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"What do you mean, I have to pay cash?" Adam Hunter speared his grease-stained fingers through his hair. He'd taken over the Bear Lake Garage from his dad ten years ago. Adam, and his father before him, had always had a line of credit at the local bank. They'd been doing business on credit with the auto-parts store in Missoula for thirty years or more.
The lanky auto-parts delivery kid shrugged. "That's what the boss said. Only cash. No credit."
"There must be some mistake," Adam said.
"You can call Devin if you want." The kid handed him the invoice. "It says right there, cash only."
Adam took a quick glance at the papers listing the parts he knew he had ordered: a new headlight for a customer who had missed the target driving into his own garage, a dozen sets of spark plugs, radiator hoses, a couple of batteries to have on hand. He pretty much had to take the kid's word for it that the red stamp across the invoice meant what it said: CASH ONLY.
The racket of the garage's flatbed tow truck shifted his attention away from the invoice. Gears clattered and a whiff of diesel exhaust blew in through the wide-open doors as Vern Rutledge backed the truck up. An hour or so ago they'd had a call from the sheriff's office to pick up a car that had had an encounter with a deer on Highway 93, the road that ran through the town of Bear Lake en route to and from Glacier National Park, Montana.
Even from a distance, the damage to the front end of the four-door compact was obvious. Must've been some big buck that got hit.
When Vern turned off the engine, a young girl hopped down from the truck cab followed by a striking woman who moved with the grace of a dancer. Long brown hair curled past her shoulders. The afternoon sun caught the strands, touching them with a hint of red.
"Good-lookin' lady," the delivery guy said under his breath.
Adam agreed she was good-looking. Add to that, she was downright classy in the way she dressed and held herself so erect. Her outfit of slacks with sandals and a tidy blouse tucked in at her narrow waist marked her as a tourist. So did the Washington plates on her car.
"Hang on," he said to the delivery kid. "I'll get you the cash and give Devin a call later to straighten out the mix-up." The faster he took care of the delivery, the sooner he could turn his attention to his pretty new customer.
Still shaken by her violent encounter with a tree when she'd swerved to miss a deer, Janelle Townsend smoothed her hand over her daughter's hair. Thank goodness Rae-anne had had her seat belt on in the backseat. Janelle had been the only one in front, and the driver's air bag had deployed on impact. As it was, Rae would have a bruise from the seat belt across her chest, and Janelle's neck already ached.
But it could have been worse.
The driver of the tow truck came around to the passenger side. His face wrinkled and weathered by more than sixty years, Vern lifted his baseball cap and scratched his thinning gray hair.
"Adam'll will be right with you, miss. He'll take good care of you."
"Thank you for bringing us here. I don't know what I would have done if that deputy sheriff hadn't come by. My cell couldn't pick up any bars."
"Yep, reception's mighty spotty around the mountains, that's for sure." He resettled his cap. "If it's all right with you, I'll unload your car so Adam can take a close look."
"Of course. Thank you again." She eased Raeanne out of the way of the truck. As shaken as Janelle, five-year-old Rae had a fierce death grip on her favorite stuffed animal, Ruff. The poor thing's fur had worn thin over his ears and he'd lost some of his stuffing.
"Careful you don't step in any grease spots," she said.
Although as she glanced around, she noted the garage floor was nearly spotless, certainly in comparison to some auto shops she'd visited over the course of her twenty-eight years.
At the back of the garage there was an office with a window. The man she took to be Adam, presumably the owner, handed something to the man he'd been talking to. They separated, the younger man going to his pickup and Adam walking toward Janelle.
Wearing blue overalls, he had a nice, comfortable stride and a smile curving his lips. Although his saddle-brown hair was cut fairly short, it was rumpled as though he'd recently run his fingers through it. She guessed he was in his mid- to late-thirties.
"Sounds like you didn't get a very good welcome to Bear Lake," he said in a warm, friendly baritone.
"Unfortunately, no. Particularly since I'd read that Bear Lake is the friendliest little town in Montana." She'd also spotted a billboard to that effect as they'd reached the town limits on the highway.
"Well, then, I guess we'll have to make up for that rude introduction. I'm Adam Hunter, the owner here." He glanced at Raeanne and winked. "Were you the one driving when you had the accident?"
