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She was lost in the wilds of Pennsylvania. Fiona Flanagan peered through her windshield, trying to decipher which of the narrow roads the tilted signpost pointed to. Maybe this wasn't really the wilds, but the only living creature she'd encountered in the last fifteen minutes was the brown-and-white cow that stared mournfully at her from its pasture next to the road.
Clearly the cow wasn't going to help. She frowned down at the map drawn by one of her numerous Flanagan cousins, and decided that squiggly line probably meant she should turn right.
She could always phone her cousin Gabe, but she shrank from having to admit she couldn't follow a few simple directions. Both he and his wife had volunteered to drive her or to get one of his siblings to drive her, but she'd insisted she could do this herself.
The truth was that she'd spent the past two weeks feeling overwhelmed by the open friendliness offered by these relatives she'd never met before. She'd spent so many years feeling like an outsider in her father's house that she didn't know how to take this quick acceptance.
The pastures on either side of the road gave way to fields of cornstalks, yellow and brown in October. Maybe that was a sign that she was approaching civ-ilization. Or not. She could find her way around her native San Francisco blindfolded, but the Pennsylvania countryside was another story.
The road rounded a bend and there, quite suddenly, was a cluster of houses and buildings that had to be the elusive hamlet she'd been seeking. Crossroads, the village was called, and it literally was a crossroads, a collection of dwellings grown up around the point at which two of the narrow blacktop roads crossed.
Relieved, she slowed the car, searching for some-thing that might be a For Sale sign. The real estate agent with whom she'd begun her search had deserted her when he couldn't interest her in any of the sterile, bland, modern buildings he'd shown her on the outskirts of the busy small city of Suffolk. But she didn't want sub-urban, she wanted the country. She had a vision of her practice as a nurse-midwife in a small community where she'd find a place to call home.
Through the gathering dusk she could see the glow of house lights in the next block. But most of the village's few businesses were already closed. She drove by a one-pump service station, open, and a minuscule post office, closed. The Penn Dutch Diner had a few lights on, but only five cars graced its parking lot.
The Crossroads General Store, also closed, sat com-fortably on her right, boasting a display of harness and tack in one window and an arrangement of what had to be genuine Amish quilts in the other. And there, next to it, was the sign she'd searched for: For Sale.
She drew up in front of the house. It had probably once been a charming Victorian, but now it sagged sadly, as if ashamed of such signs of neglect as cracked windows and peeling paint. But it had a wide, welcom-ing front porch, with windows on either side of the door, and a second floor that could become a cozy apartment above her practice.
For the first time in days of searching, excitement bubbled along her nerves. This might be it. If she squinted, she could picture the porch bright with autumn flowers in window boxes, a calico cat curled in the seat of a wicker rocker, and a neat brass plate beside the front door: Fiona Flanagan, Nurse-Midwife.
Home. The word echoed in her mind, setting up a sweet resonance. Home.
She slid out of the car, taking the penlight from her bag. Tomorrow she could get the key from the reluctant real estate agent, but she'd at least get a glimpse inside in the meantime. She hurried up the three steps to the porch, avoiding a nasty gap in the boards, and ap-proached the window on the left.
The feeble gleam of the penlight combined with the dirt on the window to thwart her ability to see inside. She rubbed furiously at the glass with a tissue. At a minimum she needed a waiting room, office and exam room, and if
"What do you think you're doing?" A gruff voice barked out the question, and the beam of a powerful light hit her like a blow, freezing her in place. "Well? Turn around and let me see you."
Heart thudding, she turned slowly, the penlight falling from suddenly nerveless fingers. "I was just l-looking."
Great. She sounded guilty even to herself.
The tall, broad silhouette loomed to enormous pro-portions with the torchlight in her eyes. She caught a glimpse of some metallic official insignia on the car that was pulled up in front of hers.
The man must have realized that the light was blinding her because he lowered the beam fractionally. "Come down off the porch."
She scrabbled for the wandering penlight, grabbed it and hurried down the steps to the street, trying to pull herself together. Really, she was overreacting. The man couldn't be as big and menacing as she was imagining.
But at ground level with him, she realized that her imagination wasn't really that far off. He must have stood well over six feet, with a solid bulk that suggested he was as immovable as one of the nearby hills. In the dim light, she made out a craggy face that looked as if it had been carved from rock. A badge glinted on his chest.
