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I had them. Every single one of them.
“In conclusion, gentlemen,” I said with a smile, “you would be missing the opportunity of a lifetime if you said no to investing in Sophie’s Choice Boutique.”
I held their gazes for two seconds longer than necessary, wrapping up my presentation with a seductive smile. Not too seductive, of course, but just enough to make them consider a little more deliberately what I’d shown them. Which they were clearly doing, as they stared and as a few of them visibly swallowed, watching my smile turn into a pretty smirk.
After a moment of silence in which I held all of their attention, sitting down in one of the leather chairs around the board room table and crossing my legs slowly, Mr. Phelps, the main investor I had my claws in, cleared his throat. “Well, thank you, Mrs. Thibideaux.”
“Miss Thibideaux,” I corrected, making doubly sure that my left hand, sans any ring, showed as I took a sip of water from the glass that had remained untouched throughout the presentation. And then, I slowly licked my lips as one particularly mesmerized man dropped his pen onto the table with a deafening clank.
“Oh, and please,” I purred demurely. “Call me Sophie.”
The beautiful, single woman thing I had going on? Was a trite, clichéd card to play. But after thirteen years of working in the business world, it was one that still worked in a mainly male-dominated realm. And judging by the stares I was still getting, even as Mr. Phelps attempted to close the meeting, it was one worth playing.
Not that I needed to play tricks, mind you. Sophie’s Choice Boutique had been my brain child from the very beginning, and I had made it work, all on my own. I was just barely out of college when I made the pitch for a small accessories boutique to my father, Raymond Thibideaux, CEO and COO of TBD Manufacturing. With just a tiny investment from him, I reasoned, I could open a small store in Baton Rouge and make a comfortable living as a shopkeeper and business owner.
He hadn’t gone for it, though, telling me that jewelry wasn’t his thing and that he didn’t want to put any of his millions into a venture headed by a graduate so new that the ink hadn’t yet dried on her business degree. Too risky, he said.
Fortunately, one of TBD Manufacturing’s stock holders caught wind of what that “sassy Sophia” had cooked up, and he invited me to his office, where I pitched the idea for my business while both encouraging and avoiding his passes, all quite masterfully, I might add. He was helpless to resist, agreed to invest, then suggested that I go beyond just a simple shop in Baton Rouge, and eventually guided me into what would be a series of very wise choices. In return, I tripled his money in a year. Which made the blow that much easier to take when I told him that I had absolutely no interest in merging with him in any other sense but an entirely platonic, business-related one.
Sophie’s Choice Boutique was now statewide, and we had even started another store in Texas, where business had exploded so quickly that we were in talks to open three more stores in the DFW area alone. Sure, I could use my own funds to make it happen, but if people wanted to give me their money, let me multiply it, then hand it right back to them as I stood on the mountains and mountains of profit I was raking in? Well, who was I to stop them? And who was I to refrain from convincing them to give every last cent they could?
Hence my inclination to meet with investors and smile my pretty little smile.
As the meeting around me concluded, I listened with only half of my attention, smiling when appropriate and mentally calculating how much money I had probably earned for Sophie’s Choice with every batted eyelash, every sway of my hips, and every toss of my hair. How much, how much, how much… it was like a surprise, a pleasant surprise, every time I did this.
I could only imagine the revenue generated today.
Thirty minutes later, after shaking hands and making closing small talk, I made my way out to my car, where I checked my phone, pleased to see that I already had three offers from the men I had just met. The grand total on the money they were putting down was twice as much as I had figured it would be.
I smiled to myself, slipped my sunglasses on, threw my Porsche into drive, and headed on into a very bright future.
All in a day’s work, friends.
I’ll tell you a little secret about Sophia Renee Thibideaux, CEO.
Apart from Sophie’s Choice, I don’t have much going on.
You would think this makes for a dull life, but I swear, my schedule is packed tighter than a size sixteen woman in a pair of size one jeans. My mother would say that statement is “crass,” but whatever, y’all. It’s the truth. My cell phone and laptop are always at the ready and, when they connect me to my business, they always take priority over the people around me. I keep old friends at arms’ length, not because I’m cold and indifferent but because I honestly have no time for maintaining relationships most of the time. I’ve discovered, as most adults do at some point in life, that the only relationships that don’t require regular maintenance are family relationships, which you didn’t choose and more often than not, you can’t lose.
