RJ stepped into Sam’s barbershop. Flea had wrapped herself around RJ’s shoulders and was using the tall woman as a cat taxi. When RJ shut the door behind her, she gave a little shrug and Flea jumped down, immediately finding the soft pillow in the corner of the shop that was reserved solely for her.
RJ removed her cap, stuffing it in her back pocket. She huffed to herself, noting that every pair of eyes in the shop had trained themselves on her. With a quick movement she stuffed her aviator sunglasses into the front pocket of her shirt.
The brunette stared back at the small crowd of men. "What? Did I grow another head? If I did, I’m sure it’ll be needing its hair cut too." She settled down in the chair, kicking out long legs in front of her and giving an almost dirty look to Sammy, the barber.
"You know," Sammy started, even as he snapped the cape around her neck, then ran a comb through RJ’s thick hair. "You are a woman. It would be okay if you wanted to let this grow out."
RJ’s hand immediately went to her head. Her hair was barely trimmed up off her ears and worn combed straight back. It was longer on top, her uneven, reddish-brown waves just grazing the bottom edge of her shirt collar in back. "I know I’m a woman, you silly bastard. I also know I like my hair just fine the way it is. It’s easy to take care of this way. So just cut it and keep the commentary to yourself."
"Yes, ma’am," Sammy snorted, taking his scissors in hand. Much to RJ’s mother’s chagrin he’d been cutting RJ’s hair ever since Mildred, the owner of the local beauty salon, refused to give RJ her preferred short cut when RJ was still in high school. They had the same argument every time she came in. He always waited until she called him a ‘silly bastard’ before he started cutting her hair. It was his own half-hearted protest. He knew that some young women liked it short nowadays, though why was still a mystery to him.
A man whose face was still shiny and stinging from the aftershave that had been slapped on it sat alongside RJ. He turned the page of his magazine. "That little trucker at the diner had pretty blonde hair," Luke said, his eyes never leaving the magazine. "Still, my tastes have always run to longer style. Remember Rita Hayworth? Now that was some lovely hair."
"Remember?" Johnny replied incredulously. "Do I look senile to you?" He leaned against the table that held the shop’s cash register. "But the trucker was a looker." Johnny gave RJ a shit-eating grin. "I’m thinking her hair was damn near the exact color of sweet corn in the summertime." He shrugged. "Short and shaggy-looking, but still feminine." The slim man strolled over to Luke who was now chuckling and holding his magazine unnaturally high so as to cover his face. "She was a real looker, wasn’t she, Fitz?"
"I didn’t notice her hair." RJ shifted uncomfortably in her chair. I should have known coming here today would be a mistake!
A third man with a rotund belly and a half-smoked cigar hanging out of his mouth croaked from his spot at the checkerboard in the corner, "Of course not, you were too busy looking at her boobs."
"I was not!" RJ defended, almost coming out of the chair.
"Damn it, RJ, settle down before I scalp you bald!" Sammy ordered, pushing the woman back into the chair and resettling the cape around her shoulders.
"You’re all nasty old goats. The lot of you." RJ’s cheeks were flaming hot, and by the intensified laughter among the men, she knew they looked as flushed as they felt. "I don’t know why I put up with you."
"Because this is the only barbershop in town and if you didn’t come in here you’d be forced to cut it yourself. Then you’d be in a real mess." Johnny grinned as he crossed over to the checkerboard and jumped several of his opponent’s pieces. "King me, Charlie."
Charlie’s eyes turned to slits, and he yanked his cigar from his mouth. "I’d like to king you, you cheatin’ rat bas–"
Johnny tossed the magazine into the pile, then leaned over to the old-fashioned cooler where Sammy kept a stash of frosty root beers. "So, if you didn’t notice her hair and you weren’t looking at her marangas, what did you notice? Her butt?"
"It was shaped just right," Luke cooed dreamily, just to torment RJ further.
"Bunch of perverts. I can’t count the years between you and you were staring at her backside? Hey," RJ pointed at Johnny, "don’t even think of opening that root beer unless you’re prepared to share with Flea. She has feelings too."
RJ’s words proved prophetic, and the cat silently wandered over and flopped down in front of Johnny. She scratched her face with one slender paw before rolling onto her back and opening her mouth, waiting.
