Maggie Grady checked her email one last time. There was still no response from her latest job query, but it had only been an hour since she’d sent it. She had a good feeling about this one.
Unlike the hundreds of impersonal emails she’d sent to faceless hiring agents, she knew Claudia Liggette. Maggie had worked with her—partied with her—years before her life had been unceremoniously dumped in the trash.
“Maggie,” her aunt called. “This piece of pie isn’t going to grow legs.”
“Sorry.” Maggie left her laptop with a last, longing look at the screen.
Come on! Come on!
Professor Ira Simpson smiled as she brought the big slice of Lotsa Lemon Meringue pie to him. He was a kindly older man with sharp wings of white hair at his temples and a twinkle in his blue eyes. “Any luck today?”
She sighed. Did everyone know she was looking for work? She supposed it was obvious since she was back in Durham, working at her aunt’s pie shop. She’d asked her aunt not to spread it around that she’d lost her job. There were too many questions to answer about the last six weeks of her life.
“Not yet,” she responded. “But it won’t be long now.”
“You remind me so much of your mother,” he said. “You have her nose and her chin, you know. And those same peculiar green eyes. Your mother was a good student. Of course, so were you!”
Maggie filled his coffee cup. He always said that to her. She glanced at herself in the mirror behind the counter. She knew she favored her mother, but only from old pictures she’d seen of her parents. She couldn’t remember them. They’d died when she was very young.
She checked on the other five people, most of them eating the special—Dangerously Damson pie—made from fresh damson plums.
“Cheer up, honey,” her aunt said as she cut a Chocoholic Cream pie into four slices. “You’ve worked hard all your life. People will notice that. You’ll be out of here in no time.”
Those little pep talks made Maggie feel guilty. She’d
ended up on her aunt’s doorstep with one duffel bag when she’d lost her job at the bank. She’d barely been able to scrape together enough money for a bus ticket to get home.
It had been twelve years since she’d left Aunt Clara and Uncle Fred in Durham, North Carolina, where she’d grown up. She’d only come home once during that time, and that was to attend Uncle Fred’s funeral. To make matters worse, she only called her family a few times each year.
Maggie blamed it on work—flying around the world for the bank, throwing lavish parties at her loft in Manhattan, wining and dining important financial clients from sheiks to senators. It was the kind of busy, high-powered life she’d always wanted.
Then one rainy Monday morning, she’d been accused of stealing money from an important client and had been escorted from the bank. Her boss, Louis Goldberg, showed her the documents proving her guilt and told her how lucky she was the bank wanted to keep it quiet. They weren’t pressing charges.
Her bank accounts had been frozen. The bank officer had told her they’d take what they needed to pay back her debt. A policeman was standing outside her door at home to make sure she didn’t take anything valuable with her.
By that afternoon, everything she’d had was gone. She had the clothes on her back and some money to go toward her bus ticket. The Salvation Army had helped her with the rest.
Aunt Clara had smiled when Maggie showed up at her front door. She’d listened to her cry as she told her aunt what had happened. There were no recriminations, no “how
the mighty had fallen” speeches. Just a simple, “I’m glad you made it home.”
She didn’t deserve it. She’d been a poor excuse for a niece and was determined to make it up to Aunt Clara after she got a new job. She was a different person. Her life was going to be better, and so was Aunt Clara’s.
Maggie shook herself out of the depression that constantly threatened to engulf her since she was fired. “I’m sorry to be so whiny all the time. And I appreciate you giving me a place to live and work. You’re the best, Aunt Clara.”
As always, Clara’s wrinkled face grew pink with pleasure and embarrassment at her words. “You’re my only niece, you know. You’re more like my daughter. It’s not like I’d want you to be out on the street. I’m glad you came to me. It’s what your mother would have wanted you to do.”
Aunt Clara and Uncle Fred had raised Maggie after her parents’ death in a car crash. They’d been there through high school and college when Maggie had worked right here at Pie in the Sky for spending money, dreaming her big dreams about the future.
“I could use a little more tea,” an intense young man with spiky, green-tinged brown hair yelled out.
“I’ll get it,” Maggie said. “How’s that mystery pie coming along? People are waiting for it. I think we’ve already had a hundred suggestions for names. It’s smart to introduce new pies that way. Good marketing.”
Aunt Clara shrugged her shoulders. Her unnaturally red hair was a little frizzier than usual. It looked like an orange fringe around her still pretty face. She looked like Maggie’s mother with that red hair and green eyes. Maggie had inherited
her father’s dark brown hair that she’d always worn short.
