Jordan Sims drove slowly, her gaze drawn again and again to the bay, its bluish green water shimmering in the bright morning sunlight. She should have come out here earlier in the week, but she wanted to at least wait until the funeral . . . wait until her brother was laid to rest before invading his beach house.
Oh, sure, it was still her parents’ old weekend place, and her grandparents’ house before that. But Matt had made the small house on the bay his own once her parents had stopped spending time there. Of course, she hadn’t been around then. She’d already left home, escaping to college and then to Chicago.
And she hadn’t been back. Not really. In the last fifteen years, she could count on one hand the number of times she’d been back to Rockport. A few days at Christmas, mostly. And once, her mother had talked her into a week over Thanksgiving. God, that had been endless.
Yet here she was, taking a leave of absence from her job, intending to stay on the Texas coast “as long as you need me,” as she’d told her parents. The restaurant, they could handle. Matt didn’t have a hand in it. But the store? No, that was Matt’s baby. He’d turned their little souvenir shop into a thriving business. All because of Fat Larry.
She shook her head but smiled nonetheless. The pudgy pelican had become a fixture in Rockport. Everyone knew Fat Larry. In fact, if you asked directions along Austin Street, Fat Larry was the landmark the locals used.
“Go two blocks past Fat Larry. Can’t miss it.”
“If you get to Fat Larry, you’ve gone too far.”
Fat Larry was a ten-foot-tall plastic pelican—purple, no less—with a bright green T-shirt advertising the store—Sims Treasures. Of course, all the locals referred to the store as Fat Larry’s. Her brother, with not a single hour of college credit to his name, had a knack for marketing. And it all started with Fat Larry. The shop was the go-to place for Rockport and Texas Gulf Coast souvenirs. Matt liked to have fun and he was a natural in the store with customers. On any given day, he’d start tossing Fat Larry T-shirts out. They cost next to nothing to produce and offered legions of free advertising.
But a single-car accident on a stormy April night had taken her brother’s life, leaving the store—and Fat Larry—in a state of disarray. Since his death, the store had been left to run on its own, with the part-time employees filling in where they could. Matt didn’t have fulltime workers any longer, not since Marge Nguyen had married and moved to Corpus. Her father had gone there a couple of times to make sure they weren’t “stealing us blind.” But they had the restaurant to run. They couldn’t—and didn’t have the drive to—run the store too.
“So, Jordan, let’s quit our job and close up the condo,” she murmured.
To say she’d had second—and third, fourth and fifth—thoughts about her decision would be an understatement. Who quit a six-figure job to come back home to run a souvenir shop?
Not quit, she reminded herself. Leave of absence. Two or three months . . . four at the most, she’d told her boss. She’d have her laptop. If something came up that her assistant couldn’t handle, she could take care of it remotely. Because with Matt gone, her parents had no one to turn to. They could always sell the store, but as her father had said, it brought in as much money as the restaurant did. It would be crazy to sell it. Her father was at least thinking of the future. Her mother, not so much. She was still in a state of shock over Matt’s sudden death. Jordan couldn’t blame her. Matt was her baby, Matt was the one who stayed at home, Matt was the one who went into the family business.
She pushed her thoughts away, knowing it was her choice to leave home, her choice to stay away as much as she did. It was her choice to make a new life in the big city, far, far away from the small coastal town of Rockport, Texas.
She turned onto Bayside, the street that would take her to the little one-lane road called Pelican Drive. Oak trees would swallow up the view of Copano Bay, she knew, so she kept her gaze on the water as long as she could. She slowed, then turned to the right, surprised at how familiar the road was to her. It had been six years since she’d been out here. Most of the lots were bigger, the houses older, than the ones nearer Rockport on Aransas Bay to the south. When she was a kid, she was jealous of those living there, with their fancy boats that could be in the Gulf in a matter of minutes. But by the time she was in high school, she was thankful their little beach house was hidden back here in the oaks. No tourists, no traffic and no close neighbors. It was like they had the bay to themselves on those long summer days.
