Muffled stomping sounded outside the door moments before a young woman with a smile entered. A basket covered with a cloth hung from her arm. She stared his direction, and her eyes lit up.
"You don't remember me but I’m the little girl who followed you and Brett around like a puppy." She flushed. "And it paid off. Brett married me because he figured he'd never shake me loose."
Van had pushed pieces of his childhood before the robbery to the farthest reaches of his mind. Staring at the woman and remembering jaunts with Brett, images slowly emerged like flipping pages in a picture book. He crossed the floor and hugged the petite blonde woman.
"Beth. Of course. Brett mentioned you when I rode into town. You've grown up from that pigtailed girl we found so annoying."
She laughed and blushed. "Yes, it took Brett long enough to notice though." She held out the basket. "When Brett said you were back and moving into this building I thought you could use some food…" Her gaze darted to the backroom.
Van shifted in time to see surprise and embarrassment flash in Tessa's eyes before she stopped just inside the room.
"Tessa has agreed to work for me as my clerk." He didn't miss Beth's raised eyebrow as he swept an arm wide. "And help clean this place and stock the shelves."
Beth handed the basket to Van and scurried across the floor. "That's wonderful! Oh, Tessa, I've hated you working in that saloon. This will be much better." She took Tessa's hands in hers and smiled.
Van watched Tessa's shoulders gradually slump and her body shift to a casual stance. Her full wide mouth tipped at the corners. His heart slammed to a stop at the sight.
"I've hated working there but no one else would hire me." Her eyes shone with dull acceptance.
"Why wouldn't anyone else hire you? You're intelligent and from what I observed in the saloon a hard worker." Van knew why but he wanted to hear her version.
Tessa moved away from Beth, taking several steps even farther from him. Her eyes glistened when she finally looked at him.
"Because my father was unjustly wronged and that has followed my mother and me for years."
His gut felt perforated like a shoe sole full of tiny awl holes made one by one with the banging of the hammer on the awl. Her life was miserable because of his stupidity as a young man. How could he make it up to her? There had to be more ways than giving her a job.
Beth shot a look his direction, her lips pursed as though she waited for him to say something. He wasn't about to blurt out his feelings or he had been a cause of Tessa's troubles. Not yet. Not until she was comfortable with him and wouldn't run back to the saloon.
"I'm sorry. People can be cruel when it isn't warranted. Rumors and lies spread and become consumed more readily than the truth I’m afraid." He stepped toward Tessa to place a comforting hand on her arm.
"Humpff!" Beth shot him a dagger-filled glance. "I see some things about you haven't changed." She turned to Tessa. "If you need a break from here come on over to the house for a cup of tea." She scurried out of the shop, her skirts whisking the dust on the floor into swirling shapes.