Beckett glared back at him. “Of course the bastard had that whole thing to hold over my head, so I had to be nice to him from then on.”
All three of them made slow, wheezing, winding-down noises.
Beckett stood up. “Well, kids, reliving my pain has been fun, but I have some unfinished business to attend to.”
Blake and Beckett gave each other a shake and a half man-slap hug. Livia ignored Beckett’s hand to give him a hug and kiss on the cheek. “Thank you for watching over him before I knew him,” she whispered.
Mouse was at the door again. “Sorry, boss. The whores are here for their test ride. You want them now or later?”
Sure enough, three women stood outside the door looking every inch ladies of the night. As Blake emerged, they surrounded him, talking seductively.
Beckett pulled Livia back into the room by her belt. “Loving that guy is the only thing I’ve ever done right,” he said. “Please don’t break his heart.”
Livia nodded, eyes wide. Beckett’s soul was talking to her, not the tough bad boy he seemed to pretend to be.
As Beckett walked Livia out the door, Blake untangled himself and grabbed her hand. “Well, it was nice meeting you all,” he said to the very friendly ladies. “Have great day, Eve, Vikki, and Sweetie.”
Beckett walked out with Livia and Blake, issuing orders to Mouse. “Have the chicks do some stretches, and get some Viagra out. I’ll be back soon.”
Blake shook his head. Livia waved goodbye as the posse rolled out with Beckett driving lead in his Hummer, his face an eerie mask.
Blake leaned close to her. “That’s his game face.”
A shiver passed through Livia. “So you’re the music clef, Beckett’s obviously the knife, who’s the cross?” She stroked Blake’s tattoo.
“You’re about to find out. We’re headed to church.” Blake leaned in to kiss her forehead.
“Of course we are. That makes perfect sense.” From hell to heaven.
BLAKE AND LIVIA WALKED to their next destination with slow, meandering steps. They kept getting lost in their conversation, each watching the other’s mouth carefully like the words were so very important. The town rebuilt its buildings and reputation a little more with every crunch of the fall leaves under their shoes as they headed back the direction they came from. They soon left the paved road to turn down a wooded path, and after a few more minutes, they emerged from the trees to find a very old-fashioned church. Here the fall leaves were swept clean, inviting guests in. Livia studied the sign as Blake opened the door to Our Lady of the River. As they entered, Livia was immersed in the scents of warm wax, incense, and wood polish. The contrast with where they’d just been left her head spinning.
“Father Cole.” Blake’s voice broke the sanctity of the space.
“Don’t call me that, Blake.” A man dressed in black came from a door on the left side of the altar.
Livia had been busy admiring the intricate stained glass windows and had to refocus her eyes on the man. Blake dropped Livia’s hand to embrace Cole. He whispered something as he wrapped his tattooed arm with Cole’s, the same way he had with Beckett. But this greeting seemed comforting, healing—full of forgiveness, not promises.
“Cole Bridge, this is Livia McHugh. Livia, this is my brother Cole. He’s not actually a priest, but he’s sort of Father Callahan’s assistant.”
Cole was not as tall as Blake, and he was mysterious and sad at the same time. His features were classic and handsome, his skin the precise shade of mocha. He had yet to smile at Livia, but he nodded cautiously.
Blake shyly touched Livia’s shoulder. “Do you mind if I leave you with Cole for a bit? He’s kind enough to offer me use of the shower in his quarters.”
“No problem.” Livia watched as Blake exited through the door Cole had used to enter.
Livia and Cole stood in the thick quiet that enveloped a person in a silent church. Cole motioned to the closest pew, and Livia stepped in and sat on the hard, curved wood. Cole hooked the kneeler with his foot and brought it down with a practiced bang. He knelt and let his fingers weave into a knot. Livia wasn’t exactly sure what was polite—to join this priest’s assistant, or let him have his moment on his knees.
