My lack of foresight was probably a good thing, considering my tendency to jump in feet first, damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead. After all, my nickname when I was a little girl was Imp, short for "impetuous." Over the years, I've learned the hard way that there's no escaping your destiny, and if the fates want to roast you over a fire and serve you on a platter, you might as well just open your mouth for the apple. So when destiny comes knocking, I yank open the door and invite her in, suitcases and all.
"What the heck do you think you're doing?" I leaned my head back to stare at Delilah, who flicked her tail at me from her perch on the landing above.
She'd darted under my legs as I headed down the stairs, then looped around back up to the landing. At least I hadn't gone tumbling down the entire flight. Instead, when I tripped, I flailed, regained enough balance to grab hold of the railing, then toppled backward, like tall timber, rather than face first to the waiting hall below. Yeah, a typical Monday, all right.
The inky spot on her squashed-in nose seemed to pulsate with a life of its own in stark contrast to the rest of her white fluffball of a body. Sixteen years old and well on her way to senility, Delilah had considered me "the enemy" ever since I'd moved back home. She was certain I was trying to usurp her place in Aunt Florence's heart and I couldn't convince her otherwise.
I pushed myself to a sitting position. My lower back popped and I grimaced. That sore spot hadn't been there before. I glanced over my shoulder at Delilah, whose eyes were positively sparkling.
"You're crazy as a bedbug. You know that, cat?"
With a thwap, her tail smacked the floor and she turned to sashay up the stairs to my aunt's room, her work for the day complete, her bloomers swaying with every delicate paw-step.
I tested myself for any broken bones. Nope, none that I could find. I had a background in Aikido and Tai Chi, but neither had left me prepared for the machinations of a jealous cat. Moving my shoulder again, I decided that the only damage done was a couple of bruises from where I'd managed to catch myself on the railing. At least I didn't break my neck. I'd live. Yeah, Mondays sucked rocks.
With a quick shake to scatter the dust bunnies that now complemented my black jeans and tank top, I dashed down to the kitchen. I was running late and didn't have time for breakfast. As I yanked open the refrigerator, a sandwich in a Tupperware container caught my eye. Yay! Auntie had left me a sandwich. She knew that without food I'd be a basket case by midmorning. Grateful, I snagged up the ham and cheese along with my purse and hit the door. Twenty minutes late and counting. Not good. Not good form to keep customers waiting. Not good business juju.
I edged the odometer up a notch, running through my to-do list for the day. Tawny had scheduled four appointments for me at Venus Envy, my aunt's bath and beauty shop. And we were out of Lite Dreams oil; I needed to whip up a new bottle. That in itself wouldn't take long, but blending it into the lotions, soaps, and bath salts we sold in the Dream-Song line, well, that required a little more skill. Maybe I could snare-oh, shit. I hit the brakes and swerved over to the shoulder of the road.
As I fumbled through my tote bag, my stomach twisted. I'd lost the lesson plan I'd written up for the self-defense class I had recently began teaching at the local community college on Sunday evenings. I knew that I'd put it in my tote bag yesterday, and I didn't remember taking it out.
I closed my eyes, trying to recall the last time I'd seen it. An image of lamb chops drifted through my mind, distracting me briefly. Yum, I could go for a lamb chop, grilled medium rare with rosemary and garlic.
With a shake of my head, I brought my attention back to the matter at hand. The image of the lamb chops reminded me where I'd left my notes. Last night, I had dinner with Barb at the Book Wich. While searching for my credit card, I placed the lesson plan next to me on the seat of our booth and forgot to put it back in my purse. Since the Book Wich ran a barebones lost-and-found box, chances were good that it had been recycled. Anything that looked like a pile of papers had probably ended up in the trash.
With a sigh, I pulled back onto the road and shifted into high gear. That lesson plan would take me a good two hours to reconstruct and, like an idiot, I'd also left the handouts on the table. To add insult to injury, I hadn't bothered to save it on my laptop after printing it out. Aunt Florence had warned me, and I'd laughed her off. I printed it out, why should I bother saving it? Stupid, but par for the course.
