Just One More Minute: Chapter 3

Just One More Minute, by Elizabeth Barone

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.

There.

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.

His face.

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.


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Just One More Minute: Chapter 2

Just One More Minute, by Elizabeth Barone

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
Available November 18th

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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Just One More Minute: Chapter 1

Just One More Minute, by Elizabeth Barone

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.

And wine.

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
Available November 18th

A down-on-her-luck waitress inherits a bakery with the man who stole her dream job—and broke her heart.

PRE-ORDER NOW
Special $0.99 Offer*!

Kindle · iBooks · Nook · Kobo · More
Add to Goodreads

Or 1-click buy for your Kindle:


*Offer ends November 18th; regular price $2.99. Hurry and pre-order now to save!

Naming and Developing “Just One More Minute” Characters

via Unsplash
via Unsplash

I’m 1,787 words into Just One More Minute. It feels so good to be writing again—but it’s hard. I’m used to writing much faster, for one. Typically I can write 2,000 words in an hour. I wrote for three hours yesterday and was super disappointed. Not only am I out of practice, it’s also a new book, and my arthritis has flared up again. My wrists and hands are sore. So it’s been a process.

I spent a lot of time naming and developing characters. I knew what I was going for and wanted things just right. Sometimes a name will just pop into my head and I’ll know it’s perfect. Other times, I have to search through baby name websites. This was one of those times.

Rowan was easy. I’d already fallen in love with the name and knew I wanted to use it for a character eventually. I toyed with the idea of taking her name literally and giving her red hair, but in the end it just wasn’t her. I wanted someone who looked delicate but with strong, feisty features. I often look for a model to base my characters off of, but none of the gorgeous redheads I could find screamed Rowan to me. Eventually I came across Merritt Patterson. She was exactly who I’d been looking for.

Matt was harder. I knew exactly what he looked like and found a model for him with no trouble. I just Googled “young men with curly hair.” Alex Libby matched the guy I saw in my head to a T. Naming him was harder. I knew I wanted a “normal” name. I usually give my male characters unique names. Initially I was going to name him Daniel, but it just didn’t fit. I spent hours scrolling through baby name sites. Finally I came across Matthew—Matt for short. It fit perfectly.

I spent a whole day shaping them in my development doc. I wrote entire personal histories and then physical descriptions. In some ways, I know these people better than myself.

Rowan:

Mousy brown hair down to her waist, blue eyes. Porcelain complexion; doesn’t tan, usually burns. Full lips. Button nose. Slightly dimpled chin.

She’s short (about 5’2″), and slight. 34B bust.

Typical outfit: tunic, leggings, infinity scarf, wedges or riding boots.

Usually has bare nails, since she works in the food industry—though they’re very neat and well cared for.

Rarely carries a purse. Keeps cash and phone tucked into her boots or, if summer, a wristlet. Everything else, she keeps in her car (makeup bag, etc).

When checking something in the oven, she always says “Just one more minute…”

Matt:

Curly brown hair down to his ears. Green eyes. Light olive complexion; tans easily. Greek nose. Full lips. Light beard.

6’3″. Athletic build.

Typical outfit: Timberland safety boots, worn and comfortable Dickie’s work pants (usually smudged with flour), striped tee or long sleeved henley.

Square hands—worker’s hands. Nails are very short and clean.

It’s true that at this point I know her better. Usually I figure these things out as I’m writing, so I’m not sweatin’ it.

I spent some more time developing the supporting cast. There are still details I’m not sure of, but everyone has a name. I’ll figure out the rest as I go and add it to my style sheet. (I’ll talk about that more in a future post.) I might not find models for all of the characters, but their descriptions aren’t as important as my leads’ are.

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Next up: I’ll talk about how I pants and plot.