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Authors: Kara Braden

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BOOK: Longest Night
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Where was he meant to sleep? Maybe she had a bed in the attic, though he doubted he could make it up a ladder or steep staircase. If he stayed in the living room, he'd last about two hours on the sofa before wanting to steal her gun and shoot himself from what it would do to his back, but he didn't want to complain or throw her out of her bed. And she hadn't given any hint that she'd be interested in sharing.

He finally set the frame pack down just inside the living room. She'd brought his carry-on and garment bag into the kitchen, along with a second kitchen chair that looked weathered and dusty. “Where should I—”

“Let me go stow the plane,” she interrupted, glancing at the kettle on the stove. “If that boils, put it on the counter, okay?” Before he could answer, she disappeared outside once more. He was tempted to follow, but the thought of the cold kept him safely inside.

Finally, he replaced the oil lamp on its hook over the sink and started rummaging through the upper row of cupboards. One held plates, cups, and mugs; all the rest had canned goods. Cecily had apparently stocked for an apocalypse, but she didn't seem a survivalist or militia type. They usually lived in walled, guarded compounds, didn't they?

He took down a glass, filled it at the sink, and used it to wash down two more ibuprofen. The bottle was almost empty, and while he had another in his bag, he was going to need to resupply. At this rate, he'd be lucky to make it a month.

Cecily finally returned, stamping her boots on the mat just inside the door. She gave Ian a quick nod and went to the living room. Then she came back into the kitchen without her leather jacket and gloves. Underneath the jacket, she was wearing a cream-colored button-down shirt that looked like thick brushed cotton. He took in her body in a single glance—strong shoulders, small breasts, flat abdomen—before his gaze stopped at the holster she still wore.

Seconds dripped by, glacially slow, as he watched the comfortable, confident way she carried herself. She wasn't at all alarmed at having a strange man in the house with her, despite the isolation. Of course, she was also still armed. He might have taken offense, but judging by the wear on the holster and the way her belt was twisted slightly under its weight, he had the feeling it was habit.

“If you want the bedroom, that's fine,” she said, finally crossing the kitchen to go to the refrigerator.

“Thanks, but where will you sleep?”

She shrugged, unconcerned. “The couch is fine. I don't sleep much.”

“Neither do I, lately.”

She looked back over her shoulder as she took a plastic container out of the fridge. “Just don't sneak up on me while I'm sleeping. I'm not used to having anyone else here,” she said, bringing it over to the counter. When she peeled back the lid, he saw some sort of red meat. “Venison all right?”

He nodded and moved away from the sink, giving her room. “The last time I had venison, it was at a charity fundraiser for two hundred dollars a plate.”

She laughed, tossing her head; her short red ponytail skimmed over the back of her neck, drawing Ian's gaze. “Bet this is better—and I'm not even that good a cook.”

***

Cecily didn't enjoy cooking, though she wasn't a
bad
cook. She couldn't afford to be, living on her own. But either Ian was an overly kind guest or she really had done well, judging by the way he praised her simple stir-fry of venison and mushrooms.

Instead of coffee, she broke into her stash of tea. Now that her guest was really here, she was struggling to push aside her anxiety at the thought of having him in her house, and she needed something calming. Coffee kept her alert and sharp. Tea was meant to be savored.

Ian didn't try to make small talk, which she appreciated. Just hearing him breathe was a constant reminder that someone else was here with her, in her territory—someone she needed to watch out for and protect. But the quiet was comfortable, and she slowly relaxed. For a little while, she was even able to let her mind drift to her writing. She was worried about falling behind schedule.

Once their mugs were empty, she gathered the dishes and carried them to the sink. “Let me help,” he offered, following her too closely. She imagined she could feel the warmth of his body driving the cool air away, and she found herself craving more in a way that she hadn't for years. Tall and slender, with his artfully long hair and glasses, Ian was nothing like the military men Cecily had served with, and the differences intrigued her.

She caught herself and sidestepped, saying, “That's okay. Go get settled in. Make whatever room you need in the dresser and closet.”

Ian didn't leave immediately. Instead, she felt his eyes on her, though he was far enough away that she could relax. She started the water and set the dishes to soak.

“Will you let me make breakfast tomorrow?” he finally asked.

Startled, she looked back to see if he was serious. “You cook?”

