Page 54


“Why not?” Alex persisted.


“Well, first off, we’d have to have something worth trading,” Sarah pointed out.


“We’ve got supplies. We’ve got tools and weapons and—”


“We’re not going to trade weapons or tools,” Chris said flatly. “That’s like handing them the keys to the front door.”


“Well, what about clothes?” Alex persisted. “Or soap or candles or lanterns or—”


“Or us,” Lena said. She dumped wood in a loud clatter. “How much you think I’m worth, Chris?”


Chris looked like he’d been slapped. “Lena, it’s not like—”


“Oh, bullshit. We’re your precious little baby-makers. So what do you think you can buy with me? I guess that depends on when the guy gets tired—”


“You know,” Jess interrupted, “we could do with more wood.”


“Right. I forgot. Your house, your rules,” Lena said, and banged out of the kitchen.


Tori broke the silence first. “More coffee, Chris?”


“No.” His cheeks were splashed with scarlet. He wouldn’t meet Alex’s eyes. “No, I probably shouldn’t.”


“Chris,” Sarah said gently, “she didn’t mean that. She’s not angry at you.”


And Alex thought, Oh yes, she is. Lena was rude; she was obnoxious; but she was deliberately baiting Chris, really pushing it.


The question was: why?


Fifteen minutes later, Alex shrugged into her parka and scuffed outside. It was snowing again, big powdery flakes spinning slowly as feathers. The snow was deep, an easy two and a half feet, and hard on Honey. For the past few days, Chris had taken her to and from the hospice in a Portland cutter, and he’d just left the house five minutes before her. Alex expected to see him in the dark blue cutter, but only Nathan was there, holding the reins of a white dray.


“Where’s Chris?” she asked as Nathan’s border collie pranced up to be petted.


Nathan chinned in the general direction of the backyard. “Headed that way when he come out. Said he’d be right back.”


Puzzled, Alex retraced her steps, then ducked around the house. Jess’s yard was very large, about an acre before it blended into the woods. She spotted Chris in the far left corner by the woodpile—with Lena.


Whatever she’d been about to say dried up on her tongue. Chris and Lena were facing each other, and Lena’s arms jerked in emphatic, angry gestures. Fighting with Chris? Knowing Lena, that was a safe bet, but after that little scene in the kitchen, why would Chris go out of his way to talk to her? Alex was too far away to hear, but she saw Chris shake his head and start to turn away. In the next instant, Lena grabbed his arm and flung herself into Chris so hard he staggered, and then she was threading her arms around his neck, pressing against him …


I don’t want to see this. Stunned, Alex stumbled back, her boots tangling, and she let go of a startled, involuntary yip. Chris’s head darted around, and then he was trying to disengage from Lena, pulling at her arms. He might even have called her name, but Alex wasn’t waiting around. Floundering back up the walk toward the street, eyes smarting, she couldn’t breathe; her chest was tight, like someone had punched all the air from her lungs. Just get Honey and go. But no, she couldn’t; Nathan would stop her because she wasn’t allowed to go anywhere without an escort. Well, that was all right, that was fine; she didn’t care what was going on between Chris and Lena, she didn’t care….


“You find him?” asked Nathan as she clawed her way onto the cutter.


“Yeah.” As she settled herself onto the seat, she saw Chris wheel around the house. He was moving fast, and she smelled him coming: no apples this time, or shadows, but a roiling, angry storm cloud. She looked away as he clambered aboard, and then, with a crisp snap of the reins, Chris urged the dray to a trot and they glided off. He was silent, a black boiling wall pressing the air between them. Her heart was hammering and her stomach was twisting and fisting like her hands.


“It’s not what you think,” Chris said tightly.


“I don’t care,” she said, not daring to look at him. “It’s none of my business.”


He said nothing. Their sleigh swept past the village hall, where a knot of Rule men were marching a cluster of refugees inside, and then they were heading northeast down the approach road to the hospice. The forest closed in and echoed with the clop of horse hooves. Alex watched the snow fall, felt it melt on her cheeks like tears.


Chris cleared his throat. “Alex …”


“It doesn’t matter, Chris.”


