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Rainbow Advent Calendar – my story – Shooting Star

December 13, 2019

It’s is my turn for this fun holiday writing event. My story is up today, both posted here and available for download. (Link below.)

It’s always a bit of a surprise for me, to see where my holiday stories go. I’m not particularly good at the holiday sweet and fluffy, (although my older story Where the Heart Is comes close.) This time, I ended up with a bit of an adventure:

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Shooting Star

Dr. Dillon Shaw hiked to a remote lake on Christmas Eve to close one chapter of his life, with no idea what came next. He didn’t expect ‘next’ to be getting tackled into the mud, or gunshots, or a burly cop in trouble.  . About 13,000 words. (Note a content warning for violence, and transient mention of infant death.)

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And I hope you’ll also check out all the other goodies from this event. From the 1st – 24th of December over 40 authors of GLBT+ fiction will be opening a door to a selection of festive stories to while away the winter days and get you in the holiday spirit.

The schedule is a surprise – you have to keep checking to see who has a story gift for you each day. Some are posted on the blogs, many are available for download.

The master list of stories and links is here: http://alexjane.info/rainbow-advent-calendar-2019/

Or check the Facebook grouphttps://www.facebook.com/groups/RainbowAdventCalendar/about/

So far we’ve had lovely stories of all kinds, from hockey players to gingerbread to a ghost cat, from poignant to sweet, several from favorite authors of mine.

I hope you enjoy my story, and all the rest, and have a lovely holiday season.

Find my posted story below.

***Or download Shooting Star in mobi, epub, or pdf from Prolific Works (and they won’t pass me your email unless you verify your interest) – https://claims.prolificworks.com/free/a8m47fEr

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Shooting Star

Kaje Harper

©Kaje Harper 2019

 

Sunshine glinted off the lake at my feet, and coaxed rainbows from the chunky diamond ring in my palm. I tilted my hand, watching colored flecks of light move across my fingers. Who fucking cares? Nothing else about the last six months had been pretty, or bright.

It’s Christmas Eve. I’d thought I was past noticing, but a pang of regret tightened my chest.

This wasn’t how Christmas was supposed to go. I should be at Malcolm’s house, baking a batch of cookies on my rare day off. Or maybe sitting together on the couch in front of the tree, making out, and planning our wedding. I should be but that was long over.

We’d been having breakfast the morning the lawsuit hit the papers. I could still hear the sharp intake of Malcolm’s breath before he turned his tablet toward me, could still taste the acid coffee rising in my throat as I read not just malpractice but unprofessional conduct and assault.

Is any of this true, Dillon?” The crease between Malcolm’s eyebrows, the way he leaned back, created deliberate space between us.

Of course not! I told you what happened. Come on, you know me.” The pleading in my voice made me ashamed now, but back then I’d still been hoping.

Sure I do, babe, but… you can see how bad it looks.” The chill in Malcolm’s tone was the beginning of the end.

My whole life had been taken away piece by piece, after that.

Now, I was out of fucks to give. A month of scraggly beard itched my face. My stomach clenched emptily. The hike up to the lake had shortened my breath in a way it wouldn’t have six months ago, and my knees shook. I wanted to drop to the cool December earth and stay there.

You’re pathetic. Some force inside me that hadn’t quite died pushed at me. That’s not why you came here.

Before I could stop myself, I flung the ring as far as I could. It hit the water without any splash and was gone. A faint regret hit me. You could’ve given it away. Some shelter cat could’ve eaten for a month on that ring. A weird smile stretched my lips. Malcolm had hated cats.

Malcolm had hated anything messy or unpredictable. That should’ve been a warning, but no, I’d gone and made allowances and now— well, it was done.

My hand felt lighter without the ring, and so did my heart. I wasn’t short of money. I could donate its worth. In Malcolm’s name, even. I laughed, and heard a catch of breath in it. Idiot. You know he isn’t still thinking about you after all these months. He’d probably had a new boyfriend before the ink was dry on his Dear-John letter.

And now I was really free. My second laugh was better. Then a heavy force hit me from behind, slamming me to the ground. My breath was driven painfully from my chest, leaving me gasping. Before I could react, I was pinned in the mud by a man’s weight, a man’s grip on my arms. His breath came hot against my ear. “Shh! Don’t move!”

I tried to buck him off. Black spots danced in front of my eyes as my lungs labored. I managed a feeble sound and his hand clamped over my mouth. I tasted mud and blood.

Silence!” He felt bigger than me, heavy, trapping my legs with his.

I sucked precious air through my nose. Self-defense moves. What? I scrabbled for his fingers, trying to bend one backward. Snapped my head back without making any contact.

Shhh. If they find us, we’re dead.”

That was unexpected enough to make me hesitated. Then, past the pounding of the pulse in my ears, I heard other sounds— the cracking of twigs and swish of leaves under careless feet. A man’s distant voice called out, “Hey, you’re just making it harder on yourself. We just wanna talk to you.”

The man on my back twitched and stayed quiet. His hand clamped tighter over my lips. Something about that distant voice— some echo of cruel humor— made me stop fighting.

The footsteps came closer, the sound of two men, at least, walking through the dry leaves and brush without caution, muttering to each other. Maybe they were cops and the guy on my back was a murderer, or a rapist. Maybe they were all just playing a cutthroat game of paintball. Out here hours from any civilization, where cell phones don’t always work. I froze underneath my captor, listening.

One of the distant men said, “This is your fucking fault. How did he get loose?”

Another replied, “You’re the one that tied him up. Anyway…” His words trailed off, too faint to hear.

For minutes that felt like hours, I lay pressed to the dirt while the sounds of the men came and went. At one point someone passed so close behind us the hairs on the back of my neck rose. He was muttering a litany of filthy insults. I tried to breathe silently through my nose, under the frozen weight of my captor, trying to be one with the mud. If I hadn’t decided my peacock-blue jacket was too festive and bright for my mood for today— I shuddered in my worn denim, actually glad I had the heavy bulk of this stranger pinning me down, hiding me.

Eventually someone called, “We’re not going to find the motherfucker like this. We need a dog or a heat scope or something. Head back and regroup.” The crunch of their steps retreated.

When silence had finally returned, I shifted my weight, trying to look at the man who had me pinned and helpless. Before I could get free, he murmured, “It’s a trick. Wait.”

Truth? Lie? He was lying very still, not groping me, not trying for my pockets. Playing it safe probably meant believing him, just a bit longer.

I tried to relax under his weight. The woods were quiet. A chickadee called from overhead. The lap of small waves on a rock a few yards away helped slow my racing heartbeat, steadying me down like a metronome. Breathe… breathe… breathe.

Then racing footsteps charged our way, branches crunching. A shot rang out at a distance. The man on my back flinched, but held still. His pursuers were as loud as an army, crashing through the brush. Run! Run! Every instinct said to get out of there before they found us. I fought against his hands, his weight, bit his palm. He grunted but didn’t let me go.

Then the noises slowed and stopped. Not far from us, someone cursed, “Shit! Nothing! Sack of fucking shit!”

Another voice said, “Fuck! Deaker’s gonna kill us.”

Someone said sharply, “Shut up! We’ll get him. There’s only one road and he’s on foot. If it does take a fucking dog, we can get a fucking dog. Stuart, you…”

I strained to hear what Stuart was supposed to do, but receding footsteps garbled the words. Slowly, the sounds faded into the distance.

Still we lay there, minute after minute, the hunted man on top of me. I began floating, getting lost in the moment in some odd way. I couldn’t move, couldn’t talk, could do nothing but breathe the damp, loamy smell of the earth under my cheek, and feel the rise and fall of the man’s chest against my back, gradually slowing. It was freakishly peaceful. I was almost sorry when he finally whispered in my ear, “I’m going to take my hand off your mouth, but keep quiet, okay?”

I nodded the fraction of an inch available to me and he eased his palm away from my lips. I swallowed and asked, “What’s going on?” My voice was too loud in my own ears and I winced.

