By K. Darblyne
The sound of rolling thunder rumbled down through the valley, charging the air with anticipation, as random bouts of heat lightning played hopscotch across the heavens. One look at the darkening sky and anyone could tell change was coming, be it rain or something else. Nature had a way of predicting things, as did your mind. You only had to gather the clues if you knew what to take into consideration. The warning signs were always there: the stillness of the wind, a gentle turn of the leaves, the growing humidity hanging thick in the air, the restlessness of the livestock, or the foreboding feeling deep in your soul.
For some time now Kayla Masterson had felt like she was walking on pins and needles, waiting for something to happen. Her recent nights had been filled with restlessness and erotic dreams while her days were consumed with hard work and a burgeoning resentment for the responsibility that held on to her like a hand from the grave. It made Kayla wonder whether her parents' choice to have only one child was a blessing or more of a curse. Their lavish doting on her childhood accomplishments had been nice but now their praises were long gone, mere whispers of the past. Her body, although shorter in stature than theirs, had grown as strong as her baby fine, flaxen hair had turned to a thicker, dishwater blonde over the course of her thirty-four years. At the end of the day when all the chores were done, there wasn’t a single praise or any words for that matter to fall upon her ears. There was only the same desolate quietness that did little to satisfy her soul. Any more, she was having trouble finding anything to satisfy her at all. Even her friends the animals, in all of their antics, could bring little more than a passing hint of a smile to the woman’s face. Tough times along with arduous work left little room for socialization, as did the Masterson Ranch's tight purse strings. Instead, evenings were filled with the partaking of a simple meal and her nights were spent in the pursuit of sleep.
Another rumbling of thunder in the distance hastened the calming words.
“Easy girl.” Kayla held onto the reins tightly and reached out to stroke the mare’s neck. “I’ll have you brushed, fed, and bedded down long before that old storm gets anywhere near here.”
The gentle touch seemed to calm the horse. Leaning into the mare, Kayla offered the animal a chance to nuzzle her.
“Yeah, I love you too, Dusty,” Kayla whispered, leading the horse into the stable.
Outside the animal’s stall, nimble fingers hastened in their task of undoing of the steed’s saddle. A quick tug and the cumbersome trappings were off.
“There, I bet that feels better.” She set the saddle down where it would rest over night and went back for the rest of the horse’s tack. Kayla slipped the bit from the horse’s mouth, then fondly petted its snout.
“Now for the part you like best.”
The horse whinnied in agreement as Kayla reached for the set of brushes lying on the ledge.
“Which side first?” She waited for the mare to present her with its side before she set about her work.
Kayla’s mind began to wander far from the task as she fell into a steady rhythm. Gone were the worries and the work. In their place were gentle laughter, good times, and smiling faces. Life as it should have been. Life as Kayla would like it to be, filled with companionship and love enough to shorten her long, lonely nights to little more than a blink of her green eyes.
The mare snorted, breaking Kayla's trance.
“I'm sorry, girl. I guess my mind got to wandering.” She finished a few more brush strokes, stepping back to admire her work. “There you go and just in time.”
Kayla's attention was diverted to the open barn door as she watched the sky light up and the rumbling of thunder becoming louder.
“Look's like it’s dinner time for you.” She crossed the stall and retrieved the feed bucket.
“Eat hardy, girl, while we got it.” She turned her attention to the rest of the horses waiting their turn. “I'm coming, ladies, I'm coming.” Kayla thought about what she'd just said and snickered. “Well, if that was the case, I'd be a happier camper.”
Several of the mares brayed as if on cue.
“Hey! I've had enough of that. Who's the boss here?” Kayla took a stand with her hands balled up in tight fists on her hips.
Not a single horse made a sound.
“Damn right I am, no matter what the banker says is in the offing.” Kayla nodded with an air of authority then proceeded about her tasks.
Rain dappled and weary, Kayla made her way into the modest ranch-style house. Its small back porch entrance opened up into a combination kitchen/family room. How often had she sat there pretending to do her homework, all the while watching her mother prepare their evening meal and wishing she'd been allowed to tend to the horses. She stomped her feet to shake off the mud and mire before crossing the doorstep. The sound was so familiar to her ears. In the past it had signaled the arrival of her father and the beginning of dinner. But times had changed and so had everything else. No longer was she the freckle-faced girl standing in her father's footsteps. She was the head of the family now and dinner was never more than a can of soup and a sandwich. Any more than that and Kayla wouldn't have had the energy to consume it.
Silently Kayla went about her routine of heating up the soup while she assembled her sandwich. The only thing that interrupted her routine was the ringing of the phone. She grimaced at the sound, knowing full well who would be on the other end. She thought about not answering it but couldn't bring herself to do it. Begrudgingly she reached for the receiver hanging on the kitchen wall.
“Damn, you're getting in later and later girl.”
“Hello to you too, Betsy.” Kayla cleared her throat. “It's called being a rancher. I have chores to do.”
“Yeah, well, I have chores too, but that doesn’t mean I can't talk to people.”
“Well, you better talk fast or you're going to be listening to the open end of this telephone line.” Kayla glanced over to her pan of soup on the range top. “By the looks of it my soup's going to done in another minute or two.”
“Betsy, I'm sure you didn't call to discus my culinary efforts or the cuisine that I feel most appealing after a long day of hard work.”
“You're right, I didn't.”
“Figured as much,” Kayla muttered. “So what did you call about?”
“You know there's a dance coming up.”
“Betsy, you're a good friend and I appreciate you looking out for me, but unless a bus load of lesbians just happened to break down outside the hall, there's no use in me going. I've met every lesbian in Nebraska and South Dakota. I'm not attracted to any of them.”
“That doesn't mean you can't go. Come and have a little fun. Think of it as a hunting expedition.”
“Hunting for what, bull dykes?”
“Kayla! What do you think we are…elephants, all fat with big ol' schnozzles and floppy flapping ears?”
The lumbering images of several butches that fit the description exactly crossed Kayla's mind. They didn’t stay there long as she quickly drove them out.
“I never said that, Betsy. What I am saying is that I have neither the time nor the energy to waste looking for love where I know I'm not going to find it. I'm not a pre-pubescent teenager anymore.”
“So, you're saying that you'd rather sit out there on your family's ranch and not even attempt to find someone. Even someone that you could like a little bit and keep you company in your old age?”
“Is this another ploy to get me into your bed, Betsy?”
“You’re right and we both know we make better friends than lovers.”
“At least I’m somebody you can talk to.”
“If that's how you want to think of it, then yes you are somebody to talk to and so are my horses.”
“I don't know about you, Kayla. One of these days—”
Kayla quickly cut her off. “One of these days, Betsy, I'll find someone but it won't be because I went to a dance.”
“You've got to lighten up, girl. Have a little fun. I remember your mother always saying that the annual Valentine dance held magical powers. Who knows, you might even get lucky.”
Kayla rolled her eyes, having heard the argument time and again. “The only luck I'm going to get is that my soup doesn’t boil over. Thanks for calling Betsy, but no thanks.”
“Well, if that's your final word.”
“No, but this is. Good-bye, Betsy.” Kayla hung up the receiver and ventured over to the boiling pot of soup. “Why I even answer that damn blasted phone I'll never know.”
She stirred the pan and proceeded to pour the contents into a large cup. After a quick stop at the sink to rinse the pan out, she swung by the table to pick up the sandwich she had made. Kayla then headed toward her favorite chair in front of the television.
“I've got all the company I need right here, Betsy. Jeopardy, the game of champions,” Kayla said as she interspersed bites of her sandwich with sips from the cup all the while listening to the answers of the contestants and coming up with a few of her own.
Green eyes shot open with the roaring crack of thunder overhead. If it wasn't for falling asleep in the chair, Kayla might have jumped right out of her skin, but tired muscles and sore bones kept that from happening. Instead, her hasty rise was reduced to nothing more than a slow crawl out of the chair. Kayla stood stretching cramped muscles as her eyes focused in on the local station's test pattern with its unwavering glow. She would have taken longer to ease her body into motion but the harried sounds of scared horses pushed her to move. One in particular worried her. The sound of a mare’s high-pitched whinny wasn't something she was used to ignoring.
Her mind shot immediately to the safety of her horses and without another thought, Kayla strode over to the fireplace, reaching for the shotgun positioned on the wall above it. After a quick action on Kayla's part, she was looking down the dual barrels before loading them with double ought bb shells. Another jerk of her right hand and the barrels lodged back in place, loaded and ready to aim. The sound of more shrill whinnies hastened her step. Before she realized it was sleeting, Kayla was over halfway to the stable.
Heart racing, she entered the already opened door to the stable with shotgun in hand. She flicked on the electricity and squinted, ready for the glaring light. Amidst the clatter of horses' hooves and startled cries, a mysterious figure caught her eye. Kayla brought the butt of her shotgun up to her shoulder and took aim.
“Whatever you're doing, you can stop right there. We don't take kindly to horse thieves in these parts.”
Startled blue eyes shot wide open. “Horse thieves? You got me all wrong, lady.”
“I do?” Kayla’s surveyed the intruder and her immediate surroundings. “What are you doing in my stable with a pickup and a trailer hitch no less? They're kind of the tools of the trade if you want to move horses from one place to another.”
“I assure you it’s nothing more than circumstantial evidence in the least.”
Kayla scrutinized the intruder. The worn boots, tight-fitting jeans, and denim jacket all screamed someone who worked with their hands. Her gaze lingered for an extra few seconds over the tight-fitting jeans. The intruder was definitely a woman. “You don't look like a lawyer.”
“I’m sorry. It’s a force of habit. My best friend is a lawyer.”
“I'm sure all the horse thieves say that now-a-days.” Kayla kept her gun shouldered. “Care to put your hands up?”
“What part of me calling you a horse thief don't you understand?”
“Quite frankly, I’d have to say it’s the horse thief part. I'm really not a bad person. Trust me.”
“And I'm not really holding this shotgun aimed at your head.” Kayla cocked her head to a side and took aim at her target. “Care to trust me?”
“Perhaps we've gotten off to a bad start. Let me introduce myself.” The intruder wiped her hand off on her pants leg then extended it in Kayla's direction. “I'm Jo,” she quickly added.
Kayla hesitated as she studied the unsettled nature of the woman before her. Slowly she lowered the shotgun but made no move to reciprocate the action.
“I assure you I'm not a horse thief. I happened to break down on the highway and followed your driveway in. I was just looking for someplace out of the weather so I could see what was wrong with my truck. I'm sorry if I disrupted your sleep.”
“You didn't. The thunder did. That's when I heard the mares.”
Jo glanced over to the horses. “Good watch dogs.”
“They know who belongs and who doesn't.”
“Touché.” Jo bowed.
There was an awkward silence as both women studied the other, neither one knowing what do to next. Finally Kayla took the initiative.
“So, you said your truck died?” Kayla looked at the dilapidated pickup that had seen better days and wondered when it ever had any life at all.
“I prefer to call it a minor breakdown until I know what's wrong with it.”
“Well it can't be that bad if you got it all the way here from the road.”
“It depends on how you look at things.”
“Meaning?” Kayla prompted.
“I pushed it.” A dire look emphasized Jo's words as she edged closer to her truck.
Kayla blinked in startled surprise. “That's over a half mile.”
“Well, that little tidbit of information really didn't help. No wonder I'm sore.” Jo stretched her back as she motioned to the hood of her truck. “Do you mind if I—”
“No, not at all.” Kayla disengaged her shotgun and took the shells out. “I guess I can trust you,” she said as she pocketed the shells.
“Thanks,” Jo said, propping open the hood. “Say, you wouldn't happen to have a rag?”
“Sure do.” Kayla grabbed one from the tack room workbench and offered it to Jo.
“Thanks again. I appreciate it.” Jo caught the rag that was tossed in her direction, then proceeded to pull the dipstick and examine it.
“Well, lack of oil is not the problem.” She wiped the stick and slid it back in place as she perused the rest of the engine compartment.
The smell of gasoline and grease began to stir old memories for Kayla and before long she was standing shoulder to shoulder with the stranger, both women intent on nothing more than what could be wrong with the engine.
“How did it die?”
“Stopped without any warning.”
“Any noises right before?” Kayla glanced over to Jo. “No rattling or sputtering? No noises of any kind?”
“Hmm…” Kayla thought back to all the times she'd helped her father with the numerous vehicles he'd kept running on the ranch. Remembering one of his first lessons in vehicle repair, she reached out for the battery cable connection and found nearly frozen fingers instead.
“Lordy, woman,” Kayla cried out. “You're half frozen already. We need to warm you up or you're going to lose those digits.”
Jo brought her cupped hands up to her mouth and blew on them. “I'll be fine.”
Kayla eyed her suspiciously. “You're not from around here, are you?”
“No, I'm not.”
