A full-grown collie bounded toward Justin, slowed, then sat watching him. Even in the semi-dark with only the lights from inside the RV, he noted the dog’s long-tri-colored coat was clean and well-maintained. The animal was mostly a tan color, with dark ears and tail, and a fluffy white collar and chest.
“Well, you’re a handsome fella.”
The dog quirked its ears.
Justin extended a hand, palm down. “Come on over. Let’s get acquainted.”
The collie got right up and padded over to sniff the back of his hand, his jeans, his boots. Justin turned over his hand and scratched behind the animal’s ears. “There are only three or four places close by, and it looks as though you didn’t come far.”
He thought over the neighbors he remembered…and of course the Marshall place was closest. “If you belong to her, we’re both in the dog house.”
He should probably see if he could reach a neighbor by phone and inquire about an owner. He shouldn’t let the collie leave on its own. Coyotes and wolves were often spotted in the area. He worked through the thick fur to turn the collar and find tags. “Cody. That’s you?”
The dog looked at him, tongue lolling.
“Well, Cody, what shall we do with you?”
The animal thumped its tail on the ground, and its ears pricked upward.
Headlights appeared at the end of the drive, and the twin beams turned toward the house, bouncing up and down on the rutted gravel. As the vehicle approached, he made out the familiar two-tone green ’87 Ford pickup Stevie Marshall’s grandfather had driven years ago. The paint was dulled, but the body was still in great shape, and he didn’t spot any rust. It was time for a pain pill, and his spine was screaming, but he deliberately rose from the chair and forced himself to stand straight.
Cody stood beside him, tail wagging, as the truck engine shut off and the driver door opened. She took a step down to the ground and took in the scene. Cody ran toward her, ears lowered. “You know you’re in trouble. That was bad, Cody.”
He walked toward her. “He’s yours, huh? Beautiful dog.”
“Yeah.” He glanced at his sleek Mirage XL. “Spend a lot of time in ‘er.”
She pointed to her open driver door. “Cody, get in the truck.”
The dog leaped up to the seat and she closed the door with a loud metallic creak. Cody stuck his head out the open window, obviously attentive to their interaction. “Cody’s usually better behaved.”
She wore a flowery dress, denim jacket, and a pair of slip-on canvas shoes.
He straightened and held his shoulders erect. He had a cane inside, but he wouldn’t be caught dead with it. “I stopped by your market this morning. That old truck out front with flowers and bushes planted all around it—some in the bed, some inside—never seen anything like it. And the waterfall pouring from the driver’s window is pretty darned creative.”
“That truck was in one of the barns. Got the idea for an attention-getter and hauled it out with a tractor.”
“It’s an attention-getter for sure. I’ll bet people stop to take pictures. Heck, I took a picture.”
“Why did you stop by the market?” Her surprise was evident in her voice.
“To shop. Great place you have there.”
She glanced toward the screened door of the mobile home and the light in the windows.
He poked a thumb into his rear pocket and glanced at his home on wheels. “Staying here a while.”
“For the fair?”
“No. The committee asked me to make a few appearances, but I was going to be here anyway.”
She didn’t ask for an explanation.
“Doing physical therapy,” he explained anyway.
She nodded. “An injury?”
“Yeah, I had surgery. Won’t be down long, and I’ll be back on the circuit. Maybe we can grab dinner while I’m here. Catch up.”
“Maybe.” She took a step toward her truck.
“Or I can pick up steaks for us both.”
She studied him.
Why was he trying so hard? No doubt she wondered what he hoped to gain by trying to repair their friendship.
“Why?” she asked finally.
“Because we’re friends.”
“We’re not friends, Justin.”
“Well, we could be.”
“It wouldn’t go anywhere.” She climbed into her truck and shut the door. “Cody, stay on your side.” The dog obeyed and sat on the seat, facing forward.
Justin walked right up to the driver door and placed his hands on the open window frame. His nearness obviously made her uneasy, but she looked at him. “You’re happy, aren’t you, Stevie? Doing what you want to do?”
Her expression said she hadn’t expected his question. He hadn’t planned to ask it. But something inside him wanted to know. She looked away and reached for the keys she’d left in the ignition. “Yes. I’m happy.”
He didn’t move away, so she finally looked back at him. Her dash lights were dim, but enough to highlight the curve of her cheek and the shape of her lips and chin. Seeing her made him feel things he hadn’t felt for a long time. Things he shouldn’t want to feel, but he did.
“Why did you ask?”
“I hope you are, that’s all.” He leaned away, tapped the truck door, and backed up.
She started the engine, put the truck in reverse and backed up in a circle, so she could put the transmission in drive and go forward away from the house, along the dark drive. He watched until her headlights were on the road and released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.
They’d both followed their ambitions. He wasn’t sorry about that. He wouldn’t have changed her for the world, and she wouldn’t have wanted him to give up his dreams. It had always been a cryin’ shame their dreams weren’t compatible. It would never have worked out for them to be together. But knowing that didn’t make seeing her now any easier. He loved her as much as he ever had.
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