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Mia MacAfee hated mornings, but at five A.M. on Friday, hers were the first bootprints in the two inches of sugar-soft snow that had fallen during the night.
It's the best part of the day, Mia, she imagined Dan whispering in her ear. Why would you want to snooze it away?
Mia glanced over her shoulder, half expecting to see her husband behind her, a wink from his flashing green eyes, his lopsided smile and crooked front tooth. Instead, she saw only the curved pathway she had carved through the sleeping streets of Muddy Creek. In her mind, she whispered back to him, Okay, Dan MacAfee, you win. It is beautiful. Peaceful, too. And cozy, in a weird sort of way. But the quilt on our bed is also all those things and it's warm.
They had these conversations from time to time, Mia and her dead husband, the same intimate banter they'd indulged in when he was alive. The talks kept Mia sane, though she suspected if she told anyone, they might disagree with that assessment of her mental state.
Like every morning, Mia made her way to the Brewed Awakening, the coffee shop she'd opened four years ago with Leanne Chilton, her most unlikely friend, as Dan used to call her. A year agoSeptember, only a couple of weeks before Dan died, she recalled sitting with him in the stands at a football game in Brister where their son coached. When the band marched onto the field, the brass section drowning out everything else, Dan laughed and said that if women were instruments, Leanne would be a trumpet. All brassy and full of sass. "Now you, on the other hand," he started, then some kid had dumped a Coke in his lap, ending the conversation. It was one of many talks left incomplete between them, little discussions they probably would've continued at some point, had he lived.
While Mia had no clue what instrument she'd be, her friend Aggie Cobb was another story. Dan hadn't gotten around to Aggie, either, but Mia saw the older woman as a flute. Upbeat, fluttery, happy. Or a bass drum. Steady as a heartbeat, predictable, reliable.
Unlike her friendship with Leanne, Dan understood her friendship with Aggie. So did Mia. Which was why she was up and out this morning so much earlier than usual. Some things in life are more important than an extra hour beneath the covers, Mia thought. Some things can't wait. Some things are so troublesome they have the power to jar even a morning-hater awake before the alarm.
Please, God, please let her be in the kitchen like always, kneading the sweet roll dough, humming along to Patsy Cline.
Mia shoved her fallen purse strap up to her shoulder then settled one mitten-covered hand atop the stack of clean, folded tablecloths she carried. How old was Aggie's mother when her mind started slipping? Older than Aggie, surely. Much older. Seventy, at least.
A sigh slipped past her lips in a puff of smoky white as Mia remembered that Aggie wasn't much younger than seventy. It didn't seem possible her friend had turned sixty-eight last month. She remembered Aggie's mom, Sally, at seventy as a fragile, defeated old woman. But Aggie sparkled with life and enthusiasm. She had the most positive attitude of anyone Mia knew. Up until last week she had, anyway. Or was it the week before?
Mia couldn't pinpoint the moment the changes started. At first only little things caught her attention. No smiles for the customers. No corny jokes. Long stretches of time unpunctuated by Aggie's usual cheerful chatter. Then, on Tuesday, she burned three batches of sweet rolls, one right after the other. On Wednesday, she forgot to add baking soda to the blueberry muffin batter and the muffins came out rock hard. Aggie blamed the oven for both incidents, complaining that Leanne and Mia bought "cheap" merchandise. Yesterday, Aggie burst into tears when Old Man Miller wished her a Happy New Year. Then she missed a curve in the road on the way home from work and mowed down the decorated spruce tree in Joe and Missy Potter's front yard.
A heartbreaking air of sadness surrounded Aggie lately. Most of the time, she seemed only physically present, her mind a million miles away. At fifty, both Mia and Leanne were eighteen years younger, but they had always had to stay on their toes to outrun, outsmart, or outwit Aggie. As the only morning person of the three, Aggie volunteered to open the shop every day when they'd hired her to work part-time. Each morning, she arrived by four-thirty to start the baking. Mia normally dragged herself out of bed and joined her an hour and a half later. They unlocked the door for customers at seven. Then, by eight-thirty or nine, Leanne, who was dangerous to talk to before noon, showed up, cranky and grumbling, and Aggie left for home at ten.
Drawing crisp, cold air into her lungs, Mia tried to divert her mind to other, happier things. Cold or not, she loved the snow, as long as the wind didn't blow, which was as rare in Muddy Creek as rain in the Sahara. This particular morning settled around her like a sleeping baby's sigh. The air seemed reluctant to disturb the silence; even the naked trees refused to shiver.
