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Why did I immediately agree to move to the middle of nowhere?
The chilly air slapped her through the slightly open window as she forced herself to stay awake. Gabriella Marcos rolled her head from side to side, hoping to work the kinks out.
Four days in the car would soon end with them starting a new life in one of the last places on Earth she ever thought they’d be.
She had struggled to stay focused while driving the last several hours in pitch dark, but Gabriella convinced herself it would be worth it for them to push through. Get to their new house.
Put some distance between them and family.
The first breaths of morning light peeked over the snow-covered mountains.
Despite her exhaustion, she stared at the sight in awe, taking in the jagged outline of white caps for the first time.
“Not much of that in Texas.” She sighed as butterflies danced in her stomach. Her anxiety stalled in overdrive.
Or was that hunger?
She finished off the last drops of the two large rotgut coffees she’d purchased in Sheridan when they’d filled up last time. Tossing the cup in the large fast food bag that sat in the front passenger seat, Gabriella reviewed what she’d have to get ready by this Monday when she officially met her new employees for the first time.
The gas tank light flashed low, which meant her fuel would last her no more than twenty miles. Not great for pulling a U-Haul trailer in hard side winds.
Glancing at the dashboard clock, she cringed at the early hour, knowing there would be no gas station open or a bathroom until they got to Marietta.
Should’ve filled up again in Billings. Why is my organizational clock so off?
When the answer popped in her head, it was all she could do not to crack a tooth from stress.
I’m doing the right thing. I’m protecting my family.
The pile of blankets in the back seat hadn’t moved in a bit.
All my family.
She repositioned herself in her seat and tried to shake off the fatigue that settled deep in her bones.
Great way to start out, Gabby. Stranded. No one to call. Needing to pee.
The idea of exposing her bare skin on the side of the road didn’t bother her. Growing up in the Texas Hill Country, she’d done her share of fertilizing the ground. It was what the outside temperature gauge blinked that more than got her attention.
Twenty-seven degrees? Good grief it’s the end of March! What have I done?
She white-knuckled the wheel as her mind raced with self-doubt at the monumental risk she’d taken. Moving here considering Gabriella had never been—much less lived—outside of Texas was one thing, but to buy a diner sight unseen?
All because of one bad boss, his tyrannical daughter, and an even worse fiancé.
Her rational brain corrected. Ex-fiancé.
Shivering from the cold whooshing around her, she closed the window, but turned the heat to low. The threadbare sweater she’d purchased long ago sat loosely on her body, giving her little protection from the frigid temperatures.
I couldn’t keep working there.
Tears pricked the backs of her eyelids at her decision.
Five years of my life tossed because I had to stay quiet.
She rubbed the back of her neck as exhaustion tried to creep in, lull her to sleep.
This is better for us, right? In Marietta, I get to be my own boss. Trinity gets to start over with school.
Worry began to squelch excitement, but then she remembered her precious recipe books on the floorboard in front of the passenger seat. Replaying the ingredients of her beloved Brownies Picantes, plus multiple other culinary delights, helped a slow calm subdue the anxiety.
Those perfect chocolaty treats had won Paige Sheenan over, which led to her suggesting Gabriella buy Main Street Diner, which led to them driving in freezing weather and in dire need of a bathroom.
It’s gonna be okay. I made the right choice for us. For her. Right?
Glancing in the rear-view mirror, she realized that the pile of blankets hadn’t moved since they’d stopped in Wyoming around two.
Somewhere in that pile slept Trinity, along with Belle and Cookie, two of the most high-maintenance animals Gabriella had ever owned.
Of course, raising a teenager hadn’t been a walk in the park either. Recently her daughter had proved to be a challenge. Her sweet-natured child had morphed into a moody, frustrated, and anxious girl.
It’s because of all the bullying. It’ll be better here. She’ll be better here.
But Gabriella couldn’t be completely sure of that.
Unexpected tears started to fall at the memory of her late best friend, Laurie, who was Trinity’s bio mother.
Laurie was a handful right about this age. Lord help me if she starts to act like her.
Shaking off her worry, she focused on the road and her passengers.
At least they all traveled well and her daughter more than supported the move out of Lone Star Crossing.
A loud snore echoed from the back seat, making Gabriella giggle. Belle needs a Breathe Right strip. Poor old dog.
Apparently, the vibrations of the snore woke Cookie the cat. She jumped between the front seats, stretched, gave Gabriella a Geez, we’re not there yet? look, before gingerly hopping into the oversized fast food paper bag in the passenger seat. After finding her footing among the trash, she poked her head out. Her crystal blue eyes sat just above the bag’s edge as she scanned the world whipping by.
“What do you think, Cookie? You ready for a new adventure?” Of course, the deaf cat didn’t answer but continued to stare out the window with wide-eyed wonder.
