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."
"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?
"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?"
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."
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 …"
"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."
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?"
"At six o’clock on a Monday night?"
"Yes. It burned down last summer."
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.
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."
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?"
"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 fiancé. "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?
Back to the Academy