The Long Road Home(13)

By: H.D. Thomson

“I sprained my ankle awhile back,” Clarisse said quickly. “It’s still a little weak. I guess the fall must have aggravated it.”

“Why don’t you let me look at it just to make sure?” John murmured beside her.

“I’ve got some painkillers.” She inhaled once, twice. “They’re in my purse. In the side pocket.”

In less than a minute, John returned with the pills and a water bottle. She took both.

Once she finished with the bottle, he used the remaining liquid to dampen a bandanna from his suitcase. He put the cool cloth to her brow, and trailed it along her hairline and down across the back of her neck.

his touch, she wanted to cry. She’d lost a very special, gentle man. She’d always known that, but today it hurt just a little more than usual.

She stiffened as Vivian came around to the back of the Explorer. So much for dreaming. He had a woman in his life who wasn’t stupid enough to let him go.

“Are we going to get this fixed or not?” Vivian asked, wiping her brow with the back of her hand. “It’s getting hot standing around with all this asphalt.”

Clarisse gave John a reassuring smile. “I’ll be fine.”

He found the jack and pulled the spare from under the vehicle. Clarisse stepped gingerly down. The right front tire lay in ruins. The smell of burnt rubber drifted through the air, while pieces of tire littered the interstate. They’d been lucky to make it through the blowout unscathed.

Moving back from the vehicle to give John some room, Clarisse watched him elevated the front of the vehicle with the jack. As he pried the hubcap off and loosened the lug nuts, sweat broke out and soon coated his back, staining his navy blue t-shirt.

Vivian joined her. “If we flew, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Clarisse murmured something noncommittal. John slid the torn tire from the axle.

Pulling his shirt over his head, he tossed it on the hood of the Explorer. The corded muscles of his chest and stomach flexed and rippled with the movement. Sweat glistened over each hollow and curve of his evenly tanned skin. Her stomach tightened. She looked away and found Vivian watching her. Heat crept beneath Clarisse’s cheeks.

“I thought you told me there isn’t anything between the two of you.”

Clarisse gave a husky laugh. “There isn’t.”

Vivian snorted. “Come off it,” she hissed. “I saw the way you were looking at him.” At Clarisse’s raised eyebrow, Vivian shook her head. “Fine. Pretend whatever you want. It’s not like anything’s going to come of it. Not when I’m around. I didn’t talk John into taking me on this stinking trip for nothing.”

Clarisse felt her face redden in anger. “You have no right talking to me like that,” she retorted in a lowered voice, mindful of John yards away. “And what do you mean by ‘talking John into taking you’?”

“Nothing.” What looked like uneasiness flashed in Vivian’s eyes. “Sorry, maybe I shouldn’t have said what I did.” She raised her hand in supplication, though her apology sounded as if it had been forced from her lips.

Clarisse started to say something but then stopped. No. She better keep silent. They still had a long journey ahead of them.

Vivian put her thumbs in her pockets, looked down and kicked a stone by her foot. A cloud of red hair swirled around her as she turned back to Clarisse and smiled stiffly. “I’ve never been one for car trips. They’ve always been a killer for me.”

“It’s done,” John called out, “but the spare is one of those down-sized factory types.” He wiped his bare torso with his shirt, missing a line of sweat that slid along the column of his neck. “It’s more like a Band-Aid than anything else. We’ll have to stop off in St. Louis and replace it with a normal tire.”

Clarisse ignored Vivian’s disgruntled sigh.

“While I’m at the store waiting around for a new one, you can get your dress for the wedding, Vivian,” John added as he walked over to them. “This way we can save some time instead of all of us waiting around. Clarisse might want to join you.”

“Well, I was kinda hoping to find a dress at a store like Neiman Marcus or Saks. I don’t know if they have one in the city.” Vivian gave John a weak smile.