Matt slumped into a chair in Katherine’s office. After hearing the news the other night, he hadn’t even wanted to open the bakery for the next day. There was no point. The place was lifeless without her. But she’d made it abundantly clear to him that she wanted him to keep the place going if anything happened to her. Her lawyer was definitely making sure sure that he followed her last wishes, too.
So he’d opened up Elli’s on Saturday and accepted a steady stream of customers mourning Katherine. He spent the day serving them coffee and pastries, pushing his own feelings aside. There was no choice. If he thought about his mentor too much, he would break. Katherine had been more than that, really. She’d been like a mother to him.
He’d closed early and fallen into a heavy sleep, resolving not to open on Sunday. But the lawyer had given him a friendly wakeup call that morning, imploring him to get to work. Matt didn’t know what to expect, but nothing had changed. People continued to flock to Elli’s, offering him their condolences and treating the weekend as a memorial service in and of itself.
He dragged a hand through his brown curls, sighing. He’d made it through most of the weekend, but he had no idea what would happen next. Without Katherine, he had no job. It was only a matter of time.
The smart thing to do would be to skip the wake that evening and spend the night figuring out what he was going to do. He’d graduated high school only by the skin of his teeth. College hadn’t even been an option. If it wasn’t for Katherine, he and his family would be homeless. And he would never be able to thank her for what she’d done for him.
There was no way he could miss her wake, though. The thought of seeing her in a casket simultaneously made him nauseous and sent pain searing through his chest, but he had to pay his last respects. He owed her at least that—even if it would cost him dearly.
Matt rubbed his face with his hands. The whole situation was all too familiar. He’d been one of very few people who had known Katherine was sick. She hadn’t even intended to tell him, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew the side effects of chemo. He’d watched her get weaker and weaker, once again powerless to stop the inevitable. On its own, his grief for his father was unbearable, but losing Katherine was like ripping a scab off a large, still raw wound. The anger, sadness, and helplessness enveloping him were familiar, but that didn’t make dealing with those feelings any easier.
Shoulders slumped, he stood from his seat. On his way into the kitchen to clean up, he paused in the hall. The front end needed a run-through, too. His limbs felt frozen. Without any customers, the place felt too empty. Katherine would kill him if he left the place anything less than spotless, though. Torn, he glanced back at the kitchen, then at the cafe. Normally he wasn’t so indecisive, but he felt reluctant to clean either room. All he wanted to do was go home and collapse into bed. Maybe then he’d wake up and discover it’d all been a bad dream.
Danny and his mom were waiting at home for him, though. The thought of his family jolted him into action. They depended on him. He needed to stay strong.
It didn’t take long for him to clean up, even though he took his time. Once he started, he relaxed easily into the familiar ritual. He was suddenly all too aware that the sooner he locked up, the closer he’d be on his way to the wake. There was only so much procrasti-cleaning he could do, though. Squaring his shoulders, he put the mop away and grabbed his keys from the office. He set the alarm, then slipped out into the hot afternoon.
His pickup didn’t have air conditioning. He’d parked in the shady corner of the parking lot earlier that morning. Though it’d been dark when he arrived, the truck rested underneath a sprawling oak. Even though he’d left the windows wide open, when he opened the door, steaming hot air rushed out at him. The sooner he got it moving, the better.
He took the long way home—not that there was really a long way in Watertown. He crossed the small town into the even smaller town of Oakville within just a few minutes. Parking in front of the three-family house where he and his family lived, he shut the engine off. He needed to compose himself before he walked in and Danny saw his face.
The wake would start in just a couple of hours. Everything was happening too quickly. He needed a moment, but life was unrelenting. The best he could do was stop fighting and let himself be carried.
The problem was, he had no idea which direction he should float in.
Steeling himself, he pushed open the car door and got out. As he walked toward the door that led to his apartment, he felt eyes on him. Casually, he glanced up to the third floor. His upstairs neighbor Burton glared down at him through the blinds.
“That old fucker blocked me in again.”
Matt turned toward the door to the first floor apartment, shoulders tense. He did not feel like dealing with Maureen at the moment. If he brushed her off, though, she would take it personally. She and Burton had already dragged him into their war, each trying to force him to pick sides. He had no idea how Switzerland always remained so neutral. Juggling neighbors was hard. Besides, he was inclined to get along with Maureen because she frequently looked after Danny for him.
“What else is new?” he asked, keeping his tone light.
Maureen nodded toward the other side of the house. “So I knocked his garbage over.” She smirked.
Great. Burton would, without a doubt, blame Danny. Every time Matt’s little brother played outside, Burton made an effort to intimidate him back inside. The old fucker was territorial and mean. Matt opened his mouth, then shut it. Reminding Maureen that she had other neighbors would do no good. He’d have to remember to clean up the mess as soon as she went inside. He climbed the steps to his door and put a hand on the knob.
