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Chapter Twenty-Three

Alone in rural Indiana with only the clothes on her back, twenty-five-year-old Anna is almost ready to give up on trying to live in a world that has seen the recent slaughter of her childhood tribe and the murder, only a year later, of her best friend and only surviving tribe mate. When Anna interrupts an attack on a beautiful woman lounging by a lake, she is subsequently drawn into the relationship of two other survivors of the sickness: young, idealistic Elin, who welcomes Anna into their makeshift family with open arms, and her lover, the older, more jaded Kael, whose dark and brooding nature initially keeps Anna at bay. While Anna and Elin fall into affectionate interaction that quickly turns romantic -- with Kael's permission--Anna and Kael have a more difficult time learning to live with one another. Their mutual love for Elin sees them through a rough start, and soon they develop a tentative, but genuine, friendship. The threesome is journeying south for the winter season when an unexpected accident leaves Elin severely injured and unable to defend herself from the constant threat of attack that is a part of their everyday lives. Making the decision to nurse Elin back to health in the relative safety of a city, Kael and Anna soon find that tensions rise as their relationship is strained by their concern over Elin's condition and Kael's resulting emotional distance from Anna. When Elin is threatened yet again, this time by a group of religious fanatics who believe that a woman's duty in the post-apocalyptic world is to bear children and work towards repopulating the earth, Kael and Anna's fragile bond will be tested once again as they find the need to work together to save the woman they both love.

Chapter One

The only reason Anna knew she was still alive was because her feet hurt so damn much. She limped along through the forest, eyes vacantly on the trees ahead, almost past the point of caring that she could be caught unaware by an attack from either flank. Her feet hurt and she was breathing. She was alive.

And Garrett is dead. This time, it didn’t even slow her pace. She felt empty inside; there was no more hurt left. Garrett is dead and I’m alive. She kicked at the slippery green and yellow leaves beneath her feet. What the fuck is the point of it all?

She stumbled and winced at the dull pain in her ankle. Almost a week old, the injury still ached. She felt sure it wasn’t broken, but feared it was more serious than she’d first thought. Gritting her teeth, she trudged on. Not that she had anywhere in particular to go. She was walking for the sake of walking, for no other reason than habit.

Less than a quarter mile later, she stopped and sniffed the air. Water. A grin tugged at her lips for the first time in days. She hadn’t stopped to bathe since the fight. Sobering, she ran a hand through her tangled hair and studied the reddish-brown stains that still marred her brown skin. Those guys left me feeling filthy, inside and out.



She shook her head to chase away the memories. All she wanted was a long, lazy soak in a cool lake. Instinctively cautious, she moved through the woods on quiet feet, attempting stealth despite her injury, blocking out the pain that radiated from her left ankle. She knew that venturing close to a water source would increase the odds of running into people, and the very last thing she wanted to do was see another person.

Not when she wasn’t in any shape to defend herself.

She crept through the thick vegetation until she reached a clearing. Hesitating, she peered past a low branch at a small lake that lay beyond. Spruce trees surrounded the water on all sides, except for a break in the forest across the lake where a wide path was forged. The sun illuminated the surface of the water, and the sparkling blue of it captivated Anna where she stood.

Just as she was about to leave the safety of the trees, she zeroed in on exactly what she hadn’t wanted to see. She was not alone.

An auburn-haired woman lay stretched out on a blanket next to the lake. Anna’s mouth dropped open as she stared at creamy pale skin exposed by a light tank top above snug blue jeans. She was beautiful. Anna glanced anxiously around. What’s a beautiful woman like her doing out here all alone? Doesn’t she know how dangerous that is? Anna took a step backwards. The woman was lucky it was just she who had found her. And she’s lucky the only thing I’m taking from her is a mental snapshot to remind me that, for better or worse, I am still alive.

With that, she turned away, already feeling lighter for having gazed upon the ethereal redhead for a couple of minutes. Sometimes all it took was a little beauty to give her the will to get through another day.

She began to retreat, intent on setting up camp so she could return to bathe later, but she sensed something in the forest with her and stopped in her tracks, listening.

They weren’t alone.

She searched the trees for some hint of the presence she could feel. The redheaded woman by the lake still lay prone, seemingly oblivious to the approaching threat.

Anna bit her lip, torn. She didn’t want the woman to be attacked while she hesitated, but she didn’t know what kind of danger they were facing. Giving away her position might not be a wise move, and more than likely, the redhead knew how to fight. At least I hope so, being foolish enough to get caught sunbathing alone. These guys will be on her so fast…

Anna stopped her train of thought, shuddering. They were men; she was certain of that. She would guess three or four. Stealthy enough to evade all but the barest tickling of her senses, approaching from multiple directions. Darting her eyes from the redhead to the surrounding trees, she shifted her weight cautiously from her good ankle to the bad. The pain made her cringe, and she swallowed hard. What if they have weapons? I don’t even have my baseball bat anymore. What if I can’t defend her? What if I run out there and get captured? Hot tears stung her eyes. I can’t go through that again.

When the moment came, she was still frozen with indecision. She heard the rustling of leaves to the north of her position and spotted the three men creeping along the shore toward the unsuspecting woman. Anna stared at the curve of her lower back, at the swell of her hip. She willed her to lift her head and see the danger, but the woman didn’t stir.

Goddamn it. Anna lifted her eyes to the leering men who slunk ever closer. This may be the biggest damn mistake I ever make, but I can’t just leave her to them.

She had taken only two steps when the woman looked up and instantly pushed herself into a crouching position, staring the men down. She glanced backwards, as though considering the possibility of escape, then tipped her head back to let loose a shrill, high-pitched whistle.

The men stopped short no more than twenty feet from her, obviously startled. After a moment, the man in front chuckled.

“Was that supposed to be a warning or a cry for help?” He folded his arms and gave the redhead a condescending look. “Either way, it looks to me like you’re all alone out here.”

Still in a crouch, the woman cocked her head to the side. “I suggest you boys keep moving along.” Her calm, gentle voice raised gooseflesh on Anna’s arms. “You don’t want to cause trouble here, I promise.”

From behind the leader, a stocky, bearded man stepped closer and raised an eyebrow. “Yeah? What’s gonna stop us? You?”

The woman leapt to her feet in a lightning-quick move that made even Anna step back in surprise. She held a slim black object in one hand. “If I have to.”

The leader took an aggressive step forward. “All you have to do, honey, is cooperate with us. Nobody gets hurt that way. I promise.”

The redhead appeared to relax, but Anna watched her slightly widen her stance. She recognized the stillness before the strike and held her breath in anticipation.

“No, thanks.” The woman extended a long, steel baton with the flick of her wrist and delivered a hard strike to the legs of the man leading the pack.

He roared in pain and fell to the ground, clutching his shin.

“Fucking bitch!” the bearded man behind him growled.

