She may have escaped Mr. Bennings’s air-depriving hug but Annie certainly didn’t have any other choice as the entire diner broke into a loud and cheery “happy birthday to you” the second she entered the place. It didn’t matter if it was just six in the morning. The diner was filled with all of those who had to take the train before leaving for work or others like Dr. Colburn or Mr. Andrews, who made it a habit of eating almost every meal at Maggie’s, plus the rest of the waitresses. Their beaming faces were enough to warm Annie up to returning their smiles and to relax.
“Oh, you guys! Thank you!” Annie exclaimed feeling a bit embarrassed and humbled at the same time. Marley was the first one to give her a hug. And then taking out a small black velvet box from one of the pockets of her jacket, she handed it to Annie.
Marley Smith was one of Annie’s best friends. She was a six foot exotic creature, taller than Annie’s five foot six frame. Her hair was long, a combination of brown and red that looked like exquisite silk falling down behind her back. Her skin was so pale, that when summer came and she and Annie went by the Mayfield Lake or to the beach to lie under the sun, the final result was more freckles and no tan whatsoever. Plus, she had a body that was long and slim, yet with enough curves to have the men in town stare at her longer than necessary.
The redheaded woman was the owner of the small but very profitable women’s clothing store in Creek Valley, Dreams and Trends. Annie met Marley for the first time when Maggie took her to her store. Then, it had been just a matter of time before a friendship blossomed between the two women.
They couldn’t be more different, like oil and water. While Marley was the outgoing, loud, straightforward and confident one, Annie was the quiet, shy and insecure one. Although Annie had a very hard time opening up to strangers, – a trait that she suspected she had inherited from her previous self – there had been something in the way Marley welcomed her and just shared with her details about her life, as if they’ve known each other for years, that made it impossible for Annie not to like her. She suspected that Marley, too, had been in need of a friend who really listened and accepted her for who she was. Both women brought a certain balance to each other’s lives, and in their own unique personalities, had come to respect and care for each other very deeply.
“Marley……they are beautiful.” She beamed at her friend and showed everyone the shiny silver moon shaped earrings that her friend had made for her. Apart from being a very successful business woman, Marley was also an amazing jewelry designer. Her pieces were seen in almost every young woman and not so young around town. She had started selling them only last year at the store. To Annie, it had been one of her most brilliant ideas so far.
“Hope you wear them tonight when we go out to celebrate.”
“Right.” Annie had forgotten that somehow her friend had convinced her of hitting the local bar for a few drinks after her shift.
“I gotta get back to the store but I’ll stop by your place tonight and don’t even think about coming up with an excuse. I can already see your brain trying to come up with one.” And with that, she gave her another hug and rushed out.
Maggie, the owner of the diner and the woman who had saved her life, was next and handed her a card and a big brown paper bag. When she opened it, Annie found a quilt made with patches of fabric.
“So that you can curl up in your bed and never be cold honey.”
“I love it, thank you.” Without saying a single word, both women stared at one another and in that silence conveyed how they felt for each other. Annie hoped she would always be able to show Maggie how thankful she was for taking her in and loving her as if she were family.
Maggie was so proud of Annie. There were days when she wished she still lived with her, but she was also glad the scared look that had been there after her accident had vanished from her eyes. Annie deserved to be happy. But Maggie worried that the brunette’s life was confined to the diner, the library, her apartment and Marley’s store. Hopefully, her moving out could be seen as a sign that Annie was ready to do more.
Mr. Andrews, the library manager, gave her another paper bag and when Annie reached inside, her hand came up holding three books that she had been meaning to order from the Internet.
The first one was supposed to be an interesting yet light and different biography on Marie Antoinette, by Antonia Fraser. Marley had urged her to just watch the movie but Annie preferred to have all the details that sometimes didn’t make it to the big screen. Next, there was Stardust, by Neil Gaiman and the newest Nora Roberts’ romance.
“Oh Mr. Andrews…..you didn’t.”
“Lucy saw you browsing the Amazon site the other day at one of the library’s computers, so I just ordered them myself.”
The library was another one of her favorite places. Despite the books that she constantly bought online, her room was always filled with at least four or five books from the library. Fiction, romances and thrillers were among her favorites. She liked writers like Nora Roberts, Julie Garwood, plus her all time favorite Jane Austen, plus James Patterson, Stephen King and another of her favorites, Gregory Maguire. But her tastes also ventured to the non-fiction realms. She especially liked biographies, it was good to know others did remember their lives, history books; she even enjoyed reading those travel books from National Geographic. For someone who had decided she would never venture outside from the comfort of her small town, it was a treat to read about the customs and amazing and breathtaking scenes and sites found throughout the world.
