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Angels Fall by Nora Roberts

Chapter 1

REECE GILMORE smoked through the tough knuckles of Angel's Fist in an overheating Chevy Cavalier. She had two hundred forty-three dollars and change in her pocket, which might be enough to cure the Chevy, fuel it and herself. It luck was on her side, and the car wasn't seriously ill, she'd have enough to pay for a room for the night.

Then, even by the most optimistic calculations, she'd be broke.

She took the plumes of steam putting out of the hood as a sign it was time to stop traveling for a while and find a job.

No worries, no problem, she told herself. The little Wyoming town huddled around the cold blue waters of a lake was as good as anywhere else. Maybe better. It had the openness she needed—all that sky with the snow-dipped peaks of the Tetons rising into it like sober, and somehow aloof, gods.

She'd been meandering her way toward them, through the Ansel Adams photograph of peaks and plains for hours. She hadn't had a clue where she'd end up when she started out that day before dawn, but she'd bypassed Cody, zipped through Dubois. and though she'd toyed with veering into Jackson, she dipped south instead.

So something must have been pulling her to this spot.

Over the past eight months, she'd developed a strong belief in following signs and impulses. Dangerous Curves, Slippery When Wet. It was nice that someone took the time and effort to post those kinds of warnings. Other signs might be a peculiar slant of sunlight aimed down a back road, or a weather vane pointing south.

If she liked the look of the light or the weather vane, she'd follow, until she found what seemed like the right place at the right time. She might settle in for a few weeks, or, like she had in South Dakota, a few months. Pick up some work, scout the area, then move on when those signs, those impulses, pointed in a new direction.

There was a freedom in the system she'd developed, and often— more often now—-a lessening of the constant hum of anxiety in the back of her mind. These past months of living with herself, essentially by herselt, had done more to smooth her out than the full year of therapy.

To be fair, she supposed the therapy had given her the base to face herself every single day. Every night. And all the hours between.

And here was another fresh start, another blank slate in the bunched fingers of Angel's Fist.

If nothing else, she'd take a few days to enjoy the lake, the mountains, and pick up enough money to get back on the road again. A place like this—the signpost had said the population was 623—probably ran to tourism, exploiting the scenery and the proximity to the national park.

There'd be at least one hotel, likely a couple of B and B's, maybe a dude ranch within a few miles. It might be fun to work at a dude ranch. All those places would need someone to fetch and carry and clean, especially now that the spring thaw was dulling the sharpest edge of winter.

But since her car was now sending out thicker, more desperate smoke signals, the first priority was a mechanic.

She eased her way along the road that ribboned around the long, wide lake. Patches of snow made dull white pools in the shade. The trees were still their wintering brown, but there were a few boats on the water. She could see a couple guys in windbreakers and caps in a white canoe, rowing right through the reflection of the mountains

Across from the lake was what she decided was the business district. Gift shop, a little gallery. Bank, post office, she noted. Sheriff's office.

She angled away from the lake to pull the laboring car up to what looked like a big barn of a general store. There were a couple men in flannel shirts sitting out front in stout chairs that gave them a good view of the lake.

They nodded to her as she cut the engine and stepped out, then the one on the right tapped the brim of his blue cap that bore the name of the store—Mac's Mercantile and Grocery—across the crown.

"Looks like you got some trouble there, young lady."

"Sure does. Do you know anyone who can give me a hand with it?

He laid his hands on his thighs and pushed out of the chair. He was burly in build, ruddy in face, with lines fanning out from the corners of friendly brown eyes. When he spoke, his voice was a slow, meandering drawl.

"Why don't we just pop the hood and take a look-see?"

"Appreciate it." When she released the latch, he tossed the hood up and stepped back from the clouds of smoke. For reasons she couldn't name, the plumes and the fuss caused Reece more embarrassment than anxiety. "It started up on me about ten miles east, I guess. I wasn't paying enough attention. Got caught up in the scenery."

"Easy to do. You heading into the park?"

"I was. More or less." Not sure, never sure, she thought and tried to concentrate on the moment rather than the before or after. "'I think the car had other ideas."

His companion came over to join them, and both men looked tinder the hood the way Reece knew men did. With sober eyes and knowing frowns. She looked with them, though she accepted that she was as much of a cliche. The female to whom what lurked under the hood of a car was as foreign as the terrain of Pluto.