“Want a cigarette?” Maureen asked, holding out the pack to him.
He considered it. A cigarette would help soothe his nerves. But he’d promised Danny he would never smoke again, and he intended to keep that promise—even if his mother didn’t. “I’ve got a wake to get to.”
Maureen’s lips twitched to the side and her eyebrows slanted. “Sorry to hear that.” She took a drag from her cigarette. “I’ll catch you later, then,” she said, exhaling smoke as she spoke.
Closing the door behind him, Matt climbed the flight of stairs that led to the final door to his apartment. They were steep, creaking and groaning beneath him. He still thought the placement of the stairs was odd, but he was glad that there were two doors separating him from his neighbors.
As soon as he opened the door, Danny flung himself into his arms. “Matty,” his little brother said affectionately. The kid hadn’t hit puberty yet, and his voice was still childlike. Soon that would change, though.
“Is Mom . . . ?” Matt let the question hang in the air.
Danny nodded. “She said to get her up before the, well, you know.” He looked down at the floor.
Matt knelt in front of him. “You don’t have to go, if you don’t want to.” He considered for a moment. “But you’d have to hang out outside the funeral home—unless you want to stay with Maureen.”
His little brother shook his head rapidly. “I’ll bring my Gameboy.”
Matt smiled. The Gameboy Advance had been his, from his own childhood. Despite its age, Danny loved the Pokemon Red and Super Mario Bros. games that Matt had played at his age. He was glad he’d held onto it. Neither he or his mother could afford to get Danny the latest Nintendo handheld device, and definitely not something as expensive as an iPad. But if the kid knew the difference, he didn’t let on. Danny was a good boy.
Straightening, Matt glanced around the kitchen. Cereal bowls from that morning were still on the table, soggy Os floating in probably rancid milk. He sighed. “You’ve got to remember to clean up, Danny.” Though he hated that his little brother had joined the Take Care of Mom club, eleven was old enough to put a dish in the sink.
After he rinsed the bowls out and set them in the sink to soak, Matt headed into the bathroom. “I’ll be out in a few. Wake Mom up,” he called over his shoulder.
* * *
He pulled into the funeral home’s lot and followed one of the usher’s directions into a parking spot. “Danny,” he said, turning in his seat. His little brother sat bent over his Gameboy. “It’s too hot to stay in the car while we’re inside so go sit in the shade over there.” He pointed to a grassy area. A bench sat underneath a tree. From there, engrossed in his game, Danny probably wouldn’t even remember that he was at a funeral home. Or so Matt hoped.
Matt unbuckled his seat belt and slid out of the car. At some point, he’d have to stop babying his little brother. He knew that. But he’d never forget the look on Danny’s face when they first walked into another room in another funeral home, six years earlier. Matt hadn’t even been prepared for how their dad would look, the once tan skin ashen and flat. Their father had looked like a sleeping statue, a parody of himself.
Shaking the memories away, Matt went around to his mother’s side of the car. He opened her door and offered her his arm. She glanced up at him from beneath thinning lashes, her eyes somber.
“You can hang out with Danny, if you want,” he said gently.
Relief flickered across her face for a moment, then she shook her head. She lifted her chin. “Katherine did so much for you—for us,” Emily said. She clasped his arm and climbed out of the car, grimacing in pain at his touch. Grief had not been kind to her. Where she’d once been strong, Fibromyalgia wracked her nerves, the stress of losing her husband aggravating her illness.
Still, he was able to lead her into the funeral home without much trouble. He started to guide her to a seat, but she shook her head. Nodding, he led her toward the line. It was long.
While they waited, he tried to look anywhere but the casket. The room was crowded with people, many of the faces familiar. He glanced at the line of family members receiving condolences. He’d only met Katherine’s brother Noah once. He could only assume the woman standing next to him was his wife. He knew Katherine hadn’t exactly seen eye to eye with her family, but he’d never learned why. He was pretty sure that, if Katherine could have it her way, none of them would be at the wake or funeral.
The line of mourners moved forward, rapidly passing time shoving Matt closer to the casket. He forced himself to focus on something else as he moved his feet.
Next to Mr. and Mrs. Ellis stood their daughters and son. Their oldest daughter, he knew, was a relatively successful theatre actress out in New York City. Their son was a teenager who regularly got into trouble, though. He’d barely graduated high school, but only because he preferred to smoke pot and snort pills in the school bathroom. Katherine was not fond of either Mia or Leo.
But she’d loved her other niece.
Matt’s eyes fell on the young woman named Rowan. He’d never met her, but he felt as if he knew her. As he took in the sight of her, his breath caught in his throat. The dress she wore hugged her curves, its pencil skirt shape falling to just above her knees. Though the neckline reached her collarbone, parts of the dress that stretched across her breastbone were tastefully cut out in three diamond shapes. Light brown hair fell in waves down to her waist. She was stunning—much more so than the photos on Katherine’s desk hinted at.
