The house fell silent all around Rowan. She stood in the entrance, eyes adjusting to the darkness. She’d forgotten to leave a lamp on. Groping for the light switch, she took several deep breaths in through her nose. It was bad enough, sleeping in Katherine’s house, knowing her aunt was dead. Leaving the lights off was like asking for her imagination to run rampant.
She swallowed hard. She knew she was being ridiculous. She didn’t believe in ghosts. Even if she did, Katherine wouldn’t haunt her. Finding the switch, she flipped the light on, bathing the entryway with light. Sighing, she moved toward the stairs.
After leaving Elli’s, she’d driven around aimlessly. The thought of going back to Katherine’s empty house weighed her down. In New Jersey, in her apartment building, there was always someone around. She could count on the squeak of the floorboards above her head or the soft sigh through a wall to placate her loneliness. Katherine’s closest neighbors were visible from any of the windows, but far enough away that Rowan might as well be on a deserted island.
If she kept the house, she was going to have to find a roommate.
Trudging up the stairs, she replayed her conversation with Matt. No matter how hard she tried, he kept slipping into her thoughts. The last thing she wanted to do was analyze everything he’d said to death. Yet his words—Give me two weeks—looped through her mind. It was almost as if he was trying to woo her. Those bright green eyes had burned into hers, charming her, willing her to give in.
Reaching the landing, she went straight into the bathroom, ignoring the bedroom on the left. Katherine’s room. Eventually she’d have to go in there. Once again she found herself thankful that her aunt hadn’t passed away in the house. There was no way she’d be able to even hang out there, never mind sleep.
She still couldn’t believe the house was hers. She turned on the shower and grabbed her caddy from one of the cabinets under the sink. It felt wrong to take her aunt’s shampoo bottle out of the shower and replace it with her own. At some point, she was going to have to get over that, too. Katherine didn’t need to shower anymore.
She burst into tears. Stripping off her clothes, she stepped into the stream. The hot mist sprayed her face, washing her grief and makeup away. Still, she scrubbed at her face for several long minutes, shoulders absorbing the impact of the water. The heat pounded away at the knots in her muscles, loosening her up. When she was clean and all cried out, she shut off the water and stepped out, wrapping a giant fluffy towel around herself.
Her aunt had always had the best towels.
She dried off quickly, then retreated to the guest bedroom. Her long hair sent droplets sluicing down her belly. Shivering in the central air, she dove under the covers. Before she drifted off, she set her alarm for the morning.
* * *
Dawn came too soon—if she could call it that. The sky outside the house was still dark. Rowan groaned as the alarm on her phone pierced the thin veil of sleep. Swearing, she crawled out of bed and turned it off. For a moment, she considered just going back to sleep. Matt couldn’t exactly force her to meet him. She did need to figure out what to do with Elli’s, though. The sooner she wrapped things up in Connecticut, the sooner she could get back to her life.
She sat up. Her hair cascaded down her back as she moved. A frown tugged at her lips. Her life. She barely had friends. Most of them were people she’d met and hung out with in college. Sure, she had Sean. He was more like her boss, though, no matter how much he looked out for her. And just before she got the news about Katherine, she was trying to figure out what to do with her life. It was true that she didn’t want to work at the diner for the rest of her days. Technically, her blogging could support her—and she could take that with her back to Connecticut.
Nothing actually held her down to New Jersey.
There wasn’t much for her in Connecticut either, though.
Give me two weeks, Matt’s voice sauntered through her thoughts. A tingle ran down her spine. If he meant more than training, he could be her reason for moving back home. She squeezed her eyes shut. He’d already hurt her, though. Letting him back in would be reckless. Then again, it wasn’t as if she’d ever really let go. Those green eyes were still haunting her.
Throwing the blankets off, she climbed out of bed. She was being ridiculous, but she owed it to herself to check out all angles of the situation. And she wouldn’t let him get too close, she vowed. If anything, he could be a fun distraction while she figured things out. Maybe she would even find some closure and finally stop thinking about him.
There. Her logic was totally sound.
Traipsing through the guest room to the bathroom, she grabbed clothing. Then she started the shower and got ready for her day. Her makeup became her war paint. She drew her hair into a messy bun and surveyed herself in the mirror. Her tank top, capri leggings, and sneakers were okay for a morning in the bakery, but something was missing. She took a deep breath.
Then, she made herself walk into Katherine’s room.
Ignoring everything else, she marched straight to the closet. She tugged open the double accordion doors. Amidst her aunt’s blouses and dresses, Rowan spotted what she needed. She clutched the pastry chef’s jacket to her chest and fled the room.
Properly outfitted, she left the house.
On her way to Elli’s, she stopped for a hot latte and a bagel. After a moment’s hesitation, she doubled her order. It would be rude to walk in with nothing for Matt, she told herself.
