Susanne M. Beck (SwordnQuill)
Disclaimers: The characters in this novel are of my own creation. Thats right, this is an uber story. Its also a sequel to my novel, Redemption. You really will want to read that first before tackling this one. Some may bear a resemblance to characters we know and love who are owned by PacRen and Universal Studios.
Violence and Naughty Language Disclaimer: Yup, both. Not as much of either as in Redemption (Im saving that up for "Restitution"), but there is some of each here.
Subtext Disclaimer: Yup, theres that too. This piece deals with the love and physical expression of that love between two adult females. There are some graphic scenes located within this piece, but I have tried to make them as tasteful as possible so as to not offend anyones sensibilities. Let me know if Ive succeeded.
Dedication: There are so many people to thank for this effort. First is Candace, who once again was there to read this novel in its entirety all in little AIM blocks of 50 characters or less. Her nightly feedback was sorely needed and gratefully received. Thanks also to MaryD and Lunacy for providing much needed and invaluable beta assistance. And, finally, a huge debt thanks to the self-proclaimed "Quillies" for reading the beta version of this and giving insightful feedback as well as putting up with and calming a bards emotional roller-coaster of emotions. Thanks, guys!!
Feedback: As always, is most welcome. It not only makes this job of writing (which is really a love) much easier, it also makes me better at it. And that is my goal. To become the best writer I can be. If the spirit moves you, you may reach me atSwordnQuil@aol.com with any questions, concerns or comments.
Final Thought: Retribution is the second in what will eventually become a trilogy. Redemption, obviously, was first. Then Retribution, and finally Restitution. Thanks to everyone who gives up a little of their time to come along on this journey with me. I can only hope that Ill never let you down.
Final Disclaimer: As with Redemption, this story will be posted in blocks of thirty or so pages per night. It is fully completed, down to the last punctuation mark, so I wont leave you hanging. J Promise.
It was cold. So cold.
And dark, like the bottom of a newly dug grave.
My whole body was numb; my heart, encased in a block of ice which promised never to thaw.
I could feel the rain around me, pelting down in almost horizontal sheets of stinging fire, driven on by the frenzy of an unholy wind.
A wooden shutter, torn askew by the power of the storm, slammed repeatedly against the weathered wooden siding, sounding a death-knell which rose even over the howling of the wind and the wailing of sirens. Sirens which, like the fog, crept closer and closer, not on cats feet, but on dragons bloody claws.
Lightening drew its spiky graph onto the sky, imprinting itself on my retinas.
Thunder cracked and rolled, pulling an inane thought to the forefront of my brain. Gods bowling with the angels again, my fathers voice said from somewhere beyond the grave.
And still I waited, blind and frozen like some immortal statue. Waited for the wind to cease its unending fury. Waited for the rain to part its opaque curtain.
Waited for a vision my eyes could not see. A vision my soul could not forget.
As if drawn into the clearing by the force of my unvoiced plea, still more cars came, their churning tires flinging muddy fans into the air. Their powerful headlights broke through the cloak of mist, illuminating the scene I wished so desperately to see from my frozen perch on the porch of the home Id helped to build.
A home, a dream, that I would willingly leave, never stopping once to look back upon it, if only someone would take these scales from my eyes.
She stood there straight and tall, backlit by the artificial lighting; my lover, my heart, my soul. Proud back unbowed, head held high, eyes blazing fire.
Proud, yes. But helpless.
Not against the arms which held her, nor the cuffs which bound her strong arms, nor even the guns that pointed at every vulnerable spot in an otherwise invulnerable body.
No, not that. Never that.
Helpless, instead, against the weight of a past which had, once again, come home to roost.
Helpless against the weight of a love she had sold her very soul to nurture and cherish.
The look in her eyes is something Ill take with me to the grave. A grave that, God willing, will not be long in coming.
Anger at her past for intruding. Rage at the arms which held her, at the guns which nudged her with their hollow silver noses. Sorrow, that the chance we had had ended much too soon.
Her full lips parted, and I strained to hear her words over the storms redoubled fury. But even they were taken from me, just as surely as she would be, drawn away into the mist from which only endings came.
But still, I watched as those lips formed words only my heart could hear.
I love you.
And then a word came which shattered my soul.
"No!" I screamed , bolting up and grabbing at my chest as the breath gusted from my lungs. My heart beat rapidly against fingers which trembled from the intensity of emotion welling up in me.
I blinked my eyes once, and then again, my pupils dilating to accept the feeble light from the window. Managing to relax the panic-induced lock of my muscles, I turned my head slightly, taking in the warm familiarity of the room around me. Oh, thank god. Its just a dream. Just a dream.
Nestled, sleep-warm, beside me, the object of my terrified thoughts mumbled, yawned, and stretched slightly, pale eyes blinking fuzzily open. "Are you ok?"
A smile rose unbidden to my face as I lowered my hand to stroke sleep-tousled hair. "Yes," I whispered. "It was just a dream."
Burrowing closer, she lifted a hand and lay it against my thigh, resting her forehead against my hip. She cleared her throat. "Wanna talk about it?"
I reveled in the warmth of the simple contact and slowly shook my head. "No. Im fine." I didnt have the heart to tell her that this same dream, which had haunted my sleep for the last year or more, had become nearly a nightly occurrence, tearing at my soul bit by merciless bit and leaving me drained and aching every morning. "Just go back to sleep, love. I know how tired you are."
Blue eyes narrowed, their gaze sharpening as she inspected my expression.
Consciously softening my face, I reached out and gently grasped her hand, my thumb tenderly rubbing against the harshly chapped flesh so stained with oil from her labors that it seemed it would never be clean again. Blinking back fresh tears, I somehow managed to keep my expression unguarded and relaxed.
She saw right through my attempt, and pulled her hand away from mine, reaching up to capture a tear on her finger. "Why are you crying?"
The answer to that was easy. "Because I love you."
She looked as if she were about to argue the point, but the weight of many nights of little or no sleep caught up to her and she yawned once again. "Love you too," she mumbled, her heavy eyelids already drifting down over her stunning eyes. "My angel."
I caught her hand once again as it drifted down from my face and brought it to my lips as I gave my tears permission to fall. "I love you, Morgan," I whispered around her warm flesh. "More than you will ever know."
Placing her hand back into my lap, I turned my gaze to the rain-speckled window, watching with idle interest as fat raindrops heralded yet another mid-summer storm. My vision trebled with my tears as I thought back over the rapidly fleeing remnants of my nightmare, wondering for perhaps the thousandth time if it was just a subconscious reaction to stress, as my dreams often were, or if it served to portend something infinitely more ominous.
Pushing the thoughts as down deep as possible, I leaned my head back against the wall and gazed out at the winter landscape, allowing my mind to go where it would. It chose a simpler time, where the scope of our world was narrowed down to just one word.
I stooped behind Ices broad back, desperately needing to pee, my muscles stiffened by the cold, mountain air and the need to stay absolutely still, my teeth chattering away like castanets in the hands of an insane Spaniard.
The sun was setting to the west, stealing the last feeble warmth from the early spring sky, and the wind redoubled its efforts to slip inside the painfully thin jacket Id donned that morning.
Ice had sold her bike to a friend of hers earlier, leaving her with a small wad of cash which, when added to my own pitiful sum, didnt amount to much. Wed made a quick trip to the local thrift store to stock up on meager supplies, painfully aware that the money we had would be all we had to live on until God knew when.
Wed walked from there, carefully keeping off the main roads, even when the urge to hook an easy ride from a passing trucker seemed almost overwhelming, especially given the screaming of my irritated and quickly blistering feet.
It was hours later before we finally made it to what Ice pronounced as the border. I didnt ask her how she knew, a map most definitely not being one of our meager purchases. It wouldnt have done me any good anyway. Ice was never the most talkative woman in the world, and I was sure her mind was occupied with far weightier matters than my simple, if nagging, curiosity.
At least thats what I told myself when my fifth question in a row was answered by a low grunt and a gesture to hush.
