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Angels Fall, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  "All right." Reece pushed off the stool and, keeping her breath slow and even, went through the swinging door at the far end of the counter.

  She didn't notice, but Joanie did, that she"d torn the tea bag cover into tiny pieces.

  It was a simple setup, she decided, and efficient enough. Large grill, restaurant-style stove, refrigerator, freezer. Holding bins, sinks, work counters, double fryer, heat suppression system. As she tied on an apron. Joanie set out the ingredients she'd need.

  "Thanks." Reece scrubbed her hands, then got to work.

  Don't think, she told herself, just let it come. She set the steak siz-zling on the grill while she chopped onions and mushrooms. She put the precut potatoes in the fry basket, set the timer..

  Her hands didn't shake, and though her chest stayed tight, she didn't allow herself to dart glances over her shoulder to make sure a wall hadn't appeared to close her in.

  She listened to the music, from the juke, from the grill, from the fryer.

  Joanie tugged the next order from the clip on the round and slapped it down. "Bowl of three-bean soup—that kettle there—goes with crackers.

  Reece simply nodded, tossed the mushrooms and onions on the grill, then filled the second order while they fried.

  "Order up! Joanie called out. and yanked another ticket. "Reuben. club san, two side salads.

  Reece moved from order to order, and just let it happen. The atmosphere, the orders might be different, but the rhythm was the same. Keep working, keep moving.

  She plated the original order, turned to hand it to Joanie for inspection.

  "Put it in line," she was told. "Start the next ticket. We don't call the doctor in the next thirty minutes, you're hired. We'll talk money and hours later."

  "I need to—"

  "Get that next ticket." Joanie finished. "I'm going to go have a smoke."

  She worked another ninety minutes before it slowed enough for Reece to step back from the heat and guzzle down a bottle of water. When she turned, Joanie was sitting at the counter, drinking coffee.

  "Nobody died," she said.

  "Whew. Is it always that busy?''

  "Saturday lunch crowd. We do okay. You get eight dollars an hour to start. You still look good in two weeks, I bump in another buck an hour. That's you and me and a part-timer on the grill, seven days a week. You get two days, or the best part of two off during that week. I do the schedule a week in advance. We open at six-thirty, so that means first shift is here at six. You can order breakfast all dav, lunch menu from eleven to closing, dinner, five to ten. You want forty hours a week, I can work you that. I don't pay any overtime, so you get stuck behind the grill and go over, we'll take it off your next week's hours. Any problem with that?"


  "You drink on the job, you're fired on the spot."


  "You get all the coffee, water or tea you want. You hit the soft drinks, you pay for them. Same with the food. Around here, there ain't no free lunch. Not that it looks like you'll be packing it away while my back's turned. You're skinny as a stick."

  "I guess I am."

  "Last shift cook cleans the grill, the stove, does the lock down."

  "I can't do that," Reece interrupted. "I can't close for you. I can open, I can work any shift you want me to work. I'll work doubles when you need it, split shifts. I can flex time when you need me over forty. But I can't close for you. I'm sorry."

  Joanie raised her eyebrows, sipped down the last of her coftee. '"Afraid of the dark, little girl?"

  "Yes, I am. If closing's part of the job description, I'll have to find another job.

  "We'll work that out. We've got forms to fill out for the government. It can wait. Your car's fixed, sitting up at Mac's." Joanie smiled. "Word travels, and I've got my ear to the ground. You're looking for a place, there's a room over the diner I can rent you. Not much, but it's got a good view and it's clean."

  "Thanks, but I think I'm going to try the hotel for now. We'll both give it a couple of weeks, see how it goes."

  "Itchy feet."

  "Itchy something."

  "Your choice." With a shrug, Joanie got up, headed to the swinging door with her coffee cup. "You go on, get your car, get settled. Be back at four."

  A little dazed, Reece walked out. She was back in a kitchen, and it had been all right. She'd been okay. Now that she'd gotten through it.

  She felt a little light-headed, but that was normal, wasn't it? A normal reaction to snagging a job, straight off the mark, doing what she was trained to do again. Doing what she hadn't been able to do for nearly two years.

  She took her time walking back to her car, letting it all sink in.

  When she walked into the mercantile, Mac was ringing up a sale at a short counter opposite the door. The place was what she'd expected: a little bit of everything—coolers for produce and meat, shelves of dry goods, a section for hardware, for housewares, fishing gear, ammo.