Despite her pit stop, she arrived before him. She didn’t have keys to Elli’s, so she perched on a chair at one of the outdoor tables. Sipping her coffee, she checked the time on her phone. It was 4:55am.
She didn’t wait long. A pickup swung into the parking lot, pulling abruptly into a slot. Matt jumped out, two coffees and his keys balanced in one hand. He strode toward her and her heart skipped a beat. As he neared, he hesitated, glancing from the coffees in his hand and the goodies on the table in front of her.
He laughed nervously. At least, he sounded nervous. Maybe she was projecting. Joining her, he set his coffees down and unlocked the door. “I guess we won’t be short on caffeine.” He pushed the door open, plucked the two styrofoam Dunkin Donuts coffees from the table, and nodded for her to go in.
Gathering her own things, she stood. She moved past him, chewing on the inside of her cheek as she dredged up an equally light response. “If you’re trying to sway me,” she said, “you should’ve stopped at Starbucks.”
“I’ll remember that.” He set his things down on the checkout counter and flipped on some lights. Leaning against the counter, he surveyed her pastry jacket. “I didn’t think you were coming.”
“Well, I’m here.” She opened the paper bag and handed him a bagel. “Cheers.” She tapped her bagel against his, then took a big bite. “So,” she said between swallows, “do you guys still make the ciabatta first?”
Elli’s had the best sandwiches—mainly because of their bread. Some of her best memories were lunch breaks during that first summer working with her aunt.
Matt nodded. Grasping the bagel with his thumb and forefinger, he turned his hands so his palms faced the ceiling. “These hands have rolled out some serious ciabatta.”
Her eyes fell on his hands, square and broad. They were perfect for kneading dough. And other things. Heat flushed her cheeks. She knelt, pretending to search for a fallen crumb. Her bowed head hid her face, thankfully shielding her from his view. Around him, she could barely control herself. She needed to get it together.
Straightening, she took a deep breath. His eyes met hers and she came undone all over again. Those green eyes were bright despite the early hour, studying her. His full lips twitched. Pressing her thighs together, she looked away and focused on finishing her bagel.
“Rowan,” he said, breathing her name.
She dropped the bagel. Annoyed with herself, she glared down at it.
“I’ll get it.” He closed the space between them and bent to retrieve the bagel. Brown curls caressed his forehead. The muscles in his arm rippled as he dropped the bagel into the paper bag. Then, slowly, he stood. Barely twelve inches separated them. He tilted his head down and peered at her through his lashes. With his eyelids drooping, he looked like a sex god.
Her throat made a strangled sound and she pushed past him, breaking the spell. He was messing with her, she realized as she burst into the kitchen. Even worse, she was going to lose this game.
She bent over the stainless steel counter in the middle of the room, gripping its edge. Part of her wished he would come up behind her, arms encircling her waist. She could practically feel the heat of his body. Her breath came out in ragged gasps. She needed to remember that he’d broken her heart. Not to mention the job he’d stolen. Her eyes narrowed as her thoughts cleared. Yes. She needed to harness that anger and wear it like a shield. Otherwise, she was done for.
At least he had the decency to give her time to collect herself. By the time he strolled in, she had already pulled out ingredients for the ciabatta and was sifting flour into the giant industrial mixer. She patted the machine appreciatively. She’d missed having such an appliance.
“I’ll just start on the cannoli, then.” His fingers brushed her arm as he passed. Heat seared through her nerves. She glared daggers at his back.
Forcing herself to focus, she got back to work.
“Did you give any thought to my proposal?” he asked as he added flour, cinnamon, and sugar into the smaller mixer.
Rowan had to admit, she’d missed this world of sweets. Though she loved serving guests at Sean’s, there was something special about working in the kitchen, getting her hands plastered in dough.
“I barely slept,” she confessed, going for honesty. “I just don’t know what to do. This used to be my dream.” Lifting a hand, she gestured to the gleaming kitchen.
“It can be your reality,” Matt said in a low voice. Their eyes met across the kitchen.
She slanted a delicate eyebrow at him. “You have no idea what you’re asking.”
“Then make your case.” He smirked. “What’s so great about New Jersey?”
“My apartment is closer to New York City than Katherine’s house is,” she said, turning the mixer on. “And that means more Junior’s cheesecake.”
He lifted a shoulder. “I should care because . . . ?”
She gaped at him. “You’ve never had Junior’s cheesecake?” Jabbing a bench scraper toward him, she shook her head in dismay. “I thought Katherine took you under her wing.”
He shrugged. “What’s the big deal?”
“Nailing their recipe has been her life’s work,” Rowan chided. “At least, it was when I worked with her.” She frowned. So much had changed.
