The next day after her daily morning run, Annie got ready for work. Despite her last minute attempts to come up with an excuse to bail on her own birthday celebration, Annie hadn’t been able to escape Marley as she’d come to her place last night and forced her into wearing the clothes she’d brought from her own store.
In the end, she had ended enjoying herself. If only she could say the same about her two best friends. From the second they stepped into Joe’s, Jack had gone off to chat with some blonde girl and Marley had sat all night seething in her place, and pretending to be listening to whatever Annie was telling her at the time.
Of course, when Marley did the same and found some guy to flirt with, Annie had noticed Jack’s murderous stare as he clearly hadn’t liked the way the stranger’s hand kept caressing Marley’s back the entire time. At least, with her two friends busy making fools of themselves, she had been able to slip out early from Joe’s. All in all though, the night out had helped her shake off the remnants of the nightmare and have a dreamless night’s sleep.
Annie hoped Marley had paid attention when she made plans to meet the redhead at the diner for an early breakfast, before Dreams and Trends opened up for the day. Minutes later, Annie arrived at the diner and decided to go directly upstairs using the side street entrance. There was some paperwork she needed to catch up on before starting work downstairs.
An hour later, Luke Hamilton was entering the same place. He had decided the reason this diner was always full, was because the food was actually good. So, Luke wasn’t surprised that many booths were already occupied at 7:00 a.m. He wasn’t staying, he just wanted coffee. He needed to make some calls to the office before heading to the old library and take a look.
Yesterday’s meeting had been a success. The initial draft he and John had put together had been welcomed by all the members of the town council. Like most of their clients, they had some opinions about certain details concerning the design. They also thought it would be best if Luke saw the old place for himself. It would be easier for him, they said, to see the places where their new library would need to improve design wise. Although Luke incorporated said changes in the initial proposal, it wouldn’t hurt to take a look at the old place, it wouldn’t be a problem in case he had to make some modifications. The real bulk of the project had already been well received by the town council. They agreed to have a meeting with a final proposal ready next week. That would be enough time for Luke to head back and forth to the office and work at it with John in case any changes were required.
He approached the counter and found Maggie beaming at him from behind the cash register. He couldn’t help but return the smile, the gesture feeling foreign on his face. It was weird the way this stranger had managed to break the barrier Luke had built around himself; the one that kept him from developing any sort of bond with the rest of the world.
His own parents had been forced to stay out of his life after his wife’s death. Luke had done everything to push everyone that mattered to him away from his life. He already knew the price you paid when someone you loved was taken away from you. He was dead on making sure he never made the same mistake ever again.
“Hey Luke, good morning! Glad you’re back. What can I get you today?”
“Just coffee thanks, black.”
“Just coffee?” Maggie gave him the same concerned look his mother did on the rare occasions when she visited him. His mother’s said that she was worried at how her only son was living his life. The way his work seemed to have taken over his life and the person he had become since. Johanna Hamilton told him this every time they saw each other, which was not as often as before.
The woman standing in front of him also gave him a determined look. It said she wasn’t one to keep her thoughts to herself, either.
“No wonder you look so pale. Well, I don’t do that just-coffee nonsense. So, just sit over there and I’ll have something special made up for you. And don’t even try to tell me you don’t have time.”
Since there was no point in arguing with her, he sat at the counter and watched the early morning dynamics. The other town council members, Dr. Colburn and Mr. Bennings were there, too. The last one with his wife and whom Luke assumed was his son, Pete Jr., as Mr. Bennings had mentioned him yesterday during their meeting. The young man shared the same big frame as his father, even the same pitch in tone when he laughed. Not to mention he shared the same brown eyes with the woman with her arm tucked under the crook of Pete Sr.’s arm.
Luke returned his attention to the movement in front of him. Maggie was busy yelling some orders at the kitchen cook, while one of the waitresses chatted amicably with a couple seated next to him.
He couldn’t help but think about what his mother said about his life. Luke knew he had become the one thing he swore he wouldn’t be: a workaholic. A man who’s only interest was his work and nothing else. Unfortunately, the circumstances around his life had pushed him right in that direction. Not precisely how he had envisioned his life back when he and John began toying with the idea of having their own company.
Luke had been set on making his and John’s dream become a success, but never at the expense of his personal life. It had been one of his conditions from the start, even before he knew he was going to marry Alexa. No matter how good or bad their business turned out to be, his family would always come first. He had learned that firsthand from his own father. Logan Hamilton, an architect himself, had always been there during his childhood, helping his mother and never missing any important event in Luke’s life.
