“Hey there, Boss,” Romeo said a worried look on his face. “You look ti-.”
“Your fly’s unzipped,” Charlie said not bothering to stop until she got to the busy dining area. She knew she looked tired. That’s what happened when you hardly got any sleep the night before. She knew what she was. She was tired. She was very, very tired, but what she didn’t need was anyone pointing it out to her.
She just wanted was to get lost in the crowd and let the day happen. She knew working the front would allow her to do just that. So, when she walked in the Honeybee her focus was on getting to the front and forgetting about her troubles namely the one that had kept her up last night frustrated and trying to forget her biggest regret of late. She didn’t stop walking until she was right smack dab in the middle of the organized chaos that she’d always loved.
Clocking the size of the crowd it was as if the last two days hadn’t even happened, but it had. One look at the front page of the local paper this morning had told her so. Thankfully they hadn’t made the Honeybee look bad. Charlie knew they could have really thrown her under the bus by sensationalizing the story and making the Honeybee into some kind of haven for violence and dangerous mishaps in the city. Luckily, they hadn’t. They’d just reported on the incident with the teenagers as if it were just a random act that could have happened anytime anywhere. They had altogether left Cyndi out of the papers. However, nothing could stop word of mouth. Charlie’s phone hadn’t stopped ringing. Unwilling to get sucked into a rabbit hole of gossip and speculation she had sent it all to voice mail and ignored the texts.
There was no Oprah crew today. They’d left last night headed back to Oprahland or wherever they’d came from. Either way Charlie had just about given up on that dream of being Oprah’s next big thing at least for now. Sam and Rob hadn’t said anything before they left other than Oprah’s people would be in touch, but their inability to even make up a lie about when she’d receive a call was telling. As a matter of fact the only emotion they showed was over the box of honeybees Charlie made sure they left with yesterday.
“You know that box ain’t gonna make it out of Biloxi,” Romeo said as the two drove away.
“Hell, I doubt it even makes it to the hotel,” Charlie added returning Romeo’s fist bump.
This week had been a tough one in more ways than one, but it was the camaraderie that kept them going through it all. Between almost losing one of her best friends, to the store being vandalized, enough was enough. It would make anyone a little crazy.
Added to that the weird vibes she was getting from the owner of her store’s rival, Charlie didn’t know what to think anymore. Her whole world had done gone all flippity flop in forty-eight hours making her wonder if the Universe was out to get her. If so, she just hoped it was done because she’d had enough of the rollercoaster ride. In fact, Charlie didn’t think she could take one more thing going wrong.
All she knew for sure was she had to get Honeybee back on track, and that meant she needed to check in with the new property downtown ASAP. Two days not on site was two days too many.
They had almost a month till opening. It was supposed to be Cyndi’s baby, but that wasn’t going to happen now. Luckily, Charlie had been keeping a close eye on the day to day as well so she’d be able to step in to cover until Cyndi was better. After all it was her brand and her name on the store. So, she wanted to make sure that it remained up to par.
Sue had been the only dissenting voice. She’d warned her about opening up a store in Gulfport with it being so far away, but Charlie and Cyndi had felt it was the right time. Also, the price of the building was too good not to take.
The store in Gulfport was supposed to be a big coup for the Honeybee. Although the location wasn’t the most obvious choice, she agreed with Cyndi that it would pay off in the long run.
Four blocks from the new waterpark and aquarium in downtown Gulfport, and less than a block from the luxury resort casino which catered to a higher end crowd, not to mention USM Gulf Park campus right down the road which catered to a hipper younger group of folks.
The location made for excellent foot traffic and guaranteed a monopoly for the sweet treats that were the Honeybees specialty. There was no competition in the entire city for what the Honeybee had to offer to both tourists and locals alike.
“Charlie,” Sue yelled a broad smile on her face. “You finally made it. Gosh, you look tired.”
“Well thank you very not,” Charlie said wrapping an apron around her curvy body as she inspected the kitchen then walked to help out the line.
“I’m just saying,” Sue said. “You know I got it here. You’ve been burning the candle at both ends. It wouldn’t hurt to sleep in for once in your life.”
