The Hardest Step
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by Jane Bierce
Description: They were two voices on the telephone late at night. Burke was a construction engineer in Tampa for an extended assignment, not knowing how lonely he was. Nor did he know that Marti, the voice of Suncoast Answering Service, was disabled, ready to spread her wings in a world that would see her cane and limp before it appreciated her talents. Together they will learn that the hardest step is to learn to trust again.
eBook Publisher: Awe-Struck E-Books, 1999
eBookwise Release Date: April 2002
45 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [249 KB]
Reading time: 163-229 min.
"Jane Bierce is a glowing talent in the romance field! Few stories have a handicapped heroine who shows the world that "handicapped" DOES NOT mean "useless"! A story that deserves a standing ovation!"--Debra Fitch, Huntress Book Reviews
Burke Hildebrand opened the door of the motel room, switched on the light and threw his battered briefcase onto the bed. As he pocketed his room key, he retraced his steps to the balcony which ran the length of the upper level of the motel.
Taking a deep breath, he picked up the well-scuffed canvas bag which had accompanied him from the States to Australia and back again. He was used to traveling light.
Returning to the room, he closed the door behind him and dumped the bag on the bed. With a sigh, he began to remove the chambray shirt he'd been wearing for the last twenty hours. It had dust from three airports blasted into its fibers.
He flexed his shoulders, then swung his arms in wide circles until he felt certain muscles relax.
Burke tried to ignore the institutionally bland furniture and neutral color scheme by looking out the window at the night.
Something was bothering him, and it wasn't the breeze blowing in off Tampa Bay or the traffic on the highway a few hundred yards away. It was the feeling that once again he was dislocated from anyone or anything familiar.
A new project, a new town, but the same old Burke Hildebrand, and the same old loneliness.
He turned back to the situation at hand. It took almost no time to unpack. As usual, he opened a drawer of the bureau and dropped everything in. Later he'd send out his laundry, hang his good trousers in the closet after they'd been pressed, and sort out his socks.
He wasn't generally very neat at this stage of a project. When he was not working sixteen hours a day, he would try to become more civilized. Then he would shave regularly, maybe even eat where there were cloths on the tables. Not now. He was too busy.
He pulled a crumpled envelope from the side pocket of his canvas bag and once again took the contents from it. The airline ticket should go into a file in the briefcase which was labeled Expenses . The letter from Joe Parmeter, however, was full of instructions. Call Suncoast Answering Service for your messages, one of them read.
Burke stretched out on the bed, leaving his heavy brogans extended over the side so they wouldn't soil the flowered bedspread. Leaning his broad shoulders against the headboard, he swung the phone onto his rippled ribcage and punched out the numbers.
"Good evening, Suncoast Answering Service," a bright feminine voice responded. "How may I help you?"
"Uh!" Burke grunted in surprised response to something in the voice that reached out and clutched at his soul. It was the first time that day he'd heard anyone who didn't sound like a programmed machine.
"This is Burke Hildebrand of Parmeter Engineering Industries, checking on my messages."
"Mr. Hildebrand! Thank you for choosing Suncoast Answering Service." She greeted him as though she was expecting his call and it had made her night. He knew, logically, she was obviously searching for his messages.
"Well, I didn't do the choosing," Burke set her straight reluctantly. "I guess Joe Parmeter arranged for your services when he was in Tampa setting up this project."
"Oh, I see." Her alto voice was sweet and warm. "I didn't meet Mr. Parmeter when he was here. Welcome to Tampa. I hope we live up to his expectations. I have a message for you from Mr. Parmeter. He says he won't be able to get to town until later in the week and for you to proceed without him. I guess that's not too complicated."
She paused, as though waiting for him to finish writing something done.
"Generally, Mr. Hildebrand, I'll warn you if you need pencil and paper when I see what the messages are," she went on. "In addition to taking messages, we have a number of services we can perform for you. We can relay messages to your callers or page you at your work site."
"I'll remember that," Burke promised, wanting to keep her on the phone longer. "Ah, do you have a name, miss? I -- I have a hard time just talking to voices. I like to attach a name to a voice."
"Marti," she told him, a slight giggle in her voice. "With an i."
"Well, Marti-with-an-i , it's been a long day for me. I started out in Melbourne this morning -- the one in Australia, not the one in Florida. I have monumental jet-lag and I'll sleep better knowing someone will take my messages."
"Will do," Marti promised with a little laugh. "By the way, would you like a wake-up call?"
"Could you?" Burke asked, knowing his travel alarm had given up some months ago and he hadn't replaced it.
"Sure. What time?"
"I think I'll sleep in. Six would be fine."
She giggled. "That's sleeping in? You're down for six, sir. Good night."
He hung up the phone and put it back on the nightstand. He'd hate to have a job that kept him up all night. Maybe he could get used to it, though. But the idea of staying up all night on top of the fatigue he already felt just made him more tired.
A shower would definitely help.
It was strange how the voice of a real person at the other end of the telephone made a difference in his outlook. Someone who responded to your supposed cleverness at this time of night took the edge off the sterility of the motel room. A little of the loneliness evaporated from of the night.
Copyright © 1999 by Jane Bierce