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Mandy Erick flinched as the door of the Greyhound slid shut behind her.
The bus lumbered away, taking with it her chance to reach Texas or California or Oregon anytime soon. Leaving her standing on the edge of Loomis, Louisiana, a backwater town in the middle of nowhere.
Though maybe the middle of nowhere was the safest place for someone who'd had to leave her old identity behind.
A cool, late April rain dripped off her hair and into the collar of her thin jacket, and she wished she'd had time to pack an umbrella. A raincoat. For that matter, an extra pair of shoes.
But lingering could've meant being discovered. Being stopped before she could leave town. A few minor possessions were a small price to pay for her life.
Blinking at the raindrops on her eyelashes, she squinted toward what had to be the downtown area. Mostly dreary, rain-streaked brick buildings as far as she could see in the early morning light. No cheerful neon signs, no traffic. Not a soul in sight.
She could only hope that in a few hours the town would bustle to life, because blending anonymously into the fabric of this place would be impossible if there wasn't a lot of activity here.
Small-town locals noticed strangers. Gossiped about them.
Remembered when they showed up and when they left, and might take pleasure in sharing all those juicy tidbits with other strangers who could come along and start asking too many questionsa thought that made Mandy shudder.
But she'd had no choice. She'd had just enough cash to make it this far and couldn't risk using her credit or debit cards.
She turned to study the shabby little diner tucked into the trees at the far end of the gravel parking lot.
Not much bigger than a two-car garage, the building had peeling paint and the outside sign was partly burned out, leaving just BITCAF and its name to the imagination. Still, there was an Open sign propped in the front window, the lights were on inside and anything had to be better than standing out in the rain.
Hiking her backpack up higher on her shoulder, Mandy grabbed the handle of her suitcase and trudged toward the café.
From somewhere in the dim recesses of her memory came the words of a childhood prayer. She snorted in disgust. Prayer might have worked back then, but it had been a long, long time since God had shown any interest in helping her, and she had the scars to prove it.
Mandy was definitely on her own.
The lone waitress came back to the booth in the corner every ten minutes or so, offering more coffee. Probably wishing Mandy would finally leave, since she'd finished her egg-and-a-piece-of-toast breakfast far more than an hour ago. But where did you go in a town like this at seven in the morningand in the rain?
"More coffee?" The waitress, skinny and weathered, looked as if she'd been left out in the elements for a few years to cure, but there was a warm hint of concern in her voice this time around.
She stood at Mandy's elbow with a coffeepot in one hand, her other hand on her hip, then snagged an upended cup from a neighboring table, filled it, and slid into the opposite side of Mandy's booth. The faded badge on her yellow scrub top read Nonnie.
"Where're y'all headed?"
Mandy shifted in her seat and avoided the woman's knowing eyes. "West. I
have relatives out there."
"Gotta long ways to go." Nonnie took a long sip from her cup and then cradled it in her gnarled hands. "Lookin' to stay around for a while?"
"I" Mandy glanced around the small diner, wondering if she dared asked about a job. She realized at once that with the low base pay most waitresses received, plus the minimal tips possible in a place like this, she wouldn't be able to afford rent, much less save money for her escape. "I don't know."
Nonnie seemed to read her mind. "Small place, I know. Me and my hubby own it, though. He cooks, I tend tables. We'll have a good little crowd of regulars starting around seven-thirty." She pulled a thin newspaper from her apron pocket and pushed it across the table. "I grabbed this from the back, just in case you're looking for a job or a place to stay."
Mandy ventured a quick glance at her but found only genuine concern on the woman's face. "Thanks."
"You best be careful, though. There's been trouble 'round here this spring. Pretty little gal like you oughta watch her step."
"Three murders since January, and a sweet young woman went missing, so maybe there was a fourth. All of that, yet there's some who still put way too much stock in frippery." She gave a snort of disgust and tapped the headline of the paper that read Mother of the Year Pageant in Full Swing! "Whoooeeeyou'd think them gals were runnin' for president. And most of 'em wouldn't be my idea of a good momma. Fancy ways, careerstheir golf club more important than the PTA. But you can bet money talks, and one of those rich gals will win. Happens every year."
