These characters originated in the deep dark recesses of Advocate’s (Blayne Cooper) and T. Novan’s minds, and thus belong to no one but us.
Copyright © 2001 by Blayne Cooper and T. Novan. All Rights Reserved.
Sexual Content: Oh, yeah. It’s in there. This is for all the folks who moaned about the lack of graphic sex in Madam President. Feel free to send cash. If you’re under 18, please move along. But everyone else is welcome to pull up a chair and enjoy. This story is intended for an adult audience only.
Violence: Not too much.
Language: Yes, there is some profanity. But don’t tell our moms, okay? Last time my mom bought that soap mechanics use with bits of stuff in it. I can still feel that grit between my teeth. And yes, I did brush.
Special Notice: There once was a tale by Advocate called The Story of Me. In it, a woman named Randi poured her heart out about her stalker, Mac, to a pair of avidly listening squirrels in a city park. Is this a sequel? Nope. Do you have to read The Story of Me to enjoy and understand this one? Absolutely not. But you might get a little more out of this one if you go there first. Trust us, it’s mostly painless.
Acknowledgements: To our beta readers, Midgit, R.S. Corliss, and Medora MacD — your assistance was invaluable. To the friends who read parts of this story and offered sage advice and compliments — we love you. We stick our tongues out in the general direction of the rest of you. And, of course, TN and I had a blast working together. After a break we will be starting the sequel to Madam President. But this was screaming at us first.
Comments/Feedback to: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
THE ROAD TO GLORY
Advocate (Blayne Cooper) and T. Novan
The stars twinkled overhead as Leigh Matthews barreled down I-90 at a constant speed of seventy miles per hour. Despite the fact that it was nearly summer, the cool evening air had forced her to flip on her heater at the last mile marker. It had been a long day of driving and worst of all, it would start all over again — she glanced at her dashboard board clock — in less than six hours.
"What the –?" Leigh mumbled as an unexpected Day-Glo detour sign directed her off the interstate and onto a lonely county road. It was paved and well-marked but wasn’t as straight as the highway had been. Leigh reduced her speed to fifty-five. What little traffic there had been moments before thinned out to nothing, leaving the young woman alone with only the night and her radio for company.
As her truck’s cab grew warmer and warmer Leigh’s eyelids grew heavier and her breathing slower and deeper. She pushed shaggy blonde bangs off her forehead and leaned forward to fiddle with the radio.
"Let Jeeeeeesus into your heart!" the speakers blared.
"Aw, Christ. Is it really necessary to take all the fun out of being a sinner?" Leigh rolled her eyes, carefully steered around an enormous unidentified hunk of roadkill, and changed the radio station — somehow managing to do all three things at the same time. She hated A.M. radio, especially in the middle of the night and most especially in the middle of nowhere. Leigh had listened to all her books on tape, and her much-loved CDs held no allure at this late hour. She stifled a yawn and made a slow turn onto another road as another detour sign directed.
Why hadn’t anyone mentioned this detour? Leigh blearily glanced down at her silent CB radio. Disgusted, she’d flipped it off earlier when she couldn’t stomach another second of hearing how Big Bubby Bumboski had conned his portly, and clearly stupid, wife into believing he had an emergency run that would take him the better part of a week. Half the state knew he was going to meet his girl friend and their two sons. Bubby had gone on and on about how proud of the oldest boy he was. It seems Little Big Bubby had made parole just in time for the visit.
This second turn had sent her into an area even more desolate than the first, and Leigh began to wonder fuzzily if she’d somehow gotten lost. Her breaths began to lengthen again, and her head began to droop. Her eyes fluttered closed … just for a second.
Leigh’s head snapped up. Her eyes popped open at the sound of gravel under her wheels. Instinctively, she slammed on her brakes, kicking up a cloud of dust as the massive truck skidded to a halt along the side of the road. Good thing I’m riding bobtail. It would have taken three times the distance to stop with a full rig. Shakily, she clicked off the ignition and was surrounded by stony silence.
