Monday, March 13, 1972, Indianapolis, Indiana
“That’s great. Just what I need on a Monday morning.” Judy Larkin shoved her glasses further up her nose and held them in place as she glanced down at her bike’s rear tire. She’d need to do more than pump air into it. Coming down that alleyway to use the back entrance at work had already cost her two tires in the last year. She didn’t have time or money for this. Pictures of the balance in her back account flitted through her brain. How was she going to pay for this? More importantly, how was she getting home from work?
Not that her boss cared.
As she maneuvered her transportation toward the back door of Wedding Dresses and More, she crossed her fingers and glanced at the side parking lot. Please don’t let him be here yet. Sure enough, the big silver Lincoln Continental sat without its owner. That meant Mr. Anders Hanson was inside already. No.
Oh, this day just kept getting better and better—for everyone but her. What had she done to the world to deserve this?
Judy heaved the bike through the doorway and parked it in the back room where at least she shouldn’t have to add theft to her Monday woes. But with a flat, maybe she should hand it off to the first person to show an interest.
Then, with a quick peek at her watch that said she still had two minutes before her clock in time, she put her things away and donned the ugly, orange-flowered smock.
Tina, the only other floor employee at the moment, hadn’t arrived yet. That girl could be mesmerized by anything shiny. Today there was supposed to be a delivery from LeBelle Designs, so she’d better hurry. Judy’d need to get the new selections set for display.
She blew out a breath and turned the sign on the front door announcing they were open for business right before she flipped the lock. Let the hordes pour in.
That was a laugh. Business was never that big. But lately, over the last few months, it was almost dead. How was Mr. Hanson paying for her and Tina and an accountant? No, she wouldn’t think about that and jinx herself. Frankly, as much as she’d like to quit, her bank balance held her hostage right here.
Judy grabbed the dust cloth and started cleaning all the racks and displays, something she’d hoped to get Tina to do, but apparently the girl had other plans for her morning. Was she ever coming in?
The bell at the back rang, announcing a delivery. Great. No one to cover the front. If she took a chance, showed some initiative, she’d probably get yelled at for doing the wrong thing. The smart idea would be to lock the front door and go answer the bell, but if she did it without permission, she’d get cremated for sure. Still, she couldn’t leave the driver waiting.
Judy crossed her fingers behind her and tapped at the office door jamb. “Mr. Hanson?”
“Yeah, what is it?”
“We’ve got a delivery out back.” Don’t yell at me.
“So, I’m alone out front.” It’s not my fault.
“Lock the front door, idiot, and then get the back door. Do I have to do all the thinking around here?”
Why didn’t I come up with that brilliant suggestion?
Judy locked the front and hurried to the back before the driver gave up on her. Five minutes later she had all the boxes stacked in the back room and was signing the receipt. Now if Tina would just show up.
The front door rattled.
She hustled past the boxes that nearly blocked the passage between the front of the store and the rear. “Coming!” Dancing between the display racks, she noticed a tall blonde with her face pressed against the window.
Judy sucked in a gasp.
The bad news was it wasn’t Tina.
The worse news was she knew that face.
Geoff Spooner sat in the parking lot of Wedding Dresses and More and took one last look in the rearview mirror of his LeMans to practice.
Decisive. Direct. His uncle wouldn’t appreciate any niceties he might add anyway. It was better to cut right to the heart of things, make a clean break. He’d been under Uncle Andy’s thumb for too long.
But then he saw Mom’s face in his mind’s eye, the disapproval in her expression toward him, the effusion in her glance toward her baby brother.
Geoff was trapped.
Why couldn’t Mom see Unk for who he was? Manipulative. Rude. Arrogant. Down-right mean. Why did there have to be people in the world like that? Was getting along such a foreign idea?
He sighed and turned off the ignition. “Go get ’em, and don’t be a weenie.”
At this rate, Geoff would never be free to do the one thing he knew he was meant to do. And sure as shooting, his purpose wasn’t to live as a toady to his overbearing uncle for the rest of his life. So he’d better macho up.
He locked his car and headed for the shop. It was time to get his soul crushed again.
Could Judy just pretend she hadn’t seen the blonde at the window?
Nope, she’d spotted her. Nothing left to do but open the door before her boss came out to see what the commotion was all about.
If the face remembered Judy, there would definitely be a commotion.
She thought of slipping her glasses into her smock pocket but instead unlatched the door. “Welcome to Wedding Dresses and More. How may I help you?”
The blonde charged inside. “I was wondering why you were closed up when the sign clearly said Open.” She flipped a strand of her gypsy shag over her shoulder. “I’m looking for a…” She squinted at Judy. “Don’t I know you?”
