Author's Note: So, you all probably thought I had given up on poor little Leaning Towards Love. Thankfully, not quite yet. I admit that it's been a while since I last updated (okay, a long while) but when NaNoWriMo came along, A Plain Summer kinda took precedence over this one. Anywho, here's the thirteenth chapter, and hopefully the chapters will come a little sooner now. I plan on trying to switch from story to story as I finish a chapter - and hopefully I wont get the protagonists mixed up when I do. Haha, anyway, I hope you enjoy. :)
Paige squinted as she rolled over onto her back and rubbed her eyes. The morning light shone brightly through the blinds and thin, lace drapery. Apparently her room faced the east, where she would get a full view of the sunrise. She knit her brow and blinked several times, trying to acclimate herself to the brightness in the room. After stretching her aching limbs, she sat up and headed out of her room to the bathroom across the hall. Despite Zoey's words from the previous night, there was no line at the door. She stepped inside and locked the door behind her.
Immediately, she fell to her knees, her head near the toilet. She swallowed hard, as if trying to keep the nausea from entering her throat. Her rolling stomach had been what woke her up from her deep, dreamless slumber to begin with. Since she had stayed up well after two in the morning, she had hoped to get in a few more hours of sleep to help rejuvenate her system. Several minutes passed and the only thing that could be heard from the hallway of the third floor was the sound of her heaving. When at last Paige emerged from the bathroom, she was ashen but at least her stomach felt better since it was relatively empty.
After dressing in her clothes from the previous day, as well as her other morning rituals, she headed downstairs. As she passed Mr. Kendall's door, she could once more hear the unremitting clatter made from his typewriter. The rest of the rooms on the floor, however, were silent. As Paige descended the stairs into the living room, she saw that it, too, was free of any human contact. For the first time that morning she felt like she should have stayed in her room. It seemed like everyone else had. She was about to turn back around and head up the stairs when she heard voices coming form down the hall in the direction of the kitchen. With a sigh of relief, she quietly walked down the hallway, immediately registering Leona's voice before even stepping into the door's frame.
"Well, I know that times are hard, but that's still no excuse for such behavior…" Leona shook her head as she emptied the filter in the coffee maker. Her voice was disapproving when she continued. "And so young, too. Did they say when the hearing was going to be held?"
Alice sat at a small round table that occupied the kitchen, newspaper in her hand and a fresh cup of coffee at her side. The older woman squinted, trying her best to read the small print, even with the aid of her glasses that were perched on the end of her nose. "Hmm," she skimmed through the passage on the front page. "They haven't gotten a specific date settled, but they are going to try him as an adult, rather than a juvenile."
Leona tisk-tisked under her breath while she poured herself a cup of coffee. "What a shame…A whole life ahead of him, and now it's ruined." She turned at that moment and saw Paige standing in the doorway. Her face – and mood – brightened considerably upon seeing her. "Well, good morning." Alice, too, perked up, folded the paper, and set it aside.
"Please," Leona insisted. "Have a seat. Would you like any coffee? Or are you hungry?"
Paige smiled at her hostess as she sat down next to Alice, "No, no. Coffee will be just fine, thank you." She didn't want to worry the woman any more than she already had. She'd simply stop and get something on her way to the Jiffy Lube later in the morning.
"How do you take it?" Leona asked.
Paige gave a sheepish smile, "I like it with as much cream and sugar you can fit in the mug."
Alice patted her hand and gave her a warm smile. "That's the best way to take," she agreed with a wink.
The room fell into a silence as Leona turned once more to the coffee maker. Alice would occasionally flip the ages of the newspaper, again muttering to herself about what the world was coming to or something to that affect.
A moment later, Leona placed a mug in front of her guest and took a seat at the table. Paige thanked her and blew slightly on the beverage, hoping that it wouldn't upset her stomach too much later in the day. "So what happened in the paper?" she inquired, trying to break the silence. "You were talking about something when I came in."
"Oh," Leona nodded. "There was an armed robbery on the other side of town. It was a convenience store that regularly frequented, but what's really sad is that a young boy robbed the place. Not but seventeen years old." She shook her head and took a sip of her coffee. "His family was having financial troubles, and apparently he thought the best way to help them would be by taking the money. Word from the grape vine says that his family was going to be evicted if they didn't come up with the money."
