Chapter IV

 

RJ grumbled to herself as she reached out for a screwdriver that was just beyond her fingertips. The garage was dark except for a hanging light attached under the hood and another flipped on over her workbench. She needed to keep the throttle spring just so …

"Damn thin’!" The tool at her fingertips clattered to the concrete floor, causing another stream of four letter words to be launched into the air.

"What would your mother say?"

RJ jerked her head up and collided with the underhood of the truck at the sound of Leigh’s voice. Her hand unclenched with the impact of her head and the throttle spring made a dutiful ‘sproinging’ noise as it flew across the room and clattered to the floor.

"Ow!" RJ rubbed the back of her head, glancing up sheepishly at Leigh, who didn’t even try to smother her chuckles. "Very funny. And my would no doubt try to wash my mouth out with soap, if you have a burning need to know." The brunette grinned as she continued to rub the back of her head. Now this was a lovely surprise. Despite the near-continuous teasing she’d endured after coming back to the picnic covered in mud, she found herself thinking of Leigh often. Maybe even missing her. But still, it was due to Leigh that she was putting up with two and a half tons of shit. She wanted a little revenge. "But hello to you, sexy. What brings you back this way?" RJ took a few steps into the corner of the room and bent down to retrieve the spring.

"Shower." Leigh jiggled the backpack that contained her shower supplies and a clean change of clothes. "Pete said I could use it again. I had dinner at the diner." She took a step closer to RJ. Stepping in out of the shadows, she smiled. "I was hoping you’d be there."

"My night off." She gestured to her truck. "I thought I’d give Carol a tune up. Her carburetor needed to be adjusted. She’s not purring just right."

"Carol?" Leigh peered at the charcoal-black bucket of rust. Typhoid Mary would be a better name.

RJ fetched the screwdriver and quickly attached the spring. "Yeah, Carol." She spoke with her head in the engine. "My grandmother named her Carol after the actress Carol Lombard. Me grandmother had a thing for short blondes too." She glanced up at Leigh and winked, surprised that in the dim light she could see a faint blush working its way up Leigh’s neck.

"So this was your grandmother’s truck?" Interested, Leigh joined RJ under the hood to see what she was doing. "And I’m not that short."

RJ snorted as she made the adjustment to the carburetor. "Five foot three and no more, or I’m not RJ Fitzgerald." Her eyes dared Leigh to disagree. But by the narrowing of Leigh’s baby blues, RJ knew she couldn’t. "And this was my Grandmother’s truck. Saved for three long years and bought it brand-spanking new before she went overseas in ’42." She wiped her hands on a rag. "And you are short, but you’re cute too. So that’s bound to count for something."

"Thanks." Leigh smiled wryly. "I think." Leigh retrieved a wrench RJ was eyeing. "So why keep something so ..." She gestured vaguely. "So–"

RJ glared at her.

"– antique?" Leigh finished quickly.

RJ was quiet for so long that Leigh worried she’d hit another sore spot. She was about to change the subject when RJ’s quiet voice breached the silence in the garage. "Because," the tall woman paused, "it’s all I have ... of hers anyway. It’s … well, it’s sort of sad story, lass." RJ glanced at Leigh, feeling unsure of what to say, but more in the mood to talk than she’d been in quite some time. "It’s probably nothing you’d want to hear about."

Leigh laid her hand on RJ’s forearm and gently squeezed. "You’re wrong," she said solemnly. She could feel the warmth of RJ’s skin through the gray overalls she wore and was momentarily distracted. She licked her lips. "I’d like to hear."

RJ nodded slowly as she finished removing the last spark plug. "All right." Another few moments and the plugs were replaced.

Leigh let her backpack slide to the floor as RJ clicked off the light above the workbench, casting it in gentle shadows.

RJ straightened to her full height and used her arms to hoist herself onto the bench, her long legs dangling freely over its edge. She patted the spot next to her so Leigh could join her.

With a boldness that surprised even Leigh, she didn’t join RJ on the workbench. Instead, she moved in front of RJ, standing so close that RJ had to spread her legs to accommodate Leigh’s body. The blonde woman’s hips brushed against RJ’s calves, then inner thighs as she came to rest nearly flush against the bench. She placed both palms flat against RJ’s thighs and looked up into her eyes.

The unexpected closeness seemed so intimate, so intense, that it was arousing and disconcerting at the same time. RJ sucked in a surprised breath.

A slow smile edged its way onto Leigh’s face, and she patted one of the thighs beneath her hand. "Go ahead."

RJ tentatively returned Leigh’s smile. "My Grandmother, for whom I’m named, by the way," she paused, "she delivered planes from base to base in the South Pacific. Where she was killed." Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Nothing like starting at the end of a tale! RJ looked away from Leigh.

With one hand, Leigh cupped RJ’s chin and gently guided the brunette’s attention back to her. For reasons Leigh didn’t understand, what was supposed to be an interesting story about RJ’s truck now seemed very important. To both women. "I never knew any of my grandparents," Leigh uttered quietly, hoping to put RJ at ease. She ran her thumb along RJ’s jaw before removing her hand. "So it’s nice that you at least have something from her. I didn’t know women actually flew. I figured back then they were all nurses and secretaries and stuff like that."

"Well, most were. But there were a few who flew. They didn’t fly fighter planes in combat, but they were how many of the planes got to their final destination. Especially near the end of the war, when every available male pilot was attached to a fighter squadron in some way. Women also flew cargo planes, even in the most dangerous fronts. My grandmother was shot down by the Japanese during a mission to deliver a bomber."

"I’m sorry."

RJ’s smile was bittersweet. "Well, it’s not hardly your fault, now is it? Besides, it was a lifetime ago and certainly nothing to be brooding over now. At least not by me."

"So I guess you don’t know what happened exactly. Just that she was shot down?"

"No. I know more of the tale from me mother. Two Japanese fighter planes took off one of her wings when she was about a minute away from her landing point." RJ made a twirling motion with her finger. "The plane spun in circles and dropped like a stone into the Pacific Ocean. She broke both her arms and cracked open her head on impact, but was alive."

Leigh’s eyes went a little wide.

"‘Course she was trapped in the plane, which instantly filled with water." RJ cocked her head to the side, green eyes luminous in the dim light fluttering closed. "It’s not hard to imagine the burn of the salty water if you try."

"I …" Leigh wasn’t sure what to say. Her heart began to beat a little bit faster. "I don’t think I want to imagine that."

RJ opened her eyes. "Me neither." Oddly, she smiled. "Anyway Grandmother’s co-pilot and navigator, a chubby, red-haired crop duster from Iowa, fished her out from under the water when she was already about twenty feet down."

Leigh tried not to think about what it would be like to be buckled into a sinking plane, unable to move your arms to free yourself.

"The co-pilot got them both out and held onto my grandmother until they were rescued about an hour later." RJ shrugged. "I never knew her, of course. I just inherited the truck. My mother has always told me the stories, which were told to her by her grandmother, who looked after her after her mother was killed."

"Sounds like you’ve got something to be proud of, though."

RJ frowned. "Didn’t you hear the story? She didn’t deliver the plane. She was shot down."

Leigh blinked. "I heard the story. She died serving her country."

"I suppose," RJ allowed. "Folks say she was a brave women. Some of the folks in Glory knew her back then." She looked away again. "But I’m not so convinced she was all that brave. She wasn’t much older than I am now. And I think that maybe, just maybe, there was a big part of her that was scared, especially when she knew her plane was going to crash and there was nothing she could do to stop it." RJ’s eyes seemed to glaze. She’d told the story so many times she knew it by heart, could feel what it was really like. "Crashing into the ocean. Knowing you can’t get out. Being trapped, feeling the water dragging you under. Breathing it in and choking. Knowing you failed in your mission and watching the world go black all around you."

RJ stopped and realized she had gotten completely away from Leigh. "I’m sorry." She smiled weakly. "Yeah, I’ve got something to be proud of."

Leigh had paled a little at RJ’s vivid description. "You’re quite a storyteller, RJ Fitzgerald."

RJ snorted a little. "So I’ve been told. Maybe I’m a wasting my time in Glory and ought to head out to Hollywood, eh?"

"Maybe," Leigh whispered, feeling slightly ill.

"So what did you have for dinner? Shrimp?" RJ grinned, trying to lighten the mood. She certainly hadn’t meant to cast such a dour mood over Leigh’s visit.

"Umm ..." Leigh blinked in confusion. Is the story over? I guess so. Leigh vowed she’d never say another word about RJ’s truck again. She couldn’t believe RJ was even talking to her now. "Soup," she said absently, completely missing the darker woman’s barb. "That’s what I had for dinner."

"Hmm, yeah, Mavis makes the soup here. It’s some of the best." RJ clicked on the light above her head, causing Leigh to shield her eyes and squint. Leigh backed away and RJ pushed herself off the tabletop. She reached under the hood and clicked off that light. "How long can you stay?"

Leigh shook her head a little, pushing RJ’s gloomy story far from her mind. "The truck’s parked alongside the garage. I’m here until morning."

"I’m finished here." RJ lowered the hood, letting it slam shut." She scratched her face, then wiped her hands on a rag. "Can I buy you a beer?" RJ gestured to a beat-up old fridge in the corner with her chin. "Then maybe we can take a walk." She wiggled her eyebrows. "I know how much you like to take walks with me and it’s a beautiful night tonight. Stars all twinkling and happy." Like me with you.

"Absolutely." Leigh grinned, then began to laugh softly. "Here." She took the rag out of RJ’s hands and folded it in half. "You have a grease mustache." Without waiting for permission, she gently wiped RJ’s lip and cheek.

RJ patiently allowed the fussing. "If you don’t stop that, Leigh Matthews, you just might get kissed."

"In that case …" Leigh leaned over and wiped the other side of RJ’s mouth, raising her eyebrows she waited.

RJ shook her head. What the hell was she getting into? She lifted her palms to Leigh’s face and drew her close, kissing her soundly. It was gentle, but passionate and went on for several minutes before RJ finally pulled back and whispered through labored breaths, "I warned you."

"Warn me again." Leigh whispered, a warm sensation starting in her belly and radiating outward.

"Count on it." RJ stepped back and unzipped the front of her overalls, exposing her street clothes. "Ready for that walk?"

Leigh nodded. "Sure." She grasped RJ’s hand and dropped her backpack in front of the bathroom as they walked past it.

RJ opened the door, and the sweet evening breeze instantly enveloped her. Gone was the scent of oil and car grease, replaced instead with the scent of the prairie and french fries from Fitz’s. RJ drew in a deep breath. "Heavenly, don’t you think?"

Leigh laughed, and tucked a stray strand of pale hair behind her ear. "Yeah," she breathed quietly, glancing around. "It’s not bad."

Flea trotted up to the woman as they began a slow walk.

Leigh’s grip on RJ’s hand tightened.

RJ’s eyes slid sideways. "What’s wrong?"

"That cat is weird."

RJ burst out laughing. "I couldn’t agree more. Flea is one of a kind."

Flea narrowed her eyes. Humans were a real pain in her ass sometimes. In one jump she was up on RJ’s shoulder, where she gave RJ a playful smack to the head. Well, sort of playful.

Leigh let go of RJ’s hand and backed away further. The thought of a cat on her shoulder named ‘Flea’ made her itch all over.

As if reading her thoughts, Flea hissed at the shorter woman.

"Be nice," RJ scolded mildly. "For all she knows it’s true." She addressed Leigh honestly. "It’s just a name. Flea doesn’t really have fleas. I promise."

A single slender blonde eyebrow inched upward. "You’re sure?"

"Would I hold her if she did?"

"If you would, that’s as close as you’re getting to me." She pointedly gazed at the distance between them.

Flea began nibbling RJ’s hair as though there was something in there.

Leigh’s jaw dropped.

"Thanks a lot, cat!" RJ pushed the feline from her shoulders. "Leigh –"

The trucker held up both her palms and tried her best not to smile. "Stay right where you are."

Ignoring her, RJ stepped closer and lowered her voice. "Leigh."

Leigh’s eyebrows sprang up at the deep timbre of RJ’s voice. Instinctively, she began to move forward toward the voice. Oooo… Wait. Fleas. She stopped. "Sorry, RJ. But that sexy voice won’t work on me." Okay, it will. But you don’t get to know that.

Sexy? RJ smirked inwardly and took another step forward. "Leigh." In the same voice.

Leigh closed her eyes for a second, then shook her head quickly. "Nope." She turned on her heels and bolted across the park area behind the diner, disappearing into the waning light.

"Shit." RJ shot Flea a dirty look before chasing after her.

Flea watched the women in amusement as two voices raised in laughter drifted back to her on the gentle spring wind. They were playing cat and mouse.

And humans wondered why cats acted superior.