Though already a week into the New Year, a few houses on the side streets off Main still twinkled with Christmas lights. Mia gave thanks that the holidays had ended. This Christmas without Dan hadn't been any easier than last year's. That man did love the season! He used to plunge headfirst into the festivities: the kids singing carols at the school play, the baking, the decorating, the rattling of bright, shiny boxes. Dan's enthusiasm for the holiday had been contagious, and Mia had caught it early in their marriage. But that all ended with his sudden heart attack. Now Silent Night and colored lights only made her ache.
As she neared the shop, Mia spied a huddled form at the door, stomping snow from a pair of cowboy boots on the welcome mat and muttering something inaudible.
"Leanne?" she called out.
"You're early." Leanne's groggy voice came from beneath the faux leopard fur-trimmed hood of a fitted coat.
"I'm early? This is what time you usually go to bed, isn't it? Not get up."
Leanne pulled a ring of keys from her coat pocket. "I couldn't sleep."
"Me either." She glanced into the softly glowing shop window, the only one lit up along Main. "Aggie?"
"Yeah." Fatalism darkened Leanne's quick look, a helplessness at odds with her usual brisk self-assurance. "I'm worried about her."
"Me, too. I've never seen her so down. Or so scatterbrained."
"She chewed me out good yesterday for making a mess and leaving it for her to clean up. Said I reminded her of Jimmy when he was a kid, expecting her to be his maid. I think those are the only harsh words I've ever heard come out of that woman's mouth."
"Other than her comment about our cheap oven, you mean?"
A short, sharp laugh, then, "I forgot about that." Her keys jingled as Leanne searched for the right one. "With Aggie's family history, I can't help wondering if-"
"Don't even think it. We're jumping the gun, worrying about that."
"So, you admit it's crossed your mind, too?"
"Sure it has. But it's an overreaction. Something's bothering her, that's all."
"I hope you're right." Leanne slipped the key into the doorknob and turned it.
The shop's bell tinkled as Leanne opened the door. A swirl of warm, scented air rushed to greet Mia. Cinnamon and yeast. Comfort. Memories. Aggie provided most of the baked-good recipes served at the coffee shop, but the sweet rolls belonged to Mia. She had perfected them through years of cooking for Dan and their three kids, all grown now and gone.
Mia's oldest, Brent, currently lived more than an hour and a half away in Brister with his wife, Sherry, and their two children. Brent had followed Dan's example by becoming a smalltown high school football coach. Trey, Mia's middle child, lived the single life in Dallas, where he worked as some kind of business consultant; she never had figured out exactly what the job entailed.
Then there was Mia's daughter Christy. Twenty-seven and twice divorced, Christy lived in New York City where she waited tables. At least, the last time they'd talked she did. How long had it been? Over six months, at least. And ten long years since they'd seen each other. Mia had tried to reach Christy at Christmas, but her home phone had been disconnected, and she didn't answer her cell or return messages.
And Christy didn't send a card.
"Aggie?" Mia shouted. No response came from the kitchen, and Mia caught Leanne's frown. No country music played on the sound system, no off-key voice sang along, no pans clattered. Something wasn't right. Tension hung in the air, as thick as the yeasty scent of baking dough.
Mia didn't bother taking off her coat or wiping the soles of her snow boots on the entry rug. Nor did Leanne. They hurried through the small dining room, past a hodgepodge collection of wooden chairs and scarred oak tables, around a glass-front counter soon to be filled with rolls, muffins, and pies. Mia placed the stack of tablecloths on it and, with Leanne on her heels, pushed through the swinging doors leading into the kitchen.
Five-foot-tall Aggie stood with feet apart, clutching an icing tube in one hand and aiming it toward the closed storage room door. Flour smudged her cheek and dusted the red baker's apron she wore over a loose beige sweater and stretchy double knit black pants. The tube shook like a tambourine.
Mia took a cautious step toward her. "Aggie ... what-"
"Shhh!" Her gaze intent on the storage room door, Aggie whispered, "Something's in there. Hear it?"
Leaning forward, Mia strained to listen. Paper rustled faintly on the other side of the door. Relief rushed from her lungs.
"Lower your weapon, Annie Oakley," Leanne said with wry sarcasm. "Sounds like we've got ourselves a mouse, that's all." She shrugged out of her coat, revealing a skintight sweater and a tall body still shapely enough to turn the heads of men less than half her age. "I'll have Dale Roby come by later to get rid of it."
"It's too big for a mouse." Aggie's voice wavered, sounding more like a piccolo than a flute or a drum.
Leanne groaned. "Okay, mice."
Reddening, Aggie thrust out her jaw. "Tell me this, smarty pants. How many mice would it take to move a step ladder? I swear I heard it scrape across the floor a minute ago."
"Rats, then." Leanne shook out her long mane of bottle-blonde hair, then went to hang her coat next to Aggie's on the rack beside the back door. "Or even a possum."
Mia put her purse aside, took off her mittens and stuffed them into her coat pocket before handing it to Leanne to hang. "It's okay, Aggie. We'll call Dale, like Leanne said."