“Figured as much, otherwise you'd be dressed a little better for the weather. Flannel will keep you warmer than a T-shirt and gloves are a must. A winter hat and coat wouldn’t be a bad idea either.”
“And I see that your hidden profession is one of fashion consultant or would that be Himalayan expedition outfitter instead?” Jo's brow arched higher in anticipation of an answer.
“Touché!” Kayla acquiesced. “Neither, my profession is actually rancher.” She offered her hand.
Acknowledging the etiquette, Jo accepted it. “Wow! You're not so warm yourself, young lady.”
“Why don't you go back inside to the warmth of your bed? I'll be fine here.”
“What, out here in the stable?”
“Sure. It's good enough for the horses.” Jo motioned to the mares.
“They have blankets and hay under their feet.”
“And I have…” Jo looked around in her immediate vicinity. “I have my truck. I'll sleep in the cab if I get tired.”
“Your dead truck,” Kayla cautioned. “I'm not sure that's going to be able to keep you warm in the middle of Nebraska in January.” She pinned the women with her gaze.
“Touché!” Their voices mingled and they both broke out in a soft refrain of laughter.
“Seriously, Jo, I wouldn't want to come out here tomorrow morning and find you frozen in the cab of your truck. It would mess up my stall mucking routine for sure.” Kayla implored with her eyes. “Please, let me offer you some warmth and hospitality as only the Masterson's Ranch can extend.”
“I wouldn't want to cause you any problems. You're sure that your family won't mind? I mean, me being an unfashionable and ill prepared stray and all?”
Kayla thought about her parents and all the hard work and values that they had instilled in her upbringing.
“No, they wouldn't mind at all. I'm sure of it.”
“Then who am I to disappoint?”
They held each other in their gazes until a horse's snicker broke the spell.
“Alright Dusty, I get the message; lights out.” Kayla turned back to her unexpected houseguest. “Dusty's the only horse I know that gets testy if she doesn't get her beauty sleep.”
Jo looked over to the mare in question, then back to her hostess and feigned a shudder. “Heaven forbid.” She retrieved a small duffel bag from her truck and crossed over to the other woman.
“My name is Kayla Masterson by the way,” she said ushering Jo toward the stable door.
Jo stepped out into the cold night air where she waited for her hostess to secure the stable. She watched patiently as the woman stuck her head through the narrow opening.
“Goodnight, Dusty, and thank you,” Kayla whispered before closing the stable door.
Kayla moved briskly, her mind going a thousand miles a minute with everything she needed to do to make her unexpected guest comfortable. If she was chilled to the bone by just walking out to the barn and back again, she could only imagine how cold Jo must have felt having pushed the pick-up truck over the length of the driveway.
“We need to get you out of those wet clothes.” She turned to make sure Jo was following her as she headed toward the bedrooms. Kayla took note of the shiver rippling up and down the taller woman's body and commented. “You must be nearly frozen.”
“I think that little trip from the stable to here may have helped me to decide you're right.”
When she turned and nearly collided with Jo, Kayla was startled at first but realized that there was a somewhat comfortable feeling deep inside her as she came almost face to face with the drenched woman. Blue eyes looked out beneath soggy dark brown bangs and stared directly into Kayla's soul.
The feeling of animal magnetism caught Kayla off guard along with the awakening of her libido. In the past it would have been so easy to let the moment progress from a simple chaste kiss into a night filled with passion. She reveled in the thought for the briefest of seconds then hastily shoved it out of the picture.
“Shower,” Kayla repeated, breaking her own spell. “Yes, shower. I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me.”
“It's no problem. I'm sure your mind wasn't on unexpected company tonight.” The tiniest hint of a smile crested on Jo's lips as she studied the woman before her. Although not drenched to bone, Kayla's wet hair clung to her head, revealing her true height. What had seemed to be an ominous figure behind the shotgun earlier was actually an average sized woman though slightly challenged in height. The five or six inch difference in their statures didn't make her any less of a person. In fact, when Jo thought about it, it made her more of one. Here, standing before her, was a woman of depth and beauty.
Jesus, where did that come from? Jo glanced away nervously and shifted her weight on her feet as another shiver rippled through her body.
“Follow me,” Kayla entered a room off to the right and turned the lights on in the master bedroom. “The bathroom's right through there. If you leave your clothing out here, I'll toss them into the laundry for you. They'll be clean and dried before you know it.”
It was a simple and hospitable thing to do and yet the offer took Jo by surprise. Never in her life had she actually thought about what it truly meant to do something for someone else, not looking for anything more than making her more comfortable. A feeling of quiet acceptance settled over Jo.
“Don't mention it. I'm happy to be able to do it. Come back in another month and it may be a luxury neither of us can afford.”
“I'm pretty good with motors and engines. If you like, I could take a look at it.”
“The washer,” Jo stated.
“Thanks, but the mechanics aren't the problem, money is.”
Jo reached for her wallet in her back pocket. “I can pay you.”
“Put that wallet away or I'll be forced to send you back out into the cold.”
“I'm sorry,” an earnest look of apology crossed Jo's face. “I didn't mean to offend.”
“And none was taken. Now, no more talk of money or bankers. It's off to the shower for you. I'll see about whipping us up something hot to drink.” Kayla looked intently at the lithe woman's form hedging toward the bath. “I bet you could use a meal in you, too. I'll see what I can rustle up to warm you from the inside out. My mother always said, 'The heart of a person's furnace is their stomach'.”
Kayla was out the door and moving about the house on her mission before Jo could voice her thanks. Taken aback by the easy nature of the woman, Jo glanced about the room. One look was all she needed to realize that the meticulous nature of the room with its frillied pillows just didn't quite fit the blue jeans and flannel shirt that her hostess had been sporting.
“Interesting,” Jo murmured as she took special note of the well-worn cowboy boots that were obviously too large for Kayla to use. “That would be my luck to finally find someone who makes me take notice of the small things only to find out she already belongs to someone else…and a man no less.” Jo sighed. “Aw…well, worse things could happen. I could be stuck here indefinitely with a dead truck and no money to buy a new one.”
She thought about the cost of a newer truck, eyeing the few meager bills garnishing her wallet. Another shudder started her teeth chattering. She hastened her task of disrobing and headed into the bath. Perhaps things would look better after a hot shower and a bit of warm food to nurture her along.
Perhaps it was the combination of the woman's height and crystal clear blue eyes surrounded by unruly dark hair that made Kayla think of her father's gentle nature and kind ways. Always polite and thoughtful in his words to both Kayla and her mother, she had thought of him as the ultimate catch. That fact alone had played havoc with her earlier years of insecurity around boys. It wasn't until she'd nearly gone all the way with young Danny Westerfield in the hayloft that she had finally came to the brutal realization that the male body did nothing to enthrall her. Little by little Kayla's insecurities had slipped away. By the time she was a freshman at college, her feelings for women had awakened. True to the nature of the beast, the young woman had ventured into the world of lesbian relationships if not for the love offered but for the companionship they brought. After graduation she had returned home with little more than several names in an old address book and a few memories, the cold of a Nebraska winter having sent all but her local friends clamoring for warmer climates with livelier night life. It was a reality Kayla easily accepted, not knowing any reason to abandon the life and animals she'd loved.
“I’ll give you a penny for your thoughts.”
Kayla turned to see Josie dressed in a gray pair of sweats pants and shirt standing in the doorway, her mop top head of hair slicked back out of her face.
“I'm sorry, did you say something?”
“Nothing important,” Jo muttered as she padded her way across the room to the table. She eyed the cold cuts, loaf of bread, and condiments arranged on the table. Two placemats had been arranged opposite each other; one placemat looked fairly new while the other showed signs of everyday use. Suddenly more pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place.
“Would you like me to make the sandwiches?”
“I can handle my own if you'd like to get started on yours.” Kayla poured the soup into mugs and carried them over to the table. “I wasn't sure of what you'd like so I brought out the whole assortment.”
“I'm pretty easy going as long as the bread is fresh.”
“It's store bought so you be the judge.”
Jo picked up two slices of bread and examined them closely. “They look about as fresh as your new set of clothes.”
“Thanks, they are. I took them out of the dryer.” Kayla started to assemble her sandwich, then glanced over to Jo. “I…I could say the same thing about yours.”
“All it took was ten dollars and trip thru Wal-Mart but had I known that I'd be eating with such fine company tonight, I would have splurged for the more expensive brand name ones.”
“Is that a knock at my cooking or my wonderful hairdo?” Kayla struck a pose and turned her head from side to side. “Cause if it is, I can always send you packing.”
The evident twinkle in Kayla's eyes was all Jo needed to see to know it was nothing more than friendly banter. In fact, it made her feel good about the whole situation.
“What and miss out on all this fun?”
“Oh my!” Kayla brought both of her hands up to her face in a mock replication of shock. “They didn't tell you when you crossed the state line that we're the cornhusker state? This far west we don't allow people to have fun. Work, work, work, that's all we do. Eat, sleep, and work. Fun is something we only have a few times a year.”
“Really,” Kayla nodded. “In fact, you've timed your stay quite nicely since our next scheduled fun event is little more than a few weeks away.”
“And what would that be, National Teat Wrestling Day?”
Kayla tried hard not to laugh but it was nearly impossible. “No!”
“Pull the wool over my eyes month?” Jo tried again.
“Already over, sorry.”
“Damn!” Jo dropped down in a chair. “I'll have to plan my vacation better next year.”
“But I know you, don't I?” Jo countered.
“Now you do.”
“Doesn't that count for anything?”
Kayla pondered the thought as she finished chewing and swallowed. “For next year, maybe.”
“I see. So in other words, you're telling me that I'm a day late and a dollar short?”
“Yeah, that would pretty much be it.”
“So goes the story of my life.”
The laughter that floated on the air as a genuine, relaxed smile stretched across Kayla's features took Jo by surprise and made her suddenly self-conscious. “What's wrong? Do I have mustard on my nose or something?”
“No. Sorry,” Kayla settled into a soft chuckle. “I was just thinking about our bantering back and forth like we've known each other for years.”
Jo reviewed the previous moment's playful exchange and had to agree. “You're right, it did seem that way. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to presume—”
“No! Don't be sorry. It felt good.” Kayla reached across the table and laid her hand on Jo's arm. The chilled skin was gone. In its place she felt a warmth that was as much inviting, as it was comforting and it stirred something deep inside her to the point that her mouth spoke her mind. “I've missed doing that for so long.”
Seeing a bit of melancholy riding just under Kayla's words, Jo took stock of her feelings. They were different than her usual ones after making small talk with a pretty woman. That was for sure. Instead of plotting out her course of action to get Kayla into bed, Jo found she was more than a little bit apprehensive about the whole situation. Deep in her soul she wanted to do it if only for old times sake, but the rest of her newfound psyche screamed even louder to forgo the past and allow the fragile friendship time to grow.
“I'm glad my truck picked the vicinity of your driveway to break down in, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to bring you that pleasure. It was a pleasure, I take it?” Jo held her breath, waiting for a reply.
Kayla slowly smiled. “Yes, it was.”
Hearing that single sentence brought a rush of warmth spreading throughout Jo's body and the most comfortable of feelings settled over her. A simple nod was Jo's only outward response.
For the rest of the meal they ate in companionable silence, their only exchanges being stolen glances. When the last of her soup was gone, Kayla began to clear the table of the remaining food while Jo gathered up the dishes.
“You don't have to do that.”
“It's the least I can do since you cooked.”
“That's a term I use rather loosely,” Kayla smirked.
“Still, thanks again.”
“You're welcome,” Kayla acquiesced gracefully. “Just put them in the sink. I'll do them in the morning. God knows 6 A.M. comes fast enough.”
Jo looked at the clock on the wall. It was nearly midnight. “I take it you don't normally stay up to watch the late news.”
“Does it have the farm report?”
“I don't think so. Well, at least not any of the newscasts that I've watched.”
“That could be why I don't watch it. Listening to the six o'clock news on the radio each morning is what starts my day. I'll get the latest price on grain and the weather. That's all I'll need to know to be well informed for my day.”
“Sort of like reading the morning paper,” Jo equated.
“You might say that but it's delivered in a nutshell. I'll see you in the morning, Jo. I suspect by the time you wake up I'll be in the stables.”
Jo watched as Kayla started to walk away. A sudden urge to have the moment linger overcame her and she blurted out the first thing that came to her head. “Thanks again for the invitation to spend the night.”
Kayla stopped dead in her tracks and turned toward Jo with a puzzled look.
Mentally Jo cringed realizing how that simple phrase must have sounded. Her mouth dropped open and she verbally started to back pedal. “I…I…really didn't mean that how it sounded. God, I'm such a—”
“No offense taken. I'm sure we're both too tired to know what we're saying, let alone have energy for anything like that.” Kayla's smile conveyed friendship simple and pure. “Good night, Jo.”
