Authors: C.E. Hilbert
Tags: #christian Fiction
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
COPYRIGHT 2015 by CE Hilbert
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or Pelican Ventures, LLC except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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Cover Art by
White Rose Publishing, a division of Pelican Ventures, LLC
PO Box 1738 *Aztec, NM * 87410
White Rose Publishing Circle and Rosebud logo is a trademark of Pelican Ventures, LLC
First White Rose Edition, 2016
Paperback Edition ISBN 978-1-61116-484-8
Electronic Edition ISBN 978-1-61116-483-1
Published in the United States of America
To my family of friends...God blesses me each day through you.
The aroma of chocolate, intermingled with caramel, melted into Sean's senses as he crossed the threshold of Only the Basics Bakery. The scents of the little shop enveloped him like a warm sweater in the middle of winter and he suspected any of the dozens of cookies, cakes, and pies on display would vanish as soon as they found their way onto a plate in front of him. He wished he could make the shop's owner, Maggie McKitrick, disappear as quickly.
“Have a look around. I'll be right with you.”
Echoing from the backroom, the voice was faceless, but Sean would know its lilt in his deepest sleep. It sent chills up his spine each time he pressed play on his answering machine. He was certain said voice, and the petite body housing it, had nagged nearly an inch off his over six foot frame in the last few months with complaints, threats veiled as needs, and ridiculous upgrade suggestions for the building the voice's owner rented from him.
“I'm so sorry you had to wait,” she said as she pushed her way through the swinging door that separated the cozy cafÃ© from the cramped kitchen. Her eyes focused on the floor as if she needed to measure each step. Wiping hands on her flour-covered apron, she lifted her headâlips stretched wide with a smile, and stopped just behind the counter.
Only the glass display case separated them.
Her eyes locked on his face, sliding her bright grin into a tight-lipped frown. “Oh, it's you.”
“It's me.” Sean couldn't stop his lips from lifting at the corners.
Maggie might be an annoying tenant, but she was picture-postcard pretty. With her long mass of curly, dark brown hair tied in a messy mound on the top of her head, she appeared nearly an inch taller than her petite five foot three. The only flaws on her face were a few small smudges of what looked like a mix of flour and chocolate on her left cheek. She crossed her arms and leaned against the back counter. “Did you come to fix the back door, or are you just looking for more money, Scrooge?”
Matching her stance, Sean propped his hip against a small cafÃ© table. The table legs squeaked against the floor with his added weight. “Ms. McKitrick, I must remind you that you haven't paid your rent for the last two months. If you don't pay, I'll be forced to evict you and take you to court. I'm sure you don't want to lose your little business.”
She shoved away from the counter. Her hands landed on top of the display case with a thud; her knuckles whitened. The fire shooting from her gaze made Sean thankful for the small barrier the refrigerated case provided. “Don't patronize me, you big bully. I haven't paid my rent because you haven't fixed one thing on my list. In my lease agreement, it clearly states that if the owner, that's you and your never-seen brothers, refuses to keep said property in good condition then the tenant, that's me, has the right to refuse payment. Nothing that needs fixing has been fixed.” In one seamless motion, she pushed off of the case and began counting on her fingers. “I have a leaky toilet. The ventilation in the kitchen is spotty, at best. And, you agreed to put an additional deadbolt on the back door when I signed the lease six months ago. I believe the door is still deadbolt free, using the toilet might officially be a medal event in surfing, and I am contemplating seeing the doctor about an inhaler. So, I refuse payment.”
Sean raked his hand through his short, blond hair, sucking in a deep breath to soothe the two-headed beast of anger and annoyance rising from his belly. “I've sent handymen over several times in the last two months to fix all of your requests.”
“And yet,” her arm swung in the direction of the kitchen as her voice shifted from annoyance to what Sean could only classify as exasperation. He recognized the tone. Most of the conversations with his mother during his teen years and after sounded remarkably like Maggie at the moment. “I still have a leaky toilet, bad ventilation, and a lack of proper security. How do you explain that?”
“Perhaps, it's because each time I send someone over to fix your problems, you smile at him, hand him a muffin, a cup of coffee, and offer him a seat in your cafÃ©.” He stepped to the counter, resting his palms on the smooth, cool surface.
She resumed her position against the glass case, mere inches from his face. Releasing a slow breath, her voice lowered an octave. “Well, I was only being hospitable. And it wasn't as if you sent dozens over. Each time, you've sent over Mr. Thompson, who is on the near side of ninety. Aren't you worried he might break a hip or something? Is he the cheapest guy you could find, Scrooge?”
“Taylor.” Silently he prayed for calm.
Her head tilted slightly to the right, freeing a piece of her crazy hair. “What?”
“My name is Taylor. Not Scrooge or Big Bully or Meany. It's Taylor. Sean Taylor.”
“Then I'd appreciate you using my name.”
“Whatever,” Maggie muttered. Turning from the display case, she began wiping an undetectable mess on the back prep counter.
Scrubbing a hand over his face, he let out a long sigh. “And, I sent over Mr. Thompson, because he goes to my church and I know he can use the money. He would be too proud to simply take a gift, so I gave him the opportunity to earn some of the money he needs doing something he's done most of his life.”
