Read an Excerpt
Everywhere is nowhere.
REECE GILMORE smoked through the tough knuckles of Angel’s Fist in an overheating Chevy Cavalier. She had two hundred forty-three dollars and change in her pocket, which might be enough to cure the Chevy, fuel it and herself. If luck was on her side, and the car wasn’t seriously ill, she’d have enough to pay for a room for the night.
Then, even by the most optimistic calculations, she’d be broke.
She took the plumes of steam puffing out of the hood as a sign it was time to stop traveling for a while and find a job.
No worries, no problem, she told herself. The little Wyoming town huddled around the cold blue waters of a lake was as good as anywhere else. Maybe better. It had the openness she needed—all that sky with the snow-dipped peaks of the Tetons rising into it like sober, and somehow aloof, gods.
She’d been meandering her way toward them, through the Ansel Adams photograph of peaks and plains for hours. She hadn’t had a clue where she’d end up when she started out that day before dawn, but she’d bypassed Cody, zipped through Dubois, and though she’d toyed with veering into Jackson, she dipped south instead.
So something must have been pulling her to this spot.
Over the past eight months, she’d developed a strong belief in following signs and impulses. Dangerous Curves, Slippery When Wet. It was nice that someone took the time and effort to post those kinds of warnings. Other signs might be a peculiar slant of sunlight aimed down a back road, or a weather vane pointing south.
If she liked the look of the light or the weather vane, she’d follow, until she found what seemed like the right place at the right time. She might settle in for a few weeks, or, like she had in South Dakota, a few months. Pick up some work, scout the area, then move on when those signs, those impulses, pointed in a new direction.
There was a freedom in the system she’d developed, and often—more often now—a lessening of the constant hum of anxiety in the back of her mind. These past months of living with herself, essentially by herself, had done more to smooth her out than the full year of therapy.
To be fair, she supposed the therapy had given her the base to face herself every single day. Every night. And all the hours between.
And here was another fresh start, another blank slate in the bunched fingers of Angel’s Fist.
If nothing else, she’d take a few days to enjoy the lake, the mountains, and pick up enough money to get back on the road again. A place like this—the signpost had said the population was 623—probably ran to tourism, exploiting the scenery and the proximity to the national park.
There’d be at least one hotel, likely a couple of B and B’s, maybe a dude ranch within a few miles. It might be fun to work at a dude ranch. All those places would need someone to fetch and carry and clean, especially now that the spring thaw was dulling the sharpest edge of winter.
But since her car was now sending out thicker, more desperate smoke signals, the first priority was a mechanic.
She eased her way along the road that ribboned around the long, wide lake. Patches of snow made dull white pools in the shade. The trees were still their wintering brown, but there were a few boats on the water. She could see a couple guys in windbreakers and caps in a white canoe, rowing right through the reflection of the mountains.
Across from the lake was what she decided was the business district. Gift shop, a little gallery. Bank, post office, she noted. Sheriff’s office.
She angled away from the lake to pull the laboring car up to what looked like a big barn of a general store. There were a couple men in flannel shirts sitting out front in stout chairs that gave them a good view of the lake.
They nodded to her as she cut the engine and stepped out, then the one on the right tapped the brim of his blue cap that bore the name of the store—Mac’s Mercantile and Grocery—across the crown.
“Looks like you got some trouble there, young lady.”
“Sure does. Do you know anyone who can give me a hand with it?”
He laid his hands on his thighs and pushed out of the chair. He was burly in build, ruddy in face, with lines fanning out from the corners of friendly brown eyes. When he spoke, his voice was a slow, meandering drawl.
“Why don’t we just pop the hood and take a look-see?”
“Appreciate it.” When she released the latch, he tossed the hood up and stepped back from the clouds of smoke. For reasons she couldn’t name, the plumes and the fuss caused Reece more embarrassment than anxiety. “It started up on me about ten miles east, I guess. I wasn’t paying enough attention. Got caught up in the scenery.”
“Easy to do. You heading into the park?”
“I was. More or less.” Not sure, never sure, she thought and tried to concentrate on the moment rather than the before or after. “I think the car had other ideas.”
His companion came over to join them, and both men looked under the hood the way Reece knew men did. With sober eyes and knowing frowns. She looked with them, though she accepted that she was as much of a cliché. The female to whom what lurked under the hood of a car was as foreign as the terrain of Pluto.
“Got yourself a split radiator hose,” he told her. “Gonna need to replace that.”
Didn’t sound so bad, not too bad. Not too expensive. “Anywhere in town I can make that happen?”
“Lynt’s Garage’ll fix you up. Why don’t I give him a call for you?”
“Lifesaver.” She offered a smile and her hand, a gesture that had come to be much easier for her with strangers. “I’m Reece, Reece Gilmore.”
“Mac Drubber. This here’s Carl Sampson.”
“Back East, aren’t you?” Carl asked. He looked a fit fifty-something to Reece, and with some Native American blood mixed in once upon a time.
“Yeah. Way back. Boston area. I really appreciate the help.”
“Nothing but a phone call,” Mac said. “You can come on in out of the breeze if you want, or take a walk around. Might take Lynt a few to get here.”
“I wouldn’t mind a walk, if that’s okay. Maybe you could tell me a good place to stay in town. Nothing fancy.”
“Got the Lakeview Hotel just down a ways. The Teton House, other side of the lake’s some homier. More a B and B. Some cabins along the lake, and others outside of town rent by the week or the month.”
She didn’t think in months any longer. A day was enough of a challenge. And homier sounded too intimate. “Maybe I’ll walk down and take a look at the hotel.”
“It’s a long walk. Could give you a ride on down.”
“I’ve been driving all day. I could use the stretch. But thanks, Mr. Drubber.”
“No problem.” He stood another moment as she wandered down the wooden sidewalk. “Pretty thing,” he commented.
“No meat on her.” Carl shook his head. “Women today starve off all the curves.”
She hadn’t starved them off, and was, in fact, making a concerted effort to gain back the weight that had fallen off in the past couple of years. She’d gone from health club fit to scrawny and had worked her way back to what she thought of as gawky. Too many angles and points, too many bones. Every time she undressed, her body was like that of a stranger to her.
She wouldn’t have agreed with Mac’s pretty thing. Not anymore. Once she’d thought of herself that way, as a pretty woman—stylish, sexy when she wanted to be. But her face seemed too hard now, the cheekbones too prominent, the hollows too deep. The restless nights were fewer, but when they came, they left her dark eyes heavily shadowed, and cast a pallor, pasty and gray, over her skin.
