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The scent of pine evoked memories of better times, times before
The doors of the bus swooshed closed. The hulking vehicle rambled away, leaving Faith Delange in a wake of acrid exhaust.
Stifling a cough, she set her bags on the ground and tugged her wool coat tighter against the December chill. Though nothing could ever guard her against the isolation and fear of being found.
A "Help Wanted" sign hanging in the window of a little diner caught her attention and her stomach growled, spurring her onward. Her leather-soled shoes slipped slightly on patches of ice and sloshed in the dirty snow.
A clear, blue sky made a perfect backdrop for tall evergreens and the rustic little town nestled amid the snow-dusted greenery. In the distance, majestic mountains rose above the trees as if stretching toward heaven. Her gaze took in the town, which looked to be a refurbished antique of the old west decorated with holiday cheer. A sense of well-being swirled around her. A spark of hope leaped to life deep within her soul.
Faith liked what she saw. Here, she could be anybody. Here, she could be safe, if only long enough to rest and eat.
Maybe here, God might answer her prayers. The beginnings of a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
With the side of her hip, she pushed open the door of the restaurant and walked into a replica of an old dining car. Over the striped wallpaper hung festive cutouts. A small Christmas tree sat on the counter near the cash register. A bright yellow box with the word "toys" blazoned across the front sat overflowing with wrapped presents to the right of the door. Booths upholstered in red vinyl lined the walls. In the corner, a jukebox played a slow country melody, the words of love and loss bringing a pang to Faith's heart.
A frazzled, gray-haired waitress smiled from across the room. "Come on in, honey." The waitress wiped a hand across the skirt of her apron, adding another greasy stain to the front. "Sit where you'd like."
Every head in the diner swiveled in Faith's direction. She dropped her gaze to the floor and wished people would go back to what they were doing. She just wanted to blend in, be another faceless body.
Who was she kidding? Not only was she a stranger in this small community, but she looked awful, having worn the same clothes for the last three days.
The smell of bacon drifted past her nose, reminding her of her goal. Food and a job. But the last open booth seemed a mile away from where she stood.
She tightened her grip on her tattered suitcases and started forward just as an older, grizzled man in a plaid shirt vacated a spot at the counter. Moving quickly, Faith claimed the stool and set her suitcases on the floor at her feet.
In her peripheral vision she noticed the man to her right and his openly curious stare. She tilted her head away and picked up the menu.
The waitress wiped down the counter. "What can I get for you, dear?"
Her mouth watering and her stomach cramping with hunger, Faith succumbed to the temptation to order a full meal. "I'll have the eggs Benedict, please." She set down the menu. "And coffee."
"Ethel, here, brews the best coffee in the whole state," the man stated.
Faith nodded her acknowledgement but kept her gaze forward. She didn't talk to strangers. Especially men.
Ethel beamed. "You're a charmer, L.C. Your order will be right up, dear." The waitress moved away with a spring in her step.
The warmth of the diner seeped into Faith's skin and her coat became too much. She shrugged it down her shoulders and released her left arm from the sleeve. Gingerly, she tried to push the right sleeve down without having to raise her arm.
"Here, let me," the man, L.C., offered as he reached for her coat.
Faith jerked back at the unexpected move. She stared at him. He had close-cropped dark hair and a ruggedly handsome face with a strong jawline. The slight bump along the ridge of his nose gave his face character, and she wondered how he'd acquired the break. His clean-shaven cheeks barely hinted at the dark shadow she guessed would appear by the end of the day. Dark eyebrows slashed over the bluest eyes she'd ever seen.
Just because he was handsome didn't mean she could trust him. She knew better than most what evil could lurk behind a beautiful facade.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you," he said, holding up calloused hands.
"May I?" he asked and nodded his head toward her arm.
Not wanting to draw more attention, she slowly nodded. One of his big hands caught the end of her sleeve, his fingers lightly brushing against the back of her hand, setting off a maelstrom of tingles up her arm. His other hand grasped the collar of her coat. In a smooth motion he slipped the coat down her arm. Faith winced slightly as her shoulder moved.
"Did I hurt you?" L.C.'s rich, mellow voice held a note of concern.
She swallowed and tried to find her voice. "Old injury."
"Would you like to hang your jacket up?" He motioned toward a row of hooks on the wall near the entryway.
"No, thanks." She took the coat and laid it across one of her bags.
He turned his attention back to his breakfast. Faith studied him from the corner of her eye. He wore dusty cowboy boots, faded jeans and a blue denim shirt. A cowboy? In Oregon? She'd pictured the mountains of the northwest full of lumberjacks, not cowboys.
Ethel placed a large plateful of steaming hot food in front of Faith. Faith's stomach reacted to the aroma with a loud rumble.
At the man's deep chuckle, a sheepish smile touched her lips. "I'm hungry."
"So I heard." He flashed a grin.
Heat crept up her neck.
Ethel leaned her hip against the counter in front of the man, drawing his attention. "How's your mother coming along?"
