Excerpt for The Road to Escape by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Road to Escape

by Patricia Kiyono

Published by esKape Press


Smashwords Edition

Copyright © 2017 Patricia Kiyono

Cover Art Designed by Elaina Lee

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and events are fictitious in every regard. Any similarities to actual events and/or persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental. Any trademarks, service marks, product names, or named features are the property of their respective owners and are used for reference only and not an implied endorsement.

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I am indebted to the generosity of several people for the completion of this book.

Debra Cole of Cannon Creek Alpacas in Ada, MI and Lynn Scholten of Blendon Pines Alpaca Ranch in Hudsonville, MI both provided valuable information about alpaca farming. Thank you both for taking the time to answer my many questions. I enjoyed my visit to Blendon Pines!

My writing groups, the Grand Rapids Region Writers Group and the Mid-Michigan Romance Writers of America, provided continuing support and inspiration. My daughter Robyn and fellow author Mysti Parker provided sharp eyes for typos and insightful feedback on the storyline.

Special thanks to Dana Mohr for advice and brainstorming help on medical issues. I so appreciate your willingness to spend time helping to make my story believable!

Chapter One

Tom Cooper glared at his longtime friend and doctor. “What makes you so sure those tests are accurate? Lab technicians can make mistakes.”

John Brannen shook his head. “There’s no mistake. I had the lab rerun the tests to make sure. You have multiple sclerosis. MS. You’ve probably had it for years, but you’re too stubborn to acknowledge the symptoms.”

“I’m fine. Just getting a little older. Creaky joints are common in people my age. All I need is something to get rid of the aches and pains.”

“It’s more than creaky joints. Your balance is off. You fell last summer at the Fourth of July parade. And again at the Thanksgiving Day church service. I had to find out why.”

“So you had to choose a disease that comes and goes? One that’s going to leave me in worse shape each time it returns?”

“I didn’t choose it. It’s what was left after all the other possibilities were eliminated.”

“I couldn’t believe all the tests you put me through. All that time I spent getting jabbed and hooked up to tubes when I could have been getting work done—”

“And you would have continued to have problems, not knowing what was wrong. Listen, multiple sclerosis is not a death sentence. It just means you have to ease up on the work you’re doing. You can’t run that alpaca farm all by yourself anymore. I’ve been telling you that for years, but now your body is telling you. It’s time you listened.”

“I don’t have a choice. If one of my sons had stayed here in Escape, I wouldn’t have to do it all. But they both decided to leave, so I’m stuck.”

“What about your daughters?”

“Kennedy’s out in Hollywood or New York looking for her big break in show business. And Jani—”

“They could learn. Like you did.”

“Nah. They don’t care about anything but looking good and having fun.”

“Do any of the kids know about the problems you’ve been having?”

“I haven’t had any problems worth telling them about.”

John rolled his eyes. “You’ll run yourself into the ground.”

“I’ll just have to move a little slower. Maybe cut down on my herd. Hire a few more hands. The work will get done.” He stood and headed toward the door.

“We’ll need to talk about your treatment plan.”

“I’ll figure it out later. I need to wrap my head around this.” He stalked out of the doctor’s office and through the waiting room, ignoring the greetings from the half dozen neighbors sitting there.

Once in his truck, he started the ignition, but as the idea of his diagnosis set in, he froze. He hadn’t bothered to brush the snow off the windows, and the inside of the cab was a white cocoon. He was alone with his thoughts.

Multiple sclerosis. How in the heck did he get that? Had he done something wrong? Eaten stuff he shouldn’t have? Or had he inherited some weird gene from his parents? He didn’t remember any of his relatives having it. But then, he’d never really paid attention, either.

It was times like this he really missed his sweet Amy. She’d been his rock, the voice of reason. But she was gone. There’d been no warning — a massive heart attack had taken her away. He’d kissed her in the morning before he’d gone out to take care of the animals, and when he’d come back for lunch, she’d been lying on the kitchen floor, dead. He hadn’t been able to say goodbye. She’d died all alone.

