Julie got up early the next morning, woke Katie only enough to get the new security code, and went to the office to open up. Bethany was pleased to see her. “I didn’t think it would help to mention the fish to her, but I guess it did. He’s definitely not coming back?”
“Not to work. He may pick up his things. Why don’t I gather them together, so he doesn’t have to stay? I’ll be in that office.” Julie found a box and then put all Thomas’s personal things into it. She turned on the computer and found several subdirectories that looked personal. And he had accused her of stealing. But Julie copied the information to diskettes and threw them in the box. Then she erased the directories.
Julie glanced through his work. He had a full load of clients who would need attention. She began sorting them to redistribute. She’d have to do most of them, but she’d see if anyone else was available. Darlene was always looking for more hours. Julie went to find her. “Bethany? Where’s Darlene?”
“She was fired.”
“Fired? For what?”
Beth shook her head and studied the desk. “Julie, things are so crazy here. No one knows what to expect.”
Julie placed Thomas’s box on the floor by Bethany’s desk. “Well, that will change, starting now. Has anyone else been fired?”
“Not yet. There are rumors that Mike Rhodes might be.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, let me know if there’s anything else I missed. Mom’s going to be on vacation for a few days.”
Julie took the client folders to her desk. Then she went to the personnel file in her mother’s office. As usual she had forgotten to lock the cabinet. Thomas probably loved that carelessness. Julie guessed he was in there quite a bit. She studied the files. No clear reason was given for Darlene’s dismissal. Nothing was in Mike’s file either. He was a part time bookkeeper, but he had requested full time. Julie noted that he had recently passed his CPA exam, so he was capable of more than they had him doing.
She called Mike into her office. “Hi, Mike. How’s it going?”
Mike sat in the chair. He seemed a little nervous. “I’m good.”
“Are you still interested in full-time?”
His expression changed. “Yeah. Sure am.”
“It’s not official, but right now I’ve got a lot of files that need work. We fired Thomas, so I need someone to take at least part of the work load.” She handed him a stack of folders. “Let me know when you run into problems. I know some of this is new.”
“How many hours?”
“Until the work is done.” His file said he was single and just out of college, so she wasn’t too worried about his family life. “When Mom gets back we’ll talk about salary, okay?”
“Great. Thanks.” Mike stood, and then hesitated. “You can do this?”
Julie laughed. “Yeah, Mike. Mom just told me yesterday I owned half the company. Don’t worry.”
Mike smiled. “Good. You never know what to believe anymore.”
“That is changing. Believe me, that will change.” After Mike went back to work, Julie called Darlene. “Hi, Darlene.”
“Julie? Are you okay? How are you doing?”
“I’m doing good. I hope you haven’t found a new job yet, because I need you.”
“Oh, Julie, I don’t know what I’m doing. Bryan needs medicine, and the insurance is going to lapse and . . . .” She started crying.
“Whoa, it’s all right,” Julie said softly. “I’ll make sure the insurance doesn’t lapse, and I’ll give you salary for the week you were off. It wasn’t your fault. I know it. I just need you to come back. We’ve fired Thomas. Everything is going to be okay.”
“Are you serious?”
“Very serious. How soon can you be in?” With Darlene’s promise to be in within an hour, Julie turned her attention first to the insurance problem, then to the missing salary, and then on to all the work that they were behind in.
Bethany came to her door. “Ken called while you were on the phone. Something about lunch?”
“Oh, no. It’s after one. Here, give this to Darlene when she gets in. Tell her to resume everything she had before, and make a list of the files she can’t find. It looks like everything is mixed up.”
Julie called the pet shop. “Wet ‘n Wooley,” Ken answered.
“Julie. I guess I misunderstood you yesterday. I thought….”
“No. I’m so sorry. Mom and Thomas got into a fight, and she fired him and moved back home, and she’s not coming in, and this place is a wreck, and oh, it’ll be good to be with you and relax for an hour or so.”
“So you’re running the place?”
“Only out of necessity. You wouldn’t believe how bad things got while I was away.”
“Maybe you don’t have time.”
“Ken… what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I’m just busy. Linda’s at lunch. I’ll see you whenever you’re free.” He hung up.