"You spoil her." Johnny pried the top off the bottle with the opener attached to the machine, careful not to let the bottle cap drop into Flea’s gaping mouth.
"That’s what she’s here for, among other things — to keep me company and so I can spoil her. You’re just jealous."
"Bet she gets steak or liver two times a week, doesn’t she?" Johnny drizzled a little of fizzing liquid into the black cat’s gulping mouth, then he took a long drink himself before wiping his lips on the back of his sleeve. He looked at his sleeve and smiled at the small stain. He was damn near positive he’d gotten it all out of his mustache in one try. His horoscope had been so right. Today was going to be a great day!
RJ tilted her head down and Sammy snipped no more than a quarter of an inch off the back of her auburn locks. He gathered a little of RJ’s hair in his hand, thinking she could wear it in a tiny ponytail if she had a mind to.
"Flea gets liver twice a week, steak twice a week, and chicken twice a week. On Fridays we all have fish." RJ’s tone turned irritated. "We’re Catholic, you know."
Luke sniggered. "You might be Catholic. I’m not sure Flea is."
"Doesn’t matter. I eat fish. Flea eats fish. We’re a team."
Sammy jabbed RJ in the shoulder with his finger. "So tell us about the little blonde with the big red truck."
RJ tried to shrug, but Sammy held her shoulder firm, silently scolding her for the anticipated movement. "What’s to tell? She came into the diner, got knocked senseless by the door. Pete fixed her breakfast, she took a shower in the garage. And then she left." Her smile was brighter than the morning sunshine. And if she’d asked me for a tongue bath instead of a shower, I’d have been more than happy to oblige. But did she have to insult my truck so? "Not too damn much, if you ask me."
Sammy cleared his throat and grinned at his friends in the shop. "What color were her eyes?"
"Blue," RJ responded automatically, sending the entire room into a fit of laughter.
Charlie nearly choked on his cigar.
"All right! That’s it!" RJ bolted from the chair, ripping the cape from her neck. She tossed it into her empty chair, then pulled her cap from her pocket and jammed it onto her head. Digging in her pocket, she pulled out some money, which she pushed into Sammy’s outstretched hand. "You’re all just … just … Aww, hell! Come on, Flea!"
The snorts and knee-slapping laughter could be heard out onto the street as RJ and Flea made a hasty exit. The cat let RJ get a few steps in front of her, and then, with a running start, she bounded up RJ’s back and settled on her shoulder, sneezing when she inhaled a small cut hair that had worked its way under the barber’s cape. RJ didn’t even slow her stride.
"Silly sons-a-bit –" she stopped suddenly when she realized her grouching and her cussing were about to be overheard by Mrs. Amos. RJ smiled and tried to look properly contrite as she moved to the door of the grocer’s and extended her arms. "Can I give you a hand with those, Mrs. Amos?" She inquired, pointing at the two large paper sacks at the older woman’s feet. The elderly tended to use the old grocer downtown, while everybody else frequented the newer, bigger building on the edge of Glory.
Mrs. Amos, a contemporary of RJ’s grandmother, pulled on her white gloves, buttoning the small pearl at the wrist, and adjusted her handbag on her arm. "That’d be very nice, Ruth Jean, thank you." She held out her arms and Flea happily jumped into them, purring when Mrs. Amos gave her belly a good scratching.
RJ winced at the use of her much-hated full name and muttered, "My pleasure, ma’am." The young woman knelt and scooped both bags into her arms, then prepared for what would no doubt be an excruciatingly slow walk back to Mrs. Amos’ house.
"How’s your mother, Ruth Jean?"
"She’s fine, ma’am. Busy as always, puttering around the house. It’s this week I think she’s planning on painting the dining room. She wants it done before Easter, you know."
"Of course. Your mother’s Easter brunches are legendary. Mr. Amos and I are looking forward to it, as always."
"Hmm, yes, ma’am, that they are."
"So," Mrs. Amos primly adjusted her handbag again, her gait so short and slow that RJ began to wonder if they were moving at all. "Mavis mentioned that the diner was busy yesterday."
Flea laughed. Sort of. Hell, even she felt bad for RJ. Sort of.
