The next few minutes were a bit of a blur. Meg allowed Harvard to lead her outside and watched numbly as he locked up for the night. She finally spoke when he opened the door of a car she knew he hadn't been driving the week before.
"What happened to your rental?" she asked, sliding a hand over the glove compartment. The leather was soft against her fingertips.
"I turned it in." He gave her a sidelong glance. "Are you okay?"
No, Meg thought. She was not okay, but there was nothing anyone could do about it at the moment. "Not really. Where'd you get this one?"
"Oh." Meg leaned forward until her forehead was resting on the dashboard. "I like it. It reminds me of Charley's old car."
"So he had good taste at some point."
"Hey." Meg turned her head slowly until she was looking at him. "He's about to marry my best friend."
Harvard seemed momentarily surprised, and then his eyebrows scrunched together. "I thought Charley was your best friend."
"A girl can have more than one, you know."
"How many do you have?"
"Well, there's Charley, obviously. And Whitney. She counts too."
Meg's hand drifted over to where his rested on the gearshift. "Maybe one. Only him I can kiss."
Harvard's smile was small but satisfied. "Do you want to talk about what you learned at your shop?"
Her fingers clenching compulsively, Meg swallowed hard. "I don't know what to think. That stuff happened a long time ago, when my mom was just a baby. Mamie couldn't be that much older than she is. How could a person hold a grudge for that many years?"
"I thought we were talking about Mamie."
Meg's lips curved up in a wry smile. "Point taken. I think I need to talk to Whitney."
The lights in the upstairs apartment were all blazing when Harvard pulled into the driveway. "It looks like we're in luck."
Whitney and Charley were in the kitchen playing a card game when Harvard and Meg walked through the door. Charley glanced up and grimaced when he saw Harvard. "Way to show me up back there, Mr. Tall, Dark, and Twinkle-Toed. Is there anything you can't do?"
Harvard looked like he wanted to snap at Charley but Whitney cut him off. "What's wrong? Meg, you look like you've seen a ghost."
Meg tightened her hold on Harvard's fingers. "Did your mom ever talk about your grandmother?"
"Grandma Steppe? She couldn't stand her. Said she was too much like my dad."
"Not that one. Your mom's mom."
Whitney made a face. "Oh, Grandma Frome. Not in a while, but I haven't paid any attention to what's come out of Mamie's mouth since I was in middle school. Why?"
Meg slid into a chair across from her. "Did she ever tell you that Bertha owned a shoe store?"
"Not that again." Whitney rolled her eyes and slapped her cards down on the table. "That's the reason I tuned out in the first place. 'Some young upstart waltzed into Mama's store and demanded a pair of shoes . . . '" She shuddered.
Harvard sat down and pulled Meg next to him. "Can you tell us exactly what happened? We kind of need to know."
Whitney shot a questioning glance at Meg and shrugged. "It's not much of a story, to tell you the truth." She launched into a tale that was very similar to the one Meg had heard from her mother (albeit with a slight tone of contempt and entitlement), but toward the end there was one glaring difference. "Then the man stole the shoes and started his own business, putting Grandma Frome in financial ruin." Whitney moved her hand in a dismissive gesture. "She was probably on the way out anyway, so I'd take that with a salt lick."
Meg felt the blood drain from her face. If Mamie really believed that the original slippers had been stolen instead of duplicated, that made her actions a little more understandable. "Do you believe that story?" she asked in a voice that shook.
Whitney's eyes narrowed. "What's going on?"
Taking a deep breath, Meg pulled her slippers out of her bag and set them on the table. "My grandfather had these made for my grandma after he saw the ones in Bertha's shop. He married the young upstart."
Whitney stared at the slippers for a solid sixty seconds without saying anything. A myriad of emotions crossed her face before she got to her feet and almost ran out of the kitchen, leaving her stunned friends behind her. When she reappeared she was carrying the box Meg had lugged back from Mamie's house.
Three pairs of eyes watched as Whitney dug through it, her forehead crinkled in concentration. Then she smiled in satisfaction and placed an old photograph on the table.
Meg leaned forward to examine it. The only thing on it was a pair of shoes that was similar to hers, but not close enough for someone to call them the same pair.
"Yours have a thinner heel," Charley said, tapping the picture with one finger. "And the toe on these is wider. They look more like a French heel."
The fact that Charley knew what a French heel was didn't seem to faze Harvard in the least. He just tilted his chair back and rubbed his face with his hands. When he spoke his words sounded tired. "What we need to do is find the originals."
"Why?" Meg turned to him. It she weren't so exhausted herself she'd probably feel angry. "Why does it matter? Mamie still owns my shop. She still wants me to quit. And no matter how many pairs of shoes we find, she's not going to change her mind. Besides," she added with a glance at Whitney, "there's no way we can find them at her house."
"Meg's right." Whitney closed the box with finality and tacked the picture on the fridge. "You couldn't find a rhinoceros with a head cold in that house. And anyway, it's getting late. I don't know about you two, but Meg and I need our beauty sleep if we want to dazzle you at the ball."
Harvard's jaw tightened but he didn't argue. Instead, he stood up and tugged on Meg's hand. "We'll figure this out after everything's back to normal."
Once they were in the hall Harvard ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "My parents are arriving in the morning," he told her. "Do you want to meet them when they get here or at the ball?"
"The ball," Meg said immediately. "I'm sure your mom's a lovely person but she kind of freaked me out."
Harvard's smile was affectionately resigned. "She freaks me out too sometimes, and I lived with her for eighteen years. But in all seriousness, she's not as bad as she sounded on the phone. Her mental filter sort of disintegrates when she's excited."
That doesn't bode too well for tomorrow night, Meg thought. "I can't wait. What time do you have to be at the mall tomorrow evening?"
"Early, I'm afraid. One of these days I'm going to pick you up for a date in my own car." His voice grew distant. "Maybe I can do a vanishing act around six thirty . . . "
Meg laughed. What was it with men and their cars? "How about I just meet you? I don't mind. Really," she added when Harvard's lips pressed together in a disapproving line.
"All right." He sighed and tugged his collar away from his neck.
Meg reached up and pulled his hand away. "I thought you were going to spare your designer shirts," she reminded him softly.
The only thing Harvard could do in response was kiss her.
The day of the ball dawned clear, bright, and hot which was a bit of a surprise for the Michigan natives. Meg had just made her bed when her cell phone rang.
"Are you showered yet?"
"Charley . . . "
"Meg, this is a big day. You'd better get going."
It was entirely too early to sigh this heavily, but she did it anyway. "I'll be ready on time," she told him with some exasperation. "Will you calm down? I don't think I could handle a repeat of our senior prom."
"I wasn't that bad." Meg made a rude noise and Charley laughed. "Just . . . remember to shave your legs. I'd hate you to snag your gown with a bristly calf." Then he hung up.
Meg was on her way out of her bedroom when the slippers caught her eye. She stopped and contemplated them for a long time. If Mamie really thought they'd been stolen it was a minor miracle that she'd left them in the display case without breaking the glass to get them out. Perhaps she'd been counting on the fact that Meg would honor her mother by keeping them there forever. Impulsively, Meg grabbed them and slid them under her bed. She knew she was being silly but something in the back of her mind told her to keep them out of sight.
The phone rang as Meg was putting her breakfast dishes back in the cupboard. "Hello?" she asked, trying not to drop her bowl in the sink.
"Miss Bailey? This is Johnny Evers. I hope I'm not calling at an inconvenient time."
Immediately perking up, Meg gave up on being domestic and leaned her hip against the counter. "Mr. Evers! I'm so happy to hear from you."
The smile In Johnny's voice was unmistakable. "I wouldn't mind a granddaughter or two like you." He paused, and Meg could hear papers rustling in the background. "I've been scouting around and I think I've found something interesting. It seems that our friend Anna has been making the rounds of the assisted living centers in the area."
Somehow this wasn't entirely surprising, and Meg told him that. "Where else has she been?" she asked, suddenly feeling bone weary.
Johnny rattled off the name of another property on the other end of town and Meg shook her head. "Is she trying to find a sugar daddy?" she asked, hoping that wasn't the case.
"It sure seems like it. If that's the case, she's definitely courting disaster with this man."
"What do you mean by that?"
Johnny paused. "Let me visit this other gentleman and get back to you. I have a hunch that Anna's slipped up, and this might be our chance to catch her at her game." The papers in the background shuffled again. "Do you know anyone who needs money?"
