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A shriek pulled Danny Romesser's attention across the cobbled historic street nestled beneath deep-green maple arches, the early summer day a gift from God.
Right up until then.
He swung around, watching, helpless from this distance.
The young woman's admonition only intensified the unfolding drama as a young man with Down syndrome withdrew a plump, ripe mango from the base of a perfectly mounded boardwalk display. The fruit toppled, one nudging the next, the mangos and peaches free-falling their way to the broad wooden surface below.
"Oh, Ben "
Distress laced the woman's voice while the mentally challenged young man stood nearby, clasping and unclasping his hands in typical Down fashion, his face a study of remorse, his voice loud and earnest, stirring Danny's memories. "I-I'm sorry, Meggie. I didn't touch a thing, I really didn't."
The woman stared, dismayed, a picture herself, dressed in historic garb that seemed oddly in place here in Jamison, New York.
She grimaced, set a sizable basket down, glanced at the tiny clock pinned to her chest and bent low to retrieve the fruit.
An irate man with thinning hair pushed through the front door of the nineteenth-century-style mercantile, set in the middle of a Brigadoon-like village that seemed to have stopped the clock about the time Danny's great-grandma Mary was born.
If the guy's scowl pumped Danny's adrenaline, his ensuing tirade literally pulled him into action.
"How many times do we have to go through this, Megan?"
"Mr. Dennehy, I"
"Too many," the older man thundered, not giving the young woman time to reply, red splotches marking his thin face. "If he" he pointed a bony finger at Ben, his voice rising "doesn't have the good sense to avoid my displays, then you certainly should! There is " his voice cooled with disdain as he switched the direction of his finger to the opposite side of the street " another perfectly good sidewalk over there."
Memories of Uncle Jerry surged forth as Danny approached, how Danny had defended the much older man from the jeers and taunts of ill-mannered people who considered him little more than the village idiot. Kids could be heartless and cruel. Adults, too, from time to time, as evidenced by the grocer's harangue.
"I need your word, Megan."
The young woman straightened, chagrined, the last of the fruit picked up and deposited in a small grocery cart. Danny saw a flash of anger mixed with consternation. She ignored his approach and kept her gaze trained on the shopkeeper. "It won't happen again, Mr. Dennehy."
"It's happened four times." His tone didn't cut her any slack. "That's three times too many."
"I-I'm really sorry, Mr. De-henny," the young man offered.
His tone spiked feelings within Danny. But he had no idea what he could do to help. He only knew he wanted to interrupt the man's verbal smackdown of both the woman and the mentally challenged young man.
The young man noticed him. "Hey, Mister, you wanna buy some chocolate?"
The woman and the grocer turned his way, the conflict forgotten momentarily. That was good, right? Danny jumped into the fray with a nod toward Ben. "Sure. Do you sell chocolate, sir?"
The respectful title lightened the woman's features with a flash of pleasure. She inclined her head toward Ben, her patience allowing him to continue what he started. A good trait, Danny knew, and not one easily attained.
"M-Meggie makes the best chocolate around." Ben swiped away a tiny spit bubble with the back of his sleeve. The grocer grunted disapproval. Danny nodded, patient.
"We have chocolate crunch, almond, plain and " He hesitated, looking to Meggie for help. "I don't remember."
Her gaze softened, giving her an air of measured gentility and rare beauty, like the warmth of a fall fire on a crisp October evening. "Caramel biscotti."
That combination drew Danny's attention. She had caramel biscotti chocolate? He eyed her more closely, trying to get beyond the historic costume that made her what? Amish? Quaker? Crazy?
In New York or Boston, yes.
But here, in this quaint village of beautifully restored old buildings and a cleverly worn boardwalk, charming was the better word. The gold, green, red and ivory calico was too bright to be Amish and he hadn't heard a thee or thou yet.
He'd go with delightful.
And remarkably good-looking. Curly golden-brown hair peeked from beneath the ruffled edge of a deep green bonnet, and a dusting of matching freckles dotted fair skin along her nose and upper cheeks. Long lashes framed light brown eyes with tiny hints of amber sparking miniscule points of light. The fitted dress was nipped and tucked to form, and he couldn't help but notice it nipped and tucked in all the right places.
