Dust. Nothing but dust everywhere. It obscured the
landscape, so that nothing except the tumbleweeds blowing
across the highway were visible. The great silver bus,
impervious to the howling winds and sand that battered it,
plowed steadily forward. To the girl staring out the window
it seemed that the bus and everyone in it were caught in a
time warp--suspended, static--while only the wind and dust
were alive, roaring about them. Just then a particularly
vicious crosswind rocked the bus, and the whimsy vanished.
She wondered if they would be overturned. Not that she
cared. She was so tired. Hungry, too... she hadn't eaten
since the day before, just a stale sandwich from a machine at
the Greyhound station in the dash to catch this bus to
nowhere. She hadn't been in the terminal long - a few
minutes at most. With any luck, it hadn't been long enough
for anyone to have noticed her, should she be traced far.
She shivered, glancing instinctively out the window. Again
the ferocious windstorm met her eyes. It was obscurely
"Are you warm enough, honey?"
It was the elderly gentleman across the aisle. She
nodded, forcing a smile, but faint alarm registered. This
wasn't the first time he'd spoken to her. She didn't want to
be noticed, couldn't afford anyone to pay enough attention to
her to be able to recognize her later. She hoped the baggy
jacket and the knit cap pulled down around her face would
help a bit. Wyoming was chilly even in early summer, raw air
creeping into the bus from the windows, so being warmly
bundled was unremarkable. Falling into conversation with
strangers was dangerous. One ceased to be strangers; worse,
one became recognizable. He was a nice old man, his thick
silvery hair neatly brushed back, faded eyes behind thick
glasses shining with concern. It hurt her to just smile and
close her eyes in a pretense of sleep. Such kindness
deserved better than that. And where were they, she wondered
suddenly, bitterly. Those caring people with the helping
hand, where were they when they were needed most? And now,
when the last thing she needed was kind strangers taking
notice of her, they were everywhere. First, there'd been
that lady on the last bus, the one she'd left in Denver. She
might as well have scattered bread crumbs, she thought
drowsily, if her father thought to follow the trail marked by
Teri awoke with a start. Glancing out the window, she
saw they were at a small truck stop, the lights of the brick
building beckoning cheerily some yards away through a haze of
wind-blown sand. Passengers were already descending, running
for the warmth and lights of the restaurant, clutching coats
and hats and purses against the biting wind.
"Half an hour," the burly driver said to the remaining
passengers like herself who were just waking up. "I know
it's not a scheduled stop, but we're behind schedule with
this wind. It'll be close on to midnight before we reach
Salt Lake City. Stretch your legs, get warm, have a bite of
supper before we go on."
Teri didn't have any fault to find with that. She rose,
stretching with a grimace as her joints rebelled. Leaning
down to drag her backpack from under the seat, she slung it
over her shoulder with practiced ease and headed for the
front of the bus. Even the hours of traveling through the
windswept southern plains of Wyoming hadn't prepared her for
the reality of the gale. It almost swept her off her feet as
she stepped onto the pavement. Staggering, she gripped the
straps of her backpack more tightly so it wouldn't be ripped
out of her hands. Head bowed, she leaned forward against the
wind, planting her feet with care as she made her way to the
haven of the restaurant.
The abrupt change from the noise and frantic tempo of
vehicle and wind, to gentle music and comforting warmth, was
a shock. Teri paused, blinking as much to clear her mind as
against the gritty sand from outside.
Mike looked up looked up just as the girl was propelled
through the door, the wind at her back a live force,
determined to have one last chance at her before she reached
safety. His coffee cup stopped halfway to his mouth. God, a
runaway. Poor kid. She probably thought the baggy clothes
would give her anonymity, but in fact they created quite the
opposite effect. Her slight figure was clad in faded black
jeans and a large, bulky jacket hanging almost to her knees.
Short, curling dark hair peeked from under a knit cap, and
big blue eyes seemed overlarge in a slender, pale, pixie-like
face. She presented the appearance of an appealing waif,
lost and homeless.... guaranteed to bring out the nurturing
instinct in every kind heart that crossed her path. Yeah, a
runaway. He knew the signs. Hell, he'd been one himself.