Meg thought about the people who worked, or pretended to work, at The Glass Slipper. "Not Whitney. And probably not Brittany, either," she mused, thinking of the way Brittany had gazed up at Clyde the day of the baseball game. Had Harvard said that Clyde was well-off? All she could remember about the man was his over-large chin. "Although, come to think of it, I haven't seen or heard from her in three weeks."
"Is there anyone else?"
"Mamie . . . but she didn't seem very concerned with the shop's financial situation . . . "
Johnny was quiet for a moment. "It would appear that those two are our best choices at the moment," he said finally. "Let me nose around a little. I'll be in touch with you as soon as I discover anything concrete."
"Thanks. You're such a sweetheart for doing this. I wish there was something I could do to repay you."
He chuckled. "Come visit me every so often once this is all sorted out. That's all I really need."
"Consider it done."
Meg hung up the phone feeling like she'd just gained another member of her family.
It was almost noon before Whitney emerged from her room. "Sleep well?" Meg asked from the couch.
"No." Whitney plopped down next to her. "I kept dreaming that a dancing pig was flying over the ball tonight and was throwing pork chops at people. It was horrid."
Meg tried not to laugh. "You're not nervous, are you?"
Whitney hesitated before answering. "Kind of. I mean, I've never been to something like this before. What if I trip and fall into the fountain?"
"Charley won't let you." Meg smiled to herself. Most likely, Charley wouldn't let Whitney more than a foot away from him this evening. "What're your plans for this afternoon?"
"Just to get ready. I told Charley I couldn't stand to wait around here until he came to pick me up so I'm getting ready over there." She shrugged at Meg's surprised expression. "He already has my dress. As soon as I eat lunch and take a shower I'm heading over there."
And that was how, an hour and a half later, Meg had the entire house to herself.
Contrary to what Charley thought, it would not take Meg an entire day, or even an afternoon, to get ready for a ball. She read a book, did a load of laundry (the sight of a dress shirt lying crumpled on the floor next to the dryer was enough to make her mind wander into a very nice fantasy about a tuxedo-clad Harvard standing in the middle of the atrium and, oddly enough, singing "Be Our Guest") and swept the kitchen floor after dinner before finally making her way to her bedroom. She took a long shower, even going so far as to shave her legs twice in deference to Charley's admonishment, and had just laid her dress on the bed when something crashed in the family room.
"Whitney?" she called, throwing her robe over her shoulders. "Are you okay?"
To her surprise it wasn't Whitney that she found in the family room.
It was Mamie.
She was pulling the cushions off the couch with single-minded determination. She didn't bother to look up when Meg gasped. "What are you doing here?"
Mamie just overturned an easy chair.
Meg darted in and grabbed a picture frame before Mamie could get her hands on it. "If you don't stop right now I'll call the police." She was going to do it anyway, but she had the feeling that Mamie'd do her bodily harm if she told her that.
Mamie dropped the lamp she was holding with a crash and glared at Meg. "Go ahead and call the cops, Meg Bailey. They'll just take you away first."
Meg narrowed her eyes. "What are you talking about?"
If looks could kill Meg would be nothing but a pile of dust and memories. "You're a thief. All these months I've allowed you to work for me, and how do you repay my kindness? By stealing my property. Give them back, Meg Bailey."
"Give what back?" Meg had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
"My shoes. I want them back, and I want them back now. Hand them over."
As frightening as the situation was, it wouldn't be nearly as terrifying if Mamie's voice hadn't been so cool and detached. "I don't have your shoes."
Two bright red spots bloomed on Mamie's cheeks. "You're the only one with a key to that display window. What did you do with them? I'll search this place from top to bottom if I have to."
Meg grabbed the cordless phone and pushed a few buttons. It only took a second for someone to pick up. "Hello, this is Meg Bailey. I have an intruder in my home."
Mamie growled and bent down to pick up the forgotten lamp. As Meg rattled off her address she said a very unladylike word and threw the lamp as hard as she could at the wall. Then she kicked a side table and stalked down the hall, slamming the door behind her so sharply the glass rattled in its panes.
Meg slid to the floor where she was and listened as the operator assured her help was on its way. When she told the woman that Mamie had gone of her own accord, she was told to stay where she was. So she did, and thanked her lucky stars that Mamie hadn't seen the picture of the original slippers that was stuck to her fridge.
The officer that showed up was, ironically enough, the same one that had investigated her mother's murder. "Hello, Miss Bailey," Officer Jennings said with a weary smile. "I'm sorry we have to meet again like this. Are you all right?"
Meg nodded but remained seated on the floor. "I'm fine."
Officer Jennings crouched down next to her and gazed at her sympathetically. "Do you want to tell me what happened?"
Before she knew what she was doing the entire story came spilling out of Meg's mouth, all year-and-a-half of it. By the time she was finished speaking her mouth was dry and she had tear tracks on her cheeks. Officer Jennings had quietly taken notes while her partner took fingerprints, even though Meg had told them who had broken into her apartment.
"It sounds like you've had a rough go of it since we spoke last," Officer Jennings said after a long pause. "How again did you say Ms. Steppe knew your mother?"
"She didn't, at least not as far as I know. But her mother knew my grandmother, and . . . "
"That's right; there was an issue with a pair of shoes. Would you mind showing them to me?"
Meg slowly got to her feet, studiously avoiding the mess littering her family room floor. "Sure. Hold on just a second. I stowed them under my bed."
Once she was alone Meg closed her eyes and took several deep, lung-cleansing breaths. Not for the first time she wished that doing away with someone wasn't so against the law. Not that she was willing to kill Mamie, per se, but if she could just get rid of the woman her life would be a whole lot less complicated.
Officer Jennings took the slippers from Meg and studied them carefully, then handed them back with a wistful smile. "So this is what caused all the trouble," she remarked. "And, evidently, continues it on. Do you know where Ms. Steppe is now?"
"Not right now, but she'll be at the mall this evening."
"Is she going to the Kingston's ball? We know some of the security guys over there."
Meg was about to ask if they'd be helping their friends for the night when she glanced up at the clock over the mantel. "Crap, crap, crap," she moaned. "It can't be seven forty-five already."
"I take it you're attending the ball as well?"
"Yeah. I have to be there in fifteen minutes, and I haven't even "
Sensing a panic attack, Officer Jennings' partner (who Meg was sure had a name but was too busy panicking to think of it) cleared his throat. "We'll let ourselves out, ma'am."
It felt like the faster Meg moved the longer it took her to do anything, and by the time she stepped into her dress she was almost crying with frustration. Calm down, she told herself sternly as she twisted her hair into a low knot. The ball won't disappear if you're a few minutes late. She tried not to think about Harvard's parents as it just made her feel queasy.
The slippers seemed to wink at her after she'd stepped into her drerss, and she smiled in spite of her nerves. What was it her mother had said? "And now they're yours. Your grandmother wore them on her tenth wedding anniversary. I only wore them once, on the day I married your father. I expect you'll do something equally wonderful with them." Meg wasn't sure what exactly she was going to do while wearing one-of-a-kind dancing slippers, but Alice's words gave her the burst of courage she needed.
Her toes slid into them like they'd been made for each other, as clichιd as she knew that would sound if she said it out loud, and they curved with the arch of her foot so closely that it reminded her of the way she felt when she was dancing with Harvard. "Ah," she breathed out, and closed her eyes against the tears that were forming. "Mom, you were right."
If she hadn't known any better she would have sworn her mother was behind her.
She could have used her mother when, two minutes later, she discovered that both her car keys and her cell phone were missing.
"Have you decided what you're going to say?"
Joseph Kingston turned his attention away from the passing scenery and looked over at his son. Harvard kept his eyes on the road and shrugged. "More or less. There's not a whole lot to say."
"You mean besides the fairly large and life-changing announcement?"
Harvard's mind flitted to Meg. He wondered what her reaction would be. "Yeah, that one. Don't worry. I'll come up with something suitably grandiose."
Jillian leaned through the gap in the front seats and patted Harvard on the shoulder. "Leave your son alone," she chided Joseph. "He has a big evening ahead of him."
The breath Harvard let out could have inflated the Goodyear Blimp. "I think you're more excited than I am," he muttered under his breath. It wasn't, unfortunately, quiet enough to keep his mother from hearing.
Jillian beamed at him in the rearview mirror. "You know, when you first told me about Meg I had a really good feeling about her."