***

They had walked and talked, trading slow kisses in the moonlight for what had to be close to two hours. Leigh was having a wonderful time and not a single fiber of her being wanted it to be over yet.

By the time they made their way back to the garage, the diner parking lot only had a few cars in it and Leigh could see Mavis serving coffee to one or two stragglers who, apparently, weren’t anxious to get back on the road. Been there, done that, she thought sympathetically.

RJ pushed open the garage door but didn’t turn on a light. Their eyes had adjusted to the starlight outside and the shadowy interior of the garage posed no problems. The windows allowed a good dose of moonlight to spill into the large room.

Leigh took the lead, wordlessly tugging RJ’s hand, pulling the woman toward the bathroom that held the shower.

The tall woman smiled and the smoldering burn that had been driving her to distraction all night burst into flame with the realization of where she was being invited.

"Are you taking me someplace where naughty things happen, Leigh Matthews?" RJ asked, her face split into a huge grin.

Leigh stopped walking and turned around to face RJ, allowing their gazes to lock and the look on her face to speak for itself.

RJ’s heart began to beat double time. She had never seen a look of such pure, unashamed lust shining in a woman’s eyes.

Leigh began walking again. "Depends on what you mean by ‘naughty,’ RJ," she whispered softly. "I mean, it’s not like I’ve got enough whipped cream to cover you in it and lick it off or anything."

 

Sweet Jesus. RJ felt her knees go weak. She vowed at that very moment to check her jacket and make sure she had her keys for the diner, because when Pete and Mavis left she would be visiting the icebox to find the stuff Pete put on the top of the pies. RJ figured there was only one thing sweeter, and it was already leading her to the shower.

Leigh turned around and began walking backwards through the garage so quiet she could hear every breath RJ took. The tip of her tongue appeared, and she wet her lips very slowly.

RJ groaned out loud. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from Leigh’s mouth. "Ohhhh, yeah …" rumbled from her chest. "You and naughty … intimately acquainted, I remember."

The smaller woman simply hooked her pinky around RJ’s and continued to tug her into the small room. "Would you like me to show you just how intimately?" Leigh asked as they came to a halt just inside the bathroom. Her right hand worked its way slowly up the front of RJ’s shirt, while her left hand closed the bathroom door and threw the bolt. As the metal bar slid into place, Leigh’s thumb barely passed over RJ’s painfully hard nipple.

RJ bit her lower lip and whimpered. She leaned toward the touch that disappeared all too quickly. She wanted — needed — this so badly that she felt tears well in her eyes. Her lips were dry from her breathing, now coming in short pants. She quickly wet them.

A warm, firm body pressed up against RJ, pinning her to the cool tile wall. Her chin was nudged upward as soft lips began a gentle exploration of throat. "I want you so bad, I can barely stand it," Leigh whispered roughly, as her tongue and lips continued to caress and brand.

RJ’s eyes fluttered shut when Leigh’s hot tongue found, then slid over her jugular vein, applying pressure in a sensitive spot that earned the trucker a long, languid moan. She could feel the tickle of Leigh’s breath along the hypersensitive damp skin just claimed by the questing tongue. It sent shivers up and down RJ’s spine, and she fought the urge to turn the tables and push Leigh up against the wall. To take her where she stood. But the thought was whisked away by Leigh’s insistent movement.

Small but determined hands unbuttoned RJ’s shirt, and before she knew it they pushing it off broad shoulders, allowing the night air to brush against heated skin. Leigh grazed RJ’s muscular bare back with her nails, driving the auburn-haired woman to distraction. "You’re so damn beautiful," Leigh growled into RJ’s ear, continuing to nip and kiss, unable to stop her hips from moving forward and making solid contact with the body she was enjoying.

Leigh moaned long and low as she felt RJ’s hands slide under her shirt and brush across her belly and ribs.

"You’re not so bad yourself," the tall woman offered, lowering her head to drop a trail of tiny kisses from Leigh’s chin to her ear and down her neck.

The blonde woman drew in a ragged breath, content to let RJ take the lead for the moment. In fact, her body insisted. "We," a deep breath, "are really," a low moan, "bad for each other." Her last words were slightly muffled as her shirt was pulled over her head. How the hell did that happen? Do I care?

"Uh huh," RJ whispered, giving her head a tiny nod. "I barely know you."

"And I barely know you."

"Does that bother you?" RJ cupped Leigh’s breasts, smiling at the gasp that rewarded her.

Intense, sky blue eyes shone like liquid silver in the near darkness. "Do I look bothered?" Leigh growled. Threading the fingers of one hand into RJ’s thick hair, she pulled her into a heart-stopping kiss, the trucker’s tongue plunging deeply into RJ’s mouth. Both women moaned out their approval at the move as they feasted on each other’s mouths.

RJ kicked off her boots, which took her socks with them. Her hands worked the clasp on Leigh’s bra, unhooking it and then sliding it from her shoulders where she let it drop to the floor — forgotten. "We are bad."

"Then –" Leigh backed away and sucked in an appreciative breath at the vision that she was currently unwrapping. Under the handsome exterior, RJ was all woman. Impatiently, she tugged on the button of RJ’s trousers and nuzzled her chest, her mouth watering as it tasted it sweet flesh. "Why does it feel so good?"

Leigh slid her hands around RJ’s waist and into her pants and underwear, not stopping until both hands were full of a firm backside. She squeezed and RJ hissed out her pleasure, the sound causing a flood of warm blood to settle in Leigh’s belly. The heated flesh under her fingers only made her want to feel, see, and kiss more. So she did. RJ didn’t just feel good. She feels incredible, Leigh’s mind whispered. She’s making me feel incredible.

"Dunno, just does. God …" RJ’s words trailed off, but they were fully and completely immersed in exploring each other and neither of them seemed to notice.

RJ caught Leigh in another kiss while taking the time to lower the zipper on the smaller woman’s jeans. Soon they were both nude and hungrily enjoying each other’s mouths, their hands frantically moving over naked skin made damp by the intensity of the moment. Skin met skin and Leigh shuddered under the sensual onslaught as full breasts pressed tightly against. Even standing, their legs were tangled together.

It occurred briefly to Leigh that they weren’t in the shower and despite the fact that they were only a few feet away, they weren’t going to make it. But this thought was quickly washed away when she felt RJ’s mouth land on her nipple, sucking it greedily and taking most of her breast into an impossibly hot mouth. "Oh, God!" She was grateful for the strong arms that held her as her knees buckled and she was leaned way back. Her hands immediately went into RJ’s hair, holding the head firmly in place as she writhed under her lover’s skillful tongue.

RJ’s own nipples swelled and tightened in response to Leigh’s body. She kept one strong arm wrapped around Leigh to keep her from falling, while her other hand snaked between them and worked its way down Leigh’s trim body. RJ sighed with pleasure, enjoying touching this woman so intimately.

It had been too long since she’d done this. Too long since RJ had found a woman who seemed to enjoy it as much as she did. She was enthralled with the overwhelming sensation of it all. Leigh’s skin felt like smooth silk, then liquid velvet as RJ’s fingers slid through soft curly hair to where Leigh was all smoldering heat and passion. "You are so wet." She smiled at the barely audible gasp that came from Leigh, who shamelessly pushed harder into her body.

Goosebumps broke out along Leigh’s arms when she felt RJ’s hand drop to her thigh and slowly caress it. She shifted her leg slightly, opening herself to more of RJ’s coaxing, purposeful caresses. Without being conscious of the movement, she wrapped her leg around RJ’s thigh as her body mindlessly responded to the pleasure. Speech was not possible. Logical thought was long gone. Her world consisted of nothing more than what she was feeling at this very moment as she willingly gave control of her body to RJ.

The trucker’s head dropped forward, her forehead resting on RJ’s shoulder. Her fingers tightly gripped RJ’s forearms as she held on for dear life, whimpering and moaning her enjoyment and encouragement. When the caresses picked up speed and intensity, she helped them along by moving her hips in unison with RJ.

Feeling the pressure build, Leigh began to shake. Her muscles tightened and quivered as a wave of sensation intensified to the breaking point and beyond. Leigh’s body froze as a strong wave of sensation crashed over her, causing her to clamp down on RJ’s arms and shoulders. She cried out, her entire body shaking, just before she lurched forward, propelled directly into a second, even stronger orgasm. She bit down on RJ’s shoulder to keep from screaming.

"It’s all right, Leigh," RJ crooned. The tall woman held her prize with one arm as she eased her hand from between Leigh’s legs. Her own chest was heaving and sweat dripped into her eyes. She felt Leigh tremble and she wrapped her up tight, holding her close as she whispered, "Okay?"

The blonde nodded against RJ’s chest, her eyes shut tightly, her blood still pulsing hotly through her veins. "Mmm hmm." It was the best she could do.

***

"Make it stop! I can’t take anymore!" the male squirrel moaned. After barely escaping his hair-raising encounter with Flea, he and his mate had build a temporary nest high in the rafters of the garage. But it seemed no matter where they were they were going to be subjected to those two humans. Didn’t humans mate in beds? Or was that sheep? He couldn’t remember.

Suddenly, the noise stopped and a few seconds after that the sound of the water in the garage’s bathroom filled the garage and the old pipes began to moan … just not as loudly as the two human females.

The female pulled two bits of napkin out of her ears. "Is it over yet?"

The male’s eyes went round. "You had earplugs and you didn’t share!"

She put her hand on her hips. "Did you share that french fry you found on the ground the other day?"

"Yes!"

"Oh, yeah."

"Bitch."

"How’s your paw?" The female yanked hard on the bandage covering the male’s injured hand.

"Ouch!"

"Better I see." She sat back on her husky haunches and frowned. "We need to find a way home."

More moans were heard over the shower. The male covered his eyes. His sex life was ruined. Sure, glancing through those National Geographics in the dumpster was kinky and fun at first. But he really couldn’t take this assault on his ears. Squirrels, while incredibly passionate, were undeniably quiet in their love making.

Then something occurred to him. He studied his mate carefully. "You’re not really pregnant, are you?"

"Of course not."

The squirrel crossed himself, dizzy with relief. "Then why did you say you were?"

"Just to torture you."

"It worked."

"I know." The female shrugged. "Besides, I don’t have to worry about pregnancy ever again."

The male blinked. The only thing his mate loved more than sex was Pringles. Thank God her ass finally got too fat to squirm its way into those cans. That was downright embarrassing. "So what makes you think you won’t get pregnant?"

"I’m gay."

"Noooooo!" The male fell out of his nest, right into the back of RJ’s pickup. He landed on his head.

His mate could see by the dazed, stupid, nearly stoned look on his face that he was fully conscious and had suffered no appreciable damage. Just her luck.

***

RJ opened the door to the bathroom, allowing a heavy cloud of steam to escape into the garage. She stopped dead in her tracks, causing Leigh to bump into her back.

Pete was sitting on her workbench, talking quietly to a scared-looking boy who appeared to be in his late teens.

She flipped on the light and everyone squinted and covered their eyes for just a moment.

Pete patted the teen’s thigh comfortingly and ambled over to RJ and Leigh. He quickly looked over both women and smirked at RJ, who blushed. Twinkling brown eyes swung around to Leigh. "I see RJ reminded you where the shower was."

Leigh fluffed her wet hair with the towel around her neck. "She was a gracious host." The short woman leaned forward and winked at Pete. "The shower was spectacular. Thanks, Pete."

This time it was Pete who blushed, causing RJ to laugh loudly. She was definitely getting to like Leigh.

"Well, if you should ever tire of beautiful, tall brunettes …"

"You’ll know the lobotomy was successful."

Pete’s shook his head and chuckled. My, my, Fitz. You’re up to your eyeballs in trouble with this one.

RJ reluctantly put an end to the play when she asked Pete, "Who’s the lad?"

Leigh shot a quick look at the boy. He refused to meet her gaze, instead finding something very interesting about his sneakers. Oh, boy. She winced, hoping he was older than he looked and wondering just how long he and Pete had been waiting outside the bathroom. Leigh sighed, then gave a mental shrug. Nothing to be done about it now. Besides, some things were simply too good to keep quiet.

"I hate to intrude on you girls’ productive evening," Pete’s eyes conveyed true regret, "but I’m afraid I’m in need of Fitz’s professional services."

Leigh looked blankly at RJ for a moment, then remembered what the taller woman had told her. "Welcome Wagon?" At this hour? With this kid?

"Ahh …" Pete nodded approvingly. "She told you then." He patted RJ’s back. "RJ is a great asset to Glory."

It was obvious that Leigh was still confused, so RJ broke in. "Pete is a sort of mentor to troubled kids. He’s got connections everywhere and when he finds one he really believes wants to turn things around for himself or herself, he brings ’em here for a fresh start." RJ shrugged. "They’re sort of my specialty. Like I said before. I help get ’em settled. Find ’em places to live and jobs."