Thoroughly ticked, I didn't notice the cruiser hiding behind the blue spruce at the corner of Oakwood Avenue and Lake Park Boulevard. The siren startled me out of my thoughts and, with a groan, I pulled over to the shoulder again, brushing the hair off my face where the wind had blown it into my eyes.
A glance in the rearview mirror confirmed that today was indeed the day from hell. Kyle Laughlin, Gull Harbor's ever vigilant chief of police, swaggered over to my Sebring. Joy, joy, and more joy. Kyle and I had never been on the best of terms. When I was in seventh grade, Kyle had developed a crush on me, but I'd been after his cousin Jared, who was in my homeroom class. And when I accepted Jared's invitation to the Gull Harbor Harvest Dance after turning down Kyle, it caused a rift that had lasted until I left for college.
Six months ago, when I'd returned to Gull Harbor, I'd hoped that the intervening years might have taken the edge off their rivalry, but apparently I'd been wrong. Even though his cousin had come out of the closet, Kyle still acted like I'd refused him yesterday. He was still playing king of the hill with Jared, who now worked over at Gull Harbor Community College. Jared and I had rekindled our friendship when I moved back to town, but Kyle had remained as sour and prudish as he'd been when we were kids.
"Well, hello Leadfoot," he said, leaning down to peer in my window. "You taking lessons from your aunt? With her, I look the other way because Miss Florence is an institution in this town, but I'm afraid I just can't do that with you. Come on, out of the car."
Grumbling, I grabbed my registration and insurance card, and dug through my purse for my license. I handed them to him as I stepped out of the car and leaned against the Sebring, wondering how much this little faux pas was going to cost me.
He glanced at them and then grinned. "I'll just call these in and be right back. Don't go anywhere."
"Call them in? You know who I am, Kyle!" I squelched an impulse to wipe that smirk off his face. He didn't have to call in my info! Everybody who owned a police scanner would hear the call and I'd be the talk of the town as far as gossip went, especially if old Heddy Latherton got wind of it. She'd make Auntie miserable, gloating over the fact that her nieces never got ticketed.
Kyle shrugged and sauntered over to his cruiser, where he got busy on the radio. Within less than a minute he returned, thumbed open his ticket pad and commenced writing me up. A gleeful look spread over his face. "The speed limit on this stretch is forty. You were zipping along at fifty-five."
I flashed him a cold stare. "Kyle, you are two years older than me, so quit playing Big Daddy and wipe away that smug look. You aren't funny and this isn't an episode of Cops."
"Feisty as always, aren't you?" His eyes narrowed and his voice took on an unpleasant tone. "You might want to remember that I'm the law on this island. Maybe you can find a touch of respect somewhere in that jaded little heart of yours?" He leaned toward me and waggled his finger in my face. "That snot-nosed attitude might have worked in Seattle, but around here? I don't think so."
If there's one thing I hated, it was having some local yokel patronize me. Without thinking, I snapped at his finger and he yanked it back just in time to prevent my teeth from making contact. Oh shit! I swallowed and glanced at his startled face, wondering what the punishment was for trying to bite a cop. Not exactly a bright idea, even though we had been schoolmates.
"Uh... Kyle?" Was he going to throw me in jail for attempted assault? I wouldn't put it past him.
He cleared his throat and examined his finger. I sucked in a deep breath, waiting for the fallout, but he just slowly tore the paper off the pad. "You know, next time you're running late, you should plan ahead."
Not waiting around for him to change his mind, I grabbed the ticket out of his hand and jumped back in my car.
"Gotta dash. Later!" I threw her into drive, swung back onto the road, and made tracks. A glance in the rearview mirror showed him staring at my retreating dust, scratching his head. Good. He'd have something to think about next time he decided to get in my face.
As I reached the center of town, I slowed down and turned onto Island Drive, Gull Harbor's main drag. I eased into my parking spot in front of Venus Envy, leaned back, inhaled slowly, then gathered my purse and tote bag. Over ten minutes late for my first appointment. Couldn't ask for a better start to the week. Nowhere to go from here but up.
Tawny motioned to me frantically as I raced through the door. "Your appointment is here," she said, her voice low. Her short spiky hair was strawberry today. Yesterday it'd been platinum. And the gemstone stud adorning her nose now matched her hair. At least she was color-coordinated.
