But the moment he ripped his sweater over his head and she saw his bare chest and shoulders, pale red-gold hair shimmering against an expanse of tanned skin, muscles moving smoothly beneath, the rush of sexual heat seared her inhibitions. Once he put his mouth against her calf, kissed and nipped and then trailed it higher, she lost any last ability to resist.
With a moan, she parted her legs again, silk fisted in her hands at her sides, and begged him to…no, not kiss her there, not this time. This time, she wanted him inside her.
He must have been carrying condoms, because suddenly he was putting one on with shaking hands. Then he rose over her, blocking out the world. Her fingernails bit into his shoulders as he thrust, a long slide that stretched her in ways she’d forgotten, or never experienced, she didn’t know. She only knew that having him buried inside her was painful and exquisite, and she didn’t want him to leave, even to pull back. He smothered her protests with kisses and pulled away only to surge deep inside her again. And again and again, until her body convulsed in pleasure so intense she understood at last why this moment was called “the little death.”
She held Kevin as he moved a final time, as he groaned and she felt the ripples deep inside her. For a timeless moment, Melanie floated in a blissful sea of physical satisfaction, of tenderness, of love.
And then another pin pricked her hip, and this time she felt it, so sharp she knew it had drawn blood.
Just as she knew nothing had changed. She couldn’t let it—not for her sake, and not for Angie’s.
But for just a few more minutes she could revel in his weight on her, his warmth, the slam of his heartbeat, the way he murmured her name. For just a few more minutes she could pretend that this was the first time.
Not the only time.
HIS CROSS-COUNTRY SKIS whispered on the snow. His rasp of breath was the only sound in a world cloaked in white. No, not entirely. To one side, a whirr made him turn his head in time to glimpse a flash of brilliant blue wings against the white and deep-green backdrop.
Scott had recommended this trail, a long easy rise to a ridge where, he promised, Kevin would see the valley and the town of Elk Springs spread out below him. Kevin had canceled his morning classes and counted on being alone.
His muscles ached pleasantly, his lungs expanded to take in deep drafts of cold air. Another sound, and he saw the brown rump of a deer bounding away at the sight of him. This was where he was happiest—alone, in the woods. His mother used to shake her head and swear he would have been one of those unshaven mountain men if he’d been born in another century. He’d thought she might be right. He had never needed other people in the way even Scott had.
The idea of “other people” skimmed Kevin’s mind, took form and face, a tumble of dark hair, passion-clouded eyes, soft mouth, breasts as white as snow. Kevin gritted his teeth and tried to wall her out. In this solitude he could unclutter his mind, understand what was most important to him.
Of course he instantly saw Melanie again, this time as she told him with quiet finality that no matter what had just happened, she still couldn’t marry him. She didn’t even know if it was a good idea to keep seeing him.
“It hurts,” she had said, in a small husky voice that cracked. “I’m so tempted to let myself love you and forget what it might mean. Maybe Ryan and I would have stayed happy if I hadn’t hated our life so much. Maybe I soured our marriage with my unhappiness. I won’t go through that again. I won’t, Kevin. Don’t ask me.”
Trying to leave the memory behind, he skied faster, planting the poles with vicious stabs, driving himself in a near sprint. He wanted to be angry, contemptuous of a woman who wouldn’t take risks. But how could he? They’d had great sex. Okay. Otherwise, all he was offering her was an open-ended future that must read to her like a rerun of her first marriage. He’d said it himself: Park Service housing was often pretty seedy. It was usually miles from the nearest town, making a long bus ride for schoolchildren. Friendships evaporated the moment you were reassigned.
It was the perfect life for a man who craved solitude, shunned commitment, cared more about the health of an acre of forest than why his neighbor suddenly looked hungover every morning and why only one car was now parked in their driveway.
It was the worst possible life for a woman who craved community, longed for ties of friendship and family, wanted neighbors who knew one another’s business.
They were what they were. Clearly not meant for each other.
Kevin was racing now, muscles burning, his breath near sobs. He was where he loved to be. This was all he needed. Anguish filled his chest. Slamming pulse, lungs frantically snatching at oxygen. Heart breaking.
He burst from the trees. A last steep crest covered with new-fallen snow lay before him, a sky as huge and achingly blue as any he’d ever seen arching above it. Making a crosshatch with his skis, leaving behind V prints, he climbed with scarcely broken stride. This was what he needed. All he needed. All he’d ever wanted.
With a harsh cry he topped the ridge and saw the spectacular sweep of country beyond. The high desert land, dusted with snow far below him, stretched as far as his eye could see, broken only by the meandering Deschutes River and the new—in geologic terms—lava cones that made the soil rust red.
And by the town sprawled below the forested foothills. Elk Springs.