Leigh nodded. There was a little town outside Sioux Falls that had a few state-run halfway houses. They were in the news often, and the town didn’t appreciate their presence. Leigh looked long and hard at the boy. He was wearing torn jeans and a ragged t-shirt. His hair was blonde and greasy, and he looked like he could use a good meal. His gray eyes were round and slightly haunted. Damn. She lowered her voice and asked, "Is it safe?" She looked into RJ’s eyes, clearly worried.

"It’s perfectly safe," RJ said immediately. "They just need a bit of help getting started. And Pete here," she poked Pete’s belly, "is sometimes a little old for these boys to relate to."

"Hey!" Pete straightened indignantly. "I’m not that old."

"’Course you’re not," RJ lied and pushed Pete toward the boy. "I need a minute."

Pete took a step back but didn’t leave them completely alone.

RJ shot him an irritated look but quickly focused on Leigh. "Will you come back soon? This might take a while and no doubt you’d be sleeping long before I’m finished." She ran her fingertips gently over Leigh’s arm. "I’d truly hate to think we wouldn’t see each other again."

A genuine smiled eased its way across Leigh’s face. She’d already calculated the number of days until her route would bring her by again. "You’ll be seeing me again, RJ." Ignoring Pete and the boy, Leigh leaned forward and placed her palms high on RJ’s chest. Rising to her tiptoes, she gently brushed her lips against RJ’s, sighing softly as she pulled away. That felt so nice.

"It’s settled then!" Pete boomed. "Don’t wait too long, Leigh." Pete made his way back to the teenager with RJ following behind him. She glanced over her shoulder several times, watching as Leigh adjusted her backpack and exited the garage. "You could have picked a better time for business, Pete," RJ grumbled.

Pete snorted. "You know I don’t ‘pick’ when they come. It’s not like I can exactly predict these things. I didn’t expect Tony until tomorrow." He shrugged thick shoulders. "But he showed up early."

RJ smiled reassuringly at the thin teen. He looked very lost and alone, and her heart immediately went out to him. She knew just the place for him. RJ had been in his shoes herself. It wasn’t an easy time. "Hello." She extended her hand. "I’m RJ Fitzgerald."

The young man looked at her warily but extended his hand. "I’m …" He swallowed nervously. "I’m Tony."

"Pleasure to meet you, Tony. Has Pete explained that I’ll be driving you into Glory and getting you settled?"

Tony’s eyes flicked to Pete then RJ. Then he nodded slowly.

"Good then. No sense in putting it off." She inclined her head slightly. "Ready?"

"I guess." Tony shrugged one shoulder and grabbed his denim jacket from the workbench.

RJ dug her keys out of the jacket that hung on a hook alongside the bench. She moved to the driver’s seat of her old Ford and waited.

Pete stood in front of Tony, smiling kindly. The boy sucked in a surprised breath when Pete pulled him into a strong hug. "Don’t look so glum, Tony," Pete said gently. "Your prayers were answered." He laughed. "Though it may not seem like it at the moment. You’ll get that second chance you wanted so badly. RJ will see that you’re settled and answer any questions about what you can expect. You’ll be seeing me again soon."

Pete pulled back and gently wiped away a tear that was working its way down Tony’s cheek.

The boy sniffed, embarrassed by his inability to control his emotions. One moment he was in jail with nothing to look forward to. And it seemed like the very next, Pete was offering to help him. All he had to do was ask.

"Go on," Pete winked and pushed Tony toward the pickup. "RJ Fitzgerald is one of the most impatient people I know."

Tony stuck one arm inside his jacket, but decided it was warm enough to go without, so he tucked it under his arm. He slid into the passenger seat as RJ pulled the choke and turned the key and Carol began purring like a kitten.

"Ahhh." A satisfied grin curled RJ’s lips. "Now that’s more like it." She patted the dashboard lovingly.

***

When Pete pulled up the garage door, the female squirrel, who had been watching the human exchange intently, made her decision. Her mate was huddled in the corner of the pickup truck, which now appeared to be leaving the garage. She couldn’t stand by idly while he was whisked away by the iron death machine. Sure, there were times when they disagreed. But they were squirrel soulmates. And that meant they would stick together through thick and thin. Even if she was occasionally blinded by jealously or fury … they were still mated and she still loved him. At least that was the speech she was going to give a jury of her rodent peers should her mate ever expire under slightly suspicious circumstances. Not that she was planning that or anything. But it never hurt to be prepared.

With a bravery that made Chip and Dale look like the pathetic fairies that they really were — the female dove off the garage rafters, intent on seeing her mate through to the bitter end.

"Uff." She landed on him with a thud.

"I knew you wouldn’t let me go alone!" the male cried against his wife’s breast. "You’re not really gay, are you?"

She stroked his fur tenderly. "Uh … of course not. That beaver supermodel was just a phase I was going through. I didn’t enjoy it at all. After all those screaming orgasms, I got to thinking … once I regained consciousness, that is. I thought … I can’t make a life with her. She’s hardly messy at all. I would miss living with a sloth. And who would tell me my new pelt style doesn’t make me look nearly so fat as the old one?"

"Not a female. They’re not sensitive like we males."

"And she never fell asleep right after sex, ignoring me completely and forgetting about my need for stimulating conversation and intimacy. I can really only count on a male for that."

"Huh?" He glanced around, bored. Then looked up at his mate. "You still talking to me?"

***

They’d been riding in silence for about fifteen minutes. Most of these boys were quiet, but they usually broke under the curiosity of what their new digs would be like. RJ cleared her throat. Looks like I’m starting this conversation. She focused on the dark road. "Smoke?"

"Sure," Tony answered eagerly.

Realizing she left her cigarettes in her jacket pocket back at the garage, she gestured to the dashboard. "Glove box. And get one for me as well."

Tony obeyed, tapping out two cigarettes and quickly lighting them. He pulled in a deep lungful of smoke and muttered a small prayer of thanks, closing his eyes in pleasure.

RJ chuckled and took her cigarette from his nearly limp hand. "I know how you feel." She cracked a window. The twinkling lights of Glory were fast approaching. "Don’t you have any questions for me? It’s my job to answer them, you know."

Tony shrugged. "Not at the moment."

RJ could only nod. "Suit yourself then." The tall woman turned onto a smooth paved road, then onto Main Street.

The teenager looked around, his eyes wide. He’d never seen a little town like this. "It’s fucking Mayberry!"

"Where?"

Tony rolled his eyes. "Never mind."

RJ pulled up in front of a three-story house right across from the park in downtown Glory. "This is Mrs. Amos’ boarding house. She’s taken in several lads like you and has a way about her that is perfect for the job."

They jumped out of Carol and started walking up the sidewalk. Tony paused under a street lamp, so unsure of himself he was nearly trembling. He wrapped his arms around himself, covering his forearms.

RJ laid a gentle hand on his arm, smiling softly. "What did you do before, Tony?"

"I was a mechanic at Jiffy Lube."

"And was that what you wanted to do?"

"Hardly," he snorted.

"Then what’s your heart’s desire?"

Tony kicked at a pebble. "Who the fuck cares?"

RJ burst out laughing. "Why, I do, of course. What is it then? A musician? A soldier?"

Tony shook his head. "A sculptor," he mumbled.

"What was that?"

"I like to work with clay." He frowned. "I learned in juevy. We had art class once a month and sometimes we got to work with clay."

"An artist it is, then."

Tony’s brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"

"It’s my job to find you a job and you just told me your heart’s desire." RJ scratched her jaw speculatively. "I don’t think we’ve any other sculptors in Glory. But I’m sure we can find a kiln someplace. Now, let’s get inside. Mrs. Amos will be expecting us."

"My jacket. It –"

RJ gently tugged one of Tony’s arms from around his torso. The street lamp easily illuminated the long line of lurid track marks that scarred his flesh. She laid a warm palm on the scars. "Nobody will be judging you here, Tony." She grinned and with a wipe of her hand the marks on his arm disappeared. "But just to make you feel a little better."

Tony’s eyes widened and he stared at RJ in awe.

The woman laughed. "C’mon now. If I’m late with you, Mrs. Amos will be telling my mother I’m not doing my job and there’ll be hell to pay." RJ made quick work of the sidewalk … with Tony scrambling after her.

***

The squirrels jumped out of the truck. A town! A park! This was feeling much more like home.

"Where are we?" asked the male.

"I have no idea. Wait." She scampered over to a tree at the edge of the park. A sign written in squirrel, far too small to be noticed by human eyes, was carved into the trunk of a large tree. It said:

 

Welcome to Glory. Your asses are dead. Bummer.

Have a Nice Day!

Wide eyed and in shock, the squirrels looked at each other and screamed in unison, "Ahhhhhhhh!!"

 

 

Chapter V

 

RJ rubbed the hood of her truck with a soft cloth, the pickup’s shiny black paint job reflecting the morning sun. She bent over slightly and lifted her sunglasses as she looked at what she thought was a smudge. "Antique, indeed," she snorted as she wiped away the spot.

"It is an antique, RJ. It’s almost sixty years old."

She stood up and turned to face Pete. "Now don’t you be starting on my favorite girl too. It’s bad enough that Leigh thinks of her as a rust bucket."

"That’s just the way she sees –"

RJ raised a hand to forestall the cook’s words. "Yeah, yeah, yeah I know. But look how beautiful she really is." She gazed at the truck woefully. "It’s not fair that Leigh can’t see her beauty as well."

Pete had to admit that RJ was right. The dark-haired woman had treated the truck with tender love and care for a very long time. He blew out a deep breath and handed RJ the cup of coffee he’d brought her. He’d been doing it since the late ’40s, and it had become a comforting ritual for them both. A cup of coffee in the small downtown park before their day began, just so they could talk about everything that was going on at the diner or in Glory or how their community’s latest addition was fitting in.

RJ tossed the rag into the front seat of the truck, then followed Pete to a bench under the tall oak tree across from Mrs. Amos’ house. As she took her seat, she noticed Flea sitting at the base of the tree, her eyes narrowed in concentration as she stared up into the branches. Leigh’s right. She gets stranger every day.

She sipped her coffee, then glanced across the lawn at the store where her mother was shopping. RJ pulled her cigarettes out of her pocket, hoping she’d be able to finish one before her mother was done shopping and she would need to drive her back home.

"So," Pete sniffed his coffee appreciatively. "How’s Tony doing?"

RJ thought about that for a moment before she answered. "He’s gonna be just fine. He’s already making new friends and is adjusting to all this very well." The way that young folks fit into Glory always surprised RJ. Had she not been doing this for a lifetime she would have guessed that the older people would be more prepared for death and what lay beyond. They’d lived longer, known it was coming, had time to plan and prepare. But that usually wasn’t the case. The young folks, so often stunned to be here at all, tended to take things in stride, adjusting to death the way they adjusted to life — with a blind acceptance. To them, forever was just a word and tomorrow was greeted with more enthusiasm than fear.

In Glory, a person’s outer form was a combination of how they saw themselves and how others saw them. And Glory had its share of old codgers. She laughed to herself, admitting that most of them were lovable souls that somehow still managed to be thorns in her butt.

She turned to Pete. "He asked for something called a CD player. I don’t have a clue."

Pete nodded. "I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry about it."

"I need to try and catch up a little." RJ scowled unbecomingly. "Seems that a lot of things have gotten past me. I’m starting to feel a little out of touch again."

"Speaking of that." Pete bumped shoulders with his friend. "We think you should take a little vacation."

"Oh, ‘we’ do, do we’? And where would I be going? My options are pretty limited."

Pete scratched his jaw, wishing he hadn’t forgotten to shave this morning. He hated stubble. "That’s not completely true, RJ. Arrangements can be made, you know. And I can think of one cute, fair-haired trucker who’d probably be pretty happy if you wanted to spend some time on the road with her."

RJ rolled her eyes, her head dropping forward. These people wouldn’t give up until she was barefoot and pregnant. Not that Leigh would be much help in that department.

"Pete," her tone was serious. "I don’t know about that. Not that it wouldn’t be a lot of fun." She groaned inwardly, her mind flashing to the soft lips pressed against her throat. "But I’m not so sure that’d be a good idea. Not to mention the fact that you’d best be minding your own business."

"She makes you happy, Fitz. Any fool can see that."

"Especially if that old fool happened to be sitting just outside the bathroom in the garage the other night, eh?"

Surprisingly, Pete blushed to the roots of his hair. "Let me amend my former statement. She makes you really happy."

"Smart ass," she murmured. Not that Pete was wrong. She just didn’t like the fact that he was rubbing her nose in it.

RJ crossed her arms over her chest. "But it’s not like we can really be together, is it?" Sure, the sex had been great. Better than great. But she was already feeling a little guilty about the time they’d spent together. Damn Catholic upbringing. "She’s a beautiful woman, who should be spending her time with someone … with someone …"

"Like you?"