“No,” he said. “It does. I just … can’t …”


“Can’t what? Explain?” She darted a look at his face. His skin was tight and white as snow except for the two hectic stains of color along his high cheekbones. The scent of his shadows was stronger, as if they were closing around, trying to protect him somehow. “What’s there to explain, Chris? We had sex ed in sixth grade, so if you need any pointers …” She heard the cruelty in her voice and choked back the rest. What the hell was she doing? She didn’t care.


“You don’t understand,” he said.


“You don’t owe me any explanations.”


“But I wish I could,” he said. She heard his misery and something more: disgust. “God, this is so messed up.”


“Yeah, you think?” The frustration was pillowing in her head like hot steam. Any second, the top of her head would pop like a cork. “You’re realizing this now?”


“Please, I don’t want to fight with you.”


“You know, it’s fine, Chris, really. It’s your town. If you want to screw Lena, choose her to go play house with, do it.”


“Stop.” His eyes closed, and the small muscles of his jaw twitched and jumped. “Please. Alex, I don’t want Lena. I never have.”


“Yeah? Well, you better clue her in.”


“Will you shut up?” With an abrupt twitch of his wrists, he jerked back on the dray’s reins. The sleigh slewed, and she had to grab on to the side to keep from tumbling out, but then he was grabbing her by the arms and shaking her. “Do you think I want this? Do you think I want her?”


“Don’t you? No, don’t answer that. I don’t care what or who you want!” she spat, and then she slapped him across the face, hard and fast, the sound as crisp as the snap of a dried bone. The sound broke something inside her, too, and she felt a sudden, hot rush of shame as he gasped and his hands fell away. The sting in her hand burned like acid. “Chris,” she said. “Chris, I’m sorry, I’m—”


“Why can’t you like me?” he said, his voice breaking. His scent steamed then, hot and heady with a welter of contradictions: apples and fire and the electric roil of those cold, black shadows. “Why can’t you like me just a little?”


She would never know how she might have answered, because he never gave her the chance.


Instead, he kissed her.


60


It was not like Tom at all.


This was more like a bomb.


She felt her body go rigid with surprise and then the quick lurch of her heart and a sudden breathlessness. For an instant, just an instant, she could’ve pushed him away. But she didn’t. A stunning white heat scorched the thought right out of her brain, and then he was pressed against her and her body was tingling and she felt his hunger, his need, and she’d grabbed the lapels of his coat because she was starving for his touch; she couldn’t get close enough, and the scent of spiced apples made her feverish and dizzy.


The kiss went on forever. It lasted for a second. She wasn’t sure who broke it off. Maybe both of them did at the same time, or neither of them.


He let her go. “I’m sorry. God, I’m so sorry,” he said, his voice ragged. “Please don’t hate me. I just …”


“It’s okay,” she said. The red splotch of her hand stood out on his cheek like a brand. Her lips felt bruised and swollen. “I shouldn’t have egged you on. I was just mad.”


“I think …” Chris leaned back, his chest still heaving. “I think maybe when I get back I shouldn’t be around you anymore. I can’t think. When I’m out there, all I can think about is here and … being with you. I just … God, Alex, I’m just trying to protect you.”


Her automatic rebuttal—I don’t need your protection—jammed up behind her teeth. He was telling the truth; she could smell it. This was like when he’d given her the sunglasses, only this time she held his feelings in the cup of her hands.


“You know what I worry about? I worry that when I come back, you’ll find some loophole, something we’ve overlooked, and then you’ll be gone and I don’t think I—” Chris closed his eyes. “Please say something.”


“I’m so sorry.” She reached for his face, touched the mark she’d left there. “I don’t hate you, Chris.”


He gave a sad half-laugh. “But you don’t like me.”


“I kissed you back,” she said.


“After I surprised you, after I forced you …”


“No. You didn’t force me. I think …” She pulled in a shaking breath. “I think I’m afraid to like you.”


His surprise and then the hope on his face were almost painful, and she had to bite her lip to keep from bursting into tears. Her hand was still on his cheek, and he covered it now with his own. “Why?” he asked.


A sob tried to push its way out of her mouth. “Because it means giving up. It means that you’ve closed up all the loopholes and there’s nowhere else for me to go.”


“But Alex, the rules exist for a reason. They’re there to keep you safe.”


“Then why does Jess think they need to change?”


“Alex.” He moved closer, and when he gathered her up, she didn’t resist. “I want to protect you. I want to take care of you. If you stayed, would that be so bad?”

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