Released Oct. 28. 2015
Hearts, horses, and healing…
It’s what the doctor ordered for Rhonda Gables, owner of three successful boutiques: four weeks of rest between winning this season’s Retail Project and claiming her prize. Rhonda must decide if being a TV reality show star is worth leaving behind her loved ones, including the increasingly appealing Trevor Collins.
In a month, fashion mogul and reality TV judge Conrad Ryse, of The Retail Project fame, has promised to take Rhonda Gables under his wing and invest in her fledgling career. That’s her grand prize after a winning season on his show. Too bad exhaustion has sent Rhonda out of her city apartment, away from her three successful boutiques, and into her cousin’s guest room for a month of recuperation in her hometown.
She’s on the cusp of everything she’s ever wanted, but what will it cost? Doctor’s orders be damned, she balks at first. But soon Rhonda is both delighted and disconcerted by the attentions of her friend-maybe-lover, Trevor Collins, and the contentment she is surrounded by back home. She must realize all she’s willing to compromise and all her heart truly desires.
Go get ’em, Tigress. I know you’ll wow him.
For what seemed like the one-hundredth time since he sent it an hour ago, Rhonda reread the text message from Trevor.
It referred to her upcoming meeting with Conrad Ryse: world-renowned fashion king, judge of The Retail Project, and her new mentor.
Tigress was the pet name Conrad had given her when she competed on the show.
Trevor, however, always called her Wren. He’d dubbed her with the nickname just over a year ago when they’d met in the diner owned by her cousin’s husband.
She and Hailey had not seen each other for a few months, and on that day they became absorbed in catching up on each other’s lives, talking a mile a minute, and finishing each other’s sentences.
Trevor sat in the adjacent booth at the Front Porch and later remarked they sounded like a couple of wrens in the park. To this day, the name had stuck.
She’d long given up pretending the moniker annoyed her, but she hadn’t gone as far as to tell him she adored the special name only he used. Something kept her from answering the text, and it wasn’t only because Trevor had used Conrad’s nickname.
Rhonda felt like she was standing on the edge of a cliff. Everything she’d worked so hard for since graduating from Kendall College of Art and Design was about to culminate into her dream career. All of the art, marketing, and design classes mingled with the long hours of endless work had paid off. She should be embracing success.
All she had to do was jump off the edge of that cliff with blind faith and hope following her dream didn’t equate to putting even more distance between her and Trevor.
Today, Conrad Ryse—the Gordon Ramsay of the Fashion Network—was flying to Michigan. Touring Gables, her clothing boutiques, was the sole purpose of his trip, not just the flagship Saginaw store, but also the Bay City and Midland satellites. He would factor in what he found to decide if he was going beyond the reality show prize already within her grasp.
Impressing him would catapult her from a local businesswoman to a Seventh Avenue starlet. If she failed, he would cut her loose, and she could kiss the dream of her own clothing line goodbye.
She had one month to prepare a six-item fall collection. If Conrad liked the designs, they would be incorporated into the Ryse autumn collection. If he didn’t, she would win, instead, the cash prize of twenty-five thousand dollars. Conrad had sweetened the pot, telling her he was interested in investing in her three boutiques, franchising them to one-hundred-fifty cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest.
All of that, of course, was dependent on his one meeting.
A sudden flush climbed her body. As it hit her cheeks, her head began to spin, and she turned from her drafting board, reaching for the stool behind the cash register. She tried to climb onto the seat, but the heel of her boot slipped off the bar. She might have fallen if Greta, her store manager, hadn’t come to her side to help her up.
“Are you all right?”
Rhonda pushed her hands through her hair, guiding the long tresses off her face. “It’s just my nerves.”
“Did you eat this morning?”
Did she? She’d showered and changed her clothes three times before settling on the dress she now wore—one of Conrad’s designs. She’d gone over her most recent sketches, resisted the urge to burn them all, and then headed for the store to prepare for his arrival. “No. I skipped breakfast.”
“And every other meal for the last two weeks.”
“Psssh.” She waved off Greta’s claim and nearly lost her balance. “I have an orange juice in the fridge in back. Can you grab it for me?”
Rhonda leaned her elbows against the counter and rubbed her forehead with her hands. Greta’s guess had hit a mark.
Rhonda had been working so hard since coming home after filming the reality show that sleep and food were often skipped. “Pull it together, Wren.”
She picked up her phone and noticed a new text icon. It was from Conrad letting her know he was an hour away.
One hour to channel the confidence she’d used to win The Retail Project and not blow the opportunity she’d worked so hard to attain.
With a couple of taps of her finger, she brought back the text conversation with Trevor. She now knew how she wanted to answer his last message: To you, it’s Wren.
Her finger trembled over the send button. It wasn’t as if she was telling him about her recent fantasies. She wasn’t calling him to her bed or admitting her latest obsession was wondering what his lips tasted like. It was just more of the jabbing and poking they’d always done to each other.
Only it wasn’t.
To her, it was important Trevor know she valued his endearment. Valued him and his opinion of her.
She hit send.
Greta set the small bottle of juice in front of her on the counter. “Do you want me to run out and get you an egg sandwich?”
Just the thought twisted her stomach. “Maybe after Conrad’s done surveying the shops. Have you dusted the—”
“I cleaned everything. It will be fine. You won that competition because he loves your sense of style. Gables is like a mirror to your soul.”