Judy looked everywhere but at the blonde who continued on as if nothing had paused her. “Yeah, I’m looking for a wedding gown.” She flashed her left hand under Judy’s nose. The glistening boulder balanced on her ring finger would cut some serious glass. “Paul just asked me last night, so I wanted to get a jump on things, see what’s out there, and I remembered this little shop. I’m sure I’ll want to check other places, too, but… I know I know you from somewhere.” She tapped her chin. “It’ll come to me.”
“What size do you wear? Do you have any particular style in mind?” Judy stepped behind the counter to put space between them.
“Our first date was to Romeo and Juliet, and I would love something with that flavor. Olivia Hussey’s wardrobe was so groovy. Maybe pale ivory with velvet and silk and chiffon with an empire waist and capped sleeves that change to billowing chiffon and end in velvet cuffs.” The blonde’s eyes were closed as she finished her description, no doubt imagining the whole thing.
It was a pretty common request. Plenty of people saw that movie. Fortunately, the store carried several possibilities to fit the bill in various price ranges. Not that Shelley Clark would need to worry about money. In fact, Judy was surprised she was looking at anything remotely off the rack when she could hire a designer to make exactly what she wanted.
Blonde Shelley’s eyes popped open. “I know I know who you are. What was your name? Julie?” She snapped her fingers, paused, then shook her head. “I’ll remember, just give it time.”
That’s what I’m afraid of. Judy pasted on a smile and adjusted her smock lapels to cover her name tag hoping no more memories would surface.
The front doorbell jingled, but Judy didn’t have the vision to look up to see who was there due to the moisture burning her eyes. As much as she’d wanted Tina to arrive, now she couldn’t stand the thought of anyone coming in and hearing about her huge mistake. For Pete’s sake, she was sixteen at the time. Never could catch a break.
Judy blinked hard. She would not cry in front of this ditsy blonde. She’d given her enough emotional ammo back in the day. No need to refresh her stockpile. “I’m sort of working here. Can we get back to the dresses?” She gritted her teeth. “I mean, since you are planning a wedding, wouldn’t it be a good idea to look at some gowns?” Or change the subject before I go berserk?
“Don’t get all touchy. I’ll figure it out.”
So Shelley thinks she’s still touchy about the worst moment of life. What would she think about getting touched in the mouth with a knuckle sandwich? Judy’s fingers rounded into a fist at her side.
“Excuse me, ladies. May I be of service? I’m sure there’s some lovely gowns to try on. Perhaps our assistant would be good enough to bring some to you while you wait in the changing room over there.” Fantastic. Thus spake O Great Geoffrey Spooner. The tall preppy interloper pointed to the corner of the show room on the other side of the dais.
Shelley stared at Judy a moment before shaking her head. “Nah, I don’t think so. But I’ll see you later. Ciao, baby!” She exited with a wave over her shoulder.
Judy held her breath until the door closed and her nemesis strolled past the shop window. Then she spun on the goody-two-shoes who continued to stare after the blonde. “What did you think you were doing?”
He turned back giving a good imitation of stunned. “What?”
“Who do you think you are? Just because you’re the boss’s nephew doesn’t mean you can take over my job.”
Geoff stepped back, his hands raised, palms out. “Whoa, I wasn’t trying to take over. Just thought I could diffuse a problem before it got too big. You looked like you were ready to take a swing at ol’ blondie there.”
What if I was? “I’d do no such thing. I’m a professional. And the manager. I think I can oversee a customer.”
“Clearly I was wrong. So sorry I misunderstood, Miss Larkin. I won’t make that mistake again.” He backed away and turned for the office. “Is Uncle Andy in there?”
“Yes.” She focused on something on the counter so he wouldn’t see the tears ready to splash onto her thick lenses.
“Okay then. Catch you on the flip side.” He strode to the office.
Judy heard the tap on the jamb and the muffled voices until the door closed.
Stupid tears. Stupid preppy know-it-all. Stupid her for letting it get to her after all these years.
But it did. And it hurt. Maybe not as bad as it did that day in 1963, but she still felt the pain and humiliation.
Judy pulled her glasses off to wipe away the moisture and ran her knuckle under her eyes as she heard footsteps coming from the back. Too light to be Geoff’s, not at nearly six feet tall and built like a quarterback. If he wasn’t such a product of the popular crowd, she’d probably think he was hot.
“Hey, sorry I’m late.” Tina finally made it in. Too late to be of help with the fiasco this morning, but who knew what the afternoon held? “You okay?”
“Yeah, sure. Just don’t be late again.” Judy pushed off from the counter and hightailed it to the employee restroom to fix her makeup.
Tina’s words floated back as she closed the door. “What a grump.”
So, maybe she was. But she had a good reason. Anyone who went through what she did would feel the same. Right?
Judy stared in the mirror, but her reflection didn’t have any answers.
“Rainy Days and Mondays.”
It was her theme song.