She wanted to recognize herself again.
She let herself stroll, her worn-out Keds nearly soundless on the sidewalk. She’d learned not to hurry—had taught herself not to push, not to rush, but to take things as they came. And in a very real way to embrace every single moment.
The cool breeze blew across her face, wound through the long brown hair she’d tied back in a tail. She liked the feel of it, the smell of it, clean and fresh, and the hard light that poured over the Tetons and sparked on the water.
She could see some of the cabins Mac had spoken of, through the bare branches of the willows and the cottonwoods. They squatted behind the trees, log and glass, wide porches—and, she assumed, stunning views.
It might be nice to sit on one of those porches and study the lake or the mountains, to watch whatever visited the marsh where cattails speared up out of the bog. To have that room around, and the quiet.
One day maybe, she thought. But not today.
She spotted green spears of daffodils in a half whiskey barrel next to the entrance to a restaurant. They might have trembled a bit in the chilly breeze, but they made her think spring. Everything was new in spring. Maybe this spring, she’d be new, too.
She stopped to admire the tender sprouts. It was comforting to see spring making its way back after the long winter. There would be other signs of it soon. Her guidebook boasted of miles of wildflowers on the sage flats, and more along the area’s lakes and ponds.
She was ready for flowering, Reece thought. Ready for blooming.
Then she shifted her eyes up to the wide front window of the restaurant. More diner than restaurant, she corrected. Counter service, two- and four-tops, booths, all in faded red and white. Pies and cakes on display, and the kitchen open to the counter. A couple waitresses bustled around with trays and coffeepots.
Lunch crowd, she realized. She’d forgotten lunch. As soon as she’d taken a look at the hotel, she’d…
Then she saw it in the window, the sign, hand-lettered.
Signs, she thought again, though she’d taken a step back before she caught herself. She stood where she was, making a careful study of the setup from outside the glass. Open kitchen, she reminded herself, that was key. Diner food, she could handle that in her sleep. Or would have been able to, once.
Maybe it was time to find out, time to take another step forward. If she couldn’t handle it, she’d know, and wouldn’t be any worse off than she was now.
The hotel was probably hiring, in anticipation of the summer season. Or Mr. Drubber might need another clerk at his store.
But the sign was right there, and her car had aimed toward this town, and her steps had brought her to this spot, where daffodil shoots pushed out of the dirt into the first hesitant breaths of spring.
She backtracked to the door, took a long, long breath in, then opened it.
Fried onions, grilling meat—on the gamey side—strong coffee, a jukebox on country and a buzz of table chatter.
Clean red floors, she noted, scrubbed white counter. The few empty tables had their lunch setups. There were photographs on the walls—good ones to her eye. Black-and-whites of the lake, of white water, of the mountains in every season.
She was still getting her bearings, gathering her courage, when one of the waitresses swung by her. “Afternoon. You’re looking for lunch you’ve got your choice of a table or the counter.”
“Actually, I’m looking for the manager. Or owner. Ah, about the sign in the window. The position of cook.”
The waitress stopped, still balancing a tray. “You’re a cook?”
There’d been a time Reece would have sniffed at the term good-naturedly, but she’d have sniffed nonetheless. “Yes.”
“That’s handy, ’cause Joanie fired one a couple of days ago.” The waitress curled her free hand, brought it up to her lips in the mime for drinking.
“Gave him the job in February when he came through town looking for work. Said he’d found Jesus and was spreading his word across the land.”
She cocked her head and her hip and gave Reece a sunny smile out of a pretty face. “He preached the Word, all right, like a disciple on crack, so you wanted to stuff a rag in his mouth. Then I guess he found the bottle, and that was that. So. Why don’t you go right on and sit up at the counter. I’ll see if Joanie can get out of the kitchen for a minute. How about some coffee?”
“Tea, if you don’t mind.”
Didn’t have to take the job, Reece reminded herself as she slid onto a chrome-and-leather stool and rubbed her damp palms dry on the thighs of her jeans. Even if it was offered, she didn’t have to take it. She could stick with cleaning hotel rooms, or head out and find that dude ranch.
The juke switched numbers, and Shania Twain announced joyfully she felt like a woman.
The waitress walked back to the grill and tapped a short sturdy woman on the shoulder, leaned in. After a moment, the woman shot a glance over her shoulder, met Reece’s eyes, then nodded. The waitress came back to the counter with a white cup of hot water, with a Lipton tea bag in the saucer.
“Joanie’ll be right along. You want to order some lunch? Meatloaf’s house special today. Comes with mashed potatoes and green beans and a biscuit.”
“No, thanks, no, tea’s fine.” She’d never be able to hold anything more down, not with the nerves bouncing around in her belly. The panic wanted to come with it, that smothering wet weight in the chest.
She should just go, Reece thought. Go right now and walk back to her car. Get the hose fixed and head out. Signs be damned.
Joanie had a fluff of blond hair on her head, a white butcher’s apron splattered with grease stains tied around her middle and high-topped red Converse sneakers on her feet. She walked out from the kitchen wiping her hands on a dishcloth.
And she measured Reece out of steely eyes that were more gray than blue.
“You cook?” A smoker’s rasp made the brisk question oddly sensual.
“For a living, or just to put something in your mouth?”
“It’s what I did back in Boston—for a living.” Fighting nerves, Reece ripped open the cover on the tea bag.
Joanie had a soft mouth, almost a Cupid’s bow, in contrast to those hard eyes. And an old, faded scar, Reece noted, that ran along her jawline from her left ear nearly to her chin.
“Boston.” In an absent move, Joanie tucked the dishrag in the belt of her apron. “Long ways.”
“I don’t know as I want some East Coast cook who can’t keep her mouth shut for five minutes.”
Reece’s opened in surprise, then closed again on the barest curve of a smile. “I’m an awful chatterbox when I’m nervous.”
“What’re you doing around here?”
“Traveling. My car broke down. I need a job.”
Her heart tightened, a sweaty fist of silent pain. “I can get them.”
Joanie sniffed, frowned back toward the kitchen. “Go on back, put on an apron. Next order up’s a steak sandwich, med-well, onion roll, fried onions and mushrooms, fries and slaw. Dick don’t drop dead after eating what you cook, you probably got the job.”
