The rusty car door gave a loud squeak as I pushed it open, climbing from the passenger seat. I'd heard a lot of things about truck stops, and what hitchhikers should expect, but I'd been riding with Marlene for too long as it was. She was a sweet old lady who smelled heavily of Pine Sol, but I just didn't feel right making her tote me around for any longer than she needed to.
As I swung my bag onto my shoulder, I bent slightly so that I could peer in at her. Her seat was as close to the steering wheel as possible, and she smiled at me in a grandmother-like way.
"Are you sure you don't want to go with me any farther, dear?" she asked, her voice squeaking like the door.
"Very positive," I told her. "You've already done more than enough for me, and I can't begin to thank you for it."
"You just be careful, young man," she said, pointing a finger at me. Half-scolding me, she added, "It can get dangerous for a boy like you."
I flashed a smile at her. "Yeah, I know," I said. "Thanks again, Marlene."
Shutting the door lightly, I stepped back a little, waving at her. When she started to pull away, the car put-putting like in one of those old Mickey Mouse cartoons, I turned and took in my surroundings. I found myself in the parking lot of a pretty large restaurant with an attached gift shop off to the right and a dingy-looking hotel across the street. I sighed, breathing in the scent of diesel fuel, and I couldn't help but smile.
Other people may have considered this to be a bad experience, but I was a little excited.
It was classic movie material, a small town boy traveling halfway across the country to reach a dream. I was on the road to California to become an actor; I could practically see my name in lights now. Despite the fact that I'd left on bad terms with my parents--leaving college to pursue a dream wasn't exactly a good idea in their minds--I felt very optimistic about the future.
Even if I didn't exactly consider myself too good-looking, I still thought I had what it took. I was tall and lanky with broad-shoulders and strong arms, and sometimes my mother told me I had a boyish charm to me, something that made me seem a lot younger than twenty-four. My hair was brown and kind of shaggy, curling slightly around my ears and more often than not making me look like I'd just rolled out of bed. I had to say my best feature was my eyes; they were the same shade of blue-green as my father's.
I only hoped the acting agents in Hollywood thought I was a decent-looking guy.
The sun was starting to set beyond the gas station beside the restaurant, casting shades of pink and orange along the backs of the big trucks getting gassed up. I knew I should probably go to the hotel to get myself a room for the night, but finding a ride was way more important to me at the moment. So I shifted my bag and started toward the station, making my way to the first truck in the line.
It was a big purple Mack with black and silver flames on the doors--very fancy-looking. The driver of it, a short and stout woman with short black hair, was standing beside it. She had a John Deere cap on, but she looked nice enough.
She saw me coming and frowned. "Sorry, hon." She had a surprisingly high-pitched voice for what she looked like. "Already got me some company for the ride."
I gave her a little smile, inclining my head just barely, and I continued on down the line. Trucker after trucker seemed to already have someone riding with them or were people that I couldn't find the nerve to talk to. Some of them looked about ready to bite my head off. The owner of a black truck gave me a little smile as I neared him though, so I felt confident enough to ask him.
"Hey," I said, somewhat sheepishly. "I guess you've pretty much figured I'm trying to hitch a ride, huh?"
"It was just a little obvious," the man said. He didn't really look like a trucker, I supposed. He had a long blond ponytail, and his features were sharp, but strong-looking. He was almost classically handsome. His eyes were steely blue. "Where you headed?"
"California," I answered.
"Hmm." He nodded his head. "Pretty far for someone as young as you to be traveling, don't you think?"
"I'm not as young as I might look," I said with a smirk, wondering vaguely if he was flirting with me.
Another smile came to his face, a charming one. "Well, I certainly hope not," he said. "What's your name?"
"Connor," I said, extending a hand. "Name's Connor Greeley."
"I'm Erik." His hand was firm and calloused as he took mine, his grip tight. It almost seemed like he didn't want to let go of my hand afterward, and that set off a warning bell of sorts in my head. But I tried not to overreact.
"So," I said when I'd finally reclaimed my hand, "got any room for one more in this rig of yours?"
