A HEROIC BELCH OF THUNDER followed the strange little man into the shop. He glanced around apologetically, as if the rude noise were his responsibility rather than nature's, and fumbled a package under his arm so he could close a black-and-white-striped umbrella.
Both umbrella and man dripped, somewhat mournfully, onto the neat square of mat just inside the door while the cold spring rain battered the streets and sidewalks on the other side. He stood where he was, as if not entirely sure of his welcome.
Laine turned her head and sent him a smile that held only warmth and easy invitation. It was a look her friends would have called her polite shopkeeper's smile.
Well, damnit, she was a polite shopkeeper-and at the moment that label was being sorely tested.
If she'd known the rain would bring customers into the store instead of keeping them away, she wouldn't have given Jenny the day off. Not that she minded business. A woman didn't open a store if she didn't want customers, whatever the weather. And a woman didn't open one in Small Town, U.S.A., unless she understood she'd spend as much time chatting, listening and refereeing debates as she would ringing up sales.
And that was fine, Laine thought, that was good. But if Jenny had been at work instead of spending the day painting her toenails and watching soaps, Jenny would've been the one stuck with the Twins.
Darla Price Davis and Carla Price Gohen had their hair tinted the same ashy shade of blond. They wore identical slick blue raincoats and carried matching hobo bags. They finished each other's sentences and communicated in a kind of code that included a lot of twitching eyebrows, pursed lips, lifted shoulders and head bobs.
What might've been cute in eight-year-olds was just plain weird in forty-eight-year-old women.
Still, Laine reminded herself, they never came into Remember When without dropping a bundle. It might take them hours to drop it, but eventually the sales would ring. There was little that lifted Laine's heart as high as the ring of the cash register.
Today they were on the hunt for an engagement present for their niece, and the driving rain and booming thunder hadn't stopped them. Nor had it deterred the drenched young couple who-they'd said-had detoured into Angel's Gap on a whim on their way to D.C.
Or the wet little man with the striped umbrella who looked, to Laine's eye, a bit frantic and lost.
So she added a little more warmth to her smile. "I'll be with you in just a few minutes," she called out, and turned her attention back to the Twins.
"Why don't you look around a little more," Laine suggested. "Think it over. As soon as I-"
Darla's hand clamped on her wrist, and Laine knew she wasn't going to escape.
"We need to decide. Carrie's just about your age, sweetie. What would you want for your engagement gift?"
Laine didn't need to transcribe the code to understand it was a not-so-subtle dig. She was, after all, twenty-eight, and not married. Not engaged. Not, at the moment, even dating particularly. This, according to the Price twins, was a crime against nature.
"You know," Carla piped up, "Carrie met her Paul at Kawanian's spaghetti supper last fall. You really should socialize more, Laine."
"I really should," she agreed with a winning smile. If I want to hook up with a balding, divorced CPA with a sinus condition. "I know Carrie's going to love whatever you choose. But maybe an engagement gift from her aunts should be something more personal than the candlesticks. They're lovely, but the dresser set's so feminine." She picked up the silver-backed brush from the set they were considering. "I imagine another bride used this on her wedding night."
"More personal," Darla began. "More-"
"Girlie. Yes! We could get the candlesticks for-"
"A wedding gift. But maybe we should look at the jewelry before we buy the dresser set. Something with pearls? Something-"
"Old she could wear on her wedding day. Put the candlesticks and the dresser set aside, honey. We'll take a look at the jewelry before we decide anything."
The conversation bounced like a tennis ball served and volleyed out of two identical coral-slicked mouths. Laine congratulated herself on her skill and focus as she was able to keep up with who said what.
"Good idea." Laine lifted the gorgeous old Dresden candlesticks. No one could say the Twins didn't have taste, or were shy of heating up their plastic.
She started to carry them to the counter when the little man crossed her path.
She was eye to eye with him, and his were a pale, washed-out blue reddened by lack of sleep or alcohol or allergies. Laine decided on lost sleep as they were also dogged by heavy bags of fatigue. His hair was a grizzled mop gone mad with the rain. He wore a pricey Burberry topcoat and carried a three-dollar umbrella. She assumed he'd shaved hurriedly that morning as he'd missed a patch of stubbly gray along his jaw.
He said her name with a kind of urgency and intimacy that had her smile turning to polite confusion.
"Yes? I'm sorry, do I know you?"
"You don't remember me." His body seemed to droop. "It's been a long time, but I thought..."
"Miss!" the woman on her way to D.C. called out. "Do you ship?"
