Charlie had expected to run into Cody now that he was back in town, but actually seeing him unnerved her in a way she hadn’t anticipated. She was suddenly embarrassed to be there with Riley, and didn’t know why. Maybe it was because Cody always thought that he was so much better than Riley, and being there with him was just one more thing that meant she was a loser in his eyes. Or, maybe it was just awkward to have been intimate with two long-time friends who were now face to face with her. Her pulse was racing and she felt fluttery and hot. She wished she could make it stop.
“You two raising hell?” said Cody.
Riley shook his head. “Not me.”
“Ah, then it must be this feisty one,” he said, eyeing Charlie from head to toe. “She’s a handful, ain’t she Black Bull?”
Riley blushed. He was always blushing. Damn it. Not now. And how could Cody just walk fresh into the situation and have it pegged in a heartbeat? Charlie turned her attention away, pretending that something across the dance floor had caught her eye.
“Looking good, as always, Charlie, even with that bruise.” He nudged Riley in the ribs, “You give that to her Black Bull?” His coy smile revealed a string of broken and missing teeth. Charlie hated herself for even knowing him.
“I thought I should wear something purple for you. I remembered how much you like it.” She gulped down the remainder of her drink. “Maybe I should get a matching pair of Wranglers.”
“You’re not still sore about that are you?”
She was, but she knew that if she let on, it would hurt Riley, and make her look like she still cared about Cody. “Nah,” she said “you were always a little too short for me anyway.”
Cody jabbed Riley in the ribs again. “But you’re not, are you Black Bull? A real man, hey?”
She wished that Riley would pound Cody’s face in, instead of just standing there blushing like a loves sick idiot while he was being blatantly disrespected.
“Come on.” She pulled Riley by the sleeve of his shirt onto the dance floor. She was confused and couldn’t nail down how she felt, but she was determined to play it up for all it was worth— put on a real lovey-dovey show for Cody. She hadn’t had anything much more intimate than drunken fucks, since the Clarissa incident, but there was no reason why Cody needed to know that. She wound her arms behind Riley’s neck. He smelled good and when she closed her eyes, she knew it hadn’t all been drunken fucks, because the night before there was a moment when she as terrified that maybe she could fall in love again.
Cody wasted no time in finding some nineteen or twenty year-old buckle bunny. It burned Charlie to see him twirling the girl around the floor, when he’d never even danced with her once, in the whole time they were together. “It’s nice to have a partner taller than me for once,” she told Riley.
Riley’s look was so intense, she wasn’t sure he had heard what she said. “You have the most beautiful eyes. Has anyone ever told you that?”
Charlie pulled back. Why from him? Why a lame-ass line when she was starting to believe this might be real? Beautiful eyes? She had a big fucking shiner that had half swollen one of them shut. Her expression became coy. “I only hear that from people who are trying to get me into bed.”
Riley laughed. “What if I am? Would you like to come home with me tonight?”
The song finished and a new one began. Charlie took the opportunity to tug Riley from the dance floor toward the bar. “I’d love to,” she told him when they reached the crowd of milling people waiting for drinks, “but you live the opposite way of me and I’ve got to get up early tomorrow. We’re shipping out the hay.” It was true, but she was no stranger to going without sleep. The real reason she didn’t want to spend the night with him was that she couldn’t go any further until she figured out what the hell she was into with him here. She had to get a better handle on the situation before she could manage another night like the one before.
He whispered in her ear. “I’ll beg, if I have to.” It sent a warm shiver down the side of her neck. “I just want to be next to you tonight.” She was losing her strength to resist.
“Are you guys getting all kissy-kissy again?” Cody interrupted, bumping into Charlie and Riley and breaking their embrace.
Charlie turned toward the bar. “Crown and water, neat please. Make it a double.”
Riley and Cody were busy talking when she turned back. She wasn’t sticking around to humour Cody anymore. “I’m going for a cigarette,” she said, pointing to the upper level smoking section. Riley nodded to her.
She watched stealthily from beneath her hat, wondering what they were talking about. Maybe her—comparing notes, or something. No. Not from Riley. She stubbed out her cigarette and lit another. And then, she had to admit it to herself. She wanted them to be talking about her. She wanted Cody to be remembering how good it was and regretting that it was now that good with someone else.
She watched Riley excuse himself from Cody and make his way through the crowd, toward her. “You really should give that up,” he said, when he reached her.
She shrugged. “Yeah. There’s a lot of things I should give up.”
“So, are you coming home with me tonight?”
It all muddled together— the reasons why she should, and the reasons why she shouldn’t, making it impossible to decide. She needed another drink.
“No pressure, but I have to take off right away. I promised to take Ry fishing tomorrow morning.”
Her face was frozen with confusion. She needed to stall. “You’re pretty close with him, eh?”
“He’s the whole reason I came back to the Peace. When my sister got pregnant, I knew it was time to come home.”
“She looks so young to have a son.”
“She is. Some married rig pig knocked her up when she was sixteen, handed her some cash for an abortion and split town.”
“What a jerk,” Charlie said, forgetting for a moment that she had a decision to make.
“Look, Charlie,” Riley pulled her closer to him. “I don’t know how you feel about me, but I’ve liked you for a long time. It doesn’t have to be sex. I just want to be next to you.”
When was it ever not about sex for a man? She couldn’t do it. If he’d said, “Come back with me; I’ll fuck your brains out,” she might have done it, but what was she supposed to do with, “I just want to be next to you.” She didn’t have the stomach for corny and fake. Not from him.
“I really can’t tonight. I think I’m just going to hit the road myself.” It was a lie. She knew it. She looked down at her boots. “I didn’t get much sleep last night and I’m really beat.”
“Yeah. I guess so,” he said. “Can I take you to dinner tomorrow night?”
“Sure, that would be great.” The waitress brought her another drink. She paid for it and slammed it back. “Well, I better get back to homestead, I guess,” she said faking a yawn. “If you catch a fish, I’ll come over and cook it for you.”
“Oh no, it will be my treat. I’ll cook.” His disappointment was obvious. He reached for her hand and held her fingers entwined in his as they headed for the door.
Cody whooped and sang the chorus of He’s an Indian Cowboy in the Rodeo, as they left the bar and some of his midget cronies laughed. Riley did, too. “I didn’t know you listened to Buffy Sainte-Marie,” he called back to Cody, taking it in stride. The midget cronies laughed even harder.
Riley walked Charlie across the parking lot to the farm truck. “So we’re on for tomorrow?” he asked.
She’d never known a guy like this before. She wanted to change her mind, to say, “Ok, I’ll go home with you,” but fear held her back. What was this strange person in front of her. He couldn’t possibly be from the same universe she’d been living in for twenty-seven years. “You got it. Tomorrow.” She stepped in close to him, her body coming alive at the touch of his lips. It would be so easy for this night to last forever. She opened her eyes “So, tomorrow, I guess.”
She climbed in the truck and turned the engine over. As Riley drove out of the parking lot, she lit a cigarette. When his tail lights faded in the distance, she put the truck in drive and turned toward the Condhill. Out of a five girl line-up there had to be at least one girl she knew and liked, could have a drink with and get her head straight again. She needed to talk to someone else who got it, because a man who liked her that much? There had to be something wrong with him, and she had to get her perspective back, to be prepared for when the truth came out.