"Where you goin' this time?" the boy asked.
There was a semi parked out at the far pump. Kalyna could see it through the window. This "Jerry" had to own it. He was the only other person getting gas in this Podunk place located somewhere in southern Utah.
Reno wasn't exactly California, but it was only two hours from Sacramento, and it had a bus station.
Kalyna dropped the NoDoz she'd picked up back on the shelf and went to the front counter, where she set a package of ribbed condoms next to Jerry's cigarettes.
When the cowboy saw it, he glanced at her in surprise and she offered him a seductive smile. "Nice day we're havin', isn't it?"
Obviously more experienced than the boy, he tipped his hat back and gave her a leisurely once-over. "Yes, ma'am, that it is."
"But it is a little... hot, wouldn't you say?"
"Don't you have any AC in that vehicle?" His eyes twinkled with lascivious interest as he nodded toward her Ford Fiesta.
"I'm having a bit of engine trouble. But even when the damn thing runs, the air conditioner isn't very powerful. I'm looking to put the fire out, if you know what I mean."
"Too bad about your car," he said. "If you have somewhere to leave it, my truck's working fine. It has an air conditioner that's mighty powerful indeed."
"That's what I was hoping." She winked, and he put a package of breath mints on the counter, too.
Something was going on and the boy knew it, but he couldn't figure out exactly what. His eyes bounced between them. Then he cleared his throat to get Jerry's attention. "Just the cigarettes and breath mints for you?"
Jerry stood taller. "Hell, no, son. Jerry's always a gentleman."
When the kid's eyebrows went up, Kalyna knew he had to be wondering why being a gentleman included purchasing products for a complete stranger. But he was smart enough not to ask. At Jerry's request, he added a couple of cold drinks to the tab and a can of whipping cream.
Then Jerry paid, and Kalyna walked out with her new ride.
When she got her suitcase out of the trunk, the boy stood in the doorway and called after her. "Hey, you can't leave your car here."
She tossed him a smile as Jerry took her case. "Don't worry.
Someone wil be along to pick it up."
Ava forced a smile for Pete Carrera, her stepfather. Fortunately, he didn't come by often. Although he was much nicer now than when she was a teenager in his home, it was only because he couldn't get away with the old behavior anymore.
"Good morning." Stepping back to admit him, she gritted her teeth, trying to hide her irritation at his unannounced and il -timed visit.
An abundance of hair gel fixed the long strands of his salt-and-pepper hair so firmly in place a hurricane couldn't muss it, and he smelled like he'd bathed in cheap cologne. Ava could barely refrain from wrinkling her nose as he came inside and eyed Luke, who moved forward to greet him. "Hello, sir."
Pete wasn't much taller than Ava. He had to tip his head back to take in all of Luke's six-foot-three frame. "Very polite," he said as he accepted Luke's hand. "I like that. Nice to finally meet you, Geoffrey."
Luke slanted a quizzical glance at Ava. "It's Luke."
Her stepfather scratched under his chin. "Your name's not Geoffrey?"
"It's Geoffrey Luke, " Ava clarified. No way did she want to explain what she was doing at six in the morning, only half-dressed, with a client in her house.
Luke cleared his throat to let her know he didn't approve, but she ignored him. This was the only time he was going to come into contact with her family, so it didn't matter. One white lie would save her untold grief.
"Well, whatever your name is, you're a pleasant surprise. With all of Ava's talk about getting you on Weight Watchers and out in the sun a bit--"
"Pete! I've never said that!" Ava protested.
"You said he works a lot, needs to relax more. Anyway, I expected a soft, pasty-faced office type." He whistled as he shook his blockish head.
"But you are in shape. How often do you work out?"
"Almost every day," Luke said, but Ava quickly steered the conversation away from him.
"To what do I owe the--er, pleasure of this visit?" she asked Pete.
"Do I need a reason to come by and see my only stepdaughter?"
"I'm not your stepdaughter anymore."
"Come on, Ava. You know I wouldn't have filed for divorce if your mother hadn't tried to kil me."
"Metaphorically speaking," she muttered for Luke's benefit but couldn't resist addressing Pete's personal responsibility in the whole affair.
"And you two would have gotten along fine if you hadn't been insufferable in the first place."
"Hey, I'm easy to live with," he said. "Just give me a cold beer, and I'm happy. She was the one trying to collect on my life insurance. Have you heard from her lately?"
"Of course not." Ava had refused every letter until they stopped coming.
"Well, she wrote me. Can you believe that? She wants me to forgive her. How do you forgive someone who tried to poison you?"
He kept talking simply because he knew she didn't want him to. That, and he liked telling anyone and everyone what'd happened because it instantly made him the center of attention. Your wife tried to kil you?
Fortunately, Luke said nothing.
"They're moving her to a different prison," he added, "in case you haven't heard."
Ava didn't want to hear. She preferred to forget that her mother existed, preferred to pretend she didn't feel an acute pain in her chest every time she thought of Zelinda behind bars. "I never want to talk about it, never want to hear her name. And Luke--um, Geoffrey--doesn't want to talk about it, either, so quit grandstanding."
Her stepfather rubbed stubby, grease-stained fingers over his wife-beater T-shirt. "Boy, someone got up on the wrong side of bed this morning."
Ava wrestled with her temper and lost. "Did you come for a reason, Pete, or--"
"Hell, yeah, I came for a reason. You think I'd drag my ass out of bed just to catch you two screwing around?" His laugh sounded more like a hoot as he slapped Luke on the back. "Your dad said I could use the boat today. Didn't he tell you?"
Ava's heart dropped to her knees. "You don't mean my house."
"It's a house boat, right?"
"But...you've never borrowed it before." He couldn't be serious. She needed her house right now. It was her haven, her place to recover after trying to drink away her fascination with Luke. "What do you want it for?"