"I'll take one of each," he told Ben. Ben's head bobbed in excitement. "Meggie, do you have that many in your basket?"
Bright and carefree, her voice lilted, making him want to hear her speak again.
Danny turned. She fished in her basket and came up with four bars of cello-wrapped chocolate, the varieties marked by copper lettering. He eyed them, surprised, expecting the traditional fundraiser candy bars. These were different.
She raised her gaze to his and eyed him, probably wondering what his problem was. Either that or he read a tiny spark of awareness before she shut it down.
Gaze calm, she faced him, expectant, waiting. Money.
She needed money for the chocolate. Of course. He plunged his hand into his pocket and came up totally blank. Absolutely empty. His wallet held his debit and credit cards, his license and nothing else. No cash. Since he rarely needed cash, he'd gotten out of the habit of carrying much. Embarrassed, he withdrew his debit card and shook his head. "No cash. Sorry. You don't have a credit card machine tucked in that basket, do you?"
Her look shadowed, his humor unappreciated.
Danny waved a hand, indicating the town. "Where's the nearest ATM?"
She dipped her chin and tilted her head in exaggerated but genteel puzzlement. "I know not of what you speak, sir."
He jerked his head toward the street. "An ATM. Surely there must be one in this."
"Sweet historic village?"
A smart aleck. And impudent, at that. Her gentle air belied the quick look she sent him.
Ben turned his gaze from Danny to Meggie and back. "You don't want them, Mister?"
"I do," Danny explained, "but I have no money with me."
"If you're poor we can just give you candy, can't we, Meggie?" Ben's tone implored the woman to understand Danny's plight. Her returned look said she'd rather be giving Danny a boot in the rear for getting Ben's hopes up.
"No." Her voice firm, the young woman ignored Ben's pout of indignation and held a hand up to stave off his coming argument. "If this gentleman wants candy bars, Ben, he can come to the store with money."
"He might forget."
From Ben's disappointed expression, Danny figured a lot of people "forgot" things where he was concerned. "I won't forget." He gave Ben a look of assurance. "I promise."
Meggie's dismayed expression said she doubted his word and wished he'd left well enough alone, but Danny refused to be insulted or dissuaded. He'd find their store and buy the bars of chocolate, as promised.
Meggie's cool look of disregard said she wasn't embracing his pledge. She turned back to the grocer, deliberate. "I'll stop back to pay for the fruit after work. I'd go home for money now but I'm running late."
The grocer grunted, unappeased.
She tucked the bars back into her basket, inclined her head and offered Danny a slight curtsy, a mix of gentility and in-your-face rolled into one cute, smooth move. "My brother and I best be on our way, good man. Much to do in our sleepy little burg, you know."
She took Ben's arm and led him away, leaving Danny sputtering. He held his debit card aloft as if trying to convince someone of his worth, then realized since he was in Allegany County incognito, to find store space for a Grandma Mary's Candies tribute store, it might be smarter to stop drawing attention to himself like some madman in the street.
"Meggie, he doesn't know where the store is," Ben exclaimed, excited and alarmed. "How will he f-find us if he doesn't know where we are?"
"He makes a good point." Danny stepped forward, a part of him wondering why her untrusting expression didn't match the spritely voice.
She leveled him a look that offered warning and resignation, then seemed to rethink her choices. Without a sound she reached into the old-world basket, withdrew a card, handed it to him and touched Ben's arm again. Ben went along this time, but he paused a store-width away, turned back and hollered, "See you later, Mister!"
"I'll be there, Ben."
Megan Russo heard the words and bit back a retort. First, the guy seemed sincere, but experience had taught her that sincerity and good-looking men were not exactly synonymous, even guys with magnetizing gray eyes, wonderfully sculpted square chins and short, dark, almost military hair. If she was judging on a "yum-factor," which she most assuredly was not, this guy topped the meter.
Luckily, she'd chucked her meter into the trash last fall when her former fiancé left her waiting at the church, calling off their wedding by text message.
Second, she refused to carry things any further in Ben's hearing. Once Ben's heart was set on something, nothing short of a good night's sleep could shake it loose. The simplicity of that sounded endearing, until Ben latched on to something the family didn't control and couldn't deliver. Heartbreak came easy to her younger brother.