Geoff strode down the hall.
Well that was fun. Ol’ Judy Larkin could just manage things on her own. He didn’t want her job, not for all the diamonds and tiaras that floated through this establishment.
Wonder if she’d be less cranky without her glasses?
Those Coke-bottle lenses tended to magnify some pretty blue eyes, but getting past her prickles would be too much work.
Geoff tapped at the door jamb, hoping for an opening to say what he’d practiced. The sooner he did, the sooner the guy was off his back.
“Get in here, Geoff. I need to talk to you.”
Guess they’d be getting straight to business. Geoff took a seat in one of the two visitor folding chairs in front of his uncle’s desk. He’d never figured out how, but Uncle Andy had managed to cause the chairs to sit lower so that everyone who sat in them had to look up to have a conversation. Made Geoff feel like he was a kid about to get scolded.
“Been going over the books.” Uncle Andy left the sentence dangling in the air as he lit a cigarette.
“And nothing.” He blew the smoke in Geoff’s face. “I’m losing money. That’s not supposed to happen.” His uncle slapped a spreadsheet on his desk. “It’s been going steadily downhill for about a year but picked up speed over the last four months. I don’t like it.”
“I only work the figures you give me. I can’t do anything to make money magically appear.” Or fraudulently appear either. He’d better not ask for that.
Uncle Andy waved his hand in the air, as if to wipe away his words. “I know, I know. But I’ve done some checking, and I think I’ve learned a few things.” He leaned back in his swivel chair, making it creak under his weight, his middle fingers tapping each other over his stomach’s girth while the cigarette dangled from his lip.
Then all at once he sat up, set the Camel between his fingers, pulled out a desk drawer, and placed a candy dish on his blotter. “Here. It’s nearly Saint Patrick’s Day. Spent an hour sorting these out to get the green ones. Thought I could leave them out in front. You know what they say about greenies being aphrodisiacs?” He popped a couple of the candy-coated peanuts in his mouth before shoving the bowl forward.
Geoff’s vision narrowed while the blood in his head pounded at his temples. His breath entered and left his lungs as if he were recovering from a run. He could feel the moisture building in his throat. Just the sight of them brought back that horrible moment.
Before he did something memorable, he swiped the bowl into the trash and raced to the shop’s back exit.
Holding onto the door frame, he willed his gag reflex to relax. Should’ve known. He’d been blindsided by his loving uncle more times than he wanted to count. Geoff blinked away the film turning his vision to prisms and slowed his breathing.
It took nearly five minutes, but he was finally back in control. Dear old Uncle Andy. Mom’s little brother seemed bound and determined to get him past his “problem.”
He returned to the office, closed the door, and slid into his empty chair.
Uncle Andy had his feet up on his desk and his glasses perched on the end of his nose while he read from the accounting book Geoff kept for the business.
Although he knew his records were accurate, Geoff also knew this company was in deep financial trouble. Fortunately, his uncle’s other enterprises seemed to be going well. Wonder what he was considering?
“Still can’t handle the green ones, huh?” The man didn’t even look up to make eye contact.
“Nope.” And Geoff didn’t see that fact changing in the near future, nor was he willing to discuss it.
“You need to get over that.” Uncle Andy put his feet down and set the book on his blotter.
“We need a new topic.”
“Gonna be that way?” Unk leaned forward, elbows and forearms flat on the desk.
“Yep. What have you learned about why the company is losing business?” If the man wouldn’t change topics on his own, Geoff would steer him in a different direction. Get this part of the meeting over with so he could bring up his own agenda.
His uncle huffed but then sat back again, his middle fingers returning to their favorite steeple pose while the cigarette in the ashtray sent a ribbon of smoke climbing toward the ceiling. “There’s a new business opened up in Kokomo. You wouldn’t think it would affect things down here in Indy, but apparently word-of-mouth travels. Looks like they have a mansion of some kind where they meet with clients on an appointment-only basis. They’ve figured out a way to cover everything from dresses and tuxes, flowers, invitations, catering, and venue. It’s a one-stop shopping place that they can customize to fit budgets and preferences. How does a shop like mine compete?”
“No, I mean it.” His uncle slammed his palm on the desk. “How am I supposed to compete with them?”
“I don’t know. Have you thought of selling the business? Your other enterprises are running smoothly. Maybe you should cut your losses.”
Uncle Andy’s face turned florid. Geoff could almost see the smoke billowing from his ears as if he’d swallowed his cigarette. “Cut my losses? It would still be a loss. I want to win. This is my business, and I won’t have any sweet little weather girl bilking me out of my share.”
“Weather girl?” Maybe the question would get him out of his tirade.
“That’s the name of the place. The Weather Girls Wedding Shoppe and Venue. I don’t mind if they play their game up in Kokomo, but when it cuts into my revenue, they’re in for trouble.”