"Depends." And now Erik's smile seemed more suggestive than charming. My palms started to sweat, and I felt heat slowly creeping up my neck. "What are you gonna do for me if I give you a ride?" he asked, any and all charm gone.
"I can pay for gas along the way," I offered meekly, although now I had no intention of riding with this man.
"You must be new at this," he said. "Boy, you're not gonna get far if that's all you're willing to trade." His gaze swept over me, drinking me in, and I felt kind of nauseous. "You're a lot taller than I like 'em, but you'll do fine."
"On second thought," I said quickly, "I think I'm gonna take a break before I get back on the road."
I started to turn away, ready to run, but one of his hands shot out and wrapped around my wrist in a vice-like grip. I winced, and he pulled me back to him, now pushing me up against the side of his truck. There was a half-smile on his face, but there was nothing nice about it now.
"What's the hurry?" he asked. "I thought you wanted a ride."
"I've changed my mind," I said, trying to make my tone firm, trying to pretend I was braver than I actually was. I was tall, yeah, but that didn't make me a good fighter.
"There's no changing your mind with me, boy," Erik said. "It isn't like you won't be getting anything out of this deal. You give me what I want.... "His gaze did that sweeping thing again, "and I'll give you what you want."
"I don't ... swing that way," I lied. I'd been gay the minute I came out of the womb, but he didn't need to know that.
"It'll make it all the more exciting," he said. "You always remember your first time."
I looked around, but there seemed to be nobody at the pumps anymore. And if there were people milling about, they wouldn't see us because we were hidden by his truck. I was pretty much screwed, and in a few moments, that would take on a literal sense for me.
"Look, I don't want to ride with you anymore," I said, trying once again to sound tough. I knew it wasn't working by the leer on his face.
"It doesn't look like you have much of a choice, does it?" he asked.
I didn't know what to say to that. What could I say? I could try kicking him where I knew it would hurt the most, or I could even try punching him in the face. But like I'd said, I didn't know how to fight. What if he was a master at it? He could have me on the ground in mere seconds, and I wouldn't know what had hit me. And I'd be right back at square one, only this time, he'd be angry at me for trying to fight him.
I thought that I was done for. Everyone who'd told me that hitching was a bad idea had been right, only I wouldn't live long enough to tell them that.
But I guess fate was on my side that day.
"Hey, plan on moving this rig today, jackass?"
Appearing from around the front of the truck, a man started toward us: my savior, my knight in shining flannel. He was tall and thick with muscle, his shirt clinging to him like a second skin and his worn jeans hanging low and loose on his hips. His light brown hair was short and cut close to his head, a style I'd had yet to see on a lot of truckers.
And despite my predicament, I couldn't help but notice how good-looking he was.
Erik wasn't impressed though.
"I'm kind of busy here, man," he said gruffly, and he didn't let go of my wrist.
"Well, the world don't revolve around you." My savior had a nice Texan accent. "So finish fueling up and get the hell out of my way. I don't have time to wait around for you."
Erik let go of me, turning so that he could glare fully at the stranger. He took a few steps toward the other man, and while it looked like he was supposed to be menacing, the other man didn't even blink.
"I don't want to have to fight you," Erik said.
"Afraid of losing?"
Hot, Texan, and quick-witted? What more could I ask for?
"You think you're tough?" Erik asked him next. "Think you're real big, don't you?"
While Erik started to throw out every curse known to mankind, my savior looked over the blond's shoulder at me and gestured with a nod of his head for me to hit the road. I would have rather preferred to stay and watch the fight that was coming up, but I figured that the least I could do was leave him alone now that he'd rescued me. I gave him what I hoped was a grateful nod and quickly started away.
I went straight into the restaurant, hoping that a cup of coffee might calm me down. Now that I was away from both Erik and the man who'd saved me, I felt like I was going to be sick. My hands were still sweating, and I was sure if I talked, I'd sound like I'd just seen a ghost. I never realized how scary a moment like that could be.
I seated myself at the breakfast bar, dropping my bag onto the stool beside me. It was a cozy little place, with orange tile floors and burgundy wallpaper. Kind of old-fashioned, but cozy nonetheless. As a waitress made her way towards me, I checked my pockets to make sure I had enough cash.
