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As Meg Malone jogged her way through Silver Bay, the rhythm of her feet hitting the pavement provided the same calming effect it did every morning. She could see her breath in the crisp morning air, and the glorious display of orange, yellow, and red foliage proved that fall was in full bloom. Leaves crunched beneath her feet. Unlike other joggers, she didn’t wear ear pods. For her, music—whether blaring or mellow—couldn’t compare with the sounds of her town waking up.
She headed toward a small park that was popular with young families and dog walkers. It was quiet this early in the day as she followed the path that curved around a large grassy area and smiled at a woman walking with her little fluffy dog. They wore matching pink coats. The dog was in a stroller.
With barely a split second of warning, a streak of black and white dashed across her path.
“Whoa!” Meg stopped short at the sight of what looked like a small horse galloping across the open grass.
“Dottie!” a deep voice from behind her shouted.
What turned out to be an extremely large dog turned toward Meg. Its tail was wagging and its face looked as if it was smiling, but the sheer size of it intimidated her so much she couldn’t get her limbs to move.
A tall, muscular body stepped in front of her. “Good girl.”
At almost six feet, Meg was taller than most people. Not this guy. He wore black sport shorts, a black T-shirt, and running shoes. His hair was dark and cut short. Not military short, but he looked like someone not afraid of a disciplined lifestyle. How much workout time did it take to get shoulders like that?
The man turned and smiled at her. “I’m so sorry. I hope she didn’t scare you too much.”
Meg looked up and into the lightest blue eyes she’d ever seen. Were they twinkling? Or was the sun rising behind him playing tricks with her vision? She lifted her hand to shield her eyes.
The man looked down at the dog, now sitting obediently by his side, its tongue hanging out one side of its mouth. “This is Dottie. I rescued her recently, and she’s still just a pup, so we’re working on her training.”
The dog’s head almost reached his hand. She was spotted like a dalmatian, but far too big to be that breed.
“She’s a puppy?” She was the most beautiful dog Meg had ever seen.
“Well, she’s almost a year, so close to full grown, but yes. Still a pup. I think she’ll always be one at heart. She has that kind of temperament.” He rubbed the dog’s head and scratched behind her ears. Her eyes closed and the look on her face was sheer bliss. She was panting from having run, causing her to look like she was smiling.
Meg couldn’t stop staring. “What kind of dog is she?” She put her hand out slowly for the dog to sniff, who did so with vigor, licking Meg’s fingers as well.
“She’s a harlequin Great Dane.”
“She’s absolutely gorgeous.” The dog had now tucked her head under Meg’s hand, begging Meg to pet her. Meg obliged. “Her name is Dottie?”
“Yes. It’s not the most creative name, but it’s actually for the black dot in the center of her pink nose, not her coat.” The man chuckled. “The guys at the firehouse thought it fit so I went with it. I really am sorry she ran in front of you like that, Meg. I hope she didn’t startle you too badly.”
She could see his face clearly now and recognized him.
At least, that’s what the women in town called him. He came into the diner from time to time, and her friend Baylee liked to tease Meg that Chet had a crush on her.
“Um. No,” Meg replied, blinking as she snapped out of her thoughts. “I mean, she caught me off guard, but I’m fine.”
“I like to bring her out here early before there are too many people around so we can work on training.” He smiled down again at the dog and rubbed her head. “She’s not really built to run long distances, so I go for my own run later in the morning.”
Hence the shape he was in—a part of the job, for sure, but clearly a requirement he took seriously. Meg jogged early specifically to avoid running into people.
She reached out for more of Dottie’s kisses. “She really is beautiful. I imagine she’s a handful.”
“Honestly, Danes are an easy breed,” Chet said. “She’ll run around here with me and then sleep on a sofa all day at the firehouse or at my house. They’re pretty lazy, actually. Not a lot of work, they’re just big.”
Something about his smile made her insides all squirrelly. What was that about?