“I’m fine Mama,” Charlie said. “Besides I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” Charlie grabbed a box to start another order brushing off Sue’s worries. Yeah, she was tired, but she’d be fine. In fact staying busy was what she needed more than anything else right now.
The Honeybee was nonstop service for the breakfast and brunch crowd per usual. Frederick and Romeo kept the food coming cooked fresh to order. It was midevening before Charlie was able to look up thankful the line was finally under control.
Unfortunately, the lull gave her no excuse for escape when she looked up to see Trace’s eyes staring back at her.
“We need to talk,” he said. Charlie’s stomach dropped as she began thinking the worst. She knew he wasn’t going to let her get away so easy after hitting him with her car. What could it be? Blackmail for attempted manslaughter, a lawsuit? Either way, he had her. She led him out into the courtyard where they could have some privacy.
“It’s been a quite a day. How you been?” he asked.
“I should be asking you that,” Charlie said stepping to the side when Trace got too close. He had a weird habit of getting too close for her comfort. What happened to social distancing?
He also had a habit of staring deep into her eyes a tad too long when he talked to her. She didn’t like it, at least that’s what she kept telling herself.
“You sure,” Trace asked. “You look kind of tired.” Charlie’s patience snapped.
“Look just spit it out,” Charlie said. “How much?”
“How much?” Trace asked confused for a second then he said, “oh, I haven’t checked about the phone yet. My phone still-.”
“Cut the crap Trace,” Charlie said. “How much do you want to keep your mouth shut?” Trace looked down at her for a full minute. Any other time Charlie might have jumped to the attack but in this case she was the one that was wrong. Not just wrong, but dead wrong this time. And worse, she looked crazy.
She knew it and she was sure Trace knew it. In fact she expected for him to say so. To say something, but instead the scalawag let out a humongous bark of laughter in her face. It was an obnoxious laugh with a full on head tossed back without a care for Charlie’s feelings or pride.
“Are you serious?” Charlie asked. Trace didn’t even acknowledge her words, he just kept laughing as he braced himself on a table then fell into a chair.
When he finally got a hold of himself and had wiped the tears from his eyes, he propped his casted foot on the small table. He looked her over for what looked like a full minute, a sly smile setting on his face. “You think I’m trying to shake you down? And to think I thought we were becoming friends.”
“Friends?” Charlie laughed.
“Yeah, friends,” Trace said grimacing until he’d adjusted his cast to a more comfortable position. Instantly Charlie felt bad at yelling at him. Just seeing his discomfort knowing it was all her fault made her want to apologize. She didn’t, but she thought about it. However, her anger kept her quiet.
“Isn’t that what friends do they check on one another when they’re going through a hard time? Offer their help. Take them to the emergency room?”
Charlie’s cheeks burned. Ice cream, ice cubes, iceberg lettuce she thought anything to help cool off, but her cheeks continued to burn with embarrassment. This man was almost too good to be true. He kept surprising her, unfortunately for him, Charlie hated surprises.
The more suspicious she remained the less her sympathy played on her conscience. Regardless of how nice he was being, Charlie would never allow herself to forget that Trace Johnsonne was still her enemy.
“Look, it was an accident,” Charlie started, but he stopped her.
“It’s okay,” Trace interrupted. “I get it a lot. No one believes someone as handsome as me could also be a good guy. It’s a curse, what can I say?”
Charlie looked at the man’s strong lean body as he lounged in the chair unable to stop her eyes from appreciating the view. He really was a handsome man with his dark looks and playful attitude. If they weren’t rivals and she wasn’t still getting over Darryl she might actually take on the challenge of finding out what his deal was. However, she shut that thought down quickly.
She couldn’t afford to let him get close to her not now with everything that had gone on recently. She needed to keep her mind on her business otherwise it was all liable to slip away. That was the thing, once you got everything you wanted you spent the rest of your life just trying to hold on to it for dear life.
“You hungry,” Charlie asked switching tactics.
“Always,” he said looking surprised. His shiny black hair glinted in the sun.
“You stay here, and I’ll grab us some lunch,” Charlie said. She was glad to get away from the man. He had a way of breaking through her resistance in a way that unnerved her. Every second she spent with him further insinuated him under her skin.