Rhonda took a large drink of orange juice and then stood, setting the bottle back down on 20 the counter. “I like the new racks on the south wall.”
“Really? I don’t think they fit the mood and theme.”
“They’re modern. They’re the most popular racks in retail space of this size. If we are going to break into new markets, we need to be competitive. Mark my words, Conrad will see this as a sign of me wanting to step up and grow with him.”
“I can’t argue with that. You know Conrad Ryse better than I do, but I know why women come to Gables. They don’t want what every other shopping center and mall offers.”
“Change is hard, but the income from the store expansion will help to fund my clothing line.” Her phone vibrated in the pocket of her dress. She fished it out and hit the button to light up the screen. Not a text. A Facebook notification.
The first thing she noticed when she opened the app was Trevor had changed his profile picture. This one was taken on the boat he’d purchased earlier in the summer. Even if her cousin hadn’t told her they’d been spending a lot of time on the lake with Trevor, she’d know he’d been enjoying the summer sun by his tanned skin and much lighter blond hair.
His blue eyes sparkled, as they always did when he smiled.
Flipping through, she found he’d posted a photo to her wall. She recognized the view to be from his back porch. More specifically, there was a wren perched on a branch of the cherry tree. On the status line he’d posted Fly for the stars.
His support both comforted and confounded her. It meant the world that he was on her side. At the same time, she worried a cross-country move for her didn’t bother him. Would he miss her if they saw each other less than they did now?
It shouldn’t be bothering her. She and Trevor had quickly become friends after meeting more than a year ago, but they couldn’t arrange to get together more than every other month. Most of the time they communicated, as they were now, by texting, phone calls, and Facebook.
In recent months, the relationship had transformed itself in Rhonda’s mind and heart, but fear kept her from acting on it. A few weeks of passion would never be worth it if she lost pictures of wrens on her Facebook wall and silly texts to brighten her day.
She hit the like button and then tried to push the phone back into her pocket. It slipped from her fingers and hit the hardwood floor
with a thud. The world started to spin around her. Her vision went white.
“Are you okay, Rhonda?”
That was the last thing she heard before white went to black, and she felt herself falling to the floor.
Rhonda took a sip of water and then set the plastic cup on the tray. Leaning back in the bed, she exhaled. Instead of giving Conrad Ryse a tour of her shops and the tri-city area, she’d wound up hooked to IVs in the emergency room. The doctors said her exhaustion was so extreme they would only release her to family.
She picked up her phone off the tray, noticing the flash of the low battery light. Not surprising, she’d spent the last four hours texting Greta and the other two Gables managers for updates. Micromanaging from a hospital bed challenged her, but she trusted Greta to represent her. Even though the manager sent frequent updates, Rhonda had a hard time gleaning what Conrad thought of her boutiques. A half hour had passed since Greta had let her know Conrad had finished his tours and was headed her way.
He should be arriving any minute.
A glance down at the hospital gown threw her into panic mode. This was not the impression she wanted to make on her home turf. She pushed the tray aside, set on getting up—against doctor’s orders—to get dressed and brush her hair.
“There’s my little tigress! I’ve been so worried.”
Too late. She didn’t have to look to the door to know who it was. Conrad’s British accent gave him away. Rhonda settled back against the pillow and painted on a smile. “I’m so sorry about all of this.”
As usual, every salt-n-pepper hair on his head was in perfect place. His suit was tailored and deep blue. The shirt, in a lighter shade, matched his eyes. He crossed to the bed, leaned over and kissed her cheek, then sat on its edge. “Don’t be sorry. Get better. Have they told you when you’ll be released?”
“As soon as my cousin gets here. The doctors insist I need a few weeks of rest. Hailey thinks I’m going up north to stay with her and her husband for the next month, but I promise you, I will be back at my desk Monday morning.”
“No.” He waved a pointed finger. “Listen to your doctors, now. Get yourself right. You can work on your sketches just as easily in a bed as you can at a desk.”
“There is no way I can spend a month just lounging around.” She laughed. “The doctors don’t even want that.”
“When you come to LA next month for our meeting and the follow-up show, I want you fit. I need to know you can handle the stress—not fold beneath it—if we are going to go into business together.”
“I assure you I’m up to the challenge.”
“That is why you’re my little Tigress. Now, I wish I could stay longer, but I have a plane to catch. I want you to ring me up tomorrow, if you’re feeling right, so we can discuss my findings.”
“If you have a few minutes, I am up to talking about it now. I’ll drive myself crazy wondering what you thought, otherwise.”
He smiled warmly and patted her knee. “No worries now. Your boutiques are brilliant. Well, except for that naff high-rise rack in your Saginaw shop.”
“I just installed that. It’s the most popular rack and—”
“I’m aware of its functionality. I have no use for chain store rubbish. I want your style and your flare. Your beautiful designs displayed in your unique way.”
She nodded. “I’ll have the rack taken down immediately.”
He tapped her knee again. “Good girl. Very wise.”
Every word he said made perfect sense to her, but it didn’t stop the fear that seized her heart. Before stepping on The Retail Project, she considered herself a self-confident woman who could trust the voice in her gut. Since winning, a veil of doubt had fluttered down, covering her and quieting that instinct that usually guided her choices. Why now—with so much on the line—had anxiety drowned out the confident whisper?
The golden ring was hanging just inches away. All she had to do was reach out and grab it. So, why did she feel like she was about to slip and fall on her face?
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