“All right.” Reece pushed off the stool and, keeping her breath slow and even, went through the swinging door at the far end of the counter.
She didn’t notice, but Joanie did, that she’d torn the tea bag cover into tiny pieces.
It was a simple setup, she decided, and efficient enough. Large grill, restaurant-style stove, refrigerator, freezer. Holding bins, sinks, work counters, double fryer, heat suppression system. As she tied on an apron, Joanie set out the ingredients she’d need.
“Thanks.” Reece scrubbed her hands, then got to work.
Don’t think, she told herself. Just let it come. She set the steak sizzling on the grill while she chopped onions and mushrooms. She put the precut potatoes in the fry basket, set the timer.
Her hands didn’t shake, and though her chest stayed tight, she didn’t allow herself to dart glances over her shoulder to make sure a wall hadn’t appeared to close her in.
She listened to the music, from the juke, from the grill, from the fryer.
Joanie tugged the next order from the clip on the round and slapped it down. “Bowl of three-bean soup—that kettle there—goes with crackers.”
Reece simply nodded, tossed the mushrooms and onions on the grill, then filled the second order while they fried.
“Order up!” Joanie called out, and yanked another ticket. “Reuben, club san, two side salads.”
Reece moved from order to order, and just let it happen. The atmosphere, the orders might be different, but the rhythm was the same. Keep working, keep moving.
She plated the original order, turned to hand it to Joanie for inspection.
“Put it in line,” she was told. “Start the next ticket. We don’t call the doctor in the next thirty minutes, you’re hired. We’ll talk money and hours later.”
“I need to—”
“Get that next ticket,” Joanie finished. “I’m going to go have a smoke.”
She worked another ninety minutes before it slowed enough for Reece to step back from the heat and guzzle down a bottle of water. When she turned, Joanie was sitting at the counter, drinking coffee.
“Nobody died,” she said.
“Whew. Is it always that busy?”
“Saturday lunch crowd. We do okay. You get eight dollars an hour to start. You still look good in two weeks, I bump in another buck an hour. That’s you and me and a part-timer on the grill, seven days a week. You get two days, or the best part of two off during that week. I do the schedule a week in advance. We open at six-thirty, so that means first shift is here at six. You can order breakfast all day, lunch menu from eleven to closing, dinner, five to ten. You want forty hours a week, I can work you that. I don’t pay any overtime, so you get stuck behind the grill and go over, we’ll take it off your next week’s hours. Any problem with that?”
“You drink on the job, you’re fired on the spot.”
“You get all the coffee, water or tea you want. You hit the soft drinks, you pay for them. Same with the food. Around here, there ain’t no free lunch. Not that it looks like you’ll be packing it away while my back’s turned. You’re skinny as a stick.”
“I guess I am.”
“Last shift cook cleans the grill, the stove, does the lock down.”
“I can’t do that,” Reece interrupted. “I can’t close for you. I can open, I can work any shift you want me to work. I’ll work doubles when you need it, split shifts. I can flex time when you need me over forty. But I can’t close for you. I’m sorry.”
Joanie raised her eyebrows, sipped down the last of her coffee. “Afraid of the dark, little girl?”
“Yes, I am. If closing’s part of the job description, I’ll have to find another job.”
“We’ll work that out. We’ve got forms to fill out for the government. It can wait. Your car’s fixed, sitting up at Mac’s.” Joanie smiled. “Word travels, and I’ve got my ear to the ground. You’re looking for a place, there’s a room over the diner I can rent you. Not much, but it’s got a good view and it’s clean.”
“Thanks, but I think I’m going to try the hotel for now. We’ll both give it a couple of weeks, see how it goes.”
“Your choice.” With a shrug, Joanie got up, headed to the swinging door with her coffee cup. “You go on, get your car, get settled. Be back at four.”
A little dazed, Reece walked out. She was back in a kitchen, and it had been all right. She’d been okay. Now that she’d gotten through it, she felt a little light-headed, but that was normal, wasn’t it? A normal reaction to snagging a job, straight off the mark, doing what she was trained to do again. Doing what she hadn’t been able to do for nearly two years.
She took her time walking back to her car, letting it all sink in.
When she walked into the mercantile, Mac was ringing up a sale at a short counter opposite the door. The place was what she’d expected: a little bit of everything—coolers for produce and meat, shelves of dry goods, a section for hardware, for housewares, fishing gear, ammo.
Need a gallon of milk and a box of bullets? This was the spot.
When Mac finished the transaction, she approached the counter.
“Car should run for you now,” Mac told her.
“So I hear, and thanks. How do I pay?”
“Lynt left a bill here for you. You can run on by the garage if you’re going to charge it. Paying cash, you can just leave it here. I’ll be seeing him later.”
“Cash is good.” She took the bill, noted with relief it was less than she’d expected. She could hear someone chatting in the rear of the store, and the beep of another cash register. “I got a job.”
He cocked his head as she pulled out her wallet. “That so? Quick work.”
“At the diner. I don’t even know the name of it,” she realized.
“That’d be Angel Food. Locals just call it Joanie’s.”
“Joanie’s then. I hope you come in sometime. I’m a good cook.”
“I bet you are. Here’s your change.”
“Thanks. Thanks for everything. I guess I’ll go get myself a room, then go back to work.”
“If you’re still looking at the hotel, you tell Brenda on the desk you want the monthly rate. You tell her you’re working at Joanie’s.”
“I will. I’ll tell her.” She wanted to take out an ad announcing it in the local paper. “Thanks, Mr. Drubber.”
The hotel was five stories of pale yellow stucco that boasted views of the lake. It harbored a minute sundry shop, a tiny coffee and muffin stand and an intimate linen tablecloth dining room.
There was, she was told, high-speed Internet connection for a small daily fee, room service from seven A.M. to eleven P.M. and a self-service laundry in the basement.
Reece negotiated a weekly rate on a single—a week was long enough—on the third floor. Anything below the third was too accessible for her peace of mind, and anything above the third made her feel trapped.
With her wallet now effectively empty, she carted her duffel and laptop up three flights rather than use the elevator.
The view lived up to its billing, and she immediately opened the windows, then just stood looking at the sparkle of the water, the glide of boats, and the rise of the mountains that cupped this little section of valley.
This was her place today, she thought. She’d find out if it was her place tomorrow. Turning back to the room, she noted the door that adjoined the neighboring guest room. She checked the locks, then pushed, shoved, dragged the single dresser in front of it.
