“Where was your family?”
“Down south. We grew up on one of the Northern Beaches, running wild half the time. I don’t know how Mum put up with us.” The strong column of his neck tensed beneath her fingers. The warmth in his voice when he talked about his family made her heart ache.
They had obviously been close, something she had never quite managed.
“How long have you been with him?” he enquired. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“No, I don’t mind. Only a couple of days, though it feels longer. Things work differently now, don’t they?”
“Times of war, the rules change.”
“War … I guess that’s one way to put it.” Her eyes bored into the back door. If she stared long and hard enough then magic might happen. Bullshit. Daniel would make it. He would.
And what the hell would he see when he walked in? Her fingers flinched back from Finn, covered in suds. “Wet the towel for me so I can clean you off, please.”
He did as asked.
“So, do I want to know what you saw when you were watching us?”
“I don’t know, Al. Do you?” He watched her over his shoulder, something akin to amusement lighting the pale green of his eyes. The corner of his mouth twitched.
“No. No, I don’t. Forget I asked.” Heat swept her face. He handed her a wet cloth, and she washed off his back as careful y as possible, sopping up al of the gray suds. “Can I get to the water, please?”
“Let’s see … You two fight. A lot.” He turned to face her, blocking her way with his arms crossed over his chest. “Opposites attract, I guess.”
“That would be it.”
“Sucked when I dropped the night-vision goggles. Smashed the lenses. I had to go by guesswork after that …”
Her jaw fell. “You did not have night-vision goggles. Pervert.”
The elegant face gave away nothing. He was fibbing. Had to be.
Suddenly a dimple flashed, he shrugged his shoulders. “Be fair. Without TV what was I supposed to do for entertainment?”
“Aren’t you funny?” She bumped her hip against his. “I know you’re lying.”
“Alright then. I would hate to make you feel uncomfortable about any lewd, unnatural acts I might have witnessed.”
“I think I liked you better without a sense of humor.” The clean, if threadbare, hand towel would do fine for washing them off. “Turn around, please.”
He did so without further comment. Thank God.
And he couldn’t have seen anything. Jerk.
With gentle strokes, she washed off his back, wary of touching his wound. “You’re good to go. Got more bandages?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. What about your back?”
“I haven’t been shot lately.”
“I’m not trying anything, Al. Let me wash your back. Consider it a stress remedy.”
“Wow, that offer isn’t dubious in the least. I’m fine.”
A sly sort of mirth lit his eyes. “Are you? Or are you … a chicken?”
She laughed, delighted at the unexpected sil iness. Amazed to be feeling anything at al . “Bawk, bawk, bawk.”
Childish sniggering ensued until a loud crash from upstairs stopped them cold.
Finn watched her in silence.
They sat in the parked car inside the garage passing a can of chicken soup back and forth, along with bottles of lukewarm beer. It was the car seats or the concrete. Most of their clothes were scattered over a wire rack, drying.
She didn’t speak, so neither did he.
He watched her watching the door. She barely even blinked.
He could almost feel her hope waning. There was no point cracking bad jokes now to try and make her smile. He had done his fair share of delivering bad news. Between confirmed death and missing persons, the latter was the cruelest.
“Al.” He nudged her elbow with the beer bottle and she started. Enough to let him know her thoughts had been a mil ion miles away from the dodgy Datsun with the mission brown interior.
A billion miles away from him.
“Thanks.” With an ever-present hand at the bottom of her t-shirt, the only item of clothing on her, Al accepted the bottle and took a swig.
There was a lot of skin on display next to him. Who’d have known that beneath those jeans her legs were so long? She had the nicest curves. He tried not to enjoy them, given what she was going through, but it wasn’t easy to keep his mind off track. Those legs, and the way her knees kept rubbing together, came close to causing him pain, especially knowing she wore nothing underneath the shirt.
Not a damn thing. He knew it for a fact. Just like there had been nothing under her dirty jeans, hence the hand on the hem.
Her confidence in him keeping his back turned while she bathed was sweet but misplaced. Each tug on the shirt’s hem seemed to ramp up the heat in the airless garage a bit more, for him at least. She remained oblivious. It frustrated the shit out of him but then, that was the situation, wasn’t it? Shit.
