The first Friday after Thanksgiving used to be the most magical day for her. The anticipation of seeing all the Christmas decorations in place and knowing her favorite holiday was just around the corner always left Darcy feeling lighthearted and joyous. Today, she simply felt depressed.
She dreaded opening the doors and letting the customers in because she knew he was there?Mr. Dollar Bin himself, now the new owner of Bennett's, the finest upscale department store in Atlanta?hell, in all of Georgia.
Mr. Eli Austin waited outside somewhere in the growing crowd probably looking at his watch as impatiently as Darcy watched the huge clock ticking off the seconds until 6:00 a.m. when the doors would open and the Christmas season officially began.
How could her mother do this to her? How could she sell Darcy's legacy to that man? The only thing her mother couldn't sell was the land the store stood on because Darcy owned it and no one was going to force her to sell no matter how hard Eli Austin's lawyers had pressured her into doing so.
She glanced at the clock again, her stomach clenching so tightly thick pain radiated outward. In the space of only a few weeks, she'd lost her beloved grandfather, then her father had died unexpectedly from a massive heart attack, and her own marriage crumbled. She'd survived not because she wanted to, but because she had to. But this, the loss of her family's legacy, she couldn't see beyond. Bitterness was a huge knot in her chest. If only her father had had time to update his will, leaving the store to Darcy instead of to her mother, she wouldn't be standing here waiting to officially hand over her store to the man who wanted to ruin it.
Rustling sounded behind her as the staff settled behind their counters or walked the floor putting a few final touches to the decorations. Perfume girls stood on either side of her with paper wands in their hands already sprayed with perfume. The cosmetic counters were perfect. Roxy was setting out her makeup brushes and making sure every last detail was in place at her Clinique station. The new girl at the MAC station looked uncomfortable and worried as she moved the display in front of her around to show it to better advantage, and then moved it back. Darcy sent her an encouraging smile. The girl smiled back, though strain showed in her eyes.
The store decorations were festive with white artificial trees, each one representing a different country. Unlike most stores, which started decorating before Halloween, Bennett's kept to tradition, unveiling their decorations only the day after Thanksgiving. She and her grandfather had always started planning the store decorations from the moment the year ended until the next Christmas rolled around again. They involved all the employees and now each department had a competition to see who had the best ornamentation with the mayor of Atlanta acting as the judge.
The clock chimed the opening bell. Two men, dressed in nutcracker costumes from the ballet, walked slowly forward in a dignified cadence, unlocked the doors and slowly backed up. As the doors swung open, the costumed men raised their trumpets to their mouths and blew the opening notes to The Nutcracker.
For a second, the crowd outside the doors hesitated, looking around in delight. Then everyone dashed in. People parted in waves around Darcy as they rushed off to whatever department they wanted, searching for bargains, looking over merchandise, consulting their Christmas lists. Women with toddlers still asleep in their strollers surged into the store. Men with briefcases followed more sedately, but they, too, looked around and delight showed in their eyes.
Darcy stood completely still waiting?her heart in her throat, nerves dancing a pattern of stress up and down her arms. Just as she thought maybe Eli Austin would wait and not show until after the crowd had thinned, he walked in the door, paused to look around, and then fastened his gaze on Darcy.
For a second, Darcy forgot to breathe. There he was, Eli Austin, the new owner of Bennett's?the man who held her future in his hands, the man who'd sent his lawyers to broker the sale while he stood in the background waiting and watching. Darcy had managed to avoid him, leaving most of the details to her mother and stepfather's lawyers. She tried to relax and smile confidently at him but the stern look on his face stopped her.
Eli Austin was taller than she expected. He wore a camel-hair coat with a matching scarf around his neck. He ran a gloved hand through his hair and the curls settled back in order. As he studied Darcy, he removed his leather gloves one finger at a time. Not only was he Mr. I Own Every Dollar Bin in America himself in the flesh, but damn, he was the handsomest brother she'd seen in a long time with his caramel-colored skin, velvety brown eyes and thick brown hair. A flash of heat swept over her so strong she almost gasped.
Eli Austin stuffed his gloves into the pocket of his coat, unbuttoned it and then removed his scarf to reveal a suave, sophisticated dark blue pin-striped suit and a white shirt with a blue-and-red power tie. A little mustache action showing on his upper lip added a distinguished look to his face.
Darcy's heart skipped a beat, and then sped up, spreading the hot flush across her cheeks. Her breath caught in her throat. His photographs didn't do him justice.
"Ms. Bennett," he said, cordially holding out his hand.
"Mr. Austin," she replied as she shook his hand, refusing to be intimidated by his cool appraisal. Her tone was as reserved and dignified as she could make it even as her emotions seethed and roiled underneath her skin.
She was not going to let her mother's betrayal get the best of her. She suspected that the hurt over her mother's lack of respect for Darcy's grandfather's sacrifices in creating this store and making it a legend would never go away. Especially considering how much Darcy loved it.
Eli Austin's fingers were warm, and she could feel a faint ridge of calluses along his index finger. His grip was firm, not too strong, not too weak?just enough to let her know he was in charge of this meeting.
That's okay, she was a reed and she could bend, Darcy thought. A reed, she repeated. She was going to chart her path through the chaos. That was what she did best. That was who she was. She would do her sniveling in private.
"As much as I enjoy the day after Thanksgiving?" she said, a little disappointed she wasn't going to be able to mingle with the crowd and watch what they looked at or bought. She learned a lot about buying habits just by observing her customers. "I think we should go to my office where we can have some privacy." She started toward the elevator expecting him to follow, but when she arrived, she turned and found him still standing where she'd left him.
