“This is a great building.” Stella wandered around the open space of the first floor and drank in the details. The quirky old appliance store featured neon lighting along the walls and wide-open spaces. A split staircase led to the second floor and black and white tiles decorated the first level. She ran her fingers along the wooden railing. She could see rope lighting wound through the wrought iron and wished there was a way to turn on the neon.
“It’s worthless.” James groaned and strode past her. “I’m talking to the lawyer. The bastard hasn’t shown up yet. He’s wasting my time.”
The bastard? She rolled her eyes. Only her husband would call his lawyer and the person coming to visit to potentially rent the space a bastard. She turned her attention back to the building. If it wasn’t on the register or at least labeled a historical place…it should be. There was a certain aura to the place that screamed to be saved.
“This would be a great storefront,” she said. The property was prime real estate and should be developed into something else. She could see a quaint business taking up the space. Maybe something funky and run by a millennial. Someone could take the large windows and use them to showcase wonderful Christmas displays. She had so many ideas, but no way to execute them.
No, James wouldn’t go along with her idea. No was his answer to everything at the moment—business ideas, lunch choices…sex. She hopped onto the counter and closed her eyes. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d had sex or he’d even kissed her. They’d been so close before. For fourteen years of their marriage, they’d been the best of friends and two halves of a whole. During the last year, he’d changed. He’d pulled away. He claimed the business required his attention. She had the feeling business wasn’t papers and numbers, but rather the blonde down the hallway at the real estate office.
“Oh shit. I’m late.”
She opened her eyes and a tall man with dirty-blond hair ran up to her. He gripped a binder and his brown eyes blazed.
“Hi, I’m supposed to meet a guy,” he said. He puffed and doubled over for a second. “Sorry. I ran down the block.”
“I can see that. You’re a mess.” She drew her legs up and folded them beneath her. He’d piqued her interest. She guessed he was there to meet with James. The poor guy. So young and handsome…he’d get shot down by James, no doubt. Still, she wanted to keep speaking with him. “What, again, are you here for?”
“I want to open a business.” He offered his hand. “I’m Wes Chase.”
“Stella.” She shook hands with him. The moment she touched his skin, hers tingled. She fought the urge to pull away from him. She hadn’t felt such a reaction in a long time—probably not since she’d met James back in college.
“Stella.” He smiled. “That’s a pretty name.” He tucked the binder under his arm. “So, see, I’m envisioning a record store. Think lots of neon—besides what’s already here—lots of couches, turntables, vintage…listening areas and lots of vinyl.”
“Sounds interesting.” She tucked her hands under her butt to keep from touching him again. “What’s your plan?”
“Oh!” He tugged the binder free and opened it, then placed it on the counter beside her. “I’ve got half of the capital and connections secured. I’ve met with people in the record sales and trade business. This area doesn’t have any specialty shops and needs one. I believe once there’s one started, then others will follow. You’ve got a thriving downtown scene and it should be utilized.”
She laughed. He knew how to say the right words anyway. She glanced down at his charts. He had the correct information, too. “I agree. I miss the unique shops we used to have.”
“With the right marketing—which I’ve laid out here—this can be a reality. I’m hoping Mr. Barnes will allow me to rent the building.” Wes nodded. “Are you looking into renting this place?”
“Oh no.” She shook her head. “I’m not in any position to rent anything.” Truth be told, she wasn’t financially independent of James at the moment. But until now she hadn’t needed to be. Looking at her situation, she realized she needed to have a plan for herself.
“Good. I don’t want competition.” He paused and his eyes widened. “I mean…sorry.” He frowned, then bowed his head. “I know his penchant for pretty girls.”
She suppressed a snort. Pretty girl? She had to be at least ten years older than him, but she’d accept the compliment. Besides, she wasn’t on James’ radar. She was his friend and the person who lived at the house with him.
“Do you know him? You’re his girlfriend, right?” Wes leaned in close. “Wait…I know you. Have we met before? Maybe another professional setting? You look familiar but I swear I can’t place you.”
“I know him.” She nodded to hide her disgust—not with Wes, although his pushy nature grated a bit on her nerves—but at James for cutting her out…already. “Well, why don’t we ask him? If your plan is up to snuff, then I don’t see why he’d turn you down.” Except that he’d already decided to demolish the building. If nothing else, Wes would get a great lesson in not getting his hopes up.
“I’m afraid to ask him because he’s notoriously tough to work with and cranky. He kills deals because he doesn’t like a person’s tie or whatever.” Wes adjusted his crooked necktie. His collar was askew.
She waggled her fingers. “Come here.” She fixed his collar and smoothed out his tie. Then she swept his hair off his forehead. “Better. Less messy.” She sat back and looked him over. “If you’ve done your homework, then you’ve done your part and you won’t know what he’ll say until you ask.” She turned her attention to her husband, who’d just returned to the room. “James? This gentleman wants to rent the building.”
James strode up to Wes and glared at him. He narrowed his eyes and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Yes. The building. What do you know about business? You’re young.”
“I’m a college graduate in business management. I’ve worked with three local businesses to increase profits and exposure. If you look here, you’ll see the strides I helped them make.” He pointed to a page in the binder. “I’ve got collateral and references. If you look here, I’ve written up my plan.”
“I don’t care.” James snorted.
She bit back a sigh. Of course. She knew this was coming, but she wished he would’ve at least given him a chance.
