A/N Written for the Sentinel Big Bang 2011. This is a Moonridge Auction claim story for
Skeptic7's request for "James Ellison and the all-American apple pie competition." X-over with Supernatural.
Apple Pie and Chevrolet
"So." Blair Sandburg paused in the midst of entering his arrest report into the PC at his desk. "Y'think they're gonna convict DeLoggia?"
"You've been a cop for four years, Chief." Jim Ellison's tone held a touch of rebuke. The older detective, dressed in a navy turtleneck and dark gray slacks, was perched on Blair's desk. "You should know by now that we only arrest them. What the DA and the judicial system choose to do with the perps afterwards is out of our hands."
Blair impatiently tucked a loose curl that had escaped the pony-tail he routinely wore at work behind his ear and started to expound on the strength of their evidence against the evil dick, growing with each word entered into his report. He noticed his partner stiffen and glance towards the entrance to Major Crimes. The double doors swung open and Kyle Hanson strode in, nudging along a sullen, stone-faced man in his mid-twenties. Blair knew that Detective Hanson, at twenty-seven the youngest and newest member of Major Crimes, wasn't on Jim's Christmas list. Scuttlebutt had it that Ellison was jealous of Hanson's arrest record and youth.
Blair knew that the gossip about Jim being envious of the much-younger Hanson was hooey. Granted, Jim was a far cry from Naomi Sandburg's free-spirited open-mindedness, but he wasn't the rigid, box-thinking cop that people assumed he was, either. Blair—along with their boss, Captain Simon Banks, and long-term denizens of the Major Crimes squad like Rafe, Henri, Rhonda, and Megan, knew the real Jim Ellison—tough but fair, dedicated and protective to a fault. Simon and Megan also knew that Jim Ellison was a Sentinel, whose five extraordinarily heightened senses aided him in his chosen profession, and that Blair Sandburg was Ellison's Guide who kept his Sentinel grounded and taught Jim how to cope with the complexities of his double-life.
Ever the researcher, Blair had discretely checked into Hanson's record. It was impressive, but Sandburg and Ellison did hold a better arrest record, percentage-wise. Kyle Hanson's arrests were more flashy and news-worthy, and the media-savvy blond detective was often in the public eye. Since the debacle of the premature release of Sandburg's dissertation on Sentinels, Ellison preferred maintaining a low profile, working quietly but effectively. That mess had almost derailed their friendship, and had significantly altered Sandburg's career choices. Blair brought his thoughts back to the present as Jim rose from Sandburg's desk, crossed over to his own desk and scooped up a file.
Blair watched as Jim walked past his desk, heading straight for Simon's office. Jim eschewed the defined path to Simon's office, a L-shaped stroll with a right turn at Henri Brown's desk heading down the main corridor to Simon's corner office. Instead, he strode towards Rhonda's desk, located just outside of Simon's door, so his personal assistant could intercept and screen visitors, if need be. Since Ellison and Sandburg were called to the captain's office frequently, they had adopted their own shortcut, which Sandburg privately had dubbed "the Peru Path."
Blair's attention was drawn to Hanson, firmly escorting his suspect down the main aisle of Major Crimes. Blair's view was obscured by the column by Brown's desk as the duo reached Hanson's desk, on the other side of the aisle from Brown's currently unoccupied desk. Out of the corner of his eye, Blair saw Jim stiffen by Rhonda's desk, dropping his file on it. Sandburg heard some kind of commotion around Hanson's desk, and then the young blond detective raised the alarm, a note of panic in his voice. "GUN!"
Blair surprised himself with the speed in which he pulled his weapon and dropped to the floor by his desk. Blair noted all the other officers in the room had done the same thing and were now crouching by desks, weapons drawn. Craning his neck, he cursed his blocked vision and scooted across the gap to Brown's empty desk, staying low to the floor. Gun in hand, he peered around the desk, and jerked his weapon upright when he saw Ellison's back in his sights. Hanson's perp was in the center aisle, one hand keeping Hanson in front of him as an unwilling shield, the other holding the automatic shoved into Hanson's neck. The perp's head moved as he anxiously scanned the large bullpen, occupied by several irate cops. He was smack-dab in the middle of the huge room, facing Major Crime's main entrance. Detecting movement at the back of the room, Blair saw Simon's door crack open,but before the captain could do anything, Jim silently stalked behind the gunman. Jim's left hand whipped across the man's neck in an Army Ranger-trained chokehold. Simultaneously, his right hand clamped over the gun, viciously yanking the perp's arm up and away from Hanson. The surprised gunman yelped as Jim's grip on the weapon tightened and he wrenched it out of the perp's arm.