He lunged with a large hunting knife in his hand, and his buddy followed. The woman was good, but she struggled against the two larger men. She struck out with her baton, forcing one to jump back to avoid the blow. The other punched her shoulder, and she immediately countered with a fierce strike to his arm. He let go a scream of genuine pain and bent at the waist to cradle the injured limb against his stomach. The bearded man rushed her once more, and she landed a quick, hard punch to the face. He barely hesitated before moving forward again, just as his friend recovered and straightened where he stood.

Anna was weighing her options—go and help finish them off, or let the redhead take care of them on her own—when she saw something that chilled her blood. A fourth man was sneaking up behind the woman with what looked to be a crowbar clutched in his hands. Preoccupied with the other attackers, she seemed unaware of his approach.

Anna burst out of the bushes where she hid. “Hey!” she yelled. “Behind you!”

The redhead turned just in time to duck a violent swing of the crowbar. For a split second, she stared at Anna, wide-eyed, then returned to defending herself. Anna didn’t waste any time. She ran as fast as her injured ankle would allow, stumbling down a small hill overgrown with plants.

“Lucky day, boys.” The fourth man leered at Anna’s approach. “Looks like you won’t have to wait to get your turns.”

Anna’s blood turned to ice at the casual comment. Eyes narrowing, she stalked up to the curly-haired man with a cold smile. She forced away her fear until numbness took over. “You going first?”

The man gave her a soulless grin. “Count on it.”

Anna nodded, buying herself a moment’s grace. She could almost feel fear and adrenaline masking her pain. As she detected a slight lowering of the man’s guard, she feinted left, then delivered a solid kick to his midsection with her right foot. He didn’t see it coming. He bent at the waist and curled his arms around his stomach, gagging at the blow. Anna followed up with a hard strike to his right shoulder that forced him to drop his weapon to the ground.

Busy with thug number four, she glimpsed the first man struggling to his feet, but could not react before he delivered a vicious backhand across the redhead’s face, throwing her off balance. Distracted by the woman’s grunt of pain as she hit the ground, Anna paid dearly for her momentary lapse when a foot kicked out and made contact with her injured left ankle. She screamed in agony and went down beside the redhead, who was already rolling back into a crouching position.

“Stay down!” The bearded man slapped the woman across the face as she rose to her feet.

She stumbled but remained standing, pinning him with cold eyes so in contrast to the innocent beauty of her face. “Stop this now,” she warned. “Walk away or I promise you’ll regret it.”

The man cocked his head. Blood ran down his face from a gash above his eye, and his lip was split, streaming another trail of blood over his chin. He grinned, showing teeth covered in red, and gestured at Anna. “Go ahead and start with this one. I’ll get the other under control.”

Anna’s throat went dry, and she quickly scrabbled backwards, getting to her feet despite the throbbing pain in her ankle. The curly-haired man took a step closer and unbuckled his belt, winding it around his fist.

I’d rather die. Anna set her feet apart in a defensive stance and gave her attacker the most chilling glare she could muster. I’d rather die than get hurt like that again.

The redhead flew back into action, delivering furious punches and kicks against the man’s assault. Anna clenched her fists, ready to fight no matter the pain from her ankle. She was so full of terrified rage that she almost didn’t hear the quiet growl from the trees until after it raised the hairs on the back of her neck.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing with my women?”

The low, dangerous voice floated to them on the late afternoon breeze, easily cutting through the noise of the fight and stopping everyone dead in their tracks. A young man emerged from among the trees without a sound, so close that Anna felt shaken at not having noticed his approach. Dark eyes shone with cold malevolence as he scanned the four men who surrounded them. Anna shivered when the young man’s emotionless gaze swept over her, assessing. She checked the redhead’s reaction to the stranger.

Her smile was so sunny that Anna blinked in surprise and looked at the glowering young man again. He was dressed in a baggy black T-shirt and dark blue jeans. She couldn’t tell what color his hair was, as it was shaved close to his head. His eyebrows were dark and drawn together in quiet anger.

The leader of the men chuckled, and his buddies joined in after a brief hesitation. “I’m sorry, boy. Your women?”

The young man took a step forward and fixed Anna with possessive eyes. “My women.”

“Looks to me like you’ve got more women than a boy like you can handle,” the man next to Anna said. He grabbed at her and squeezed her flesh with cruel fingers. “How about you let us take one off your hands?”

Anna drew back and threw an elbow at his face, catching him hard in the jaw. He recoiled with a grunt of pain, then lunged with his belt held aloft in an upraised fist.

His blow never connected, and for a stunned moment, Anna stood frozen as she waited for her brain to catch up with the action. The man who had tried to hit her was lying on the ground. An instant later, the leader of the thugs was engaged in a whirlwind attack that ended when he dropped to his knees and the young man snapped his neck with merciless hands.

“Didn’t my women warn you that you shouldn’t cause trouble here?” he growled, and reached behind his shoulder to unsheathe a long sword that was strapped to his back.

The fight was over within seconds.

Fight? More like a massacre. The redhead’s friend was the best fighter Anna had ever seen. He moved so fast that she could barely keep up, and his technique was like nothing she had ever witnessed before. When the last of the thugs hit the ground, the young man stopped, breathing hard, and dropped his bloody sword. He examined his hands briefly and wiped them on his pants before taking a tentative step toward the redhead.

“Are you okay, Elin?” His voice was low, urgent.

The redhead, Elin, turned with a tender smile and held out her arms. “I’m fine, baby. Are you okay?”

Eyes flashing with pure relief, their savior stepped into Elin’s embrace, pulling her tight against his body. “If you’re fine, I’m fine.” They held one another quietly while Anna stood by in awed silence.

When the couple broke apart, Elin gave Anna a bright grin. “I’m sorry. How about you? Are you okay?”

With an embarrassed nod, Anna mumbled, “I’m okay.”

The man scanned Anna with stormy eyes. “I don’t know what the hell you were thinking, running into the middle of a fight like that.”

That set her on the defensive. “I can fight.”

“Yeah, you can fight so well that you were about to get raped right here on the ground in front of me.”

Anna’s chin trembled at his harsh comment, and she swiped an angry hand across her face to hide her weakness. “Fuck you.” She felt raw, exposed by the cruel words, and her chest stung. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“I know that you’re damn lucky Elin held them off until I got back.” He stared at her with a blank gaze that made her feel even more the hysterical woman.

“Kael,” Elin said, “she probably saved my life. I didn’t see the fourth guy sneaking up behind me. If she hadn’t warned me, I most likely would’ve gotten a crowbar to the back of the head.”

Momentary panic flashed in the young man’s eyes, then his expression softened, and he engulfed Elin in another hug.

Elin squirmed and giggled within his embrace. “I said I’m fine.”

He dropped a tender kiss on her hair. “Bloody,” he observed, and dabbed at a cut above her eyebrow.

“A little. So much for my sunny, relaxing afternoon.”

