August 21, 2015 – Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, Chapter Ten, Chapter Eleven, Chapter Twelve, Chapter Thirteen, Chapter Fourteen, Chapter Fifteen, Chapter Sixteen, Chapter Seventeen, Chapter Eighteen, Chapter Nineteen, Chapter Twenty, Chapter Twenty-One
Confidence is contagious, Jenny thought as she rose with the sun on her face, and smiling. After tackling last night’s book club and Melissa head on, she wanted to take on the DIH challenge. It was her fight, and she had to see it through. Weighing the pros and cons last, she decided that she could make it work to her advantage. Life hadn’t been full of opportunities, at least not for her, and she knew she should take advantage of an invitation that may not be offered again. She had to trust her talent that her shop offered something that the members couldn’t get anywhere else just as Charlotte said. Even if they did stop coming to her, she’d survive.
Hardly someone comfortable in her own skin, as Jenny looked in the bathroom mirror, she realized she did look much better after taking on a new regime of cleansing, exfoliating, and moisturizing every day. She quickly showered and dressed, taking the time to add a little makeup to her morning routine, and opened the shop.
When she heard the familiar welcome bell ring and saw Mr. Hiller coming in, she knew a visit from him is exactly what she needed. She had not seen him since he had used her computer in the office last week, the day he had overheard the conversation between her and Charlotte. Moreover, they never had a chance to talk about his cryptic message. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.
“Mr. Hiller, you’re up early today?” she asked as he approached the counter.
He smiled and nodded. “Always been an early riser, but since retirement I’m slow to start my day. I am so happy you made an appointment about the dress, by the way. I hope you don’t mind, but Mrs. Carson called me this morning to tell me she’s meeting with you later today.”
“I don’t mind, although I still feel a little strange about it. But I’ll get over it.”
“That’s good to know,” he said.
“I haven’t seen much of you this week,” she said. “I guess you’ve been pretty busy?”
“I’ve been getting some things in order,” Mr. Hiller said. “I’ve decided to take a trip back to England, and wanted to come over and chat a bit before my flight leaves.”
“Sounds like you’re leaving soon,” she said a bit surprised.
He nodded. “I leave at 9 p.m. tonight, from Newark. The taxi will pick me up at 5:30 to take me to the airport.”
“That’s a bit sudden, isn’t it?” she asked, and then she regretted sounding so nosy. “Visiting family and friends?”
“I don’t have much family left over there I’m afraid. A few friends maybe, but I want to see London again. It’s been too long, you know.”
She smiled. “I can understand that, Mr. Hiller. It was your home for so long.”
He nodded. “London will always be special to me, Jenny, but Philadelphia will always be home. This is where my wife was born, and we married. And where you are,” he added. “Family isn’t always those who are related to you.”
His touching sentiment made her smile. “Are you trying to make me cry, Mr. Hiller? How long will you be gone?”
His momentary silence made her a little nervous. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I’ve put the house on the market yesterday and I’m going to take it day by day for a little while.”
The news surprised Jenny, who suddenly became worried. “You are coming back, right?”
“Most likely. I may reach London and hate all of the changes I have heard about. When I do come back, I will look for a smaller place. That big old house is too much for me. I struggled with the thought of selling it because of the memories, but I realized that it is a brick and mortar building. Nothing will take my memories from me.”
“Oh, Mr. Hiller, you are going to make me cry,” she said pouring on sympathy like syrup on pancakes. Nevertheless, she meant it. “I don’t want to sound selfish, but I don’t want you to go.”
“Hey, don’t you worry about that,” he said. “If anything, you should be more selfish. Go after what you want, Jenny. I want to know that you’ll be happy.”
His simple words touched her heart once again. “I am happy, Mr. Hiller. I guess happiness is a little different for me that it is for most people.”
“ I believe you are content, my dear, but happiness is a little different. Sometimes the difference is so subtle you can’t detect it. Sometimes you have to be a little brave and risk getting hurt for you to find true happiness.”
Jenny shrugged. “That’s the part I don’t like, Mr. Hiller. You know how hard that is for me, but I’m trying and making progress.” She wanted to tell him about last night and about taking a stance at the DIH gala, but not was not the time. This was his conversation.
He smiled. “I know you had a father that you adored, and I’ve had no children, but it is OK to adopt along the way, isn’t it? We’re not related by blood, but I know we share a certain kinship. I just want you to know that I’m proud of you.”
