he holidays were supposed to be a time of goodwill, celebration, and community. You couldn't tell it from the glares going around the table as Mayor Baylor talked. Earlier, the leader of our little town had the group eating out of his hand. Then all hell broke loose. Focusing on the uproar going on at the Business-to-Business monthly meeting, I wondered if the shop owners gathered around the mismatched tables had even seen the calendar. As South Cove's council liaison, I volunteered my shop each month for the meeting. I'm Jill Gardner, owner of Coffee, Books, and More, and president of the I-Hate-Mayor-Baylor Club. A red-faced Bill Simmons, chair of the business council and owner of South Cove Bed-and-Breakfast, stood at the front of the table, trying to get the group to quiet down.
Aunt Jackie issued a shrill, earsplitting whistle, two-finger variety. My aunt could make me smile even in the worst situations. She'd been a rock the last year during all the craziness that had been my life. Now I didn't know what I'd do without her help with Coffee, Books, and More. Or without seeing her on a daily basis.
The room finally quieted. I'd been the city council liaison with the business community in our little coastal California tourist town for the last five years. I'd never heard this kind of uproar over a mayor's mandate before. Maybe the Honorable Mayor Baylor was losing a bit of his power over the group.
“Look, I know it's a bad time for many of us to take on a charity project, but think of it this way, you'll have an extra pair of hands for the season.” Bill pulled out what he'd thought would be his trump card.
“I don't understand what you're all so upset about. I got you free help for the busiest season of the year.” Mayor Baylor glared at me, like their reaction was my fault. “These people want to work. We need to be charitable in our attitude.” This time, his scowl was full-on directed at me.
I put on my sweetest smile, the one I saved for the few customers I truly didn't like. “I've already signed up the coffee shop to participate. How about the rest of you?”
“Not all of us have South Cove's finest working part-time in our shops.” Darla Taylor, owner of the winery and editor of the local news for the
South Cove Examiner
, sniffed. “I heard he couldn't place these losers anywhere else so Ted paid the mayor to take on these stragglers.”
“That is totally unfounded speculation,” Mayor Baylor blustered, his face turning a bright shade of scarlet. He turned his stare from me to Darla. “I hope I won't see anything close to that being reported in the
I turned my head so no one would see my smile widen. As one of the local media, Darla's nose for rumors was spot-on. Ted Hendricks, program director for Bakerstown's welfare-to-work program, Work Today, had come to our tourist town of South Cove with an offer. Ten participants would work for eight weeks with a local business in an intern capacity. South Cove was their last chance.
The mayor's gaze shifted down the table, landing on Josh Thomas, a strong Mayor Baylor supporter. Except even I could see that His Honor wasn't winning any points with his friend today.
“Delinquents. You want me to let a delinquent run wild in my store. Talk to my customers and probably scope out my merchandise so they can rob me blind when I turn my back?” Josh owned Antiques by Thomas, the most recent business to open its doors on Main Street. Today, he pounded a chubby finger on the table.
“Of course, you'd have a problem with this. You don't even know that they are kids, or if they had trouble with the law. Just because someone is down on their luck doesn't mean they are a bad person,” Sadie Michaels shot back. Sadie, owner of Pies on the Fly, was my main supplier of desserts for the coffee shop. And a strong advocate for the underdog in any fight.
We'd gone down this path before. Josh and Sadie rarely saw eye to eye on any discussion. For my part, I liked the way she called him on his prejudice and narrow-mindedness. Bill tried again to short-circuit the argument he saw developing. “We don't have time for a political discussion on the topic. This is a done deal. They're coming today for the initial meet-and-greet with a walk through town. Three hours on two weeknights, and six hours on Saturday. Even if you just had them stock shelves, at least they'd be learning about retail and our special niche as a tourist destination.”