So, I kept quiet and contented myself with memorizing our route as best I could, my minds eye already in some warm room somewhere jotting down the days adventures in the journal I was determined to keep writing in.
If I had expected some grand pronouncement, a sign, perhaps, announcing that we were leaving the land of the brave and entering the home of the Canucks, I was sorely disappointed. The stretch of thickly wooded forest was much the same as the hundreds of others wed passed on our journey to freedom.
But when Ice suddenly halted and pulled me down behind a thick hedgerow, I realized that we were probably close to our destination.
And so we waited as the sun blazed out its last in a riot of color. We waited as the moon rose and the stars came out to watch over us, no doubt wondering, as I most surely did, exactly what it was that we were waiting for.
All I knew was that the stillness, the waiting, and the cold were not doing kind things to my bladder, and I was at the point where we either moved, and quickly, or I was going to do something I hadnt done since I was two.
To take my mind off my rather urgent need, I turned my thoughts to other things. Like this wonderful feeling called freedom and what it meant to me, even this far out in the middle of nowhere. I was still in that blissful honeymoon phase, I think, where even the most annoying of circumstances seemed to be viewed through a pair of those proverbial rose-colored glasses.
Everything around me seemed so impossibly vast and open without the constant specter of bars to mar the view and remind me where my place was at any given moment. To remind me that society considered me beneath contempt; unfit to make even the smallest decision for myself.
Even such a mundane task as needing to pee took on a whole new meaning when one realized that you could simply . . .well . . .do it, without having to ask permission from anyone but your own body.
I was shaken out of my quiet thoughts by what appeared to me to be oncoming headlights. I stiffened, placing a hand on Ices back and peered over her shoulder, determined to face what was coming, be it friend or foe, with as much courage as was mine to possess.
Moments later, my suspicions were confirmed as several pick-up trucks, blazing with lights, bounced over the rugged terrain and into my view. I could easily hear the shouts of drunken men over the roar of the engines. Several large deer were tied down to the hoods of the trucks.
The trucks pulled to a stop some yards from our hiding place, and one of the men jumped out, resplendent in his hunter orange vest and cap. He drunkenly weaved his way over to a tree quite near us, his breath huffing out in frosty plumes, and proceeded to do what Id been needing to for the past several hours.
I turned my head away in disgust, leaning it against Ices back. I nearly jumped out of my skin as her voice rumbled through her chest and into my ear. "Better put that away before somebody hurts you with it," she said in a menacing voice.
The big man squeaked and spun toward our position, his round eyes the size of saucers. "Whos there?"
"Ya got a license to be jacking deer out here, buddy?"
He paled under his thick beard, and for a second, I thought he was going to faint. Then his eyes narrowed and he took several determined steps toward us, apparently forgetting that a more sensitive part of his anatomy was left hanging, so to speak, in the breeze. "That you, Morgan?"
"Could be," came the taunting answer.
Behind her, I stiffened in surprise. These were our escorts? "Ice?" I asked, tugging at the back of her jacket.
Her head turned slowly, amused eyes meeting mine. "Yes?"
I gestured to the man still standing opposite us. "A marching band and a neon sign would probably be more subtle, you know."
She winked at me, then turned her head back around. "So, ya gonna just stand there all night with your little friend hanging out or what?"
The mans blush was vivid, lit up as it was by the blazing lights of the trucks off to the side. He quickly reached down and attended to business, before stepping closer and reaching a hand down to pull Ice from her hiding place.
Ice raised an eyebrow and looked at the proffered hand, then back at her friend.
He cleared his throat, blushed again, and wiped his hands off on his blood-stained trousers. "Jesus, Morgan, you nearly scared the shit outta me, hiding there like that!"
Rising to her feet with a grace I envied, my partner grinned and clapped her friend on the back. "Sorry about that, Bull. Thanks for meeting us out here."
The mans eyes widened again. "Us?"
Turning, Ice reached down and helped me to my feet, pulling me to stand beside her. "Us. Bull, meet Angel. Angel, this is my friend Albert. Bull to his drunken deer jacking buddies."
This time, his blush was truly spectacular, as he reached up and snatched his cap off his head and stood, wringing it in his hands. "Im sorry, Maam. I didnt . . . . Oh, God."
Grinning to ease his discomfort, I stepped forward and laid a hand on his arm. "Im very pleased to meet you, Bull. Thank you for helping us out like this."
"Oh . . .um . . .its wasnt anything much, Maam. Really. H-happy to do it."
Breaking through the mans embarrassment in a way so typical of her, Ice clapped Bull on the shoulder once more and gestured to the waiting trucks, their drivers and passengers staring at us with open-mouthed drunkenness. "Shall we?"
After a moment, Bull dragged his eyes away from me and slapped the cap down on top of his head. "Yeah. Right this way, ladies."
And, just like that, we were in Canada.
After a drive that seemed like an eternity over rutted wanna-be roads that had my fillings, and the teeth they were attached to, rolling around like dice in my head, a small shanty came into sudden view, a welcoming curl of smoke rising gracefully from the brick chimney.
Gratefully escaping from a truck cab that smelled like a distillery, I hugged my arms to myself as the cold conspired against me again, and looked at the tiny shack that was, apparently, to be a rest stop on our journey.
It look sturdy enough, but much smaller than I had expected, hardly more than a crude lean-to with four walls and a roof to hold it all together.
I shrugged mentally. I could do tiny. Id been in smaller spaces, after all. The green-painted walls of my cell came into my minds eye and I shivered, just slightly. No more of that, Angel. Youre free now. Start acting like it.
Mustering up a smile, I looked up at Ice, who put a careful arm around my shoulders and guided me into the cabin. Warmth from a blazing fire and the wonderful smells of grilling meat enveloped my senses immediately. My stomach, of course, growled its impatience, but the crowd around us was too boisterous to pay any notice.
Ice, of course, did notice, and quirked me a half-grin before turning and accepting a quick kiss on the cheek from a tall, handsome man with smiling dark eyes and a bushy moustache that almost covered his mouth. He waved a greeting to me as well before being pulled back to his cooking duties by the men who demanded food, and right now, if you please.
"Andre," Ice commented softly by way of introduction. "Not much of a hunter, but he cooks a mean venison steak. I think youll enjoy it."
I laughed. "After five years of jail food, Id enjoy a cardboard box if it had something more than pepper on it."
My lover smiled back in wry acknowledgement as Bull once again made his presence known, gesturing around the cabin with one massive arm. "Well, this is it. Its not much, I know. But at least its warm."
"And thats more than we could ever ask for," I replied quickly, looking around the tiny shack, which was, essentially, just one large room. Bunk beds were pushed up against three of the four walls. A couch, having seen better days around the time Lincoln was President, sat off to one side. A fireplace dominated the fourth wall, with a decent sized stove and a small refrigerator completing the ensemble. A rough-hewn table sat in the center of the room, loaded down with clothing, ammunition, gun-oil, and several objects which remained mysteries to me.
At a shout from Andre, several of the men began clearing the table, grumbling drunkenly if good naturedly, while Bull walked to the only door in the cabin and pulled it open.
An unbelievably tiny room was displayed. A narrow cot sat off to one side with a window above it. A three-cornered stool, a rather pornographic lamp sitting atop it, was the only other furniture that could have fit there. Ice could have easily reached across the entire space with both arms outstretched.
Thoughts of prison came to me once again, but I pushed them away, grateful for any bit of hospitality I was given.
"Its small, but the door closes, so youll have some privacy, at least."
"Its perfect," I pronounced, walking inside and laying my backpack on the bed. "Thank you, Bull."
Blushing again, he looked down at his feet before mumbling something unintelligible and backing away into the main room.
Shaking her head in mock exasperation, Ice stepped past the retreating man and joined me in the cramped room, looking around. "Not exactly the Ritz, but itll do in a pinch, I suppose."
I flopped down on the bed, crossed my legs, and grinned up at her. "Im not complaining. Its warm, the food smells heavenly, and I get to spend all night in this tiny bed with you. What more could a girl ask for?"
