Keeper Ch. 03byArdella©
John twirled the tall brown glass bottle between his fingertips, the beer inside, only half gone, helping to provide a balance to the bottle so that it didn't tip over. Slouched back in the chair, long legs stretched out underneath the table, he looked completely relaxed to anyone that looked at him- unless they happened to notice the tick in his jaw, caused by clenched teeth.
Shouldn't have kissed her. What in the holy hell was I thinking?
He stared at his beer, but in his mind's eye he could see Blue and Lee as they were, right this moment, out on the dance floor. The raucous, honky-tonk music had smoothed into a love song, bodies crushed together, swaying and grinding unashamedly.
His own temporary dance partner, Vanessa, had already left. She'd sashayed out the door with another guy, someone who had looked to be a more promising prospect to spend the rest of the night with. That was all right. Didn't hurt John's feelings in the least.
You don't go laying lips on another man's property.
Not that John thought of Blue as property. And Lee better not think that way either. That was no way to treat a lady, and Lee had better treat Blue Waters the way she deserved. The way that he would treat her if...
He couldn't help himself. Without turning his head he shifted his eyes to the left, over to the swaying crowd. He found the pair immediately.
If Blue was his, he'd dance a hell of a lot closer with her than that. Show her that she was the only one in the room as far as he was concerned. Make sure that she knew who she was with; someone that wanted her and only her. He would hold her and sway with her like he was a man who had his mind on a long night of loving ahead... with her. Not dance together like brother and sister- which was the way Blue and Lee were dancing.
But hell, it was none of his concern. And secretly he knew that if he had to sit here and watch them, he totally preferred the arm's length position they had adopted.
The bar crowd was showing signs of thinning out, Vanessa had split to find whatever New Year's bliss she was searching for, and John decided it was time for him to take off also. Nothing to hang around here any longer for. When this song ended he would say his goodbye.
Setting his unfinished beer in the center of the table, he fished out his wallet to take care of the tab- his parting gift to the lucky couple- and glanced up out of an instinctual urge. Blue was approaching the table, Lee following close behind while concentrating on the cell phone in his hand.
By the time they reached John, Lee had put the phone away and was looking apologetic.
"Duty calls." Lee held his arms out wide in a good natured 'what'ya gonna do?' shrug. "There's a fire out on the west side of Chaplin. Practically shouting arson. That's my cue, I'm out of here." He turned to Blue ruefully. "Sorry, Blue. You know how it is."
"Of course. A Fire Investigator's work is never done." Blue quipped and smiled graciously.
"John." Lee stuck his hand out and John gripped it in a friendly shake. "Nice to have met you."
"Likewise. Good talking to you." The conversation with Blue's guy had been interesting, he had to admit. Whatever jealousies he was feeling towards him, John had to acknowledge that Lee was all right.
The two men shook hands, but when John began to loosen his grip, Lee kept hold while glancing over his shoulder to where Blue stood watching.
"Hey..." Lee began hesitantly. He released John's hand and leaned forward slightly. "Do me a favor?"
John raised a noncommittal brow and waited.
"It's snowing pretty heavy out there right now. Blue drove that old clunker of Jean's. You two are going the same direction anyway, so would you mind following her home to make sure she gets there okay?"
Follow Blue home? That had been on his mind anyway, unless Blue and Lee happened to go home together, in which case... hell, he hadn't wanted to think about that, but that was what he figured would happen. In fact, when Lee had said he was being called away for a fire, John had felt some of the unpleasant weight lifting off his chest with the thought that Blue and Lee would not be going home together. Not tonight.
But that wouldn't mean he would be the lucky one to go home with her. Nope. He was just the friendly neighbor guy, chivalrously making sure Blue made it back to her castle safely before heading on down the road to his own home. His own empty, cold, lonely home.
"You want her? Go for it! You know you can be more of a man to her than Fire Marshall No-Balls here, who dances with her like he's her freaking brother, for fuck sake!"
John clenched his jaw with the effort it took to keep from telling his inner voice to shut up. Instead, he nodded, pasted an understanding expression on his face, and told Lee that he sure would keep Blue safe and under his watch until they reached home. Lee could rest easy.