That was better.
She wouldn’t unpack, not exactly, but take the essentials and set them out. The travel candle, some toiletries, the cell phone charger. Since the bathroom was hardly bigger than the closet, she left the door open while she took a quick shower. While the water ran, she did the multiplication tables out loud to keep herself steady. She changed into fresh clothes, moving quickly.
New job, she reminded herself and took the time and effort to dry her hair, to put on a little makeup. Not so pale today, she decided, not so hollow-eyed.
After checking her watch, she set up her laptop, opened her daily journal and wrote a quick entry.
Angel’s Fist, Wyoming
I cooked today. I took a job as a cook in a little diner-style restaurant in this pretty valley town with its big, blue lake. I’m popping champagne in my mind, and there are streamers and balloons.
I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain, like I’ve been scaling the tough peaks that ring this place. I’m not at the top yet; I’m still on a ledge. But it’s sturdy and wide, and I can rest here a little while before I start to climb again.
I’m working for a woman named Joanie. She’s short, sturdy and oddly pretty. She’s tough, too, and that’s good. I don’t want to be coddled. I think I’d smother to death that way, just run out of air the way I feel when I wake up from one of the dreams. I can breathe here, and I can be here until it’s time to move on.
I’ve got less than ten dollars left, but whose fault is that? It’s okay. I’ve got a room for a week with a view of the lake and the Tetons, a job and a new radiator hose.
I missed lunch, and that’s a step back there. That’s okay, too. I was too busy cooking to eat, and I’ll make up for it.
It’s a good day, April fifteenth. I’m going to work.
She shut down, then tucked her phone, her keys, driver’s license and three dollars of what she had left in her pockets. Grabbing a jacket, she headed for the door.
Before she opened it, Reece checked the peep, scanned the empty hall. She checked her locks twice, cursed herself and checked a third time before she went back to her kit to tear a piece of Scotch tape off her roll. She pressed it over the door, well below eye level, before she walked to the door for the stairs.
She jogged down, counting as she went. After a quick debate, she left her car parked. Walking would save her gas money, even though it would be dark when she finished her shift.
Couple of blocks, that was all. Still, she fingered her key chain, and the panic button on it.
Maybe she should go back and get the car, just in case. Stupid, she told herself. She was nearly there. Think about now, not about later. When nerves began to bubble, she pictured herself at the grill. Good strong kitchen light, music from the jukebox, voices from the tables. Familiar sounds, smells, motion.
Maybe her palm was clammy when she reached for the door of Joanie’s, but she opened it. And she went inside.
The same waitress she’d spoken to during the lunch shift spotted her, wiggled her fingers in a come-over motion. Reece stopped by the booth where the woman was refilling the condiment caddy.
“Joanie’s back in the storeroom. She said I should give you a quick orientation when you came in. We got a lull, then the early birds will start coming in soon. I’m Linda-gail.”
“First warning. Joanie doesn’t tolerate idle hands. She catches you loitering, she’ll jump straight down your back and bite your ass.” She grinned when she said it in a way that made her bright blue eyes twinkle, deepened dimples in her cheeks. She had doll-baby blond hair to go with it, worn in smooth French braids.
She had on jeans, a red shirt with white piping. Silver and turquoise earrings dangled from her ears. She looked, Reece thought, like a western milkmaid.
“I like to work.”
“You will, believe me. This being Saturday night, we’ll be busy. You’ll have two other wait staff working—Bebe and Juanita. Matt’ll bus, and Pete’s the dishwasher. You and Joanie’ll be manning the kitchen, and she’ll have a hawk eye on you. You need a break, you tell her, and you take it. There’s a place in the back for your coat and purse. No purse?”
“No, I didn’t bring it.”
“God, I can’t step a foot outside the house without mine. Come on then, I’ll show you around. She’s got the forms you need to fill out in the back. I guess you’ve done this kind of work before, the way you jumped in with both feet today.”
“Yeah, I have.”
“Restrooms. We clean the bathrooms on rotation. You’ve got a couple of weeks before you have that pleasure.”
Linda-gail grinned. “You got family around here?”
“No. I’m from back East.” Didn’t want to talk about that, didn’t want to think about that. “Who handles the fountain drinks?”
“Wait staff. We get crunched, you can fill drink orders. We serve wine and beer, too. But mostly people want to drink, they do it over at Clancy’s. That’s about it. Anything else you want to know, just give me a holler. I’ve got to finish the setups or Joanie’ll squawk. Welcome aboard.”
Reece moved into the kitchen, took an apron.
A good, wide solid ledge, she told herself. A good place to stand until it was time to move again.
LINDA-GAIL was right, they were busy. Locals, tourists, hikers, a scatter of people from a nearby campground who wanted an indoor meal. She and Joanie worked with little conversation while the fryers pumped out steam and the grill spewed heat.
At some point, Joanie stuck a bowl under Reece’s nose. “Eat.”
“Oh, thanks, but—”
“You got something against my soup?”
“Sit down at the counter and eat. It’s slowed down some and you’ve got a break coming. I’ll put it on your tab.”
“Okay, thanks.” The fact was, now that she thought about eating food instead of just preparing it, she realized she was starving. A good sign, Reece decided as she took a seat at the end of the counter.
It gave her a view of the diner, and the door.
Linda-gail slid a plate over to her with a sourdough roll and two pats of butter on it. “Joanie said you need the carbs. Want some tea with that?”
“Perfect. I can get it.”
“I’m in the mode. You’re quick,” she added as she brought over a cup. After a glance over her shoulder, she leaned closer and grinned. “Quicker than Joanie. And you plate food pretty. Some of the customers commented on it.”
“Oh.” She wasn’t looking for comments or attention. Just a paycheck. “I didn’t mean to change anything.”
“Nobody’s complaining.” Linda-gail tilted her head with a smile that showed off her dimples. “Kind of jumpy, aren’t you?”
“I guess I am.” Reece sampled the soup, pleased that the broth had a subtle bite. “No wonder this place stays busy. This soup’s as good as anything you’d get in a five-star.”
Linda-gail glanced back toward the kitchen, assured herself Joanie was occupied. “Some of us have a bet going. Bebe thinks you’re in trouble with the law. She watches a lot of TV, that one. Juanita thinks you’re running from an abusive husband. Matthew, being seventeen, just thinks about sex. Me, I think you just got your heart broken back East. Any of us hit?”