“I’m sure it was still important to her,” he said gently. A heartbeat passed. She heard him draw in a breath. “What happened between you two, anyway?”
She dropped the bench scrape. It clanged off the table and onto the floor. Stooping to pick it up, she tried to calm down. He had a lot of nerve asking that. She couldn’t figure out what game he was playing. Maybe he enjoyed torturing her—on more than one level. “I thought we came here to discuss Elli’s.” She tossed the bench scrape into the pot sink.
“Fair enough.” He finished mixing the dough for the cannoli shells. With a practiced hand, he divided the dough, flattening each into a disk. He swaddled them in plastic wrap and carried them to the walk-in cooler. When he returned, he joined her at the large mixer.
“So let’s talk. What did you decide?” He crossed his arms.
“You act like it’s so easy.” She dumped the ciabatta dough into a bowl coated with olive oil, covered it, and set it aside to rise.
“Isn’t it?” His eyes bore into hers.
“Are you trying to intimidate me?” She scowled at him.
Matt’s eyes widened and he took a step back. “No.” He held up both hands, palms facing her. “Well, okay. I’ll lay out my cards.” His arms dropped to his sides. “For me, it is simple. I need this job.”
She crossed her arms. “I’m sorry, but this is the last thing I need right now.”
“So what do you need? Maybe I can give it to you.” His eyes were steady. He meant what he said, she realized.
Throwing up her hands, she whirled around. She leaned on the counter. “I need time,” she muttered. “Everything is happening so fast. I can barely keep up. Last week, I had the whole summer to figure this out, maybe even longer.” More importantly, she’d had a lifetime to make up with Katherine. She’d taken her aunt for granted. Dipping her chin, she closed her eyes.
“You said this used to be your dream.” He indicated the bakery they stood in. “What’s stopping you?”
“My family, for one.” She snorted. “I left to get away from them. Coming back . . . it feels like giving up, you know?” She shook her head. He didn’t know. She’d seen him with his mother at the wake. Without having to hear their conversation, she could tell they were close. At the very least, his mother wasn’t grilling him about his life choices or pressuring him to give a new and especially potent strain of weed a chance. Her entire childhood had been a precarious balancing act of proving to her parents she was a good hippie child and secretly planning her escape as soon as she turned eighteen. Her parents weren’t bad people. They just weren’t her people.
All throughout high school, especially, she’d felt like a weirdo. She wasn’t a prude or goody two shoes. If she hadn’t been constantly bullied into trying different drugs, she might enjoy a joint now and then. In her adult life, she enjoyed a nice full glass of wine every once in a while. She wasn’t twenty-one yet but it wasn’t too hard to buy a bottle. It just depended on which package store she went to.
But no. Her first—and only—high had been a nightmare. She’d had a panic attack and her entire family had just laughed at her, told her to suck it up, and tried to force her to take another hit. She would feel better, they insisted.
She shuddered at the memory.
So no, Matt couldn’t possibly understand. She knew next to nothing about him, but she’d never read any of his family members’ names in the police blotter.
He touched her arm gently, but she jerked away. She’d had enough. She couldn’t run Elli’s with him. It had been stupid of her to even entertain the idea. Her place was in New Jersey, away from the rest of the Ellis family. Maybe she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life yet, but she knew she didn’t want to waste any more time in Connecticut.
Without a word, she shrugged out of the pastry jacket and dropped it into the laundry bin. Her sneakers squeaked on the floor as she strode across the tiled kitchen. She could hear her heartbeat pounding in her ears. The front end—and the door—felt so far away. Suddenly she thought she would just leave Connecticut that day. No need to wait any longer.
“Where are you going?” Matt called after her.
Ignoring him, she sprinted through the front end, weaving around tables. She burst into the hot summer morning. Despite the muggy air, she felt better at once. She slowed as she neared her car, pulse thrumming in her throat. A quick glance over her shoulder told her that Matt hadn’t bothered to follow her.
Good. She’d had enough of him.
She slipped into the car. Though the vents almost immediately pushed cold air into her face, she shut the air conditioning off and rolled down the windows. She needed real air. Guiding the car out of the parking lot, she relished the feeling of the breeze on her skin.
She may have botched her weekend home, but from this moment on, she was going to do better. She owed it to herself.
A plan formulated in her mind. She’d stop at Katherine’s, pack her things, and lock up. There wasn’t any real tidying that she needed to do. The place had been spotless when she arrived. Her aunt had never let the house get even slightly dirty.
Then she’d make for New Jersey, stopping for nothing. As soon as she got back to her apartment, she’d call Sean and find out when she could pick up her next shift. She’d get in touch with her aunt’s lawyer later in the week and find out what she needed to do to sell the house and Elli’s.
She nodded to herself.
As she stopped at the first red light on the way to Katherine’s, though, she wondered when she would stop running.
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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