Does everyone have to know my business? What a town of busy bodies! You’d think we’d gone out back and necked under that old tree. Not that that was a particularly bad idea, but it hadn’t happened and wasn’t likely to now that the young woman had moved on. RJ rolled her eyes, hoping Mrs. Amos wouldn’t catch the gesture and rat her out to her mother. "Yes, ma’am, we had our share of folks that were just plain lost due to that detour."
"Mavis mentioned one young woman in particular."
Of course she did. Mavis is a gossipy fishwife if there ever was one! "She did, did she?" Oh, yeah. The whole town was talking about the blonde. Leigh, wasn’t that what she told Pete? She hadn’t caught a last name.
"Oh, my, yes." Mrs. Amos nodded. "Mavis told me she was a pretty thing about your age, driving a big red truck, if you can imagine that."
"That she was."
"Pretty or driving a big red truck?"
"Both," RJ allowed begrudgingly.
"Did you speak with her?"
"Not all that much." RJ shifted the bags in her arms. What did she buy? Bricks? "There were logs to be split. I was busy."
"I see," she snipped. "You’re always too busy taking care of other things before yourself, aren’t you, RJ? Looking out for other folks first, that’s what you do. You know, you might want to look around you and see that it’s okay to take care of yourself once in a while."
RJ sighed quietly. "Yes, ma’am." God, my mother’s been visiting with her too often! "But you know that my parents raised me right."
"That they did, dear." Mrs. Amos patted RJ’s hand as the women slowed even further so two little girls on bicycles could zoom across the sidewalk in front of them. "You’ve always been a delight, except for those wicked puberty years, of course."
RJ smiled insincerely.
"Occasionally you just have to take time for yourself. I’m sure this lady wouldn’t mind," she stroked Flea lovingly, and RJ swore she saw the cat stick her tongue out at her.
"I’ll remember, I’ll remember. But sometimes It’s easier said than done, Mrs. Amos." It’s not like Glory is chock full of eligible women who can’t resist my significant charms, now is it? "But if the chance should arise again, I’ll certainly think on it." Hell, even if the chance doesn’t present itself again anytime soon, I’ll be thinking about the blonde.
"You do that, Ruth Jean."
After delivering Mrs. Amos and her shopping safely home, RJ headed over to the hardware store to pick up the paint that would be required to spruce up the dining room in her parents’ house.
She looked down at her furry little companion. "This place is going to be just like the last, you know?"
Flea licked her lips. More root beer?
"Well," RJ huffed, placing her fists on her hips. "Glad to know you’re on my side in all of this, pal. You could stand to be just a little more encouraging."
This time Flea ignored RJ completely. If there was one thing she couldn’t stand it was a whiny human. Wasn’t it nap time again?
At Flea’s obvious snub, RJ said, "Thanks so much." Shaking her head, she entered the store.
"Good morning, RJ," the woman behind the counter offered as RJ came through the door. She turned down the blaring radio.
"Mornin’, Mrs. Morgan. I’ve come to fetch the paint for my mother."
"It’s all boxed up and ready for you. I put it on your tab." Alice Morgan gestured with her chin. "Right there by the door. A gallon of robin’s egg blue and a quart of trim paint. I imagine you’ll be busy for a few days."
RJ smiled and nodded as she looked into the crate. She was grateful that it seemed that at least one person wasn’t interested in what had happened at the diner yesterday.
Alice leaned forward and whispered loudly to RJ, "I also slipped that new red shirt I made for you into the box. You might want to wear it down to the diner next time you go. I’m betting the trucker would like you in a red shirt."
RJ’s shoulders slumped. So much for that theory.
One end of Leigh’s route started in South Dakota. It ran from Sioux Falls to Rapid City, to Buffalo, Wyoming, and then into Montana. From Billings she went to Helena and Missoula and ended in Seattle, Washington, before she turned around and drove back. Three ten-hour days of driving from end to end if Leigh didn’t count traffic, construction, detours, poor weather or the occasional need to pee. Then a half day in Seattle and Sioux Falls to load, unload and load her cargo again, and she was back on the road. It was a grueling, endless loop that Leigh ran for three weeks straight then took a full week off.
