Petra Simmons plucked the last truffle from the day’s sample tray and added it to the other chocolates in the white paper bag. She handed it to Lettie Hillier, an old friend of Petra’s deceased parents.
Lettie accepted it with a grin. “Are you sure you kids are doing okay?”
“I miss them.” Andy, Petra’s younger brother, stepped toward them.
“Losing them still hurts,” Petra said. “But, yes. We’re fine.” She gestured to the bag. “Open it.”
It crinkled when Lettie unfolded the top and looked inside. Laugh lines scrunched outward from her mouth when she smiled. She winked at Petra. “Chili-pepper-shaped? That’s new. Thanks, Punkin.”
“You’re most welcome,” Petra said. “They’re infused with cayenne. Hope your husband enjoys them.”
“If they escape being eaten on the drive home. You kids take care, okay?”
“Will do.” Andy held the shop’s glass door open for Lettie, grinned at her as she exited, then locked it.
Pushing her palms against her temples, Petra sighed.
The building shuddered slightly for a half-second.
Petra grabbed the counter. “Did you feel that?”
“Yeah.” He pointed skyward. “Weird. Military jet going by? A sonic boom, maybe?”
“I didn’t hear any boom.”
“Me, either. Maybe it was too far away. Wasn’t very strong.” He ambled toward her. “We don’t get earthquakes.” With a dramatic flourish, he took a wide stance and stretched his arms outward, as if waiting for the building to shake. After a few seconds, he went back to a normal stand. “I think we’re good here. Why do you give Mrs. Hillier free chocolates?”
“Because she’s been so kind to us since Mom and Dad died, and she sends all her friends to me for their special occasions. At first, she argued with me about the freebies. I’m far more stubborn than she knew, and I won. So now she calls herself my taste tester.” She wiped her brow and surveyed the mess around the seating area of three small round tables by the front windows. “Wow. That was one hell of a last minute rush, huh?” Grabbing the cleaning spray and sponge, she realized he hadn’t responded and turned. “Andy?”
He’d returned to the door, his back to her. “There’s a strange chick on the plaza freaking everybody out. See? They’re all moving away.”
Petra came from behind the counter and stood beside him.
A disheveled woman, her brown hair a rodent’s nest, sat staring at the sky, on the bench ledge of the hexagonal fountain twenty feet from Petra’s Kingdom of Chocolate shop. She wore a red T-shirt and blue jeans−both ripped and stained. Her entire body shook for several seconds, then she lowered her head.
The people nearest her shuffled further down the bench. A man with two toddlers in tow hustled them off the plaza.
“Really, I can’t work up much interest,” Petra said. “Another homeless person. It’s sad, but too bad.”
“No,” Andy said. “There’s something different about her.”
Andy often misjudged situations and people. Petra sighed. “I don’t think so. She’s only another hard luck story.”
“No. She’s not,” Petra said.
“Look beyond the mess. Come on, let’s see if we can help her.”
“Please don’t. I’m so tired. I want to finish and go upstairs to relax.”
Ignoring her, Andy unlocked the door and headed outside toward the woman. He gestured for Petra to join him.
She shot a glance heavenward. “God grant me patience.” She ventured out.
Reaching the homeless lady, Andy knelt to peer under the cascading hair. “Are you okay?”
The woman shook her head.
Nearing her, Petra found her younger than she’d assumed. Maybe thirty. And she did have attractive features under the unkempt locks.
“Do you need help?” Andy said.
His angelic expression of compassion tugged at Petra’s heart.
“Apparently.” The woman chuckled and swept the hair from her face.
Her voice also took Petra by surprise. The one-word reply was enunciated in a clear, sophisticated tone.
“What happened?” Andy asked. “You look like you fell out of a tree.”
She hesitated, then leveled her gaze at Petra. “I really don’t know. I can’t remember anything. It’s all blank.”
Her eyes were a golden brown, almost amber. Unusual and striking.
In her peripheral vision, Petra saw the three remaining people on the plaza, now sitting on an iron bench eating ice cream cones.
One of them pointed behind Andy and Petra, and the others’ eyes widened.
Petra twisted to see a small red fox sniffing and making its way, inch by inch, toward them. “Andy, very slowly, look behind us. It’s an actual fox. Where did that come from?”
He turned. “That’s strange. Don’t make any sudden moves. Maybe it’s rabid.”
“No,” the disheveled woman said. “He’s not. He’s being friendly.”
Petra glared at her. But, in fact, the fox was sniffing its way closer to them as a curious dog would. She didn’t like the oddity of it. “I think we ought to go back inside.”
“All right,” Andy said. “Come with us, um . . . What’s your name?”
“Wait a minute.” Petra grabbed Andy’s arm and pulled him about ten feet away.
The fox froze, then retreated a few yards.
Its posture reminded Petra of a spooked cat with its fur standing on end. Whispering, she said to Andy, “Are you nuts? We’re not bringing this woman into my store. It’s closing time. I’m tired, and who the hell knows what kind of drug addict she could be?”
“We can’t leave her out here.”
“Sure we can. We’ll call security, and they’ll take care of getting her to someone who will help.”
“No.” Andy gestured toward the woman. “We should help.” He went back.
“You can be so infuriating sometimes, you know that?” Unwilling to leave him alone with a possible lunatic, Petra joined him.
The woman was touching a purplish mark on her left palm. “I don’t blame you. Look at me.” She grinned and displayed her bruised arms. “I’m a mess.” Her eyes locked onto Petra’s.
A strange comforting feeling about this woman enveloped Petra—as though she were with a long-lost friend.
