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From Bags to Riches
A Jessie Stanton Novel
By Sandra D. Bricker
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2016 Sandra D. Bricker
All rights reserved.
Jessie hummed along with James Taylor as Danny drove along in silence. She glanced over at him and smiled. She loved the way he always removed the elastic band from around the gear shift and pulled his shaggy, long hair back into a ponytail before they set out anywhere in his open Jeep ... and the way he always reached into the box behind the driver's seat and produced a cloth band for her hair. Even the music serenading their drive embraced her with a comfortable, predictable lull. She'd had so much instability in her life that the calculability of Danny's behavior had become a welcome warm blanket on a chilly night.
"Hey," she said suddenly as a thought struck her, a memory of her best friend speaking to Danny in a whisper. "What was Piper talking about?"
Danny's dimples deepened as he grinned. "What do you mean?"
"Before we left the courthouse. She told you something like, 'Today. Not tomorrow, but today.' What did she mean? And where are we going, by the way?"
"To celebrate," he stated. "You have just been set free from a barnacle by the name of Jack Stanton. You're free. Your store can reopen, and you can write your name with confidence again. You, my friend, are Jessie Hart."
Not that she'd ever actually been Jessie Stanton, but for a dozen years or so, she'd been duped into believing it while living in a world of utter make-believe, a world Jack had fabricated for the benefit of just about everyone he knew — including her, his fairy tale wife. Instead, Jack had been a handsome cancer making his silent and diabolical way into every available cell of her life, conning her into believing their world — his business, the home they made, and the dreams they'd been dreaming — had been built on a solid foundation of rock. But when the sand was discovered, that life crumbled so quickly she'd barely had time to escape with anything more than the clothes in her closet and the rock on her hand — both of which became the stuff new foundations were made of. In her case, Jessie's non-sand bedrock came from the sale of nearly four carats of perfect Neil Lane clarity dropped into a platinum setting, and the proceeds had funded a marginally acceptable apartment. Combined with the designer labels left behind in her closet, the infrastructure of her brand-new life had been built: Adornments. Designer labels for rent to wannabes with champagne dreams living on ginger ale budgets.
"Hey, wait a minute," she blurted as she noticed the familiar surroundings. "Where are we, exactly?"
"Somewhere we can celebrate."
She hadn't meant to let him off the other hook about Piper's comments at the courthouse, but new curiosity trumped old.
"Oh, wait a minute," she remarked. "Isn't this the beach where we parked our Jet Ski that day we went boating with Steph and Vince?"
Danny lifted one shoulder in a partial shrug that revealed nothing.
He parked and shot her a quick smile before hopping out of the Jeep. "Let's go for a walk." He'd made the same suggestion the afternoon they parked their Jet Ski in the sand.
Jessie stepped out of her shoes and looped them over two fingers before quickly following his lead. As they headed across the shoreline, her memory confirmed the first — and only — time they'd strolled this particular beach together. And she remembered it now like it just happened the Tuesday prior.
Danny had taught her all about tide pools that day, and the sea life surrounding them. And then he'd kissed her half senseless. He'd kissed her in a way that washed away all of her fears and insecurities about making another mistake. At least in that one enchanted, extraordinary moment Jessie's doubts had drifted away.
"I haven't been kissed in such a long time before you," she'd admitted to him. "In fact, I'm not sure I've ever been kissed the way you kiss me."
She could almost feel his fingers tangled into her hair again as she walked with him across the sand now.
"Again, Danny," she'd muttered to him then. "Kiss me again."
"What are you grinning about?" he asked, dragging her back to the moment so rapidly that she nearly heard the thud.
"Just remembering the last time we were here." She slipped her hand into his. "That was such a special day."
"What was so special about it?" he prodded in a playful tone.
Jessie smacked his arm, and laughter spouted out of him.
"Something happened to me that day that had never happened before," she said as seriously as she could manage. "Don't you remember?"
"Oh, I remember."
"Good. Because a girl doesn't see her first tide pool every day. I've never forgotten that moment."
Danny deflated slightly, so she poked his side with her elbow.
"And then, of course, there was that kiss."
He shot her a sideways glance. "Oh, did we kiss that day?"
Danny led her with caution as they climbed to the ledge of flat rock where they'd perched that afternoon. A lifetime ago, and yet just a moment ago. He helped Jessie settle into place before sitting beside her.
She leaned forward, inspecting the foamy surf below. "No sign of the tide pool," she commented. "I guess they float away?"
"The tide's just higher than it was that day."
"Oh. Do you think —"
His warm touch on her arm stopped her words in midair between them, and she jerked her head toward him. Without a word, he lifted her hand to his face, kissing her knuckles tenderly.
A warm, unexpected grin wound its way upward and she asked, "What was that for?"
