Opal McBride clenched her hands inside the pockets of her Goodwill prize, a five dollar coat that probably would’ve stood up to the cold, but was proving no match for humidity. Bitter wind tugged a strand of her braid loose, and she tucked the errant hair behind her ear. She added another stop at Goodwill for a hat and gloves to her mental list.
Right below find a job.
A shiver raced up her arms, triggering a shudder unrelated to the chill.
Traffic roared by on a street barely wide enough to accommodate opposing vehicles. Louisville, Kentucky, wasn’t the biggest city around, but it was more than she’d ever encountered before, and it intimidated her.
Unable to avoid a fellow pedestrian, Opal murmured, “Excuse me,” as they bumped, but the woman forged on, cell phone to ear, without a glance in her direction. She took a tremulous breath and forced herself to keep walking as if the noise and bustle didn’t set her teeth on edge.
She could’ve borne the cold, even the noise of traffic, but the people—so many of them, so loud, so unpredictable, and worst, heedless of her personal space—well, she’d had enough. She detoured off the main thoroughfare into a residential neighborhood, and ducked her head against a gust.
The farther away from Bardstown Road she got, the easier Opal’s breath came. The tension in her shoulders eased and she slowed. She paused, and turned in a circle, looking up to examine her new world. Louisville had trees, and sky, but its hills couldn’t compare to the mountains back home. Nor did sky in the Appalachians hover oppressively, like the perennial low cloud cover here. But she’d had precious few outdoor moments over the past twelve years, and she reveled in the feel of fresh air moving across her skin, no matter how dreary the overcast or biting the temperature.
A pang of homesickness for Jubilee, Kentucky, rolled through her, but it didn’t last long. There was nothing left for her in Jubilee, nothing but pain, and she deliberately moved her mind in a different direction.
The wind blew a plastic grocery bag across her path, and Opal bent to snag it, concerned that a small animal or bird might become trapped in the suffocating material. She stuffed it in the pocket of her coat for proper disposal later, and her fingers encountered the paper documenting her job search for the day.
She sighed. Nothing like reality to squelch her joy in walking unfettered down a street of her choosing. If she’d gotten a signature at the last place she’d sought an interview, she’d be done and heading back to the house. But no. She’d walked out after the manager leered at her chest, then indicated the back room with piggish, lecherous eyes.
She needed a job, but not that badly.
On the other hand, she really needed a job. The alternative didn’t bear contemplation. A shiver of anxiety ran down her spine, but Opal straightened, her resolve strengthening. Not gonna happen. As long as she could draw a breath of air laced with freedom, she’d keep trying. On the heels of that thought, she glanced up and noticed a worn Hiring sign in the window of a home-based sandwich shop. She stopped, her heart in her throat. Maybe this one.
But a hand appeared above the sign and pulled it out of the window. Opal’s hopes sank. She lifted her gaze to the owner of the hand, a young woman who sent her a rueful smile and mouthed sorry through the plate glass. Opal managed a that’s-the-way-it-goes shrug accompanied by a no-big-deal smile, though worry nipped at her as she turned and began her trek home.
She wondered who was working evening shift, and whether extra signatures from the past two days would outweigh the one she was short today. Ms. Hannity would take warped pleasure in holding her to the letter of the contract she’d signed upon arrival, but Ms. Millner took a more lenient approach. Ms. Millner, please… She steeled herself for getting stuck with Ms. Hannity, though, as Murphy’s Law seemed to dog her every step.
Sounds of traffic drifted from Bardstown Road as she approached a strip mall on the back side of the main drag. Her eyes lit on a fabric shop at the end of the line of small businesses. A tidy, hand-lettered sign proclaimed Help Wanted. She didn’t know much about fabric, but then again, she hadn’t known anything about dry cleaning or fast food production from her earlier attempts today, either. She veered toward the store, her spirits brightening a little. Chances were, no men worked here. That would be a relief. No “job interview” in the back room.
A little bell over the door tinkled as she entered, and soft, lively instrumental music that promised welcome lilted in the air. She caught a whiff of cinnamon, then another of coffee.
“May I help you?” A diminutive, silver-haired woman glanced up from an expansive table, smiled, and set down some tools. She dusted her hands on black slacks, and waited expectantly.
Opal bordered on petite, but this woman made her feel tall. For the first time in her weeklong job hunt, she was tongue tied. She swallowed, and said, “I saw the help wanted sign. Could I apply for the job?” She crossed her fingers behind her back, and thought please… The quiet and homey atmosphere of this place hinted at the promise of acceptance, of belonging. Yearning filled her heart, but Opal squelched it. No use in hoping yet.
The woman’s face crinkled into a deep smile, and she extended her hand. “Welcome! My name is May. Of course you can apply.”
Opal took her hand and shook, her lips curving into a return smile.
“What experience do you have?”
At May’s question, her smile dimmed. She ended the handshake, and her gaze dropped. She had to force the words out through a throat tight with shame. “None, really. Not a real job, anyway, and nothing like this.”
