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Annie Sublinski gulped down the last bite of her turkey sandwich and scooped her sunglasses off the kitchen counter before grabbing the receiver on the ringing telephone.
This was the third time she'd had to answer the phone in the last ten minutes, proving that her father was right. He did need her to take time away from her magazine-writing career to be in charge of Indigo River Rafters while he was away.
She didn't bother with a hello. "What is it this time, Jason?"
She'd instructed the teenager her father had hired for the summer to prepare the next group of white-water rafters for the one o'clock run down the Lehigh. He was a nice enough kid, but she wouldn't be surprised if he couldn't locate the paddles. So far he'd phoned asking first where to find the liability forms and then the sunscreen they sold in the shop.
The silence that carried over the line was uncharacteristic for Jason, whose weak point wasn't lack of communication.
"I was calling my uncle Frank." The voice, young and female, was not one Annie could identify.
Annie's father's first name was Frank. If the girl had spoken with a Polish accent and called her father Wujeck Franek, she'd conclude it was one of his nieces. But wouldn't they know he was visiting their family in Kraków?
"I must have the wrong number," the girl continued, providing an explanation; the call was a mistake.
"No problem." Annie hung up and headed for the door, instantly putting the girl out of her mind.
From the porch of her father's modest home, the warehouse-type building serving as company headquarters was visible, with the wide blue ribbon of river beyond it. The rafting trip she was leading wasn't scheduledto leave for another fifteen minutes, but she needed to brief her customers on the dos and don'ts of spending the afternoon on the rumbling river.
The phone sounded again, the shrill noise stopping her in her tracks. It was probably the girl trying the number a second time. She debated ignoring it.
It continued to ring.
On the other hand, it could be Jason with a real crisis.
Just in case the few minutes it would take her to reach the shop mattered, she reversed course and plucked the receiver off the wall mount. "Yeah?"
"Oh. You again." It was the same young voice. "I thought I got the number right this time."
Annie twirled the stem of her polarized sunglasses in her free hand. She didn't have time for this. If she hadn't returned to her father's house to empty the de-humidifier and decided to wolf down lunch, she wouldn't even be here.
"What number are you calling?" she asked impatiently, then listened to the girl rattle off familiar digits.
"I'm positive that's the number Uncle Frank gave me," the girl said. "Are you sure this isn't the Sublinski residence?"
Annie stopped spinning her sunglasses. "This is the Sublinskis," she said slowly. "Who is this?"
The name meant nothing to Annie. Her mind reeled with possibilities of who the girl might be, none of which made sense. "How do you know my father?"
"Uncle Frank's your father?" It was the girl's turn to sound surprised. "He never said anything about having a daughter."
"He never told me about you, either," Annie said. "But you can't be his niece. All my father's nieces live in Poland."
"I'm not his real niece. I just call him Uncle Frank. He's friends with my grandpa Joe."
The tension left Annie's coiled muscles. Her father often talked about his friend Joe. They'd known each other as boys in his native Poland. She seemed to recall that Joe lived in western Pennsylvania and had an adult daughter who'd died of breast cancer years ago. Her name had been Helene. She searched her memory, certain her father had never mentioned Helene having children, but who else could this girl be? "Are you Helene's daughter?"
"Yes," the girl said. "So can I talk to Uncle Frank?"
"He's out of town," Annie said.
"You're kidding me?" She sounded distressed. "Now what am I going to do? He said I could come visit him anytime."
In the ensuing silence, Annie heard distant voices and what sounded like a train whistle. She got an uneasy feeling that Lindsey Thompson wasn't phoning from home.
"Where are you?" Annie asked.
"In Paoli." The town was on the westernmost edges of the Philadelphia suburbs, almost a ninety-minute drive from Indigo Springs. "At the train station."
"Alone?" Annie asked.
"Yes." The tone of her voice spiked the way a very young child's might. She no longer sounded as poised and self-assured as she had a few moments ago.
"How old are you?" Annie asked, her stomach clenching in preparation for the answer.
Damn. That was way too young to be alone at a train station in a strange city, even if Paoli wasn't exactly an urban metropolis. "Can you get on a train and go back home?"
"I don't know," Lindsey said. "Probably not. I'm kind of short on cash."
"You need to phone your parents."
"No! That's a terrible idea." She sounded on the verge of panic. "Oh, God. What am I going to do?"
Annie's mind whirled until she came to a sudden, inevitable decision. "Here's what you're going to do. Go inside the train station, find a bench, sit down and don't move."
Annie glanced at the kitchen wall clock, which showed it was ten minutes until her white-water trip was due to leave. Ten minutes in which she needed to find someone to take over for her. Because, really, what choice did she have?
Lindsey Thompson was only fifteen years old.
"I'm on my way."
The wooden benches inside the Paoli train station were empty except for a young woman reading a paperback novel and wearing a V-neck wrap top in a bright, eyecatching pink.
Annie did a complete three-sixty, turning slowly to visually cover every inch of a station that was doing brisk business for a Friday afternoon.
Commuters who'd taken the early train home from Philadelphia walked quickly through the corridor, getting a head start on their weekends. Customers sipped from cardboard cups in the coffee shop. Soon-to-be travelers stood at ticket windows or navigated the automated machines. Not a single person looked like a marooned fifteen-year-old.
So where was Lindsey Thompson?
Annie's heart thudded harder than mallets pounding a drum.
She'd phoned the train station after she'd hung up with Lindsey, and asked the employee who answered to keep an eye on the girl but there was no guarantee that he had.
Her gaze fell once more on the young woman engrossed in her book, part of her face obscured by long, silky honey-brown hair. Annie marched toward her.
"Excuse me." Annie spoke loudly enough to pull the woman out of her fictional world. "Have you seen a teenage girl?"
