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At Last-Chapter 1

Chapter One

 

Quinn Merchant pulled the lapels of her woolen overcoat upwards in an effort to protect her ears from the biting wind that had appeared from nowhere. She glanced at the oncoming vehicles and pursed her lips. Who would have thought at one thirty in the afternoon in a so-called sleepy town like Grady there would be so much traffic. The worst were the cycles, weaving in and out like millipedes on a stampede. It was supposed to have been a normal Tuesday but today was not working out quite as she expected,

 

Claudia Rabinowitz, the office gopher, brought in coffee and donuts accompanied by her trademark toothy grin. The teenager was the most upbeat person Quinn had ever met at eight thirty in the morning. Tim Andrews would arrive and slouch into his chair at the desk opposite her, mutter for at least two minutes about the commute before taking advantage of the coffee placed before him, and then became silent, obviously savoring the caffeine fix. Sheila Sutter the co-owner arrived like clockwork two minutes behind Tim. In the three years Quinn had worked at Sutters, this had proved the case. Sometimes she swore Sheila hid behind the building and watched them arrive to maintain this schedule. All had transpired as usual until Sheila called Quinn into her office. Not unusual, but it was Tuesday and her boss normally had her chia tea and left for an all-morning meeting with her brother Arnold.

 

“Quinn, sit.”

 

Quinn raised her eyebrows a fraction. Sheila looked distracted. The older woman’s hands were held tightly together, and Quinn was sure the blood was receding from the fingers. They looked pale. Duly taking the black padded seat at the rectangular glass table, she smiled at her boss.

 

“How can I help?”

 

Sheila pierced her with a sharp glance. “How did you…oh, never mind.” She shrugged. “As you know I need to speak with Arnold today.”

 

“Yes.” Quinn nodded.

 

“Well, I have a problem. The Desrosiers have defaulted on a delivery and I need that shipment for the weekend. I can’t seem to speak to anyone who makes any sense.” Sheila wrung her hands.

 

“Desrosiers?” Quinn whistled. “Now that’s strange. They have never missed a shipment in the three years I’ve been here.” The company was secretive, almost shy if you could use that term, but their perfumes were highly desirable in New York and they had the franchise on the East Coast.

 

“Exactly, Quinn. I’ve worked with them for fifteen years and Christine Ager has never faulted in her tenure. Any other day and I would do this myself, but I need you to go to Grady and pick up the shipment.”

 

“Me?”

 

“Yes. Is that a problem? You are my second-in-command after all.” Sheila stared at her.

 

Quinn pursed her lips. It was true, technically. She had been employed as Sheila’s PA, but once she began working, it turned out she was little more than a desk-bound secretary, albeit she did deal with all the nasty problems. Apparently her nickname at the store was “Never give up Quinn.”

 

“I guess not. Exactly where is Grady?” Her geographic sense of New York’s surrounding areas still needed work.

 

Sheila pulled open her Kardex and passed her a card.

 

“Three hundred miles west. Here, take this, it’s Christine Ager’s card, the manager at Desrosiers. She said if you present this at the factory you won’t have a problem speaking to the right people. Not that I’ve ever had to use it of course.”

 

Quinn took the card and noted the gold calligraphy and embossed red roses. “It’s beautiful. I didn’t know that people still went to so much trouble.”

 

Sheila arched an eyebrow. “It feels like a million years ago now when most who had taste made the effort. When I was a young woman, it was the indicator to quality. Now with all the technology and Internet it’s not commercially viable anymore and you’ve seen how difficult it is to find a quality product. Anyway, enough of the nostalgia. I’ve booked you a flight and arranged for a car when you arrive to the nearest airport, Lasater. Grady is fifty miles away. If you need to stay the night that’s okay but don’t come back without the shipment. Now I need to go and see Arnold.”

 

Quinn stood, walked out of the office and paused outside the door, wondering what had happened.

 

“I’m going on a road trip, whoopee,” she muttered.

 

“Hey, Quinn, you never mutter. You aren’t taking lessons from Tim, are you? One mutterer in the room is enough.” Claudia grinned, then tapped on Sheila’s door with a stack of mail and entered.

 

Quinn shook her head and wondered if it really was Tuesday.