I jumped into the fray. “We only need three more host businesses. We've already had seven businesses volunteer. The mayor's office is even participating.” My friend Amy, who did most of the clerical work for the city as well as served at the city planner, was ecstatic to have a little help, even if it was only for a few hours a week.
Aunt Jackie set a slice of cheesecake in front of Josh. They'd been dating off and on since the summer. He wanted more on, she kept saying she wanted the off. She smoothed his black suit jacket with her hand, brushing lint off the sleeve. “You could use help organizing your store. Just think of what all you could get done with some young elbow grease.”
Josh peered up at my aunt and I swear I saw his heart melting, just like the big green monster in the Christmas story. “Fine, I'll take one.” He sounded like he was agreeing to foster a shelter animal, rather than a person.
Darla waved her hand. “I've got plenty of work at the winery. But let's try to match me with someone who doesn't have alcohol issues.” I wrote her name down. I didn't even care if she was taking on an intern for news fodder, which I suspected. Now I just had to clear the caveat with Ted Hendricks, the program director.
I searched the faces of the group gathered around the table, drinking coffee and, except for a few who had already volunteered, not meeting my eyes. I needed one more placement. Ted would be here in less than thirty minutes to finalize the plans.
Sadie spoke first. “Sorry. I'd take one, but the work with the bakery is first thing in the morning. I wouldn't have anything for them to do on evenings or weekends. That's the time I devote to Nick and the church.”
Sadie ran Pies on the Fly out of a remodeled garage behind her house. Calling her business a bakery was a little generous.
Marie Jones, the owner of The Glass Slipper, had her head down, trying to curl up in her seat, apparently hoping I wouldn't see her. I could even see her lips moving in some sort of chant. I watched her closely, wondering if she was a fan of the Serenity Prayer, the favorite of alcoholics everywhere. Finally she glanced up, maybe feeling the weight of the entire table as they turned their attention to her.
“What?” she stammered.
“Could you take an intern?” I liked the term that Ted had used to describe his charges, not typical work-study, but not helper, either. And if they weren't technically interns, no one cared. As long as there wasn't trouble.
“I don't know.” Marie's eyes darted from one person to the next. “I have several classes coming up this next month and I don't have time to babysit someone.”
“I bet the intern could help you with your classes. Maybe helping slower students or bringing in supplies, or even setting up the room each day.” My voice sounded excessively chipper, like I was a game show host, describing what was behind door number two if Marie chose to accept our offer.
“That's a great idea. People love craft projects. Maybe she'll even sit in on the classes herself.” Darla smiled at Marie. “You're very generous with your time.”
Marie must have known she was being played. I saw her form a response, then she just sank back into her chair, defeated. “I guess.”
“Great.” I glanced down at my schedule. “Ted's bringing the gang at five. I'm taking the group on a walking tour of town first, then dropping each person off at their assigned store, where you'll have about fifteen minutes to get to know each other. Then I'm hosting a small get-together here at the store. Coffee and cheesecake.”
Looking up, I saw Marie's face had gone white. I started to backpedal, thinking that two meetings today must be overwhelming the woman's natural shyness. “You don't have to come, but you're more than welcome.”
She took a deep breath, the tension in her body visibly easing a bit. Then she mumbled, “There must be more than one Ted in the world.”
“Excuse me?” I frowned, leaning forward.
She looked me straight in the eye. And lied. “I've got a class tonight.”
I wasn't going to challenge her, not when I'd just won a spot for our last participant. No use looking for cracks after you've bought the house, my grans always said. Of course, that piece of advice had gotten me stuck in a loveless marriage for too many years.
“Then we're settled. The only other order of business is assigning the chair for the Holiday Festival.” Darla waved her hand. The assignment was a formality; everyone knew Darla would be the chair. She'd been in charge of planning the theme and decorating for years before I even moved to South Cove.
“I've got some great ideas this year. I'm thinking a Beach Boys Christmas to play off our successful Beach Boys Summer Fun Festival.” She glanced around at the people surrounding the table. “So, is everyone cool with that?”