“Oh, my.” May’s voice held no censure, just surprise, and Opal dared glance up through her eyelashes at the woman.
Then she remembered. A few years ago, a group of women had made quilts to present to their victims. Opal had crafted one for Tommy’s uncle Obie, which she was certain had been shredded and fed to the hogs upon arrival, but the process of creating beauty from donated scraps of cloth had sparked her imagination.
Afraid May would send her away, she blurted, “But I’m smart. I can learn. And I’ve made a quilt.”
May’s blue eyes twinkled with humor. “One?” She took any potential sting out of the word by taking Opal’s hand. “Come. Sit. Let’s talk.”
Hope bloomed in Opal’s chest, and she followed May to a sitting area strewn with magazines, all focused on quilts and quilting. Her face heated. “So this is a quilt shop?” At May’s amused nod, Opal sighed. “I’m not trying to put one over on you, ma’am. But I do need a job, and I’m a hard worker. Dependable.”
Her mind shot to the only jobs she’d ever held. While she was married to Tommy, she cleaned rooms at the local fleabag motel. Then more of the same, but far less pay. Janitorial, until she graduated to the heat of an industrial kitchen. She’d hated all of the jobs, but she could say in full truthfulness she’d worked hard, and she’d never missed a day of work.
Suddenly, this woman’s opinion of her mattered, a lot, maybe even too much, and Opal hoped May would offer her the position.
“Well, Miss…” May’s brow furrowed slightly.
“Oh! I’m sorry, ma’am.” Heat crept into her cheeks. “My name is Opal McBride.” She caught herself beginning to fidget, and forced herself to still.
May smiled. “Miss McBride, the position I need to fill is part time and temporary. My assistant is on bed rest while she awaits twins. Therefore, I can guarantee three months”—May leaned forward and whispered—“but I hope she decides to take quite a bit longer once the babies come. They are only small once, and for such a short time.” She sat back, a conspiratorial glint in her eyes.
Opal kept her smile in place, though her heart dropped at May’s description and definition of temporary. She needed six months, and this would not last long enough. But as Granny McBride always said, the berries within reach are the only ones you need. Opal’s spirits lifted at the memory.
Then the reason for the job opening sank in, and her smile faltered. Babies. She hadn’t encountered much need to think about babies for years. But a memory of the slight bulge at her waist and butterfly kicks surfaced, and she sucked in a quick breath.
Not now! She stuffed the memory and all the traumatic emotions that accompanied it into the recesses of her mind, and swallowed, then nodded. “Uh, yes ma’am, I’ve heard that said. Babies do grow fast.”
May smiled, and her manner turned more businesslike. “Tell me about yourself, Miss McBride. Or may I call you Opal?” Without waiting for an answer, she added, “And please call me May. ‘Ma’am’ makes me feel old.” She laughed, her eyes twinkling.
Opal’s mouth went dry. Then she gave a mental shrug. If May didn’t like the truth, there was nothing she could do about it. But she didn’t have to start with her record. She cleared her throat. “Well, ma’am—I mean, May—I’m new in town, originally from a little town near the West Virginia border. Like I said, I’m smart and dependable.” As she spoke, Opal’s confidence faded. Why would anyone hire her? How could she claim to be smart when she hadn’t even graduated from high school?
Maybe she wasn’t as smart as she thought she was. A GED, as proud as she’d been for the achievement, didn’t carry near the weight of pride that a high school diploma conferred. And the long hours of online study in entrepreneurial business hadn’t translated to the value she’d expected. Neither qualification had swayed employers during her weeklong search. Nor did she think years of reading the dictionary—a distinctly oddball activity—counted toward a marketable skill.
The bloom of hope she’d felt when she first entered the store withered, and she dropped her gaze to her hands. She hesitated, then added, “I have an Associate degree…” Her voice trailed off. Left unsaid was her lack of experience to go with it.
May was silent for several moments, and Opal finally gathered the courage to look at her. The woman regarded her with a gaze that combined both shrewdness and compassion.
“It sounds like you are a bit down on your luck.”
Opal grimaced and gave her a slight nod. “You might say that, ma’a—May. But I promise I’ll do my very best for you if you hire me.”
The bell over the door jingled, and Opal glanced toward it, expecting a customer, most likely female. But it was a guy in his mid-thirties, a shade over six feet tall and dressed in a suit he wore with the ease of a man who’d been born in one. He had dark hair—cut, combed, then ignored, and tousled by the wind. Blue eyes, bright and intelligent. She couldn’t help noticing that he was good looking, if she was in the market. Which she wasn’t, even if the rules hadn’t forbidden it.
“Hi, Mom. You about ready to close up shop and go to dinner?”
May rose, and Opal did the same, feeling extraneous and oddly exposed. May and the man met in the middle of the store and embraced. “Josh, I’d like to introduce you to my new employee.”
Opal blinked. She’d been hired? And she hadn’t even told May everything, an oversight she needed to remedy before things got too far along.
Josh turned to her and extended his hand. “Nice to meet you.” He smiled, a dimple appearing in his left cheek. His gaze, open and friendly, lingered on her hair for a moment, then settled on her face with directness and curiosity. Well-developed smile lines, pale against tanned skin, fanned out from his eyes.