"I just wonder why he had to resort to robbery," Alice mused aloud. "Surely, the church would have been more than willing to give them a loan of some sort…"
"You know the McPhearsons," her daughter replied after she took a sip of her coffee. "They're much too proud to accept any sort of charity."
"He went to your church?" Paige inquired, wondering just exactly how tight-knit the Whickam community was.
Both the older women nodded, though neither looked in her direction. Alice was once more skimming the paper, though she had turned to a much more cheerier section, where the engagements were announced. Leona still sat nursing her coffee. The table fell into a relatively comfortable silence for the next few minutes, until Paige stood, setting her half-way empty coffee cup into the sink.
"I best head on over to the Jiffy Lube and see how my poor car is being handled," she stated. "Hopefully, they've managed to get it towed by now."
Leona smiled at her guest. "Would you like a ride over?" she offered. "I wouldn't mind driving you."
Paige shook her head kindly even before her hostess had finished speaking. "No, Ma'am. I'd rather walk since it's so nice out today." She wasn't entirely lying. The autumn weather in Alabama was much more mild than what she was used to further up north. That, and she needed to take some time to clear her head and think about what her next course of action would be. What she mostly wanted to avoid, however, was being a bother after all the kindness Leona had shown her the previous night.
Leona frowned slightly, clearly worried about her guest being out on her own in an unfamiliar town, but relented to the idea nonetheless. "Alright, but be careful."
Paige nodded, trying to hide her smile. "Yes, Ma'am." She turned to leave the kitchen before she added, "I shouldn't be too long." She figured that the older woman would take comfort in knowing the little bit of extra information. After all, Leona was a mother to three children of her own and the "motherly instinct" had undoubted been extended to her.
After heading up to her bedroom once more to retrieve her purse and light jacket, Paige left the boarding house and turned to retrace the path the had followed the previous night. Whickam had returned to its normal busy routine. All the small family owned businesses had once more opened their doors and many patrons ambled up and down the town's sidewalk that led to the main square. Paige kept her pace up, hoping to get to the Jiffy Lube quickly. If the Lord had any mercy, it would have already been towed to the garage and in need of only minor repairs. Not that he's been that merciful, she thought, a little irritated.
As she walked the few blocks, she kept her mind busy. Friendly residents would give her a small wave as the passed and others would greet her with a simple, "Good morning." Again, she was shocked at how close-knit the small community seemed to be. She turned a slightly familiar turn and could see the Autumn Walk restaurant she had eaten at earlier, and, thankfully, the Lube seemed to be open, too. As she crossed the street, she could see police tape in the distance. The store seemed to be void of any attention, so apparently the scene had managed to simmer down within the few hours between the robbery and daybreak. Tearing her gaze away from the crime scene, she entered the Jiffy Lube through the front door. Just as the previous day, no one was waiting at the counter the give a greeting.
"Hello?" Paige called, hoping she would have to raise her voice further. "Is someone here?" She hoped so. It had seemed busy enough from the outside and she hated the thought of making a return trip later on in the day.
There was an undecipherable call from the back and a couple of moments later, she same man who had met her yesterday stood before her. He was sweaty from his work, despite the cooler weather, and oil covered his torn work jeans and calloused hands. "Ah, I was wondering when you'd come back," he stated.
Paige forced a friendly smile. "I take it your working on my car?"
The man nodded, taking a handkerchief from his pocket and wiping his forehead. "I sure am, though your not gonna like what I found."
Paige groaned slightly. That certainly wasn't what she had wanted to hear. "How bad is it?"
"Busted transmission. You're gonna need a new one." He actually sounded a bit sympathetic when he spoke, despite the fact that he would be racking in the cash.
"Is there anything else we can do?" Paige asked, desperate. "How much is this going to cost?"
"Well, at this point, you're going to need an entirely new transmission. There's no way the one you have now is salvageable. That's going to set you back about $4500 easily, not including service fees. Your rotors seem to be in a little bit of need as well. Have you noticed that it's been harder to steer?"
