The Last Chance Cafe

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9780743520607: The Last Chance Cafe

New York Times bestselling author Linda Lael Miller captures the passionate heart of America in this powerful contemporary novel set in a small Western town. Seeking shelter from the storms of life, a woman who is down on her luck finds an unexpected refuge at The Last Chance Café.

With acres of land and a house that have been in his family for generations, rancher Chance Qualtrough has deep roots in Primrose creek. Now, at the local diner, he is about to encounter his future....Perhaps it was fate that brought Hallie O'Rourke and her two young daughters to the Last Chance Café. More likely, it was the blinding Nevada snowstorm and a broken-down truck that forced the desperate single mother inside. Hallie couldn't know that she would find not just a hot meal and a few hours' rest, but the start of a new life. And Chance doesn't know that Hallie is fleeing a danger so threatening she dares not ask anyone for help. Even his kind offer of his aunt's house as lodging seems like too great a risk for Hallie.

But her fierce protection of her children wins out and she has no choice but to accept Chance's invitation. As Chance and Hallie break down barriers of fear, trust takes hold. Hope replaces despair. A fragile attraction grows into an undeniable passion. From the moment she took a chance with a handsome stranger in a country diner, everything Hallie has ever believed about home and family is seen through new eyes. But Hallie can never forget that one careless word could bring back the past and destroy all that she has made her own.

With a stroyteling style that has enchanted readers worldwide, Linda Lael Miller explores the secrets and wishes that push a woman's heart to new tomorrows and -- forever and always -- to lasting love.

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About the Author:

Linda Lael Miller is the bestselling author of more than fifty novels, of which more than twelve million copies are in print. Most recently, she has won acclaim for her New York Times bestsellers Springwater Wedding, Courting Susannah, and One Wish, for her medieval romances My Lady Beloved and My Lady Wayward, and her tales of love and life in the fictional towns of Springwater, Montana, and Primrose Creek, Nevada. Her series The Women of Primrose Creek, which tells the stories of Chance Qualtrough's pioneering ancestors, is now available in a single edition from Pocket Books. Ms. Miller resides in the Scottsdale, Arizona, area.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA

Joel Royer laid a hand on Hallie's forearm and cleared his throat in an effort to get her attention, but she couldn't look away from the body, the remnant, the wax figure that had once been her stepfather. Dear Lou, good cop, solid citizen, erstwhile knight in shining armor. He'd been at the core of her life since she was six, and his passing had left her scrambling for balance.

"It's over," Joel murmured, with undisguised relief. "Let's get out of here." His palm rested lightly on the small of her back, barely touching her and yet poised to administer one of those skillful, all but imperceptible shoves that always made her grind her back teeth a little. In that place, and in those circumstances, barely holding on the way she was, she wanted to whirl on him, spitting invectives.

"I'll meet you outside," she said instead. Her voice sounded moderate, even impassive, a strange state of affairs, given the maelstrom of angry grief raging inside her, a psychological fire storm that showed no signs of dissipating anytime soon.

Her resistance did not please Joel, but then, very little about her ever had. She was alternately too smart, then too stupid. Too ambitious, too lazy. Too strong, too weak.

He hesitated, as if preparing one of his brilliant arguments, then sighed and walked away to join the other mourners milling in the entryway and on the sidewalk outside the funeral home. There would be a wake at the Late Shift Tavern, a celebration of Lou's life and career, packed with cops, retired and active-duty, and their wives, but there was no graveside service on the schedule. Lou had left clear instructions that he was to be cremated, and he trusted Hallie to dispose of his ashes at her discretion -- "wherever," as he'd put it. She smiled ever so slightly to recall that Lou-esque stipulation, specific, but leaving room for interpretation. Still reeling from the suddenness and violence of his death, she hadn't thought as far as potential ash-scattering locations yet.

She reached out, touched his right hand. The chill was hard, penetrating, and her first instinct was to recoil, but she didn't give in. She looked back, making sure the room was empty, and then turned to Lou again, squeezing his icy fingers once, lightly. Tears stung her eyes, and she sniffled, as jerky eight-millimeter images flashed through her mind: Lou, trying to pass himself off as Santa Claus that first Christmas after he joined the family, when Hallie was in first grade, and waxing skeptical where such things as sleigh-driving saints, elves and flying reindeer were concerned; Lou, proudly filming her dance-school recitals, drill team and cheerleading exploits and various graduation ceremonies, too: Cactus Ridge High, Scottsdale Community College, and culinary school. Lou, keeping a brave vigil at her mother's bedside, while Cheryl died a lingering and unjust death from cancer. He'd been a pillar for everybody, though even then Hallie had known he was crumbling inside, broken by the most profound loss of his life. He'd carried on, for Hallie's sake and his own, and that, too, was vintage Lou. His creed had been a simple one: show up, stick it out, never sit on the bench if you can be in the game.

