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No wonder the neon-yellow house had stood empty for the past six months. The surprise was that it hadn't been accidentally-on-purpose torched by an appalled neighbor on some dark and moonless night. Situated alone at the far end of Canyon Street, its nearest neighbor was a vet clinic, and no one would have noticed it burn.
But whatever the color scheme or condition, it offered a safe haven and a chance to start over.
Gripping her four-year-old daughter's hand, Beth Lindstrom gingerly stepped past a rusted bicycle, the twisted bumper of an old VW with flat tires, and walked up the dirt path to the front porch. The sign over the door, Crystal Mae's CaféHome-Cooked Food, hung askew.
"Pretty, Momma," Sophie whispered in awe, staring at the fuchsia shutters framing the tall, old-fashioned windows. Her gaze lifted to the high-pitched roof, where a pair of crescent-shaped windows was tucked near the eaves. "And lookit has eyes!"
"Sure looks like it, Poppin. And if I remember right, the inside is interesting, too." Beth smiled, rmembering just how interesting her late Aunt Crystal had been.
A strong, independent Texas woman to the core, she'd turned the main floor of her home into a café after her husband's death. With her ribald sense of humor and good, down-home cooking, she'd made a success of it.
"I gotta go." Sophie looked up at her, clutching her favorite doll. "And Maisie does, too."
"I'm sure you do. It's been quite a while since we stopped." Glancing over her shoulder at her SUV, Beth studied the deserted street, then hit her remote lock button twice and listened for the reassuring, answering honk before turning tofit a key into the front door of the house.
When she'd been here for Crystal's funeral five years ago, the residents of Lone Wolf were comfortable leaving their cars and homes unlocked. Most of them probably still did, but after a lifetime of suburban living, the thought made her shiver doubly so, after the harassment and accusations she'd faced back in Chicago.
Even though it was all over, the ring of the telephone or a sharp knock on the door still made her flinch.
Despite the coolApril days and nights, the café was muggy and smelled of musty decay when they stepped inside. Saying a swift, silent prayer, Beth held her breath and flipped the switches by the front door.
The lights flickered, then bathed the small café in light. Thick dust covered the dozen round tables, most with four chairs, though some of the chairs were tipped over, and several were broken and tossed in a corner. A lunch counter spanned the back wall. Behind it, a faded poster taped to the milk dispenser still read SPECIALEggs, Grits and Beef Hash, $4.95.
Crystal's last special, probably. She'd died with her apron on, and the tenants since then had just rented the upstairs apartment, which had a private entrance. There'd been good renters at first, but then some had to be evicted, according to the Realtor. A few had stolen away in the night, after racking up months of unpaid rent.
"Where's the potty, Momma?"
Jarred back to the present, Beth led her to an open door at the back marked Fillies. She turned on the light and again held her breath but no mice or roaches scurried away. Thank God.
She quickly wiped the dust from the fixtures with a paper towel, and surreptitiously checked for spiders. "Here you go, sweetie."
Sophie's eyes rounded in alarm. "I don't like this place."
"I'll stay right here. I promise."
"But it's icky." "It's not nearly as bad as some of the gas stations we hit on the way down, right?" Once they'd left the freeways and started across rural Texas, the facilities along the two-lane highways had taken a major turn for the worse, and Sophie had hit her fastidious stage over a year ago. The trip had not been easy.
Pouting, Sophie finally gave in, but jumped back at the rust-orange water that poured from the faucet when she tried to wash her hands. Her eyes filled with tears. "I wanna go home."
Me, too. But that home was gone forever and this one was going to take its place at least for a while. Beth swept her daughter up into her arms for a big hug and a kiss. "We're on a great adventure, honey. We're like Dora the Explorer, finding out about new things, seeing new places. It's going to be fun!"
Sophie's lower lip trembled. "Where do we sleep?" "Upstairs, where my aunt Crystal had her apartment. But " Beth mentally calculated the cash in her wallet. "We might stay in that little motel on the edge of town, just for tonight, so we can get things cleaned up, first. Okay?"
Sophie nodded, then wrapped her arms tightly around Beth's neck. "I'm scared, Momma."
Beth hugged her back, murmuring gentle reassurances. But that inner voice still whispered through her thoughts, just as it had on the eighteenhour trip south. Me, too, Sophie. Me, too.
JOEL MCALLEN WEARILY STEPPED out of the back door of his Uncle Walt's vet clinic, hefted a circular saw into the back of his crew cab pickup and unbuckled his tool belt. He tossed it onto the front seat and climbed behind the wheel.
Walt appeared at the door of the clinic. "Dinner. Seven o'clock."
"Home. A shower. Bedtime." Joel grinned as he turned the key in the ignition. "You purely wore me out today."
Walt snorted. "Always an excuse, son. Time you got out and partied a little. Maria's made fried chicken, I hear. And your favorite pie. Don't show up, and you'll break her heart."
Joel wavered at the image of pure heaven in the guise of Maria's fresh peach pie. Juicy, fragrant, in an incredibly flaky crust no one could ever imitate. The housekeeper had worked for Walt since Joel was a boy, and she definitely knew how to pull his strings. "Pie?"
"Seven o'clock." Walt winked. "You could even bring yourself a date, if you had a mind to."