After a pause, she found herself mimicking his position. In the silence, Livia examined the church. It wasn’t filled with horrific statues with faces frozen in pain, like some churches she’d seen. The most prominent decorations were the stained glass windows. The architect of this little church had defied some basic laws of physics. It seemed the glass supported the brick, not the other way around.
“Four hundred forty-six,” Cole whispered.
She’d almost forgotten he was there as she tried to make out the scenes in the windows. “What?” she asked.
He kept his head down in what seemed to be a prayer. “He counts. You’ve smiled at him four hundred and forty-six times as of a few minutes ago. He announces the number every time I see him.”
Livia stared at the white-cloth-covered altar and listened to the confessing man.
“I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t think you were real. Considering my line of work, I should have more faith in humanity.” Cole shook his head. “I think it was smile two hundred eighty-six that drove me the most crazy. It was the night train. Blake was so sick, feverish. Honestly, I was considering taking him to the hospital. But no. He didn’t want to miss a smile. He wouldn’t even let me drive him. Blake walked the whole way in the pouring rain for number two eighty-six.”
When she glanced over at his rigid jaw, Livia realized Cole wasn’t relating a tale of deep romance. He was angry.
“You smiled that night. He was adamant that it had lasted longer than the others.” Cole looked at her with troubled brown eyes. “Livia, if I may be so bold, he’s going to take your kindness very seriously. If you’re playing a game, or trying to get even with a boyfriend by dating the worst thing you could find—”
Livia held up one hand to stop him. “With all due respect, never, ever refer to Blake as ‘the worst thing’ in my presence again.”
To Livia’s surprise, Cole almost smiled.
“It’s been such a short time—I don’t even know if I can explain it,” she began. “Imagine you were walking in a desert, and you were so hot and very thirsty. The sun won’t quit, but you finally come upon the clearest, coolest pond. You jump in, even in your best clothes. You jump in and drink because you absolutely have to. You have to. Am I making any sense?”
Livia took in Cole’s face. His eyes remained sad as he nodded.
Livia looked back at the stained glass. She took a deep breath before speaking again. “Why aren’t you and Beckett taking better care of him?” She watched as Cole’s face turned hard.
“Blake’s an easy soul to love, but a difficult man to hold on to. He has a tremendous sense of pride, which he will not see compromised. He finds no glory in accepting help. If he hasn’t earned it, he wants no part of it.” Cole rose from the kneeler to stand in the aisle. “It’s easy to stand in judgment after knowing my brother only a few weeks. You have some nerve.”
Livia sat back in the hard pew. “I’m sorry my question insulted you, but I do have nerve. I’m just trying to fit the pieces together.” Livia stood to give herself more confidence.
“You’ve no idea what you’re getting involved with.” Cole closed his eyes. He seemed to be reaching inside to calm himself.
Livia took a step out of the pew. “Cole, I can’t turn back now. My life leads to his. It’s as simple as that.”
“Two months.” Cole looked doubtful.
“Four hundred forty-six smiles, plus two months of talking twice a day, five times a week,” Livia corrected. She smiled cautiously and reached over to take Cole’s hand. He pulled it away, but not before she noticed an ugly scar.
Her face warm with embarrassment, Livia forged ahead. “Tell me about Blake and the sun.”
“It’s his story to tell—or not tell,” he said, not meeting her eyes. “Do you see those stained glass windows? They’re beautiful, but you can’t see their true magnificence until sunlight touches them. I believe Blake’s the same way.”
Cole’s eyes darted to Livia’s, but then he turned to look at the altar door. Within a moment Blake walked through in fresh clothes, his hair still damp.
The church had cleansed Blake. He was fresh and ready to face the rest of the day. Livia smiled back at him. Four hundred forty-seven, her mind noted.
Cole leaned closer to Livia as Blake came toward them. “That pond, Livia? The coolest pond? It has many, many undercurrents.”
Cole stepped back as Blake joined them and put a possessive arm around Livia’s shoulders.
“Thanks for the shower, Cole. I appreciate it.”
“Anytime, brother. Anytime.” Cole shook hands with Blake as they said goodbye.