“Good night, Kayla.” The name had rolled off Jo's tongue without any effort. Something had definitely changed. Now if Jo could only put her finger on it.
Neither the chill in the air nor the exhilaration exercising her favorite mare usually brought her could compare to the fluttering in Kayla's chest when she entered the stable and saw a long pair of legs protruding out from underneath Jo's truck. There was something about the woman that excited her and she couldn't quite put her finger on it. Kayla quickly brushed the thought aside, knowing full well that their time together would end the moment the truck was repaired. She'd have all the time in the world to think about her guest and what exactly caused the excitement as she went through her daily routine of mucking out the horses' stalls.
Kayla hesitated as she listened to the softly muttered words that floated out from under the tattered jalopy.
“Come on…Don't…You will not.”
The sound of metal breaking permeated the air, followed by a string of cuss words.
Concern painted Kayla's face as she watched Jo extract herself from under the truck.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I'm fine. It's nothing a new truck wouldn't help.” Jo looked down at her freshly scrapped knuckles on her right hand. “Damn, that hurt.”
“Didn't see it coming, did you?”
“I should have two months ago when I bought this heap.”
“I guess there wasn't a warranty that came with it?”
Jo looked puzzled. “Maybe back in 1973.”
Kayla laughed, realizing for the first time how old the vehicle really was. “I think that might have run out a few hundred thousand miles ago.”
“You got that right.”
“Anything I can do to help? I've got some tools—”
“Thanks for the offer but it looks like I'll need a few parts first. Do you have a parts store or a junkyard close by?”
Kayla's expression turned thoughtful. “Well, yeah, if you call fifty miles away close.”
“I'm headed into town the day after tomorrow. I could take you,” Kayla offered, then waited in hopeful silence.
Jo studied her truck for a long moment before answering. “I wouldn't want to impose on you.”
“Impose? You wouldn't be imposing at all. Besides, I could use the company.”
The look on Jo's face looked rather odd.
“What?” Kayla's eyes shot wide open. “Is there somewhere you have to be before then?”
“No, it's just that I—”
“You don't want someone to worry about you. Is that it?”
“If they are, I wouldn't know about it.” Jo cleared her throat trying not to feel as pathetic as her statement had sounded.
“Then it's settled, you'll stay.” Kayla crossed the stable to where her wheel barrel and shovel were kept. “If you'll excuse me, I've got some things to take care of.”
Jo watched Kayla as she set to doing one of her many chores associated with the upkeep of horses. Having seen enough, Jo wiped her knuckles on her jeans and ventured closer.
“If you have another shovel, I'd be happy to help.”
Kayla looked up from her task. The sincerity written in Jo's features brought a smile to her face. “I keep an extra one handy just in case one of my friends stopped by. It's over there, next to the wall in the tack room.”
Jo retrieved it and started to go about mucking out the stall next to the one that Kayla was working in. A few minutes went by before their silence was broken.
“Your friends stop by often?” Jo asked without looking over at Kayla.
“Not often enough.”
A smile came to Jo's face but was quickly suppressed.
“Then I guess I won't have to worry.”
“Worry about what?”
“That one of them will come by and take my shovel.”
Kayla stopped shoveling, her laughter filling the air. “Wow! Free labor and a sense of humor.”
“Who said anything about free?”
“I figure since I'm going to be staying here until you drive me into town that my food and board is a fair enough trade for a little mucking around.” Jo rested her weight on the shovel, giving a sidelong glance over in Kayla's direction. “Wouldn't you?”
Kayla thought about it. It was more than a fair trade. It was heaven. Not only was she going to have a hand around the ranch with her everyday chores, but she'd also have companionship for the next two days. She gazed over to Jo and took in her long body an inch at a time. The view wouldn't be bad either.
“Yes, you're right,” Kayla nodded in agreement. “That's more than a fair trade.”
“Then it's agreed.”
“Care to shake on it?”
Jo glanced down to her greasy palm. “Nah, I'll wait until we wash up for that.”
“I take it you're a woman of your word. I'll be holding you to it.”
The twinkle that flashed in Kayla's eyes almost brought a blush to Jo's face. There was definitely more to the woman standing before her than met the eye. Jo wondered what it would be like to get to really know someone. Maybe that's what she could do to fill the time while she waited for the final verdict on her vehicle's ultimate outcome.
“Since you were so nice to cook for me, what do you say I return the favor and do the cooking tonight?”
“From mechanic to stall mucker, then comedian to cook. My, my, you are a jack of all trades.”
Now it was Jo's turn to laugh.
“You know, I can open up a can soup just as well as the next butch.”
“Are you assuming that I'm butch?” An air of indignation tinged Kayla's words.
“I just figured—”
“You figured wrong.”
Jo looked into determined green eyes. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way.”
Kayla started to shovel again, all the while talking. “Just because I choose to live out here by myself doesn't mean that I'm a butch. I love the horses. I've always loved the horses even when I was growing up here with my family. I tried living in the city when I was in college. It's not all it's cracked up to be. People lie. They don't give a damn about anything but themselves and what they can get out of you.”
“I know,” Jo joined in. “They use people in one way or another depending on what their agenda is.”
“That they do.” Kayla studied the gaunt look on Jo's face. “Enough said. Let's move on.”
“So, if you're not a butch…” Jo's words trailed off.
“Then what am I?” Kayla mused, “Maybe I'll let you come to your own conclusion and then you can tell me. How's that for an answer?”
“Fair enough,” Jo dumped her last shovel full of muck from out of the stall into the wheel barrel. “So what time do you want me to make your supper?”
“There's no clock on a ranch, Jo. It's dinnertime when the work is all done.” Kayla leaned on her shovel and looked over her shoulder at the multitude of stalls still in need of mucking. “And by the way we’re jabbering on here that could be anytime between now and next Tuesday if we don’t get our asses in gear.”
Jo stepped out of the stall to look down the length of the stable. She took in a deep breath and wrinkled up her nose as soon as the smell assaulted her. “I see what you mean.”
* * *
Exhausted by the amount of physical labor to be done on the ranch, Jo now knew why the cupboard was stocked with every imaginable variety of soup under the sun. With no one to cook for her, Kayla had her reasons for taking the easy way out. In that respect, Kayla was a smart cookie.
Jo looked across the table and studied the woman. Twenty minutes in the bathroom had removed all remnants of the horses and stable from her. In their place was the essence of wild flowers. Her choice of attire had changed too. In place of her flannel shirt and jeans, the woman now sported a v-neck pullover sweater, a pair of khaki pants with loafers replacing her boots. With her hair brushed back and a ribbon holding it away from her face, Kayla looked every bit the girl next door.
For the first time Jo felt underdressed. She shifted in her chair, trying hard not to let it bother her.
Kayla put her spoon down and pushed the bowl away. “My compliments to the chef. The soup was excellent.”
“You're just saying that because you didn't have to make it.”
“You're right, that made it even better.” Kayla wiped her mouth with the paper napkin that had been provided with her place setting. “I'm not used to dining this formally. Thank you for that pleasant indulgence.”
“I'll make sure to pass on your compliments to the wait staff as well as the chef.” Jo chuckled.
“Really, Jo, you didn't have to go all out, especially after working with me all day. Making the salad would have been effort enough let alone sandwiches, too.”
Jo blushed. “I'll remember that for next time.” She looked up from her food and was met by a pair of questioning green eyes. “What?”
“You amaze me, Jo.”
“Why, because I can open a can of soup and chop up some greens?”
“No, because you're not afraid of hard work, yet you exhibit all the nuances of someone that's been schooled in etiquette.” She pointed out the small garnishing next to her sandwich. “You don't find many butches like you on the Nebraska skyline or South Dakota either for that matter.”
“And you know these facts for sure?”
“Yes, I do. I also know just about every lesbian for a hundred miles around these parts.” Kayla quickly rebutted, “But it doesn't mean that I slept with all of them.”
“I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply that by my silence.”
“No offense taken. I left myself wide open for that one.”
Kayla reached across the table and laid her hand upon Jo's.
Kayla's touch was as much of a paradox as the woman was in Jo's eyes. Her tough as nails, hard ass approach the first night they meet was the complete opposite of this gentle, caring side she was exhibiting now. The soft touch caressing Jo's skin warmed her soul and brought a familiar stirring deep within her lower region. The sudden surge of wetness nearly scared the crap out of her. Jo jumped up and retreated to the safety of the kitchen half a room away.
Hands pressed onto the counter, Jo stood gazing out the window, her mind in a blur and her breath coming in short spurts. What the hell is going on here?
“Jo, are you all right?”
The concern in Kayla's voice was evident but it didn't break through Jo's fog. Panicked by her body's betrayal, she fought to regain her composure. Her eyes darted around, desperately trying to find a focal spot. A glint of gold light in the window caught Jo's eye and she honed in on it. Working hard to slow her breathing, she gradually turned to look straight into the eyes she was trying to avoid.
They were silent. The only communication conveyed was through their gazes. And even then they couldn't keep up with the magnetic pull of one to the other. Before they realized what was happening, two pairs of lips embarked on an adventure of their own. Timid and tender touches soon gave way to a more earnest and passionate kiss. Lost between heaven and hell both women fought for dominance until all they could fight for was the breath that had escaped their lungs.
“Good God woman, what your tongue can do. You're definitely not a home grown lesbian.”
Kayla reeled in the moment, her forehead pressed firmly against Jo's. “You’re right. I went away to school.”
“I see you got a well rounded education,” Jo gasped.
“It had better have been. My parents paid enough for it.”
Kayla studied Jo's face as she looked away. “Don't worry, no one's going to bother us.”
“I'm not worried about that.”
“Then what is it?” Kayla nipped at Jo's lip. “We're both consenting adults.”
“You don't know me, Kayla. I'm not the person you think I am.”
“Me, too,” Jo murmured as her head sank down to let her chin touch her chest.
Kayla lifted Jo's chin and stared point blank into her eyes.
Jo took in a deep breath. “I'm wrong.”
A mixture of confusion and hurt fluttered across Kayla's face.
“I don't understand.”
“I don’t understand it either, Kayla. In the past I would have jumped at the chance to get into your pants.”
“What makes me different? Is it what I do for a living?” Blonde brows furrowed with worry. “I can't change who I am. I wouldn’t even think of it.”
“I don't want you to change. Hell, I love you the way you are.” Jo froze at the sound of her admission. The look on Kayla's face told her that the statement had taken them both by surprise.
“You love me?” A sense of wonder filled Kayla's words. “How can you love me when we've only just met last night?”
Jo closed her eyes and inhaled. “I don't know, but I do.”
“I know because…” Jo trailed off.
“How?” Kayla's gaze bore down on her. “How?”
“Because I remembered your name.”
“What?” Kayla sputtered out amidst a chuckle.
“You heard me, Kayla.” A hint of a smile tinged Jo's lips as the name rolled off them.
“Jo,” Kayla started but stopped at the woman's raised hand.
“I've been a cad all my life.” Jo's face turned brutally honest. “I don't remember names. I don't want to remember any woman's name that I have sex with. They're all after something just like you said.” She looked away, gauging how much to admit to.
“And that's what you think, that I want something from you?”
“No, I don't.”
“Wait a minute. You've lost me.”
“Don't worry, you're in good company. I've lost me too, along the way.”
They exchanged guarded glances as each one tried to figure out where they stood with the other. Finally Jo broke the silence.
“I could be gone tomorrow. Let's just keep it as friends for now and see where we go from there.”
“Friends with benefits,” Kayla’s voice sounded hopeful.
“Kayla,” Jo cautioned.
“Okay, we're friends. We’re nothing but just plain, old friends.”
The longing in Kayla's eyes was more than Jo was ready for. She reached out and caressed Kayla's cheek.
“Trust me, Kayla. It's going to be better that we do it this way.”
They shared a silent moment then slowly moved away.
“So, what are your plans for tomorrow?”
“Pretty much the same thing we did today, feed the stock, muck out the stalls, and exercise the mares. Why, you bored already?”
“No, I just wanted to know how to plan my day.” Jo gathered the dishes from the table and deposited them in the dishwasher. “You'll wake me up at six then, right?”
“Sure if you want me to.”
“I'd like that.”
“Me too,” Kayla whispered as she finished her task of wiping off the table. “I'll take care of dinner tomorrow night.”
“Okay.” Jo looked around making sure that all the dishes were taken care of. “Well, it's been a long day. I think I'll head off to bed.”
“Good night, Jo.”
Even though the midday sun was out in full force Jo hiked her collar up to stave off the crisp winds that blew across the land. The addition of her only sweatshirt to her attire was now commonplace under her denim jacket as she ventured out the back door of the house and across the small walkway to the garage. Once inside she stopped short, seeing Kayla kneeling next to the white, dual wheel pick-up truck inside. Jo wasn't sure what mesmerized her most: the staccato movement of her arm as she swiped lovingly across the ranch's logo on the side of the passenger door or the swaying motion of shoulder length blonde hair as it swayed back and forth over the sheep skin collar of Kayla's plaid coat. Either way it didn't matter, she was still watching Kayla and taking note of all the little things she'd never considered important before with anyone. Fearing she might be caught, Jo made her presence known by clearing her throat.
