We were heading west on I-80. Dominic obeyed the speed limits. Allison read and played her DS in the back seat. I stared out the window, willing my mind to go blank.
The soft, melted chocolate of Dominic’s voice invaded my attempts. “I want to stay on eighty till lunch time. We’ll find a little town to eat lunch and get a map. When we have a map, we make a more educated decision on our route and destination for the night.”
I turned from watching the world go by and fixed my eyes on his face. He looked relaxed. Except for the muscle jumping in his cheek. His head turned, those green eyes locking with mine just long enough before going back to watch the road. His hand found my knee and squeezed.
“It’s gong to be okay, Ella. We’ve done this before. Not to this degree, but still, we’ve done it just fine. I’m more skilled now. More informed. And I have the feds backing me up. I have the locations of safe houses throughout the country. We can use them if we have to, but we’ll be okay. I won’t let anything happen to you two.”
I was glad he included Allison when he said that. I didn’t want to have to keep reminding him that she was there, too. “I believe you. But that doesn’t make it easier.”
Four hours of driving, with one short stop for a bathroom break and stretch of the legs, had all three of us ready to stop to linger over lunch and some small town USA main street shopping.
We had left the westbound interstate near Akron, Ohio to take a more scenic route heading southwest along OH-3. Along the road was a low, red building that looked like it might have spent the first part of its life as a large chicken coop. The sign out front indicated it was the Iron Pony Saloon. Under the name was the declaration of “Best Prime Rib in Ohio.”
Dominic pulled into the worn and cracked parking lot, parking at the far end of the building near the ramp that led up to the door. There were only a handful of vehicles in the lot, mostly dirty trucks. But then again, we were in the middle of nowhere. There probably weren’t more than twenty vehicles in the surrounding area, and most of them were probably dirty trucks.
“This place looks good for lunch.” Dominic said, eyeing the building. He turned to me and Allison. “What do you think?”
Allison was looking around. “Where are we?” she asked.
“The Iron Pony Saloon,” Dominic provided with a big grin. “Sign says they have the best prime rib in the state. Wanna see if it’s true?”
I watched her think it over. Then she smiled at him. “Are you buying?”
I couldn’t help it. I laughed. “Does it matter who buys?” I asked her.
With a shrug, she said, “Well, if Mr. Dominic drove us all this way for the best prime rib in Ohio. . . and if it’s a date sort of thing. . . Then, yes. It matters. He should pay. The man pays on a date.” She was very confident in her answer.
And, of course, Dominic humored her. “Well, beautiful, since you put it that way, I guess I’ll be paying for my date. But what about your mom? Do I pay for her, or does she pay for herself since you’re my date?”
A giggle bubbled from Allison’s throat, and she gave him a playful shove. “Silly! Mom is your date, not me.”
Shock at what she had said choked my laughter in my throat. “Why would I be his date, honey?”
Her blue eyes met mine. “Well. . .” The word drug out. “You need to go on dates, Mom. Daddy can’t take you out anymore, but you still need to go. I think Daddy would want you to be happy.”
“Oh, baby,” I cried as I wrapped her in my arms over the console. Tears fell while I held her. My little girl was wise beyond her years, and, while it was refreshing in someways, it broke my heart in others.
I gave her a big squeeze and pulled away, wiping the tears from my cheeks. “Let’s go try this famous prime rib,” I said, and we piled out of the car.
The meal was good, if the atmosphere was something I’d rather not expose my daughter to again. But the food filled our empty stomachs.
Heading off the road we had been traveling, we came to the small, backwoods town of Lakeville. It was picturesque, especially given the spring season. The trees were just unfurling their leaves in bright yellow-green hues. The fields were plowed, the freshly turned earth a rich umber, ready for planting.
The aura of the town insisted that visitors feel at ease, and it was working it’s magic on me. The air was warm and fresh as it whipped in through my open window. The place just felt right.
I turned to Dominic as he slowed his speed. We were entering the main town. “We should stop here if we can. Maybe there’s a motel or something.” His eyes questioned me when he glanced my way. “I can’t explain it, but I think we should stop here. If we can.”
“We could still drive through the afternoon,” he said, not arguing exactly. More like he was pointing out something that I’d failed to notice.
“I know. But I think it would be better to stop somewhere quiet. Somewhere inconspicuous. Somewhere where life isn’t so different.” I hoped he caught my meaning.
“Mommy? What does inconspicuous mean?” came Allison’s sweet voice from the back.
“It means not obvious, baby,” I answered her.
“Oh,” was all she said before resuming her game.
“Here, Dominic,” I said as I eyed an opportunity. “Stop at the little store. I’ll run in and ask if there’s lodging anywhere.”
He pulled into the lot. The little building looked like a photo from the 1950s come to life. Even the colors were faded into muted tones of their original appearance.
I climbed out of the car, telling Allison I’d be right back and walked into the store. The photo scene played out inside, as well. Complete with an older man behind the counter wearing a white button-down and black slacks, his round glasses perched on the middle of his nose.
“Afternoon, miss. Can I help you with anything?” he asked with a bright smile. The strength of his voice surprised me.
“Actually, I was wondering if there might me a place to stay around here?” I returned his contagious smile.
“Well, there’s no hotels, if that’s what you’re wantin’. But there is a bed and breakfast down off Spring Run Road. Bubblin’ Brook Inn, it’s called. ‘Bout a half hour ride from here.” He slid his thin body onto a stool, waiting for my reply.
“That sounds like just the place I’m looking for,” I said with a smile. “Do you have a map I can buy?”
He pointed a wrinkled, age-spotted finger at a small rack at the far corner of the counter.
I scanned the selection, and picked up the state map. After a quick glance, I found the maps for the county we were in and the two closest counties. It seemed Lakeville was at the northern end of the county and just below the point where two other counties intersected. Better to be prepared with four maps, than lost in the middle of a cornfield in no-man’s-land, Ohio.
I paid for the maps and took written and verbal directions to the bed and breakfast. Then I thanked the man with a friendly smile and went back to the car.