Chapter 1 - A Chance Encounter
I glanced around the ground floor of the "museum." Empty. I straightened the brim of my ridiculous hat as I traipsed up the stairs to the third level. Francisca had relished our amateurish attempts at cloak and dagger meetings, but I was beginning to lose patience with the charade. She hadn't arrived yet, leaving me to contemplate the so-called objets d'art on display.
I had been there dozens of times, and it was my favorite place back when I had never been anywhere but Hidden Springs. I'd spent the last two years in the Peace Corps, not only seeing the world, but making it a better place. Everything in my hometown lost its luster in light of that high. The last few weeks before I left for another enlistment seemed interminable.
A woman in a trucker cap approached me and whispered ominously, "I hear the cuckoos are nesting in Meadow Beach this year."
It was Francisca's passcode. I rolled my eyes under my sunglasses before replying, "Thanks for the warning, I'll be sure to carry an umbrella on my picnic."
She giggled and said, "That hat is big enough to be an umbrella! And you don't sound very sincere today, Ruthie."
"You look silly in that cap, too."
"Were you followed?" she asked, looking around.
"Of course not! Who would bother?" I couldn't ease her paranoia, which made perfect sense. Hidden Springs is so small. It amazed me that she had remained undiscovered as long as she had. "Has your boss figured out who you are yet?"
"No," she snickered, "I don't think his investigative skills are very strong!" We both got a good laugh out of that. Who would expect the missing princess to be working at the local newspaper? "Anyway," she continued "I wanted to ask you to make sure to tell me if anything interesting happens at your dad's fundraiser tonight, since I can't be seen there."
I said I would, but the reminder of the party ruined my good mood. Her mother may be the queen, but my father was the governor, and that saddled me with plenty of unwanted social obligations.
She thanked me and we exchanged more small talk, gossip, and chatted about the latest episodes of our favorite TV shows before she said she had to go interview someone for work. She instructed me to wait ten minutes before following her so no one would think we had met up. I sighed, and played on my phone for a while before turning to leave.
On the second floor, a man I'd never seen before stood at the foot of the stairs looking at a painting. I would have to pass within a yard of him to reach the other stairway. I couldn't help but laugh at how unimpressed he seemed with the art.
"I've always wondered what they were smoking when they chose pieces for this place." I said as I walked down the stairs.
He turned to look at me. His eyes were a startling light grey that stood out against his dark skin. I suddenly felt flustered and hoped that my sunglasses would hide it.
"Yeah, it's definitely..." he paused and I remembered how ❤️❤️❤️❤️ I must look in that huge hat, "unorthodox," he grinned.Fake it 'til you make it.
I reminded myself as I reached the last step. "What brings you to Hidden Springs? Surely not the art."
"No, not at all" he said with a shake of his head. "I'm just touring a lot of different places, seeing what's out there, what each town has to offer."
I squealed just a tiny bit, he had found my weakness. "That's awesome! I think travel is one of the best things in life!"
"Yeah, it's up there near the top, but I can think of a few that are better." They way he smiled and raised his eyebrows told me exactly what he meant.
I smiled too, feeling flattered and exhilarated. I leaned forward to flirt back, but my stupid hat bumped into his nose. "Oh plum! I am so sorry!" I felt my face heating up as I rambled on, apologizing over and over.
"Hey," He said, finally putting both his hands on my shoulders to stop me. "Hey, it's okay. Really. Didn't hurt a bit."
"Sorry." I said one more time.
He chuckled and his hands slid down my arms. "Do you know where we can get a drink? And I'll tell you all about my travels."
"Han's is right across the street, it's garish and kitschy, but I can't anyway, I have somewhere to go." I'd lost my cool and kept floundering, mentally kicking myself, knowing I was blowing it.
"Oh," he said, backing away. "Boyfriend?"
"Parents." I sighed.
"Sorry," he stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked at the floor. "I didn't realize you were that young."
I blurted out "I'm not! They're just, just... How about breakfast? At the diner? Then I'll show you around town."
"Okay. Sounds good. I'm Lance, by the way."
"Oh, Ruth. See you tomorrow." I got out of there as quickly as I could, before I could embarrass myself any further.