Rowan peered into the oven, her hand guarded by a thick oven mitt. The scent of chocolate wafted toward her. Though the brownies smelled done, the slightly chocolate-coated toothpick in her free hand told her otherwise. “Just one more minute,” she decided. Pushing the pan back inside, she closed the door.
Brownies were hardly a healthy dinner, but she’d had a long night at work. Usually she didn’t mind her job waitressing tables at the diner. Sean’s regular crowd gently teased her but left generous tips. But Sean’s was also right off the highway, and every once in a while they got drunk strangers. Her soiled clothing was currently cycling through its second run in her old washing machine. After being vomited on, anyone would need a good dose of chocolate.
Maybe it was a sign that she needed to get out of waitressing. The problem was, she had no idea what she should do instead. She’d finished her A.S. in May. Given her experience, she could apply for a management position at a restaurant. The pay would be decent, but she just wasn’t sure that she wanted to work holidays and weekends for the rest of her life.
Sighing, she turned away from the oven and grabbed her notepad. With a swipe of her pen, she adjusted the time on the recipe that she was working on. In the three years since she’d started her blog, she had yet to post a recipe for brownies. She was about to remedy that.
Her blog was also an option. Because of it, she earned a pretty decent side income. Between affiliate sales and paid product reviews, she was able to pay her rent, and her waitressing income took care of her bills and other expenses. Now that she was out of school, if she quit her job and focused on her blog full-time, she could easily turn that income into a living. The idea of sitting in her kitchen all day didn’t really appeal to her, though. She liked bantering with her customers at Sean’s. Though her readers left great comments and busted her balls just fine, it wasn’t the same as face to face interaction.
She had no idea what she wanted.
The timer on her oven went off. Her minute was up. She pulled the pan of brownies out of the oven and set it on top of the burners of the stove. Immediately she turned the oven off. Despite the sun having set hours ago, the temperature outside hovered in the upper eighties. It was going to be a brutal summer.
Her father would tell her that she was crazy for baking in eighty-degree weather—and that she needed to add something special to those brownies. She rolled her eyes at the thought,
then frowned, pushing away the memories of her childhood. She’d moved to New Jersey almost the second she graduated high school, and she’d never looked back. She was over it and her parents. Mostly.
The brownies had to cool before she could cut them, so she left the oven and ambled into her living room area. As she crossed the small studio, she glanced at a photo on the wall of her aunt Katherine. Her heart twisted. She hadn’t seen her aunt in two years. They talked on the phone occasionally, but things weren’t the same. Too much was unspoken between them.
Closer to the air conditioner, she felt the sweat on her face drying. She sat down on her futon, tucking her legs underneath her. She drummed her fingers on her thigh. She didn’t have cable, and opening up her laptop and surfing YouTube would only make her feel guilty that she wasn’t working on her blog post instead. She bit her lip. Maybe it was time to get cable.
Her phone vibrated against the worn coffee table. Frowning, Rowan leaned forward for it. It was almost midnight. She didn’t recognize the number. Silencing the phone, she figured someone had probably dialed wrong—it happened.
Almost a minute later, a notification flashed across the screen. One new voicemail. Her frown deepened. She’d had enough of drunks for one night. Reaching for the phone, she plucked it off the table. Without listening to the voicemail, she deleted it.
The brownies had cooled for long enough. Hopping off the futon, she returned to the oven. Knife in hand, she brushed a strand of mousy brown hair from her face and began slicing the brownies free. She stifled a yawn. She’d better wrap up her brownie fix soon. She had a morning shift at the diner.
Balancing a plate of square brownies in one hand, she trotted to the refrigerator. She set the plate down and poured herself a glass of milk. She plucked three brownies from the plate and carried her feast back to the futon.
It didn’t take long for her to eat them. With a sigh, she brought her dishes to the sink. Then she opened up the futon. Stripping down to just her tank top and panties, she lay down. She stared into the darkness for a long time before sleep came.
It was Friday night.
* * *
When Rowan woke early the next morning, she had another voicemail from the same number. She stared at the screen of her phone for a long moment. The number had a Connecticut area code. While that didn’t necessarily mean anything—she’d bought her phone when she was still living in her home state—she couldn’t ignore the alarm bells going off in her head. Still, she didn’t have time. It was going to have to wait.
She dressed quickly and, on her way out, grabbed a brownie for breakfast. She arrived at Sean’s just as her boss of the same name was unlocking the door.
“Morning,” she greeted him.