He sighed. "Better. Reva's been tending to her, but Mom isn't happy about it. She wants me to find someone else to come in and stay with her."
Ethel snorted. "I don't blame her. Reva would be the last person I'd want hovering over me. She'd be enough to bring on another heart attack."
Faith glanced at L.C. to see how he'd take Ethel's disparaging remarks about this Reva person. His expression remained calm and composed. So not like other men she'd known in her life.
Luke shrugged. "Reva means well. Though, I came into town to put an ad in the paper for someone else to help out."
Faith almost choked on her food. He needed someone to help with his mother. For one insane moment, she almost said she'd take the job. But she needed a way to get cash fast. Just what the job in the diner would offer.
"Now, you tell her hello for me. Tell her we miss her at choir practice and I'll try to get out to the ranch this week for a visit."
"I will, Ethel, thanks."
Ethel turned to Faith. "How's your breakfast, dear?"
Faith swallowed before answering. "Wonderful." And to the man beside her she added, "And the coffee is great."
"Told you so." He gave her a crooked grin, knocking the breath from her lungs. As a teenager, she'd dreamed of smiles like his.
She'd also dreamed of a happy, normal marriage. Now all she had were nightmares.
He extended his hand. "Luke Campbell, at your service, Miss
Tentatively, she took his hand. The kiss of the sun had tanned his calloused fingers, a stark contrast to the paleness of her own hand. "Faith Delange."
She bit back a gasp of anxiety at giving out her real name. Having used so many aliases over the last three months she sometimes forgot who she was supposed to be.
But he'd distracted her.
A big no-no. She couldn't let her guard down. Not for a second. She could never be sure who would be the one to give her away.
"Well, Faith, what brings you to Sisters?"
He leaned back and eyed her with an intensity that brought a heated flush to her cheeks. Her heart beat erratically at the probing question. "I'm just passing through."
"That's too bad." He cocked his head to one side and studied her. "Where are you headed?"
Good question. She didn't want to say, where I can't be found, so she shrugged. "I'm just traveling around, seeing America." That sounded innocuous enough.
"Really?" His gaze shifted to her suitcases on the floor.
She asked quickly, "What do you do, Mr. Campbell?"
"Please, call me Luke."
Her gaze dropped to her plate. "Luke."
well, for the moment, I'm a rancher."
"Why just for the moment?"
"I'm a captain in the army. My father recently passed away and my mother suffered a heart attack not long after. Thankfully, I had enough unused leave to come home and help."
Her hand went to her heart. "I'm so sorry."
"It's been hard." Luke noticed the delicate shape of her fingers, fine-boned and petite. The kind of fingers meant for diamonds. Hers were bare.
He could tell she'd been traveling hard. Her wrinkled clothes looked well-worn, and the dark circles beneath her eyes told him she needed rest. He studied her face, liking the high cheekbones, wide, generous mouth and catlike eyes. Those eyes shifted ever-so-slightly toward the door. Luke twisted around to see what she found so fascinating, but there was nothing there. "Are you waiting for someone?"
"Are you alone, then?"
She stared hard at him for a moment before slowly answering, "Yes."
"Where are you staying?"
"Oh, I'm not." She spoke quickly, "I'll be catching the next bus out." She pushed a strand of blond hair behind her ear.
He shouldn't care. He wasn't staying much longer himself. But there was something vulnerable about her that didn't sit well. "Wouldn't it be a good idea to stop and stay in one place for a while? Sisters has a lot to offer."
She glanced at him sharply and wiped daintily at her mouth with a napkin. "I can see a lot from a bus window."
"Must get terribly uncomfortable."
"How long do you plan to keep traveling?"
"As long as it takes."
"Where to next?"
She thought for a moment. "Alaska."
"As in tundra?"
She gave him a pointed look. "You ask a lot of questions."
He grinned. "Guilty as charged." People tended to open up if the right question was asked. Sometimes it took a lot of questions. "I'm a curious man."
She leaned in close. "Haven't you heard the one about curiosity killing the cat?"
Following her movement, he leaned closer. "Will my curiosity kill me?"
Abruptly, she sat back. Her expression took on a pained, faraway look. "It could, I suppose. I really don't know."
"Want to tell me about it?"
Her expression became guarded. "About what?" Every nerve ending went on alert. She was hiding something. Luke stifled the urge to press and ran a hand through his hair. He didn't need this. Her. He had enough guilt for not being there for his father to take on another person's problems.
Ethel stopped before them. "Would either of you like anything else?"
Faith's expression changed and became hopeful. "Do you have pie?"
At least she had good taste and a healthy appetite. "Good choice."
Faith liked the way Luke's eyes crinkled at the corners. But his questions still made her uncomfortable and she was thankful he let the subject drop. The last thing she needed was to have someone probing into her life. Making judgments or, worse yet, pitying her.
He pulled out his billfold from his back pocket and laid cash down on the counter.
"Here's our homemade apple pie," Ethel announced, setting the pie on the counter before moving away.