“No, sorry.” There was a little twinge of anxiety at the idea the others were speculating, but she reminded herself that restaurants were full of little dramas and a lot of gossip. “I’m just at loose ends, just traveling.”
“Something in there,” Linda-gail said with a shake of her head. “To my eye you got heartbreak written all over you. And speaking of heartbreakers, here comes Long, Dark and Handsome now.”
He was long, Reece thought as she followed the direction of Linda-gail’s gaze. A couple inches or so over six feet. She’d give him dark, too, with the shaggy jet hair and olive complexion. But she wasn’t sold on handsome.
It was a word that meant slick and classy to her mind, and this man was neither. Instead, there was a rough, rugged look about him with a scruff of beard over rawboned features. Something rougher yet, to her mind, about the hard line of his mouth and the way his eyes tracked around the room. There was nothing slick about the battered leather jacket, faded jeans or worn-down boots.
Not the cowboy type, she decided, but one who looked like he could handle himself outdoors. He looked strong, and maybe just a little mean.
“Name’s Brody,” Linda-gail said in undertones. “He’s a writer.”
“Oh?” She relaxed a little. Something in his stance, his absolute awareness of the room, had said cop to her. Writer was better. Easier. “What kind?”
“He does magazine articles and like that, and he’s had three books published. Mysteries. Fits, too, because that’s what he is. A mystery.”
She flipped her hair back, shifted her angle so she could watch out of the corner of her eye as Brody strode to an empty booth. “Word is he used to work for a big newspaper in Chicago and got fired. He rents a cabin on the other side of the lake, keeps to himself, mostly. But he comes in here three times a week for dinner. Tips twenty percent.”
She turned back to Reece as Brody sat. “How do I look?”
“One of these days I’m going to figure out how to get him to hit on me, just to satisfy my curiosity. But for now, I’ll take the twenty percent.”
Linda-gail wandered toward the booth, drawing her pad out of her pocket. From where she sat, Reece could hear her cheerful greeting.
“How you doing, Brody? What do you have in mind for tonight?”
While she ate, Reece watched the waitress flirt, and the man Brody order without consulting the menu. When she turned away, Linda-gail shot Reece an exaggeratedly dreamy look. Even as Reece’s lips quivered in response, Brody shifted his gaze, locked in on her face.
The full-on stare made her stomach jump. Even when she quickly averted her eyes she could feel his on her, rudely, deliberately probing. For the first time since she’d begun her shift, she felt exposed and vulnerable.
She pushed off the stool, stacked her dishes. Fighting the urge to look over her shoulder, she carried them back into the kitchen.
HE ORDERED the elk chops and whiled away the wait-time with a bottle of Coors and a paperback. Someone had paid for Emmylou Harris on the jukebox, and Brody let the music hum in the back of his mind.
He wondered about the brunette and that look in her eye. Richard Adams had coined the word tharn inWatership Down. Good word, he thought, and one that suited the new cook with her sudden, frozen stillness.
From what he knew of Joanie Parks, the brunette wouldn’t have a job if she wasn’t competent. He suspected Joanie had a soft heart under the shell, but that shell was thick and prickly, and didn’t suffer fools.
Of course, he had only to ask the little blonde and he’d get chapter and verse on the newcomer. But then it would circle around that he’d asked, then others would ask him what he thought, what he knew. He knew how places like Angel’s Fist worked, and the fuel of talk they ran on.
It would take a little longer to find out about her without asking, but there would be murmurs and comments, rumors and speculation. He had a good ear for that sort of thing when he was in the mood for it.
She had a fragile look about her, the sort that could turn on a dime to brittle. He wondered why.
Still, from his vantage point he could see he’d been right about competency. She worked steadily, in that professional cook’s way that made it seem to him she had an extra pair of hands tucked away somewhere.
It might have been her first day on the job here, but he’d lay odds it wasn’t her first in a restaurant kitchen. Since—at least for now—she was more interesting than his book, he continued to watch her work while he nursed his beer.
Not attached to anyone from town, he decided. He’d lived there the best part of a year and if anyone’s long-lost daughter, sister, niece, third cousin twice removed was due to breeze in, he’d have gotten wind. She didn’t look like a drifter to him. More like a runner, he mused. That was what he’d seen in her eyes, the wariness, the readiness to leap and dash at a moment’s notice.
And when she moved to set a finished order in line, those eyes flicked in his direction—just a flick, then away again. Before she turned back to the grill, the door opened, and her gaze shifted there. The smile flashed onto her face so quickly, so unexpectedly, Brody actually blinked. Everything about her changed, went lighter, softer, so that he saw there was more—at least the potential for more—than fragile beauty tucked away in there.
When he looked over to see what had caused that mile-wide smile, he saw Mac Drubber shooting her a grin and a wave.
Maybe he’d been wrong about that local connection.
Mac slid into the booth across from him. “How’s it going?”
“Got a hankering to eat something I don’t have to fry up myself. What looks good tonight?” He waited a beat, wiggled his eyebrows. “Besides the new cook?”
“I ordered the chops. Don’t see you in here on Saturday nights, Mac. You’re a creature of habit, and that’s Wednesdays, spaghetti special.”
“Didn’t feel like opening a can, and I wanted to see how the girl was doing. Limped into town today with a broken radiator hose.”
All you had to do was wait five minutes or so, Brody thought, and information fell into your lap. “Is that so?”
“Next thing you know, she’s working here. You’d’ve thought she’d won the lottery by the look on her face. Comes from back East. Boston. Got herself a room at the hotel. Name’s Reece Gilmore.”
He stopped when Linda-gail brought Brody’s plate to the table.
“Hi there, Mr. Drubber, how’s it going? What can I get you tonight?”
Mac leaned over to take a closer look at Brody’s plate. “That looks pretty damn good.”
“The new cook’s a real hand. You let me know how you like those chops, Brody. Get you anything else?”
“Take another beer.”
“Coming right up. Mr. Drubber?”
“I’ll take a Coke, honey, and the same thing my friend here’s having. Those chops look good enough to eat.”
They did, Brody thought, and were presented with a generous portion of scalloped potatoes and lima beans. The food was artistically arranged on the plain white plate, unlike the haphazard mounds Joanie normally served up.
“Saw you out in the boat the other day,” Mac commented. “Catch anything?”
“Wasn’t fishing.” He cut into one of the chops, sampled.