I grinned at her and whispered, "Why all the secrecy?"
"She's pissed because you're late, and I don't want to attract her attention." She jabbed her finger in the direction of the fragrance section. I peeked at the figure standing there and my heart sank. Lydia Wang? Oh, delightful. How had I conveniently managed to forget that she was my appointment? Selective memory was a wonderful thing. After all, ignorance is bliss, they say, and apparently my subconscious preferred to remain as blissful as possible.
I groaned. "Oh God. Miss Beauty Queen, herself." The hot new find by Radiance Cosmetics, Lydia was twenty-three years old, with a personality hard enough to cut diamonds.
Tawny popped her gum. "Yeah, she's a real snot, all right. We were in the same class in high school. I hear she's gotten worse since then, though it's hard to believe." She rolled her eyes and gave me a sympathetic look as I mutely shook my head.
I glanced at the clock. Couldn't put it off any longer, so might as well get it over with. I squared my shoulders, plastered a smile on my face, and marched over to do battle with the dragon lady.
* * *
MY NAME IS Persia. Persia Rose Vanderbilt, to be precise. I'm thirty-one years old and single, which is fine by me because the thought of marriage scares the hell out of me and I skirt bridal shops and gift registries like they're infected with Ebola. The idea of marching down the aisle sits right up there with that of major surgery or participating in one of those TV reality shows. Not in a million years.
I've never particularly been drawn to one specific career, but I'd finally lined up several jobs that I could enjoy and feel good about doing, and I'd managed to find a nice boyfriend who was on the same relationship page as me. All good, right? We moved in together, into his penthouse condo, and life was peaches-and-cream as far as I was concerned. That is, until whoever deals out destiny decided to pull the rug out from under me.
First, Elliot got arrested. Yes, my nice-if-a-little-boring accountant boyfriend turned out to be an embezzler who, over the course of three years, siphoned off a quarter of a million dollars from the coffers of his company. The company caught him and started to put the squeeze on when the feds found out. They took over the investigation, which led to the discovery that his accounting firm had been laundering money for a local drug runner. The cops offered Elliot a chance to cut a deal in return for squealing on the owners and, since he didn't want to spend a full twenty years behind bars with his former colleagues, he agreed.
Elliot had told me that his grandmother died and left him a trust fund. When I found out the truth, I felt totally duped. While he wasn't the most adventuresome man in the world, Elliot had always struck me as stable, secure in himself, and fun to be with. So much for women's intuition.
When the bust went down, it occurred to me that some of his rather unsavory coworkers he'd ratted on might decide to take out their frustrations on Elliot's close acquaintances. Chances were good that I'd be singled out for some unwanted attention, so I decided the best idea would be to lay low and make myself invisible for a while. Time to scram and leave no forwarding address.
As Auntie says, the universe works in mysterious ways. Just as they carted Elliot off to jail, the Alternative Life Center where I'd been teaching classes in aromatherapy, yoga, and self-defense went bust, and with it went my livelihood. All signs now pointed to the desirability of removing myself from Seattle proper. I stifled my pride and called my Aunt Florence to ask if she'd mind if I moved back to Gull Harbor.
When I asked her if I could stay with her for a while, she snorted. "Quit whining and get your butt back here. It's time to put that education of yours to good use. You can come work at Venus Envy. I'll put you in charge of our fragrance lines-with that nose of yours, you'll make us a fortune. You can still teach your classes, and you can also oversee the gardens for me. With you in charge of mixing up signature lines of bath salts, oils, and soaps, my bet is that our business will double within six months."
Now, Aunt Florence is a lot like King Midas-she has a golden touch, but unlike the greedy king, she also has a heart of gold. When my mother died and my skunk of a father abandoned me-at four years old-on her doorstep, Auntie took me in and raised me like I was her own daughter.
I remember watching as the wheels turned in her brain whenever she came up with a new project. Never married and independently wealthy, Auntie could have retired any time she wanted, but the idle life was not for her, so when she got bored with playing the world traveler, she settled down in our old house in Gull Harbor and opened Venus Envy, a bath and beauty shop.
