Melissa K. Beynon
When I reached the ex-bridge, the sun was just topping the trees. My breath hung in the air like a fog until I walked through it, ever vigilant in my pace. Without much hesitation, I stepped up onto the tree and began a ginger walk across. Feeling myself getting a little too cocky toward the middle, I slowed down. The water wasnt as deep here as the rest of the lake, but deep enough to drench my clothes and leave me gasping and shivering as I had been upon my arrival on this little island.
Suddenly, I heard the unmistakable sound of hoof beats. Big ones. My temper flared, as there was only one reason she would be there. I couldnt let her talk me into going back with her. It just wasnt safe.
Go home, Lauren! I yelled, the anger in my voice startling both of us. Closing my eyes, I took a few calming breaths. When I opened them again, I turned away from her. Go home, I repeated, as if ordering a stray from my yard.
Joshua, its more than a days walk, she insisted, and I heard her boots on the tree.
Stop! I warned, whipping around.
Let me come with you, she pleaded, and I felt terrible, ungrateful, for just up and walking away. I dont understand why youre leaving! What happened?
Step back off and go home, Lauren, I growled. You dont want me around. Its not safe. Now go!
She must have been a troublesome two-year-old and a willful teenager because she took three more steps out of pure defiance. Her face said it all: lips a thin line, brows drawn together, eyes flashing amber fire. It was the fourth step that changed defiance to terror. Her foot slipped out from under her, her body twisted to compensate, and her arms windmilled as she lost her balance.
I screamed her name and threw myself in her direction as she pitched head-first into the water. Pain shot through my chest as I landed, but I managed to grab her ankle just seconds after she broke the surface. I reached in deeper, breathing so hard my lungs hurt from the freezing air, and grabbed hold of her thigh. Using that, I pulled her up, twisted her around, and lifted her from the water by an arm around her waist. She coughed, gasped, yelled from the cold as I stood and took off for Murdock, the horse shuffling nervously where she had left him. It was a miracle I didnt fall in myself, but I didnt think of anything except getting Lauren home and warm as fast as possible.
She started shivering immediately, her teeth chattering so loud I could hear them. Mounting the horse with an agility I attributed solely to adrenaline, I wasnt about to play it safe and trot on back. I grabbed a handful of main, dug in my heels, and yelled for him to take off. Like a two-ton bullet, he did just that.
Lauren was quaking in my arms, trying to curl into a ball even though it was impossible with the jostling Murdock was giving us. I didnt speak to her and only glanced down at her sparingly as I watched the trail ahead and held on. The horse knew the way better than I did because within minutes, we were slowing to a stop at the corral gate. I didnt need to worry about what he would do as Lauren had left the barn door open in her rush to find me.
I damned myself for causing this.
Bursting into the cabin, I saw a streak of fur dash under the couch as I raced, Lauren vibrating in my arms, into the bedroom. That nights fire was contentedly smoldering, so I set Lauren down to build an inferno with numb hands.
Sssso c-c-cold, she moaned, curling into the fetal position on the bed.
I know, baby, I sympathized from the fireplace now roaring to life. Hold on.
Rushing back to her, my heart slamming inside me, I started at her feet and began undressing her. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I realized I was fulfilling a fantasy. I cursed. This wasnt how it was supposed to be. I wasnt supposed to be undressing her to keep her from freezing to death. This wasnt the rosy skin of a passionate woman I was seeing. This was bluish and prickled with goosebumps. I felt like someone had bound my chest with constricting steel bands.
Her eyes were huge and pleading while I removed her coat and shirt, both soaked through. Youll be fine, honey, I assured her in a whisper, just fine. Smiling, I tried to make her grin with, Remember what you did to warm me up? Guess I get to return the favor, huh?
She did grin while her teeth kept right on chattering. Her arms shook as I peeled her shirt off. I stifled a moan of my own when I saw her taut nipples pointing from behind her semi-soaked bra. There she was, half-frozen and wearing nothing but her unmentionables and lake water, and all I wanted to do was kiss her. And not on her mouth.
Instead, I lifted her up with an apology to take her bra off and then her panties. It was then that she started to cry. Oh, Lauren, I breathed, hush, now, hush.
I hurt, she gasped, trembling and sobbing in a ball of naked flesh.
I stripped my top half in record time and lifted her into my embrace. I kicked the chair from her vanity into position before the fire and snatched the quilt from the end of the bed. Sitting close enough to the fire to singe my knees, I wrapped the quilt around us and snuggled her close.
