A CLUSTER OF bells jingles overhead when I push through the door of Bailey’s Quick Stop, which is the address that the landlord gave me when he told me where to pick up the keys to our cottage. A quick glance around shows me the place is empty. I take a tentative step forward, practically dragging Emmy along. She’s hugging my left leg so tightly I can hardly walk.
“Hello?” I call quietly.
I jump when a woman with wildly teased brown hair pops up from behind the counter where the cash register sits. She’s smiling broadly and holding a frosted glass in one hand. I’d estimate her to be in her early thirties, maybe ten years older than my twenty-three. With her button nose and big brown eyes, she’s pretty despite the trouble she seems to be having remaining upright.
“Hi, I’m looking for Jason Bailey. Am I at the wrong place? This is the address–”
“No, sweetie, you’re at the right place. Come ooon in,” she says, laughing as she throws up an arm and enthusiastically urges me forward. I hobble toward her, Emmy clinging to my leg as I do. The woman notices her, brown eyes lighting up when she sees my daughter. “And who is this?” she asks in a gentle voice.
I reach down to smooth Emmy’s hair, not at all surprised when I see her sucking her thumb. She’s just staring at the woman like she’s a frightening alien.
“This is Emmy. She’s very shy,” I explain. That’s what I tell everyone. It’s much simpler than the truth.
“All the princesses are,” the woman says, unfazed. “I’m Jordan. What can I help you two lovely ladies with today? We’ve got everything from paint to wine and bait to bread. We’ve got a grill if you’re hungry and a bar if you’re thirsty.”
“Just Jason Bailey please,” I repeat, watching as she tries to collect herself, tugging at her disheveled shirt and smoothing her disheveled hair.
“Oh, right right.” She turns her face partly to the side and yells, “Jasonnn! Get out here,” the smile never leaving her face.
As is the case with most small towns, new people stick out like sore thumbs, and Miller’s Pond, Maine is no exception. It had a population explosion in 2001, bringing the town tally up to a whopping three thousand four hundred people. And, now, three thousand four hundred and two. I guess that’s why this store has a little bit of everything. No big chain supermarkets or stores have found their way here yet. From what I could see on the map, the closest super center is at least thirty miles away.
“So, what brings you to Miller’s Pond?” she asks.
I smile and clear my throat, uncomfortable with her questioning. But I have a carefully composed history rehearsed for just such an occasion. “Uh, I was born up in Bangor. Just getting back closer to home.”
“Close, but not too close, eh? Smart girl.”
I smile at her observation and add, “Plus we love lighthouses and Miller’s Pond has one of the oldest ones in the country, or so I hear.” It’s a pat enough answer, hopefully pat enough to stop her or anyone else from asking more questions. It’s all fiction, of course. 100% untrue, but that’s the way it has to be.
“That’s right, sweetie. You’ve come to the right place. Annnd, you’ve just made friends with the one person who can tell you anything you need to know about this town and the people in it. Besides that, I make a kickass rum and Coke,” she says with a wink, her voice dropping down to a loud whisper. I assume that was in deference to Emmy.
“The village idiot can make a rum and Coke, Jordan,” a man says as he appears in the doorway behind the counter. He looks to be about the same age as Jordan and, based on his light brown hair and same color eyes, I’d say they’re related. “Or, in this case, the town lush.”
Although his words are biting, he smiles at Jordan and she laughs, playfully punching his arm. Her fist slips off and she nearly falls, but the guy grabs her by the shoulders and more or less props her back up. He’s shaking his head when he finally looks up to me.
“Jason Bailey, Jordan’s brother. You must be Eden.”
“I am. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Is that a bit of the south I’m hearing?”
My lips curve nervously. I’ve tried very hard to drop any hint of accent from my voice, so his observation flusters me. I don’t have a lie ready for that. “It is. I wasn’t there long, but it must’ve rubbed off.”
He nods, seemingly satisfied with that.
“And this is her daughter, Emmy. She’s a shy princess,” Jordan provides.
I can’t help noticing the appreciative way Jason’s eyes sweep from my chest to my feet and back again on his way to see Emmy. He simply smiles at her, doesn’t try to engage, which is best. When his warm eyes lock onto mine again, I think to myself that he’s handsome and pretty obviously interested. At least superficially. Only I’m not. A normal woman probably would be. But I’m not normal. I’d like to be, but I’m not sure I ever will be.
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you both. I look forward to getting to know you.”
While his smile is as polite as his words, something tells me his insinuation is anything but innocent.
I just nod, thinking to myself that he won’t ever get to know me that well. “It’s been a long day for us. If I could just get the keys…”
I figure offering up an excuse for my lack of interest is the best way to avoid bruising his ego, and I’m okay with that. Anything to keep out of trouble.
“Of course. Come on back to my office,” he says, walking to the end of the counter and indicating yet another door. Once inside, I dig in my purse for the form I filled out. It’s a single page, nothing too invasive or complicated. In fact, the…loose requirements for the rental of this cottage were big factors in choosing Miller’s Pond. Jason let me secure the lease via a faxed agreement that didn’t ask for my social security number and he allowed me to pay six months in advance via a cashier’s check that I mailed in. Now I just have to pick up the keys.
Jason grabs an envelope from his top desk drawer. It has Eden Taylor and the cottage’s address scribbled across the front. He opens it and dumps keys out into his hand, makes a few notes on a paper or two and then hands them over.
“You know the address?”
“Yes, we drove by on the way in.”
“Then welcome to Miller’s Pond.”
And just like that, I exhale. Maybe this will finally be a place we can call home. Home safe home.
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