“I like to read,” Melissa said. “But Dad and Bettina let us watch TV all the time.”

An issue she would address later, Liz thought. “If you two are done, why don’t you take your plates to the sink and rinse them? Then we can make a list and go to the grocery store.”

When they’d rinsed their plates, she sent Tyler to see if the upstairs bathroom had toilet paper and Abby out to the garage to check if there was any laundry detergent by the old washer. She and Melissa sat back at the table and started to make a list.

“We’ll get the basics,” Liz began. “But not too much. I’m not sure how long we’ll be here.”

Melissa frowned as she flipped her long hair over her shoulder. “We’re not leaving. I’m not going to let anyone separate me and Abby.”

Liz touched her arm. “I’m not suggesting anything like that. But you can’t stay here alone. You have to live with an adult or two. I’ll talk to your dad about the situation.”

“What about you?” Melissa stared at the table as she asked the question.

“I don’t know. If there’s other family, then we’ll have options to explore. If not, then you and Abby will be coming back to San Francisco with me.”

Melissa sprang to her feet. “No. We won’t go. We live here. In Fool’s Gold.” Tears filled her eyes.

Liz rose. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Everything is still new and we haven’t even gotten to know each other. Let’s not worry about anything more than today.”

“I won’t go. Neither will Abby.” Melissa looked defiant, despite the tears. “I mean it, Liz. You can’t make us.”

Liz knew that if she ended up with custody of the girls, she could and would, but there was no point in pushing hard now.

“I understand,” Liz assured calmly. “As I said, let me talk to your dad and figure out where we are. I won’t do anything without talking to you first. Can we put this on hold for a bit?”

Melissa looked as if she wanted to argue, but nodded slowly.

Liz took her seat and turned back to the list. “Shampoo and conditioner?” she asked.

Melissa sank into the chair across from her. “We’re out of them, too.”

Liz made a note. “You’ll have to show me what you like. What about makeup?”

It was a bribe, plain and simple, but she figured both she and Melissa had earned the break.

“I, ah, don’t wear that much, but I’d like to.”

Liz smiled. “We’ll get mascara and lip gloss when we go out, but later in the week, we’ll make a serious drugstore run and get some fun stuff to play with.”

Melissa leaned close. “Do you have highlights?”

Liz fingered her layered, wavy hair. It fell just past her shoulders-a length that allowed her to pull it back, put it up or go crazy with the hot rollers and have beauty pageant curls.

“A few. Our hair is about the same color. A bit of reddish gold adds dimension.” Liz shrugged. “You’re pretty without any help, but in a few years, you’ll be looking for more.”

Melissa flushed. “Abby hates her hair. It’s so red.”

“She’ll grow into it. When you’re young, it’s hard to be different.”

“That’s what my mom used to say.” Melissa pressed her lips together as she twisted her fingers. “She died.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It was a long time ago. Abby doesn’t remember her.”

“But you do.”

Melissa nodded.

Liz wondered about the woman her brother had married and where he’d been all this time. When had he come back to Fool’s Gold? Had it been when their mother had died? Liz suspected she’d left the house to him. But how had anyone known how to get in touch with him? Unless he’d been in touch with their mother and she hadn’t known.

More questions for later, she told herself.

Tyler clattered down the stairs. “No toilet paper,” he announced. “And there isn’t soap in the shower.”

He sounded both shocked and delighted by the strangeness.

Abby returned to the kitchen to say there wasn’t any laundry detergent, either.

“I don’t know if my car’s big enough for all we’ll have to buy,” Liz teased brightly. “We may have to tie one of you on the roof of the car to make room.”

Abby looked a little startled, but Tyler laughed. “I’ll do it. Tie me on the roof, Mom.”

“Thank you for volunteering.”

Abby glanced between them, then smiled shyly, as if getting the joke. “You could tie me, too.”

“Why thank you,” Liz said, touching her cheek. “That’s very thoughtful of you. Okay-are we ready? I was thinking we’d have spaghetti for dinner. How does that sound?”

“My favorite,” Tyler yelled.

“Mine, too,” Abby said.

“With garlic bread?” Melissa asked.

“It wouldn’t be spaghetti if there wasn’t garlic bread,” Liz told her.

Melissa grinned.

ONE SHOPPING TRIP, A DINNER and shared kitchen cleanup later, Liz supervised the kids settling in for the evening. Melissa had one last assignment for school, while Abby and Tyler sat on the sofa downstairs to watch a movie.

Liz poured herself a second glass of wine, then carried it out front. While her nieces were great, the situation was intense and she felt the need to be alone for a few minutes.

She walked to the edge of the porch and sat with her feet on the second step. The night was clear, the stars much bigger and closer than they appeared in San Francisco. Here there weren’t big city lights to dilute the heavens. She could make out the mountains to the east, rising miles into the sky. The very tops seemed to almost brush the twinkling stars.

The sound of the movie carried to her, a safe sound. Abby and Melissa were good kids dealing with an impossible situation. Her anger at the absent Bettina grew every second. How could an adult simply walk away from two girls like that? Even if she didn’t want them herself, she could have done something to make sure they were taken care of.

Part of Liz wanted to call the police and report the woman, but she wouldn’t. Not until everything was straightened out. Getting social services involved at this point was a complication no one needed. Besides, she wanted to talk to Roy first.

At dinner Melissa had mentioned her father was at Folsom. Despite the fact that Johnny Cash had made the place famous with a song, the facility was old and very much a prison. Liz had researched the prison for one of her books. She still had several contacts there which would mean getting in to see her brother would be relatively easy.

But knowing that didn’t make the idea of seeing him after all this time anymore comfortable. What was she supposed to say?

She shook off the question and returned her attention to the beautiful night. That was easier than thinking about the past, or hey, even the present. After all this time, she was back in Fool’s Gold. Who would have thought?

The grocery shopping had been uneventful. Only one shopper had recognized her enough to call her by name. The older woman hadn’t been the least bit familiar to Liz, but she remembered enough of small-town life to pretend to be delighted at the meeting. The woman had commented on how nice it was that she’d come back for Roy’s girls.

An innocent comment, Liz thought as she sipped her wine. There was no reason for her to want to snap at the other woman, ask her how it was possible that an entire town hadn’t noticed two girls living on their own. Of course this was the same town that had seen plenty of bruises on her arms and legs and no one had asked any questions back then, either.

“Don’t go there,” she whispered. She was here to help Roy’s girls and get out as quickly as possible. Nothing

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