He smirked and brushed the hair out of his eyes. “I rarely have the chance, with my schedule, but yes, I cook. I can even do dishes, if you give me some time to remember how,” he added, a grin flashing to life.

She couldn't help but return the smile. “All right. You got it,” she agreed. He nodded, satisfied, and disappeared through the archway.

Cecily exhaled and started to scrub the dishes, letting her thoughts drift as her hands worked. This might not be so bad after all, if Ian could find some way to entertain himself. He was polite and had a fair sense of humor, it seemed. But his looks… As she'd suspected, the long, bulky overcoat had been hiding a body that looked strong and sleek, with shoulders that were broad but not bulky. Not like his brother, Preston, who was strictly the pumps-iron-for-fun type. She'd had enough of that in the Marines.

He came back into the kitchen as she was stacking the last of the dishes to dry. “Do you mind if I shower?” he asked.

She closed her eyes against the brief mental image of his light hair slicked back, hot water running over his body. Keeping her face turned, she picked up a towel to dry her hands and turned around to face him. “Go ahead. Try not to use all the hot water. It's only a forty-gallon heater.”

He nodded. “Thanks for the warning,” he said wryly, and left the room.

“Towels are under the sink!” she called after him as she went into the living room. She put on her coat, gloves, and hat, and then went out into the cold night, taking a deep breath to help clear her head. The temperature hovered just below freezing, and a few snowflakes were drifting down in a desultory way. She didn't think the snow would stick through the night, and it would definitely be gone by midday tomorrow.

Every night, Cecily walked the property to check on the fuel tanks, the hangar, and the cabin. Sometimes she went to watch the river, but not often. Growing up, she'd rarely seen more than a handful of stars at a time, thanks to a childhood spent in light-polluted cities. In the desert, she'd fallen in love with the infinite night sky, but that love had shattered just outside a blacked-out city. Now, she felt safer in the dark and shadows, as though the light of the Milky Way somehow stripped away her defenses, leaving her exposed and vulnerable.

It didn't escape her that Ian's steel-blue eyes felt like that starlight. Just thinking of them made her shiver in a way that might have been good and might have been bad but was definitely distracting. He was handsome and interesting and that voice—God, that
voice
—but she didn't let anyone in, and he seemed the type to pry and dig out all of her secrets.

Even after everything Cecily had experienced, she tried to be a good, fair person. She minimized her interactions with others because of the anger and pain lurking just beneath the calm surface of her mind. She could barely remember the young woman she'd been in her school days, when she never had trouble finding dates and had lived surrounded by friends and acquaintances.

She finished her walk-around in the hangar, where the sight of the quad reminded her that she'd need to double the emergency supplies kept in the saddlebags. It was ridiculous to think they'd have to bug out, but having an emergency plan in place helped keep her steady. Everything in her life was planned, except for the new twist that was Ian Fairchild.

A bit reluctantly, she went back inside and hung her outerwear by the front door, beside Ian's long coat. She touched the combed wool; it was thick and expensive, soft under her fingertips—another sign that he didn't belong here, with her.

The hot water heater in the central utility closet was gurgling. With a sigh, Cecily went to knock on the bathroom door. “You're almost out of hot water!” she warned loudly enough to be heard over the shower.

“Be right out!” Ian called back.

The water turned off a minute later, and she returned to the living room to light the fire. She'd learned early on that life was easier if she laid out a fire ahead of time. Now, all she had to do was put a match to the firelighter she made from dryer lint and paraffin and then wait a minute to make sure the fire caught.

Once the kindling was alight and flames were licking over the split logs, she sat down at her desk. She'd stopped typing in the middle of her last sheet. Now, she ran a finger over the typed lines, feeling the physical impression of the letters on the paper without reading the words. She let the story spin out in her mind until she could hear the voices of her characters. She considered how the different plot threads twisted together, weaving into a pattern that would hopefully go unrecognized by the reader until the climax, when it all came together. She was only thirty pages in, and already the characters were coming to life in her head, adding little nuances of behavior that would help make them more real to the reader.

The bedroom door quietly opened. “Cecily?” When she looked up, Ian smiled. The water had turned his blond hair to a warm brown. Without his glasses, his eyes looked softer. “Need anything from in here?”