"You mean, when you extracted personal information out of me against my will --"
"And then I spoke with her, and she sounded even lovelier than I had thought -- "
"And now she has you excited to get all dressed up for a formal event." Jillian looked like she'd just won the lottery. "If you don't ask her to marry you, I will. I can be very persuasive."
"That she can," Joseph said, giving a loud harrumph for emphasis. "How do you think we ended up together?"
Harvard decided it was in his best interest to keep his mouth shut.
As soon as Harvard parked the car behind Charley's shop Jillian announced that she wanted to see Meg's store. "After all," she explained as Joseph helped her out, "I want to see what you'll be marrying into." He didn't miss the fact that her voice was high with excitement -- the idea of meeting Meg combined with going shoe shopping seemed to have sent her into overdrive.
"Fine," he sighed. "Follow me."
But when they got to The Glass Slipper something seemed wrong. He listened to Jillian rhapsodize about some kind of shoe he'd never heard of before and looked around with narrowed eyes. "Lexie," he said to the girl staring in awe at his mother. "What happened to the display that was here last night?"
Lexie clasped her hands behind her back and transferred her gaze to him. "You don't want to know."
Oh, he most certainly did. He put on his best smile and tried again. "What happened to the display?"
"Oh . . . " Lexie seemed to forget what she was saying. "Um . . . that lady that Meg works for? You know, the tall one with the squicky voice? She came in a little while ago. She was nice enough at first, but when she saw the window she flipped out and started turning tables over." She made a face. "She might have hammered a hole in that that poor fairy godmother's head. With her heel. On purpose."
Harvard's eyes automatically went to the window display. It looked like the lock had been yanked around, leaving small dents in the molding around it. "What did she do then?"
Shrugging, Lexie swiped at a smudge on a table with her sleeve. "She said a bunch of words I'm not allowed to repeat and left." She paused mid-swipe and looked confused. "Do you know who Brittany is? She asked if I'd seen her. I tried to tell her about the Brittany at my school who's dating like three boys at the same time, but she didn't bother listening." A very small crease appeared between her eyebrows. "Two boys," she corrected herself. "I'm not supposed to exaggerate, either.
"Oh, and that geezer called again, only this time he asked for Betty Boop. I told him I didn't know any Betty Boop and he got all hissy on me and said he'd just come and find her himself if he had to. I told him to go right ahead." Lexie nodded to herself, obviously pleased with the way she'd handled the situation. "I think Miss Meg needs to get caller ID."
Harvard walked away from that conversation reeling from information overload.
The first thing Harvard did when he left The Glass Slipper was call Meg. And Charley. And then Whitney. After going straight to voice mail three times in a row he cursed under his breath and shoved his phone in his pocket.
Three seconds later he pulled it back out and called Meg's home number. When her answering machine picked up he sighed, but this time he left a message. "Meg, this is Harvard. Mamie knows the slippers are gone. Please call me as soon as you get this." When he ended the call his mother was in front of him.
"Is everything all right?"
"I don't think so." Shaking his head slightly, he held his arm out for her and pushed his panic back into the far recesses of his brain where he kept information like his middle school locker combination. "Would you like to see Charley's? I'm sure Meg told you about his gown shop when you talked."
If he hadn't been so worried about Meg he would have laughed at how easily his mother was distracted.
By the time the ball officially opened and there was no sign of Meg Harvard's panic had managed to filter back into the forefront of his consciousness. He stood with his parents and politely greeted their guests, but as the clock ticked on his smile grew more and more forced until Jillian elbowed him subtly in the side. "Why don't you see how the caterers are progressing?" she murmured during a lull in conversation. "You've already introduced us to the Grimms; I think we can take it from here."
Harvard nodded distractedly before turning away to hunt for Charley.
It didn't take long to find him after all, he was in a top hat and tails. Harvard rolled his eyes as he tapped Charley on the shoulder. "Grimm," he said. "Where's Meg?"
Charley turned around with a surprised expression. "I thought she was with you." When he saw the look on Harvard's face he smiled apologetically at the gentleman he'd been speaking with and walked toward the stage. "You didn't pick her up, take her to dinner, do the whole romantic evening thing?"
"My parents are in town," Harvard replied stiffly.
Charley shook his head in disgust. "No wonder you've never had a steady girlfriend before."
"For your information, Grimm, I "
Charley put his hand up to stop him. "Never mind. Her car was still in the driveway when Whitney and I passed the house a little while ago. She's probably on her way. Have you called her?"
Harvard closed his eyes and counted to ten. Then he did it again to get rid of the urge to knock the man's hat off his head. "Something's wrong," he stated quietly. "I can feel it."
For once Charley didn't have a snarky comeback. Instead, he gazed at Harvard in a calculating manner before nodding his head once. "Let's give her fifteen more minutes. Then we'll go to her house."
"That's the wisest thing I've ever heard you say."
Smirking, Charley tipped his hat in a mock salute.
Exactly fourteen minutes later Harvard spotted a sliver of blonde hair hovering at the edge of the atrium. "Finally," he muttered in relief, and kept his eyes on her as he made his way through the crowd.
Now, Harvard would be the first to admit that he knew nothing about female fashions. He might even add that he had no inclination of changing that fact. But when he saw Meg it took everything in him to keep his hand away from his collar, because it was suddenly very hard to inhale.
"Hello, Miss Bailey," he said quietly after he'd stood gawping at her for an embarrassing amount of time. He watched as she tilted her head up to see him. "You're looking mighty fine this evening."
Meg's eyes widened as they traveled from his hair to his toes, and he watched as she swallowed. Several strands of hair framed her face, threatening to hide her blush, but when she looked back at his face her eyes were warm and relieved.
"I could say the same for you, Mr. Kingston," she told him. "Your date is a very lucky girl."
"Not as lucky as yours." Then he took the last step toward her, grasped her hand, and kissed the living daylights out of her.
When he pulled away they were both breathless. "I'd say I was sorry," he informed her, "but I'm not. You really do look exquisite this evening. As much as it pains me to say this, I may just have to give my compliments to your modiste."
Meg smiled. "I'm sure he'd love that." She looked around nervously, making something in Harvard's chest tighten in apprehension. "Sorry I'm late. The police took longer than I thought."
Meg was sure there were smarter things she could have said at that moment, but seeing Harvard in a tux scrambled her brain. "Police?" he blurted out in horror, and then he abruptly pulled away from her. His eyes swept up and down her body as if he were looking for fang marks. "What happened?"
Harvard looked like he might kill his father on the spot, but Meg ducked under his arm and smiled as brightly as she could manage. "Mr. Kingston, it's so good to see you again."
Joseph beamed at her and then motioned to the woman at his side. "This is my wife, Jillian. Jilly, this is Harvey's Meg."
Jillian held her hands out and grasped Meg's. "I've heard so much about you," she said. Her eyes twinkled. "I must say that Harvard hasn't done you justice. I love your shoes, by the way." The next thing Meg knew she was being folded into Jillian's arms. "I'm so pleased to meet you, dear," the older woman whispered. "I hardly recognize my son anymore. That's a good thing, by the way."
When Meg pulled back Jillian was glowing with what Meg could only call motherly rapture. "The two of you will make me such beautiful grandchildren," she sighed.
Harvard immediately grabbed Meg's hand and glared at his mother. "That's our cue to leave." He looked like he'd swallowed something prickly, and he kept rubbing his temple with his free hand as they walked away. "Please, just ignore her."
"I heard that!" Jillian called from behind them.
Meg stifled a laugh and almost melted into his side as he pulled her away from the noise of the ball. "Didn't' you get my message?" he asked in a controlled voice once they were alone. "Mamie tore apart your shop, and I tried to warn you "
Meg rested her forehead on his chest. She wasn't terribly surprised. "I was a little preoccupied this evening." She breathed in the scent of his cologne mixed with the starch from his shirt. "Thanks for trying."
Harvard kissed the top of her head. "Are you going to tell me why the police were at your house?"
She tried to downplay the afternoon's events, she really tried, but by the time she'd reached the end of her story Harvard had pulled away from her. He looked positively livid. He said a few choice words under his breath and yanked at his collar viciously. When she reached up for his hand he grabbed her wrist. "Do you know where she is now?"
Why was everyone asking her this? Meg thought crossly. "No. She isn't here, is she?"
"I haven't seen her, but that doesn't mean anything." Harvard scanned the atrium and then abruptly stalked off toward Kyle. "I wonder if that rule about not hitting women is still in effect if the woman in question is a barracuda. Kyle," he snapped, "if Mamie Steppe arrives please advise me at once."