She was giving me a real big smile, and the way she pushed her hips out made it apparent that she was flirting with me. Whether it was because she thought I was attractive or because she thought it would get her a bigger tip, I didn't know. It was useless, though, seeing as I didn't like women at all and I was pretty hard up for cash at the moment. She was a pretty girl with a great body and big blue eyes, so I almost felt bad that I felt nothing toward her.
I ordered my coffee politely while still trying to convey that I wasn't interested. She didn't take the hint, and as she bounced away to get my drink, she waggled her eyebrows at me.
When she returned with my steaming mug, I was almost afraid she'd try to strike up a conversation with me, but fortunately, she had other customers to attend to. With a last smile, she disappeared.
As I waited for my coffee to cool, I pulled out the map I kept in my bag. There wasn't really a point in me looking at it as I'd already memorized everything there was to know about my routes to California, but I needed something to focus on to get my mind off of Erik.
I was kind of wishing I'd stayed with Marlene and her Pine Sol-scented, old-timey car.
And that's when he came back into the picture.
"Well I'll be damned, Lucy--you get better-looking each time I come here."
I glanced up from my map as the trucker from earlier, my Texan savior, appeared to my right, smiling a big and handsome smile at the flirty waitress. He looked even better in the restaurant's lighting, and I tried not to stare.
"Oh no," the waitress said playfully, pushing her chest out at him. "Not you again. If I didn't know any better, Jace, I'd say the only reason you came up this way was to see little ol' me."
"Of course," he said with a wink I almost wished had been directed at me. "It's a real struggle keeping myself from coming up here every day."
She laughed, blushing lightly, and she ended the joke. "I take it you'll be having the usual?" she asked him, still smiling.
"Thank you kindly," he said with a nod, sitting down a seat away from me.
I watched out of the corner of my eye as she brought him a coffee and then yelled out something to the cooks. They made the smallest of small talk before duty called and she had to take care of other customers. With her gone, I took in his appearance as he sipped at his coffee, paying better detail to his features.
He looked like he could have been a model. His jaw was strong, his features aristocratic. His nose was straight and angular as if it'd been sculpted by the best artist around, and his eyebrows had a natural arch to them. His cheekbones were high, and his bottom lip was fuller than you'd expect for a man in his line of work. I could tell he was older, and there were a few crinkles that had appeared beside his eyes when he'd smiled at the waitress, Lucy.
But he had to be the best-looking man I'd ever laid eyes on.
His tongue suddenly came out to nurse his bottom lip, which he'd burned with his coffee, and this motion made me a little warm under the collar. I let my gaze travel down to those faded and worn jeans to see that they hugged his thighs appreciatively; his legs looked as toned as the rest of his body. I longed to see what he looked like without the clothes.
When I looked back up at his face, I nearly jumped on the stool. He was looking my way with a pair of spring-green eyes, and he had a smirk on his face--a cocky smirk. One of his eyebrows raised as he caught me, and I felt myself flush just slightly.
"Uh ... I wanted to thank you," I told him. "For helping me out and all out there."
"By devouring me with your eyes?" he said, and I scrambled for a response. "Relax, kid, I'm joking. But it was nothing. Guys like him are all the same."
He sipped at his coffee again, and I looked down at my map, my cheeks feeling like they were on fire. I didn't know what had come over me; I normally wasn't so shy in front of guys, but he was different. There was just something about him.
"Anyone ever tell you that hitchhiking is a good way to end up chopped into tiny bits?" the man asked me.
"Plenty," I answered. "I guess I was too dumb to listen to them."
"Or too stubborn." Another sip. "Where you headed?"
"Los Angeles," I answered.
"What's there for you?"
"If it all works out, the career of a lifetime," I told him.
I was fully convinced that this man had the best smile I'd ever seen.
And there was a strange part of me that was contemplating trying to hitch a ride with him. He seemed nice enough. Then again, so had Erik. He probably wasn't into men though, which would definitely be a downer, but at least I'd have some nice eye candy on the way.