"Got yourself a split radiator hose," he told her. "Gonna need to replace that."

Didn't sound so bad, not too bad. Not too expensive. "Anywhere in town I can make that happen?"

"Lynt's Carage'll fix you up. Why don't 1 give him a eall for your'

"Lifesaver." She offered a smile and her hand, a gesture that had eonie to be much easier for her with strangers. "I'm Reece. Reece Gilmore."

"Mac Drubber. This here's Carl Sampson."

"Back East, aren't you?" Carl asked. He looked a fit fitty-something to Reece, and with some Native American blood mixed in once upon a time.

"Yeah. Way back. Boston area. I really appreciate the help."

"Nothing but a phone call." Mac said. "You can come on in out of the breeze it you want, or take a walk around. Might take Lynt a few to get here."

"I wouldn't mind a walk, it that's okay. Maybe you could tell me a good place to stay in town. Nothing fancy.

"Got the Lakeview Hotel just down a ways. The Teton House, other side of the lake's some homier. More a B and B. Some cabins along the lake, and others outside of town rent by the week or the month."

She didn't think in months any longer. A day was enough of a challenge. And homier sounded too intimate. "Maybe I'll walk down and take a look at the hotel."

"It's a long walk. Could give you a ride on down.'

"I've been driving all day. 1 could use the stretch, but thanks, Mr. Drubber."

"No problem.' He stood another moment as she wandered down the wooden sidewalk. "Pretty thing." he commented.

"No meat on her." Carl shook his head. "Women today starve off all the curves."

She hadn't starved them off, and was, in fact, making a concerted effort to gain back the weight that had fallen off in the past couple of years. She'd gone from health club fit to scrawny and had worked her way back to what she thought of as gawky, too many angles and points, too many bones. Every time she undressed, her body was like that of a stranger to her.

She wouldn't have agreed with Mac's pretty thing. Not anymore. Once she'd thought of herself that way, as a pretty woman—stylish, sexy when she wanted to be. But her face seemed too hard now, the cheekbones too prominent, the hollows too deep. The restless nights were fewer, but when they came, they left her dark eyes heavily shadowed, and cast a pallor, pasty and gray, over her skin.

She wanted to recognize herself again.

She let herself stroll, her worn-out Keds nearly soundless on the sidewalk. She'd learned not to hurry—had taught herself not to push, not to rush, but to take things as they came. And in a very real way to embrace every single moment.

The cool breeze blew across her face, wound through the long brown hair she'd tied back in a tail. She liked the feel of it, the smell of it. clean and fresh, and the hard light that poured over the Tetons and sparked on the water.

She could see some of the cabins Mac had spoken of, through the bare branches of the willows and the cottonwoods. They squatted behind the trees, log and glass, wide porches—and. she assumed, stunning views.

It might be nice to sit on one of those porches and studv the lake or the mountains, to watch whatever visited the marsh where cattails speared up out of the bog. To have that room around, and the quiet.

One day maybe, she thought. But not today.

She spotted green spears of daffodils in a half whiskey barrel next to the entrance to a restaurant. They might have trembled a bit in the chilly breeze, but they made her think spring. Everything was new in spring. Maybe this spring, she'd be new too.

She stopped to admire the tender sprouts. It was comforting to see spring making its way back after the long winter. There would be other signs of it soon. Her guidebook boasted of miles of wildflowers on the sage flats, and more along the area's lakes and ponds.

She was ready for flowering, Reece thought. Ready for blooming.

Then she shifted her eyes up to the wide front window of the restaurant. More diner than restaurant, she corrected. Counter service, two-and four-tops, booths, all in faded red and white. Pies and cakes on display, and the kitchen open to the counter. A couple waitresses bustled around with trays and coffeepots.

Lunch crowd, she realized. She'd forgotten lunch. As soon as she'd taken a look at the hotel, she'd…

Then she saw it in the window, the sign, hand-lettered.

COOK WANTED INQUIRE WITHIN

Signs, she thought again, though she'd taken a step back before she caught herself. She stood where she was, making a careful study of the setup from outside the glass. Open kitchen, she reminded herself, that was key. Diner food, she could handle that in her sleep. Or would have been able to, once.

