Authors: Kathleen Creighton
She sank back against the creek bank, closed her eyes and once more lifted both hands to cover her face. Oh, how she hated feeling helpless! But there was no getting around the fact that she
at this moment, anyway. Like it or notâthere was no way out of itâshe was going to have to sit here, a classic maiden in distress, and wait for someone to come to her rescue.
“Okay, Bubba, ol' boy,” C.J. said, giving the lab a neck-ruffling hug, “let's go find her, shall we? Where's Caitlyn, huh? Let's go, big fellaâgo on, find Caitlyn.”
He was surprised to hear how calm and ordinary his voice sounded. Inside, deep in his guts, he was beginning
to get worried. More than worriedâscared to death. Okay, so Jake had assured him they were in the clear, that according to the FBI's surveillance sources Vasily had no idea where Caitlyn was. Nobody had noticed any strangers lurking in the neighborhood, either, but that didn't make C.J.'s mind rest easy. He had an idea he wasn't ever going to rest easy again until Ari Vasily was either dead or behind bars.
Bubba gave his wrist a swipe with his tongue, threw him a panting, grinning, “Why didn't you say so?” look and went trotting off across the hay field toward the woods. C.J. sighed. He knew Labs weren't trackers, and ol' Bubba was as likely to be after wild turkeys as anything, but what the hellâ¦. He took off after him. After a few steps he broke into a run.
He'd lost sight of the dog by the time he got to the woods, but he could hear him rustling around amongst the leaves not far away. “Hey, Bubba, where you off to, boy?” Then, with accelerating heartbeat, and feeling funny and self-conscious about it, he called out, “Caitlyn? You there?”
She didn't answer, but in the tense and suspenseful silence, he could hear Bubba making happy yipping-whining noises down by the creek. He huffed out a breath and headed that way, forcing himself to walk easy, telling himself his thumping heartbeat was because he'd been running hard. Although he hadn't.
She was still some little distance away when he caught sight of her, mostly because Bubba's tail whipping back and forth marked her location as effectively as a flare. Without that, downhill from him and up against the near creek bank as she was, one leg tucked under her and the other in the water, he wasn't sure he'd have seen her at all. In Sammi June's old faded jeans and an even older Georgia Bulldogs sweatshirt that had most likely belonged to him once upon a time, her pale gold hair the color of birch
leaves, she seemed to blend right in with the autumn scenery.
It had been a long time since he'd thought of her in conjunction with fairy tales. He did now, but not the Disney-type, enchanted-princess, Sleeping-Beauty-type of fairy tale. She called to mind things he hadn't even realized he knew aboutâthings like nymphs and elves and sprites, spirits of nature, of woods and trees, water and earthâ¦creatures of superstition and ancient legendâ¦beings, so those legends said, that had once populated the earth, long before mankind.
“Hi,” she said, and the vision vanished like an elf into shadows. Her voice was breathless. Her face, turned toward the sound of his approaching footsteps, was dusty and tear streaked and crisscrossed with scratches.
When C.J. saw those, the anger he felt toward her for her foolishness, which had begun welling up in him like an incipient sneeze, dissipated like pollen in the wind. Unable to say anything, he let out a half grunting, half snorting sound of sheer relief and sat down on the edge of the bank just above where she was. He was surprised to discover that his legs had become unreliable.
Bubba gave Caitlyn's nose and mouth one last swipe with his tongue and went splashing off to see if he could find anything interesting in the creek. Her hand followed the dog in an involuntary groping motion, and a look of uncertainty flashed across her face. “C.J.?” There was fear in her voice. “That is you, isn't it?”
“Yeah,” he said sourly, figuring it was okay to go ahead and let her think he was mad, now they both knew she was okay. “It's me. Lucky for you.” He eased himself over the edge of the creek bank. “How in God's green earth did you get down here?”
Her mouth tilted sideways. “I sort ofâ¦fell.”
She nodded and gave a gallant little gulp of chagrin.
“Yepâspectacularly. I must have been a sightâtoo bad you missed it.”