Her hand slowed and her shoulders slumped. With the towel stretched taut between her hands she swiveled to face him. “I didn't know.”
Gone was the anger and fierce Irish temper. Instead, her face held true compassion, her heart reflecting in her eyes. “I gave him coffee and a muffin every time he came because he looked so worn out.” A slight smile touched her lips. “The last time he was here, he told me about his wife, Martha, and how she used to make a homemade pie for dinner every night. He was wiping his eyes with his bandana and I just didn't have the heart to ask him to crawl around on the floor to fix the toilet.”
“Martha was great. She gave me and my brothers piano lessons, but we had a hard time staying still long enough to learn anything more than âHeart and Soul.'” Their gazes met and for the first time in over two months, he saw Maggie. Not his frustrating tenant. Just Maggie.
Focus, Taylor. Rent. Business. Landlord. Any of these ringing a bell?
He took a step back from the counter, shook his head and laced his arms. “Ahem,” he cleared his throat. “Ms. McKitrickâ¦”
The entry bell jangled announcing a new customer.
Sean shelved the speech he was preparing in his head. No need to have the whole town gossiping about his landlord-tenant issues.
Maggie's expression sparkled as she looked past him and greeted the new distraction. “Hello, Mr. Mayor.” She skirted around Sean. Reaching the mayor, she shook his hand.
He was surprised she didn't tug the good ole' boy politician into a bear hug, spreading flour across the crooked tie and rounded belly of Gibson's Run, Ohio's fearless leader.
Sean tightened his arms across his chest as he watched her exuberant greeting. She seemed to love everyone. Everyone but her landlord.
“Good morning, Miss Maggie. How're you today?” The mayor said with a nod of his head and a chuckle in his voice.
“Oh, I'm OK, Mike, except for someâ¦ ummâ¦difficult customers.” She rolled her eyes toward Sean. “How'd you like a blueberry-lemon muffin? They're cooling in the back. I made them with organic sugar, unbleached flour, and substituted butter with Greek yogurt. So Beth should be all right with you having a little treat for breakfast.” Without waiting for his answer, Maggie scurried to the back kitchen leaving Sean and the mayor alone.
“Chiefâ¦” the mayor said with a slight tip of his head to Sean.
“Mayor Donaldson, how're you this morning?”
“I'm just fine, Sean.” He took a step toward the display case. Rubbing his belly, he perused the decadent contents. “I hope you aren't harassing our sweet Maggie. Seems as if that might be against the law and a conflict of interest.” He turned his head and winked a single eye toward the badge Sean wore on his work belt.
“I think it's the other way around, Mayor.” Sean leaned against the small cafÃ© table. This was business. He wasn't leaving without his rent.
Mayor Donaldson twisted away from the display counter and gave Sean a politician's placating grin. “Give her a break, Sean. She's a new business owner. A little lady out on her own without any family support. We here, in Gibson's Run, we need to be her family.”
“I appreciate supporting small businesses, mayor. But, it's a business, not a non-profit. She needs to keep up her end of our contract.”
Before the mayor could respond, Maggie breezed through the connecting doorway with a small brown box tied with raffia ribbon. “Here you go. I threw in a couple mini-carrot muffins for the assistants at the office. Ask them to stop by and tell me what they think.”
“Thank you, Maggie. I'm sure the ladies will love them.” He lifted the box from her hands. “I'll take a black coffee, as well, and then leave you and the chief toâ¦” He looked from Maggie to Sean and back to Maggie. “Chat.” He handed her a few dollars to pay for his muffin and coffee.
Maggie worked quickly, retrieving the mayor's coffee and his change from the register. “Thank you for supporting the bakery. Have a great day.”
Taking the coffee, he smiled. “I'll see you tomorrow, Maggie.” He gave a slight nod of his head. “Chief, would you mind opening the door for me? My hands are a little full.”
“Certainly,” Sean pushed off the table. “Have a good day, mayor.” The tiny bell jingled as he shoved the glass door open.
“You can follow him,” Maggie said over her shoulder as she fiddled with the mugs on the shelf above the back counter.
“Ms. McKitrick, we haven't finished our conversation,” he spoke to her back. “I don't want to be tough on you, but you aren't giving me much of a choice.”
Waiting for a pithy retort, he took in the full length of her for the first time in weeks. From her slightly gaunt frame to the frayed hem of her chef's coat, Maggie would never be confused with a carefree socialite. Concern bubbled in his chest.
We are her family
. The mayor's words rolled through his mind as a vision of his mother, twenty years earlier wiping down the tables in this very space, superimposed over Maggie. He took a slight step closer. “Are you having money problems? Is that why you haven't paid your rent?”
She spun toward him, the color rising from the base of her neck to her hairline. “I am not having money problems.” She tossed the dirty rag in a bucket. “I just don't think I should have to pay when you aren't fulfilling your part of our contract.”
He felt heat burn at his collar and his stomach twisted.
She was right.
Sean hadn't been following through with his responsibilities. His brothers trusted him to manage the properties they shared. The other stores and apartments in the strip of buildings the Taylor brothers owned were self-sufficient. Except for the occasional water leak or furnace filter, all he needed to do was collect the checks each month. But Maggie's building was the oldest in their holdings and often needed the most attention. Her complaints were valid. He hated that she was right.