"You don't have to trail me home." Blue stood, feeling awkward after Lee had left. She had overheard Lee's request and John's reassurance. Nicely agreed upon, except they hadn't included her in the conversation. They had just decided for her that she needed to be... what? Watched like she was some fluffy-headed ditz who didn't know how to drive in the snow? She should feel insulted, she thought. And she did. Sort of.
The thing about it was, she was irked that Lee had thought to bring it up, but another part of her was fighting off something warm and fuzzy that John had accepted the request. How messed up was that?
John was just sort of staring at her, she noticed. And he didn't look particularly happy. As a matter of fact, he looked downright grim. Was he annoyed and regretting his agreement to follow her home? Had he been planning instead to stick with Vanessa tonight?
Blue didn't see the woman around anywhere and thought she had left already, but maybe John had been planning to meet her somewhere. The thought didn't set well with Blue and she pushed it away- along with the 'mean-girl' satisfaction that maybe she had ruined their plans. Shame on her.
John stared, not moving. Tiny creased formed between his brows when he spoke. "It's no problem. Do you think you're ready to go now, or...?" He left the question hanging.
Well, damn. What was the point of staying any longer when her only companion left was a suddenly sullen man who had practically ignored her after that kiss in the alcove? He'd seemed friendly enough but most of his conversation had been with Lee or Vanessa. He sure hadn't asked her to dance at all, prompting hesitance on her part to ask him to dance, even though she was wishing to do so more than she wanted to admit. Whatever feeling of mutual attraction she had been beginning to feel had rapidly waned. Her part was fine, it was his part that had sadly seemed to disappear. Perhaps it was for the best. Did she really need more going on in her life right now? Blue thought of the phone call from Jackson earlier, and the answer was a decidedly firm NO.
"I'm ready to go if you are." Blue answered as neutrally as possible.
John nodded, just a slight movement of his head, and moved ahead of her towards the exit. Skirting around between the dance floor and the tables was a little tricky, with the crowd that was still milling about the area, but John's stature and the way he moved so confidently cut a swath right through the mob. Blue had to smile at that, in spite of herself, as she trailed along in his wake. He could be handy to have in a crowd, for sure, if she stuck close.
Not following quick enough, Blue found herself jostled by a big, burly body, and reached out instinctively to the broad back in front of her. John turned at her touch, reaching out to lay a hand on her upper arm, a question in his eyes, when the burly guy tipped drunkenly into her again, propelling her forward. Straight into John.
His arms came around her to steady her and he looked over her head to glare at whoever it was that had caused her to fly into him, but either the drunk guy was gone or John became just as aware of their closeness as she had. Sucking in a deeply needed breath that had nothing to do with the crash but everything to do with the result, she found herself lost in a gaze of darkening, rich topaz.
Knocked off kilter in more ways than one, Blue took a step back. The large, warm hands closing over her upper arms stopped her, long fingers curving around her triceps. For a moment she could feel the movement of his fingertips smoothing against the soft skin of her inner arms, just below the hemline of her t-shirt sleeves.
She shivered. He released her.
Then it was his turn to get bumped by a wobbly passerby, and whatever 'moment' Blue thought they were having disappeared. The music had picked up once again, and Cuddy's patrons were taking full advantage of it before closing time.
"Looks like a good time to get out of here. I've never seen it so busy." John remarked, glancing around before taking her hand and hooking it into the crook of his arm. "Hang on!" He grinned devilishly and led her through the crowd. Blue found herself laughing as they wound through the dancers, John cutting his way through like the prow of a boat through water.
Donning their coats unfortunately meant letting go of his arm, but then his hand settled against her back as she was hustled out the door. It was a small touch, barely felt through her coat, but something she was grateful for when they saw the drunken riff-raff that had spilled out of Cuddy's and were gathered in a small group. One laughed raucously, some stared quietly through slitted eyes and puffs of cigarette smoke, a couple of them too far away from any light source to make out their faces. They most likely looked more dangerous than they were in reality, but Blue didn't argue when John put his arm around her shoulders and tucked her against his side, away from the shifty men.