It wasn’t the type of run most people could handle on a continuous basis, but Leigh’s clients paid premium rates for her reliable service, and she continued to push herself hard. In just under two years, she’d earned enough to fully pay off her father’s truck, give a lump sum to both of his ex-wives, each of whom had a couple of children by her father, and put a tidy sum in a jar under the truck seat, besides. Hell, the kids were all sweet, even if her dad’s ex-wives weren’t, and Leigh figured they shouldn’t have to suffer just because her father died with only enough life insurance to bury him. Nearly twenty years separated her from the oldest half-brother, and a part of her was sad that none of them would really know her or her father. Their moms had both remarried, and there wasn’t any place in their lives for a sister they never knew anyway.
A few more years of trucking and Leigh planned to sell her rig while it still held most of its value. She was bound and determined to get a normal life and do whatever it is non-trucking people did. She hoped it included more sex and that hemorrhoids wouldn’t be an occupational hazard.
She’d pulled away from the diner right after her shower, telling herself not to give into temptation and take one long last look at the beauty chopping wood. She’d been completely unable to resist the impulse, of course. Leigh didn’t have the willpower of a gnat. Since then she’d made good time and was already enjoying the quiet beauty of Montana.
"Breaker 1-9, this is Red Rooster looking for Tom– errr … Leigh." Rooster knew better than to call Leigh ‘Tom Cat’ over the airwaves … at least while he figured there was a chance she’d hear him. After all, he still hoped to have children someday. "You out there, Leigh?" He hated breaking protocol by using her real name. But she left him little choice.
She pushed the button on her radio that allowed for hands-free communication as she passed a slow-moving station wagon loaded with kids. "Hiya, Rooster. Let’s take it to down to Monday." That was the code her daddy used when he wanted to switch from the main channel to just have a little more privacy. Monday was the second day of the week, so Leigh adjusted her radio frequency two channels down.
"Will do, Leigh. See you there."
Another few seconds and Rooster’s voice filled her cab again. "Well, now, ‘bout time you started listening to the radio again. I’ve been trying to get you since yesterday."
Leigh snorted. "If I sat around and listened to you boys all day, I’d be as full of shit as you are."
Rooster laughed. "Can’t argue with that. Everything okay, though?" He’d been a longtime friend of her daddy’s and tried to check in on Leigh every once in a while. The man had given Leigh her first beer. Okay, she was nine years old at the time, but he only let her drink half. In his mind, he was practically her godfather.
"Everything’s fine, Rooster." Leigh’s eyes filled with unexpected tears, and she wiped them away angrily. "You don’t have to worry about me."
"I didn’t say I was worried," the man lied. "I just asked how you were. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of you in nearly two months."
"I’ve been busy."
"Driving? Leigh, we’re all busy driving. That still doesn’t explain why I haven’t seen you."
"Rooster," Leigh drew out his name menacing. "I’ve been busy." She enunciated each word so precisely that Rooster knew the subject was now officially closed.
But he couldn’t help but adding, "I’m going to stop at Rosie’s tonight." Rooster didn’t phrase it as a question, but he knew by the long silence on the other end of the radio that Leigh was thinking about it.
Leigh glanced at her odometer, then her watch. "I’ll be there," she finally said, clicking off her radio before Rooster had a chance to reply.
It was nearly 8:00 p.m. when Leigh pulled into Rosie’s Truck Stop. She could already see Rooster’s royal blue rig parked alongside another dozen trucks, several of which she recognized. Leigh eased the truck into the long spaces designed for her type of vehicle and killed the ignition. She hadn’t been avoiding this place, just not going out of her way to stop.
Leigh unconsciously gripped the steering wheel a little tighter. What the hell is wrong with me? Last night her dreams had been filled with piercing green eyes. In fact, Leigh felt as though she’d been set on a low burn ever since she stopped at Fitz’s Diner. Her knuckles turned white against the large steering wheel. Time to do something about that, she thought determinedly.
The short woman jumped out of the truck and marched through the door at Rosie’s. In the back, waiting on a table was a waitress in a tight pink outfit. She was a little older than Leigh, with long, light brown hair and healthy curves in all the right places. The waitress leaned over to reach for a glass, and Leigh’s eyes opened a little wider. Oh, yeah. Come to mama. She took a step toward the woman only to be held back by Rooster.