“Ken!” Oh, this was perfect. What was bothering him anyway? It irritated her that he chose now to stop being supportive. Julie grabbed her purse. “I will be back, Beth. Hold anything important for me.”
Ken couldn’t shake the feeling that Julie was getting ready to dump him. Her garbled explanation on the phone just made it worse. Thomas was gone, she had her own business, and even her mother didn’t seem to be stopping her. Why would she want to be here with him? How could she be? And since she didn’t need him, she wouldn’t stay with him. Just like Lynn she would move on. Other things would begin to occupy her time until one day she found she enjoyed the company of someone else more.
Even he could see that this little makeshift office was a far cry from the bright, plush carpeted office with the oak desks and file cabinets. He looked at the office again, but he could come up with no way to make it better for her. He just wasn’t good at decorating. Even the utilitarian displays at the store he usually passed off to a subordinate who had more talent in that area. The missed lunch was just the beginning.
Linda had returned so Ken allowed himself to sit in Julie’s chair. He placed his elbows on the desk, and his head in his hands. His headaches had dimmed and sometimes were completely gone, but right now he had a bad one. He tried to stay as still as possible, hoping it would subside. He hadn’t brought his medicine.
“Sweetheart,” Julie said softly. Her hand rested on his shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“Maybe you should lie down.”
“On the floor by the counter perhaps?”
“No. At home or on the couch here.”
Ken raised his head to look at her. “I’m sorry.”
“I know. My dad used to get bad headaches.”
“This is from the bettas. I never got them before. Look, I should… should….”
“Go home. Linda can do fine here.”
“She gets off at five.”
“That gives you a couple hours. And if you still don’t feel well, I’ll come back. I don’t know much, but I can do as well as a part-timer, I bet. Just as long as no one wants to buy that tarantula. They’ll have to come back for that.”
Ken smiled weakly. “You don’t have time for that. I thought things were in shambles.”
“Ken, I love you. I’ll manage somehow. And… and you’re probably just the person I need to help me. When your head is better, of course. Yes. That is a relief.”
“You rest, and we’ll talk business later. Do you need me to drive you home?”
“I’m fine.” Ken stood too abruptly, and pain shot through his head. He had to close his eyes.
“Come,” Julie said softly. “Let’s go home. I can bring Evan back for your car.”
Ken decided to give in. Fighting about it would just make the pain worse. He sat beside her in the car. “I’ll miss you.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Your firm needs you.”
The car stopped, and Ken opened his eyes a slit. He was home. Julie led him into the house and to his room. He kicked off his shoes and lay down.
“Does he have medicine for his head?” she asked softly.
“In the bathroom,” Evan replied.
A minute later he was forced to take a pill with some juice. Then he slept.
When he awoke, his head seemed better, but he wouldn’t know until he moved. The clock said six-thirty. He should have been at the store. Hopefully Julie did rearrange things like she said. Ken finally tested his head by sitting up. So far so good. He got up and went to the bathroom. When he came back into the kitchen, Julie was there.
“I thought… the store.”
“Evan is there. Linda gave him a crash course in running the register and procedures. I took him as soon as you went to sleep, so he’s had a few hours to watch.”
“By himself? But I thought you….”
“I wanted to be with you.”
“But didn’t you go back to the accounting office?”
“No. I called in. I solved a few problems over the phone, but it’ll all be there tomorrow.”
“But that’s no way to run a business.” Ken sunk into the kitchen chair. He tried to stay calm because he felt the headache still lurking behind the medicine waiting to attack him again.
“Ken, you are more important to me than that business.”
“But your father….” He was the one who had wanted her to run the business. Wasn’t his opinion the one she wanted most? Wasn’t that why she wanted Paul Israel’s opinion?
“Is dead. I’m not going to spend my life on a business that doesn’t mean anything. I’m still going to rearrange everything like I said, so I can work at home or at the pet store. Maybe I’ll even make it so a few other people can, like Darlene.”
“But Julie that doesn’t just happen. Someone has to manage it.”
“I know. I need you to help me find someone. Neither mom nor I want to have to worry about the day to day stuff. But, we’re talking business, and you haven’t told me how your head is.”
“Yeah, that’s what you said earlier.”
“I’m serious. You’re going to hire a manager?”