It was snowing heavily, creating an eerie quality to the inadequate lighting of Cuddy's Shed's parking lot. The bar had been built onto what was once an actual old shed, and surrounding the graveled section for parking were skeletons of old farm machinery, scattered about randomly. Normally, in the daytime, the run-down look added to the Shed's ambiance. In the dark of night it just seemed spooky.
Their footsteps crunching loudly against the snow covered gravel, Blue pointed to one side of the lot. "There's my car." She shivered and pressed against John's side. "Brrr, it's gotten cold."
He didn't say anything, though she felt his arm tighten fractionally, snugging her to him even more. Pulling the key from her pocket as they neared the battered little car that Jean had driven forever, she turned to John with a 'thank you' on her lips. His face was in shadow, but she knew he was scowling again as he looked down at her.
He gestured to the nearby road. "Looks like the plow has been by. It shouldn't be too bad if we don't wait and go now. I'm right over there." He nodded to his pick-up parked nearby. "I'll follow you."
"Okay." She couldn't think of anything else to say, so she opened her door and slid behind the wheel. Watching John retreating into the darkness and swirling snow to his own vehicle, Blue sighed and inserted the key into the ignition. Boy howdy, it was cold! The sooner she got going the sooner the heater would crank up, though she doubted it would get her warm enough before reaching home. Anticipating a nice hot bath before crawling under the covers, she turned the key and... nothing.
Nothing happened at all, not even the sound of the engine trying to turn over. Frowning, she pulled the key out and reinserted it to try again. Again, nothing happened. Total, eerie silence. Not knowing what else to do but give the key another try, she wiggled it and turned it again, getting exactly what she expected. Nothing.
"Well that's just fine and dandy." she grumbled, leaning her head back against the headrest and closing her eyes. About to open her door, she gave a start as the cell phone in her pocket buzzed, letting her know that a call was coming in. Jackson. It had to be. No one else would be calling this time of night. Slipping her phone out and flipping it open, not to answer but just for the satisfaction of seeing that she was right, Blue sucked in a stingingly cold gasp of air as she noted the number. Not Jackson. The number that had left the texts. The one that had stayed silent when she'd answered.
Blue stared at the lit screen as she let it ring. Stared at it even when the ringing stopped and the screen went dark. Without the soft purr of the engine she had tried to start or the ringing of the phone, the snow-muffled quiet of the night closed in on her. Dropping the phone in her lap, her gaze darted up and out the passenger side window. Shadows shifted through the falling snow. Had one of those men they had passed by at the entrance moved closer? It was hard to tell, but it seemed as if...
The knock on her window nearly made her scream. Hand pressed to her pounding heart, she watched as the black shadow outside her door leaned down and tapped at the glass again.
Blue flicked the lock up with fumbling fingers, allowing John to open the door.
"What's wrong?" he asked immediately.
"It won't start." She decided to keep her answer at that. No need to let him know she had been over-reacting about a stupid phone prank and poorly lit parking lot. It was already feeling silly to her now that she wasn't alone.
"Try it again." he was telling her, straightening to full height and leaning toward the front of the car to listen to the engine.
She turned the key once more, getting the same result. Nothing to listen to. "Want me to pop the hood?"
John considered for a moment, glancing around the lot and up into the sky. "No." he answered at last. "Get your purse and lock it up. You can ride with me."
"It's too damn cold out here, Blue." He took a step back, shoving his hands into his coat pockets and hunching his shoulders against a sudden gust of frigid air. "I'll give you a lift back here tomorrow and we'll take a look at it then, all right?"
She looked around. The area suddenly didn't seem as spooky as it had a moment ago, but she didn't have the option of AAA, and John did look too cold to be messing around with the engine.
"All right." She gathered her purse, pausing for a moment to drop her phone inside. There were no indicator lights flashing, so whoever had called again at least hadn't left another text or message. Probably just someone that was dialing a wrong number. Hopefully they would figure that out soon and leave her alone.
So was that note-card a mistake too?
