Page 18 of Suited for Love

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But judging by the way he's looking at Hazel right now, it seems pretty obvious to me.

In the back of my mind, it occurs to me how absurd my life has become. My closest friend in Friendly is the man who wants nothing more than for me to disappear so he can have my shop.

And then there's my imaginary cat.I chuckle as I pour my morning cup of coffee.

I have no right to feel this content. The grand opening for Sticks & Stones is today, and I'm not expecting a single customer to show up. But it doesn't matter, because I'm still planning myrealgrand opening.

When I head down to the store, I make sure to lock the deadbolt to the apartment.You can take the girl out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the girl.

As always, I beam with pride when I step into the store. Sticks & Stones exceeds my wildest expectations. Every designer I approached was eager to work with me. I negotiated far better deals than I ever could have for Boutique Chrysalis. I don't have the same resources, of course, but I've built a reputation for being trustworthy and fair.

The sunrise and sunset collections are displayed front and center in the display window. The aesthetic for the store is clean and cool with a beachy vibe. The accessories are located near the checkout counter, and I've left a space for Hazel's products. She hasn't agreed to sell them in my store yet, but I know she will. It's all part of my master plan.

In the meantime, my online store is already doing a steady business.

The bell over the door chimes and I look up in surprise. "Carlinya!"

I try to walk toward her slowly, but I'm so excited to see a friendly face that I end up sprinting across the store.

I pull her into a hug. "How are you?"

"Fine as frog hair and twice as slick."

I shake my head, laughing. "Um, I guess that's good?"

She chuckles. "Hildy's Hut sure looks different."

"Sticks & Stones," I remind her gently. "Can I show you around?"

As I walk her through the store, she taps her chin thoughtfully. "I figured it'd all be weird stuff, like in them fashion shows. Clothes made out of chicken feathers and bubble wrap. The models look like aliens half the time."

I laugh. "Have you been to many fashion shows?"

She gives me a look. "I own a TV, dear."

"Ah," I say, chuckling. "Well, you won't find chicken feathers or bubble wrap here. Just timeless, beautiful clothes for women of all shapes and sizes."

"I like that. I was pleasantly plump before the big C if you can believe it."

I try to hide my shock. She's skin and bones now. "How are the treatments going?" I'm not sure if it's okay to ask, but I can't help it. I really like Carlinya, and I worry about her.

"I'm doing well enough."

She doesn't seem to want to talk about it, so I change the subject. "What brings you to town?"

"I told Coop I was coming to visit him, but really, I wanted to see your store." Seeing my face light up, she quickly adds, "Tell anyone and I'll deny it."

"I won't have to tell anyone," I point out. "I'm sure someone saw you come in here. Soon enough, the whole town will know."

"Eyes everywhere," she mutters.

"We could pretend you robbed me," I suggest.

She laughs. "That'd be a hoot. Call Coop to arrest me." The laughter turns into a coughing fit and I guide her to a chair before dashing behind the checkout counter to pilfer my stash of bottled water.

She accepts a bottle with a shaking hand and takes a sip. "Sorry about that. Traveling takes a lot out of me. It's one of the reasons Coop wants me to move back to Friendly."

"He sounds like a good brother."