She smiled that heart-stopping grin at me, then ducked down and brushed a soft, warm kiss against my lips before straightening again. "Id give you a palace if I could, Angel."
"I dont need a palace, Ice. I just need you."
We might have gone on for years staring into one anothers eyes if my bladder hadnt chosen just that moment to announce its final summons. I jumped up from the bed. "Wheres the bathroom?" I asked out of the corner of my mouth, not wanting to be overheard.
"There isnt one," Ice responded in like fashion.
My eyes, Im sure, widened dramatically. "What?!? Then where do you . . . ?"
Taking pity on my desperate condition, Ice leaned over the bed, pulling the tattered window shade out of the way. "Outhouse."
"Great." I sighed.
My bladder twinged again, and I shrugged. Oh well, any port in a storm, I suppose.
Dinner was a loud, boisterous, but delicious affair. We ate pressed close together, Ice on my right, Andre on my left, the rest of the men trading outrageous hunting tales that went into the realm of science fiction rather quickly.
Though grateful for the kindnesses shown me, I couldnt help but feel slightly uncomfortable as the night wore on. After spending five years in the sole company of women, and in addition, having a bit of a sore spot when it came to drunken males, given my past history with at least one of their species, I felt myself gradually begin to close off as a means, I suppose, of self preservation. Ice was warmly supportive, but there were still places deep within me that even she couldnt reach, and this was one of them.
Giving my hand a warm squeeze under the table, Ice turned her head and brought her lips down to brush against my ear, sending a wonderful shiver throughout my entire body. "Why dont you bow out? Try and relax and get some sleep. Ill be back shortly."
That sent a great deal more than a shiver though me and I concentrated on keeping my breathing steady as I whispered back. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah. I have a couple of things to discuss with these brutes before they all pass out. Then Ill come back and join you. Sound good?"
I could feel my eyes closing against my will at the tickle of her warm breath against my neck. "Oh, it sounds better than good."
Though unseen, I could still feel her smile as she squeezed my hand once more before releasing it.
Taking another moment to compose myself and make sure my legs would hold my weight, I slowly pushed my chair back and rose to my feet, smiling at my hosts. "I hate to be a party-pooper, but all that walking, and the wonderful dinner, about did me in. I think its time I went to bed. Goodnight, guys. And thanks."
I entered the bedroom to the sounds of cheery goodnights and closed the door with a sense of profound relief as the sturdy wood drowned out the loudest of the noises.
Running my hands through my hair, I breathed out a sigh of relief and sat down on the narrow cot, picking up my knapsack and digging out my journal and pen, thinking to put the days adventures down on paper.
But the words wouldnt come right away, and, leaning back against one wall, I gazed around the tiny room, wondering at the paradox that something so reminiscent of my time in the Bog, a room no larger than my home for five years, could bring with it such a feeling of security.
Theres an old jailhouse maxim that says that an inmate spends all of his time thinking of ways to get out of prison, while an ex-convict spends all of his time thinking of ways to get back in.
While not entirely true in my case (or at least I hoped not), I couldnt ignore the fact that there was a certain sense of security that came with being told when to get up, when to eat, what to wear, where to go, what to do, and when to sleep. Freedom meant owning up to those decisions once again, and sometimes the choices seemed too many to reach an easy decision on.
I wondered, briefly, what Ices thoughts were on the subject, having spent many more years behind bars than I. Then I grinned and just shook my head at my own foolishness. The woman had truly blossomed outside the prisons imposing walls, giving me insights into her personality that could never have come if we were still trapped within the Bogs confines.
No, Ice caged was like a wild animal in a zoo. Pretty to look at, dangerous, but dying by slow inches inside, where it counted. I doubted if she spared even one passing thought about the place wed left behind, and if she did, words like comfort and security probably werent in her vocabulary.
Drawing my knees up to my chest, I wrapped my arms around them, rested my chin atop them, and stared blankly at an empty wall, thinking about the people, the friends, Id left behind, never realizing when I nodded off.
I awoke from a hazy dream of having tea in the library with Corinne, and blinked the sleep from my eyes to take in the vision of Ice standing against the door, looking down at me with an expression of such loving tenderness that my heart swelled in pure, emotional reaction.
"Hey," she said softly, pushing herself away from the wall and coming to stand beside the cot. "Didnt mean to wake you up."
"Thats ok," I replied, yawning and stretching the kinks from my neck and back. "I didnt plan on falling asleep."
"You needed it."
I could feel my eyebrow raise as I stared back at her. "So do you."
She smiled slightly. "Touché."
I grinned right back at her, scoring one for myself.
Her expression turned more sober. "Sorry about dinner. I knew you were starting to get a little uncomfortable."
I gave her a nonchalant shrug. "Thats ok. Theyre really nice." I couldnt help giggling a little. "I think Bull has a crush on me."
Ice grinned. "Bulls a mountain man. He doesnt get to see women very often. Especially not one as beautiful as you."
I was sure the blush on my face could have lit up the room. I cleared my throat a bit awkwardly, still unused, even after all this time, to receiving compliments, especially from Ice. "Where did you meet them, anyway?"
Sitting with casual grace on the bed, Ice copied my position, drawing her knees up and resting her head on the wall next to the window ledge. "Theyre friends of my fathers, actually. He used to come up here on occasion to get away from it all. Most of these guys are white collar types who like to work off their stress by getting drunk and going up against the savage, razor-toothed deer." Her lips curled in a wry smile. "Bulls been their guide for as long as I can remember."
As I watched, her gaze became distant, and a trifle sad. "My father brought me up here sometimes. It was fun, hanging out with them. Roughing it in the wilderness." She smiled again, sadly, this time. "He wouldnt let me handle a rifle, but then again, he wasnt much into them himself. So he taught me to bow hunt instead." She sighed. "It was right here, in these woods, where I deliberately took the life of another creature for the first time." She looked down at her hands, squeezing them into tight fists and releasing them. "And its never been the same since."
Reaching out, I covered her knee with my hand and squeezed gently. Her face became more relaxed as she reached down and covered it with her own. "Anyway, theyre usually up here around this time of the year. I managed to contact Andre at his restaurant yesterday, and set this whole thing up." She blinked, then turned her head to face me. "They really are good guys. Give you the shirt of their backs. Just a little too rowdy for their own good sometimes."
I returned her tender look. "Thanks for sharing that with me. I know remembering those times is hard for you."
She shrugged. "Nah. Its alright. You deserved to know, anyway. I didnt tell you before because I couldnt be sure itd work out, and I didnt want you to be disappointed if it didnt."
Smiling, I grasped her hand tighter and pulled it against my chest. "You havent disappointed me yet, my love."
She raised an eyebrow at that, clearly disbelieving, then tugged her hand back, and me along with it. I fell across her lap in an untidy sprawl, which she immediately corrected by pulling me up to sit beside her, my head tucked down against her chest and beneath her chin. Her warm hand made slow circles on my back and I felt my eyelids grow heavy once again, my sigh of contentment ruffling the denim fabric of her shirt.
One of the buttons on said shirt, right at my eye level, seemed to be a bit constricted, so I eased its burden by releasing it from its cloth prison. The soft skin bared by my labors begged for a kiss.
I obliged, smiling as the slowly circling hand on my back hesitated briefly before continuing on its way.
Because the lone button seemed so unhappy without its mates, I decided to give it some company and liberated another, smoothing my hand inside the opening Id made and pressing another kiss, a bit lower, against warm, fragrant flesh.
"Smooth, Angel." Her amused voice rumbled through her chest and into my ear, sending a flush of warmth through my body.
"Like butter," I replied, grinning into her chest before tracing the line of her sternum with the very tip of my tongue. My fingers reached under her bra to cup a firm breast. "Like silk."
The world spun a bit, then, and when I opened my eyes finally, I found myself straddling a taut waist, indigo eyes staring into mine with well-loved, and unmistakable, intent. Her bent knees provided a solid support for my back and I couldnt help but cry out softly as the front of my shirt was torn open in a scattering of buttons.