"I wasn’t going to say that!"

"Of course not." He looked smug. "You’re not as smart as me."

RJ’s eyebrow quirked but she said nothing, burying her nose in her coffee cup instead.

Pete pressed on. "We’ve been talking about all this, RJ. You’ve worked hard. And we love you. But let’s face it, you’ve never been a hundred percent happy here. Getting out for a while, spending some time with Leigh, it would be fun, wouldn’t it?"

"Pete…"

"What’s your heart’s desire, RJ Fitzgerald?" Pete’s eyes twinkled.

RJ shook her head, laughing softly. "Very funny."

She sighed and nodded. "Yeah, yeah, I admit it, it would fun." The way I feel with her… Jesus. "I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but being with her was the best time I’ve had in years."

 

Of course it was. "You should go for a few days. It’s not impossible, Fitz. You know that."

"It may not be impossible, but it’s still not likely. And Leigh might not want to be traipsing around with nearly a stranger."

"You didn’t seem like strangers to me. Especially after what you two were doing."

RJ narrowed her eyes. "You know what I mean, Peter, the troublemaker."

Pete tossed his cup into a trash bin alongside the bench. He stood and pulled up the pants that had dropped just a little below his ample belly. "If nothing else, it would be an opportunity to ‘catch up’ with the world a little, so you won’t feel so out of touch when someone like Tony comes along."

She nodded reluctantly. That much was true. Based on the folks coming into Glory and that radio in the diner that only got that hideous A.M. station, things had changed since WWII in ways she couldn’t even imagine. RJ focused on Flea as she circled the base of the tree. "What makes you think that Leigh would be wanting me to tag along with her to begin with? We were only having a bit fun, Pete."

"Oh, puleeeze!" Pete tried not to roll his eyes. RJ was certainly a stubborn one. But after only talking to Leigh a few times, he suspected that she was exactly the same way. He was hedging his bets. "Let’s just say that someone who is very persuasive is planting a tiny seed in your friend’s brain."

"Would that friend be the lady trucker?"

RJ jumped to her feet at the sound of her voice. She spun around to face her mother, who was holding an overflowing bag of groceries.

Katherine passed the bag to her daughter and looked at her disapprovingly, clucking her tongue against her cheek as she waited for an answer.

RJ began poking around the sack so she wouldn’t have to meet her mother’s inquiring stare. "Uh … well …"

"Ruth Jean, I don’t like that girl."

RJ eyes darted to helplessly to Pete then back to the forceful older woman. "Mother, you don’t even know her."

"What do I need to know about her other than the fact that she’s alive? I think even you’d have the good sense to know that this is going to keep you apart from her. Assuming you ever get past just wanting to take her to bed."

RJ’s mouth dropped open. "Mother!"

Pete tried to intervene and save his rapidly sinking assistant. "Now, Katie –"

"Don’t you ‘Now Katie’ me, Pete. You more than anyone should know it’s not possible for them to be together and you shouldn’t be encouraging Ruth Jean to go and be with that girl. In the long run it’ll only hurt them both. That is, if they ever get past just wanting to –""

"I know. I know," RJ said quickly. "For the love of Mike, you don’t have to say it again."

Pete sighed heavily. "But they seem to make each other happy."

"All right, so they make each other happy. Eating ten pounds of chocolate in one sitting would make me as happy as a lark. But that doesn’t mean it’s what I should do, now does it?

"Bu–"

"Are you gonna let Ruth Jean out then? Are you gonna let her leave Glory permanently? Are you gonna let them be together should they want that?"

"Be together?" RJ tried to throw her hands in the air, which was a terrible mistake considering she was still holding her mother’s groceries. She fumbled with the bag. "Is it necessary to marry me off just because I took notice of a pretty woman?"

Katherine ignored her daughter’s comment and continued to focus on Pete. "Or are you gonna let them be happy for a short time and then make her come back, so she can be more miserable than before. She –"

"I’m not miserable!"

Pete and Katherine both shot RJ a stern look and barked, "Don’t interrupt."

"Stop!" RJ moved between Pete and Katherine. "Just stop."

The anger and hint of defeat in RJ’s voice made Pete’s chest tighten.

"I won’t be pushed into doing," she glared at Pete, "or not doing," the glare shifted to her mother, "something to please either one of you. It’s my eternity and I’ll spend it the way I see fit!"

RJ was breathing hard and both Pete and Katie could hear the tears in her voice. In all the time Pete had known her, he’d never heard her raise her voice to Katherine. And by the look on the older woman’s face, she realized she’d pushed RJ too far.

RJ cleared her throat and took firm hold over her emotions. "Come now, Mother. I’ll take you home." She strode over to the truck, not bothering to say goodbye to Pete or wait for her mother to join her.

Pete’s voice dropped to whisper. "You should be ashamed, Katie. RJ deserves a chance to be happy just like everyone else here. And she never will be if you keep acting like this."

"If you can figure out a way for her to be happy with this girl, I’ll gladly accept it. Otherwise don’t be filling her head with such foolishness. You know better than anyone that almost nobody leaves Glory." She spoke faster when it appeared that Pete was going to break in. "If you can arrange it for RJ to go be with this girl, I would never stand in her way. I’m not a fool, Peter."

Pete’s shoulders sagged.

"I can see the connection between them, same as you. And despite the teachings of my generation, I’d gladly welcome the trucker –"

"Leigh," he supplied.

Katherine nodded. "Leigh … into my family." She paused and searched Pete’s face, her eyes widening with realization. "Ruth Jean’s already been given permission to go?"

"Almost."

Katherine pursed her lips. "When ‘almost’ becomes ‘yes’ you won’t hear another word from me. Until then, don’t be getting her hopes up."

With that Katherine marched over to Carol, waiting patiently as RJ opened the passenger door. Before she got in, Katherine looked up at her daughter and smiled reassuringly. She kissed her on the cheek and got into the truck.

Pete frowned, his heavy brow furrowing as the truck drove out of sight. Flea, who was apparently satisfied that there was nothing up the tree that she couldn’t live without, jumped up on the husky man’s shoulder and nuzzled his neck. Pete absently stroked her soft, coal-black fur. "What do you think, Flea?"

The cat meowed loudly and batted at Pete’s face with her paw. "Yeah. I know," he grumbled. "I need a shave."

***

"You take these with you, Ruth Jean!" Katherine tossed her daughter two Golden Delicious apples as the young woman hurried down the back porch steps.

RJ pulled them out of the air and tossed them through the open passenger window of her truck. "Thank you, Mother. But I’ll be taking Tony down to the diner. Don’t know why you’re throwing fruit at me. We can eat there."

"Because the fruit is good for you. That greasy food they serve at the diner ‘tis not fit for man nor beast. Even Flea won’t eat everything there. And she’s not exactly discriminating."

"Not like it’s gonna kill me or anything," RJ mumbled. She pulled her sunglasses from her pocket and slid them on as she started up the truck and pulled out of the driveway. Despite herself, she reached over and grabbed one of the apples, taking a large bite. It was cool and juicy. "Perfect."

Flea crawled out from under the seat and jumped up onto the wide dashboard, stretching her long silky body out. She gave a long yawn and licked a paw before scrubbing behind an ear.

"Well, there you are. Did you hear what my mother said about you?"

The cat yawned again. She only occasionally paid attention to humans. They were a tad tedious for her tastes.

"I thought you’d be going to the diner with Pete, the troublemaker, today."

Bored, she flicked her tail in an irritable manner and turned away from RJ to soak in the sun at a better angle.

"Uh huh. Maybe I like talking to myself. Ever think of that?" RJ stuck her tongue out at Flea, then took another bite of the apple. "You know, you should be grateful there aren’t any dogs in Glory."

After a brief stop at her brother Patrick’s shop to pick up a surprise, RJ continued on to Mrs. Amos’ boarding house. She pulled up out front and climbed out of Carol, but reached through the window and gave the horn a couple of quick blasts. "Tony Hampton, get your backside down here, boy! The day is a’wasting."

A window flew up on the second floor, and Tony’s smiling face appeared in the space.

 

Huh. He got a hair cut. She chuckled. I’ll bet Mrs. Amos insisted.

"I’ll be right down, RJ, just let me grab my jacket and –"

"It’s warm as can be! You don’t need your jacket. Come on!"

Mrs. Amos opened the front door. She stepped out on the porch and shook her dishtowel at RJ. "You don’t need to be coming by here making all that racket, RJ Fitzgerald! You can come up to the door and knock like a respectable human being. How am I supposed to teach these boys some manners with you acting like that? Hmmm?"

Before she could reply, the screen door opened and Tony darted past Mrs. Amos, running for RJ.

"Ahem."

Tony cringed and skidded to a halt just before reaching the short set of steps off the front porch. He turned and walked calmly back to Mrs. Amos, planting a gentle kiss on the old woman’s cheek. "I’ll be home in time for dinner."

Mrs. Amos smiled. Tony was one of the sweetest and easiest boys she’d boarded in a long while. He was eager to please and had a tender heart. Tony just didn’t know it yet. "You do that. And don’t you be eating any of that food that Pete is fixing at that diner." She swatted at the young man’s bottom with her towel as he once again darted for RJ. "And don’t you be giving that boy any cigarettes, Ruth Jean."

"Yes, ma’am!" RJ mumbled a few grumpy words to herself and climbed back in the truck as Tony jumped in the passenger side.

RJ waited until out of sight of Mrs. Amos’ house before she offered Tony a cigarette.

He looked pathetically gratefully. "Thanks." He lit the tip then and rested his elbow out the window as he took a deep drag. Tony exhaled with a happy sigh, his expression turning thoughtful. "How come we can go down to the diner?"

"Huh?" RJ’s eyes slid sideways.

"The diner?" Mrs. Amos had tried to explain this all, but it still didn’t make any sense to Tony. "How is it we can go back and forth to the diner, which is outside Glory, and we’re dead. And some folks who are alive can go to the diner but not Glory. Like the blonde."

"Excuse me?"

Tony shrugged. "Everyone knows you’re banging her like a screen door in a hurricane."

The tall woman began to choke on the smoke from her cigarette. Coughing, she glared at Tony with astonished eyes.

"Well, you are, aren’t you? Either that or someone in that bathroom was in some serious pain and found religion all at the same time." Tony’s eyes glazed over. "Nothing wrong with it, you know. She’s damn cute. And what a great ass! If I thought she’d let me –"

"Don’t even think about it," RJ warned, her eyes watering from her hacking. She shook her head fiercely. The back of her throat stung and she coughed again, using the time to collect her scattered thoughts. The boy’s bluntness had thrown her for a loop.

RJ tossed her cigarette out the window. "One: I’ll thank you not to be saying things like that about Ms. Matthews. She’s a very nice woman."

Tony grinned. "What I saw was very nice."

RJ smacked him on the back of the head. "Two: Wipe away that thought right now, Romeo. "

"Hey!" Tony rubbed the spot.

"She’s too old for you by ten years." RJ smirked. "Though your lack of facial hair would probably work in your favor."

Tony scowled and self-consciously rubbed his baby-smooth cheeks. "Some women appreciate a clean-shaved face," he muttered defensively.

"Assuming you actually need to shave."

"I shave!" Okay, once a month. But that counts!

Not believing Tony’s protest for a second, RJ continued by saying, "Three: there’s no need for you to be so … so … vivid with your language. Especially about something that is none of your business."

Tony looked to his sneakers and then to RJ, giving her his best puppy dog face. "I’m sorry."

RJ lifted an eyebrow at the teen.

"Okay, I’m sort of sorry."

"Better."

"I didn’t mean to upset you, RJ." He stuffed his cigarette in the truck’s ashtray, searching for the words it would take to get himself out of hot water. "It’s just that you’re so laid back, it didn’t seem serious between you and –" He paused. He was beginning to stumble over the words and feel stupid, which he hated. "I’m sorry."

RJ exhaled slowly. "Look, lad, we can talk about anything. But you need to show a little respect, especially when it comes to Ms. Matthews." She reached out and massaged the spot on the back of his head where she’d smacked him. "Lucky for me you finally decided to wash that hair. Or my hand would be slipping right off your head."

"Ha. Ha. Very funny." He crossed his arms over his chest but couldn’t help crack a smile. RJ was pretty cool.

"Just watch what you say from now on."

"Yes, ma’am." The last word was an effort, but not as much as he thought it would be.

"Now in answer to your original question. The diner is sort of … well…" She scratched her chin. Even after all these years she could never really came up with a good answer to this question. "It’s a place that exists between the two realms of life and life after life. Think of it as a spiritual bus station. Only with onion rings." She chuckled at her own joke, vowing to use that again with the next person who asked her. "It was your last stop. For the living folks, well, their journey goes on. It’s where the living and dead mingle without the living knowing it, but they both enjoy a good cup of coffee."

