Moira O'Connor gripped the pickup's faded, worn vinyl seat with aching hands. Jolting over the rough dirt road hurt her teeth. She glanced at her watch. Noon. She still had a pile of papers to grade for Monday.
From the corner of her eye she caught her image in the side-view mirror. She grimaced. Wine-red hair whipped around her face. Freckles sprinkled her nose and cheeks.
Hot Arizona wind poured through the open windows, stinging her eyes. Her anger churned like the red dust clouds kicked up by the truck's tires. She had work waiting.
"Take me back."
"No." Ben wouldn't look at her.
"You said we were going to lunch. There's nothing out here." The pickup shook over a washboard section. "Oooh! I don't know what's worse. The heat or this road. Turn around or I'll jump out."
"Doubt it. Good fifteen miles back to Kayenta."
She hated his smug tone. Since their argument at the school he'd avoided her. Then he showed up expecting her to drop everything to jaunt out to this godforsaken place. His white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel drew her gaze.
"Know you don't like coming out to the rez," he said in a tight voice.
She cringed inside. They'd fought when she complained about Navajo children cutting school to shepherd family flocks. In their heated quarrel she'd said dreadful things about the reservation.
Though she regretted her angry words, he still didn't have any right to drag her out here. She glared at his profile.
"Why are we here?"
"There's no place to eat."
He didn't answer, but his jaw tensed. Damn laconic man! When he got like this, she couldn't get anything out of him. He said he was a modern cop, but sometimes she felt she'd gotten involved with a good old-fashioned wooden Indian.
She settled back, but the breakneck pace bounced her around. Bending forward seemed the better of the two. At least she could hold onto the seat.
Music might relax her, but the blasted radio hadn't worked in heaven only knew how long. Except for the rattle and roar of the truck, the silence stretched on like the bumpy road they traveled.
A loud bang erupted from under the hood. Ben looked in the rear view mirror and cursed. Moira turned. Heavy, black smoke poured out behind the pickup. She groaned. The engine sputtered and ground to a halt. Ben pounded the wheel, then sighed.
"Must have thrown a rod."
"Now what?" She wasn't up to hiking back to civilization.
"For what?" Her voice shook. They'd bake in the heat. At least she would. Doubtless, his thick hide wouldn't feel anything.
"Someone will be along."
"How? No one knows we're here."
His knowing smile irritated her. She looked up at the tortured sandstone monoliths. They'd probably become her tombstones.
"Great. I suppose your people's intuition will tell them we need help."
"Believe what you want. We're expected."
"Fine. Meanwhile, I'm starving and could use a tall, cool drink. Think you could let them know to bring the goodies?" Her sarcasm seemed to slide off him.
He reached toward her and she tensed for battle. With a short laugh he opened the glove compartment. She leaned back, flushed with embarrassment at her assumption. He held something out to her.
Confused, she stared at him.
"It's an orange," he said.
She felt like a slow student. He took her hand, cupping it around the fruit. The orange looked fresh; its bright sunset colored skin shiny and full. They were hard to come by here. When they first met, she'd told him she loved oranges, but could seldom find them.
"Always keep one handy for emergencies."
"What kind of emergencies?"
"Like this. Especially if you're around."
She struggled between fury and delight. The orange called to her. Its rough skin begged for a caress. She rubbed the surface, then breathed in the faint aroma. Her mouth watered.
"Gonna eat it or inhale it?" he asked. He leaned against the door, then pushed his battered cowboy hat back on his head.
She made a face. Her stomach demanded she dig in. She'd share it so he wouldn't think her greedy.
"I'll eat it, if you'll have some."
He shrugged and closed his eyes. That wouldn't do.
"Don't go to sleep on me. Who'll protect me?"
"Yeah, right. Some wild Indian might kidnap or rape you." He made a disgusted sound, but kept his eyes open.
Her stubby fingernails couldn't break the skin. She dug her teeth into the tough covering, relishing both the bitter taste and sweet, tangy smell. Her forefinger widened the opening. She slid her finger under the firm skin, enjoying the cool, smooth surface of the pulp and fruit beneath.