Anna folded her arms across her chest, still hurt and upset by Kael’s comment. “Speaking of bad decisions, I don’t know what the hell you were doing, leaving her alone out here like that. You can’t be so thickheaded as to think that’s safe.”

He glanced at her. “I don’t answer to you.”

“Kael can’t be with me every second,” Elin responded with a gentle shake of her head. “Nor do I want Kael with me every second. I think you saw that I’m rather capable in my own right.”

“You’re right,” Anna said. “I’m sorry.”

She met warm hazel eyes when Elin stepped close and lifted Anna’s face with a hand under her chin. “Hey, don’t be sorry. I’m just glad you were here when I needed you. Kael got back fast, but it could’ve been a lot worse if you hadn’t decided to help me.”

Kael gave a quiet snort. “I’m just wondering what she’s doing out here alone in the first place.”

“Just walking,” Anna mumbled.

“Well, I left dinner in the woods. I should go back and get it.” Kael nodded at Elin, eyes shining with affection. “I caught you a rabbit.”

Elin clapped and a wide smile lit up her whole face. “My perfect afternoon is back on track.” She placed a gentle hand on Anna’s arm. “And now we have a dinner guest and everything. You will stay for dinner, won’t you?”

Anna blinked in surprise. She glanced at Kael, but his face betrayed no emotion. Thanking Elin for the offer, she said, “My name’s Anna, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you, Anna.” Elin pressed a hand against the blood that still oozed from the cut above her eyebrow. “I don’t know about you, but I could use a bath.”

Anna blushed and ran a hand self-consciously through her hair. “That’s what I was planning when I happened upon this whole sordid mess.”

Elin nudged her playfully. “What do you say you and I wash off while Kael gets dinner ready?”

Kael nodded. “No offense, but it looks like you’re both in desperate need of a good soak.”

As he picked up his sword, Anna lowered her eyes to the prone bodies sprawled on the ground around them. “Are they all dead?”

“Yeah.” There was a hint of sadness in Kael’s dark eyes.

Anna gazed down at the curly-haired man at her feet, remembering the feeling of his hand groping her body. “Good.” She was surprised to catch Kael staring at her with quiet sorrow, and asked, wondering if she’d missed a comment, “I’m sorry, did you say something?”

“I’m just glad you’re both okay.” Kael tipped his head, serious, and walked away. As he passed Elin, he said, “I set up camp in that clearing we passed through earlier. The one with the”—he dropped his voice—“pretty flowers.”

Elin grinned, waving him away. “We’ll be there in no time.” Walking toward the lake, she called, “Hey, Anna! Come on, the water’s fantastic.”

 

Anna watched Elin dive into the water, and her throat went unexpectedly dry at the glimpse of pale, naked skin. Still trembling with adrenaline from the fight, stomach in knots over her confrontation with Kael, she summoned her strength and limped to the shore.

Elin’s head broke the surface of the water. “This feels wonderful.” She slicked back her hair with both hands. “You hurt your ankle?”

“About a week ago, during a fight. I keep thinking it should feel better—”

Elin stood and Anna watched breathlessly as water sluiced over her bare skin. “I’ll look at it after dinner. Maybe I can help. Now take off your clothes and get in here. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

Anna licked her lips and stared at the dark pink nipples only yards from where she stood on shore. This was the closest she’d ever been to a real live naked woman. You’re right, I probably don’t. As much as she wanted to dive into the water and get closer to Elin, shyness held her back. She dropped her eyes to her own chest. Her green T-shirt was torn and dirty, her light brown skin smudged with blood and filth. She rubbed her hands over the seat of her pants, remembering all too well the scars that littered her body.

“Not used to being naked in front of someone else?” Elin’s voice was full of quiet sympathy. “You have nothing to be embarrassed about.” At Anna’s quick backwards glance to where Kael had disappeared into the woods, she added, “And you have no reason to be afraid.”

“He doesn’t like me, does he?” Anna pulled her T-shirt over her head after a brief hesitation. She folded her arms over her stomach, skin burning beneath Elin’s gaze.

“Kael just doesn’t know you. It isn’t easy for him to trust. Give him some time.”

Anna unsnapped her pants, stepped out of them quickly, and shot another look at the trees around them. “He’s one hell of a fighter.”

“One hell of a person.” Elin held one hand playfully in front of her eyes. “I’m not peeking. Get the rest of those clothes off, and get your ass in here, girl!”

With a nervous giggle, Anna shed her bra and panties, then, putting as much weight on her left ankle as she could bear, she moved into the water. She was submerged safely to her upper chest when Elin uncovered her eyes.

“Feel good?”

“Wonderful.”

“Want to feel even better?”

Anna tried hard not to stare at Elin’s creamy collarbones. She worked her jaw for a moment, unable to produce a sound. If she had any idea what I was thinking, she’d hate me. Playing it safe, she croaked, “That depends.”

Elin brought a hand out of the water and displayed a small, capped bottle with a triumphant grin. It was half full of thick amber liquid. “Shall I wash your hair?”

Anna couldn’t remember the last time she’d experienced the luxury of shampoo. She skimmed one hand over the surface of the water. “I don’t want you to waste—”

Elin clicked her tongue in disapproval and put a soothing hand on Anna’s shoulder. “Don’t be silly. It’d make me really happy to give you this simple pleasure. Given that you saved my life and all.”

“But—”

Encouraging Anna to face away from her, Elin said, “Dunk.”

Anna did, bending her knees until her head was underwater. She held the position for only a moment, until a powerful feeling of vulnerability propelled her to the surface. Sputtering, she pushed away the wet locks of dark hair that hung in her face.

“I’m not sure I saved your life,” she said, keeping her back to Elin. She jerked in surprise when Elin touched her head, then released an involuntary moan when strong fingers rubbed fragrant shampoo into her hair. “My fighting skills aren’t exactly up to par these days.”

“You saved my life.” Elin scratched at Anna’s scalp, and Anna had to fight hard not to whimper in pleasure. “So it’s just your ankle that’s hurt?”

“Among other things.” My head. My heart. My will.

“Well, you look exhausted.” Resting a hand on Anna’s shoulder, Elin encouraged her to bend her knees and crouch. She scooped up fresh water to pour over Anna’s soapy hair and asked, “Where are you headed?”

“I’m not sure.” Anna closed her eyes to enjoy the slow rinsing of her hair.

Elin was quiet for a minute, then asked, “Where are you from?”

Anna flashed on a nightmare image of her last day at home, unable to suppress a shudder. “Near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. I grew up in a tribe that settled in that area.”

“Nomadic?”

Anna managed a weak shrug. “Not nomadic enough, I guess.”

For a moment Elin’s movement faltered, and then she began rubbing one hand over Anna’s upper back. Anna blinked and brought her hands to the surface of the water, scrubbing at the dried blood that still clung to them.

