Click here previous chapters.
Stan Burnet cocked his elbow and grabbed a tuft of his dark wavy hair in exasperation while checking his Yahoo email.
United Way sent out its daily North Pole Ambassador update, and he had dropped to second place overnight in the race to raise the most money for charity and to be the grand marshal of the Christmas Eve parade.
“Cindy, grab all your Ole Miss gear,” he yelled across his Gumtree home to his daughter who was home from college. “Miss Nuts and Bolts is now at two thousand dollars! We’ve got to do something – quick!”
Stan threw on some khakis and an Ole Miss polo, and he and Cindy loaded up his red Chevy Tahoe with a significant sampling of school spirit. His brain was swirling so fast with frustration he couldn’t even think about what he wanted to do to raise the extra $500 to catch up to Nuts & Bolts hardware store owner Penelope Lane. He just knew he needed to capitalize on something.
When he arrived at his Sweet Lips Bakery, his employees had already fired up several batches of doughy goodness, giving him an intoxicating whiff of sugary dietary staples. He put out a couple dozen chocolate chip cookies, helped a customer, wiped down a counter and then set to work decorating his front window for the day.
He started with some red and blue swirls for the University of Mississippi and stuck out some football, basketball and soccer window clingers.
“Hotty Toddy!” yelled one of his friends out the window as he drove by, honking his horn.
Stan gave a smile and a wave.
He sat down on the sidewalk outside his shop with red and blue chalk in tow. Instead of writing his daily specials on the chalkboard out front, he wrote, “Whoever donates the most money today to the United Way at Sweet Lips wins a Deuce McAllister jersey.”
Penelope arrived at her hardware store across the street and immediately came over to see what Stan was getting into.
“Hi, Penny, congrats on pulling ahead yesterday,” Stan said, gritting his teeth and putting forward his best Southern drawl.
“Thanks! I’m not sure I’ll be ahead for long with your brilliant display,” she countered. She knew he was tense because the blue vein in his neck throbbed ever so slightly.
“I don’t know what kind of stuff you had to do to pull in that kind of money….but I’m in it to win it, too.”
“Oh, Stan, don’t be naughty. I’ve got some amazing friends and customers who want to see my pretty face on that float instead of your beer belly.”
“Penny, with that attitude, I’m not only going to be the grand marshal, I’m going to have you a place set right behind the horse poop catcher.”
Penny said nothing.
They both forced some laughter, but the friendly twinkles in their eyes were gone.
“I’m going to do everything I can to get my girls on that float,” Stan said, deadpan.
“Ever since Richard died, I’ve been waiting for something to really bond me and my two boys,” Penny offered, hoping empathy might bring them together again.
“Yeah, me too. Losing Daisy in that crash has been hard. I need a pick-me-up.”
Penny and Stan’s eyes connected, and they understood one another’s loss for a split second before they were distracted by a rumbly pickup lumbering toward a parallel parking spot.
It was Ms. Jones.
“Game on, sugar lips,” Penny said with a smirk.
“You bet your bolts.”
Coming Saturday: Chapter 4: Sam Lane and Cindy Burnet start plotting.