Thirty-One and a Half Regrets Page 21

A woman with graying hair straightened and took several steps toward me. “You must be Rose,” she said with a smile.

“Yes, ma’am.” I extended my hand, glad that Mason was standing behind me. My nerves were about to overtake me.

She shook with a firm grasp. “I’m Thelma Peterman and I’m with the Arkansas Small Business Association. When J.R. Simmons brought your business to our attention, we were excited to process your grant.”

My stomach tightened and I felt Mason place a hand on the small of my back for support. I wasn’t sure why I was shocked. I had already guessed that Joe’s father was behind this set-up, but suspecting something and having it confirmed were two different things.

“We don’t usually spotlight businesses as new as yours, but Mr. Simmons insisted we feature you as part of Joe Simmons’s political campaign, which, of course, will provide great exposure for both of you.”

“We’re just so honored to be considered,” Violet gushed, clutching her hands in front of her.

Thelma cleared her throat, speaking loud enough to get everyone’s attention. “Here’s what’s going to happen: Joe’s running behind schedule, so we’ll film some footage of you and Violet puttering around the shop and ask some informal questions while we wait. Then we’ll stand outside when he shows up, and Joe will give a speech about Arkansas’ entrepreneurial spirit. He’ll hand you an envelope, saying that he’s giving you the check, but in reality it will be empty. Instead, we’ll deposit the money directly into your account. Then Joe will take questions from the press and be on his way. If we need more footage of you two, we’ll stick around after he leaves. This should take no more than two hours max.”

“Okay,” I said, looking out the window at the growing crowd. “Why are there so many people showing up for this? I didn’t know Joe was so popular in Henryetta.”

“It’s probably because there are going to be news crews from Little Rock here filming the press conference,” Violet said with a snip in her voice. “They want to be on TV. If you’d been in here ten minutes ago, you would know that.”

“Excuse me, Ms. Peterman.” Mason stepped around me. “You say that the money will deposited into the Gardner Sisters Nursery’s bank account. I’d like to know exactly when that transaction will be processed.”

Thelma’s bushy eyebrows shot up, and her mouth pursed into the shape of a heart. “And you are…?”

Mason extended his hand, assuming his official countenance. The one that had intimidated me when we first met on Bruce Wayne Decker’s trial. “Mason Deveraux III. Fenton County Assistant District Attorney.”

Her eyes widened in alarm. “I assure you that there is nothing to worry about, Mr. Deveraux. We’re a state-run department and all the paperwork has been processed. The money will be deposited by the end of the week.”

“I was told that there were conditions placed on awarding the grant. One of them was that Rose has to be present for the press conference, is that correct?”

“Well…yes…”

“May I ask who placed those conditions?”

The blood drained from Violet’s face. “Mason, I’m sure you’re getting all worked up over nothing.”

Thelma had recovered enough to become indignant. “It was a decision of the board, Mr. Deveraux. The business does include the name sisters. We needed both sisters.”

Mason shifted his weight, lifting his eyebrows but maintaining his death stare. “How curious that you would think it necessary to make that stipulation. I would presume that both sisters would be thrilled with such an honor and that neither would consider missing the opportunity to show off their business.”

“Well…”

“I want assurance—in writing—that if Ms. Gardner participates in this presentation, the money will be deposited into the business’s account.”

Thelma’s face reddened. “Mr. Deveraux—”

“Mason!” Violet protested. “That really isn’t necessary.”

Mason stared her down. “Violet, I’m positive you can appreciate that I’m looking out for your best interest.”

Her eyes glittered with suppressed anger. “You mean Rose’s.” She turned to me. “Rose, tell Mason that you don’t need his intervention.”

I looked up into Mason’s determined face then turned back to Violet. “No. He’s right. If I’m gonna do this, I want to know that they won’t change their minds.”

Thelma turned and talked to the people behind her in hushed tones before addressing Mason. “This is highly unusual, Mr. Deveraux.”

“Nevertheless, we’ll need that agreement in writing.”

Her back stiffened. “I’m not authorized to create such a document.”

“Then find someone who is.”

Violet marched over and grabbed Mason’s arm, her fingers digging so deep she was bound to leave bruises. “Mason, can we talk for a moment?”

His gaze shifted to Thelma. “It looks like we have a few moments while we’re waiting.”

Violet dragged him into the back room and I followed them, numb with shock.

Violet jabbed him in the chest with her finger. “You have no right butting your nose into our business, Mason. Our business.”

Mason’s face softened. “And as Rose’s friend, I can’t in good conscience stand in the background without offering her legal counsel when I feel she needs it.” He shifted his weight. “Violet, you know good and well that this was instigated by J.R. Simmons. You don’t think that man will double-cross you both with a smile on his face? I want you to have this money as much as you want it, but I’d hate to see these people put you two through the Joe Simmons Puppet Show without anything to show for it. Trust me, Violet. I am looking out for your best interest here too, not just Rose’s. J.R. Simmons has used every trick in the book to get what he wants. I want to make sure both of you get what you were promised.”

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