Gabriella scratched the feline behind the ears.
Immediately, Cookie purred.
The reflective sign up ahead proclaimed that they were about to cross over into Crawford County and noted the short distance to Marietta. “We’re gonna make it.”
With a flick of her wrist, Gabriella turned off the heater, hoping it would help extend the precious drops of gas she had left as the last digital fuel line blinked.
About fifteen miles.
She knew her daughter, dog, and cat could keep each other warm during this last stretch. The cold would more than keep her focused and awake, but that didn’t solve all her problems.
What I wouldn’t give for a bathroom right now.
Within minutes, the sky had lightened from its midnight blue to a deep-sea azure.
Off to the side of the road stood a stake with a large wreath hanging on it. The white ribbon across it said, “Harry.”
Oh, how sad. I wonder what happened?
As she wondered, the town of Marietta came into view.
She breathed a sigh of relief as they slowed at the first stoplight and turned right onto Main Street. A gas station sat off to her right, but its lights were dimmed.
At least I know where it is.
Pockets of snow lay scattered under trees and in corners of the deserted high school parking lot. Glancing at the clock above her digital map, her brow furrowed.
No one there. Is it spring break?
The Main Street store lights reminded her of an airport runway, lights flashing as if to guide her along the straight path to the impressive courthouse at the end of the street.
A law office here, a chocolate shop next to the flower shop across from a bookstore there.
This looks wonderful. Very Capraesque.
Despite her need for relief and no one driving behind her, she lingered at the last stop sign to catch a quick glimpse of the Main Street Diner.
Through the front picture window, Gabriella beamed as three waitresses gracefully navigated the packed house, tables, and chairs while holding pots of coffee.
Pride filled her chest.
That’s my place.
She wondered what it would look like in the summer when the rich chocolate and special spices of her Brownies Picantes were in the air. Or at Christmas when the smell of cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar from her Alfajores cookies would float out the door and beckon people inside.
To my diner.
A quick honk pulled her out of her reverie. Making a left, she turned on Court until it bent into Bramble Lane, past the large Victorian-style home with a Bramble House Bed and Breakfast sign out front.
Past the park and the multiple oak and pine trees that lined the street until finally, near the end of the street, sat her house. A sweet little two-story bungalow home with a front porch and small fenced-in yard. It even had a white picket fence that was in desperate need of repainting.
Save that project for the spring.
Glancing at the temperature reading again, she corrected herself.
Even with so many at her busy café, it appeared most of the town still slept and many front porch lights glowed.
Off in the distance, she could just make out the edge of the school’s athletic track and the uprights.
We drove in a big U. Easy enough.
A few cars pulled into the school’s parking lot. Guess it’s not spring break.
The house next door’s front room and upstairs lights were on, but the house they’d rented sat dark. She double-checked the address and sure enough, she’d gotten them here in one piece.
Shaking off her worry once she put the car in park, Gabriella let out a long breath.
We made it—Mama will be so unhappy to hear.
The last words her overprotective mother said to her before they drove away were: “I don’t know why I’m saying good bye. You won’t make it out of Texas before you turn around and come home just like you always have.”
As soon as they’d crossed the state line into New Mexico, her mother called incessantly, wondering when they were going to head home. Angelica Marcos could guilt with the best of them and that guilt was laid on like heavy cream for every state line they passed.
But you’re here now. You did it. Gabriella held on to that nugget of pride. So far, she’d even proved herself wrong.
As best she could tell, Marietta looked about half the size of her beloved Lone Star Crossing, but she’d get a better idea during daylight hours after she’d had a good nap, and visited a bathroom.
A wadded-up piece of paper came flying out of the food bag and, following it, the cat frantically attempted to juggle the ball of trash. Cookie and the paper ended up on the floorboard of the passenger seat as she batted it around and knocked it into the box of recipe books.
The outside temperature gauge blinked twenty-five. Great.
The thin sweater that Gabriella wore didn’t look like near enough layering in the Montana spring.
The winds gently rocked the car. She eyed the front door, wondering if she’d freeze to death before getting them inside.
Trinity and Belle were still snuggled in and appeared to be sleeping.
After wrapping the sweater tightly around her body, she grabbed her purse, and counted to three before opening the door.
The cold winds slapped at her face and sucked the air out of her lungs.
Hay Dios mio!
She dashed for the door and lifted the corner of the mat to find…nothing.
She yanked the entire thing off the ground to find…nothing.
No. No. No.
Shifting her weight frantically, she knew if she didn’t find a toilet soon, she’d make one awful first impression on her neighbors. And then probably freeze to death.
Scanning the porch, she didn’t see anywhere else the key would be tucked.
Maybe it’s under the back-door mat?
A brisk wind penetrated her light sweater and shot a chill into her bones.
Fine. Back door it is.
End of Excerpt