Startled, Kyle nodded and said something into his mouthpiece. Harvard clapped him on the shoulder before looking back at Meg. "Shall we dance?"
Dancing with Harvard while wearing a dress and high-heeled shoes was even more amazing than doing it with a skirt and ballet flats, Meg decided an hour later. The feel of his hand on her waist, how he smiled down at her when they completed a turn . . . a girl could get used to this.
But even dreamy, love-filled dancers need a break every now and then, which is how Meg found herself sitting on the fountain wall next to Charley while Harvard spoke to his father.
Charley tucked a strand of hair back where it belonged and stretched out his long legs. "Having fun?"
Meg sighed happily. "I am. When are you going to pop the question?"
"Next dance." He patted his pocket absently. "Provided she comes back in time, of course."
Meg looked around the atrium. "Where'd she go?"
"Phone call from her sister. She's a good egg, my Whitney. After all the trouble Brittany's put her through I'd send her straight to voicemail." Charley smirked. "I guess it's good I never had a sister."
"What do you think I am, a long-lost cousin?" Meg tried, and failed, to look affronted.
"Ah, Meggie, you're better than a sister. After all, I never had to share a bathroom with you." He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "Here she comes. Wish me luck."
Meg watched him stride through the crowd with purposeful steps. When Harvard came up behind her and put his arms around her waist she leaned back into him with a sigh. "Where'd Grimm go?" he murmured in her ear.
"To propose to Whitney. I hope he doesn't step on her feet in the middle of it."
Meg could feel Harvard's chest rumble as he chuckled. "Wanna watch?"
Three beats into the waltz the two of them were standing on the wall, scanning the crowd below them. "There they are," Meg whispered, pointing with her chin.
And then, right in the middle of the dance floor, Charley knelt on the ground. "Did he just flip his coattails out of the way?" Harvard asked.
The next moment a misty-eyed Whitney had sunk down beside him, throwing her arms around him and burying her face in his neck. Harvard took Meg's hand in his as the spectators clapped (and, in the case of several women, cried) and he tilted her face up to his with one finger.
"Meg," he said, and she was startled by how serious his face was. "I "
"Harvard! There you are!" Joseph smacked his son behind the knee, almost causing Harvard to lose his balance. "Come on, son. It's time."
Harvard sighed and squeezed Meg's fingers. "Don't move," he told her, and kissed her once, hard, before hopping back to the ground. "You're short, and I want to be able to see you from the stage."
He strode over to Charley and Whitney and said a few words into Charley's ear. Then the three of them followed the Kingstons onto the stage.
Harvard cleared his throat and looked at Meg briefly before speaking into a mircophone. "Thank you for coming this evening," he said, and waited for the chatter to die down. "And congratulations to Mr. Grimm and Miss Steppe. The two of you were meant for each other." There was a round of enthusiastic applause interspersed with a few catcalls that Charley graciously acknowledged.
: "While I have your attention," Harvard continued, "I'd like to take a few more minutes of your time to share something with you. I came to Michigan four months ago under the guise of remodeling the facility." Harvard waved his hands expansively at the atrium. "I'm afraid some of the latest changes are only temporary.
"My true mission began not long after I came, when I began to have lunch with a representative from each of your stores. I learned a lot about our mall's tenants when I saw who each shop's owner had sent to be my lunch partner every day." It was obvious that his smile didn't meet his eyes, even from where Meg was standing.
A low rumble of laughter swept through the room, along with more than a few guilty expressions. "These lunches served two purposes. One, I got to know you as people instead of names on a printout, and for that I'm very grateful. But the other, more important reason, was that I was conducting interviews.
"Mr. Yeats, our mall manager here in Brothers, has decided to retire. He requested this information to be kept quiet until we had found his replacement as he didn't want to deal with the storm of speculation he was sure this announcement would produce." Harvard grinned at a short, balding man at the edge of the crowd, who waved a hand victoriously in the air and smiled so hugely Meg thought his dentures would pop out.
"But it was harder than I'd expected to find just the right person for the job. I found a few that were promising " Harvard briefly met Meg's eyes again across the dance floor, and she couldn't help but smile at him "but there was always something holding me back. Until last week."
The smile on Meg's face disappeared. This was it, she thought. Harvard was going to announce that he'd found someone and that he was leaving on the next flight to Chicago. She tried to keep her face composed.
"Charley Grimm has all the qualifications I was looking for. He's a shrewd businessman, he loves this city, and he enjoys working at our mall. The only problem was that he didn't want the job.
"So we came up with a rather ingenuous solution. We are going to rename this property in Mr. Grimm's honor, and I will remain here as the new manager at his request."
Meg's head jerked up just as she felt herself falling off the ledge. It wasn't very high, and she landed on her bottom, which she supposed would have been a lucky move had someone not been able to wrench her slipper right off her foot as soon as she hit the floor.
"Finally!" an enraged Mamie hissed in her ear. "I knew you had them, you little thief. Give me the other one, now."
Meg stared up at her in shock. There Mamie stood, the slipper clenched in her sweaty hand, glaring malevolently back at her. She was dressed in a very elaborate, very shiny gown that looked to be three sizes too small. Meg found herself wondering in a detached sort of way how she'd managed to get into Brittany's gown without popping several seams.
"Give it to me!"
The rage in Mamie's voice jolted Meg back to the situation at hand, and she blinked in a mixture of confusion and shock. "Why do you care?" she asked quietly, trying to get to her feet without Mamie pushing her back down. "My grandmother was the one that opened The Glass Slipper, not me. And it wasn't like she set out to put your mom out of business."
Mamie growled low in her throat. "I. Want. That. Slipper." Her chest was heaving so hard Meg was afraid a rather important part of her dress would explode. "Now."
Meg scanned the crowd as she stood slowly. The only person who seemed to be paying her any attention was Kyle, who was standing at the edge of the stage. He took one look at Mamie and moved to Harvard's side, muttering something in his ear.
Meg wished she could just wait there for help, but Mamie grabbed her above the elbow, hard, and growled again. So Meg did the first thing she could think of. She lifted her foot and took off her other slipper, and then, before Mamie could reach out and grab it, she twisted out of Mamie's grasp, ducked around a group of people and bolted.
In hindsight, Meg should have run toward Kyle instead of away from him. He was the head of security, after all; surely he could have done something useful.
But she didn't, and for once her 5'2" was an asset in a crowd rather than a liability. She dodged through the partiers, ignoring the gasps of surprise she left in her wake.
Mamie was nowhere to be seen when she escaped into the main section of the mall. Meg darted down the hallway until she was far enough away that no one from the ball could see her. She retreated into a darkened corner, leaned against the wall, and tried to calm her racing heart. It had been one heck of a day. And not all bad. After all, Harvard was staying. For good. In spite of the Mamie threat, Meg couldn't keep the silly grin from slipping onto her face.
The sound of music starting back up made her jolt away from the wall, and she inched her head around her corner. The light from the atrium filtered only so far into the heavy shadows, and she was well beyond that line. If Mamie'd followed her she'd have either caught her or passed her by now. She didn't dare go back to the ball in case Mamie was waiting for her, so the only thing she could think of to do was to go somewhere safe.
But when she got to The Glass Slipper she could feel her heart rate spike again. A light was on in the back room, and the gate was closed only halfway. Frowning, she stooped underneath. She'd only taken a few steps when she heard a loud, angry voice coming from the rear of her shop.
"We wouldn't be in this mess if you could drive!"
"It's not my fault we hit that orange car. You didn't see it there either."
"Well, now we're all in trouble."
The voices were familiar. They were querulous, old, and . . . "Harold? Johnny? Is that you?"
"Who wants to know?"
Harold's in rare form tonight, Meg thought as she closed her eyes and tried not to say what she wanted. "It's me, Meg. How'd you get here?"
The only response Meg got was a lot of banging. "It's a wonder you're still in business," Harold snapped as he came through the door, followed closely by Johnny. "Do you always keep shoe boxes on the floor, or is it just on special occasions?"
"I only leave a mess when I think you'll bless me with your presence. How'd you get here? And why are you here in the first place?"
Johnny cleared his throat. He shrugged before grinning hugely and holding out a key ring. "I may have sweet-talked the driver into letting me borrow these."
"And you decided to come here why?"
"Because of us." Johnny had a strange expression on his face as he hollered behind him, "Come on, slowpoke! We don't have another forty years to wait for you to get your rear in gear!"