"Murders?" Mandy's stomach tied itself into a queasy knot.
Nonnie shook her head as if she still couldn't believe it. "This town was quiet for decades. And then last winter
The woman's eyes suddenly shimmered with tears, and Mandy wondered if she'd been close to some of the victims. "Have they caught whoever did it?"
"Nope. Some folks figure it's
" She clamped her mouth shut. "But that's just idle gossip. I don't believe a word of it."
Mandy's unease grew, tightening its grip on her middle. Danger was following her. Now she'd landed in a place where she'd need to be on her guard even more. "Were the murders related?"
"Probably, to my mind. Everyone in Loomis is connected some way or another. Roots run deep in a place like this some tangled in secrets and dark ways you just don' wanna to know, chérie."
The waitress made a shooing motion with her hand. "Go on, check the classifieds. It's just our local paper, but you might find something. You can use our phone, if need be." She stood. "I'd best go pass a mop over this floor so it can dry before things get busy."
Mandy watched the woman scurry back to the kitchen, then took a deep breath as she pulled a pen from her backpack and started scanning the ads.
She had no money to continue on, and she needed to find a safe place where she'd be beyond Dean's reach. With a low-profile job and a cheap place to live for a month or so, she could build up her reserve of cash.
Whatever the local troubles were, she'd keep her distance from people here, avoid saying too much, and she'd be on her way as fast as possible.
And she'd never, ever be back.
Rain. Endless, miserable rain. The last few weeks had been one endless drizzle, unseasonably cool, and the weather was a constant reminder of the gray day in January when Leah had dropped off Sarah and disappeared without a trace.
Clint sighed wearily, the ever-present weight of sorrow pressing down on his chest even as he summoned up a cheerful smile. "Time to go, punkin'," he said. "We need to take a little drive."
"Don't wanna go!" Sarah wailed as she kicked over the pile of blocks she and Clint had just stacked ten high.
She clearly knew what was up and wasn't having any part of yet another long, boring stint in the office of his construction business while Clint talked business with a clienteven with all the toys and DVDs he'd set up for her there. But she had no choice.
His parents had died when he and Leah were in high school. There were no other relatives in the area. And the babysitter Sarah liked wouldn't be done with school and softball practice until after four o'clock.
Clint just couldn't send Sarah to daycare or preschool, not since someone had tried to kidnap her shortly after her mother disappeared. No, he needed someone he could trust to keep Sarah in his homeand keep her safe and secure. Sarah had been through too much. Clint wasn't sure what she'd witnessed around her father's death, but now she was a troubled little girl who desperately missed her momma, and who'd begun acting out at the least provocation if separated from her uncle Clint.
His ads for a nanny-housekeeper hadn't yielded a single good prospect. Some applicants who called sounded uneducated. Lazy. Some asked "when the kid took naps and for how long." One volunteered that a little strong cough medicine could keep a kid quiet for hours.
The few applicants he'd interviewed hadn't been any better from the one who'd actually been casing his house to the one who visibly withdrew in distaste at Sarah's tentative approach.
So now he was struggling to be a substitute dad while trying to keep his construction company together and search for his sister, and he felt as if he was failing at every turn.
Looking for his shoes in the wall-to-wall rubble of toys filling his living room, he stepped over the scattered blocks, landed barefoot on a LEGO, bit back a yelp of pain and sank onto the sofa.
Sarah scrambled up into his lap and wrapped her little arms around his neck. "I want Mommy," she said somberly, her eyes sad and defeated. "She does Band-Aids and kisses on owies."
He closed his eyes against the familiar wave of pain that swamped him whenever he thought about what Leah must be going through, if she was even still alive. The terror and pain she might've faced on the day she disappeared. Had she been injured? Was she wandering aimlessly now, suffering from amnesia? Or was she being held against her will?
The darker possibilities haunted him, day and night, especially since right after Leah went missing.