Leigh blinked dazedly, her heart pounding a mile a minute, adrenaline coursing through her veins. "Damn." I fell asleep on the road? I haven’t done that since I started driving! She gazed out the large window at her surroundings. It was pitch black … almost. Leigh squinted bloodshot, baby blues as she peered down the road. Off in the distance she could see the faint glow of lights on a sign. "Thank you, God! A motel. I’m going to get a shower after all," she said to no one. Sure, talking to yourself was a clear sign of insanity. But then again, Leigh was pretty certain a truly insane person wouldn’t give a shit. So why should she?
Leigh had grown up on the road with her dad and knew that no matter how desolate an area seemed you usually weren’t too far from one of the thousands of mom-and-pop motels that lined America’s highways. They catered to truckers like herself and other weary, or just plain lost, travelers.
The young woman started up the engine again, and her cherry-red big rig rumbled to life, its high beams cutting through the darkness. Slowly, she pulled back onto the road, hearing the familiar sound of crunching gravel die away as her wheels found the pavement. By the time Leigh shifted from third to fourth gear it was already time to slow down again. She snorted at the flickering sign that read ‘ritz’s’. "Looks like I found the Ritz in the middle of the boonies. Who knew?"
Leigh pulled alongside the small building and pushed open the cab door. She was immediately greeted by a loud chorus of chirping crickets and the smell of slightly damp prairie grass. The wind tossed her hair as she jumped down onto the dirt parking lot. With every footstep she could feel her dreams of a hot shower and a big bed going up in smoke.
She wanted to stamp her foot in disappointment but somehow resisted the urge. A fit where no one could see it, after all, didn’t serve much purpose. Instead, she hung her head and scrubbed her face tiredly as she approached the building. This was no hotel. It was a diner. And — from the darkened windows and the dim outline of chairs propped up on the tables — a very closed diner.
With a slight growl, Leigh stalked back to the truck and climbed inside. She locked her door and then the passenger’s side door. Behind the two front seats was the thin curtain that separated Leigh’s workplace from her home. She kicked off her shoes, not caring where they ended up, and tugged off her lightweight denim shirt and bra.
A small but comfortable bed folded down from the back wall of the truck, and the tired woman flopped down gracelessly, not bothering to remove her blue jeans.
She was asleep before her head hit the pillow.
Leigh’s eyes fluttered open and she moaned softly. "Noooo, it can’t be morning yet. Go away," she petulantly ordered the sun. But for some reason, the sunshine streaming through the windows rudely refused to obey her command. She slid on a clean shirt and grabbed the backpack that contained her toiletries.
Yawning, she rifled her fingers through her short, fair hair in a half-hearted attempt to make herself semi-presentable. But to be honest, right now she was more interested in finding a bathroom than looking pretty. Blonde or no, it wasn’t like she was going to be confused with that insane Martha Stewart anyway. Nature was calling. Loudly. Using her hand to block the sun from her eyes, Leigh stared up at the large sign on top of the diner. The place was called ‘Fitz’s’ not ‘ritz’s’; the top half of the ‘F’ being burnt out.
When Leigh’s gaze dropped from the slightly dilapidated sign, it landed squarely on a figure leaning back in a wooden chair, sitting in shadows outside the diner door. Her eyes widened slightly. The body was long and lean, dressed in beige cargo pants and a blue cotton shirt, its two booted feet propped up on a barrel. Holy hot damn. She tried not to stare but gave up on that idea immediately since she really did want a good look at whoever this was.
Please be a woman, please be a woman, Leigh chanted inwardly. Another two strides and even through the light cloud of smoke that swirled around the body, a head of thick, short auburn hair came clearly into view. Leigh’s eyes dropped to the pale blue shirt, which was, she could see now, unbuttoned, with a crisp, white t-shirt underneath. Then … cha-ching! Bells that sounded remarkably like a cash register opening went off in her mind as she took in the vision of two well-shaped breasts and a slender neck. A tiny growl escaped her throat, and she strained to more clearly make out the features of the woman’s face.
Leigh stopped abruptly when a harried-looking father, holding the hands of two small boys, scurried past her and into the diner. "Potty emergency" was all the man said by way of an apology.
