Gnome On The Range

gnome_on_the_range 1200Gnome On The Range

RomCon 2012’s Readers Crown Award Winner for Best Contemporary and Best First Book!

Copyright 2011 by Jennifer Zane

Chapter One

“I’m not sure which one I want. I didn’t realize there were so many choices!”

The woman wasn’t on the hunt for a new car or juice boxes at the grocery store. Nope. She wanted a dildo. I called her type a Waffler. Someone who contemplated all options before even attempting to make a choice. Because of Miss Waffler, I had ten different dildo models spread out across the counter. Glass, silicone, jelly and battery powered. She needed help.

That’s where I came in. My name is Jane West and I run Goldilocks, the adult store my mother-in-law opened back in the seventies. Story goes she named it after the fairytale character when a mother bear and her two cubs walked down Willson right in front of the store the week before it opened. She called it fate. Or it could have been because her name is Goldie, so it made sense. I started working for her when my husband died, a temporary arrangement that helped her out. Three years later, things had turned long-term temporary.

The store was tasteful considering the offerings. The walls were a fresh white, shelves and displays just like you’d find at the typical department store. Then tasteful made way for tacky. Gold toned industrial carpet like you’d see in Vegas, a photo of a naked woman sprawled artfully across a bearskin rug over the counter. A sixties chandelier graced the meager entry. Goldie had to put her unique stamp on things somehow.

It wasn’t a big store, just one room with a storage area and bathroom in back. Whatever she didn’t have in stock—although you’d be amazed at the selection Goldie offered in such a small space—we ordered in. Montanans were patient shoppers. With few options store-wise inBozeman, most people ordered everything but the basics from the Internet. There’s one Walmart, one Target, one Old Navy. Only one of everything. In a big city, if you drove two miles you came across a repeat store. Urban sprawl at its finest. Not here, although there were two sets of Golden Arches. One in town and one off the highway for the tourists who needed a Big Mac on the way toYellowstone. The anchor store of the town’s only mall was a chain bookstore. No Nordstrom or Bass Pro Shop out here. You shopped local or you went home.

In the case of the woman in front of me, I wished she’d just go home.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked helping people and I’m comfortable talking sex toys with anyone. But this time was definitely different. Big time.

Behind Miss Waffler stood a fireman. A really attractive, tall, well muscled one wearing a Bozeman Fire T-shirt and navy pants. Can you say hot? A hot man in uniform? Yup, it was a cliché, but this one was dead-on accurate. He’d come in while I was comparing the various dildo models before I went into the perks of having rotation for best female stimulation. The first time.

“Can you explain the features of each one again?” Miss Waffler had her fingers on the edge of the glass counter as if she were afraid to touch them. Petite, she was slim to the point of anorexic. Her rough voice said smoker, at least a pack a day. Her skin was weathered, either from cigarettes or theMontanaweather, and wrinkles had taken over her face. She’d be pretty if she ate something and kicked the habit.

I gave her my best fake smile. “Sure.”

I darted a glance at the fireman over the woman’s shoulder.Sandyhair trimmed military short, blue eyes, strong features. Thirties. A great smile. He seemed perfectly content to wait his turn. If the humorous glint in his eye and the way he bit his lip, most likely to keep from smiling, was any indication, he was clearly enjoying himself. A radio squawked on his belt and he turned it down. Obviously my lesson on sexual aids was more important than a five-alarm fire.

Miss Waffler was completely oblivious of, and unaffected by, the fireman. I now knew why she wanted a dildo.

I picked up a bright blue model. “This one is battery powered and vibrates. Three settings. Good for clitoral stimulation.” I put it down and picked up another. “This one is glass. No batteries, so it’s meant for penetration. The best thing about it is you can put it in the freezer or warm it and it provides a varied experience.”

The woman made some ah sounds as I gave the details. I went through all the possibilities with her one at a time. I got to the tenth and final model. “This one is obviously realistic. It’s actually molded from the erect penis of a porn star. It’s made of silicone and has suction cups on the base.”

