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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Anthony Piers
 

«Rings of Ice», Piers Anthony

Chapter 1: Rain

Noon—but the depth of swirling cloud blanked out any suggestion of the sun and made the air chill. She stood forlornly on the approach to the Interstate highway, knowing the chances were fifty-fifty that any car that stopped for her would mean trouble for a lone young woman. But trouble or no, she had to get a ride; time was running out.

She saw the small bus as the first fat drops of rain slanted down. The vehicle was moving slowly around the loop of the approach, feeling its way. There was no reason to assume it was slowing for her.

She forced her eyes off it, watching the rain smash into the dry dirt embankment beyond the road. The huge drops actually excavated little craters. Meteorologically, she knew, this was known as rain-drop blast, and it could be a substantial if little-known source of erosion. The construction company should either have paved the embankment or seeded it with grass. Perhaps that had been scheduled for next week. As it stood, a few good storms would carry down so much earth that the job would soon have to be done over.

In fact, one good storm would wash it out. This one. Not that it mattered. The world as she knew it was coming to an end.

The downpour developed so rapidly that by the time the bus pulled abreast of her she was drenched. But the vehicle stopped, it stopped!

It was not a bus after all, or a van, but a motorized trailer, a camper, a motor home. There was a massive “W” on its side, with a painted line trailing all the way to the rear. Winnebago—she had seen them on the road before, but never been inside one. Its door was set back a few feet, in the side, and it had bus-like windows. Privately owned—and surely by a wealthy family. Well, any port in a storm—especially this storm!

The door opened. She climbed in. Her wet skirt caught at her thighs, making the ascent awkward, and she was dripping water all over the fine shag carpeting inside.

A handsome, hearty man stopped looking at her legs long enough to give her a hand up. She stiffened, but reminded herself that she was the one begging the favor of a ride. It ill behooved her to antagonize anyone at the outset.

“Hi!” the big man said. “I’m Gus Gunter.” He gestured to his companion, the driver. “This is Thatch. Thatcher Zane. You?”

“Zena Emers,” she said, looking about. The interior was elegant—an amazing contrast to the stark metal exterior. There was a dinette opposite the entrance, with a map of North America set into the plastic table surface. The upholstery was in dark leatherette, looking expensive and new. The carpeting extended all the way down the central hall to the back.

It was not the sudden luxury that dismayed her so much as the human situation. With every vestige of her clothing plastered against her body, she was suddenly thrust into a traveling bachelor apartment Maybe she would be better off in the rain.

“Get it moving, Thatch,” Gus said. Had he read her mind?

The driver shook his head dubiously. He was a medium-small man with heavy-lensed glasses that distorted his pale brown eyes, and he had a moderately receding chin. His face was scarred as if by smallpox or childhood acne. His hairline was drawing back from his forehead, though he could not be over thirty. As men went, wholly unimpressive.

“I don’t know,” Thatch muttered. “She’s all wet, and the visibility—” His voice was somewhat nasal, in contrast to the chesty timbre of his handsome friend.

“You worrying about the visibility outside—or inside?” Gus demanded. It might have been a joke, but he wasn’t smiling, and Zena herself was all too well aware of her involuntary exposure. But how did one buy a raincoat or umbrella while hitchhiking broke? “I’ll take care of Miss Emers,” Gus continued. “It is Miss?”

She nodded reluctantly. She might have insisted on Ms, but would not lie about Mrs—and doubted that it would have made any difference to this pair.

“So you get this crate going before it stalls out,” Gus finished.

The driver should have bridled at the tone, but Thatch only shrugged and eased the motor into gear. The beat of rain on the windshield intensified as the vehicle picked up speed.

Gus put his big familiar hand on Zena’s elbow. “There’s clothing in back. Maybe some’ll fit you. Don’t worry about the rug; it’ll dry.”

“Thank you, no,” she said, shaking him off. Already it was beginning! “Where’s the next stop?”

“No next stop,” he said. “You’re staying with us. Now come on back.” And once more that hand landed, this time on her wet shoulder.


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