His gaze didn’t hunt for the horizon or study the petite lava cones that looked like scoops of ice cream dumped on the flat landscape. He was too busy seeking out familiar landmarks. His gaze didn’t pause at the community-college grounds above town, the high school on the other side, the redbrick public-safety building where his brother’s wife was chief of police. There, that stretch of green, was where he and Melanie had walked along the river at night, where he had kissed her. He couldn’t make out individual houses, but he found her neighborhood, her street.
Always before, when he drove into town—any town—for groceries, on the way back to the park he would leave behind with relief the last stoplight. He’d shake his head and wonder why anyone would want to live there.
Today, for the first time in his life, he looked down on a town and saw home. He stared until his eyes burned and he had to blink hard.
Would living in that old house with Melanie be so bad? She had a big yard with bird feeders and a tire swing—he remembered with fondness a tire swing his father had hung from an old elm that had probably long since been felled by disease. He had always wanted a dog, something that wasn’t possible when you worked in the national parks. He had a feeling Angie would back him on that one.
He could commit to setting up the four-year program at the college. Kevin admitted to himself that he was getting a kick out of teaching. And he’d always enjoyed the challenge of planning new displays or programs. When this one was up and running like clockwork…well, that was years away. Maybe he’d still be content. Maybe Melanie would be willing to consider a move then, when Angie was grown or nearly so.
Leaning on his poles, Kevin bowed his head. His solitude and the wilderness weren’t enough anymore. Every time he went hiking or cross-country skiing, he wished Melanie was with him.
And Angie. He wanted to be a father to the kid, the kind of father she’d never had. He could tell she had liked it when he helped coach her soccer team. She’d never given any sign of resenting him.
Lifting his head, Kevin looked down at Elk Springs, spread beneath him like a topographic map he could touch. His heart swelling in his chest, he wished he was there and not at a dreamlike distance looking on.
Right this minute it seemed to him that was what he’d spent a lifetime doing: looking on as other people lived. Maybe that was what his discontentment this past couple of years had been about. Not the abuse of the wilderness by the great American public, but his own loneliness. Maybe he hadn’t wanted to know why his neighbor was hungover, hadn’t wanted to talk about the wife who had gone for good, because if he looked too closely, he’d see himself: someone who came home to an empty soulless house at night, who preferred a canopy of stars because it had a glory his own life lacked.
Maybe he’d come to Elk Springs looking for more than space to think, a clearing to rest his head at night for a while. Maybe he’d been looking for home.
Why hadn’t he realized sooner that he had found exactly what he needed and wanted most?
With sudden decision, Kevin swung his skis back the way he’d come and shoved off, crouching to take advantage of the steep downward slope. He hadn’t quite figured out how to convince Melanie of his change of heart—but he couldn’t wait to start trying.
MELANIE CLANGED the lid back onto the garbage can. She could have hand-washed the crumpled stained silk—but she didn’t want to. Discarding it felt symbolic, as if she had put into the garbage can her own foolishness, as well as a bolt of fabric.
Hurrying back into the house she’d thought was still empty, she bumped right into Angie.
“Oomph!” Holding her daughter up, Melanie staggered against a kitchen chair. “Oh, my gracious! I’m sorry! Are you all right?”
Angie blinked. “I think so.”
“You’re home from school.” Brilliant.
“It’s three-thirty,” the eight-year-old pointed out with irrefutable logic.
“Is it really?” Her gaze went to the clock on the stove. “The day’s flown.” Liar, liar, pants on fire. Actually the day had crept on hands and knees. She had started cutting out the Edwardian dress for a customer, using a lemon-yellow silk, instead. Her concentration had been so poor she’d made several mistakes that wasted fabric and twice stabbed herself with pins, bleeding on the silk, besides. It was a relief to call it quits.
Angie dropped her book bag on a chair and headed for the refrigerator. “Is Kevin coming to dinner?” she asked, taking out the milk. “He hasn’t been here all week.”
Put on the spot, Melanie was tempted to hedge. She’d been trying in vain to think of some way of broaching the subject. Or perhaps she simply hadn’t wanted to put into words a failure as great as her marriage.
Instead, she said honestly, “I’m…not sure I’ll be seeing him again.”
Angie spun around. Milk splattered. “Why not?”
“You’re spilling,” Melanie said automatically. “And I decided not to keep seeing him because he probably won’t be in Elk Springs next year, anyway.”
Tears welled up in Angie’s eyes. “Doesn’t he want to take us with him?”
“Take us…?” Melanie’s breath whooshed out and she went to her daughter, gently taking the milk from her. “Oh, honey.” Melanie tried to enfold her in a hug.
Angie jerked back, glaring through her tears. “I thought you’d marry him! I thought he’d be my dad!”
Melanie swallowed, a lump in her throat. “Kevin’s job means he moves a lot. Every couple of years. You know he was a park ranger, and he’s thinking of going back to that. If he does, he’ll always be living out in the middle of nowhere. You’d have long bus rides to school and maybe no friends your age as neighbors, and I’d have to give up my business.”