If Joel didn't, it wouldn't be due to a lack of matchmaking efforts by Walt, his former office secretary and a legion of the clinic's female clients. Maybe there wasn't much else to do in this town of nine hundredeven if their quarry was a guy who had a lot of forgetting to do, and who'd rather be alone. "I'll think on it," Joe said dryly. "One of these days, you might be surprised."
"And you might be surprised to find that there are some real nice women out there. Down-home girls, not like those city girls of yours back home. One of them just might keep you from turning into a hermit."
Walt's late wife had been the love of his life, and he'd never remarried after she died over thirty years ago. Being childless hadn't stopped him from thinking of substitute grandkids, though, and dreamer that he was, he still considered Joel his best hope.
Joel backed out of his parking space and drove around the building toward the entrance, still shaking his head. He glanced at the property next door, then nearly sideswiped a light pole.
Slamming on his brakes, he backed up. Stared. Then threw the transmission into Park, his blood pressure escalating. Not again.
For all his laid-back, good-ole-boy humor, at seventy Walt was showing signs of forgetfulness and he wasn't in the best of health. He didn't need the stress of more troublesome neighbors.
According to Walt, the old Victorian house at the end of the road had once housed a pleasant little café run by a woman who lived on the top floor, but after her death there'd been a few good renters and recently there'd been several who were pure trouble. One ragtag family littered the yard with trash, junker cars and rusted truck parts. Their insolent kids had run wild, skateboarding through the clinic parking lot.
After they moved out in the dark of night, there'd been the two burly guys who'd stayed just long enough to scam Walt into an investment scheme. They'd probably figured the isolated Victorian was safe from prying eyes of the law, because their subsequent arrest yielded even more: a crude meth lab in the basement.
The place had definitely gone downhill over the past year, and with its weathered condition probably wouldn't attract more than riffraff now. But this time, Joel was hereand he wasn't going to stand by and let trouble start all over again.
He got out of his truck and strode over to the far end of the clinic parking lot. Surveyed the growing jumble of boxes and black garbage bags being lugged out of the back of a trailer hitched to an old SUV. Just as he'd thought, the situation did not bode well. Joel cleared his throat and said, "Excuse me can I bother you for a minute?"
A slender woman crawled backward out of the trailer, juggling an overflowing box of stuffed animals. She staggered as she took a step to the ground.
Her eyes lit up as she surveyed him head to foot. "Oh, thank you, God!"
Dropping the box into Joel's arms, she dusted off her hands. "You are exactly what I was hoping for."
At the incongruity of his grim expectations and her delicate appearance, his planned speech about responsible neighbors dissolved. "II am?"
"You bet." She thrust out her hand for a quick shake. "Beth Lindstrom. Just help me get all of this inside."
Bemused, he studied her smudged face and the dark circles under her eyes. She was sure a cute little thing, with that curly blond hair escaping its ponytail and those big blue eyes, but she looked as if she were ready to drop in her trackssort of like a soccer mom after a long, hard day.
Then again, she could be the girlfriend or wife of yet another undesirable tenant and looks could be deceiving at any rate.
"This all needs to go in the front door." When he didn't immediately obey, she tilted her head and studied him for a moment, then smiled gently at him and spoke slower. "Just set it to one side in there, and I'll put it all away later."
"Ma'am" He cleared his throat, attempting to discuss the situation with the cluttered yard and past problems with renters, but she glanced at her watch and shook her head.
"Please, we'll have to talk later. I've got two hours to get this trailer clear back to Austin or they'll charge for another day." With that, she hopped back in the trailer and started rummaging around. A second later, she reappeared lugging a huge suitcase on wheels. She blew at her bangs and shot an impatient look at him. "Is there a problem?"
She had to be all of five feet and a hundred pounds, and he had to smother a laugh at her takecharge attitude. "None at all. I'll be glad to help, though I think you must be expecting someone else."
Her hand fluttered to her mouth, a rosy blush suffusing her cheeks. "A guy at the gas station said he'd send someone named Hubie. That isn't you?"
"Afraid not. I'm Joel McAllen." He hiked a thumb toward a building she'd glimpsed through the trees.
"I'm remodeling my uncle's vet clinic next door."
She groaned. "So I almost commandeered a total stranger?"
"Easy mistake." He shrugged. "But since your helper isn't here, I can pitch in."
She hesitated, obviously embarrassed, yet her longing glance at the overloaded trailer spoke volumes. "Well "
"Let's get moving, then." He took the suitcase from her, and shouldered a cardboard box. "This won't take long."
He dutifully hauled box after box into the old Victorian, though why a woman like her was moving into an abandoned café escaped him. Even in her jeans and a plain white top, she definitely had the air of someone who was upper class.
When he settled the last box on the floor he dusted his hands against his Levi's and turned around to find her counting out a number of bills from what appeared to be a meager stash in her wallet.
"Here you are," she said, thrusting out her hand.
He waved away her offer. "Just being neighborly. But I do"
"Please, take it. I would've paid that Hubie fellow ." She earnestly held out the money. "It's the least I can do."
"I'd rather just ask a few questions, if you have a minute."
He must have inadvertently slipped into his old interrogation mode, because her chagrin changed to frank wariness and she took a step back. "What about?"