“Take a left at the next light. Are you seeing anyone right now?”
“Not exactly.” Why is he asking? Did Shawn put him up to this? Or is he asking for himself? “I’m good friends with a couple of pilots at the base, and you know I dated Shawn Graber last semester, but no one serious.”
“I'm glad. See, I've been confused all winter. Ever since you left, I’ve missed seeing you every day. Now you're back, and I've been promoted to coordinator, and I don't know what to do.”
Gretchen blinked. “Just what are you trying to say?”
“Hell, I guess there's only one way to do it, and that's just to blurt it out. Gretchen, I think I love you. Turn right at the stop sign.”
Gretchen stopped the car. “What did you say?”
“I said turn right.”
“Joseph! I meant before.” She signaled, turning onto the private road.
“Third trailer on the left. I said I think I'm in love with you.”
Gretchen was speechless. So not what I expected; I thought he was just going to ask me out. She pulled up beside the trailer and put the car in park.
“I-I don't know what to say.”
“I know it's impossible, because of company policy.”
“That's right! If we were to get involved, you could lose your job.”
Joe leaned towards her. “Would you like to come in for a while? I'll try to explain it a little better, and maybe we can figure something out. Besides, you haven't told me how you feel.”
Gretchen sighed. “I’ll go in under one condition. No pressure or come-ons?”
Joe held up his hand. “Scout's honor.”
Gretchen followed him inside and took the coke he offered. She settled herself on the couch while he perched on the edge of a chair.
“Every day since you came back to work, I can hardly wait for the shift to start so I can see you.” He laced his hands together on his bent leg. “I nearly went crazy this winter, wondering how you were doing, what you were doing, who you were seeing. I even got jealous, thinking of the guys you might have been dating. Now you're back and more beautiful than ever, plus it's like we've never been apart.”
“I know what you mean. There's no awkwardness, no tension. Just an easy companionship.”
“Exactly. So you feel it too?”
“To be honest, I have been attracted to you since last year, but you were chasing that one girl. What can we do about it now? After all, I've only got one more month before I go back to school.” Do I really want to get involved in a long-distance relationship?
Joe stood up and began to pace the floor. “How about this? We continue to act the same at work. Everyone knows we tease each other, so that's okay. After work, we can go out with the guys, or come here and talk, or whatever you want.”
“Joe, I don't know. Put up a front for five weeks?” Gretchen yawned. “Sorry. I guess we could, but...”
“And when you go back to school, we can openly see each other. I won't be your boss then.” Joe stopped pacing and sat down on the couch beside her. “At least think about it? I know I'm asking a lot.”
“No, you're not.” One kiss will let me know if this is going to work.
“That's just great!” Joe threw his towel down in anger. “You have all day to read, but you pick the one time when I want to talk to you. What's more important, me or your damned book?”
“You, of course.” Damn it, why is he so mad now? How long did it take to get my attention? “I'm sorry I wasn't listening.”
“That's right, you don't think I'm worth paying attention to. What are you reading, anyway?”
“It's Danielle Steele's new one, Kaleidoscope.”
“I should have guessed. I saw those trashy novels in your room at the base. Why do you read them? They're not realistic.”
“So what?” Gretchen fired back. “Fiction is a form of entertainment, not meant for educational purposes.”
“Yeah, but these are all the same. Sex and trash!” Joe grabbed the green paperback and threw it into the kitchen wastebasket. “I don't want you reading that shit in front of me again. All it does is ruin your mind and morality.”
“It does not!” I don’t believe he threw it away! It’s not even mine! Maybe I can reason with him? She burst into tears and grabbed a tissue. “I read romance novels for enjoyment, not as a textbook to define how I live.”
“If you hadn't read them, you wouldn't have been such a slut last year!” Joe shouted.
“Oh, that's wonderful. I don't have to take this. I'm going back to campus!” Gretchen stood up and began looking for her shoes. What’s wrong with him? Where does he get the idea that reading romance equals a skewed morality?
“Don't leave, babe.” Joe softened his voice. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought up the past.”