She slowed again as the road ended in a large cul-de-sac lined with ancient oaks. She looked up to where the old sign that her grandfather had chiseled out many, many years ago still hung. Pelican’s Landing, the name her grandmother had given the beach house when they’d first built it. The sign was badly in need of a paint job and she noticed that the chain had come lose on one side, causing it to hang crooked. But what was perched on top of the sign made her laugh. A mini-version of Fat Larry, T-shirt and all, pointed down the narrow driveway. She was still smiling as she took the twisting drive that skirted the large trees, and she noted that for as much as Matt loved the beach house, yard work obviously wasn’t high on his priority list. The shrubs needed trimming and the grass needed to be mowed. The bougainvillea at the edge of the carport was blooming nicely though.
She pulled into the empty carport and shut off the engine of her rental car. She paused only a moment before getting out. Again, a sense that she was invading Matt’s space hit her and she shook it away. If she was going to stay in Rockport for the next few months, she would stay out here, not with her parents. She was used to living alone and so were they.
But instead of going inside the house, she was drawn to the bay. She took the sidewalk down to the pier. It looked neglected as well and she took a tentative step on it, feeling it shift beneath her. She walked out on it anyway, her gaze traveling across the water, the gentle waves slapping the pier as the breeze and high tide rolled the bay. It was a pleasant spring day, the sky nearly cloudless. Of course, she was back in Texas. May was sometimes considered more summer than spring. Even early May, like today.
She took a deep breath, the smell of the salty air bringing back memories of her childhood. She remembered running down this very pier, her bare feet pounding on the boards as she took flight at the end, splashing into the water with the carefree attitude that only a child can possess. She was four years older than Matt, but he tried to keep up with her. She taught him to swim right here in the bay too. As they got older, jet skis replaced swimming and they would race out into the open water where the causeway crossed over, dodging shrimp boats and fishermen alike.
She smiled as she remembered all the fun they’d had. But by the time she was a junior in high school, things changed. She changed. Because she had a secret she dared not tell a soul, not even her brother.
She was gay. And scared to death.
So she slowly withdrew from Matt, from her parents. She focused solely on her schoolwork, vowing to graduate with honors and secure enough scholarships to take her away from Rockport and go to where no one knew her. Where no one would judge her if her secret got out. By the time she was a senior, only a few friends remained. Matt was not one of them.
She went to California, thinking she would be safe there. And she was. College was fun and she met many like-minded people. She no longer had to keep her secret to herself. Yet she hadn’t counted on her parents finding out, on Matt finding out. When they did, she withdrew even more. She couldn’t stand seeing her mother’s tears. It took her nearly fifteen years to realize they still loved her, that they’d always loved her.
But by then, she was entrenched in her job, her long hours at work having paid off. She’d moved up to the executive level, her salary finally equaling her stress level. Well . . . almost.
She sighed and turned around, heading back toward the house. Oh, she loved her job. She really did. It was fast-paced and never dull. While she no longer worked seventy-hour weeks, she still put in at least sixty hours. That, of course, left little time for a personal life. No doubt that was why it had been so easy to leave there. There was no one who would miss her.
She walked up the stairs to the deck, pausing to glance back at the water once more before fishing the key from her pocket. Matt’s key. She squeezed it tightly in her hand for a guilty second, then unlocked the door.
She stared at the mess in a moment of shock. If she didn’t know how lacking Matt’s housekeeping skills were, she would have thought the place had been ransacked. She absently picked up the newspapers lying around and piled them up on the coffee table. Flip flops were on the floor beside the sofa and a towel was on the back of the recliner. She shook her head as she picked up the towel, taking it with her.
She took one look into the kitchen and quickly turned away. God only knew how long the dirty dishes had been piled up in the sink. Thoughts of cleaning the house on her own vanished. She would definitely hire a cleaning crew. And perhaps a yard crew too.
She made her way into the master bedroom. Jeans were tossed on the floor and she picked them up too, folding them neatly before placing them on the unmade bed. She didn’t bother going into his bathroom. She could envision the mess without having to see it. Instead, she went to the double doors that opened up onto the side deck shaded by a large oak tree. She went to the railing, glancing once at the neighbor’s place, then turning her attention to the bay. Memories streamed through her mind, some flashing quickly, others lingering. This was her grandparents’ little piece of heaven, and she and Matt had spent many a lazy summer day here…making memories.
She heard a car door slam and, with a sigh, went back inside.
“Back here, Mom,” she called.