“It’s what I’ve always done. The kids like it. I never guessed when your uncle and I opened this pie shop forty years ago that I’d be here making pies without him.” Aunt Clara sighed. “But then things don’t always go the way you plan.”
You got that right.
Maggie brought another small pot of hot water and a tea bag to the young man’s table.
He looked like he was working on something important. He raked his hand through his hair again and spilled Amazing Apple pie on his worn black superhero T-shirt. The table was covered with diagrams and charts.
“What are you working on?” She glanced at the papers, trying to be friendly. It wasn’t always easy. It had been different when she’d worked here and known most of the students. Now she felt a lot like their mother.
“None of your business,” he barked, protectively covering the documents. “I have tea now. Go away.”
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?”
He stared at her like she’d lost her mind.
Maggie walked behind the counter to check her email again. Nothing.
“I can’t find that chocolate cream pie,” Aunt Clara complained from the small kitchen area at the back of the shop.
“Was that the pie you were just cutting?” Maggie smiled at her aunt’s forgetfulness. “I think you put it in the fridge.”
Aunt Clara found the pie in the large old refrigerator. “Sometimes I think I’d lose my head if it wasn’t connected.”
It was a slow afternoon. School had only been in session a few weeks at Duke University. It took a while for the new students to find Pie in the Sky and realize what a great hangout it was. It was the same way every year.
Faculty and almost every fireman and police officer in town came in on a regular basis too. It was a popular place through the school year. Summers were a little slow, but the shop managed to stay open.
“Hi, Maggie!” Handsome attorney Mark Beck sat down with his briefcase, like he did every few days around this time. “How’s it going?”
“Okay.” She sighed. “What can I get for you?”
“I’ll take some sweet tea and some Dangerously Damson pie.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Sounds exciting. What makes it dangerous?”
“I think it might only be the intent behind it. And Aunt Clara loves alliteration.”
“How can I resist?”
She wrote down his order and came back with the pie and tea a few minutes later.
“How’s the job search going?”
“Still going.” She put down the plate and glass. “It’s not a good job market right now.”
He smiled, even white teeth against tanned skin. “You’ll find something. You have banking experience and you’re good with numbers. Something will come along.”
Yes, she thought darkly, everyone knows I’m out of work.
At least they don’t know why.
Maggie decided to clean up the pie case and stack some dishes in the dishwasher while her customers were busy eating and talking.
She and her friends had loved to study there. That tradition hadn’t changed. They could usually count on a full house from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. on weekdays.
Two young women came in the door together and Maggie took their orders. They went to sit down while she went back for two pieces of Popular Peach pie and two Diet Cokes.
It was hard not to think about those carefree days when she’d been at Duke. She wouldn’t have been able to afford school there, but she was a third generation of Duke University graduates, including her mother and Aunt Clara. Maggie had been a special case, maybe a hard luck story, since she’d lost her parents early on in life.
She’d never felt that way, though. She enjoyed her time at Duke and had moved to New York, full of confidence. She’d planned on taking the world by storm. And for a while, she felt like she had.
“Could I get some milk over here?” the guy with the charts and diagrams said sharply.
Maggie got a little pitcher of milk for him. “Would you like another piece of pie?”
“Do I look like I want another piece of pie?” he snarled at her. “Leave me alone.”
“Maggie!” Aunt Clara called from the kitchen. “Come quick! I think we’re having trouble with the dishwasher.”
She looked down at the rude young man and snarled back at him, “You’d better be in a friendlier mood when I get back or this chair better be empty.”
Maybe it wasn’t good business practice, but she could take only so much.
Maggie went back to the kitchen and stared at all the soap bubbles that were spreading across the floor, bulging from the dishwasher. “What happened? I didn’t start it.”
“No, honey, I did. I think that new soap might be bad. Get the mop, will you?”
Maggie passed the box of soap that was still open on the cabinet. “Is this what you used? No wonder it’s foaming up. This is hand soap for the bathroom dispensers.”
Aunt Clara had turned off the dishwasher by the time Maggie got back with the mop. Bubbles were still oozing from it. “Oh my stars, you’re right. What was I thinking?”
The front door opened again, making a little chiming noise to let them know there were new customers.
“I’ll clean this up,” Aunt Clara said. “You tend to the customers. They’re more important than this mess.”
“Hi, Maggie.” Angela Hightower smiled and greeted her when she came back out of the kitchen. “Am I the first one here for the book club?”
“It looks like it. I saved your tables in the corner. Would you like something to drink while you’re waiting?”