Meg watched, baffled, as Harold Number Two shuffled through the door. He wore a scowl that matched Harold Number One's perfectly.
"Please tell me you didn't duplicate yourself."
The two men cackled. "I was born four and a half minutes before Roger Roger was," Harold informed her. "And I'm much handsomer, so you should have no problem telling us apart."
Roger whacked his brother on the back of the knee. "Stop it with the stupid Star Wars references," he said crossly.
"How come you didn't tell me you had a brother, Harold? I asked about your family when I visited you, and you didn't say anything."
Harold scratched his face, making his wrinkles morph into strange, abstract shapes. "Roger and I haven't been on speaking terms in what, forty years?"
"Give or take a few." Roger didn't seem too bothered by this. "We don't even live at the same home."
"So why are you both here now?"
"Roger recently acquired a salty new girlfriend," Harold said sourly. "And he wanted to rub it my face that he had one and I didn't. Which I did," he snapped in Roger's direction, "and I saw her first."
"He's just angry because his girl isn't as spiffy as mine is. Betty's a real corker." Roger smiled beatifically.
"I already told you, dimwit. There is no Betty. We've both been played." Harold scowled and knocked several pairs of shoes onto the floor in annoyance. "I should have known when Anna came in wearing those blood-pressure-raising shoes that she couldn't be trusted."
Meg looked at Johnny for help. "What's going on?
Johnny eased himself into a cushioned chair and stuck his keys into his pocket. "It seems that our little Anna has been seeing men all over the Detroit area," he explained. "She gives herself a pseudonym, uses her charms to convince people like Harold and Roger, here, who are childless and rather " he glanced between the brothers and cleared his throat "advanced in age that they're in love with her. Then she gets them to sign over their money to her in their will. When they die, she inherits everything."
"That explains why she wasn't interested in you. You have kids."
"And I'm not close to dying." Johnny smiled faintly at the Tooey brothers' gasps of indignation.
"We're not nearly dead," Roger spluttered.
"And I'm not giving my money to anyone." Harold glared balefully at Meg. "So don't get any ideas."
Ignoring this, Meg gazed at Johnny. "How'd you figure all this out?"
"Anna, or whoever she is, made a mistake. She started seeing two men with the same last name. Then she wore the same red heels -- and the same red wig when she saw them both. Roger decided to rub it into Harold's face that he had a hot younger woman after him, and we started to connect the dots."
"Took him four decades to find a reason to gloat enough to contact me." Harold snapped his false teeth at his brother, who managed to look completely unruffled.
"You didn't call me, did you?"
Meg's eyes strayed to the display table Harold had just cleared. Red stilettos with a shiny accent on the side. Her mind flashed back to the catalogue she'd seen Brittany flipping through a month or so ago. She'd ordered a pair that sounded just like them, and when they'd come in she'd set them right . . . there. They hadn't been sold; she knew that for a fact, so they must have gone to . . .
"That's how she's been buying all those shoe stores," Meg said in disbelief.
"Who?" Johnny leaned forward, his hands planted firmly on his knees.
"Mamie Steppe. She owns this store and about four others in the mall. She's Anna, and Betty, and Marilyn Monroe, and "
"Very clever, Meg Bailey. Very clever, indeed. I had no idea you were a junior detective."
It seemed like every hair on Meg's body stood at attention at the sound of Mamie's shrill voice. She was just outside the gate, the light from the back room glinting off her dress. It made her look like she'd been dropped in a vat of melted mirrors that flashed memories back at you -- memories you didn't necessarily want to think about.
Meg almost stumbled back into the cash register at the amount of hatred and fury rolling off of Mamie. "Why?" she asked in a desperately soft voice. "Why did you have to own all those shoe stores? Wasn't this one enough for you?"
Mamie threw the gate all the way up into the ceiling with a massive heave and stalked into the store, ignoring the group of men who swiveled their heads back and forth between the two women like they were watching a table tennis match. "Once I collected your shop I needed leverage," Mamie said in a dismissive tone. "You weren't cooperating."
Some of the fear in Meg subsided, to be replaced with indignation. "What's that supposed to mean?" she demanded, crossing her arms over her stomach as Mamie came closer. "I did everything you told me to do. Everything."
"Not true." Mamie's eyes shot daggers. "You never quit."
Meg was so mad she could hardly breathe. "Quit? This is my mother's shop. I'm not going to leave it, especially to someone like you." She paused, fighting to keep her voice sounding calm and reasonable. "You, of all people, should have realized that."
"That's going too far. You're too much alike, you Bailey women. Your mother's shop? She was just as stubborn and stupid as you are, but in the end I got what I wanted." She pointed at Meg with a long, fire-engine-red fingernail. "Unlike her."
Meg backed up slowly. Something in the pit of her stomach told her she didn't want to hear Mamie's next words. She shook her head wordlessly as she reached the hallway. "Mom had everything she wanted. She told me so herself the day she died."
"That, my sweet little imbecile, is where you're wrong. After all, she didn't want to die." Mamie's teeth glittered as she said the last word, following Meg out of the shop. "But I took care of that for her.
"Just like I'm going to take care of you." And then, as if by magic, she produced a small gun from somewhere in her dress and aimed it straight at Meg.
Meg's mind refused to acknowledge the gun for what it was, instead focusing on things that surely didn't matter at all the slither of silk against her skin, the faint scent of flowers and fruit wafting from the candle store several doors down, the way the sign over her window sparkled faintly in the dark. She caught the look of determination on Johnny's face as he made his way toward them. Was this the last thing she'd remember? she wondered, and wished stupidly that Harvard were there.
"Have you used that before?" Johnny's calm voice drifted into her ears, tugging at her to come back to reality. "I'd hate for anyone to get hurt."
"Of course I've used this before." Mamie was breathing heavily, her face a hard mask of hate. "I used it on Alice Bailey a year and a half ago."
Meg almost dropped the slipper she still clutched in her hand. After all those months of waiting for this very news, she wasn't sure if she wanted to know anymore.
"Why would you do that?"
Meg had a sudden flash of respect for Johnny Evers. How did he manage to sound so soothing while talking to a crazed woman with a gun?
"I tried to be civilized," Mamie said, and the gun lowered fractionally. "I offered to buy the shop from her, more than once, but she refused. Said it was a legacy that she'd hand down to her daughter. What she forgot was that she ruined my legacy when she put us out of business."
Suddenly Meg found her voice. "My mom didn't put you out of business," she said quietly. "What happened was between my grandmother and Bertha. How could killing Alice possibly have given you back what was never yours in the first place?"
Mamie raised the gun back into position. "It gave me her store. I knew that sap she called her husband would sell to the first person who came knocking on his door once she was out of the way. So Mama's shop may not have been mine, but this one sure is now. And I'll pass it down to Brittany when I'm too rich to care about it anymore."
A sudden movement in the shadows flickered in Meg's peripheral vision, and then Whitney stepped into the circle of light. "I don't think Brittany'll want the store," she said steadily. "She called me a little while ago from Las Vegas. She eloped with Clyde this afternoon."
For just a second Mamie's face crumpled, and Meg could see the girl who must have hated hearing about the young upstart who'd stolen her future. She felt a flash of pity for that younger Mamie, but it vanished as quickly as Mamie's expression. "She's still getting it," Mamie snapped. "When the time comes she can do with it as she wishes." She looked down her nose at her younger daughter. "As for you, all I can say is that you're marrying above yourself. Good work."
Charley materialized out of the darkness and wrapped his arm around Whitney's waist. "I think you have that backwards," he said, and clasped Whitney tighter to his side. "I wouldn't expect an invitation to the wedding if I were you."
"Just so I have this straight," Johnny cut in, glancing at the gun briefly, "you lured elderly gentlemen into giving you their inheritance so you could purchase additional shoe stores after you killed Miss Bailey's mother to acquire this one." He gestured to the shop behind him, where Harold and Roger were slowly making their way toward them. "Am I missing anything?"
"That about covers it." Mamie's eyes were wilder than Meg had ever seen, but the gun never wavered. "And now it's time to finish this once and for all."
Then, without warning, the Tooey brothers let out a loud war cry and smacked Mamie smartly on the rear with their canes. She yelped and grabbed her bottom with her free hand. "Stop that!" she shouted, her face mottling impossibly red. "Get away from me!"