He’d blamed himself. If he’d worked harder to make the farm more profitable, she wouldn’t have had to work so hard at everything else. She could’ve eaten healthier meals rather than looking for bargains. He would have taken her to specialists as soon as she’d complained about not feeling well. He could have hired help so that she wouldn’t have had the stress of raising those four kids. Maybe they shouldn’t have had four kids. Maybe…

His door was wrenched open from the outside. John reached across Tom’s lap and shut off the engine.

“You know, Cooper, if you’re trying to kill yourself, running your truck in an open parking lot isn’t going to do it. You’re just wasting gas.”

“What are you talking about? I was waiting for the cab to warm up.”

“You’ve been sitting out here for almost an hour.”

“No way.”

“If you don’t believe me, look at your watch.”

Tom glanced at his wrist, staring at the expensive timepiece his law firm partners had given him when he’d resigned to take over his grandfather’s farm in Escape. He blinked, hoping the hands would move backward. “It can’t be almost two o’clock.”

“It is. Everyone else has left.” He waved his hand around, indicating the empty parking lot. Since it was Saturday, the office was open only in the morning. “Why don’t we head over to Hal’s and have a bite to eat before you head home? We’ve got an hour or so before the diner closes.”

Hal’s Diner was one of two places in Escape to get a reasonably priced meal. Hal was gone, but Laurie Matthews, the new owner, had chosen to keep the name as a tribute to the one of the town’s more colorful characters. She’d done a lot to improve the business, bringing in more customers, but retaining the original name had been a smart choice to keep the regulars coming.

The familiar scents of good home cooking greeted Tom as he and John entered the diner. Laurie worked with local farmers to include their fresh produce, eggs, and meat on her menu rather than the canned and frozen fare Hal had preferred. Since most of the booths were full, the pair made their way to the counter.

Tom’s gaze zeroed in on Laurie, bent down and taking something out of the oven. She made a mighty fine sight, and Tom took a moment to appreciate it. Whatever she pulled out made him forget about eating something healthy. It smelled decadent. Along with her nutritious meals, Laurie had made a name for herself with her breakfast breads and desserts.

His appreciation was immediately cut short by a stab of guilt. The pain always hit whenever he thought about another woman. He’d been a widower for ten years, but not a day went by when he didn’t think of his Amy. The girl who stole his heart at age twenty and never let go. There would never be another woman like her.

As he did whenever he noticed an attractive woman, he pushed away his feelings. No use acting on his interest if he wasn’t able to let go of his feelings for Amy. Besides, after the news John gave him that morning, what woman would want to have anything to do with him?

Chapter Two

Laurie Matthews worked on autopilot, trying not to dwell on all the things that had gone wrong so far that day. She’d awakened with a headache — that wasn’t unusual — and stumbled into the kitchen for her coffee, only to find that the timer on the pot had failed to work again.

She could have handled that, because there would be plenty of coffee in the diner. Except there would be much less time to drink it. She dressed and went in a little early. On wintery days, she loved the convenience of living above the diner. But one glance at the calendar told her there would be no time for coffee. It was February fourteenth — Valentine’s Day. The place would be busy from the time it opened at 6 o’clock until the last customer left sometime after three in the afternoon. At least the diner’s breakfast and lunch hours meant that couples opting for a more romantic, intimate celebration would be going elsewhere — after she closed.

Sometimes she wondered why she bothered. Getting up in the wee hours of the morning to bake and then serving breakfast and lunch for half the town of Escape was no easy job. Caleb was a competent cook, and she handled the baking, as well as serving customers seated at the counter. Normally, she’d have Lola there to help with the customers in the booths, but the perky young thing had gone and gotten herself pregnant, and lately she’d been spending more and more time in the bathroom. The smell of eggs seemed to set her off, and in a diner that served breakfast, there was no avoiding that odor. Maybe it was time to hire someone else. Lola hadn’t given her notice yet, but if the father of her baby ever stepped up, she’d probably want to work less, if at all.

