“Dang, why’s this place so busy on a Wednesday morning with the sun shining?” Troy wrinkled his brow and pursed his lips, looking at the café where a few old men usually hung out to drink burnt coffee and talk about the weather.
It wasn’t really a café in the literal sense, it was just a sitting area with a couple of tables next to a counter filled with complimentary donuts and bagels. Sometimes he wondered if the guys didn’t come here more for the camaraderie and free pastries than to get supplies.
That day there were at least twice the number of men sitting around, and many of them were much younger than the usual crowd. He shook his head and started toward the counter so he could inquire about getting a new drive chain. A strange conversation caught his attention and he halted in his tracks, listening to a familiar voice in the next aisle.
“Since y’er new in town, y’er gonna need someone to show you around. I could take you for a drive in my new Chevy and give you the grand tour.”
“Thank you, I’m sure I can find my way around just fine.” The curt tone of voice spoke volumes. She wasn’t interested in his advances.
Troy decided to play the gentleman and rescue the damsel, whoever she was. He came around the corner and stepped behind a woman with long strawberry blond hair, barely glanced at her but made firm eye contact with his arch enemy.
“You know Dean, I don’t think the lady is interested in riding around in a Chevy truck.” Troy leaned against the shelving unit, putting a tiny bit of space between the woman and her pursuer.
“What’s it to you, farmer boy?” Dean took a step toward Troy, who straightened his stance protectively. “You think she’s gonna wanna ride around in yer fancy new Ford?”
“Thank you for the compliment Dean, but I think the lady can find her way home in whatever car she drove here this morning.” Craig came up behind his brother and Dean took a step back, narrowing his eyes.
They stood there a moment more, three men staring one another down, and one woman with her arms crossed and her chin raised. Dean was the first to back down.
“Whatever, farmer boy.” Dean tossed the bag of lug nuts back on the shelf and walked away.
“Thank you,” the woman said with annoyance, finally turning to Troy and Craig. The hardness in her eyes startled Troy. He had expected her to be grateful for his defense. Instead, she looked offended. “I’m pretty sure I can take care of myself from now on.”
“Uh… I’m sorry—” Troy read her temporary name tag and realized she was probably a new employee at the store “—Melissa. I was just trying to help. I didn’t mean to make you more upset.”
Melissa shook her head, rolled her eyes and turned around, confidently walking away. He hurried to keep up with her.
“Look, the guy’s a jerk, okay? He needed to be put in his place. He can’t just think he can make advances at any ol’ woman he wants.”
Troy halted to a stop when she suddenly turned to face him, eyes narrowed, a firm stance, arms crossed.
Crud, I’ve offended her again. “Not that you’re old. That’s not what I meant. You’re… I don’t know how old you are… but you’re definitely not old. It’s just that… it’s not about you. It’s about Dean. He’s a jerk.”
“You said that already.” She lifted her eyebrows. “The feelings must be mutual because he sure doesn’t seem to like you either… farmer boy.”
“Eh… I stole his prom date once and he’s never forgiven me.” That brought a little smile. “I’m kidding. We didn’t even go to the same high school. Plus, I’ve never actually dated a girl before. He just doesn’t like me because I called the cops on him for setting a field on fire when he was drunk one night a few summers back.”
By that time, Melissa was openly laughing at him and Troy realized he was rambling. He stopped, took a deep breath, and shoved his hands in his pockets. His finger sliced against glass and he pulled out the broken piece of beer bottle.
Troy held up the piece of glass with his right hand and stuck the side of his bleeding finger in his mouth. He cringed at the taste of blood mixed with manure and spit it back out, wiping his mouth on his sleeve and wrapping his finger in the hem of his shirt.
“I need a new drive chain for my drill.” Troy tried not to gag, wishing he could run over and take a swig out of one of those cups of burnt coffee just to get the flavor of manure out of his mouth.
“It looks more like you need a bandage than a chain,” Melissa said in a fake southern accent.
“Yes, please.” Troy nodded. “That, and I need to wash the manure off my hands, and somehow get the taste out of my mouth.”
“Come on.” She grabbed his shirtsleeve and playfully dragged him over to the counter where she opened the cooler of sodas and grabbed him a Coke. Shoving it into his hand, she led him further back to where a door led to a storage room.
Troy twisted the cap off the Coke and swigged half of it down as he walked straight over to a washbasin. He held his bleeding finger under cold running water.
Without hesitation Melissa scrubbed Troy’s filthy hands against a bar of soap.
Troy held very still. This was different from when his mom used to scrub his hands. Melissa probably didn’t see it that way, but to him it felt almost suggestive. Too soon, she turned off the water and calmly wrapped his hands in a cloth towel. He watched her walk away, but she didn’t go far.
From a cabinet nearby, she pulled out a small first-aid kit and rummaged around until she found a bandage. Almost mechanically, she pulled the towel aside and unwrapped the bandage, carefully pulling the little plastic tabs and sealing away the blood.
Troy almost felt like he was going to fall over, not from the loss of what little blood had flowed from his finger, but from the way it felt to have her caring for him. He wanted to sigh with contentment, but instead cleared his throat and took a step back.
“There, you’re all better.” She smiled up at him, clearly not as affected by the situation as he was. “Now, let’s go find you that… chain.”
Her eyes finally met his and she didn’t look away. In the low light of the utility room, her eyes shone like emeralds. The fluorescent lights cast shadows across her strawberry blonde hair, turning it a classic shade of mahogany. Troy had the uncanny desire to reach out and grasp one of the long curls between his fingers to see if it felt as soft as it looked. Thankfully, the throbbing in his hand, and his strict upbringing reminded him to show a little more restraint. He shook his head and looked away, breaking the spell.
“Yes,” he whispered. “A chain. I came in here for a drive chain.” His breathing was heavy and fast, and he could tell hers was as well. She took one last deep breath, then walked from the storeroom. He watched her walk away, then quickly followed.
“What are you doing, Troy?” Craig asked, still standing near the door of the storeroom, arms crossed and furrowed brow.
“Buyin’ a chain…” Troy barely acknowledged his brother as he walked past and followed Melissa.
Book Club Discussion Question: Is it okay for a strong, independent woman to allow a man the chance to be chivalrous?