Eli Austin looked around the store, a smug, pleased look on his face that told her he was enjoying the moment. She headed back to him.
"Are you all right, Mr. Austin?" she asked.
"It's been a long time since I've been inside Bennett's at Christmastime." His gaze roamed the floor.
"Really," she said astonished. "Why not? You don't shop locally?" She had a vision of cheap, little Dollar Bin stockings hanging from his mantel with Dollar Bin gifts inside.
"That sounds like an accusation."
She studied him, expecting him to answer her questions, but he seemed disinclined to continue. "I hope you're impressed."
"Very." He looked around again.
As customers gazed up at the lavish decorations, Eli Austin watched them. Darcy glanced at her watch. The morning was going to be long, and she still had a number of things to finish before Santa arrived at noon with his entourage of children and ballet dancers performing vignettes from The Nutcracker ballet throughout the store.
"Our decorations are considered the best in Atlanta, the most famous in the South." She tried to keep annoyance out of her voice. He may be the new owner of Bennett's, but the work didn't stop for his convenience.
"I know that," he said, his gaze chilly and detached as he watched a man point at something in a display case. The clerk bent to open the case and remove the man's requested item. The clerk spread a silk scarf on the counter while the customer bent over it.
"Some traditions must be upheld despite the dip in the economy, Mr. Austin."
A look of disapproval crossed his face and Darcy knew Christmas was never going to be the same again. She knew bad blood existed between her family and his. What had happened, she didn't know, but she had hoped he didn't carry a grudge. Obviously, she was wrong. She was going to have to unpack her suitcase full of charm today, not wanting him to know how angry she was at her mother and stepfather's selling of the store. She wasn't going to let this change of ownership defeat her. The words became a mantra as she headed back to the elevator with Mr. Eli Austin in tow.
The doors to the elevator opened and Silas, the elevator operator, smiled at Darcy. "Mornin', Miss Darcy," he said with a little tilt of his head. Silas was nearly eighty-one years old and started working at Bennett's right out of high school. Darcy had watched the cap of kinky hair on his head turn from black to gray to snow white. He'd always been tall and strong, and in her eyes handsome, but now he was a little stooped and his clear brown eyes had clouded slightly. His red jacket hung a little on his slight frame and one hand had developed a slight tremor. But no matter what, he was always at his post.
Silas had patched up her bruised knees and told her stories about all his years running the elevators at Bennett's. He could have retired, but Darcy wouldn't consider Bennett's the same without him. So he stayed while the other elevators had been changed over to automatic.
"Good morning, Silas," she said. "Have you heard anything yet?" She crossed her fingers, knowing how much the old man doted on his only granddaughter.
"Yes, we did," Silas said with a twinkle in his eyes.
"Don't leave me in anticipation," she said as she rested a hand on the antique-brass railing that surrounded the cabin. The elevator was beautiful with a marble floor, mahogany paneling and polished brass accents. Not one fingerprint ever marred them.
"Cornell and UC Davis," he said with pride.
She felt a glow of pride. "Which one is your granddaughter going to choose?"
"She has a couple weeks to decide," Silas replied. "I'm thinking she's leaning toward UC Davis."
She put her hand in her pocket and pulled out an envelope. "I've been carrying this around for a couple weeks." She handed the envelope to him.
Silas opened it and glanced at the check inside. "This is too much, Ms. Darcy." He tried to hand it back to her.
"No, it's not. Veterinary school is expensive and your granddaughter is going to need every penny she can get."
He stuffed the envelope in his pocket, then closed the old-fashioned elevator doors, sat back down on his stool and toggled the stick. The elevator hummed as it moved upward.
She could feel Mr. Austin's disapproval as he stared at Silas. His face was scrunched up as he studied the elderly man in his spotlessly clean gray-and-red Bennett's uniform.
Silas was a fixture in the store. When Darcy had been a child, Silas had taught her how to run the elevator and let her sit on his stool and pretend to be him.
The elevator came to a smooth stop, and Silas opened the doors to the office floor. Darcy stepped out and led the way down the long stretch of hallway to her office. She opened the door and stepped inside.
Her office was small and cluttered with file folders piled on the old wooden desk. File cabinets lined one wall and a small window looked out over a portion of the street. The only modern conveniences in the room were the updated phones and the thoroughly comfortable office chair behind the desk.
Eli walked in behind her and looked around. "The last time I was here, I met your stepfather in a completely different office. Yours is?so?"
Her stepfather's office had been for show. Hers was for work. She laughed even as her office walls seemed to crowd in on her. "Efficient, small," she finished for him. "I don't spend any more time here than I have to." She picked a stack of folders off a chair and set them on the floor in a corner suddenly conscious of the mess and the fact that with him standing so close to her she felt breathless and annoyed at the same time.
"Surveying your empire," he said, a hint of sarcasm in his tone.
She gave him a sharp glance. "You could say that, but usually I fill in working a register, or fitting some shoes. Department store?uh?stuff."
Darcy knew Bennett's from the ground up. Every summer when she was off from school, she'd worked in a different department, from restocking to theft prevention, maintenance to food service and returns. She'd even learned to operate a forklift on the docks. Her grandfather had demanded she understand how Bennett's worked no matter how small the details. He demanded she know every man and woman who worked at Bennett's. She didn't have to be their friend, but she did have to understand their needs and concerns. Happy employees made for a better store.