  Need a gallon of milk and a box of bullets? This was the spot.

  When Mac finished the transaction, she approached the counter.

  "Car should run for you now," Mac told her.

  "So I hear, and thanks. How do I pay?''

  "Lynt left a bill here for you. You can run on by the garage if you're going to charge it. Paying cash, you can just leave it here. I'll be seeing him later."

  "Cash is good." She took the bill, noted with relief it was less than she'd expected. She could hear someone chatting in the rear of the store, and the beep of another cash register. "I got a job."

  He cocked his head as she pulled out her wallet. "That so? Quick work."

  "At the diner. I don't even know the name of it," she realized.

  "That'd be Angel Food. Locals just call it Joanie's."

  "Joanie's then. I hope you come in sometime. I'm a good cook."

  "I bet you are. Here's your change."

  "Thanks. Thanks for everything. I guess I'll go get myself a room, then go back to work."

  "It you're still looking at the hotel, you tell Brenda on the desk you want the monthly rate. You tell her you're working at Joanie's."

  "I will. I'll tell her." She wanted to take out an ad announcing it in the local paper. "Thanks, Mr. Drubber."

  The hotel was five stories of pale yellow stucco that boasted views of the lake. It harbored a minute sundry shop, a tiny coffee and muffin stand and an intimate linen tablecloth dining room.

  There was, she was told, high-speed Internet connection for a small daily fee, room service from seven AM. to eleven P.M. and a self-service laundry in the basement.

  Reece negotiated a weekly rate on a single—a week was long enough—on the third floor. Anything below the third was too accessible for her peace of mind, and anything above the third made her feel trapped.

  With her wallet now effectively empty, she carted her duffel and laptop up three flights rather than use the elevator.

  The view lived up to its billing, and she immediately opened the windows, then just stood looking at the sparkle of the water, the glide of boats, and the rise of the mountains that cupped this little section of valley.

  This was her place today, she thought. She'd find out it it was her place tomorrow. Turning back to the room, she noted the door that adjoined the neighboring guest room. She checked the locks, then pushed, shoved, dragged the single dresser in front of it.

  That was better.

  She wouldn't unpack, not exactly, but take the essentials and set them out. The travel candle, some toiletries, the cell phone charger. Since the bathroom was hardly bigger than the closet, she left the door open while she took a quick shower. While the water ran, she did the multiplication tables out loud to keep herself steady. She changed into fresh clothes, moving quickly.

  New job, she reminded herself and took the time and effort to dry her hair, to put on a little makeup. Not so pale today, she decided, not so hollow-eyed.

  After checking her watch, she set up her laptop, op
ened her daily journal and wrote a quick entry.

  Angel's Fist, Wyoming


  I cooked today. I took a job as a cook in a little diner-style restaurant in this pretty valley town with its big, blue lake. I'm popping champagne in my mind, and there are streamers and balloons.

  I feel like I've climbed a mountain, like I've been scaling the tough peak's that ring this place. I'm not at the top yet; I'm still on a ledge. But it's sturdy and wide, and I can rest here a little while before I start to climb again.

  I'm working for a woman named Joanie. She's short, sturdy and oddly pretty. She's tough, too, and that's good. I don't want to be coddled. I think I'd smother to death that way, just run out of air the way I feel when I wake up from one of the dreams. I can breathe here, and I can be here until it's time to move on.

  I've got less than ten dollars left, but whose fault is that? It's okay. I've got a room for a week with a view of the lake and the Tetons, a job and a new radiator hose.

  I missed lunch, and that's a step back there. That's okay, too. I was too busy cooking to eat, and I'll make up for it.

  It's a good day, April fifteenth. I'm going to work.

  She shut down, then tucked her phone, her keys, driver's license and three dollars of what she had left in her pockets. Grabbing a jacket, she headed for the door.

  Before she opened it, Reece checked the peep, scanned the empty hall. She checked her locks twice, cursed herself and checked a third time before she went back to her kit to tear a piece of Scotch tape off her roll. She pressed it over the door, well below eye level, before she walked to the door for the stairs.

  She jogged down, counting as she went. After a quick debate, she left her car parked. Walking would save her gas money, even though it would be dark when she finished her shift.

  Couple of blocks, that was all. Still, she fingered her key chain, and the panic button on it.

  Maybe she should go back and get the car, just in case. Stupid, she told herself. She was nearly there. Think about now, not about later. When nerves began to bubble, she pictured herself at the grill, food strong kitchen light, music from the jukebox, voices from the tables. Familiar sounds, smells, motion.