Paige bit her lower lip. When she actually thought about it, it did seem like she had had some trouble with it in the past. She'd been too busy dealing with her present dilemma to take too much notice. "I guess so," she admitted at length, "but I thought it just needed to be aligned."
"New rotors are going to cost you about another $500, but I might be able to see if I can work with the ones you've got."
"So how much is this going to cost in all? How much for the service?" she questioned, somewhat fearing the answer.
"Around six thousand, give or take." He crossed his arms. "To be completely honest, miss, I think it would be easier if you sold the car you got now to the scrap heap and invested in a used, more dependable car. Probably would be easier."
Paige sighed but managed a small smile, "Thank you for all you're help. Would you mind if I took a day or so to figure out what I'm going to do? It's a lot of money either way, and I'd like to weigh my options a bit."
The mechanic nodded. "Sure. I've got some other cars lined up before yours, anyway." He approached the counter and fished around in the drawers before he extracted a business card. "Just give me a call when you've decided."
Paige took it with once last thanks before leaving. Once she was back out in the cool autumn air, she heaved a deep sigh. There was no way she wanted to pay so much on repairing her car, especially if the same thing could happen again. Of course, finding a good, used car would be just as challenging. She held her head in her hand for a moment, an evident headache coming on and now mingling with her nausea. Her gaze turned straight ahead, the Autumn Walk Restaurant in clear sight. I could go for a little something to drink, she concluded. A place to sit would be equally as desirable. The whole ordeal with the car had worn her out, and it was still very early in the day.
She crossed the street and entered the restaurant. There seemed to be just as many patrons as there had been the previous day, if not more. The aromas that met her nose were intoxicating and she couldn't help but breathe in deeply as she approached the hostess. She was greeted much like she was before and, after requesting a table for one, was led to a quieter part of the restaurant.
"You're waiter will be with you in a bit," the woman promised, handing over the menu.
Paige nodded in thanks before idly flipping through. She hadn't been too hungry upon entering, but the delicious smells emitting from the kitchen made her stomach twist in hunger. Reading through the breakfast portion of the menu only made her mouth water more. Steak biscuits, cinnamon toast smothered in powdered sugar, biscuits and sausage gravy… Her waiter arrived before she had a chance to decide.
"Nice to see you again, Stranger."
Paige almost jerked her gaze away from the menu when she heard the familiar voice. Just she had thought, the waiter she had had from the previous day, Taylor, stood beside her, grinning.
She forced a smile, trying to be as cordial as possible. "Nice to see you, too."
He pulled his notepad from his pocket, still smiling, and obviously amused by her current flustered demeanor. "I didn't expect to see you again so soon," he admitted. "Addicted to the food, I see?"
She chuckled lightly. "I guess it was pretty good, but nowhere near as delicious as my good friend's place back where I'm from."
"Ah," he teased gently, "but you've only tried one dinner selection. Some of our best dishes are served during breakfast."
Paige played along. "I hope I can trust you on that."
He winked. "Believe me. So, have you decided what you'd like? Maybe something to drink first?"
"I was thinking the gravy and biscuits with some orange juice." She kept her gaze averted to the menu.
"Good choice, Miss Parker," he replied, taking the menu from her. "It should be out shortly." He turned quickly and left to attend to another table.
Paige sighed audibly and brushed her hair out of her face. It was stunning that he had remembered her surname, but, considering the small town, she supposed she shouldn't have been too impressed. She kept her gaze down at the polished wood table as her thoughts wondered. As much as she hated to, she probably would need a new car. By the time she had spent enough money on trying to repair it, a new car could have been purchased easily.
As she was trying to balance out her options, though, her stomach once more started to act up. Laying a hand on her abdomen, she swallowed hard, hoping that it would somehow suppress the nausea. Her efforts were in vain, and it only took a split second for her to spring from the table and make beeline for the restroom, leaving behind her purse and jacket. She managed to just make it to a spare stall, shoving several customers along her way.