And then Harvard was there. His hair was wild and his bowtie was hanging around his neck like he'd been pulling at it. He said something into his cell phone and the lights came blaring on, making everyone squint. He took one look at Harold and Roger as they managed to evade Mamie's attempts to stop them from whacking her and smiled slightly. The smile disappeared when he spotted the gun, and his eyes flickered to Meg. His face was pale and scared, but when he called to her his voice was steady.
"Throw me your shoe." Without a second thought she tossed it over Mamie's head. He caught it in one hand, narrowed his eyes, and threw it right at the hand holding the gun.
The gun was pointing straight up when the slipper connected with it, and Mamie squeezed her fingers in surprise at being hit by an unexpected assailant. When the gun went off it shot the sign over The Glass Slipper, and Meg watched as the board that no one could dislodge came crashing down on Mamie's head, sending up a cloud of dust so fine it twinkled in the bright light.
When the dust cleared, Mamie was on the ground, knocked out cold. Johnny kicked the gun away and looked at Harvard with an appreciative eye. "You have a good arm, son."
"Little League," was all Harvard had time to say in response before he was at Meg's side. "Are you okay?" His hands ghosted down her arms and over her back.
Without warning Harvard leaned over and picked her up, earning a sarcastic snort from Charley. He carried her a way down the hall before setting her on a bench. "I thought I was going to have a heart attack when I saw Mamie with that gun," he said, his voice shaking slightly, and he buried his face on her shoulder.
Meg's legs were beginning to feel like they weren't made of rubber anymore, and she slid her fingers through his hair to sooth him. "You and me both. Thanks for coming to the rescue. But that was a really stupid thing to do," she added, tugging on his hair a little. "What would you have done if that thing had been aimed at someone when she pulled the trigger?"
He placed a finger on her lips and sighed. "It was stupid, I know. But I couldn't just stand there and watch someone try to kill you." He stopped talking to swallow. "I "
"This is not the right time to be saying things like this," he muttered under his breath.
"Just spit it out, Harvard. I'm tired, my shop's a mess, and your mom wants me to "
"I love you."
Meg's mouth dropped into a small 'o' and she blinked at him.
"I love you, Meg Bailey, and I'm sticking around for a long time so you might as well get used to the idea. As for my mother's suggestion . . . I wouldn't be opposed to that when the time's right."
When asked later on why she'd burst into tears Meg would say it was because it had been a very, very long night, and Harvard's proclamation was almost too much to bear. But when his arms were around her and she was folded into his embrace, she whispered brokenly into his ear,
"I love you, too."
Three minutes later Meg was still kissing Harvard when she heard the roar of Charley's voice. It probably carried all the way to the food court.
"You hit my car? With a minivan?"
It took several weeks for the excited chatter to die down in the mall. Fortunately for Meg, she was too busy mopping up the mess Mamie had left behind to notice.
Damage from the ball itself was the easiest to clean up, Meg thought as she packed another box full of shoes that the Steppes had ordered. Her keys and cell phone had somehow made their way into the backseat of Mamie's car, although Mamie claimed to have no knowledge of how that had happened. Thanks to Harvard and his mighty skills of hiring a cleaning crew, her apartment had quickly been restored to its previous glory. Someone even found the slipper Mamie had wrenched from her foot in the atrium and returned it with much reverence.
And Arthur came home.
He returned the afternoon after the ball, so worried that he walked through the store he'd sold a year and a half before without even a twitch. After he reassured himself that his only child was, in fact, perfectly fine, she reminded him of this. He paused for a moment, deep in thought, before simply folding her in his arms and telling her that he was sorry for everything that had happened. And that he was home to stay.
Provided, of course, that Harvard didn't mind a roommate for a while.
Meg smiled to herself as she tried to close the lid. She'd come to learn that people deal with grief in very personal ways, and could admit now that Arthur had needed to get away for a while. It was good to have him back, though.
She glanced up from her seat on the floor and watched as her father walked into the shop. "How was your lunch with Mr. Grimm?"
Arthur tossed a folder on an empty table and looked around. "We talked more about Charley's upcoming wedding than anything else," he noted absently.
"Can you blame him? I'm sure that's all he hears about at home now that Charley's set up Wedding Central in his living room."
Arthur grunted. "You'd think he'd want a change of subject." He paced around the room, inspecting the walls and ceiling like he was taking internal notes. "Not to be rude, Meg, but this place looks awful. I hope the new owner takes better care of it."
Meg knew she shouldn't take such pleasure at Mamie's downfall, but the fact that the woman had to sell the shop to pay for her lawyer's fees made her inordinately happy. "That shouldn't be too hard."
"What are you going to do with all those shoes?" Arthur eyed the stack of boxes sitting in the corner of the shop.
"If the new people don't want them any more I'm giving them to the women's shelter."
"That's very thoughtful of you. Oh, good. Here's Harvard."
Meg sat back on her heels and watched as Harvard slowly made his way through the hallway. A small group of people congratulated him on his move to Michigan, and he laughed and nodded before yelling something into Charley's shop. A few seconds later he was at her side, pulling her to her feet.
"Hey," he said, grinning. "Having a good day?"
Meg glanced around the shop. All of the mirrors Brittany had made her install had been taken down, and the strains of a crooning Harry Connick Jr. weaved through the air. If you ignored the boxes, she thought, and the neon walls, no one would ever know Mamie had set foot in this place. "Great," she told him, and leaned up to kiss him on the chin. "Absolutely wonderful."
Harvard was about to kiss her properly when Arthur cleared his throat. "I like you, Mr. Kingston, but I'd like you a little farther from my daughter."
The living arrangements in the downstairs apartment were friendly, Meg thought, but her father evidently had his limits. Which was why Harvard spent most of his free time upstairs with Meg.
"Come on, Mr. Bailey," Charley's amused voice chided from the doorway. "Give the guy a break. It's not like another girl as fine as Meg will ever give him the time of day again."
Harvard ignored him. "Is that it, sir?" He nodded toward the folder.
"It is. Meg, I have something for you." Arthur handed her a key, which Meg looked at quizzically.
"The key to your store."
"I already have one."
Harvard glanced over at her father before grasping the hand that held the key. "You know that Mamie has to sell, right?" When Meg nodded dumbly he squeezed her fist. "Your dad bought it. For you."
Arthur stood on her other side and kissed her on the forehead. "I used the money Mamie paid for it originally. The deed's in your name. You can do whatever you want with it."
Meg stared at him blankly for a long time. When Charley caught her eye he gestured to the wall behind her. "Let's take that out," he said briskly, "and go into business together."
Meg burst into tears and was immediately surrounded by six male arms. "Now, Meggie," Charley said from somewhere over her head. "There's no reason to cry. I know it might be a little awkward at first, working with a man who owns his own mall, but don't let it bother you. You can keep calling me Charley if you want. I won't insist on Master Grimm."
"How's your car coming along?" Meg asked as she walked into Charley's shop late the next evening. "I see you're still driving that rental."
Charley scowled and nearly poked a hole in his counter with a pair of scissors. "That guy's license should be revoked," he muttered.
"Already taken care of."
Charley glowered at her. "Then they should revoke it again. How hard is it to miss a car like Tang? It positively screams don't touch."
"It screams something, all right." Harvard walked in and rested against a fitting room door, pulling Meg back so she leaned on him. "It's trying to tell everyone, I'm orange. Put me out of my misery."
The look Charley shot him was withering. "Tang will be back on the road in a few days," he told Meg. "And when she is I'm going over to that assisted living center and giving that old guy a piece of my mind."
"I'll come with you. I haven't talked to Johnny or the Tooey brothers in a week or so."
"That's going to be quite the outing," Harvard said, his chin resting comfortably on her head. "Don't Harold and Roger live on opposite sides of the city?"
"Not anymore. They had such a good time whacking Mamie with their canes that Roger decided to move next door to Harold so they can savor their victory together." She made a face. "I'm not sure that I envy their neighbors."
Charley turned around casually to study a gown that was set aside for alteration. "Speaking of neighbors, have you given any more thought to my proposal?"
"Why would I be thinking of that? Haven 't you already started to plan the wedding?"
"Not that proposal, genius. I may have allowed you to be Whitney's maid of honor - "
"Allowed? I don't recall her giving you a choice."
"Even though I wanted you for my best man - "
"It helps to be a man to do that, Grimm, which is why you asked me." Harvard tightened his arms around Meg momentarily and grumbled, "Not that I care about that kind of stuff."
"Please try to concentrate on the matter at hand. Get away from Kingston, Meg. He's addling your brain." Charley rapped on the wall that separated his shop from Meg's. "I think we should tear down this wall and go into business together."