“Then why did you?” She pulled on her left tennis shoe. “Where's my other shoe? There it is.”
She reached for it. Joe grabbed it and held it. “Just listen to me for a minute.”
“No!” she yelled. “I'm too mad, just let me go back to the dorm before I do something I regret!”
“Just let me explain.”
“Give me my shoe!"
“Okay, last song.” Troy wiped his perspiring face. “Gretchen, it's your turn.” He swung her into his arms as the D.J. dimmed the lights and went into Make It Real.
They swayed together, her arms around his waist, his in the small of her back, her head nestled against his shoulder, his dark head against her blonde tresses. Halfway through the song, Gretchen looked up. “How long are you in town?”
“Until Tuesday.” He tightened his hold. “We dance well together.”
“We do, don't we?”
“Want to take a walk afterwards or a drive?”
She caught onto the words to the chorus and soon his deep bass join her soprano, chuckling when they flubbed the words. After the song had ended and the lights came up, Gretchen informed the others of her plans and waited in line to use the rest room and get a drink of water.
“Ready?” Troy smiled when she joined him outside. “Do you want to walk or ride?”
“Oh, let's walk. It's so beautiful out here.”
Troy broke the silence after the first few yards. “So how was your vacation?”
“It was heaven. Sun, sand, solitude, no hassles, no homework. How was California?”
“Oh, it was all right. I stopped in and saw my old C.O. and some of the guys I hung around with, but it's nice to be home.” Troy draped his right arm across Gretchen's shoulders.
“See any old girlfriends?”
“Actually, no I didn't. What about you? Steal any poor man's heart in Myrtle Beach?”
“I didn't, but Gramma did. An elderly man took her dancing two evenings and ate dinner with us.” Gretchen laughed as she recalled the memory. “He was from Boston, so I don't think we'll be seeing him anytime soon.” Her fingers clasped the hand on her shoulder.
“Gretchen, how are things with you and Joe?”
She took a deep breath. “I broke up with him, and I’ve refused to talk to him. Grandma and I went on vacation and while we were gone, he left some horrible messages on the answering machine. He showed up at the house before we left, but Grandma wouldn’t let him in. I half expected him to show up tonight to confront me.”
“Do you think he will?”
“I'm not sure. I hope he just accepts it and moves on with his life.”
“I hope so too.” They had reached the quiet park. “Remind me to give you my phone number later, so you can get a hold of me.”
Gretchen nodded. “Or I can get it from Amy. Speaking of which, have you seen Matt?”
Troy's fingers tightened as they circled the park and headed back towards campus. “He got arrested last night for a D.U.I. and one of his sisters bailed him out.”
“Does Amy know?”
“Yes. I hate to say this, but I think he's a lost cause. Amy doesn't know this yet, but Jeri Carmichael has decided to migrate to Brookview.”
Dismayed, Gretchen swiveled her head to the left to look at him. “Isn't she the Bitch Amy's always referring to?”
Troy sighed. “Yes. I couldn't stand her when I met her. I still don't know what he sees in her, but once she gets her claws back into him, I'm afraid he's screwed.”
“Geez.” Gretchen shook her head. “You really care for Amy, don't you?”
Troy looked startled. “What do you mean?”
“You're protective of her...and...I'm not supposed to know this, but I know you tried to have a relationship with her once.”
“How...” Troy swallowed. “How did you find out?” His arm dropped from her shoulders as he stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, hands on his hips.
“When Stephanie gets drunk, she not only snores, but she also talks in her sleep.” Gretchen shrugged. “It's okay, Troy. She's my friend too. I think it's great that you look after her. Just remember, she's on the rebound.”
Troy relaxed and continued walking with her. “I'll admit, I did think she and I would have made a great twosome, but there is only friendship between us.”
“Are you sure?” She glanced at him. “I mean, if Jeri's back in Matt's life, then what's to stop you from pursuing Amy?”
“This is the strangest conversation I've ever had.” He shook his head. “If I had thoughts of pursuing her, as you put it, why would I be here with you?”