I was more than grateful that Id had the foresight to forgo a bra that morning when warm lips nuzzled into the valley of my breasts and a teasing tongue darted out to taste my suddenly sweating skin.
Her strong, beautiful hands slipped behind my back as her fingers slid down past the waistband of my jeans, pulling me closer to her body. Turning her head suddenly, she took a nipple into her mouth, and I responded sharply, thrusting against the strong, flat plane of her belly. The inseam of my jeans rode snugly against me with the move Id made and, groaning softly, I closed my eyes as my head lolled back over her knees.
She encouraged the motion of my body, using her strong legs to help guide me in time with her suckling lips, teeth and tongue.
When she switched to my other breast, my orgasm came so quickly that I didnt have time to even draw a breath before I stiffened and shook against her, rolling helplessly with the waves of intense passion that flowed through me, into my lover, and back again.
I barely had time to catch my spent breath before my back met a warm, slightly scratchy, woolen cover. Opening my eyes, I saw Ice above me, still gently thrusting her hips into my widely spread legs, her eyes dark and half-lidded, her hair swinging free, the smile on her face a wild, feral thing.
Ducking her head down, she captured my lips in a kiss full of fire and passionate promise. Her deft tongue glided over my teeth, then into my mouth, filling me with the taste of her. I responded in kind, lifting leaden arms to tangle in her hair and bring her closer to me.
Our twin growls sounded softly in the tiny room, spurring my arousal even higher.
Then I whimpered as her sharp teeth grasped my lower lip and she swirled her tongue over the captured flesh, each sensual move a promise of things yet to come.
She pulled away finally and smiled again, fiercely, before trailing kisses and tiny bites down my supremely sensitized flesh. Her hands reached down between our bodies, and within seconds, my jeans and underwear became a swiftly fading memory, as did hers before she lay back down to claim her spot between my legs.
The first touch of her warm, soft skin was almost enough to send me over the edge yet again and I gritted my teeth against the possibility. Chuckling softly, Ice simply smirked at me, determined to push me to my limits and beyond.
Another smoldering kiss to my already swollen lips and she began a slow glide down my body, aided, no doubt, by the ample evidence of my arousal coating her skin.
Her merciless attentions didnt stop when she finally, after what seemed several eternities at least, arrived at what I hoped was her final destination. She nipped at the insides of both thighs while her hands contented themselves skimming lightly over my breasts, never settling in one place for more than a heartbeat and serving only to crank my excitement up yet another notch.
When I was almost beyond the point of thinking, let alone begging, one hand left my breast and, a bare, breathless second later, she filled me completely while her mouth covered me, hot and wet and oh, so very needed.
Her tongue and fingers began their slow duet, my breathless pants keeping time, her low moans adding depth to the dance.
Together we moved, one into the other, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes hard, sometimes achingly soft, reaching the crescendo, where I was finally emancipated, borne up on the sweetest of currents, reaching out to the sky and the sea and the stars.
Reaching out, and making them my own.
I collapsed back against the bed, completely drained, and unbelievably happy. Ice rose up slightly, then covered my body with her own, gently stroking my sweaty bangs from their tangled nest on my forehead. The look on her face was so tender and so loving that tears pricked at my eyes, gilding her in a diamond haze.
"Dont cry," she whispered. Her face was soft and totally open.
"I cant help it," I whispered back.
Closing my eyes, I felt the warm touch of her lips on my lids, drying my tears and replacing them with kisses. Then she lowered herself the rest of the way down and gathered me up in a tender embrace, molding our bodies along their entire lengths, one long leg thrown casually over mine.
Then she turned so that we were lying belly to belly, pulling her head away just enough to stare deeply into my eyes. Her expression was deadly serious. "I love you, Angel."
Burying my flushed face against her damp neck, I hugged her with every ounce of strength in me. "I love you too, Morgan. More than I ever thought I was capable of loving another person." I smiled, snuffling against her neck. "I just wish I could tell you how much."
"Ya just did," she murmured into my hair as she tightened her grip around my pliant body. One large hand stroked my hair until I, with the ease of going from one breath to the next, fell asleep in her warm and loving arms.
Sometimes words are overrated.
I sat up quickly, my heart lodged somewhere in the vicinity of my throat. Only the years spent living in one of the most dangerous places on earth, and the resulting need to keep from showing fear at all costs, kept me from screaming out my fear.
I looked around wildly, my eyes slow to adjust to the near total blackness of the tiny room. Ices comforting presence was nowhere to be found and I swallowed down my fear, wondering just what was going on.
The savage pounding that had awoken me sounded again, and I jumped slightly, gathering the sheet up to my chest, still staring blindly at nothing. "Ice?" I whispered soft as I could.
A warm hand to my naked back almost shot me through the ceiling, and another hand covered my mouth, muffling the wheezing gasp that came up from my lungs. Fortunately, the touch was one I knew intimately, and I nodded, signifying I was alright.
Ice removed her hand and slipped into bed beside me.
"Jesus, Ice," I whispered, "you scared the hell out of me there."
"Sorry. I didnt mean to."
"Whats going on?"
"I dont know."
That particular piece of information made me more nervous than all the racket still going on outside our door. "You dont . . .know?"
"Not yet. But I will." Leaning across my body, she pulled the shade slightly away from the window. The room was suddenly bathed in flashing red lights.
Leaving its temporary home in my throat, my heart then sunk down to my knees, convulsing rapidly as I twisted the sheet in my hands. No! Not already! We just got here! Please, we just need more time!
Releasing the shade to lay flat against the window once more, Ice relaxed slightly and leaned back against the wall. "Its alright," she said in a low voice.
"Yeah. Its just the Game Warden."
"The Game Warden?"
Yes, it seemed that I was back to being Ices parrot, a habit I thought Id broken some years ago, but apparently had remained content to hide out until it was faced with a situation just like this one before jumping cheerily into the fray once again. Cmon, Angel. Try and think of something intelligent to say, huh? "Why would the game warden be here at this time of night?" While not a question Einstein might have asked, it was the best I could do under the circumstances.
"Well, normally, the local law doesnt look too kindly on people jacking deer out of these woods. But the way the natural predators have been run off lately, the herds have grown out of control, so there really isnt a problem, as long as youve got a license."
I nodded sagely. Then another question popped into my mind. "Ice?"
"Bull does have a license, doesnt he?"
I breathed a sigh of relief.
"I hope," she muttered, half under her breath.
Ice stiffened beside me.
"Theyre coming this way."
Before I could think to do anything but duck down, as if that action would somehow make me invisible to prying eyes, the door was thrown open and bright light spilled into our room, illuminating it quite thoroughly.
Not able to help myself, I slowly poked my head around Ices broad shoulder, almost unable to prevent myself from collapsing into gales of laughter at the look on the wardens face; a face that was currently staring at my naked lover in all her magnificent glory.
I didnt even have to look at said naked, and magnificent, lover to know she was treating the man to one of her famous raised eyebrow stares. "Yes?" she drawled, managing to sound dangerous and sultry at the same time.
The mans Adams Apple bobbed as he swallowed convulsively, his eyes round and shiny as newly minted coins.
"Is there a problem?"
Looking acutely uncomfortable, the Game Warden rocked back on his heels. "Um . . .no. I . . .err . . .was just making sure things were . . .ok . . .in here."
Unable to pass up such a wonderful opening, I stuck my head out further and grinned. "Theyre just fine, thanks. No problems here."
The poor man looked to be about a second from fainting. He cleared his throat, fingering his collar and loosening it from its no-doubt tight grip around his neck. "Err . . .ok then. As long as there arent any problems."
I pretended to think about it. "Nope. Cant think of a one. We do appreciate your checking, though. Dont we, Ice?" I nudged my partner with a gentle elbow to the ribs.
Ice pasted on her best imitation of a sincere smile, which, to be truthful, needed a bit of work. "Indeed we do," she replied in a tone that was just a hair short of smug.