The police had found signs of some kind of struggle in Leah's little apartment above the pawnshop. The police thought she might have staged it to cover her tracksand her involvement in her husband's death, but Clint knew better. Leah had become a Christian six months before Earl died, and she loved her new faithand Sarahfar too much to harm anyone, even the deadbeat Earl.
Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, Clint focused his attention on his young niece.
"Your momma wants to be back here, too, sweetheart," he murmured, wrapping his arms around her. "I'm praying every day for that to happen."
His cell phone vibrated against his belt, and he reached down to grab it. With luck, it would be his client needing to delay the appointment this afternoon
He frowned at the unfamiliar number. Nearly let it ring through to his voice mail, then relented and caught it at the last second.
Hi, I'm calling because I understand you might be looking for a housekeeper and nanny?"
At the quaver in the woman's voice, Clint's instant, silent response was Not you, sweetheart. She sounded wary and unsure, and the faint note of desperation in her voice sealed his impression. The last thing I need is someone with troubles. I've got enough troubles. "I'm not looking any longer. Sorry."
Silence. Then the woman cleared her voice. "Does that mean you found the right person, or you've given up? I promise you, you won't be disappointed if you just give me a chance."
He dropped a kiss on Sarah's forehead, then set the child aside with one arm and stood. "That advertisement has run for a couple of weeks. I've changed my mind about wanting a nanny."
"But you do need childcare. Right?"
"And it would be convenient to have someone on-site someone who would be available 24/7, if need be. I understand that there's an apartment available as part of the deal?"
"Thanks for calling." He started to pull the phone from his ear, but her soft, and now-determined voice drew him back.
"Look, I can be there in" he heard animated voices in the background "fifteen minutes, and I'll only take five minutes of your time. Just talk to me. Please."
She did sound more educated than the last few applicants who'd called
and young enough to keep up with a tornado of a three-year-old who never seemed to slow down. And if she was young, that might account for the wariness he'd heard in her voice at first. Maybe he'd just become too suspicious after his sister's disappearance.
He sighed. "You have references?"
"You've got transportation?" Again, he heard an exchange of voices in the background.
"Yes, I do."
After reluctantly taking her name down and giving her directions to his place, he clipped the phone back to his belt and surveyed the wreckage that was his living room. Somewhere beneath two days' accumulation of toys there was a carpet, something he rarely saw these days.
He needed help. No doubt about it.
Yet he still sensed that something wasn't quite right about the caller. Trouble. She's going to be absolute trouble.
But when he tried to use the callback function on his cell to cancel, there was no answer, and he could hardly leave home with a stranger on her way to his place.
"Come on, Sarah, let's find our shoes. We have company coming over, and then we can go to town after our visitor leaves, okay?" He grinned at her. "Want to race?"
Sarah didn't enter into the game of trying to find shoes. Her haunting, almond-shaped green eyes brimming with tears, she stood at the fireplace and stared up at the photo on the mantel taken of her and Leah last Christmas, just a week or so before her life irrevocably changed. "I want my mommy."
He heard those four sad words every day, and they still had the power to wrench his heart.
Some days were better than others, but today had been a tough one. This morning they'd gone to the grocery store, and Sarah had glimpsed someone from a distance who'd vaguely looked like Leah. She'd become hysterical, and had been tearful and withdrawn ever since.
"We'll find her, sweetheart. I promise I'm doing everything I can to find her."
The toe of a pink shoe caught his eye. He went down on one knee to retrieve it from beneath a blue teddy bear, then stayed down and bowed his head in silent prayer. Please God, keep Leah safe, wherever she is, and help me find her. She's all that Sarah and I have left. We need her back.
When Clint opened the door, he took one look at the vehicle parked outside and the woman on his porch and almost ended the interview right there.
"Bitsy's Diner?" he said, eyeing the words emblazoned on the old pickup. If he wasn't mistaken, he could see the shadow of luggage on the front seat. "I thought you said you had transportation."
"I did. I borrowed it." The woman tipped her head and flashed a tight smile. "I'm Mandy Erick, by the way. And you are