Ten years ago Laurie had left Indianapolis, emotionally broken. She’d stopped for gas and seen the signs leading to the town of Escape. The town’s name had called to her, and she’d followed the narrow roads to a settlement that reminded her of pictures on a vintage postcard. Hal Brooks had taken a chance and hired her to serve customers when his waitress hadn’t shown up for work, and she’d been there ever since. He’d even let her move into the apartment above the restaurant. When Hal retired and moved to Florida, he sold the place to her. It wasn’t a gold mine, but it gave her what she needed — a place to live and an income. Gradually, the good people of Escape had become her friends. The town had definitely lived up to its name.

As the morning wore on, however, Laurie questioned her wisdom in purchasing the place. The broken coffeepot in her apartment had been only the first struggle in an especially frustrating morning. Barney had been late delivering the eggs she needed, and when he finally showed up, half of them were broken. He’d promised to be back with more, but he’d never returned. She might have to look for another supplier. Thankfully, most of her regulars had been sympathetic and had readily settled for her homemade coffeecake.

She’d pulled her eighth coffeecake of the day out of the oven when the bell jangled and her senses went on alert. She knew without looking who’d just entered. She fought the silly girlish feelings that crept over her whenever she found herself in the presence of Tom Cooper. Doctor Brannen followed close behind.

“Hey there, Sunshine. You got a good strong cup of joe for me?”

She schooled her features into one of polite interest. “When have I ever not had coffee ready for you, Tom Cooper?” She avoided looking him in the eyes. Those sharp blue eyes that held her captive every time they focused on her. The ones that deepened with emotion, brightened with excitement, and occasionally dulled with pain.

She picked up two mugs with one hand and a pot with the other. As the men settled on the stools at the high counter, she poured. But then she made the mistake of looking up, and found those piercing eyes focused on her. They seemed to search her soul, to communicate directly with her—

And they widened in alarm. Tom’s mug overflowed with the hot liquid and spilled over to his hands. He jumped up off the stool and held the burned hand in his other one. Laurie squeaked out an apology as she set the carafe down.

A gray-haired woman in a nearby booth held out a butter packet. “Here’s some butter, Tom. Spread it on your hand.”

“No!” Laurie reached over the counter and pulled him back to the stool. “No butter. That makes it worse.” She filled a pan with cold water and set it on the counter. “Put your hand in here.” Glancing at John, she added, “Unless Dr. Brannen wants to look at it first.”

John shook his head and motioned for Tom to soak his hand. “Nope. Cold water is best. I’ll look at it in about ten or fifteen minutes.” He shot a shrewd glance at Laurie. “You sure took care of that quickly. If this diner thing doesn’t work out, maybe you should come and work for me.”

Laurie gave a nervous laugh. “If I keep injuring people, I might have to take you up on that. In the meantime, tell me what else I can get for you.”

Tom and John both decided to study the menu for a bit, so she made the rounds of booths and tables, refilling coffee cups. Gordon Turner, owner of Turner’s Fine Foods, entered the diner wearing the green vest and tie required of all the employees in his store. His usual welcoming smile was missing today, and Laurie stepped back at the frown he cast her way.

“Good afternoon, Laurie.” He settled himself at the counter, nodding at Tom as he sat. “I need to ask you something. You’re the first shop on the street to open. Did you see anything unusual out on the street this morning?”

Laurie came back to the counter and thought for a moment. “No, not really. Oh, I remember hearing a couple of cars go by at around four o’clock when I first got up. But I didn’t look out my window to see who was out at that hour.”

Gordon smacked the counter with both hands. “You didn’t think it was unusual that cars were driving by at four in the morning? Why didn’t you at least look outside? You might have been able to see the hoodlums who broke into the back of my store and ransacked everything.”