She shook her head and smiled back at him. Even layered in pajamas and a bathrobe, he was still shivering. Before she could think about offering to do something about the shivering, she advised, “Go to bed. You'll be warmer under the blankets.”

He laughed and nodded. “Good night.” He closed the door with a soft click. A moment later, Cecily heard the bed creak.

Cecily's bed was big enough for two. She was prone to nightmares and liked having the room to thrash without falling. It'd be hell for her to sleep on the hard, narrow couch, but she couldn't let herself think about sharing the bed. Ian was a stranger—a guest. He didn't need to deal with her nightmares on top of everything else.

Closing her eyes, she pushed thoughts of Ian in her bed out of her mind and focused her attention on the next scene. When she found the perfect place to begin, she set her hands on the raised keys and began to type, finding refuge in a world of her own creation.

Chapter 3

October 22

Ian opened his eyes to warm shadows and unfamiliar walls lit only by the faint glow of banked coals. The window might as well have been painted black, the darkness beyond was so thick. For a few minutes that stretched into timelessness he simply lay there, allowing his senses to report on the newness of the situation. The air itself tasted ashy and alive, free of the car exhaust that tainted the air around his Manhattan apartment. His back ached, but not more than usual. The firm mattress was a blessing.

For now, the novelty of the situation was enough to distract him, though Cecily had been accurate in her assessment of him as a city boy. He loved Manhattan—the feeling of being surrounded by life at all hours of the day or night, the chaotic rush of people and business, even the contrast of Central Park's greenery surrounded by glass skyscrapers and old limestone apartment buildings.

Here, the thought of the thick forest of trees that had already lost their leaves and deep green pines, all weighed down under thick, wet snow, made him shiver and want to bury himself in the blankets, but he was awake now. His back hurt, and he knew the ibuprofen wouldn't help, but he wanted it anyway.

He wanted to be home in Manhattan, in his apartment or his office, rebuilding his life.

What
a
damned
mess
.

But if he had to be trapped in the middle of nowhere, at least he had attractive company. He closed his eyes, thinking of what little he already knew about Cecily Knight. She was nothing like the women he met back home. They were all so polished, so contrived, so focused on power or business or social status. For any one of them, meeting him at the airport would have meant makeup and a manicure and a carefully chosen wardrobe. In contrast, Cecily had put on comfortably worn clothes and a .45, and hadn't even fussed with brushing her hair despite the mess caused by her headset. She took the simplicity of no cosmetics and a plain haircut and turned it into a statement of quiet confidence that was far more enticing than anything dreamed up in a Parisian atelier.

Last night, she'd mentioned that she didn't sleep much. Now, he wanted to see her, if she was awake. He got out of bed, stuck his feet into his slippers, and wrapped up in his bathrobe. He put on his glasses out of habit, thinking that he'd sneak quietly out through the living room to the kitchen. He hadn't seen a coffeepot, but he'd find something hot to drink, even if it was more tea. His thoughts were drawn to the bottle of whiskey he'd seen on a high shelf by the fridge, though he wasn't quite ready to take that risk. The ibuprofen would have to be enough.

When he stepped out into the living room, Cecily rose from the couch so abruptly that his heart skipped. She stood there for a moment, silhouetted against the low fire in the hearth across the room, before she nodded and relaxed her stance. Her hair was loose around her face, falling in soft waves to her chin.

“Something wrong?” she asked alertly.

Interesting phrasing. Not “good morning,” if this even qualified as morning. Her first thought had gone to trouble or danger. He shook his head. “No. Mind if I make coffee?”

She exhaled, some of the tension bleeding out of her posture. “Beans are in the pantry, second shelf down, green canister. Grinder is mounted on the inside—” She cut off with a sigh and reached up to pull back her hair. “Hell, I'll do it.”

“I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you.”

“I'm up anyway.” She pulled her hair back and slid an elastic band from her wrist to the short ponytail. Then she bent down and picked up her holstered gun, which she'd put on the coffee table. He resisted the urge to ask why she went armed in her own home, especially if she left the doors unlocked. He kept silent, though, and just watched as she fastened the belt around her untucked shirt, sliding the holster over her right hip. She still wore her blue jeans and boots.

“Is the bed okay?” she asked, leading the way to the kitchen.

“It's fine. Better than the couch was for you, I'd guess.”