 

With a local map from the grocery store in hand and a determined step into the road, she attempted to cross to the other side to get to her vehicle and head for Desrosiers Perfumery.

 

 

Genevieve Desrosiers stared at the crumpled letter in her hand and read the contents for the umpteenth time. It still didn’t sit well. Why would it? Her company was close to bankruptcy and according to the letter from the bank so was she. She looked at the pertinent detail—a one million overdraft and the debtors hadn’t been paid. Christine, her business manager, had left two weeks previously without any notice and that really pissed her off.

 

There was a brief knock on the door; it opened, and her factory manager entered. He was a squat man with a bulbous nose and red cheeks, and he gave her a smile. At least this was one employee who was honest and reliable, someone who had started work here in the early days.

 

“Yes, Felix? I said I wasn’t to be disturbed.”

 

“I’m sorry, Ms. Desrosiers, but the guys want to know what to do. There hasn’t been anything to dispatch for some time now.” He scratched his head. “Can I ask if we are in trouble?”

 

Gene sucked in a deep breath and nodded.

 

“Yes, apparently Felix, we are in trouble and damned if I know what to do about it.” The words came out involuntarily. She never interacted with the general workforce, preferring to stay behind the scenes. Christine had told her that personal interaction would interfere with her manager’s running of the company. Yes, and look where that left me.

 

“Well that’s because you had Ager running the show, and sorry to say she was left wanting in your father’s wake.” Felix hugged his arms around his generous belly. “You need to either replace her or do it yourself. People don’t wait around for stuff for long these days and the phone has been ringing off the hook continuously in the last week.”

 

Under normal circumstances Gene would have been annoyed at his words and she wouldn’t have let them pass. “Surely our customers aren’t that fickle. I just need time.” Gene frowned as she looked at the letter that was dated a month earlier. Why didn’t Christine tell me? Why?

 

“All I know is that you are the boss. Want me to give the guys another day off with pay like yesterday?”

 

“Yes, I’m sure I will have more clarity tomorrow.”

 

He nodded and opened the door then turned back. “If I can help in any way you will let me know?”

 

“Thank you, Felix, I appreciate that. I will let you know when I figure out what it is, I need.”

 

He nodded and left the room.

 

Placing her hands over her cheeks she wondered what had gone so wrong. Christine had said the perfumes were selling well and there was so much room for expansion, then she just left. Now Gene knew why, and it had nothing to do with her first thought, that Christine’s recent approach to her on a personal level had caused her to leave. No, it was this damning letter.

 

There was another faint knock and the door opened. Swinging around to see who the interloper was, her initial angry reaction changed to a smile. “Oh, Dee, it’s you. Have the blooms opened?” This young woman was a fresh breath of air whenever she was around. Dee was her assistant in the greenhouse lab and helped Gene get through the day. Right now, she needed it.

 

“No. Gene, you can be so impatient.” Deidre Lawrence chuckled. “A woman is here who has one of Ms. Ager’s gold cards. She said she needs to speak to you urgently. Chloe is on her break and I thought you’d want to know immediately.”

 

Gene sighed. Ah yes, that gold card system that Christine had insisted would work for them. If someone called with a card, they were important and not to be ignored, and Christine was to be informed immediately. That’s what she overheard Christine saying to the staff a year ago.

 

“Okay, do we have a name?” She gazed at the impish features of the woman she’d worked with in the research lab for at least fifteen years.

 

“Sorry, yes. A Ms. Merchant from Sutters. Shall I show her in?”

 

Gene closed her eyes for a fraction of a second and then gave Dee a nod.

 

“Yes. Dee, and when the blooms have opened, no matter what I’m doing I want you to find me.”

 

Dee grinned as her tousled brown hair shook around her round face. “Okay, I suspect they are waiting for you to be there.” She chuckled as she left.

 

The happy sound that echoed in the room made Gene resolute. She must take control and fix this and make things work out. It was important to her workers and, she hoped, the customers who bought their products.

 

Dee arrived back a few minutes later and, with a smile, waved in a stranger and shut the door behind her. A tall woman who was at least six feet, with honey-blonde shoulder length hair, and sparkling hazel eyes, entered.

 

“Hi, I’m Quinn Merchant from Sutters.” A slim hand was thrust out.

