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The jingle of the bell above the door announced a late customer to the diner.
Amy McKaslin glanced at the clock above the cash register that said it was eight minutes to ten, which was closing time, and sized up the man standing like a shadow just inside the glass doorway.
He wasn't someone local or anyone she recognized. He was tall with a build to match. He wore nothing more than a flannel shirt unbuttoned and untucked over a T-shirt and wash-worn jeans. He had that frazzled, numb look of a man who'd been traveling hard and long without enough rest or food.
Road exhaustion. She'd seen it lots of times. He wasn't the first driver who'd taken this exit off the interstate. It happened all the time. With any luck, he'd be a quick in-and-out, looking for nothing more than a shot of caffeine and a bite before he got back on the road.
That was a much better prospect than last night, when a half dozen high-school kids had piled into a booth. Amy enjoyed the teenage crowd, but it had been nearly midnight before she could lock up and head home. Not good when her son was waiting for her, and she was paying a babysitter by the hour.
Tonight, Westin would be waiting, too, and on a school night when little boys should be fast asleep. He was an anxious one, always worrying, and she prayed the lone stranger had somewhere he had to go, too. Someone who was waiting for him. She turned the sign in the window to closed before any teenage clique decided to wander in.
Forcing a smile after being on her feet since 6:00 a.m., she grabbed a laminated menu. "Table or booth?"
The loner shrugged, looking past her as if he didn't see her at all. His eyes had that unfocused look drivers got when they'd been staring down pavement and white lines for too long, and the purple smudges beneath spoke of his exhaustion.
Yep, me too, buddy. She led him past the row of tables, washed and prepped for morning, to the booths in the corner, where the night windows reflected the brightly lit dining area back at her. Already she was thinking of home. Of her little boy's after-supper call.
"Come home, Mommy," he'd said in that quiet way he had. "I told Kelly not to read me any more of my story. You were gonna tonight, remember?"
She remembered. Nothing was more serious than the promises she made to her little boy. Almost there, she thought, as she watched the clock's hands creep another minute closer to ten. Aware of the man behind her making less noise than a shadow, she slid the menu onto the corner booth.
She whipped out her pad. "What can I get you to drink?"
Haggard. That was one word to describe him. The overhead light glared harshly on his sun-browned skin and whisker-stubbled jaw as he folded his over-six-foot frame behind the table. "Coffee."
"Leaded or decaf?"
"I want the real thing. Don't bother to make fresh. If you got something that's been sitting awhile, I'd rather have it." He pushed the menu back at her. "A burger, too. With bacon if it's not too much trouble."
"Sure thing." As she scribbled up the ticket, already walking away, something drew her to look one more time.
He had gone to staring sightlessly out the window, appearing tired and haunted. The black night reflected back the illusion of the well-lit cafe and his hollow face. The man wasn't able to see through the windows to the world outside. It was within that he was looking.
Her heart twisted in recognition. There was something about him that was familiar. Not the look of him, since she'd never met him before, but it was that faraway glint in his eyes. One that she recognized by feel.
She, too, knew what it was like to feel haunted by the past. Life made a mark on everyone. She didn't know how she saw this in this stranger, but she was certain she wasn't wrong. The regrets and despair of the past yanked within her, like a summer trout caught on a fishing hook. As she grabbed the carafe from the burner, where it had been sitting since the end of the supper rush, she risked another glance at the man.
He sat motionless with his elbows braced on the table's edge and his face resting in his hands.
Hopelessness. Yeah, she knew how that felt, too. Pain rose up in her chest, pointed like an arrow's tip, and she didn't know if it was the stranger she felt sympathy for or the girl she used to be. Maybe both.
She slid the cup and saucer onto the table. "I hope this is strong enough. If not, I'll be happy to make a fresh pot that will hold up a spoon. You just ask."
"Thank you, ma'am." He didn't make eye contact as he reached for the sugar dispenser on the small lazy Susan in the middle of the table.
Whatever troubled him on this cool late-spring night, she hoped at least a cup of coffee and a meal would strengthen him.
Something sad might have happened to him to make him a traveler tonight, she speculated. Maybe some family tragedy that had torn him from his normal life and had him driving on lonely roads through the nighttime. She knew that pain, too, and closed her mind against it. Some pain never healed. Some losses ran deep as the soul.
She put in the order, catching sight of her sister. "This is the last one. I already turned the sign over."
Rachel glanced at the ticket and pivoted on her heels to remove one last beef patty from the cooler. "If you want to take the floors, I'll total out the till. Have those other guys left yet?"
"No." Amy had almost refused them service when they came in, a little too bright-eyed and loud. They'd quieted down once they started eating. "They were just finishing up when I walked by."