“What?” Wes asked, stunned. His lips parted and the color drained from his face.
Wasn’t he expecting to be turned down? She winced. She’d built him up unintentionally. Damn. She touched her husband’s arm. “James, what’s wrong with you? This young man has a plan and it’s one of the better ones I’ve seen.”
“That’s the problem.” James sneered. “I’m not giving money to you or offering a lease agreement to a damn kid—which is what you are. I wish my wife understood that point and would’ve kept her mouth shut.” He turned his venom on her. “You need to remember your place and act your age.”
She shrank back from James and wished she could melt into the floor. She should’ve seen this coming, too. He loved to remind her she wasn’t a young woman any longer. Even at thirty-six, he saw her as old as dirt.
“I’m not a kid,” Wes said. “Mr. Barnes? I’m sorry you’re declining. If you’d look at the plan, maybe I can change your mind?”
“No.” James grabbed Stella’s arm and tugged her off the counter. He yanked her across the room toward the door. “What have I told you? Encouraging them gives them hope. I am not in the business of hope.”
She didn’t look back at Wes. She’d done plenty of damage by being positive. Instead, she allowed James to nudge her out of the building. Her heart ached. The man who had once been her other half had become a bitter person. He only thought of money and appearances.
“Wait.” Wes strode up to them. “I don’t understand. I’ve done the work. I’ve got the loan for the rest of the expenses and my plan is right here.”
“Go home,” James snarled. “Grow up and understand the world isn’t here for your taking.” He let go of Stella and snapped his fingers. “Where in the hell is my car?” He strode over to his lawyer and growled at him.
Stella turned her back on her husband. “I’m sorry,” she said. “He’s in the business to make money. He can be callous, demanding and abusive when he thinks he’s on the right track to acquiring more wealth.”
“That makes sense, but I don’t see how a sweet, nice woman such as yourself can be married to him. Was it money?” He gripped the binder. “I read the bio. Aren’t you his wife, Stella? That’s where I remember you from. You met him in college long before he had anything. You’ve been through thick and thin with him. What’s he got on you? He treats you like crap. If you were my wife, I’d treat you like a queen.”
“But I’m not.” She’d made her bed and now she had to sleep in it—alone. Why did Wes have to say nice things like that? She wanted to be able to look at the situation the way James did—with impartiality and a keen eye toward making income. But when she met Wes’ gaze, all she saw was the pain of shattered dreams.
“I’m sorry. It’s not my place to say anything, but I can’t stand when I see someone being walked all over.” Wes reached for her, then pulled back. “I’m also sorry I spoke out of turn about him. You must think I’m terrible.”
“No.” She tugged on his tie. “You’re honest. You’re a good man who seems to have his head on straight, but with people like James, sometimes you can’t win. Keep trying, though. If you really want that record shop, you’ll find a way to make it work. I don’t know why, but I have faith in you.” She smiled. She’d given him another confidence boost, despite her attempt to put space between them. She spotted the car. At least she could escape. “I should go. Good luck.” She hurried over to the vehicle and ducked into the back seat.
When she glanced over at him, Wes waved. Her heart broke. He probably had a great plan and all the things he’d said, but James wasn’t going to help him realize the dream.
She sank onto the seat and blew out a ragged breath. The funny part was she and Wes were a lot alike. They’d shot for something that wasn’t possible. James sat beside her and groaned.
“That was awful.” He flipped through the screens on his tablet. “He had no idea.”
“Right.” She folded her arms. She had to get the situation dealt with. “You’re tearing down the building, aren’t you?”
“I told you that. The property is worth more if we demolish it. We’re investing in a luxury apartment complex on that site.” James tapped the device. “Why do you care so much? I told you, he’s not old enough.”
“For what?” she snapped. “What do you think I’m going to do?” She faced him and balled her hands. She’d had enough.
“To flirt with for one.” He didn’t tear his attention from the tablet. “You’re too old for him.”
“And married, too.”
She held on to her restraint by a thin thread. “You’ve been cheating on me for at least two years. I know more than I’ve let on and your last girlfriend came to the house to tell me.”
He froze, then tipped his gaze to hers. “What are you going to do about it?”
“Haven’t you? I want you to say it. Admit what you’ve done.” She couldn’t believe she’d forced the issue. She’d pushed sometimes, but not much.
The muscle in his jaw clenched and he glared at her. “I have. Three women.” He notched his chin in the air. “We’ve grown apart for the last three years. You’re my best friend. If I have a problem that’s not involving real estate, you’re the only one who understands. But I need to grow. I need to be on my own.”
She nodded. Growing and understanding… Bullshit. “You need the busty blonde who works at your office.”
He didn’t say anything, but she read the disgust and irritation in his eyes.
“If you want to split, then fine.” She kept her composure. “I want the card company. I’m tired of being lied to and not valued. I’m not your best friend. I’m the one who lives in the house with you.”
“If you’d put out, then I wouldn’t have to look elsewhere.” He tossed the tablet onto the seat. “Fine. Whatever.” He slapped the back of the seat. “Take me to Gilbert’s office. I need to file for divorce.”
She bit back bile and willed the tears not to fall. The end was inevitable. She’d expected it, but not so fast. Well shit. She stared out of the window and forced herself not to cry. Her marriage was over and the next phase of her life was about to begin.