Pale blue eyes met his from across the room. Recognition flashed across her face. Her eyes widened. He smiled, starting to lift a hand. Rowan’s eyes narrowed in a hard glare. Her lips twitched in distaste.
Turning around, he glanced about for the object of her anger. No one in the vicinity seemed to even notice her, though. He glanced back at her. She was definitely glaring at him.
And she wasn’t happy.
Matt took an involuntary step back. The line moved forward—Murphy’s Law. He realized that his mom was eyeing him expectantly, one brow lifted in question. For once, his mother was more possessed than he was. He shook his head at himself, then joined her. Throwing a glance at the casket, he tried to decide what he was going to do once up there.
People knelt, bowed their heads, and after a few seconds, made the sign of the cross. Then they stood up. Though his father had been raised Jewish, Matt’s parents had basically raised him Protestant. All that came to an end six years before. He knew Katherine’s family was far from religious—never mind Catholic—so the ritual seemed even more impersonal to him.
What he really wanted to do was shake her awake and take her out for a coffee, escaping from the too warm room and all the formalities. The thought was absurd, but there it was.
Suddenly it was his turn.
He hadn’t noticed his mother go ahead of him. She stood off to the side, waiting for him.
Matt wiped the palms of his hands on his worn black Dickies. He stepped forward. Swallowing hard against the dry knot in his throat, he knelt down in front of the casket. He found himself staring into Katherine’s arm. Quickly he bowed his head.
He didn’t know how to pray, or if he should even bother. He had no idea what happened after life. Heart thudding in his chest, he tried to think of what he’d want to say to Katherine if he’d had the chance.
I’m sorry, he blurted into the spaces of his mind. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry—
Someone in the line behind him cleared their throat. Matt’s head snapped up. With a final nod, he jumped away from the casket and joined his mom.
She gave his arm a squeeze.
Together, they turned toward Katherine’s family.
“I’m so sorry,” Emily said, clasping Noah’s hand.
The man nodded his thanks. The bitter, sticky scent of marijuana oozed off of him. His eyes were red-rimmed and glassy. In fact, Matt noticed as he moved down the line shaking hands, the entire Ellis family smelled like weed. A smile tugged at his lips but he forced his face to remain blank. Part of him wished they’d invited him to spark up. The scent was so strong, it almost knocked him over. All of them were engulfed in it—except for Rowan.
He stopped in front of her. She smelled clean, a light fragrance hovering around her like an aura, enveloping him in soothing warmth. Standing next to her family, she was a complete contrast—in more than one way. Her father and brother, for example, wore rumpled jeans. Rowan stood out in her funeral black. And while her family’s eyes were bloodshot, relaxed smiles painted their faces. Her eyes were red and swollen, and her mouth tugged down in a frown.
So maybe she hadn’t been glaring at him after all. Her family appeared almost jovial. No wonder she looked so pissed.
He held out his hand to her. “I’m Matt,” he said.
She wrapped her arms around herself. “I know who you are.” Her tone was sharp.
He blinked. Okay. He wouldn’t take it personally. She’d just lost her aunt, after all. “Katherine really loved you,” he offered. “She talked about you all the time.”
For a moment, Rowan’s face softened. A smile lit up her face. Then fresh tears filled her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly.
She gazed at him, a mixture of emotions playing off her face—feelings he couldn’t read.
He stood there, feeling more awkward with each second that passed. His feet felt rooted to the floor, though. Something about her drew him in. It was familiar, almost as if they knew each other. But he’d never met her. Only through Katherine’s stories did he know that she made delicious pastries and that her face turned bright red when she swore. But still. He felt an almost relief in her presence, the same kind that came from being reunited with someone you love and haven’t seen in a long time.
It was ridiculous. He didn’t believe in instalove. The crazy thing was, though, that for a second, she looked like she felt something too.
Then the mask slipped back over her face. Her eyes narrowed, guarded.
He needed to say something. People behind him pressed closer. He was holding the line up. He should tell a funny story about Katherine, bring that smile back again. Give her something to carry with her. Blank static filled his mind, though. He’d spent the last two years working with Katherine, yet he couldn’t recall a single moment. His pulse echoed in his ears. He realized that he might just be having a panic attack. The wake was proving to be too much for him.
Resolving to find her again before he left, he mumbled another quick sorry, then hurried away. He retreated to a seat at the back of the wide room. Then he cursed himself.
He’d had a chance to pay it forward, to spread some of Katherine’s kindness toward him to her niece. And he’d botched it—completely. Bringing his hands to his face, he bent over. Suddenly, he needed air. He stood and headed toward the exit.
JUST ONE MORE MINUTE
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