"Well, then. I guess Ill just . . .leave you two alone." Clearing his throat one last time, the beleaguered Game Warden slowly backed out of the room, pulling the door shut once hed fully cleared the threshold.
As the room became dark once again, I gave into my insane craving and collapsed back on the bed, shaking with laughter. After a moment, Ice joined me, though her mirth, typically, was reduced to just a few wry chuckles.
As someone or other has been known to say throughout the ages, "Laughter is the best medicine." And, indeed, for me, it was, banishing all my doubts and fears into a place too deep within me to notice, at least right then.
And, for the second time that night, I fell asleep with a happy heart.
It often times seems that the closer you get to your final destination, the longer the trip seems to take. That was certainly the truth in my case those first weeks of early spring. We traveled for what seemed like years over rutted mountain roads, some so deeply packed with snow that I despaired of ever seeing civilization again and pictured us all frozen like statues and waiting for some summer hiker to come along and discover our bodies.
True to his word, though, Bull was an excellent guide, and never once lost that cheery--if half-embarrassed-- good nature that kept my usually natural optimism close to the surface.
We took sleep, and food, where we could find it, often taking turns navigating or driving while another slept in the cramped cab of Bulls heavy truck. As Ive never been one for driving in heavy snow, and Bull seemed to share Ices aversion to maps, I spent most of my time smashed between two large bodies, staring out into the Canadian wilderness and counting trees.
And so it was with a great sense of relief that I spied the tall church spire that marked the entrance to the little town where I had spent so many happy summers. It stood as Id always remembered it, straight, tall, and proud; pointing the way to Heaven for those with no sense of direction, as my father would say every time it came into his view.
The cold air was biting on my face as I accepted Ices help and stepped down from the high cab, coming to stand in a snowdrift that reached almost to my hips. I shivered and pulled the down jacket Bull had so chivalrously offered me tight around my chest, digging my cold-numbed hands deep into the pockets.
Ice, true to her nick, stood relaxed, as if standing in drifts of snow half again her height was all in a days work for her. I wanted to envy her cool attitude, but upon thinking about the price she had paid for it, reconsidered my thoughts.
Id settle for shivering any day.
Bull stepped from his side of the truck and came over to say his good-byes, smiling broadly and looking for all the world like a friendly grizzly begging for treats by the roadside.
"Are you sure you dont want to stop, just for a couple minutes?" I asked. "I know the town doesnt look like much, but the cafés bound to be open, and the coffees really good." Though at that point, they could have served turpentine in a mug and I would have pronounced it delicious, as long as it was hot.
Bull smiled, though it had a touch of sadness to it. "Im gonna have to take a raincheck on that, if you dont mind, Maam. Ive got a bunch of hunters waiting for me back at the cabin, and my paychecks with em."
I nodded in commiseration. Needing money was something I could certainly understand, much as I sometimes wished that that particular lesson wasnt quite so easily learned, especially now. "Thank you, Bull. I dont know what we would have done without your help. Youre a great person."
The resulting blush melted all the snow in a ten mile radius and, unkind though it might have been, I couldnt keep myself from grinning, then enveloping him in a heartfelt hug. "Take care of yourself, Bull," I said, pulling away. "I mean it."
"You do the same," he replied in kind, squeezing the stuffing out of me one last time for good measure. He jerked his head toward Ice, his eyes never leaving mine. "Take care of her too, ok?"
After Bull and Ice had said their farewells and the big man climbed back in his truck, he waved one last time and pulled away in a plume of white exhaust. I sighed a little, watching until the truck had disappeared back into the endless forest, then pulled myself out of the deep drift and onto the moderately paved road leading into the town.
A small tendril of melancholy wove its way through my soul as I looked down the road and into the town proper. It stood there, desolate and seemingly empty. If green is the color of despair and red, rage, then gray is desolations hue. The whole town seemed to be painted with it, as if some suicidal artist had drawn a brush over the entire scene, preserving it forever for entombment in some museums misery exhibit.
Summer towns were always like this off-season, I reminded myself. Always waiting, like an inattentive mans pining pet, for a loving touch and the summer sun to restore color and life to the land.
"You alright?" Ices voice came from very close beside me, and I started a bit before settling back down.
"Yeah. Just thinking." And hoping. Praying. During our long flight to freedom, I hadnt had the time to wonder if this place that I had banked all my dreams on would, in fact, be what I needed for it to be. Seeing it like this, watching as a mournful wind whipped through the towering pines and chased faerie swirls of snow down the empty street, I wondered, for just a moment, if my dream was slowly turning into a nightmare.
Were the dreams of a lonely child enough to build an adults life upon? And what right did I have to drag Ice into them with me? A woman who was not here because she had no place else to go, but rather because she had made the choice to try and build a life wherever it was that I wanted to be.
It suddenly became too much responsibility for me to bear. Deep inside, the child who had always lived for the sight of this place suddenly turned away, sobbing in fear.
I almost gave in to the insane urge to run screaming after Bulls departed truck and beg him to take us away. Far away from this place of empty promises and broken dreams.
I might have done it, too, such was my need to escape, if a long, denim-clad body hadnt chosen that exact second to interpose itself between me and my view of the village beyond. A strong hand, reddened and chapped by wind and cold, reached out and tipped my chin so that I was staring into eyes the exact color of the sky above. "Were in this together, Angel. No matter what."
I took only a moment to wonder at her sudden telepathic skills before opening my mouth to respond, watching as my breath plumed into the frosty air upon leaving my lungs. "I know. And thats what scares me. What if this isnt right for us? What if Im just taking us away from one prison and throwing us into another? What if its . . . ." I dropped my eyes, staring at the blurred lines in her palm. " . . .not like I remember?"
"Things in life rarely are, Angel," she replied with her typical, and sometimes brutal, honesty. I looked up to see a slight, sad smile briefly curve her lips. "But if we didnt take chances, we wouldnt need dreams. And without dreams . . . ."
As her words sunk in, I couldnt help but return her smile, remembering the evening she told me how her own dreams, dreams of a life with me outside prison walls, had kept her from killing one of her greatest enemies. "Where would we be?" I murmured softly, finishing her phrase.
Tipping me a wink, Ice removed her hand and settled her thin jacket around her trim, well-muscled form. "Where would we be indeed." Hooking a hand round my upper arm, she carefully guided me down the ice slicked road and forward into whatever future this lonely, bleak town portended.
"Homey," Ice remarked dryly as she took in the sights around her with an amused half-smile.
"I think the word youre looking for is creepy." I could feel the weight of a dozen pairs of unseen eyes on my back; waiting, assessing, judging.
Directly in front of me, the towns only Bed and Breakfast, The Silver Pine, stood in a huge bank of snow. That name had always intrigued me when I was younger. The pine part of the name was a given, surrounded as it was by hundreds if not thousands of the species and huddled among them like a Lilliputian in a land of Gullivers.
Silver, however, was a bit of a misnomer, given that Ive never in my life seen a silver pine tree, unless you counted those spray painted plastic deals they sell at those cut-rate department stores around Christmas time.
I got up the nerve to ask my mother one day. She smiled that infuriating smile that is the patent of mothers everywhere, patted me on the head like a none-too-bright puppy and said, "Poetic license, dear."
And, of course, left me with two questions where only one had existed before.
Despite the incongruity of its name, however, The Silver Pine was a place that Id remembered with great fondness, not only because of the delicious cookies the owner, Mrs. Carmody, would sneak into my hand when my parents werent looking, but also because of the huge old rooms, the exploration of which would take up most of a rainy summers day.
It now looked like the hotel straight out of The Shining.
Or perhaps Psycho.
Cassandras girlish, malicious giggle bubbled in my mind, adding to the macabre feel of the place. "Shut up," I muttered, chasing down an attack of the shivers. "Just shut up."
"Pardon me?" Ice asked, swinging her head in my direction.
