Natalie Goodwin's dream of owning her own flower shop would be a reality in less than a month. Joyous excitement fluttered in her heart, especially now that her business loan had been approved.
Hat and Garden would open just in time for Christmas.
The old 1904 house that she was converting was located in Boise's North End. The oak floors were original, as were the heavy banisters and narrow stairs that led to the second floor. Each room upstairs was going to be decorated with a distinct theme: the teddy bear room, the nature room, the Victorian room with its China tea sets for sale.
Natalie's vision was to have a store brimming with one-of-a-kinds from local merchants.
To inspire family members who helped with the preparations, the holiday smells of burning cranberry and pine candles perfumed Hat and Garden while Christmas carols played through hidden speakers in the rooms.
"How high do you want this shelf put up, Natalie?" her father asked. He held onto a shelf, raised and lowered it for her perusal.
Stepping back to assess, she imagined the inspirational display of Saint Thèrése's and wanted them at eye level. "About right there."
"Okay, I got it."
The fact that he didn't object, offer a critique or alternate suggestion relieved Natalie. As far as he was concerned, Target was the best-the only-store in town.
Fred Miller had retired from civil service a few years back having been a U.S. mail carrier for thirty-one years. Now his days were spent feeding the squirrels and birds, keeping his lawn green and his many trees and shrubs trimmed to perfection. Widowed twelve years ago, he had never remarried. Sometimes Natalie grew sad when she thought about him living alone.
He had been somewhat of a hard-head while Natalie and her sister, Sarah Brockner, were growing up, but he'd mellowed since Mom died of breast cancer. Still, there was a part of him that would offer a strong opinion without asking.
So when he took her direction about the shelf, Natalie smiled and thought he was turning into an old softy.
Colorful Christmas decorations filled the main level in boxes on the floor that overflowed with everything from fireplace garlands to ornaments from Germany and strings of multi-lights.
Sarah approached, holding a snowman. "Where does this go?"
"Over there with the snowmen display."
The two sisters looked as different on the outside as they were on the inside. Natalie was the fairer of the two, taller and more curvaceous. She wore a size bigger in clothing and dressed far more conservatively than her younger sister.
Sarah had curly dark hair, was petite in every way-and the spitting image of their mother. She was friendly, more outgoing than Natalie, and verbally expressive when it came to topics of sex, romance, men, dating, and anything else found in the contents page of a Cosmo.
"Where's the hunky-man display?" Sarah questioned with a lift to her brows. "I saw the new firefighter calendar in my gym. I keep telling you, if you filled a rack of them, they'd be sold out in one day."
"I'm not putting any hunky men in my shop."
"But I'll bet plenty of hunky men will come and buy flowers and things from you. Maybe you'll date one of them."
"I'm not dating anyone. I don't have any time, nor do I have the interest."
Sarah frowned. "You've been divorced for almost two years and the only relationship you've had since being single went bust, but that's in the past. It's time for you to get back out there."
"Hmm." Natalie hoped her noncommittal response would end the subject. She didn't like talking about Michael Williams, didn't like even thinking about that short-term relationship that ended disastrously just under a year ago. She'd felt more pain going through that break up than she had ending a twenty-one year marriage.
"Michael Williams was your transitional guy," Sarah went on, Natalie giving her a warning glare which went ignored. "So you dated some duds after him when you were ready, but none of them panned out. You can't expect to meet Mr. Right when you do five men in five minutes."
"It was called speed dating," Natalie clarified, trying to tamp down her agitation. "It was eight men in eight minute increments. And at the time, I wasn't looking for Mr. Right. I would have settled for Mr. Right Now to share the basics with-dinner and a movie."
"You were on the rebound without a clear perspective."
"I hate all this divorced people language-rebound, transitional and newbie. It's all so horribly depressing. Sarah, I'm done with dating. I just don't want to go there anymore. I need to focus on the shop."
Hat and Garden had come to fruition at a time in her life when she was looking for an outlet to channel creativity and make positive changes. She'd always been a gardener, loved sunshine and flowers, making things grow.
When her daughter, Cassandra, had entered high school, Natalie took a part-time job as a floral assistant after so many years being a stay at home mom. She learned a great deal, found a deep sense of satisfaction. She knew then what she wanted to do with herself.