I had become newly thankful for this truth over the past years particularly. When Sophie’s Choice branched out of Louisiana, it carried me right into the area where my older brother, Beau, had settled down and married, giving me the opportunity to get to know and fully appreciate his better half, Melissa.
Apart from her complete disregard for fashion and style when we first met, she is the epitome of “better half” because she is everything my brother ever wanted and all that he never even thought he needed. (And, thanks to me, she now actually enjoys shopping and has the good sense to know when to ask for help in matching things, rather than just trying her own unaccomplished hand at it. Hallelujah, and praise the Lord.)
I found myself at their house that evening, still thinking on the triumphs of the meeting and all that I could do with the money I had earned.
“Sophie,” Melissa sighed as we reclined on opposite ends of one of the huge couches in their living room, “we should go shopping to celebrate.”
See? I’ve totally been a good influence on her.
“We should,” I sighed, kicking my feet up next to hers. “But I’m worn out.”
“Me, too,” she yawned. Then looking across the room to where Beau was lying, nearly comatose on the love seat, his legs hanging over the edge, “Honey, are you worn out?”
His answer was a grunt.
We were all three overworked. Melissa had a career as an engineer at a government facility where I’m pretty sure she spent most of her time designing missiles. Of course, she could never come out and confirm my suspicion, but the security detail that trailed her on her trips out of the country suggested that I had it right. While Melissa was blowing things up, Beau was launching rockets and other assorted paraphernalia up into orbit as a senior-level astrophysicist for NASA. Though I know it’s all complicated and advanced science with his work, I still imagine his days at the office are just a series of big parties for geek boys and dorkasauruses, the likes of which always seemed to linger around our childhood home back when he was a nerdy teenager. (Oh, and he’s still a nerd. Just a middle-aged one.)
I had come to their house bursting with enthusiasm for Sophie’s Choice, eager to tell them all about it. Some people would have to feel almost apologetic for having such success in life, to try and taper off the level of excitement surrounding the accolades and accomplishments so as not to make those around them feel at a loss for their own deficiency. But I? Have never had this problem around the rest of the Thibideauxs, because we’ve all been successful, all in our own ways, all because of our hard work. So I had told Melissa and Beau about the meeting, to much applause… and then utter exhaustion as we all collapsed after a celebratory dinner at their favorite restaurant.
“Not that I’m complaining, because I so totally love having you here,” Melissa said, as she pulled my shoe off my foot and studied it. “But why are you with us instead of Chloe?” A pause. “And do they make this in my size?”
“They do,” I nodded. “I’ll send Mom a message, and she’ll have a pair sent to you from the shop that she practically owns herself with all the business she’s given them over the years.”
“God bless Trish,” Melissa said, smiling.
“And I’m here and not at Chloe’s because the last time I stayed over at her house, she and Stephen were… well, all over each other, frankly.”
“Ugh,” Beau groaned, putting a throw pillow over his face. “I don’t want to hear this.”
Melissa shrugged. “Well, they are still newlyweds, you know. Not like me and Old Man Thibideaux here. Hey, Beau, wanna see me naked?”
The pillow on his face moved from side to side.
“See? Just too exhausted to be like that,” Melissa smiled. “Though Stephen and Chloe keep just as busy with church and the salon.”
Not so long ago, Melissa had been on a mission to fix me up with Stephen Hayes, the man who was now my brother-in-law. It was a logical match, of course. He was the senior pastor of their very large church, just exactly my age, very godly, very ambitious, very intelligent, and very focused – just the kind of man my parents would have wanted for their daughter. I was all for the matchmaking efforts, up until my wild child little sister, Chloe, fresh off a tour of flunking through every college in Dallas and Fort Worth both, ended up on Beau and Melissa’s front porch, in serious need of a dose of reality. Reality had come in the form of brokenness and growth, dying to self and learning to live for Christ, and as Chloe became someone entirely new and yet still so perfectly her with all of her bubbly and outgoing personality, she completely won Stephen’s heart with absolutely no effort. And since he was smokin’ hot (Chloe’s words, not mine, although he is easy on the eyes), she had been all for it.
