Today's Reading

The new customers began to pepper him with questions about the pastry selection, but as he answered, the image of the mystery woman sitting alone on a bench at the wharf—and Charley's comment that she could use a friend—remained front and center in his mind.

If she was dealing with a bunch of garbage, he ought to cut her some slack for her lack of sociability today. Been there, done that—and it was a bad place to be.

Yet thanks to grit, determination...and the kind people of Hope Harbor, who'd welcomed him into the community he now called home...he'd survived.

Hard to say if the woman hiding behind the dark shades had similar fortitude...and if she was merely passing through, he'd never find out.

But if she stuck around awhile, perhaps in Hope Harbor she'd discover an answer to the worrisome situation Charley thought she might be wrestling with.

***

Mistake, mistake, mistake.

As the accusatory refrain looped through her mind, Katherine Parker sipped her excellent latte and watched the boats in the harbor through the rain-splattered windshield of her rental car.

The drops on the glass looked like tears.

How appropriate.

Throat tightening, she set the drink in the cupholder, fisted her hands in her lap, and willed the waterworks behind her eyes to dry up.

She should have stayed holed up in her cottage above Blackberry Beach. That was the safest place for her, as today's excursion had confirmed.

Yet the cozy, comforting atmosphere in the coffee shop on Monday had been seductive. How could she not succumb to the temptation to visit again?

Especially since four days into her flight from chaos, she was as unsettled as ever. Her appetite had vanished, sleep was elusive, and her mind churned with questions...doubts...second thoughts.

But what else had she expected? Running away didn't solve anything.

Except...she hadn't run away. Not exactly. This trip was more about sanctuary than escape. A quiet interlude to rethink her goals in solitude, away from the raucous craziness that had become her life.

And Hope Harbor had seemed the perfect location for that.

So far, though, the peaceful ambiance she remembered hadn't managed to permeate her soul.

But it was possible she was expecting too much too soon. A few days of peace weren't going to counteract five years of constant stress and pressure. She ought to give herself a chance to acclimate to a slower pace. To let the tranquility of this place work its magic.

Fingers trembling, she picked up her latte. Took another sip as she gave the view a slow sweep.

Nothing much had changed in the past six years.

Overflowing flower boxes rimmed the sidewalk along crescent-shaped Dockside Drive, benches interspersed for the pleasure of passersby who could spare a few minutes to sit and enjoy the view. Beyond the harbor hugging sidewalk, a sloping pile of boulders led down to the water, where bobbing boats were protected by a long breakwater on the left and two rocky islands on the right. On the other side of the street, shops with colorful awnings and window boxes faced the distant horizon.

She shifted sideways. At the far end of the crescent, where the frontage road dead ended at the river that emptied into the sea, a gazebo graced a tiny pocket park containing a picnic table and what appeared to be a historic cannon. The latter hadn't been there on her last visit.

And perched on the edge of that park? Charley's taco stand. The white truck with his name emblazoned in colorful letters over the serving window hadn't budged an inch—nor changed one iota.

Neither had the owner—or those perceptive eyes of his.

She set the latte down again, the quiver in her fingers more pronounced.

Despite the passage of years and a disguise that would fool most people, that tiny flare of recognition in Charley's dark cocoa irises at the coffee shop suggested he'd seen through her disguise. That he'd realized they'd met.

Whether he'd put a name to her face wasn't clear. If he had, he'd kept her secret. If he hadn't—who knew what he'd do once he did? Worst case, he'd mention it to someone...who'd mention it to someone else...and her attempt to remain under the radar would be a bust.

Sighing, she watched a boat on the horizon disappear into the mist—as she'd hoped to disappear in Hope Harbor.
...

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