"Yes, we do." She could hear the Twins going through one of their shorthand debates over earrings and brooches, and sensed an impulse buy from the D.C. couple. And the little man stared at her with a hopeful intimacy that had her skin chilling.
"I'm sorry, I'm a little swamped this morning." She sidestepped to the counter to set down the candlesticks. Intimacy, she reminded herself, was part of the rhythm of small towns. The man had probably been in before, and she just couldn't place him. "Is there something specific I can help you with, or would you like to browse awhile?"
"I need your help. There isn't much time." He drew out a card, pressed it into her hand. "Call me at that number, as soon as you can."
"Mr...." She glanced down at the card, read his name. "Peterson, I don't understand. Are you looking to sell something?"
"No. No." His laugh bounced toward hysterical and had Laine grateful for the customers crowded into the store. "Not anymore. I'll explain everything, but not now." He looked around the shop. "Not here. I shouldn't have come here. Call the number."
He clamped a hand over hers in a way that had Laine fighting an instinct to jerk free. "Promise."
He smelled of rain and soap and...Brut, she realized. And the aftershave had some flicker of memory trying to light in her brain. Then his fingers tightened on hers. "Promise," he repeated in a harsh whisper, and she saw only an odd man in a wet coat.
She watched him go to the door, open the cheap umbrella. And let out a sigh of relief when he scurried out into the rain. Weird was her only thought, but she studied the card for a moment.
His name was printed, Jasper R. Peterson, but the phone number was handwritten beneath and underscored twice, she noted.
Pushing the card into her pocket, she started over to give the traveling couple a friendly nudge, when the sound of screeching brakes on wet pavement and shocked screams had her spinning around. There was a hideous noise, a hollow thud she'd never forget. Just as she'd never forget the sight of the strange little man in his fashionable coat slamming against her display window.
She bolted out the door, into the streaming rain. Footsteps pounded on the pavement, and somewhere close was the crunching sound of metal striking metal, glass shattering.
"Mr. Peterson." Laine gripped his hand, bowed her body over his in a pathetic attempt to shield his bloodied face from the rain. "Don't move. Call an ambulance!" she shouted and yanked off her jacket to cover him as best she could.
"Saw him. Saw him. Shouldn't have come. Laine."
"Left it for you. He wanted me to get it to you."
"It's all right." She scooped her dripping hair out of her eyes and took the umbrella someone offered. She angled it over him, leaned down closer as he tugged weakly on her hand.
"Be careful. I'm sorry. Be careful."
"I will. Of course I will. Just try to be quiet now, try to hold on, Mr. Peterson. Help's coming."
"You don't remember." Blood trickled out of his mouth as he smiled. "Little Lainie." He took a shuddering breath, coughed up blood. She heard the sirens as he began to sing in a thin, gasping voice.
"Pack up all my care and woe," he crooned, then wheezed. "Bye, bye, blackbird."
She stared at his battered face as her already chilled skin began to prickle. Memories, so long locked away, opened. "Uncle Willy? Oh my God."
"Used to like that one. Screwed up," he said breathlessly. "Sorry. Thought it'd be safe. Shouldn't've come."
"I don't understand." Tears burned her throat, streamed down her cheeks. He was dying. He was dying because she hadn't known him, and she'd sent him out into the rain. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"He knows where you are now." His eyes rolled back. "Hide the pooch."
"What?" She leaned closer yet until her lips almost brushed his. "What?" But the hand she had clutched in hers went limp.
Paramedics brushed her aside. She heard their short, pithy dialogue-medical codes she'd grown accustomed to hearing on television, could almost recite herself. But this was real. The blood washing away in the rain was real.
She heard a woman sobbing and saying over and over in a strident voice, "He ran right in front of me. I couldn't stop in time. He just ran in front of the car. Is he all right? Is he all right? Is he all right?"
No, Laine wanted to say. He's not.
"Come inside, honey." Darla put an arm around Laine's shoulders, drew her back. "You're soaked. You can't do anything more out here."
"I should do something." She stared down at the broken umbrella, its cheerful stripes marked with grime now, and drops of blood.
She should have settled him down in front of the fire. Given him a hot drink and let him warm and dry himself in front of the little hearth. Then he'd be alive. Telling her stories and silly jokes.
But she hadn't recognized him, and so he was dying.
She couldn't go in, out of the rain, and leave him alone with strangers. But there was nothing to be done but watch, helplessly, while the paramedics fought and failed to save the man who'd once laughed at her knock-knock jokes and sung silly songs. He died in front of the shop she'd worked so hard to build, and laid at her door all the memories she thought she'd escaped.
from Remember When by Nora Roberts and J.D. Robb, copyright © 2003 Nora Roberts, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.