Venus Envy offered Gull Harbor's stressed-out yuppies and artists all sorts of marvelous things used to make the body and soul feel good. Lotions, powders, bath gels, soaps, shampoos and conditioners, all sorts of loofahs and scrubbies... the shop was a mecca for customers in need of a little pampering.
Aunt Florence also sold dried herbs in bulk, essential oils, exotic scarves, a few trinkets like crystals, and several lines of intricate handmade jewelry from local artisans. After the shop had been open for a year or two, she added in a day spa, serving up facials, manicures, pedicures, and skin-care consultations on an appointment-only basis. Venus Envy was thriving, and I had no doubt that she'd crunched the numbers to make sure that I'd end up an asset rather than a liability.
"In fact," she said, "while you're at it, why don't you just move in with me? You can take over the third floor and use it for an apartment. Might as well put the rooms to use. I never go up there."
I jumped at the opportunity. I loved that old house, and living with Aunt Florence had always been a blast. By ten years old, I'd seen a good share of the world thanks to her wanderlust and with the help of my nanny, who was also my private tutor. But the day I turned ten, Auntie decided it was time to settle me into a routine. She bought the hundred-year old house and enrolled me in the local school. By the time I was fourteen, I'd skipped two grades ahead.
Eva-my nanny-took charge of running the household. Auntie came and went, still under the spell of the travel bug, but Eva was a constant in my life, and when she finally married her sweetheart and moved into her own home, I cried for weeks. Shortly thereafter, I turned sixteen, graduated, and left for college with Auntie's permission.
Moss Rose Cottage was brooding and gothic, as weatherworn as it looked. The three-story monstrosity sat on a thirty-acre estate overlooking the inlet. When we bought it, the neighbors told us that the house was haunted. Oh, no overt ghosts coming screaming out of the closet, but footsteps in the middle of the night, and a blast of cold wind here or there. They said that the original owner, a retired captain from the navy, still walked the halls, making sure all was well in his beloved home.
Once, when I was eleven, I thought I caught a glimpse of the Cap'n, as we called him, in the mirror, but he just smiled and faded from sight. I hadn't been afraid of him, though. In fact, on nights when I found myself unable to sleep, wishing for my mother and wondering why my father abandoned me, I'd crawl out of bed and sneak up into the attic. There, I'd curl up in a comfortable old rocking chair and watch the waters of the sound under the moonlight through a window shaped like a porthole.
I'd pull an afghan over me and rock back and forth while having a quiet chat with the Cap'n. I used to tell him all my troubles, the way some little girls talk to their teddy bears. I talked to him about missing my mother, who I could barely remember, and I'd ask him why my father had tossed me aside like a piece of trash after her death. Even though I never heard a peep out of him, I had the feeling the Cap'n was listening. Most nights I'd be back in bed in twenty minutes, but once in a while I'd fall asleep up there, listening as the wind scraped tree branches across the roof, and I'd wake up when Auntie or Eva would check on me and see that I wasn't in my bed. One or the other-sometimes both-would trudge up to the attic and bundle me back to bed.
While the house seemed unchanged on the exterior, upon my return to Gull Harbor, I found that Auntie had been busy inside. "I've got DSL, digital cable, and I've redecorated from top to bottom," she announced.
"You didn't get rid of that gorgeous old coppery paper in the East Bedroom, did you?" I'd always loved that room.
She laughed. "No, but I made sure it was in good condition, and had all the floors refinished, and painted the rooms that needed it. What do you say? Will you give it a try? Come home to live for a while? It's just me and the Menagerie here."
Over the years, Auntie had opened her home to a variety of stray animals. Currently, she had eight cats, three dogs, and a TV-watching rooster named Hoffman. Other members of the pet brigade had passed through over the years, eventually finding their way over the Rainbow Bridge, but the Menagerie, as she called the pack of critters, was now firmly entrenched in her life.
With a readymade job staring me in the face, along with the prospect of moving back into the only childhood home I'd ever really known, how could I resist? I was desperate to drop out of sight for a while, opportunity had come knocking, and, as Auntie always said, "The boat won't wait at the docks forever, so you'd better get on board while you have the chance."
