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The sun's lazy descent over the Gulf of Mexico began for the evening as Jake Peoples pulled the eviction notice from the glove compartment of his truck. Since he was already parked in front of El Centro por las Lenguaswhich his rusty Spanish skills translated as "The Center for Languages"it made the most sense to just serve the notice now.
The imminent passing of the Maximized Revenue Zones ordinance he'd shepherded through the City Council shortly after his return to town made Jake one step closer to convincing Port Provident that he could run his family's business. And once this building was demolished to make way for the sparkling pool to enhance the new Peoples Property Group condominium development, he'd be one step closer to convincing himself he wasn't the failure he had come to suspect he just might be.
When Jake turned the age-worn brass knob on the remodeled Victorian home's red front door, it didn't budge.
Locked? No wonder this place was a nonprofit. He'd made mistakes in business, to be sure, but even he knew the first rule of running a company was you couldn't make money if the doors were closed.
He raised his fist and rapped on the solid wood.
After about thirty seconds of silence, the distinct sound of the lock turning broke through. A woman of average height stepped into the sliver of an opening.
"Can I help you?" Her brow furrowed across a forehead whose smooth complexion fell a shade lighter than the designer latte he'd polished off this morning.
Jake had faced judges, juries and his own father. He could easily face a schoolteacher. "I need to speak to Gracie Garcia."
"I'm Graciela Garcia de Piedra." Her consonants rolled together with a south-of-the-border accent.
"Jake Peoples." He extended his hand. "Peoples Property Group."
Instead of reaching to shake, her hands flew up and cupped over her mouth. The combination of the vulnerable reaction, combined with the oversized door, further dwarfed her stature. She looked as if she might blow away in a strong gulf breeze. "Oh, no I know the rent check was a few days late this month. It's been tight lately. I'm so sorry. It won't happen again."
The shock in her voice reverberated in his eardrums. Jake thought of the eviction notice waiting in his back pocket. She might have fainted if he'd held it out to her as soon as she'd opened the door. "I'm not here about that. I need to discuss the City Council's Maximized Revenue Zones proposal with you."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Mr. Peoples." The questioning wrinkles returned above the pair of liquid-chocolate eyes. "I teach classes at the same time as the City Council meetings, so I never have the opportunity to attend them. I know there are condominiums being put up next door, but I assumed they would be confined to that large corner lot they're already working on."
He shook his head briefly. Jake needed to break the gaze between them if he wanted to maintain his concentration. Gracie Garcia had the kind of dark eyes that a maneven a landlord here on businesscould lose himself in. In his former career as a lawyer, no member of a jury pool ever gave him a stare that shook him like this.
"The City Council will soon be rezoning Gulfview Boulevard to make the most out of the areas in town that cater to our tourist-based economy. Nonprofit businesses, like yours, will need to move to new locations outside these zones. This property will be needed so we can add amenities like a swimming pool and a clubhouse, which will allow us to sell more units and, in turn, direct more tax dollars to the city."
"You're saying I need to close?"
Was there a language barrier between them? Maybe he'd gotten the wrong contact name. Maybe the woman with the magnetic stare was a student, not the owner. The name she'd given was a lot longer than just plain old Gracie Garcia.
"I didn't say anything about closing. Just moving."
"With all due respect, it's not that simple. I'm a nonprofit organization. I operate on a nonprofit's shoestring budget. If the council forces El Centro to relocate, I'll have to close my doors."
Well, she was certainly talking like the owner. Absently, he wondered why she'd given a different name.
"Surely you can find additional funding. The Houston newspaper just did a story last week on unused grant money."
The woman nodded her head in understanding. Her eyes glazed over with sadness, but she didn't back down. She had guts; Jake had to give her that.
He didn't particularly like that his words hurt her, but he couldn't afford to get caught up in the emotions. This vote was nothing more than a necessary step in a business plan. Above all, Jake knew he had to remember why he'd come home to Port Provident in the first place. No more "bleeding heart" stuff, as his father used to derisively refer to Jake's past endeavors. Emotions and business did not make a successful combination, and Jake had returned to Port Provident to take steps at Peoples Property Group that would ultimately prove to a generation of naysayers that he could be successful.