"Or a little more." Tony grinned wickedly.

She raised a hand in warning, and Tony playfully ducked out of the way.

"So is Glory heaven?" His face went serious as he mumbled, "No way in hell I’d end up in heaven."

RJ let out a heartfelt sigh. "Not in the way you’re thinking of it, no. It’s another stage of existence. You might say we’re ‘ghosts.’ But as you know, our bodies are still real, even if things don’t quite work the same. A moth turns into a butterfly, but it will still go splat against your windshield when you hit it."

"Huh?"

For emphasis she reached over and pinched Tony on the thigh, earning a loud yelp.

He rubbed his leg. "I see what you mean." Tony thought for moment. "So I can die again?" He shivered a little at the last thoughts of his lifetime: paramedics shoving tubes down his throat, needles poking his arms, a burning sensation traveling through his veins.

"No. You won’t age physically and if you get hurt," RJ steered around a large pothole, "you’ll feel something very similar to pain, but your body will heal and you’ll go on."

"Like a fuckin’ superhero!"

"Hardly," she laughed. "Something else that’s important, Tony, is to understand that just because you’ve left one stage of existence and moved into another doesn’t mean you’re not real. You are. You’re just different than you were before." RJ’s smile grew broader. "Why, some of those children running around Glory didn’t die young. They were born right here to parents who had come here from the living."

Tony’s eyes widened. "Oh, man! Condoms here too?"

RJ snorted. Is he ever going to be surprised! "There are more possibilities in Glory than you’ve even imagined."

They were silent for several moments, the cool breeze blowing gently against their faces as they drove along.

"You do know the stuff I did when I was alive," the young man asked hesitantly, still unable to get leave behind the concept of heaven and hell that had been drilled into his head as a small child.

RJ nodded. "I know. But Glory isn’t about punishment or reward anymore than the moth is being punished or rewarded by turning into a butterfly."

Tony still looked confused, and she cursed herself for repeating a lame analogy that didn’t work the first time. She sighed, wondering when this got so difficult to explain. "Glory just ‘is.’" One of RJ’s hands dropped from the steering wheel and she motioned out in front her. "There are no flying angels, with white wings and harps. Things aren’t perfect and it sure as hell isn’t utopia." Her tone softened. "But Glory is a very good place, Tony. And how content you are in your afterlife is going to be up to you." There. That sounded easy, didn’t it?

"But you’re happy here, right?"

RJ blinked. No one had ever asked her that so directly before, though in fairness Pete had been hinting around it for the last forty years or so. She found herself unwilling to examine the question too closely and roughly pushed it from her mind.

When the silence in the truck grew, Tony made a face, causing RJ to roll her eyes. "Don’t worry so much. You have all the time in the world to figure things out."

Tony clapped his hands together eagerly. "An eternity at the diner picking up chicks just like you doesn’t seem so bad to me."

"Behave yourself or you’ll be chopping the wood today instead of fixing up that kiln we’ve got back there." RJ gestured over her shoulder to the crate in the back of the pickup.

"Cool!" But Tony’s excitement disappeared as almost as quickly as it came. "Um … RJ, I might not have mentioned this. But just because I like making things with clay doesn’t mean I’m any good at it."

RJ couldn’t help but laugh at the boy’s woebegone expression. "Tony, I wouldn’t be worrying if I were you. You’ve got a really long time to practice.

***

Leigh pushed open the door to the diner. It had been nearly a week since she’d been by on her last route. One more delivery on each end and she was due her week break. She couldn’t wait. Weary blue eyes flicked around the diner, looking for RJ.

"She’s not here yet," Mavis said from behind the counter, not looking up from the silverware she was sorting and placing in trays.

"Oh." Leigh tried not sound disappointed. "I wasn’t –" She suddenly closed her mouth. Leigh couldn’t even make it believable to herself. She wasn’t even going to try to lie to Mavis. She coughed awkwardly, then rolled her tongue over her teeth as she walked to the counter.

The waitress looked up after she put away the last of the spoons. "Have a seat." She lifted a carafe in Leigh’s direction. "Coffee?"

Leigh slid onto the stool and nodded. "Sure." She plucked a sugar packet from a bowl on the table and restlessly picked at the paper. "Do umm … do you know if she’s going to stop in today?"

Mavis smothered a grin. "Soon, I expect. You’re here a little early today." She turned over a coffee cup, which was waiting upside down, and poured in the fresh brew, placing a clean spoon next to it.

Leigh nodded again. "Got in last night late and slept in the truck."

"You look tired."

Leigh frowned. She knew she did. Most folks, however, never said anything about it. Even Rooster and her other trucker friends seemed to overlook what had become nearly permanent shadows under her eyes. "I know," she admitted quietly.

Mavis leaned forward, her elbows on the countertop. "You’ve got some time off coming up, right?"

"One more week and I’ll get a week off." I can’t wait.

"What are your plans?" Mavis asked nonchalantly, absently straightening the salt and pepper shakers.

Leigh shrugged. "Sleep. Sleep. Fun. And no driving."

"Alone?"

Leigh’s eyebrows jumped. "Contrary to the evil reputation I have with some folks, Mavis, I do usually sleep alone."

Mavis tsked Leigh. "That’s not what I meant. Did you know that RJ has a little time off coming up?"

"No," Leigh drew out the word.

"She doesn’t get out too much. And I happen to know she’s got a … friend in Seattle she’d love to meet. That’s where you live, right?"

"Sort of." Leigh looked at Mavis knowingly. "Are you suggesting that I should invite RJ to come with me on my week off?" Like I haven’t already thought of doing that very thing.

"Of course not. You don’t even know each other, right?"

"Right." But Leigh’s answer was reluctant.

"I can tell … you girls are just out for a little fun and spending a week together would probably be awkward." Mavis pinned Leigh with her eyes. "Right?"

Leigh blinked. "Well, I don’t –"

Mavis turned her back to Leigh and reached for a plate. She smiled. "I mean, just because you’ve laughed and enjoyed each other over these past few weeks whenever you’ve stopped by the diner doesn’t mean it would be like that away from here."

Leigh swallowed but didn’t answer. Would it? "I’m," she pushed away from the counter, suddenly feeling very confused. I’m lonely? "I’m not ready to eat just yet, Mavis," she said quickly. "I’m going to grab a fast shower next door and then I’ll be back."

Leigh grabbed her backpack and hustled out the back door just as Pete walked through the front door.

"How’d it go," Pete whispered conspiratorially to Mavis as she pulled an apron over his head and tied it.

Mavis winked, then kissed the cook on the cheek. "Mission accomplished."

***

RJ moved her ladder over another few feet and climbed it, getting off carefully and trudging across the roof of the garage. The spring storms had been especially hard on the old building and it was in need of a few basic repairs. Setting her hammer down, she pulled a small crowbar from her belt and began to peel back the shingles that covered the roof, then the roofing paper.

The male and female squirrel, who had hitched a ride with Pete back from Glory, sat in a tree outside the garage, watching RJ.

"I can’t believe you killed me!" the female whined. "And on your first try, too." She herself had used poison on her mate. Not to mention all the blunt trauma episodes in their past. The smaller squirrel had seemed indestructible, nearly mystical in his ability to avoid actual death. Figures, that in the end, only he could end his miserable little life.

The male puffed out his chest. "And you said I could never do anything right."

"What a time to be wrong."

"Exactly."

"What are we going to do? We’re in Glory — squirrel purgatory! We’re being punished!"

"I know." He began to sob. "We’ll never see our park again." His cries grew louder. "Never spend the day with our seventeen baby squirrels."

 

You mean my seventeen babies and your three. Heh. The female’s ears perked up and her eyes went unfocused. "No more gathering food for everyone, preparing it for everyone, and cleaning it up," she whispered.

"No entertaining our friends."

"I will miss that delicious beaver though."

The male’s head jerked sideways.

"In a purely platonic way, of course," she said insincerely.

"Oh. Right." He snuggled closer to her, seeking her comfort in this, his hour of need. "We’ll never entertain at our nest."

"No more taking those same five feathers that line our nest and rearranging them so the neighbors will think we have new wall paper." Her eyes widened a little with realization.

"I know," the male anguished. "No more spending every Saturday with my mother."

The female knocked her mate down in her enthusiasm. She began kissing him wildly. "Thank you, thank you!"

RJ stared down at the roof. She thought she heard something. When she peeled away the next two shingles and paper, the noise grew louder. One more shingle and she could tell that it was water running. She pulled away a bit more paper and gasped. She could see directly down into the shower, where Leigh was currently soaping her feet. Sure, she had to crane her head around a beam and lean wayyyyy into the hole. But she could see her.

The male squirrel glanced curiously at RJ. "The human is a peeping Tom."

"This is news?" his mate answered. "They’re all perverts."

Leigh’s soapy hands worked up one leg and RJ bit her lip, stifling a groan. She pulled her head out of the hole and shook it a few times to clear it of the vision. "I will not look," she told herself firmly. "That’s a disgusting thin’ to do."

She wiped off her brow. Despite the fact that it was a relatively cool spring morning, RJ was feeling a little flushed. But I have to clear away that bit of insulation. It’s my job. I’ll be nothing but a professional and avert my eyes. She snorted. Yeah, right. But still, RJ hesitated.

"The human is having an attack of conscience. I can tell," the male declared.

His wife made a face. "How would you know?"

"Not by watching you, that’s for damn sure."

Losing the battle with herself, RJ peered back into the garage, easily getting a luscious eyeful of Leigh’s slick, naked body through the gentle cloud of steam. She was careful not to make any noise as she pulled away a piece of insulation that was obstructing her view.

Leigh soaped a large blue washcloth, running it slowly across her stomach.

RJ swallowed convulsively and whimpered just a tiny bit.

The hot water felt wonderful against Leigh’s skin. The shower in the garage was blessed with fabulous water pressure and her skin tingled where the water stuck her. She moaned with pleasure and RJ nearly lost her footing.

Swearing quietly, RJ backed up out of the hole and looked around self-consciously. This was like some demented test. And she was failing. Miserably. Giving up any pretense of restraint, she tossed the hammer and crowbar on the ground so she wouldn’t risk dropping them into the shower and stuck her head back down inside. Her hair was now damp from the escaping steam and her forehead and upper lip were beaded with perspiration.

Leigh soaped her washcloth again and tilted her head back. Eyes closed, she ran it languidly up her neck, then back down to circle both her breasts.

This time RJ couldn’t stop the escape of a low groan of pleasure as she watched Leigh’s nipples tighten.

But Leigh didn’t seem to hear it above the spray of the water.

The blonde lifted one arm, trailing the cloth from her underarms to the tips of her fingers. Then switched hands and repeated the procedure. Her skin was pink and flushed and RJ could feel an increase in the rising and falling of her own chest.

"Lord, ha’ mercy," RJ moaned, her eyes riveted on her lover, a throbbing in her lower belly making itself painfully known.

Leigh stuck her head directly under the spray, washing out the shampoo. Bubbles cascaded down her body over slippery firm breasts and disappeared over her thighs and between her legs. She picked up the washcloth and followed the bubble trail as she began to slowly drag the cloth between her legs.

RJ gasped. Her feet lost their purchase on the sloped roof and her arms began to flail wildly in an attempt to keep her balance. Her head popped out of the hole.

Leigh looked up into the empty hole. She cocked her head to the side and waited a few seconds before hearing a few loud thumps, what sounded like frantic clawing, and a high-pitched yelp. There was an even louder thudding sound, immediately followed by "Son of bitch!"

Leigh laughed and turned on the cold water. If RJ could swear, then she was still alive. And Leigh needed to cool down. RJ wasn’t the only one affected by her little show.

The male and female looked down at RJ, who was laughing and coughing weakly, sprawled out in the dirt alongside her hammer and crowbar.

The male scowled and put his acorn into his mate’s waiting, outstretched hand. "I’ll have to owe you the rest," he mumbled grumpily.

"Are you good for it?"

"No."

"That’s what I thought."

"Will you accept payment in sexual favors?" he asked hopefully.

The female thought about that for a moment. One acorn would last her the afternoon. She shrugged. "What the heck, I could stand a quickie."

"Is there another kind?"

"Not for squirrels."

 

 

Chapter VI

 

RJ sat on the front porch of the diner, sipping coffee, intently watching the road from behind her sunglasses. She was bound and determined not look as excited as she felt. She groaned inwardly, deciding not to think about the ways Leigh excited her. At least not until they were alone. She cleared her throat and shifted a little in her chair.

After Leigh’s little ‘show’ in the shower the other morning, she’d been left so frustrated and horny that she couldn’t even begin to say no when the smirking trucker invited her to come along for ‘a little adventure’. As a matter of fact, she answered yes just a little quicker and louder than she meant to.