Fireman peered over the woman’s shoulder as I suction cupped the dildo to the glass counter. Thwap.

“You can attach it to a piece of furniture if you want to keep your hands free.”

Both fireman and Miss Waffler nodded their heads as if they could picture what I was talking about.

“I’ll take that one,” she said as she pointed to number ten. The eight inch Whopper Dong.

“Good choice.”

I rang up Miss Waffler’s purchase and she happily went off to take care of business.

And there he was. Mr. Fireman. And me. And dildo display made three.

“Umthanks for waiting.” I tucked my curly hair behind an ear.

“Sure. You learn something new every day.” He smiled. Not just with his mouth, but with his eyes. Very blue eyes.

Right there, in the middle of my mother-in-law’s sex store, dildos and all, there was a spring thaw in my libido. It had long since gone as cold asMontanain January. Who could have blamed it with all of my dead husband’s shenanigans? But right then I felt my heart rate go up, my palms sweat from nerves. The fireman didn’t seem the least bit phased by my little sex toy talk. I, on the other hand, was having a hot flash like a menopausal woman just looking at him.

“I’m Jane. What can I help you with today?” Hi, I’m Jane. I’m thirty-three. I like hiking in the mountains, cross-country skiing, I’m a Scorpio, and I want to rip that uniform off your hot body. I wiped my sweaty palms on my shorts.

He laughed and held out his hand. His grip was firm, his skin warm and a little rough. “Ty. Thanks, but no toys for me.” A pager beeped. He looked at it briefly and ignored it.

“Don’t you need to answer that? A fire or something?” I asked.

“Cat up a tree,” he joked.

I laughed, and heard my nerves in it. I took a deep breath to try and calm my racing heart. It didn’t work. All it did was make me discover how good he smelled. It wasn’t heavy cologne. Soap maybe. I didn’t really care if it was deodorant. He smelled fabulous.

“Actually, it was for station two. I’m here for your fire safety inspection.” He placed papers on the counter. Had he been holding them all this time? I hadn’t noticed. For the next fifteen minutes we went over fire inspection paperwork with an elephant in the room the shape of a dildo.

***

The next morning I was out bright and early. If you lived in Montana, you got out and enjoyed good weather while the getting was good. Even in July. Especially in July. The days were long, the sky was big and there was a lot to do before it got cold. I don’t mean November like the real world. This wasBozeman. Summer was over the day after Labor Day. It’s even been known to snow in July. With that small window for wearing shorts and flip-flops and the threat of white flakes at any time, I was out and about by seven on a Saturday. I got more done before nine in the morning than the military. Not because I really wanted to, but because I have kids.

My boys, Zach and Bobby, were raring to go. It was Saturday morning, and that meant garage sales. To kids, garage sales were serious business. Toys to be had, books to find. Even free stuff to rake in. As a grown up, I loved buying stuff I didn’t know I needed. Last week I bought a shoe rack for my closet and a toaster for the pop-up camper. For two dollars, I can have some toast while camping in the wilderness.

We were in the car, Kids Bop bounced out from the CD player. I had the hot garage sales circled in the classifieds, the Bozeman Chronicle open on the passenger seat next to me, ready to guide us to our treasures. The morning’s first stop was a volunteer fire department’s pancake breakfast. Bargain shopping could wait. With a pancake breakfast, I didn’t have to cook (at seven in the morning, who wanted to?), the kids could stuff their faces, and I could get coffee. Coffee.

I realized the kids were yakking at me, so I turned down a sugary version of Dynamite to listen.

“He’s so cool, Mom. He’s a fireman and he was a soldier and he said we could play in his yard. He’s at least seven feet tall. His snow blower is bigger than ours. His truck is silver and it has four doors,” Zach said from his booster in the back.

“He gave me a high five after I ridden my bike down the sidewalk. His name is Mr. Strickland,” Bobby added. I peeked in the rearview mirror and saw him nod his head, super serious.