Hanson shoved an elbow sharply into his captor's stomach and stepped quickly out of the man's hold. The room became full of the clicking sound of gun safeties being re-engaged.
Hanson and Ellison eyed each other with the now-disarmed gunman standing between them. "Thanks, Ellison. I've got him now."
Jim removed his arm from around the perp's neck and stepped back. He flicked the safety back on and returned Hanson's gun to the younger detective. "I can see that."
Blair rose to his feet and saw Simon approaching Hanson's desk. Debating on joining them, too, Sandburg heard Jim's phone start to ring. Glancing quickly toward his partner, still exchanging words with Hanson, Blair walked hurriedly to Jim's desk and picked up the phone. "Ellison's desk, Detective Sandburg speaking."
"Hello, Blair?" Jim's aunt, Mrs. Helen Fuller, spoke over the phone. "I was trying to reach Jim."
"He's a little busy now, Helen. Can I help?"
"I wanted to ask Jim for a favor. Our Apple Harvest Festival is next weekend."
"That sounds like a lot of fun."
"Oh, it is, it is." Helen reassured Blair. "It's just—we're a bit short of judges this year, and I was wondering if Jim could be a judge for the apple pie contest. He's so good with food."
Blair hid a smile, remembering that Jim had used his heightened sense of taste to reveal the ingredients in one of Helen's chocolate dessert concoctions—only it turned out that Helen's neighbor and baking rival had actually made the cake, not Helen. It was a treasured family recipe that Helen had been trying to pry out of Emily for years, in a friendly cook's rivalry.
Helen was continuing to talk. "—besides, I haven't seen Jim since the Fourth of July, and here it's practically November."
"Jim's been pretty busy, Helen. You know what his job's like."
"All the more reason to take a break, then. You too, Blair, of course. You can both stay with me, no need to worry about a motel room. Cashmere puts on a very good Apple Harvest Festival. We have booths of all sorts, and rides for the kids. We even have a ferris wheel! And the main attraction is the apple pie contest, it's an honor to be asked to judge it, really."
Blair glanced around Major Crimes' office space, things rapidly returning to normal after the earlier excitement. A weekend enjoying a small-town festival sounded like a welcome respite. Just what the doctor ordered. Blair winced mentally. He was never going to be Dr. Blair Sandburg, PhD. in Anthropology, not any more. That title had mutated into Detective Blair Sandburg, Major Crimes, partner to Detective Lieutenant James Ellison—who also happened to be Sentinel of the Great City. Just what the Guide ordered,then.
"Helen, I'll tell Jim you called and mention the festival. We have a few vacation days coming up, too. You'll be hearing from Jim shortly, okay?"
"Thanks, Blair. And if Jim can't be a judge, I understand. You're still both welcome to come for the festival and a nice old-fashioned visit. Good-bye."
"That's very kind of you, Helen. Bye for now."
Blair Sandburg glanced up from the anthropology journal he was reading, comfortably sprawled on the loft's loveseat. He glanced at Jim, stretched out on the matching sofa with his feet on the coffee table, perusing the Cascade Times' sports section. The main layout of the loft had changed only slightly in the eight years that he'd been Jim's roommate, after Jim's initial offer of a week's stay while Sandburg relocated from his burned-out residence had become a mutually satisfactory open-ended arrangement.
Sandburg had learned that his Sentinel responded best to continuity in his surroundings, so the main rooms stayed almost static. The sofa and loveseat were re-upholstered every few years for Jim's tactile comfort; they were currently a calming dark green, and the geometrical area rug defining the living room's center had been replaced with a green and tan leaf-patterned rug. The television had been upgraded to a wall-mounted high definition TV, positioned on a pivoting arm above Blair's yellow chair, to the right of the balcony doors. This diagonal placement allowed comfortable viewing from both the loveseat and the sofa, perfect for watching football or basketball with the gang from MC.
Sandburg's creativity wasn't stifled; he redecorated his own bedroom at least once a year. It was currently deep in a '70's retro vibe, with tell-tale orange and brown walls and a huge, genuine tie-dyed spread on the bed that Naomi had retrieved from somewhere once she'd heard about her son's latest room theme.