Pete bit back a grin as he sat down in the chair next to RJ. It had taken a little work, but he’d finally gotten permission for his friend to leave Glory and the diner for a time. Which was lucky, considering RJ had already accepted Leigh’s invitation. In his heart, Pete really believed RJ needed and deserved this time off. "So you ready to go? Got everything you need?"

RJ gave the half-full duffel bag at her foot a nudge. "Yeah, I think I’m about as ready as I can be."

Pete tugged an envelope from his hip pocket and pressed it into RJ’s hand. "You’ll need this."

The tall woman cracked it open and stared at the thick pile of bills. "Oh, Pete. I’ve got my own savings." Though why I’ve bothered to tuck it away for all these years, I’m not really sure. "I can’t be taking your money! There’s–"

"There’s no sense in arguing about it." He wrapped RJ’s fingers around the envelope and held them there. "We all decided you should have it. You’re going to need it out there." He grinned knowingly. "Besides, if you want to have a good time with Miss Leigh Matthews, part of that will mean being able to treat her properly."

RJ nodded reluctantly, touched by her friend’s generosity. She tucked the money in her bag and swallowed. "Thank you, Peter. I’ll make sure it goes to good use."

"Your good time is a good use. Enjoy it, Fitz. It’s not everyone that gets a second chance to go back. Even for just a while."

"Now that’s the truth." RJ ducked her head and smiled. She knew that Pete and several others had petitioned like hell on her behalf. She wasn’t about to waste this opportunity. RJ had something special she was burning to do … now if she could only figure out a way to have Leigh take her there without being too suspicious.

"Leigh’ll be here in about twenty minutes." Pete stood up.

"Smart ass," RJ mumbled, tossing the cold coffee into the parking lot. "You might have mentioned that a half an hour ago."

"And kill all that wonderful anticipation?" Pete pushed open the diner door, smiling broadly. "Nah."

RJ followed Pete inside so she could get a quick bite to eat. It was, she had to admit, very early; the sun had only just begun to peek over the horizon, invading the shadows with splashes of gold. She hoped Leigh would slow down long enough to enjoy some breakfast before they started out on the road.

The dark-haired woman settled down at the counter and looked to Mavis. "Don’t suppose I could get a little breakfast before I go?"

Mavis rolled her eyes as if RJ’s request was a huge trauma. "If you insist. Usual?"

"If you don’t mind."

Mavis simply called RJ’s name back to the kitchen. "So how does it feel to be famous?"

RJ scowled. She knew what Mavis meant. Glory was buzzing over her gaining permission to spend some time in the outside world.

"I didn’t ask to be famous."

"Sometimes things happen without you asking for them, RJ. Even a pilot, gone handyman, gone two-bit tour guide like yourself should know that by now."

"Two-bit!"

"If the crooked halo fits."

RJ’s eyes narrowed. "It’s no wonder Pete married you. You’re both troublemakers."

Mavis just laughed and scooted her scrawny ass behind the counter. "And here I thought it was for my body."

"It was!" Pete exclaimed happily, smacking Mavis on her bony rump as he passed by.

RJ made a face at the couple. "I’m going to be sick."

"Before you’ve eaten Pete’s eggs?"

Even RJ laughed at the indignant look on her friend’s face. Pete took his cooking abilities very seriously.

"You both eat hash browns with onion, peppers and ketchup," Mavis told RJ casually, as she laid silverware down at the spot next to RJ.

"Me and Pete?"

"You and Leigh."

"Really?" RJ smiled. "I suppose next you’ll be telling me that we’re soulmates or some other such silly nonsense just because we eat our hash browns the same way. If she likes her eggs scrambled, next you’ll be thinking she’s obligated to have my baby."

Mavis turned her back on RJ and reached through the service hole to pick up a plate. "I was just making an observation, you grumpy thing. I for one will be glad to be rid of you for a few days. A little peace and quiet couldn’t be a bad thing."

"I love you too, Mavis."

The waitress placed a heavy dish on the counter in front of RJ and smiled. "Don’t forget when you get out there, you’re going to need to eat and sleep and do all the things you did when you were alive."

RJ shot her an annoyed look and opened her mouth.

"I know. I know. You do those things now. But doing them because you need to is a lot different than doing them out of habit." Her expression softened, "And for Heaven’s sake, RJ, be careful. Things are a lot different now than you remember them."

"I will, Mavis." She gave the older woman’s hand a little squeeze. "Thank you."

Pete looked up just a second before the diner door opened and Leigh walked in. She was wearing jeans, a soft teal-colored t-shirt that brought out the color of her eyes, and a happy smile. She stopped alongside RJ and placed her hand on the taller woman’s shoulder, giving it an affectionate squeeze. "I’m back," she said needlessly.

RJ didn’t even try to hide the grin on her face when she turned her head around to see Leigh. "Yes, you are. Can I interest you in a little breakfast?" Lord, did she look so pretty the last time she was here?

"Depends."

"Pete made extra greasy bacon, extra crunchy hash browns and extra runny eggs. Mavis burnt the toast." She laughed and took Leigh’s hand. Without thinking, she lifted it to her mouth and softly kissed her fingers.

Leigh’s eyes twinkled at the unexpectedly affectionate gesture. "It sounds wonderful. And for once I won’t be in too much of a hurry to enjoy it."

The trucker sat down on the stool next to RJ, picking up a few grumbles from a couple of men who were eating at the nearest table. She pushed their comments out of her mind until one particularly loud one caused a flush to rise to Mavis’ cheeks. Leigh jumped to her feet and was ready to stalk over there when RJ’s hand on her arm stopped her dead in her tracks.

"Don’t. Leigh, it’s not worth it. Just settle down and eat your breakfast." Her voice went a little cold. "I’ll take care of it." She waited until her friend was settled next to her, then she stood and crossed the room with a purposeful gate. RJ placed two fists on the table and leaned over as she spoke quietly to the men.

Leigh watched nervously, ready to jump up and help RJ should the need arise.

When RJ was finished, both men laid down money for their bill and got up from the table. They walked slowly and carefully over to Leigh, frequently glancing back at RJ, who was standing tall, her arms crossed over her chest with one auburn eyebrow perched high on her forehead. The younger of the two cleared his throat awkwardly and faced Leigh. "We’re sorry, Miss. We didn’t mean to offend you or your friend."

Leigh’s blinked. "Okay," she said slowly, her questioning gaze shifting to RJ. She refocused on the men. "What you said was wrong." Leigh pointedly stared at the older man’s crotch, making him squirm. "We really don’t need or want one of those, you know."

Both men blushed.

"Though I’m sure it comes in handy on camping trips or for writing your name in snow."

"Unless your name is Bartholomew," one of the men mumbled unhappily.

Leigh winced. Even after a six-pack that name would be a real bitch.

RJ cleared her throat from behind them, and the men nearly bolted from the diner. She tried her best not to smile as she approached Leigh. "And here I was telling them to be nice."

"What?" Leigh affected an innocent face.

"They’re entitled to their opinion, but they don’t need to be voicing it in such a manner." RJ sat back down next to Leigh. "There’s no need to be rude."

"What did you –?"

"It’s not important." RJ winked at Leigh and picked up a fork, poking her hash browns. "If you’d put a little ketchup on those they’d be ready to eat."

Leigh glanced down at the hash browns Mavis had slid in front of her when she wasn’t paying attention. They were gently steaming and smelled like bacon grease. She groaned in pleasure. RJ’s right. It’s not important. Besides, I can always torture it out of her later.

Leigh wanted to start her week off on a good foot, and she was bound and determined not to let a couple of assholes spoil her plans. She smiled brightly at RJ. "Ketchup it is."

* * *

RJ shouldered her bag as they walked hand in hand toward Leigh’s truck. She wasn’t expecting to see the trailer attached. "Has something changed?" Mildly alarmed green eyes shifted to Leigh. "I thought you had the week off."

Leigh tugged on RJ’s hand. "Hush. Nothing has changed. We’re headed to Seattle. I own the trailer," she pointed toward the back of the truck, "and the tractor," her finger shifted to the cab. "And right now the trailer is sitting empty."

She stopped and turned to RJ, running the tip of that same finger up the centerline of her chest, to her shoulder, then down her arm. "We’re going to have a great week together." At least I hope we are. Leigh was a little nervous. She’d never driven with anyone but her dad, and she’d certainly never traveled or spent more than a few hours at a time with any woman. I am pitiful, she admitted to herself.

RJ smiled fondly at Leigh. "I’m sure we will." Her attention turned back to the bright red truck. "That’s an awfully big rig for such a –"

Leigh turned and began walking backwards in front of RJ. She laughed and poked RJ in the chest playfully. "Don’t say it! There are no short jokes allowed."

"Who’d be joking?"

"You’re evil."

RJ quirked a brow. "You’re just now noticing that?" They began to walk around to the passenger side when RJ’s hand grazed the big machine. She let out an explosive breath. It suddenly felt like someone was standing squarely in the center of her chest. She gasped and squeezed her eyes shut, feeling dizzy and queasy at the same time. RJ barely heard Leigh asking her what was wrong over the buzzing in her ears. Then strong hands were holding her upright against the truck. She gasped again, taking in a deep breath and opening her eyes. RJ blinked, stunned. Colors and smells seemed just a hair dimmer, and as the buzzing receded, Leigh’s words came into focus.

"Jesus Christ! Are you okay?" Leigh desperately searched RJ’s face. She’s having a heart attack?

"Yeah. Yeah." RJ swallowed and looked around her. The sensation was indescribable. She felt alive. God! I didn’t know this was going to happen! RJ simply assumed that for her little journey she would remain in the same form that she did at the diner: tangible to those living, but still existing in her own realm. Her eyes flickered from object to object and her ears perked up at the faint sound of birds in the distance. Things weren’t as vivid as they were normally were . This wasn’t worse, just … her mind scrambled for the right description. Just ‘different’.

"Are you sure? Maybe you should go to the –"

"I’m well and truly all right, Leigh." RJ was still a little dazed but did her best not to show it. She was scaring her companion. But how could she not react? It had been a lifetime since she felt this way. With every breath her lungs tingled in a way that was as familiar as it was new. RJ took Leigh’s hands in her own. They were trembling slightly. "I was just lightheaded for a moment. Musta been my amazing speed as I rounded that corner." Her gaze softened. "Truly."

Leigh studied her carefully. As though nothing had happened, RJ looked like the very picture of health. "You’re sure?" she finally asked.

"I’m very sure."

Leigh narrowed her eyes. "It’s probably those disgusting cigarettes you smoke."

"Oh, Lord. Not another one." RJ threw her hands in the air. "There are worse habits, you know. It’s not like I’m a killer of small animals or defiler of virgins."

At the teasing in RJ’s voice, Leigh instantly relaxed. I guess she is okay.

When they rounded the corner of the truck to the passenger’s side, RJ’s feet froze mid-step. "My, my." She pointed at the rig. "Is there a reason you’ve got a naked woman painted on the side of your truck?" RJ laughed throatily. "A very buxom naked woman, I should say."

"She’s not naked," Leigh protested. "She’s wearing panties." The blonde woman groaned and let her head sag forward a little. God, she hated that picture. Not that the woman wasn’t pretty. She was. She just also happened to be a picture of Leigh’s mother, who had died when the trucker was still in diapers. The fact that she was plastered naked on the side of Leigh’s truck for all the world to see was not something she appreciated. She had loved her father with all her heart. But the man was tacky as hell.

RJ’s eyes widened a little as she examined the picture in detail. "It’s you with long hair!" Her eyes shot from Leigh to the picture and back again. She smiled delightedly. Watch yourself, RJ. This lass is a wild one.

Leigh ground her teeth together. "It’s not me," she insisted petulantly. "I’m not that … that … you know." She pointed to the picture’s ample breasts. There was no way she was going to say who it really was.

RJ snorted appreciatively. "Damn near."

"It’s not me."

"Sure it’s not." RJ’s tone made it clear she didn’t believe a word of what Leigh was saying. She gestured toward the center of the painting. "And what happened here?" She scowled like a child denied one of her favorite toys. Or in this case an adult denied one of her favorite toys. "You’re covering the best part!"

A black strip had been painted over the woman’s chest, mostly hiding her more spectacular assets.

Leigh put her hands on her hips. "I ‘fixed’ it, if you must know." In actuality, the week before, after enduring yet another comment about the picture and enjoying her fifth tequila shooter, Leigh had had a full-blown hissy fit and taken a can of spray paint to the truck. She’d been meaning to get the whole thing repainted ever since, but she hadn’t had a day off yet. Her favorite body shop was going to be her first stop when she got back to Seattle.

RJ scratched her jaw, not willing to peel her eyes away from the picture. "Why would you need to fix your own truck?"

"It was my father’s rig. I sort of inherited it." Along with its $2000.00 a month payment, she thought wryly.

