Ross opened the rusty white truck cap and slid a beaten blue Igloo cooler toward himself after folding down the tailgate of his pickup.
“Did you go camping recently?” Rose asked, seeing a rolled up sleeping bag, a squashed half loaf of Wonder Bread, an open container of Skippy, and an empty box of Pop Tarts littering the bed.
“Nope. Snag that sleeping bag, will you?”
“Then what’s all this?” she asked, motioning to the haphazard mess of tools, trash, and food. Rose tucked the red buffalo check fabric under her arm.
Ross huffed, his laugh catching the breath leaving his lungs. He knew there was no way that she’d understand. Rose was likely all about fancy houses and flashy clothes. Still, he wasn’t ashamed of the truth. There was no sense in pretending for her sake.
“This, my lovely Miss Kingsbrier, is home sweet home,” he remarked, locking up.
“You live in the back of a pickup truck?”
Rose shook her head, noticing a crate of folded t-shirts and Levis through the dirty window. “How do you shower?” She cocked her head, disbelieving.
“It all works out,” Ross responded. He relied on friends, the local YMCA, and visiting his family.
Rose trailed behind as they walked to a shady spot under a large oak tree. Enormous, graceful and knotty roots spiraled out from its base. The earth underneath was a dark brown so rich it bordered on black. In the sunshine, past a white post and beam fence, five horses grazed in the pasture. Their different colored coats shiny from perspiration even while several stood motionless.
The smallest with a light yellow coat wickered. Then with a swift and violent kick her back legs came up. The other four, anticipating the mare’s antics scattered, stopping yards away and resuming their chore of basking in the heat.
“Did you see her?” Rose marveled. “The smallest one and she has the rest of them scared!”
“Bramble. She got her name by getting stuck in some blackberry bushes as a foal. Her coat got so stained she resembled a zebra for a season.” Ross chuckled.
“How do you know?”
“I was working here that year.”
“Is that were you learned to, you know… Do that winding up not-getting-trampled thing?”
“I’ve always liked animals: horses, dogs… little kids. The goats, and the human variety.”
“Not positive where it came from. It’s pretty darn handy, though, when you love riding the way I do.”
Ross put down the cooler, helping Rose spread the bedroll to blanket the grass. He tried not to gape when she sat down cross-legged. She might not be tall, but in her shorts or those bikini bottoms she showed off by the pool, Rose’s legs gave the illusion that they went on for miles. Once he settled a comfortable distance from her, he opened the dinged-up cooler, pulling out two different cans of soda.
“Ladies choice.” Ross held them up by the tops, letting her opt between the red or green brand name labels. She picked lemon-lime with a quiet thank you. He put the cola can down and unrolled a foot-long sub, separating the halves on the waxed paper. “No plates. But I have napkins for later.”
“It’s fine. Beggars can’t be choosers. I appreciate that you’re giving up a portion of your meal for me.” It wasn’t a hardship to share the wrapper as a placemat if either had to put their sandwich down.
“Dig in then.” He lifted the turkey and lettuce toward his mouth.
Rose watched him start to chew before she began eating. Ross closed his eyes, savoring lunch. Parched, she swallowed and took a quick sip of her soda.
“So now that you got me to spill my guts, who are you, Ross Cavanaugh? Obviously, you live locally.” She flippantly tossed her chin toward the vehicle. “It’s not fair that you know more things about me than I do about you—from where my house is to what I look like in a bathing suit.” She winked, gauging his reaction to see if he was watching too while she was poolside.
He ignored it.
“Not much to tell. Enlisted in the Navy at eighteen. Got stationed in the Far East. Part of my paycheck that I didn’t waste drinking Korean beer, I sent back home. I thought I was doing right by my parents, but they saved every penny and put it in the bank. Couldn’t stand being surrounded by all that water, and the fillies that were available weren’t the ones I wanted to ride —Those girls were sure pretty, though.” He joked and she swatted at him. “When my tour was up, I came back to find out there was enough seed money to start a business. So I did. Five, going on six years later, the company’s earned a solid enough reputation to get hired by the likes of Eric Kingsbrier, and on the weekends I ride or visit my Grandy so that she can go on about how proud she is of me. Shouldn’t like that as much as I do, but I reckon’ everyone has someone they rely on to do that.” Ross took a sip of cola and looked over at Rose who was now slack-jawed. “What? Thought I was too altruistic to need someone to fluff my feathers?”
“My God, you’re old!”
“Nah, you’re young,” he mused, slapping his thigh. “Seriously, that’s what you gleaned? That I’m older than you? I figured that’d be straightforward enough for an educated person like you to decipher.”
“You don’t look old.” She searched this face for wrinkles and crow’s feet and his dark temples for faint traces of silver.
He raised a brow. “You don’t look rich.”
Rose took a gander at her attire. She hadn’t bothered to dress today, tossing on the first thing she found in the lump of clothes, which was back to residing on the floor.
“Touché.” She combed her fingers through her long locks, hoping that she didn’t resemble a sheepdog riding down the road with its head out the window and its tongue on display.
“Why weren’t you surprised to see me in the hall the first day?”
“Already had a chance to recover from the shock. I was stupefied seeing a picture of the girl I danced with on Mr. Kingsbrier’s desk.”
Rose cocked her head.
“Sure you didn’t go to college?”
“No. Why?” Somehow Ross had already put away his half a sandwich.
“Don’t take this the wrong way; you have a big vocabulary for a construction worker.”
“A degree isn’t an indication of intelligence,” he said, without animosity for Rose’s words. “Those guys who you think are brutish, banging two-by-fours, have serious math and science skills. They might not be rocket scientists, but they know their jobs. A fraction of an inch can throw every other measurement off. You’d live in something that looks like the Leaning Tower of Piza if we weren’t careful.” Ross angled his palms askew.
“Now me, I’ve always liked to read. Can’t build shelves in the truck, and without an address they didn’t let me renew my library card. So I reread the one book I have whenever the mood strikes.”
“You read books over again?”
“You watch reruns on television?” he asked sardonically. It was the first time he’d talked down to her. “Really, Rose, what is the point in spending all that cash to make sure you possess a novel when all it is going to do is sit on a shelf becoming something that you have no use for anymore. That’s clutter and a bad investment. At least loan the thing out so somebody else can get enjoyment out of it. Anyhow,” he began somewhat lighter, “There is always something you don’t catch the first time you read a story. A reference that went over your head. A joke you forgot was funny, the same way you’ll laugh out loud at the punchline of a sitcom you’ve seen a bunch of times. Best thing about a book is that you don’t have to wait for it either. Pick up those pages and flip to your favorite part.”
“You can record your favorite show and fast forward,” she suggested.
“No VCR or cable hookup in my vehicle.” He popped the last bite of sandwich into his mouth and licked his fingers.
“I don’t understand. If you are so successful then why do you live in your car?”
“It’s a truck,” he reminded her with joking indignation.