Kayla met Jo's gaze and smiled proudly. “Thanks. It was my first decision after coming home from college.” She stood back and admired it. “We could get the word out locally when we went into town while keeping the costs down. They're magnetic so one set of signs will service us for years on any vehicle we choose to use or own.”
“That’s very cost effective. I’m impressed. I bet your family was proud.”
“Yeah, my dad was. I can still remember the look in his eyes. All those years away studying was suddenly worth it.”
“That's when I knew I had made the right choice of coming back home.”
“You know, a money saving idea like that would have gained you a bonus in the corporate sector.”
“You're right, but money isn't always what motivates.”
“To some people it is.”
Kayla sighed, knowing all too well the truth of the statement. “Sad, isn't it?”
“Yes, it is.” Jo walked toward the truck. “I want to thank you for the ride into town.”
“Not a problem at all. I have to pick up some supplies anyway.”
For the first time since they had been thrown together by fate, there was a brief moment of uncomfortable silence.
“Well, we better get going or we won't be back in time to take care of the evening feeding for the stock.” Kayla opened the passenger side door for Jo. “I'd offer to let you drive a real truck but you may not want to give it back.”
Jo laughed. “You're right. I might get used to this big butch truck and decide that you're too much a fem to drive it.”
“Oh, so the pendulum swings another way. Now I'm too fem.” A coy smile swept across her lips. “See if I ever get dressed up for dinner again.”
She waited for Jo to get in, then closed the door before rounding the front of the vehicle, and entered the driver's side.
“I'd buckle up if I were you. I have a reputation of being more of a truck driver than a lady.”
Kayla turned the key in the ignition and the V8 engine roared to life.
“Oh yeah,” she said as her foot slammed the gas pedal to the floor and the dually shot out of the garage like a fuel-injected drag racer at the first flicker of a green light.
* * *
The fifty miles as a crow flies trip turned into a little more than an hour and a half of fast highway driving. The spurts of conversation over the miles between the two women covered everything from favorite foods to their best-loved songs and even a few short stories of their most memorable moments. It wasn't until Kayla turned off the highway and into the small town of Valentine that their mood turned somewhat somber.
“Well, we're here. Next stop is the big little city of Valentine, Nebraska.”
Jo looked around. “What, no cupids on the sign posts?”
“No, but we do play a pretty important role in the Valentine's Day festivities.”
“Cupid lives here?”
“Actually, it's pretty big business here. The local post office puts on extra people for two weeks to handle the onslaught of mail they'll need to process. That's a big boost to a lot of local families’ pocketbooks.”
“Even at minimum wage it’s an extra five hundred dollars or so it’s money they wouldn't have otherwise. It can tide you over in a bad year or be the money a lot of families need with kids at home to provide those little extras like birthday gifts or Christmas presents.”
“Did you ever work there?”
“No, but my mom did, every year of the twenty-three that she was married.” She pulled into a space and parked. “She saved up the money; used it to put me through college.”
“So, Valentine has a special place in your heart.”
“You might say that. Without it I would have never gone to college or had the experiences that time away from here brought me.” Kayla paused to reminisce. “I learned a lot in those four short years and for that I'll be forever grateful.”
“Well, I for one am forever grateful to you. Without your help I'd still be back there on the road somewhere, trying to find my way here.” Jo slipped out of her seat and stood outside the truck. “Now, if you can just direct me to the parts store, I'll see if I can induce some new life into my old, dilapidated butchmobile.”
Kayla stifled a laugh. “If that truck knew how you talk about her, she'd stay dead just to spite you.”
“She?” Jo's voiced rose. “You called my truck a she?”
“No, you did.”
Jo backed off in a defensive posture. “When did I determine my truck to be feminine?”
“I distinctively heard you call refer to the truck as Maybelle when she took a bite out of your knuckles the other morning.”
“Touché,” Jo chuckled. “Only I wasn't calling the truck Maybelle. I was cursing the waitress that gave me directions to Harry's Used Car Lot. I’m thinking now that the signage she told me to disregard really was Harry's.”
“What did it say?”
“The Flim Flam Man.”
Kayla roared with laughter. “That's where you bought that monstrosity?”
“Hey! Careful how you talk about my Maybelle.”
“I'm sorry. I couldn't help it.”
“Neither could I. It was the only vehicle that I had enough money to buy. Even at that, I had to wash cars for a week so that I could have use of Harry's tools to get her into working order.”
Kayla's eyes softened, realizing the tough times Jo must have had. “Well, you did a good job that time. Here's hoping Maybelle can be revived again.”
“Speaking of which,” Jo got out of the truck and looked up and down the street. “Where would I find that store?”
“It’s up on the left. You can't miss it. Say hi to Tommy for me.” Kayla slid out of the truck and headed toward the sidewalk where Jo was standing in front of the local feed and hardware store.
“Thanks,” Jo met her gaze. “I'll be back soon.”
Their gazes lingered slightly longer than friends should have. Finally Jo turned and walked away.
“I'll be in here for a while so feel free to take your time,” Kayla called after her.
* * *
The balding man behind the counter slowly took off his wire-rimmed glasses and used the end of it to scratch the bridge of his nose. He looked up at the woman standing opposite him.
“You said 1973, right?”
“Hmm…I haven't had to order parts for one of those in years.”
“They still make them, don't they?” Jo waited patiently for his answer.
“If there's a need for them I suppose they should.” He settled his glasses back on his face and flipped a few more pages in his thick catalog of available parts. “Chevy you said.”
“That would be right.” Jo cleared her throat. “It doesn't have to be new. I'll take a refurbished one if that's all I can get.”
The man looked up from the catalog. “What's the matter, don't think that old girl could keep up with a few fresh parts?” He chuckled to himself. “Be glad it's not a Ford. It would have up and died years ago or rusted out more likely. They had a problem with that you know.”
“No, I didn't.” Jo looked around, trying not to lose her patience.
“Hey! What do you know? I found it.”
“See right here.” He pointed to the line of information with his finger as he read. “1973 Chevy…” his words trailed off. “Oh, that's not good.”
“What? What's not good?” Jo's attention was peaked.
He looked up from the page. “They quit making them.”
“Figures,” Jo muttered.
“What do you expect after forty some years? For things to stay in a time warp?”
“Damn right! Things change just like people do. Nothing stays the same. People grow old, get a few bumps and bruises along the way but they still keep on going just like automobiles. The one that knows how to take care of them with a little tender loving care is the one that gets the pleasure of their company.”
“Speaking of older parts, what's my chance of finding a refurbished part?”
“Would that be for you or for that Chevy of yours?” The shop owner chuckled.
“You think I need repairs?”
“Sure. Nobody is perfect. We all need repairs from time to time. How and when they get done is all up to the man upstairs.”
His words struck Jo right between the eyes.
“What's the matter, not used to getting a little philosophy with your auto parts?” He chided her.
“Quite frankly,” Jo looked him straight in the eye, “No.”
“You must not be from around here.” He offered his hand over the counter. “I’m Tommy. I own the shop here.”
“Hi. I’m Jo.” She then redirected the conversation. “Any chance of finding that refurbished part for the Chevy?”
He studied her intently before answering. “If I do find you that part, it's going to cost you to have it shipped in.”
“How much will that cost?” Jo mentally took stock of the currency in her pocket.
“The price of gas has gone up, so has the cost of shipping. It all depends on where the part will be coming from.”
“What’s the worst case scenario?”
“If it comes in from the West Coast, you're talking two to three hundred dollars plus the cost of the part and that could range anywhere from a hundred and fifty on up depending on its condition.”
“So we're talking $350 or more.”
“That would be my best guess if I can find it. I could put in a few calls and see. I'd have a better idea of the cost then. I'll need cash when I do find it though. We don't accept credit cards for that kind of thing.”
“I guess that might be more cost effective than trying to find another vehicle.”
“That it would be if you got the time to wait.”
“Don't worry, I've got the time,” Jo muttered as she turned away. “I'm not so sure I'll have the money though.”
“Well, you could get yourself some part-time work. It's our big season here in Valentine.” Tommy eyed her curiously. “You can read, can't you?”
Jo turned back to look at him. “Sure I can read.”
“Better than most, I suspect. You got two arms, two legs, I'd say you'd fit the bill.”
“What kind of job are you talking about?”
“Why official mail handler for the Valentine city postmark, of course.”
“So that's what Kayla's mom was called,” she mused.
Tommy’s face perked up and his eyes began to take on new life. “You knew Kayla's mom?”
“Not actually. I only know what Kayla's told me about her.”
“Damn fine woman, she was. I can't say that I didn't envy Denny when he married her. That family raised beautiful stock in the likes of their daughter…and their horses aren't bad either. Kayla's done her best to keep the place running since their accident. Don't know if she'll be able to do that much longer by herself with the bank after her an' all, but you being her friend, I don't have to tell you that now, do I?”
Jo remained silent.
“I haven’t seen you around town. I take it you’re one of Kayla’s college friends. Are you staying out at the ranch?”
“For now I am.”
“Good.” His smile beamed approval. “I'll give Kayla a ring if I find the part.”
“Thanks,” Jo said, exiting the store.
She stood on the sidewalk and weighed her options. She'd have to earn enough the money if she was going to get the truck up and running again.
“Well, I guess I need to find a job,” she said, thinking aloud.
“The post office is up the street to your left.”
“Huh?” Jo looked around to see where the voice was coming from. She found her answer, it was Tommy.
“They're still looking for another person or two.” He winked. “I had breakfast with Mike this morning. He's the postmaster, you know. Tell him Tommy sent you over and if that don't cut it for him, just say you're a friend of Kayla's. You'll get the job for sure.”
Jo surveyed the business district off to her left. Seeing the building where the post office was housed, she thought about the money Kayla's mother had earned to send her daughter to college. It would be more than enough to pay for the repair of her truck and she'd have enough left over to bankroll for a while. She turned back to her unlikely guardian angel.
“Thanks, Tommy. I think I will.”
* * *
Kayla walked over to the window of the hardware store and peered out for what seemed to be more than was necessary. Her distraction with what was going on outside was more obvious to the woman waiting on her and it wasn't long before Betsy pointed it out.
“You afraid someone's going to steal the signs off your truck, Kayla?”
“What?” Kayla moved away from the window. “I was…a…”
“What's so interesting out there? Do we have a new butch in town?” Betsy teased. “Oh god I hope it’s one that doesn't resemble a bull elephant.”
“You never forget a word I say, do you?”
“You can attribute that to my memory like an elephant.” Betsy put her face to her shoulder and used her arm to mimic an elephant's trunk as she let go of a trumpeted snort.
“Enough of that,” Kayla snorted. “You're never going to let me live that statement down, are you?”
A cheeky smile came as Betsy's response.
“You,” Kayla pointed a finger and cautioned before stealing a glance out the window.
“I gave somebody a ride in today.”
“Anybody I might know?”
“I doubt it. She broke down on the road.”
“She?” Betsy grew more attentive. “She who?”
“Her name is Jo,” Kayla said as a matter of fact.
The question stunned Kayla, she'd never asked nor had Jo offered her last name.
“She didn't say.”
“And you never asked? I'll pretend I never heard that considering who your mother was. What the hell kind of a hostess are you?”
“I'd say a pretty good one. I've cooked dinner for her twice.”
“Whoa! Wait a minute. I think there's more to this story than you're telling me.” Betsy surveyed Kayla's face for any hint of emotion. “You've been sleeping with her?”
“No!” Kayla cleared her throat rather hastily.
“Ah…but you wanted to.” A playful twinkle came to Betsy's eyes. “Spill it, Kayla. Tell me all about her.”
Kayla hesitated long enough to look out the window before proceeding to relate the events of Jo's arrival and stay at the Masterson Ranch. She chose her words carefully so as not to give more fodder to Betsy's teasing ways. When she was done, Kayla waited patiently as Betsy absorbed the bare minimum of facts.
Betsy studied Kayla before speaking. “You're drawn to her, aren't you?”
“Like a moth to a flame,” Kayla whispered, gazing out into the main thoroughfare.
“I can tell.” Betsy's reply was spoken like a true friend. “Does she know yet?”
“Maybe,” Kayla whispered then suddenly perked up. “Shit! Here she comes.” She spun around to confront Betsy head on. “Don't you say a word or I'll never go to another town sponsored function.”
“So, if I don't spill the beans, you'll be at the Valentine's Day dance, right?”
“That's blackmail, Betsy and you know it.” She looked back out the window to see Jo half a block away and heading in her direction.