Even though the tall woman was clearly absorbed in the picture, Leigh refused to look at it. There were some things a daughter didn’t really want to know about her mother. How she looked in a purple polka-dotted thong was one of them. "It was his paint job. Not mine."

RJ groaned enthusiastically, examining the picture with a critical eye. "It’s a lovely picture."

"Pervert!" Leigh barked irrationally. This was her mother, for God’s sake! She dug into her pocket and pulled out her keys, wordlessly deactivating the alarm and opening RJ’s door before stalking around to the other side of the cab.

RJ blinked. "What did I say?"

RJ felt a certain amount of apprehension about leaving. This is a once in a lifetime… err… after lifetime chance. Don’t blow it. Taking a deep breath, she tossed in her duffel and grabbed the door handles, pulling herself up into the passenger seat. Once she stowed her bag at her feet, she pulled the door shut and took a good look around. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph!"

Leigh jumped a little bit at RJ’s loud exclamation. "What? What’s wrong?" She stood up and began looking around the cab. She’d seen two rather odd-looking squirrels puttering around her truck the last time she was at the diner. Could they have gotten inside?

"Where the hell do you hide Buck Rogers in this thing?" RJ’s eyes were as wide as saucers as they took in the truck’s high tech console.

Leigh flushed with pleasure at RJ’s reaction to her baby.

"Does he live in the closet?" RJ pointed back into the sleeping area, then jumped to her feet and began to explore the space. "Holy hell! It’s larger than my room at my mother’s."

Leigh snickered.

"What?"

She sat back in her seat and buckled her seatbelt, sliding her sunglasses on with one hand as she started the truck with the other. "Do you really live with your mother?"

RJ sat back in the seat and reluctantly tore eyes from the dashboard to focus on Leigh. "Yes, I really live with my mother," she informed her bluntly. "Is there something wrong with that?"

"You don’t attend Star Trek and Xena conventions wearing silly costumes and stalking the actors, do you?"

RJ looked totally confused. "I have no idea what on this earth you’re talking about."

"Good." Leigh nodded. A girl couldn’t be too careful. Serial killers were one thing. But those weirdo convention goers were something else.

"Why shouldn’t I live with my mother?" RJ pressed. Maybe folks don’t do that anymore.

"No reason." Leigh shrugged one shoulder. She hadn’t meant to insult RJ. "It’s sweet. Old-fashioned as hell, but sweet."

RJ relaxed a little. She’d been right. Things were just different now. This adjusting to things in the twenty-first century wouldn’t be so bad. She would just have to be savvy about things. "Maybe I’m just a sweet, old-fashioned kind of woman."

"Yeah, right," Leigh snorted as she put the truck into gear and pulled away from the diner.

"And what’s that supposed to mean?" RJ crossed her arms over her chest as she sank into the soft leather of the seat. She gripped her biceps in an effort to keep from reaching out and playing with the buttons on the console in front of her. Her fingers literally itched.

"Sweet, old-fashioned women do not, I repeat do not, know how to do the things with their tongue that you do."

RJ bit the inside of her cheek, fighting not to smile stupidly. The level of appreciation in Leigh’s voice had her ego purring nicely. But it wouldn’t do to come off like an arrogant S.O.B. "I aim to please," she finally chuckled, feeling the heat in her cheeks.

"Your aim is dead on." Leigh’s gaze slid sideways. "Don’t forget to buckle up."

RJ hesitated. "Ummm … buckle …"

"Your seatbelt."

"No, thank you," RJ muttered uneasily. "I’m sure I’ll be fine." Her pulse began to pound and her mind flashed to a scene of the ocean coming closer and closer, before a stunning impact. Then there was no air as she weakly, helplessly, tried to unhook herself from her plane as it sank.

"Hey." Leigh slowed the truck. "Are you okay?" What the hell is going on?

"I … um …" RJ licked her lips, tasting the sudden saltiness of her own sweat.

"It’s against the law not to wear your belt. You know that."

"Of course," RJ said quickly. A law? "It’s just … just …"

Leigh pulled over on the shoulder and stopped the truck. She quickly unbuckled herself and knelt in the space between her and RJ’s seat. "Tell me what’s the matter?" she asked earnestly, slipping off her sunglasses to get a better look at RJ.

RJ felt a little cornered, but Leigh’s voice was reassuring. "I had an accident when I was younger. And now I get …" she licked her lips, "I get a little claustrophobic. If wearing the belt is a requirement, then you’d best turn around and –"

"Hold on." Leigh cupped RJ’s cheek and frowned. Her skin felt cool and clammy and her eyes held a hint of panic. That must be what happened back in the parking lot. Some sort of panic attack. "You don’t have to buckle up if you don’t want to." I’d pay twice the ticket to keep you from being upset. "I just don’t want something to happen to you."

RJ let out a shuddering breath. "It won’t." She pinned Leigh with her eyes. "I mean, you’ll be careful driving, right?"

"Cross my heart."

"Okay, then, Leigh Matthews." RJ smiled tentatively. "Time to get this show on the road."

***

The day had gone better than either woman had dared hope. RJ and Leigh had laughed, talked, and sung along with the radio. Neither woman was even remotely shy, which helped … since RJ didn’t know a single word to any of the songs she was singing along to.

 

‘Margaritaville’ would have kicked arse in the 1930s, RJ mused.

Over the past day, RJ had learned more than one truly interesting fact about her new friend. But at the moment, it wasn’t Leigh who was occupying her mind.

RJ had to pee. God, she had to pee! Her back was aching from sitting all day and she sat up a little straighter, stretching her sore, tired muscles. She wiggled her toes in her shoes, which felt tight and constricting. My feet must be swollen. Next, her stomach growled and she laid her hand across it, feeling a little lightheaded. Had she skipped lunch? She couldn’t remember. How could I forget that being alive totally sucked!

To top it off, Leigh had seemed a little jumpy for the past hour or so, casting the cab in an uneasy silence. She fidgeted constantly, her eyes straying to her odometer every few moments.

"Leigh, we need to stop."

 

No, no, no, no. God is not this cruel. They were about three miles outside of Rosie’s Diner, which happened to be located smack dab in the middle of nowhere. "Why do we need to stop?" she challenged desperately. "We stopped only five and half hours ago!"

"Are you listening to yourself, Leigh?" RJ’s eyebrows shot skyward. "We just do."

"Why?"

RJ looked at Leigh like she was insane. "Because I didn’t pack any diapers and I’ve got to go!"

"It’s only forty-five more miles until we reach a Burger King. How about we stop there for dinner?" She gave RJ her best wishing look.

"Forty-five more miles," RJ groaned. "Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. We need to stop. Besides, I saw a sign for a diner only a moment or two ago that said it was five more miles. What’s wrong with stopping there?"

"It’s closed."

"At six o’clock on a Monday night?"

"Yes. It burned down last summer."

"Really?"

"Absolutely."

RJ squirmed in the seat, bemoaning her rotten luck. Then she noticed Leigh wouldn’t meet her eyes. "What aren’t you telling me, Ms. Matthews? I smell a rat."

Before Leigh could answer, a small building appeared on the horizon. The lot in front of it was filled with cars and trucks."

"Shit," Leigh mumbled.

"Look! It’s not burned down or closed."

"I must have been thinking of someplace else," Leigh lied unconvincingly. "But that place is disgusting. There aren’t even any roaches there. They’re all gone, striking for better conditions."

"I don’t care. I’m not going to lick the floor. I just need to use the bathroom."

"But Burger King’s bathroom is reeeeeally clean. And they have these little sanitary paper seat covers. And –"

RJ cocked her head to the side. Leigh was a beauty and all, but a bit odd at times. "Lemme put it this way. How attached are you to these nice leather seats? ‘Cause if I have to wait more than a few minutes, I’m thinking you’ll be needing to re-cover them."

Leigh pointed out her side window. "There’s a perfectly good ditch right there. Whaddya say? I have paper towels in the back." Oh, god, she’s going to think I’m demented.

She’s demented!

Leigh started to ease her foot off the accelerator, hoping RJ wouldn’t notice the subtle change in speeds.

"Don’t even think about it." RJ’s eyes flashed. "You might be used to relieving yourself on the side of the road. But I am certainly not. Not when I can see a perfectly good restaurant up ahead," she complained bitterly. My mother was right. The world has gone to hell in a hand basket.

"Fine. Fine." Leigh gunned the engine, causing RJ to flop back in her seat.

"Sudden movement is bad," she growled. "Very bad."

"Sorry."

Leigh pulled into the diner parking lot, driving at a snail’s pace as she scanned the lot. Using her CB while RJ napped, she’d made it a point to call a couple of the truckers she knew hung out at the diner. One of them would know what type of car Judith drove. And when it came to women you could never be too careful. Her car isn’t here. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Leigh didn’t handle ‘unhappy women scenes’ very well. This must be her day off.

RJ stood up in the truck and began to bang on her door with her fist. Was Leigh some sort of sadist? What had she gotten herself into all in the name of great sex? "Do you just want to see me wet my pants?"

Leigh grimaced. "Not particularly." She pulled into an extra-long space that was designated for trucks only. Unfortunately, they were now at the far end of a very long parking lot.

The trucker chewed her bottom lip, feeling a little guilty over RJ’s suffering. "Do you want me to drop you –?"

The motor hadn’t even stopped before RJ was halfway out the door.

"Or we can walk," Leigh commented drolly as she shut off the ignition.

Both women jumped out of the truck and RJ landed right in the center of a deep, very cold mud puddle, sending a wave of frigid water over her feet and onto her calves. "Sweet Jesus." She shivered, gritting her teeth at the sensation of the water and the immediate signal it sent to her protesting bladder.

Leigh bit back a laugh. Now that she wasn’t freaked out about them running into Judith, she was starting to see the humor in this situation. Mainly because she wasn’t the one suffering, which wasn’t very nice. But it was still funny.

They walked quickly across the lot and with every step the impulse for Leigh to come clean with RJ grew. Especially since you never knew who you could run into. Leigh didn’t want Judith to think she was callous. Even as casual they were with each other, some things were just plain rude. She tilted her head down, focusing her eyes on her shoes and she walked along, studiously avoiding the bigger puddles. "RJ?"

"Yes?" Her voice was tight.

"Umm … you see, there … there’s this woman that I’m sort of personal friends with –"

"How nice for you."

Leigh groaned inwardly. She really couldn’t blame RJ for being sore at her for wanting her to pee in the ditch for no apparent reason — but she didn’t have to be snippy about it, did she?

Leigh quickly apologized and received only a miserable grunt as a reply. I’ll make it up to you, RJ. I promise.

"Anyway," the trucker continued in a rush. "About this woman. She umm … well, we’ve been friends for a couple of years now. Good friends." Leigh held up her palms. "Now before you ask, it’s not like she’s a girlfriend or anything." She shook her head emphatically. "Absolutely not. Our relationship isn’t like that." A deep breath as she gestured wildly. "I’ve been totally upfront with her from the very beginning. We’re only friends. Good friends. Did I mention that?"

Leigh decided to leave out the fact that Judith had actually had a couple of serious relationships since she’d known her. Last summer, when the waitress got engaged to the guy who delivered the hamburger buns to the diner, Leigh assumed their ‘good’ friendship would be over. But Judith had convinced her otherwise. In the broom closet near the diner’s exit. Twice. Which was more than enough to ease the teensy weensy, nearly non-existent amount of guilt Leigh had felt over their relationship.

"I just don’t want things to be awkward if we happen to see her. Which we won’t," Leigh continued. God, this being honest was a pain in the ass. She’d always suspected that it would be. "Judith works here." Leigh’s brows knit. "And for some reason I get the feeling that she’s sort of the possessive –"

RJ had been so quiet during Leigh’s confession that the blonde woman paused and glanced up to gauge her reaction, wondering if RJ thought she was a huge slut. Not like she’s in a position to judge though, Leigh considered testily. She suddenly stopped walking.

"What in the …?" Leigh spun around in a circle. Not only wasn’t RJ next to her, she was nowhere near her. She looked toward the diner and caught a flash of her new lover as she opened the door and ran in. Which meant that RJ hadn’t heard most of Leigh’s one-sided conversation. She sighed heavily. "Thanks so much, RJ. I knew you’d understand. Pouring out this incredibly awkward story was much easier than I anticipated."

"Talking to yourself is the first sign you’re cracking, Tom Cat."

Leigh turned around to see her old family friend. "Hello, Rooster. And if you ever call me Tom Cat again I’m going to kick your tubby ass from here to the Pacific Ocean."

"Last time it was just to the state line." Rooster grinned unrepentantly. "I must be getting more annoying in my old age."

"I can vouch for that," Leigh said against his bristly cheek, as she pulled the man into a warm hug.