"You were the best," Hallie whispered to him now, hoping his spirit was somewhere nearby, close enough to hear, and at peace now. God knew, he hadn't been himself the past few months; he'd been stressed out, and more than a little cranky. "You adored Mom. And you didn't just accept me, or tolerate me -- I was your kid. You really, truly loved me. Thank you for that, Lou. Thank you for coming along just when we needed you and for hanging in there for all the ups and downs."

From behind her, probably in the open doorway, came more throat-clearing. She didn't have to turn around to know Joel was back, hovering, hurrying her along, mentally prodding her as if they were still married, instead of three-years divorced. She suppressed her irritation again, already on emotional overload. She needed to choose her battles, more now than ever before, and she simply didn't have the resources for an all-out skirmish with Joel.

She leaned down a little closer to Lou. "I know you'd tell me to walk away from all this and never look back, if you could," she told him softly, "and you'd be right, too. Still, I don't think it will come as any great surprise to you that I can't just let this go, because I'll never have another coherent thought if I do. I'll find out who shot you, and why, and I'll see them pay, if it's the last thing I ever do."

"Hallie?" Joel's voice was gruff. He was closing in, probably within prodding distance.

Hallie bit her lower lip and closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, she thought she saw the barest suggestion of a smile touch one corner of Lou's mouth. Her imagination, of course. "Good-bye," she said gently. Then, spine straight, shoulders squared, she turned and walked back down the aisle, between the pews and the rows of folding chairs squeezed in to accommodate the sold-out crowd, toward the man she should never have married in the first place.

"You're going to the wake, right?" Joel wanted to know. Tall, with sleek brown hair, stylishly cut, he looked more like an uptown lawyer than a struggling assistant D.A. The twins, Kiera and Kiley, now seven, had inherited his distinctive blue-gray eyes. Kiley had his persistence, too, and his tendency to make a federal case out of everything.

It seemed to Hallie that her most sensitive nerves had migrated to the surface of her skin, jangling a discordant chorus there, and she was so tired she could barely focus her eyes, but the people gathering at the Late Shift were Lou's colleagues and friends, some of whom had known him since his days at the Academy. She owed it to them, and to Lou, to put in an appearance, although truly the last thing she felt like doing was hoisting a glass. Unless, of course, the glass contained white wine, to be consumed by candlelight while she soaked neck-deep in her old-fashioned bathtub at home.

There had to be some kind of informal send-off, of course. Lou had made the most of his time on the planet, but his passing was premature to say the least. He'd been fifty-eight years old, and in excellent health, with a lot of good living still ahead of him, and he'd died cruelly, in the very place he should have been safest, taking five shots in the chest when he'd surprised a burglar in his living room. That, at least, was the official position; Hallie couldn't quite square it all in her mind.

"Yes," Hallie answered, albeit belatedly. "I'll stop by for a little while."

"The kids are okay?" Joel was trying, she gave him credit for that. Although he paid support, and made all the appropriate father-noises, whenever she rattled his cage, anyway, she knew he wasn't really interested in their children. On some level, he was a child himself, unwilling, or perhaps unable, to share the nest.

"They're with Mrs. Draper, across the courtyard," Hallie answered, with a distracted nod. An odd numbness was beginning to roll in, like a fog, from the far edges of her consciousness. She should have welcomed any semblance of oblivion, she supposed, blessed and embraced any respite from the gnawing sorrow, and the wild, quiet fury; instead, she struggled to stay grounded. If she was going to keep her promise to Lou, and to herself -- and she was, by God -- she couldn't afford to lose her edge.

"You seem a little shaky to me."

Go away, Joel, she wanted to say, leave me alone, but again she held her tongue. "I'm fine," she lied. The truth was, in the five days since Lou's murder, she'd barely slept or eaten. Her stomach lining burned twenty-four-seven, probably eating a hole in itself, and a low-grade migraine pulsed at the base of her skull. She'd replayed old tapes from her answering machine over and over, fast-forwarding through countless mundane messages, seeking the unique timbre of Lou's voice, trying to find some hint there, some clue that he'd been in trouble. There hadn't been any red flags, and yet . . .

Oh, she was anything but fine.

The police were looking for a burglar, a cheap hood with a drug habit and a quick trigger finger. Hallie, meanwhile, was haunted by an inexplicable certainty that the killing had been about something else entirely, something a lot more complicated. The question was, what?

Outside, in the crisp October sunlight, fading now as the afternoon wore on toward another long night, Joel moved to touch Hallie's back again. She skirted him, offered a hand to Lou's captain, who was waiting on the sidewalk, next to the limo.

"Thanks for being here, Lenny," she said.

Genuine tears brimmed in Lenny Bennedetto's eyes. His wife, Rose, held his arm and leaned against him, offering silent comfort. "Lou was a decent guy," he said. For Lenny, notorious for understatement, this was unbridled praise. "It's a shame this had to happen."

Hallie nodded. Kissed Lenny's cheek, then Rose's.

"You're coming by the wake, of course?" Rose asked. Lou had liked her, said she looked out for other cops' wives.

"For a little while," Hallie agreed, suppressing a sigh. For Lou, she would do it, drink a glass of wine, say hello and thank you to his many friends, slip out as soon as she could.

