Authors: Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
When dusk brought shadows, she crept upstairs and peeked at him. Neil sprawled across her bed, head supported by two pillows, sound asleep. She picked up a quilt and covered him, then tiptoed away. After another hour, as she wondered whether or not she should awaken him after all, she heard him stirring. Caroline listened as he descended the steps with a slow, steady tread and put aside the book she’d been reading as she rose to greet him.
They met in the doorway between kitchen and front door. From the moment she saw him, Caroline knew he was more relaxed than she’d seen him. His calm expression and clear eyes pleased her but she still asked, “Are you feeling better?”
Neil grinned. “I’m doing great. I always crash hard after an incident. Thanks, honey, for giving me a place to do it.”
She cupped one hand against his cheek as they stood face to face, his slight stubble rough beneath her fingers. “Not a problem, Neil,” she said. “Are you hungry? I can fix us something simple to eat.”
“I am,” he replied. “But I don’t want food—I want you.”
Her breath caught and held tight in her chest. A delicious warm tingle traveled down her spine and spread. Before Caroline could find words to answer, Neil put his mouth down on hers, slow and sweet and gentle.
Caroline kissed him back as her senses exploded with the pure joy of kissing Neil, ready to go wherever it might take them, certain and unafraid.
His mouth latched onto hers with pure hunger, unhurried but strong. Caroline responded, clutching his shirtsleeves with her fingers as Neil kissed her with thoroughness and intent. The kiss connected them and opened the doorway for more. As teenagers, they’d often made out and their kisses then had grown fervent and even frantic. They had cuddled and fondled and touched, and they had never made love, but the way his insistent mouth claimed hers, intimacy was inevitable.
Every sense Caroline possessed was engaged as they kissed, and her emotions increased along with the sexual tension. His mouth remained on hers for what seemed like an hour but could have been no more than a few brief minutes. When Neil removed his lips, it startled Caroline and left her yearning for more.
Neil gazed at her, his eyes dark and huge, his emotion evident. His voice emerged husky, almost hoarse. “I need you,” he said. “I want you, in every way a man can want a woman.”
Moved by his simple words, Caroline whispered, “I’m yours, Neil.”
He seized her in a tight embrace, kissed her in a brief, hot exchange of mouths and tongues, and offered her his hand. She took it and he led her back up the steps into the bedroom where he undressed her with slow, gentle hands, lingering to caress her skin. His calloused fingers were rough against her smooth flesh, but Caroline liked the solid feel of his hands on her body. She fumbled to undo his shirt and to ease it from him. By the time she stood nude beside him, her nipples perked into miniature pink roses, and Neil wore nothing but his jeans. Caroline undid the button and slid the zipper down. He stepped out of them with the grace of a professional dancer.
For the first time, Caroline saw his scars, rough, white ridges cut deep into his flesh, a few still reddened and patches of taut webbed skin. They were varied in color and size, reminding her of a piece-work quilt. The scars covered his torso, chest and back, ending just above his belly button in front and his bottom in back. Although healed, she swore she could sense the heat and the pain the wounds had inflicted. Caroline moved her hand over them, stroking with the lightest possible touch, with compassion and with respect for all he had endured. Neil paused when she touched the scars and lifted his face to meet her eyes. His brimmed with tears. She read his thoughts, understood he thought they were ugly and gross. To prove him wrong, she kissed them with slow, gentle lips. He stood very still as she kissed all of them and when she had finished, he shifted their position and put Caroline beneath him on the bed.
He hadn’t made it, so they lay on top of jumbled sheets and a quilt. Neil entered her with one swift move that filled her and sent waves of pleasure cascading over her body. He fit, as if he’d been tailored to fit her space and the walls of her pussy reacted with physical delight. Neil worked in and out of her body in a rhythm as ancient as the hills outside the window, his cock as hard as the rocks native to the region.
Neil took and she gave, he gave and she took, until their bodies blended into one for a few short moments, their pleasure shared and intensified. He rocked her until the tension exploded into an amazing peak of satisfaction, enhanced by the fact that Neil came too, riding the star burst of joy with her. Caroline cried out and he stilled her noise with him mouth so that when they came, they were joined mouth and crotch.
She thought she might die and if she did, Caroline would have no complaints, not one.