He gave her a half grunt, half sigh in response, then a crooked smile. Pushing the door open, he motioned for her to go first. As she passed him, she couldn’t help but notice that his eyes were underlined by dark circles. His long hours at the diner were taking their toll. He’d never been a morning person, but she knew he’d stayed long after they closed the night before, prepping for the next day.
As far as she knew, she was the only server he’d scheduled for the morning. Usually, she appreciated the gesture. Though she knew it was really because he knew his sunrise customers preferred her to the other servers, it was nice to be valued. But early Saturday mornings were always slow. There was no one on their way to work. The sleepy little town caught up on rest and yard work on weekends.
With a sigh, she tied on her apron and prepared for the long day ahead. Even though she and Sean would be the only ones drinking it for the better part of the morning, she made coffee. She set tables with paper placemats and rolled silverware. When she was finished, she brought her boss a cup of coffee and perched on the counter next to him. They sat in silence for several long minutes. While she watched him prepare the register and type up the specials for the day, her thoughts again turned to her impending future. She loved the diner, but it wasn’t exactly a career.
Just before he flipped the sign to open for the day, Sean gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Everything okay, kiddo?”
“Man, I must look bad.” Though Rowan often suspected that he considered her like a daughter, he rarely asked about her personal life. She never asked about his, either, though. She knew he’d come to New Jersey a stray, too, but didn’t know the circumstances.
“You look like you’re in deep thought.” He gave her a smile, the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes crinkling.
She bit her lip. He was the closest thing she had to a father figure. Maybe he could give her advice. Taking a sip of her coffee, she watched as he sank into a chair at one of the tables. “How did you decide that you wanted to run a diner for the rest of your life?”
His eyebrows rose. “The rest of my life? Are you trying to punish me?”
“Well, you know what I mean.” Her stomach rumbled. Suddenly she regretted having eaten nothing but brownies in the last twenty-four hours.
One of his eyebrows twitched. “I didn’t really know,” he hedged, hitting the print button on his laptop. Underneath the counter, the printer coughed and spurted. The sheets that would become table tents for the day’s specials spewed onto the tray.
“You ended up here somehow,” she persisted. “What did you decide to do after finishing high school?”
Sean collected the pile of copies and began assembling them. “I didn’t.”
“You didn’t finish high school?” she teased.
“No.” His brown eyes met hers.
Feeling her cheeks flush, she managed a small “Oh.”
“Rowan, those were different days. My grades weren’t the best, and I was always getting into trouble for minor things. They didn’t really know what to do with me, to tell you the truth. So I left one day and never went back.” He finished putting together the table tents and began dispersing them to the tables.
She sighed. “I just don’t know what to do,” she said.
“Well, you graduated high school and college, so you’re two steps ahead of me.” His eyes twinkled.
The door opened and the white-haired Mr. and Mrs. Kostenko shuffled in for their morning coffee fix. Rowan grinned at them in greeting and grabbed two mugs. Her day had begun.
* * *
Halfway through her shift, she paused for a short break. As she passed Sean at the grill, he handed her a plate of food. “Eat.”
With a nod, she carried her meal to a table tucked into a dim corner of the diner. Lifting her fork, she also slid her phone out of her apron. It was the weekend and she was officially done with school. She shouldn’t spend it alone.
She meant to text a friend from the community college she’d attended, but froze. There were two more voicemails from the Connecticut number. Dread pitted in her stomach. One or two calls she could write off as a wrong number. Four were a whole other story.
Someone was trying to get ahold of her.
Glancing at Sean’s back, she lifted the phone to her ear. “Hello, this is Attorney Damien Ward again,” the voicemail began. “I’m looking for Ms. Rowan Ellis. It is extremely important that you contact me as soon as possible regarding an urgent family matter.” He left his phone number and encouraged her to call him back immediately.
She bit her lip. It sounded important, but she couldn’t discern the nature of the call from his voice. He seemed calm and collected, not the bearer of bad news. And though his Connecticut area code made her inclined to take him seriously, there was a part of her that realized he could be a scam artist.
But scam artists didn’t call repeatedly in the same day, at least not in her experience. Usually they waited twenty-four hours, or called from different numbers without leaving voicemails.
Maybe it wasn’t anything to worry about. If something had happened to her parents or siblings, one of her family members would have called. Not some lawyer. At least, she thought so. Sometimes her family acted so indifferent toward her, she supposed it was possible that they would alert her passively.
The lawyer had said “urgent family matter.” Maybe her parents were getting divorced. But they wouldn’t need her approval for that.
