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Sleepy seemed like the wrong adjective for a town so dearly dedicated to caffeine, but it was the only word that fit. When Annie Abbott read the brochure her parents sent—via mail, as if she couldn’t just Google the place—it boasted ten different coffee establishments. It might not seem like much, especially to someone moving up from the Portland area, but in a town with less than two thousand people, it showed serious dedication to the beverage.
She drove under the massive, arched sign that stretched from one post to another, the words Rainbow Falls etched into the weathered wood. It felt as if she’d rolled onto a movie set from the fifties. It was so different from the area she’d lived in where apartment complexes were stacked side by side like blocks.
These streets were lined with colorful picturesque houses, manicured lawns, lush trees, and black lampposts standing like wrought iron sentinels every twenty feet. She’d recently taken on a new client who wanted signage for their real estate business. This was the perfect backdrop. She might need to come back with her camera and get a few shots.
The town was a weird combination of eerie and welcoming. Maybe that was because, for the most part, she was used to a bustling city. On a typical Sunday morning, she would sleep late in the two-bedroom condo she’d shared with her college bestie, stumble into the kitchen for coffee, then laze about on the couch.
Maybe Portland was secretly just like this quiet cove every Sunday morning and Annie had no idea. She’d have to ask her friend, Vivian, who’d moved her boyfriend into the condo three weeks ago, to solve that mystery for her some time.
A man in knee socks and a striped robe sat on one of the porches she passed, a newspaper in his hand. He didn’t lift his head as she drove by.
A couple doors down from him, there was an adorable two-story house with gingerbread trim and a mug-shaped sign on the lawn that said, The Perfect Cup. It had regular residential homes on either side of it. Annie smiled at the charm of that. There’s one. Finding the other nine could be like a scavenger hunt. Annie loved anything to do with puzzles, mysteries, and following clues. A coffee-shop crawl might be as close as she got in this town.
The sign on the porch said Closed but made her crave coffee anyway.
She stifled a yawn as she drove past. Mm, coffee and a donut. Or maybe a Danish. According to Google Maps, her parents’ place was close by. She could always make some coffee there. Her mom had promised to leave her all stocked up on non-perishables. They’d only moved in a few months ago. While some people avoided change, her parents embraced it from every angle.
They’d decided to start their retirement by sailing around the world. A few weeks ago, they’d visited her at her condo to say their goodbyes and go through all of the necessary details of taking over their new home.
Annie was surprised when they’d informed her last Christmas of their plans. She knew her parents enjoyed adventure, but this was bigger than anything they’d ever done. Annie wanted to see the world, too, but not via the ocean. It was beautiful and inspiring to look at, but she was content with keeping her feet on land. Maybe dipping her toes in the water.
Turning onto Center Street, the architecture and landscape became more commercial with cobblestone streets and businesses on either side. In the center of the street, there was a large greenspace with trees and benches. She could picture people heading to those benches for their lunch breaks. More charm.
The shops were the old-school kind—squat boxes, many with wide picture windows giving passersby a view of the activity inside. Though she saw a smattering of people through a couple of the windows, the street was quiet. The town is quiet.
“Seems a little late for church,” she mused, but maybe that was where people were. Or, like her former self, tucked up in the cozy warmth of their beds.
When her stomach growled loudly, she made a split-second decision and turned into an angled parking spot. Directly in front of her was Just Coffee. That’s two. On one side, there was a bookstore and a pet food store. On the other, there was a bakery and a sandwich shop. All boasted Closed signs, and she wondered if it was a Sunday thing. A graphic designer by trade, she couldn’t help but notice their signage was outdated.
Her current roster of clients was keeping her busy enough that she couldn’t take on a lot of new work. That didn’t stop ideas from popping into her head though. There were other shops farther down in both directions, but Annie couldn’t read names. Of the ones in front of her, only the coffee shop was open.
Getting out of her truck, she stretched, pulling her thick, brown hair out of its ponytail confinement as her arms moved up. It was one of those stretches that felt good all the way through her body. She stifled another yawn. Between packing up her stuff, transferring her life in Portland to here, and the drive, she was ready to curl up on a couch or a beach chair with a good book. She tried to roll the stiffness out of her shoulders with no luck.
Anticipation hummed in her belly. She’d do two scavenger hunts: one to find each coffee place and the other to try every one. Maybe there was a big difference between them. There certainly was if she compared this one to the adorable cottage-like one she’d passed. This one lacked aesthetics, but hopefully the coffee would make up for it.
