, and she had to see if the rest of him was just as sexy. She was saved from memory lane by an incoming call. "Hold on, Tisha, it's my store's landlord."
"Ash, I told you I'd help with your rent—"
"Hello?" Her palms started to sweat. There was no good reason her landlord should call her at home.
"Señorita Craig, I am sorry to disturb you at home, but there is a problem at your shop."
"What kind of problem, Señor Olveda?" Thoughts of robbery, vandalism and expensive mayhem struck. Her fingers bit into the plastic phone case, but she hardly noticed.
"The tobacco shop next to yours caught fire. Your shop was not damaged by the flames, fortunately."
Ashley jumped up. "I'll go right away." Her jewelry was locked in a fire-resistant safe, but if the building was severely damaged, someone could walk out with thousands of dollars in merchandise.
"Of course, of course, you need to see for yourself. The insurance company is sending men to board it up. But the larger problem is…"
"Smoke damage," Señor Olveda added reluctantly.
"Myself, I enjoy a good cigar after dinner but when hundreds of pounds of tobacco catch fire all at once, well, it is not a good smell. In fact, the fire department called out, how do you say, the hez-met team."
She groaned. "Haz mat—hazardous materials." Great, just great. Now her shop was a public health hazard. She had visions of men in white biohazard suits stomping through her business.
"Between the smoke and the water damage from the firehoses, the insurance company says the building will be unusable for several weeks, if not a couple of months, while it is cleaned and repaired."
Frozen with horror, she couldn't say anything. A couple of months without her shop? How was she supposed to stay afloat? She skated close to the edge as it was. Maybe it wasn't as bad as he said. "I'm coming right away, Señor Olveda."
"Of course, of course. You will need to make arrangements to take your merchandise somewhere else."
She winced. Another expense—hiring security guards to transport her jewelry to rented safety-deposit boxes. Even if her business insurance reimbursed her, it would take months to get the funds. "I'll see you in a few minutes."
She rushed around, tossing on old clothes that she could throw away. Her phone rang again. Tisha had gotten tired of sitting on hold and had called again, wanting to know the dirt.
Ashley filled her in quickly.
"That's terrible! I can't believe it. What will you do?" Tisha sounded close to tears.
Ashley straightened her spine. "I'm going to stalk Enric Bruguera and slide my jewelry designs under the men's-room stall door."