“Call it what you will. My only concern is getting you off that ranch and having a little fun.” Betsy leaned into the window. “Better make your mind up, she's almost here.”
“Damn you, Betsy.” Kayla's ire was cut short by the tinkling of the bell that hung above the hardware store's door. She turned to see Jo stepping inside. “You're on, Betsy. I'll be there.”
“Good!” Betsy's attention went to the new arrival. “Well, there's a pretty face to brighten anyone's day. What can I do for you, ma'am.”
“I was looking for Kayla.”
Betsy grinned. “She's right here, still waiting for her order.”
“Yeah, I'm still waiting.” Kayla glared at Betsy.
“I think we've had enough of a visit for one week. I'll see what's keeping that order of yours.”
“You don’t have to hurry on my account,” Jo spoke up.
“No, we've gone over everything we needed to discuss. More than I had even planned.”
“He's working on finding a refurbished one. It may take a while though.”
Kayla glanced down to her watch. “We could eat dinner in town if that would help.”
“Thanks, but I think it's going to take more than a few hours.”
“Oh! Well, that's okay. I'll just get the order loaded up in the truck and we can head back to the ranch.”
“That's something I have to talk to you about.”
“What's there to talk about? You're welcome to stay until you get your truck up and running.”
“I thought I'd get a room here in town.” Suddenly Jo felt nervous seeing the stunned look on Kayla's face.
“I thought you liked—”
“I do,” Jo quickly countered. “Heck, I even liked pitching in with the work.”
“My funds are low. I took a job for the next two weeks.”
“Two weeks.” Kayla thought for a moment. “You’re going to work at the post office.”
“But you'll need to spend money to get a room.”
“No, she won't,” Betsy entered the conversation. “Any friend of yours is a friend of mine, Kayla. I have an extra room. She can bunk with me and work more hours instead of driving back and forth to the ranch.”
Jo looked from one woman to the other, studying the dynamics of the friendship.
“Jo…” Kayla trailed off as she watched them shake hands.
“My house isn't as big as the ranch but you're welcome to stay while you're working in town. I'll warn you, I'm not as talented or domesticated as Kayla here.”
Jo's gaze drifted toward Kayla.
“She's right. Her idea of eating is to go to a restaurant for everything but breakfast.”
“Deal,” Betsy jumped on the offer then glanced over to Kayla. “I’m sorry. I seem to have forgotten your name already.”
“Jo.” She extended her hand to Betsy. “My name is Jo Worthington.”
Welcome to Valentine, Jo.” Betsy smiled and winked at Kayla. “I think we’ll get along just fine. Don’t you think so, Kayla?”
“Yes, just peachy keen,” Kayla said with bared teeth before turning her attention to Jo. “I suppose you'll want your things.”
Betsy eyed the woman up. “If you don't mind wearing second hand stuff, I've got a few things that might tide you over until Kayla makes the trip in next week.”
Jo hesitated, seeing the slightly pained look on Kayla's face. Now that she'd made her decision, she regretted it. Compelled to ease the pain, Jo offered the only thing she could, hope.
“Oh, no you don't,” Betsy added. That will be two weeks and one day. Kayla won't be coming in that week until Thursday so she'll be here for the big town dance.”
“What dance?” Jo looked from one to the other for clarification.
“The Valentine's Day dance,” Kayla said in a monotone.
“Oh, okay.” Jo shrugged. “Then I'll see you at the dance.”
Betsy couldn't help but smile, knowing Kayla's vested interest. This could be the year that her wishes for her friend just might come true.
“You're just in time. I was getting ready to close shop,” Betsy announced as Jo hurried into the hardware store. “Did you get everything you were looking for?”
“Everything I could afford, is more like it.” Jo held up a bag from the clothing store in one hand. “You were right about the selection at the drugstore. There wasn't much but I did find a few postcards from several cities close by.”
“Well, if that makes you happy, that's all that matters.”
Jo shrugged her shoulders. “It's not so much for me as it is for a good friend.”
“She keeping track of you or doesn't she get out much?”
“A little of both, I'm afraid. Dottie's a workaholic as all lawyers are. If it doesn’t involve courthouses, courtrooms, or litigation of any kind she probably wouldn't even notice it.”
“That's not good,” Betsy said, drawing the shades down on the hardware store's front door before locking it for the night. “I take it you like her but she never notices you.”
“No,” Jo chuckled. “Nothing of the sort.”
Jo laughed even harder. “Hardly. She's been in touch with her gay side longer than me.”
Betsy feigned surprise. “You're gay?”
“If you need to ask I'd get that gaydar checked out if I was you.”
“Don't worry, I can spot family a mile away.”
“Do you invite all family members into your home?”
Betsy smirked, “Not for extended stays. I'm pretty particular about who I sleep with on a regular basis.”
The look on Jo's face turned skeptical. “If you're suggesting that we…”
“Don't get your panties in a wad.”
“Boxers,” Jo stated flatly.
“Whatever.” She rolled her eyes. “Let's not have a pissing war already. Hell, I haven't even shown you my place or my flannel shirt collection.”
“Well, if that's what makes you a bigger butch than me, you'll win hands down.” Jo opened up the bag in her hand and withdrew a moss green flannel shirt. “Here's my whole collection.”
“The style is nice but that color,” Betsy skewed her face. “It's not right for your complexion.”
“Now I see why you and Kayla are friends. You're both quick to criticize my clothing choices.”
“What can I say, some people just have the knack. Speaking of which, I want to apologize before we go upstairs to my apartment.” Betsy moved toward a staircase at the back of the store. “I didn't exactly get a chance to clean the place this week. Business picks up this time of year with everybody getting ready for the Valentine Dance.”
“Betsy, I'm not going to think poorly of you for a few things thrown around your living room or a dust bunny poking out it's ugly nose from behind the TV console.”
“So, if I didn't make my bed up this morning it wouldn't matter to you?”
“No. Not in the least.” Jo followed Betsy up the stairs.
“Great, because I didn't. Oh, and by the way, I didn't get a chance to clean the dishes from last night either.”
“I thought you said that you eat out.”
“I do, mostly but sometimes I just don't want to be out where people are gawking at you all the time. You know what I mean?”
Jo thought about her own experiences of eating alone when everyone else was paired up with either friends or family. It could make an already lonely person feel even lonelier than they chose to be and she had to agree. “Yes, I do know what you mean.”
“Good. That makes me feel better already. I think we'll be great roommates for the duration. I'm glad I extended the invitation.” Betsy opened the door at the top of the stairs and offered Jo free passage into her domain. “Welcome to my humble home.”
Jo stepped across the doorway and took in the surroundings. Immediately she was transported to another era. Either Betsy was older than she looked or she lived with her grandmother. Slowly Jo absorbed the layout of the room. Small crocheted doilies peaked out from under stacks of paper and magazines on the coffee table while a lamp with an oversized shade rested on an end table between overstuffed chairs. A matching love seat littered with T-shirts and a pair of sweat pants lined the wall opposite the TV. If she had to guess by the smaller-sized picture tube and boxed design of the console, it probably was vintage black and white. Atop it sat what Jo lovingly remembered her grandmother calling 'bunny ears' as a means of drawing in the reception. Her gaze stopped at the menagerie of overgrown houseplants that lined the two windowsills on either side of the TV. At least Betsy had a green thumb, even if she wasn't the best housekeeper in the world.
“I know it's not the Ritz but I call it home.” Betsy bustled by her houseguest and snagged an overturned beer bottle from the floor next to the love seat. Grabbing an article of clothing off the furniture, she wiped up the few drops of liquid that still marked its place on the floor. “Sorry, I don't usually toss my empties around like that. Damn cat must have knocked it over. Follow me and I'll show you the rest of the place.”
“What's the cat's name?” Jo asked, keeping an eye out for the animal as she followed behind Betsy.
“Well, that depends on my mood. Mostly I call her Kitty. This here is the kitchen. Don’t pay any attention to the take-out containers on the table. I had a craving for Chinese last night.” She tossed the bottle into the garbage can. “Garbage is here, sink's over there. Don't mind the low pressure, I got to swap out the faucet when I get a chance to. Refrigerator is here.” She opened up the door. “Not much in there but it keeps the milk and beer cold. What more do I need, right?”
“Right,” Jo agreed, all the while she was taking in the kitchen that matched the era of the living room entirely. “May I?” She pointed to the faucet.
“Go right ahead. Glasses are in the cupboard on your left.”
Jo smiled. “That's different. Most people keep them on the right.”
“I know. But my grandmother was left-handed.”
Now that little tidbit of information answered a lot of questions Jo had.
“How long has your family owned the hardware store?”
Betsy thought for a moment. “God, it seems like forever.”
“That long, eh? I would have never guessed.” Jo held a glass under the faucet and turned on the tap.
“You're born here, you pretty much die here. I guess that's because we don't get much new blood or money coming into the area. Well, that is except for Valentine's Day. The couple of weeks around that holiday really liven up the town and the influx of money from those wishing to join in our little celebration isn't too bad either.”
“So, I came at the right time?”
“You can say so. You'll see our community pride at its best.” Betsy hedged closer to the sink. “See what I mean about the pressure?”
Jo watched the thin trickle of water as it flowed into her glass. “I see. Maybe I can help you with this project. It will give me something to do in my spare time.”
“If you're looking for things to do, I can find things to keep you busy. Just the other day they were asking if I'd like to help out with the decorations for the dance this year.”
“I'm not really a decorator, Betsy.”
“Neither am I obviously, but I'm good with a hammer and nails. Heck, I grew up living overtop of them,” she beamed. “They got a few things they want built and they know where to come for help.”
“A business owner and handy, too. Why aren't you paired up with somebody?” Jo teased. “A butch with a tool belt. You're a fem's dream come true.”
“Yeah, well I won't say that I never was, but it gets harder the older you get. Maybe I'm too set in my ways to have someone start to change me now.”
“That depends on how you look at it. I've got friends. Kayla for one,” she reiterated. “I've got my customers during the day and at night when I come up here, I have all my memories of growing up with my family. What more could I ask for?”
Jo raised an eyebrow.
“I got a few girls on the side, too. Don’t go painting me a pathetic loser now.”
“Oh, I wasn't.”
“Good. How about you?”
“How about me what?”
“Do you have any love interests past or present to talk about?”
The question stirred a kaleidoscope of faces blurred through Jo's mind. There could be a lot to talk about if she was able to remember their names.
If you only knew.
“Could it be that you don't want to talk about them because there is somebody lurking in the future?” Betsy attempted to pry.
Suddenly the ever-changing images in Jo's mind were replaced by Kayla's face. She shook it off.
“I thought we weren't going to get into any pissing wars?” Jo put an end to the subject. “Besides, I'm kind of tired tonight. How about we save it for another time?”
“Suit yourself. I'm in no hurry.” Betsy made her way out of the kitchen and into a small hallway leading to the front of the apartment. “If you follow me, I'll show you where you'll be bunking.” Opening a door, she switched on the light. “The beds are clean and the blankets are warm. If you need another pillow feel free to take the one off the other twin bed. There's not much I can say about the décor. I call it early American boy. My brothers get all uptight if I move things around too much. It's not like they stop by all the time, well maybe twice a year, so I tend to leave it alone.”
Jo poked her head inside the room to see cowboys and Indians everywhere. They were lined up along the dresser, printed on the bed linens, and plastered all over the walls.
“Nice collection, if you're into that sort of thing.”
Betsy cleared her throat. “I know what you mean. Well, that’s the end of my tour. I won't burden you with the likes of my room.”
“Oh, but I will get a chance to see your flannel shirt collection one day, won't I?”
“I think that could be arranged. Right now my stomach is telling me it's time to take a walk.”
“Your daily constitutional?”
“Only if I want to eat,” Betsy smirked. “Would you care to join me?”
Jo glance back to the beds. She was tired and sore from all the mucking she'd done earlier in the day. Sleep was going to be a must if she was going to be starting her new job the next morning. Thinking back over their recent conversation, Jo considered what having company at dinner would do for her new roommate's ego. The decision didn't take long to come to.
“Me, too.” Betsy hurried toward her room at the end of the hall. “Let me get my wallet. It's my treat tonight.”
“Okay.” Jo pulled out a postcard and put in on the nightstand, before tossing her bags on the bed closest to the door. “But I'm buying tomorrow night.”
“That sounds good to me. There's a great little restaurant right over the line into Omaha that I've been meaning to try.”
An idea came to Jo. “Do they have a post office there?”
“It's a little one.”
Jo took a pen out of her denim jacket pocket and picked up the postcard. She scribbled out an address and quick note. “Are you up to making that trip tonight?”
Betsy stuck her head into the doorway. “Does a cow have teats?”
“Sorry, I forgot you're a city kind of gal. That means hell yes.”