Well, he wished her luck. At least she'd have a good meal
here, whether she could afford it or not. Marsha would know
the signs, too, and feed the kid up good. If he knew Marsha,
she'd probably slide a twenty into the kid's pocket, and Joe
would have a fit. A reminiscent smile tugged at his lips.
Teri slid onto the nearest stool and looked around,
taking stock of the place. It was small and unpretentious
place, homey; not one of the enormous, gleaming, sterile
truck stop establishments. The main part of the restaurant
was one long room, with large picture windows overlooking the
highway. Vinyl booths ran along the front by the windows.
They were dark maroon, not the bright red that so many places
used, and looked well cared for. Across from them, a counter
ran the length of the room. The stools were of wood; light
and highly polished, they were old and comfortably worn. To
her left the foyer led to a Quik-Mart, and she could see some
of her fellow passengers browsing amongst the rows of
postcards, assorted packaged foods and travelers gear.
Opposite the front door stood a signpost reading "Trucker's
Section," and more booths and a counter stretched towards the
back of the building, where a sign advertising "Showers"
hung. Beyond, a glass door led into the back parking lot.
Overall, the place looked..... friendly, Teri thought with a
pang. She could picture a family tending this homey place
over the decades, with generations of loving hands polishing
the counter, dusting the booths, and smiling faces greeting
customers new and old. Not that she would know much about
family, she thought.
A tall, rail thin woman catapulted through the double
doors leading from the kitchen, balancing half a dozen
plates. Teri blinked in wonder. Masses of red hair were
piled haphazardly onto the woman's head in defiance of any
laws of gravity, and stray wisps had escaped here and there.
Long earrings dangled, improbably pink against the red hair,
and a dozen bracelets jingled on each thin wrist. Brilliant
green eyes, unadorned with makeup, seemed to reflect both
kindness and humor, with fine lines extending outward. Teri
found herself instinctively drawn to her. The woman paused
for a bare millisecond, scanning the room as she gathered
herself for her next rush towards the other end of the room.
Maneuvering her armload of plates through the opening in the
counter, she gave Teri a friendly smile on her way past.|
"Be with you in half a sec, honey," she called back over
her shoulder. "We're a little under the gun, not expecting
you lot, and with Betty down sick and my other gal just quit
yesterday to go off to college in San Antonio, and the cook
just plain didn't show and Joe in there doin' the cooking.
Y'all will be here more than half an hour, surely you will,
and so I'll tell Dave when he pokes his nose in here. A
body's only got two hands, and I've only got one body."
"Now," the woman was back in front of Teri, having
delivered her meals while talking nonstop the whole time.
"You know what you want, honey?"
Teri looked around the crowded counter and booths. The
restaurant was as full as it could hold, mostly with
passengers from the bus, although the truckers' section
opposite the front door was also full. She hesitated a
moment, glancing back at the waitress. The friendly look in
those brilliant emerald eyes decided her, and she smiled
"I've done some waitressing. I can help you out until
the bus is ready to go."
The woman's expression seemed suddenly dubious, and Teri
raised her chin against the sharp assessment, a flush
staining her cheeks. "I can pay for a meal. I just thought
you could use the help."
A man appeared through the double doors to the kitchen,
a white cap askew on his head. "Fer crissake, Marsha, let
her help! I've a dozen more dinners waiting in here and the
gal is offering to help out! Stop shuffling your feet and
put her to work!"
Marsha threw an impatient glance over her shoulder.
"Pooh, you don't know anything! I'll mind my business, and
you go mind your cooking, Joe."
She turned back to Teri. "I could sure use the help,
but you won't have time to eat, honey."
"A sandwich and fries?" Teri suggested. "That I can
take with me?"
"Done!" The woman heaved an exaggerated sigh of relief.
"Come on and get an apron. I'll take the orders and you
deliver the dinners, Joe can tell you who they go to. I'm
Marsha, and there's Bob in back washing dishes."