"Sorry. Just talking to myself." As usual. Cmon, Angel, snap out of it or shes gonna think youve gone completely round the bend, alright? "This isnt exactly how I remembered it," I remarked, sharing my brilliant insight with my smirking lover.
"I dont doubt that." She shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. "The season probably has a lot to do with it, though."
"Yeah, I guess youre right." I commenced looking around, taking in the combination gas station-auto body shop. It, too, appeared to be deserted, the only sign of life being the neon "Drink Coca Cola" sign winking on and off like some enraged Cyclops eye.
Across from that, the small, one story schoolhouse stood, its walk shoveled and carefully salted. And, next to the school, the church, seeming all the more imposing with its gigantic stained glass windows displaying colors never seen except in others of its ilk, stood sternly. Churches like this didnt invite worship. They demanded it.
The only building which displayed at least a modicum of warmth was the long, low-slung café, which also doubled as the towns only grocery store. The windows were fogged from the inside, and ghostly light filtered out into the darkening day. "I kinda feel like I stepped into the middle of a Stephen King novel."
Snorting softly, Ice turned to face the café. "I think the natives are getting restless. Lets go assuage their curiosity."
"Sounds good to me," I replied, craving some warmth. "I hope they still serve coffee."
Softly humming the theme from The Twilight Zone, Ice once again took my arm and escorted me to the café.
The blast of heat which came at us as I opened the door almost sent me rushing right back outside again to escape the sudden suffocation. But the smell of coffee, as tantalizing as I remembered, as well as Ices firm grip on my arm, spurred me onward.
The café was sparsely populated, even given its relatively small size, and stony faces with mistrustful eyes followed us to the counter, making me feel acutely uncomfortable. Screwing on my brightest smile, I slid onto a stool and caught the attention of the cafés waitress, a bleached-blonde with a generous figure and the stub of a slowly smoldering cigarette dangling from her garishly painted lips.
I grinned internally, thinking that if Pony were here with us, shed be immediately smitten. She always did have a soft spot for cheap and easy.
"Two coffees, please," I said in my most friendly voice.
The haggard woman eyed us through the blue haze of smoke from her cigarette. "You got money? We dont give hand-outs here."
"Sure we do," I replied, digging into the pocket of my jeans and coming up with several wadded bills and an odd smattering of lint-covered coins. "Its American, though. Do you accept that here?" I asked, knowing darn well they did. Come summer, these people would be taking every Abe Lincoln, George Washington, and Andrew Jackson that came across their path.
After a moments contemplation, the woman nodded, then turned away to pour us two cups of steaming coffee from the glass pots sitting on the hotplate near the kitchen door. Turning once again, she slid the cups over to us indifferently, the liquid inside sloshing over the rim to pool on the cracked, cigarette-burned Formica that made up the counter top.
I shot a quick glance over to my partner, who was staring placidly into the mirror behind the counter, seemingly unconcerned about the way we were being treated.
Were gonna have to have a little talk, Ice. After all, what good was it to have the "Beast of the Bog" sitting beside you if she refused to intimidate an incredibly rude waitress into giving better service?
Grunting and stubbing her cigarette out in a nearby ashtray, the waitress grabbed my bills and went to the cash register, returning with a few scattered Canadian coins which she tossed onto the counter.
"Give her the rest of it," came a cool, calm, and oh so deathly soft voice to my right.
The waitress spun, a sharp retort, Im sure, on her lips. It froze unuttered as she blanched through several shades of pale before finally deciding on I-think-I-just-wet-myself white. Looking up into the mirror, I didnt even bother to hide my smug grin. Ahh, thats more like it.
"I . . .dont know what youre talking about," the waitress replied, sounding more fearful than ferocious.
From my view in the mirror, I watched Ices eyes as they moved from the sign displaying the prices, toward the two coffees sitting on the counter, and back to the waitress. Her face remained completely expressionless.
To give credit where its due, the woman didnt back down from my partners intimidating stare until Ice made as if to stand. Then she spun as if all the demons of Hell were at her heels, punched open the cash register, and gave me back the correct change in record time.
"Thank you," I said sweetly, finally sipping my hard-earned coffee.
It tasted even better than I remembered.
After an hour or so of enduring the coldness of strangers, Id finally had enough. Even the hot coffee didnt thaw the chill sitting in my belly at the eyes following my every move, as if my drink was expected somehow to materialize into a deadly weapon with which to kill them all where they sat.
I was decidedly relieved when Ice caught my eye and gave a short nod. Pushing forward a tip that was in no way deserved, I slipped from my stool and grabbed my heavy pack, slipping it over my shoulders and settling it more comfortably onto my back.
Ice did the same and, with a final, measuring look at each and every one of our watchers, letting them know in no uncertain terms that she had a very long and a very good memory, led the way to the door and our escape from the stultifying atmosphere of the café.
Though well below freezing, the chill outside seemed warmer, somehow, than what we had just endured. I stuffed my hands inside the roomy pockets of my borrowed jacket and turned to look at Ice. "Well, wasnt that just a day at the beach."
Ice shrugged, settling her pack across her shoulders. "Guess they dont get paid to be nice to strangers in the off-season."
"Guess not." Sighing, I turned to look back at The Silver Pine, which looked as closed and remote as it had earlier. It had been my plan to secure a room there until we could at least get the cabin started, but given my earlier thoughts, even if it had been open for business I dont think that even a team of horses, wild or otherwise, could have dragged me in there.
Though it was just past mid-day, the sky continued to darken. A huge cloudbank slowly advanced from the west, promising yet more snow. I shivered again, then turned to look at my partner, who was standing calmly in the middle of the deserted street, returning my gaze. The heavy weight of responsibility settled itself on my shoulders once again, a feeling at definite odds with sense of blissful freedom Id felt here as a child. Maybe what they said was right. Maybe you never really could go home again.
Smiling slightly, Ice came forward and enveloped me in a warm hug, heedless of the stares I could feel all around us. Pulling back, she looked down at me, capturing my gaze effortlessly. "Cmon. Lets see what we have to work with, hmm?"
Though a woman of relatively few words, Ice well knew how to make the best out of what she had. She somehow managed, as always it seemed, to take my mind off my guilt and put it where it belonged.
I hugged her to me tightly in thanks, then pulled away, turning determined eyes toward our destination, seeing the obstacles before me for what they truly were, not impossible chasms, but rather challenges to be met and exceeded.
Nodding to myself, I struck off down the road, Ice casually making her way behind me. When the buildings of the town faded into the mist, I made an abrupt right, stepping off the road and into knee deep snow. "Shortcut," I explained without turning to see my companions no doubt amused reaction to the sudden detour.
I felt my heart begin to grow lighter as I walked through the friendly and well loved forest surrounding me. The further I traveled down the game trail, my body instinctively knowing the way without my mind having to shout directions, the younger, it seemed, I became. The trees grew taller somehow. The snow was replaced by a fresh layer of pine needles. The smell of sap was heavy in the air. The birds chorused cheerfully as the light from the slowly setting sun slanted through the woods, warming my skin and putting a smile on my face.
If I closed my eyes, I could just hear the far-off chatter of children playing on the tiny beach down by the sparkling blue lake. I could feel the light, but important, weight of penny candies in my hand as I dodged the shadows and played tag with the sun.
I would have walked right into a deadfall, and likely broken my neck on the sharp and somehow ominous branches, if Ice hadnt pulled me out of my dream and back into reality with a sharp tug to the back of my jacket.
"Watch yourself," Ice commented mildly as she surveyed the tangle of fallen pines, hands on her hips.
I blinked, feeling the cold, and my adult body and responsibilities, close in around me once again. But somehow, after the gift Id just been given, neither seemed quite so harsh as before. "This . . .wasnt here before," I replied, feeling a slight blush warming cheeks gone numb with the cold.
Ice just shot me a look, doubtless choosing silence as the better part of valor, especially given my brilliant observation, before returning her attention to the large deadfall blocking our path. "Looks like a detour is in order."
"No problem. Cmon."