Laurie’s jaw dropped at the man’s forceful reprimand. She felt like a five-year-old being scolded by her father for breaking his favorite ashtray. She took a deep breath, but before she could frame an appropriate response, Tom spoke.

“Now, Gordon, do you really think that would have been smart for Laurie to go looking out her window at that hour of the morning, especially if she was all alone? If the guilty party had seen her, they could have come after her. And then we’d have more than your groceries to worry about.” Tom never raised his voice, but his words stopped Gordon’s rant faster than a blow to the head. Laurie was never so thankful. Gordon had a reputation as a tyrant to work for, and when he was displeased, everyone knew it.

Gordon sighed. “I suppose you’re right. I just can’t believe that our town has punks who would do this. I wonder if they’re from outside the area?”

One of the customers at a booth raised his coffee mug. “If they’re local kids, it should be easy to find them. Just ask the high school principal to point the sheriff toward any kid who falls asleep in class today.”

The other occupant of the booth snorted. “You know that’s not gonna tell us anything, Jake,” he said. “I fell asleep every day in math class, what with gettin’ up at the crack o’ dawn to do chores and then goin’ off to football practice after school.”

A man at another booth chimed in. “I fell asleep jus’ cuz I didn’t care about what the teachers were saying.”

Soon, the diner was filled with stories of people falling asleep in class.

Gordon sighed loudly. “Well, I can see I’m not going to get any help here. I’ll just go visit the sheriff.” He turned on his heel and stalked out.

Laurie stared at the man’s retreating back until she heard Tom’s voice again.

“Sunshine, it’s going to be all right. Why don’t we put that coffee pot down before you drop it?”

She felt his hand over hers, guiding her toward the coffeemaker and helping her set the carafe down on the warmer. When had he come behind the counter? And when had it gotten so warm in here? It was February, for heaven’s sake. She busied herself starting a fresh pot while Tom made his way back to his stool. With more distance between them, her mind finally started working again.

“Do you think they’ll find out who did the damage to Gordon’s store?” she asked.

Tom shrugged. “Maybe. I suppose it depends on whether they strike again. It could be they’re working for someone else. I’m sure Pete and his deputies can handle it.”

Pete Schultz had been the town’s police chief for nearly twenty years, and though he was a man of few words, the residents knew he took his job seriously.

Laurie nodded. “Thanks for getting Gordon off my back. I wasn’t sure how I’d answer his accusations.”

Tom settled back on his stool. “Not a problem. Now, how about a nice ham and cheese omelet? I missed breakfast and I’m hungry.”

She grimaced. “No more eggs today. How about a piece of coffee cake? I just took one out of the oven.”

Turning away, she cut the warm cake and lifted out a generous serving. She knew the heat in her cheeks wasn’t from the hot grill. It had been a long time since she’d been so close to a handsome man. Too bad she couldn’t throw some cold water on her face.

Pouring coffee and serving breakfast and lunch, she’d listened to countless stories, commiserated with unhappy wives, lonely widowers, and frightened teens. But she longed for a more personal connection. Someone who was hers. Someone she could hold and hug and shower with attention. Someone who was more than a customer or fellow parishioner.

She’d had that, in a previous life. She’d had loving parents and grandparents. Later on she’d had her own home, a husband, and a little girl. She’d had a job where she could take care of several wonderful people. And then one by one, those were all taken away from her. It had to be God’s way of telling her she wasn’t meant to be a caretaker.

Heaving a sigh, she set the coffee cake on a plate and served it to Tom. Careful not to make eye contact, she moved quickly to pick up the coffee pot and make another round of the place.

As soon as the diner closed, she’d post a help wanted sign. She needed to have enough wait staff so that she could concentrate on her business instead of drowning in those gorgeous blue eyes.