"Can I come in for a few minutes so we can discuss this?" At least he would try to honor the promise he'd made to his friend sponsoring the ordinance, City Councilman Carter Porter. The City Council temporarily postponed their vote until affected businesses could be notified and given a chance to adapt. By meeting the owner of El Centro personally right now, Jake could report back to Carter that the box had been checked. That way there could be no more delays.
She shook her head. "You've caught me at a bad time. I have a class tonight that I need to finish preparing for."
"Okay, Ms. Garcia. Best of luck with your school. Here's the official lease termination paperwork, which will be effective once the City Council passes the measure at their next meeting." He reached in his back pocket and pulled out the document, then something made him pause.
Jake couldn't get the name discrepancy out of his head. He needed to be sure he'd just lowered the boom on the right person. It wouldn't look good if he'd delivered the message to someone else by mistake. "You are the owner of this school, right? You're Gracie Garcia?"
She nodded. "Yes, why?"
"I thought you'd said something else a few minutes ago. Wasn't your last name longer?"
"My name is Graciela Garcia de Piedra. In the Mexican culture, children often have the surnames of both parents. The father's surname comes first, and then the mother'sbut children go by their father's last name. So I go by Garcia. It makes things simpler. Do you know much about our culture and language, Mr. Peoples?"
"No." He raked his free hand through his hair. "I'm afraid I don't."
"Then maybe you don't understand just why this school is important and what the impact is of what the City Council is trying to do," Gracie said with a soft, yet deliberate clip to each syllable of her quiet words. She took the offending paperwork from Jake's hand, then slowly closed the door. The rasp of the turning lock brought a clear end to their encounter.
Jake turned to head back to his car, feeling uncomfortable about the message he'd just delivered, even though he knew he had no other option. The passage of the City Council resolution was key to finalizing Port Provident's newest condo development. The project was key to his remaining at the helm of Peoples Property Group. And remaining CEO of his family company was key to restoring his reputation in his hometown.
The less time he spent at El Centro por las Lenguas, the better. His grandmother was being honored at a Port Provident Historical Society dinner this evening, and he didn't want to miss her big night.
As he pushed the button that unlocked the truck's doors, he heard the crunch of gravel under feet behind him. Two fingers tapped lightly on his shoulder. Jake turned and saw Gracie's eyes first, silently pleading with him. Her pupils flared wide, crowding out the brown velvet coloring. He could see the fear within.
He hoped she couldn't see fear in his own eyes. Fear that the City Council wouldn't give him what he needed to just get on with his life and not feel the cloud of failure hanging heavily on his shoulders.
"You said you didn't know much about my students and their heritagewhere they come from and why they're here. More than three hundred members of this community have come through my doors in the last five years to better their English skills. I don't provide the city with tax dollars myself, but my students do make an impact every day." Her voice halted.
Jake turned. The gulf breeze gently stirred her hair around to caress her cheek. It appeared to be almost the same deep color as her eyes.
"The ordinance is passing in a few days' time. I'm not a City Council member. I can't stop them from voting on it," he said. "The measure would have passed today except that your representative wanted to give you some time to find an alternate arrangement."
"You said this proposal will maximize revenue for the tourist sector of our local economy, right?" Her eyes locked straight on his, like a magnet pulling to a pole.
"That's the goal, yes," Jake nodded.
"Many of my students work in tourist-related jobs, such as our hotels and restaurants. A skilled labor force is just as important to our city as tax revenue. I believe we can't have the latter without the former. Can you stay for my class in half an hour and see for yourself what I do here?"
Giving Gracie a few more minutes wasn't going to change anything, but it would probably make everyone involved feel as if he'd done his due diligence. It might also alleviate the nagging feeling in the back of his mind that something about what he'd told Gracie Garcia just wasn't right. But family duty called.
"I already have plans for this evening, Ms. Garcia."
"Then I'm afraid you won't see what a big mistake you're making for the citizens of this community until it's too late." Gracie headed back toward the center. She had some pluck. He recognized it because he used to have some, too.
Back before he'd lost everything.