Meg pulled away from Harvard and walked slowly over to Charley's side. She'd been thinking about this very thing ever since he'd mentioned it the day before. "Tear down the wall, eh? Do you think the new mall manager would approve? I hear he's pretty hard to work with."
Charley smirked at her. "Something tells me that if anyone could convince him it'd be you. What d'you think? It'd be a match made in heaven."
Meg thought briefly about her mother and shook her head, smiling at Charley. Alice would have loved the idea just as much as she did. "We'd be a perfect pair."
Charley was grinning wildly. "That's a good name, don't you think? 'The Perfect Pair'."
"It is, partner."
The next second Charley was hugging her so tightly she could have sworn she felt her spine hit her ribcage. "I've been dreaming about this for a long time, you know," he said. "The two of us'll be unstoppable."
Meg caught Harvard's eye over Charley's shoulder and laughed. "You mean the four of us."
"Do we really have to include Tall, Dark and Handsome in this equation?"
"I'm afraid we do, Mr. Grimm. After all, he's contributed to this just as much as the rest of us."
"Fine," Charley grunted good-naturedly, and released Meg just as Harvard reached for her. "But only because he's grown on me."
"I wonder if I should close the shop until we're finished with the wall," Meg mused as she dusted for the third time that morning. "No one can see any shoes with all this sawdust."
Whitney looked up from her bridal magazine. "Will you stop that? No one but you thinks those shelves need to be dusted. And anyway, business has been better this past month than I've ever seen. I think people are excited for the change." She glanced over at the ever-expanding hole in the wall. "I still can't believe this is all happening."
"And I can't believe you and Charley are getting married in a month and a half. Are you sure you can pull it off by the middle of October?"
Whitney shrugged and then grinned. "Frankly, I don't care when we get married. It's Charley who insisted that we use the fall leaves as a backdrop. The only thing I'm worried about is rain."
Meg was about to agree when a shrill voice sounded over the hammering. "Isn't anyone going to welcome me back?"
Brittany stood at the entrance to the store, looking around critically. Her new fake tan made her hair look almost white. "This looks awful. Who authorized all of this?"
Meg and Whitney shared a smile. "I did," Meg told her, "since I own the shop now."
Brittany stared at her, hard. "Oh, that's right. Some lawyer guy told me something like that, but I forgot." She waved a hand dismissively, like the state of the store she and her mother had owned had never been a major concern to her. Which it probably hadn't.
"What're you doing back?" Whitney stood slowly from behind the counter and came toward her sister. "Last I heard you were in Las Vegas with your new husband. Of course, that was a couple months ago . . . "
The shrewd look on Brittany's face immediately morphed into something Meg could only describe as love-sick. "Oh, Clydie is amazing. He knows such fascinating things about everything. We've been back for simply ages. Clyde has a very important job, you know. I'm only here because I heard my little sister is getting married, and I want to help out."
Meg had a feeling that the 'helping out' was really an excuse to plan the wedding Brittany hadn't had. "Actually, I could really use your help," Whitney said smoothly. "Can I put you in charge of the spa day? I don't really want a bridal shower so Meg and I were going to hang out and relax the day before the wedding."
"Spa day?" Meg mouthed in Whitney's direction. Whitney just smiled serenely and focused on her sister.
"Oh, I love going to the spa." Brittany got a strange glow in her eyes. "I might have to try out a few so I know what to recommend." She beamed at Whitney and then strutted out the door, her cell phone at her ear before she'd crossed the threshold. "Clyde, honey? Speak to me."
"What was that about?" Meg threw her duster to the side and placed her hands on her hips. "Since when are we doing a spa day? You hate pedicures."
Whitney shrugged and went back to her magazine. "It seems like a very small price to pay to keep Brittany out of my hair for the next month or so. And she'll have a blast, so don't look at me like that. Hey, Mr. Grimm. What's up?"
Charley's father laid a large hand on Meg's shoulder. "Official business, I'm afraid." His eyes twinkled as he looked at Meg. "You're lovely this morning, my dear, as usual. I'm glad to see my son hasn't beaten you to death with one of his wedding magazines."
Meg laughed and hugged Jacob Grimm. "He's tried. What's up? Did the sale not go through?"
"Oh, it went through, all right. Several weeks ago. I was wondering, Miss Bailey, if you could sell me a pair of shoes for a wedding." He laughed as Meg scrunched her face at him. "Black tie, of course."
A bellow echoed from the other side of the wall and Whitney slipped from her perch on the stool. "Excuse me," she said, and rolled her eyes as she ducked through the hole.
"How're things going with the shop?" Jacob watched as Meg filled out an order form. "Keeping busy?"
She nodded absently as she wrote. "Yeah, much better. The men's line has really taken off." She chewed on the end of her pan as she studied his feet. "Those last few months with Mamie were kind of bad, money-wise. I still don't know how we got so desperate."
"Did Mamie ever talk to you about the shop's finances?"
"No, and the one time I brought it up she acted strange and told me I wasn't supposed to think about stuff like that. Secretly, I think she was using the money to seduce all those poor old men."
Jacob Grimm let out a bark of laughter. "You're not far off the mark. She was starting to get antsy for another store, so she took money from the shop's accounts and bought a boatload of stuff like wigs and makeup." He paused, a distasteful expression on his face. "And Viagra, which I hope she never used."
The two of them shuddered. "I don't think she did," Meg said finally, praying that that mental image would somehow erase itself from her brain. "Unless there's another gentleman we don't know about."
"No, the Tooey brothers were her latest conquests. Thank goodness they were spared." They shuddered again, and Meg made a mental note to visit Harold and Roger that weekend.
"Thanks for letting me know," Meg told him as she finished her order. "I'll call you when your shoes come in."
"Thank you. And if you can get my son to stop obsessing about that car of his, I'll be grateful to you for life. Ever since it came back from the shop he's gone a little crazy."
"Yeah, he insists on parking it all the way at the other end of the parking lot and making me drive him the rest of the way."
Jacob patted her on the back. "Whitney's going to be a good influence on him. I hope."
Meg waved at his retreating back. Between wedding planning meetings and crazy car talk, she somehow felt like she was the one that was losing it.
On a cool, clear September afternoon Harvard and Charley stood across the street from the mall. Harvard watched as several rather burly men struggled to hang the new sign on the side of the mall. A small crowd had gathered on the sidewalk near the workers, and they stared up raptly. Charley, however, seemed more interested in his car than in his name strung in lights for the whole town to see.
"I thought this was supposed to be a big deal for you," Harvard said with some asperity. "Weren't you the one that was all, 'My father really wants our family name on something important', or am I remembering that conversation incorrectly?"
Charley grunted from his position under the hood of his car. "Yeah, I might have been a little wrong about that." At Harvard's incredulous look Charley shrugged and polished something metal that Harvard couldn't identify. "I talked to my dad about that and it turns out he doesn't care what kind of shop I run as long as I'm gainfully employed and not wanting to move back home. Oh, and that I'm happy. He might have mentioned that part, too."
"So this whole thing here - " Harvard gestured at the scene in front of them - "is a waste of time?"
"Oh, never a waste of time." Charley straightened up and peered over the top of his orange car. "After all, the Grimm Brothers Mall has a nice ring to it. I quite like it, in fact."
Harvard shook his head in disgust. "I still don't see why we couldn't have just named it the Grimm Mall." Contemplating the building critically, he stuffed his hands in his pockets. "It looks like I'm running a fairy tale instead of an upscale shopping center."
"Upscale shopping center? You're sounding awfully hoity-toity. I think my new mall manager is letting his position go to his head." The hood of the car went down with a thunk and Charley wiped his hands on a towel he'd slung over his shoulder. "Next thing you know you'll think you can tell me what to do."
"Your mall, huh? I'll start forwarding the electric bill to your address then."
A gaggle of girls across the street stopped in their tracks and stared at the two men. They whispered to each other and then burst out into a fit of giggling. "Your admirers are out in force today," Charley said wryly.
"They could have been gawking at you."
"I'm taken, Kingston. In a few weeks I'll have the ring to prove it. You, on the other hand . . . "
Harvard was silent as the sign was fastened and the workers returned, with much applause, safely to the ground. "Well?" Charley prompted, nudging Harvard's foot. "Don't you have anything to say for yourself?"
"This was a lot easier with Meg's father," Harvard muttered to himself.
"What was that, Kingston? Have you gotten in touch with your inner Emily Post and asked Meg's father for permission to ask her to marry you?"