“Your tribe was attacked?”

“Last year.” To Anna’s surprise, it all came tumbling out. “Nearly everyone was killed. The rest were captured by raiders. My best friend Garrett and I managed to escape.” She hesitated, then murmured, “He was killed last month.”

“I’m sorry.” Elin curled her fingers around Anna’s shoulder, giving her a tender squeeze. “So you’re alone now?”

“Yeah,” Anna whispered. It was the first time she had spoken it aloud. “I’m alone.”

Anna wasn’t even aware that she was crying until Elin tightened her grip on her shoulder and pulled her around into a warm embrace. Then she felt the wetness of her cheek pressed against Elin’s, and her shoulders shook within the circle of Elin’s slim arms. She barely registered the thrill of naked breasts pressed against her own, she was so overcome with her private agony.

“It’s okay, sweetheart,” Elin cooed, and rocked her where they stood. “It’s okay. You’re not alone anymore.”

The whispered words, and Elin’s fingers stroking the small of her back, shocked Anna out of their embrace. Wiping at her tears with both hands, she glanced around at the trees once more. Her whole body trembled at the thought of Kael coming back and finding them like that.

Elin interlaced delicate fingers with Anna’s battle-roughened ones. “I never lived in a tribe,” she said, pulling Anna’s attention back to her face. This close, she could see the furious smattering of freckles across pale skin. “I grew up all alone with my father. He took us to the country just as the sickness reached its peak, then spent years teaching me how to hide from other people. It must have been amazing for you, growing up around so many others.”

“Your biological father?” Anna had never met an adult raised by a biological parent before. Her own parents died early on, shortly after the President had declared a state of emergency for the entire country. Anna couldn’t remember a lot of the details, but Uncle Roberto had sometimes talked about it on those nights when he got drunk enough to summon up that time without breaking down.

It had taken only months for the country to dissolve into chaos. There were so many dead and dying, the hospitals had to close their doors. Anarchy erupted and the military struggled to maintain order amid rising violence from a citizenry driven to blind panic. The president was assassinated, and the federal government imposed martial law. But it was too late to stem the spread of rebellion. Throughout the nation, state and local government collapsed and small competing militias emerged, vying for power in shattered communities.

Eventually, the army turned on the White House and deposed the administration, and a series of generals attempted to run the country and combat the militias. But the army and the National Guard were decimated by illness and had no hope of winning the guerilla wars that followed. Uncle Roberto often said he wasn’t sure who the lucky ones were: those who lived through the sickness and the factional warfare, or those who never had to adapt to this barren new world.

“I was lucky,” Elin said. “My father survived the sickness and the troubles. I was only two years old at the time, so I barely remember my mother.”

“I remember my family. Not as much as I’d like. One of my uncles survived. I always thought I was really lucky for that. He’s the one who took me with him to the tribe.”

“We were both lucky.” Elin took Anna’s hand and walked them to shore. For a moment, her eyes looked haunted. “There are much worse ways to grow up.”

Anna nodded. She trailed behind Elin, trying not to stare at her shapely bottom as they reached shallow water. “So how long have you been traveling with Kael?”

Elin gave her a serene smile. “Well, I guess it would be just over two years now. My father died just before that—natural causes, I think—and I set out on my own. I wanted to explore the world, see new things. I found Kael, or we found each other, a couple of months later.”

Anna grew bashful as they emerged from the water and stepped onto the shore. She covered her breasts with one arm, desperate to hide the ugly white scars on the left one, and dropped an awkward hand to conceal the curly triangle of hair between her thighs. “You must feel really safe with him.”

Elin knelt to collect their clothing from the ground. “Kael makes me feel safe, yes. In every way.”

Anna blushed at the obvious adoration in Elin’s voice and cast her eyes to the grassy shore. Feeling shy, and not knowing how to talk about love, she stayed quiet, looking up only when Elin thrust her soiled clothing at her.

“I’m sorry you’ve got to put these things on again. Unless you have something clean with your stuff?”

“No.” Anna accepted her dirty clothes, with red-tinged cheeks. She had nothing now.

“I guess it’s time for some new clothes, huh?” Elin pulled on her tank top. “I’ve got a shirt you can borrow for now, back at camp.”

Anna tried not to stare at erect nipples outlined against the cotton of Elin’s top. “Thanks.”

When they were both dressed, Elin asked, “Where’d you leave your stuff?”

Anna’s face grew hot with shame. “I don’t have anything.”

“Nothing?”

“Not since I was attacked last week. The men who jumped me…I left my bags behind when I escaped them. My weapon. Everything I had—” She stopped, not wanting to dwell on the thought of all that she had lost. After Garrett was killed, nothing had mattered anymore. Not even what little she had left in life.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Elin breathed, and rubbed her thumb along the back of Anna’s hand. “I’m so glad you found us.”

Anna allowed herself to be pulled into another spontaneous hug. This time she pressed her nose into Elin’s neck and inhaled, soaking up the comfort. Despite her reservations about Kael, she found herself agreeing with the soft words. “Me, too.”

“Are you hungry?” Elin slid her hands casually down Anna’s sides, sending a rush of shivered pleasure through her body. “You feel like you could use a good meal.”

“I’m starving.” A simple statement, and Elin would never know how true it was.

“Come on, then,” Elin said. “I saw some fresh cuts on your back when we were bathing. I want to look at those when we get to camp, okay?”

Anna followed the chattering redhead with a dazed smile on her face. For the first time since Garrett had drawn his last breath—perhaps for the first time since the attack last year—she felt a tingling of something deep in her belly. It was a feeling she thought she’d never know again. It was hope.

 

Chapter Two

Kael was lounging in front of a crackling fire when they got back to camp. He leaned against a log, long legs stretched out in front of him and lean, muscled arms folded across his chest. Tearing his intense gaze away from the flames, he gave them a friendly nod. “Dinner’s almost ready.”

Now that she was out of danger and had seen the depth of Elin’s love for Kael in her bright hazel eyes, Anna studied him as if for the first time. As much as she didn’t want to admit it, he was an attractive guy. His face was smooth and defined, almost beautiful, even despite the darkness he exuded.

“Two rabbits!” Elin’s exclamation pulled Anna’s attention to the fire, where two skinned rabbits cooked on spits. “You’ve been busy.”

“It’s not every day we have a dinner guest.”

Elin strode over to a pile of supplies and searched through a duffel bag. “Anna, here’s that shirt I promised.”

Anna accepted the T-shirt with a shy nod. It looked like it would fit. She glanced over her shoulder into the woods.

“Kael, turn your head.”

Anna’s cheeks flushed in embarrassed horror at Elin’s command. “No, I…I can just—”

“No, you can stay right there. Kael will look away.”

“Sure,” he said, and faced away from Anna.

Elin also averted her eyes, though Anna wasn’t nearly as self-conscious with her as she had been before their naked swim. She moved quickly, eager to release her hosts from their forced inattention.