In the afterward, once they caught their breaths and found the minimal strength to move, they managed to pull the tangled covers into order and lay beneath them, cuddled close. Caroline lay nestled against Neil, his masculine smell rank with their sex, content. Her limbs were limp and body boneless as she basked in his warmth in comfort. She couldn’t recall having been this somnolent.
She had almost gone to sleep when he whispered, his mouth close enough that the breath of his words touched her cheek. “Carrie.”
“Right now, just for now, I know I’m safe, that there’s no danger and that I’m a whole man, because of you.”
“Oh, Neil.” Her voice almost broke as she spoke and tears stood in her eyes.
“It likely won’t last, but it’s the first time I’ve felt this way since before Afghanistan. It’s you that makes the difference, girl. I love you, Carrie.”
Her throat closed tight with unshed tears, joy for his emotion and pain for his past anguish. “I’ve always loved you, Neil, and I still do.”
In the darkness she couldn’t see his smile but her fingers touched his face and knew.
“That’s good. I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know.”
Her heart ached. They had shared body and soul. He’d said he loved her and she never doubted it. But he still must need time, so Caroline would give him some and never let him know the cost to her soul. “Then we figure it out,” she said. Her voice came out almost normal. “We do it one day at a time, together.”
His head moved in a nod. “Okay.”
Neil sounded drowsy and within minutes, his body eased into sleep, his breath deeper and softer. Caroline held him, but she released her unshed tears without making a sound. Whatever it might take, she would do it, for Neil. Deep into the night, she slept, too, and woke alone, the bed beside her cold. Caroline rolled over and listened but heard nothing to indicate Neil might be in the bathroom or downstairs. Afraid he might have taken off the way he had once before, she searched for her nightgown in the jumble of covers and put on a robe. She didn’t pause long enough to slide her feet into slippers. Halfway down the steps, she inhaled the fragrant aroma of coffee and relaxed. She slowed her gait and came into the kitchen where Neil sat at the table, drinking coffee.
Although he must have heard her descent, Neil didn’t move so she came behind him and kissed the nape of his neck. He’d showered, because his hair remained damp and she caught the scent of her soap on his skin. “Good morning.”
He put down his mug and turned toward her. Neil caught her in his arms and pulled her onto his lap. “Good morning, Carrie.”
Then he kissed her soundly and with fervor. Caroline put her arms around his neck and let him hold her tight for a few sweet moments before she wiggled free. “You changed clothes. Did you go home?”
“No. I had clean stuff in the truck.”
“Wishful thinking,” Neil replied.
Caroline’s cheeks warmed with a blush. “My wish came true.”
Neil grinned. “Sometimes that happens. Want some coffee?”
“I’ll pour it,” Caroline said.
He’d brewed it strong, but she enjoyed the robust taste and didn’t complain.
Nor did she object when he scrambled eggs for them. “I can make toast,” she offered.
Her mood enhanced the flavors in the simple meal until Caroline would have sworn she had never eaten anything tastier. Neil lingered over another cup of coffee, the set of his shoulders, the way he lounged in the chair more relaxed than she had seen since her return. They talked about many small things but neither mentioned their declarations of love.
We don’t have to mention it. It’s there between us, alive and huge and real.
The day stretched ahead before them, a blank canvas filled with potential.
“So, what do you want to do today?” Neil asked.
He didn’t need to mention that Monday and work loomed ahead for both. All she could wish was to spend the day together, but Caroline thought that went without saying.
“I’m open to suggestion,” she told him when what she craved was to spend the day outdoors in the glorious autumn before the weather turned. Long ago, they often idled away a spare day chasing through the timber, picking up walnuts or hickories, or hiking, the two of them alone against the trees beneath the sky.
“We could head down to the state forest,” Neil said, as if he’d read her thoughts. “We could do one of the shorter hikes or bring a picnic lunch.”
“That sounds wonderful to me and if you want, I can fry some chicken. I haven’t frozen it yet.”
His grin gave her his answer so she spent the morning frying chicken pieces in melted shortening in her grandma’s old cast-iron skillet, black with age. Caroline dipped them first in milk, then in a mixture of cornmeal and flour seasoned with a variety of spices, the same way Granny had. Then she put the chicken into a low oven to stay crisp while she put together a pasta salad, a modern change from traditional potato salad, and baked a small pan of apple crisp.