“Yeah, I’m sure the budget will handle it. We’ve been making a decent profit for a while. Although that might not continue if we don’t get organized. Now what did you want to talk about yesterday?”
“Family or something?”
“Oh. You have to take care of your grandmother, and I promised Evan he’d always have a place with me.”
“Mom is living with Grandma. They want us to be happy. If you want Evan with us, there’s four bedrooms and a study in that house. Evan can have a room.”
Ken shook his head, which was a mistake. He waited until his head cleared a little. “Wait. Things have been changing so rapidly. I kept thinking you’ll move here, but now you say we’ll move there. Evan can stay here.”
“Can he afford the rent?”
“I only need another fifty to make mortgage and taxes. It’ll work. Except a car. But we’ll get one before we’re married.” Ken looked at Julie. “I love you so much. Please don’t leave.” He hadn’t meant to say that.
“Is your head acting up again? Maybe you should come to our house. I can’t stay here alone with you all night. It wouldn’t be right.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You asked me not to leave.”
“I didn’t mean… forget it.” Ken stood. “I’ve got to get back to bed.”
“You’re not fine.”
“No, I’m not. Go home and let me sleep.” Ken started for his room.
Julie caught his arm as he reached the door. When he turned, she reached up to kiss him. “I’ll let you sleep. Call if you need me.”
“Yeah, sure.” Ken went back to bed.
Wednesday morning the headache had subsided, and Ken was able to go back to work. Julie called at noon, and they had lunch at one. They only talked about business though. Ken gave her instructions about where to look for a management person, and he promised to help her interview them. He didn’t see her the rest of the day.
Julie came to the store at six, but Ken was busy, and she left after checking her fish. He was mad at himself afterward. He could have made the time. He was just jealous again. If she left it would be his own fault.
Ken wasn’t going to hire anyone to replace Sue and Mike, but Evan was helping out quite a bit so he made a payroll card for him. Vacations would be coming up with summer, and several had already requested certain days off. He didn’t take the time to consult Julie, and he wasn’t promising him any set amount of hours.
Thursday Ken drove to the church for their one o’clock appointment. He was sure Julie would forget. He hadn’t called her and then wondered why he hadn’t. If she forgot this, it must not be important. But… she just lost track of time. It didn’t mean she doesn’t care, did it?
Ken sat in the church office. At one Nat came out for him. “Julie’s not here yet.”
“I’m not in a hurry. How’ve you been?”
“Oh, yes. Your store. Wasn’t she with you?”
“No. She has her own business. She doesn’t have time for mine.”
“Oh? Problems already?”
“Huh? No. Everything’s going pretty well. I lost a couple people, but that’s working out for the best.”
“I meant with you and Julie.”
Julie came rushing in. “There you are. I thought I was supposed to meet you at the store, and we’d come together.” She sounded hurt, but that couldn’t be.
“You’ve barely been there? Why would we meet there?”
Paul Israel joined them. “So is this the happy couple, or are we having second thoughts.”
“I’m not,” Ken said. Okay, now was her chance to speak up.
“Neither am I.” Julie glanced around at the men, but she wasn’t happy.
Paul invited her to sit down, and they all sat. “Something is wrong,” Paul said softly.
“I don’t know,” Julie said. Her lips trembled.
She wasn’t going to cry, was she? Ken moved to sit beside her on the couch. “Is something wrong at work? Did Thomas come back? Is everyone all right?” He put his arm around her.
Julie turned to look at him, but didn’t speak. She glanced at Paul. “Nothing’s wrong,” she mumbled. “We need to set a date.”
Paul and Nat exchanged a look, and Ken knew they didn’t believe her either. Ken rubbed her shoulders. “It’ll be all right,” he whispered.
“Okay,” Nat said, opening his planner. “What month do you want the wedding in?”
“As soon as possible,” Julie said.
“Are you sure you have time?” Ken asked.
“I thought that’s what we agreed to.”
“Yeah, but now that you have the accounting firm, you probably have too much work to plan a wedding.”
“I’ll hire someone.”
“Still it takes time.”
“What did you want? A royal ball?”
“I don’t care how we get married. We don’t even need fancy clothes and an audience. That’s up to you.”
“Well, then stop harping on time, will you?” Julie practically shouted.
Ken stared at her. She’d never been this upset with him.