  Maybe her palm was clammy when she reached for the door of Joanie's, but she opened it. And she went inside.

  The same waitress she'd spoken to during the lunch shift spotted her, wiggled her fingers in a come-over motion. Reece stopped by the booth where the woman was refilling the condiment caddy.

  "Joanie's back in the storeroom. She said I should give you a quick orientation when you came in. We got a lull, then the early birds will start coming in soon. I'm Linda-gail."


  "First warning, Joanie doesn't tolerate idle hands. She catches you loitering, she'll jump straight down your back and bite your ass." She grinned when she said it in a way that made her bright blue eyes twinkle, deepened dimples in her cheeks. She had doll-baby blond hair to go with it, worn in smooth French braids.

  She had on jeans, a red shirt with white piping. Silver and turquoise earrings dangled from her ears. She looked, Reece thought, like a western milkmaid.

  "I like to work."

  "You will, believe me. This being Saturday night, we'll be busy. You'll have two other wait staff working—Bebe and Juanita. Matt'll bus, and Pete's the dishwasher. You and Joanie'll be manning the kitchen, and she'll have a hawk eye on you. You need a break, you tell her, and you take it. I here's a place in the back for your coat and purse. No purse?"

  "No, I didn't bring it."

  "God, I can't step a foot outside the house without mine. Come on then, I'll show you around. She's got the forms you need to fill out in the back. I guess you've done this kind of work before, the way you jumped in with both feet today."

  "Yeah, I have."

  "Restrooms. We clean the bathrooms on rotation. You've got a couple of weeks before you have that pleasure."

  "Can't wait."

  Linda-gail grinned. "You got family around here?"

  "No. I'm from back East." Didn't want to talk about that, didn't want to think about that. "Who handles the fountain drinks?"

  "Wait staff. We get crunched, you can fill drink orders. We serve-wine and beer, too. But mostly people want to drink, they do it over at Clancy's. That's about it. Anything else you want to know, just give me a holler. I've got to finish the setups or Joanie'll squawk. Welcome aboard."


  Reece moved into the kitchen, took an apron.

  A good, wide solid ledge, she told herself. A good place to stand until it was time to move again.

  * * *

  Chapter 2

  LINDA GAIL was right, they were busy. Locals, tourists, hikers, a scatter of people from a nearby campground who wanted an indoor meal. She and Joanie worked with little conversation while the fryers pumped out steam and the grill spewed heat.

  At some point, Joanie stuck a bowl under Reece's nose. "Eat."

  "Oh, thanks, but—"

  "You got something against my soup?"


  "Sit down at the counter and eat. It's slowed down some and you've got a break coming. I'll put it on your tab."

  "Okay, thanks."The fact was, now that she thought about eating food instead of just preparing it, she realized she was starving. A good sign. Reece decided as she took a seat at the end of the counter.

  It gave her a view of the diner, and the door.

  Linda-gail slid a plate over to her with a sourdough roll and two pats of butter on it. "Joanie said you need the carbs. Want some tea with that?"

  "Perfect. I can get it."

  "I'm in the mode. You're quick," she added as she brought over a cup. After a glance over her shoulder, she leaned closer and grinned. "Quicker than Joanie. And you plate food pretty. Some of the customers commented on it."

  "Oh." She wasn't looking for comments or attention, just a paycheck. "I didn't mean to change anything."

  "Nobody's complaining." Linda-gail tilted her head with a smile that showed off her dimples. "Kind of jumpy, aren't you?"

  "I guess I am."" Reece sampled the soup, pleased that the broth had a subtle bite. "No wonder this place stays busy. This soups as good as anything you'd get in a five-star."

  Linda-gail glanced back toward the kitchen, assured herself loanic was occupied. "Some of us have a bet going. Bebe thinks you're in trouble with the law. She watches a lot of TV, that one. Juanita thinks you're running from an abusive husband. Matthew, being seventeen, just thinks about sex. Me, I think you just got your heart broken back East. Any of us hit?"

  "No, sorry." There was a little twinge of anxiety at the idea the others were speculating, but she reminded herself that restaurants were full of little dramas and a lot of gossip. "I'm just at loose ends, just traveling."

  "Something in there." Linda-gail said with a shake of her head. "To my eye you got heartbreak written all over you. And speaking of heart-breakers, here comes Long, Dark and Handsome now."