Not thinking about what he was going to do, he hunkered down beside her in the rocks and ferns and dipped his fingers in the trickle of creek water. His hand felt unsteady as he brought it to her cheek. She flinched just a little when he touched her, and her eyes held a wary look. He slid the ball of his thumb across a scratch, spreading cool water over it like a salve. “You hurt yourself.” His voice felt and sounded like sand.
“Ohâ” she touched a hand to her cheek, nudging his away “âyeah, actually, I did.” Her voice was quick, breathy. “I think I turned my ankle, too. Stepped in a holeâthat's why I fell. I don't think it's too bad, but I can't put weight on it yet. I was going to try to crawl up the bank. I thought I could make it home, if I could justâ”
“Cait,” he said as he let his hand drop away from her and drape across his knee, “what am I gonna do with you?” When what he really meant was,
What am I going to do with these feelings inside me?
She made that funny, half-embarrassed gulping sound again. “Well, I was hoping you were going to take me home.”
He didn't feel like laughing. “Don't tell me you're gonna let me help you.”
Her smile disappeared and she turned her face away from him. “I don't think I have much choice, do I?”
With a sigh of exasperation that was more like a growl, he shifted his weight, pivoting on the ball of his foot so he could reach the leg that was stretched out in front of her, making a bridge across the tiny stream. “This it?” he muttered, and she nodded. He'd barely touched it when she stiffened and jerked her other foot out from under her, then used both it and her hands to brace herself for what was coming.
She didn't utter a sound as he lifted her leg into his lap and, as gently as he knew how, drew back the stiff wet fabric of her jeans. He eased off her shoe, then peeled away the sock. His heart hammered beneath his breastbone as he cradled her foot in his hands. Funnyâhe'd never noticed before how vulnerable and sweet a woman's bare feet were. Come to think of it, he didn't remember ever noticing a woman's feet,
To hold oneâ
footâlike this, the skin so cool and silky soft like a baby's, the bones so fragile and yet so strongâ¦it was vulnerable, yes, and even sweet, but incredibly
too. It must be the intimacy, he thought, that made it so erotic.
“Yep, sprained,” he said in a strangled voice, as he eased the foot off of his lap and set it gingerly on a moss-covered rock. “Not too badâthat cold creek water'll probably keep the swelling down some.”
He retrieved her sock and stuffed it inside her shoe. When he trusted himself to look at her again, he saw that her eyes, focused on the place where a moment ago his face had been, were shimmering like sunlight on gray water.
“Tell me something,” he began. She jerked toward him in surprise as, instead of preparing to haul her up out of the creek, he settled himself beside her in the nest of crushed ferns. With his back propped against the creek bank, he asked in a conversational tone, “Why do you hate it so much? Askin' for help, I mean. Hell, not even askingâjust accepting it when it's offered.”
She was sitting forward, her body tensed and wary, her face turned away from him. He saw her shoulders lift. “I don't know,” she said in a muffled voice. “I guess it's just the way I am.”
Exasperation rumbled in his throat. He scrubbed a hand over his face and fought it down, and after a moment was able to quietly say, “That's no kind of answer. What I was asking is for you to
me the way you are.”
He stared at her silent back, a bulwark against him, and felt defeated. Thenâ¦as his gaze traveled upward to her neck, rising pale as a newly sprouted shoot from the neckline of her sweatshirt, the bumps of her spine downy and delicate as something newly born, and as vulnerable, revelation came to him, not in a blinding flash, but as a slow and gentle warmingâ¦. She's afraid of this, he thought.
Even more so than I am.
He put his hand on her back, between the draped mounds of her shoulder blades, and began to move it with a relaxed rhythmâ¦a kneading pressure. She said nothing, but after a moment her head sank forward. Closing his eyes in thanksgiving for that small acceptance, he let his hand work its way along the valley of her spine to the top of the sweatshirtâ¦and then beyond. Her skin was satiny and cool where it stretched across her shoulders, warm and damp farther up on her nape beneath the slightly curling ends of her hair. He thought how small and slender her neck felt in his hand. He marveled at the vibrant strength in it even as desire mushroomed inside him, wallowing like a bathing hippo in his belly. Slightly seasick, he mumbled, “How's that?”