Thinking about his family, and inevitably about what he lost that horrible night when Alexa died, made him go back to when he first met her. It had been during the summer, when he’d been back home from college. His mother had asked him to run some errands for her. He’d been driving distractedly through the parking lot, his mind full with the idea his best friend, John, had pitched to him a week ago, that they should open up their own architect’s office after graduating. Which was why Luke failed to notice the old beat-up red Corolla backing out from a parking slot. The car slammed right into his, causing him to curse and get out of his car ready to lecture the other driver for his carelessness. But when Alexa stepped out from the car and took off her sunglasses, Luke felt a punch to his stomach and a ball of fire erupting inside him the second Alexa’s amazing and fiery eyes sent daggers his way.
Her eyes were summer green, shining back at him much in the same way a lily pond did when the sun’s rays caressed its surface. She had long wavy brown hair that fell to her shoulders and that due to the effect of the strong sun’s rays shining down on them, glowed a deep brown red, like wood catching on fire. It had matched her own fuming temper.
For a moment, his mind had gone completely blank. He had seen many beautiful women before, even dated a few, but the one standing in front of him took his breath away. Luke had already taken in her slim figure and her toned legs exposed under denim shorts. But up to that moment, the real element that completed her unusual beauty had been covered. Now that he had the full image of it, he couldn’t take his eyes away from her.
She looked like a nymph, a creature that didn’t belong in a parking lot in the middle of a fender bender but in the same setting her eyes reminded him of. Deep in the woods, free and undisturbed. Luke knew then and there that he had fallen under her spell. Which was why after they had sorted out the whole insurance mess, he did whatever he could to make her stay with him a while longer. When it came time for her to leave, Luke asked her for her name to which she answered rather indifferently “Alexa Dunston. But I’m not interested.”
Nevertheless, he later found out she worked at a coffee shop right in front of where they had had their accident and after convincing her he wasn’t some sort of jerk who wanted to take advantage of her, she agreed to go out on a date with him. The rest was history, they dated for over a year and the second he graduated from college, at the same time he and John were beginning their company, he had asked her to marry him.
Alexa had been twenty-four when they got married, attending community college, doing an administration’s degree, because her dream back then had been to one day own a bookstore. And it had been Luke’s dream to be the one who helped her fulfill her dream. But the problems in their marriage began just a few months after moving to their new place back in Stamford, and from then on, Luke would make mistake after mistake before he made one that cost him not only his marriage but the life of the woman he still longed to see every night in his dreams.
The bubbly laughter of one the waitresses at the counter pulled him back from his reverie. He felt his entire body shaking from the memory. It had sneaked up on him without any warning. Usually he was able to fend off any thoughts about Alexa but somehow the comforting vibe of this place had lowered his defenses.
Luke was grateful when he saw Maggie carrying his bag of food. He needed to get the hell out of this diner and bury himself in work.
“Here you go, Luke. Scrambled eggs with bacon and a side of hash browns, some toast and fruit and orange juice. Coffee is good, only when it is combined with good food.”
“Thank you, Maggie. How much do I owe you?”
“Oh, don’t bother. As you weren’t planning in having anything other than coffee, it’s on the house. Call it a welcome gesture from the town.”
“I really don’t think that’s necessary.”
“Sure it is. Now, I expect to see you back here. Might do you good to meet the rest of the town.”
“I came to work Maggie, not to mingle.”
“Maybe it is time you did both, don’t you think?”
Luke nodded, sure if he tried to refuse he would end up banging his head against the steel counter. He put his wallet back and took the food bag from Maggie. He would eat in his car before he headed to the old library and afterwards, he would drive over to check out the piece of land where the town council planned to build the new library. He and John had already seen it in pictures but Luke wanted to see it personally so he could start picturing how their initial plans would play out.
“No problem, see you around.”
Just as he was outside, Maggie noticed he had left his coffee. In that same instant, Annie was coming down from the office.
“Annie, dear. Would you be so kind and take this coffee to that man who’s crossing the street? His name is Luke.”
“Okay, sure. I’ll be right back.”
Annie stepped out into the cold morning air, scanning across the street until she saw him. She started to run and remembered Maggie had said his name was Luke, so she called out to him.