The man I’d heard about ever since the boys woke me up was Mr. Strickland, the new neighbor. Mr. Strickland did this, Mr. Strickland did that. The boys’ new super hero had just bought the house two doors down. I hadn’t met him yet, but the kids obviously had. In my coffee deprived mind I pictured a fifty-something man with half a head of graying hair, a slight paunch—he was a fireman, so it couldn’t be too big—and by Zach’s description, taller than a basketball player. Great. He’d come in real handy when another ball got stuck up in the gutter.

“The Colonel likes him a lot,” Zach said.

Well, that settled it. If the Colonel gave his approval, the man had to be all right, regardless of gargantuan size. The Colonel’s real name is William Reinhoff, but everyone who knew him, which was the entire town, called him Colonel. He’d earned the title while fighting inVietnamand it stuck. Gruff and ornery on the outside with a campfire toasted marshmallow center, he was one of my favorite people. The Colonel’s house was wedged between Mr. Strickland’s and mine. He was next-door neighbor, pseudo father, close friend, occasional babysitter, and my mother’s long-distance boyfriend. The kids had obviously met Mr. Strickland with the Colonel while I was at work yesterday and the man had made a serious impression. No way would the Colonel let the kids call the man by his first name. He was entirely too old school for that.

I pulled into the packed dirt parking lot of the fire department, parked, and turned to the kids. They sat in their boosters with the dollar bills I’d given each of them to spend on garage sale paraphernalia clenched in their fists. At seven, Zach was string bean skinny with knobby knees and dimples. Blond hair and light eyes had him looking like me. No one was sure where Bobby got his black hair and dark eyes as they surely hadn’t come from either me or his father. Some people said he might be the Fed Ex man’s kid, but I didn’t see much humor in that. My husband had been the cheater, not me.

“Take only what you can eat, good manners, and put your dollar bill in your pocket so you don’t lose it,” I reminded them.

The kids nodded their heads with excitement. Garage sales and pancakes. Could life get any better?

The sun felt warm on my face. It had just popped up over the mountains, even though it had been light for almost two hours. “Leave your sweatshirts in the car. It’ll be warm when we come out.” I stripped off my fleece jacket and tossed it onto the front seat. It might have been summer, but it still dropped into the forties overnight.

The breakfast was in the fire department’s bay. One big space, concrete floor and walls made of gray sheet metal siding. Two fire trucks were parked out in front with volunteer firemen watching kids swarm over the equipment. My two looked longingly at the apparatus but knew they could explore once they ate. Inside it smelled like bacon and coffee. Two of my favorite things. I collected paper plates and plastic utensils and got in the buffet line for food.

“There’s Jack from school,” Zach said as he tugged on my arm and pointed. I waved to Jack and his parents who were already digging into their pancakes at one of the long tables. Everywhere you went inBozeman, you ran into someone you knew. It was impossible to avoid it. Even a seven year old like Zach felt popular. It was nice sometimes, the sense of community, but once I ducked around an aisle at the grocery store to avoid someone so I didn’t have to talk to them. Who hasn’t? That time it was my dental hygienist and I hadn’t been overly interested in being interrogated about my flossing practice.

Since I ran Goldilocks, the only adult store nearby (you had to go all the way toBillingsotherwise), I had a lot of customers. Local customers. It was hard sometimes to make small talk with someone at the deli counter when you really only knew them from that time they came to the store to purchase nipple clamps for the little wife. Thus, the ducking around in stores. I held a lot of confidences, kept a lot of secrets, and over the years, the general population trusted me with them.

We approached the first breakfast offering. At the word ‘eggs’, the boys stuck out their plates. I watched them load up and move on to hash browns, which they skipped over with a polite, ‘No, thank you.’ I gave myself an imaginary pat on the back for their good manners. They could squawk like roosters at each other but were almost always polite to strangers who offered food.

“Mom! There’s Mr. Strickland!” Zach practically yelled.

“Hi, Mr. Strickland!” Bobby chimed.