She began running in place, needing to move on and process her feelings. “Have a good day, Chet. Gonna keep running.” She pointed down the path with her thumb. “Nice to meet you, Dottie.”
“Good to see you, Meg,” she heard as she jogged away. She turned just enough to catch another glimpse of that smile.
She found her pace again, her feet hitting the pavement to the chant of No, Meg. No.
Chet watched Meg jog away and couldn’t help but smile.
She knew his name. That had to mean something, right? Most times he ate at her diner, someone else served his table. Of course, as the owner, she had a thousand other things to do than wait on him, but she even found ways to avoid him when he sat at the counter by himself.
He’d seen her talk to guys at Garrett’s Saloon and even flirt lightheartedly with other men at the diner. But never him. She avoided him on purpose, in fact, and he was hell-bent on finding out why.
He rubbed Dottie’s head. “You’re a good girl. Not for running off and startling someone, but for giving me a chance to talk to Meg. You get extra treats for that today.”
At the sound of the word treat, the dog’s ears perked up. Chet laughed. She was the most expressive dog he’d ever seen. He hadn’t exactly woken up one morning thinking it was the perfect day to adopt a Great Dane. He had, however, been wanting a dog for some time, and when he’d called the local shelter, they’d asked if he’d consider Dottie. It wasn’t easy to find someone willing to adopt a dog that could grow to be 150 pounds or possibly more. Chet agreed to meet the dog; one look and it was game over. She was his dog.
He took another half hour to work with Dottie and then headed home. She’d have her first nap of the day while he ran five much needed miles. He had to think through how to get to know Miss Meg Malone better, and that was going to take patience and determination. Fortunately, he had plenty of both.
“Have I told you yet how much I love these new ovens?”
Meg’s “head chef” at the diner, as Franklin liked to be called, looked back over his shoulder and shouted to her through the din of sizzling food he had cooking on the griddle.
He made a mean hamburger and added a flair here and there to the menu that wasn’t typical of a diner. He was a big reason Meg’s Diner was such a special part of Silver Bay.
“You have,” Meg answered as she smiled at him through the small opening between the kitchen and the main area of the diner. “Keeping you happy is my main goal in life, Franklin.”
His shoulders bounced as he chuckled.
The bell over the door of the diner jingled, a sign that another customer had entered. Having run around Meg’s Diner since she was a little girl, that sound caused her to look to the door no matter what she was doing. A Pavlovian response, of sorts. She and her brother used to joke about how any time they heard a bell anywhere in the world, they’d both turn and look, anticipating someone entering a door like the one at the diner.
Meg smiled when she saw her friend Baylee come through the door. Her eight-year-old autistic son, Casey, stood beside her holding her hand.
“Hey you guys! Want your favorite spot?” Meg addressed Casey who was already headed to “his” booth. Meg held a super soft spot in her heart for him.
“Thanks, Meg.” Baylee smiled at her as they passed her and then settled into the booth.
“I’ll be right there with some water.”
Baylee nodded as she peeled off her jacket. Casey pulled some paper and a pen from his backpack and began to draw.
Meg refilled two coffee mugs for a couple at the end of the counter. She placed Baylee and Casey’s standing order with Franklin, then got two fresh glasses of water and brought them to the booth. She scooted into the booth next to Casey. The breakfast rush hadn’t rolled in yet, so Meg had a minute or two to sit with her friends.
“You okay, Baylee?” Baylee was Meg’s closest friend in Silver Bay. At the moment, she didn’t seem like herself.
Baylee sighed. “It’s just that time of year. Drew is in the thick of the playoffs, so we don’t get to see each other much.”
Baylee had married Drew MacIntire almost a year ago. He was the star pitcher for the New York Empires, a major league baseball team. Although he spent the off season at home in Silver Bay, during the season was another story.
“I’m sorry,” Meg said. “It’s not exactly the ideal setup for your first year of marriage.”
