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The woman had to be a stranger in town. He had lived in Apple Grove, Iowa, all his life and knew everyone by sight, if not by name. Still, there was something familiar about her. Maybe his eyes were playing tricks, because she reminded him of someone he'd known a long time ago.
She started to cross the street, and he impulsively scooped up his son to cut her off on the other side. It was unlikely that Lori Raymond was back in town, but his curiosity got the best of him.
"Daddy, I can walk," Joey noisily protested.
"Sure you can," he said, depositing him on the sidewalk a few yards in front of the woman.
It was a voice that made his spine tingle.
"I almost didn't recognize you," she said.
He pulled off his straw Western-style hat and kept one hand on Joey's shoulder so he wouldn't wander off.
"Lori, I'm surprised to see you here."
"I'm visiting my aunt."
"Of course," he said, feeling awkward because he hadn't immediately connected her to Bess Raymond.
"How've you been?" she asked.
It was the kind of casual question people asked each other all the time, butcoming from her, it made him want to answer honestly.
Instead he said, "Fine. How about you?"
"Good, although I've gotten myself in something of a predicament."
Joey was squirming. Scott knew that he should cut the conversation short and get to the dentist, but Lori used to be his favorite person to talk to.
"Aunt Bess has drafted me to help restart the Highway Café. I keep telling her that I won't be here long, but you know how she is."
She still had the same mischievous little grin, and when she looked up at him, he remembered how she'd always made him feel better about himself.
"I sure do." He smiled, recalling how his favorite
teacher, Lori's aunt, could put him in his place when he deserved it. "You're on vacation from your job?" He knew it was none of his business, but he'd often wondered what had become of her after high school, if she'd gotten married, had a family.
"Afraid not. I came to a parting of the ways with the head chef at the restaurant where I was working. I've been offered a job in a new restaurant that's opening after Labor Day, if I decide to go back to Chicago. What about you? I saw you coming out of the hardware store. You always did like building things. Are you doing it for a living now?"
"Sorry, I'm forgetting my manners. This is my son, Joey. Joey, this is Miss Raymond—it is still Miss, isn't it?"
She bent and offered her hand to his son. Much to his father's satisfaction, Joey responded with grave courtesy.
"I'm so happy to meet you, Joey. You can call me Lori." She smiled and straightened. "And it is still Miss."
He wanted to say that the men in Chicago must be blind to let her slip away, but he squelched the impulse. It had been nearly ten years since he'd last seen her. He remembered her question and gave the shortest possible answer.
"I have my own contracting business, but most of the time, I'm the only employee."
"Somehow I didn't expect "
She trailed off, uncertain how much she should say, but he could guess. She hadn't expected him to stay in Apple Grove.
Some things were best left unsaid.
"You look good, Lori." It sounded lame, but it was all he could think of saying.
What a feeble compliment, he thought. She looked terrific. Her dark brown eyes sparkled. Her cheeks were rosy, and her thick chestnut curls were spilling out of a ponytail, the way they had in high school. He'd been a fool not to tell her how he'd felt about her back then, but the gulf between them had been too wide. He didn't want to think about how different his life might be if he hadn't been constrained by her strong faith, one he couldn't share.
"Daddy, we're going to be late!"
Joey impatiently tugged on his pant leg. If there was one thing his son hated, it was being late.
"We're on our way to the dentist," Scott explained. "It's been nice seeing you, Lori. I hope you enjoy your time here."
"Thanks, Scott. It is good to be back."
As soon as Joey was settled into his car seat, Scott started thinking of all the questions he should have asked. But maybe it was for the best. He and Lori had taken different forks in the road. He had too much on his plate to torment himself with what might have been.
Lori spent the time before her aunt came home from school organizing the cheerful second-floor bedroom that had always been her home away from home, but her mind wasn't on the task of unpacking. She'd been so surprised at seeing Scott again that she hadn't asked any of the things she wanted to know. Had he married someone she knew? Did they have other children? Why did Scott decide to stay in Apple Grove? Surely he could have found better opportunities in a larger town.
She couldn't get him out of her mind as she filled drawers lined with tissue paper and hung the rest of her clothes in the closet. He'd never been what high school girls called cute, but his clear blue eyes and high cheekbones made his face memorable. Now, at twenty-nine, two years older than her, he had a brooding quality that made her want to know if everything was well with him.
She went through her unpacking absentmindedly, her thoughts focused on the brief meeting with Scott. It didn't take her long to finish, since she'd never been a person to accumulate a lot of possessions or a large wardrobe. She'd brought her chef's knives, still in the trunk of her car, and a good supply of work clothes, but it hadn't been worthwhile to move her well-worn secondhand furniture from the suburban Chicago apartment she'd been sharing with a friend. She'd offered first choice to her recently married ex-roommate and donated the rest to a charity shop.
When she'd done all that could be done, she sat on the edge of the bed and caught a glimpse of her image in the full-length gilt-framed mirror mounted on the wall. The face that looked back at her was weary. Her dark brown eyes were shadowed, and her chestnut mane had grown into an untamed mass of curls. She hadn't bothered with makeup since that awful day when she'd rashly walked out of Arcadia, the posh Chicago restaurant where she'd been working.
Maybe she'd set her sights too high, but she'd been thrilled when she was hired by Gardner Knolls as an apprentice chef at one of his three Windy City restaurants. She'd expected to start at the bottom, and that meant doing all the menial chores, from chopping vegetables to taking inventory in the freezer.