"So, Jim." Blair decided to just cut to the chase about Helen's request. "Your aunt Helen called while you and Simon were chatting with Hanson in the bullpen."
Jim dropped the newspaper to his lap. "Did she, now."
"Yes. She invited us to come visit for the Apple Harvest Festival, next weekend. She especially wants you to be a judge in the apple pie contest, the premiere event of the Festival. Helen said it's a true honor to be selected, and she thought of you immediately."
"I can tell that you're opposed to the idea." Jim teased, mildly.
"But Jim, a visit to the country would be a much-needed change of scenery—" Blair caught on that Jim was pulling his leg. "You came back from you Fourth of July trip all relaxed and invigorated. I figured it'd be a welcome change of pace before the holiday madness ensues.
"And I totally agree with Helen; you'd be a fabulous judge, with your heightened tastebuds and other senses, you'd suss out the winning pie in no time."
"Aunt Helen's a wonderful cook, too. And she makes real food, not the vegetables, beans and tofu fusion-stuff that you're always trying to get me to eat."
"There's nothing wrong with healthy eating, Jim," Blair protested.
Jim didn't reply directly; he reached for the phone and dialed Aunt Helen's number. "Hello, Aunt Helen? It's Jim... Blair's been filling me in on your Apple Harvest Festival... I'd be delighted to judge your apple pies...Simon knows we've got some time off coming, so that's not a problem...See you Friday, then. Bye."
Dean Winchester pulled the Impala off the night-still two-lane road, creeping slowly along the shoulder. He parked under the cover of a weeping willow, the long, dragging leaves concealing his large, black car. The half-moon, while casting some light, also aided in hiding his default home. He opened the door and got out, pausing for a few quick stretches before heading for the trunk. He popped the lid, quickly surveying the totally deserted area by second nature. Glancing at his watch, he read the time: 9:43. Dean half-shrugged, surprised at how early it still was. Guess the jokes about small towns rolling up the streets at 9 pm are true. It certainly seems to be the case in Dryden. Dean tugged up on the small, almost invisible fabric loop that opened his secret weapons cache, concealed underneath the Impala's false trunk bottom. He grabbed his sawed-off shotgun and then closed the secret stash's lid. Reaching for one of the duffels tucked into the corner of the trunk, he unzipped it, depositing his shotgun, and checking for the ever-present salt and lighter fluid. He then zipped the duffel closed and slipped the bag over his shoulder, grabbed a shovel, and firmly closed the trunk.
After a final glance at his surroundings, he walked towards the faint dirt road, passing the Mountainview Cemetery sign. As he approached the wrought-iron gate, Sam's voice rang in his head "There's the cemetery. People are dying to get in there." His younger brother must have been around seven when he'd picked up the joke from school, and repeated it, knowing Dean would get the humor in it. That was long before Sammy knew about the monsters lurking in the dark, before he discovered and rejected the family business, leaving his family—Dad and Dean—in the dust as he'd departed for Stanford University two years ago.
Dean shook his head and concentrated on the task at hand. He hopped over the only six-foot-tall ornamental cemetery fence, deciding that it was easier than picking the lock on the gate, and left less tangible evidence of his presence. He then walked carefully through the grave sites, slowing down to check the names when he approached the newer part of the cemetery, towards the back. Dad would doubtless fault him for having the shotgun in his duffel instead of crooked in his arm, at-the-ready, but he only had two hands, here. Besides, he'd extract the shotgun from the duffel as soon as he found the right headstone, so no worries. He no longer had the luxury of Sammy backing him up, splitting the load, and he'd had to adjust his procedures accordingly.
For a moment, he wondered how Dad - he could hear Sammy's sarcastic voice—"the great John Winchester"—handled his weapons and equipment in a solo hunt. Maybe he should ask? Maybe not, though. Dad wasn't much of a conversationalist these days; he ate, lived and slept hunting, most especially hunting for the thing that had killed Mom, now twenty years ago...
Oh, jeeze, way to get your head in the game, Dean! He sharply criticized himself, plainly hearing Dad's voice in his head. He went back to studying the names on the headstones—he'd never really stopped, even as he'd retreated into his memories. Dean was very good at hearing one thing and doing another. Even his brother envied his ability to "walk and chew gum at the same time", as Sam had snarkily put it more than once during the years they had both been Dad's good little soldiers. Joseph Tourmaline, Andrew Sexton, Dale Gooden—those names didn't even come close to the one he was looking for, Sherry Torrent.
