Willow & Aiden After Forty

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Chapter 9

I lock the store door and cross to the counter. I have everything finished for the night and ready for this upcoming weekend’s rack sale. It will be busy; over one hundred women came here to find five, ten, fifteen thousand gowns for half price and marked down.

The business has been slow the last two weeks, but Ann, a sales consultant, told me not to worry and to enjoy the quiet time. She said to prepare for daily activities from all the new holiday-engaged brides-to-be that will swarm the store after the first of the year.

The security alarm beeps, and I see Laura walks inside.

“What are you doing back? How was your dinner date?” I ask brightly. Laura is getting ready to turn sixty, she is a little over five feet tall, but her strong personality makes her seem eight feet tall.

“I had a dud of a date. I thought I stop by before I go home for the night. How was the last appointment? Did she make up her mind this time?”

I shake my head, no. “The poor girl is torn in so many directions. She still has no clue which way to go.” I grab all of our appointment files and lock them in a drawer.

“Let’s hope she makes up her mind soon. Thank you for your help with the trunk and rack show. We’ve never been this organized in the past. Do you have time for a glass of sherry?”

I giggle, “I’ve never had a sherry, but I’d love one.” She rolls her eyes and heads to the back to her office. I go to the sidewall and turn off all the lights except for the row above the seating area.

“Come over and sit down, quit messing with the lights,” Laura orders me. She walks over to our beautiful seating area and sits down on one of the overstuffed chairs.

I follow her over and sit, “I love being surrounded by all of these beautiful gowns. I hope one day, I can bring my future daughters-in-law and grandchildren and watch them fall in love with their one special dress. I love this job, Laura, I hope you are happy with me.”

“Pfft, It was fate. I told you I decided on a whim to post a flyer in the window because I was pissed and tired of working eighty-hour weeks. I probably wouldn’t have gone as far as putting an ad in the paper. I’m sure I’d had ripped the ‘help wanted’ sign off the window by the end of the day, but It was fate that sent you down the street at that particular time.”

I laugh, “Oh, Laura, I thought it was because I often walk down this street since I love three blocks over.” She sips her sherry and stares at me with her deep, dark-brown eyes.

She tucks a strand of her white-gray wiry, curly hair behind her ear, and studies me. “Tell me more of your story, something other than you’re divorced, ran six grocery stores, and managed five children. Tell me something I haven’t already figured out about you.”

I can only imagine what she thinks she has figured out about me. “What do you think you have figured out about me? I’m boring, other than the family and business there isn’t much to tell or experiences to share. I’ve been busy busting my ass the last twenty-six years, creating all of the things you already know about me.”

“Last month, when I met you, I assumed a poor lost woman who’s going through empty nest syndrome looking for a change in life after a divorce. I still think that, of course, all except the lost part. You are not lost, my God, you do nothing but yap about your family. I have a feeling they don’t leave you alone long enough to get yourself lost. Do you want to know why I hired you on the spot?”

“Fate,” I deadpan and raise my brows.

“Yes, yes, make fun all you want, but I do believe in fate. I hired you for your impressive resume’, but mostly more on the gut feeling I had after I met you. I knew I found the person who will help me remain at the top of the bridal game in the Midwest. I knew, even though you were dressed like a baggy, stay-at-home soccer mom, and your cute little shape was going to waste. I knew I needed to help a fellow woman blossom into all she can be.”

“Thanks, I guess.” I giggle.

She rolls her eyes at me. It’s what she always does because she thinks I’m clueless about certain things. “It’s true, Willow, your clothes say so much about you. You were portraying cute and nice, and you’re past cute, dear. You’re a very intelligent and beautiful woman who has done very well for herself, despite the fact you had a baby at sixteen.”

I take a sip of sherry, and my nose scrunches up.

“Oh, dear, you don’t like it?” Laura asks me with a disappointed look on her face while she takes a sip from her glass. “It’ll get better, and soon it will give you a warm, cozy feeling. Have you dated since your divorce? I heard you telling Ann it has been two years since you signed the papers.”

I sigh, “Two years ago, it was official. Two and a half years ago, my husband came home from work, took my hand, and sat me down in our formal dining. We never sat in there, it was mostly used as a homework table for the boys when they had big projects, so I knew it was important. He sat me down and told me he was sorry, but he had fallen in love with another woman. He explained to me he wasn’t looking for anyone, that he was happy with our life and the life we had built. But he couldn’t help how he felt about this person after getting to know her better.”

“Did you know her too?”

I swallow a large gulp of sherry, “Oh yeah, I knew her. She worked at one of our stores. She’s twenty-five, FYI, that age is in between my two oldest kids’ age. She graduated from college and tried to make it in the fashion industry in New York. She moved back home after a year because she ran out of money. We hired her to manage a store. She told us upfront it would only be for a year or two while she saved money to give it another chance in fashion. I don’t think she will going back to New York anytime soon unless she wants to move a husband and baby with her.” I drink the last sip. I don’t look at Laura, because I don’t want to see pity in her eyes.

“You had no idea did you, you didn’t see it coming?” Laura’s brows are raised over her black cat-eye glasses.

“Nope, not even now, when I let myself think back to that time, there were no real signs. We still had two children in high school, and we were running ragged between work and activities, but no Laura, I had no clue. I believe Jake the snake, it happened quickly, him falling in love with Amanda.” I blow out a breath, Laura is right, I do feel warm, but I don’t feel cozy, there is no way I can feel any coziness discussing Jake.