Rita picked up the mail delivery and headed straight for her boss' office. There she found Dottie Stringer standing before a corkboard of North America with numerous pushpins stuck in it.
“Thanks, Rita.” Dottie never took her eyes off of the map. “Same as always?”
Rita closed the door and delivered the postcard in question directly into Dottie's hand. Seeing the pained look on the other woman's face she reached out to comfort her.
“I'm sorry, Luv. I know you miss her.”
“I do, Rita. If it weren't for these damn postcards, it's as though Josefa Worthington had been plucked from my life six hours after she walked out of my office.”
Dottie sighed. “I have to admit that I miss my best friend. She removed another pushpin from the lower right hand corner of the corkboard, and proceeded to stick its pointed end into the dot that marked Omaha.
“Well, at least she's in the United States, if you can call a city in Nebraska that.”
“You miss her.” It wasn't a question but rather a statement.
“She was a good friend.” Dottie shook her head. “God! Listen to me talking about her as though she's dead. She is a good friend.”
Rita leaned in and kissed Dottie's check. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Short of tracking her down and bringing her back home, no.” She took in a deep, cleansing breath and let it out. “She'll come home when she's ready. When she's found what she needs. Until then…” Dottie trailed off.
“I'm here for you.” Rita gave her a hug. “Any way you need me to be.”
“I know, baby. I know.” She turned and the ensuing embrace slowly grew into a kiss.
“Good thing I closed the door, Counselor.”
“Very good thing.”
Dottie didn't waste any time taking the kiss to a more passionate level. When it threatened to ignite more than time would allow, Rita hesitantly pulled back.
“I know. I never wanted this to be some tawdry office affair.”
“It hasn't. I've never thought of it in that way.”
“I'm thankful for that.” Dorothy glanced at the corkboard and stared at the last pushpin that had been placed. She thought for a moment and came to a revelation of her own.
“Say that you'll marry me, Rita. Right here, right now.”
Rita shifted her gaze from the woman holding her, to the corkboard then back again. “Dottie, are you just saying this because you miss Jo?”
“No, I'm saying it because I love you. For the first time in my life I know what I need and it's you, Rita. Only you, and I want everyone to know it. Life's too short. There's going to be no more hiding it here at the office. I want everyone to know I've met a lovely woman that I connect with. I want to spend the rest of my life with her. Dottie's smile grew bolder. “What do you say, Rita, marry me before they reverse the law in California here again?”
“Yes!” Rita wept openly. “Yes, I'll marry you. The sooner, the better.”
The kiss that followed was a mixture of love, passion, and need with Dottie's hand slipping beneath Rita's blouse. The feel of silk tantalized her fingertips. Soft and supple, the pliable tissue stood out in stark contrast to the aroused nipple. Dottie toyed with the nipple, teasing gently at first, then grasping it between her thumb and forefinger to give it a tweak.
Rita drew back from the kiss and released an exasperated sigh. “Oh, God! What you do to me should be illegal.”
Dottie laughed. “Trust me, I know the law, that's why I'm the lawyer.”
“And a good one, I might add.” Rita wrinkled up her nose in the cutest of ways. “I was thinking, Valentine's Day is only a few weeks away…” She ran her finger over Dottie's ear. “If we worked at it—”
“Oh, I'm willing to work at it.” Dottie wiggled her eyebrows.
“ Stop it! I know you are but I'm not talking about sex. I'm talking about our exchanging of vows.”
“On Valentine's Day? Sure, why not. Hell, I'll even let you pick where you want to go on our honeymoon. You name it and I'm there.”
“Surer than I've ever been in my life.”
“Good! Then Valentine's Day it is. Now let me go so I can make all the arrangements and you…” Rita smacked distracting fingers away from her breast. “You need to get back to work.”
“So, the honeymoon's over already before it even starts.”
“Oh, honey, don't worry. I'll make sure you know when it starts.” Rita dropped a chaste kiss on Dottie's cheek then proceeded toward the door. She tucked her shirt back into her skirt. Looking over her shoulder, she blew a silent kiss in the other woman's direction before opening the door back into the corporate world.
Thrilled to the point that her libido was shifting into overdrive, Dottie turned back to the corkboard and thought about her absent but ever-present friend.
“God, Jo! It feels so good to be loved. I wish you were here to see it.” She pondered the thought. “Good God, Jo, I really hope you find it someday.”
Shock and adulation filled Rita's heart as she went over the previous ten minutes spent in Dottie's office. It wasn't the fact that Rita had never expected the proposal, she had. It was that she hadn't expected it to happen at work. How was she ever going to get through the day? Better yet, how was Dottie going to wait until they were home to act upon her intentions? Rita thought about that for a few minutes, fondly remembering every look on her lover's face. Aside from the outpouring of love that was always so evident, Dottie's face had held nothing but concern and worry for her best friend, Jo.
Rita knew what she had to do. She reached for her Rolodex, searching through the names until she found the one she was looking for. Without a second thought she reached for the phone, tapped in the numbers, then waited for the line to be picked up.
“Hello, John. This is Rita at the firm of Burns, Blithe, and Roscoe. We need you to locate someone…No, not a criminal of any sort. It's more like someone flying under the radar trying to find their real goal in life…Thank you, John. I'll send you everything we know via messenger…Oh, and the sooner, the better, please. I'd appreciate it and so will Dottie.”
Rita hung up the phone and pondered what she had just set into motion.
“Wouldn't that be one hell of a wedding gift for her?”
“Now, what do I want to wear for my wedding. Where to go for a honeymoon? Decisions, decisions.”
With only seconds left to her final shift, Jo put her stamp of approval on the last redirected letter of the season. She lifted the envelope up and blew gently over the wet ink so that it wouldn't smudge when she deposited it into the mailbag to her left.
“That's it, Mike. This is the last one.” Jo set her hand stamped seal of approval on the envelope and sent it on its way.
“And just in time, too. Here comes the last mail truck now.” He scratched his neck in a thoughtful manner. “I want to thank you for putting in all the hours that you have. I don't know what I would have done if it wasn't for you taking up all the slack.” Mike studied her carefully. “You sure you don't want to stay on for a while. I've got a slot opening up as soon as ol' Murphy retires next month.”
“As much as I appreciate the work, I'll have to decline.”
“Damn!” Disappointment washed over his face. “And here I was thinking I had an easy replacement. Will you at least consider working for me next year? It would only be for two weeks again and you said the money wasn't bad,” he tempted her. “I can put you on the list right now.”
“Mike, I…” she stopped. Seeing the hopeful look in his eye, Jo hedged. “We'll see.”
“Then that's a maybe?”
“Yes, maybe. If I'm still here, I'll consider it.”
“If you're still here,” Mike scoffed. “Why, you fit in better around here than half of our own born and raised do. You got that small town style, Jo. I like it and so do some of the other town folk.”
“Well, I'd say Kayla for one. I've seen her stop by more in the last two weeks than I had since her mother passed away five years ago. You've got to be special to her if she's traveling all that way.”
“She needed to pick up supplies.”
“Yeah, but every time she came into town she had some kind of excuse to stop in here: buying stamps or mailing a letter. Heck, she always just puts her bills in the mailbox outside the hardware store.”
The thought stuck with Jo. She hadn't expected to see the woman except to get her belongings when she dropped them off that first week. Having dinner with Kayla and Betsy that evening had been a pleasant end to a long day's work. It was even more enjoyable the second time it had happened a week later. She had thought it strange that Kayla had forgotten about delaying her trip to town until today.
“Then there's Tommy, he likes you too. Otherwise, he wouldn't have sent you over to me.”
“Speaking of which, he ordered it yesterday. It should be in for next Wednesday when Kayla usually comes into town. Here's your paycheck.” He handed her the envelope. “Betsy said she'll cash it for you at the hardware store if you need her to.”
“You talked to Betsy?”
“What do you want me to do, ignore my own sister?”
Jo's mouth dropped open at the unexpected news.
“Hmmph, I guess she didn't tell you. Well, before you go having a stroke I might as well tell you that I'm related to Tommy, too. He's my brother-in-law.”
“Great! So you're telling me that I've been the center of a conspiracy.”
“Then, what would you call it?”
“Community, it’s all about one friend helping out another.”
“But I don't know you.”
“You didn't then but you do now. It all works out in the end.”
“But I am a stranger to you all…why?”
“I can sum that up for you with one word—trust. Kayla trusted you enough to take you in when your truck broke down. That's all we needed to know.”
“That still doesn't mean that you know me.”
“Some people don't ever know who they are, while others have a way of hiding from the truth. It doesn't matter to Kayla. She has the same gift her mother had. She can see right into a person's heart. If it's good, she'll know it.”
Jo didn't know how to respond. On one hand she felt scared, while on the other hand a tingling of excitement coursed though her veins as she thought about their upcoming meeting later that evening at the dance. Only time would tell which one would win out.
* * *
“You got your duffel bag, Jo?”
“Yeah, I tossed it into the back of your pick-up.” She got into Betsy's truck cab and shut the door. “So what goes on at this dance?”
“Well, most of the town folk dance while the rest of us stand around and work up the courage to ask someone to. Then there are the visitors.”
“Oh, you mean like me.”
“No!” Betsy shook her head. “Not like you at all. They're the ones who come to town special for the day. We call them 'the little hearts' all lined up and ready to get a jolt out of Cupid's bow.”
Jo gave a suspicious glance in Betsy's direction. “You don't have someone dressed up like cupid and sailing arrows around the room, do you?”
“Why, you scared of being hit with one?”
“I don't think that's a possibility unless it's you.” Jo batted her eyes and faked a pining look Betsy's way.
“Stop that you darn fool. I like you, Josie but I've found that two butches is a combination that doesn’t mix.”
“Like oil and water, huh?”
“No, more like fighting for dominance,” Betsy grinned.
“You got that right.” She started to laugh and Jo joined in.
“What's a butch to do?” Jo looked out the window, letting the question hang and pondered one of her own.
“You're way too quiet. What are you thinking, Jo?”
“What if that arrow was pointed in someone else's direction? Say someone like Kayla?”
“Now that's a two-sided question.”
Jo shifted in her seat to watch the wave of emotion roll across Betsy's face. “Come on, woman. It's just the two us here. You can tell me your crash and burn story without worry.”
“If only it were like that,” Betsy muttered.
“You've never tried, have you?”
“Oh, I've tried. Believe me, I have. Kayla's not interested or at least not in me.” Betsy smirked, “Maybe not in the whole state of Nebraska even.” She glanced over to Jo. “But you're not from around here so I wouldn't worry if I were you. If it's meant to be, it will happen, Valentine's Day or not.”
Jo shifted again and stared out through the windshield. She closed her eyes and imagined the searing touch of warm lips against here own. The exchange of passionate kisses was so fresh in her mind that her body began to react. Wetness pooled in her jeans as her body betrayed her. She spent the rest of the way to the dance, reliving the memory of Kayla's lips on hers, their bodies entwined together. When she came out of her trance-like state, Jo prayed for a sign to let her know what to do.
“So this is it?” Dorothy looked at the three-story Victorian house with a rainbow colored flag flying high from its roof top.
“Yeah,” Rita sighed. “Aren't you glad I found it?”
“That depends,” Dorothy smirked. “But if it makes my bride happy, I'm happy too.”
“Oh, you,” Rita scoffed.
“Hey, I didn't mean it like that. Really, when you think about it, spending our honeymoon in Valentine, Nebraska could end up being a good thing.”
Rita's eyes sparkled as she thought about the Valentine, Nebraska postmarked card her new wife had received from her longtime friend. “I sure hope so.”
“What do you say we check in and try out our room.”
“That sounds like a plan to me.”
Rita reached for her bag only to have Dorothy playfully slap her hand away.
“I've got that, Babe. Lead the way.”
“Oh, I love when you're all butch.”
Dorothy chuckled as she followed her wife into the Bed and Breakfast. “If you're really nice to me, I might even wear that flannel shirt I packed to dinner tonight.”
“Be still my beating heart,” Rita said as she stepped through the door that Dorothy held open for her.
“Ah, there you two are. I was almost afraid you got lost. Welcome to Cupid's Delight. I'm Eva, your hostess. Give me a moment and I'll get the resident handywoman and part-time bell hop to take your bags.” She leaned back into the stairwell and yelled, “The last of our guests are here, Jo.”
“Jo?” The name slipped out simultaneously.
“Yes, Jo. She's my partner.” Eva looked at them curiously.
“No!” Dorothy said with a shock.
“It couldn't be…could it?” Rita looked to her wife. “Well, that would explain her postcard, then.”
Rita and Dorothy watched the stairs for Jo's emergence. They didn't have to wait long. Their gaze was soon met by worn cowboy boots skipping down the stairs with shorter than expected legs carried a stout but jovial woman with flaming red hair.
Relieved by the sight, both women soon let the breath they were holding escape.