Her reply was faint. “Heaven.”
A tiny thrill of triumph shivered through him. He lifted his other hand to her shoulder and raised himself so he was sitting upright, the way she was, moving slowly and carefully as he might if he were trying to tame a wild animal. Leaning toward her, he slid his hands lightly down the sides of her neck and curved his palms over the places where the rounded ridges of muscle were the thickest, kneading gently while his fingers brushed the velvety hollows above and below her collarbones and his thumbs probed the wells of muscle along her spine. He smelled sweet strawberries and closed his eyes and concentrated hard on not burying his face in her hair.
She said something he couldn't quite hear, and he leaned closer to her ear to dazedly mumble, “What?”
“I said, that feels incredible,” she said in a thickened murmur. “I never realizedâ” She took a breath; her chin tilted sideways. “I don't think anybody's ever done that to me before.”
He felt a smile coming on and didn't try to stop it. “Is that a fact?” He slowed the motion of his hands, making a new rhythm at once gentler and deeperâ¦more like a caress. In a voice to match that motion he said, “Well, I'm glad I'm your first.”
She answered with a high, short laugh.
Then there was silence, while he allowed his mind to wander down impossible pathsâ¦.
I wish, Caitlyn thought, as an ache came from out of nowhere, swelled through her throat and face and threatened to blossom into tears.
I wish you could have been my first.
Her “first” had not been a wise choiceâor for that matter, her choice at all. It had come about in the wee hours following her senior prom, in the back of her date's parents' station wagon. He'd had too much to drink, and sheâ¦well, maybe she hadn't had nearly enough. She remembered being frightened and overwhelmed and all too aware that he was twice her size and that she had no hope of preventing him from doing what he was so determined to do. She remembered pleading with him, though that may have been only inside her head. In any case, he'd neither heard nor heeded. She remembered the pain, and what was worse, the helplessness. She remembered the humiliation, too.
She'd never told her parentsâit would have hurt them too much. Though they'd wondered why she hadn't wanted to go out with Tyler again. He'd kept asking herâpestered her, in fact, right up until the day she left for college. But she'd never been able to look at him again after that night without revulsion, and had taken care never to allow herself
to be caught alone with him. She hadn't liked him all that much to begin with, she realized too late, and had accepted his invitation to the prom for all the wrong reasons: because he was handsome and popular and a star athlete, and she, a rather gawky, skinny late bloomer, had been flattered by his attention.
Later choices hadn't been much wiser, perhaps, but at least she'd made sure they were
choices, and the partner, the circumstances and her emotions always under her strict control. She'd been content with that, and had never wasted time on regrets, or wished things might be otherwiseâ¦until now.
She put her hands over C.J.'s, stopping their seductive caressing motion. Her skin felt tightâ¦stretchedâ¦on the verge of tearing. She didn't lift her head; her neck felt too frail to hold it. “I think,” she said, and her voice was frightened and airless, “that's the reason I hate needing help.”
“What is?” Warm puffs of breath stirred the hair above her ear. Goose bumps sprang up all over her body. She shivered, and her nipples tightened until they hurt.
“I don't want to need
I won'tâI can'tâI'm afraidâ”
“What are you afraid of?” His hands, ignoring the restraint of hers, moved back and forth across her shoulders, gently stroking over the rounded part, moving the fabric of her shirt in a way that made it part of the caress.
Her breath caught in her throat. She cleared it and tried to speak calmlyâ¦rationally. “I suppose a therapist would say that I'm afraid of losing control. Of being weak.”
He was silent for a moment, consideringâ¦then softly touched the shell of her ear with his hoarse whisper. “Needing somebody doesn't make you weak, it just makes you human. In fact, I'd say just about everybody needs somebodyâ”
Desperate laughter rippled through her. She sang the
words of an old song in a fruity, somewhat inebriatedâand shakenâtone, “âEverybody needs somebody sometimeâ¦'”
His hand swept upward, changing the contours of her throat and nudging her chin up and back, and the last note of the song died a burbling death as his mouth closed over hers. The breath she hadn't had time to exhale swelled in her chest, her breasts tightened and her belly quivered.