"I'll make sure she gets there okay," Joel offered.

Once again, Hallie was annoyed. Once again, she stifled the feeling, kept her mouth shut. Let this day be over, was her mantra. I just want to go home.

Joel settled her in the back of the limo, then slipped in beside her, sitting a fraction of an inch too close on the sleek leather seat.

Hallie moved over a little. "How's Barbara?" she asked. She liked Joel's latest fiancee -- he'd had several since their divorce -- though she didn't know her well. She applied acrylics at Sue's Nailhouse, took an endearing pride in her work, and, best of all, she was nice to Kiera and Kiley.

Joel took her hand, and she didn't have the strength to pull away. "Never mind her," he said. "I've been thinking, Hallie -- maybe we should try it again. You and me, I mean. After all, we have the kids -- "

Hallie stared at her ex-husband, amazed. They'd done nothing but fight while they were married, and the divorce hadn't done a great deal to change that. She'd worked hard to build her reputation as a chef, then open her small restaurant, Princess and the Pea, and build it into a thriving concern. She'd pursued her goals single-mindedly, made a life for herself and the twins, put aside cash, paid off piles of old bills. She wasn't about to revisit her misguided past. "You can't be serious," she said.

"I know I made some mistakes," he allowed. Generous of him.

She reached the end of her rope with a painful yank, nearly strangled on the impact. "Right," she said. "You started sleeping with your secretary before our honeymoon was over. Then there was that girl who sold shoes at Nordstrom, followed by the law clerk who liked to leave her panties in your briefcase -- "

"Hallie." He was scolding her. God, the nerve, the unmitigated gall of the man to even think there was a chance they could start over, let alone make the suggestion right to her face.

It came to her that he was still holding her hands and she wrenched free, as exasperated with herself as she was with him. "Don't, Joel," she said. "Don't say another word. Our marriage is over -- heck, it was probably over before it started. Let's just leave it at that, because if this conversation doesn't stop right here, right now, I'll say something I'll regret, and I don't want to do that."

"Of course you don't." He smiled fondly, certain of his irresistibility.

"Because of Lou," she clarified.

He gazed soulfully into her eyes for a long moment, injured. "Because of Lou," he echoed.

Hallie simply shook her head.

Within fifteen minutes, the limo was purring at the curb in front of the Late Shift, where Lou had played darts and billiards and swapped stories with old pals. After her mother's death, the place had been a second home for him, a congenial refuge where there was always light, music and good beer.

The bar was packed, and people seemed to surge toward her from every direction, kissing her cheek, patting her hand, telling her what a great guy Lou had been. Swamping her with emotions that nearly took her breath away. She smiled resolutely, listening and nodding at intervals, trying hard not to cry. For the better part of two hours, she kept up the front, avoiding Joel to the best of her ability, listening to tall tales about Lou's exploits as a vice cop, tucking them away in her heart like matchbook covers and postcards in a scrapbook.

There was only one customer in the Late Shift whom she didn't recognize, an older man, with a long face and deep pouches under his eyes. He'd probably been handsome once, maybe even athletic, given his tall, rangy frame, but time had extracted its full measure, moment by moment, year by year. She might have thought he was there by accident, and not a mourner at all, the way he sat keeping his own counsel and nursing a cup of coffee at the far end of the bar, talking to no one, except that every time her glance strayed in his direction, she caught him looking right back at her. He wasn't even trying to be subtle about it.

Prompted by a certain distracted curiosity, she made her way toward him, perched on the edge of the empty stool next to his.

He managed a lugubrious smile as he took in her trim dark suit and pearls, raised his coffee cup slightly off the saucer, as if to toast her. "Hello, Hallie," he said.

She studied him, tilting her head to one side. Maybe he was a member of Lou's bowling league or something, and she'd encountered him at one of her stepfather's boisterous backyard barbeques. "Have we met?"

"Once or twice," he said. "It's not important." He put out a hand. "Name's Charlie Long," he explained. "Lou and I were buddies, and business associates, after a fashion."

Hallie felt a strange quickening, deep in her middle, in that place where gut instincts hang out, as she shook his hand. "I didn't see you at the service," she said.

"I try to avoid funerals." Charlie took a pack of cigarettes from the inside pocket of his tobacco-scented suit jacket, shook one out, offered it halfheartedly to Hallie. As he'd probably expected, she refused, and he lit up, drew deeply on the smoke, exhaled across the wide surface of the bar.

"Well, thank you for coming to the wake," Hallie said. The brief silence that had fallen between them, a little void in the center of chaos, was untenable. "Lou would have appreciated that."

Charlie gave a raspy chuckle that Hallie might have read as contempt if she hadn't caught a glimpse of sad amusement in his hound-dog eyes. "Lou and me, we said all that needed to be said, before the fact. I'm here for two reasons, Mrs. Royer -- one, I wanted to talk to you, and two, I believe in hiding in plain sight." She didn't correct him, though she hadn't used her married name since the divorce. In her mind, s...

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