Sunnydale, Georgia 1932
Willow Rosemount wiped her hands on her apron, sighing. It was only quarter past eight in the morning, and it was already sweltering.
Joyce Summers had been over at seven to put another batch of her cornbread in the oven, same as usual. Willow sighed again. Sometimes she was convinced that her life would never change...
The sound of a coughing, decrepit engine breaking down made Willow gaze out through the window. Three men got out of a pickup truck, arguing in hushed voices. One of them was just a boy, judging from his height. He bent his head down like he was trying to protect himself against the scolding he was receiving from the tallest of the three.
"I don't wanna hear another word from you about this, is that clear? Just get it fixed or you can find your own food and shelter tonight!"
The two larger men swung knapsacks over their shoulders and walked down the dusty dirt road, leaving the boy alone, still hanging his head. He took off his hat and wiped the sweaty brow with a rag, before getting a socket wrench from the back of the car and lifting the hood of the car with effort.
A few minutes later, she glanced through the window again to see the boy bent over the hood, shaking his head. He took the rag out from his pocket again and ran it over his tanned neck, probably very hot from the mercilessly gazing sun. Willow felt sorry for him, having to stand out in the heat like that. He took a drink from a worn army issue canteen, probably WW1 by the looks of it. She watched with concern as he shook the last few drops out of the bottle and into his mouth. Clutching the canteen protectively to his chest, he approached the door with hesitant steps.
"Come on then. We'll help, just as we help all other strays who come through this town because of this miserable depression" Willow thought to herself as she looked at the figure hesitating by the door.
The little bell chimed as he entered the diner. A ray of sun suddenly showed the stranger's face and Willow drew a quick breath.
Despite the dungarees and the man's shirt, the boy was a girl. And she was absolutely beautiful. She smoothed her plait of honey blond hair in place and glanced shyly up at Willow with sky blue eyes. The stranger's beauty was in no way diminished by the sorry state of her boots or the smudge of engine grease on her right cheek.
"Morning ma'am. Sorry to b-bother you."
The girl touched the brim of her hat in a quaint greeting and Willow's stomach filled with butterflies. The accent was a soft southern. Alabama, Willow guessed, but she wasn't sure.
"No bother. What can I get you?" Willow smiled a tentative smile, not knowing why she suddenly felt out of her depth.
"I was wondering if you'd mind just filling up my water bottle, if it's no trouble, ma'am."
Willow smiled and nodded.
The diner was filled with the delicious scent of Joyce's bread, the pancakes sizzling away in the kitchen and a fleeting remainder of Gunn's excellent barbeque from yesterday. The blond girl's stomach rumbled audibly as her eyes darted involuntarily to the cooking pancakes.
"Can I get you some breakfast or something?" Willow smiled at the girl as she handed the filled canteen back.
"No thank you. I j-just ate." The blonde looked away and moved her feet restlessly in her place as the uncomfortable lie forced its way past her lips.
Willow took the hint. The girl was obviously poor. Otherwise she wouldn't look like that, wearing cast off dungarees from a man much bigger than her and that once-white shirt that hadn't seen the inside of a laundry for some time. She wasn't the first to pass through town, to poor to buy food, looking for odd jobs to make a few nickels or for a barn to sleep in. Willow poured a cup of coffee and buttered some corn bread and put in front of her.
"No thank you, ma'am. I have no money to pay you with." The girl wouldn't look her in the eyes as she spoke.
"It's on the house. Coffee's been on for too long and the bread's yesterday's so we would chuck it out anyway, so..." Willow lied casually, knowing full well that the stranger would know she was lying; No-one threw good bread away in times like these.
She couldn't explain why, but she really wanted the girl to stay.
With the common sense of the poor and starved, the girl pretended to believe the lie and sat down to eat the offered food. Willow sensed that it took her some effort to mind her manners and not just wolf it down.
"How's your car?"
Willow rolled her eyes at the lameness of her question. The car was obviously a mess.
"I don't think I'll be able to fix it this time. My father will be c-cross about that."
Willow believed her full well, remembering the brutish manner of the man.
"I could ask Harris to have a look-see? He's fixed our truck a couple of times."
"Really? I'd sure appreciate it..."
The hopefulness in the girl voice was almost painful.
"But..." she looked down again.
"Don't worry about money. He's a friend. He owes me a great big pile of favors. Really huge with the favor piles, me and Harris. Yes suree bob." (Shut up already!) she told herself sternly on the inside.
"Hope you don't mind me asking, but whose horse is that chestnut bay in the paddock?" she asked politely between carefully measured bites
"Riley Finn's. His farm is just up the road. That horse is lame though. He's thinking of having him put down"
"I could take a look... I kind of know about horses"
"Well, if you'sure? That would be great. Finn really needs him for the harvest. His tractor broke and he can't afford a new one until next year. "
"S-sure, no problem. Tonight?"
"I'm sure that would be fine. Finn isn't exactly the boy about town. You can usually find him on his porch at night."
Willow sighed with annoyance, but forced herself to smile, as another customer vied for attention. Serving up pancakes, she chatted amiably with the guest, as required, but she kept looking over her shoulder at the blond girl who was deeply immersed in the simple meal in front of her. She couldn't help staring as the girl's angelic features transformed to an expression of absolute bliss when she had a first sip of coffee. As if savoring a fine wine, the girl took a sip and swirled it around her tongue. She waited a few seconds before letting the dark, bitter liquid make its way down her throat. The she smiled a private smile of satisfaction. Willow's diner was one of the few that still served coffee of a decent quality. It was one of the reasons people still came round even though they were short of cash.
"Yes?" Willow wished intensely that the girl hadn't noticed her staring.
"Could I ask you for a mighty big favor?"
"Yes." Willow answered promptly.
"Would you mind terribly coming with me to Mr. Finn's? My father would just kill me if he found out that I went to visit a man at night on my own. S-sorry to have to ask, but he's convinced that men are up to no good..."
"No, problem, I'd be happy to." For some reason, it made her really excited to think about spending an evening with her.
"Thanks a lot, ma'am."
"Tara." She extended her hand.
When Willow took the girl's hand, it was more of a caress than a handshake. New sensations rushed through her body when they touched. The blonde's hand stayed in hers, Tara making no effort to remove it.
Looking down, she was shocked at how cracked and sore the over worked hand looked.
"Your poor hands... They look awful."
Quick as a snake, Tara whipped them away and tucked them under the counter.
"TARA!!" The rough sound of her father's voice made her stand up abruptly to leave. And she was waking quickly towards the door, before Willow could regain her composure.
"Tara, I didn't... mean for it to sound like that." She finished feebly to herself, as the other girl had already made it out the front door.
She spent the rest of the day kicking herself for her clumsiness and trying to ignore the strange new thoughts going through her head when she thought about the blonde.
"Tara." She rolled the name around her tongue, tasting it. She liked the taste of it. She liked the taste of Tara very much...