Because of the library’s lack of space, they were planning to relocate it. Apparently the town council had already hired a firm from Stamford who would do the job. Maggie mentioned to Annie the other day they were expecting one of the architects to drop by any day now to have their first meeting. Annie hoped that whoever he was, he would be able to preserve the sense of community that you felt every time you entered the current place.
“It is perfect, everything is. All of you just by being here.” And because her voice broke at those last words, she just closed her eyes and took a deep breath before tears could escape from her eyes.
“And you haven’t seen my gift yet!” Jack said from behind, as he came in with a small box covered in gift wrap with a big pink bow on top.
Jack Baker, her other best friend in town, came around the counter and planted a huge kiss on her lips. Annie was aware of the stares from several of the single women, locals and tourists, who were having breakfast at the diner, as they glued themselves on Jack. Not that she could blame them. The first time she’d met Jack Baker, a couple of months after starting her job as a waitress here at Maggie’s, she’d been mesmerized by his looks, too.
Because of his job as an upholder of the law, his looks reflected the seriousness of his work, although Jack’s personality was light and carefree. He liked to tease Annie, something she’d had a hard time getting used to in the beginning. To Annie, her relationship with Jack was that of a brother and a sister. After their disastrous attempt at a date, they’d discovered they were better for each other as friends.
Still, any woman would appreciate his good looks. He had dark brown hair, always cut short with a few ends sticking up at the top. When wearing his uniform it gave people a sense of familiarity and comfort. But outside the job, it made women swoon over him. His face was easy on the eyes with the shadow of a beard, which she suspected he left it that way to give him a more mature image. The real magnet though were his honey-colored eyes. They had a hint of green, that shone whenever he laughed. Which was often. Annie had also been first row witness to the effect that smile had on other women. It was no secret Jack Baker enjoyed dating on his time off. But Annie knew he had a serious thing for Marley and vice versa, even if both were, too, damn stubborn to act on their feelings.
As she tore open the paper, she saw a box of chocolate Teddy Grahams and a picture they took last Christmas of Jack, Marley and herself outside Marley’s brand new house.
“Oh my God, you made copies of this?”
“I did. I gave Marley hers yesterday and mine is at the office.”
Annie noticed the way his jaw clenched when he said Marley’s name. She would bet anything that visit ended in another fight between them.
“Thanks.” She just pressed her lips into a barely visible smile, not wanting to upset him by asking what had happened.
“No problem. Hey, I’ll see you later at Joe’s, okay?”
Because it felt right, she held on to him a little while longer before he kissed her forehead and left the diner. From the corner of her eye, Annie saw some of the women give her dagger looks before they resumed eating their breakfast. Several town members congratulated her before she was free to get back to work.
As soon as the crowd had gone back to their tables, Annie took all of her presents upstairs to the office. Five minutes later, she came back because one of the waitresses had called in sick, so she wanted to help pick up the slack during the morning rush. As she came behind the counter to grab a pad and pen to write down orders, it was impossible for her not to look back to the first days when she started working here.
Maggie had given her the job as a waitress and by the end of her first two weeks, Annie had managed to drop at least five trays and mix up a dozen orders. But no one ever snapped at her, not even Maggie. The owner of the diner tended to do so every now and then, especially when some of the locals came by after having had a drink too many at Joe’s or when one of the girls found time to flirt during her shift.
Nowadays, she had another job at the diner besides waitressing. Just last year, Maggie had begun to get her more involved in the management of the place. Annie was now the one in charge of things such as ordering up food supplies and making sure they got them in time, making sure all of the kitchen equipment was working correctly and if not, scheduling timely maintenance visits, as well as making sure the staff got paid. Her time now was split between the upstairs office and downstairs.
Waitressing had helped her in getting to know the town. At first, it had been frightening since almost everyone had wanted to know about her and where she came from. Thanks to Maggie though, she came up with the story that they were related and had come here to live with Maggie. Also, she found it very hard the first couple of months to fight her timidity and insecurity, as well as her initial hesitation that maybe someone would recognize her and would force her to give up her newfound life in Creek Valley.
As time went by and no one gave signs of knowing her, not even the swarms of tourists that came in every season, Annie felt better and would become the person much of them saw today. A woman who kept very much to herself outside work, but that always had time to put down her tray and talk with whoever was seated at her section.
After three hours, another of the waitresses came by to give a hand and Annie went back upstairs to deal with some pending supply orders.
So when the town’s newcomer stepped inside the diner, Annie was deep in paperwork, unaware her life was about to change drastically.