"Ben, I'm working on fudge this morning. Would you like to help?"
"Can I ch-chop the nuts?"
"Absolutely. Save my tired arms."
He grinned, the thought of being helpful lighting the curved planes of his face, the downward tilt of excited eyes. "Thanks, Meggie."
She gave him a shoulder nudge that made him laugh. "Don't mention it, big guy. And stay away from Mr. Den-nehy's tables. From now on we're walking on the opposite side of the street. Got it?"
Ben's flash of guilt confirmed what she'd suspected. He loved the sight and sound of the tumbling fruit, an impetuous five-year-old tucked in the body of a man. But naughty escapades like this weren't cute or funny. And Ben knew better.
Meg bit her lip and swallowed a sigh. Disciplining Ben was a fine line between the errant child within and the husky man beside her. But he'd made one decision quite easy for her. If they had to walk through Jamison again, she'd take him down the opposite boardwalk, along the array of shops facing Den-nehy's Mercantile. He'd have a harder time wreaking havoc in front of the quilt shop, or the antique store; calico yard-lengths were not nearly as fun as tumbling fruit.
"Wh-when do you think he'll come, Meggie?"
Megan swallowed a bitter retort, scolded herself inwardly for being a crab and pushed the guy's crisp, clean image out of mind. "We'll know when he gets here, Ben." She touched Ben's arm as they rounded the corner to her two-and-a-half-story gingerbread-style house, the pink, green and ivory fairytale look in keeping with Meg's old-fashioned business. "Hey, looks like the finches are throwing a party in their condo." She'd deliberately put up a multilevel finch house for Ben's enjoyment. Watching the tiny birds nest successfully in the backyard of her corner lot was more beneficial than endless TV, and it kept Ben's imagination brewing. "I love the little birds."
"I know you do." Hoping Mother Nature would help keep Ben's mind off the clock, Meg did her best to tuck the morning's events aside, including the guy's teasing glint, his questioning appraisal of her attire and a look that said he might have just landed in an alternative universe.
Welcome to Jamison.
Colonial Candy Kitchen
Purveyors of Handcrafted Sugared Delights & Fine Chocolates.
Megan Russo, proprietor
Danny read the business card she'd handed him and felt his heart downslide to somewhere in the vicinity of his gut. He sighed, a feeling of inevitable doom descending.
He turned and offered the grocer a hand along with a partial introduction, knowing that prices spiraled up when people knew he was scouting for real estate. Better to fly under the radar at this point. "Danny Graham. Pleased to meet you."
"John Dennehy. Likewise." The irritated man shrugged one shoulder west as Meggie and Ben proceeded down the tree-lined street. "They need to keep better control of Ben these days. He's not a little kid anymore."
"Accidents happen. Is there a hotel or motel nearby?" Danny refused to get into a discussion of how the mentally challenged should be kept on a short leash. He understood their limitations better than most, and knew that community involvement was in everybody's best interests.
"In Wellsville." The grocer jutted his chin south. "And there's the B and B up the road. Nice place."
Danny had noted the classic colonial bed-and-breakfast on the way in, but he was looking for something more long-term. He shook his head. "Wellsville, huh?"
John Dennehy nodded. "Closest thing, 'cept for the campgrounds on the other side of Baldwin's Crossing."
He'd seen the campground sign as well, but that wouldn't do, either. He shrugged. "Wellsville it is. I'm surprised with how pretty your village is that no one's built anything closer to service the seasonal tourists." Wellsville was a good fifteen minutes south of Jamison.
"Oh, they've tried, especially with the interstate so close," John admitted, his lips thinned. "There's development, then there's development, if you know what I mean. These days it's best knowing just what kind of life you're after before sayin' yes to every character that barrels through, wantin' to build somethin'."
The store owner's manner insinuated that Jamison might be an unlikely spot to approve his storefront development, but he wasn't in town looking for a fight. He was here to make his grandmother's dream come true, to open a store dedicated to her mother, his great-grandmother, the original Grandma Mary.
He gave John a direct and polite smile, determined to take his time, learn the lay of the land and not step on toes.
As John began wheeling the cart of damaged fruit inside, Danny held up a hand to stop him. "I'd like to buy this fruit."
The grocer scowled, thinking he was kidding.