“I’m taking Livia to some of my favorite spots,” Blake said proudly.
Cole just nodded, saying nothing.
Livia took one last look at the stained glass windows as they left the church and tried to ignore the dread that crept, like a stalking cat, into her chest.
“Where to now?” Livia forced the feeling away and looked expectantly at Blake’s green eyes.
They headed back to their wooded path. Blake seemed to prefer a wandering trail through the trees to walking along any sort of road, so Livia had trouble figuring out where they were—or how far they’d come. Just when she was convinced they were in the middle of nowhere, they arrived at the Hudson River, within view of the train station where they’d met that morning.
“Firefly Park is your super-secret place?” Livia raised an eyebrow at the well-populated leisure spot. Industrial-strength grills and picnic tables dotted the rolling hills.
“No, I’m not Captain Completely Obvious. Come this way.”
Blake went straight for the tall chain-link fence that separated manicured public areas from the woods. He peeled back a corner of the fence and held it for Livia as she ducked under. After following a footpath for a while, Blake branched off, taking an unmarked trail.
“You walk through here like a herd of buffalo,” he teased, looking over his shoulder.
“Well, thanks a lot!” Livia gave him a pout.
“Stop for a second and listen.”
Livia stood still as Blake demonstrated his almost soundless gait.
“Now you,” he said.
She slapped her feet down in exaggerated stomps.
He hugged her close when she drew near and kissed her nose. “We’re almost there, Sasquatch.”
Soon they entered a break in the woods—a perfect square with tall trees standing guard. In the center were two curved saplings.
Blake rubbed a hand on his face. “This is mine,” he announced.
“It’s lovely,” Livia said.
Blake walked to the center of the clearing and spread out his army jacket. He took her hand and lowered her to the jacket. “Lay back.”
Blake soon joined her, but kept most of his body on the leaf-covered ground. He put his arm under her neck to give her a pillow, and they watched the thick clouds roll through the sky. Blake reached to his side and ripped a leaf off of a droopy plant. He put half the leaf on his tongue and started to chew. He offered the other piece to Livia.
“Seriously? We’re munching on plants like cattle now?” Livia eyed the leaf uncertainly.
“Aren’t you funny? It’s a mint leaf. It tastes good. Try it.”
Livia could smell the scent in the air and tried a tiny nibble. “Wow, Daniel Boone, this is mighty tasty.”
Blake growled and began his extremely effective tickling. But a twinge in his sore ribs cut the torture short. Wincing, he leaned carefully on his elbow. Soon they were looking at the clouds again.
“Why were you with him for five years?” Blake asked, breaking the silence.
The last thing Livia wanted to talk about was Chris. But she couldn’t help being honest. “I’m not sure. It was easier than not being with him, I guess. I liked having a boyfriend. Isn’t that shallow?” Livia paused, gazing at the sky. “He wasn’t all bad all the time. He fussed over the little stuff, like making sure I paid my bills and registering to vote. That made me feel special. We had fun in the beginning…And sometimes I think I stayed with him because I’d put in so much time already.”
“Yeah, you’re a real old timer,” Blake teased as he traced her face with his finger.
“But the things that were right about him I sort have been able to do for myself for a while now. His constant reminders used to feel like love, but now they feel like he wanted to take control of my life so I couldn’t. It hasn’t been right for me and I’ve been ignoring that. And now I think I was waiting for you. I know I was waiting for you,” Livia said as she trapped his hand against her cheek.
He smiled broadly, and Livia took a chance.
“Blake, why were you in foster care?”
He removed his hand and flipped carefully onto his stomach.
“Really? You want to know?” He seemed surprised.
Livia could only knit her eyebrows in concern. Blake spoke, but in a dull, flat tone she hated very much.
“My mom didn’t know who my dad was,” he began. “I think she tried taking care of me at first. But by the time I was seven, I was taking care of her. She was an alcoholic—not that she would ever admit it.” His fingers played with the grass. “When I was twelve, the state took me away. Four years later, my mother was in a fatal drunk driving accident. She killed herself and the two little girls riding to school in the minivan she hit.” The words were like poison leaking from his soul.