Maybe it was time to find out, time to take another step forward. If she couldn't handle it, she'd know, and wouldn't be any worse off than she was now.

The hotel was probably hiring, in anticipation of the summer season. Or Mr. Drubber might need another clerk at his store.

But the sign was right there, and her car had aimed toward this town, and her steps had brought her to this spot, where daffodil shoots pushed out of the dirt into the first hesitant breaths of spring.

She backtracked to the door, took a long, long breath in, then opened it.

Fried onions, grilling meat—on the gamey side—strong coffee, a jukebox on country and a buzz of table chatter.

Clean red floors, she noted, scrubbed white counter. The few empty tables had their lunch setups. There were photographs on the walls— good ones to her eye. Black-and-whites of the lake, of white water, of the mountains in every season.

She was still getting her bearings, gathering her courage, when one of the waitresses swung by her. "Afternoon. You're looking for lunch you've got your choice of a table or the counter."

"Actually, I'm looking for the manager. Or owner. Ah, about the sign in the window. The position of cook."

The waitress stopped, still balancing a tray. "You're a cook?"

There'd been a time Reece would have sniffed at the term good-naturedly, but she'd have sniffed nonetheless. "Yes."

"That's handy, cause Joanie fired one a couple of days ago." The waitress curled her free hand, brought it up to her lips in the mime for drinking.

"Oh."

"Gave him the job in February when he came through town look-ing for work. Said he'd found Jesus and was spreading his word across the land."

She cocked her head and her hip and gave Reece a sunny smile out of a pretty face. "He preached the Word, all right, like a disciple on crack, so you wanted to stuff a rag in his mouth. Then I guess he found the bottle, and that was that. So. Why don't you go right on and sit up at the counter. I'll see if Joanie can get out of the kitchen for a minute. How about some coffee?"

"Tea, if you don't mind."

"Coming up."

Didn't have to take the job. Reece reminded herself as she slid onto a chrome-and-leather stool and rubbed her damp palms dry on the thighs of her jeans. Even if it was offered, she didn't have to take it. She could stick with cleaning hotel rooms, or head out and find that dude ranch.

The juke switched numbers, and Shania Twain announced joyfully she felt like a woman.

The waitress waikeci back to the gnü and tapped a short sturdy woman on the shoulder, leaned in. After a moment, the woman shot a glance over her shoulder, met Reece's eyes, then nodded. The waitress came back to the counter with a white cup of hot water, with a Lipton tea bag in the saucer.

"Joanie'll be right along. You want to order some lunch? Meatloaf's house special today. Comes with mashed potatoes and green beans and a biscuit."

"No, thanks, no, tea's fine." She'd never be able to hold anything more down, not with the nerves bouncing around in her belly. The panic wanted to come with it, that smothering wet weight in the chest.

She should just go, Reece thought. Go right now and walk back to her car. Get the hose fixed and head out. Signs be damned.

Joanie had a fluff of blond hair on her head, a white butcher's apron splattered with grease stains tied around her middle and high-topped red Converse sneakers on her feet. She walked out from the kitchen wiping her hands on a dishcloth.

And she measured Reece out of steely eyes that were more gray than blue.

"You cook?" A smoker's rasp made the brisk question oddly sensual.

"Yes:"

"For a living, or just to put something in your mouth?"

"It's what I did back in Boston—for a living." Fighting nerves, Reece ripped open the cover on the tea bag.

Joanie had a soft mouth, almost a Cupid's bow, in contrast to those hard eyes. And an old, faded scar, Reece noted, that ran along her jaw-line from her left ear nearly to her chin.

"Boston." In an absent move. Joanie tucked the dishrag in the belt of her apron. "Long ways."

"Yes."

"I don't know as I want some East Coast cook who can't keep her mouth shut for five minutes."

Reece's opened in surprise, then closed again on the barest curve of a smile. "I'm an awful chatterbox when I'm nervous."

"What're you doing around here?

"Traveling. My car broke down. I need a job."

"Got references?"

Her heart tightened, a sweaty fist of silent pain. "I can get them."

Joanie sniffed, frowned back toward the kitchen. "Go on back, put on an apron. Next order up's a steak sandwich, med-well, onion roll, fried onions and mushrooms, fries and slaw. Dick don't drop dead after eating what you cook, you probably got the job."