“Wish I’d cut my finger.” A guy named Steve walked over from the cafe and leaned his arm against Troy’s shoulder. Troy was still in a near trance when he wandered over to the other guys, carrying his newly purchased roller chain. Steve was a year younger than Troy but had played basketball at the local high school and had quite a height advantage. Troy barely noticed the weight on his shoulder. All the guys watched him with jealousy in their eyes, but Steve was the only one who spoke up. “I see you’ve met our new store manager.”
“Store manager?” Troy spun around and found Melissa’s eyes again from across the room. One corner of her mouth turned up slightly as if she was encouraging him to come back anytime he needed another chain… or any other supplies for that matter.
“Lucky son-of-a-gun.” Steve sighed.
With that, Craig grabbed Troy’s arm and pulled him out the door, new drive chain and all.
“You’re playing with fire, little brother.” Craig grabbed the keys out of his hand and led Troy over to the passenger side of his own truck. Troy didn’t even hesitate. He wasn’t sure he could find his way home. He was afraid if he had control of the wheel, he might turn his truck back around. “She won’t fit into your world. She’s a rich college grad and you’re a poor farm boy.”
“Excuse me,” Troy corrected him. “I think the fully-loaded fifty-thousand-dollar truck you’re driving and hundred and sixty acres of land we’re about to plant speaks differently. I am not a poor farm boy, and I don’t care how much education or money she has or doesn’t have, she’s just plain Melissa to me.”
“But she’s not plain, Troy.” Craig took his eyes off the road long enough to look over at his brother. His eyes held a firmness that bordered on disciplinary. Troy pulled his gaze away and stared out the window, allowing the rows of freshly planted fields to distract him from his brother’s accusing glare. “Didn’t you get a good look at her? She’s not plain at all.”
“What if I don’t care that she’s not plain? Huh? Did you think of that? What if I don’t care what she looks like?” Troy lowered his voice to a near whisper. “You probably didn’t notice how good she smelled.”
“No, I’m sure I didn’t.” Craig reached over and pulled Troy’s left hand from where it was resting on his leg. “I didn’t have her groping me like you did.”
“Groping me? She was washing my hands!” Troy yanked his arm away.
“I think… just maybe… at twenty-three-years-old… you know how to wash your own hands.” Craig turned forward again, driving more carefully back to the field to repair the no-till drill, and Troy turned defiantly to stare back out the passenger-side window.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The store closed at nine o’clock and Melissa fumbled with the keys, listening as her employee, Kathy chatted on about the guy she was going to meet at the bar that night. As they walked away from the building, they both halted when they noticed a man leaning against a dark blue truck parked next to their cars. His arms were crossed, a soft smile played across his face and Melissa’s stomach dropped.
“Why, Troy Weller.” Kathy’s tone of voice was flirtatious. “What on earth are you doing back here again?” She put her hands on her hips and flipped her hair, then hesitated when it was clear Troy had never even glanced at her. His eyes were firmly locked with Melissa’s.
“Good evening, Kathy.” Troy had still not taken his eyes off Melissa.
“Well, gosh…” Kathy stammered. “Look at the time. I’m going to be late for my date. I’ll leave the two of you to… uh… get acquainted. See you tomorrow, boss.”
“Please don’t call me that.” Melissa didn’t look away from Troy, but her instruction was not hesitant. She intended to start things off right with her employees, and chumming around wasn’t in her plans.
“Sorry,” Kathy said. She dug through her purse for her car keys, then climbed in and drove away without another word. Melissa hesitantly stepped the last ten feet forward.
“What are you doing here… Troy?”
“What? No more Farmer Boy?” His voice was husky and soft. “I had to see you again.”
“Because I didn’t get a good enough look at you earlier today.”
Melissa crossed her arms and huffed, highly doubting he hadn’t looked at her. He had stared into her eyes in a way that had allowed her to see almost clear to his soul.
“My brother told me I was blinded by the way you made me feel.” Troy looked down at the pavement and shuffled his foot. He glanced back up at her, his light brown eyes darkened by the casting shadows of twilight. “But I told him I was blinded by the way you smelled.”
“So now I’m old and I smell bad?” Melissa teased.
“Oh, my heavens, definitely not!” Troy chuckled. He let out long breath and shook his head. “And here I stood there smelling like manure.”
“You didn’t smell like manure to me,” Melissa whispered. “You smelled like soil. There’s a difference. And maybe a little like sweat.”
“It was rather hot earlier today.”
“It kinda still is…”
“But I showered off all the sweat and soil… hey did you say I smelled like soil?”
“Most people would call it dirt.”
“My daddy would’ve hog-tied me and thrown me in the swine barn if I’d called it dirt.”
“A woman after my own heart.” Troy spoke reverently. “I think I’d like to meet your dad someday.”
Melissa gulped and took a step back.
“Hey, I didn’t mean it that way.” Troy held out his hands, halting the line of thought. “Sorry we got off on the wrong foot.”
“More like the wrong hand,” Melissa said. She reached down and picked up his bandaged hand, holding it up in the waning light. She noticed he had replaced the bandage she had applied with a new one, probably after his evening shower. She couldn’t help recognize that he no longer smelled like sweat or soil. More like a natural musky scent mixed with a tasteful dash of cologne. She took a deep breath before asking if his hand was feeling better.
“It’s feeling much better.” He turned his wrist so she wasn’t holding his hand, rather he was holding hers.
Having Troy hold her hand evoked very different feelings than when Andy had. Andy’s caresses had been superficial, almost forced. Like he didn’t want to touch her any more than she wanted to touch him. This was new and different, and a little frightening.
From Troy, she felt a hunger. She saw it in his eyes as well. She sensed he felt that same hunger from her. She knew she needed to get away from him immediately, before she did something crazy like reach up on her toes toward those full, softly-parted lips and brush hers against them.
Melissa pulled away suddenly realizing she had almost done just that. She had almost kissed him. She released his hand and stepped quickly away, fumbling with her keys, rushing around the car, and hopping in. She tore out of the parking lot and pushed the accelerator to the floor of her little sedan. I almost kissed him.
Book Club Discussion Questions: I originally named this chapter Playing with Fire and Soil. Fitting, don't you think?