So I packed up my Chrysler Sebring, said good-bye to Seattle, and hopped the ferry for Gull Harbor.
My fragrance counter sat to the far right of the shop, next to the hall leading to Auntie's office. We'd planned it so that I'd be out in the open, to encourage clients to ask about custom-blended fragrances. From where I sat, I had a good view of Venus Envy.
Lydia was waiting, impatiently tapping her foot. I sighed as I slipped into my chair. Blending specific fragrances wasn't simply a matter of dumping several oils into a bottle, giving it a shake, and then slapping a name on it. No, a delicate interaction had to take place between the body and scent. I found the process fascinating-a dance of scent and reaction. It was up to me to make certain that the fragrances worked in rhythm with both my client's body chemistry and personality, not always an easy task when I was working with someone who was abrasive. Considering Lydia's character, I'd have to be careful or I'd end up with a fragrance that smelled like skunk cabbage. Or maybe just the skunk itself.
Lydia Wang was Gull Harbor's latest celebrity raison d'être. The GH Weekly Digest, a local paper, had wasted two entire pages on her when she won the Radiance Cosmetics Beauty Contest. Being a connoisseur of local gossip, Aunt Florence had read every word to me. Being the good niece I am, I listened, feigning enthusiasm. But regardless of her fame, Lydia's reputation was already firmly entrenched. She used people like Kleenex and tossed them in the garbage after blowing her nose on them. No surprise that I'd rather take a trip to the dentist than participate in our little adventure through perfume land.
As I quickly organized my materials, I noticed a strange fragrance wafting off of her. Spicy, it had a definite oriental scent, but it wasn't any perfume I recognized, and I kept up with them all. I took a discreet whiff. Masculine, whatever it was. The foundation note ran strong, and though I couldn't quite place the source, it smelled familiar.
"Lydia, would you go wash off your perfume? It will interfere with how this new one reacts on your skin."
She looked at me as if I were crazy. "I'm not wearing perfume."
"Then it must be your bath gel or soap. Please, just go rinse off your wrists." I finally got her moving and set to work. After I'd mixed up three batches, all of which Lydia dismissed with the wave of an expensively manicured hand, I was ready to tear her hair out. I'd give it one more try and then tell her to forget it. I wasn't a masochist, for God's sake.
"Shall we see if this one works?" I tried to keep the sarcasm out of my voice as I made a few adjustments to the fragrance and motioned for her to hold out her freshly washed wrist. I sprayed on a light mist. "Go walk around for five minutes. Don't touch anything else until you come back."
As she wandered off, I leaned back and let out a long sigh. Each fragrance had suited her body chemistry perfectly, but she had nixed them all. The first had been "too cloying," the second "too faint," and the third was "too retro." If she didn't like this one, she could shimmy her scrawny butt over to Donatello's Department Store and they could deal with her.
When she returned a few minutes later, I took a whiff of her wrist and smiled. Intoxication. Sheer intoxication. If I didn't know who she was, I'd want to cozy up and start talking to her right away, she smelled so good. Satisfied, I forced a smile to my lips.
"What do you think?" I asked, holding my breath.
The willowy young woman lifted her wrist to her nose and a smile filtered over her face. Hallelujah! I knew that look-she liked it.
"I love it! What do you call it?"
I let out a sigh of relief. "What else? Beauty Queen." I jotted the name on a label and slapped it on the bottle. I'd transfer my notes with the recipe over to my customer journal as soon as she left. I handed her the invoice and cologne.
She stepped to one side to examine a display of bath lotion as the shop bells chimed and Trevor Wilson strode in. The head gardener out at Moss Rose Cottage, he was in his early twenties and gorgeous. Eye candy for sure, even if he was a few years too young for me. From what I heard, he and Lydia were head over heels in love.
"Persia, when do you want me to start harvesting the lilacs? They'll peak in a few days, and if Miss Florence wants them to be fresh enough to dry properly, we're going to need to get on it right away."
When Auntie assigned me to oversee the gardens, it was because she knew how much I loved being outside, growing and nurturing plants from seed to full bloom. I had a green thumb that wouldn't quit and had minored in horticulture. All it took to entice me into a ten-mile hike into the back country was a promise of a field full of wildflowers. I'd taken one look at the ragged state of Auntie's gardens and set about organizing a list of priorities to bring them into full bloom.