He’d been charming, reasonable, practical and devilishly handsome the entire time she’d spent with him. Even at his worst last night he hadn’t completely lost his temper, and something about that made her want to push him all the more. No one was that perfect, and everything in her wanted to prove that. That was the problem. She wished that she could just ignore him, but something about him made her want to just- win, at all costs.
“So Trace, huh? That you,” Romeo said a knowing smile on his face as he watched Charlie fill a tray with sandwiches and, of course, a little something for dessert.
“Uh- no,” Charlie said not smiling.
“Homeboy’s been coming around here a lot lately though,” Romeo said waggling his eyebrows at Charlie.
“Don’t you have a donut to fry or something,” Charlie said, “and stop wriggling those things at me,” she said pointing at his eyebrows. “Save that for them little girls you been sneaking in here.”
“I haven’t,” he began defending himself, but Charlie stopped him.
“When I get those cameras up, all that hanky panky is stopping so I suggest you find another spot, Romeo,” Charlie said before turning to walk back outside leaving her friend with his mouth hanging open.
Despite what she said she didn’t have exact proof of what she’d just accused Romeo of, but it was no secret that the young man lived up to his name. He definitely had a reputation with wooing the ladies. Too many women came through on a weekly basis asking for him for it to be otherwise. Either way she’d given him a warning so the ball was now in his court to clean it up. Wasn’t nothing wrong with a little fun just not on Honeybee time.
“What a feast,” Trace said doing his best to straighten himself in his chair. “If I’d known I’d get this kind of treatment I would have let you run me over a long time ago.”
“Not funny,” Charlie said looking around to see if anyone was in hearing distance.
“What? That’s what happened.”
“Okay, but I was hoping no one would have to know.”
“Oh, so I’m your dirty little secret now,” Trace said his eyes glittering mischievously. “I’m offended. If it wasn’t for this damn cast, I’d march right out of here.” Charlie couldn’t help but smile at him. He was just so damn funny- too funny actually.
“How do you do that?”
“Make a joke out of everything? Aren’t you mad?” Charlie said. “I’d be. I’d be pissed if you’d done what I’d done.”
“First of all,” Trace said his eyes suddenly serious. “I’d never do what you did because I happen to be an excellent driver,” he began, but Charlie was getting used to telling when he was joking, which kind of worried her.
“Secondly, I learned a very long time ago that life’s too short to worry about the small stuff.” Trace held her gaze for a tad too long, but she was finding it didn’t make her so uncomfortable anymore.
“So, you’re saying don’t sweat the small stuff.”
“Hmm,” he said his face a picture of wonderment, “Perfectly phrased. I’ve never heard something so perfect,” he said in an exaggerated manner. It was so over the top Charlie couldn’t help but laugh with him.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” he repeated. “Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean. And you know what?”
“The truth is it’s all small stuff.”
Trace sat watching her silently as she set his food up for him so it was all within reach. When she was through she sat down opposite him with her meal perfectly laid out as well.
“What?” she asked when he just kept smiling at her.
“I like having you take care of me,” Trace said and Charlie rolled her eyes.
“You think this is taking care of you?” she said.
“Heck no,” she said. “If I was taking care of you believe me you’d know it,” she said before she realized how she sounded. There was a little too much sass in her voice something she knew he’d be unable to ignore.
“Oh really, well please do tell,” he said.
“Eat your food,” she said taking a sandwich off the tray. She watched him dig in smiling when he took a bite then closed his eyes. He actually moaned.
“Really? It’s just a sandwich.”
“It’s the best sandwich I’ve ever tasted,” he said between chews.
“You need to get out more,” Charlie said although his appreciation made her feel good. Darryl had never come to Honeybee’s- not once, not to eat or even to visit her the entire time they dated. He didn’t even like for her to cook when they spent a night in. He was all about going out to eat or ordering from some fancy overpriced restaurant.
Charlie knew a lot of woman would have loved that, and she had most of the time. It was just that she’d grown up in a house where cooking for someone was a way of showing love as well as eating what someone cooked for you. The fact that he wouldn’t touch anything she made without a comment had always rubbed her the wrong way.