Her brow furrowed. There was that time her father had a questionable relationship with one of his students. A professor at Naugatuck Valley in Waterbury, he’d been spending a lot of time with an eighteen-year-old in one of his philosophy classes. Though rumors flying around said they were having sex in his office, the investigation had been dropped and he’d been cleared. At the time, Rowan’s mother hadn’t even been jealous. She suspected her parents had somewhat of an open marriage. Maybe something like that was going on again, and her father had to go to court.
She wanted nothing to do with it.
Picking up her fork again, she decided not to call Ward back.
* * *
Her shift at Sean’s ended at one in the afternoon. She escaped into the steamy summer air and headed toward her car. With the rest of the day wide open, she should hit the beach or do something equally relaxing. Every bone in her body ached for a nap, though. She’d only slept four hours the night before.
She slid into her car and gingerly touched the steering wheel. Grimacing, she pulled her hand away. She turned the key in the ignition and blasted the air conditioning. It didn’t take long for cold air to come out, but it would take a few minutes until the steering wheel was cool enough to touch. She pulled her phone out of the back pocket of her pants and reached for the cord that connected her phone to the stereo. The screen of the phone lit up, the familiar Connecticut number flashing.
Rowan sighed. As much as she didn’t want to get involved with her family’s affairs, she felt bad for wasting the lawyer’s time. It wasn’t his fault that her family was a train wreck. She pressed the phone to her ear. “Hello?”
“Oh!” He sounded surprised. “I was going to leave you another voicemail.” He chuckled. “My name is Attorney Damien Ward. I’ve been trying to get in touch with you.”
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I’ve been working.” Testing the steering wheel, she deemed it cool enough to grip. Holding the phone to her ear with one hand, she used her other hand to guide the car out of Sean’s parking lot. Though it was illegal to drive in New Jersey while using a phone without a hands-free earpiece, she’d mastered the art of dropping her phone at the first sight of a patrol car.
“Are you working now?” the lawyer asked in his smooth baritone.
“No.” She turned onto the street and headed toward her apartment.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news.” He hesitated for a moment.
Rowan’s heart pounded in her chest. Suddenly she wasn’t so sure that it had anything to do with her family’s antics. Something awful had happened.
“I’m your aunt Katherine’s attorney. I handle her business affairs, and her estate,” he continued.
Rowan’s heart dropped into her stomach. She swerved onto the shoulder of the road, throwing the car into park.
“Your aunt wanted me to notify you immediately, should anything happen to her. I’m so sorry, Ms. Ellis. Katherine passed away last night.” His voice, filled with regret, was suddenly drowned out by a high pitched ringing in her ears.
A sob escaped her lips. Not Katherine. Though they had their problems, she loved her aunt. Katherine had been the only member of her family to treat her like a normal person. It couldn’t be true. “How?” she gasped.
The attorney sighed. “Cancer,” he said, voice breaking. “She didn’t want anyone to know.”
Tears gushed down her cheeks. She sat numbly, the engine still running. Cold air blasted against her face, but she didn’t feel it.
“The wake is tomorrow night,” Damien Ward said. “I’ve made all of the arrangements according to her final wishes. I’m so sorry, Ms. Ellis.”
Rowan suppressed the urge to scream. This couldn’t be real. Instead, she slammed her fist on the steering wheel. Pain jolted through her arm, but it was nothing compared to the ache in her heart. She would never get the chance to make up with her aunt. Suddenly she felt childish for running away. At the time, she’d felt double-crossed. That job at her aunt’s bakery was supposed to be hers. It was the whole reason she’d gone to a technical high school and studied culinary arts. But her aunt had given it to someone else instead, and Rowan had decided to move on, out of state. She’d barely spoken to Katherine over the last two years. Now she would never make amends. Her shoulders slumped. She’d been so, so stupid.
“Ms. Ellis?” The lawyer’s tone was gentle. “Your aunt wanted to make sure that you were taken care of in her absence. She’s left her house to you. I can meet you before the wake tomorrow to give you the keys.”
She barely heard him. It was all too much. She didn’t want the house. She wanted Katherine.
“I’m so sorry,” he said again. “I know this is a lot to absorb. But she made it very clear that I was to tell you about the house right away, so that you wouldn’t have to stay with your parents.”
She almost laughed. Even in the afterlife, her aunt was still her ally. Guilt roiled through her stomach. She’d been a stupid teenager. And now she would never be able to fix things.
JUST ONE MORE MINUTE
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A down-on-her-luck waitress inherits a bakery with the man who stole her dream job—and broke her heart.
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