Chapter Three

Tom glanced back into the wide windows of the diner before pulling away. Laurie worked briskly behind the counter, dishing up food, serving it, and greeting customers. He’d seen her do it before. But something was wrong. He just knew it. Her eyes didn’t have that sparkle they usually had.

When she’d first come to Escape, she hadn’t been anything to look at. She’d started working in the diner about the time Amy died. She’d been pleasant and efficient, and Tom got used to having his coffee poured by the time he got to the counter. After Hal had his heart attack five years ago, he’d sold the diner to Laurie at well below its market value before moving to Florida. Tom knew, because he’d drawn up the contract. He’d warned Hal against the low price and easy terms, but the man had been insistent.

Apparently he’d been right to trust her. Laurie had lived quietly above the diner, never going anywhere except to the grocery store or to church. As far as Tom knew, she had no social life. She worked in the diner every minute the place was open, six days a week. He’d never seen her wearing anything but her uniform and one or two other outfits when she attended services at the Community Church. According to Hal, Laurie sent a huge check every month. She’d soon have her debt paid off.

Over the years, Laurie had grown more cheerful. Livelier. Prettier. Not that Tom was looking, mind you. He gauged her to be in her early fifties — a good fifteen years younger than him. Slender but muscular — hard to believe she baked all those delicious pies and cakes every day. And she was tall. When standing on the other side of the counter, she looked him squarely in the eye.

Not like Amy.

His hand went to his gut as if it could ease the ache. Amy had been the love of his life. Though she’d been supportive while he’d built his practice, she’d been the one who’d helped him see that the money he earned as an attorney meant nothing to her if it kept him away from her and the children. She’d been the one to encourage him to make a go of his grandfather’s farm when he’d inherited it.

Amy had been a tiny little thing. He’d wanted to protect her the moment he’d met her all those years ago. He’d been working on his grandfather’s farm, visiting during a summer break from college. He’d been in Hal’s Diner when she’d come stumbling in. She’d carried nothing but a worn backpack, and she’d looked hungry and lost. And when she’d read the prices on the menu, she’d looked defeated. But then she’d straightened and asked for the owner.

I own the place,” Hal had answered in his gruff voice.

Any other female might have been frightened off, but the little lady had stood her ground. “I would like to eat, but I don’t have enough money. Would you allow me to work in exchange for a meal?”

Tom had caught the tones of a British accent in her voice.

Hal had looked her up and down. “I got dishes that need to be washed. Can you handle that?”

Her blue eyes had brightened, and the smile lighting her face had captured Tom’s heart. “Yes, sir. Where shall I put my backpack?”

Tom had hung around the diner longer than he’d planned, but he’d managed to speak to her when she’d finished the dishes and sat down to eat her stew. A year later, they’d married.

But Amy wasn’t here any more. There wasn’t a day in which he didn’t think of her. Though the pain of losing her would never leave, it had eased up in the ten years since her death.

At first he’d been too busy raising their two youngest kids. Jani had been only twelve, and Kennedy had been in high school. Tom Junior and Michael had been on their own.

Eventually, the girls had left, and he was alone at the farm. None of the kids was remotely interested in the alpaca business.

Memories of his children filled his thoughts for the rest of the drive to the Cooper Alpaca Ranch. He pulled into the driveway and drove past the house toward the barn. Maybe some hard work would take his mind off his worries.

Opening the wide barn door, he let his eyes adjust to the light inside. The large door opened to an aisle with stalls on each side. His grandfather had raised horses, but when Tom inherited the farm and converted to alpaca ranching, he’d put additional doors on the sides of the barn so that the animals could easily go outside. Like on most alpaca farms, the females were kept separate from the males and met only for breeding. On this crisp spring day, only a few females remained inside. He shooed them out, locking them into the female pasture. Then he got a wheelbarrow and cleaned out the barn floor, taking the alpaca beans outside to the manure pile.