Who are you?” His tone was soft but suggested he was used to being answered. “What are you doing out here?”

Getting mugged. Smashed in the dirt.”

Sorry.” He eased off my back. “But stay low. I’d bet they still have someone watching.”

I rolled over to my back, finally getting a look at the guy. He was older than me, dark-haired, scruffy, his intense gray eyes lined with smile-wrinkles. Or scowling wrinkles, I told my inner optimist. He certainly wasn’t smiling now. He frowned down at me as if I was a problem to be solved. Or maybe a parasite to be eliminated. “Who are they?” I demanded.

Scum of the earth. Human traffickers.”

And you’re the good guy?” I shoved sarcasm into that, to hide how desperately I wanted to be told yes.

I’m a cop. I’m good at my job. The rest is a matter of opinion.”

What’s your name?”

He shook his head. “I told you what I’m doing here. Your turn. Who are you? How did you get here? Do you have a car nearby?”

I’m a doctor.” If we were doing titles instead of names, mine was still worth something. Even after the malpractice suit. “I’m on leave. I came here to get away from it all.” Because this was where Malcolm proposed to me… “And got jumped by a so-called cop.”

Drop the attitude.” He raised his head, listening. “We’ll be lucky to get out of here alive.”

What—?” I bit off the question as he raised his hand.

A minute ticked by, then he relaxed. “False alarm. But they’re going to be combing through here as soon as they get reinforcements. We need to get away. Do you have any signal on your phone?”

It’s in my car. Down at the trailhead.”

And you’re hiking alone?” He looked me up and down. “No phone, no pack? What kind of idiot move is that?”

I felt the heat rise in my face. The kind where I didn’t really care what happened to me next? Except, I realized, I did— as if the threat of men and guns had woken me from a dark dream I’d fallen into. Or maybe it was the weight of a man on your back, huh? Got you all hot and bothered? I shoved the echo of Malcolm’s voice away. “So, where’s your phone then?”

He held up his hands. Blood caked his wrists and his thumbs looked swollen and raw. “I lost it.”

What happened?”

I trusted the wrong guy. Never mind—”

Let me see your hands.” When he pulled back I said, “I really am a doctor.”

No time right now. Follow me. Stay low, and as silent as you can.” He turned and began easing his way around the shore of the little lake, crouching below the level of the bushes and undergrowth that ringed it.

For a second, I fantasized about ignoring his command and going my own way. Standing up and heading for my car. Who the hell does he think he is? Except he really was the guy who had some idea what was going on, and someone out there had a gun. So I followed behind him, trying to duck-walk, wincing as new bruises made themselves felt.

When he found a gap in the brush, he headed away from the lake, and I still followed him. The going got rougher and it was harder to stay quiet. It was uphill too, a slow trudge over roots and boulders, done in a crouch that made my breath come painfully and my thighs burn with effort, sometimes crawling on all fours, my face whipped by the dead stems of last summer’s weeds. After ten minutes, I had to let my ass hit the dirt and rest.

Ahead of me, the cop noticed I was missing. He turned and came back, sitting beside me. “You okay?”

Just out of breath.”

He touched my forehead with the back of one battered hand, the gentlest touch I’d had from him. “You’re real flushed. You might have a fever.”

Nope. Just way out of shape.” Going to the gym had been one more thing Malcolm and I had done together, one more essential I’d let slide since he left me. Fuck, I’ve been pathetic. No more. If— when— we got out of here, I was going to find a new gym and fix that.

How long have you been alone out here? You’re too skinny. You look like shit.”

I huffed a laugh, between gasps for air. “Thanks so much.”

If you’re one of their victims—”

I’m no victim!” Jesus, how bad did I look? I hadn’t cared about anything for so long, but suddenly I wished I’d shaved in the last month, cut my hair, bothered to eat. Right, so you can look good when they shoot you? “I’m on vacation.”

Solo hiking at Christmas without a phone?”

That makes me an idiot, not a victim.”

Okay, okay. But if we don’t keep our shit together that may change. Ready for another stretch?”

Can we stand up now?”

He visibly thought about it, easing to his feet to look around, weighing options. “Yeah. Move quietly though, and no talking.”

He led the way again and I concentrated on following where he walked, avoiding the deeper drifts of leaves and crunchy dead sticks. The non-trail got steeper, undergrowth thinning out. Suddenly he whirled and grabbed me, shoving me against a tree trunk and covering my body with his. A rustling behind us drove my heart into my throat.

Two deer bounded past us, ten feet away, heading down the hillside with a flick of their white tails.

The cop sagged against me, his forehead pressed to my neck. I realized for the first time that he was shorter than me, despite his bulk. He’d felt so huge, powerful, safe. I resisted the impulse to cling to him, as he pulled free and straightened. “Sorry,” he murmured. “False alarm.”

No problem.” I hadn’t missed the fact that he’d tried to shield me. The last of my doubts about which side to take melted away. “False is good.”

His teeth actually glinted in a wry smile. “In this case, yeah. Come on.”

He moved confidently despite whatever trauma had bloodied his hands, every step strong and controlled, scanning the quiet forest. I fell in behind him again, unable to resist one quick look at his ass, barely hinted at under his jacket and baggy jeans, before dragging my attention to where I placed my feet. It all felt unreal, like a scene in a play. My brain had been scrambled by that moment of panic, and the rush of relief pressed up against his solid body.

I shivered, absurdly missing that touch, though the air was warm enough. The shadows were getting longer. We’re just past the shortest day of the year. It was lovely for a hike now— if people weren’t shooting at us— but it would get cold when the sun went down. I was desperately glad not to be alone.

Dillon Shaw,” I said.

He glanced over his shoulder, one thick eyebrow raised.

My name. Dr. Dillon Shaw. You can call me Dillon.”

Ah.” He paused. “Call me Joe.”

Is that your name?”

His lips quirked. “Come on, Dillon. Not much further.”

As we reached the top of the ridge, he gestured me lower again. The underbrush was thinner up there, where a few short pines and scraggly bushes poked up from cracks in the rock. Eventually we made our way forward in a belly crawl, with sudden pauses every time he heard something alarming. They were all false alarms, but the shortness of my breath wasn’t just from the long uphill climb.

He reached the overhang first, and waved me to come up beside him. From here, you could see for miles on a clear day. We could also see down to the small meadow at the head of the trail where my car was parked— except it wasn’t. Where my reliable, little, bright-red Prius should’ve been, there was nothing but packed dirt and flattened grass. No other vehicles either. Empty.

For a moment, it didn’t quite sink in. I scanned back along the old logging road. Is there another parking spot? Did I not…? Then it hit me. “They stole my car!”

Joe had me pinned instantly, his palm on my mouth. “Shh. Hush, noise carries from up here.”

I fought the impulse to struggle, and nodded. He eased off me, staying pressed close. I whispered, soft as I could, “My car was parked down there. A red compact. It’s gone.”

I figured.” His words ghosted against my cheek. “And your phone was in it.” That wasn’t a question. He took a slow breath. “They might’ve just dumped it somewhere, but we can’t count on it being close enough to find.”

Dumped it?” My voice squeaked enough to make him flinch. “Sorry. But I had a bunch of my stuff…” I trailed off. We were worried about our lives right now, not Mom’s silver teapot or any of the so-called essentials I’d decided to keep close to me as I left behind the remains of my life. “Now what?”

Good question.” He stared intently down at the road, scanning for something. I looked too, but when all I saw were trees and more trees, I gave it up to look at him instead.

Joe was younger than I’d thought at first glance, maybe forty, with a fleck or two of silver in the beard-stubble on his cheeks. His lips were probably full when they weren’t pressed tight. I saw a muscle twitch in the side of his square jaw like he was grinding his teeth. His eyebrows were bushy in a way that said plucking probably never occurred to him, and his hair looked like it had been buzzed with a razor, then allowed to grow a couple of inches.

