“We don’t have a relationship, Nick. We’re not friends and we’re sure as hell never going to be lovers. So I’d really appreciate it if you’d give me back my diary.”
“Lovers?” He stuffed the last of his honey pikelet into his mouth and chewed with what would have been a contemplative expression on anyone else. On him, it was more aggravating shit-stirring then anything. “I was thinking we’d be more ‘friends who fuck’. But ‘lovers’ does have a certain ring to it.”
She bit her tongue to hold back the retort that sprang to her lips. Best not to encourage him, or contradict. He might take it as a challenge.
“I thought we could talk about your daddy issues,” he announced.
God, but she hated him. “I don’t have any daddy issues.”
“Your diary says otherwise. Why don’t I grab it, so we can read over the stuff I’m talking about?”
Her stomach roiled. Two years’ worth of her most personal thoughts and feelings laid bare. All her hopes and dreams, along with the occasional rant. Well, maybe more than the occasional rant. Secret things she would have never said to another living soul. He would smash the sanctity of that outlet for shits and giggles. Every tendon in her body tightened, fingers clenching closed. “Nick, please. Don’t.”
“Hmm?” He busily licked his fingers clean.
“Please. Don’t read my diary. Find some other way to mess with me. I can’t …”
The man sat forward in his seat, his sudden focus on her unnerving. “You can’t what?”
How to say it? She felt drained. He wouldn’t give her diary back. For all his little niceties, he wanted to fuck with her head as a way to get at her body. That much was obvious.
Nick stood and moved over to her side, sat down. “Talk to me.”
She opened her mouth but for once the words deserted her. Her shoulders slumped dejectedly.
“Ros?” He waited, hovering.
Silence reigned supreme for a moment.
He cleared his throat. “Why don’t we get out of here for a while? Go for a jog?
“A jog?” she asked, voice laced with disbelief.
“Yes. A slow one. Come on, I’ll find you some sneakers. I think we could both use some fresh air.”
Nick loped along like a dingo. By putting in a minute amount of effort he would have left her for dead, easily. Instead he jogged along beside her, looking far too fit in his cargo shorts and T-shirt. A cap sat on his head, the tops of his ears stained pink from the sun. Definitely descended from English or Irish stock. He had a long-limbed, athletic build. She was more of a robust peasant, herself.
Down the gravel driveway they went, heading toward the lonely stretch of road leading into the eco-lodge. It was nice to be outside. The scent of eucalyptus from the gums and some sweet nectar carried on the breeze. Not everything waited for spring to arrive. Warmth from the sun permeated her shirt. Sweat already dampened her back. Her cheeks felt like glowing braziers.
“I’ll race you to that tree.” He pointed to a big old jacaranda gracing the side of the road about twenty meters away.
“You’ll win,” she puffed.
“I’ll give you a head start. Go.” His hand drew back and then swung. Too late she realized his intention. The palm of his hand collided with her jean-clad ass in a flesh-shaking smack. Her left butt cheek howled bloody murder. “Go!”
“Ow!” She took off to elude his hand more than anything, throwing herself in the general direction of the tree. “Damn it. This is not a fair competition.”
She’d covered half the distance when he started after her. Attempting to run and look over her shoulder at the same time slowed her down, but keeping an eye on him had become second nature. Who knew what he’d get up to next?
A wide grin split his face, appearing alarmingly wolfish. His long legs ate up the distance with ease. Her heart raced faster than her feet could manage.
“I’m gonna catch you, Ros,” he taunted, as though stating the obvious was clever. Fingers hooked into the back waistband of her jeans and tugged her to an abrupt halt. His arm snaked around her waist, steadying her before her forward momentum could put her face first in the dirt. “Got you. See that tree?”
She squirmed and pushed at his arm, out of habit more than anything else. He wasn’t hurting her.
“The one we were racing to?” she asked.
“I’m a zombie and you have to climb that tree to get away from me.”
“No. You’re delusional, and I’m not climbing the tree.”
His breath warmed the side of her neck. “If I catch you I get to bite you again. That’s what infected do.”
Teeth snapped beside her ear in warning and she recoiled with a grimace. “Get off me, Nick.”