Minute by minute, her shivering lessened as her skin warmed against mine. Where she touched me, all down her left side, she still felt like ice, but she was getting better. Bending my head, I tucked her face into my neck and rubbed my hands up and down her back and legs. Sitting quietly like that, trusting to warmth, I had nothing to distract me from the feel of her body. Evidently, Laurens borderline hypothermia didnt come close to deterring my desire for her. All I could think about was her derriere sitting on one thigh, her feet on the other, her hip against my stomach, her breast pressed to mine, and her white-knuckled hands fisted against my collarbone.
Eventually, I stopped rubbing my hands over her and just held her tightly to me. Thoughts of how this was my fault, that I had no right, that she didnt need and probably wouldnt want what I was wanting, did nothing to cool me as she warmed up. Just as I was sure my zipper would either melt or unzip itself, she leaned back so that she could see my face.
Why did you leave, Joshua? she asked quietly.
Blinking slowly, I took a deep breath before answering. No point in keeping the truth from her now. There was a gun in the bag, my bag. Her big eyes widened. Without thinking, I pulled it out and tucked it behind me as if Id done it a million times before. When I took it back out, I was hit with this memory of yelling and shooting. I dont know at who or why. I looked away from her, ashamed.
She said nothing, just tucked her face back against my neck. Then, quietly and muffled, Were you afraid?
I sighed, hugging her. I dont know what I am, Lauren. I could be any kind of criminal and youre putting yourself in danger by letting me stay here. Even as I said it, knew it was true, I hoped she wouldnt believe it.
You left so you couldnt hurt me, she stated, her voice still so quiet.
Yes. That was it exactly. She could be on borrowed time right now.
She sat back, making her next statement burn that much more because I could see her eyes. You hurt me by leaving.
I suddenly wanted to shake her, scream at her. Couldnt she tell - when she was sitting on a mans lap, for Gods sake! - that he was absolutely and blatantly aroused? For her! That any second Id risk everything and kiss her breathless? And that when I did, I wouldnt stop at a kiss or a dozen kisses, but keep on until I was buried to the hilt inside her?
I never got the chance to say one word about how hopeless we were. As I opened my mouth to tell all, she covered it with hers and stole all. Every word, every breath, every heartbeat was lost to her as she demanded and coaxed with full lips and quick tongue. That was all I needed to go tripping off to a world of shadow, fire, and petal soft skin.
Throwing the quilt off to the side, I gave myself up to the sensations she could so easily create. I didnt think, didnt want to, as my hands glided along the channel of her spine, and she pressed those luscious breasts against my chest. I could do nothing but feel her hands in my hair, her legs moving around to grip my waist, my hands pulling her closer, my legs carrying us both from chair to bed.
I eased her down and leaned over her. She lay there in all her glory for my eyes and hands and mouth to feast on, and I asked her silently, one last time, if she was sure. Her answer was a smile, tender, contented, and beautiful.
I kissed her and, for better or worse, the world fell away as we loved.
~ ~ ~
As the noon sun melted the frost from the window panes, I gazed down at the serene face of the woman who held my heart in her gentle hands. I was exhausted thanks to a night of sleeplessness, an early morning of fear and worry, and a brunch of blissful lovemaking. Yet I couldnt close my eyes for fear of missing something.
Neither of us knew how long our isolation would last. If it was just a few more hours or a few more days, I didnt want to lose one single second. Even the tiniest things had great significance: They were all a part of Lauren Walker. I memorized the contour of her face. The pattern of her lashes as they fanned across her cheeks fascinated me. I was hypnotized by the rhythm of her breathing. I was drunk with her scent and captured by the simple sensation of skin touching skin.
I caressed a short lock of her silken hair and watched as it curled its length around my fingertip. In her sleep, she smiled just a bit when I cuddled her a little closer. Seeing that smile, I relived the way those lips had kissed me and how they had succeeded in driving away all my concerns and doubts. If, at least, for a while.
I wouldnt think about that. Not yet. I needed these few moments before she woke and thought about them with me. Just to look at her, touch her, for a little longer. I wanted her again, but hated to wake her and ruin this beautiful moment. But the head on my shoulders wasnt the one in charge right now, and when I felt her smooth leg rub against mine from knee to waist, I knew she was already awake.
Do you always take advantage of a sleeping woman? she whispered with a grin, her eyes still closed.
I wouldnt know.
Her eyes popped open. Thats right, she said with a bit of delight. You cant compare me to anyone else, can you? She gave me a naughty laugh.
I smiled, moving over her. You like that, hm?
Oh, yes. She grinned, pulling me down for a searing kiss.
We both heard it at the same time. She stopped kissing me, and I stared down at her. There was no mistaking what it was; there was nothing else around to drown it out or dilute it in any way. She closed her eyes, and I closed mine, resting my forehead against hers.
A helicopter could mean only one thing.
~ ~ ~
The clearing behind the cabin didnt seem big enough to land a helicopter in, but apparently the pilot was determined. The updraft kicked up only a small storm of snow, as much of it had crystallized into a crunchy layer over powder. All sound vanished save for the propellers thup, thup, thup.