Cecily crouched down by the old-fashioned black iron stove. “It's fine,” she repeated, feeding two split logs into the belly of the stove. “I've fallen asleep on the couch before.”

“I appreciate it,” Ian said honestly.

She stood, picked up the kettle, and brought it to the sink to fill. He considered sitting down, but moving around helped with the pain in his back. Instead, he walked to the back door and looked out into the darkness, watching out of the corner of his eye as she put the full kettle on top of the stove.

Why
do
you
live
like
this?

The question was on the tip of his tongue, but he held back. If he really did end up staying here for a few months, he had more than enough time to satisfy his curiosity. Besides, he suspected that prying too hard would cause her to shut down even more. There were no soft edges to Cecily Knight, but she wasn't abrasive. Instead, there was a sort of quiet strength about her, one Ian couldn't help but admire.

She opened the pantry door, briefly hiding from his view. Then she looked out, saying, “Come over here. Let me show you how to use the grinder.”

He walked away from the archway where he'd been leaning. Earlier, he'd barely glanced into the pantry. Now, he took note of the plastic tubs on the floor and the shelves stocked with cans and sealed jars. He stepped closer to estimate how much food she'd stored away, but he was distracted by the smell of wood smoke that teased at his nose. She'd moved the couch closer to the fireplace, and the smoke had curled around her hair and clothes, infusing her with a natural scent that suited her better than any perfume could. He turned, admiring her profile, wondering if he'd be able to taste the smoke if he kissed her.

She looked at him, and for one moment, he saw his interest mirrored in her eyes. He shifted his weight to step closer, and abruptly she tensed. She turned her attention back to the closet and inched away from him, pushing the door all the way open. “Beans are in the green canister,” she said, pointing to one of the shelves. “Raw beans are in that canvas bag down there. I roast once or twice a week—Thanks.” She took the green ceramic canister from him and opened the lid.

“It smells wonderful,” he said, carefully keeping his distance, though the aroma of fresh-roasted coffee called to him. The last thing either of them needed was for him to make a pass, her to rebuff him, and both of them to spend the next few weeks awkwardly avoiding one another.

She smiled, the expression genuine and relaxed, and measured a scoop of coffee beans into a worn metal box mounted to the inside of the pantry door. It had a crank handle on the side. “Dry goods grinder,” she said, seeing his interest. “It can be used for anything—wheat, spices, whatever—but I mostly use it for coffee.” Steadily, she worked the crank. Inside, gears meshed and coffee beans crunched.

“You must have given a great deal of thought to living off the grid like this.” He leaned against the far side of the pantry, watching her.

“Well, I hired a consulting firm for most of it. Civil engineering isn't my specialty; my degree is in electrical engineering.”

Ian glanced up at the unused light fixture in the middle of the kitchen, wondering what had happened to drive her so far away from her field of interest.

“I can handle basic maintenance,” she continued, “but for anything else—the fuel lines, for example—I call in a specialist.” She stopped grinding and slid a drawer out of the bottom of the grinder.

“I'd imagine you'd have to be self-sufficient to live here.”

She left the pantry and carried the drawer across to the counter, where she took a small copper pot out of a cabinet. “You could say that,” she agreed, dumping the coffee grounds into the pot. “Did you want to see the specs?”

“Specs?” He stepped back as she returned to the pantry and replaced the drawer in the grinder.

“For the house.”

Surprised by the offer, he nodded. “I'd like that, yes.”

“Watch the water. When it boils, fill the pot,” she said and left the kitchen.

***

The house plans were in the safe, along with two hunting rifles, two shotguns, three handguns, and a sniper rifle that Cecily could possibly explain away as a bear-defense weapon. She wasn't arming for a war; for her, shooting was both a hobby and a necessity, since she supplemented her grocery runs by hunting.

She opened the safe and knelt down in front of it. Two drawers held boxes of ammunition; the third was where she kept the fireproof file box. She opened the box and rifled through the files—insurance papers, identification and passport, military service record, school transcripts, medical records, property deed—until she reached the folded-up blueprints and engineering reports.

Despite her need for solitude, her urge to show off was natural. She was proud of what she'd accomplished here. There had been a few hiccups, especially that first winter, but she'd mastered the art of not just surviving but living comfortably in conditions that would drive most people mad. The desire to share her accomplishments was only natural, even for her. Maybe
especially
for her; she'd always been an overachiever.