“We’ll have to figure something out,” Elin said once Anna had pulled on the T-shirt and given the okay. She gave Kael a meaningful look. “She doesn’t have any supplies. She lost everything after she was attacked about a week ago.”

“Attacked?” His eyes were full of concern. “Are you hurt?”

Anna was touched by the change in his demeanor and understood the underlying question. “Just some cuts and bruises, and I think my ankle’s sprained. I was lucky to get away.”

Kael held her gaze for a few moments. “Elin’s a wonderful healer. She’ll see to your injuries.”

“Yes, she told me she’ll be taking a look at them after dinner.” Anna glanced over at Elin and blushed when she saw her smoothing out two sleeping bags that had been zipped together to make a double bed.

“We can unzip these and give you one,” the lovely redhead said. “Kael has an extra blanket we can use, and next time we have the chance, we’ll find something you can use to sleep. We’ll also get you new clothes.”

Anna blinked rapidly at Elin’s words and the promise in them. She peeked over at Kael, who had a similarly stunned look on his face.

Elin gave him a beatific smile. “Right, Kael?”

Anna watched an entire conversation unfold in their shared gaze. She shifted where she stood, almost uncomfortable at the intimacy of the exchange. After a long moment, Kael and Elin both wore smiles that spoke of a mutual understanding.

“Right,” Kael rumbled. Without a word to Anna, he looked back at the fire. “Rabbits are done.”

 

Anna couldn’t sleep. Lying on her side in Elin’s thick sleeping bag, she stared out at the shadowy forest that surrounded their campsite. Despite her utter exhaustion, she couldn’t turn her brain off.

Maybe I should sneak away while they’re sleeping. She wiped at the dampness under one eye with the fingers that lay curled near her face. I may have nowhere else to go, but I’m not sure I should stay here.

Kael didn’t want her. She saw it in his eyes, though he treated her with quiet respect. He didn’t trust her, and she couldn’t blame him a bit. She didn’t trust him, either. But Elin wanted her to stay. And suddenly that was what Anna wanted, deep down, so badly it hurt. Thinking about leaving Elin so soon after finding her made her chest ache. To have that light in her life when she’d been so certain that there was nothing but darkness in a future without Garrett…she sighed and eased onto her back. It would be amazing.

If she stayed, she would just have to deal with Kael. And how bad could he be? If a woman like Elin loved him, was there any reason for Anna not to trust him? Her body tensed at the thought, and it took some deep breathing to relax again. Not all men are bad men.

She couldn’t leave. She had nothing and no one. Twenty-four hours ago, she had been wondering why she was still alive. Since then, she’d been held by the most beautiful woman she’d ever met, and made to feel cared for. It was as good a reason to live as any. And she didn’t really want to die.

So I’ll learn to live with Kael, for now. And who knows? Maybe he can teach me how to fight like him.

Decision made, she relaxed. Just as she began to drift to sleep, she was pulled back to awareness by a whispered conversation across the campfire. Cracking one eyelid open, she spotted Elin propped up on her side, leaning over Kael and murmuring under her breath. A moment later, the low sound of Kael’s quiet voice floated through the air.

She wondered if they were talking about her. I’m not causing tension between them, am I?

Unable to rein in her curiosity, she peeked over with half-closed eyes. She couldn’t hear their words, but she could see Elin smiling down on Kael as she spoke. At first his demeanor was distant, reserved, but soon he began to run his fingers through her red hair as they spoke. Then they were chuckling quietly, Elin wearing a wide grin and Kael nodding his head with a peaceful smile.

He doesn’t seem too upset. Anna didn’t dare move and kept her breathing deep and even. Seeing Kael unguarded like this, interacting with Elin, she felt her anxiety about him ease even further. She must be one hell of a communicator. He almost looks happy. Anna studied their tender looks and touches. I hope she’s convincing him that I’m not so bad, after all.

She was shocked when, moments later, Elin bent down and captured Kael’s mouth in a passionate kiss. She nearly slammed her eyes shut on instinct, but her curiosity won out and she remained still, watching. Kael released a muffled groan, and Elin pulled back with a soft giggle. She held a finger on her lips, urging him to be silent.

Then Elin sat up on their sleeping bag, and the extra blanket that was draped over their bodies fell down around her lap. She was still wearing her light tank top, but her upper thighs were bare. She reached down and pulled off her panties, tossing them on top of her bag with a mischievous smile. Anna watched Kael’s answering smile grow wide as Elin moved over to straddle his hips and settle on top of him. Elin leaned down and kissed him again as Anna lay frozen in awe.

Anna had never made love with anybody. She had never even seen two people making love. She knew sex, and she knew violence, but she was a stranger to the intimate dance that was happening across the fire. As much as she knew that she should close her eyes, she was riveted to the scene.

Kael reached down between their bodies, grinning up at Elin. The firelight played off the muscles of his arm as he worked his hand between her legs. Elin squeezed her eyes closed, and her breathing hitched loud enough for Anna to hear.

Anna flexed her thigh muscles, and her own breathing became erratic for just a moment before she brought it under control. She lay, unmoving, feeling a familiar ache between her legs, made almost unfamiliar by its strength. The look on Elin’s face was intense and sensual. Kael’s eyes were glued to her, flashing with heat that Anna could see as clear as day.

Then he withdrew his hand, drawing a quiet groan of protest from Elin. He gripped Elin’s bare hips with both hands and whispered something up at her, and she nodded in response. Elin reached down between them and planted her knees farther apart, shifting on top of Kael. Her eyes grew wide, and her mouth opened in a soundless cry.

My God, Anna thought. She watched Kael slide a hand up the middle of Elin’s back to encourage her to lean down and meet him in a hungry kiss. Elin’s hips continued to move as they got lost in the joining of lips and tongues, and she rode Kael in a steady rhythm. One of Kael’s hands twined in Elin’s hair, while the other slid down her back to grip her pale bottom. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life.

Anna told herself again that she should close her eyes, but she was rapt. She couldn’t tear her attention away from the lovemaking any more than she could stop breathing. Her heart pounded so hard that she was afraid that Kael and Elin would hear it and discover her watching.

Elin broke their kiss and sat up, riding Kael’s hips with increasing urgency. She leaned back a little and smiled down at Kael from beneath hooded eyes. Anna’s mouth fell open at the pure heat of that look, and she listened to Kael’s soft moan float out into the cool night air. Elin broke into a wide grin that quickly turned into a grimace of pleasure.

As though he knew just what she needed, Kael reached between their bodies again, and Anna watched in amazement as Elin tipped back her head, opened her mouth, and arched her back in silent release. Kael kept his other hand pressed against her lower back and supported her trembling body. Elin continued a slow, erotic grinding against Kael until he seemed to stiffen beneath her, and the two lovers sent a mutual silent cry out into the night.