A small ringing sound came from his pocket, and as he pulled his cell phone out, he turned away from me to answer it. I let my gaze linger on his thick shoulders for just a moment more, and then I turned back to the counter, folding up my map. After shoving it into my bag, I grabbed my coffee and stared blankly at the wall before me, unable to hear anything the man was saying. Which was probably a good thing; I didn't need to be eavesdropping.
When he hung up, he turned back to me, but I tried to act as if I didn't notice.
"I'm Jace," he said. "Jace Bennett."
I turned to him, giving him a little smile, inwardly very excited that he still wanted to talk to me. "Connor," I said. "Greeley. Connor Greeley."
His lips curved up slightly, but not in the cocky way he'd been smirking moments before, almost as if he were genuinely pleased to meet me. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking. "Well, Connor," he said, "You look like you've been on the move all day. But you also look like some sort of starved pet. Let me get you something."
"Oh, no," I said quickly. I hated it when other people bought me things. "I couldn't--"
"And I could," he said bluntly before he turned away from me and leaned over the counter slightly. "Hey Luce, can you make my order a double?"
The waitress, who'd been in the process of refilling someone's cup, nodded and smiled at him. He settled back down in his seat and glanced sideways at me. I scratched absently at the back of my head.
"You didn't have to," I said slowly.
"Ain't like it's costing me a fortune," he said. "Just a nice gesture, right?"
By the time our food arrived, we had a nice conversation going, mostly me rambling about myself while he threw in questions every now and then. Lucy set our plates down; Jace had ordered burgers, and at the sight of the one she placed before me, my stomach gave a rather embarrassing growl. It was probably the messiest burger I'd ever seen and definitely the tastiest I'd ever eaten.
As we ate, we talked a little more, and he asked me about where I came from and what my family was like. I was so comfortable with him that it felt like I'd known him for years, and he must have felt it too, because he opened up. I learned that he was thirty and that he had been married once but had gotten divorced nearly a year before because his wife had tried to make him quit driving to get a better job. He didn't come right out and say how much he loved doing what he was doing, but it was obvious that he really enjoyed the life he had.
"So, Connor," he said, and I was beginning to really like the way my name sounded from his mouth. "How do you plan on finding someone to ride with now?"
I sighed, too full to finish the rest of my meal, and I shrugged my shoulders. "I don't know," I admitted. "I guess I'll have to try and be a better judge of people. Maybe find someone who isn't a trucker, a nice family passing through or something."
"Yeah, us truckers are dangerous," he said. "Wouldn't want you ending up with some big guy who just wants your pretty little ass."
My face heated up again, but I laughed. "I definitely don't want a repeat of earlier," I said.
"Well ... I can take you to Carson City," he said, glancing at me.
"Nevada?" I asked incredulously. This truck stop was just a little outside of Cheyenne, and I hadn't expected to find a ride out of Wyoming so early on in my trip. "Really? You can take me that far?"
"Sure," Jace answered as if it were nothing. "I'm delivering some goods to a store there. And you can trust me. I don't plan on attacking you any time soon. My partners are always willing." He didn't even seem to notice what he'd said, but it made me blush slightly. Did that mean he liked both men and women? But before I could stew too much on it, he glanced at me again. "So what do you say? We got a deal, Connor?"
I flashed him a grin and nodded. "Carson City would be great," I said genuinely.
After he'd paid the bill, he told me that he thought it was a little too late to set out on the road again, and that it would be better for us to just grab a room at the hotel across the street. At first I thought he'd meant that we share a room, but when we got there, he asked for two separate rooms. I had to admit I was a little disappointed. And after I admitted that to myself, I was a little ashamed.
I normally wasn't so easy. But one bright-eyed Texas man changed me for the worst.
"I like to get going early, so you shouldn't stay up too late," he said as we reached the door of the room that was mine. His was right beside it. "I'll come knocking around six, give you time to get a shower before we head out."
"Okay." I nodded. "And thanks again, for everything. I'm more than grateful."
"I know," he said with a smirk. "I'll see you in the morning, kid."
After I returned his smile, he turned to go to his own room. I was still grinning as I unlocked my door, but I should have been paying more attention to my surroundings. I might have felt that there was someone watching me if I hadn't been so caught up with my silly thoughts of Jace.