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As Kristen Rodale approached the small town's historic district, asphalt and nondescript buildings gave way to tree-lined cobblestone streets and turn-of-the-century buildings with flower boxes in the windows.
A gold-leaf sign on a wooden post near a courthouse with white columns read, Welcome.
It had been so long since she'd felt welcome. So long since she'd felt wanted, nurtured and loved. But close contact with anyone was too dangerous. Not only did the police want her, but her brother Antonio wanted her as well.
Two old men stood in front of an antique shop, glanced up and nodded as she passed. Reflex had her stiffening, and it took a concerted effort to relax her shoulders and nod a greeting back.
Nine months of running and still she didn't like being scrutinized.
She shifted her backpack to the other shoulder, strolling past a delightful collection of stores. A lingerie shop, an Italian restaurant with a collection of sidewalk tables, a high-end clothing store -- each was as unique and special as the century-old stone buildings that housed them. Two years ago -- a lifetime ago -- she would have shopped in stores like these and never have glanced at a price tag. Now pennies were precious.
A coffee shop's large picture window caught her attention. Tucked in the first floor of an old redbrick bank building, the shop was stuffed with a collection of small round tables, an old jukebox and bin after bin of specialty coffees. The rich sights lured her closer.
She thought about the money in her pocket. She'd saved five hundred dollars by scrimping and saving. Her goal was to buy a car, so that she wouldn't have to rely onbuses and trains where anyone could recognize her.
As she entered the shop, bells jingled above her head and a rush of warm air greeted her. Most of the tables were filled with mothers chatting to other mothers as their babies gurgled in wooden high chairs, tourists with cameras and maps and a worker grabbing a coffee, presumably before her afternoon shift.
Kristen studied the menu. She could have splurged on a preferred cappuccino but decided on a much less expensive small coffee and a muffin.
She walked to the ancient cash register where a young man with a crop of red hair stood. "What'll it be?"
She cleared her throat. It had been days since she'd spoken to anyone. "Small coffee, in a regular to-go cup, and a blueberry muffin."
"Coming right up." He poured her the coffee and set it on the counter and then plated up the muffin.
She counted out quarters, dimes and pennies to the right amount. "Thanks."
As he rang up her purchase and counted her change, he asked, "You passing through?"
She sipped her coffee. Delicious warmth spread to her chilled fingers. "I was thinking about staying a while." She dumped fifty cents in the tip jar. Having lived off tips these past nine months she knew how the extra coins could add up.
The young man nodded his thanks. "Cool. You'll like it here. I'm Pete, what's your name?"
This question always brought a moment's hesitation. For the first eight months on the run, she'd changed her name often, fearing she would be traced. But this last month, she'd grown confident as she'd become more streetwise. She'd settled on the name "Kristen," and announced this to Pete.
"So are you looking for a job?"
"Yes. Know of any?"
Another customer came into the store. "I think so. Let me take care of this guy first."
As Pete waited on the new customer, Kristen took an empty seat by the large picture window and settled her backpack between her feet. Sunlight streamed in. She closed her eyes and savored the warmth on her skin.
If there was one thing she missed most about her old life, it was the sun. She'd grown up accustomed to bathing suits, the scent of sun screen, sandals and sleeveless dresses.
She ate her muffin. It was a bit dry but sitting at a table and eating off of a real plate made it palatable.
The muffin gone, she was savoring her coffee when the bells on the front door rang again. A cool breeze flowed into the shop on the heels of a slender woman with shoulder-length blond hair. She wore a loose-fitting black turtleneck sweater that topped a green peasant skirt. Sporting well-worn Birkenstocks on her feet, she moved through the room as if she didn't have a care in the world.
"Good morning, Pete!" she called out.
Pete stood a little straighter and grinned. "Morning, Sheridan. You want the regular soy latte?"
"Yes, thank you." She tossed a five on the counter.
"So how is your mom? I hear she's out of the hospital."
"She's good. The cast should come off in a couple of weeks."
"That's wonderful. Have her come by the Yoga Studio when she's feeling better. I'll show her some moves to limber up. She's going to be stiff."
"Thanks, I will." He handed her the latte in a porcelain cup and made change.
Carelessly, she dumped the couple dollars' worth of change in the tip jar and grabbed two packets of sugar from the counter.
"Oh, hey, are you still looking for a receptionist?" Pete said.
Sheridan's eyes brightened. "Yes."
"Well, that gal over there is new in town and looking for work."
It took a second for Kristen to realize Pete was talking about her. Immediately, she tensed.
Sheridan settled her gaze on Kristen. Shrewd eyes studied her before she strolled toward Kristen's table.
"So, is my young friend correct?" Sheridan said.
"Are you looking for a job?"
Rising, Kristen cleared her throat. Sheridan stood a good five inches taller than her own five-foot-two inches, but Kristen kept her chin high and her gaze direct. "I am."
"My name is Sheridan Young."
"Mind if I sit down?"
"Sure." As the two sat, she reminded herself that she had no reason to be nervous. She'd had a dozen jobs in the past nine months. Besides, she'd survived hell and lived to tell the tale.
"What brings you to Lancaster Springs?"
"I like to travel."
"So you won't be staying long."
Kristen heard the apprehension in the woman's voice. "I like this town. I could easily stay here." That was the truth. If she could stay, she would.
Sheridan dumped raw sugar into her coffee and stirred it. "Your breathing is shallow."
"Shallow. You don't take deep breaths. Is it habit or stress?"
Behind the easygoing appearance was a shrewd woman. "Habit, I suppose."
"I'd vote stress."
Kristen picked up her coffee and sipped as her thoughts stumbled. Sheridan didn't know her from Adam. And there were millions of reasons why people got stressed out. "Why do you say that?"
"The breathing and your eyes give it away." Kristen blinked. Maybe this wasn't the town for her. As if reading her mind, Sheridan smiled. "Don't look so nervous. I'm not going to dig too deep."
Kristen nodded and, more to change the subject, said, "You said something about a job?"
"As a matter of fact I did. I own the Yoga Studio. Up until now I've been all the help I could afford, but the studio is doing well and I'm looking to hire a receptionist. I pay seven dollars an hour."
"It sounds great," Kristen said honestly.
Kristen managed to keep her face blank. "What makes you think there is a but?"
Sheridan rose. "Pete, mind if I take this mug? I'll bring it back in a couple of hours."
Pete raised his hand. "No problemo."
Sheridan hitched her head toward the door. "Get your cup. Walk with me."
Kristen wasn't sure what to say but picked up her cup, hoisted her backpack on her shoulder and followed Sheridan down the tree-lined street.
They walked several blocks north of the historical district into a neighborhood that hadn't been renovated yet. In the center of the aging buildings was a tall house made of gray stone. It had a red front door flanked by large pots filled with purple and yellow winter pansies. A sign painted in a breezy style hung above the door. It read: Yoga Studio. The building had a warm, calming quality.
"This is your place?"
"Yes." Pride was evident.
"I've worked hard to fix her up. She was a mess and marked for demolition when I bought her three years ago. But I could see there was still a good bit of life here. There's more work to be done, but I'm making progress."
"You like to rescue things," Kristen said as she stared at ivy trailing out of the window boxes.
A smile tugged at Sheridan's full mouth. "And you are good at sizing people up."
A necessary skill. "Yes."