Working on his chores calmed his mind, and his mood lifted. John had explained to him that his daily physical labor had actually stalled off the appearance of his multiple sclerosis. While most MS patients begin to show symptoms in their twenties and thirties, Tom was almost sixty-eight. Regular exercise would lessen the severity and speed of his disability, though the disease would eventually make it impossible for him to continue working the farm by himself. How much longer would he be able to shovel out the barn?

He would need to make some hard decisions, and soon. If even one of his children had shown any interest in taking over the farm, the issue would be solved right away. But they’d all left. Once in a great while he’d get an email or phone call, and every now and then, Tom Jr. would come to visit. But he and his wife wouldn’t even stay at the ranch. They spent their vacations with his wife’s family in Indy.

If it hadn’t been for the Ortiz family, he would have had to give up the farm long ago. Ernesto, a former migrant worker who’d managed to save up enough to buy a small home on the outskirts of Escape, came over a few times a week. The stocky man with his ready smile worked at the gas station in Escape but had been coming to help with ranch chores more and more lately. He had three sons and a daughter, and all of them pitched in at shearing time and whenever Tom needed extra help. Perhaps Ernesto would be open to working out some sort of deal where he and his family could work the farm, gradually taking it over. Maybe he could keep a small corner of the land for himself and build a little place that wouldn’t require so much upkeep.

Once the piles of alpaca beans were taken outside, he spread sawdust over the floor to dry it out. He checked the stall doors, tightening a few bolts to make sure they were solid. One of the problems in raising alpacas was that there was so much competition now, that in order to profit, he bred only the animals that had the best fleece. That meant he needed to be diligent about keeping the males and females apart. Sometimes he felt he spent more time documenting his animals’ get-togethers than anything else.

Once the barn was cleared out, he filled the troughs with hay then opened the pasture side doors so that the animals could come inside and eat. The same two females that had been lazing inside turned toward him. One gazed at him directly, her wide brown eyes pinning him. What would she say to him if she could? For a moment, he thought about the wide eyes of the woman at the diner. Laurie always looked at him like that, as if she could see into his soul. What stories did she have? He didn’t know much about her, other than that she’d come from Indianapolis. She’d never mentioned any family. Had she always worked in the restaurant business?

Finished with his afternoon chores, he went inside and showered then sat down in his office to catch up on paperwork. He’d kept up his license to practice law, and even at the height of the alpaca boom, he’d prepared legal documents for friends and neighbors. Now that the alpaca market was saturated, the farm provided less of his income. He’d been hanging on thanks to the reputation the Cooper Alpaca Ranch had built for quality fleece and healthy livestock.

Once seated, his thoughts returned to Laurie. Today she’d looked sad. Maybe it was a special day that she remembered. Or maybe she was just overwhelmed. There was nobody waiting on tables and booths. Lola, that young girl she’d hired a few months ago, was getting bigger and bigger, and she hadn’t been there. Yes, that was probably it. Laurie needed to hire someone else to work, or she’d be in over her head. Ernesto’s daughter was a good worker. Maybe she could help out, unless she was headed to college.

Mind your own business, Cooper. She hasn’t asked for your help.

Chapter Four

The diner door opened, letting in a cool breeze. Laurie smiled a greeting at the couple walking in. She fought back her disappointment that a certain rancher had yet to make an appearance. It had been a week since she’d seen Tom.

Actually, it had been nine days, twenty-one hours, and fifteen minutes. Not that she’d been counting. The regular activity of customers kept her busy enough. And after a heart-to-heart talk with Lola, she’d finally hired two new people. Donny was taking a semester off from Notre Dame to earn enough money to go back to school. He’d had some experience cooking at a restaurant in South Bend and would cook on Caleb’s days off. He was also willing to wait on tables when extra help was needed. And Bridget was a young mother wanting to earn extra money. She was willing to work the lunch crowd, while her children were in school. Both were working out well, and Laurie wondered why she’d taken so long to hire extra help.