“Help me up?” She kept her right arm in the air.
Petra offered her a hand before Andy could. “Come on. Can you stand?”
“We’ll find out.” The woman gripped Petra’s hand and pulled herself up. She twisted her torso. “Okay. Much better. I was so dizzy when I woke up.”
“Woke up? Where?” Petra’s fingers spasmed and felt suddenly warm. The recurring fear that she’d inherited her father’s arthritis raced through her.
“Right here. On the edge of the fountain. All I know is waking while sitting on it.”
“Were you tired when you sat down?” Andy asked. “Tired enough to fall asleep sitting upright on a concrete bench?”
She gave him a blank stare, while seeming to ponder his question.
“This is beyond strange,” Petra said.
“I agree,” the woman said. “I don’t like feeling this disoriented.” She blinked. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how I got here.”
Petra’s resistance to her lessened. To her amazement, she felt a growing urge to do as Andy suggested—help her. “My name is Petra Simmons, and this is my brother, Andy.”
“Hello.” She pushed on and patted her legs, then her ribs. “No broken bones, it seems. I’m relatively unscathed.”
“What’s your name?” Andy said.
The woman’s mouth screwed up to one side. “I haven’t a clue.”
The feeling the stranger wasn’t a threat, and was, in fact, someone innocent, grew stronger. “Tell you what. I live on the second floor over the shops.” Petra pointed behind her. “See? That bay window is in my living room. Let us take you there. You can get cleaned up, and I’ll lend you some clothes.”
Andy gave her a shocked expression, then smiled. “That’s a great idea.” To the woman he said, “Don’t worry. We’re good people.”
She nodded. “I know.”
“And . . . how do you know?” Petra said.
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
It seemed the woman was thinking the same way as Petra. Producing a key from the back pocket of her jeans, Petra handed it to Andy. “Will you lock up, then come upstairs? We can do the tally and cleaning later. And bring my phone and purse, too?”
Grinning, he took the key, pivoted, and strode to the shop.
That startled the fox, but didn’t stop him from edging closer.
A huge black blur swooped in, nipped the fox on the head, then settled on a nearby tree branch.
The fox yelped and scrambled into the thicket of cocoa-plum shrubs at the edge of the plaza’s parking lot, now back lit by the transitioning oranges, reds, pinks, and lavenders of sunset.
“Did you see that?” Petra glanced around.
The three people finishing their ice cream cones nodded, looking dumbstruck.
“I have never seen a fox out in the open like that. Or a buzzard attacking a live animal.” Petra spoke to the ice cream folks. “That was a turkey vulture, wasn’t it?”
One of them responded with a weak shrug.
“Wow. Freaky animal day.” Petra gestured toward the alley between the two three-story buildings of the retail complex. “The apartment entry is in that causeway.”
They walked in silence to the entrance. Petra used a passkey to unlock the residence lobby door, held it open for her, then pressed the elevator button.
Petra studied her as they rode up one flight. Long hair, in tangled waves, fell to her waist. Her T-shirt had grass stains along with mud, as did her jeans. She wore a ripped and frayed pair of canvas sneakers that Petra assumed were once white.
The doors opened, and the women turned right, going to the end of the hall.
“I was lucky enough to get an end unit,” Petra said while inserting her key. “Lots of windows.” They went inside.
“It’s beautiful.” The woman wandered around the combined living and dining space, stopping at the wide bay window facing the plaza and its fountain. She gestured to the open kitchen and the granite island that separated it from the living area. “There are four bar stools. Do other people live here with you?”
“No. I live alone. My boyfriend is here a lot, though, and my brother stays fairly often.” Petra walked to the short hall off the kitchen leading to the two bedrooms and a guest bathroom. “I imagine you’re anxious to get that dirt off you. You look like you’re around my size. A six?” She opened her bedroom door and went in.
Another shrug. “Guess we’ll find out.” The woman leaned against the door frame while Petra gathered some clothing for her.
A stab of doubt hit Petra. What was she doing inviting this complete stranger into her home?
“You’re being so kind. Thank you.” The woman touched Petra’s hand before taking the neat pile, then entered the bathroom.
In an instant, the negative thoughts disappeared—replaced by that comforting feeling again. Petra shook her head to clear it. “You’ll find everything you need either in the tall cabinet or in the drawers next to the sink.”
Petra was in the kitchen perusing the freezer when Andy came in.
“How is the mystery girl?” He tossed the shop key into the raku pottery bowl on the entry table and placed Petra’s purse on the counter. “We left the store a mess, and I should have stayed to clean it, but I’m too curious about her.”
“Still can’t remember her name. She’s in the shower.” Petra shut the freezer. “I’ll order pizza.” She grabbed her cell from her purse. “But first, I’m calling Ben.”
“Is he on duty tonight?”
“Yes.” When Ben picked up, she filled him in on the woman in her bathroom.
“What’d he say?” Andy asked after she put the phone down.
“It’s a slow Sunday night, so he’ll come over himself.”
The bathroom door opened. Her guest emerged, smelling of fresh flowers. Clean, her skin was flawless.
Andy let out a small gasp, and Petra knew he was smitten. That was probably not good.
The woman smiled and pulled at the black tank top. “A little tight, but thank you so much.” She held up a hairbrush. “I couldn’t get all the knots out. Would you mind trying? It might be easier because you can see them.” She came to stand in front of Petra, handed her the brush, and turned around.
With an inward shrug, Petra accepted the brush and worked through the first of the tangles. “My boyfriend is a Sheriff’s Deputy. I’ve asked him to come over. Maybe he’ll be able to help you.”