"Whoa there!" Rooster’s gaze drifted toward the waitress, and he shook his head. "Time for that later." Leigh heard several sniggers from a table behind her and a mumbled ‘Tom Cat’ or two. "Come join us."
Leigh wanted to shrug Rooster’s large hand off her shoulder. But she didn’t. Instead, she drew in a deep calming breath and turned to face the enormous man. Rooster was six and a half feet of pure, unadulterated blubber. Even his chins had chins. He was as carrot-topped as Lucille Ball, hence his unimaginative nickname. "Hi, Rooster," Leigh said softly, suddenly feeling terribly guilty for not seeing the old family friend in the last couple of months.
"Wow!" He gently touched Leigh’s swollen cheek. "I hope she was worth it."
"Very funny." And I’m sure she would have been.
"Hello, Leigh. Or is it Slugger now?" Rooster smiled gently and wrapped his arm around her shoulders to guide her back to his table where several other truckers who Leigh knew almost as well as she knew Rooster were sitting. "I see you haven’t grown any," the big man teased. "I was holding out hope."
Leigh chuckled to herself. "Do you have any idea how old I am, Rooster?"
The man’s brow creased deeply as he thought. He’d known her daddy forever. But Leigh was just a tiny thing — compact and strong, but short as hell. He thought harder. She had to be at least eighteen to drive Tom Cat’s truck. Hmm … She’d been at it for a while now. "Nineteen?" he hazarded, hoping he was within a few years either way.
"Jesus, Rooster," Leigh snorted. "I’m going to be twenty-eight years old next month. I’m not going to grow any more!"
"Twenty-eight?" Rooster blinked. Damn. He began to wonder if the things his wife said about beer were true. Were all his brain cells were really dissolving like Jell-O on a hotplate? "Okay, Ethel." he mumbled, crossing his heart. "Light beer for a week. So help me, God."
"Tom Cat!" A man at Rooster’s table stupidly called out when Leigh pulled out a chair.
Without hesitation, Leigh smacked him in the back of the head, sending his baseball cap into his chili. "God dammit, To– "
Leigh’s evil stare stopped him mid word.
"Leigh," he finished awkwardly, aware that Rooster was now laughing at him. "That was my Braves hat, after all!"
"And now you’re down to a million minus one. Live with it. And don’t even ask about my eye. I’m not telling and that’s final."
A round of whining moans met Leigh’s pronouncement.
Leigh raised her hand, indicating she needed a waitress. A shiver chased down her spine when the bony woman with dishrag-limp gray hair and a space between her front teeth you could drive a truck through — even Leigh’s enormous truck — waved tiredly back.
"Did you have to call over the butt-ugly new waitress?" Rooster complained. He tossed his napkin on his plate, which held nothing but crumbs. "Now you’ve made me go and lose my appetite."
"What?" Leigh spread her hands open. "I’m hungry. Besides, nothing has ever made you lose your appetite. And she’s not that ug– " Leigh stopped when the woman sidled up to the table.
"I’m Stephanie." The haggard, middle-aged woman pointed to her nametag for those too stupid to understand what she was saying. "Your waitress."
Leigh nodded slowly. "You’re new here, right, Stephanie?"
"Hell, yes." She stuck her hand up her blouse and began adjusting her bra.
Leigh wondered why she bothered wearing one at all. Two strategically placed Band-Aids would have done the trick nicely.
Stephanie popped her gum. "Who would work in this place, serving these slobs, for any longer than they had to? The tips suck."
"Gee, I wonder why," Leigh deadpanned.
"’Cause these guys are cheap-asses," Stephanie answered, oblivious to Leigh’s sarcasm. Seeming to suddenly tire of the most stimulating conversation she’d had all day, Stephanie droned, "What’ll you have?" She pulled a pencil out from behind her ear and turned bored eyes to Leigh.
"Hamburger with the works, onion rings, and iced tea."
Stephanie nodded and popped her gum again before turning around.
When the waitress was out of earshot Leigh leaned forward and looked at Black Jack, who was, unsurprisingly, a black man named Jack. "I guess there’s finally a waitress at Rosie’s you won’t try to bed."
Black Jack suddenly began to sink lower in his chair.