I searched for Mr. Strickland over the crowd of tables, down the length of the food, looking for the Mr. Strickland of my imagination. Where was the fifty-something man? The paunch? Zach held out his plate for pancakes.

“Hey, Champ!” the pancake man said to Zach.

My heart jumped into my throat and I broke out in an adrenaline induced sweat.

“Holy crap,” I said.

Pancake man was not fifty. Not even forty. He most definitely didn’t have a pot belly. Only an incredibly flat one under a navy fire department T-shirt. Solid. Hot. Zach had certainly exaggerated Mr. Stricklands’s height. He was tall. I had to tilt my head up a bit to look him in the eye, which I found A-OK. Being 5’ 8”, I liked a man with altitude.

The fireman was certainly lighting my fire.

“Holy crap?” Pancake Man, also known as Ty Strickland, replied.

Flustered, I tried to smile, but I was mortified. Not because I said ‘Holy crap’, that just slipped out. I could have probably come up with something better, but holy crap, he was the fireman who’d come into the store for the fire inspection.

“I know you,” Ty said, smiling. Damn. His teeth were straight and perfect. I could feel my blood pressure going through the roof. No bacon for breakfast for me or I might have an embolism on the spot. “You’re Jane from Goldilocks.”

“You know Mom from work?” asked Bobby, eyeing both of us curiously. His plate was filled with food and he needed two hands to carry it. “Mom says her work is for grown ups.”

Ty nodded his head and looked Bobby in the eye. “I had to inspect the sprinkler system and make sure there are fire extinguishers in the store. I was working, too.”

“Boys, take your plates and find a place to sit. I’ll be right there.”

“Will you sit with us, Mr. Strickland?” Zach asked.

“Why don’t you two call me Ty, all right?”

The boys nodded their heads.

“Give me a few minutes to finish here and I’ll join you,” Ty replied, holding up his pancake tongs. The kids scurried off to scarf down their meals. Ty watched the boys go then turned his gaze to me. Grinned.

“I learned a lot from you at the store yesterday,” Ty said. He appeared to be enjoying himself immensely. Me, not so much.

Standing in the pancake line I did a quick mental inventory. It wasn’t quite eight in the morning so I wasn’t at my best. On a good day, or at least later in the morning, I liked to think of myself as better than average looking. I’m above average in height, longer than average in curly, dark blond hair, larger than average in breast size, and lighter than average in weight. The weight part I could thank my mom. Like her, I can eat whatever I want and not gain an ounce.  My best friend Kelly hates me for that, but what can you do? She should hate my mother instead.

The downside to being skinny is that I have no calves. None. It’s a straight shot down from knobby knees to feet. I could run until the cows came home and I wouldn’t develop calves. At least Kelly had calves. The rest, and I guess including the calves, was just weird genetics.

Of course this morning I hadn’t pulled myself together as I should, or how Kelly said I should. I’m what is called a low maintenance woman. I don’t even think I had a can of hairspray in my house.

I went over the crucial things in my mind. Hair, breath, bra, zipper. At least I’d brushed my teeth, but my hair was pulled up into a ratty ponytail, probably curls sticking out every which way. I wore shorts (the zipper was up), an old Sweet Pea Festival T-shirt and flip-flops. No make up. It couldn’t have gotten much worse unless I had decided to skip a bra. Which, being a 34D, would have been really bad.

I was a mess! Kelly would disavow any knowledge of me if she came through the door.

Then I remembered Ty was my new neighbor. No matter how much I felt like it at the moment, I couldn’t hide from him forever.

What could this guy see in me besides a complete slob who was an expert in dildos? What had I worn yesterday? It didn’t matter. He’d probably been too blinded by all the sex toys to have noticed my clothing. I felt like a total freak.

“This is one of those embarrassing moments in life.” I pointed my finger at him. Hot or not, I felt very cranky. “You need to tell me a secret about you so it balances out.”