But each afternoon when she cashed out, one of the first thoughts to enter her mind as she made her way to the bank was to wonder where Tom was and how he was doing. He hadn’t been in his usual pew at church on Sunday. Though he wasn’t active in the congregation, he attended regularly. Was he ill?

She really needed to stop obsessing about the man. If she wasn’t careful, people would realize she thought about him too much. And then he’d know. And then she’d die of embarrassment and have to move again. Her face flamed, and she felt like she was back in junior high and Doug Thornton found out about her crush on him. She’d written DOUG in big block letters on the last page of her notebook and decorated it with hearts and flowers. That weasel Henry Blount had turned around to ask her a question and had seen her artwork and then broadcast it to the rest of the class.

Still, this was different. Tom was a creature of habit, and he’d been stopping in the diner at least twice a week, if not more. It made sense for him, a widower living alone, to get a decent hot meal when he could. What kept him from coming in? She froze in mid-step as another thought struck her: had someone else found her way into his kitchen — and maybe into his heart?

Well, if he had a girlfriend, good for him. Hopefully the new woman in his life would be able to help him with the work on the farm, too. Or maybe she could convince him to sell the farm and retire to a less rigorous lifestyle.

Now, if she could only convince her heart that she was happy for him.

She’d almost succeeded in tamping down her thoughts when Tom walked in.

Actually, he shuffled in. His usual purposeful stride was missing, replaced by the gait of a man much older. His healthy tan had faded, and the smile he cast to those who greeted him didn’t quite reach his eyes.

He made his way to the counter and slid onto an open stool. Without a word, Laurie put a mug of coffee in front of him, and he nodded his thanks.

He looks tired. No, not tired. Defeated. Laurie’s medical training went on alert as she half-listened to Tom chat with Jim Harper, another local farmer. While it wasn’t unusual for a farmer to work long hours, she knew Tom had the burden of doing it all alone, except when he hired seasonal help. Local gossip told her he had four children. Why were none of them helping out?

Tom was a good-looking man. His graying hair only made him look more distinguished. He’d probably broken more than a few hearts in his prime. And he’d been a widower for a long time, according to the grapevine. Ida Mae Wilkes had set her cap for him last year, but had gotten nowhere, not with her award-winning apple pie, not with her big-city wardrobe and makeover, and not even with her blatant offer to redecorate his house.

Laurie hadn’t been surprised when he’d turned that down. Ida Mae could be pushy, and when she pushed too hard, people started pushing back. Tom had been kind but firm. So Ida had turned her attentions elsewhere. Harry, one of the local vets, was her current target.

“So I’m going to need more help with the spring shearing,” Tom said to Jim. “Ernesto’s still planning to do the actual shearing, and his daughter will help, but it looks like his boys won’t be able to work this year. The oldest one has a job working at the gas station with his dad and spends the rest of his free time studying for college entrance exams. The second one is on the track team and has practice and meets after school every day, and the third one broke his leg. I’ve got him taking care of my computer stuff now, since he’s a whiz at that, but that leaves me alone to do the rest of the work, and I can’t do it all.”

“Can’t do it all? I never thought I’d hear you say those words, Tom.” Jim chuckled as he dodged a mock punch from his friend.

Laurie held back a sigh and refilled both men’s mugs. Their playful banter was the stuff of long-held friendships.

Tom nodded his thanks and lifted his mug for a sip. The mug wobbled then came crashing down.

He cursed as the hot liquid splashed onto his right hand. Laurie grabbed a towel to wipe up the mess with one hand while straightening the mug with the other. Then she grabbed a bowl and filled it with cold water and set it in front of him. Without a word, he dipped his hand in the bowl.

“Umm, shouldn’t you put butter or ice on that burn?” Jim asked.

“No.” Tom and Laurie answered in unison.

Jim’s brows arched, but he said nothing more.