There was only one spare pair of boxer briefs in the bag and he wore them. Al other assorted items of clothing had been washed and hung up to dry. Not that he hadn’t offered her the boxers. He was comfortable with nudity. Guess she wasn’t. Guess maybe it was insensitive on his part to let his thoughts dwell in that direction. Again.
He never had been good at going without sex. Previously, there had never been a need to. Nearly nine weeks into the celibate lifestyle, and he found it as overrated as getting shot had been.
“It’ll be dark soon,” she said. Her voice sounded smal er each time she spoke, making him wonder how long til it disappeared entirely.
“Daniel wil find somewhere safe to hole up for the night.”
He didn’t answer. She’d said it more for her benefit than his.
She passed back the bottle of beer and he drained it, put it aside and twisted the cap off number five of the rapidly diminishing six-pack.
The owners might have had dubious taste in vehicles, but he could only applaud their priorities in packing the brew. It had been a shit of a day, wel worth throwing back a couple.
The edge of gold around the door was fading, the shadows growing. He could do nothing for her but be there and wait this out. He couldn’t leave her alone. He would never leave her alone.
But the days of being able to fix something were gone. There wasn’t a chance he could salvage this. It was one more loss amongst so many.
At least she was alive, safe beside him. Protected.
Upstairs, the infected moaned, growing agitated as night set in.
The rat-a-tat-tat on the door seemed part of it at first. Just more of the dragging footsteps from overhead and a
something hit the floor. It all blended for him. But Al was up and running, the length of the t-shirt forgotten in her dash to get at the door.
“Al, wait!” He freed his gun as she did likewise the locks, throwing open the door to all comers. Adrenalin surged through him with fury hot behind it. She’d get them killed for sure this time.
Al launched herself at the tal figure waiting on the other side.
Disappointment had a taste, and it sat on the back of his tongue, hot and sour as acid, making him sick. He truly fucking hated himself for feeling it. No one had canceled Christmas. A man had survived. Bad had been trampled. Al’s heart remained unbroken.
This was a good thing. A good thing. Yeah.
He just needed a minute to catch his breath and find his happy face.
Dan appeared none the worse for wear. He shuffle-stepped her backward, sparing a hand to close and lock the door while she clung to him.
With the shirt riding up he got a great view of Dan’s hands clapped over the curves of her bare ass cheeks. The man murmured to her, soft and low, over and over, “I know. I know. I know …”
“You made it,” Finn said. Lame as it was, it was the best he could do without actually lying.
For some reason, he didn’t want to lie.
Dan nodded. Nothing needed to be said. And Finn didn’t need to see the understanding in the man’s face. Anger would have been easier to take.
He flicked the safety on his gun, pointed it elsewhere.
“Lose something, baby?” A piece of black fabric hung from one of Daniel’s fingers, dangling against the back of Al’s thigh. Dan raised the black fabric high above her head, and she set her chin on his chest, peered skyward. “Finders keepers.”
Finn had to squint and take a step closer to make them out in the fading light. But yes, they had a winner. Daniel had found Al’s panties.
Finn’s sense of humor, however, had long gone. “You risked your life to hang underwear off the mailbox? This is what you couldn’t wait till I was awake to do? Fucksake, Al.”
“Actual y, it was the shrub beside the mailbox, discreetly positioned unless you knew what you were after,” Dan explained, dangling the item higher when Al took the bait and made a grab for them. “I knew what I was after.”
“This was the agreed upon sign?” Finn asked in a brutal y tight voice. No point hiding his ire now. These two were all loved up and he was on the outer, the audience, not required. No one was interested in his mood or his issues.
“Not exactly, needing a sign hadn’t occurred to us. We weren’t planning on getting separated. I guess that was short-sighted.” Daniel planted a kiss on her forehead, ignoring her grasping arm. “Mmm, you smell of soap, al shiny and fresh. Me, on the other hand …”
The big guy slowly eased his shirt up. “Shit. That hurts.”
“There’s water for washing,” she said. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Bumped into something. Gonna have some beautiful bruises tomorrow.”
“How bad, Dan?” Ali gave up on the attempt at grabbing and held out her hand with all due decorum. “My underwear, please. I’m done with flashing for the day.”