"Oh, my God," Leigh whispered loudly, her face twisting into the same expression she usually reserved for when she had to scrape roadkill from between the grates of her truck’s grill. "You slept with her? That’s just so … so …" she gestured wildly.
"Disgusting," Rooster offered helpfully.
Black Jack didn’t have to ask Leigh to keep his little indiscretion from his wife. There was a code among truckers. What happened on the road stayed on the road. Where it belonged. "I shouldn’t have done it."
"No shit. And your wife is a good woman, Black Jack," she reminded pointedly. Sure, he chased the waitresses at the diner. But it wasn’t like he’d actually caught any before. She’d thought of it as harmless fun. Until now.
Black Jack looked properly chastised.
"God, you guys are so gross." The blonde woman snorted. "And you wonder why I like women. Single women."
Rooster scratched his neck. "No, we don’t, Leigh."
All the men nodded their agreement, causing Leigh’s eyebrows to crawl up her forehead.
"We understand completely." Black Jack sat up a little straighter. "We like them, too. In fact –"
Leigh leaned over and clamped her hand over Black Jack’s mouth. "Please don’t tell me. I’m already having trouble sleeping. Nightmares won’t help." The waitress who had caught Leigh’s eye earlier strolled past Leigh’s table, untying her apron, her hips swaying gently with every step. The blonde smiled broadly.
"Well, boys, it’s been real." She leaned over and kissed Rooster on the cheek. "I’m not hungry." At least not for burgers. "You can have my dinner." Leigh tossed a ten-dollar bill on the table. "The change is for Stephanie," she warned the men before following the waitress out the front door.
Rooster pushed his plate out of the way in preparation for Leigh’s. Good food should never go to waste.
"You still worried about Tom Cat?" Black Jack asked at the same time the diner door closed.
He hadn’t talked to Leigh about her life or what was going on with her. But she seemed pretty much the same as always. Maybe a little tired looking. But trucking was a hard life. Nobody knew that better than Leigh. "Nope." Rooster unbuttoned the top button of his jeans. A man had to be comfortable. "I think Tom Cat is doing just fine."
"You ignored me."
"I did not."
"You did. And I should make you beg because of it."
A soft laugh. "You did make me beg."
"No, that was me."
Leigh yawned and snuggled back into damp sheets that felt cool against her overheated skin. Her chest was still heaving, and she consciously made an effort to slow her pounding heart. "Oh, yeah."
The naked woman half-sprawled across Leigh drew the very tip of her finger up from Leigh’s belly button to the baby-soft valley between her breasts.
Leigh arched into the sensual touch despite herself. "Judith," she said softly. "You trying to kill me?" She reached up and grabbed Judith’s hand, kissing each fingertip before laying it back on her belly. But no sooner had she let go of the hand before it began to wander again.
Leigh closed her eyes. "I can’t. You know that."
"Can’t or won’t?"
Leigh sighed heavily.
"Don’t say it, don’t say it. You’ve got a schedule to keep." Judith’s fingernail grazed Leigh’s nipple, earning her a soft growl as Leigh’s desire began to flare again. "Why do I always let you do this?"
"The same reason I always let you do this," Leigh whispered as she began to softly kiss Judith’s neck. "It feels great."
The waitress gasped and shifted herself until she was fully on top of Leigh and straddling one thigh. "There is that," she groaned when Leigh’s hands found their way to her hips and she began to slide against the sweat-slicked skin. "Are …" she swallowed hard as her hips picked up a steady rhythm. "Are … God … Are you ever going to stay?"
Leigh’s hands froze, and she looked up at Judith seriously. She was slightly panting. "Probably not."
Judith leaned down and kissed Leigh hard, her own body moving once again. "That’s what I thought."
The next morning Judith woke up in an empty bed that smelled like Leigh and sex. On Leigh’s pillow was a note. She smiled a bittersweet smile and unfolded the small slip of paper. Leigh always left a note.
No matter what anybody says, the most delicious thing at Rosie’s is
not the hamburgers. Take care, Judith. I had a wonderful time. Thank you.
Judith chuckled and tucked the note into the drawer of her nightstand. If she tried, she could almost hear the hum of Leigh’s truck in the distance.
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