The woman in the chair took another long drag off her cigarette before tossing the stub into a butt can that sat alongside her. Then she brought a frosty, glass Coke bottle to her mouth and took a healthy swig. "Ahhh …" she hummed, smacking her lips with almost sensual pleasure. Nothin’ like a little carbonation to burn away the mornin’ fuzzies. Her green eyes tracked Leigh with idle curiosity as the short woman approached. She snorted and dropped one foot from the barrel, using the toe of her boot to scratch the belly of the cat that sat at the porch below her feet. Lordy, it seems they’re letting runts truck nowadays.
Flea, a coal-black cat, groaned, causing the woman to chuckle. "Thirsty? You’ve had a hard morning of doing absolutely nothing. I’m sure you’ve worked up a powerful thirst."
From her position sprawled out on her back, Flea merely opened her mouth. The green-eyed woman finally tore her eyes from the blonde and casually leaned over to pour her Coke directly into Flea’s waiting mouth.
As Leigh stepped onto the diner’s porch, her jaw sagged at the spectacle. She was so engrossed at the sight of the beautiful woman, not to mention the feline lapping up a continuous stream of Coca Cola, that she didn’t even see the door in front of her swing open. Until it hit her right in the face.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" The woman in the chair jumped to her feet just as Leigh was knocked backwards, landing on her bottom with a resounding thud. A cloud of fine dust kicked up around her, and she coughed weakly as her world spun.
A short, heavyset man, who looked to be pushing sixty, came barreling out of the diner and immediately dropped to Leigh’s side. He swallowed nervously, patting her back gently as she coughed again and tried to fan away the dust with erratic hand movements. "Are you okay, miss?"
Leigh had one hand cupped over the eye that was throbbing with her every heartbeat. She could already feel it swelling shut. "I um … I think so." She looked intently at the man, her brow furrowing. "And do I need to tell it to your twin, too?"
He glanced at the empty space next to him where Leigh was pointing. "Oh, boy. I’m so sorry." The man offered her his hand, helping her stand. "I’m Pete."
"Hi, Pete. I’m –" she momentarily faltered as the diner, not ten feet in front of her, began to blur. I’m going to pass out?
"Whoa there, miss." Pete, who was dressed in white pants, a blindingly white t-shirt and a green apron with ‘Fitz’s’ emblazoned across the chest, wrapped a supportive arm around Leigh. "We’d better go inside and get some ice on that eye. Breakfast is on the house." His gaze flickered over to the tall woman. "Fitz, were you just going to leave her here in the dirt?" he asked grumpily.
"And I thought you were going to fix that burned out sign." Pete shook his head. "I should fire your –"
"I’m fine," Leigh cut in, trying to get a better look at this Fitz woman, but now her good eye was tearing so much she couldn’t see much of anything. "Really. I was just really to take …" She paused and her mind worked silently as she tried to rephrase what she was going to say. "Umm …"
Pete grunted knowingly and offered, "There’s a washroom inside. C’mon." He pulled open the door, and Leigh was immediately assaulted by the delicious smell of sizzling bacon and coffee.
"Oh, damn, that smells good. But first things first." She made a beeline for the bathroom, automatically heading for the rear of the diner where she knew it would be, saying a small prayer of thanks that the door wasn’t locked.
Just before leaving, she scrubbed her face with icy water and brushed her teeth with the toothbrush she kept in her backpack. Leigh glanced in the mirror and sighed ruefully. "Not great." Once again she ran her fingers through her hair. This was as good as she was going to look without a shower and a full night’s sleep and while sporting what was already promising to become a black eye Muhammad Ali would be proud of.
Oh, man, the guys at Rosie’s are never gonna let me live this down. I’d better come up with a hell of a story to go with it. Getting banged in the face by the door while checking out the local eye candy and some bizarro cat is definitely one they’d believe. It’s just not one I’m going to give them the satisfaction of laughing at. She cringed at the sliver of bloodshot blue barely visible between her puffy eyelids. And to think I thought that saying about things only being fun until someone loses an eye was a crock of shit. Wrong!
