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Sally Rogers was standing in the window of the Bailey General Store, trying to attain a more attractive display. She was beginning to think it was a lost cause when an idea suddenly struck her. As she began to change the window, she was interrupted by a gentleman she had noticed entering the store earlier.
"Excuse me. I'm looking for the owner of the store." She looked over her shoulder to see a tall, dignified man, younger than she expected, waiting for her attention.
"Why?" she asked, feeling a little bothered at being interrupted.
"Because I have business to discuss with him."
"Sorry, not right now. The store owner is very busy at the moment," she said. It had been a long day and Sally was tired. She had a lot on her plate with the business, not to mention that she was still coming to terms with the devastating deaths of her parents. Suddenly the store had been left in her hands and she was finding all the decisions to be made to be almost too much.
"I'm sorry, miss, but I don't think that's your decision," the man said sternly.
Sally stepped down from the window, pushing a long strand of blond hair behind an ear. "Actually, yes, it is, and you're interrupting. I just figured out what to do with the window and I really don't have time to stop and talk to you now."
"You?" the man asked in shock. "You're the owner?"
"Yes, I'm the owner." Sally started across the store looking for the item that she knew would work in the window.
To her surprise, the man followed her. "What are you doing?" he asked.
"Not that it's any of your business, but I'm getting the stepladder. It's going in the window."
"The stepladder? Why?" the man questioned. Sally gave him a wry smile; she obviously wasn't going to get rid of him that easily. "Well, if you must know, I'm going to use it to display some shirts in the window. It needs some vertical lift." She reached for the ladder, but before she could pick it up the man lifted it out of Sally's hands.
"Allow me to carry it for you. And I agree, by the way, this will display the shirts well."
Sally was now getting very annoyed by this man and stood staring at him. "Thank you for offering, but I can carry it myself."
The man smiled at her, obviously not planning on letting Sally win. "Look, I need to talk to you and you are very busy. I'm here, I might as well help out."
Sighing, Sally led the way back across the store to the front window display. She stepped up into the window and then reached for the ladder as he held it up to her. Spreading the legs of the ladder apart she began to hang the shirts on different levels, until she was at last happy with the display.
When she had finished, Sally went outside to see how her efforts looked from the customers' point of view. To her surprise, she found the stranger right beside her as she evaluated the window.
"Nice job. Um, how long have you owned the store?"
"Not long, just since the deaths of my parents."
The man looked at the ground. "No wonder my ownership information wasn't accurate."
Sally said quietly, "Did your ownership information list Bob Rogers as the owner?"
"Yes, that's right. I take it that was your dad?"
"I inherited it when my parents died."
The man stared at Sally. She shrugged. "Sorry, I should've said it more politely, but it's still hard for me to to go into detail with people. Both my parents were killed in a car crash, along with my aunt and uncle. I've been owner of Bailey's General Store ever since."
"Then what I have to sayI mean, of course you may not want to hold to the agreement. I guess we can talk about it, but I think"
"Look, I'm tired and I don't know what you're talking about," Sally said with a sigh.
"Your father didn't tell you I'd be coming here?"
Sally turned to stare at the man. He looked like he belonged in a GQ ad, not standing in her country store.
"My father? How would my father have known that you were coming?"
The man shifted, suddenly looking a little uncomfortable. "He and my grandfather struck up a deal."
"Your grandfather? Who is your grandfather?"
"Wilbur Hunt, of the Hunt Corporation out of Denver." The young man looked as if he expected Sally to be impressed.
"I don't believe I found any letters from the Hunt Corporation for any reason when I went through my father's papers. Certainly not dealing with an arrangement that wouldwhat kind of a deal?"
"I was to work here in the store for your father for the second half of the month."
Sally stared at him as if he'd spoken a second language. "You must be kidding. That's ridiculous!"
"Why is it ridiculous?"
"Because my father hashad enough help for Christmas."
"He wasn't going to pay me a salary. My grandfather had talked to your father about selling the store." He held up his hand when she would've interrupted him. "Your father refused to even consider selling. But because of the amount of business you do, my grandfather thought I might find out good information if we decided to branch out into smaller stores across the state."
"So my father could teach you how to put us out of business? My father wouldn't do that," Sally responded.
"No, they had an agreement that we wouldn't take over any store, or open a new store, within your area."
"I didn't find any such agreement."
"I believe it was a gentleman's agreement."
"I don't think my father would settle for that. It would have to be in writing. And if not for him, then for me. I wouldn't allow you to work here unless you signed a non-compete clause."
"Sally?" a voice called from the back of the store.
"Coming," she returned. With an apologetic smile, she said, "I have to go see what's wrong. Excuse me."
When she got to the back room, she found her employee, Billy Johnson, standing, looking puzzled.
"What is it, Billy?"
"I don't know what I'm supposed to do with these things, Sally."
She looked at the stack of boxes. They each held jeans. "You put these on the shelves in the men's department, Billy. See? It's jeans."