Greg, her husband at the time, never thought she was up to the task of opening her own shop. Which was one of the reasons he was now her ex-husband.
There had been a time in her marriage when she'd been blissful and alive: her courtship, her wedding day, those years before she got pregnant. Even after Cassandra had been born, Natalie knew a limitless peace and satisfaction. Then things had changed when Natalie went back to work.
It wasn't so much being out of the house as it was discovering who she was without Greg. She'd married in her early twenties and had never completed college. She had been content to stay at home with her baby, loved every minute of it and wouldn't change a thing. She would forever be grateful to Greg's income allowing her the opportunity.
But when she was arranging flowers, blending colors and creating bouquets, she found a piece of herself she hadn't known had existed. She felt a self-worth, had purpose beyond that of wife and mother.
Natalie began to realize that she needed more from her marriage than what she was getting from Greg. Her husband had been content as he was; doing no more and no less each day. Get up, go to work, come home, watch the evening news, eat dinner and go to bed. He liked the routine, the safety of it all. Natalie had become, in her older years, more of a risk taker. Life was short-she wanted to embrace it.
And yet, she hadn't had the courage to do so at the time because she worried about the affects of divorce on Cassie. She stayed with Greg who, in all fairness, hadn't changed from the man she'd married.
But she wanted more to sustain herself, her emotional balance and the desire to be loved and nurtured. They'd gone to marriage counseling, only the sessions only frustrated her and added conflict. She hated the tension, the feeling of things unraveling with no way to knit them back together.
When Cassie entered her junior year, Natalie could no longer live in a strained marriage so she finally filed for divorce.
There was no one to blame. Not herself. Not Greg. It was just one of those things. You either grew together in a marriage or you grew apart.
They'd grown apart.
The twenty-one year union that been dying a slow death for years had been dissolved. At forty-three, for the first time in her lie, Natalie confronted facing things on her own, making her own decisions, both good and bad, and in the two years since, she lived with the consequences.
It had taken a year to financially regroup, going from part-time work to full-time to support herself. Then she'd temporarily been distracted by her brief romance with Michael. A mistake she refused to repeat.
In a moment of retrospect, Natalie conceded, "Sarah, I don't want to be alone all my life, but I'm not going to worry about it. I'm going to enjoy what I have around me." Sitting on the cash register counter was a box of miniature Saint Thèrése statues. They could be arranged in houseplants or in window gardens.
"She's pretty," Sarah said. "Who is she?"
"Thèrése of Lisieux. The saint of flowers." Natalie sighed, a feeling of contentment settling through her. "To me, she also represents patience and simplicity. I love appreciating the curling detail of rose petals as they form a flower, the textures and smells around me. I have to live for the moment, Sarah, and not focus on the big picture or I'll go crazy. In my marriage, I focused on my husband and what was going wrong and how I could fix it. Even when I was with Michael, I repeated history. I can't fix the whole world, but I can fix what's going on in front of me. From now on, I'm going to be enjoying taking pleasure in the small things."
Sarah's expression grew introspective, still not surrendering to the battle. "But you have so much going for you. With the perfect man-"
"You've already taken the perfect man. Steve is the best." Natalie laughed, trying to make light of everything. Then in all seriousness, she added, "I'm happy, Sarah. Truly. I've worked hard to get where I am. This is the best time of my life and I don't want to miss any of it because I'm blinded by love-or blinded by what I think is love."
"I understand that, Natalie, and I agree. Hat and Garden is going to be fabulous. I'm proud of you." Gazing at the snowman in her arms, she added with a sparkle in her eyes, "He's cute, but he'd be even cuter with a Mrs. Snowman."
Natalie shook her head. "She's too busy making snowballs to throw at a certain sister. Besides, she got tired of him leaving the toilet seat up."
"I did not. I made sure I put the dang thing down," their dad grumbled, coming toward them carrying a string of holly berries.
Smiling, Natalie assured, "Not you, Dad."
"Oh." His expression relaxed. "Where did you say you wanted these hung?"
"Over the front door. Weave them through the pine boughs."
"They'd look better on the counter."
"I have more for that."
"Where'd you get these? I hope like hell not at that big 'W' store. Target has the best selection and quality. I could run up and buy some extras."
