Authors: Annie Jones
Published by Steeple Hill Books™
For Elijah Dobben and Riley Davis, the two newest
babies in the Jones family tree. You already have
the blessing of wonderful parents who love you so
dearly, but a legacy of faith that will serve you all
And remember when they speak of your “Great”
Aunt Annie, that’s not just a label, it’s a promise!
Really. I already have toys in my closet for when
you come to visit.
hat is your secret, Miss Josie?”
“Secret?” Josie Redmond wiped her hands on the long white bib-apron covering her pink T-shirt and black jeans. She swallowed hard to push down a bitter lump of anxiety. Her gaze darted from the face of the man sitting at the counter to the huge glass window with the swirling red lettering spelling out the name of her business—Josie’s Home Cookin’ Kitchen.
Did her customers know she hadn’t taken in enough money this month to pay her business loan to the Mt. Knott First National Bank? That the bleak downturn in business for the Carolina Crumble Pattie Factory had taken its toll on not only her customer base but also threatened to rob her of a very essential ingredient to her success? Or had someone gotten wind of the fact that her twin sister had been trying to contact her?
Just thinking of what her sister wanted left Josie feeling jumpy as a cat, fearing for everything she held dear.
Her eyes went to the far wall of her diner, the one she had painted with special black paint, virtually turning the whole side of the room into a giant chalkboard. She had meant it to keep young people from carving their initials on the tables and to allow children something to busy themselves with while their parents lingered over the last bites of dessert. But somewhere along the line, it had turned into a town message board. A place where people left notes to friends, reminders of upcoming events and, in a segment sectioned off by vines drawn in pink and green chalk, a prayer request list.
“Please remember Millie Tillson’s oldest girl—baby due any day.”
“Traveling mercies for Agnes and Virgil.”
“For our children and teachers as the new school year begins.”
Some farmer in the midst of a dry summer spell had simply scrawled in an earnest, oversize script: “RAIN.”
And of course: “Pray for the Burdetts. Our jobs. The whole of Mt. Knott.”
All summer Josie had been praying about all the things that got posted on her wall, as well as for the welfare of all the people she cared about in her adopted hometown of Mt. Knott, South Carolina. But her deepest concerns remained between her and the Lord, not something she wanted thrown out to feed the small-town rumor mill.
“Secret?” She laughed and tossed her head, knowing it would make her strawberry-blond ponytail bounce and give her an even younger appearance than her twenty-four years. “What secret?”
The older of the two long-past-middle-age regulars sitting on the stools at the lunch counter lifted his fork with the last bite of cherry pie for his answer. “Go-oo-od stuff.”
The other man leaned in on his elbows, his deep-set eyes twinkling. “When you going to marry me, Sweetie Pie?”
All the men over a certain age in town called Josie Sweetie Pie. They said it was because she was sweeter than a baby’s kiss and cuter than a bug’s ear and whatever other cornpone phrase they could toss out to make her laugh. But really, they called her that because Josie Redmond, who otherwise thought herself a most unremarkable young woman, made the best pies in seven counties.
Everybody said so. In fact, more than one person just passing through town had told her that if she could ever figure out a way to market the unique pastry to the masses, she’d make a mint. Right now, Josie couldn’t even afford to
a mint, she thought, letting her eyes trail to the empty candy dish by the cash register.
“You? You’re not her type, Warren.” The more rough-around-the-edges of the two men looked into his coffee mug and grinned. “It’s
she’s going to marry.”
“And spend the rest of my life trying to stay ahead of your appetite for pie, Jed? No, thanks.” Josie teased the white-haired man in striped overalls and a short-sleeved plaid shirt. “I am on to you two. Always proposing and slopping sugar all over me like that when I know all you really want is to sweet-talk your way to a second slice on the house.”
The older men laughed.
“Best pie I ever tasted,” Warren pushed his plate forward, the fork rattling over the streaks of cherry pie filling adding to the simple pattern. “But don’t go and tell my wife.”
“About you proposing?” Josie took the plate away.
“Naw, she knows all about that. Don’t tell her what I said about your pie. She thinks I only come here to eat it because her new job keeps her too busy to bake.”
At the mention of someone having a new job heads turned and the room got real still.
“Part-time at the bowling alley over in Loganville. And no, they ain’t looking to hire anyone else.” Jed raised his head and hollered to everyone all at once. He lowered his head a bit and gave it a slow shake. “Rents shoes to snotty teenagers who don’t know they’re smarting off to a woman who probably did quality assurance on every Crumble they stuffed into their rude little mouths growing up.”