Pulling the door open, the smell of roasted beans tickled her senses. Quiet music that was typically reserved for elevators and driving people on hold batty played through the speakers. A few people sat in the booths that ran along the edges of the shop. It was small, with seating for maybe ten to twelve. A tall—even giant-sized—man with his blond hair wound into a bun on the very top of his head sent a lazy smile her way. His shoulders were linebacker massive, but he moved with grace as he poured coffee, pushed it toward an older woman.
The sound of shuffling along the linoleum came from the narrow hallway at the back of the store. Annie moved to the counter, aware of the people watching. The newcomer always drew attention.
“Welcome to Just Coffee. Small, medium, or large?” Man Bun asked.
She laughed, thinking he was joking. A glance at the menu made her smile slip. Really? They only serve coffee? That’s ridiculous. The sign over the counter listed three sizes and two options: decaf or regular. Her stomach complained. Scrunching her brows, she looked from left to right. Not a baked good in sight.
“Hi. Uh, I’ll get a large—two creams, one sugar, please. Is there anything to eat here?”
She knew a bistro in Portland that served the best chicken fingers ever but didn’t show it on their menu. Maybe this place was the same. Only the locals knew what could really be ordered. Well, she was about to be local. She wanted in on the secrets.
“No, ma’am,” the barista said. Was that title too fancy for what he did? Didn’t he have to steam milk or add syrups, maybe little foam letters to the drink?
She smiled, leaned in. “Oh, come on. You must have a stray muffin or something.” She’d been too wound up this morning, worried about forgetting something or having to go back. She’d missed breakfast and hadn’t even packed a snack. Definitely regretting that.
“Either you can’t read or you don’t understand the very simple words this man said. Get your coffee, and move on. Some of us have things to do.”
Shock widened Annie’s gaze as she turned to face the gruff-sounding voice that spoke behind her. A hunch-shouldered man with salt-and-pepper hair glared at her through unhappy eyes. His lips were tipped downward. Even his wrinkles were frowning. He wore a flannel shirt and a pair of baggy jeans. A couple of his buttons were askew.
He shook a travel mug in front of her. “I’m empty. I don’t have all day.”
Annie narrowed her gaze. “I was asking a simple question.”
“An unnecessary one. Waste of time. ‘Just coffee’ says it all. You want all those fancy add-ins or a buffet, head to one of the other places.” He shuffled around her, moving like he had a bad back. Holding his cup out, he shook it at the man behind the counter. “Come on. Top me up.”
Annie frowned. What a jerk. At least the barista gave her a nod and mouthed “Sorry.”
“That’s not a very nice way to welcome new people,” Annie muttered under her breath as she waited. Plus, he’d barged in front.
The man turned. If she had to guess, she’d say he meant to intimidate her with his glare. All it did was raise her hackles further.
“It’s not very nice to ask stupid questions when the answer is right in front of you.”
“That’s enough,” Man Bun said.
The few other patrons stared. Annie suddenly felt foolish for causing a commotion. She’d be known as the newcomer who caused a ruckus. Over coffee. Rooting in her purse, she pulled out a five-dollar bill, handing it to the guy.
He waved her money away. “It’s on the house.”
Before she could say thank you, the grumpy man turned back to the barista—she’d just go with that title. “Why does she get free coffee? I paid full price for mine. Want me to show a little leg?”
Annie’s mouth dropped open. What an annoying, ignorant—
“One more word, Gill, and you’re out.”
Annie picked up her coffee, gave Gill a satisfied smirk. Looking back at the barista, she smiled politely. “Thank you. I appreciate it.”
“Least we can do for the greeting you got.”
Gill set the lid on his travel cup, looked back at the other man. “I heard that, Simon.”
Man Bun had a name. Simon rolled his eyes, sharing a smile with Annie. “I said it loud enough so unless you’re going deaf, you should have.”
Annie bit back her smile. She mouthed “Thanks” and hurried for the door. Now she was really craving baked goods. In her truck, she took her first sip and sighed. It would have sucked if a place known for only one thing wasn’t any good. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case, but Annie still wondered how the place stayed in business. Especially if there were nine other options. Maybe Gill hung out at this one frequently. That would be reason enough for her to head to any of the others.
Let it go. She set her drink in the cup holder and backed out of the parking spot. As she pulled out onto the road, she caught a glimpse of the miserable old man watching her go. This was a small town, but hopefully not so much that she’d be running into him again any time soon.
End of Excerpt