This close, I could smell the sweat on him, but that wasn’t a bad thing. Rough voice, heavy muscles, male scent— he was the kind of man I’d secretly admired, before Malcolm. He looked tough, and smart. Capable, like there’d be far worse people to hold my safety in their hands.

Like those men with the guns. “Are they still out there?” I whispered.

One guy down at the trailhead.”

I don’t see him.”

He’s up a tree with a rifle. The nearest pine, where that tall clump of four are?”

It took a few minutes for me to spot a movement, a flash of a maroon not natural to trees. “Oh. Jesus, I’d never have seen him.”

He’s waiting to see if someone comes back to find that car.”

And he’d just shoot them? Me?”

Maybe not. If you seemed confused and alone, and didn’t look anything like me. But… maybe yeah. One more murder means nothing to them, and they can’t afford any chance I might get a message out to my people.”

Who are?”

Other cops.” He began easing away from the edge and I did the same, crabbing back awkwardly.

When we got under the cover of the bushes, I asked, “How far could he shoot us?”

I can’t see what kind of weapon he has. Probably not this far, but I’m not taking chances.” He led the way downslope to where a hollow at the base of a big old pine was lined with needles and fallen leaves. With a little grunt— the first pain sound I’d heard from him— he sat down with his back to the trunk.

I folded my legs to sit in front of him. He grabbed my sleeve and tugged me around to his side. “Keep the sight lines clear.”

Okay.”

There were a dozen things we should’ve been talking about, but for a while we just sat there and breathed the pine-scented air. A cool breeze ruffled our hair, and I shivered again. He put an arm around me, matter-of-fact, like he’d have done it for anyone. “Gonna get cold later on. You should’ve dressed warmer.”

I focused on feeling annoyed, because I didn’t want to like his embrace so much. “I wasn’t planning to still be here. One little hike, and then I’d have driven back out.” His criticism stung more because I was an experienced camper, and in my right mind I’d never have left sight of my car in a remote area without a pack, and a phone, water, first-aid kit… what kind of doctor are you? “Let me look at your hands. Do you have other injuries?”

He hesitated, then let go of me and presented me with both battered arms. “Nothing bad. Got hit on the head, but I never passed out. No concussion symptoms. Some bruises.”

I inspected the spot on his head, marked with a purpling hematoma but no obvious fracture. He passed a basic concussion screening with an air of humoring me. I checked his wrists, ringed with abraded bleeding skin. Both thumbs looked even more raw and swollen than I remembered. “What happened?”

I was tied up. Blood’s a crappy lubricant, but I didn’t have a lot of choice.”

You did that to yourself? Did you dislocate a thumb?” I didn’t think you could dislocate the CMC joint without a fracture, which would be a scary amount of self-control.

No, just took some skin off. I was lucky they decided to be fancy with the rope, tied my feet to my hands, which left some play.” He pulled his hands back. “Nothing you can do about it anyway.”

The lake’s pretty clean. We could wash them out. My T-shirt would rip for bandages.”

He shrugged one shoulder. “Later. We need to think. How soon are you likely to be missed? Would they come looking for you, or call the forestry service?”

Um.” I bit my lip. “It’ll be a while.”

It’s Christmas Eve. You don’t have someone expecting you tomorrow?”

I bit my lip against an unwelcome surge of loss. Hopefully it was too dim in the shadow of the tree for him to see it. “No. I quit my job. And my boyfriend.” Or he quit me. I realized I’d just outed myself and froze, holding my breath. What if he hates gay people? We’re alone out here.

There was no change in his tone, though, when he asked, “No other family? Friends? Did you tell anyone where you were going?”

I’m kind of… between lives.” I quickly added, “How about you? Even cops must get a few hours off for Christmas?”

I was undercover. There is no time off from that duty.”

Oh.” The bleak way he said that tugged at my heart. “Don’t you have, like, check-ins or other cops watching out for you, though?”

Yeah. I’ve missed my check-in already. The problem is we’re a hundred miles from where they’ll be looking for me.”

I pulled my knees up, hugging them. The air seemed to be getting colder. “So what do we do?”

We have options. We could try to walk out to where we’ll find other civilians. That’s probably safest.”

How far?” The drive in to the trailhead was pretty isolated for the last hour, but the road twisted and turned. I had no concept of distance.

You’d know better than me. I have a rough idea where we are because one of them mentioned it when they thought I was going to be easy to dispose of. I’ve never been here before.”

I blinked at that. I’d followed him blindly, assuming he knew where he was going. Although he’d gotten us up to the lookout, so if he didn’t know, he figured it out well enough. “At least twenty miles to a paved road with traffic,” I guessed, based on driving at thirty for an hour but not in a straight line.

A solid day’s walking, maybe more since we’d have to keep to the rough ground away from the road, and daylight’s limited.” He frowned. “Still, that’s probably the safest bet. Although if they do bring in heat scopes or tracking dogs, it could get dicey.”

Would they do that? It sounds James Bondish.”

You have no idea what’s at stake. If I can get to my stashed evidence before they figure out I have it, if I can testify, it means life without parole for a bunch of these monsters. And the collapse of a multi-million-dollar network.”

Ouch.”

And they have those resources, dogs and scopes, because escapes are always a concern. They traffic in people so they’re good at controlling people.”

Shit.” I hugged my knees harder. “Dogs usually fall for my charms. Maybe not those dogs, huh?” He gave what might have been a laugh, and I was pleased to have lightened his mood even a fraction. “What’re the other options?”

We could try to signal for help. Light some fires, for example. There’s fire-watch towers in most big parks. Three problems with that.”

Like getting burned to death?”

Yeah. We’d have to be super careful. Also it would show the bad guys where we’ve been. And starting fires with no matches isn’t impossible, but it’s harder than the Boy Scouts make it look.”

I shook my head. I wasn’t quite pyrophobic, but I was not a fan of flames larger than a candle. “What’s door number three?”

Right now, there’s one guy left behind to keep watch. He has a weapon, maybe more than one. He’ll have a phone. He thinks he safe up there, but if we can get to him, we can call for help and protect ourselves.”

Attack him?” That sounded suicidal. “Won’t he kill us?”

He’d try.” Joe turned to me and the late afternoon sun gilded his hair, and caught amber glints in his gray eyes. “That’s my job anyway, not yours. All you have to do is hide till it’s over.”

I couldn’t help thinking how different he was from Malcolm. Not just in his rugged good looks, but in the way he was putting my safety ahead of his. Malcolm hadn’t even put my heart ahead of his friends’ gossip on Twitter. “I want to help. Tell me what to do.”

This could go wrong.” He touched me with the back of his hand again, brushing my shoulder. “I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

Well, I don’t want to see you get killed either.” I tried to look as determined as a five-foot-ten skinny city doctor could. “If the best thing I can do is hide, say so. But if I can help, let me.”

He looked me up and down. “You’re tougher than you seem, huh?”

I haven’t been, recently.” I’d let the disasters of the past six months beat me down, but this was one hell of a wake-up call. “But it’s about time I stepped up.”

Okay.” He smiled, and I was right about how nice his mouth looked. “You and me, kid.”

I sat up straight. “I’m not a kid.”

It was probably my imagination that his eyes dropped down over my body before he said, “No, you’re not. All right, Dillon, time for a plan.”

We headed downhill, circling the small lake on the far side to come up behind tree-guy. Joe didn’t know how long we had before the tree-guy’s buddies would be back with reinforcements. When we reached a low spot where only the tips of the pines were visible, he began taking off his clothes.

I don’t mean to complain,” I said, as he dropped his jacket, revealing a nice solid chest in a thin T-shirt, then began fumbling with his zipper. Really not complaining. The worn white shirt clung to wide pecs with a hint of body fur. His arms were corded with muscle and ropey with veins. I yanked my gaze away. “But what are you doing?”

We need a decoy.” He cursed at the zipper. “Can you give me a hand here? My fucking fingers are stiff.”