Seeing no point to hiding inside, Lauren and I stood on the tiny back porch, our hands clasped and hidden from the view of our party-crashers. My heart was pounding furiously and I couldnt catch my breath. I knew from Laurens squint-eyed stare that she was debating whether to fight or flee. The grip she had on my hand told me she was wondering if she should whisk me away or throw herself in front of me. I squeezed her hand right back and, for the moment before I turned to watch the helicopters passengers exit, I was touched by the concern for my safety that I saw in her eyes.
I cursed when I saw who they were. There could be only one reason for them to be here. Who else would come looking for a criminal suspect crossing who knew how many state lines? Every last one of them wore a navy parka sporting three very significant letters.
Laurens mittened hand covered her mouth while she gasped silently. As I let go of her hand and descended the four steps, I just caught her agonized speaking of my name.
Donovan! someone hollered, and a smile greeted me when I lifted my eyes. Hair as white as the snow under his feet was thick and wavy on his head, bushy on his brows, and a handlebar on his upper lip. A huge gloved hand removed sleek, black sunglasses so electric blue eyes could twinkle in my direction. Smiling like hed just found a long lost friend, the man picked up his pace to reach me. The bear hug he wrapped me in as my feet came off the ground shocked me into two realizations.
This was definitely not the way a Fed would greet a Felon.
I had endured these hugs before.
And I knew that not because he did it without hesitation upon reaching me. I knew because I braced myself for it, felt the familiar concern that he might actually break a rib this time, and smelled the cologne only he wore. It always made me sneeze.
As he set me back on my feet, the world spun around us and I held onto his rock-solid biceps until it settled down. He gave my back two rough poundings and said, Goddamn, boy, its good to see youre all right.
I know you, I answered, pulling at the tiny threads of memory that were slowly seeping back. Gradey Hollinstock, I whispered, awe-struck by the painless return of a lifetime of memories with this man. Dad died when I was twelve, his eyes registered confusion, but I continued, and you were his best friend. Youve been like a father to us. I have brothers! I shook him, suddenly laughing and excited.
~ ~ ~
I was sitting on the couch, leaning forward on my knees and devoting my complete attention to Gradey. My memory was still fuzzy at best, but small snippets were returning with every word he said. My identity fears were draining away, as well. I wasnt the escaped con that Id thought I could be. I was, in fact, the very opposite.
Im an FBI agent, I murmured, pondering the idea.
That explains the gun, Lauren rationalized, and I turned to look at her. Her smile told me she was going to be supportive, but there was something more behind it, too. Now was hardly the time to ask, so I took her hand instead.
It explains the reason Id have it, but not why its empty and why I remember firing it out of fear and anger.
Almost everything about this last case went wrong, Gradey said with a frown, shaking his head. William Sharkhall was a sneaky little diamond smuggler who used a Cessna to get his product to his customers all over the US. Getting back from a trip to pick up diamonds from associates in Europe, he found not his usual pilot waiting at the airport but one Joshua Reilly. He smiled at me. It amazes me that you remembered your covers name instead of your real name. Well, that is your real name, you just left off Donovan.
Donovan Joshua Reilly, thats me.
So I was supposed to be his pilot while he flew all over the country?
Right. At every place you stopped, he sold the diamonds for cash. We moved in and arrested the buyers as soon as you left. He sat back, filling the chair with his size. That was the only part that did work, us tracking you in the plane and managing to catch the buyers.
What went wrong?
One of the buyers managed to get away and alert the next buyer who then told Sharkhall what was happening. Gradey shook his head with regret. We moved in to get you out, make it look like we were busting you both. Sharkhall doesnt carry, so he armed you like we knew he would. He smiled. Youre remembering firing at us. My mouth dropped open, but he raised his hands to reassure me. Blanks, kid, they were blanks. Sharkhall didnt know who was selling him out, so you knew well ahead that thered be trouble. You were probably angry because it wasnt working and scared because you were trapped.
It was like the damned O.K. Corral at high noon, Agent Seavers spoke up from his seat on the floor, facing the fire. The other two and Gradey agreed with him. Lauren gave my hand a squeeze.
So to keep the game going, I played bad guy and flew away. The scene from my memory ran through my mind again, but didnt disturb me nearly so much. I had been doing my job. Something had made me see that returning to the other side could have been dangerous so I stayed where I was and kept acting the part of pilot for a felon.
We assume Sharkhall was trying to get out of the country by heading to Canada from his stop in Colorado. We tracked you trying to avoid the storm, but lost you not long after you entered South Dakota. Gradey smiled fondly at me and I felt good returning such a smile. We just got lucky when we finally picked up this real faint blip in the southwest end of a lake. Took us a while to learn there was actually an island and a lady living on it. He winked at Lauren.