"For love's sake," he replied.
Jessie giggled. "You love me?"
"Is that really a question?"
She shrugged before leaning forward and giving him a sweet little kiss. "No. I guess not."
"Good," he said, "because I have a question for you now."
He reached into the pocket of his jeans and produced his cell phone. "Hold this?"
He placed it into her hand before digging back into the pocket again. This time, he came up with keys, a few random coins, and the stub from the parking spot. "These, too," he said, placing them into her open hands in one lump.
"Umm, okay." With a clumsy chuckle, he dug into his other pocket, and Jessie cocked a brow. "What on earth are you looking for?"
Danny smiled as he produced a small black velvet box and displayed it in his open palm.
"What's that?" she asked him.
"Well, here," he said. "First ..."
Leaving Jessie with a glaze of cold perspiration on both palms, the back of her neck, and all down her chest, Danny slowly — with painful deliberation — replaced his cell phone, his keys, the change ...
"Danny," she finally exclaimed. "What's in the box?"
"Oh. This?" he teased, glaring down at the velvet box. "This is just something I wanted to show you."
Show me. Undefined disappointment curdled the words.
"Yeah. Okay. What is it?" The lid creaked as he opened it, and she stared down at an exquisite diamond and sapphire ring. "It's beautiful. Whose is it?"
"It was my grandmother's. Then my mom's."
His mom's ring. Of course. He wants me to consign it.
Jessie swallowed around the lump she hadn't noticed forming at the base of her throat. "Oh. And you're showing it to me because —?"
"Well, I remembered that you're into vintage jewelry, and I thought you might give me an opinion."
"An opinion. What kind of opinion?"
"Just one in general. What do you think?"
"Well," she started, then her lips closed tight.
"It's nothing like the rings you're used to, I realize," he said. "But I thought it was kind of pretty. Mom said the diamond's just under a carat, plus the two triangular —"
"Trillion," she interrupted. "The cut of the sapphires is called trillion. And the band is really intricate."
"Art deco inspired," he told her. "Engraved art deco, I think she said."
Realization dawned. "Oh," Jessie said. "So you were thinking of placing it at the store. I could do that for you."
"You really think a woman would want to wear it?"
"Of course," she exclaimed. "It's exquisite."
"Try it on," he suggested. "Let's see it on your finger." She grinned as she plucked the beauty from the box and slipped it on her right ring finger.
"Danny, it's superb."
"You think so?" Just before she pushed it all the way into place, Danny reached out and stopped her, removing it. "Not that finger," he said. "This one."
The exquisite ring had barely touched the ring finger of her left hand when Jessie's pulse kicked into overdrive. She looked up at him, and their gazes locked as he pushed the band all the way into place.
"My grandmother said you have everything you need in this ring. All the somethings."
"The somethings?" she repeated. "What are the somethings?"
"I don't know," he said with a shake of his head. "But one of them is a something blue, which is where the sapphires come in."
"Ohhh." She couldn't help chuckling. "Something old, something new. Something borrowed? So, the woman who wears it has to give it back?"
"No. But she does have to pass it on to her firstborn son when he falls in love."
"Ah. I see," she said with a slow nod.
"So you really like it?"
Jessie smiled. "I love it."
"It wouldn't be a disappointment after the boulder you had before this one?"
"Not at all," she said, still not entirely sure what they were talking about. "It's unique, and it has vintage style of its own."
"Yeah," he said, inspecting it on her finger. "I guess it does." After a moment, he added, "Hey. You want to wear it for a while?"
"Yeah. Break it in or something."
"Rings don't really need to —"
"Just until you decide."
"Whether or not you want to marry me."
Jessie nearly choked, and it took a solid minute to recover. "Are you proposing?"
"That depends. Are you going to freak out or say yes?"
"I'm not sure," she admitted.
"Then I'll get back to you on that."
So much for Danny's predictability. Of all the unpredictable things he'd ever said or done, this was the most unpredictable of all.
* * *
"He proposed, Piper. Asked me to marry him. He had a ring and everything."
The burgeoning smile that made its way up her friend's face was a little unsatisfying to Jessie.
"Did you hear me?"
"I heard you," Piper replied, and she reached across the desk for Jessie's hand. "Let me see the ring."
"Well, I'm not wearing it," she chastised.
"Because. I didn't say yes." Jessie plopped her hands on the desktop and wiggled her ring-free fingers with a sigh. "You don't wear the ring until you say yes."
"What did you tell him?"
The unexpected pinch of revelation quirked Jessie's brow, and she leaned back in her desk chair until it creaked. "Piper, you knew, didn't you?"
"What do you mean?"
She rocked forward and leaned both arms on the desk. "Piper Brunetti."
Piper flicked a wisp of her short copper hair and darted her green gaze to the wall behind Jessie. "What?"
