“Mrs. Hampton! It's so good to see you again.” Madeline Baker rushed out from behind the merchant counter, extending her hands. “Why, I haven't seen you since...” The words stilled, and the woman winced. “I'm so sorry.”
Anna managed a stiff nod. Your husband's funeral. That was what Mrs. Baker had intended to say. A knot formed in the pit of her stomach, and suddenly, this didn't seem like a good idea after all. The images wouldn't go away, and for a second, she swore she heard Zach's voice, that gentle rumble telling her everything was going to be all right.
Feeling light-headed, she stumbled back. The older woman reached out to catch her. “Perhaps you should sit down.” Genuine worry creased Mrs. Baker's forehead. She'd always been a caring woman, one of the first to welcome Anna to Strawberry Junction.
Anna opened her mouth to reply, but a wave of nausea welled in the pit of her stomach. She clutched one hand over her abdomen. “I-I...you'll have to excuse me, Mrs. Baker. I'm not feeling very well.” She rushed out of the store and into the street, the blood draining from her face. Leaning against a post, she gulped in deep breaths of air.
“Ma'am? Are you all right?”
The deep voice startled her, and she jumped. The basket of eggs dropped from her fingers, but a black-gloved hand shot out, catching it before it could make contact with the planks. “I-I'm fine.” She closed her hand around the handle, careful to avoid touching the man's hand. “Thank you.”
“Are you sure? You look mighty pale.”
Was she fine? No, anything but. She'd tried. Had really believed she’d convinced herself this time would be different, but everywhere she looked, everything she heard, smelled, touched, reminded her of Zach. She couldn't do this. Maybe it was time to move. She'd heard a lot of good things about Corpus Christi. Surely the children would like living so close to the coast.
“Ma'am?” Leather brushed her hand, just the slightest touch, like the kiss of a butterfly's wing, but Anna recoiled. He immediately withdrew his hand. “My apologies. I didn't mean to startle you.”
“Y-you didn't. I just…” She broke off, the ability to explain fading as quickly as her courage.
“Would you like me to see you home?”
Anna finally tipped her head back to see the face behind the voice, and the knot in her stomach began to dissipate. The man was strikingly handsome, dark hair, green eyes, and just enough of a beard to look like he hadn't shaved in a couple of days. Broad shoulders and a kind smile—a man her daddy would have called “the trustin' kind”.
Realizing, she was staring, she dropped her gaze. The sun glinted off metal, immediately drawing her attention to the star pinned to his vest. Her defenses went up.
Snagging the basket free from his grasp, she inclined her head. “As I said, I'm fine. Thank you for catching my basket.” She quickly turned to leave, knowing it was rude, but desperately needing to get away before the tears began.
It had been the star. Though it was different from the one Zach had worn, it was still the sign of a lawman, and the knowledge was enough to erase any other thought from her mind.