Five graves in, he found Sherry. Dean dropped the weapons bag from his shoulder, unzipped it, and quickly yanked out the sawed-off shotgun. He stared at the headstone for a second, and gently placed the shotgun on the ground to the left side of the headstone. Out of the way of his digging, but it would be within easy reach if he needed it. Then he put the duffel next to the shotgun, far enough away that it wouldn't block his reach. He mentally measured off the space in front of the headstone and calmly extracted an illegal eight-inch switchblade, flicking it open with ease. Bending over, he thrust the knife blade into the ground, carving out a long rectangle in the grass. He pocketed the knife and swiftly rolled the grass up, setting it on the opposite side of the gravestone from his duffel and shovel. He carved out and removed two more grass strips, adjacent to the first one, making a big rectangle of soil in front of the girl's headstone. Then he grabbed his shovel, thrust it into the earth and started digging.
Dean paced himself, knowing that it would take a long while to dig down to the buried casket by himself. He wondered if going solo was the best thing for him; if he'd have been better off staying with Dad and hunting as the two-man team that they'd become since Sammy had quit the field. But John Winchester wanted Dean to be able to hunt solo, and what Dad wanted, Dean bent over backwards to give him. Another point of contention with his now-estranged brother, Dean's absolute willingness to do or be whatever Dad told him.
Dean stopped shoveling to wipe the perspiration from his forehead, then resumed digging. He had discarded his leather jacket when he'd commenced digging, and briefly debated removing his overshirt, too. However, it was October in Washington and the chilly night air was too cold for that. He soon had a good-sized mound of dirt piling up to the right of the hole, and he shifted his aim when he dropped the dirt, starting a new mound. This went on for hours, the only sound in the cemetery Dean's shovel, systematically extracting dirt from Sherry Torrent's final resting place.
Only it wasn't, Sherry having decided that she didn't want to stay buried. Instead, she'd wreaked havoc on two members of her family – her husband and his cousin, Joe.
Dean had found out about the weird happenings in Dryden by accident. He'd just been passing through and stopped at a local bar for a drink and some friendly games of pool. Actually, Dean didn't do friendly games of pool; he hustled pool. It was one of his tried and true ways to make money on the road, and pay for the things that his fake credit cards couldn't. He was also, at twenty-four, an accomplished poker player, which plenty of people had found out the hard way. Yes, Dean was, in every way, his father's son—something Sammy always maintained that he, himself, was most emphatically NOT.
Dean paused again to rub the sweat off his face, and change mental gears. He didn't like the way his upper brain constantly thought of Sammy, although if he was honest, he'd have to admit that his family was his world, so that limited his thoughts. Maybe when this little old salt-and-burn was done, he could drop by Palo Alto and check on Sammy... Hell, maybe he'd even get up the gumption to actually speak to Sammy, instead of just shadowing him from afar. No, not opening that can of worms, not now. He had a job to do, and he needed to focus on that.
He went back to digging, having made a lot of progress in the over two hours he'd been at his task. A few more shovelfuls and the shovel clanked, hitting the top of the coffin. About time. Dean redoubled his digging efforts, working to clear the space around the lid, so that he had access to its lock. This was a new coffin—pine, so Sherry's relatives were being cost-conscious in their choice of her eternal resting place. It didn't take him long to pick the lock and open the lid. As he did so, a gray blur whipped out of the coffin and floated above the ground to Dean's left, staring at him with accusing eyes.
"What are you doing here?" the ghost's voice was clearly angry, and loud.
Dean spun, quickly grabbing his sawed-off shotgun from the ground at her feet. BLAM! He shot at the ghost, the rocksalt hitting the spirit and causing her to disperse with a wail. Dean kicked it into high gear, knowing he only had minutes, if that, before the ghost rematerialized. He grabbed the salt and the gasoline and poured both over the exposed body, pink dress and decaying flesh still very visible. Then he grasped the side of the hole and heaved himself out of it. Reaching into his pocket as he rose to his feet, Dean struck a match and eyed the flame for a few seconds, dropping it into the exposed coffin's salt and gasoline-soaked contents. Sherry chose that moment to materialize and faced him across the opened grave site, glaring. "I'm gonna—" she started to say, then gasped as the flames rose from the burning coffin, and slowly burnt up her ghostly form, starting with her legs, leaving her face the last thing to go up in smoke.
