Marianne Arkins

No matter the decade, always Happily Ever After





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No Place Like Home

By Marianne Arkins

Red? How could the temperature gauge be in the red?

With a hard smack on the steering wheel, Natalie pulled off to the side of Academy Boulevard and turned off the engine of her car. She was on the way to her second day at a new job in a new city, and didn’t need this problem on top of everything else. She only had twenty minutes to get to Pueblo. She wasn’t going to make it.

What to do now? Times like this served to remind her that Dad was no longer only a phone call away. Losing him to cancer two months ago had set off an avalanche of change, ending in her impulsive decision to relocate to Colorado from Tennessee. The job offer from her former boss last month had seemed like pennies from heaven. Now, she wondered if she’d gotten a wooden nickel instead.

Well, she had no one but herself to lean on. Natalie sat up straight and gave herself a pep talk. “You can do this. Be strong and think it all through.”

Wasn’t there a car repair place just down the block from her new apartment? That’s where she’d go. With a brisk nod to herself, she turned the heat on full blast to keep the radiator from exploding on the drive there and cranked down the window for air before heading back the way she’d come.

Country music blasted through the doorway of the repair shop and her heart picked up the beat, feet moving in an automatic two-step to the front counter.

No one was there, so she peered into the garage before ringing the bell for help. Before long, a tall man in a greasy, gray coverall came in from the garage, ball cap flipped backward. His name patch identified him as “Jake”. At five foot ten in heels, she was no pixie, but the man dwarfed her.

He reached under the desk, turning the music down to pleasant background noise and her heart started beating in its own rhythm again, if a bit faster than normal.

“Sorry.” His low voice skittered up her spine. “We didn’t have any appointments due, so I cranked it up. Keeps work interesting.” He leaned on his elbows and favored her with an intent look. “What can I do for you?”

She stared, entranced by his ice blue eyes. His face was unremarkable and smudged with grease, but it clear from the intelligence in his gaze that he wasn’t Cooter from Hazzard County.

“My car is overheating.” She waved a hand behind her to indicate the blue sedan outside. “Do I need an appointment?”

He opened a calendar, taking a quick glance at the entries. “I can fit you in, but it’ll be a couple of hours. Do you want to wait?”

“No. I live just up the street. I can walk home.”

“Okay.” He pulled out a work order. “Let me get some information and a key.”

She answered his questions and then took a peek at her watch. Ten minutes late for work. Way to make a good impression on her new co-workers. She heaved a sigh, her breath blowing the work order off the counter.

“Oops. Sorry.”

Jake scooped it up and flashed her a look full of concern. “Don’t worry. We’ll take good care of your car.”

“It’s not the car.”

Jake raised his eyebrows.

“Okay, it’s not just the car. It’s everything. I guess I’m indulging in a bit of a pity party.”

“I like a good party.” He smiled. “Do you want to talk about it?”

His concern touched her and, without a thought, all the frustration from the past two weeks tumbled out.

“One,” she ticked things off on her fingers. “I’m new in town and don’t know a soul. Two, my car seems to be broken. Three, I’m still trying to find my way around, find out the places to go for shopping, for entertainment…you know.” She dug through her purse for the spare key she always carried and held it out to him. “I sound pathetic. Don’t mind me.”

“Maybe I can help.” Jake took the key, his fingertips brushing her palm in an accidental caress. “What do you like to do?”

“Are you serious?”

He nodded.

She gave a shrug and said, “Go to the theater, I guess. Eat out. Country dance.”

“Ahh…stop right there. You’re in Colorado, lots of places to dance here. In the Springs, you have Cowboys; in Denver, I’d recommend the Grizzly Rose.” He scribbled on a piece of paper and handed it to her.

“What’s this?”

“Directions to Cowboys from here. Tonight is ladies’ night. You can try it for free.”

“I don’t think so.”

“You’ll have fun. Folks down there are friendly.” His words were a clear challenge. “You’ll dance all night.”

She resisted the urge to fidget under his unswerving look. “Well…” She stared at her feet, poking at the stained linoleum with the toe of her sandal. “I’d better go. Thanks for squeezing me in. And for listening.”

She stepped out the door, feeling his gaze between her shoulder blades. “Coward,” she hissed to herself and swiped the warmth of her tears from her cheeks. She dialed her boss’s number on the walk home to explain the situation,  relieved when her boss gave her permission to do what work she could do from home.

Later that afternoon, she walked back to the shop to pick up her car. She was disappointed to find that Jake wasn’t the one behind the counter. She’d decided to take the chance, go dancing and celebrate her fresh start. Now she couldn’t share that with him.  She’d hoped to find out if he would be there.

At half past eight, she shower her ID at the door of Cowboys Dance Hall and Saloon. She grinned at the tiny purple bull stamped on her hand, thinking it was an interesting testament to the first day of the rest of her life. She ordered a beer from the front bar and sat at a small, vacant table near the back.

Jake was right about one thing—folks were friendly, and she had no lack of dance partners. Her feet rarely left the dance floor and her cheeks ached from smiling.

Natalie leaned on the table with her back to the dance floor. She mopped her forehead with a napkin, when a hand touched the small of her back. She turned and fell into a ice blue pool.

“Is this dance taken?” Jake grinned at her as the first notes of a waltz began.

Wow. He cleaned up nice. Her smile widened and she held out a hand. “Yes.” She laughed at his downcast expression. “By you.”

“Perfect.”  He grasped her hand and led her to the floor. A quick spin and she was in his arms. And, for the first time, Colorado felt a little like home.

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