“I guess.” Wendy took a couple steps toward the kitchen. “How bad is it in there?”
Tara hadn’t yet looked. The brand-new industrial stove wasn’t something they’d even tried to move. It would have been foolish, but she wished they could have saved it. Her eyes burned. She had to look, but she didn’t want to. Her imagination hurt too much.
Wendy lifted her chin and did the deed for her, shouldering open the swinging doors that were frozen in the mud. The sound of scraping between the door and the floor was loud. She stepped through and even from here Tara heard her gasp.
She couldn’t look. She just couldn’t. Her heart, what was left of it, was already broken.
“Come here,” Wendy cried. “You have to see this.”
She didn’t want to. But she was the boss, the owner, the person who would ultimately have to decide if they were going to work to reopen. Or give up. She’d have to look eventually.
Slowly, her steps heavy in the goop, she moved to the door. She didn’t have to push against it as Wendy already had. The mud held it open.
Wendy was only a couple steps in front of her. Frozen. Staring.
Boxes. Dozens of them, every single one that had been in the pantry or the freezer, was stacked around the big stove. They were soaking wet, with mud climbing up their sides. But—moving closer, Tara squinted, not believing what she was seeing. Yes, there was dirt on the floor, but only about an inch deep. The stove was coated in grime, but not caked in mud like the rest of the diner.
Someone—most likely Wade and maybe Morgan helped—had created the barrier. They’d protected her livelihood.
Tears burned her eyes, blurring her vision as she stared at the stove, safe and salvageable. Beautiful. Blinking, she felt the damp spill over, sliding down her cheeks, probably leaving tracks in the dirt she felt on her face.
“They saved it,” Wendy said unnecessarily. “We can reopen.” Her excitement grew. “We can do this.”
Tara felt some of Wendy’s enthusiasm, which quickly faded as she looked around. It would take days…weeks to clean everything. How long would it take to get the necessary inspections done? She had to file an insurance claim. Mentally, she began making lists.
Voices and footsteps broke into her thoughts. Wade must be here. She needed to thank him.
Instead of her evening cook, half a dozen men she’d never met before came through the front doors. Jack led the way.
And Morgan pulled up the rear. Brooke was with him and wore a pair of bright purple rubber boots. She carried a toy shovel in one hand and a little bucket in the other.
Suddenly, Tara noticed everyone was carrying a grown-up version of Brooke’s toy. What—?
“We’re here to help,” Jack said, smiling almost as brightly at Tara as he was at Wendy—almost. “These men work for us.” He introduced everyone. “We hauled in supplies. Now we’re here to help you.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary,” Tara said.
“Don’t turn down free help.” Wendy nudged her. “It is free, right?”
Morgan nodded and approached Tara. “It’s the least we can do for all you’ve done for us, right, Brooke?”
His gratitude rang true, so why did she feel disappointed? The shadows were gone from under his eyes, even though his face still sported pale versions of the bruises. He looked younger, too, from the happiness Tara knew he was feeling.
Brooke tilted her head and smiled at Tara. She looked happier, too, her hair now neatly combed and shiny. Two purple bows held her ponytails back.
“Did your dad do your hair?”
Brooke giggled. “No. He goofed it up. Uncle Jack did it.”
Jack actually blushed. “Okay, people. We’ve got work to do.”
The men who’d come with them set to work, scooping shovelfuls of dirt and mud into buckets and a lone wheelbarrow. Brooke took tiny scoops and with a determined look on her face, took each one to a bucket nearly as big as she was.
“Thank you,” Tara said to Morgan as he worked and kept an eye on his daughter.
He stopped, crossing his big forearms atop the wooden handle of his shovel. “Like I said, it’s the least we can do.” He reached over and flipped one of Brooke’s ponytails. “Right, honey?”