Geoff didn’t know who the Weather Girls were, but he was starting to feel sorry for them. “If they’re offering all those services, they’re in a different category. Maybe we can find out what we’re good at and promote that?”
His uncle pushed away from the desk and strode to stand over Geoff. “I want my business back. I want their business while I’m at it. That’s what they get for taking what’s mine.”
Guess that wasn’t the best approach. “So what do you propose?”
Uncle Andy scratched at the back of his head where he still had a ringlet of hair that was swiftly changing from dirty blond to gray. “I’m working on it. I need some answers if I’m going to crush my competition.”
Geoff stopped himself from asking why his uncle wanted them crushed. The whole idea of competition bothered him. Wasn’t there enough business for everyone? Just be your unique self. The right customers would come. In fact, maybe the businesses could send clients to each other if they knew that the other shop was a better fit. But Uncle Andy didn’t want to hear any of that. He’d said it before. Geoff was too “Kum Ba Ya.”
Unk paused and peered at Geoff.
What? Did he have something on his face? Why was his uncle staring so hard?
Then a grin spread over the older man’s countenance that did not put Geoff at ease. He even released a chuckle before throwing his head back in a full-on guffaw with a slap to his knee. “I’ve got it. Oh, man, I’ve got it. I’ll send you undercover.”
“Keep up, boy. If I want to know how to defeat my enemy, I need to know my enemy. What better way to do that than to send someone into their camp? A spy. You. You can go undercover and get all the pertinent details. Then I’ll know how to crush them.” He ground out his cigarette for good measure, just in case Geoff missed his point.
“How am I supposed to go undercover? I’m sure they already have an accountant.”
Uncle Andy narrowed his eyes and glared, making Geoff feel like a first grader wearing a dunce cap. “I’m sure they do. But what would work better is if you went as a client.”
“Yes. A. Client. Don’t be so obtuse, boy. Think. You show up with your fiancé and get them to show you how they operate, all their choices, everything. Then you report back to me, and we’ll figure out a way to hit ’em where it really hurts.” He laughed again and plopped into his chair. One of these days that chair was going to plop with him, and his uncle would find himself on the floor.
“Um, I think there are a few problems with that scenario, Unk.”
“Nothing we can’t fix. Get a vision, boy. We can do this. You and me. Besides, you owe me. Who came through for you when you wanted to go to college?” He paused, leaning forward to wait for Geoff to answer.
“You, Uncle Andy.”
“And who put your sister through school and helped your mom keep a roof over her head and food on her table after your father was dead and gone?”
Geoff’s stomach tightened, but he forced out the approved answer. “You, Uncle Andy.”
“And who gave you a good job right out of college so you didn’t have to worry about interviewing or paying me back?”
By now Geoff’s voice had turned into a whisper. “You, Uncle Andy.”
“So I know I can count on you to help me save my business. Right?”
Geoff sighed, bile rising in his throat and knowing he might as well be selling his soul to the devil. “Yes, Uncle Andy.” Maybe he was a weenie. For sure there’d be no discussion of what Geoff wanted to talk about, at least not today.
“Thataway. Now you’re talking” He slapped the desk and leaned back. “So let’s get this plan to work.”
Geoff cleared his throat. “I think there is one glaring problem that might prove difficult.”
“What’s that, boy?”
One so obvious he couldn’t see how his uncle hadn’t thought of it yet. “I don’t have a fiancé. In fact, I’m not even dating anyone at the moment. Not that I would mind dating the right girl.” He hurried to add that last part, though he had no idea why. “But it might be an important key to your plan.”
His uncle leaned further back, the chair creaking with his laughter. “That, my boy, is a simple fix. Don’t worry.” He waved his hand in the air and tossed Geoff a wink. “Anything else troubling you?”
How did he say that the whole scheme troubled him? He didn’t want to undermine someone else’s business. “How do you see this working?”
Unk sat up and crossed his arms on his desk. “I think you need to make an appointment. Get them to show you everything they can. Ask questions, look for soft spots in their underbelly.”
“Oh, c’mon, boy, get with the program. We’re out for the kill. Look, if it makes you all that squeamish, just keep reporting everything to me. I’ll figure out how to use the information to crush ’em good. Once and for all.” That wasn’t blood-thirsty or anything. Good grief!
Geoff sighed, resigned to his fate. “So what is your plan for my fiancé? And how will you get some unsuspecting girl to fall in love with me?”
“Love? No one needs to be in love with anyone. All you have to do is work together. And I know the perfect girl. She won’t be a problem, especially when she remembers which side of her bread is buttered.” Uncle Andy stood and opened the door. “Hey, Judy, stop what you’re doing. I need you. Now.” The grin on his face would’ve terrified a Cheshire cat.