When they arrived at the state forest, Neil drove back to one of their favorite picnic spots. Despite the sunshine and beautiful fall colors, they had the spot to themselves. The still warm chicken tasted delicious and Caroline enjoyed Neil’s pleasure in the home-cooked meal more than her own. Afterward, they sat together at the picnic table, with her body turned to fit against his, and enjoyed the day. A few leaves spiraled in lazy circles to the ground and they were in pleasant harmony. Conversation wasn’t necessary for quiet communion with nature and each other. Sometimes, he pressed lips against the back of her neck or smoothed back her hair with one hand. Caroline adored his solid muscles supporting her and tucked her head against his shoulder.
By late afternoon when the shadows stretched farther beneath the trees, Neil stirred.
“It’s gonna get dark sooner than I want,” he told her. “I need to take you home and head to the house myself. Morning comes early on Monday for me and for you, too.”
Caroline sighed. “I know, but I hate to end the day.”
Neil laughed with regret. “I hate to see the weekend get over. It’s been the best I’ve had in years, probably, even with my freak out.”
She had no idea what to say, and then she knew.
“In the long run, what we’ll remember is making love,” she told him. In her mind, the Eagles classic
In The Long Run
She stood up to pick up the remains of their picnic but he turned her around.
“Yeah, honey, always.”
Neil kissed her, short and sweet, before they climbed into his truck. He sorted through his CDs and they listened to the Eagles all the way home.
He got it too,
she thought and comforted by their long familiarity and bond, she sang along. After the first mile, so did he.
Without him, her house seemed empty and she became lonely. Her solitary footsteps echoed too loud on the stairs and she missed having company. Most of all, Caroline longed for Neil. Some of the new equipment arrived and was installed so the store expanded their hot food items to include chicken strips, catfish, and hot dogs. Most days, she still brought some nourishing dish too, for Neil and for whoever wanted some while it lasted.
During the week, busy days spanned the long hours and she saw Neil each evening, but often for no more than thirty minutes, often less. He arrived weary from a long miner’s day, ate whatever she had prepared, and spent time with her. No matter how tired he had become, Neil always took time to kiss her in the privacy of her office or at his truck. Each day, he appeared more haggard and worn out. By Friday, temperatures turned much cooler and a chill wind blew from the north.
By eight o’clock, shoulders drooped and eyes heavy with fatigue, Neil suggested they call it a night. He’d been coughing, too, with a harsh, deep bark she didn’t like. Although he had a frequent cough, something she suspected came from working in the mines, this had the potential to get serious.
“Let Jackson finish up,” he told her. “He’s closing tonight anyway. Let’s go home.”
Caroline knew what he meant, that they would leave together and go to her place. “Sounds good to me,” she said. “I’m worn out.”
“So am I.”
By the time he’d parked his truck behind her car, the rain had become a steady downpour. Caroline shivered as they hurried into the house, dripping excess water onto the floor. Because it was a chill night, Neil built the first fire of the season in the woodstove and by the time she had changed her wet blouse for warm pajamas, the sweet aroma of woodsmoke matched the dry heat from the stove. He settled down in the recliner, coughing, as Caroline sat down on the couch, feet tucked beneath her.
“Do you want to watch a movie?” she asked. “I could make some popcorn.”
Neil shook his head. “I’d probably just fall asleep. I enjoy sitting here, listening to the rain on the roof and staying warm by the fire with you.”
The idea appealed to Caroline, too. “That sounds wonderful. If your shirt’s wet, you’d better change.”
His eyes were already closed. “I will, sugar, in just a minute or two.”
She put some vintage country on the ancient record player, but kept the volume low so they could still hear the rain falling. Caroline relaxed, comfortable with Neil’s presence and content in a way she hadn’t been since childhood.
I never had evenings such as this when I was married. Dylan never could sit still long enough. He always had to be on the go, doing something.
The difference suited Caroline well. She settled into the evening and let the music wash over her with familiar rhythms. Soothed, she drifted into a light sleep and so, she thought, did he.
Neil woke her screaming, something about fire that roused her to full alert. Caroline jumped to her feet and with wild eyes searched for flames. Her heart pounded so hard she thought it would leap from her chest. After the first few seconds, she realized the only fire remained safe within the stove. No smoke filled the house, but Neil continued cried out. His eyes were wide open and the terrible expression he wore cut her as deep as a fillet knife.