So the man intended for one Thibideaux sister found himself married to the other Thibideaux sister. And it was a perfect match.
Chloe was now leading a very charmed life as Mrs. Hayes, a busy pastor’s wife with her own full career as a hairstylist. I had big ambitions to one day help her open her own salon, if she ever expressed a desire to, but at the moment, her only desire seemed to be for Stephen. And, holy cow, was that desire ever reciprocated. The one time I had stayed with them, they spent the entire evening trading looks, brushing up against one another unnecessarily, and all but making out on the couch together until they mercifully excused themselves for the night… where it only got more awkward, unfortunately, seeing as how either their walls were paper thin, or –
“And they’re really loud,” I whispered to Melissa, wanting to spare Beau this information. “I mean, like, wake up all the neighbors loud, when they go to bed.”
“Really?” Melissa asked, a truly curious expression on her face. “I’d expect it of Chloe, of course, because she’s always loud. All the time, everywhere we go. But Stephen? I’m not sure I’ve ever even heard him raise his voice from the pulpit. So, I can’t really imagine… well, actually, I don’t even want to imagine what goes on with him and Chloe when they –”
“I can still hear you, Melissa,” Beau groaned again from underneath his pillow. Then swinging his legs over to the side of the couch and plopping them on the floor, he shot us both a look. “If I could go to Stephen’s house to escape this kind of talk, I would, but seeing as how something far, far worse is going on over there, I’ll have to stay here and try to ignore all the hen talk.”
“Hen talk?” Melissa gaped at him. “That’s a good way to get yourself in a whole lot of trouble.”
“We’re not hens,” I said, agreeing with her. “Just talking. Like sisters do, you know.”
“Ugh,” he said, “I have enough sisters as it is. Go to bed, and give me back my wife.”
Melissa frowned at him. “Your hen of a wife, you mean?”
He stood, stretched, and nodded his head at her. “What was that you said about seeing you naked?”
“Ahh, really? I was just joking,” she groaned. “I’m really tired. I spent fourteen hours in the lab today.” She glanced at me. “Seriously, there should be labor laws against that kind of thing, you know?”
“Oh, come on,” Beau grinned at her. “Naked. Now. Come on.”
“Ugh,” I managed. “You think it’s bad enough to hear us talk about Chloe, but how bad do you think it is for me to hear you talk about –”
“Please. You know I’m hot.”
I looked at Melissa… and the two of us burst out laughing.
“Ouch,” Beau said, smiling at us despite this.
“You’re not hot. You’re hideous,” I said, smirking at him.
“Come on,” he said to Melissa, studiously ignoring me, “you’re going to miss all of this –” he indicated his increasingly flabby mid-section and balding head with great flourish – “when you’re in Germany next week.”
She rolled her eyes at me, then smiled at him. “God help me, old man, I will.” She patted my hand. “Sophie, will we see you in the morning, or are you getting an early start?”
I sighed. “I’m staying for church, at least. So, I’ll see you. I’ll even fix breakfast for you guys.”
“You?” Melissa asked, raising her eyebrows.
“I’ve learned to cook breakfast,” I told her, smiling. “I’m becoming more domesticated in my old age. I can now pour cereal into a bowl.”
“Awesome,” Beau leaned down to kiss my cheek. “I put your car in the garage for you and brought all your luggage to the guest room.”
“Thanks,” I smiled at him. Despite his, at times, social ineptitude and tragic lack of style, he was like me. We’d never struggled to understand one another growing up, both of us bright and talented, and we were good friends now that we were adults. I thought about this as he smirked at the look on my face. “You’re a good guy, Beau. Probably the only one still left out there, huh?”
“Plenty more, Sophie. But they’re not good enough for you,” he said, grinning.
“Truth, brother. Truth,” I sighed, patting his cheek. “Go on to bed.”
And as they left, I made my way to the guest room, where I had no one to be concerned with but Sophia Renee Thibideaux. Left to my own company, I was content enough, as I opened up my laptop and went right back to work on all that still needed to be done for my business.
Grace Community was a huge church.
