Rowan only had a millisecond to recover before the next guest took her hand and murmured an “I’m sorry for your loss.” Blinking, she gave the woman a nod. Presumably she was a friend of Katherine’s, maybe from high school. She glanced over the woman’s shoulder, looking for any sign of him.
He disappeared through the entrance. She pressed a hand to her chest, heart pounding against her breastbone. Pain twisted her soul. She hadn’t seen him in over six years, but she was sure he was the same guy. Tears filled her eyes. The entire evening had officially gone to hell.
Breaking formation, she darted toward the nearest bathroom. No one would follow her. Her family was too stoned to notice, and all of the guests would chalk it up to grief. They had no idea.
She barred herself inside a stall just as the tears broke loose, spilling down her cheeks. Knees buckling, she sank onto the toilet seat. Years had passed, yet he could still evoke the same feelings in her. She curled her hands into fists. She’d thought she was over him. The revelation that he was also the same person who’d stolen her job—well, it was all too much.
Closing her eyes, an involuntary memory took hold. His warm lips on hers, the tall shelves curtaining them from view. Her hushed giggle. The susurrus of voices on the other side of the library. Her heart beating wildly in her chest as the cutest boy in school kissed her—her very first kiss.
Rowan’s eyes opened. She pressed shaking fingers to her lips. She could still taste him, even after all those years. It was ridiculous. She knew. They’d been kids in middle school, barely teenagers. Clearly it’d meant nothing to him, because he’d disappeared soon after—not even a text or Facebook message. In fact, he’d deleted himself off the internet entirely. Not a trace of that boy had remained. Until now.
A bitter laugh escaped her lips. If she’d taken the time to visit the bakery in the last couple of years, she would have known sooner.
That kiss had meant everything to her. It was a culmination of years of shy glances, months of quick smiles, weeks of flirting in class. She’d been convinced that, after the kiss, he would ask her to be his girlfriend or at least invite her to the dance. But he’d turned away, almost coldly, and left the library. And then she’d never seen him again.
She’d had a few boyfriends in high school, but none of them even compared to what she’d felt for Matthew Hayes.
It was stupid. She’d been twelve years old. It was time to move on. But the pounding in her chest and the tears burning her eyes said differently. The heart was an entirely different organ than the brain.
She shook her head at herself. Seven years later, and her body still reacted to him. It was a deep, ingrained magnetism. Every cell of her longed to be wrapped in his arms, connected to him. She yanked a length of toilet paper from the dispenser and dabbed at her eyes.
He’d disappeared without a trace and stolen her job. Her heart was a traitor.
Rowan eased out of the stall and went to the mirror to assess the damage. Her eyes were red and swollen. That was to be expected. Her mascara, however, was a complete mess. It ran in tracks down her cheeks and left dark smudges. She’d have to fix it.
She winced. She’d have to go outside, and he was out there.
For the first time in her life, she wished she carried a purse just like every other normal woman.
Mopping up the mess as quickly as she could, she kept an eye on the door for intruders. The babble of voices outside was a steady stream. She had no idea how long she’d been standing in that line before Matthew Hayes showed his face, but the wake had to be at least halfway over.
Her heartbeat stuttered. Those brown curls still fell into his green eyes. Her traitorous fingers had wanted to brush them back. Though they’d been kids the last time she saw him, she would recognize those eyes anywhere.
His face had matured, growing only more handsome with age. She had detected a hint of cheekbones that her fingertips desperately wanted to trace. And he’d grown into his nose. It was narrow and straight, Grecian. It suited him. Then there was the light beard that swept across his jaw and upper lip. He was tan and muscular, his arms strong enough to hold her up while their mouths crashed together, tongues intertwining—
Rowan clamped her thighs together, her cheeks red.
She needed to stop.
She needed to go fix her damn mascara.
Shaking the thoughts away, she lifted her chin and marched out of the bathroom. No one even noticed her. Katherine’s mourners stood in clusters or occupied the seats, speaking in hushed tones. Probably they had moved past reminiscing and were now catching up.
Her own family still stood at the front of the room, receiving a thinning stream of guests. None of them appeared to miss her.
It was just as well.
She sifted through the crowd with relative ease. An usher with kind eyes held the door open for her and she emerged into the summer evening.
Glancing around, she breathed a sigh of relief. He’d left. Or at least, she didn’t see him anywhere.
She walked straight to her car, keeping her eye on the prize. She’d left the door unlocked and her keyring hidden in the console. Slipping inside, she shut the door behind her and cranked the AC on. Then she retrieved her makeup bag from the same console and got to work.
As she touched up her mascara in her handheld mirror, movement behind her car caught her eye. She glanced up into the rearview mirror. Two figures moved in a grassy area directly behind where she’d parked. She didn’t recognize the smaller one, but she would recognize Matt’s build anywhere. She sighed.
So he hadn’t left.
Glancing at the digital display on the dashboard, she breathed a sigh of relief. The wake was almost over. Avoiding him for the next forty-five minutes shouldn’t be too hard.