A corner of his mouth tipped up into a grin. “Fair enough.” He leaned toward me over the platter of pancakes, looked to the left and right and whispered so only I could hear. “I can see the perks of the silicone dildo you talked about yesterday, even the one with the top that rotates,” he twirled his finger in the air to demonstrate, then looked me straight in the eye, “but I like a woman who goes for the real thing.”

Was that steam coming up off the platter of pancakes I was leaning over, or did I just break out in sweat?

***

It took Ty five minutes to separate himself from the pancakes and sit across the table from me and Zach, with Bobby on his right. He hadn’t left his grin behind.

“When we’re done here, we’re going to garage sales,” Bobby told Ty around a mouthful of egg.

“Yeah, we each have a whole dollar to spend,” Zach added. A piece of pancake fell out of his mouth and landed with a plop back in the syrup on his plate.

“No talking with your mouth full,” I murmured.

“Sounds like fun. Make sure you show me all your loot later,” Ty told them both.

The boys nodded to Ty in answer, their lips tightly sealed.

“Aren’t you eating?” he asked me.

I took a sip of coffee. “I will.”

He lifted an eyebrow but made no comment.

Small talk. I needed to make small talk. The kids could do it. Forget the past. The dildos. Bad hair. It was all about the future. “II didn’t know you were a volunteer fireman.”

Ty shook his head. “I’m not. I work in town for Bozeman Fire. Station one on Rouse. Here, this area south of town, is volunteer. I have friends on the department and offered to help this morning.”

So, it was small town coincidence I’d run into him. First thing in the morning looking a total mess. It would have worked better if I’d primped a bit and taken brownies to him at his house, welcoming him to the neighborhood. The only perk of running into him this way was I didn’t have to bake.

“What about you? Is Goldilocks your shop?”

“You must be new to town.” I reached out and grabbed Bobby’s OJ cup before it tipped over.

“Yeah,Montana raised, but new to Bozeman. I’ve been in the military for years.”

“Goldie’s my mother-in-law. It’s her store. Everyone knows Goldie. She’s famous around here. You’ll know what I mean when you meet her. She’s a pistol. I just work there to help her out since my husband died.”

Ty had a look on his face I couldn’t read. Pity, sadness, heartburn. It could have been any of them.

“My dad died in a hamburger,” Bobby told Ty.

Now Ty just looked confused.

“All done?” I asked the boys, grinning, glad to see the man at a loss. “You can go check out the fire trucks if you want.”

They didn’t need to be told twice. They were out of their chairs faster than a hunter at the start of elk season. I slid Bobby’s plate in front of me and I dug into the pancakes and egg left on the plate.

“Your husband died in a…?”

“Hamburg,” I said, and then laughed. “As in Germany. Blood clot that traveled to his lung, supposedly from flying.”

This was where I usually stopped when I talked about Nate’s death. Juicy gossip wasn’t something I wanted to deal with. But as I looked at Ty, I decided to share the rest. What the hell. What could it hurt? The man thought I was a Looney Tune already. “He was there on business—and pleasure. He died in bed with another woman.” I took a deep breath. “And another man.”

“Holy crap,” he murmured.

I got lots of pity parties and uncomfortable sympathy when people heard Nate had died. Only a select few knew about his extracurricular activities. I was long over it—him—when he’d died. I’d wanted to kill him myself a time or two for cheating on me so I found it ironic he’d died going at it. But I was still working on my self-esteem because of him, even years later.

Ty leaned forward, rested his elbows on the table. When they came away sticky with syrup, he grabbed a napkin and scrubbed at his arm. Obviously someone messy had eaten at the table before us. “Did you know about her—them, hisJesusyou know, before?”

The fire truck horn, which was probably one of the loudest things in the entire county, blared. Everyone within a mile must have heard it. Those in the bay were lucky if they hadn’t dumped their coffee in their lap. And gone deaf. Babies cried, old people placed hands on their chests contemplating a coronary. I saw Zach wave to me from the driver’s seat of the fire truck with a guilty look on his face. I waved back. “Long story. Gotta run before they arrest him. Welcome to the neighborhood.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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