Melissa had grown up there, and when my brother relocated to the area for work and began dating her, he joined the church as well. Back then, Stephen had been the associate pastor, and because they were neighbors and had plenty in common, he and Beau had become good friends. In the years since then, Stephen had become the senior pastor of the church, and when Chloe married him, she had become the quintessential pastor’s wife.
Except in her own original way, which was something I was privy to this morning, much to my amusement, as I watched her chat with a group of ladies literally three times her own age, animatedly giggling and telling them some fantastical story.
They adored her, clearly. As did Stephen, who watched her with a sappy smile on his face.
Chloe caught my eye as Melissa, Beau, and I made our way into the sanctuary. “Sophie! I was hoping you’d stay for church this morning!” Then with lowered voice, “Your hair looks awesome. I told you those highlights weren’t too red.”
She had been right, of course. I had resisted the suggestion a couple of days ago at the salon, assuming it would be too much, but she had a natural eye for these things. It’s why she would be an unbelievable success with her own salon, if she’d just let me make it happen for her.
“You were right,” I said, with a begrudging smile.
“Put that in writing,” she laughed. “Are you going to be in town much longer?”
“No,” I said. “Just for church this morning. Then, it’s back on the road. Busy week ahead.”
“Makes me tired just thinking about it,” she said, wrapping her arms around Stephen’s waist and suppressing a yawn. She smiled up at him as he kissed her on the forehead.
See? Sappy, sappy sweet and… nauseating, actually.
Stephen held out his hand to Beau. “Hey, are we still on for the game tomorrow night?”
Beau took his hand and didn’t say anything for a moment, tight-lipped with a stern expression on his face. Perhaps he was as nauseated as I was.
“Ah, geez, Beau,” Melissa managed, rolling her eyes and nudging him.
“Yeah,” Beau said. “That’s… fine.”
Melissa gave me a knowing look. Ahh. Clearly Beau, even all these months into our sister’s marriage was still having a hard time dealing with the thought of her with Stephen. Or anyone likely, for that matter. My conversation the night before probably hadn’t helped.
“Okay,” Stephen said, looking at him oddly. Then, turning to me with a smile, “So how was your big meeting, Sophie?”
“Good,” I smiled at him. “Better than good, actually. Seems I’ll be around a lot more this year with the new shops opening up.”
“I’m so glad to hear that you’ll be around more,” Chloe smiled, as she gave Stephen an adoring look, which he, of course, returned. “Actually, that’s something I wanted to talk to you about, and –”
“Can it wait?” Beau asked her, shortly. “I’ve got to go do some greeter duty thing for the deacons.” He looked at Stephen. “Which I can only assume you signed me up for, right?”
“Not me,” Stephen said, pleasantly. “I leave the deacons to do their own thing. Only an ex-facto member of that team, you know.”
“Whatever,” Beau sighed.
“Who stuck a cactus up your butt this morning, Beau?” Chloe asked him, lowering her voice. Ahh, there was the sweet little pastor’s wife that I knew so well.
“No one actually,” he matched her tone. “It’s just I haven’t been sleeping so well at night because I have some super loud neighbors.”
“He’s just grouchy because we ran out of milk for his cereal this morning,” Melissa said, patting Beau’s shoulder.
“Yeah. I fixed breakfast for everyone,” I added, grinning.
“Should have come over to your house this morning,” Stephen said. “Haven’t had breakfast fixed at our house in…” He looked at Chloe, stopping short of saying anything more.
I looked back and forth between the two of them. “Already stopped cooking for him, Chloe?”
She smiled. “Just in the mornings. And that’s only because I spend every morning throwing up.”
Stephen grinned down at her. “Can’t last forever.”
“Not past nine months, surely,” she giggled.
Melissa and I gasped at this. Beau looked at a beaming Stephen and a glowing Chloe with nothing but a dubious, clueless expression.
“What?” he asked. “I don’t get it.”
“You’re a scientist, Beau,” Melissa said to him, smiling. “I think you can probably figure this out, if you remove yourself from the situation just a tiny bit.”
He thought about this for a second, then looked to Chloe, a smile finally touching his lips. “Are you…?”
“Congratulations, Uncle Beau,” she whispered, reaching up to hug him.
“Oh, Chloe,” I said, tears in my eyes, as I reached out for the next hug. “How are you feeling? How are you doing?”