Livia rubbed his back, and he gave a toneless laugh. “Feeling sorry for me? Do the math, Livia. I would have been sixteen that year. If I hadn’t gotten myself taken away, I’d have been driving. Those girls would be alive.” Blake stood awkwardly, trying not to favor his ribs, and ran his hands through his hair.
Livia sat up but stayed on his jacket. “That’s a lot of guilt for one person.”
“I don’t want to wreck this moment with everything I’ve done wrong. I want to be right for a little while. I was right about you.” Blake returned to the ground and touched Livia’s hair reverently, as if it were spun crystal.
She kissed his lips and felt his smile form. Alone in this beautiful space, Blake and Livia made things right. Blake kissed her slowly and patiently, like he had all the time in the world. Carefully, they eased back to lie down, and Blake braced himself above her.
He smelled of mint and fresh soap. Livia put her hands on his chest and felt the densely packed muscles there.
Empowered by his adoration, she shrugged off her fleece shirt, enjoying the feeling of being trapped between his arms.
Blake’s eyes became stormy seas. “Damn it all to hell,” he cursed.
Despite his words, Livia believed she was winning this battle of seduction. Blake kissed her mouth and sucked on her bottom lip. He moved to her earlobe and breathed, “First, I will blow, then I will lick, last I will bite.”
Blake blew a gentle stream of minty breath along the outside of Livia’s ear, down to her neck, and along the edge of her breasts where they peeked out of her bright blue bra. Blake took his time creating an elaborate pattern on her stomach, and Livia was pretty sure he’d spelled the word torture. He increased the pressure of his breath as he grazed below her belly button to the top of her jeans. He skipped back to her mouth and gave her another long, slow kiss.
“And now I lick,” he murmured.
Livia bit back the embarrassingly loud moan she felt building. He gently traced the same trail his breath had left, this time with his tongue. When he reached her breast, she lost control and grabbed his hair, intent on kissing him.
Livia groaned and arched her back in an effort to change his mind. But his slow, sexy smile told her he was doing it his way.
“Fine.” Livia dutifully kept her hands above her head as he picked up where he’d left off.
His tongue had her making noises that surely scared the wildlife. He spent an inordinate amount of time licking just above her belt buckle. Then again he was back to her mouth.
He spoke through his kiss. “I’m going to bite you now.”
Blake began down the same flaming path on Livia’s body with his teeth, nibbling in time with her heartbeat. When it speeded up, he bit slightly harder.
After what seemed to be sixteen million glorious years, Blake was at the top of her jeans again. A light, almost invisible, mist from the gray clouds now gave the clearing a slick sheen. The cool rain and his hot mouth were ecstasy.
Blake unbuckled her belt and used his tongue and teeth to unbutton her jeans. He chuckled as he flipped her zipper with his teeth. Each pop of the releasing zipper filled the woods as he blew again on the newly revealed skin.
Livia knew what to expect this time: blow, lick, bite. Oh, sweet God! This is heaven. At last, Livia could no longer obey and reached her hands down to his angelic face.
Blake glanced up as if to rebuke her, but quickly smiled and let her sit up to meet his lips.
Love. Crazy, soon, ever. Love, Livia’s mind raged. She tried to tell him with kisses, but it wasn’t enough. Blake knelt before her, and Livia straddled his thighs. She pulled back to try putting it into words and noticed how Blake glistened, covered in tiny raindrops. The clear, cool pond she’d described to Cole had just exploded over them. But instead of drowning, they wore it like a cloak.
In her pleasure, Livia didn’t notice the slow arrival of the sun until the clouds shifted and shafts of light filled the woods. They combined with the mist to make blurry rainbows all around. For a moment Blake’s rumpled hair was lit from behind, and then everything changed.
Poughkeepsie by Debra Anastasia / Romance & Love / History & Fiction have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes