The dust swirled about her high heels as Roxie Davenport climbed from the car. Squinting against the glare of the midday sun, she took in the almost deserted parking lot as if she had landed on an alien planet. It might as well be. She swiped the back of her hand across her forehead. This was as far from her home in Minnesota as it got.
With a deep, fortifying breath that she held until her lungs ached, she examined the cafe not far from Interstate 25. It had seen better days. In fact, it had seen better years. She checked the name of the place against the piece of paper she clutched in her hand. This was the restaurant, but its name was definitely someone’s idea of a joke. There was nothing heavenly about A Slice of Heaven.
The cafe’s wooden facade had lost its white coat of paint a decade ago. Its windows were crusted with a layer of grime that wouldn’t come off even with a scraper and hours of work. Some of the rails around the porch were missing and it looked like a smiling old man who had lost most of his teeth. The screen door hung at an odd angle as though it would crash to the porch any second, stirring the sand and dust that covered it.
Tacked next to the door was a bright red and white sign. Roxie headed toward the cafe, all the hesitation she suddenly felt evident in her slow gait. Unhooking the sign, she cradled it to her and entered the place, a bell jingling as she opened the door. Expecting to see the same disarray inside, she was surprised at the clean room with ten tables neatly set for diners. The counter and kitchen beyond looked as spotless and shiny as a new nickel. Somehow the grime and dust hadn’t invaded the restaurant, which was undoubtedly a continuous, probably thankless job on someone’s part.
“Be with you in a sec,” a female voice said from the kitchen. “Have a seat anywhere.”
Roxie tensed, her hold on the sign tightening until her grip hurt. She stood exactly where she had stopped, unable to move, unable to respond to the suggestion.
It was finally happening after all these years. The edge of the sign dug into Roxie’s palm. Maybe she should leave the past alone. Maybe she should go back to Minnesota and forget. Maybe—no, she couldn’t walk away now. Not until she finished what she had come to Coppertown, New Mexico for.
With every nerve ending alert, she finally took several steps toward the counter, toward the kitchen where the woman was. The trembling started in Roxie’s hands and quickly spread to encompass her whole body as she neared the set of stools and slipped onto one of them. She placed the sign on the counter and smoothed down her short, red skirt. What was she doing here? she wondered, not for the first time.
“Hi, what can I do for you?” a woman in her mid-forties asked as she came from the kitchen.
Stunned, Roxie stared at the woman, her heartbeat hammering against her chest as though she had run up and down a flight of stairs in a twenty-story building.
She didn’t know what to say. She had told herself this would happen and thought she had prepared herself for it. But for her, the moment became distilled in time, everything around her fading from view as she looked at the other woman and struggled to think of something to say.
The woman’s expression showed concern. “Are you all right?”
Did you worry about me? Do you ever think about the daughter you gave up? Why did you do it? Question after question bombarded Roxie, all demanding answers. She tried to smile, to force lightness into her voice, but tension constricted each breath she took. She nodded.
“Can I get you anything?”
Her hair is the same color as mine. And her nose turns up like mine. But the woman’s eyes weren’t dark brown like hers. Instead, they were hazel with green flakes. What else was the same? What else was different? Roxie stared at her birth mother for the first time in her life.
The woman cocked her head to the side. “Are you sure everything is all right?”
Roxie ran her damp palms up and down her skirt again, wishing she could think of something monumental to say on this occasion. As a high school English teacher, she rarely found herself at a loss for words. Her gaze caught sight of the sign she had placed on the counter. “I’d like to apply for the job,” she said, having had no intention of applying for a job when she had first arrived at the cafe.
“Really? I’d almost given up hope that anyone would. Have you ever been a waitress before?” The woman wiped the already clean counter in front of Roxie, looking her over skeptically.
There was a part of her that wanted to shout: Does it matter? I’m your daughter. Instead, Roxie forced herself to smile, realizing in her red leather skirt, white silk blouse and red high heels she probably didn’t fit this woman’s image of a waitress. “In college I worked at a McDonald’s for a while.”
“That’s almost the same thing. You’re hired. Can you start right away?”
Roxie glanced about the deserted cafe. “Now?”
“Believe me, this place will be packed soon enough. You’ve caught us in between the lunch and dinner rush.”
“Sure then.” Roxie slid off the stool, relieved that she would have something to distract herself from the emotions swirling around inside of her like the dust outside. “Where do I start?”
“I haven’t had a chance to fill the salt and pepper shakers since the lunch crowd.”
A Slice of Heaven was in the middle of nowhere. Glancing about at the deserted cafe, Roxie couldn’t believe there had been a crowd in the place only a few hours before. “Anything else you want me to do—before the customers show up?”
“That’ll be about all you’ll have time for.” The woman stopped wiping the counter and stuck her hand out toward Roxie. “I’m Carol Stone, the owner, chef, and chief bottle washer of this place.”
For a few seconds Roxie hesitated before taking her birth mother’s hand and shaking it. “I’m Roxie Davenport.” The intimate contact sent a rush through her that threatened to emotionally overwhelm her. Did you even hold me when I was born?