Emerging from the bathroom around five minutes later, Paige trudged her way back to her table, thankful she see that her belongings remained untouched. Her glass of orange juice was already there, waiting for her. She sat and took a generous gulp, wanting to rid herself of the foul taste left in her mouth.
"I was wondering where you had run off to so quick." Paige looked up and Taylor was standing next to her again. His typical smile was replaced with a look of concern. "You feeling alright? I know this seems like a pretty harmless town, but I don't know of many women who would run off without their purse."
She blushed slightly. "Well, I had to get to the bathroom pretty quickly. It's just a stomach bug," she added as his worried look deepened.
He gave an understanding nod and gestured toward the vacant seat across from her. "Mind if I join you?"
Paige gave him a questioning look, "Shouldn't you be working?"
"I asked for my break a little early," he replied as he sat down, not quite waiting for her belated nod of agreement.
She looked down at her watch. "At nine-thirty in morning?"
Taylor chuckled and rested his elbows on the table. "Well, I've been working all morning so far, and…well, you seemed a little lonely sitting over here by yourself."
Paige had to resist the urge to groan. I should have expected this, she thought to herself as she forced a smile. "Well, thank you, but you hardly needed to take your break early because of me. I just thought I'd pop in real quick and have a bit to eat then head back over to…" She trailed off, the word "home" dropping silent on her tongue. "Back over to the boarding house," she finished lamely.
Taylor perked up a bit at her words, "So you decided to stay with the Eldridges' after all?"
"Well, I needed a place to stay, and you weren't the first person to recommend the place."
"How do you like it there so far?"
Paige couldn't help but feel like she was being interrogated, but she didn't exactly hate the idea of him conversing with her either. She shrugged, "They seem really nice. Welcomed me in readily enough, Leona especially. Her daughter's pretty sweet, too."
Taylor nodded, as if he knew the two quite well. "They are really nice. The whole family is, too. I'm sure you'll really get to taking to them after a while."
"I don't know if I'll be here that long," she admitted. Of course, if her car continued to act up, she would probably be stuck much longer than previously expected.
"I hate to say it, but from the look of your car, it doesn't seem like you'll be going anywhere too soon."
Paige jerked her gaze up and met his eyes, a bit of anger simmering in the pit of her stomach. "How do you know anything about my car?"
Taylor gave her a reassuring smile. "Just because the Lube if right across the street from here. I saw it getting towed last night."
"Oh." She felt her anger dissipate as quickly as it had come. "So, by now the whole town probably knows that I'm stranded here?"
He shrugged, "Probably, though you should consider yourself lucky. The robbery took some of the publicity away from you."
Paige couldn't help but smile at his teasing words. "How fortunate."
The table fell silent for a moment as Taylor glanced over at the other tables to see how things were going. Even though he was on break, he wanted to be certain someone was taking over his tables. Afterwards, he picked up the conversation once more, "So, how long do you think you'll be in town?"
Paige rolled her eyes, "I have no idea. From what I've been told my car's completely messed up, and I'd have to shell out six grand to get it fixed."
He winced. "Ouch."
"Yeah, ouch," she concurred. "It figures, though. It's just my luck." Paige tried to force a small smile, though it fell quite short.
Taylor shrugged and gave her a sympathetic smile. "Who's to say this isn't the Lord's way of telling you to slow down? Maybe it's a blessing in disguise and you just don't realize it yet."
Paige was appreciative of his attempt to cheer her up, but, despite his effort, it didn't help much. "Maybe."
Taylor checked his watch, "I better get back to work."
He left the table and resumed his duties, leaving Paige with her own thoughts. Perhaps it is a sign, she wondered, entertaining the thought. It's not like I have any other place to go, and I think the Eldridges' would be as nice a place as any to stay for an extended period of time.
It wasn't but another five minutes before Taylor returned to her table with her breakfast. Her mouth started to water all over again once it was set in front of her. "It looks great," she commented, giving him one of her genuine smiles. Maybe even Jill's standards…
Taylor gave a dramatic bow. "Only the best." He chuckled and sobered up a bit. "Do you need anything else?"
Paige picked up her fork, about ready to shake her head but then paused. "A job application would be nice."
Taylor grinned, "Of course, Miss Parker. Right away."