Leigh rinsed her toothbrush again, put it back in its case, and tossed it in her backpack. "Breakfast and coffee. That’s the ticket."
Her stomach rumbled as she bellied up to the counter and perched on a padded stool that swiveled as she turned.
Pete chuckled. "Coffee. Over hard, side of hash browns, bagel, and two meats?"
Leigh could only nod and groan — the man was a mind reader. She was afraid if she spoke that the drool that had been pooling in her mouth at the aroma of a hot breakfast would spill out onto the floor. She swallowed and looked around, taking in the retro 1930s or 1940s décor — she wasn’t sure which. "Where is this place?" It was charming in a weird sort of way.
"Heaven, of course," a waitress from behind the counter answered sassily. "Couldn’t you tell by the parking lot? We fixed all the pot holes."
Pete made a face. "Very funny, Mavis." With a stubby finger, he pointed to a booth that had just gone empty. "Don’t you have dishes to bus?"
"Yeah, yeah," Mavis waved him off and poured a man at the counter another cup of coffee.
Pete turned to Leigh. "Welcome to Fitz’s. The woman out front was RJ Fitzgerald, but despite the place’s name, it’s my diner."
"He lost a bet and she made him change the name," Mavis piped up helpfully.
Pete narrowed his hazel eyes, his gaze burning a hole through the waitress. "Thank you so much, Mavis," he said through clenched teeth. "By the way, I have a feeling the grease trap is going to need cleaning today. And tomorrow."
Mavis blanched and scooted her skinny body toward the dirty booth. At least there she’d only be able to get into a little trouble.
Leigh watched Pete and Mavis with mild amusement. "I saw the sign with the name on it out front. I meant — where exactly is the diner? I hit an unexpected detour last night."
"Ah." Pete nodded. "We’ve been getting you folks all morning." He poured Leigh a cup of coffee and set down a small pitcher of fresh cream and a bowl of sugar. "The nearest town is about twenty miles due north."
Leigh didn’t comment. She’d check the map in her truck later. She poured cream into her coffee until it was a pale beige, not bothering to stir the cloudy mixture.
She waited while Pete waved goodbye at the man who’d run in moments before with the two little boys in tow. When the screen door slammed, he glanced down, seeing Leigh’s expectant eyes. "Oh, sorry." Pete grinned. "You are sitting exactly twenty miles from Glory, South Dakota. Population –"
"Who cares!" a group of old men playing dominos at a center table sang out.
"The lady asked, you grumpy old goats!" Pete reprimanded, shaking his dishtowel at the crusty men.
Leigh chuckled behind the rim of her coffee cup. Too many years of being on the road with her father had brought her into a million of these places. Now that she was inside, it only took a second for her seasoned gaze to assure her that this was more than a just a place for travelers to eat. This was, to a precious few, a second home. Regulars were family, if not by blood then by friendship and caring.
Pete winced at the bright purple shiner that Leigh was now sprouting. "Let me get you something cold for that eye. Be right back," he mumbled as he headed into the kitchen.
Leigh turned around slightly when the creaking of the screen door announced someone’s arrival.
RJ Fitzgerald strolled into the diner, the empty Coke bottle held loosely by her fingertips, the bottle swaying back and forth in time with her long stride. She slid behind the opposite end of the counter Leigh was sitting at and put the bottle away in a crate of others just like it. The sound of glass hitting glass was barely audible over the constant clatter of clinking silverware. She picked up a thick, white ceramic coffee cup. Unconsciously twirling it on her index finger, she crossed to a hotplate holding several silver pots of fresh-brewed java. RJ glanced over her shoulder at Leigh and flashed her a sympathetic grin. That eye’s gonna be swelled shut tighter than a Scotsman’s wallet in no time. Poor lass.
RJ shifted to face the trucker fully and after pouring the coffee, braced her elbows on the white, slightly coffee-stained Formica countertop. She sipped her coffee and when she was completely sure she had Leigh’s undivided attention, which, in truth, she’d had from the moment she walked in the door, she pointed to her own eye and mouthed, ‘You okay?’