Anna’s body was alive with feeling. She worried that her hosts would know she was awake because she was so out of control; she was shaking, and she couldn’t get her heartbeat to slow back to normal. Across the campfire, Elin whispered a quiet I love you down to Kael, who mouthed a reverent response in reply and pulled Elin down into a full-body hug, turning his face toward Anna and squinting hard in an expression of pure bliss.

She knew she shouldn’t have watched, but it had been the most incredible thing she’d ever seen. They were so beautiful together. Even Kael, who had frightened and enraged her earlier that day, had been transformed into something entirely different by their lovemaking. Suddenly, powerfully, Anna trusted these two strangers with her life. To find love out here in such a cold, hard world was a clear sign that these were people who could become a home. Homeless for over a year, and alone for a month, Anna couldn’t think of anything she wanted more. A family. A place where she belonged.

I hope Kael can grow to like me. She directed the thought out to the universe, an uncharacteristic prayer. She listened to another few moments of murmured endearments from across the fire before forcibly turning her mind off and waiting for the refuge of sleep.

 

When Anna awoke the next morning, it was to the sound of faint laughter coming from just beyond the campsite. She regarded the cold fire pit and empty sleeping bag with a smile, remembering what had taken place there the night before. Yawning, she dragged her tongue across her teeth. I wish I still had a toothbrush.

She visited the bushes, then returned to her sleeping bag and picked up the half-full canteen of water Elin had given her. She took a long pull of cool liquid, swirled it around in her mouth, then spat it on the ground. She swallowed the second sip. Feeling a little awkward, she decided to seek out the laughter and voices she could hear just inside the trees. She crept, hesitant to surprise her new companions. After all, they could be having a repeat performance of last night.

When she found them, she thought for a moment that she’d been right. They were rolling around on the ground in a small clearing not far from their campsite, wrapped in a fierce embrace. Anna stopped in her tracks, surprised, but she soon realized that what she was seeing was a playful wrestling match.

“No way, pal.” Elin panted with exertion from her position beneath Kael. She squirmed until she was able to free herself from his hold, then scrambled to her feet and said, “I don’t think so.”

Kael sprang to his feet with a feral smile, charging at his lover in another attack. He brought her down hard and immediately pinned her wrists above her head. “Get out of this one, baby.”

Okay, maybe not so playful. Anna took a step back at the unexpected fierceness of the attack and at the position Elin was now in. Her mouth fell open a little, and her heart pounded in her chest. Painful tears stung her eyes, an instinctive reaction to the scene of dominance.

At first Elin appeared to go limp. Kael shifted his body a bit, and she began to squirm and twist beneath him, then brought her knee up to catch him in the crotch. He released a high-pitched grunt at the blow and struggled to keep Elin pinned as she fought against him like a woman possessed.

“Damn, honey,” Kael gasped, his voice high and breathy. “You’ve gotten good at this.”

A few moments more and Elin was free. Kael lay on his side on the ground, heaving, both arms curled over his stomach. “Good job,” he praised. He opened his mouth and rolled onto his back, spreading his arms wide as he regained his breath.

Elin laughed, then caught sight of Anna still standing among the trees. With a calm smile, she rose to her feet. “Anna, good morning.”

Kael lifted his head from the ground, managing a sheepish grin. “Good morning.”

Anna willed her hands to stop trembling. “Good morning.”

“Are you okay?” Elin approached and took one of Anna’s hands, giving it a squeeze. “I hope we didn’t scare you.”

“I’m fine. It’s just when I saw you at first—”

Kael sat up at the words, then clambered to his feet. He remained standing behind Elin, staring at Anna with genuine concern.

“Kael’s taught me almost everything I know about self-defense,” Elin said. “My dad, well, he taught me to hide and to run.”

“And he did a good job of it,” Kael praised. Elin shot him a pleased look. “Kael teaches me how to protect myself when he can’t.”

Eyes intense, Kael stepped closer to them, compelling Anna to lean into Elin for support. “I can teach you some moves, if you want.”

Anna remembered the sting of Kael’s comments about her fighting skills and fought not to get defensive about his offer. But despite her wounded pride, she knew an opportunity when she saw one. “Thanks.” She hesitated, then said, “I was one of the best fighters in my tribe. I do know a little, even if it didn’t look like it yesterday.”

Kael gave her the barest hint of an apologetic smile. “I can show you some great strategies for fighting with an injured ankle. With all kinds of injuries, really. I know it’s hard to rely on your regular moves when you’re hurt.”

Anna released Elin’s fingers and held out her hand, grateful when Kael shook it gently. Elin looked like she was ready to bounce up and down beside them, and she flashed white teeth back and forth between Kael and Anna.

“Awesome,” Elin said. “Listen, I’m going to go to the bathroom before breakfast.” To Anna, she said, “I have a toothbrush you can borrow, if you’d like.”

Anna exhaled in relief, grinning harder than she had in a long time. “Yes, please.”

“Give me a minute or so head start so I can find it in that disaster I call a bag, okay?” Elin left them with a wave and a sweet kiss blown in their direction.

Aware that she was wearing a goofy grin, Anna forced it down with effort. When she looked at Kael, she could see that he was struggling to wipe a similar smile from his handsome face. When she was all of a sudden alone with him, Anna’s discomfort kicked in. Wondering if she would ever feel at ease with him, she waited long enough that she wouldn’t appear totally rude, then turned to follow Elin back to the campsite. She had taken only two steps when Kael spoke in a low voice.

“Anna?”

She looked back warily.

“I’m sorry about yesterday.” His expression was softer. “What I said…I was harsh.”

Anna shrugged. “You probably had a point.”

Kael shook his head and held up a hand to forestall her words. “I was an asshole about it, so let me apologize. It just shook me up, not only finding Elin in trouble with four men, but also seeing someone else who could get hurt.” When Anna opened her mouth to speak, he continued, “Elin told me you saved her life. She wouldn’t exaggerate something like that. For that I thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I’m glad you were there.” He paused, his eyes guilty. “I should have been.”

The emotion in his voice made Anna feel as if she were a voyeur once again. “Apology accepted,” she whispered. “And remember, like the lady said, you can’t always be there. She’s capable in her own right.”

Kael snickered and jammed both hands deep into the pockets of his jeans. “You don’t know how often I get to hear that. Just wait. You’ll see.”

With that, he sauntered off in the opposite direction of their campsite, and Anna turned the other way, following the path Elin had taken. She wore a slight smile, feeling worlds better after the short conversation with the man she’d been certain disliked her.

 

Elin and Kael had an obvious routine forged from two years of traveling together. After eating a small breakfast prepared by Elin, they packed their things and walked until the sun hung directly overhead. Anna didn’t know where they were going, and she didn’t care to ask. It didn’t matter. She had more direction today than she’d had yesterday, and for that she was so grateful she would follow them anywhere.