"Rest in peace, bitch." Dean snorted. Score: Dean Winchester 1, Ghost Girl 0. He couldn't gloat too long, he still had to fill the dirt back into the hole, and then spread the grass strips back over the ground. Luckily, filling the hole was a much faster, easier job than digging it. In less than an hour, he'd filled in the hole and recovered it with grass. With any luck, no one would know that he'd been there. We do what we do and we shut up about it. Dad's number one rule resounded through Dean's head. He wearily picked up his shovel and walked back to the Impala. He stowed his gear in the trunk, getting a good whiff of ode de graveyard from his raised arms to close the trunk lid. I'm takin' a shower as soon as I get a motel room.
He paused long enough to strip off his plaid overshirt and black t-shirt. After dousing himself with cologne, he slipped into a fresh t-shirt and his leather jacket, then slammed the lid closed and hit the road.
Dean drove down the road and turned right onto a two-lane state highway, which actually had full, gravel shoulders on its sides, so it was a vast improvement over the road to the cemetery. A few minutes later, he came across a pink convertible pulled over to the shoulder, its hood raised. He pulled over behind the car, and got out. Dean blinked when he saw that it was a Mustang, souped up with custom hubcaps, a spoiler, and a vanity license plate. PNK LADY.
He saw the driver leaning against the driver's side door, cell phone to her ear. It had to be a woman, because what guy would put up with a pink Mustang? Which, come to think of it, must be a custom paint job, because pink wasn't a normal paint option for a speedy macho Mustang.
He approached the girl, hands loosely at his sides. "Hi. D'you need any help?"
"Yes." The pretty blonde gave Dean the once-over, doubtless noting his leather jacket, jeans and biker boots. Dean shifted his feet but met her gaze. Undoubtedly, she was also getting a sniff of Dean himself, too—the cologne could only go so far in masking his hours of toil in the cemetery.
He returned the favor, noting her short blonde hair, snug-fitting jacket (pink suede, to match the car) and curve-hugging raspberry jeans. A pair of textured pink cowboy boots peaked out from the bottom of the jeans. She was totally hot.
She snapped her flip-phone closed and tossed it into the driver's seat. "D'you know anything about cars? I was driving along, then I heard this loud snap or bang. The car died, so I coasted over to the side of the road. This late at night, there's not much traffic going by."
"Hmmm," Dean walked over to the raised pink hood—at least she hadn't added the thick black racing stripe; that would've been just wrong. "Well, 'bang' is never a good sound, coming from a car, but let me take a look." He bent over, leaning under the hood to feel around the engine, the carburetor, and a few other places. The area was lit up suddenly and he saw that the girl was holding a flashlight, allowing him a better view of the car's innards. Quickly turning his head towards her, Dean smiled. "Thanks. That makes the diagnosis easier." He stood up and withdrew from the hood. "But it doesn't change the results. You've got a broken belt."
"That's not something you can fix, is it?"
"By the side of the road? No, ma'am."
"Ma'am?" She coughed. "You can call my mother ma'am, but don't try it with me. My name is Amanda, Amanda Parmer —Mandy, for short. "
"Yes, ma—Amanda. Anyway, your car isn't going anywhere tonight. Did you call a tow truck?"
Amanda paused, then said. "I was trying to. The reception's kinda hit-or-miss out here in the boonies."
"I know what you mean," Dean replied. "My name's Dean Adams, by the way."
"Pleased to meet you, Dean—very pleased." She smiled again.
"D'you want me to try my cell? I might be able to get a useable signal."
"No, thank you. But I could use a ride, if you don't mind?"
Dean frowned slightly. Girls should not be asking strangers for rides in the middle of the night. At least, not normal girls, like the ones that Sammy was probably meeting at Stanford. It was unusual to encounter someone on a deserted road, maybe she wasn't exactly what she seemed, and her goal was to get inside the Impala, and then rob him? You've been watching too many cop show reruns, Dean chided himself.
"Where can I take you to?"
"The Appleyard Bar 'n Grill, it's about ten miles from here, close to Cashmere."