“I’m tired,” she said, “and I’ve been producing bucket loads of barf. But other than that? I’m great. Really great. How could I not be, though? I mean, I’m having this man’s baby!” she practically shrieked, grinning at Stephen.
“Stephen,” Beau held his hand out for a manly fist bump, then pulled the pastor in for an exuberant embrace. Why this, irrefutable proof of what was happening in his little sister’s marriage bed, was so much easier to take than just the suspicion of what was going on –
“Stupid men,” Melissa smiled, reaching over to hug Chloe herself, as Stephen and Beau laughed together.
“Better hope he looks like me,” Beau said. “Because I’m so much better looking than you, man.”
Chloe gave our brother a dirty look. “Beau, this baby isn’t your love child with Stephen.”
“Too bad,” Beau said, “because he’d be super smart with our combined genes.”
“Or she would be super smart,” I said, smiling. “Oh, geez, Chloe, think of all the cute bows and shoes I could buy if it’s a girl!”
“I know, right?” she said, kissing Stephen good-bye as he and Beau went the other direction, arms around one another’s shoulders. We watched them leave as they continued laughing together.
“You know, there are days when I wonder if it’s actually such a great thing that my husband and my brother have this whole guy love thing going on,” Chloe muttered as she turned from them then led us girls to our regular seats in the sanctuary.
“Gets them out of our hair every once in a while,” Melissa said. “So, when did you find out about the baby?”
“Four weeks ago,” Chloe sighed. “I wasn’t even a week late yet, but I took a test, just hoping, you know? Barely had time to get dressed again before the test turned positive. It was that positive, y’all. And I took off down the hall, sprinting, with the dog running and barking behind me. Stephen had already gone into the office for one of the men’s Bible studies, and I freakin’ locked my keys in my car because I was crying so hard. So, I just took off running for the church, and –”
“You ran two miles? Pregnant?” Melissa asked.
“Well, more like ran a half mile, walked the next mile, then hobbled the rest of the way,” Chloe said. “Totally destroyed an adorable pair of shoes doing it, too, but I had to tell him! Face to face, and I couldn’t wait. I got there just as the study was ending, so I waited until he came to his office. Jumped in his arms and began shrieking and crying, and he was thrilled once he finally figured out what I was saying. And then… well, you know, he was really excited, and I got really excited, too, so it got kind of graphic after that, and –”
“In the pastor’s office?” I gaped at her.
She sighed. “You know, Sophie, God is all for it. In fact, He pretty much says, right there in Scripture, that I get it on with the preacher as often as he’s up for it.“ Then, glancing at Melissa, “I had no idea that the Bible was that exciting, frankly.”
“Well, it does speak to all of life, I guess,” Melissa nodded.
“And how,” Chloe agreed. “And now that I’m… expecting… I just…” She sighed, smiling. “I keep coming back to the goodness of God, you know? I mean, I spent all of those years living for me, being so destructive, and just… He changed everything. And now? He’s going to let me be a mother. I’m going to be someone’s Mommy, and I just…” She waved a hand in front of her face and laughed, pulling a ratty Kleenex out of her purse. “I can cry over anything these days.”
Honestly? I felt a little like crying myself.
Here’s the thing. I love my life. I love being able to do what I want, when I want, where I want, and with whom I want. I love not being tied down to anyone or anything or any place. I love answering to no one but Sophia Renee Thibideaux who honestly? Could buy her own stock back from all of her investors and still come out way ahead at this point in the game.
I love my life…
… but looking at my sister, so in love and so overjoyed, even as she rubbed her hand over a flat tummy that betrayed no secrets about what was to come, I wondered if there might be something missing. And looking at my sister-in-law, who had sworn to me that she had no intention of ever having “spawn” of her own (her word, not mine), yet who still had the same look of gush and mush in her eyes as she told Chloe all about how Beau pouted around the house that morning, groaning about dry cereal… well, I wondered if I was really happy after all.
I’d never needed a man. That’s for sure. But I had this annoying, irritating sense that there had to be more to life than what it was, especially in the light of the happiness around me.
And just as I sighed and forced a smile to my face, just as the music from the praise band started up…
… well, I saw him.
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