Around noon, Kael slowed his brisk walk as they entered a clearing and found a green field overgrown with pansies. The purple flowers provided yet another point of color in an already brilliant autumn day.

Elin’s hazel eyes grew wide, and her face lit up at the discovery. A light breeze whipped red hair around her pale face, and she pulled a strand away from where it had blown into her mouth. “You guys, isn’t this beautiful?”

Aware of Kael gazing with adoration at Elin, Anna found herself equally unable to tear her eyes from the sight of her. “Yeah, it is. Gorgeous.”

Elin stepped into the field and shot a sunny grin over her shoulder. “I’m just going to go on ahead for a minute, okay?” Before either of them could answer, she gave an elated whoop and took off running through the flowers.

Anna watched her simple, uninhibited joy with amazement. She couldn’t remember ever possessing that kind of innocent wonder, even as a child.

“You’ve never met anyone like her, right?”

At the soft question, Anna glanced cautiously at Kael, wondering if her warmth for his lover was too close to the surface. “No, I can’t say that I have. She’s so genuine.”

Kael hefted the large pack that was strapped to his shoulders and gave her the first real grin she had ever elicited from him, his whole face lighting up with it. “Elin came into my life at a very dark time. She was—she is—a breath of fresh air.”

Anna stared ahead at the edge of the field. Elin was crouching near the wide trunk of a tree, bending low to inhale the scent of the violet blooms. Daylight played upon her hair and her pale skin, and she looked so lovely it made Anna’s heart hurt.

“How does she do it?” She glanced at Kael. “How does she stay so happy when the world is the way it is?”

“She hasn’t had to experience a lot of what makes the world so bad. Her father did a wonderful job protecting her.”

“Good for him.”

“I thank him every day.”

When they reached Elin, she was stretched out on the grass with her hands planted next to her hips. She watched their approach with an amused smirk. “Slowpokes.”

Anna jammed her hands in the pockets of her torn jeans. “I just enjoy nature at a decelerated pace, I guess.”

Elin grinned and lifted a delicate hand. “Help me up?”

“Lazy thing,” Kael admonished with good humor, as Anna pulled her to her feet. More soberly, he said, “We’re coming up on Sullivan, if I’m reading my map right. I’m going to scout ahead. We can stop for supplies there.”

“All right.” Elin tugged Anna closer by their enjoined hands. “Anna and I will take the opportunity to have some girl talk.”

“Knock yourselves out.”

Elin giggled, sending Kael off with a gentle slap on his bottom. His only reaction was to raise an eyebrow at her as he passed them by. He rolled his neck from side to side as he walked away, cracking the vertebrae with a quiet groan. Elin shuddered at the sound.

When he’d disappeared into the trees, she took one last look at the field of flowers, sighed, then said, “He hates going into cities. Expect him to get a little edgy.”

A little edgy? As far as Anna could tell, Kael was always edgy. Peering ahead, she confirmed that he was no longer within earshot. “Elin?”

“Yeah?” Elin squeezed her hand.

“Is Kael uncomfortable having me around? You can tell me the truth.”

“No, of course not. Did he do anything to make you feel that way?”

“No, I…no. I mean, I know we got off to a rocky start, but he’s been really great today.”

“He knows I like you,” Elin said as they strolled slowly in his wake. “He’s trying. I know it may take some time, but I hope you’ll give him a chance. He’s one of the strongest, most amazing people you’ll ever meet. But he can be tough to get to know. He keeps his distance unless he really trusts you.”

“Does he trust anyone but you?”

“Not yet.”

Anna caught a flicker of hope in Elin’s eyes. “But you’re optimistic?”

“I am.” Elin smiled. “One thing I’ve always wanted is a big family. Growing up, I only ever had my dad. That was hard. I would’ve given anything for a little brother or sister, or even just a friend. I loved Dad so, so much, and when he died, I felt like I had nothing left. Now I have Kael, and I love him more than I ever knew I could love anything in the world. And it feels so good to love someone, and to be loved back. I want as much of that in my life as I can get. Kael knows that.”

Anna accepted the pronouncement at face value, although she thought Elin could be overestimating her lover’s understanding nature. They walked a little farther in silence, their hands still lightly clasped, then Elin stopped abruptly.

“Anna, I want to say something. I don’t know what your plans are, but I want you to know you’re welcome to stay with me and Kael for as long as you want.” She squeezed Anna’s hand as she started to voice doubts, and said, “I guess what I’m saying is you could be part of our family.”

Anna’s vision blurred as emotion flooded her. Blinking, she stopped walking, and Elin halted alongside. It was exactly what she wanted, crazy as it seemed. She was almost afraid to believe that it was possible. “You want me to be your family? How can you say that so soon? You just met me.”

“You risked your life to help me yesterday. You were brave and good. I know I’ve only just met you, but I feel a connection with you. I feel like you belong with us, and I can tell you’re a good person.”

They started walking again, Anna deep in thought. For the first time since Garrett’s death, she allowed herself to experience the hole his absence left in her heart. She would give anything for it to be filled up again. The emptiness she had been feeling before she met Elin had scared the hell out of her. She kept her fingers entangled with Elin’s, enjoying the simple human contact.

“I’m not sure that what I did yesterday makes me a good person,” she said after some hesitation. “After Garrett was killed, I felt like I had no more reason to live. When I lost all my stuff in the attack last week, I figured it was a sign that there was nothing left for me anymore. Yesterday…I don’t know if I was being brave or just suicidal.”

“Death wouldn’t necessarily have been the worst thing to happen to you yesterday,” Elin said. “But you helped me anyway.”

Anna basked in the warm glow of Elin’s sincere words. “I wouldn’t want to cause any problem between you and Kael. I don’t want to be a source of tension.”

“Don’t worry, nothing could ever come between Kael and me. Our love is too real for anything to weaken it.”

Anna felt her face flush as she once again remembered their lovemaking, and she cast a shy grin down at the ground. “I think it’s wonderful that you’ve found something like that. How did you meet him?”

“After my father died, I decided to set out on my own. I knew it was dangerous. Dad told me every day how dangerous traveling could be, but I couldn’t stand hiding out alone.”

“I understand. Being alone…is horrible.”

Elin wrapped an arm around Anna’s waist. “I don’t know what I hoped to find. God knows I never imagined finding someone like Kael. I just walked and started seeing a little of the world. Mostly I tried to stay away from people, and then one day I was walking through the forest and found a campsite. There was a small fire going, and Kael was just sitting there, cooking dinner.”

“Weren’t you scared, coming on a strange man in the woods like that?”

Elin shook her head. “Not really. I was curious. He was staring into the fire, so deep in thought. All I wanted was to know what was going on inside his head.”

“Did you actually approach him?”

