Love Under Construction – Chapter One

THE CLINK OF CHINA and chatter of women filled the room at City Hall where the Women in Business’ monthly meeting was well under way. The typically boring room had been transformed. The plain brown tables and chairs for committee discussions were replaced with round tables covered with pretty white table clothes and seasonal centerpiece decorations. Elegant flower arrangements graced the podium as well as the sign-in table. Today’s decor theme included glass bowls filled with pretty white and blue frosted balls. A few snowmen were positioned around the outside of the bowl, each holding a little banner with January written in a swirly font.

While most of the ladies appreciated the ambience, what really kept them coming back month after month was the best part —the food. If there was one good thing about the Women in Business group, they didn’t scrimp on salads and dainty foods that barely made a dent in your stomach. Nope, they served good-sized portions and incredible desserts. After all, the group was all about making connections and serving the community—and what better way to do that than chatting over a delicious meal?

Charlee Jackson shifted out of the way so the servers could clear the table, all while following her friend Rachel’s conversation as she gushed about her new fiancé.

“Graydon’s the first guy I’ve met who’s actually interested in conversation that isn’t all about sports, which is shocking considering he was a hockey player,” Rachel said, pushing her auburn hair back over her shoulder. The sparkle from the princess cut rock on her finger practically blinded anyone looking directly at it.

The only thing marring the picture of perfection was Rachel’s bruised arm confined to a sling and her broken leg, which meant she was wheelchair bound for the next few weeks. Charlee admired Rachel’s positive outlook, especially after being attacked at her last cake design competition.

“Are you sure he’s not gay?” Charlee asked playfully.

Kristen, Rachel’s business partner and best friend, leaned close and confessed in a whisper. “Oh my gosh. I’ve caught them making out more than once, and all I can say is steam, baby,” she said, fanning herself.

Poor Rachel’s face flushed pink as she nudged Kristen with her elbow. “TMI, Kristen.”

Charlee laughed. “Have you set a wedding date yet?”

“We’re looking for a date in May,” Rachel said. “I know it’s only a few months away, but I’m pretty old-fashioned and I told Graydon I wasn’t moving in with him until after we say I do.”

“Ooh, that reminds me,” Kristen said, leaning in. “Charlee, mark your calendar for the first Saturday in March. I’m planning the bridal shower. We’re having a traditional get together with the parents, grandparents, and everyone, then something a little more fun for the evening with the younger ladies.”

Before Rachel could reply, Marla Belliston called the monthly meeting to order from her coveted spot at the podium. As usual, Marla was dressed in a perfectly buttoned up, classy suit with her dark hair pulled up in an elegant twist. Charlee fidgeted in her seat, tucked a few pale blonde strands of her short A-line bob behind her ear, then folded her jean-clad legs to hide her work boots under the table. Not everyone could afford the business suits Marla wore and, honestly, working at a desk as an accountant wasn’t Charlee’s idea of fun anyway. Restoring and renovating houses—now that was her idea of perfection. Taking the old, updating it while keeping the charm of the original structure—pure happiness.

Still, a girl occasionally envies the whole put together feminine look.

“Before we continue to our program on community literacy by our wonderful librarian, Eden Tate, there are a few announcements from our secretary, Victoria Lyons.”

Ah yes, another well put-together woman, although not nearly as formal and uppity as Marla. Victoria was actually quite nice and relatable, which was good since she was a Realtor and worked with a variety of people. She often called Charlee when she had clients who needed help getting homes on the market or a buyer who wanted to consult on renovations before submitting an offer. Victoria was smart, savvy, and sassy—a combination that made her not just a good business contact, but a fun friend, too.

Victoria took her place at the podium, dressed in dark pants and a French blue button-down blouse. Trendy, but casual. Her deep red hair was pulled back in a sleek, low pony tail. “Ladies, it’s time to begin preparations for our annual Autism fundraiser. The committee bantered around several ideas. Generally, we do a charity concert, a dinner and auction, or a golf tournament.”

Charlee yawned. It seemed like the same choices every year. They’d raise the money they set as a goal, which was great, but still, boring.

“This year though,” Victoria paused, waiting for the chatty members to turn their attention to the impending announcement. “The committee has come up with a twist on the auction theme. Instead of having items and services donated, we are planning a bachelor’s auction.”

Charlee sat up a little straighter. Now this could be interesting. From the gasps and oohs in the room, the rest of the club was eager, too.

Victoria continued. “The committee is still working out the details, but the bachelor’s auction will be six months from now, in June. We need suggestions and contact information for your favorite single men. There’s a box at the back of the room with slips of paper and pens next to it or you can email me after today’s meeting.”

Several women turned and eyed the box. Charlee could just imagine the wheels turning in their heads, plotting how to get there first and who to nominate for the auction block. They may as well skip the next twenty-five minutes dedicated to community literacy because the women’s attention definitely wasn’t on anything other than their top ten local hot guys list.