I hesitated. “You want me to take your jeans off?”

Yeah.” Despite everything, he grinned at me. “Man enough to do it?”

Hell, yes.” It wasn’t an invitation I got from a lot of straight guys, but that didn’t mean I didn’t have other practice. I knelt in front of him, unzipping, peeling the worn denim down some seriously built, dark-furred thighs. He wore boxer-briefs underneath, and even disinterested and soft, he was clearly packing. I averted my eyes from the shape of him, thick and long under the soft cotton. “You’ll have to kick your shoes off.”

He braced one battered hand and then the other on my shoulders, as we untangled sneakers and pants. After the second shoe I looked up at him. Something electric passed between us, just for an instant. Then he brushed my head with the back of his fingers and stepped away.

Are you gay? Bi? This was not the time to ask him and make things weird. “Now what?”

Now we try to stuff weeds and brush into this to make a decoy. Gonna be a challenge without string or duct tape or something.”

Got it.” I hunted around for dry branches for a framework, spotting one nice forked one. “This might work as a base. Put the two sides in the jeans, and the fat part up the jacket.”

He took it from me. “Have I mentioned how glad I am that you were the dumb traveler camping up here at Christmas?”

You’d have been better off with a survivalist. Or hell, a Navy SEAL. Or someone smart enough to actually have a phone.” I stuffed a twiggy bit of bush in the chest part of the jacket and yanked up a handful of weeds to add to it.

He caught my wrist in a fumbling grasp. “Don’t put yourself down. You’re doing great.”

I shrugged. “I know my strengths. Give me a surgical pack or a—” I cut off the word dick. Malcolm clearly hadn’t valued that skill much. “—stethoscope, and I’m your man.”

We’re working on getting you back to those.” He stuffed clumps of dried weeds into one sleeve.

After boasting my skills as a doctor, I really should’ve stopped him getting all kinds of crap in his open wounds. But we didn’t have time to waste. I moved to the other sleeve.

In the end, we had to sacrifice my T-shirt and his to help bind the thing together and stuff the hood with something resembling a face. We ended up with a light but awkward scarecrow that might look human, if our shooter was half-blind and the light was failing. “You really think this will work?”

I hope so. The key is to let him just get a glimpse, not a good look. Come on, time to move out.”

Together, we carried the scarecrow closer to the shooter’s pine tree, then dropped to the ground to crawl forward with it, moving slowly and carefully. I winced at what Joe’s bare knees and hands must look like as we worked our way through the brush. He tried to duck-walk when he could, but had stopped hiding his little huff of breath whenever he had to hit the ground with a hand for balance.

Eventually we stopped at a stand of trees, a mere hundred yards from the guy who wanted to kill us, and his loaded rifle. My pulse thudded loud enough to hear the rush in my ears. I breathed through my nose, in and out, controlled, just like with my first emergency Cesarean, life and death in my hands. I can do this.

Joe left me with a pat on the shoulder, our plans already set. I wished I could say something, wish him luck, tell him he was the James Bond I’d choose to spend my last moments with, but we couldn’t risk the slightest sound. He crept off, amazingly silent, the pale of his furry legs and bare shoulders vanishing into the winter-gray underbrush. I began counting.

One potato, two potato, three… At three hundred, I slowly pushed the scarecrow upright against the trunk of our chosen tree, an arm and half the chest exposed. It wanted to flop and I had to reach up higher than I liked to brace it, but I got it upright. There was no reaction from the gunman. I took a deep breath, and cracked a branch under my knee. The sharp sound echoed through the forest.

An instant later, the scarecrow jolted out of my hands with a deafening rattle of gunshots. I flinched behind my tree, hunkering down, trying to melt into the earth. There was a lull. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the scarecrow draped forward, fallen over a bush. I didn’t dare peek out further. Does it look like a dead man? Will it fool him? Another rattle of gunfire ripped through the bushes next to me. The scarecrow jittered and dropped lower into the underbrush. Just a hint of the jacket could be seen above the dry brush and weed stalks.

Silence returned. I stayed put, like Joe told me, even though every instinct said to put space between me and the scarecrow. Curled tight as possible, I pressed my spine to the tree trunk and held my breath. I replayed Joe’s voice in my head. “The most dangerous thing you can do is move. All right? It’s gonna be fucking terrifying, but I need you to hold still and trust that I’ll get him. Don’t you dare give him a target.”

I repeated that last bit over and over, as moments ticked by. Don’t you dare give him a target. Then, just when I’d decided that our gun-guy was going to play it safe in his tree, I began hearing sounds from that direction. As scrape, a thud. I clenched my teeth and held still. Yes. Come to Papa. Come to Joe.

Footsteps crunched through the dead leaves, coming my way. Closer and closer. Now, Joe. Now would be a good time.

A blast of gunshots hit the exposed shoulder of the jacket, from close enough to make me bite back a scream. Now, Joe!

The crash-thud of Joe making his move jolted me upright so fast I cracked the back of my head on the tree trunk. A single gunshot echoed. More thuds. A man grunted, a pain-sound. Are you okay, Joe?

I’d promised to stay hidden until he called me out, but I couldn’t stand it. I jumped to my feet, snatched up a sturdy branch off the ground, and whipped around the tree. Twenty feet away, Joe had a big guy on the ground in some kind of wrestling hold. The guy wasn’t done fighting, though. He bucked upward and Joe was thrown off his back. They grappled, struggling, grunting. Joe’s head snapped back with a swing of the gunman’s elbow and the man staggered to his feet. Joe swung a leg into his knees, toppling him off balance. He hit the ground closer to me with a thud, pushing immediately to one knee.

Joe shook his head like he was woozy. The guy reached under his jacket and terror unlocked my feet. I charged, swinging my branch, catching the guy in the neck as he started to turn. He staggered, gasping and grabbing at his throat. Joe scuttled close, hauled back, and punched him in the neck full force. I heard a crunch, and the man gasped, eyes going wide. His back arched and he choked, grabbing for his throat, hitting his knees. Joe shoved him down, focused on the holstered gun revealed as the man’s jacket swung open. As the man bucked and kicked at the ground, Joe got the gun free and rolled clear.

Police. Freeze!”

The gunman didn’t seem to hear him, writhing, clutching his throat, wheezing, eyes bugging out.

I said freeze!”

I think he can’t breathe.” I moved toward the prone man.

Don’t get near him, Dillon! It’s a trick.”

I don’t think so.” The man’s lips were turning cyanotic and his chest heaved with the force of his breaths. Spittle ran from his lips. “I think he’s got a damaged airway.” I eased closer, knelt.

Joe lunged toward us, holding the gun inches from the prone guy’s head. “Hurt him and I’ll kill you.”

You might already have done that. Or maybe I did. The guy’s color was shitty. His hands fell limply away from his throat.

I bent over him, palpating over the larynx where things crunched and moved that shouldn’t. “Not faking, there’s crepitus. He needs an airway. A tracheotomy.” Shit! I haven’t done that since my Emergency rotation.

Joe moved the gun away, and set it carefully at arm’s length. “What do you need?”

Something sharp. Knife, scissor blade. Fast!”

Joe began searching through the man’s pockets. I patted mine, but there was nothing sharp in there. I did have a pen that might serve as a tube if I could get it inserted. I began unscrewing it with trembling fingers, as the man spasmed and then went limp under Joe’s hands. I laid two fingers over his carotid. His pulse was there, but thready and fast. Not much time.

Joe muttered, “What kind of bad guy doesn’t have a knife? Gonna turn him.” He pushed the guy onto his side to check back pockets.

At first the man still struggled weakly, but then his body sagged. I got the pen barrel unscrewed as Joe eased the guy back down. “No fucking knife.”

The man was still except for the arched, heaving effort of each failed breath. His eyes had rolled up, his hands lay limp in the dirt. His lips were getting really blue. Fuck! “I need something that will stab into his trachea, or he’s gonna die.”