“That’d be great. Maybe a little half and half—half sweet tea and half no-sugar tea.” Angela laughed, tossing her dark blond, shoulder-length hair. “My son is getting married in six weeks and I’m trying to lose a few pounds.”
“No pie today?”
“Don’t be silly. Why do you think I’m drinking half and half ? I’m going to wait for pie until the other girls get here.
We like to order different slices and share them around, you know?”
“I do.” Maggie put her order pad in the pocket of her jeans. “I’ll get your tea. What book did you read this month?”
“Something unusual for us—a murder mystery. Jean hardly had the stomach for it. But I thought it was good. Nice to read something besides family problems and books about women finding themselves. I don’t understand why all those women feel so lost in the first place.”
Maggie shook her head and hid her smile as she went to fetch the tea. She liked Angela, who was plainspoken and always ready to try something new. Aunt Clara told her Angela sold real estate and was on her fourth marriage, this time to a man almost half her age.
“The rest of the book club won’t be far behind,” Aunt Clara said as Maggie poured tea into an ice-packed glass. “I hope we have enough variety for them. I really need to teach you how to make piecrust. It’s the hardest part.”
“I could never make crust like you do.” Maggie put a slice of lemon on the lip of the glass. “I think we should keep things the way they are. You know I have to find another job. Don’t change things that have worked for years on my account.”
There would have to be changes, Maggie knew. She’d been surprised by both her aunt’s forgetfulness and the shabby condition of the pie shop. Aunt Clara wasn’t getting any younger. She might not be able to continue with the shop.
“It’s not that hard once you know the secret,” Aunt Clara said. “The women of our family have passed it on for three generations now. If you don’t learn, it dies with me. You’re all I have, Maggie. We have to stick together.”
Maggie smiled and kissed her aunt, a strong feeling of guilt clutching at her heart. She knew Aunt Clara needed her, but she couldn’t stay here tending the pie shop the rest of her life. She had her own dreams and ambitions.
She’d been good at what she did for the bank, bringing in millions of dollars with new clients every year. If she got a second chance, she knew she could do it again. She could be that blazing star, living the high life and feeling the satisfaction that came with it.
By the time Maggie took the iced tea to Angela, Jean and Barb were there. They’d already pushed some tables together in the corner and pulled up more chairs.
Jean was a nursing instructor at the university. She was very thin and always wore scrubs. Barb, a counselor at the school, wore a perpetual frown, as though life had let her down. The three women had been friends since childhood. None of them had ever lived outside of North Carolina—or Durham, for that matter.
They were examples of the women Maggie didn’t want to be.
“So that’s another sweet tea and a coffee.” Maggie wrote in her order book.
“Decaf,” Jean said. “I’ve already got the jitters from my new class. It scares me sometimes to think the people I teach might take care of me someday. I hope I die on the side of the road with the level of health care I see coming up.”
“Got it.” Maggie joked with the women about Jean’s new hair color and Betty’s rubber mud boots. As she’d learned in college when she worked here, talking to her customers got her bigger tips.
“Let’s wait for Liz and Sissy to order pie,” Angela said, clearly the leader of the group. “Have you heard anything about Mann Development lately, Maggie? Any new offers on the shop?”
“Not as far as I know,” Maggie replied. “I don’t think they’ll be back again with another offer after Aunt Clara ran them off with her pepper spray.”
All the ladies from the book club laughed at that image, except Angela. “They’ll be back. This piece of property is too important to that new medical office building. You know, your aunt should take advantage of the next offer. She could live in luxury the last few years of her life.”
Maggie’s generous mouth tightened a little at her words. “I think Aunt Clara is doing fine. She doesn’t need Mann’s money to live a good life.”
Angela smiled in a slightly devious way that made Maggie feel like she would never trust the other woman to buy or sell a piece of property for her.
“You and I both know you won’t be here forever, sweetie. You’ve had a few hard breaks, but you’ll be gone again in no time, leaving Clara to sort this out alone. All I’m saying is, why not take advantage of a good thing? If you encourage her now, you won’t have to feel guilty when you climb on that plane.”
Maggie didn’t know what to say. Angela’s words hit too close to the truth not to lodge in her chest. She was saying
all the things Maggie had been thinking—and feeling guilty for.
“I’ll let Aunt Clara know that you’re waiting for Liz and Sissy before you order pie. Thanks.”
As Maggie walked away from the table in the corner, she heard Angela continue, “All I did was tell her the way it is. We all know Clara can’t fight progress.”