Victoria ran through a few additional business items, which Charlee mostly tuned out while she enjoyed her cheesecake drizzled with fudge sauce.

“I have one last announcement. Crystal Creek City Council has given approval to go ahead with a new shopping district. A private investor has purchased the homes along Taylor Avenue in Crystal Creek.”

That was Charlee’s grandmother’s neighborhood. Or at least it was before Grandma passed away. Her house had sold at auction last year. Most of the other homes in that area had been sold as well. It was sad to see it go from the neighborhood of her youth, filled with laughter and fun, to what it was now—run down and mostly vacant. Even sadder still was the thought of everything being torn down to make a new shopping district. She set her cheesecake aside to pay better attention to Victoria.

“This new shopping district will be unique. The homes will remain intact, although they will be brought up to current code standards and also renovated inside for whichever businesses decide to relocate there. Not only will the neighborhood charm remain, but the investor’s vision is for the shopping to be targeted to women and each store must be local and self-owned. No chains or franchises. The tentative name for the project is Indulgence Row. If you or someone you know might be interested in more information, please contact me. Thank you.”

The other women may have been occupied with making a list of bachelors, but for the remainder of the meeting, all Charlee could think about was the Indulgence Row project.

She wondered who the investor was, because he certainly had great vision. The more she thought about the renovations and revitalizing the neighborhood, the more excited she became.

She wanted in.

She wanted to use her talents to bring her Grandmother’s home—and all her former friends’ homes around it—back to something filled with joy and people. The thought of people creating memories there again made her heart sing.

She would be a part of it.

After the meeting came the expected mad dash to the bachelor nomination box. But Charlee headed in the opposite direction toward Victoria, with Kristen wheeling Rachel close behind her. Eden Tate, the librarian who presented, also joined them at the table.

“Tell me more about Indulgence Row,” Eden said, as she took the chair next to Victoria.

Charlee was glad to see Eden join them. She really liked the spunky woman, who was nothing like any of the other women who worked at the Crystal Creek library. Not that there was anything wrong with the sweet, gentle, and mostly gray-haired ladies, but Eden’s spunky, modern and outgoing personality brought a whole new energy to the place.

Victoria talked a little more about the shopping district, feeling each of them out on their interest levels. “Each house will be renovated to fit the business that wants to occupy the space. Do you have someone in mind, Eden?”

“I’m actually quite interested,” she replied.

“Oh!” Victoria said. “I didn’t realize you were leaving the library.”

“There have been so many programs I’ve wanted to start, but with budget restrictions and different point of views about future readers, it’s been difficult to implement them. I’ve been considering opening a bookstore for a while. Something charming and cozy, where readers can talk books, plots and even debate which couples from series are better than others.” Eden continued, her excitement and enthusiasm showing through the expressive ways she moved her arms and hands as she shared her vision. “There’s so much I want to do, to inspire a love of reading, host book clubs, hold genre spotlight nights, and oh so much more. I’ve been squirreling away bits of money here and there over the years. Once you mentioned Indulgence Row, I knew it was perfect for my shop.”

“Me, too,” Rachel chimed in. “Kristen and I have already talked to you about needing a new space. Our teeny tiny shop hasn’t been able to handle the influx of customers we’ve had since the cake challenge. I can just see the quaint sign hanging from the front of the house. Sweet Confections,” she said, with her hands raised as if framing an imaginary sign.

“Sweet Confections at Indulgence Row,” Charlee chimed in. “That could be part of the branding. Each shop has its name, but followed with ‘at Indulgence Row’.”

“I love it,” replied Victoria, jotting notes in her notepad.

“I totally want in,” Charlee said, leaning forward. “I want to get together to talk specifics and have Elliott Construction put together a bid.”

Victoria put her arm around Eden. “You all have brightened up my day. I’ll contact the investor, then set up a time to meet with each of you. This is going to be an amazing project.”

It will indeed, Charlee thought. Now, she just needed to get her boss on board.

 

*****

 

RATHER THAN RETURN to her job site at the Johnson’s house, Charlee headed over to Elliott Construction’s main office. All the way there, her feet tingled. Odd as it might sound, she knew better than to ignore her feet. The buzzing bee feeling was a sure sign that she was onto something great.

She had many wonderful memories of spending time with her grandparents when she was young. Then Pappy died and the only time she saw Grandma smile was when she was surrounded by her grandchildren. They gardened together, tending flower beds around the house and a veggie garden in the back yard. They baked cookies and Grandma taught her how to make homemade chicken noodle soup with delicious matzo balls. A craving came over Charlee to go home and make her favorite soup and continue reminiscing.

Instead, she got out of her truck and fought the bitter January wind to enter the office building. She would convince George Elliott that this project was perfect for them. Not only for the company, but for her first lead project.

She had been working for the company since she was sixteen years old. She started out in the offices until she proved to George that she was just as handy with a hammer as his son, Peter. Not only handy, but she had a great sense for space and design, and could envision in her head what needed to happen to achieve the finished product the client desired. After a two year leave to get a dual degree in carpentry and home remodeling and preservation, she resumed her work with Elliott Construction, where it all began.