"I will neither confirm nor deny that statement. Do you remember our discussion outside the girls' house, back before we took them to The Whitney?"
"You mean about joining forces?"
"Yeah. Did you see yourself getting married to Whitney back then?"
Charley rubbed at a nonexistent spot on Tang's side panel. "No . . . but it didn't take long for me to realize that she made me happier than anything else ever has. Why? Did you see yourself marrying Meg?"
"I did the day I made her dinner."
Charley looked at him shrewdly. "That long, huh?"
"Yep. That long. I'm going to ask her to marry me at your reception. Do you approve?"
The spot on Tang suddenly seemed very, very interesting to Charley. "Are you asking for my blessing?"
"No. I'm asking Meg's best friend in the world if he approves of her future husband. There's a big difference, Grimm."
"Not from where I stand." Charley finally looked up and met Harvard's gaze. "Have you spoken to Arthur?"
"Yes. He was remarkably calm about the whole affair. Then again, he was probably expecting it."
The two men slowly made their way back to the mall. "Well?" Harvard said when they were halfway across the street. "Aren't you going to say anything else?"
Charley's grin was wicked. "No, I don't think so. It's too much fun seeing you sweat."
Harvard muttered something rude under his breath.
"Oh, calm down, Lover Boy. If you can promise me you'll make Meg happy for the rest of her life you can have my approval."
"Then we can consider this conversation closed." Charley paused at the door to his shop. "Oh, Kingston?"
"Be sure to wait to pop the question until after Whitney throws her bouquet at Meg." He smirked. "It'll help me feel like a harbinger of fate."
Charley turned around and opened his door to be greeted with cheers. "Remember," he told Harvard over his shoulder. "After the flowers."
Then he went inside to the party Meg had planned to celebrate his new and, evidently, unnecessary namesake.
"Has anyone even heard of Eaton Ridge, Michigan?"
Harvard was in a mood. Meg reached over and covered the fist he'd made on the gearshift, squeezing lightly. "Why are you so upset?" she asked. "The English Inn is a lovely place to get married. Better yet, there's not a cloud in the sky so we don't have to worry about getting drenched."
He grumbled something about flowers and Meg tilted her head. "Did you whack your head on the doorframe again?"
"No. My head's just fine."
The bouncing of his knee made Meg frown. "The only thing you really have to do today, as far as best man duties go, is make sure you don't lose the ring. It's not like Charley's going to need a pep talk to get to the altar."
If anything, this comment made Harvard go even paler than he already was. When they pulled into the parking lot of the bed and breakfast Meg tugged his head down for a kiss. "Everything will be fine," she assured him. "Trust me."
Harvard swallowed once, hard, and then his shoulders relaxed slightly. "You're right. I love you."
"And I love you. Now get inside and make sure Charley isn't terrorizing the staff."
Meg watched him enter the inn and frowned again. She hadn't pegged Harvard as a man who was intimidated by a wedding.
She didn't have a spare second over the next few hours to worry about him, though. When she and Whitney were finally left alone they both breathed a sigh of relief. "You look beautiful," Meg told her. "I'm glad we managed to order your dress without Charley's help. Even if he did threaten to wait for the deliveryman all night so he could get a look at it."
Whitney flushed prettily and looked at herself in the mirror. "I feel like a princess."
Meg stood behind her and rearranged her veil. "Today you are one. You know I view Charley as a brother, don't you?"
"Yes," Whitney said slowly.
"That means that in less than half an hour you'll be my sister. Oh! You'll crush your dress!" She laughed as Whitney threw her arms around her and hugged tight.
"I don't care about the dress." Whitney leaned back and blinked rapidly. "I love Brittany because she's my sister, but you're much easier to deal with. Thanks again for being such a good sport yesterday. I know the spa scene isn't really your thing."
Meg wiggled her pink toenails. "It wasn't as bad as I thought. Come on, sis. It's time."
The second Meg walked into the late afternoon sunshine her eyes locked with Harvard's. He was standing next to Charley, the sun glinting off his dark hair and the vivid autumn colors a backdrop to his black tuxedo. He watched as she made her way slowly to the pergola, his gaze intense. In the back of her mind, the part that was still functioning enough to make her place one foot in front of the other, Meg noticed that he looked even better than he had at the ball.
Harvard's gaze stayed on her throughout the ceremony, even when he handed Charley the rings. Charley glanced at Harvard, then at Meg, and smiled a secretive smile that Meg was too distracted to notice. In fact, her brain remained fuzzy until she and Harvard were arm-in-arm, following their newly-married friends down the aisle toward the reception hall.
"You look positively enchanting, Miss Bailey," Harvard said in a low voice, and Meg let herself lean into him for a second.
"And you, Mr. Kingston, could pass for a very believable Prince Charming."
Harvard's sudden grin made her do the same. "That's one that Charley never got. 'Tall, Dark, and Charming.' I should probably mention that in my speech."
"No, don't." Meg tugged on his arm so he'd stop walking, and there, in front of all the wedding guests, kissed him. "I think I'll keep that one for myself."
Harvard had a foolish smile on his face all through the reception.
Meg kicked off her shoes and sank into a chair. The party had been lively, thanks to Charley's exuberant state. "Congratulations on catching the bouquet," Whitney said, leaning over her friend. "I thought Brittany was going to fight you for it."
"I don't know why she was even trying." Meg frowned. "Does she want to get married again?"
Shrugging, Whitney picked up the flowers Meg had carried for the ceremony. "I like yours better," she said. "They're not as heavy. Oh, Harvard's looking for you. I think he's outside, down by the pergola. You should go find him."
"Okay," Meg said slowly. "Are you trying to get rid of me?"
"Would I do that?"
Meg looked at her friend and smiled. She was flushed from dancing, her eyes were sparkling, and she looked happier than Meg had ever seen her. She leaned over and kissed Whitney on the cheek. "Take good care of my boy," she whispered. "And make sure he does the same for you."
Whitney hugged her tight. "Go find Harvard," she said, and handed the bouquet to her friend.
The grass was cool under Meg's bare feet as she wandered down the path toward the river. In the distance she could see Harvard, leaning against a pillar and watching the moon rise. He didn't say anything as she stepped up beside him.
"Hey," she said quietly. "You look awfully serious. Are you all right?"
He nodded before pushing himself upright. He grasped her hand in his. "This is a very beautiful place to get married," he said, just loud enough for Meg to hear him over the rush of the river. "It seems idyllic, like if you wished on a star your dreams would come true."
"It does." Meg leaned her head against his shoulder. "What would you wish for, if you were to make one?"
Harvard let out a long, slow breath, and pulled his hand from Meg's. He put it in his pocket before looking into her upturned face. "I'd wish that you'd agree to marry me."
Meg blinked at him a few times and dropped her flowers. "Really?"
She blinked a few more times to make sure she hadn't drifted off into an alternate universe by mistake. "Are you asking . . . "
The next thing she knew he was down on one knee, a ring between his fingers. "Meg Bailey, will you marry me?"
Too emotional to speak, she nodded and bent over, kissing him. "Is that a yes?" he asked against her lips. "I'd kind of like to hear you say it to avoid confusion."
Laughing shakily, Meg pulled far enough back to look him in the eye. "Yes. Yes, I'll marry you, Harvard Dartmouth Kingston."
The kiss Harvard planted on her was long and full of promise. "That's convenient," he gasped when he finally pulled away, "as we both need new roommates."
And that was how she found herself standing in front of The Perfect Pair with both Charley and her father two months later wearing the most beautiful wedding gown she had ever seen.
As well as The Slippers.
The mall was decorated to the hilt, tiny fairy lights twinkling from every available space, thanks to Jillian's insistence that she be allowed to take care of all the 'mall business', as she'd put it. "Thanks for letting us walk you down the aisle, Meggie," Charley whispered as they waited for their cue. "Even if it's a little unorthodox to have two fathers-of-the-bride, it feels just . . . perfect."
Meg looked around her and smiled. The new sign hanging over The Perfect Pair swung gently, as though a breeze had made its way through the mall, and she raised a hand to welcome it.
The slippers her mother, and her mother before that, had bequeathed to her flexed with every step she took. She smiled to herself, and almost looked inside the store for Alice.
Instead, she looked forward to meet Harvard's steady gaze, and her smile grew. "Perfect," she said, echoing Charley. "Absolutely perfect."
© 2009, 2010, 2011 Copyright held by the author.