When the City Council met next week and the inevitable happened, Jake hoped that Gracie didn't lose the determined spring in her step.
The world didn't need another jaded former business owner.
Before Jake could open the door to get back in the truck, his cell phone rang. "Jake Peoples."
"Jake, it's Mitch." The wind whipping up over the nearby water made it a little difficult to hear his brother-in-law's voice. "Where are you? Jenna's panicking."
"Tell Jenna I'm on my way. I'm just wrapping up a meeting."
"Who are you meeting with?" After meeting Jake's sister Jenna in college and marrying her, Mitch Carson joined Peoples Property Group and now served as the chief financial officer. Jake had much to prove to others at the office, but not Mitch. His brother-in-law was doing everything he could to help Jake during this transition.
"Graciela Garcia de Piedra. She owns the school located in the building at Nineteenth and Gulfview."
"Oh, you mean the rental property you want to tear down so the new condos will have a pool that'll compete better with Goodman's new project?"
"That's the one. Just making sure that the council vote can go forward. I figured it was best to get it out of the way ASAP."
"Hey, wasn't her rent late again this month? If she's that disorganized, maybe you're doing her a favor. She'd probably go out of business anyway." Mitch chuckled. "Your sister just walked up. We'll see you when you get here."
The phone call disconnected, and Jake couldn't help but think about Mitch's last sardonic statement. Mitch was right. Gracie obviously had some issues running her business. Better that she quit while she could instead of being forced into bankruptcy. The way Port Provident's economy kept growing, she could easily find another joba real job with a steady paycheckin no time.
Jake saw two people headed toward him. Neither one was Gracie, but he felt certain he'd seen both of these individuals before.
"Mr. Jake?" The first man regarded Jake skeptically and stopped in his tracks about ten feet away. "Can we help you? Is something wrong at one of the buildings?"
Jake hesitated to answer. "No, no problem with any of the buildings," Jake answered, noncommittally.
"Oh, good, sir. Juan and me, well, we weren't sure why you'd be at El Centro unless you were looking for someone."
Juan. Jake nodded his head with dawning recognition. The man on the left was Juan Calderon, the head of landscaping for Peoples Property Group. And the one speaking to Jake was Pablo Morales, head of maintenance.
"I had a meeting with the owner of the school. Just taking care of some business. Enjoy your class tonight." He opened the door to his truck and climbed inside as his two employees headed for the door of the school. Jake wondered what they'd say to Gracie when they got inside, but he knew he had nothing to hide about his motives for being here.
Gracie played hide-and-seek as she placed two fingers between a couple of slats of the mini-blinds covering the window in her office. Through the space she'd created, she could search the parking lot without being seen herself.
She knew of the Peoples family's reputation in Port Provident, but Jake himself didn't look that tough. With sandy-blond hair and square shoulders, he looked less like a hard-edged executive and more like one of the surfers who hung out down by the Memorial Hotel waiting to catch a wave.
"Is he still out there?" Her sister Gloria's whisper brought reminders of childhood, when they'd shared secrets in hushed tones.
The parking lot had begun to fill for the evening's classes and Gracie could see the vehicles of several regular students. The truck that had been parked in the very first space, however, had already left, leaving behind a trail that seemed to perfectly illustrate Gracie's dreams for her schoola cloud of dust, disappearing into nothing.
"No, he's gone."
"People like him make me so mad," Gloria said through gritted teeth. "Remember when you used to date David and he tried to stop you from opening this school? Now here's another mover and shaker in the community trying to push you around. They're all the same on that side of the tracks. They'll do whatever they want and not care about people like us."
Gracie didn't want to remember the past, but Gloria was right. "Ugh. Don't remind me. Why is running a business such a constant battle? I'm trying to help people live their dreams, the way Miss Martin helped me so many years ago by teaching me English when we first came to America. She helped me to do everything I could to reach my potential. I just want to do the same for others. It shouldn't be this hard to do the right thing."
"Well, what are you going to do? I couldn't help but overhear." Gloria stopped arranging the evening's books and materials.
"I don't know, Gloria. How do I fight the City Council?" Gracie nibbled on the nail of her pointer finger, a sign of nervous thinking she'd had since childhood.