The trouble was, she'd started at the bottom and stayed at the bottom, while chefs with less talent were regularly promoted. When Adrian, a klutzy young man of meager talent and four years her junior, was given charge of the luncheon service, she realized that the head chef would never let her realize her potential. He had trained in Paris and looked down his nose at her small town Iowa origins, sneering at her for winning county-fair blue ribbons.
She didn't regret quitting on the spot, but now the question was, should she say yes to the job offer she had? It might be hard to find anything better since she wasn't likely to get a good reference after walking out without giving notice. But could she afford to stay in Chicago without a roommate to share expenses?
Lori wanted to consider the new job offer calmly and logically, but it was her nature to crave the rush of excitement that came with being pushed to the maximum. It was what she loved most about being a chef, creating wonderful dishes under pressure. She felt at loose ends, and neither her aunt nor her parents could help her find her way. Only the Lord could give her the guidance she so badly needed.
"Dear Lord," she prayed, sitting on the edge of the bed, with her head bowed, "help me to forgive those who have wronged me and to accept responsibility for my own bad decisions. Please show me a way to serve You and use the talents You've given me. I thank You for having so richly blessed my life."
She squeezed her hands together, willing herself to find forgiveness in her heart for the way the head chef had treated her, but it was exceedingly hard. There was a void in her heart, and she'd let it fill up with anger.
Maybe a short stay in Apple Grove would give her time to put things in perspective. She needed to recover not only her self-confidence but her commitment to excel in her career. She loved making people happy with cuisine that was not only wonderful tasting but good for them, as well.
Her thoughts strayed to her chance meeting with Scott. No one had been more eager to leave town than he had, yet he'd stayed and was raising a son here. Sometimes life was a puzzle, and she didn't begin to have all the answers.
By the time Aunt Bess got home from school, Lori had showered and dressed in white walking shorts and a bright peach tank top. It was warm for May, and she was glad to change out of her jeans and polo shirt.
"My, don't you look sweet," Bess said when she saw her niece. "But you didn't need to change for Carl and me."
"Oh, I've been so excited about you being here, I forgot to tell you. We're meeting Carl Mitchell at the café after dinner to go over some things that need doing. He promised the electricity would be on by then. Guess we should be able to rely on him since he worked for the power company for forty-two years before he retired. Now he has plenty of free time to help get the café back on track."
"So he's one of the twenty-four people who bought the café?"
It boggled her mind that so many people had banded together to reopen the Highway Café after it had been closed for over a year. When it looked as if no one would buy it, her aunt had spearheaded a campaign to have a committee buy it. The town was suffering without a place where people could congregate and get a good meal.
"Him, me and twenty-two others," her aunt said with a soft chuckle. "But don't worry. None of us know beans about running a restaurant. We'll do things your way."
"I hope you've told your committee that I'll only be here a little while, just long enough to get things started and help you hire permanent help."
"I haven't told them yet, but I'll be sure to mention it at our next meeting," Bess promised. "Now, I have two TV dinners. Would you like turkey with stuffing or roast beef with mashed potatoes?"
Lori quietly sighed at her aunt's comment about not telling the committee yet, but she didn't say anything about it.
"Either is fine. I'll put them in the microwave for you."
The last time her aunt had tried to cook frozen dinners, she'd mistakenly used the regular oven directions and microwaved an entrée to the consistency of shoe leather.
"Would you mind? I'll just slip into some old clothes. Last time I was there, I couldn't help but notice how dusty the café is, but don't worry about the dirt. We have lots of volunteers for the cleanup."
Her aunt soon returned, her rust-colored, gray-streaked hair covered by a little flowered bandana. She was wearing faded jeans and a yellow-and-brown striped smock that went nearly to her knees, a drastic change from the sedate navy, forest-green and burgundy dresses she favored for teaching.
Lori made a show of eating some of the bland turkey dinner, but she needn't have bothered. Bess was so excited about the café that she scarcely noticed her niece's lack of appetite.
Bess still lived in the yellow frame house on Second Avenue that she'd inherited from her parents. From the front porch, Lori could get a glimpse of the church steeple, and it brought back happy memories of Sunday school, church picnics and the fellowship of the congregation. She was looking forward to meeting the new minister on Sunday, although she regretted that Reverend Green wouldn't be there. He'd finally taken a much-deserved retirement.
"I saw Scott Mara when I took a walk around town," Lori said, trying to sound casual.
"Scott was such a little rascal when he was in my class," Bess said as she bustled around the kitchen, cleaning up their hasty dinner. "He was always the town bad boy, but he had a sweet nature for all that. Oh, dear, we'd better hurry. Carl will be waiting for us."
They elected to walk since it was only a few blocks, crossing Beech Street and approaching the café from the rear. The back door was padlocked, forcing them to cut between buildings to the Main Street entrance.
"Oh, good! The lights are on," Bess said. "Now you can get a better idea of what needs to be done."
A faded blue pickup like the one Scott had driven was parked at an angle in front of the café. Of course, there were probably a hundred like it in the county, but she couldn't help wondering whether she would see him again while she was in town.
"Come on in, ladies." A portly man with a white
beard and a matching mane of hair opened the front door and motioned them inside.
"This is my niece," Bess said. "Lori, Carl Mitchell is the man who's going to help us put this place in order."
"Not by myself, I'm not," he said, with a belly-shaking laugh. "That's why Scott is here."
Carl gestured at the man who was stooped down, examining the front of the lunch counter, with a small boy beside him. He slowly rose, straightening to his full six feet two inches, exactly ten inches taller than Lori. It was easier for her to remember this than to look directly into his eyes.
"Scott, this is Bessie's niece—"