“That’s one of the things about you, Brody. You go on out on the lake now and then but you don’t fish. Go out in the woods now and then but you don’t hunt.”
“If I caught anything or shot anything, I’d have to cook it.”
“There’s that. Well?”
“It’s good.” Brody cut another bite. “Pretty damn good.”
Since Mac Drubber was one of the few people Brody would voluntarily spend an evening with, he loitered over his coffee while Mac finished plowing through his own meal. “Beans taste different. Fancier. Got to say better, too, but you repeat that where Joanie gets wind, I’ll call you a stinking liar.”
“She’s putting up at the hotel, she may not be planning on staying long.”
“Booked a week.” Mac liked knowing what went on, and who it went on about, in his town. He not only ran the mercantile, he was mayor. Gossip, he liked to think, was part of his duties. “Truth is, Brody, I don’t think the girl has much money.” He wagged his fork at Brody before stabbing the last of the beans. “Paid cash for the radiator hose, and the hotel, I hear.”
No credit cards, Brody mused, and wondered if the mystery woman was running under the radar. “Could be she doesn’t want to leave a trail for someone, or something, to follow.”
“You got a suspicious mind.” Mac worked off the last sliver of elk from the bone. “And if she doesn’t, she’ll have a reason for it. She’s got an honest face.”
“And you have a romantic bent. Speaking of romance.” Brody cocked his head toward the door.
The man who came in wore Levi’s and a chambray shirt under a black barn coat. He accented it with snakeskin boots, a Sam Brown belt and a stone-gray Stetson in a way that screamed cowboy.
Sandy, sun-streaked hair curled under his hat. He had a smooth, even-featured face set off by a shallowly clefted chin and light blue eyes that, everyone knew, he used as often as possible to charm the ladies.
He swaggered—there was no other way to describe the deliberate, rolling gait—to the counter and perched on a stool.
“Lo’s coming ’round to see if the new girl’s worth his time.” Mac shook his head, scooped up the last of his potatoes. “You can’t help but like Lo. He’s an affable sort, but I hope she’s got more sense.”
Part of the entertainment Brody had enjoyed in and around the Fist the past year was watching Lo knock over women like tenpins. “Ten bucks says he sweet-talks her, and she adds a notch to his bedpost before the end of the week.”
Mac’s brows knit in disapproval. “That’s no way to talk about a nice girl like that.”
“You haven’t known her long enough to be so sure she’s a nice girl.”
“I say she is. So I’m going to take that bet, just so it costs you.”
Brody gave a half laugh. Mac didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, and if he chased women he didn’t do it where anyone noticed. And Brody found his slightly puritanical bent part of his charm. “It’s just sex, Mac.” Then he let out a full grin when the tips of Mac’s ears went red. “You remember sex, don’t you?”
“I got a vague recollection of the process.”
In the kitchen, Joanie set a piece of apple pie on the work counter. “Take a break,” she ordered Reece. “Eat the pie.”
“I’m not really hungry, and I need to—”
“Didn’t ask if you were hungry, did I? Eat the pie. No charge on it. It’s the last of the dish, and it won’t be any good tomorrow anyway. You see the one just sat down at the counter?”
“The one who looks like he just rode in off the trail?”
“That would be William Butler. Goes by Lo. That’s short for Lothario, which he got labeled with when he was a teenager and proceeded in making it his life’s work to bed every female within a hundred miles.”
“Now on most Saturday nights, Lo would have himself a hot date, or he’d be hanging out down at Clancy’s with his pals, trying to decide which heifer to cut out of that particular herd. He’s come in here to get a look at you.”
Because she didn’t see she had any real choice, Reece began to eat the pie. “I don’t imagine there’s much to see at this point.”
“Regardless, you’re new, you’re female, young and, as far as it goes, unattached. To give him his due, Lo doesn’t poach on married women. You see he’s flirting with Juanita now, who he was banging like a drum over a few weeks last winter, until he shifted his sights to some snow bunnies who came around to ski.”
Joanie grabbed the huge mug of coffee that was always close at hand. “Boy’s got charm to spare. I’ve never known any woman he’s rolled off of to hold it against him when he buttons his jeans and strolls off.”
“And you’re telling me this because you assume he’ll be rolling off me some night?”
“Just letting you know how it is.”
“Got it. And don’t worry, I’m not looking for a man—temporarily or permanently. Especially one who uses his penis as a divining rod.”
Joanie let out a bark of laughter. “How’s the pie?”
“It’s good. Really good. I never asked about the baking. Is that done on the premises, or do you buy from a local bakery?”
“I do the baking.”
“Now you’re thinking I’m better at that than the grill. And you’d be right. How about you?”
“Not my strong suit, but I can give you a hand when you need it.”
“I’ll let you know.” She flipped a pair of burgers, then dumped fries and beans on the plates with them. Joanie was tossing the pickles and tomatoes on the plates when Lo sauntered back into the kitchen.
“Ma.” He bent, kissed the top of her head while Reece’s stomach sank.
Ma, she thought, and she’d made a crack about his penis.
“Heard you were classing up the place.” He sent Reece a slow, easy smile before he tipped back the beer he’d carried back with him. “Friends call me Lo.”
“Reece. Nice to meet you. I’ll take those, Joanie.” Reece grabbed the plates, took them to the line. And noted with annoyance that for the first time all night, there were no tickets waiting to be filled.
“Shutting down the kitchen shortly,” Joanie told her. “You go ahead and clock out, head out. I got you on first shift tomorrow, so you be here by six, sharp.”
“All right. Sure.” She started to untie her apron.
“I’ll drive you down to the hotel.” Lo set his half-full beer aside. “Make sure you get there safe.”
“Oh, no, don’t bother.” Reece glanced toward his mother, hoping for some help in that quarter, but Joanie had already turned away to shut down the fryers. “It’s not far. I’m fine, and I’d like a walk anyway.”
“Fine, I’ll walk you. Got a coat?”
Argue, she decided, and it was rude. Don’t argue, and tread on thin ice. She’d have to tread. Without a word, she got her jean jacket. “I’ll be here at six.”
She mumbled her goodbyes, started toward the door. She could feel the writer—Brody—staring holes in her back. Why was he still here anyway?
Lo opened the door for her, then stepped out after her.
“Cool tonight. Sure you’re going to be warm enough?”
“I’m fine. It feels good after the heat in the kitchen.”