“That's better.” Rita reached out to take Dorothy's hand. “We're your wayward children, Rita and Dottie. We're sorry to be so late but it took us longer than we expected to get here.” She smiled sweetly.
“Howdy, folks. I'm glad you made it. My name is Joan,” she offered her hand to Dorothy.
“Well, if you two will put off the meeting of bull dykes for a while, I could get this couple registered and into the rooms before the dance is over.”
“Dance?” Dorothy looked expectantly to her new wife. “You didn't tell me there was a dance tonight.”
Rita smiled. “Just another one of my many surprises for you, my love.”
“Well, we'd better get a move on. Everyone in the town and then some will be going. You don't want to wait too long or they may reach maximum capacity and start turning people away.” Eva hurriedly pushed the registration card in front of her guests to sign. “Don't worry about your bags. Jo will take them up to your rooms.”
Dorothy finished her signature. “Well, my dear, are you ready to trip the light fantastic?”
“Here are your tickets, Ladies.” Eva presented the heart-shaped pieces of paper. “You can't miss it. Just follow the people walking toward the center of town. Here's hoping the night brings you everything you're looking for.”
“And then some,” Rita muttered.
* * *
Betsy and Jo watched the steady stream of people entering the hall from across the room.
“There are a lot of interesting looking people here tonight.” Jo nodded in the direction of a middle-aged couple dressed in red and white as they went twirling past them on the dance floor.
“They're known as Mr. and Mrs. Red and White here at the dance but every other day of the year they’re just the plain old Peabody’s. They’re retired now. They used to own the local diner. They work on coming up with a new outfits each year.” Betsy nudged Jo's shoulder. “What do you think about that couple?”
Jo followed Betsy’s gaze. There, in the middle of the floor, a couple was dressed in elaborate costumes. One dressed in long flowing robes of pink and red while the other was showing off his scrawny looking chicken-legs underneath a pure white tunic and feathered wings with a quiver full of arrows slung over his back.
“Now, that's the best representation of the Goddess of Love and Cupid that I've every seen.”
“Tell me they're not townies,” Jo groaned.
“Now that's a good sign.”
“You've obviously taken our little town of Valentine to heart. You're already looking to protect its fine name and reputation.”
Jo turned a curious look in Betsy's direction.
“Don't worry. You're off to a good start.”
Was she? Jo decided to add that thought to the long list of things she'd been considering since coming to the Valentine area. What could make this place so different from any other that she'd passed through?
Feeling another nudge from Betsy, Jo looked up to see a vision of loveliness dressed in carnation pink entering the hall.
“Is that Kayla?” Jo whispered with what little breath she had left.
“That’s our Kayla.” Betsy said her admiration evident by the tone of her voice. “Wow! I never thought I'd see that outfit again. Just wait until she twirls around. I remember her parents doing that a lot. It will take your breath away when all those little red hearts show from inside the pleats of her skirt.”
“That was her mothers?”
“It sure was! And it suits Kayla well too, don’t you think?”
Words escaped Jo and her mouth went agape. They stood there admiring the sight before them for several more seconds before Jo finally gave voice to her thoughts.
“What did her dad wear?”
“Nothing special, he didn't have to. He had Kayla's mom on his arm. That's all he needed.”
“I never thought Kayla would be caught dead in anything like that.”
Betsy chuckled. “I can see she had you fooled, too. Don't worry, Jo, she's all woman underneath that tough rancher exterior she flaunts around with bravado. Sometimes I think she uses that as an excuse not to wear her heart on her sleeve.” Betsy cast her gaze toward Jo. “She’s like that, Jo. She’d give you the shirt off her back and take in a litter full of puppies to boot without thinking of asking for anything in return. I pity the fool who would break her heart. They'd have the whole town chasing them down, including me.”
Jo’s glance shifted to Betsy. “That sounds like a threat.”
“Let's just say it's a little bit of friendly advice.” Betsy wore a smug look on her face. “Being lovers might not be in the cards for Kayla and me but I’ll be damned if I won’t be her friend to the bitter end.”
Jo nodded slowly, understanding full well the weight of Betsy's words.
“Now tuck that into your pocket and enjoy the rest of your evening.” Betsy started to move away, then stopped and turned back to Jo. “Remember, I'm looking forward to seeing those little hearts peak out. Tonight's the night for it if ever there was one.”
The words had barely sunk in when the sea of dancers parted to allow Kayla through. Jo had hardly enough time to gulp and swallow her own spit before Kayla stood before her.
“That's me.” A warm smile lit up her delicate features.
Kayla's soft smile enticed Jo with its friendly warmth.
“I bet you thought I wasn't coming.”
“No, I knew you would. You promised to pick me up tonight, remember?”
“Yes, I remembered that, too. That's why I'm here.”
Jo leaned back to take a long slow look at Kayla's attire, then blew out a low whistle.
“That's some fancy chauffeur uniform you're wearing.”
Kayla wrinkled up her nose and shook her head. “My mother would roll over in her grave if she heard it called that. This,” she held out her skirt, “was her dancing outfit. I thought I'd wear it tonight in her honor.”
“Then who am I to say anything different. Care to dance?” Jo offered her hand.
“You're sure you want to? They say that dancing in Valentine can be dangerous to your heart.”
The words were said in a teasing manner, but deep inside Jo knew their hidden implication. Fate in the form of a broken down truck had already taken the lead, so why shouldn't she?
“I'm game.” Jo stepped forward and offered her hand as she studied Kayla’s face. “Are you game?”
“Oh, I’m game.” Kayla took Jo’s hand and led her toward the dance floor. “Now show me what you've got.”
* * *
“Thanks, Dottie.” Rita took the cup of punch from Dorothy's hand. “Isn't this fun?”
“Fun, yes. A dance, I'm not so sure of. It looks more like a costume ball. Did you see the Goddess of Love over there with Cupid?”
“How could I miss them? He nearly poked my eye out with that bow of his.” Rita surveyed the room. “Now there's a cute couple. It looks like they had a Fifties theme to their outfits. I think the hearts around the bottom of the skirt give their dancing a little magical flare when she's being whirled around. The way they're dancing, they must have been doing it for years.”
Rita glanced over to the pair. “It looks more like a Fifties take on Disco dancing with all the sparkles.”
“I'm not talking about the sequins, Dottie. Look at the love that seems to emanate…from her especially.”
Dottie looked closer, if only to please her new wife. She watched as the blond twirled around on her partner's arm. They came together, then twirled once again as a couple. There was something familiar about the dark-haired woman that struck Dottie as odd. The couple swung around again and Dottie couldn't believe her eyes.
“Where?” She craned her neck to see.
“There at the Fifties couple. I think that's…”
“Josefa Worthington,” Rita completed her sentence.
“I wasn't going to be that formal, but yes.”
“I was right,” Rita whispered, amazed that the search had been so easy.
“I had an idea she might still be here. I thought it would be a good thing for the both of you. I know how much you were missing your best friend, especially now with us committing to each other.”
“Come on,” Dottie pulled Rita toward the dance floor. “Let's get closer and make sure before I go make a damn fool out of myself.”
The music turned slower, bringing a crush of people to the middle of the floor. Jo and Kayla moved off to a corner of the dance floor but it afforded them little more room to move about. With her head against Jo's shoulder, Kayla moved effortlessly under the woman's lead.
“Have you heard anything from Tommy about your part?
“He was lucky enough to find it out on the West Coast.”
“Then he'll be able to order it for you?”
Jo cleared her throat. “He already did. It should be here next week.”
“Will you be staying out at the ranch until then?” Kayla held her breath.
“I was planning to…if you'll let me.”
“You know the welcome mat is always out at the Masterson Ranch, at least where you're concerned.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that. I figured I could help out around the ranch while I wait. Maybe work off some of this flab I've gathered sitting around reading everyone else's love letters.”
Kayla pulled back and stared into Jo's face.
“What? My mother never said anything about reading their letters. You didn't really, did you?”
“Well, it wasn’t many, only the ones that fell out of their envelopes.” Jo winked.
“So, now I see a side of you that nobody else knows about.”
Kayla snuggled into Jo's shoulder and whispered into her ear. “I think…”
“Yes,” Jo's voice rumbled up from deep within her chest.
“I think you're a closet romantic.”
“I know a lot of people who would have a different opinion. What do you have to say about that?”
“I'd say they don't know you at all.”
“And you do?”
Kayla didn't give voice to her answer. Instead, she closed her eyes and imagined the life she wanted. Together they swayed to the slower tempo of the music and drifted off to another time and world where only soft touches of lips and their memories could take them.
* * *
It took nearly the whole slow song before Dottie had worked her way anywhere near where the woman she suspected to be Jo was, holding a beautiful woman in her arms and swaying to the music.
“What are you going to do, bump into her?”
“I don't know…maybe.”
“Well don't go making a scene. I'll die if you do.”
“Did I ever tell you that you worry too much.”
“Then consider you're told. Hang on, Honey. We're going in.”
Dottie stopped dancing and side-stepped a slow-moving octogenarian couple in front of them. With Rita in tow, she quickly made her way over to the couple in question.
“Follow my lead and do what I do.” Dottie pulled Rita in front of her.
The unexpected surge to her momentum left Rita with only two options: pull up short or slam smack into Jo. She chose the former. With her initial plan thwarted, Dottie quickly slipped into Plan B by tapping lightly on Jo's shoulder.
“You're not,” Rita whispered.
Dottie ignored her wife much like Jo was ignoring her. More determined then ever, she tapped the woman’s shoulder again.
“May I cut in?”
Jo stopped swaying and turned a scornful eye toward one so bold. The sight of familiar features stunned her.
Refusing to accept no for an answer, Dottie redirected her question toward the woman in pink. “May I please have this dance?”
Kayla nodded her ascent more out of politeness than need for a change. She braced herself against the touch of strange arms.
“Thank you,” Dottie said courteously then proceeded to take Jo in her arms and dance away.
“HUH!” Rita was just as perplexed.
Both women left behind were caught completely off guard as they watched their partners move away. The absence of chemistry between the pair was more than obvious as their dance turned into an all out declaration of dominance one second then a comedy routine the next. With only minimal regard for their fellow dancers, the two butches made their way rather haphazardly across the floor.
“Now if that isn't a sight,” Kayla muttered.
“If I didn't know better, I'd wonder if those two even knew how to dance.”
“Jo does. In fact, she dances like a dream.”
“I know. I was watching you moving around the dance floor and cutting up one mean rug.”
“Thank you for the compliment.” She smiled politely.
“So, how long have you two been a couple?” Rita watched as the emotions of humility, pride, and concern washed over Kayla’s face.
“We're not a couple.”
“But you'd like to be.”
Kayla hesitated initially then slowly nodded.
“I'm Rita, by the way.”
“And I'm Kayla. Are you and uh…”
“Dottie,” Rita supplied. “Yes, we're a couple. We tied the knot today.”
“I hope you don't mind me saying this but I would think she'd want to be dancing with you on a special day like this.”
“Me too,” Rita said with a tinge of remorse. “But I'll get over it.”
“Absence does make the heart grow fonder, you know.”
“That depends on how you look at it.” Rita looked at Kayla. “You know what I say?”
“If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Care to dance?” Rita offered her hand.
Kayla hid her skepticism. “Alright, but only if you let me lead. I'm sure that one comedy routine is more than enough for all of us tonight.”
“Oh, don't worry. I'm good at following leads.”
Half way across the dance floor the sham of the odd couple dancing fell apart when Jo accidentally stomped on Dottie's foot.
“Aw!” Dottie hopped on one foot. “Who said you could dance.”
“Probably the same woman who said you could dance.”
The old friends glared at each other then uttered the same name in unison.
“Betty Jean Loganbooth.”
The memory of the sexy siren that had played them both in their younger days brought laughter to their lips.
“God, it's good to see you again, Jo.” Dottie spoke her mind without a second thought. “I've missed you.”
“Me too, Dottie. Whoa! Watch out.” Jo pulled her dance partner out of the way.
“What do you say we get off the floor?” Dottie surveyed the area for a pathway of egress. Finding one, she grabbed Jo's sleeve and led the way.
Torn between Kayla and her old friend, Jo followed one with her body while her eyes never left the other. As soon as they were far enough removed from the dancers, Jo's mind began to question why Dottie was there.
“Is there something wrong, Dottie?”
“Not really, unless you call missing your best friend wrong.”
“Then, why are you here? Better yet, how did you find me?”
“I didn't find you, Rita did.”
Jo looked confused. “You had her track me down?”
“No, Jo. I know when to give you your space.”
“Then, why are you here?”
“I could say I was lonely but that would be a lie. I missed you and our talks. I missed them so much that I started rehashing them over in my head and it brought me to some pretty powerful conclusions.”
“I don’t understand. Conclusions about what?”
“That you were right. I was hiding from love. We both were in our own kind of way.”