"I don't need anymore."
Fred Miller grew silent, a sullen look spreading across his face. He was a handsome man for his age with distinguishing gray hair, and a full head of it. He kept it cut in a half-pompadour, half-crew, combed back from his high forehead. Thin age lines bracketed the corners of his gray eyes, his nose straight and slightly wide, his mouth generous. The upper lip was thinner than the lower, his teeth a nice neat row thanks to dentures-something he was not happy about, but they had never looked artificial to Natalie. Of course she was biased, she thought her dad quite distinguished.
"Well," he said at length, "if you do, they've got plenty."
Sarah went back to work and her dad headed for the front door. As Natalie walked through the shop, she knew she had to do something, but with so much on her mind, she whatever it was escaped her.
Hands on hips, she stopped to think.
BreeAnn and Sydney, Sarah's daughters who were ages eleven and thirteen, assembled the train set that ran on a track between the two fir trees displayed in the front window.
"How's it coming?" she asked.
Sydney looked up. "Good, Aunt Natalie."
Since she was unable to remember what she intended to do next from her list of a hundred different things, Natalie gravitated to her office.
In what used to be a parlor in the old house, Natalie slipped behind her desk. Stacks of papers, invoices and envelopes spread out before her. Paperwork wasn't her strong suit, but she did have a disorganized method to keeping track of everything.
She sat down, gazed at her surroundings and allowed herself a single slice of reminiscence, a moment where she dared to dredge up memories, if only to analyze the whys and hows. To tell herself that she really meant what she said to Sarah about being single.
In thinking back to her marriage and to Michael, Natalie told herself she would much rather be alone than with either man.
In the beginning, Michael had been wonderful. They were so alike. Both had marriages that failed for almost the same reasons, and both had daughters the same ages. It was the girls' junior years in high school and Michael suggested they take the girls to Hawaii for Spring Break. Natalie thought the trip would be great, ran it past Cassie who had no objections, and in fact, looked forward to surfing and shopping on Waikiki with Brook, Michael's daughter.
But, on the vacation, something went wrong. Natalie felt it in Hawaii, she sensed it when they returned home. In the following weeks, Michael distanced himself emotionally. In hindsight, she realized he'd never really made himself available. She was too open, too trusting, and she allowed herself to be vulnerable.
She wore her heart on her shirt sleeve and it cost her.
Michael would have continued the relationship in a neutral manner if she hadn't started a discussion about it one evening just before he was to go out of town on business. She asked him point blank if he wanted to be in the relationship or not. He got this stupid smirk on his face that spoke volumes: "Ah, you caught me." Then he said he never had any time to himself. She thought this strange since he was always inviting her to be with him-a family reunion, outdoor activities, dinners in his home and weekends spent together. He felt pressured to be a couple. Then he'd rambled on about the women in his life, the way they'd mistreated him. She had listened, then quietly commented he was penalizing her because she was a woman-and once a woman had done him wrong, none were to be trusted.
He reassured her that wasn't the case and said he'd call her when he came back in town and they'd talk about things further. He told her not to worry.
Numb, she went home that night, laid in bed reliving all the things she had done or said, wondering what had happened and how they could work to resolve issues between them.
But she never heard from him again.
It was a rude awakening into the dating world, one that rocked her off her axis and left her in a funk for months after. She knew now that it was the lack of closure, the feelings of frustration . . . of not being able to put him in his place . . . of being able to tell him that he had led her on.
His disappearance had not only affected her, but Cassie and Brook who had been comfortable thinking of the adults as a couple.
As painful as it was, shortly afterward, Natalie took both girls out to dinner to tell them the break up was no one's fault. All Natalie gathered from Brook was that her father had explained to her that Natalie was a "nice lady" but there was no chemistry between them anymore. Within a week he had a new girlfriend and Brook was trying to deal with that.
Even now, months later, Natalie hated to think about Michael's easy-come/easy-go behavior even now. The reality that she'd been tossed aside and so easily replaced-it still hurt her sometimes if she allowed it to.
Her first summer as a divorced woman had been a disaster.
It had taken autumn and into the winter months for her to recharge her emotional battery. She'd had some dates since, nothing to write home about. She was at a place in her life where she really had come full circle.