It only took a few minutes to return to the trail Id been following and before I knew it, I could just see the lake past the last of the trees sheltering it. Instead of being the deep, friendly blue I remembered, however, it was landlocked and gray with ice. Great sections of it had been cleared of snow and a huge bonfire blazed near its center. A smattering of children glided back and forth on the ice, most playing what I guessed to be hockey. The sounds of their sticks hitting the ice echoed across the lake.
Making a quick left, I followed the tree-line until the first of the cottages, more like huge houses than simple shacks, came into view. I passed the first two cottages, then stopped. Even my breathing halted, as I saw with my own eyes what my heart refused to believe.
The cottage, that place where Id spent so many wonderful summers, the place whose memories led me through the hardest years of my life, was gone.
Only a blanket of pristine snow marked its grave.
I felt tears well up; tears which even Ices warm and steady presence at my side failed to banish. All these years, some part of my heart still held out hope that the news of its burning had been some sort of cruel joke, played upon me by a merciless god.
It appeared that the joke was on me.
"You ok?" Ice asked after a moment, no-doubt wondering just what it was that was making me cry this time.
"Its gone," I whispered. Then I laughed in self-deprecation. "Really stupid, I know. I shouldnt be surprised, right? I mean, I knew it was gone. I just didnt expect it to be so . . . ."
I sighed. "Yeah. Empty."
"Do you remember what it looked like?"
I turned to her. "Do I? Of course I do! I think Ive memorized every single timber and shingle on it. The way the roof used to sag a little, right in the middle. The back entrance with the screen door that always looked like it needed a new coat of paint. The windows that always had cobwebs in them. The wooden furniture on the front porch. The tire swing. Everything."
"And can you picture it in your mind now?"
I smiled through my tears, remembering. "Yeah."
Ice returned my smile. "Good. Because itll look like that again. All we need is a little time and a little sweat."
I looked at the utter conviction in her eyes and, for the second time that day, believed. A grin blossomed on my face, erasing the tears. "What are we waiting for then? Ive got the time, if youve got the sweat."
And, bounding away like a snowshoe hare, I scampered through the snow toward the flat rectangle of snow covered ground that would one day be the cabin I remembered.
Only better, because I would have Ice to share it with me.
It was close to sunset when we returned, cold and hungry, from our impromptu exploration of the area. We had spent most of the day, Ice following complacently as I cheerfully led her around to take in the sights of my former haunts: the little green dock which sat tottering on the small stretch of sand beach that the entire community in trucked in load by laborious load (and illegally, I might add just for veracitys sake); the rushes where the summer frogs waited, loudly chirping for their mates; the tiny inlet where the water was always warm and where you could always find thousands of tiny tadpoles squirming around in the algae and water smoothed, if slightly slimy, rocks perfect for skimming.
I even prodded her up into my favorite tree, a friendly old pine with limbs just right for the shortened tread of tiny legs and a smooth crotch which nestled a childs bottom cozily while said child watched the sailboats race around the lake in a rainbow of color.
Just as we arrived at the empty lot, the snowflakes began to spit from the sky, fat and wet with the promise of a sizable accumulation. I sighed, dejected. I was cold, soaked to the skin, hungry, and had the beginnings of a headache that promised to reach horse-felling proportions before it was through digging itself into my brain from behind my eyelids.
"Guess we might as well set up for the night, huh?" I asked in a tone which even a soon-to-be-hanged man would find disheartening.
Grunting in reply, she set her heavy pack down and started to unload our gear, which included a two-man mountain tent and three lightweight, but cold rated, sleeping bags which we had accepted from Bull over Ices vociferous objections.
I stood off to the side, momentarily entranced by the white snow dusting the dark fall of her hair before finally realizing that our camp wouldnt set itself up.
I took a step in Ices direction before a breaking twig caused me to whirl to my right, my hands up in a defensive posture that would do exactly nothing if our evening visitor was a grizzly or something as equally deadly.
However, instead of a grizzly, or a wolf, or even a rabbit investigating the funny looking strangers intruding on its habitat, I saw a small, slight figure wrapped in a heavy parka and standing atop the short rise that separated our property from the neighboring plot of land. I raised my hand higher in a hesitant wave, hoping that whoever our silent watcher was, he wasnt hiding something more than his hands in the pockets of his jacket.
A feminine, and slightly wavery, voice came from within the furred confines of the parkas hood, and if I hadnt the heavy pack still strapped to my back, I might have sagged with relief and toppled gleefully right into the snow. "Who are you?" the woman asked, making no move to come closer. "Thats private property, you know. Ill call the police if I have to."
A disbelieving grin broke over my face as I recognized the broad Massachusetts accent that Id so loved to try and decipherand imitateas a child. "Mrs. Anderson? Is that you?"
"Who are you?" the voice repeated, no more friendly for my having guessed her name.
I winced, hesitated a split-second longer than society deemed polite, then bit the proverbial bullet and opened my mouth, hoping that perhaps an avalanche from a non-existent mountain, or perhaps that woman-eating grizzly Id envisioned, would have the foresight to swallow me up.
No such luck.
You see, back in that little slice of hell called the Bog, an inordinate amount of timeor so it seemed to mewas spent, particularly by the Amazons, in playing a little game called "Guess Angels real name". Oh, they knew my last name, of course. Everyone did. It was shouted by the guards at least four times a day, at headcount. More, if Id committed an infraction or was needed somewhere.
But my first name . . . . Well, I kept the door to that little secret closed tighter than Fort Knox, thank you very much. And for good reason, too, having endured more than a little teasing over it in the tender years of my youth and beyond.
What surprised me the most, though, was that Corinne, for all her long and many tentacles dipping in and out of all aspects of prison life, hadnt found out. Thinking back on it now, though, I figure she probably knew what it was within the first several seconds of my confinement in the Bog, but had never had the need, nor perhaps the opportunity, to pull out that particular weapon to use on me. For which I was and will forever be profoundly grateful.
And as for Ice, I asked her about her seeming lack of curiosity one evening when the game was going on especially fast and furious, leaving me blushing to the roots of my hair and the tips of my toes over some of the more . . .inventive . . .guesses.
Shes shrugged and, in her typical blunt style, said, "If Angels what you want to be called, then thats what Ill call ya."
Simple as that.
I blinked my eyes at the softly cleared throat behind me, and realized that not only was our watcher waiting for my answer, Ice was too.
"Its Tyler, Mrs. Anderson," I said finally, probably more softly than I should have, but much more loudly, by several decibels, than I would have wished.
"Tyler?" the woman repeated. The hood of the parka cocked sideways in that birdlike little head tilt of curiosity I remembered so well. "Tyler Moore? It that really you?"
I smiled, though it probably wasnt one of my more encouraging ones.
It must have been good enough for her, however, because she began to make her way down the hill toward us, moving with the sure-footed grace of one well accustomed to wading through deep drifts of snow.
"Dont say it," I warned softly to the steady presence at my back. "Dont even think it."
A beat of silence.
"Wouldnt dream of it."
Thank you, God.
If I wasnt absolutely positive, with every single fiber of my being, that Ice could turn me into fish flakes before I even thought to blink, I would have been on her faster than a wolf on a rabbit. As it was, however, I contented myself with simply turning my head and shooting her a look which, I was sure, was searing enough to melt glass, had there been any about waiting to be liquefied by my powers of intimidation.
Unfortunately, even the snow beneath us refused to so much as melt under the heat of my stare. And as for the object of my pitiful attempt at wrath, she looked just as calm and collected as everdarn her. Couldnt she at least try to look scared?her face expressionless, but her eyes twinkling smugly.
You just wait, Miss High and Mighty. Paybacks are a real bitch.
That was all I had time to think before I felt myself engulfed in a hug, its strength belying the slight body of the woman embracing me. I returned the hug, though without as much vigor as I would have used to hug, say, Ice, knowing well the brittleness of elderly bones.
We both pulled away after a long moment and I felt my numb cheeks being cupped by a pair of warm, gloved hands. "By God in his mercy, child, it really is you! Youve grown so much I hardly recognize you!"