Rae shook her head and buried her face in Janelle's hip.
Chuckling, Janelle introduced herself. "This is my daughter, Raeanne. Fortunately, we've got a while before she's old enough to drive. I was the guilty party behind the wheel, although most of the blame falls on the poor frightened animal that dashed out in front of me. I managed to swerve and miss him, but I rammed into a tree instead."
"Nice to meet you both. Those deer can be a real hazard around here. Seems like they spook and jump out at you for no reason." He nodded toward her car. "Let's take a look and see what we've got."
She followed him across the garage to the crumpled car. The front end looked as though it had been accor-dioned on the right side by some giant hand. Spiderwebs crisscrossed the windshield. What a mess! She'd come all this way from Seattle hoping to find a place to start over, and now what she had was a car that had been nearly totaled by a tree.
Things were not looking good for her goal of beginning a new life.
He forced open the wrenched hood of the car. Peering inside, he touched and jiggled this and that like a blind man reading Braille, humming a slightly off-key tune as he worked.
"The radiator's cracked and so is the radiator hose," he announced. "And a couple of braces are bent. Let's see underneath."
He dropped to the floor and rolled over onto his back. "The axle looks fine." Agilely, he came to his feet, all six feet of lean, muscled body. "Lots of bodywork to do, plus the windshield and the air bag will need to be replaced. I'll get you an estimate on that. The rest doesn't look too bad."
"That's a relief. How long do you think it will take to repair?"
"I've got braces and the radiator hose on hand, but I need to order the radiator and a new air bag. This being Friday and the start of the weekend, I can't get parts here until Monday. But that's okay because the bodywork is going to take several days. I use a guy in Missoula who does really fine work."
Clear back in Missoula? That had to be at least seventy miles, maybe more. She and Raeanne had stayed there last night. It was the newspaper ad for Bear Lake she'd read in the motel lobby that had brought her in this direction.
"Let me go call my body guy, and I'll get you an estimate. There're some chairs over there." He indicated a cluster of folding chairs by the far wall. "And a soda machine. Don't put any money in. Just open the door and take your pick."
A car pulled up in front of the garage. A young girl who looked to be about ten hopped out. She was wearing a two-piece swimsuit that she was a few years away from filling out and had a beach towel wrapped around her shoulders. She thanked the driver and hurried inside the garage. Her blond hair hung in limp strands down her back.
"Hey, Dad, I'm home."
"I see that." Adam gave her a quick hug. "You have fun?"
"Sure. I beat some guys in my class in a race out to the swimming float."
"Good for you, Peanut." He turned toward Janelle. "Hailey, meet Mrs. Townsend and her daughter, Rae-anne."
The girl had the same friendly smile as her father and sun-pinked cheeks. "Hello. Are you staying in town for a while?"
"It's looking that way," Janelle said.
"Well, if you want to go swimming, there's a beach right near the municipal dock. Lots of kids go there."
"I'll remember that. Thank you." The July day had been more than warm under a cobalt-blue sky. Now, however, clouds were building over the mountains, threatening a summer shower.
The youngster glanced toward Janelle's battered car. "Boy, you sure hit something hard."
"It was a big tree, I'm afraid."
"I'm glad you weren't hurt bad. My dad can fix cars up like new." She shrugged as though her statement was the obvious truth, and she grinned. "He's the best."
"Hailey, you'd better go get yourself cleaned up and changed." Adam gave her a little nudge.
"Okay. See you later." She waved to Janelle and Rae-anne, then jogged off, her flip-flops smacking the concrete floor with every step.
"Your daughter is cute and very outgoing," Janelle commented when the girl was out of sight.
"Yeah, I don't think she's ever met a stranger." He was still looking in the direction his daughter had vanished around the side of the garage. "Her mother was the same way up until she got sick and passed on." Residual grief laced his words.
"Oh, I'm sorry for you loss." Her own spasm of grief mixed with residual anger arrowed through her. She gritted her teeth to block the sensation.
He shrugged off her sympathy. "I'll go get that estimate now."
Janelle watched him walk away until Rae tugged on her hand. "What is it, honey?"
