Kane pulled his duffel bag from the bike and approached the store, trying to decide if it looked as Melanie Abercrombie had described it. The building had to be at least a hundred years old, the wood faded and warped in places from the weather. A vintage soda-pop machine shared space with two long benches on the front porch, where a faded green awning offered relief from the elements. Double screen doors marked the entrance, both of which sagged and looked as though they’d come completely unhinged in the next strong wind. Beside one door a small sign listed the hours of operation. A sign on the other side of the doors listed the rules. No loitering, profanity, or alcoholic beverages allowed. Kane didn’t have to be psychic to know who’d put up the sign. Even in her letters, Miss Melanie Abercrombie had come across as a real southern lady.
He paused before the door, suddenly nervous at the thought of meeting the woman who’d written to him faithfully the past year. How would she react when she saw him for the first time? His release had come about so quickly, he hadn’t had a chance to notify her of his whim to visit.
# # #
Melanie Abercrombie was in a sour mood, brought on by hunger pangs, her younger sister’s desperate, incessant phone calls, and a feeling of being overwhelmed. She peered through clunky square-framed glass at the mess before her.
Abercrombie Grocery was as disorganized and cluttered as a child’s playroom, proof that her father preferred visiting with his customers and listening to gospel music to sweeping and restocking shelves. Mel ran a finger across the lid of a jar of pickled beets where a layer of dust and grime had long since settled and made it impossible to read the price.
She knew she was partially responsible for the mess. Her flower shop had been in an uproar for a solid month, what with Easter, Secretaries’ Day, and proms following one right after the other. It was so bad her assistant, Eunice Jenkins, claimed she was getting varicose veins from standing on her feet so long, and prickly heat rash from sweating and handling pompoms. Mel simply hadn’t had time to come by her father’s store and clean the way she usually did. It was no wonder folks were driving into town to shop at the new Thrifty Sack.
Nevertheless, Mel had had no idea how bad business had been until she looked through her father’s financial records. Only then did she realize they would have to take desperate measures. The store must be cleaned up once and for all. They’d have to pull up all that scarred linoleum and tear down the warped shelves. They’d have to patch the roof over the meat cooler and repair the faucet on the bathroom sink, and have someone look at the old heating and air conditioning unit that never quite kept the place warm enough in winter or cool enough in the summer.
Mel sighed heavily. It was going to take so much time and money, neither of which she had very much of these days.
That brought her to the next problem: Where the heck was the carpenter she’d hired to do the work? She groaned inwardly as she wondered about him. She’d hired the man sight unseen from a Craig’s List ad stating he was unemployed and would work cheap as a handyman. She’d later learned, through the grapevine at church, that the fellow was unemployed due to a tendency to drink and forget about work altogether.
Mel was interrupted from her thoughts when one of the screen doors was thrown open and a man stepped through.
“Melanie Abercrombie?” he asked, trying to make himself heard above a modern rendition of the gospel song “Oh Happy Day” coming from a radio at the back of the store.
At first all Mel could do was stare at him.
She felt her jaw drop clear to her collar as she regarded the man before her. His head and face were covered with snarled blue-black hair. His brown eyes were so dark they appeared black. His expression was hard, flat, and emotionless. It was the sort of face one expected to find on Wanted posters, the sort of face that prompted decent folks to lock their doors at night before they went to bed.
So this was her carpenter. No wonder he couldn’t keep a job.
“Well, it’s about time you got here,” she said, her voice as crisp as fried salt pork. She wasn’t going to allow herself to be put off by that beard. She took in his clothes, the blue sweat-stained work shirt, and shamefully tight jeans. He looked tough, lean, and sinewy, and probably could do the work if he stayed sober. “I’ve been waiting for you all day.”
“You have?” Kane was clearly surprised. He couldn’t imagine how she’d learned he was getting out.
“Yes,” she replied, noting he didn’t look the least bit remorseful for being so late. Didn’t he want the job, for heaven’s sake? “I suppose an apology is out of the question,” she said.
He went blank. “You can apologize if you want, but I certainly don’t expect it.”
Her irritation flared. “I wasn’t talking about me apologizing to you” she said tightly.
His bafflement quickly turned to annoyance. She had obviously called the prison, although he couldn’t imagine why. She had never once tried to contact him by phone. “Why should I apologize?” he asked. “I came as quickly as I could. Hell, I don’t even have to be here.”
“Oh, is that right?” she quipped, meeting his gaze. She paused. “You think I’m desperate, don’t you?”
He was growing more confused. “Come again?”
“That’s it, isn’t it?” She fidgeted with the buttons on her blouse. “You think I need you so badly that I’ll put up with this sort of behavior.”
Kane was truly at a loss as he studied the woman before him and wondered where in the hell the conversation was going. “I don’t think you’re desperate,” he said, at the same time wondering if she expected him to court her in return for all those letters. She was clearly not his type. Her skirt and blouse were too prim and proper; her hairstyle—slicked back into a bun—too severe. Her glasses were downright ugly and made her face appear misshapen. “I don’t want to appear rude, Miss Abercrombie, but I’m not looking to get romantically involved with anyone right now. I just want a fresh start.”
“What?” Mel’s head spun. What in blazes was he talking about? Did he think she was making a pass at him? Was he insane? She opened her mouth to speak, but he cut her off.
“Look, I don’t want us to get off to a bad beginning. I’m not sure I would have made it this past year without your letters.” It wasn’t easy for him to be so honest, but she had done much for his morale these twelve months; he owed her.
Mel was at a loss. He wasn’t making sense. “Letters? What letters? Who are you?”
She froze as realization swept through her with the force of a tidal wave. “Kane Stoddard? From Leavenworth Penitentiary?” He nodded, and she thought she detected a small smile, but it was hard to tell with the beard.
But how can that be, she asked herself. The Kane Stoddard she knew was a convicted killer, serving life without parole. How had he gotten out? The answer came to her with lightning-quick clarity. She knew of only one way a prisoner could get out that fast.
Kane watched the color drain from her face. He had expected her to be surprised, but she looked as if she’d just received the scare of her life. “Are you okay?” he asked.
She knew she ought to do something, but what? Dial 911? Race outside and flag down the first motorist who came along? She tried to move, but her feet felt as though they’d been set in cement.
An escaped convict in Hardeeville? Was it possible?
Kane watched, transfixed, as Melanie Abercrombie’s eyes glazed over, and then rolled back in her head like dice in a card game. She swayed, and he reached for her. He wasn’t fast enough. She collapsed and fell against a box of drain cleaner with the grace and finesse of a hundred-pound gunny sack of Vidalia onion