She smiled. “You are special to me, too, Mr. Hiller,” she said. “It’s wonderful to have someone like you in my life.”
He smiled too. “You’re going to make me cry, now,” he said. “Before things get too sentimental, I wanted to talk to you about a few specific things.”
In the worst case of bad timing, the door opened and in walked Mrs. Chadwick. Mr. Hiller stepped aside and began looking at the antique clocks that had recently arrived.
“Good morning, Mrs. Chadwick,” Jenny said. “How did the button work out for you?”
“It matched nicely. I wanted to stop by and see if you could find me a set of earrings and a necklace that might be from that time period that would match the dress.”
Jenny glanced at Mr. Hiller who had retreated to the corner of the store. Mrs. Chadwick did not care that someone was before her in line. She had no way of knowing that he was not a customer, after all. As if he knew what Jenny was thinking, Mr. Hiller nodded for her to take care of the customer.
“Do you have anything particular in mind?” she asked. Of course, she did. Mrs. Chadwick always came prepared.
She opened her well-crafted Birken bag, which retailed for a year’s store profit easily. “First things first,” she said. “Here is the check I owe you.”
Jenny took it and slipped it into the cash register. Then she watched as Mrs. Chadwick removed photos of some jewelry pieces out of a white envelope.
“Something like any of these would do fine,” she said. “Can you get me some photographs of what’s available and call me when they are in?”
Jenny nodded. “Certainly, Mrs. Chadwick. These are lovely ideas. Give me a few days.”
“ Very well,” she said, and as she turned to go, she stopped. “You don’t say,” she continued. “Arthur Hiller, as I live and breathe.”
Mr. Hiller turned toward Martha Chadwick and offered a small smile. “Hello, Martha,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”
Surprised, Jenny watched the exchange. They knew each other, and the realization almost astounded her.
“That’s an understatement,” she said. “I didn’t realize you were still living in the neighborhood. I had heard you might have moved after…”
“Yes, after,” he said. “As you can see the rumor of my demise has been exaggerated.”
“I’m sorry I don’t have time to chat,” she said. “I have an appointment in ten minutes. Maybe we can have lunch soon?”
“I’m afraid I’m off to England for a bit,” he said. “So that leaves you off the hook.”
Mrs. Chadwick looked a little embarrassed. Jenny didn’t think anyone could do that to her. “When you return. Goodbye then,” she said walking out the door.
“You know Martha Chadwick?”
Mr. Hiller nodded. “I’m afraid I do. She is my wife’s second cousin.”
“You never told me that,” Jenny said.
“Perhaps because I didn’t find it important. They never got along.”
Jenny smiled. “Mrs. Chadwick isn’t the easiest person to get along with.”
“No she isn’t. Their personalities are like night and day, and Martha was jealous of my wife when they were younger. She used to spend summers in Stone Harbor with my wife’s family. After we married, we would get together now and then out of courtesy, but there was no love lost between them. Martha didn’t even come to the funeral.”
“That’s horrible,” Jenny said. She knew Martha as a selfish old bitty, but she did not realize that also extended to family.
“It would have been odd if she did come, I suppose,” Mr. Hiller nodded. “You know, the other day when I overheard you talking about the DIH, it all hit home again. My wife belonged to that organization. I don’t know why I didn’t tell you that before. She was a member for years, and then broke off when it became too much with the backstabbing and gossip. Years later, she tried to reapply again, but Martha turned her away.”
“You’re not serious,” Jenny said. “If they were related, Mrs. Hiller had a line to a signer, too. What was the reason?”
“I believe the bloodline is through her husband’s family.” He shrugged. “Actually, I don’t remember the reason she gave my wife. That is why I want you to accept that membership, and turn that organization upside down. It started out nobly, but lost its way since Martha took over. This is one of the things I wanted to talk to you about, Jenny.” Mr. Hiller took an envelope out of his pocket and handed it to her. “I never told you what I did for a living, did I?”
Jenny smiled. “You said you worked for the United Nations.”
Mr. Hiller nodded and smiled. “That was actually a cover,” he said. “I worked for British Intelligence, and they transferred me here to work with the FBI on a major case, which involved Martha’s husband and the law firm he worked for once upon a time. It also had offices in London. There was a terrible scandal and he had to resign and cooperate with the FBI or face prison time.”
Intrigued, Jenny looked at him squarely in the eyes. “So did he cooperate?”
“He did, but how he was ever hired by another firm is beyond me. American lawyers are another breed altogether.”