Dean did a double-take. "You want me to drop you off at a bar?"
"It's about the only place open this time of night around here. My cousin's the bartender there. He'll see that I get home safely."
"Well, okay. Appleyard Bar 'n Grill it is, then." Dean waited while the girl—Amanda—fished a handkerchief out of her purse and tied it to the driver's side door handle. Then she grabbed her cell phone and slipped it into her leather purse—pink, of course.
"I'm ready." They walked towards the Impala, Dean escorting the girl to the passenger side. Opening the door, he let her get settled before closing it, then rejoining her behind the wheel. He started up the engine, and the Impala glided smoothly back onto the road.
"Nice car," Amanda said, running her fingertips over the dashboard in front of her.
"Yes, she is."
"Turn right at the second crossroad and then follow US 2 into town. The bar's at the side of the highway, you can't miss it."
"Okay. Mind if I turn on some music?"
"Not at all."
Dean flicked the dial on, the speakers blaring AC/DC from where they left off. He caught a movement from the passenger seat and hastily lowered the volume. "Sorry, I tend to crank up the volume."
"That's okay. I like AC/DC."
Dean grinned, Miss Pretty in Pink had gone up a notch in his book. He wanted to ask her what she was doing out on the road so late, but the question might boomerang, with her asking the same thing.
"So, Dean, what're you doing out here this time of night," she giggled slightly, "besides rescuing damsels in distress, that is."
"Isn't that enough?" Dean asked mildly.
"Probably. But my father wants me to be a journalist, and you know how nosey the press is."
Dean's eyes glinted with humor, remembering some of Dad's less-than-favorable views of the fifth estate. "Haven't you heard of the old saying, 'Don't look a gift horse in the mouth?'"
"Sure I have, but that doesn't answer my question."
"I've got an answer," Dean said, mind searching for a plausible cover story. "But it's not very exciting, I'm afraid." He decided to go with a simple lie. No embellishments needed, easy to remember. "My business involves a lot of travelling, and right now I'm heading for my next job, in Palo Alto." Damn, he'd meant to say San Francisco, but Sammy was never far from his mind.
"You're a bit north of California."
"Yes, my last assignment was in Bismarck."
She looked him over, a slight smile curving her lips. "You're a long way from both, now. Were you planning on driving straight through? That can't be good for business."
"The boss gives me a hotel allowance based on travel dates, whether or not I actually stay in a hotel is up to me. I enjoy traveling the open road, so sometimes I just keep driving."
"Well, lucky for me tonight was one of your road nights."
They both noted the batch of bright lights they were approaching, and the neon sign "APPLEYARD BAR 'N GRILL" with alternating neon words in red and green. Dean pulled into the parking lot, close to the door. A few cars and more pickup trucks already occupied the lot. Dean filed the information to check the bars in small towns. Although it was after one a.m., the bar was a hotspot of activity even if the town had officially rolled up the red carpet at nine p.m..
"C'mon inside and I'll buy you a drink," Amanda offered. "It's the least I can do, to repay your efforts. Cashmere only has one taxi, and old Ed Garland's been snoring for the past couple of hours, at least, so I'd still be waiting for a ride, if you hadn't come along."
Dean looked at the girl, consideringly. "Are you old enough to buy drinks?" He'd learned the hard way that makeup and moonlight could add a few years to a girl's true age—emphasis on girl.
"Hey, I'm twenty-two! You look like you still get carded, too. " Amanda's tone changed from defensive to teasing.
"I'm twenty-four!" Dean protested automatically. Sheesh, even chicks think I look younger than I am. Hell, a beer—or something stronger—seemed fair compensation for an extra-long night. "All right." Dean found an empty space, pulled in and parked. Disembarking, he sauntered around to the Impala's other side and opened the passenger door, giving Amanda a courteous assist.
They walked into the bar, Amanda leading the way to the long mahogany bar located at the back of the mildly rustic-looking room.
"Mandy! What'cha doing back here?" the dark-haired twenty-something bartender greeted them, then resumed wiping down the bar with a hand towel.
"My car broke down halfway to Dryden," Mandy said. "Fortunately, Dean offered me a lift here."
The bartender turned towards Dean, eyes narrowing, but he spoke to Amanda. "What? Why didn't you call me? Never mind, I know—no signal, right? Your father's not gonna be pleased."