“I bet it does. You’re not letting my ma work you too hard now, are you?”
“I like to work.”
“I bet you were busy tonight. Why don’t I buy you a drink so you can unwind a little. And you can tell me the story of your life.”
“Thanks, but the story’s not worth the price of a drink, and I’ve got the early shift tomorrow.”
“Supposed to be a pretty day.” His voice was as lazy as his gait. “Why don’t I pick you up when you get off? I’ll show you around. No better guide in Angel’s Fist, I can promise you. And I can bring references documenting I’m a gentleman.”
He had a great smile, she had to admit it, and a look in his eyes that was as seductive as a hand stroking along the skin.
And he was the boss’s son.
“That’s awfully nice of you, but since I only know a handful of people—and those less than a day—you could forge those references. I’d better pass, and take tomorrow to settle in a little.”
“Rain check, then.”
When he took her arm, she jumped, and his voice lowered to soothe as if she were a spooked horse. “Easy now, I’m just slowing you down. Can tell by the way you walk like you’re late for an appointment you’re from back East. Take a minute, look up there. That’s a sight, isn’t it?”
Her heart was still beating too fast for comfort, but she looked up. And there, above the ragged shadows of the mountains, hung a full, white moon.
Stars exploded around it, as if someone had loaded a shotgun with diamonds and blasted away. Their light turned the icing of snow on the peaks an eerie blue, and dashed the crevices and gullies into deep, rich shadow.
This, she thought, was what she missed when she allowed nerves to hunch her over, to force her gaze to the ground. And though she might have wished she’d had this moment alone, she had to give credit to Lo for making her stop, making her look.
“It’s beautiful. The guidebook I bought called the mountains majestic, and I thought no. When I saw them before, I thought not majestic but tough and rugged. But that’s how they look now. Majestic.”
“There are spots up there that you have to see to believe, and they change, even while you’re looking. This time of year, if you go up, stand by the river, you can hear the rocks clack in the spring runoff. Take you on a ride up. Nothing better than seeing the Tetons on horseback.”
“I don’t ride.”
“I can teach you.”
She began to walk again. “Scenic guide, riding instructor.”
“That’s what I do, mostly, out of the Circle K. Guest ranch about twenty miles out. I can get the cook there to pack up a nice picnic, get you a gentle mount. Can promise you a day you’ll write home about.”
“I’m sure you would.” She’d like to hear the rocks clack, and see the moraines and meadows. And right now, with that spectacular moonlight, it was almost tempting to let him show her. “I’ll think about it. Here’s my stop.”
“I’ll walk you up.”
“You don’t have to do that. I’m—”
“My mother taught me to walk a lady right to her door.”
He took her arm again, casually, and opened the door to the hotel. He smelled, she noticed, appealingly of leather and pine.
“Evening, Tom,” he called out to the clerk on night duty.
And Reece saw the ghost of a smirk in the clerk’s eyes.
When Lo turned toward the elevator, Reece pulled back. “I’m just on the third floor. I’m going to walk up.”
“One of those exercise nuts, are you? Must be why you stay so slim.” But he changed direction smoothly, then pulled open the door to the stairs.
“I appreciate you going to all this trouble.” She ordered herself not to panic because the stairwell seemed so much smaller with him beside her. “I certainly dropped into a friendly town.”
“Wyoming’s a friendly state. May not be many of us here, but we’re congenial. I heard you were from Boston.”
“First time out this way?”
“That’s right.” One more flight, then the door would open.
“Taking some time off to see the country?”
“Yes. Yes, that’s exactly right.”
“Brave thing to do, all by yourself.”
“Shows a sense of adventure.”
She would have laughed, but she was too relieved when he held the door open for her and she stepped out into the hall on three. “I’m right here.” She dug out her key card, automatically glancing down to make sure the tape across the door was secured.
Before she could slide the key card into the slot, he took it from her, did the small chore himself. He opened the door, then handed the key back to her. “Left all your lights on,” he commented. “TV running.”
“Oh, I guess I did. Overanxious to start work. Thanks, Lo, for the escort.”
“My pleasure. We’re going to get you up on a horse right soon. You’ll see.”
She managed a smile. “I’ll think about it. Thanks again. Good night.”
She eased through the doorway, shut the door. Flipped the dead bolt, then hooked the safety chain. Moving to the far side of the bed, she sat where she could look out the window, at all that open space, until she no longer had to work to keep her breath even.
Steadier, she went back to check the peep to make sure the hallway was clear before she pushed a chair against the door. Once she’d checked the locks again, and the sturdiness of the dresser blocking the door to the adjoining room, she got ready for bed. She set the alarm on the clock radio for five, then used her own travel alarm as a backup.
She updated her journal, then bargained with herself over how many lights she could leave burning through the night. It was her first night in a new place; she was entitled to leave the light on the desk burning, and the one in the bathroom. The bathroom didn’t really count anyway. That was just for safety and convenience. She might have to get up in the middle of the night to pee.
She took her flashlight out of her knapsack, set it by the bed. There could be a power failure, caused by a fire. She wasn’t the only one in the hotel, after all. Someone could fall asleep smoking in bed, or some kid could be playing with matches.
The whole building could go up in flames at three A.M. for all she knew. Then she’d have to get out quickly. Having the flashlight close was just being prepared.
The little tickle in her chest made her think longingly of the sleeping pills in her bathroom kit. Those and the antidepressants, the antianxiety medications were just a security blanket, she reminded herself. It had been months since she’d taken a sleeping pill, and she was tired enough tonight to sleep without help. Besides, if there was a fire and power failure, she’d be groggy and slow. End up burning to death or dying of smoke inhalation.
And the idea of that had her sitting on the side of the bed with her head in her hands cursing herself for having an overactive and foolish imagination.
“Just stop it, Reece. Stop it now and go to bed. You’ve got to get up early and perform basic functions like a normal human being.”
She made one more round with the locks before getting into bed. She lay very still, listening to her heart thud, listening for sounds from the next room, from the hallway, from outside the window.
Safe, she told herself. She was perfectly safe. There wasn’t going to be a fire. A bomb wasn’t going to explode. No one was going to break into her room to murder her in her sleep.
The sky was not going to fall.
But she kept the TV on low and used the old black-and-white melodrama to lull her to sleep.