Charlie had never seen Darryl so much as boil an egg. She didn’t even think he’d used his kitchen for anything more than heating some leftovers in the microwave. It was strange. She should have known from that alone that they weren’t going to work. Instead she’d wasted almost five years of her life on the most high maintenance man she’d ever met.
The problem was that Darryl was obsessed with appearances especially the appearance of having money. He was rich, no doubt, but it was new rich which was the reason why Charlie believed he lived the way he did. He always seemed to have more money going out than coming in which was another problem they had.
As long as it was just him and her she could imagine they could meet his extravagant needs, but the problem, at least according to Darryl, was Charlie wanted a family. Maybe not now, but some day, and that became the deal breaker for Charlie at least. It wasn’t that she was dying to be a mother, but she wanted to at least have the option.
At thirty it wasn’t like her biological clock was running out yet but it was a thought she was beginning to have. However, Darryl wouldn’t even discuss it. He wouldn’t discuss a lot of things actually. Sometimes Charlie felt all she was to him was another possession to prove he’d made it. It left her feeling like another item on his checklist of things he needed in order to create the life he felt entitled to live.
Five years she’d stuck around waiting for something to change. She’d stayed way too long, but it wasn’t until she was all the way out that she could finally admit it.
“So, what you got going on today,” Charlie said between bites.
“Oh, a little of this a little of that,” Trace said smiling when Charlie rolled her eyes again at him. Then he grew more serious. “Actually, I have some real estate to look at today. You know some of us weren’t so lucky in getting our first pick.” Charlie actually felt her heart stop a little at that but she shook it away. What was done was done and in the past, and there wasn’t anything she could do to change it. She’d moved on and he would have to as well.
“The funny thing is my transportation situation is a little funny,” he said before knocking on the cast around his foot. “If it were the left one I’d be alright, but you see,” he said letting the sentence hang.
“You need a ride,” Charlie sighed.
“Oh, only if you insist,” Trace said smiling.
“I insist,” Charlie said. Did she have the time? No, but her guilt made her commit. It was the least she could do.
“Awesome,” Trace said. “I’m supposed to meet up with my realtor at her office. You know her at least she said you did.”
“Who, Betty Ladner?”
“No,” Trace said. “Her name’s Missy. Missy Traner,” Charlie nodded her head remembering the woman. Missy had taken her out years ago when she was looking for her first location, but they hadn’t been able to make a deal.
“Well, hopefully she can hook me up now that my competition has a place of her own.”
“Which reminds me. I need to go take a look at the Honeybee Too. Renovations started this week.”
“Renovations, huh?” Trace frowned.
“Yeah, see it wasn’t such as steal after all,” Charlie said although the few repairs she needed done before she could open weren’t bad at all, but she didn’t tell Trace that. She’d let him believe he’d dodged a bullet maybe then he’d stop trying to guilt trip her about getting the place over him. “Plus, the designers still have to do their thing, but that doesn’t start until next week if everything goes to plan.”
“Really, that soon, huh,” Trace said. “So, when you expect to open?”
“Oh, gosh, I’m thinking by the end of next month hopefully. With Cyndi in the hospital I’m going to have to find someone to step in and help out temporarily, but it’s going to take some time for everyone to adjust with everything that’s been happening. Lord, help me.”
“Can’t Sue help out some,” Trace said then quickly added. “Not trying to get in your business, but I’m just saying. Considering she’s been there since the beginning.”
“You really have been doing your homework haven’t you?”
“I don’t mess around when it comes to business,” he said his stare serious suddenly. Charlie felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise a little as she couldn’t help wondering what else he took so seriously.
“Yeah, she’s helping out along with Romeo. Both of them are a huge help, it’s just that this store alone takes so much time. With Cyndi at the helm, I knew things would get done, unfortunately, I think I made the first mistake of business. I put all my eggs in one basket and never gave anyone else a chance to work out.”
Trace nodded in understanding. “Yeah, that’s what I’m learning now. Building a good team is the hardest part. I have a part time staff so I don’t have much to rely on, but even with them I try to make sure they diversify their duties so they each know all the working parts in case someone doesn’t show up. It takes longer, but it’s worth it. Not that I would leave any of them in charge of my baby indefinitely.”