Bill coughed and then said, “Well, you see, Mrs. Baylor wants to be involved this year.”
Darla leaned back in her chair. “I don't understand. Of course she can be part of the committee. We could always use an extra pair of hands.”
Bill stacked the papers on the table in front of him. He gazed at the winery owner with genuine sadness in his eyes. “That's the thingâ”
Before he could finish his sentence, Mayor Baylor interrupted. “I'm sorry, Darla, Tina's got experience in this type of thing. She used to plan all her sorority parties. I think it's time we brought in a professional. South Cove needs the boost to draw in new visitors.”
Darla focused a glare at the portly man. “You're telling me she's chairing the festival? Because putting up college banners around an old sorority house is âprofessional experience'?”
The mayor nodded, then glanced at his watch. “Exactly. I knew you would understand.”
“Kind of like in an honorary position, right?” Darla wasn't giving in easily. I could feel the tension in the group as they watched the back-and-forth.
“No. Tina's determined to correct all the mistakes of the past and she says the only way to do that is by completely redesigning the project. Or whatever. She'll be contacting each of you for your assignments, and I hope you'll give her your full cooperation.” The mayor glowered at me, again.
Taking my cue, I fumbled for words. “I'm sure Tina will do a great job with organizing this year's festival.”
That response earned me a dirty look from Darla.
The mayor stood. “I've got a lunch engagement in the city or I'd stay to meet with Ted.” He tossed an envelope toward me. “That's the contract for the session. Please make sure he gets it.”
Then he strode out of the shop, the bell over the door banging in his wake.
Darla started yelling at Bill before the bell stopped chiming. “Is he freaking kidding? And you let him get away with this?”
“Calm down, Darla. Honestly, it was time for you to let someone else handle the burden of the committee. And we don't know, she might do a good job.” Bill glanced around the room. “If there's nothing else, I need to get back to the B&B, we've got a full house this week.”
“But I thought we were going to discuss animal control today. I know a bunch of feral cats have taken up in the empty apartment in my building,” Josh called after him.
Bill didn't even slow down; he took off out of the shop just like the mayor had, but turned left instead of the other man's right turn.
“This meeting is a joke,” Josh muttered, pushing away from the table. “Nothing I want to discuss ever gets on the agenda.”
“There's a lot of stuff we have to discuss,” I said, feeling guilty. I'd been putting his e-mails in a file. The round file cabinet on my floor called the trash.
He shot me a look that would have melted my face if he'd had a superpower. He nodded to Aunt Jackie and lumbered through the door.
Darla didn't even say good-bye as she left, her fingers twitching around the file she'd brought, probably filled with theme ideas. Darla loved turning the little town into a storyland. Each Christmas season, she'd brought a new look to the street. The first year I'd lived here, the theme had been
A Christmas Carol
and she'd even hired a band of carolers, dressed in era-appropriate costumes. I'd felt like I'd walked back in time, even though the snow was fake.
“She's upset.” Sadie stated the obvious as she started collecting paper cups off the tables.
“I think it's more than upset.” Aunt Jackie snorted. “The mayor had better watch his back or he'll be found dead on City Hall's steps, dressed up like a holiday turkey.”
“Maybe we can talk to him. Ask him to at least add Darla back on the planning committee.” I moved a table back to its regular spot. “He had to have noticed how hurt she felt by being cut off.”
“He won't care. Men always get what they want.” Marie's small voice drew my eyes toward her where she stood near the window, watching the street. “You can't stop them once they make up their mind.”
Sadie, Jackie, and I stopped cleaning. I hadn't even known Marie was still in the shop. “That's not always true. Men don't have any more power than women do. It's just he's the mayor.” I watched as Marie turned back toward me, tears filling her eyes.
“You're wrong.” With that, she fled out of the shop and into the street. I watched her get halfway across before I heard the horn.