Replacing her makeup bag, she shut off the car. She hid the keys again and climbed out. She paused just to adjust her dress. It kept riding up along her thighs. She hadn’t owned anything funeral appropriate until that morning. After talking with her aunt’s lawyer, she’d called Sean at the diner, and explained the situation. Then she’d gone home, packed a bag for a few days, and immediately left for Connecticut.
She’d met the lawyer at her aunt’s house. He gave her the keys, patted her arm, and left her to privacy. She respected that he hadn’t hovered around trying to comfort her. The only thing he’d said about her aunt was that she’d passed away peacefully in the hospital. Katherine hadn’t died at home. Still, it’d been weird to be in her house without her. And Rowan would have to return shortly. She had no desire to spend any more time with her parents and siblings.
“Ms. Ellis,” a rich, smooth voice said, interrupting her thoughts.
She jumped, but recovered when she realized the lawyer Damien Ward stood a few feet from her. “Hi,” she said, voice cracking. She bit her lip, wishing she’d grabbed a cup of water before rushing outside.
“I was hoping I could speak to you privately,” the attorney said.
Right to business. She sighed. She supposed she’d have to deal with it sooner or later. She’d mentioned to him that while she appreciated the house, she had responsibilities in New Jersey. Sort of. He’d told her they would discuss it later. With a wry smile, she guessed “later” had come.
She followed him back inside and into a private room several doors down from the viewing room her aunt currently rested in. The lighting was dim and the shades were drawn. Cool air swirled about her arms and bare legs. Rowan tucked herself into a seat and the attorney sat down behind a desk.
“It’s not my office,” he said, almost apologetically. “The Albini family was close with my parents, so they let me have the run of the place.” He winked.
Rowan smiled politely.
“Well, I’ve got to admit, Katherine was a bossy lady,” he said.
She smirked. That was true.
“She told me that I was to take care of all this right away. She didn’t want to waste any time. Ya’ll know how she was.” Damien smiled, shaking his head.
Rowan’s brow furrowed. He’d said ya’ll. She suddenly realized that she wasn’t the only one in the room with the attorney. Her heart dropped into her stomach. Matt occupied a chair in the corner, partially hidden by the shadows. She suppressed the urge to howl in frustration.
“What is this?” she asked, seething. Surprisingly, her voice sounded calm.
Damien motioned for Matt to join them. “Why don’t you scoot on up here?”
Matt obliged. He didn’t, she noticed, so much as look at her.
“The Ellis Cafe and Bakery,” the lawyer said, “also known as Elli’s.” He smiled, straight white teeth contrasting the deep brown of his skin.
When Rowan was still in high school, Katherine had finally given in and ordered a new sign. The local sign company took weeks to deliver it, and when they finally did, it hadn’t taken long for Katherine and Rowan to realize that the graphic designer had added an apostrophe.
Katherine had laughed, though, and the name Elli’s stuck. She’d never gotten around to officially changing her business’s name, but it became something of an inside joke.
Matt, apparently, knew nothing about it. Good. Rowan smirked.
Damien leaned forward. The dim lighting caught in his gray hair. Suddenly Rowan wondered just how old he was. Wrinkles mapped his face, and his hands were gnarled and wizened. “I’m sure you’re both wondering what’s going to happen to Elli’s now,” the lawyer continued.
She stole a glance at Matt. He sat with his square hands gripping the arms of the chair, his gaze intent on the lawyer. He seemed more invested than she was. She bit her lip, trying to sort her feelings. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, she decided. It was just that the bakery was an old chapter in her life.
She’d moved on.
Still, she could still hear her aunt’s voice, echoing from the summer before she’d started high school. “Do you want to help me out at the bakery?” Rowan had nodded. “If you finish high school,” Katherine had promised, “I’ll give you a job as a baker.”
Her aunt’s lawyer cleared his throat. He opened a folder in front of him that Rowan hadn’t noticed. “This is Katherine’s will. She didn’t have many last wishes, but the ones she did have, she was very clear about. The house,” he said, nodding to Rowan.
She shifted in her seat. “Yes, about that—”
He went on as if he hadn’t heard her. “She left Elli’s to the both of you.”
“The thing is,” Rowan said, “I live in New Jersey. My job is there. I can’t take care of her house—” She froze. “Wait. What?”
Damien nodded. “She wants you two to carry on Elli’s. She was so afraid that without her, the bakery would close. This isn’t just her last wish. It’s her legacy.”
Rowan struggled to find her voice. “Elli’s? I can’t run a bakery.”
“Nonsense.” The lawyer smiled kindly at her. “You have a degree in business. You spent all four years of high school helping out. You know that place almost better than anyone else.”
Rowan shook her head.
Next to her, Matt stirred. She stole a glance at him. His large eyebrows slanted, eyes wide. “Why me?” he said in a low voice.
Damien cocked his head. “Katherine wouldn’t leave you out in the cold, son. She knew how important Elli’s is to you.”
“Okay, but I live in New Jersey,” Rowan interrupted. Confusion, awe, and shock swirled through her. Her hands smoothed the skirt of her dress almost compulsively. It made no sense. Her aunt hadn’t so much as mentioned any further involvement in the bakery after Rowan learned she’d given the job to someone else. Katherine had been completely offhand about the whole thing. It’d felt impersonal, as if Rowan had applied for the job with a stranger. Never had her aunt said anything like “But in case I die, you’ll be the one to inherit the place.”