Tugging the peel from the soft inner flesh, she reveled in the mist of orange oil. She eased the big juicy orange's navel out, then poked her thumb into the hole to halve the fruit. The feel of it tearing apart reminded her of their fight.
"You eat it." He shoved his hat over his face.
He wasn't fast enough. She'd caught his expression. He'd looked at her like she was the orange. Tingling, she smiled in glee. Without warning, she tore his hat off.
"Hey!" He tried to snatch it back.
"Ah, ah, ah. No orange, no hat." She tore off a section, juice dripping from her fingers. "Open wide."
He looked mulish, but did as she asked. She took her time guiding the piece into his mouth. Her wet fingertips grazed his lips. Entranced, she watched him chew, swallow, and lick his lips.
"Now you feed me." She offered him another section. His fingers brushed hers and pulled back as if her touch burned.
"I promise I won't bite." Her stomach growled again. "Come on. While you make up your mind, I'm dying of hunger and thirst."
She opened her mouth; her eyes shut in anticipation. Cool, soft and moist, the fruit slipped between her teeth. The sweet-sour moisture in her parched mouth elicited little moans of pleasure. In ecstasy, she mashed every ounce of juice from the pulp, then swallowed.
"Mm. Worth every minute of the wait." When she opened her eyes, she found him staring at her. She licked her lips of every bit of the orange's essence. "Another?"
At his nod she scooted closer. She'd give him more. More than he bargained for, if she had anything to do with it. The next wedge she placed in her teeth. She leaned toward him. His startled look became one of stark hunger.
He bent down, took the other end between his teeth, then met her mouth on her half. She got a tantalizing touch of lips before the section broke. Shaken, she found breathing difficult.
"More?" He made the word a caress.
They ate the orange, piece by piece. Their lips lingered a bit longer with each section. Finished, he sat back, watching her with a tiny smile. She couldn't name the moment she stopped wanting to get back at him and began to simply want him. She grinned.
"Time to clean up. Can't go around like this?" She took his sticky, juice-covered hand and licked each finger from tip to base. His flesh tasted of salt mingled with the bite of orange. By the time she got to his thumb, he groaned and pulled her onto his lap.
"My turn." He kissed her chin, then ran his tongue around her mouth.
Without hesitation, she returned his touch, enjoyed the mutual surrender. His arousal pressed against her hip. She moved deeper into him.
"No!" He pushed her away, then closed his eyes. "Sorry."
"Promised myself I wouldn't lose it."
She touched his arm. He flinched as though she'd scorched him.
"I'm the one who's sorry. I shouldn't have said what I did. I'm trying to understand you. Won't you do the same for me?"
He looked away. She leaned forward to catch his words.
"You always want us to understand. But when it comes to seeing our side, you turn a blind eye."
"That's not fair and you know it. You can't blame me for past wrongs against your people by mine." She sighed. Underneath his tough exterior he was as soft as the orange. She just needed to find the right thing to pry it open. "I wouldn't be out here if I didn't want to be."
"Wouldn't be here if I hadn't dragged you off." He shrugged. "Guess I lived up to your image of the stupid savage."
"That's not what I said." He evaded her eyes. "Ben Chee, look at me." Frustration tinged her voice. "I care for you. We don't have to agree on everything. Just work with me. I promise I'll try to see both sides."
His tormented gaze dragged back to her.
"Should've told you where we were going." He paused.
She bit back her exasperation and waited.
"Grandmother wants to meet you. She approves of your teaching our young. Just thinks you should do it closer than Kayenta so more kids can come."
"Why couldn't you just tell me that?"
"Thought you'd refuse to come."
"I wouldn't have. Now will you kiss me or sit there and suffer in silence?" She watched him shift in discomfort.
"Come on. What I said before, I said in anger. I apologized. What more can I do?"
With a lopsided smile, he held his arms out.
"Guess the orange was a good idea." He chuckled.
"You better believe it."
She snuggled against him, basking in the red rock heat. Wind whispered across them. A hawk cried high above.