“Your baby, huh?”
“Yeah, isn’t the Honeybee or honeybees- aren’t they your babies?”
“No,” Charlie said without hesitation. As much as she loved the Honeybee, she would never compare it to having a real baby. Real babies were way harder. She knew that from watching Sue have three babies in the past six years.
“Babies cry, and poop, and pee, and generally take all your free time for like two decades of your life. That is not how I feel about my business. My business is a walk in the park compared to that. Being a Mama to a baby requires a hell of a lot more work than what I do here, and there is no calling in sick.”
“I guess, but what you’ve created requires nurturing too,” he said wiping his mouth. “I think you’d make a great Mama.”
“Well, aren’t you a charmer.”
“Just saying what I feel,” Trace said.
Although she wasn’t ready for children now, in a few years when she was, she already knew she didn’t want to have to juggle family and work. As much as she loved the Honeybee she knew that when it came to family it wouldn’t stand a chance. She’d sell it all if it stopped her from being the parent she wanted to be. She also knew she wanted a partner that felt the same way.
“Ok, you see right here,” Trace said after taking a bite of her pecan pie. “Now, you’re just showing off.”
“Girl,” Trace said savoring another forkful of the rich dessert. Pecan pie was one of her top sellers, but she couldn’t help how pleased she felt at watching him enjoy something she’d made.
“I think someone wants your attention,” Trace said pointing. Charlie looked to see Romeo standing in the doorway.
“Hey boss, the foreman is at the other place wants you on the phone. Sounds serious,” Romeo said his voice carrying across the courtyard.
“Damn, what now?” Charlie said before going inside. “I’ll be right back,” she yelled over her shoulder.
“No, problem, believe me, I’m not going anywhere,” Trace called out bringing a smile to her face. However, a few seconds into the call her smile had all but disappeared.
“What do you mean there’s a leak,” Charlie yelled into the phone. Sue was standing next to her with a face full of questions as Charlie tried to hear the foreman over the background noise.
“You hear that,” he yelled into the phone. Charlie didn’t have to strain too hard to clearly hear the sound of water rushing on the other end of the phone. “That’s a busted water main,” the flustered man said. Suddenly the phone went silent. There was some shouting then the foreman came back on the line.
“Finally,” he yelled.
“What? Did it stop?” Charlie said desperately trying to figure out what was going on.
“Yeah we got it off,” the foreman said. “But I’m still standing in about a foot of water right now.”
“Jesus,” Charlie said ignoring Sue’s now frantic eyes. “Please tell me this isn’t going to set us back.”
“I wish I could ma’am but we can’t do a single other thing until that pipe is repaired and this water is out of here. Luckily we’ve got a couple of pumps already in route. We can keep those going once we have it cleared that the electricity is safe.”
“Look do what you got to do, I’m on my way,” Charlie said before hanging up the phone and turning to face both Romeo and Sue.
“What now, Boss lady,” Romeo said.
“Pipes busted at the new location and now looks like we’ve got another setback on top of the dozen other setbacks before we can get anything going again. Just another thing, I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
“Let me go take a look, you can stay here and rest,” Sue said, but Charlie waved her away.
“No, I need to see this with my own eyes. You stay here. That would be more helpful to me if you can just keep this place afloat for me.” Sue’s face had that pinched look she got whenever she disagreed, but she didn’t say anything. She just nodded before walking to the front of the store to help out.
“Romeo, I need your help with making sure our orders for the week are taken care of. Can you do that for me? Sue’s going to be busy enough with just the day to day sales but our deliveries have to get done as well. You know Thursday and Friday are our busy days.”
“Sure thing boss, I’ll start on the list as soon as the lunch crowd clears out.”
“Thank you,” Charlie said before turning to step out into the noon day sun. The enclosed courtyard usually filled her with a sense of peace, but she was finding it hard to come by any today.
Then she saw Trace’s dark brown eyes staring back at her calm and kind. Suddenly the peace she was looking for settled in nice and cozy like a warm fire on a cold winter night. Warning bells began ringing furiously in her head. Hold up girl, you better keep it together. Then the handsome jerk smiled.
“Damn,” she said.