"I can handle Dad, Chris. I just need a ride home, when you're free."
"Damn, I wish I knew about this earlier, Mandy. I'm working late, promised Ned I'd do inventory and haul up the extra supplies for the festival this weekend. You know how busy it'll be."
"I can take Mandy home," Dean volunteered.
"And why should I trust you, Dean?" Chris's eyes narrowed.
"Because Dean's a friend of mine—not just some stranger who offered me a lift. Chris Parmer, meet Dean Adams. Dean, this is my cousin Chris." Amanda stepped back into the conversation with belated introductions. "He was an upperclassman while I was at Rainier, a coupl'a years ago. We met again tonight by serendipity."
Dean's estimation of Amanda rose again. He appreciated a good lie when he heard one—and a good liar. He leaned closer to her, smiling. "Hey, Mandy, where's that drink you promised me?"
"Coming up. Two drafts, please, Chris. We'll be at my usual table." Amanda walked away from the bar, Dean trailing her slightly. She made her way across the room and slipped into a half-circle booth, tucked into a nook close to the kitchen. Dean slid onto the green leather bench seat on the other side of the table.
"So, you're a co-ed?" Dean asked, making conversation as they waited for their drinks.
"Not anymore. Two years at Rainier University, in Cascade. But I still didn't know what I wanted to do at the end of my sophomore year, so I took a little time off to figure things out. Came back here to run the technical side of the family farm."
Dean grinned, a wicked gleam in his eye. "Hey, you're a genuine farmer's daughter?"
"Yes, but the farm's really an orchard—an apple orchard. Like everyone else around here, my family's into apples."
Dean noticed that the rustic motif to the bar had a heavy apple influence, come to think of it the free-standing tables - curved, off-white stands and painted red and green tops, kind of resembled apples. Now the joint's name made more sense, THE APPLEYARD.
A tall brunette waitress delivered two beers to their table. "Hey, girlfriend. Back for seconds?" the waitress inquired breezily, then flicked her eyes towards Dean. She lowered her voice, "You sure can pick 'em, Mandy." The waitress stepped back, smiling at Dean. "Let me know if you need anything else, sugar." Then she left.
Amanda gave Dean a half-smile. "That's Stephanie. We went to high school together."
She took a gulp of her beer, then put it down and met Dean's eyes. "Thanks again for giving me a lift."
"Anytime. Can't let a damsel stay in distress, it's not in my nature."
"Well, that's a comforting thought." They talked in generalities while drinking their beers. Amanda set down her empty mug. "Will you take me home, now, Dean? Sorry to drink and run but it's been a long day."
"Sure." Dean reached for his wallet, but Amanda gently grasped his hand.
"I'm buying, remember?" she said, dropping a couple of bills on the table. "Let's go."
Driving Amanda home took only a few minutes. Dean pulled into the indicated driveway at the side of a light-colored bungalow.
"Here we are." Amanda rummaged around in her purse for her keys and then turned to Dean. "Look, it's absolutely ridiculous for you to go find a motel at this time of night. You're perfectly welcome to stay here."
Dean's eyebrows rose. "What will your neighbors say?"
"Steph overheard us talking to Chris at the bar. I'm sure by tomorrow night it'll be all over town that you're a friend of mine from Rainier. So," she said, grinning up at him, "no raised eyebrows from the town gossips, at all. They'd expect me to put up an old college friend."
"All right, you've convinced me." Dean extracted the keys and they stepped outside of the car. "Let me get my bag." Dean walked to the trunk, opened it and grabbed his duffel, then followed Amanda up the porch steps and into her house.
"D'you mind if I use the shower?" he asked, setting his duffel on the first piece of furniture he saw, the living room couch. "As you must've noticed, I smell a little rank."
"Help yourself. Second door on the right," Amanda waved towards a hallway off to the left of the living room. "I'm gonna make some hot tea, d'you want some?"
Tea? That was for girls, although Sammy liked it, too. "No thanks." Dean politely declined, and then snatched up his duffel and headed for the shower.
Ten minutes later, Dean was showering, vigorously scrubbing the graveyard dirt and sweat from his body when he felt a slight draft. The shower curtain opened and Amanda stepped in, naked. "Let me wash your back," she took the washcloth from Dean's right hand. "And then I can thank you properly, hmmmm?"
Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed this glimpse of the working lives of our guys. Please let me know what you think!