Katherine’s lawyer raised his hands, palms out. “Hey, I’m just the messenger. It’s up to you to decide what you want to do.”
Rowan frowned. She wasn’t so sure that she could just walk away. Even if her aunt’s actions two years earlier had completely baffled her, she still loved Katherine. And Elli’s. She owed it to her aunt to at least try. Out of the corner of her eye, she glanced at Matt.
She couldn’t work with him, though. Maybe she was being petty, but working with the guy who’d broken her heart twice would be like scraping her wounds open every single day. She’d never get over him.
Matt turned to her abruptly. Those green eyes searched hers.”So I guess this makes us partners, huh?” Something flickered in his eyes. Relief, she guessed. It puzzled her even more. He remembered her. She knew it. It made no sense for him to feel relieved, though.
Standing up, she shoved her chair back. No. She couldn’t do it. She needed time to figure things out. Maybe she could give her half of Elli’s to him. Or they could sell the place. She didn’t care. Legs wobbling, she darted out of the office and into the hall. People filtered out of the viewing room. She joined them and burst outside.
Feeling numb, she lurched toward her car.
“Wait,” a voice called. His voice.
Against her will, she stopped and turned around. One of her eyebrows lifted like a political debate moderator. She put her hand on her hip.
“We should probably talk about this.” He rubbed at the back of his neck.
“There’s nothing to say.” She crossed the last few feet to her car. Instead of climbing in, though, she leaned against its side. Despite the heat of the night, she hugged herself.
Matt joined her. His arm nearly brushed hers. Electricity crackled between them. She drew her arm away. “That guy’s pretty pushy, huh?” He chuckled.
“About as pushy as Aunt Katherine,” she agreed. She stole a glance at him. He gazed back at her. She swallowed hard and tore her eyes away.
“So what do you want to do?” he asked softly.
Shaking her head, she watched people trickling out of the funeral home. They got into their cars and headed home. She wished she was doing the same. Home, for the time being, was Katherine’s house, though. She hugged herself tighter. The thought of spending the night in one of the last places her aunt had been alive pressed down on her. She didn’t want to be alone, she realized. If New Jersey wasn’t so far, she would call one of her friends. Not that she really had anyone who would be willing to drive to Connecticut on such short notice. All of her New Jersey relationships were more like acquaintances, really. Drinking buddies at best. The realization and the sudden loneliness that came with it pressed in on her. Her eyes darted to Matt involuntarily. Heat blazed across her cheeks. She looked away.
“We’re having the reception at Elli’s,” he offered.
She had to admit that he was trying. Maybe he felt bad about how he’d treated her. Maybe she should give him a chance. “I know.” She tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “Are you ready?” The question could be interpreted in several ways, she mused.
He laughed. “For the reception? More or less. I did the prep before I closed up today.” He ducked his head. Curls fell into his eyes. “But the funeral . . . No, I don’t think I’ll ever be ready.”
She knew what he meant. “I didn’t even know she was sick,” she whispered.
His arm brushed hers as he turned to look at her. With a touch as light as a butterfly’s, he stroked her cheek. “She didn’t want anyone to worry.” His hand dropped to his side and he looked away.
Her skin glowed, aching for his touch again. Then his words caught up to her. She rounded on him. “You knew?” Of all people, Katherine had told him. Not her or even her father.
“Only by chance.” Matt looked off into the darkness.
“Why? Why would she tell you?” Rowan put her hands on her hips. She tried to see things from her aunt’s point of view, to understand why Katherine would hire a stranger over her own niece, why she would tell him before her own family. Granted, Katherine was about as close to the rest of the family as Rowan was. But she and Katherine had always had a special relationship. Never once during any of their occasional phone calls had her aunt even hinted at being sick.
“She didn’t.” A pained expression crossed his face. “I guessed.”
“But why didn’t she tell me?” Rowan pulled at a strand of her hair. “I would’ve come. I could’ve helped her.”
“There isn’t anything you could’ve done,” Matt said gently. He touched her shoulder.
Her nerves tingled as their skin met, the sensation zipping through her body like lightning. Suddenly she wanted more of his skin on hers. Closing her eyes, she forced herself to focus. Thoughts tumbled through her mind, conflicting feelings tearing at her heart. A thought slipped into her head. Opening her eyes slowly, she studied him through slitted lids. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
He stepped back, as if she’d slapped him. “I—” He shook his head. “She asked me not to say anything.”
“So you knew and you chose not to tell her family?” Tears blurred Rowan’s eyes. “I mean, I can understand not telling my father.” She thrusted the word out as if she was spitting. “But me? What did I ever do to her? To you?”
Matt fell silent. He shook his head.
Of course he didn’t have an answer, she mused. All these years later, he still avoided conflict. He hadn’t changed at all, and she needed to remember that. Wrenching her car door open, she climbed inside, forcing Matt several steps away. Gunning the engine, she peeled out of the parking lot without looking back.
JUST ONE MORE MINUTE
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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