Elin giggled. “No. I was hiding behind a tree debating the wisdom of trusting my gut on Kael when I noticed that he was gone. Then suddenly there’s this low voice coming from behind me, whispering in my ear. ‘It’s dangerous for a beautiful girl to be out here all alone.’” Elin affected a dramatic swoon. “Oh my God, my knees almost gave out on me.”

“That would be terrifying.” Anna shivered at the thought of being caught off guard like that.

“A little terrifying, but mostly exciting. I thought Kael was the sexiest person I had ever seen.”

Anna bit her lip, trying to suppress a bashful grin at that. She wanted to ask Elin more, but she was hesitant to move their conversation toward a subject she knew very little about. It didn’t take long before curiosity won out over shyness. “When…um, when did you become lovers?”

“It took us two weeks to get there. Kael invited me to dinner that first night, and we talked for hours. The next morning, he insisted that I travel with him. He didn’t want to let me go off alone, and I didn’t want to leave him, so that worked out. Everything happened so fast. I knew almost immediately that I was meant to be with him.”

“Were you nervous?” She couldn’t help but ask. Elin had experienced things that Anna had only fantasized about, and she hadn’t experienced the things that gave Anna nightmares. “I mean, was he your first?”

“Kael was my first, and yes, I was a little nervous.” Elin’s eyes twinkled. “Not that Kael would hurt me or anything, but I think it must always be a little nerve-wracking, making love with someone for the first time.”

Anna’s stomach flip-flopped at how quickly Elin was creeping into her heart. She’d never felt comfortable talking about sex with anyone, ever, but this almost felt easy. I never thought I’d have a friend again after Garrett. How is it possible to have found something so amazing, so soon?

“Your friend Garrett,” Elin asked, “was he your lover?”

Anna shook her head. “No. I’ve never had a lover before.”

“Never?” Elin sounded surprised. “I can’t believe that. You’re so gorgeous.”

Anna felt her cheeks go hot at the compliment. “No. I’ve never…found anyone who interested me.”

“He wasn’t your type?”

Anna chuckled at the thought and at the bittersweet flash of memory of her blond, curly-haired friend. “No. Garrett was like my brother. And I was like his sister.” And one of the only things we didn’t have in common was loving men. He did, I didn’t. A familiar wave of melancholy swept through her.

“So what is your type?” Elin stroked her hand. “What interests you?”

By this point, Anna’s face was on fire. She struggled not to look over and meet Elin’s hazel eyes, terrified that her own attraction would be obvious. “I don’t know.” Why did I open this can of worms?

“How about Kael?” Elin asked in a hushed whisper and nudged Anna with her hip.

Anna’s breathing picked up at the question. “Kael, uh…Kael—”

“Don’t worry,” Elin hastened to say. “I’m just curious about what you find attractive. Do you think Kael is sexy? I won’t be jealous or anything if you do.”

“Kael is very good-looking. He…I guess he’s—”

Elin stopped Anna’s rambling speech with another squeeze of her hand. “How about me?” she asked after a quiet moment. “Am I more your type?”

Anna felt her stomach drop at Elin’s query. She could be trying to trick me into saying something, was her first irrational thought. She’s crazy if she thinks I’ll admit to that when it will get me hated or killed by most people. An instant of heart-thumping paranoia, and then Anna remembered how at ease Elin had made her feel at every other moment since they’d met. Elin wouldn’t do that to me. I’m not sure Elin could hate anyone. But what does she want to hear?

“You’re a very attractive woman,” Anna said. Her palm felt sweaty in Elin’s hand, and her voice shook. “I’m sure Kael is just as happy that he found you as you are that you found him.”

“Am I making you uncomfortable?”

Anna avoided her eyes. “I’m just not used to talking about this stuff.”

“We don’t have to if you don’t want to, but I want you to know that you can talk to me about everything. I promise to never judge you or make you feel bad about anything you want to tell me, okay?”

Anna gave her an embarrassed nod. “I do want to talk about it. I just don’t know how.”

Elin laughed and brought Anna’s hand to her lips to plant a soft kiss on her knuckles. “Stick with me, babe. If there’s one thing I do, it’s talk. Sex and love are two of my favorite subjects.”

“Great.” Anna’s fingers tingled where silky lips had pressed against them, bringing a grin to her face. “Two I don’t know much about.”

Elin stopped and faced Anna, looking into her eyes. “There’s a lot I can teach you,” she said, and pressed a gentle kiss to Anna’s lips. “Like I said, stick with me.”

They started walking again, Elin still holding on to Anna’s hand.

I can die happy now, Anna thought in wonderment. She resisted the urge to touch her lips with her free hand, amazed at the sensation from the simple gesture. I guess that was lesson number one.

 

Kael rejoined them as they strode up a gravel path that led to the main road into Sullivan. Still reeling from girl talk, Anna blushed a little as he stalked toward them. Elin greeted him with a wide grin.

“Looks quiet,” he said. “I haven’t seen a soul.”

“Where are we?” Anna asked. God, I have no fucking idea even what state I’m in anymore.

Kael gave her an odd look. “Indiana.”

“And where are we going?”

“We’re going south for the winter.” Elin took Kael’s hand. “Got to keep moving, or Kael gets antsy. Kentucky or Tennessee,

I think. How does that sound to you?”

“Fine.” Anna tried not to stare at their clasped hands. Already she missed Elin’s attention and wished she could grab her other hand.

“Anna.” Kael’s dark, expressionless eyes moved over her. “When we go into a city, you stick close to me. We don’t separate. There are too many places for people to hide, too much chance I won’t hear someone coming.”

Anna frowned, feeling a twinge of annoyance at Kael’s commanding tone. Before yesterday, she’d been master of her own destiny. Nobody told her what to do. Even Garrett had never tried; she would’ve slugged him, and he’d known it. Though Kael was the best fighter she’d ever seen, and he’d already saved her life once, she was long past being told what she was allowed to do as if she were a child.

Kael must have seen her internal struggle. “Please don’t argue with me,” he insisted. “There’s a reason Elin and I do things the way we do, and it’s kept us safe for two years now. Okay?”

Anna bit her lip. “Fine. But do you think we could start sparring together in the next couple days, so you can see that I’m not quite as helpless as I may have appeared by the lake?”

“Deal,” he said with a brief nod. “But this isn’t about thinking you’re helpless. This is about safety in numbers. In cities, that’s what matters. And that’s final.”

Elin shot Anna a soothing smile. “Besides, shopping isn’t nearly as much fun alone.”

“Thank God.” Kael released a quiet snort. “At last we’ve found you a good shopping partner.”

Elin turned to Anna with a long-suffering sigh. “Kael thinks shopping is boring. Well, some shopping.” She raised herself up on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. “I didn’t hear you complaining when we found that Victoria’s Secret store in Dayton, Ohio.”

Kael’s blush rivaled Anna’s. “Yeah, well—” He cleared his throat, gave Elin a scolding look, then dropped her hand and walked to t


Date: 2015-12-11; view: 574


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