“Wow,” Jenny said. “Why are you telling me all of this?”
“Because I want you to take them down if you have to. There is information in this envelope that could do it, Jenny. If you need crutch, that is. That woman has no right to tell you that you cannot belong to an organization you want to join. She doesn’t own everything in this city.”
“Mr. Hiller, what’s in here?” She fondled the envelope as her curiosity piqued, wondering if she had top-secret papers that could get them both in a lot of trouble, or worse, endanger their lives. “Nothing that will compromise you, I hope.”
“No, Jenny, it’s what most Americans refer to as tabloid gossip. However, it will give you the upper hand should you need it. There is nothing confidential, and not much more than what appeared in the papers years ago. Let’s call it your get out of jail free card.”
“I don’t know what to say, Mr. Hiller, this is all so unbelievable. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this.”
“Maybe you won’t have to use it, but you’ll have it just in case. If you do come forward at that gala, and I hope you do, you will have some ammunition if you need it. Like I said, this is old news, but it is news they have gone to painstaking trouble to hide. I wouldn’t be surprised if they bribed the newspapers to destroy their old copies of this information. Nevertheless, no one discusses the situation anymore, so no one who is in the club now would remember it. Now, there’s one more thing I have to mention.”
Jenny looked at him with wide eyes, afraid of what was to come. “OK, Mr. Bond.” she said.
Mr. Hiller laughed. “I assure you all of the mystery and intrigue is out in the open now,” he said. “I wanted you to accept this gift from me.” He handed her a check for $250,000 and her eyes widened to the size of quarters.
“Mr. Hiller, I can’t take this from you,” she said firmly. “Why would you put me in such an awkward position?”
“Oh, Jenny, I don’t mean to. I only purchased lottery tickets as an excuse to come into the store and chat with you. I don’t need the money, and I was more than shocked when I actually won the bloody thing.” He laughed. “I was going to donate it all to a charity, but then I decided that I’d give it to you. It might make you more comfortable about your situation and taking on the DIH. It will buy a wonderful dress to wear to that gala, and if it makes you feel uncomfortable ,donate it to the charity of your choice. It would give me such joy to be a part of this experiment, since I probably won’t be here to see it through.”
She looked at him sadly. “Experiment,” she said. Poor choice of words. “So, I am your Eliza Doolittle, Mr. Hiller? You buy me a fancy dress and turn me into a lady? You said I was wrong before.”
“Jenny, you’re already a fine lady. I would like to help if I can, and see you be all you can be, my dear. If it’s the DIH you want, then I want it for you. And if it’s that fine chap from the book club, I want that for you, too.”
She smiled feeling the anger of a moment ago float away. Mr. Hiller had become her dear friend, and now her fairy godfather of sorts. “Is there something you’re not telling me, Mr. Hiller?” she asked with trepidation.
He sighed. “My plan is to come back to Philadelphia, but I’m not sure what fate has in store for me,” he said. “A few months ago, right after Mrs. Hiller passed, I was diagnosed with a blood disorder that might make me pretty ill, and if it does, I’ll have another year at most. I am taking medication, and following doctor’s orders, but you never know. I need to go back to England and get things in order, but my time is limited, if only in the way everyone else’s is too.”
“Mr. Hiller,” she cried. “This is the worst possible news.”
He smiled. “That’s hardly the case, my dear. I’m 75 years old and I’ve lived a wonderful life with my greatest love. It may be my time, that’s all. I’m at peace with it. I want to make sure those I care about are financially set. And I want you to find the happiness that I shared with my wife.”
“I can’t think about that now, Mr. Hiller. It seems so insignificant.”
“It’s not insignificant, my dear. Not at all. It’s the most important thing in life. Love is everything.”
She began to cry. “How can you be so calm about this?”
“I’m old and content and I’ve had more happiness than I probably deserved. You can’t see it that way because you’re young. That’s the way it should be. Just don’t be so afraid that it paralyzes you.”
Speechless she looked at him wanting to smile in reassurance, yet could not manage it. As if he sensed her sorrow, he smiled for her. “I’m good with everything, Jenny. I put a couple of things off for too long, that’s all. Now I have to face them. I don’t want you to say the same at the end of your life. Go take them on.”
She hugged him realizing that this may be the last time she saw him, and a feeling of melancholy took over. She didn’t want to lose him as a friend, and realized that would never happen, no matter how many miles separated them.
She realized now what she’d known all along. Only she could handle presenting herself as Carrie Grant the way it should be done.