“Go. Climb. You said you’d be fine without me, so show me.” He released her with an overly dramatic moan. “Grrr …”
“Argh.” He curled his top lip and snarled. “Hungry for girl flesh.”
“Infected can’t talk.”
“I’m special. Climb.”
“Oh, you’re unique alright.”
“Better move.” His hand landed again on her rear with an almighty crack. It stung like nobody’s business. Like he’d lit a fire in her bloody jeans.
“Ouch!” She rubbed at her aggrieved butt with both hands. “Stop doing that!”
“Climb. Or I’m biting.”
She hated him so hard.
The tree stood a good three stories tall, a majestic old beauty. Come spring it would be ablaze with purple blooms. Today it was mostly bare. The fork of the tree’s big branches sat about a meter off the ground, just high enough to be a problem. A suitable handhold branch stretched out a bit above her head. Ros wrapped her hand around it and tested. Good and solid. It should hold her weight.
“You’d be dead twice over by now,” Nick said from behind her. “What’s taking so long?”
“I’m getting there.” She secured both hands around the trunk and raised a foot. Fitting it to the break in the branches was harder than it looked. Muscles in her legs stretched and strained. Her sneaker hovered high above the ground.
Nick sighed. “Have you even climbed a tree before?”
Probably, but damned if she could remember. The toe of her sneaker slid against the bark, seeking purchase and failing. “Crap.”
“You’re not helping.”
He snorted. “I’m not here to help. I’m here to eat you. As unpolitely as possible.”
“It’s ‘impolite’, and shut up.”
She flinched as a stream of air stirred the fine hairs on the back of her neck. “Stop it, Nick.”
“Just tenderizing the meat.”
She ignored him and focused solely on forcing her foot into the fork. Tendons strained and bones creaked. She could do this, yes she could. But a meter off the ground was pretty damn high when it had been so long between Pilates classes. Then … yes, success! Her legs were not happy. Neither were her arms, as she pushed off the ground with her other foot in a bid to have it join the first. Sweaty hands slipped against the bark.
Nicks grabbed her hips, stabilizing her as her foot flailed against the tree trunk. “Hang on. I’ve got you.”
“This is stupid,” she snarled, hanging from the tree like a defective ape.
“You’re doing great.” He laughed against her back, his chest shaking. Big hands cupped her butt, taking her weight off her poor aching arms. Hard to object to the manhandling when it was the only thing keeping her off the ground.
“I’ll give you a push up,” he said. “Okay?”
“Calm down. You can do this.”
“Wait.” With his support she managed to wedge her other foot into the divide. Someone had lit her shoulders on fire. How did people do this shit? Why did they? Idiots.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Okay.” And up she went. With his hands all over her ass, splayed out, steadying her. She wrapped her arms around one of the big branches and hung on for dear life. Rough bark scratched at her cheek. She clung on like a koala, but with less style.
Nick looked up at her from where he stood on the ground, hands on his hips and a broad grin on his face. Delighted with her again, apparently. She tried not to smile back. The corner of her mouth twitched in betrayal.
“There we go. I said you could do it. Move over,” he said. “I’m coming up.”
“What? Hang on.”
Nick grabbed at her handhold branch with one big hand, propped the end of his foot beside her and swung himself up. That damn easy. “Hey,” he said.
“Nice view,” he said, staring into her eyes.
Unease slid through her. Their noses almost touched. He didn’t have to be crowding her again. She looked at all the elsewhere over his shoulder. Anywhere but him was good. Her gray T-shirt clung to her in patches, nice and sweaty. Strands of hair stuck to the side of her face. Catching her breath took time. The idiot just kept staring. She leant back a little, but there wasn’t anywhere to go and he just followed. Like it was a game, damn it.
“Stop it,” she mumbled.
She probably smelled fantastically bad. He smelled like a man who’d been jogging. Clean male sweat and all that, the same as the other day when he’d been chopping wood. Her heart capered around inside her chest due to the physical exertion. Nick grabbed at another branch stretching out from the tree beside his head. The sleeve of his blue T-shirt rode up a little, stretching around his bicep.
“Wanna go higher?” he asked, looming over her.
“Um, no. This is good.”
“Zombies could chew on your ankles at this height.”