I smiled and, of course, blushed. "Yes, well, the years have a way of doing that to you." I could barely see her face, but her smile shone through the darkness of her hood like a beacon, bathing me in the warmth of her welcome.
She laughed, a very musical and well-loved sound, before stepping away. "I wish the years would have a way of doing that to me. I wake up every morning and swear Ive shrunk a little in the night."
Then she pulled back her hood, giving me my first glimpse of a face I remembered so well that it could have been just a day ago that Id seen her. Her hair was a little more gray, her face a little more lined, but looking at her was like stepping back in time once again, just another step through the Twilight Zone on a day that had been filled with déjà vu.
"Its so wonderful to see you," I said, probably looking like an absolute idiot as I stood there, snow melting on my shoulders, grinning at her.
Gently grasping my arm, she returned my smile. "Its wonderful to see you too, sweetheart. I thought maybe I never would. Your mothers been a bit reticent in telling me your goings on whenever we speak, which lately, hasnt been very often at all."
While I made sure to keep the smile firmly affixed to my face, inside I was cringing.
All thoughts of paybacks flew right out of the proverbial window when Ice, obviously sensing my acute discomfort with the situation I suddenly found myself in, picked up her pack and pretended to search for something in it, making a bit more noise than she was generally wont to do.
My grin became more natural with the apparent success of the diversionary tactic. "Mrs. Anderson, Id like you to meet my friend Morgan. Morgan, this is Mrs. Anderson, my neighbor."
"Pleased to meet you, Maam," Ice replied, gently shaking the older womans hand in greeting.
"Enough of that," she said, pumping my lovers hand firmly. "Ive been Ruby for going on seventy-five years, and thats the name Ill thank you to call me, Morgan." Turning her head, she tipped a wink at me. "The same goes for you as well, Tyler."
I firmly believe that there are times in every adults life when the weight of the years melt away and we find ourselves seven again, being chastised by the second grade teacher weve spent the entire school year developing a serious crush on.
This was one of those times.
I stood there, sure that the heat of my cheeks would set the forest ablaze, and tried desperately not to let on how small I felt beneath the weight of her gentle rebuke.
There was a moment of awkward silence before Mrs. AndersonRubyreleased Ices hand and smiled at me. "Well, youve certainly picked the perfect season to do some visiting, Tyler. No crowds."
I laughed, put immediately at ease by the warmth of her smile. "Yeah, well the waters probably a little cold."
"And quite hard, to boot, Id imagine," she teased.
"That too. On the plus side, though, I probably dont have to worry about getting a sunburn." My attempt at lighthearted conversation ground to a halt and I looked down at my hands, the smile slipping from my face like a Halloween mask after the last treat has been passed out.
While telling a lie might have been a poor way to say hello, telling the truth just might mean a permanent goodbye. Insecure about all the changes in my life as I was, the one thing I couldnt afford was to lose someone like Ruby, who could be a desperately needed link to the townspeople as well as being a much needed friend.
"Im . . .not here just to visit," I began, hoping that my well-rehearsed speech would come out better than it sounded in my head. I avoided looking at Ice, though it was hard. I really needed her support with this. I took in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "I needed a break, from where I was. I was tired of the violence around me," which was, in fact, true. "The beatings. The stabbings. The shootings." And here, I looked up at Ice, who closed her eyes briefly in silent acknowledgement before opening them again to meet my gaze steadily. I wanted to reach out to her, but didnt dare.
The memory of seeing her bleeding into the ground was a wound still much too fresh to withstand a deep inspection of it. To this day, it haunts my dreams with distressing regularity, leaving me sweating and breathless each time it crawls up from the hole Ive dug for it in my mind.
Tearing my eyes from those of my partner, I resumed looking at Ruby, who looked back, a compassionate expression on her face. I summoned up a smile from somewhere. "The memory of this place has gotten me through a lot of hard times in my life. And so I figured that if I just came back here and tried to turn the dream into a reality once again, maybe things would start making sense again."
I sighed again. I could feel my shoulders slump beneath the weight of the need I had to make the words Id just spoken come to fruition. "I dont know if its just wishful thinking on my part, but I do know that I have to try."
Ruby smiled and placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. "You always were a dreamer, Tyler. From the first time I saw you, sitting on that porch swing staring into the sunset. It used to drive your mother to distraction. She never really understood you, I dont think. But I always believed that if someone could dream so sweetly and so well, they deserved a chance to have those dreams come true. And if living here is all it takes to make that dream of yours come true, then Ill help in any way I can."
Tears stung my eyes as a little part of my heart fell in love all over again with the woman whod been a young, friendless girls only confidant all those years ago. "Thank you," I whispered with all the sincerity in my heart.
"Youre welcome," she replied in kind, smiling tenderly at me, maybe remembering, as I did, how it was between us all those years ago.
Removing her hand from my shoulder, Ruby turned and fixed Ice with an inquisitive stare. "And you? You dont seem the dreaming type, Morgan."
Ice smiled, and I could see just the faintest touch of danger in the white gleam of her teeth. "I might be."
From the corner of my eye, I could see Ruby react, stiffening just slightly before nodding. "Yes. You just might be, at that."
Then she turned, and looked down, eyes widening in surprise. "Surely you arent planning on spending the night camping out here in the cold, are you?"
I sighed. "That wasnt my first choice, no. I had planned to grab a room at The Silver Pine, but its closed for the season." I could feel my cheeks heating again and I looked up at her with what Im sure was a child-like expression on my face. "Guess I should have figured that, huh?"
Ruby shook her head in negation. "Not really. Margaret Carmody kept that place open the year around. She did good business, even in the middle of the winter, what with all the hunters around here. But when she passed on, her niece took over. Pleasant woman, but a little . . .," she paused, obviously searching for the right word, "eccentric is, I suppose, the best way to put it."
I laughed. "Crazy, huh?"
"As a bedbug," Ruby replied primly.
"Im sorry to hear that Mrs. Carmody died. She was a very sweet person."
"Indeed she was." She looked down at our gear, then back up at me, a no-nonsense expression on her face. "Now, I suggest you pack all of those supplies back up again and come with me. Youll stay with me in my home until the cabin gets rebuilt."
Swallowing hard, I chanced a look in Ices direction. Sure enough, my lover was staring at Ruby, her eyes narrowed to the barest of slits. I could almost feel her simmering anger from where I stood.
This wasnt good.
"Is there a problem?" Ruby asked, looking from Ice, to me, and back again, obviously noting that we werent jumping at her rather enforced invitation.
"Um, no. No problem at all. Right, I . . .Morgan?"
My mothers voice chose exactly that moment to shuffle through my consciousness. When in doubt, beg.
And so I did. Not with words, no. But given the choice between sleeping in a tiny, cold tent and sleeping in a nice, warm house, in a nice, warm bed, well, it wasnt difficult to come to a decision.
The only thing that remained was to convince my proud partner, for whom the receipt of any type of charity was seen as a major character weakness. Even if said charity could help save us from an early death, or, at the very least, the loss of several appendages from frostbite.
If I sound a bit melodramatic, you have to remember that I was really really cold. And really really tired. And that headache had gone past what my father always called the hosskick stage. It now resembled the stomp of a mule, and a feisty one at that.
I continued to look at Ice, putting every ounce of pleading into my expression, hoping against hope it would work.
After a time which seemed like an eternity but was in reality only a matter of a few short seconds, I saw her expression soften slightly and her shoulders slump. A wry smile curved her lips and I thought I saw her eyes roll, but by then it was too dark to be sure.
Carefully concealing the joy in my small victory, I turned to Ruby and gave what I hoped was a gracious nodgraciousness having been pretty much pounded out of me during my stay in prison to the point where I wasnt even sure if I could act gracious, let alone look that way. "If youre sure it wont be too much trouble, Ruby, wed be happy to accept your invitation."
"Good. Then its settled. Gather your things and follow me."
To Be Continued - Part 2
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