Would you like to see the crash site now? Lauren asked.
Gradey shook his head. Were going to head back to town and check in with the rest of the boys. Well send out a crew to take a look tomorrow. He shrugged. Theres no rush, now that we know Sharkhalls dead. He smiled at Lauren. There are some real worried people in Tucker right now, young lady. Why dont you come along with us and check in with your kin?
Oh, well, okay. She seemed surprised. I suppose Murdock will be fine on his own for the rest of the day. Milo, too. I can get someone to bring me back by boat tonight. Lauren stood and disappeared into the kitchen. I followed her.
What am I missing, Lauren? I asked quietly, standing behind her as she filled the cats water bowl.
Missing? What do you mean?
Lauren, somethings going on inside your head and I want to know what. Youve started acting like were comfortable acquaintances.
We are, she whispered, turning off the water without moving away.
I was taken aback for a moment. What was this morning, then?
She set the bowl on the counter and turned around to face me. This morning was saying good-bye.
Saying good-bye? Lauren, this isnt the end for us. I moved in closer and made her drape her arms over my shoulders as I held her. Were just getting started.
But Joshua. . .er, Donovan, you work for the FBI and Im a painter. You dont even know where you work out of.
First, call me Joshua. Second, Im fairly certain FBI agents can have relationships with people of any profession thats legal. Thirdly, it doesnt matter where I work out of.
No, it doesnt because there are federal buildings in most every big city. You dont live here full-time, right? So wheres home base?
Chicago, she whispered.
There were tears in her eyes and a smile on her face. I kissed her long and slow, reassuring her that I wasnt going anywhere if she wasnt going with me. When she looked up at me again, her eyes were sparkling like amber in sunlight.
~ ~ ~
I opened the gallery door and brushed the snow from my shoulders with gloved hands as I stepped inside. A young woman offered to take my coat and I gave it to her along with my hat as I surveyed the crowd for strawberry-blonde curls.
We had been apart for two weeks after Gradey flew us to the little town of Tucker, South Dakota. Memories had returned with familiar settings and simple things like my phone number, address, and family members were all there. More complicated things like certain aspects of my job were fuzzy at best, but getting better. With some refresher work, Id be back to work in no time.
But right now I wanted only one thing and she was wearing the ankle-length, lavender dress with sequins in the pattern and colors of lilac clusters I had mailed to her days before. Our daily phone calls just werent enough anymore.
I smiled as I slipped by regally attired ladies and gentlemen murmuring in awe about Lauren Walkers six Western American Winter paintings. Each one was a miracle of oil and canvas that was sure to capture the hearts of all who looked upon them. I paused in my conquest to stare at myself riding behind Lauren on Murdocks back, snow falling around us, and the feeling of peace and love flowing from the canvas. Apparently, she worked from memory and imagination.
An older lady in front of me did a double-take as she looked behind her before smiling happily up at me. Shes over there, she said, pointing toward Lauren, who stood talking to a small group.
I smiled and winked at her, making her giggle, as I walked in Laurens direction.
Standing off to the side, I watched her talk, noting that she was nervous as her hands fluttered in front of her. She wore make-up now, a pale lavender eye shadow and matching lipstick that sparkled. Her cheeks were rosy, maybe from embarrassment at so much attention or maybe because she was tired. I felt giddy and content just looking at her.
Her amber eyes finally caught sight of me. She looked me over from the tips of my polished black shoes, up my tuxedo with lavender cummerbund, to unbruised and freshly shaved face. I wondered what she thought of me dressed like this as opposed to the blue-collar pilots gear that shed known before. Her grin and the absent way she excused herself told me she liked what she saw.
You look beautiful, I said as she leaned against me.
So do you, she answered. Ive missed you, she whispered.
I kissed her with all the passion that had been building since I stepped into a car and left her behind two weeks ago. She tasted like wine, sweet and warm, as I caressed the exposed skin of her back. My fingers on her spine made her shiver.
She moved away and looked up into my eyes, smiling. Conspiratorially, she whispered, I want to slip out the back and whisk you away to my apartment so I can have my wicked way with you.
I told the valet to keep the engine running, I whispered back.
She took my hand and we made our escape.
Out in the snow, we waited for my car and I caught her grinning at me. What? I asked.
You look like Dick Tracy, she said. I love the hat, though. Very cool.
I laughed and hugged her close. He was just a detective. Im a federal agent.
She giggled and rested her head on my shoulder as I rubbed my hands up and down the soft black wool covering her back.
So does this mean I get to keep you, Joshua? she asked quietly.
Finders keepers, I whispered near her ear.
Melissa K. Beynon can be reached at email@example.com