Opal took his hand, gave him a quick shake, and said, “Likewise.” His grip was strong but not overbearing, and…warm. Discomfited by that small revelation, she nearly snatched her hand from his and hid it in her jacket pocket.
His gaze sharpened and he looked at her more closely. “Do I know you from somewhere? You look familiar.”
“No, sir, I’m sure I would remember you if we’d met.” Opal could’ve kicked herself. What a stupid comeback! Nobody talked that way on the outside.
May, oblivious to Opal’s unease, turned and led the way through rainbow-hued displays of fabric to a small, well-lit, and very tidy office. She opened a file cabinet, retrieved a form, and handed it to Opal. “Fill this out, dear.”
“Um, ma’am…” Opal knew she needed to speak up now, but wasn’t particularly eager for her son to be in on the conversation.
“May.” A hint of steel underlay the word, but the smile she bestowed on Opal expressed no frustration, just warmth. “Yes, Opal?”
Josh made a strangled sound, and Opal glanced at him. His eyes held a mixture of shock and confusion. Then, as she watched, they went hard. A muscle in his jaw worked.
Uh oh. For the life of her, Opal couldn’t figure out what had set the guy off, but his thunderous expression put every cell of her body on high alert.
“Opal McBride?” All the warmth of his earlier mien disappeared. His voice was flat, with a hint of condemnation.
She lifted her chin and stared him down—a patently losing proposition, as his narrowed eyes were shooting daggers at her and he stood nearly a foot taller than her. “That is my name.” Opal bit off the part where she asked him what business it was of his. She really needed to work on her sass. It’d been counterproductive in the past, and probably wouldn’t help much now, either.
“Address 1753 Bonnycastle?”
The address of the halfway house. And if he knew that much, he knew what it was. Her heart plummeted to her toes.
He stepped closer, deliberately intruding into her space, and Opal’s nerves started screaming. How did he know she lived there? And her name? She sucked in a breath and straightened, feeling cornered and threatened.
“Children! Stop it right now!” May’s voice broke Josh’s focus, and he flicked a glance at her. An unrepentant glance.
“You can’t hire her, Mom.”
A tremor began in Opal’s fingers, and spread to her hands. If she’d thought her mouth had been dry earlier, it had nothing on the Sahara-like condition of her tongue now. Her heart pounded in her chest as if she’d just sprinted the length of Jubilee’s main street.
May crossed her arms. “I can hire whomever I please, Joshua.” She tapped one toe, her expression simultaneously appalled, affronted, and confused.
Josh grasped Opal’s upper arm and propelled her toward the door. She stumbled, then caught her balance and pulled away, but his grip was like steel. Why is he doing this? Panic flooded her, and Opal struck out, catching him in the gut, but he anticipated the move and tightened his abs. Her blow didn’t slow him down, and now struggling in earnest, she dropped her weight and shot a foot out. He tripped and went down, knocking a table of fabric to the floor. Cursing, he let loose of her arm, and she scrambled away, panting in fear.
“Joshua Braddock Boone! Look what you have done! Stop it this moment!” May’s voice cut through her panic, anchoring her in a tenuous place of safety.
He rolled to his feet with the grace of a natural athlete, and shrugged his jacket back into place. A blush colored his cheeks, and he glanced at May. “Sorry. But you don’t know who she is.” He turned on Opal and said, “Were you going to tell her?”
He knows… She climbed to her feet, wary in case he took after her again, and nodded. She had to lick her lips three times before she got the words out. “Y-yes. I was trying, before you got physical.”
He snorted. “Yeah, right.”
Opal recognized a losing battle when she saw one. She forced the tension out of her muscles, and sighed. “I admit to a lot of faults, Mr. Boone, but I don’t lie.” She turned to May. “Ma’am, I don’t think this is going to work out. I’ll be on my way, and you can hire someone better suited. Thank you for your time and”—Opal’s voice hitched—“hospitality.” She crouched to pick up and replace the fabric onto the table, but Josh stooped and covered her hand with his. Warm, and strong, just as before, but not nearly as safe.
She tried to snatch her hand away, but he tightened his grip, then shifted so May couldn’t see his face. Opal stilled, not wanting to make more of a scene. She flicked her gaze up to meet Josh Boone’s, and steeled herself to his censure, covering the roiling, vulnerable—damn it—emotions in her gut with the strength she’d earned through the crucible of the past twelve years.
He knelt on one knee, his face only inches from hers. “I’ll take care of that. It was my fault, after all.” His eyes glittered and his lips were tight, in opposition to the conciliatory tenor of his words. Then he leaned closer and added in a nearly soundless whisper, “Just get out of here and don’t come back.”
Opal flinched. She stood, and turning a deaf ear to May’s objections, walked to the door, pulled it open. Josh’s words lashed at her as the bell tinkled merrily above her.
“You can’t hire her, Mom, because she’s a murderer.”
Copyright© 2014 Leslie Lynch