"But some of them are girls' jeans."
Sally smiled. "Then you put those in the women's department. Here, I'll separate them for you."
Billy had worked in the store for over twenty years. He was a good worker, but at almost seventy he often got a little confused over things. Her dad had said Billy was the hardest worker he'd ever known and he could still be relied on to lift the heavier loads that Sally couldn't manage.
"Oh. Okay. I got it, Sally." Billy nodded as Sally showed him what he needed to do.
She went back into the store to find the stranger still there, leaning against the checkout counter. "Do you need something else?" she asked.
"Just more time to talk to you."
"I'm sorry, but it's Christmas. I really don't have much time to spare."
"Do you have a Christmas rush here, too?" the stranger asked, clearly not ready to leave yet.
"Yes, we do. Our Christmas Festival is in a little over a week from now and we are always busier then. I have a lot to get organized."
"What's the Christmas Festival?" he questioned again.
Sally smiled and decided it might be best to humor him."Well, it's a town celebration for Christmas. Our parents started it when we were three and it's been going ever since." Sally thought about all the good times she and her cousin, Penny, had shared over the years. This Christmas was going to be hard for both of them.
The man paused before he spoke again. "We? Do you have brothers or sisters?"
"No, I'm an only child. I meant my cousin and I. We both wanted to see Santa when we were very little, but there was nowhere near here where we could go. Our parents decided it would be easier if they brought Santa to our town. They ended up taking turns playing Santa. Now a lot of people come to our Festival for a chance to see Santa."
The man looked at Sally. "And how much money do you make off of it now you're older?"
Sally heard the sarcasm in his voice and turned to face him. He was really beginning to annoy her with all his questions. "Not a penny, actually. In fact we serve refreshments free of charge and offer used clothing and toys to those who need it. Shopping in the store increases naturally, but that's all. My cousin, Penny, will supply the Christmas tree and I'll decorate it. She does some of the baking, along with some other ladies in town who volunteer. It's a true Christmas Festival."
The stranger stood up straight and shifted uncomfortably. "I'm impressed. You could probably make a fair amount of money if you charged for some things, especially the refreshments."
"No, thank you. That's big city talk, not small town talk."
"Maybe. But you could consider"
"No. We won't change the Festival," Sally insisted, staring the man straight in the face.
"Has anyone ever told you you're stubborn?" the stranger asked with a grin that almost won her over.
Quickly Sally turned away, afraid he would see the tears that his remark had brought. That had been one of her father's frequent complaints about both her and her mother. Except his had been full of love. The sudden memory made Sally's heart ache.
"Hey, what did I say?" the man asked, moving to stand nearer to Sally. "I was only teasing. I didn't mean to make you cry." He put his hand on her arm, tugging her gently to face him.
I'm okay. It's just my father made that complaint frequently," she whispered.
"Damn! I'm sorry. I didn't mean tomost everything around here must remind you of them."
"Yes, it does," Sally answered, quickly wiping away her tears. She didn't want to think about how close she was standing to this strange man, how reassuring his arms felt holding hers and how good he smelled.
The bell over the front door jingled as it opened and a customer came in. Sally moved herself away from the man and composed herself before turning to the customer.
"Good morning, Mrs Ellison. How may I help you?" Sally asked, stepping toward the lady, grateful for the interruption.
"I've come for some of that yarn I bought last week. It's part of a Christmas gift I'm making for my granddaughter."
"Oh, yes, I remember. It's right this way." Sally led the lady to the yarn section and pulled out the exact shade she wanted. "Now, is there anything else I can get you? I just got in some special face cream that you might want to try."
"Really? Will it make my wrinkles go away?"
"It doesn't promise that, but I think it will soften them a little," Sally answered smiling at the elderly lady.
Sally led her to the newest product the store had to offer. Mrs Ellison ended up buying a jar of the cream. And she added two new coloring books, for her granddaughter's Christmas stocking, too.
When she left the store, the stranger was still there.
"Nice job of selling up."
"Thank you," Sally said coolly, wondering why he was still hanging around. "Is there anything I can show you before you leave?"
"Will you have lunch with me?" he asked suddenly, taking Sally by surprise.
Sally stared at the man. "No, I don't leave for lunch."
"This is a busy time of the year."
"You have to eat sometime. I'll find a place to stay and be back about six o'clock. Please? I don't like to eat alone."
Sally knew that she shouldn't get involved with this man. It immediately made her miss her parents, and she felt a sudden stab to her heart. They wouldn't have let her go without a warning. After all, the man was a handsome stranger and new to town. What's more he was a city guy, and had already made it clear that he thought differently to Sally. But she was on her own now and had to make her own decisions. Nervously, she nodded, instinctively trusting that she would be okay with this man, even though she hardly knew him. "There's only one decent restaurant in town. The Diamond Back is one block down. I'll meet you there at six."
"Great. I'll see you then," he said, smiling again and sending shivers down Sally's back. And then he walked out of the store.