What an apt word for both the dessert cake and for the condition that the poor management at the factory—which everyone also called “the Crumble”—had left the town in. All those hopes, all those plans, all those lives, crumbled like the crisp brown-sugar topping of the “coffee cake with the coffee right in it.”
Josie stared at the empty plates in her hands. “You know, y’all, I think I might have short-changed you a bit on the size of your pie slices this morning, let me get you a second sliver on the house.”
She would never make her bank payment doing business like this, but Josie couldn’t help it. The whole town had felt the sting since the Burdett family had had to make cuts at the factory. Nineteen jobs gone already and another half dozen on the line. It might not seem like a lot but in a town of less than two thousand, counting kids and retirees, it made a palpable impact.
What a great time to try to open a business, Josie thought as she picked up the clear plastic lid on the pie stand. But then, timing had never been her strong suit.
Josephine Sunshine Redmond had been born almost a half hour after her identical twin sister, Ophelia Rainbow. That led their free spirit of a mother to announce, often and all their lives, that this meant Ophelia embraced life, chased it, was unstoppable in going after what she wanted while Josie was a plodding, methodical, reluctant old soul.
All their lives her sister had rushed headlong into one, uh,
after another while Josie tried to find comfort and like-minded people wherever the family’s lifestyle landed them. Whenever they had arrived in a new place, chasing anything from freedom of expression—meaning a place where their mother could sell her art at local shops and craft fairs—to seeking out new experiences, which could mean
Josie had looked around for a nice, friendly church.
That was one new experience her mother just couldn’t understand. So when Josie announced she had given her life to Christ at seventeen, the family had left her behind with her grandmother right here in Mt. Knott to finish her senior year of high school and find her own way in life. Josie had done just that. She had gone to work for the Burdetts and used their college-payback program to get an associate’s degree in business administration. Then, at the beginning of this summer, when she knew her job was about to be phased out, she’d used the general goodwill toward her in the community to open the diner. It was early August now. They’d been open a full three months. Josie still had the community’s goodwill but not their financial support. No one had any money to spare!
Her sister had had her own set of new experiences, mostly involving men and substance abuse. She came to visit Josie from time to time, and Josie tried to influence her for the good, but it never lasted. A day or two of saying she was going to change was always followed by nights of partying and the inevitable taking off for parts unknown. The visits had stopped entirely a year ago when Ophelia had dropped a bombshell—well, a baby boy, actually—on her sister’s doorstep. She asked Josie to care for the child for a few weeks while she got herself together, then disappeared.
Now Ophelia was trying to get in touch. After a year of loving the little boy she had named Nathan, a Biblical name that meant gift, Josie was now afraid that her rotten timing had reared its head again and she was about to lose her son forever.
The familiar bleating of their local mailman’s scooter horn jerked Josie out of her worried state.
She looked up and blinked, then looked at the two pieces of pie in her hands. She must have sliced them and plopped them on plates without even thinking about what she was doing.
“Here you go, boys.” She plunked the free food down on the counter and rushed toward the door and out onto the sidewalk in front of the diner.
“Got a letter for you, Miss Josie.” Bob “Bingo” Barnes waved a large white envelope. “Looks important.”
“From a lawyer?” Josie asked. Her fingers trembled as she reached for the suspect packet.
Bingo, a big man with bad knees who always delivered the mail on a small red scooter with an orange flag sticking out of the back, blinked at her. “I don’t think it’s from a lawyer.”
But now that Josie had suggested it, the man clearly wanted to hang around and make sure.
Josie fingered the name on the return label, then glanced over her shoulder trying to calculate which would draw more attention. Should she stand here on the street in full view of everyone, take the bad news and have the whole town know her business in a matter of minutes? Or rush inside past all her regulars and hide in the kitchen and raise all kinds of concerns and speculations that would follow her for days, maybe years to come?
“Better to just get it over with,” she muttered.
“Ma’am?” Bingo leaned forward, his eyes peering at her and his frown overemphasizing the fullness of his jowls.
Josie worked her finger under the flap. She held her breath and slowly slid the papers out.
“Everything all right, Miss Josie?”
She was a struggling single mom, abandoned by her own family. Her business was teetering on the brink. Her town’s economic base was literally crumbling beneath it. And yet…
She stared in disbelief at the papers in her hands. The paperwork signed by Ophelia relinquished parental rights and included a birth certificate naming his biological father so Josie could find the man and secure his approval for her to go forward with Nathan’s legal adoption.
To the rest of the world Josie Redmond was just a plain little pie maker in a pickle, but when she saw the contents of that envelope she knew she was blessed beyond all belief. And all she could say was, “You know, Bingo, God is so good. And thanks for asking, because, yes, everything is going to be just fine now.”