Leigh’s fingertips grazed the bruised flesh on the side of her face, but she smiled back and nodded her head. It was tender but not excruciating. I’d be more okay if you were sitting in my lap naked. God, I love butch.
RJ winked and then turned so she could yell through the serving window to Pete, who was still fiddling with an ice pack.
"Just so you’ll know, at this rate her eye will be healed and her grandchildren will be grown before you get that back out here," she tormented, stealing a piece of bacon off one of the plates a hefty black woman had slid forward through the service window for Mavis.
Leigh sucked in an appreciative breath. Now that her head wasn’t spinning from the impact of the door, she could for the first time truly hear and appreciate the sweet Irish lilt that laced RJ’s words.
"Fitz!" Mavis barked, automatically adding more bacon to the plate in her hands. If RJ had been anywhere near it, the waitress knew it would come up short. "Take yourself outside and find something useful to do. Don’t be in here causing more trouble." Mavis’ warning was said in such an aggrieved, mothering tone that it caused the young couple in the booth near the door to cover their mouths to hide their sniggers at RJ’s scolding.
"I’d like to know what I did the first time." RJ crossed her arms over her chest, obviously waiting for an answer. "It’s not like it was my fault that she got hit in the face with the door."
"Fitz, out!" This time the order came from the group of men playing dominoes.
RJ shot the rusty codgers a dirty look. "I’m going. I’m going. I know when I’m not wanted." She pulled a soft cotton cap from her back pocket and tugged it onto her head, her wavy, collar-length locks sticking out in wild directions in the back. "I’ll just go out back and play with a very sharp ax."
She grabbed a pair of well-worn leather gloves from her other back pocket and slipped one on. When she walked passed Leigh, she grinned and flashed the fairer woman a heart-stopping smile. "Hope that eye feels better, miss. I’m sorry I can’t stay and chat, but as you can see, I’m being kicked outta here on my arse."
Leigh couldn’t help but laugh along with the other diner patrons. She had never actually heard someone with such a charming accent. .. . She smiled at RJ and the tall woman disappeared out the door.
Pete returned from the kitchen with an ice pack and a delicious-smelling plate of food, which he slid in front of Leigh. "There you go, young lady." He sheepishly gestured at Leigh’s face. "I really am sorry about that."
"It’s okay." Leigh shrugged, her mind more on RJ than her conversion with Pete. "These things happen."
RJ peeled off her shirt and tossed it onto a picnic table, leaving her clad in a white men’s sleeveless undershirt. Her pale, slightly freckled skin instantly warmed in the strong morning sun and she sighed contentedly, rolling the shoulders that were now free from any constriction. Then she moved to the old stump where a long-handled ax was buried and yanked it free. Next she picked up a one-foot maple round that needed to be split so it could be used to fire up the open-pit barbecue later in the week.
Forest-green eyes flicked up and stared at the diner. She could see inside through the open, back screen door and had a perfect view of Leigh’s left leg. To RJ, it seemed that the vibrant woman was having a good time, drinking her coffee and devouring her breakfast. And so what if I can only just a little bit her leg and foot? It’s a very expressive foot!
Without looking, RJ drove the blade of the ax directly into the center of the round, chopping it neatly in half. Years of chopping wood had made it second nature, and she proceeded by rote, her mind wandering as she picked up one of the half-rounds and placed it back on the stump to be split again. Right now, her thoughts were wandering all over a certain petite, blue-eyed blonde trucker. Just like her hands were itching to do. RJ moaned. Loudly.
Flea shuffled around the side of the building and flopped down in the shade of a large tree. She yawned and began licking her paws as her piercing yellow eyes watched RJ chop wood. Flea was glad she wasn’t human. Too much work. Losers.
RJ finally looked down at her four-legged companion and cocked her head to the side. "All right. I admit it. She’s a nice looking dame. Too bad she’s not –"
Before the woman could continue her conversation with the cat, Leigh came around the side of the building with her backpack slung over her shoulder. She marched right up to RJ, allowing her eyes to sweep the length of the taller woman’s lanky frame.