The woman lifted her head, brushing her hair back to gaze at Annie out of sky-blue eyes as lovely as the rest of her face. She had been blessed with nearly perfect bone structure: high cheekbones, a narrow, well-shaped nose, a delicate chin and a full mouth.
"Are you Annie Sublinski?" the young woman asked.
The voice matched the one on the phone. Annie looked closer and realized that beneath the makeup was a girl younger than she'd first thought.
"I'm Annie." She couldn't contain her surprise. "Are you Lindsey?"
"Yep." The girl smiled at her, revealing enviable white teeth. "Thanks for coming. I've been waiting here, just like you told me to."
She marked her place with a bookmark and closed the paperback with a soft thump. Annie recognized the name on the book cover. The author wrote romantic stories about good-hearted teenage vampires, wildly popular among young girls.
Even though Lindsey Thompson didn't look her age, a young girl was exactly what she was.
Lindsey stuffed the book in an expensive-looking oversize bag that matched her top before getting to her feet. She wore metallic pink ballerina flats with her skinny jeans, but still topped Annie by a few inches. She was also model-thin.
"What's that on your face?" Lindsey asked, touching her own unblemished cheek.
The purplish mark on Annie's left cheek was about the size of a silver dollar but irregularly shaped. Because of the stares of strangers, Annie never quite managed to forget its existence. Most people she was meeting for the first time didn't mention it, though. She fought against taking offense.
"A port-wine stain," Annie said. "I was born with it."
"Why do you still have it?" Lindsey's stare grew more intense. "Can't you get rid of it?"
Enough, Annie decided, was enough.
"Let's see about getting you on a return train," she said. "Don't worry about being short on cash. I'll pay for the ticket."
"But I don't want to go back to Pittsburgh." In a flash of her mascara-coated eyelashes, Lindsey went from a girl who seemed on the verge of womanhood to a whining teen. "I want to go to Indigo Springs."
That answered one of Annie's questions. Lindsey Thompson was from Pittsburgh. Annie steeled herself against the girl's pout.
"Sorry, but I'm not set up for visitors." Running her father's business was a full-time job. Besides, Annie didn't know anything about taking care of a kid. At nearly thirty, she'd never even babysat.
"I didn't come to visit you" Lindsey retorted, her lower lip still thrust forward. "I came to visit Uncle Frank. When he gets back, he'll let me stay. You'll see."
"My father's not coming back until next month. He's in Poland."
Lindsey's pretty mouth, with its pink-tinted lips, dropped open. Her expression crumbled. "He never said anything about visiting Poland."
Frank Sublinski, it seemed, had been closemouthed about a lot of things. Annie had left her father a voice mail on his cell phone during the drive to Paoli and was still waiting to hear why he'd never told her the late Helene Nowak Thompson had a daughter who called him Uncle Frank.
"Wait here while I check the train schedule." Annie didn't give Lindsey a chance to object. She headed for a ticket window, keeping guilt at bay by assuring herself the girl would be better off back home in Pittsburgh where she belonged.
She returned in minutes to find Lindsey once again sitting on the bench, but this time her book remained in her trendy bag. Her slender arms were crossed over her chest, her mouth a flat line.
"There isn't a train to Pittsburgh today," Annie said.
Lindsey's lovely face lit up, her lips curling into a smile. "Then I guess I have to come to Indigo Springs with you, don't I?"
Annie tried to look as though the prospect didn't disconcert her. "I need to call your parents first and tell them you're spending the night with me."
"They were already okay with me staying with Uncle Frank. They'll be okay with me staying with you."
Lindsey avoided Annie's eyes, which put Annie on alert. Her father hadn't known Lindsey was coming for a visit; Lindsey's parents probably weren't aware of the fact, either.
"I still need to call them," Annie said.
"It'd be pretty hard to call them without the phone number." Lindsey slung her bag over her shoulder and started moving toward the exit, pulling a piece of designer luggage on wheels behind her.
Now what? If one of her father's employees openly defied her, Annie could threaten to dock their wages or to fire them. Neither tactic would work on Lindsey Thompson.
She blew out a breath, as annoyed with herself as she was with Lindsey. She easily caught up to the teenager, then moved slightly ahead of her to give the illusion that she was in control.
"We're calling your parents when we get to Indigo Springs," Annie told her once they were outside the station. "We'll tell them you're coming home tomorrow."
Lindsey acted as though she hadn't heard her, her silence more oppressive than the midafternoon heat of the August day. Taking short steps, probably because her jeans were so tight, she trudged along, the wheels of her suitcase wobbling over the cracks in the sidewalk that led to the parking lot.
She was having so much trouble toting the thing Annie itched to pick it up and be done with it.
"I can carry your bag for you," Annie offered.
"I'll manage." Lindsey continued to struggle stubbornly with the suitcase so it seemed to take forever until they reached Annie's pickup, an eight-year-old Dodge Ram. The vehicle had held up well considering the odometer showed more than one hundred thousand miles.
"That's your ride?" Lindsey hung back as though afraid the vehicle would roar to life as if they were in a Stephen King novel.
"That's my ride," Annie said. "The suitcase goes in the truck bed."
She expected Lindsey to leave the task to her but the girl surprised her, retracting the handle and then picking up the suitcase. With the muscles in her thin arms straining, she managed to lift the piece of luggage up and over the side of the truck.
Annie got into the driver's seat, reaching across the cab to unlock the passenger door. After a prolonged pause, Lindsey stepped gingerly onto the flat step before settling into the seat.
"It's easier to get in and out when you're not wearing tight pants," Annie said.
"Skinny jeans are in." Lindsey gave her the onceover. "You must not follow fashion."