She gave her mother a gentle smile when she paused at the bedroom door, noting the sadness in her eyes. She wondered how long it would take before she saw laughter there again.
“I haven’t been here in so long, I had no idea the extent of the mess,” her mother apologized. “But you know how Matt is.” She swallowed. “Was,” she corrected.
“Yes, I know,” Jordan said. “And I’m not going to attempt to clean it myself.”
“Of course not. I’ll get Maria to come out here,” she said, referring to the woman who cleaned her own house on a weekly basis. Her mother turned a circle in the room. “What should we do with his things?”
“Mom,” she said, going to her. “Let me do this. You don’t have to.”
Her mother shook her head. “You always assume your children will outlive you. This isn’t something you can prepare for.”
“I know.” She spread her arms out. “We’ll give his clothes away to a . . . a charity or a church or something,” she said.
“It doesn’t look like he’s got too many personal things here. More at his office, I think. And he’s still got things at the house too.” Her mother blinked tears away. “I can’t throw his things out like they mean nothing to us.”
“We’ve got time, Mom. It’s only been two days since the funeral. Nothing says we have to rush through it.”
Her mother nodded sharply. “Yes. We can take our time. Because I can’t deal with it right now. Not this soon.” She glanced at her watch. “I need to get to the restaurant. Your father will need help with the lunch crowd and I need to . . . get back into the swing of things.” She looked at Jordan. “And Fat Larry . . . what are we going to do about that? Matt—”
“I told you, I’ll handle it. I’ve got a degree in finance, Mom. I think I can manage,” she said. “I’ll go by first thing in the morning.”
“One of the girls who work for him . . . Annie Thomas . . . she’s the one who’s been running things. She’s been there a couple of years now.”
“Do you have her phone number?”
“Well, I know her parents, of course, but no, I don’t have her number. She and Matt went to high school together. They were close, I think.”
Jordan nodded, wondering if they’d been dating. “Okay, I’ll find her,” she said. She went to her mother and hugged her tight. “Don’t worry about Fat Larry. And don’t worry about all this,” she said, motioning to the room. “I’ll take care of it.”
Her mother gave her a smile which didn’t reach her eyes. “Thank you for being here, Jordan. It means so much to me. To us.”
“Like I said, I’ll be here as long as you need me.”
She let out a heavy sigh as her mother left, then she turned back to the room, mindlessly stripping the bed as she tried to formulate a plan to get the house cleaned.
“What do you think they’re going to do about the store?” Suzanne asked.
Annie shrugged her shoulders. “Don’t know,” she said.
It was the same question and answer they’d had between them several times during the last ten days. They were headed to Fat Larry’s now, walking slowly down the sidewalk. Annie always parked at the marina near the city park and walked to the store. It was her lone form of exercise these days.
“I still can’t believe Matt’s gone.”
“I know. How do you think I feel? I was the last one to see him alive.”
And of course she knew what Suzanne’s next statement would be.
“I still can’t believe you slept with him,” Suzanne nearly whispered. “And then he dies the same night.”
Annie sighed. “I know.”
“So did you, you know, like him?”
Annie rolled her eyes. They weren’t in high school any longer, yet sometimes Suzanne acted like they’d never left.
“I liked him fine. He was cute. He was fun.”
“But I mean, did you—”
“No, Suzanne. Not like that. In fact, it was pretty much a disaster,” she admitted. She stopped walking, turning to Suzanne. “I only slept with him . . . well, because I haven’t been with anyone since Derrick.” She impatiently tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear. “I was starting to think something was wrong with me.”
“Oh, my God! Are you serious? You’ve been divorced four years.” Suzanne grabbed her arm and pulled her closer. “What about that guy from Corpus?”
“Jason? I never slept with him,” she said.
Suzanne dropped her arm and they continued walking. “What do you mean, something was wrong with you?”
Annie shrugged again, not sure how to explain to Suzanne how she felt. While she and Suzanne were close, good friends in fact, she still didn’t confide too much in her. Suzanne was still married to Derrick’s best friend.