Raeanne pointed toward the soda machine.
"Ah, of course. Let's see what kind of sodas he has." Although she tried to watch Rae's sugar intake, today was not the day to make an issue of it. Janelle could use a little sugar boost herself. Caffeine would help, too.
Rae picked an orange soda, and Janelle selected a cola.
They settled onto the chairs, Raeanne still clasping Ruff in her arms. Cars streamed by on the road out front. The garage was a mile north of the small town of Bear Lake they had driven through in the tow truck. Janelle had noticed a whole raft of motels and a diner. A billboard they passed promoted local B and Bs. Another sign announced that the Rotary met Wednesday at noon at Sandy's Lakeside Restaurant, which featured fresh fish and steaks.
A nice little town. About as different from Seattle as any she could imagine.
Adam returned to give her the bad news about the repairs. The cost estimate was higher than she'd expected. Worse, he indicated it would be the end of next week before she got her car back.
"I can tell you were hoping for better news," he said.
"True. I'm not worried about the money. My insurance will cover most of that. But a whole week?" She shook her head in dismay. "I hate being without a car that long. Is there a car-rental place in town?"
"Afraid not. I can loan you one of mine. I keep it around for my customers who get stuck without transportation. It looks like a clunker, but I've got it running pretty good and it's insured. You can do some touring, up to Glacier National Park, come back in a few days."
"That's very thoughtful of you. Thank you. I'd appreciate that." A clunker car would be better than none. As was obvious from her three-year-old sedan, driving a luxury car had never been her thing. "But I hadn't planned on being a tourist. I was going to do some house hunting, get acquainted with this area, see if it would be a good place to settle down."
He lifted his brows. "You're planning to stay in Bear Lake? Permanently?"
"If things work out." She'd left Seattle with no particular destination in mind and a prayer that God would lead her to the right place to start a new life for herself and Raeanne.
"Well, that's great. We can always use new blood around here. I'll help you get your things out of your car and into mine. Where are you staying tonight?" He started walking toward her car.
"I have no idea. I saw lots of motels in town."
He stopped abruptly. "You don't have a reservation?" He made it sound like an accusation.
She frowned. "No. I was sure I'd arrive early enough to find a place to stay. I'm not fussy." She did, however, require clean and neat.
"Maybe not, but I think you're going to have a problem."
An uneasy feeling crept down her spine. "Why is that?"
Hailey came running back into the garage, now wearing shorts and a tank top. She'd washed her hair and it was still wet. Janelle noticed she had the innocence of childhood and wasn't yet into the awkward adolescent stage.
"We've got a big Country-Western Festival going on this weekend," Adam said. "The whole town is booked solid."
Janelle's stomach sank. "Everything? Even the B and Bs I saw advertised?"
"As far as I know. The festival's a sellout every year. Great for the tourist business."
Not so great for Janelle. "How about the next town? Maybe they'll have something?"
"Not likely. I can call the Visitor Center for you. See if they know of any vacancies." He plucked his cell from a pocket and punched in the number. "Hey, Ariel. It's Adam. I've got a customer here looking for a room tonight. You got anything?"
He kept looking at Janelle while he listened. She noticed that his eyes were an interesting shade of gray, and there were crinkles at the corners as though he spent a fair amout of time outdoors. From the look of his physique, he probably did some hiking and camping in the woods around here.
"Thanks, Ariel. Take care." He snapped the phone closed and shook his head. "The closest available rooms are in Missoula."
Janelle's shoulders slumped. That would be at least an hour's ride in a clunker. She blew out a sigh. She didn't seem to have much of a choice.
Hailey piped up. "Dad, they could stay in our cottage."
Janelle frowned and so did Adam.
"I don't know, kiddo," Adam said. "I'm not sure"
"Grandma put fresh sheets on the bed last time she was here," Hailey interjected, ignoring her father's objection and directing her attention to Janelle. "It's got a big bed where you could both sleep."
"That's very generous of you, but"
"You don't want to drive all the way to Missoula, do you?" Hailey's enthusiasm was hard to squelch. "Besides, we've got our own dock and a boat we can ride in. Rae-anne, would you like to stay at our house?"