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "That ridiculous thing in the car about my not wanting to marry again, and you making me promise if he proposed today ..." Laughing at the realization as it unfolded before her, she added, "That's what you meant when we were leaving the courthouse. You told Danny, 'Today, not tomorrow. Today.' You really thought I'd say yes because of that dumb conversation we had?"
With a sly smile, Piper remarked, "You did promise, after all."
"How long have you known?"
"He may have mentioned it to me."
"You had breakfast with Danny?" Jessie's hand exploded at the side of her head. "Okay. Mind blown. Who initiated that?"
"He invited me."
"What did he say? Tell me everything."
Piper's green eyes narrowed. "He was concerned about the ring."
"What about the ring? It's gorgeous." Wonderings pinged from one side of her mind to the other. "He was concerned?"
"Jack gave you the Rock of Gibraltar, sweetie."
Jessie looked down at her conspicuously ring-free finger as the apparitional image of her former Neil Lane extravaganza materialized in all its three-and-a-half-carat brilliance. She'd built an entire new life there in that store of hers, all of it based upon the curve of a platinum setting. But would she want to carry around that much weight on her finger now?
Not a chance.
"So he showed it to you?" she asked. "The ring?"
Piper nodded. "He did."
She deflated into a giddy smile. "Stunning, right?"
Her friend leaned on the edge of the desk and broke into a toothy grin. "Amazing. Did he tell you the story about —"
The jingle of the front door opening interrupted Piper and sent a rush of warm adrenaline through Jessie that propelled her to her feet. "I didn't know I'd missed that simple little bell so much." She rounded the desk, grinning like a dope. "That will be Amber."
Jessie rushed out of the office and into the store. She and Amber collided in a mutual gleeful embrace halfway across the floor, and a wave of Amber's honey-blonde hair stuck to Jessie's lip gloss as they did.
"I can't believe we get to open this place again," Amber said as they parted. "Hey there," she added as Piper emerged from the office hallway. "The gang's all here."
Piper rubbed her hands together. "What do we do first?"
"I've got some inventory that came back from the dry cleaners the day we closed," Amber announced. "I'll get it catalogued and out on the floor."
"Let's grab some cleaning supplies," Jessie suggested, and Piper nodded. "What's your pleasure? Pledge or Windex?"
"Hmm," she playfully considered with a full pout. "A little lemony freshness sounds just dandy."
Jessie chuckled and headed back to the supply room for paper towels, rags, and cleaners.
Wiping away dust particles and streaks from the glass cases felt cathartic somehow for Jessie — like ridding herself of the final dregs of her nightmarish (so-called) marriage in order to clear the road ahead. The jewelry on display looked to her as if it had been cleaned as well just by the simple act of wiping the glass around it. When she finished the cases, Jessie smiled at Piper — meticulously polishing the shelves and cubbies — and moved to the front of the store to start in on the windows and door.
The fragrance of cleaning products tickled her nose and took her back to earlier days — happy ones in her grandfather's house when her Saturday morning chores paved the way for an afternoon lounging on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain or in the woodworking shed out back. She loved those days — so simple and pure — at least until she got the notion in her head that an exciting and glamorous life beckoned from far beyond the confines of Slidell, Louisiana.
An invisible fist tightened around her heart at the thought of Grampy. She could hardly bear the thought of losing him, but the doctors had indicated she had no choice in the matter.
"Looks like I got cancer, baby girl," he'd stated matter-of-factly, and the words left a sour taste in the hollow of her throat as she recalled that day out on the sunporch, the bitter scent of Grampy's chicory coffee wafting up her nose.
"What?" she whimpered. Slipping her hand from Danny's, she rushed to her grandfather's chair, knelt in front of him, and took his hand inside both of hers just the way Danny had done. "Are you sure?"
"Yeh. It's fer sure."
"How bad is it?" she asked him.
"Purdy bad. By the time I figgered out somethin' weren't right, the catfish was nearly cooked in the skillet."
Jessie set the towels and glass cleaner on the floor and marched across the store in search of her phone. Perching on the stool behind the counter, she pressed the speed dial that would bridge the large gap between Santa Monica and Slidell.
He answered on the first ring. "Grampy?" She imagined him sitting next to the phone, unable to be outside where he'd rather be, possibly weak or too tired to even watch television. "How are you feeling today?"
"Ah, Jessie-girl, I was just thinkin' 'bout you. You get yer name back, didja?"
"I am officially Jessie Hart."
"Not that ya ever wasn't. Glad yer free o' that varmint. He givin' you any more grief?"
She chuckled. "I think Jack has a lot more than me to think about right now."
Excerpted from From Bags to Riches by Sandra D. Bricker. Copyright © 2016 Sandra D. Bricker. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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