In all these years, she had yet to be the crew lead for her own project.

But this one she would. She would make sure of it.

Charlee knocked on the wood door frame of George’s office. He was seated at his desk, busy with a phone call, but waved her in. His salt and pepper head bent over a yellow legal pad as he scrawled notes across the page.

“That all sounds good, Randy. Let me know when the supplies are delivered. Thanks.” George replaced the phone in the cradle and made a few notes before turning his attention to her. “What can I do for you, Charlee?”

“I just got back from the Women in Business meeting,” she said, sitting down in the hard, cracked chair in front of his cluttered desk.

“Oh, right. That was today, wasn’t it?” He pushed up the sleeves of his flannel shirt, then started sorting through the mail piled on his desk.

“Victoria Lyons announced a new shopping district.” That got George’s attention, his eyes finally meeting hers. “You know the area where my grandparents lived?”

He nodded in acknowledgement. “Sure, I used to go down there for card games with your grandfather.”

“They plan to renovate those blocks of homes into a shopping district. Not new construction, but actually restoring the houses themselves and renovating them to fit the businesses that will be there.”

His face brightened. “That sounds great. Thanks, Charlee. I’ll have Peter talk to Victoria and get a bid in.”

She shook her head and tried not to fidget. Would he go for her plan? “I already talked with her. George, I want to lead the project.”

He sat back in his chair, steepled his hands in front of his chest and sighed. “Peter has more experience in this area. He’s done city bids before, he knows the ins and outs—”

“Only because you haven’t let me,” she interrupted. “Peter may have more years with the company, but I have more education. You know I’ve helped Peter with building plans and offered a lot of good suggestions for better techniques and plan improvements. Things he didn’t know about because he didn’t go to college and take—”

George’s fist came down hard on his desk. “This job isn’t about a college degree and just because you have one, doesn’t make you more qualified.”

She should have known better than to bring up her education. It had been a constant sore point between them. Instead she changed her tactics and continued with a calm tone. “George, I really want to lead this. I’m connected to it. Please, I’m ready. You know I am.”

There was a moment of silence before he replied. “Peter will lead the project. You can have your pick of crew to work on, but he will be in charge. Maybe next time.” George returned to sorting his mail. When she didn’t move to leave, he glanced up, “Aren’t you supposed to be working on the Johnson’s place?”

Instead, Charlee leaned forward. He was never going to change his attitude. It was time to make her stand. “You put me on the most expensive projects. Why is that?”

Startled, George returned his attention to her. His eyes narrowed, making the wrinkles around them bunch up like craggy rocks. When he remained silent, she forged ahead. “You know it’s because I’m damn good. The best renovator you have on staff.”

“Maybe,” he replied curtly, trying his best to not give her any extra ground to prove her point.

She shook her head. “There’s no maybe about it. If you don’t let me take the lead, then I’ll give notice.”

His eyes widened briefly, before narrowing into slits again. “You wouldn’t.”

Charlee simply crossed her arms and met his gaze, not wavering.

“You can sit there, stubborn, as long as you want. I’m not budging either.” He folded his hands on the desk, his face a cool, calm facade. His famous poker face.

But this time, he wasn’t going to win. She had been sitting in the proverbial back seat, waiting for him to wake up and smell the coffee. During her last semester of college, she was a lead contractor for the construction company she interned for. She had been willing to step back a few notches when she returned home, assuming George would eventually get over the fact that she was a woman working in a ‘man’s job’.

It had been six years of telling herself to be patient, but she was done. Her tingling feet told her that Indulgence Row wasn’t just a project—it was her project.

Charlee uncrossed her legs and stood, not once breaking eye contact. “Then I guess it’s settled. Consider this my notice. I’ll finish the Johnson project, then clear out.” She pivoted away and walked to the door.

George’s chair scraped against the hardwood floors. His voice boomed through the room. “You will not! Charlee,” he warned, his voice menacing. “Don’t be a stubborn fool.”

She turned the knob, then paused before opening it. “There’s only one stubborn fool in this room.” She opened the door, then stepped out, closing it behind her.

His voice boomed through the door. “Charlee, get the hell back in here!”

Instead, she walked past the wide-eyed receptionist and gawking co-workers who were finishing their lunch break. It wasn’t unusual for their boss to yell, but Charlee ignoring the boss—that was definitely new.

Charlee pushed through the front door, out into the bright afternoon sun. She fisted her hand, hoping the bite of short nails into her palm would release the frustration crowding and bursting within. Hot dog! Did she just quit her job?

Breathe, girl, just breathe.

Grandma always said to never be afraid of change because it could lead to some of the best things in life.

I sure hope you’re right, Grandma, cause I’m jumping in—work boots, tool belt, and all.

 

Want more? Read Chapter Two.