Casey kept drawing seemingly unaware of Meg’s presence. The sound of sizzling steam, splashing water, and clanking plates echoed through the air, the background music of Meg’s life.
Baylee shrugged. “We both knew what we were getting into. There is no other place on earth I want Drew to be right now than on the pitcher’s mound. He’s born to do it, and he needs to finish his career strong. But that doesn’t make the nights any less lonely.”
Although Meg felt for her friend, loneliness was not something she liked to think about. She wasn’t against marriage; it just didn’t fit her independent streak. And she had dated casually through college, but love asked too much of a person. There was more loss than love in her history, and she had no desire to repeat it.
After an injury that almost sidelined Drew for good, Baylee had been the one to help him heal mentally and emotionally so he could go back to baseball and finish the way he wanted, rather than have his injury dictate his exit. They’d committed a lot to one another and were absolutely, madly in love. If they couldn’t make it work, who could?
Her memory flashed to that morning talking to Chet in the park. His blue eyes twinkling as he looked at her, his smile making them squint a little. She blinked his face away and shook her head. What was that about? Why would that pop into her mind?
Baylee sat back and smiled. “Enough about me. How are you?”
Did her thoughts show on her face? Did Baylee know about her run-in with Chet? Wait. Baylee was changing the subject, trying to turn the attention away from her sadness.
Meg smiled. “Nice try.”
“It’s okay to talk about how hard things are right now, Baylee.” It was also okay for them to not talk about Meg. Or Chet. Or any other guy that might invade Meg’s thoughts. Sheesh. What was wrong with her? She didn’t think about guys. There was too much else in her life for that. She forced her attention back to her friend.
“I know that. I just did. We don’t need to dive in deep though. It is what it is. Drew and I will get through it, and I have Casey and the bakery and lots to keep me busy. I’m just saying I miss him is all.” She smiled and took a sip of water.
Baylee also owned the most popular bakery in town, Baylee’s Bakery. Her pastries and cupcakes were a big reason Meg had to run every morning. Their friendship added more calories to her waistline than she cared to admit.
They both looked at Casey. He’d drawn what looked like the beginnings of a dragon head, his artistic skills way beyond that of most kids his age. Beyond most anyone no matter how old.
The bell over the door rang again and Meg turned. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a dark-blue uniform. Her heart skipped a beat.
She turned farther in her seat to see two firemen, but not Chet. Her shoulders relaxed a bit as she shifted back toward Baylee.
“You look disappointed.” Baylee took another sip of water and attempted to hide her smile behind her glass but failed.
“Why would I be disappointed? Two more customers mean business for the diner and that’s always a good thing.”
Baylee set her glass back down. “But it’s not the customer you were hoping to see, is it?”
Maureen, the waitress working that morning, chose the perfect time to show up with a plate of food in each hand. Meg smiled at her, a silent thank-you for diverting the conversation from where it was headed, which—with Baylee—was to tease Meg any time Chet came into the diner. Being swept off her feet by Drew had caused her friend to get romantic about everyone in life, and for some reason, she thought Chet and Meg would be a good match. Meg worked continuously to assure Baylee she was way off base.
“Here you go,” Maureen said as she set one plate in front of Casey. “Stack of pancakes with butter only.” Casey looked up to say thank you, then went immediately back to his drawing.
“And scrambled eggs with bacon for you, Baylee.” Maureen smiled as she set the plate down. “Good to see you both here this morning.”
“Thank you, Maureen. It’s good to see you, too. How are the grandkids?”
Meg welcomed the change in conversation. Maureen was one of her best waitresses. She’d lived in Silver Bay most of her life and didn’t need to work but loved that her job at the diner kept her busy. Her kids were grown and her husband passed away too young from cancer. Only in her late fifties and in great shape, she doted on her grandkids and was a part of the Silver Bay community.