I jotted a note in my Day-Timer. "Got it. Did you finish replanting the checkerboard garden?"
"Yep, finished with it yesterday. I went over to Home Depot and picked up the marble stones. They're all ready to set in place."
I'd immediately envisioned what could be an ideal checkerboard garden of blue and white phlox and ordered two dozen round marble stepping stones, twelve in black, twelve in white. They would become the checkers, completing the now tidy garden, and then we'd put in a fence that ran just under a foot high-tall enough to contain the phlox but not tall enough to block the view.
Trev opened his mouth to say something else, but at that moment he and Lydia noticed each other. As their eyes met, the dragon lady morphed into a shrieking harpy.
"Trevor Wilson, what the hell do you think you're doing here?" Hands on her hips, she leaned forward, eyes narrowed. "I warned you to quit following me or I'll call the cops, you pervert!"
Oh hell. What now? Had the cozy couple gone belly up?
Trevor paled and stumbled back a few steps. "I had no idea you were here. I just came in to talk to Persia. I wasn't following you." His stricken look answered my question.
"Lower your voices." I pushed my way between them. "If you two have to mix it up, then keep it out of the shop."
Lydia shot me a scathing look. "I have no intention of fighting with this asshole-"
"I said, take it outside! We're supposed to be an oasis from stress, not an arena for a mudslinging contest."
Neither one was listening to me. Not a good thing.
Trevor straightened his shoulders. "I may be an ass, but damn it, what do you expect?" He seemed to have found his voice and it carried through the store. A few heads turned our way. "I can't believe you told all your friends that I'm stalking you. Are you that desperate for attention? All I wanted to do was to find out why you broke up with me, but no-I had to hear about it through the grapevine. You said you loved me!"
Lydia lunged around me to poke Trevor's chest with one bright-red nail. Startled, I hastily backed out of the way.
"And I was a fool to say it," she said. "You're a nothing, a nobody. When I won the contest, all you could do was whine about me going to New York! Can't you take it like a man? Grow up! You're such a loser."
Trevor raised his hand as if he meant to slap her and, gathering my wits, I shoved them apart. "Do I have to throw both of you out of here? I said enough."
Trevor lowered his arm and stared at the floor. Maybe there was still a chance that I could prevent bloodshed. "Lydia, take your perfume up to the counter. Tawny will cash you out." I gave her a little shove toward the front of the store.
She let out a huff. "Obviously, customers come second in your shop. Your aunt will hear about this, I can tell you that much."
I stared her down. Beauty queen or not, Ms. Wang had overstepped her boundaries. "Be my guest. She'll tell you the same thing I'm telling you: When I'm in charge, I make the rules."
Trevor apparently couldn't restrain himself. "You'd better watch yourself, Lydia. One of these days, someone's going to take you down a notch. I just hope you don't get hurt in the process because, sweetheart, right now Persia is the only one who's keeping me from wiping that fucking smile off your face. A lot of people around town don't like you, and not all of them have the self-control that I do." His voice dropped as he added, "You know what I'm talking about."
Lydia got in a parting shot. "You've got it all wrong. You don't know a damned thing, even though you think you do! Just leave me alone, Trevor, or you'll be sorry."
By now, we had attracted a gaggle of onlookers. Time for détente. I shoved Trevor toward the back of the shop. "In the office. Now. Go cool your jets and wait for me."
His mouth set in a bitter line, he turned on his heel and stomped off. I glanced back to Lydia. "You need to leave."
"Fine. But you'd better keep an eye on Trevor there." Her voice echoed through the store. "He's not very good at listening to reason." She waltzed up to the counter, tossed a fifty at Tawny, and pranced her way to the door. As it closed behind her, I met a line of expectant faces staring at me.
I coughed. "Just a minor difference of opinions, folks. I'm sorry we disrupted your shopping. Tawny, give everyone a ten percent discount today."
Tawny nodded. Maybe a little well-placed bribery would slow down the local gossip mill, though I had my doubts. Small towns fed on gossip like flies on honey. Now I just had to deal with Trevor.