Triple Beat-nook
Author:Mari Carr

Mama Lewis had cried when she’d told Dani the court was sending her back to him, but legally, her beloved foster mother’s hands had been tied. She had to abide by the rules of the system.

Despite that, Dani had suspected Mama Lewis was preparing to fight the ruling. Dani couldn’t let her do it. After all, Mama had taken in two other foster kids, the sweetest little boys on the planet, Zac and Noah. She wouldn’t allow Mama Lewis to do anything that might get her in trouble and impact their placement. They’d only been there a few months and had only just begun to feel safe. How could Dani take that security away from them?

So…she ran. Somehow she’d managed to survive on her own for three weeks. When Dani looked back on that time, it all seemed like one giant blur. She had been a homeless runaway with less than a hundred dollars in her pocket and no idea where she was going.

During those few weeks, she had succeeded in putting some serious distance between her and her father. She didn’t have a clue how far she’d walked when she had stumbled into an all-night diner just off the highway one night.

***

Dani was running on empty, sleeping sporadically and for short periods at a time. She’d eaten the last of the peanut butter and crackers and other food she’d taken from Mama Lewis’ house two days earlier. Since then, she’d only had some fruit she had stolen from an orchard. Her stomach ached with emptiness.

She was dirty and tired and she needed somewhere warm to sit down for a little while. She’d only been in the diner a few minutes before she found herself regretting the decision to stop. The waitress was eyeing her suspiciously.

The last thing Dani needed was for the woman to call the cops, so she painted on a friendly smile as she sat down and perused the menu. She quickly scanned the list, looking for the cheapest thing. She didn’t dare dip too deeply into her money. There was hardly any in her pocket as it was. As she ordered an egg and toast, her stomach growled loudly.

An older woman turned around in the booth next to hers. Dani was actually surprised when she saw the face. She’d thought it had been a man sitting there at first.

“Is that your stomach making that god-awful racket?” the woman asked, her voice gravelly and deep. Dani pegged her for a two-pack-a-day gal.

Dani nodded and glanced toward the door. She’d been stupid to come out in public. For three weeks, she had avoided main roads and public places, staying hidden as much as possible.

“Egg and toast ain’t gonna help that.”

To Dani’s surprise, the woman rose from her seat, picked up her cup of coffee and shifted over to Dani’s booth.

“You alone?” she asked, even as she plopped down across from Dani.

Again, Dani nodded, not sure what to do. She was too tired and hungry and her voice was rusty from lack of use.

The woman chuckled, the sound morphing into a light cough at the end. “Don’t talk much, do you? I’m Stella.”

She stuck out her hand, so Dani shook it. “Dani.”

“Well, Dani. I’m at the end of a cross-country run.” Stella pointed her thumb out the window, directing Dani’s attention to the tractor-trailer parked outside. “Had only myself for company for weeks. You mind if I join you?”

Dani shook her head, afraid to kick up a fuss about anything in case it caused a scene. Stella reminded her quite a lot of Mama Lewis. Thinking of the dear woman sent a pang of homesickness through her.

Not that it mattered. The judge had believed her father when he said he’d climbed on the wagon, that alcohol had been his downfall, and he had kicked that demon out and seen the error of his ways. He swore he’d been a good and loving father before his wife’s death sent him to the bottle. And because he’d had no previous arrests or complaints prior to the night he’d tried to rape her, the judge had decided she’d be better off with the sexual molester rather than the loving woman who’d treated her like a beloved daughter. God bless the court system.

Stella raised her hand to call the waitress back. “You drink coffee?”

“I’ve never tried it.”

Stella’s eyebrows rose. “Really? Well, maybe I shouldn’t be the one to start you down that path. Shit is addictive.” She looked at the waitress as she pointed to her coffee cup. “I’d like a top-up on the high octane. And get my friend here a Coke. Oh, and add a cheeseburger and fries to that order of hers. You eat meat, right?”

Again Dani nodded, mentally calculating how much money this meal would cost her. “Yes, but—”

Stella winked. “My treat.”

Tears sprung to Dani’s eyes as the waitress turned back to the kitchen. Mercifully, she didn’t see them, but Stella did. She reached across the table and squeezed Dani’s hand. “Steady, girl. It’s just a burger.”

Dani laughed and sniffled. “Thank you.”

Stella pointed to the guitar by Dani’s seat “You play?”