Joe glanced around as I knelt helplessly, clutching my stupid plastic barrel. Superman could stab the pen right into his neck. How much force would that take? He was moments from no return. I raised it as high as I could, framed the tracheal rings with two fingers, and tried to bring the pointier end down with force between them. The tip glanced off, leaving no more than an abraded line and a trickle of blood, scraping my finger on the way past.

You try!” I demanded. Joe had a couple of branches in his hand, short things with broken ends. He dropped them, took the pen, and stabbed down right where I had. I heard a crack, and the pen barrel split between his fingers. “Shit!”

Reaching for the sharper-looking of the two branches Joe had dropped, I began stabbing at the guy’s neck, lacerating the skin, splinters cracked off the branch. Joe grabbed my wrist. “He’s not breathing.”

No shit! He can’t breathe!”

Dillon!” Joe didn’t let go of me. “He’s dead.”

He will be if I can’t—”

He’s dead.” Joe shook my arm. “He’s gone.”

I lunged for the man’s neck, feeling for the carotid pulse. Nothing. Other side. Nothing. I fumbled in the dirt for his arm, pressing my fingers over his wrist as if somehow the carotids would lie to me. Nothing. His eyes stared sightlessly upward. I smelled urine as his bladder let go.

Dead. Call it. An echo went through me, an operating room, a tiny infant gasping a few futile breaths. Call it.

I didn’t realize I was vomiting until Joe’s arm came around me to keep me from face-planting. “Hey, Doc,” he murmured. “It’s not your fault.”

I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and pulled away. “It might be. I hit him first.”

A glancing blow, to save my life. It was my punch did it. But Dillon.” He set the back of his hand under my chin to guide my gaze to his. “If I’d had a gun, I would’ve shot him. It was him or us. He chose this when he dumped me in the trunk of that car, when he climbed that tree with a rifle.”

He dumped you in the trunk?” I stared into Joe’s eyes, wondering how he could be so calm after so much trauma and violence.

He was one of them. They caught me, roped me up, brought me out here to dispose of the body. If they hadn’t been lazy, and wanted me to walk to their favorite mineshaft, I’d be dead now. I’m not sorry it’s him instead.”

I’m not sorry either. Oh, Joe.” I couldn’t imagine what that ride had been like for him, trussed up in the dark, with a bad death waiting at the end of it. Impulsively, I threw my arms around him.

A second later I realized he might not want to be embraced by a gay stranger while half-naked. I tried to disengage but he was clutching me just as fiercely, muttering, “I was fucking scared you hadn’t listened to me and he’d got you, shooting in the brush like that. Or a ricochet. Jesus.” His stubble scraped my neck, rough and perfect against my skin. His arms squeezed the breath out of me.

I was tempted to brush a kiss against his temple, but of course it was just relief and proximity. And the first time I’d had a man’s arms around me like this in six months. I counted to ten, then pushed away and he let me go. “Now what?”

He dug back in the dead man’s pockets. “Ahah!” He pulled out a cell phone. “Now if it’s locked I may have to use 911… oh, nice, fingerprint lock.” He grabbed the dead man’s hand without hesitation, rotated the phone, and pressed the guy’s finger to it. “And a signal? Yes, bars! And now we’re home free. Mostly.”

Mostly?”

He was dialing as he spoke. “As long as my people can get to us before his people… Sir! Detective Kingsley. It’s urgent… Yes, they got me, got some of the evidence, but not the most of it… I’m fine. Here’s what I need—”

I sat in the weeds and listened as he spoke to several people, sending one to get stuff he’d left hidden in the wall in some room, others to pick up a long list of individuals, and asked for back-up to our location. He reported our dead man with no more emotion than the rest— “Death due to trauma during a murder attempt on myself and an innocent bystander.” I wasn’t sure why it bothered me to hear myself described that way, but I hunkered down in my increasingly-inadequate jacket and just listened.

Finally he tapped away at the phone, muttering about changing the lock to a code, and looked at me. “I don’t know how much of that you got?”

Some of it.” I glanced away.

My people are coming, but it’s getting too dark to land a chopper. They’ll send someone to sweep the road, try to scare off the bad guys if they’re heading our way. It’ll take about three hours for the first car to reach us.”

All right.”

We should get somewhere out of sight, just in case Deaker’s men beat mine.”

Not ours. “You’re the boss.”

I’m keeping his handgun and the rifle. Phone code is six-six-six.” Joe stuck the phone into my jacket pocket, picked the long gun out of the weeds, and checked it. “We’ll be armed and ready, if they do come.”

He was trying to reassure me, so I nodded and stood up. “Lead on, Joe.”

He grinned. He was dressed in boxer briefs, socks, and shoes, and I noticed goosebumps standing on his muscular arms as he cradled the rifle. His nipples were crinkled tight on his furry chest.

I said, “You look cold.” And hot. Then I felt a flush of shame for noticing, with a dead man lying there at our feet. My emotions were all over the place. I tried to stay practical. “Don’t you want to get your clothes back on first?”

I don’t want to mess up the scene. Anyway, with the number of rounds that dummy took, they’re probably more like Swiss cheese than clothing. I’m fine.”

Can we go back to the lake? I’d like to wash out your hands and wrists.”

He looked down as if he’d forgotten the injuries. “Oh. Sure, probably a good idea. Lead the way.”

In the slanting afternoon light, it was harder to see the beaten track that took us to the water. I got side-tracked once, and had to double back, but Joe didn’t complain. Eventually we reached the little inlet where I’d thrown Malcolm’s ring, a lifetime ago. Funny how priorities change. I led Joe to the left, where a pebbled beach led to the water. I squatted and beckoned him close. “Let me see your wrists.”

He set aside the weapons and put his hands in mine obediently. I focused on gently loosening the dirty crusts in the water, soaking the debris out of those deep raw patches on his thumbs. The lake was icy cold, but that would help with the swelling. I would’ve been recommending cold-packs for the base of both thumbs anyway, especially the left. “You should get this X-rayed when you get back. There might be a chip fracture.”

It’s fine.” He hissed but didn’t pull away as I eased a splinter of wood from the meat of his thumb.

Someone needs to do this for you under a better light, too. I can’t tell what I’m leaving behind.”

I appreciate it.”

His hands were broad, the fingers blunt. His forearms were strong too, with those prominent veins… and worsening goosebumps. “Sorry, you must be freezing. I think that’ll do.” I eased his hands out of the water, opened my jacket, and slipped his palms in against my chest. The chill touch made me yelp, but I pressed his fingers against my skin to warm them. “You’ll want a tetanus booster, for sure. Probably prophylactic antibiotics. And you should have your head checked again. I saw him get you with an elbow. Any dizziness? Nausea? Seeing double.”

Dillon.” He pulled his hands free. “I’ll be fine.”

I hugged my arms around myself instead, and tried to smile. “Sorry. Reflexes.”

He straightened. “Come on. Let’s go up to the overlook where we’ll see whoever’s coming before they see us.” I must have sighed or flinched, because he said, “It won’t be a bad climb when we don’t have to hide.”

Okay.”

He was right, although as the sun sank lower, the shadows laid traps for my feet among the roots and weeds. Twice I fell to one knee. Both times, Joe heard me and turned, but with a gun in each hand, he didn’t reach for me. When we scaled the top of the ridge, the sun was touching the horizon. Joe led the way to the overlook and sat on a patch of mossy ground, laying the guns off to one side.

His broad shoulders were shaking with the force of his shivers, even though he acted unconcerned. I said, “You’re going to get hypothermia. We should’ve stolen that bastard’s coat. I’d give you mine, but it wouldn’t fit at all.”

And you need it.”

I hesitated, then sat behind him and opened my jacket. Leaning forward, I pressed my bare chest against his back and wrapped my arms around him, the jacket falling forward to shield his flanks from the breeze. I stretched one leg out on each side of his, bracketing his thighs. “Is this okay.”

He laughed softly. “It’s great.”