Laurie longed to ask Tom what might have caused him to drop the mug. But she really didn’t have the right. This tight-knit community had accepted her because she didn’t cause waves. She’d been privy to people’s fears and concerns because she lent a sympathetic ear and could be trusted to keep quiet about what was shared with her. But she’d never been one to pry, and she wasn’t about to start. If Tom wanted her to know what was wrong with him, he’d have to tell her.

Tom picked up the mug with his left hand, and she held her breath, wondering if he’d have trouble using his less dominant hand. But the mug went smoothly to his mouth and back down with no trouble.

So it’s only his right side that’s causing problems. She tucked that information away and made a mental note to do some research later that day. The library was open later on Mondays, so she could go there for a few hours after closing up the diner. Or maybe she could leave early and find out how well her new cook did at cleaning up on his own. Her mind scrambled to her nurse’s training, to her charges in the nursing home. What maladies manifested in weakness on one side?

“So Laurie, What’s the special today?”

Jim’s question brought Laurie back to the present. Back to real life. The life in which she stayed on the outside looking in. She might be able to figure out what was wrong with Tom, but she wouldn’t have the right to see that he got the proper care. The thought brought an ache to her heart.

She forced a smile and faced Jim. “Turner’s had a special on ground beef, so I got a bunch and made meatloaf. How does that sound?”

Chapter Five

Sometimes Laurie wondered why she’d ever thought buying the diner had been a good idea. Getting up in the wee hours of the morning and staying on her feet for ten hours, six days a week was exhausting. Serving twenty to thirty people at a time and keeping their orders straight took quick thinking and concentration. She’d worked hard at the nursing home, caring for twenty to thirty patients at a time, so she was used to juggling several balls in the air at once. Somehow, pouring coffee and serving breakfast and lunch didn’t give her quite the satisfaction she’d experienced as a nurse at Briar Creek Nursing Home.

But her nursing days were over. One of her patients had run out of his medication before he was due for a refill, and since he was under Laurie’s care, she’d been blamed. There had been no investigation, no opportunity to defend herself. She’d been dismissed and told not to bother ever applying for another position as a nurse. Since she had no family left, she’d packed up her life and left Indy without a plan or destination in mind.

The people in Escape, for the most part, were friendly and hard-working. They reminded her of her grandparents — people she could trust. When her parents had died, Grandma and Grandpa had taken her in. They were both getting on in years, so instead of running around with girlfriends, she’d spent her spare time helping them around their house or driving them places. They’d shown their appreciation by leaving her some money, enough that she and Jack could put a down payment on a house. After she’d settled in Escape, she’d sold the house at a tidy profit, and when Hal decided to retire, she’d been able to put that money toward buying him out.

She’d grown to love the town, and gradually her pain had eased. No one here knew about her past, about the painful losses she’d suffered, or her mortification at losing her job. Running the diner was the perfect fit for her. She was her own boss, and she didn’t have to depend on anyone. Well, she had to depend on her employees, but if they didn’t live up to her expectations, she could fire them.

And being the boss meant that she could decide to serve a full meal to the man who’d walked in five minutes before closing time. Tom picked up his fork, but instead of digging into his pork chop, he clutched his fork and stared into his food as if searching for something. The hand holding the fork started to shake, and his expression turned to panic.

“Tom? What’s the matter?”

He didn’t answer but continued to grip the fork as if his life depended on it. Sweat beads formed at his brow, and his lips pursed together.

She reached across the counter and grabbed his hand in both of hers. The hand continued to shake.

“Tom. Talk to me. What’s going on?”

“C-c-can’t… stop… shaking.” His voice rang with anxiety, and his brilliant blue eyes bore into hers.

“Is it just your hand?”

His gaze traveled upward. “I think… so.”

“Okay. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Concentrate on inhaling. The more you worry about it, the worse it’s going to get.”

Closing his eyes, he followed her instructions, and the shaking gradually stopped.

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