She actually enjoyed spending time alone, being her own best friend. Family surrounded her, Sunday dinners were evenings to look forward to at either Sarah's, her dad's or her house where they all gathered. Natalie was doing okay.
In fact, she was better than okay.
Turning her attention to the computer, Natalie logged onto the Internet and downloaded her mail, hoping to find a note from Cassie. Her daughter was in Chicago, attending her first year of college at Columbia.
An e-mail from Cassie registered in the In Box.
Natalie opened it.
Mom . . . I'm low on cell-phone minutes. Call me on the dorm phone when you get a chance. Hugs and kisses, Cassie.
Natalie was already dialing the phone, any number of Cassie's crises flashing through her mind.
Cassie was paged, then came on the phone. "Hello?"
"Cassie, it's Mom. Is everything all right?"
"Hey, Mom. Yeah. I'm fine."
"I got your e-mail and I was worried."
"I'm sorry. I just used a lot of cell minutes and I didn't want to go over. I need to buy a calling card for the dorm phone."
"I can send you one."
"Okay. How's the shop coming along?"
"Wonderful. Aunt Sarah and the girls are helping today. So's your grandpa."
"I wish I was there."
"I wish you were, too, but you'll be here in a few weeks."
"That's what I'm calling about.
Natalie, who'd been absently shuffling paperwork on her desk, froze. "You're still coming, aren't you?"
"Yes. Of course. I have my ticket. Dad sent the money like he said he would."
"Good. Then what's the matter?" Natalie knew when something was on her daughter's mind."
"I wanted to ask you something."
"Ask me what?"
"Austin can't go home for Christmas. His mom is taking a cruise and I hate the idea of him staying in Chicago alone."
Natalie's muscles tensed. Since the semester began, she'd heard all about Austin Mably, Cassie's new boyfriend. Natalie had never seen him, but he sounded like a metal rocker or something along those lines.
"Well, Cassie," Natalie said, putting a lightness into her tone, "I'm sure there are plenty of things for him to do. Colleges know that not all students can make it home for the holidays so I'm sure he'll be fine."
"But I want him to be with me."
"Cassie . . ."
"I told him he could come home with me."
Disappointment registered heavily in Natalie, a loss for words hit and it took her a few seconds to find her voice. "I really don't think it's a good idea, Cassie. We're already missing you for Thanksgiving and it'll be your first Christmas home since leaving and I've been so looking forward to it."
"But you'll be busy with Hat and Garden's grand opening."
"Never too busy for you."
"You won't even know Austin's around, I promise."
Hearing a strain in her voice, Natalie tried reverse reasoning. "But Cassie, I've never met him-and I don't even know what he looks like and besides-where would he stay? "
"With Dad and I'll e-mail you pictures of us together."
"Yeah. I already talked to him about it and he said it was fine."
Natalie gritted her teeth. "Well . . . I just wish . . ."
"Mom, Austin already bought his ticket."
There was a heavy silence on the phone. Natalie hated that she was so upset over this, especially since she knew Cassie had her own life now, was an eighteen year old living independently away from home-albeit not completely financially independent. It was inevitable something like this would happen. She'd only hoped it would be later versus sooner.
"I guess it'll be okay, Cassie."
"Thanks, Mom. I knew you'd be cool with it. I told Dad you would."
Hanging up the phone, Natalie rose to her feet, the thought of Greg and Cassie discussing her reaction not quite sitting well with her. It irked and put a frown on her mouth. She hated to think that Greg would offer his home just to rattle her cage. He'd never been the malicious type-it took too much effort, but their divorce had been rather strained.
With a sigh, Natalie acknowledged there would be a slight damper to Christmas, but nothing she was going to dwell on. Cassie would be coming home and that's what mattered most.
Returning to the area by the cash register, Natalie finally remembered what it was she had to do.
As she focused on a row of toy soldiers painted with bright enamel colors, Natalie smiled with recollection over the hours put into her store these last few weeks. She forgot about Austin Mably. Even Greg and his lingering doubts about her abilities to pull a business venture off were no longer a sticking point.
She was proving to herself, and to no one else, that she could do this. And from all indications, everything she'd hoped Hat and Garden would be was coming to reality.