Better to look gay than freeze to death, right?” My tone was brittle.

He twisted his head enough to look at me. “When have I ever said I don’t want to look gay? I’ve slept with lots of women, and not a few men. It’s not about the equipment, it’s about the person.”

You’re bi?”

Or pan or whatever the hip kids are calling it these days.”

They’re not calling it hip, for one thing.”

You’d know better than me. How old are you anyway?”

Thirty-three.”

Really? You don’t look it.”

Good genes.” Some bit of me that still wanted to test him added, “Also moisturizer every morning, yoga, eyebrow care, a stylist.”

That beard was approved by a stylist?”

I huffed a breath. Cindi would’ve yelled at me for an hour for how I looked now. It was a jolting reminder that however well-groomed and young and hot I’d once been, I now was a poster child for neglect. “I let it go a bit.”

Joe leaned back harder against me. I liked feeling his shivers easing, as we shared warmth. “I get the impression things haven’t been good with you?”

No, not really.”

Want to tell me?”

It’s a long story.”

He pulled his knees up tight to conserve warmth, crossing his arms to grip the sides of my jacket against the chill. “We have some time. Hopefully.”

I turned to look down the road, and he did the same, his short hair brushing my cheek. “I don’t see anything,” I said.

Not yet.”

I hugged him tighter. After the last six months, I should’ve wanted to be the one being held, but for some reason, our position gave me the strength to say, “I’m an OB-GYN. And I got sued.” For a moment, I wanted to go into the whole disintegration of my life, the crazy accusations, the poor grieving woman unable to believe things “just happen” and searching for a pound of flesh to somehow ease the pain of her loss. But the details didn’t matter. “The woman didn’t want a settlement, she wanted me in jail. And by the time all the charges had been dismissed, I’d been hauled over the coals in the press. My boyfriend walked away. Our friends decided he was the easier one to stay close to. My clinic director winced every time she saw me.”

But the charges were dismissed?”

Every one. The judge suggested she get counseling. I hope she did. I walked out of the courtroom vindicated, but it felt like there was nothing left of my life. I quit my job.” To my boss’s ill-concealed relief. “I sat around home for a while, trying to decide what to do next.” Dodging reporters, dressed in worn sweats, not shaving or caring how I looked, now I didn’t have to “look respectable” in the courtroom anymore. “I decided to come up here and think things through.”

On Christmas.”

I forgot.”

I call bullshit.” He looked over his shoulder again. With the sun gone, his eyes were dark pools. “There’s lots of dates you can easily lose track of, but Christmas in America isn’t one of them.”

Okay, not forgot, but it didn’t feel relevant. I wasn’t going to celebrate this year anyway. And I had something to do, and wanted to get it over with.”

Up here?”

I brought Malcolm— my boyfriend— hiking here when we were starting to get serious. He proposed here. I figured it was a good place to let go of everything.”

See, that’s what I don’t like. The way you talk about letting go.”

I sighed, and laid my face against the nape of his neck. Inappropriate, sure, but the sweaty smell of his skin made me feel safer. “I guess I was pretty depressed.”

Was?”

There’s nothing like facing death to make a person realize they want to live.”

And do you?”

Just two hours ago I might have brushed the question off. Now I said, “Yes. I do,” against that warm skin.

Good.” There was a world of vehemence in that word. “You should. You’re smart and caring and sexy and you should have all the good things.”

I’m—” I swallowed, blown away. “Thank you. You’re pretty damned amazing yourself.”

He snorted. “I’m just an old workhorse. Ordinary enough to go undercover with the worst dregs of humanity and not get noticed.”

I don’t know how you do that.” I hugged him hard. “You’re brave and strong and kind. And also sexy. How the hell do you hide that?”

He cleared his throat. “You don’t need to flatter me back. I’m forty-two and I know what I look like. And I’ve always been a decent actor. Although one thing to say for this clusterfuck. Odds are good I’ll never be able to work undercover again, when I’m done testifying.”

What will you do then?”

Go back to solving crimes from the outside, I hope, instead of pressing flesh with the scum of the earth.”

So you still want to be a cop, after almost getting killed?”

He glanced back. “What else would I do? Anyway, I’m good at it, and it’s important work. Like doctoring.” His tone dared me to contradict him.

I tried for humor instead. “We could become pole dancers. The Dillon and Joe show. My flexibility and your muscles. We’d pack them in.”

I expected him to laugh, but instead he was silent for a minute. Eventually he said, “You and me?”

I wasn’t serious.”

No, of course not. Just… you wouldn’t mind if I kept in touch, after this is over?”

I’d mind if you didn’t,” I said. “It’s not every day I meet a real hero who’ll let me hug them half-naked.”

He turned in my arms. “No, don’t joke. I… I’m not nearly the kind of guy you should want. I’m older, a lot rougher, broker, uglier—”

I kissed him. His mouth opened on a gasp of surprise and I pulled away immediately. “Sorry. I should’ve asked first.”

No, you read me right.” He looked down. I wished there was enough light to see his face. “A major investigation is ending, I got snatched, shot at, and right now all I was thinking was wondering how your mouth would taste.”

I bent to give him a better sample, but he blocked me with finger on my lips, clean this time, still thick and calloused.

Except my own mouth tastes like something died in there. And this isn’t the moment. But if you’re really willing, if you don’t get out of here and wonder what in the hell you saw in an old cop, I’d like to try that again sometime.”

You’re not old.”

The phone rang where he’d stuck it my jacket pocket. I helped him fish it out and handed it to him.

He didn’t pull away as he glanced at the number, then answered it. “Yes, Lieutenant?” After a pause, he said, “That’s good news. We’re up on the hill to the northwest, overlooking the trailhead… I wouldn’t say no. We’ll make our way down.”

When he was done, he dropped the phone back in my coat. I expected him to get up, but he relaxed against me. “They spotted Deaker’s men on the road, chased them with a chopper and the car turned off, made a run for it. They have roadblocks out for it. Our guys will be a couple more hours, but we don’t have to worry about the motherfuckers getting here first.”

I slumped against his shoulders in relief. “That’s good.”

Merry Christmas to us.”

I chuckled. “Some Christmas.”

I dunno. I’m alive, free, watching a pretty sunset while the stars come out and the hottest man in six states holds me in his arms. Hell of a lot better Christmas than I expected three hours back.”

Put like that, it was true for me too. “Just six states?”

He drawled, “I ain’t done a lot of travelling.”

I suppressed a smile and turned his question back on him. “No one waiting for you at home to celebrate the holidays, now you’re done working?”

Undercover’s hard on relationships. My wife split four years back. Parents are gone. I have a few good buddies, but they’ve got families of their own, and we haven’t talked in almost a year. No, nobody’s expecting me.”

Maybe we can celebrate together, then. Once all the loose ends are tied up,” I added quickly.

We’ll be celebrating on the Fourth of July, if we wait for that.” He slid down further, resting his head on my shoulder. “My ass is falling asleep. How are you doing.”

We could lie down. It might be warmer.”

Might at that. Since we don’t have to keep watch.”

There’s that spot under the pine tree. We could burrow into all the leaves.”

He rubbed his stubble against my neck. “Do I fail the good-guy test if I say ‘And all the ticks?’”

Yuck. Yes!”

He sang, “I want to check you for ticks.”

You’re weird. Should I rethink this?”

It’s an actual song. A country song.”

I don’t listen to country. You’re not making me regret that one bit.”

I could feel the laughter in his chest. He nudged me to one side. “Here. I think this part is warmer.” He pulled me down on a spot where a darker rock must have absorbed the afternoon sun. A steady warmth still radiated from it.

I lay on my side and tugged him in against me. I’d rarely been the big spoon, but I liked this. “Not softer, though. And you’re still shivering.”

Are you going to suggest vigorous activity to warm me up?” He didn’t make any move to suggest he wanted me to follow through, so I just kept my arms around him, one leg between his and the other thrown over his bare thigh.