“I haven’t had any interest in sex,” she finally admitted. She didn’t add that that was one of the major issues between her and Derrick. She had no desire to sleep with him. “The night I was with Matt, I didn’t either. I was going through the motions, nothing more. And then I started crying afterward and he freaked out.” She paused. “I mean, he was my boss. We’re in his office on the sofa. And we’re naked and I’m crying and he’s apologizing and through it all, I’m thinking, ‘great, now I’ve got to get a new job.’ The thought of facing him every day, well, I knew I couldn’t do it.”
“Oh, my God,” Suzanne said again. “And then he died. You must have felt awful.”
“Yeah, thanks for reminding me,” she said as she pulled out her keys. But she stopped short when she opened the front door to Fat Larry’s, shocked to see someone inside. The woman was behind the counter, snooping around. For a moment, Annie panicked. Were they getting robbed? Then the woman looked up, a smile on her face. She looked friendly—and familiar—so Annie relaxed. “Can I help you?” she asked.
The woman came around the counter, her hand extended. “I’m Jordan Sims.”
Annie stared at her blankly before the name registered. “You’re Matt’s sister.” Of course she was. She’d seen her at the funeral. Besides, the resemblance was uncanny. Dark hair, dark eyes. Tall and lean, much as Matt had been. Jordan was dressed in an expensive-looking business suit, and Annie felt a little out of place in her shorts. Nonetheless, she reached for her hand, shaking a quick greeting.
“Yes. Older sister.”
“I’ve . . . Matt’s mentioned you before,” she said vaguely, wondering why she was suddenly nervous. “I’m Annie Thomas.” She motioned beside her to where Suzanne had been standing by mutely. “This is my friend, Suzanne. She . . . she doesn’t work here. She came by with me to open up.” Annie looked around. “Or . . . is that what you’re going to do?”
“No, no. I was actually hoping you’d show up. My mother said you had been handling things since . . . well, since Matt’s accident.”
“Yes. And I’m so sorry,” she said automatically.
“Thank you.” Jordan turned away, heading back to the counter, before pausing. “Nice to meet you, Suzanne.”
Suzanne nodded. “You too.” She then leaned closer to Annie. “My cue to leave, I guess.”
“I’ll call you later,” she said quietly, her gaze on Jordan and not Suzanne. What was she doing here, she wondered? Was she taking over? Well, there was only one way to find out. She walked closer to the counter, glancing around to see if anything was out of order. It appeared to be as she’d left it yesterday evening.
“I didn’t mean to run your friend off,” Jordan said.
Annie waved away her apology. “Suzanne doesn’t work so she’s got a lot of free time.” Jordan raised her eyebrows expectantly and Annie went on to explain. “Her husband works on oil rigs—off shore. Ten days on, ten days off. And her daughter is in the third grade.”
“I see. Must be nice not to have to work,” Jordan said as she leaned casually against the counter.
Annie smiled slightly, not wanting to contradict her. But when she’d been married to Derrick, she’d been a housewife like Suzanne. And she had hated it. She often wondered if they’d had a child, would she still be married?
“So . . . are you going to take over the store?” she asked.
“For the time being, yes,” Jordan said. “I used to work in here some when I was in high school.” Jordan looked at her pointedly. “Did we know each other then?”
At that, Annie laughed. “I guess not, if you don’t remember me.”
Jordan nodded. “I don’t get back much. I never really kept in touch with anyone.”
“I was in Matt’s grade,” she explained as she walked around the counter and put her purse on the shelf. “I think you were a senior when we were just lowly freshman.”
“I see. Well, by the time I was a senior—” But Jordan didn’t finish her sentence. Instead she paused, looking around the store. “So, the sign says we open at nine. Most of the other stores open at ten.” She looked at her watch. “Yet you’re here at eight.”
Annie nodded. “The first hour is spent getting ready. Refolding T-shirts, mainly, and getting things back in order,” she said, going to one of the displays against the wall and holding up a shirt. “Customers pick them up, look at them, then toss them on top.” She automatically folded the shirt without thinking. It was a chore she’d been doing for the last two years. Then she, too, looked at her watch. She wasn’t surprised that Jessica was late again. She was always late. But ever since . . . well, ever since Matt’s been gone, Jessica had been coming in later than usual.
“I’ll help you do that if you’ll first give me a quick rundown on the place,” Jordan said.