“Well, Roxie, I’m glad you came our way.”
The warmth from her grasp matched the smile on Carol Stone’s face, and Roxie felt disconcerted. Suddenly all the reasons she had chosen to search for her birth mother seemed unimportant. “New Mexico has always intrigued me,” she murmured, trying to put some strength into her voice.
“I know what you mean. The land is raw, nature at its best. Do you have a place to stay?”
“No, I haven’t had the time. I honestly hadn’t expected to find a job quite so fast.”
“Let me call my brother-in-law. He sometimes rents out a cabin behind his house at his ranch. After the dinner rush hour you can go over there and have a look around.”
“When’s the dinner rush hour?” Roxie asked, still skeptical there would be one.
Carol glanced at her watch. “Oh, I’d say in about fifteen minutes.”
“Then I’d better get a move on.” Roxie was glad for the diversion of work because at the moment confusion reigned deep inside of her. She should run now before it was too late—before she discovered something she didn’t want to know.
But as she began to fill the first saltshaker, Roxie realized she wouldn’t leave Coppertown until she had some answers. For years she had wondered about the woman who had given her up. She loved her adoptive parents; she had a good relationship with them. They had even supported her decision to find Carol Stone. She should have been satisfied with leaving the past alone, but ever since she had known there had been a woman who had given her up at her birth, she had had questions concerning her heritage that had remained unanswered. She had never been able to walk away from a puzzle without trying to solve it and this one involved her life.
* * *
The ranch house was shrouded in darkness by the time Roxie found the place. A lone light shone from the front window, a beacon of welcome in the night. For a few seconds she sat behind her steering wheel, exhausted by the long drive and her first day on the job. Four hours after she began she had a new respect for being a waitress. Every muscle in her body ached, especially her feet, which she wasn’t even sure were still attached to her legs. She prayed Alex Stone’s cabin included a bathtub with hot running water.
The only good thing about the endless hours of rushing from one table to the next was that she hadn’t had time to think about Carol Stone. She hadn’t even had time to go to the rest room. How could a cafe that looked so dilapidated on the outside attract such a crowd on a Tuesday night? Even though she realized the food had been delicious, she was still amazed that everyone from miles around must have shown up this evening at some time.
With a deep sigh, Roxie climbed from the car and started for the house. All she wanted was that hot bath and a comfortable bed. Time to think, to formulate her next move, would come later.
She trudged up the steps and across the porch. Her knock sounded in the eerie quiet, sending a shiver down her spine. She looked around and noticed the total darkness beyond the light from the house. Her vivid imagination began to conjure up pictures she’d best forget if she wanted to sleep at all that night.
The only thing she needed was to rest and relax before she had to think about the consequences of her arrival in Coppertown. She could be in bed in a half an hour, tops. She was dreaming of the mindless sleep she wanted to escape into when the door opened a crack and one big blue eye stared up at her.
“Is Alex Stone home?”
The door slammed shut so hard the screen one actually tottered on its hinges. Roxie wasn’t sure what to do next. She lifted her hand to knock again, not liking the thought of having to drive for miles trying to find a motel.
“May I help you?”
At the sound of the deep, baritone voice, Roxie jumped and whirled about, all in the same motion, almost losing her balance. She clutched at the doorframe to steady herself.
A man stood in the shadows beyond the porch with his feet braced apart, his stance seemingly casual but there was an underlying sense of alertness. The impression of a very large man filled her mind with trepidation, renewing those earlier images that quiet, inky dark nights evoked. She wished that vivid imagination she was cursed with wasn’t working overtime right now. What if she had made a wrong turn and this wasn’t the Stone ranch? Because it was clear this man wasn’t expecting her.
Roxie flattened herself against the screen door and tried to see into the blackness that obscured his features. He shifted; she gripped the handle of the door, wondering if the child inside would take pity on her and let her in if this wasn’t Carol’s brother-in-law.
“Are you Alex Stone?”
“Yes, who are you? Why are you here at this hour?”
Relief trembled through her, and she sagged back against the house. At least she had the right ranch. She definitely was more tired than she had originally thought, or she would never have let the sight of this man or the isolation get to her so fast. “I didn’t realize it was so late.” She glanced down at her watch and frowned. “It’s only nine-thirty.”
“Things shut down early around here.”
She could feel his gaze rake her length, taking in her citified clothes. “I’m Roxie Davenport.”
“Didn’t Carol call you?”
He took a step closer until his booted foot rested on the bottom stair. “No. I’ve been out at the barn. Why was Carol calling me?”
Roxie could almost make out his features. The strong line of his jaw was clear, but the rest of his face was still hidden from her view. Her curiosity was aroused, and she squinted as if that would help her to see better in the dark. “I’m working for Carol—I’m her new waitress—and she thought I could stay here in a cabin out back. I won’t be any trouble. I just need a place, at least until I can find a more permanent one.” The words rushed out as though at any second her ability to speak would somehow disappear and she had to impart the information quickly or else. The day’s events, coupled with the man standing before her, were disturbing.