“Do you two do this often?” Nat asked. “Perhaps we should reschedule when you both know what you want.”
“We did. I thought we did,” Julie rubbed her eyes.
“What’s wrong,” Ken asked. “What happened?”
“Ken,” Paul said. “If I’m not mistaken, you have a problem with time. You’re upset with Julie about her apparent lack of time for you.”
“I’m not upset with her.”
“Yes you are. You’ve been like this ever since Tuesday when I accidentally worked over our lunch date. I’m sorry. How many times do I have to apologize?”
“That’s not it.”
“Then why are you upset?”
He wasn’t upset. “Julie, just admit it. You don’t want to get married.”
Julie looked at Ken intently. Then she glanced at Paul. “Pastor Nat,” Julie said evenly. “I am madly in love with this man. I want to marry him, even though he seems to have a big jealousy problem right now. He has agreed that we will come to you and Paul for counseling when we need it.”
Paul grinned slightly, but at Ken’s look his face went straight. “And exactly what is Ken jealous of?”
“Apparently that I’m not able to spend as much time at the pet store with him right now.”
“Wait a minute. You have your own business. I don’t expect you to be able to hang out with me.”
“Come to think of it, you started this Monday, right after Mom gave me the house and told me I owned half the accounting firm. Which part or all of it are you upset about? It’s not what mom said about that agreement, is it? Because I wrote that off after Thomas was out of the picture. I never wanted it in the first place.”
“No. I’m not upset about that silly agreement. I don’t want your stuff anyway.”
“Aaah,” Paul said. “I’ve got it. You earn your own way. My wife claims I’m rather pig headed when it comes to that also. Something to do with pride.”
“Pride, Paul?” Nat teased. “Not you. Try to pay for this guy’s lunch.”
Ken stood. “Look, there’s nothing wrong. She just doesn’t need me anymore. By the time any wedding comes along, she’ll realize it, and all these plans will be a waste of time.”
“Is that pride, Paul,” Nat asked. “You’re the expert here.”
“Sounds like it to me. Just a variation on a theme. Do you want to work it out, Ken, or is this too much for you?”
“Work what out? She’s the one who’s going to leave.”
“No,” Paul said in a low, firm voice. “She will not. The trappings mean nothing to her, or you wouldn’t have gotten this far.”
“Would it be better if I sold that house, Ken? Would you rather I move into your apartment? I’m sorry. I just assumed you’d want it. But we can pick out a house together, or we can build.”
“Julie, I can’t build. I have no money. None. I spent it on a pet store. I can’t even think about buying another house right now.”
“But the money from . . . What do you want me to do? Give it away? I don’t understand.”
“I don’t expect you to do anything.”
“Except leave,” Julie said evenly. She stood. “Guess what. You’re stuck. You’re going to have to back out on me. So unless you plan on doing that now, let’s sit down and plan this wedding.” Julie watched him, and Ken wasn’t sure what to say. “Or is it that you don’t like this side of me. You love me when I’m hurting, but not when I’m in control. Guess what. I’m hurting now, and it’s not because some Thomas is making my life hell, it’s because you don’t trust me.”
Ken studied her there. She was beautiful. Strong and weak. Gentle and firm. Loving and scared. Competent and uncertain. He wasn’t sure where he fit in her life, but he knew he wanted to. He lifted his hand to touch her cheek. “I love you so much. I’m sorry. I don’t care about houses or money. I just know I don’t deserve someone like you. You know where I come from.”
Julie closed the space between him and leaned against him, letting him hug her. “Beloved, I worked through that before I ever decided to become your partner. Your family and anything they did or might have done means nothing.”
“Not now, but . . . .”
“If you love me, Ken, you will stop making this gap between us, because there isn’t one.”
“No. I don’t see one,” Paul said quietly.
“You’re right. They can’t get much closer,” Nat agreed.
Ken kissed Julie. “Okay, okay. Let’s plan a wedding. And beat me with a betta jar if I forget that you love me.”
“How about kisses instead?”
“Not until after the wedding,” Paul said. “Now where’s that calendar, Nat?”
“How about June eleventh – a month from today? Too soon? Too late?”
“Perfect,” Ken and Julie said together. Ken grinned and took the opportunity to kiss her again.
Go to Epilogue
© 2013, 1997 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.