“Actually, Jessica is supposed to be here,” she said as she placed the shirt in the proper bin. She headed toward the door marked PRIVATE. “First thing, coffee.”
Jordan followed her and Annie watched as Jordan did a quick inspection, her gaze traveling across the room, landing on another door.
“That’s . . . his office,” Annie said quietly. She felt a lump in her throat as memories of that last night with Matt surfaced. She shook them away, instead going to the coffee pot and filling it with water.
“My mother says she thought Matt stayed here quite a bit.”
“There’s a sofa in there,” she said. “He spent a lot of nights here. During the summer, we are so busy, it was easier for him to be here.” She glanced at Jordan quickly. “There are still three weeks—four in some places—until the public schools let out, but things were already picking up. Birders,” she said.
Jordan nodded. “Oh. Bird watchers. Do you cater to them?”
“Yes. We have a whole shelf of environmental T-shirts and some funny birding shirts. Then the ironwood carvings of birds. Those are a big hit.” She added coffee grounds to the basket, then turned the coffeemaker on.
“I noticed a . . . a popcorn thing out there.”
Annie smiled. “Matt said the smell of freshly popped corn would bring people in off the street. And it did. We keep a bin of cold bottled water too. We make the first batch of popcorn about eleven,” she explained. “All free.”
They both turned when the door opened and a yawning Jessica came in with a mumbled “Good morning.”
“You’re late,” Annie said. “Again.”
Jessica shrugged. “Does it matter? Matt never cared if I was late.”
Annie looked at Jordan and smiled. Jordan raised her eyebrows.
“Do we have . . . like, timecards or something?”
“No. Matt believed in the honor system,” she said.
“Who’s she?” Jessica asked as she waited patiently beside the coffee pot as it dripped. “Did you hire someone?”
“Not exactly,” Annie said.
Jordan stepped forward and held out her hand. “I’m Jordan. Your new boss.”
Jessica at least had the good sense to look embarrassed. “New boss?”
“Yes. I’m Matt’s sister. And unlike him, I don’t believe in the honor system.” Jordan turned to Annie. “Who else is supposed to work today?”
Annie pointed to the whiteboard. “We keep the schedule up here. Staci comes in at noon, leaves at six. Jessica is here until one. This is Brandon’s long day. He comes at one and works until closing,” she said.
“So only two of you here at one time? Is that enough?”
“Well, Matt was always here too. And in the summer, he would hire a couple of high school kids to work.” The coffee had finished brewing and as soon as Jessica poured a cup, Annie did the same. “Would you like some?” she offered Jordan.
“No, thanks. I was up at five and drank a whole pot already.”
“Five? Who gets up at five?” Jessica asked as she took a sip.
“People who have work to do,” Jordan said pointedly.
Jessica nodded. “I should probably . . . you know, start on the T-shirts.”
Annie smiled quickly. “Good idea.”
As soon as she was out the door, Annie turned to Jordan. “She’s a liability.”
“But she’s cute,” Jordan said. “I’m sure that was why Matt hired her.”
Annie laughed. “You knew him well, I see.”
“Is that why you got hired?”
Annie felt a blush light her face. “No. I had to beg for the job,” she said honestly. “Matt likes to hire, well, younger people.”
“You’re what? Thirty?”
Annie shook her head. “Don’t rush me. I’m still clinging to twenty-nine,” she said. “Jessica, for instance, is nineteen. Brandon is twenty-three, but he’s worked here since he was in high school. Staci is twenty-one.”
Jordon stared at the schedule on the whiteboard. “So if Staci comes at noon but Jessica doesn’t leave until one, then you’ll have an hour free?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve got a ton of questions. I’d like to sit down with you and go over everything. Noon?” Jordan turned to her. “What is your schedule?”
“Well, this is the week before finals. Dead week, they call it. I’ve been able to be here every day. I’m the only one who knows how to close. But next week—”
“College,” she said.
“Oh. I assumed—”
“I’m a late bloomer,” she explained. She didn’t add that it was her divorce that prompted her to go back to college.
“Okay. So today you’re here, but not next week?”
“And this weekend, if you need me.”
“Let’s go over all of that at lunch then,” Jordan said.
“That’s fine.” She pointed to the door. “I should go help Jessica. We’ll be opening soon.”