Further down the counter, Mike hid a smile behind his
Marsha watched the bus passengers begin to file out of
the restaurant, not 45 minutes but a full hour later, and the
crowd in the restaurant finally started to thin out. Some of
the travelers were lingering over the newspapers by the
doorway or milling about the Quik-Mart, delaying until the
last possible moment the mad dash to the bus through the
furious, biting wind. Five minutes before, she had pressed
Teri into a seat at the counter and stood over her as the
girl worked her way through a steaming plate of roast beef
and mashed potatoes. The bus driver, Dave, finished his
coffee, glancing with reluctance out the window at the gale
"Best get the old gal warmed up." He shoved his cap
with its pull-down flaps of fur over his ears, and stomped
Marsha hitched one hip onto the edge of the counter,
watching the girl from the bus slip on that ridiculously
oversized coat. She'd spent the last half hour turning a
plan over in her mind, and made her final decision now,
seeing how the girl's eyes slid wistfully over the homey
cheer of the restaurant. She looked over her shoulder at
Jim, and he dipped his chin in agreement, coming out of the
kitchen to stand beside her.
Teri hefted her backpack to one shoulder, smiling at
them both. It wasn't much of a smile, the first one Marsha
had seen from her yet, but it brightened her eyes, and lifted
some of the strain from her waif's face.
"I'm glad I could help. You have a nice place here.
Marsha was nothing if not blunt. "You're a runaway,
The blood receded from Teri's face, and Joe punched
Marsha in the shoulder.
"Way to go, old girl. Nice and tactful, as usual.
Marsha frowned at him. "You shut up. I got something
to say, I say it. Not like some people, who beat around the
bush for an hour. Besides, this doesn't have anything to do
with you. Go gas up a truck or cook something. And you
broke my shoulder."
"I did no such thing. You're scaring the child to
Marsha turned her attention back to Teri, who was indeed
poised as if for flight, fear warring with bewilderment in
the blue eyes as she looked back and forth between husband
and wife, confused by their banter.
"It's like this. I'm short of help, and you're a good
worker. You picked up real quick on our set-up here, and
you fit in like you'd been here for a year. If you've got no
place to go to, you could do worse than stop here. You'd
have a job, with pay and tips, free meals, and we'll put you
up in our spare room til you've got enough together to get
yourself a little place in town."
Teri felt herself begin to tremble. Her knees shook,
and she clutched the back of a stool for support. She looked
again around the restaurant, a surge of hope flooding through
her. It was a moment before she could trust her voice to
"I could stay? I could stay.... here?"
Joe looked away, clearing his throat to smother the
chuckle that threatened; the child made it sound like she'd
been invited into the gates of Heaven. Marsha merely nodded,
holding Teri's gaze with her own.
"We'll do fair by you, and all we ask is that you do the
same in return. A fair day's work for a fair day's wage."
Home. She would have a home. A place to stay... a
chance to make a beginning. It was more than she had hoped
to find anywhere.
"Thank you," she whispered, her voice quivering. "Thank
"Someone should tell Dave."
Teri jumped at the deep voice behind her, turning with
a gasp, her fingers clutching the stool in alarm. She gasped
again as she looked up.... and up.... to the most beautiful
face she had ever seen.
A blond young giant stood before her. He was tall, with
broad shoulders and lean hips. Perhaps in his early or mid
20s, he was all golden; skin burnished by the sun to a deep
bronze, and his thick hair worn long to his neck and slightly
shaggy, of a color that would rival the bullion in Fort Knox.
His face was almost classic in its beauty, with high
cheekbones, a patrician nose, and a generous, wide mouth with
beautifully sculpted lips. His eyes were green; not the
brilliant, gleaming emerald of Marsha's eyes, but a cool, sea
green with bottomless depths. Teri had the sudden fancy that
they were old eyes... old eyes that saw too much, knew too
much. And he was tall. He stood several inches above six
feet, and towered over her own five foot two. Tall and
golden and confident..... so would Thor have looked, striding
across the battlefield, she thought.