 

Gene took the hand and shook it for a second.

 

“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Merchant, what can I do for you?” There was a distinct frown in her question.

 

“I’m here for the shipment you owe us for this month. It never arrived. Ms. Sutter is anxious since we have customers waiting. Point me in the direction of the dispatch area, and I’ll arrange to take it with me on the flight back. It might cost you a discount next month for this inconvenience.”

 

Gene’s left eyebrow rose. How rude. I own the damned company, at least for now. “Have you paid for the shipment?” Gene squared her shoulders for a challenge, fully expecting one.

 

For a moment the woman narrowed her eyes and appeared slightly off kilter, then rapidly recovered. “We always pay our bills on time according to the agreed terms. Are you Christine Ager’s replacement?”

 

“In a way. She quit abruptly, leaving us with a few problems, which I’m sure we will work out given time.”

 

“Time is subjective. If you don’t supply by the order date, then you lose your customers. There are a plenty of perfumes out there so don’t sit on your laurels thinking you can get away with this again.”

 

“Felix said the same thing.” Gene frowned and looked at her hands, which were still clutching the letter that sealed her own, and her company’s fate.

 

“Then Felix is smart. Tell me where to go pick up our order and I can get the next flight to New York.”

 

Gene walked to the desk Christine had used and picked up the phone, waiting a few seconds before it was answered. “Felix, Ms. Merchant is here from Sutters, do we have their shipment ready?”

 

“Sorry, one of the suppliers of that particular batch of additives hasn’t delivered in two months. I was wondering when it would be a problem.”

 

“I don’t understand. That is our premium range we should always have that in stock.” Gene growled then raked her fingers through her hair, totally forgetting she had company.

 

“Maybe they will take the superior range instead.”

 

“No! Completely impossible. There is no comparison.” Gene sucked in a breath as she replaced the phone on the cradle. Marshalling her facial expression, she turned to the woman in the room.

 

“It appears we have a problem. We cannot produce your shipment at this time but if you give me a few more days I’m sure I can work this out.” Gene watched a spark light in the hazel eyes, along with a slight twitch of lips—she didn’t look happy.

 

“You have until tomorrow afternoon to work this out. I will expect my shipment then. If not, expect Sutters to cancel the contract.” Quinn stormed out of the office.

 

Gene felt her stomach dip to the lowest level. How could she fix this? Was there a fix? What had she or Desrosiers done to Christine that made her leave the company in such a mess?

 

There are times in life that you need to take control and find your own destiny. Gene had heard that or read it someplace. Thank goodness Grand-mère isn’t here to see how weak I really am. She would be so disappointed. How am I to keep the family tradition alive if I don’t understand the business side of the company, and I don’t. Papa said others were there for that role, we Desrosiers with the nose had to concentrate to make the company what it is…was.

 

“I need guidance and help but who can that be, who would want to? I have no friends.”

 

 

Dee Lawrence patiently watered the flowers as tenderly as she would care for a child. It was probably the closest she or Gene would ever get to having children. Gene more so, since the company is her life. Dee’s boss had such a good nose for perfume, a family talent passed down Dee figured. Heritage was in every pore of Gene and she was so naive about everything else. She raised the watering can toward Matriarch, the oldest rose they had on the premises. Gene said its initial root came from her family homeland in France, from a hundred-year-old strain.

 

“Well, old lady, time for you to have sustenance. Can’t have our history going without in the US. Gene loves you and I love you too, old girl. I swear she loves you more than anything else on this earth.” She sighed. Then glanced across at the beautiful pale pink rose that was hours away from full bloom. “It’s your time, Beautiful, and your family is here to help you.” She returned her gaze to the old red rose, damn sure that her leaves had bowed in acknowledgment.

 

The phone rang; she completed her watering and answered the shrill tone. “Yes?”

 

“Dee, I think we need to talk, Desrosiers is in big trouble, let’s have dinner tonight.” She smiled at the gruff tone of the factory manager at the other end of the line.

 

“Gene hasn’t said anything, and she would.”

 

“Sure, she would if she had any business knowledge and we both know she doesn’t.”

 

“Tell mom I’ll bring dessert.”

 

“That’s why I called really,” he chuckled. “It was time for me to have some decent sweet stuff. Any chance of the triple chocolate truffle?”