Jordan nodded. “Thanks, Annie. For taking care of things since . . . well, since the accident. My family . . . we appreciate that.”
Annie topped off her coffee cup. “It’s no problem. Matt was a friend,” she said.
She left Jordan Sims then, going out into the store where Jessica had the music already playing. Matt had insisted on oldies. Anything from the Sixties or Seventies. She had to admit, the music had grown on her as she hummed along with an old Beach Boys tune.
She went about the routine of straightening the items on the display shelves—mostly knickknacks depicting life on the beach. They had the customary bins of sea shells, but Matt had also added rocks. Quartz and crystal, agates and geodes, and even fossils now had a prominent display along one wall. She looked around. It wasn’t your typical souvenir shop. It had a nice variety of items, not only T-shirts and coffee mugs. Matt always said he wanted to keep it diverse with a good vibe. To him, summer beach music and fresh popcorn took care of the vibe.
As if on cue, a Jimmy Buffett song came on. One of Matt’s favorites, she noted. She suddenly missed him very much.
Jordan didn’t know Annie’s preference but thought she couldn’t go wrong with a turkey sandwich from Subway. She picked up two and headed back to the store. She’d spent the morning going through Matt’s bedroom at the beach house. She’d thought it would be a hard, emotional task, but there were very few personal things there. Not a single picture was to be found and the walls were bare, except for a poster showing a surfer riding a wave. Yesterday, she’d gone about the task of stacking dirty clothes in one pile and clean in another. Mostly shorts, jeans, T-shirts. She’d dropped the clean clothes off at the local Goodwill store this morning. The dirty clothes were in a bag near the washer. She’d stripped the sheets and had washed them yesterday. At two this afternoon, Maria was going to meet her out there to start cleaning. She hoped she could sleep there tonight instead of at her parents’ house.
Earlier at the store, she’d only peeked inside his office. It was in a state of disarray and she couldn’t believe he actually functioned that way. She was quite the opposite. She couldn’t stand clutter of any kind on her desk. But until she knew more about how the store operated, she would leave it as she found it.
She went in through the back door instead of the front and headed directly into the cluttered office. She placed the sandwiches and chips on the desk, then went back out to the small kitchen. The fridge was stocked with water bottles and beer—Matt’s favorite brew— nothing else. She shook her head as she pulled out two waters.
“Oh, you’re back.”
She turned, smiling as Annie stood in the doorway watching her. “Just got here. I brought lunch. I didn’t know what your normal routine is.”
“Popcorn,” she said, holding up a small bag.
“I got us Subway. Turkey sandwiches,” she said.
“Sounds better than popcorn,” Annie said as she tossed a few in her mouth. “But it is addicting.”
Jordan motioned to the office. “Eat in there?”
“Okay. I guess you’ll want to go over his setup.”
“The office is a mess. Is there a setup?”
Annie laughed. “Matt couldn’t work with a clean desk. He swore he knew where everything was.”
Jordan sat at his desk and shoved some papers out of the way. Annie took a visitor’s chair and she, too, moved papers to the side.
“What is all this?”
“Even though everything is on the computer, Matt still liked to print it out. Shipping receipts, inventory, orders,” she said with a wave of her hand.
“What did he use for his accounting system? QuickBooks?”
“Yes. That’s where we keep our timesheets too,” Annie said, motioning to the laptop.
“So that’s Matt’s honor system? You log in and post your time?” she asked as she took a bite of the sandwich.
“Not exactly. Matt logged in every morning. We only put our time in. Well, we’re supposed to. If someone forgets, he would use the whiteboard and put in the hours based on the schedule.”
Jordan’s eyes widened. “So everyone would have access to the whole accounting system?”
Annie nodded. “Yes.”
“Amazing.” She shook her head. “Maybe I’ve worked at the corporate level too long.”
“Where do you live?”
“Chicago,” she said. “I work in the financial sector.”
Annie smiled as she bit into her sandwich. “And this whole setup is just wrong?” she teased.
“On so many levels,” Jordan stated. She wiped her mouth. “So he used QuickBooks for accounting and payroll. Did he outsource anything?”
“No. We did all of it in-house.”
“How familiar are you with his operation?”