Blue shook the sarcastic voice aside, shut and locked her door, and followed John to his black pick-up.
The roomy cab of the truck was already beginning to warm up when she climbed in, the heater working much faster than Jean's old car would have even if it had been working. John slid into the driver's seat and turned the heat to full blast, assuring a cozy ride home. Snapping her seat belt, she looked across the bench seat as he did the same with his. She liked this truck. It was clean, large but cozy, and it smelled like a warm combination of leather and a touch of light musk. 'Manly', Blue thought, trying to hide a smile. There was something else too. A faint hint of vanilla?
As John turned out of the parking lot onto the road, and as they at first made small-talk that faded into a comfortable silence, Blue kept her gaze out the window, trying, trying not to stare at the man driving. Trying not to watch as his hands curved around the steering wheel, guiding the pick-up over the snow covered road with deft sureness. Trying not to notice how the muscles of his thigh bunched and relaxed beneath the snug denim of his jeans as he worked the gas and brake. Trying... and failing miserably... not to wonder if, if she slid across the seat and pressed her face into his neck, just beneath his jaw... if his skin would smell like that delicious combination of leather, musk, and vanilla.
Telling herself to stop it, but sneaking a look at John in spite of herself, she noticed a tension in him. The cab was warm enough now, and the soft, low music from a country station was playing on the radio, the lights from the dashboard casting a faint glow into the darkness. It had all combined to make a calm, serene setting for her, so much that she even was feeling a bit sleepy and had let her mind wander. What she hadn't noticed was that after they had turned off the road that Cuddy's Shed was located on, the freshly plowed asphalt had ended and they were now traveling along a more heavily snow covered roadway. Though he still had control, John had slowed considerably.
Blue sat up straighter, keeping a better watch out the windshield at the road ahead. Snow swirled through the air, the speed of the vehicle, slower than normal as it was, making it seem as if the flakes were shooting towards them in the light of the headlights. It looked otherworldly, as if they were traveling through deep dark space that was full of millions of stars. She didn't offer any conversation, thinking he may need all his concentration on the road, but she was perfectly comfortable with the silence anyhow. But he was frowning slightly, and she saw his head move in a negative shake so small she almost missed it...
"I can't stop thinking about you."
Blue's head swiveled. He was still focused ahead, but were his hands clenched a little bit tighter around the steering wheel? She was sure she heard him right. What the hell was she supposed to reply with? She swallowed and said the first thing that came to mind.
"Oh?" Gah! For Pete's sake!
The truck swerved as the wheels hit a patch of hidden ice, and John mumbled a curse under his breath. Straightening and slowing another notch, he spared a quick glance her way. "Good thing your car didn't start. I don't think that little hatchback would have made it in this. I told Jean she needed something better, but you know how stubborn she was. Can't tell you how many times I had to come rescue her when the engine stalled out. I'm not too surprised it wouldn't start tonight. We'll take a look at it tomorrow, get it running for you. Probably a dead battery. It's happened before."
He let out a breath and shot a look at her again, quick but full of an intensity that made her heartbeat skip. "Hang on. We're almost home."
Almost home. Blue liked the sound of that, something that served to confirm the rightness of her decision to move back here. She settled back into her seat and in a few minutes they were turning into her drive, the tires crunching on the snow.
John didn't turn the engine off. She didn't expect him to, since he probably wanted to get home himself. Despite that, though she had settled one hand on the door handle, she waited. An achingly romantic country song played on the radio. John reached to turn the volume lower. She heard the rustle of his movement as he unbuckled his seat belt and turned towards her, and she stared at the glowing radio dial where his hand had just been, not sure at all why she was nervous to look at him.
"Tell me about your relationship with Lee."
Blue did look up then, surprised at the request. "With... with Lee?"
John nodded and his eyes narrowed. "I'm usually pretty good at reading people, but I'll admit I think I need a little help here, because this is too important to me for guesswork. So... what exactly do you and Lee have going?"
"Lee and I are friends. We knew each other in high school, and have been in contact since I moved away." She shrugged. "Friends."
"Just friends? Nothing more?"