"Good. I don't like them. I know they've been in before, but not this late."
Amy knew what her sister didn't say. Not when we're alone with them. Yeah, that had occurred to her, too. Big-city crime didn't happen in their little Montana town, but that didn't mean a woman ought to let down her guard.
She could see the two rough-looking men through the kitchen door with their heads bent as they both studied the totaled check.
"Don't worry," she reassured her sister. "We aren't exactly alone with them."
"Good." Rachel slapped the meat on the grill. "We may get out of here before eleven, if we're lucky. Say, how's Westin holding up?"
Westin. Amy's stomach clenched thinking of all her little one had gone through. "He had a rough day, and now we're just waiting for the test results. They can do a lot for asthma nowadays. It won't be like what Ben went through."
They both fell silent for a moment, remembering how ill their brother had been when he was Westin's age. They'd had to keep oxygen in the house just in case of a severe attack. They'd almost lost him a few times, calling the ambulance while his lips turned blue and he struggled for breath that was impossible for him to draw in.
Amy's stomach clamped into a hard, worried ball. It wouldn't be like that for Westin. She would make sure of it. How, she didn't know, but she certainly had the strength to will it. That, with prayers, had to make a difference, right?
"I slipped a little gift for him into your coat pocket. Don't get mad at me. I couldn't resist."
"You got him that video game, didn't you? You're spoiling him, you know. It was supposed to wait until his report card."
"Yeah, yeah, but you know me." Sweetheart that she was, with a heart-shaped face and all gentleness, Rachel shrugged helplessly, as if she had no choice but to spoil her nephew.
Since it was impossible to be even a little mad at Rachel, Amy just rolled her eyes. "I'm sure he'll be thrilled."
"Oh, excellent!" Pleased, Rachel set the hamburger buns on to toast.
Yep, it was hard to do anything but be deeply grateful for her big sister. Amy gave thanks, as she always did. They'd lost their parents long ago, when they were all still kids. It had only made her hold tight to the loved ones in her life now. Her sisters, her brother and her son. So tight, there was no way she'd let them go.
It looked as if the two men, who'd initially been upset there was no alcohol served in the diner, were getting ready to leave. Although Amy couldn't smell alcohol on them, she suspected they'd imbibed sometime earlier in the evening. Not that she approved, but there was no outward reason to refuse service. In a small town, turning away customers tended to be bad for business.
Still, they'd done nothing more than laugh a little too loudly while they'd waited for their burgers. Now, with any luck, they'd pay and be on their way. She'd breathe easier once the door was safely shut behind them. They had that rowdy look to them. Men like that no, it was best not to remember.
Her life was different now. She was different.
There was a ruckus from table five. "Hey, waitress! What pie do you got?"
Oh no, and here she'd been wishing them out the door. Amy had to dig deep to remain patient and courteous. She didn't like the way they were looking at her. As if she were a slice of pie with whipped cream on top. "We have a few slices of apple left."
"Nah. I was hopin' for something sweeter." The one on the leftwith a gold cap on one front toothgave her a wink.
As if. "I'll be your cashier if you're ready."
"It's too bad about that pie. You must be just about done here. Maybe you'd like to come out with us?"
"No, I have to get home to my little boy." She waited.
One gave her an oh-I'm-not-interested-now look.
The other didn't so much as blink. "Then maybe you need a night out worse than I thought."
"Sorry. Will this be cash or charge?" Hint, hint. Let's go, boys. Out of my diner. She waited, trying to be courteous but firm.
"It'll take us a minute." The one who was not so interested in her reached into his back pocket for his wallet.
Good. Rachel's call bell jangled, signaling the last customer's burger was ready. She left the men to their arithmetic, glad for an excuse to put as much distance between them as possible.
She caught a movement in the window's reflection. The loner was in the act of lifting his coffee cup. Had he been watching her?
"Hey, waitress." They were talking to her again.
She dreaded turning around, but these weren't the first tough customers she'd dealt with. "Yes?"
"Are you sure you don't have a bottle or two hid in back? I know you said you don't got beer to sell. But me and my buddy here sure could use a couple a beers."
"Sorry, we don't have a liquor license."
"What kind of place don't serve beer?"
"A family restaurant." Amy kept her smile in place as she withdrew the order pad from her apron pocket.
The bigger of the two swore.
She flinched. Okay, she didn't want any trouble. She wanted them gone, the faster the better. She pivoted on her heel, hoping this was the end of it. C 'mon, just leave your money and go.
In the window's reflection, she again noticed the lone stranger. Sitting hunch-shouldered as if uninterested, but his gaze was alert. He didn't move, although she could feel how his every muscle was tensed like a wolf watching his prey. Waiting to spring.