“They’re coming over this afternoon to carve pumpkins. I’m so excited. This is my favorite time of year.”
“I love it, too,” Baylee agreed. Although Meg could read in her eyes that it wasn’t as much fun as it used to be with Drew gone for most of it.
“You two enjoy your breakfast and let me know if there’s anything else I can get you.”
Maureen winked again and patted Meg’s arm as she walked away.
The door to the diner opened and a couple entered, followed by a group of four. The breakfast rush was blowing in like leaves with the fall breeze.
She stood up from the booth. “I need to get moving. Things are going to pick up here now.”
“Thanks for sitting a minute with us.”
“Of course.” Meg leaned down and hugged her friend. “Enjoy your breakfast, Casey.”
Casey looked up at her. “Do you want to watch baseball together?”
Baseball had become Casey’s new favorite obsession. Not only because of Drew, who of course had been the one to introduce him to it, but because he enjoyed the repetition of throwing and catching, as well as the statistics and numbers. He could spend hours poring over them each day.
“I would love that, buddy. Let me know when the next game is you want to watch and I’ll come hang out.”
He nodded and set his drawing aside so he could eat his pancakes.
“Yes!” Baylee said. “Come by later tonight. Drew’s team is playing and I’m a hot mess. It’s super close to playoffs, and I literally watch Drew’s games through my fingers over my face. I swear every game takes a couple years off my life.”
“I’ll be there.”
“That way we can keep talking about you and how life is going and what people you might be interested in meeting or dating or…”
Meg rolled her eyes. “Okay, you are not selling it, my friend. I don’t want to come over now.”
Casey looked up from his meal, a frown on his face.
Meg sighed heavily. “Fine. But only for Casey. Not for you and your nosy, busybody ways that drive me crazy.”
Baylee laughed. “You love me.”
“Some days, yes. Other days, I question my love for you quite strongly.”
With that, she turned and headed back behind the counter, fighting a smile. Baylee was her closest friend. And Casey was like a nephew to her. She’d take a bullet for that kid.
And yet everyone else, even those she was comfortable with, she kept at a distance. She’d grown up in Silver Bay so she knew exactly what a small town is like. There was a level of endearment to having everyone know your business—most people meant well—but now she kept things close to the vest. The less she shared, the less others knew or had anything to talk about, right? Baylee was trustworthy and knew how hard Meg had worked to guard her heart.
As she moved around behind the counter, refilling coffee and taking orders for patrons who’d sat down, she let her mind wander to the past. Her dad had built Meg’s Diner from the ground up when she was a little girl. It was as much a part of her as her hair color. Ninety percent of her childhood memories had the diner in them. Without the mother who left them when Meg was about four, she and her brother, Myles, spent most of their days either playing at the diner or helping their father with age-appropriate chores. Two years older than her, her brother was her hero. She’d followed him anywhere and everywhere. Even into fire.
A shiver ran through her body while memories made her stomach clench.
“Maureen. I need a minute.”
“Sure, honey. You okay?”
Meg recovered enough to smile. “Yeah. Just need a little break.” She pointed a thumb over her shoulder toward the back of the diner.
Once in the restroom, she closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths until her heart rate settled and her stomach began to relax. She turned on the faucet and dampened a paper towel. As she ran it over the back of her neck, she looked in the mirror. Dark eyes stared back at her, ones filled with sadness and pain and regret. Eyes the same color as her brother’s.
She shook her head and blinked. No. Now was not the time. She had a diner full of customers and more work to do than she had hours. Running the diner kept her busy, and that was exactly how she wanted it. Too much time to think and remember was dangerous.
The past couldn’t hurt her if that’s where she left it. That mindset had kept her going this long. There was no need to look back. She patted her face with the wet cloth, then tossed it into the trash. One more glance in the mirror assured her she was back to her normal self, and with a nod, she pulled open the restroom door and went back to work, the past behind her, the present where she lived.
End of Excerpt