“I couldn't see it before but I do now. When you called me on Rita's attraction, I realized that if other people could see it, then it had to be real. I decided to take a chance. Jo, I've committed myself to loving Rita,” Dottie beamed with pride. “That's why we're here.”
“For my approval?”
“No,” Dottie chuckled, “but that would have been nice.”
“Because Rita knew how much I'd want my best friend to be a part of our special day. She noticed that the last few postcards you sent us were all from the general vicinity of Valentine, Nebraska, so she planned our honeymoon here.”
“Wow! You really did commit. I'm happy for you.”
“Thanks, I'm pretty pleased myself.” Dottie scanned the dance floor until she sighted her better half. “Tell me, is that lovely creature your reason for sticking around?”
Jo's gaze followed Dorothy's.
“Pretty name and might I add, an even prettier girl.”
“She's that for sure.”
“I can see why you stayed.”
“Not really. My truck broke down.”
“Then she's not the reason you're still here?”
“Not directly,” Jo skirted the issue.
“Give me more credit than that, Jo. I'm a lawyer. I can see through that shabby statement like a moth-eaten sweater held up to the light. Hell, just watching you two dancing together is enough for me to know there's chemistry between you.”
“Okay, I'll admit I am attracted to her.”
“Uh huh, I knew it.” Dottie gloated.
“But I haven't slept with her, if that's what you're thinking.”
“What are you waiting for?”
“The old me would have. She would have been a notch on my belt before it ever hit the floor.” Jo looked longingly in Kayla's direction. “I don't want to use her that way. Kayla's special. She deserves more than that. She deserves someone better than me.”
“What?” Dottie pulled back in surprise. “Am I hearing you right? Did you just tell me that my best friend isn't good enough to love someone? If you did, I'm not sure I know you anymore.”
Jo threw her hands up in frustration. “I don't know what I'm saying.”
“Then tell me what your heart is saying? It's as simple as that.”
“My heart,” Jo hesitated before redirecting her thoughts. “Everything I see tells me she's a wonderful, caring, hard-working woman. She has to be…running a ranch all by herself. She can be strong and brave one minute, then gentle as anything the next. Kayla's the kind of woman who can have callouses on her hands and still be the prettiest woman when she's all dressed up. She proved that to me tonight. There's love enough in her heart for everyone and everything. Everybody in Valentine loves her for who she is and how she treats them.”
“Except you, is that what you’re thinking?”
“I didn't say that,” Jo said defensively.
“Sorry, I presumed that’s what you meant. So, what's stopping you?”
Jo thought for a moment. “I guess I'm the reason. I don't want to hurt her.”
“And how would you do that?”
“You know my reputation,” Jo spit the words out like venom.
“What we do in our past doesn’t necessarily have to be what we intend to do in our future.” Dorothy started to walk a slow circle around Jo as she kept up with her barrage of reasoning. “Any fool can see that you're not that person anymore. You gave it up. Don't let it drag you back into a place you never want to go again. Don't give up on yourself, Jo. Don't give up on love when you may have finally found it.”
“But what if I do break her heart? Then what do I do, say 'oh well, I tried but I couldn't do it'?” Jo lowered her gaze to the floor as self-doubt settled into her soul. “I don't ever want to see her hurt, Dottie. I couldn't bare it. It would break my heart.”
A flicker of light lit up Dottie’s eyes. “And that, my friend, is exactly why you won't revert to those old ways. I'd bet my practice on it. Hell, I'd bet my wife on it and I'm not ready to give her up anytime soon.”
“You really love her, don't you?”
“Yes, I do.” Dottie smirked, “God, that simple statement is so easy to say now.”
Jo's attention drifted toward Kayla. “Do you think I'll ever be able to say it?”
Dottie studied the hopeful expression on Jo's face before she answered. “I think you're so close to saying it that all you need is to open up your eyes and let the words roll out of your mouth.”
“I hope so,” Jo whispered. “God knows I want to.”
“I read an interesting article about Valentine's Day traditions at the place we're staying. Did you know that it used to be a tradition that all single males and females in Rome would submit to a lottery?”
“They had lotteries back then?”
“Yeah, they would pull names out of a wine cask matching a male to a female and they would move in together for a year. They explored their feeling during that time, then either married or separated come the next Valentine's Day. We could probably attribute the Romans with creating the first dating service.”
“It sounds like they were tempting the Fates.”
“Isn't that what you're doing, tempting the Fates?”
“How so?” Jo crossed her arms over her chest and waited for Dottie’s appraisal.
“Well, the Fates brought you and Kayla together in the form of a broken down truck, didn't they?”
“I'd call that circumstantial evidence at best, counselor.”
“Granted,” Dottie nodded. “But you could at least give it a chance.”
“We're from two different worlds.”
Dottie looked around the room then took in Jo's attire. From her boots to her worn jeans and flannel shirt she blended in with the rest of the town folk. She turned her gaze to Kayla. The woman's interest in Jo was more than obvious by her overtly tracking gaze.
“Right now, I'd say you're more a part of her world than you realize.”
Their eyes met for only a second before Jo turned her gaze toward Kayla.
“Give it some time, Jo and I'm sure you'll come to the same conclusion.”
“But what if…” Jo stopped talking when Dottie laid a hand on her shoulder.
“There are no more what ifs, Jo. Life is what you make of it and without love life is a lonely place no matter how many friends and acquaintances you have. Why don't you think about that for a while before you count yourself out?”
The pensive-look on Jo's face signaled Dottie’s dismissal.
“If you'll excuse me, I've got a wife to get back to.”
* * *
“Whew! That was one hell of a fast dance.” Kayla searched the room for any sign of Jo. “You must dance a lot.”
“You're not a bad dancer yourself.”
“It's in the genes. My parents were very good dancers.”
“Well, genes or not you'd make any partner a stand out.”
“Is that why yours chose Jo instead of me?”
Rita didn't know what to say. She quickly changed the subject.
“I'm thirsty, how about you?”
“Sure, I could use a drink.” She followed Rita to the punch bowl. “Allow me. After all, you are in my neck of the woods so to speak.” She filled glasses for them both and handed one to Rita.
“Bottoms up,” Rita said before downing her drink.
Kayla on the other hand sipped hers, all the while scanning the crowd of dancers for one face in particular. When it didn't come into her view, she felt an almost irreparable ache in her chest. Even though she didn't want to know, she felt compelled to ask the question that was nagging her so.
“Are they,” Kayla cleared her throat. “Are they ex's?”
“Who Jo and Dottie?” Rita burst out laughing. “You've got to be kidding.”
Kayla's glare said it all.
“You're protective of her. Dottie will be pleased about that.” Rita smiled reassuringly. “Trust me when I tell you they're good friends, nothing more.”
“Jo never said anything about a Dottie…”
“She will, just give her a chance. Everyone deserves a chance sometimes.” Rita scanned the crowd. “Speaking of chances, here comes mine now.”
Both women watched as Dottie made her way over to where they were standing.
“Have a nice dance, dear?”
“It was more like a tango through land mines if you must know.” Dottie turned her gaze toward Kayla. “You make dancing with her look effortless.”
“It is,” Kayla said in all honesty. “My name is Kayla, by the way.”
“I'm sure Jo told you that, Dottie,” Rita said.
Dottie’s eyes shifted toward Rita. “Yes, Jo did. I'm Dottie, Kayla.”
“I understand that you and Jo are friends.”
“Yes, we been friends since—”
“Before college,” Jo said, stepping up behind Kayla. “She's the lawyer friend I was telling you about the first night we met.”
Kayla remembered the reference. “She’s your best friend, right?”
“She tries to be even when she whisks me away during a perfectly good slow dance.” Jo winked at Dottie. “Quite frankly, Rita, after dancing with her tonight, I'd suggest that you take the lead from now on. Congratulations, Dottie informed me of your recent nuptials.”
Rita blushed. “Thank you.”
“I always knew she had a better reason for hiring you as her secretary.”
“Speaking of which,” Dottie turned a pair of loving eyes toward her wife. “Isn't it time we get on with our honeymoon.”
“Yes, I'd say it is.” Rita turned to Kayla. “It was nice meeting you. Perhaps we'll get together again sometime.”
“Without any dancing involved,” Jo voiced her opinion.
“Definitely,” Dottie countered.
“Until then,” Rita waved then slipped her arm around Dottie's waist as the two wandered off toward the door.
“They seem like nice people for city folks,” Kayla teased.
“Lousy dancers but hey, not everyone can be a star like you.” Jo looked into Kayla's eyes. “You are a star. You know that, don’t you?”
“It takes two to dance, Jo. You're as much a star as I am.”
“Well, I'm not about to ruin that compliment.” Jo studied Kayla's face. “I bet you've been up since the crack of dawn.”
“Before that actually, I needed to get all the chores done before I could get cleaned up and drive here tonight.”
“Well, I'm ready to leave if you are?”
Slowly they made their way over to the cloakroom to gather their coats and Jo's duffel bag. Kayla waited until they were outside the hall and heading down the town's main street before she started to speak.
“It's a beautiful night.”
Jo looked up to the heavens. “I've never seen so many stars out at one time. It must be the cold air.”
“Actually, it’s the lack of artificial light not the coldness.”
“Either way, I'm glad I took your advice and invested in a flannel shirt.”
“I noticed. It looks good on you.”
“Betsy helped me.”
“She's always been good with colors. The shirt just about matches the blue of your eyes.”
“I hadn't noticed. I'll have to keep this one for dress up then.”
“Then what will you wear around the ranch?”
“Oh, Betsy made sure I got two of them. The other one is more in line with mucking out the stalls.”
“I see.” Kayla's heart started to beat more rapidly. “Is that your plan?”
“Well, that and work on fixing my truck after the part gets in.”
“Oh, of course,” Kayla's hopes diminished slightly.
“You never know what trouble that will lead to. There may be other parts I'll need to replace.”
“That may take some time.”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
They walked a little further down the street as each one pondered their own set of possibilities.
“If you'd let me, I could help.”
Jo stopped short in her tracks and turned to face Kayla.
“Are you in a hurry to rid of me?”
“No. In fact, my intentions were quite the opposite. I was hoping we could use the time to get to know each other better.”
A subtle smile came to Jo's lips as she remembered Dottie's story of how ancient Roman costumes surround the Valentine Day traditions. Could Rita finding her whereabouts have been the sign Jo had asked for? She pondered that thought and came to a conclusion.
“That's always a possibility. God knows, I wouldn't want to tempt the Fates.”
Kayla smiled. “Me either, but what do the Fates have to do with us getting to know each other?”
Jo studied the stars overhead and contemplated how to answer the question. Did it even warrant an answer? The moment she looked over to Kayla, Jo knew the answer.
“You don't think it was funny that my truck broke down where it did?”
“Well,” Kayla scratched her nose as she thought. “If you think of it in that respect, if you would have broken down a half a mile in either direction I don't think you would have been met very kindly.”
“Oh, and a double barrel shotgun aimed at me is your interpretation of kindly?”
“I was talking about after the fact.”
“You mean I wouldn't have gotten soup and sandwiches for dinner?”
“No, you would have gotten a real dinner. Both of those places have wives that do all the cooking,” Kayla admitted rather shyly. “Mrs. Casey makes the best pies in the county, too.”
“I see. So, tell me, what would be so unkind about that?” She watched as Kayla started to blush. She thought back to what could possibly embarrass the woman and honed in on their shared kisses. “Oh, that.”
“Yeah,” Kayla pulled the keys from her coat pocket and released the locks with a press of her fingers. “Well, here we are.”
“I see you brought the dually.”
“I wasn't sure whether I'd be bringing anything back or not.” She tossed the keys to Jo. “How about if you drive us home?”
Jo wrapped her mind around the idea as the words reverberated in her ears. Could it really be as simple as it seemed?
“I…I'm not sure I know the way.”
“Don't worry. The road back to the ranch is a straight shot, just like Cupid’s arrow when it's released from his bow.”
Once said, the sentiment of the phrase took both women by surprise.
“I'm sorry,” Kayla blushed as a giggle bubbled out of her mouth. “We both know there's nothing straight about either one of us.”
“You must have heard your mother use that phrase over and over again for it to come out so naturally.”
“You’re right, she did. Come to think of it, she said it more each year right after working at the post office.”
Jo's eyes twinkled in delight. “Maybe she did read some of those love letters.”
“Or maybe it's just being here in Valentine on a special night like this.”
Kayla stretched out her arms and began to whirl under the ambient glow of the street light. One by one the glittering sequins on Kayla's skirt came to life and caught Jo's attention. Betsy was right. All those tiny red hearts peaking out of the pleats did take your breath away even without the accompaniment of music and dance. Kayla with her hearts all a-flutter was a magical sight to behold.
“Either way, I've got all the time in the world to find out,” Jo whispered in anticipation of what was to come.