THE PAIN WAS so shocking, so vicious, she couldn’t scream over it. The black, the anvil of black plummeted onto her chest to trap her. It crushed her lungs so she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. The hammer beat on that anvil, pounding her head, her chest, slamming, slamming down on her. She tried to gasp for air, but the pain was too much, and the fear was beyond even the pain.
They were out there, outside in the dark. She could hear them, hear the glass shattering, the explosions. And worse, the screaming.
Worse than the screaming, the laughing.
No, no, don’t cry out, don’t make a sound. Better to die here in the dark than for them to find her. But they were coming, they were coming for her, and she couldn’t hold back the whimpers, couldn’t stop her teeth from chattering.
The sudden light was blinding, and the wild screams that burst in her head came out as feral growls.
“We’ve got a live one.”
And she slapped and kicked weakly at hands that reached for her.
Woke in a sweat, with those growls in her throat as she grabbed for the flashlight and gripped it like a weapon.
Was someone there? Someone at the door? At the window?
She sat shivering, shaking, ears straining for any sound.
An hour later, when her alarms beeped, she was sitting up in bed, the flashlight still in her hand, and every light in the room burning.
AFTER THE GUT-SHOT of panic, it was hard to face the kitchen, the people, the pretense of being normal. But not only was she essentially broke, she’d given her word. Six o’clock sharp.
Her only other choice was to go back, retreat, and all the months she’d been inching forward would be wiped away. One phone call, she knew, and she’d be rescued.
And she’d be done.
She took it a step at a time. Getting dressed was a victory, leaving the room another. Stepping outside and aiming her feet toward the diner was a small personal triumph. The air was cold—winter still had a few bites left—so her breath puffed out visibly in the shimmer of predawn. The mountains were dark and sturdy silhouettes against the sky now that the night’s fat moon had sunk below the peaks. And she could see a long, low blanket of fog spread out at their feet. Fingers of mist rose from the lake and whisked around the leafless trees, thin as fairy wings.
In the chilly dark, it all looked so fanciful, so still, so perfectly balanced. Her heart jumped once as something slid out of those mists. Then settled again as she saw it was just an animal.
Moose, elk, deer, she couldn’t be sure at this distance. But whatever it was seemed to glide, and the mists tattered around it as it moved closer to the lake.
As it bent its head to drink, Reece heard the first chorus of birdsong. Part of her wanted to just sit down, right on the sidewalk, and be quietly alone to watch the sun rise.
Soothed, she began to walk again. She’d have to face the kitchen, the people, the questions that always circled around the new face in any job. She couldn’t afford to be late, to be nervous, and God knew she didn’t want to draw any more attention to herself than absolutely necessary.
Stay calm, she ordered herself. Stay focused. To help her do just that she recited snatches of poetry in her head, concentrating on the rhythm of the words until she realized she was murmuring them out loud, and cringed. No one around to hear, she reminded herself, and the distraction got her to the door of Angel Food.
The lights burned bright inside, easing some of the tension in her shoulders. She could see movement inside—Joanie, already in the kitchen. Did the woman ever sleep?
She had to knock on the door, Reece told herself. Knock, put a smile on her face, wave. Once she took this next step, once she pushed herself inside, she’d drown this anxiety in the work.
But her arm felt like lead and refused to move. Her fingers were too stiff, too cold to curl themselves into a fist. She stood where she was, feeling stupid, useless, helpless.
“Problem with the door?”
She jolted, swung around. And there was Linda-gail slamming the driver’s door of a sturdy little compact.
“No. No. I was just—”
“Zoning? You don’t look as if you got much sleep last night.”
“I guess I was. I guess I didn’t.”
The already cold air chilled with every step Linda-gail took toward her. The bright blue eyes, so friendly the day before, were aloof, dismissive. “Am I late?”
“Surprised you showed up at all with the night you must’ve put in.”
Reece thought of huddling in bed, gripping the flashlight, listening. Listening. “How do you—”
“Lo’s got a reputation for endurance.”
“Lo? I don’t—Oh!” Surprise laced with amusement jumped right over the nerves. “No, we didn’t—I didn’t. God, Linda-gail, I met him for like ten minutes. I have to know a guy at least an hour before I test his endurance.”
Linda-gail lowered the hand she’d lifted to the door, narrowed her eyes at Reece. “You didn’t go to bed with Lo?”
“No.” This, at least, she could handle. “Did I break some secret town tradition? Am I going to be fired? Arrested? If being a skank is part of the job requirement, it should’ve been made clear up front and I should be making more than eight an hour.”
“That clause is voluntary. Sorry.” Through a flush, the dimples winked. “Really sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed and jumped on you just because you left together.”
“He walked me back to the hotel, suggested a drink, which I didn’t want, and shifted to showing me the area, which I can see for myself, then maybe a trail ride. I don’t ride, but I may give that part a try. He gets a ten on the cute-factor scale, and another ten on behavior and manners. I didn’t realize you two had a thing.”
“A thing? Me and Lo?” Linda-gail made a dismissive blowing sound. “We don’t. I’m probably the only single female under fifty in a hundred miles who hasn’t slept with him. A slut’s a slut in my book, whether they’re a man or a woman.”
She shrugged, then once again studied Reece’s face. “Anyway, you really do look worn out.”
“Didn’t sleep well, that’s all. First night in a new place, new job. Nerves.”
“Put them away,” Linda-gail ordered as she opened the door, and the warmth was back in her eyes. “We’re not scary around here.”
“Wondered if you two were going to stand out there and gab all day. I’m not paying you to gossip.”
“It’s five after six, for God’s sake, Joanie. Dock me. Oh, speaking of pay, here’s your share of last night’s tips, Reece.”
“My share? I didn’t wait any tables.”
Linda-gail pushed the envelope into Reece’s hands. “Shop policy, the cook gets ten percent of the tips. We get tipped for service, but if the food’s crap, we’re not going to make as much.”
“Thanks.” Not completely broke, Reece thought as she stuffed the envelope in her pocket.
“Don’t spend it all in one place.”
“If you’re finished passing the time now?” Joanie folded her arms at the counter. “Get those breakfast setups going, Linda-gail. Reece, you think you’re ready to get your skinny ass back here and work?”
“Yes, ma’am. Oh, and just to clear the air,” she added as she rounded the counter for an apron, “your son’s very charming, but I slept alone last night.”
“Boy must be slipping.”
“I couldn’t say. I intend to continue to sleep alone while I’m in Angel’s Fist.”
Joanie set aside a bowl of pancake batter. “Don’t like sex?”