Tell me about yourself,” I suggested. “Who is Joe when he’s not a cop?”

Sometimes it’s hard to remember.”

How long were you undercover?”

Almost a year.” His voice got a little lighter. “Last Christmas, though, I was out. I got a real tree for my condo, and decorated. I still have my mother’s ornaments. I bought a roasted chicken for dinner, played my favorite carols on the Bluetooth speakers.”

Boy, you went all out. Just for you?”

Yeah. I knew I was going to go into dark places. I wanted something to balance that.”

Smart.” I pressed my leg against Joe’s, thinking of the solitary cop making himself a good Christmas, before diving into the darkness of human evil. There should’ve been someone to share that with him.

He said, “I bet you had one of those blue-and-silver trees, all fashionable and pretty like you.”

We had, although red and gold and silver. Malcolm loved entertaining and enjoyed looking good while doing it. It’d been lovely, in a formal, elegant way. Instead, I said, “My mom used to have the most mismatched trees you ever saw. She bought one ornament a year, whatever caught her fancy, whether it clashed with everything else or not. She had a lot of angel ornaments, and a lot of penguins.”

She… wasn’t someone you could go to this year?”

She didn’t like it when I came out and started dating men. She didn’t cut me off, but we don’t have much to say to each other. Especially at the holidays.”

I’m sorry.”

But I still love penguin ornaments.” I tried to lighten the mood. “Next tree I get, I’m putting all animals on it. Polar bears and cats. Maybe a donkey.”

Sounds like a plan.” He pulled away from me. “I need to turn over. I miss my pillow-top mattress.”

We reversed position and I climbed over to gather him in again. “They just don’t make rock beds like they used to.”

He shivered, twisting his head to look up. “Holy cow, look at those stars.”

I followed his gaze. As the light faded, the stars in the east were coming out in their full blaze of glory. I forgot, every time, just how vast the galaxy revealed itself to be, away from civilization. “Kind of puts us in our place, huh?”

It’s beautiful. Look, was that a shooting star? Did you make a wish?”

I hadn’t seen anything, but I wished quickly anyhow. I wish we get the chance to do this again sometime, without bruises and injuries and rock for a bed, and a dead man down below… Remembering the man we’d killed was a flood of cold water through me. I shuddered and said quickly, “Where are you from? Did you grow up in the city? You don’t see stars like this around city lights.”

City boy all the way. San Francisco.” His easy tone sounded like he knew I needed a story, something to occupy my mind. “I’ll tell you about it, but we’d better head back down while we still have a little light.”

And for the next hour, as we worked our way down the hill, and then paced around the trailhead, trying to keep the chill at bay and our bodies from going numb, he told me about growing up with two older brothers and a fun-loving mom in an old rental house near the beach. He didn’t make me reciprocate. He didn’t demand anything more than an occasional grunt of interest, or simple question.

Then the phone rang in my pocket, and the sound of vehicles grew in the distance. “Time to hit the road,” Joe said, after confirming with the caller this was the cavalry coming in. He turned to me as the first headlights appeared through the trees. “Tell them the truth, don’t let them bully you. And nothing you witnessed is so urgent it can’t wait while you get warm and fed and checked out by a doctor first.”

I’m fine,” I said. “You’re the one who was injured. That goes double for you.”

Don’t worry. I’m golden. Pulling victory from the teeth of disaster on this investigation.”

While dressed only in boxer briefs,” I pointed out.

The lights were sweeping towards us. He laughed through chattering teeth, then crouched to set the two guns on the ground and stood with his hands in the air. “And I’m sure none of the guys will ever let me forget it. Stand still now. Hands high. As long as no one gets carried away, we’re almost home free.”

I wanted to ask where home was now, to get his number, ask if he’d call me sometime, but the cars were pulling up, doors opening. Someone shouted, “Freeze. Nobody moves.” Someone else bellowed in a deep voice, “Kingsley, where are your pants?”

Then what seemed like a tide of men and lights swept toward us, asking, demanding, pulling us apart. I heard Joe saying, “The doc’s a good guy. You treat him right,” but a moment later he was saying, “The body’s over this way,” and firm hands on me were urging me the other way, and he vanished into the dark. I let them guide me to an SUV, pat me down thoroughly, and load me into the back. The heat was on and my fingers and toes tingled. I closed my eyes, ignored the questions thrown at me, and remembered a warm hard expanse of rock and a sky full of stars.

 

***

2 days later

 

The day after Christmas was always a letdown, but this year it truly sucked. I woke in a hotel bed to an overcast gray morning and considered not bothering to get up. I was short of sleep anyway. Christmas Eve had run deep into the early morning hours, after I rattled around the SUV for a rough two-hour ride, was checked over by an ER resident, and then questioned over and over by three different sets of cops in varying versions of bad suits.

Eventually they’d decided that I really had whacked the dead guy in the throat in self-defense, and that I knew nothing useful. They’d stashed me in this hotel room, with a warning that I should keep a low profile until all their suspects had been rounded up. No going out, no using my credit cards, no phone calls. As if there was anyone I wanted to call. Except the one guy whose number I didn’t have.

I’d asked about Officer Joe Kingsley, but got nothing more than blank looks. As sleep-deprived as I was by then, I couldn’t tell if they were real or not. Maybe the people questioning me were some other branch of the law.

I’d hit the clean if low-threadcount sheets at three AM, and surprised myself by sleeping six hours without a dream I could remember.

But then it had been Christmas morning. Alone, bored, dreary, sore— the highlight of my holiday was a half-hour-long hot shower, and a clean T-shirt and sweatpants from the hotel gift-shop, charged to my room. The low-light of the day was a visit by a set of federal agents asking the same questions all over again. At least they had better suits. I spent the bulk of the day watching bad holiday TV, trying to suppress my memory of the gunman’s gasp as I hit him with the better memory of broad shoulders and strong arms, and waiting.

Not that I expected anything. Joe would be up to his ears in his case. Or maybe even in a hospital bed with IV fluids and antibiotics to keep his hands from getting infected. I cheered myself up slightly by picturing him declining pain meds so he could work, dammit. But as Christmas Day wore into evening, and all that changed was the level of inanity in the movies I wasn’t really watching, I had to admit I was disappointed. I hadn’t expected anything, but somewhere down deep I’d hoped.

I finally went to bed and dozed fitfully, waking from dreams of being chased through endless woods, and seeing Joe’s real body dancing in a hail of gunshots. The time on the bedside clocked ticked over a slow eternity, until the daylight grew behind the curtains.

And now it was happy-returns day. The stores would be full of harried salespeople and lines of customers trading gifts in for cash. Even if I hadn’t been ordered to stay put, I wouldn’t have braved those crowds to buy clothes, although this maroon fleece was not my color and shopping was definitely on my agenda.

I ordered a room-service breakfast and picked at the bacon. I knew I should eat. I’d indulged in ordering a cholesterol feast to tempt myself, but whatever my adventure had done for my will to live, it hadn’t given me back my appetite. I covered the dish with the lid. I was actually contemplating doing sit-ups out of boredom when there was a knock at the door.

It was presumably room service, wanting their tray back, but I still asked, “Who’s there?” with the night latch firmly in place.

Joe. Kingsley?”

I laughed as I struggled to flip the latch and open the door. “Like you might be some other Joe— um, wow.” Standing in the hallway was a bushy Christmas tree in a pot, bright with multicolored lights, supported by a set of nice legs, this time warmly clothed in bad suit pants.

Is this okay?” Joe’s voice from behind the tree sounded a little worried, and I realized I’d been blocking the doorway, staring at the apparition of Christmases past. Or maybe future. That bit of hope was sitting up and cheering.

Of course. Come in. Do you want a hand?” I swung the door wide and guided a prickly pine branch past the door frame.

Joe eased his way in, set the tree down in front of the armchair, and straightened. I saw his hands were neatly bandaged, and he looked tired despite the tentative smile.