“Did he buy you out of your half of the stores? You don’t have to share that with me. It’s up to you.”

“He bought one, and I sold two to different families. I couldn’t screw him over because I’d be screwing my children over, two of them are involved in the business.”

She shakes her head and picks up the bottle of sherry and raises her eyes. “Yes, I’ll have another one, it does get better once you get used to it.” I hold my glass out for her to fill.

“I’ve been married twice, never again will I make that mistake. Marriage is not for me. I’m hoping to play the field for another thirty years, God willing,” Laura says, and I can’t help but feel warm inside. I’ve only known her for a short time, but I know her well enough to know she is telling me the truth. She has had four dates with four different men since I started working here.

“What made you go into the bridal business?” I ask her.

“My aunt started Vines after she became pissed off she had to fly to New York to try on a dress she wanted for her wedding day.” She rolls her eyes. “She was a rich, spoiled bitch, worse than her sister, my mother. The store took off, supported by all the elite, one-percenters in the Midwest, like herself. Aunt Shelia passed, and her two sons wanted nothing to do with it. I was going through my second divorce, and I said fuck it, I bought it, and the rest is history.”

“May I ask you a question about the store that I’ve been wondering about?”

She lifts her sherry, “Ask away tonight, I’m feeling relaxed, and Lord knows when the next time that will happen.”

“Have you ever thought about making the store less elite?” I ask, and her eyes turn to me.

“Why would I want to do that? Our reputation has been established for forty years as a high-end salon. There are several other bridal stores throughout the city and suburbs for the masses, Willow.”

“I know, but our price point starts at five thousand dollars a gown. I’ve been thinking about Caroline, my daughter in law. She is from a nice, middle-class family. She spent three thousand dollars on her wedding dress and purchased it at a bridal chain store. I never shopped or wore a wedding dress before, but what her experience was versus what our clientele receives is miles and miles apart.”

“Exactly, Willow. That is why we are special, it’s why our dresses start at five thousand.”

“I understand that, but I’ve been thinking and looking around my new neighborhood and different parts of the city. I see a large number of people, a lot of young professionals, exactly like my children. They are successful. They are climbing corporate ladders and planning their futures. I don’t know, but they seem more like Carolines, a three thousand dollar dress owner. I have been thinking about the people like myself, and how we deserve to feel special and not rushed in and out by a young sales clerk who is working long hours for commission and does not have the knowledge as we do. It seems like a huge market to overlook.

“I asked Caroline if she would have paid an appointment fee of a few hundred dollars if she could have been given the royal treatment, and her answer was what I thought it would be. She said both her and her mother would have gladly paid a fee to be pampered and not sitting in a tiny dressing area basically on their own. I guess what I’m trying to ask is have you ever considered, I don’t know, maybe not selling to the masses but maybe adding another layer. Give women who want to pay for special treatment the opportunity. Every little girl, hell, most women in America watch the shows on TV, and they dream of their wedding day. I understand the store’s status of the upper class, elite, whatever. I understand, but I can’t help to think of the people in the middle who get overlooked a lot of the time. I know I have lived, surrounded by the middle my whole life; all of my neighbors live in the middle. Whew. This stuff makes you sweat, am I making any sense, do you get what I’m saying?” I slip my heels off and fan my face with my hands.

Laura laughs, “Are you hot?” She rolls her eyes. She’s always rolling her eyes at me; it’s her thing. She’s a master of scolding you without words. She doesn’t need them; her facial expression says everything she is thinking. “So, you want us to sell to the middle?”

“I want you to think about selling to the middle. You would have to invest in purchasing dresses, starting at a lower price point, starting at around twenty-five hundred dollars. We need to research what women are willing to pay for an exclusive appointment at the nationally-known Vine’s Bridal Salon. Also, I was shopping with Max over in the university district, and we went by The Art and Fashion Institute. I was thinking about how cool it would be to visit the budding designers and have a dress contest to feature and sell the winning wedding dress. Maybe have a contest every year.” I stop talking and start fanning myself again, God, this drink makes you warm.

“Was the woman who your husband left you for a fashion designer?”

I look at her like she’s crazy, “What the hell does that have to do with what we are talking about?”

“I don’t know. I find it curious.” She refills her glass.

I put my hand over mine. If I drink any more, I may burst into flames. “Laura, I can assure you that I never made or make any connection to my past life. I am ambitious. It wasn’t Jake who wanted to grow and expand to six stores. It was me. Jake would have lived happily ever after owning two or three stores. I wanted more. It’s who I am. It’s not material things I want, and I didn’t want or need to grow our business for money, greed, status, or anything else besides a need to grow as a person.”

I fan myself faster. “Jesus, Laura.” I sit my empty glass down, “I don’t know if I am making any sense. My mind has been in overdrive lately with all sorts of things.” I finally take a breath, and of course, Laura is staring at me with a look that screams she thinks I’m crazy, or maybe she thinks I’m a bitch or stupid. I have no idea because I know I’m a little drunk from this liquor.

After a few minutes of silence, I finally break it, “You asked me to share.”

She smirks, “Yes, I did, Willow. I see fate is going to fuck me again, and I’m not going to be able to slow down and slide into an easy retirement with you here, am I?”

I giggle when she shakes her head, stands, straightens the tight black pencil dress she is rocking tonight. She lets out a long, tired sigh, then picks up the bottle of sherry and collects our glasses. “I’ll lock up, Willow. How about you shut your mind off for a while, and I’ll think about your proposals?”

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