The tube shook harder. Aggie shuddered, her face as pale as a winter sun. "You know how I hate rodents."
Shaking her head, Leanne asked, "What're you plannin' to do? Shoot it with icing and send it into a sugar coma?"
Mia walked past Aggie and reached for the storage room door handle. "Come on, let's take a look."
"Oh, Lord." Whimpering, Aggie kept the tube poised to squirt.
"No one would ever believe you live on a farm, Ag," Leanne said with a sigh.
The hinges squeaked as Mia pushed the door wide, letting the light from behind seep into the storage room. Blinking, she scanned the small, crowded area stacked high with supplies. As she stepped in, she heard a gasp in the far right corner, a sharp intake of breath.
"Turn on the light, Leanne," Mia whispered. Her heart ticked like an over-wound clock as she peered toward the shadowy corner from where the sound had come. The bare bulb overhead flared, illuminating a pale, frightened face with dark, hollow smudges for eyes. The eyes stared back at Mia.
Aggie screeched, and Mia felt something hit her back. Icing.
"Sorry," Aggie murmured. "My finger hit the trigger."
Ignoring the ooze beneath her left shoulder blade, Mia concentrated on the girl crouched on the floor in the corner, hugging dirty, torn, blue-jean-covered knees to her chest. "Hello, there." Mia reached out a hand.
Cringing, the girl scrambled to her feet, her eyeliner-smeared, sleepy brown eyes too big for her face; her short, dark-rooted, white-blonde hair flattened to her head on one side and stuck out in spikes on the other. She appeared too young for makeup and bleached hair. Twelve, maybe. Thirteen at the most. A kaleidoscope of emotions flashed across her face then quickly disappeared behind a stony mask.
"Heavens," Aggie whispered.
Leanne moved up beside Mia as the skinny, shivering girl pressed closer to the wall. "We have a rat, all right. A packrat." She pointed to the nest at the girl's feet: a man's down jacket, a well-worn backpack, two tablecloths bunched into a makeshift bed. A scatter of crumpled paper muffin cups surrounded an empty Brewed Awakening mug. "A packrat with an appetite."
Mia detected a hint of concern in Leanne's tone.
The girl's chin lifted as she blinked the sleep from her eyes then narrowed them into defiance. Mia took another step toward her. "What's your name?"
"How'd you get in here?" Leanne crossed her arms, one cowboy boot tapping out her impatience. "You better check the safe, Aggie. Make sure our little packrat isn't a thief, too."
"No one could crack that thing," Aggie scoffed.
"Are you okay?" Mia asked the girl in a careful voice. No use frightening her more than she was already.
"You would'a been smarter to break in to the beauty shop down the street," Leanne said. "Betty hates a cold shop in the mornings. She leaves the heater running full blast all night."
Aggie squeezed in on Mia's other side. "Talk to us, sugar. We don't want to hurt you. But we can't help you, either, if you won't tell us who you are."
When the front bell jingled, the girl jumped, her gaze darting toward the door.
"Well, damn," Leanne huffed. "Don't people know by now we're not open this early?" She called, "Just a sec!" then backed out of the storage room for a moment before poking her head back in. "It's the sheriff. I swear, Mia, the man gets earlier every day." Her half-grin brimmed with insinuation. "Guess he can't stand not seeing your smiling face first thing in the morning."
For once, Mia welcomed Sheriff Cade Sloan's daily visit, instead of dreading it. She'd known him most of her life, did the sports booster club thing and PTA with him and his ex-wife, Jill, before they divorced. Years back, she and Dan had even socialized with them some. Then, a couple of months ago, Cade started flirting. Now, just the sight of him made her as nervous and self-conscious as a girl at her first school dance. Especially since Leanne and Aggie insisted he had a "thing" for her.
Mia wasn't convinced of that. Like Leanne, Cade was a tease and always had been. At one time or another, every woman in town had been the recipient of his playful joking. Now it was her turn, that was all.
But the looks he gave her lately still made her heart skip a beat. Though she'd never admit it to Leanne or Aggie, Mia feared she was the one with a "thing" for Cade, not the other way around. "Tell him to come back here," she said.
"No!" The girl stepped toward the three women, one arm thrust out, trembling. "Don't tell him I'm here."
Mia's heart beat too fast. Why did this child seem so familiar?
"Please," the girl whispered. "Just give me a chance."
And then, at once, Mia knew. Her eyes had a different shape. The color was wrong, too; brown rather than blue. But the flash of desperation, the lost look in them, was identical to what she'd glimpsed briefly in her own daughter's eyes before Christy ran away.
Excerpted from Red Hat Society's Acting Their Age by Regina Hale Sutherland Copyright ©2005 by The Red Hat Society, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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