I said, “They treated your wrists. That’s good, although you shouldn’t be lugging stuff around. Are you on any oral meds? Did they x-ray? Come, sit down.” The chair was blocked, so I sat on the bed and patted the mattress beside me.

Joe’s smile warmed and he came to stand looking down at me. I met his eyes, and my babble died away. Slowly, he sat beside me and reached a bandaged hand toward my cheek. I leaned into his touch. He closed the gap between us and brushed a kiss across my lips. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

You too.” My voice went shaky. “I wasn’t sure— I mean, I figured they’d kept you busy and no one would tell me anything about you.”

I was deep undercover. They wouldn’t even mention my name.”

But you’re out now? They won’t make you go back?”

I’m out and still breathing. Thanks to you.” His voice was rumblier and slower than before, whether from lack of stress or pure fatigue. I didn’t hate the way it warmed me. He stroked my bare cheek, freshly shaved with a hotel disposable. “I meant to find you sooner, but there was so much evidence to catalog and sign chain of custody on. And then the Feds wanted to record my testimony in detail. I wasn’t about to argue, since the bastards’ payoff for killing me goes way down once that’s all on tape.”

I clutched at his jacket sleeve. “They won’t still try to kill you, will they?”

Probably not.”

Probably’s not a good word.”

He chuckled. “Relax. We got most of this bunch behind bars, and the evidence is rock solid. There’s no percentage in coming after me now, and anyone we haven’t caught yet is going to be trying to save their own skins.”

So we’re safe?” I cleared my throat. “I can go out and get clothes without a local sports logo on them?” I plucked at my sweatshirt.

Tomorrow.” His expression turned worried. “Did they treat you all right. The FBI and my people? They didn’t give you trouble about the guy I killed?”

We killed.” I felt a flash of guilt, and forced it back. “No, it was fine. They all said self-defense.”

I’m sorry.” He took one of my hands in his bandaged ones. “You’re a healer, not a killer. I’m sorry you got caught up in all that.”

I’m not. I looked into his eyes and knew I’d do it again, in a heartbeat, to save Joe. I’d probably have nightmares about that day for a long time. The crunch of the man’s larynx under Joe’s fist came back to me and I shivered. But I couldn’t regret meeting Joe, or doing what we’d had to, to keep this man alive. I turned his hand gently in mine, inspecting the bandages. Someone had done a decent job, despite this crazy good-guy hefting Christmas trees with them.

His eyes drooped half-shut, then he jerked back awake. “Sorry. I haven’t slept yet.”

Since when?”

Since the car trunk.”

Seriously? I thought you were preventing slavery.”

His smile was fast becoming one of my favorite things. “Since I was getting my own ass out of jeopardy, I didn’t complain too hard.”

But you’re done now? You can relax?”

There’s months of work still to come. But I told them I needed a break, if they wanted me making any sense at all.”

No kidding. Did they at least feed you?”

I ate something last night.” He looked around vaguely.

I bounced to my feet and brought over the tray. “Here. I had some of the bacon, and it might be a little cold.”

He lifted the lid, grabbed the fork clumsily, and stuffed cooling scrambled eggs into his mouth. “Food o’ the effing gods,” he mumbled around a big mouthful.

I sat cross-legged on the bed, snagged a strip of bacon, and watched him make short work of the plate. When he was scraping the last egg with the last bit of toast I asked, “Should I order more?”

No, this was great. Even if you did eat half the bacon.”

Sorry, not sorry.”

He set the tray aside, leaned toward me, then stopped. “I had brushed my teeth before I came here.”

I rubbed my hand over his jaw, the stubble rough under my palm. “I don’t care. I want another kiss.”

His mouth tasted like strawberry jam. It was my new favorite flavor. He kissed me softly at first, almost politely, until I tilted my head, nipped at his lip, and opened for him, inviting more. His next kiss wasn’t close to polite, leaving us both gasping. I nibbled my way from the corner of his mouth along his jaw, savoring the rasp of his almost-beard against my lips. I’d not minded the sweaty scent of him one bit on that mountain, but as I pressed my nose against the soft skin under his ear, I savored the clean smell of his skin.

He slid a hand up my back under my sweatshirt, bandages rasping up my spine, then paused. “I didn’t mean to assume—”

Assume away.”

He pulled me closer and took my mouth again, hot and hungry, but broke free for a jaw-cracking yawn. “Oh, Jesus. Sorry!”

He looked so embarrassed I had to chuckle. “I’m also just fine with waiting until your eyes aren’t crossing and your hands have actual skin on them.”

I hate to waste time.” He unsuccessfully fought back another yawn. “I had plans.”

I pulled back the covers. “Plans won’t disappear if you close your eyes a few minutes.” Or hours. I figured if I got the guy horizontal he’d be down for the count. His eyes had a full set of matching luggage under them, and his skin color was too close to pasty-gray for my liking. “Come on. I played big spoon for you on the mountain. Now it’s your turn.”

As I thought, that gave him a good excuse. “I can do that.” He kicked off his shoes, stretched out on his side, and held out a hand.

I toed off my socks, because I hate socks in bed, and lay down in front of him. His body was a warm wall against my back. I pulled the duvet up to our chests. He draped an arm over me, his muscles relaxed and heavy.

This isn’ what I wan’ed to start out like,” he grumbled against my hair.

You can show me something better after you sleep.”

Righ’. I’ll do tha’” The rise and fall of his chest at my back slowed and deepened. His breaths developed a little snoring rasp.

I lay in his warm embrace, staring out into the quiet room. The three-foot tree he’d brought had battery-powered lights, and the bright colors glinted off the mirror by the door and the silver room-service covers. I squinted my eyes, the way I used to as a kid, making the lights on the tree fuzz into halos of yellow, red, and green.

As my vision refocused, I spotted a black-and-white ornament hanging from one bough. I’ll be damned. It’s a penguin. Most of the baubles were cheap glass that probably came on the tree, but I spotted a fuzzy fox, and a pinecone hedgehog. And yes, a fucking donkey.

I laughed hard enough to wake the man at my back. Joe jolted against me, then mumbled “Dillon? That you?”

Yes. Go back to sleep.”

What’s so funny?”

Life? Hope? I rolled over in his arms to look at him. “Not funny. Just good. Close your eyes.”

“‘Kay.” His eyelids drooped shut, his breathing turned to gentle snores.

I lay there looking at his face. Finally looking, with time and light enough to begin to learn every detail. I noted the curve of his lower lip, the way his hair receded slightly at his temples, a tiny scar beside his left eye, a bruise on his left temple, the dark circles under his eyes. Those I was going to help him get rid of. His stubble was two days longer, a little more gray-flecked than I remembered. His jawline was just as square and solid as ever. Solid, real, reliable, not flashy or fashionable, but infinitely worthwhile.

My Christmas miracle. My shooting star wish.

In his sleep, he closed his fingers on my shirt and pulled me closer. I went willingly, tucking my head under his chin. I could snooze for a while, and when we woke there’d be time enough to talk about this thing we were building.

But one thing I knew. I’d driven to that remote park to throw away my ring, my old life, maybe all of my life. And I’d come back out with someone worth living for.

Thanks for the tree,” I murmured against his throat, “I like the little ass. And your big ass too.”

He wasn’t as deep asleep as I thought, because he chuckled, and mumbled, “Nex’ year I’ll find a polar bear.”

Next year. It was far too soon to promise that, but as I let my eyes close, I could picture us hanging a woolly polar bear ornament on a new and bigger tree. That was a future worth working for. I kissed his neck, over where his pulse beat steady and true. “Merry Christmas, Joe,”

 

#######

 

 

 

Find more stories by Kaje Harper on her website – http://www.kajeharper.wordpress.com/books/

 

Big thanks to Liam Livings for the beta read, and Helena Stone for the formatting on this story.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Gayle Young permalink
    December 16, 2019 11:52 pm

    Loved it!

    • December 17, 2019 9:54 am

      🙂 So glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for taking the time to say so.

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