“I’ve helped him with pretty much everything except ordering. Other than Matt, I’m the only one who knows how to close. I pay the bills and normally do payroll. He handled all of the ordering,” Annie said.
“So you’re authorized to sign checks?”
“No. He signs a bunch in advance. But most of the payables are done online.”
Jordan shook her head. “And the checkbook was kept locked in a safe somewhere?” she asked hopefully.
Annie laughed. “No. It’s in the top drawer of his desk. And we’ll need to do payroll today. Friday is payday, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing it without authorization. Every other Friday is payday. Besides, I assume you’ll need to make arrangements with the bank to sign checks now.[NA2]”
“Yes, I’m heading to the bank as soon as I leave here.” Jordon studied her for a moment, then asked the one question that had been nagging at her all morning. “Why do you work here?”
Jordan took a sip from her water. “You said you were in college. A late bloomer.”
“Yes, I did.”
“So even though I’m not a traditional college student, I still need a job.”
Jordan glanced at her hands. “Not married?”
Annie met her gaze. “Is that relevant?”
“Of course not. I’m just curious. You’ve been running the store. I have to trust you. I wanted to know more about you.”
“Oh.” Annie set her sandwich down and reached for her water bottle too, perhaps stalling for time. “Well, yeah. I was married. Right out of high school. That’s why I didn’t go to college.”
“Why couldn’t you still go to college?”
“Because . . . because I was stupid,” Annie said with a sigh. “There were three of us. Suzanne and Macy and me. We married guys from high school. All friends. All a year ahead of us. The guys had jobs already. Oil. Off shore. And they all had this idea of the perfect little housewife and soon-to-be mother of their children. They didn’t want us to work. And at the time, I was content to stay at home and get the house fixed up.” She shook her head. “Like I said, stupid. But his parents had money, they bought us a house and I just fell into this . . . this trap.”
“God, no. I would probably still be married.” She picked a piece of turkey from her sandwich and nibbled it. “There was a lot of drama. Derrick didn’t want me doing anything. When he was home, he wanted me there. For ten days. Then he’d go back to the rig for ten days and I’d be stuck there. Macy got pregnant right away. Suzanne shortly after that.” Annie met her gaze. “Even though I’d told him I did, I never got off the pill.”
Jordan smiled. “Surely he suspected.”
“Derrick is not smart enough,” Annie said quickly. “Anyway, I told him I had to do something. I couldn’t sit at home anymore. I felt stagnant. So I got a job at the elementary school as a teacher’s aide. And I loved it.”
“And he hated it?”
“Yes. And we constantly fought and argued. I’d had enough. I filed for divorce while he was offshore. Moved back in with my parents at the age of twenty-five.”
“And then what?”
“Why am I telling you all this? You are a complete stranger to me,” Annie said.
Jordan shrugged. “I look like Matt.”
Annie nodded. “Yes, you do. But he was never this serious.”
“Very short attention span.”
Jordan laughed. “Yeah, that never changed.” Her smile faded. “Were you two . . . close?”
“Close? Well, high school. And I’ve been here two years or so,” Annie said.
Jordan noticed a blush on her face. “Dated?”
Annie met her gaze. “Not really, no.”
“Not really? Or no?”
Annie picked up her sandwich again. “No.”
“Okay. So you divorced. Then what?”
“After the drama died down, I started college. Texas A&M in Corpus. I still worked as a teacher’s aide about fifteen hours a week. But it didn’t pay much at all. I knew Matt was looking for part-time help, so I came by here. And yes, I really did have to beg for the job.”
“So how much school do you have left?”
Annie smiled. “I’m almost through. Finals next week, then I’m off for the summer. I have a light load in the fall, then I do my student teaching next spring.”
“And where will you teach?”
“Here in Rockport. I’ve got a great relationship with the principal, Mr. Early. One of the elementary teachers is retiring next year. I’ll do my student teaching under her, then I’ll take over her class the next year.”
“So Fat Larry will lose you soon?”
Annie laughed. “I’m afraid so.”
“But you’re off all summer from school. Does that mean you could work here fulltime?”
“Fulltime? Oh, that would be great.”
“Good. Because Fat Larry needs an office manager.”
“Office manager? Really? Then what will you do?” Annie asked innocently.
Jordan laughed. “Supervise, of course.”