She also wasn't a recluse by nature, but by circumstance. As she locked everything back away, she shivered, remembering how she'd nearly shot Ian as an intruder—an
enemy
—before her sleep-fogged mind identified him as a houseguest. Preston Fairchild was the only reason Cecily was alive. She wasn't about to repay that debt by killing his younger brother.

She brought the paperwork into the kitchen and flipped on the light over the dining table. The paperwork rustled softly as he picked up the stack, sorting through the folded blueprints, statements of work, and purchase orders. Once he reached the engineering specifications, he tapped the papers on the table to straighten the edges and began reading.

The glasses softened the sculpted angles of his face, she thought absently, watching him read. The cold brought a slight flush to pale cheeks.

When the kettle whistled, she realized she was staring and quickly went to the stove. She poured boiling water into the pot of coffee grounds and looked out into the dark night while it steeped. Occasionally, she gave the contents a stir with a spoon. After two minutes, she strained the coffee through a mesh filter into a thermal carafe and set the pot of wet grounds aside to dry.

She brought the carafe and two mugs to the table. “Sugar?”

“Please. And milk,” he said with only a nod of thanks.

“Sorry, I only have powdered milk or creamer.” She fetched the plastic container of sugar from the cupboard. She had a larger bin of it in the closet, sealed against ants and damp.

“That's all right, then,” he said. She could hear the wince in his voice.

“It's not very practical to keep milk out here.” The defensive words slipped out before she could stop herself. She brought him the sugar and a spoon. “The fresh meat makes up for it.”

“True.” He smiled at her, the expression lighting up his eyes. “In case I didn't say it enough earlier, dinner was wonderful.”

She smiled back at him, captivated by the warmth in his cool blue eyes. When he wasn't smiling, he was gorgeous, yes, but in a distant, aloof way. Surprised at how relaxed she felt, she said, “Thanks.”

They fell into a companionable silence broken only by the sound of Ian turning pages and the clink of his teaspoon after he refilled his coffee mug. Cecily sipped her coffee and tried to think about her writing, but she was lazily distracted. She kept glancing at his face, the way his hair fell to brush against high cheekbones. He had long, graceful hands, and she absently thought that if he ever took up sign language, it would look like poetry in motion.

By the time dawn's light turned the outside world from black to a pale, foggy white, she felt almost human again. She'd had nearly five hours of sleep, which wasn't too bad for her. Ian looked over at the window and stood, grimacing as he flexed his shoulders. He took a rattling plastic bottle out of the pocket of his bathrobe and swallowed two tablets.

She got up, also feeling a bit stiff from sitting on the hard wooden chair for so long, and went to the refrigerator. The supplies she'd picked up in Pinelake a few days ago were mostly dry goods meant to keep a single person through the winter. She'd picked up cheese and had plenty of mushrooms, but only four eggs left. Those she got from her downriver neighbor in exchange for bags of chicken feed Cecily picked up whenever she had cargo space.

Behind her, she heard Ian's chair scrape against the wood floor. “I believe it's my turn to cook,” he offered.

She looked back at him, pleased that he'd remembered last night's offer. “Go for it,” she invited. “I'll start some more coffee.”

“Don't get your hopes up. It's been a long time since I've had the leisure to cook. I may be out of practice.”

She laughed over the sound of water running into the kettle. “So, was there anything you wanted to see?” she asked, playing the role of host.

“Is there anything
to
see?”

She shrugged. “River and forest, mostly, if you like that sort of thing. I need to take the quad and go visit Mags. You can come along, if you'd like.”

“Mags?”

“Marguerite Lavolier. Lives downriver, about ten miles away. It's not a bad ride, on the quad. I have a bag of feed to bring her. She'll have fresh eggs for us, maybe some chicken, if any of them are ready for slaughter.”

“Slaughter—” He cut off with a tense laugh.

Cecily grinned back at him. “No real supermarkets out here, remember? If you want meat, you've got to get it yourself.”

***

Faced with the choice between isolation in the remote house and going
anywhere
, Ian decided on the latter. Cecily was good company, even if she didn't seem particularly interested in him. But as he stared at the clothes his PA had packed, he wondered if he'd even be able to go out at all in this weather.

BOOK: Longest Night
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