Leigh’s admiration of RJ’s body was so frank and unabashed that RJ actually felt her cheeks heat as she lifted her ax for another swing. Lord! I don’t feel this exposed in my own birthday suit!
The blonde woman smiled, pleased at the sweet flush covering RJ’s face. "Excuse me, but umm, Pete said there was an actual shower I could use around here somewhere?" Her tone was doubtful, though she had no real reason to mistrust Pete. He had given her a free breakfast, and in the great pecking order of life that put him just below her dead father and above everyone else.
RJ completely missed the half-round and, instead, buried the blade into the stump the maple block was sitting on. She groaned inwardly, thinking she was lucky she hadn’t cut off her foot. She pushed back her supreme embarrassment, outwardly projecting an air of total confidence and serenity. RJ jerked a thumb toward the ax and said casually, "I meant to do that."
Leigh glanced down at the ax that was imbedded at an odd angle, nearly shaving off the outside edge of the stump. "I’m sure you did," she said seriously, all the while wrestling the smile from her face.
RJ pulled a white handkerchief out of what Leigh was beginning to suspect were bottomless back pockets and wiped her forehead.
"Shower?" Leigh reminded.
"Oh, yeah, right in there." RJ tilted her head toward the building next to the diner. "It’s the old garage. You won’t find anyone lurking about in there unless it’d be George working on that clunker automobile of his. And I don’t think he’s here today. But there’s a full shower in the back and a rack of clean towels besides. Help yourself."
Leigh smiled and adjusted the pack on her shoulder. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask RJ on a date or to join her in the shower. One or the other. Hell, she’d never been shy around women and her gaydar was pinging so loudly when it came to RJ she was surprised she could still see straight. So to speak. "Thanks. Will um –" Leigh paused when she spied an old rusted-out 1942 Ford pickup parked alongside the garage. She snorted as she took in the ill-kept machine, saying the first thing that popped into her mind. "What self-respecting soul could drive such a piece of shit?"
RJ looked at the black truck, her brow creasing. Piece of shit? She scratched her jaw. "I guess that person would be me. Seeing as how that’s my truck."
Leigh’s eyes widened. Oh, my God. "Ahh…" She winced and tried to think of something nice to say about the dilapidated machine.
Leigh had no qualms about bullshitting the ladies. Hell, she’d learned at her daddy’s knee. And his nickname wasn’t ‘Tom Cat’ for nothing. When he died two years ago and she’d gone from doing the family bookkeeping to driving the big rig herself, the trucking community had taken to calling her ‘Tom Cat’ too, though usually not to her face.
But she never, ever, stretched the truth when it came to trucks. Even itty bitty ones. A woman had to have some principles. "I’m sorry."
RJ put one hand on her hip, easily sensing Leigh’s quandary. "Are you sorry that it’s my truck, or for insulting it so?"
Leigh bit her lower lip. "Yes."
RJ’s eyebrows jumped. She’s a sassy enough thing, that’s for certain. But still, there’s no denying she’s got a great backside. RJ pulled the ax free and straightened the half-round she’s missed on her last swing. She didn’t bother to look at Leigh when she said, "Shower’s in the garage. Door’s unlocked."
The tall woman’s demeanor had definitely cooled, and Leigh tried not to visibly frown. Great. She’s the sensitive type. Secretly, Leigh believed that if you weren’t so sensitive that you’d actually be caught riding in — or worse driving — a piece of shit, you shouldn’t get upset when people commented about it. True, the truck was unfit to share the roads with decent, well-loved vehicles, but it had been Leigh’s experience that nobody really liked to hear that. She gave a short nod and quickly began making her way to the garage, muttering another apology under her breath as she passed RJ.
And though it wasn’t easy, at the same time Leigh categorized RJ Fitzgerald in that ever-so-tiny compartment of her brain she’d dedicated to ‘those that got away.’ Now she was heading for a hot shower and later — the peace and loneliness of the open road.
Chapter 2Back to the Academy