Rooster tried several times to coax Leigh inside. But for some reason she seemed reluctant, so they talked in the parking lot about trucking and sports, the only two topics Rooster had much interest in. Other than sex. And ever since the time Leigh cold-cocked him for going into too much detail about his best weekend ever, he’d at least tried to avoid that subject.

When Leigh glanced down at her watch, then up at the diner door for tenth time, Rooster asked, "Gotta get back on the road?"

"No. It’s my week off," she answered absently.

Rooster grinned. "Waiting for somebody?"

Leigh nodded.

"Me?"

"You wish."

"Who then?"

"RJ." Where in the hell is she? It’s been nearly twenty minutes.

"Holy shit! A man?" Rooster moved around in front of Leigh to capture her attention.

"Get the fuck out of my way, Rooster," Leigh laughed, gently shoved the large man out of the way and continued eyeing the door. "RJ is a woman. I met her in South Dakota."

"South Dakota!" He waggled a scolding finger at Leigh. "Tell me you didn’t pick up a hitchhiker. I’ve warned you about that!"

Unaccountably, Leigh felt herself blushing. "She’s not a hitchhiker."

"And." He drew out the word.

"She’s a friend I’m taking with me to Seattle." And that’s all you’re getting out of me, Mr. Gossip.

Rooster put his hands on his hips. "And just what do you know about her? Hmm?" he pressed. "She could be dangerous!"

Leigh lips formed a thin line. "Don’t get in my business, Rooster." But her eyes softened almost immediately. "I’m fine. You don’t need to worry about me."

Rooster straightened indignantly. "Who’s worried?" He pulled his belt up as far as his enormous belly would allow.

Leigh patted his arm. "Not you." Is she going to make me go in there after her? Uh oh. What if something’s happened to her? The blonde woman’s face clouded with worry. "I need to go inside now." Without waiting for Rooster to answer, Leigh resumed her trek. This time at a much faster pace.

"Is she good-lookin’?" Rooster struggled to catch up, his ample girth making the task more difficult.

"Beautiful," Leigh answered without hesitation.

Rooster scowled and walked around two cars that Leigh scooted between. "She’s not all mannish, is she?" He shook his head, which caused his necks to wobble wildly. "I can’t stand those types."

Leigh smirked. "Doesn’t matter. You’re going to think she’s attractive either way."

The red-haired man scrubbed his face. "That’s what you think!"

Years ago, Rooster and his buddies had complained bitterly about the ‘unfeminine’ ways of a woman Leigh had taken an interest in. Problem was, the woman was undeniably attractive and all the men knew it. Just to be a bitch, Leigh had informed them that the woman was so ‘unfeminine’ that if any of them found her even remotely appealing, it meant that they were gay, but in denial of their true feelings. Ever since, Rooster had been paranoid about any women not in a dress.

Leigh threw open the diner door. She headed straight for the bathroom, but was sidetracked by a loud gasp. Spinning around, her eyes widened and she felt her heart drop to her knees. Judith was standing in front of RJ with a large knife in her hand and RJ’s white shirt was covered in blood.

The trucker bolted across the room, knocking down a chair in the process. "God dammit, you didn’t have to stab her!" she yelled frantically, pawing at RJ’s shirt to find the wound.

RJ looked down at Leigh in shock.

"Stab?" Judith whispered, looking at the knife in her hands as though she didn’t know she was holding it. "What in the world are you talking about?"

RJ quickly grabbed Leigh’s hands. "Whoa! Calm down. I’m not stabbed, lass."

Leigh’s eyes darted back to Judith. "But the knife, the blood …"

RJ burst into laughter. "She was just bringing me a knife to cut my burger. And this ketchup bottle exploded on me when I opened it." She gestured toward the bottle that was still oozing. RJ casually reached down to her plate and picked up a french fry. Raising a sassy eyebrow, she dipped the fry on her shirt and popped it into her mouth.

Leigh was so pale she looked like she was about to pass out, so RJ quickly wrapped an arm around her, careful not to stain her shirt. "Hang on," she told her worriedly.

Judith’s hackles immediately rose at the interaction between Leigh and RJ. Leigh was still touching the woman as though she was worried about her, and RJ’s voice, while amused, held an undeniable hint of affection. "You two know each other?" Judith asked curiously, hoping she didn’t sound as anxious about the answer as she suddenly was.

Leigh swallowed. The fact that RJ wasn’t stabbed and that she was talking to Judith was just now starting to sink in. "Hello, Judith. I didn’t see your car out front." Oh, that was brilliant.

"Ken has it in the garage tonight. He’s putting new brakes on it for me, so I got a ride in with Buck this afternoon." She glanced at RJ, who was looking between she her and Leigh with bemused detachment, happily munching away at her fries. The smug look annoyed Judith and she took a step closer to Leigh, who was now standing without any help. "You take on a new co-driver?"

"Yeah, right," Leigh snorted. Like she’d actually let someone else drive her truck. What was Judith thinking? "Well, nice seeing you. Bye." Leigh tugged RJ’s hand to leave, but the tall woman’s feet were firmly rooted to the ground. She tugged again. But RJ refused to move. Leigh closed her eyes. C’mon, RJ. It’s time to go, before there’s a scene!

"Leigh, could you relax just a bit? We’ve been in that truck for hours now. We’re supposed to be on vacation." A little defiantly, she paused and took a long, slow sip of her Coke. "We’ve got nowhere to be, and I’m hungry and a little tired. Can’t we just take a short break?"

 

Oooo … not the right thing to say, Irish, Rooster thought as he sat heavily into a booth where he had a ringside seat for all the action. He felt in his pocket for a quarter in case he needed to call the cops.

Leigh spoke without moving her mouth. "I don’t wanna stay. I wanna go right this very minute."

"Well," RJ looked confused. But her friend seemed so stressed that she decided to give in, just so she wouldn’t make things worse. "I suppose we can – "

"Yeah, you want to go! You always want to go." Judith’s head bobbed curtly. "And now I know why." She blinked, disgusted by how jealous and just plain pissed off she felt.

"Now, Judith –"

"Don’t you ‘now Judith’ me! You, you ..." Judith’s head looked like it was going to explode as she fought for words. Unexpectedly, she whirled around and snatched up a towel from the counter for RJ. "Here." She thrust it forward. "You’ll need this to keep from dripping."

RJ took the towel, muttering a quiet ‘thanks’ as she sat down. Oh, boy. She sensed that things between Leigh and the waitress were about to get very ugly.

"No problem." Judith stared at the trucker, "I mean, we wouldn’t want you to make a mess in Leigh’s precious truck, right? She’s probably got to get back on the road this very goddamned instant!"

Leigh winced and braced herself. At this point, it had been her experience that women either began to cry or hit. She silently prayed she could avoid a black eye. That had looked ridiculous. "Maybe you should go out to the truck, RJ. Judith and I need to have a personal discussion. Alone," she emphasized.

"No, we don’t," Judith snapped. "I’ll be right back with your order." The waitress stormed away.

"But I didn’t order anything," Leigh muttered in frustration.

RJ winced. "I ordered for you. I figured you’d be hungry."

Leigh smiled insincerely. "Thanks."

"Umm, Leigh, I didn’t mean to cause you any trouble with that woman." RJ tilted her head toward the kitchen. "I didn’t know you had a regular thing with anyone. I thought, well, I just figured –"

"We’re not a ‘regular’ anything, honest."

 

But you’re sure something to her. That much is crystal clear. RJ handed Leigh her towel. The shirt she was wearing was a lost cause now anyway.

Leigh leaned against the table and began wiping the globs of sticky ketchup from her fingers. Nervously, she glanced back to the kitchen. "Let’s go before she comes back." I’m such a chickenshit.

"If you’re not a ‘regular anything’ with that woman then don’t be afraid to face her. We’re not doing anything but eating here." She gestured longingly toward her food. "Come on, Leigh, I’m starved and the food here is so much different than it is at Fitz’s." These fries were shaped in curly q’s with Cajun salt!

"Look, RJ, I’m not sure if you understand." I don’t even understand it. "Judith and I –"

Just then, Judith emerged from the kitchen with a plate in her hand. She slammed it down in front of Leigh. "Eat!" she commanded.

Leigh gulped and looked down into the plate of food she wouldn’t dare eat even if she were starving to death. "That was fast."

"Of course it was. I know how you hate to wait for anything!"

"Christ." Leigh rolled her eyes. This was going to turn into a catfight. She just knew it.

RJ thrust out her hand to the waitress. "I’m RJ Fitzgerald. And you are?"

"Oh, I’m no one important. I’m just a stop along the route. One of many, no doubt."

Leigh narrowed her eyes.

Judith took the time to shake RJ’s hand. "My name’s Judith." She flicked an icy glare at Leigh even though she continued to talk to RJ. "It’s nice to meet you, though, Ms. Fitzgerald. You known Tom Cat long?"

RJ eyebrows crawled up her forehead. "Tom Cat?"

Leigh’s face took on an angry flush. "You know I hate to be called that, Judith," she ground out forcefully. She was losing patience fast. Leigh hadn’t wanted to stop at Rosie’s and would have preferred to avoid the diner and Judith altogether. But they were here now and Judith had no cause to be bent out of shape. "I’ve known RJ for a little over a month," she answered coolly for RJ, knowing it would annoy the waitress.

"Well, then, I’m sure you’re intimately acquainted by now. How long did we know each other first?" She laughed without a trace of humor. "The first time I saw you, you asked me out. Then it was your very next time through that you –"

"That’s enough." Leigh’s voice went cold. "There’s no reason to act this way, Judith. We’re not a couple, and we never have been."

Judith lifted her chin at Leigh’s pronouncement. But she couldn’t deny it.

Leigh lowered her voice. "I’ve been completely honest in all my relationships."

Judith’s eyes snapped angrily at the dig about her former fiancÚ. "You’re right. And you’re never gonna let me live it down. I guess I’m just not as perfect as you are .... Tom Cat," she added acidly. Judith took a cleansing breath and turned her attention to RJ. "I’m sorry, Ms. Fitzgerald."

"Call me RJ."

She nodded. "RJ. I’m sure you’ll find Tom Cat is an enjoyable ride, just not much for commitment."

RJ cleared her throat. She could feel Leigh’s body stiffen next to hers, and a surge of anger welled up within her. RJ reached out and took Leigh’s hand, giving it a firm squeeze. "I don’t think you need to concern yourself about the commitment between Leigh and me. I’m very clear on the boundaries of our relationship and am more than happy to enjoy the time we have together without pressing for what’ll never be. And so far," her lips curved into an unexpected, devastatingly sexy smile, "I’ve not a single complaint." She gazed fondly at her companion, giving her a ghost of a wink. That’ll show Ms. Attitude a thing or two.

Leigh smiled gratefully at RJ. In a couple of sentences she’d managed to completely shut up Judith. The blonde woman blocked out Judith’s presence all together and quietly asked RJ, "Can we leave now. Please?"

"You betcha, beautiful. It’s my plan to take you somewhere wonderful tonight and show you what it means to love the Irish." The look on RJ’s face clearly told Judith that the conversation was over.

The waitress actually found herself taking a step backwards.

RJ bent down and kissed Leigh on the cheek, allowing her lips to linger until Leigh’s face broke out into a full-fledged smile. "I’m going to go and change my shirt and muddy pants."

Leigh reached into her pocket and tossed a couple of bills on the table as RJ headed for the door. "I’m sorry, Judith." Even after this little scene she couldn’t bring herself to be anything more than mildly angry. Judith was the kind of woman who always needed more than Leigh was willing to give. She smiled weakly. "At least you didn’t punch me in the nose."

Unable to stop herself, Judith smiled back. "It’s not like I didn’t think of it." She sighed sadly, knowing she was going to miss this particular trucker and quite sure she’d never lay eyes on her again. "Good bye, Leigh." Judith turned on her heels and disappeared into the kitchen.

Leigh shook her head. "See ya around, Rooster," she said softly as she walked passed the man and toward what she just knew was going to be a fabulous week.

"See ya ‘round, Leigh," he replied brightly, waving.

When Leigh had exited the diner he jumped up from the booth and shuffled over to her table, plopping down to enjoy her uneaten meal. He’d been scoping it like a vulture waiting for its prey to finally croak for the past ten minutes.

Judith strode out of the kitchen and stopped at the table. "What do you think you’re doing?"

Rooster unrolled the large paper napkin, spilling out a knife and fork into his hand. "What’s it look like? I’m going to eat her dinner. She didn’t even touch it!" he complained, jealously guarding the plate with a beefy arm.

"Trust me, Rooster." Judith couldn’t help but snigger. "Unless you don’t want to leave the throne for the next couple days, you do not want to eat that food."

Rooster yanked his hands off the plate as though he’d been burned. Damn, women were vicious. Tears welled in his eyes. How could she ruin a perfectly innocent burger? Was nothing sacred?

Continued


Return to The Bard's Corner