She rushed to explain. "Really, I didn't mean any harm. I understand this building is for sale, and I just wanted to have a quick look. I can come back tomorrow with the real estate agent."
She turned toward her car. Somehow, without giving the impression that the mountain had moved, the man managed to be between her and the vehicle.
Her heart began to pound against her ribs. She was alone in a strange place, with a man who was equally strange, and her cell phone was in her handbag, which lay unhelpfully on the front seat of the car she couldn't reach.
"Not so fast," he rumbled. "Let's see some identifi-cation, please."
At least she thought he said pleasethat slow rumble was a little difficult to distinguish. She could make out the insignia on his badge now, and her heart sank.
Crossroads Township Police. Why couldn't she have fallen into the hands of a nice, professional State Trooper, instead of a village cop who probably had an innate suspicion of strangers?
"My driver's license is in my car," she pointed out. Wordlessly, he stood back for her to pass him and then followed her closely enough to open the door before she could reach the handle. She grabbed her wallet, pulling out the California driver's license and handing it to him.
"Ca-li-for-ni-a." He seemed to pronounce all of the syllables separately.
"Yes, California." Nerves edged her voice. "Is that a problem, Officer?"
She snapped her mouth shut before she could say anything else. Don't make him angry. Never argue with a man who's wearing a large badge on his chest.
She blinked. She almost thought there was a thread of humor in the words.
He handed the ID back. "What brings you to Cross-roads Township, Ms. Flanagan?"
"I'm looking for a house to buy. Someone from the real estate office mentioned this place. I got a little lost, or I'd have been here earlier."
She shifted her weight uneasily from one foot to the other as she said the words. That steady stare made her nervous. He couldn't really detain her for looking in a window, could he?
She looked up, considering saying that, and recon-sidered at the sight of a pair of intense blue eyes in a stolid face made up entirely of planes. Don't say anything to antagonize him.
"I see." He invested the two words with a world of doubt. "You have anyone locally who can vouch for you?"
Finally she realized what she should have sooner. Of course she had someone to vouch for her. She had a whole raft of cousins. Family. Not a word that usually had much warmth for her, but maybe now
Ted Rittenhouse saw the relief that flooded the woman's face. She'd obviously come up with a solution she thought would satisfy him. "I'm staying with a cousin, Gabe Flanagan." She was so relieved that the words tripped over each other. She snatched a cell phone from her bag. "Look, you can call him. He'll vouch for me. Here's my cell phone. You can use it."
"Seems to me I've heard of those newfangled gadgets," he said dryly, pulling his own cell phone from his uniform pocket. "You have his number?"
Even in the dim light provided by the dome lamp of her car, he could see the color that flooded her fair skin at that. He assessed her while he punched in the number she gave him. Slim, erect, with a mane of strawberry-blond hair pulled back from a heart-shaped face.
A pair of intelligent gray eyes met his directly, in spite of the embarrassment that heightened her color. Something about the cut of her tan slacks and corduroy jacket suggested a bit more sophistication than was usually found in Crossroads Township, where the standard attire was jeans, except for the Plain People.
"Mr. Flanagan? This is Ted Rittenhouse, Crossroads Township Police. I've got a young lady here who says she's staying with you. Fiona Flanagan, her name is."
"Fiona? She's my cousin." Quick concern filled the man's voice, wiping away some of Ted Rittenhouse's suspicion. Potential housebreakers didn't usually come equipped with respectable-sounding relatives. "Has she had a car accident? What's wrong?"
"Nothing wrong. She maybe got a little lost is all. I'll guide her back to your place all right." The Penn-sylvania Dutch cadence, wiped from his voice during his years in the city, had come back the instant he'd moved back home to Crossroads. "If you'll just give me directions, ."
As Flanagan gave him the directions, Ted realized he knew exactly where that farm was. The next township over, but he knew most of the back roads and landmarks in the county, even if that area wasn't his jurisdiction. Somehow you never forget the land that meant home when you were a kid. Maybe that was especially true of a place like this, where the same families had owned farms for generations.
When he slid the phone back in his pocket, he realized Ms. Flanagan was watching him with wariness in those clear eyes.