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Malory forced herself to appear concerned even while her mind jumped with glee. “Yes, I’m so sorry that things have . . .” Don’t say gone to hell in a handbasket, she ordered herself, and continued without missing a beat. “Been a bit difficult during this transition.”

“Yes. Difficult. Pamela’s very enthusiastic about The Gallery, but I’m afraid she’s still learning. I see now that I gave her too much autonomy too quickly.”

To keep from punching her fists in the air, Malory sedately folded her hands on her knee. “She has a very precisely defined vision.”

“Yes. Yes.” He worried his gold pen, fiddled with his tie. “I think her strengths may lie in a more peripheral area than actual client-staff relations. I realize there’s friction between the two of you.”

Cool, she reminded herself. “I also had a very precisely defined vision, which unfortunately clashed with hers. So, yes, there was considerable friction.”

“Well.” He cleared his throat. “Perhaps I let Pamela influence me in that regard. I felt, sincerely, that it might be time for you to explore your talents, to experiment. However, I see I didn’t take into consideration your affection and loyalty to The Gallery, or how being nudged out of the nest, as it were, might upset you.”

“I admit it did.” But she tempered her statement with the sweetest of smiles.

“I have considered all of this over the last couple of weeks. I’d very much like you to come back, Malory. To resume your managerial duties. At a ten percent increase in salary.”

“This is so unexpected.” She had to imagine her butt glued to the chair so she couldn’t leap up and do a victory dance. “And I’m flattered. But . . . can I be frank?”

“Of course.”

“The friction we spoke of is still going to be there. I have to admit I hadn’t been happy here the last several months. Your . . . nudging me out of the nest,” she said, “was painful and frightening. But once I was out, I had the opportunity to look back and realize that the nest had become . . . let’s say a little crowded.”

“I understand.” He held up his hands, then clasped then together under his chin. “I can promise that Pamela won’t interfere with your authority, or with the policies that have long been in effect here. You’ll have the last word, barring mine, of course, on acquisitions and displays, on featured artists and so on. Just as before.”

It was exactly what she’d wanted. More than, she realized when she calculated the bonus in salary. She would be back doing what she did best, and with considerable financial reward, and she would have the personal, if unattractive, satisfaction of putting Pamela’s nose out of joint.

She would have won, without firing a shot.

“Thank you, James. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to know you want me back, that you have confidence in me.”

“Wonderful, wonderful.” He beamed at her. “You can start right away, today if that’s good for you. It’ll be like the last two weeks never even happened.”

Like they never even happened.

Her stomach gave a mighty pitch. Then, suddenly, it was as if sensible Malory stepped to the side and listened in shock as reckless Malory took charge.

“But I can’t come back. I’ll always be grateful for everything you taught me, all the opportunities you gave me—the last being pushing me out the door so I’d have to leave my comfort zone. I’m going to open my own business.”

Oh, my God, she thought. I’m going to open my own business.

“It won’t be anything as grand as The Gallery. Smaller, more . . .” She nearly said “accessible,” then managed to backtrack. “Low-key,” she continued. “I’m going to focus primarily on local artists and craftspeople.”

“Malory, you must be aware how much time and energy that sort of thing consumes. And more, the financial risk involved.” There was no doubt about it, James was panicking.

“I know. I don’t seem to be as worried about taking risks as I used to be. In fact, I’m excited by the prospect of taking them. But thank you, thank you so much for all you’ve done for me. I really have to go now.”

She got up quickly, afraid she would change her mind. Here was her safety net, spread out, ready to catch her. And she was swinging out beyond it to where the ground was very hard, and very far away.

“Malory, I wish you’d take some time to think this through.”

“Do you know what happens when you always look before you leap?” She reached out and touched his hand before hurrying toward the door. “You hardly ever make the jump.”

SHE didn’t waste time. Malory hunted down the address Zoe had relayed, and pulled into a double driveway behind Dana’s car.

Good location, she decided, sliding practical Malory back into place. There would be some pedestrian traffic, and reasonable parking for people who needed it.

The house was charming. Homey, she thought. And the three of them working together could certainly perk it up. Paint the porch, plant some trailing vines. Zoe probably already had a horde of ideas on that.

The walkway needed to be repaired or replaced. She noted that detail down on the clipboard she’d brought with her. Window boxes? Yes, planted seasonally.

And wouldn’t it snazz up the entrance to have a stained-glass window replace the clear one over the front door? Something designed specifically for them. She had some contacts in that area.

Still making notes, she opened the front door.

The foyer could be a showcase for all three businesses. Yes, there was a way to do that with clever placement and displays, keeping it friendly and informal while advertising their goods and services.

The light was good, the floors a treasure once they were refinished. The walls, well, paint would solve that.

She wandered through, delighted with the rooms. They did seem to tumble together, she thought. Just as Zoe had said.

An excellent way to blend businesses.

After filling pages with notes she strolled back, just as Dana and Zoe came down the stairs.

“Eventually, I’d like to refit the master bath with a Swedish shower and aromatherapy station,” Zoe was saying. “But for now . . . Malory, hi.”

“Hi.” Malory lowered her clipboard. “I’m in.”

“I knew it!” With a whoop, Zoe flew down the stairs and grabbed her. “I just knew it. Did you see? Have you been through? Isn’t it great? Isn’t it perfect?”

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