 

“I might if I have the time. See you at six. Bye, Dad.” The call ended.

 

“We are going to help Gene and save the company. Now we just need friends we can trust. Do you have any suggestions, old girl?” Glancing at Matriarch she sighed. Dee didn’t want to think that this life was over. It was all she had known since she was sixteen and all she was good at.

 

 

Quinn entered Maxali, a coffee shop a quarter mile from the factory. It was unpretentious with red gingham drapes adorning the windows, and a smattering of tiny tables with two chairs each. Walking inside she almost hit the bell above the door that tinkled as she entered.

 

“Hi there, welcome.”

 

Quinn frowned at the welcome. She hadn't quite shut the door as the perky voice hit her. She walked toward the glass counter where a woman with spiky blonde hair and an elfin expression was smiling—in total contrast to the voice.

 

“What can I get you? As you can see, I’m not exactly busy but by the end of the shift at the factory I will be. So, take advantage.”

 

Gregarious, hmm, that might be useful. “That would be Desrosiers?”

 

“Yes, no other factory around these parts for a hundred miles. They employ a hundred and fifty people.”

 

Quinn raised her eyebrows.

 

“I know doesn’t sound like a lot, but in some way or another, everyone else around here gets a cut.”

 

“A cut sounds rather roughish.” A chortle of laughter greeted her words.

 

“I meant basically that without Desrosiers this town would die. We lost the lumber yard five years ago and half the men in town left. Enough of my ramblings, what can I get you?”

 

Quinn glanced at the slate board behind the woman. “A large latte please.”

 

“Anything else? I can vouch for the pastries, my partner Alice makes them daily, and she’s a wonder in the bakery department. Actually she makes most things we have on the menu.”

 

There was pride and fondness in the words and Quinn wondered if partner had a double meaning or was it just her own way of thinking.

 

“Okay, sounds good. Any recommendations?” There was an appetizing array of pastries and pies on display. Quinn pointed to a delicious looking cake in three layers with strawberry quarters on top and strawberry colored icing. “That looks good.”

 

“Alice loves that strawberry cake but if you prefer something less sugary, she makes a magnificent beef pie. I’ll guarantee no matter where you live you will never find one as good.”

 

There it was again, the pride and fondness for this Alice person. “It would be rude of me not to have both and I haven’t eaten for hours.”

 

A soft snort of laughter echoed in the room. “Ah, a lady after my own heart. I’ll bring your choices over with the coffee.”

 

“Thank you.” Quinn walked to the table nearest to the counter and sat down. Her fingers trailed over the mosaic patterns on the table as she stared out window. Traffic was still rushing by but there wasn’t any evidence of pedestrians. She swiveled to ask why, but the woman was gone.

 

“Hmm, weird there’s so much traffic but no one stops.” Her phone rang, and she retrieved it from her pocket. “Hi, Sheila.”

 

“Do you have the shipment?”

 

“No, apparently they have a supply problem, not sure why. I said I’d be back tomorrow to collect the shipment before my flight in the afternoon.”

 

“Did you talk to Christine?”

 

“She’s gone.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Oh, is right. I think the place is in disarray. The new woman in charge is pretty lame. How hard do you want me to push this?” There was silence for a few moments.

 

“Hard. This is one of our most profitable lines, so if we don’t get the product, we will have to tighten our belts.”

 

“Okay, point taken.”

 

“That’s why I employ you, Quinn, you understand perfectly what’s needed. I’ll expect to see you and the merchandise Thursday morning.”

 

The call ended. Quinn slowly placed her phone on the table.

 

A couple of minutes later her coffee was delivered along with a piping hot pie.

 

“Sorry give me a sec and I’ll fetch cutlery.”

 

Sipping on her coffee Quinn smiled, the flavor rivalled that from her favorite café in the city. Moments later the cutlery was delivered.

 

“I’ll bring your cake when you are done here. Do you need anything else?”

 

“Not right now, thank you.”

 

“Shout if you need anything.”

 

Quinn nodded, took a fork and pierced the pie, releasing steam from the pastry and the smell was as appealing as the sight. It smells wonderful. I hope this is as good as she said. Taking her first mouthful she was in heaven. I love you, Alice, and I don’t even know you.

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