Nightshade, p.12
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       Nightshade, p.12

         Part #3 of Night Tales series by Nora Roberts
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  “What kind?” Her eyes were still scanning the perimeter, wary, watchful.

  “Small ones,” he assured her. “Badgers, rabbits.” He laid a hand over the ones that gripped her weapon. “Nothing you have to put a hole in, Deadeye.”

  She wasn’t convinced. The coyote called again, and an owl hooted in counterpoint. “What about those wildcats?”

  He started to respond, thought better of it and tucked his tongue in his cheek. “Well, now, darling, they aren’t likely to come too close to the fire.”

  Frowning, she replaced her weapon. “Maybe we should have a bigger fire.”

  “It’s big enough.” He turned her toward him, running his hands up and down her arms. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so spooked.”

  “I don’t like being this exposed. There’s too much here, out here.” And the sterling truth was that she would rather face a hopped-up junkie in a dark alley than one small, furry creature with fangs. “Don’t grin at me, damn it!”

  “Was I grinning?” He ran his tongue around his teeth and struggled to look sober. “It looks like you’re going to have to trust me to get you through this.”

  “Oh, am I?”

  He tightened his grip when she started to back away. The look in his eyes changed so quickly, from amusement to desire, that it took her breath away. “There’s just you and me, Althea.”

  She let the clogged air slowly out of her lungs. “It looks like.”

  “I don’t figure I have to tell you again how I feel about you. Or how much I want you.”

  “No.” Tension flooded into her when he brushed his lips over her temple. And heat, a frightening spear of it, stabbed up her spine.

  “I can make you forget where you are.” He trailed his lips down to her jawline and nibbled up the other side. “If you’ll let me.”

  “You’d have to be damn good for that.”

  He laughed, because there had been a challenge in the statement, even though her breath had caught on the words. “It’s a long time until morning. I’m betting I can convince you before sunrise.”

  Why was she resisting something she wanted so terribly? Hadn’t she told herself long ago never again to let fear cloud her desires? And hadn’t she learned to sate those desires without penalty?

  She could do so now, with him, and erase this grinding ache.

  “All right, Nightshade.” Fearlessly she linked her arms around his neck, met his eyes straight on. “I’ll take that bet.”

  His hand fisted in her hair, dragged her head back. For one long, humming moment, they stared at each other. Then he plundered.

  Her mouth was hot and honeyed under his, as demanding as hunger, as wild as the night. He plunged into the kiss, using tongue and teeth, knowing he could gorge himself on her and never be filled. So he took more, relentlessly savaging her mouth while she met demand with demand and power with power.

  It was like the first time, she realized giddily. The first time he’d dragged her to him and made her taste what he had to offer. Like some fatal drug, the taste had her pulses pounding, her blood swimming fast and her mind spinning away from reason.

  She wondered how she had expected to come away whole. And then she forgot to care.

  She no longer wanted to be safe, to be in control. Now, here, with him, she wanted only to feel, to experience everything that had once seemed impossible, or at least unwise. And if she sacrificed survival, so be it.

  Driven by greed, she tore at his coat, desperate to feel the hard, solid body beneath. He didn’t have to be stronger than she, but if he was, she would accept the vulnerability that came with being a woman. And the power that raced alongside it.

  She was like a volcano ready to erupt, and she wanted nothing more than to be joined with him when the tremors came.

  She was stripping him of his sanity, layer by layer. Those wild lips, those frantic hands. On an oath that was almost a prayer, he half carried, half dragged her toward the tent, feeling like some primeval hunter flinging his chosen mate into his cave.

  They tumbled into the small shelter together, a tangle of limbs, a tangle of needs. He yanked her coat down her shoulders, fighting for breath as he raced greedy kisses down her throat.

  He felt the vibration of her groan against his lips as he fought her shoulder rig, tearing aside that symbol of control and violence, knowing he was losing control, overwhelmed by a violence of feelings that he couldn’t suppress.

  He wanted her naked and straining. And screaming.

  Her breath caught in gasps as she tugged, pulled, ripped, at his clothes. The firelight glowed orange through the thin material of the tent, and she could see his eyes, the dark, dangerous purpose in them. She reveled in it, in the panicked excitement that racked her body where he groped and possessed. He would ravage her tonight, she knew. And be ravaged in turn.

  Levering himself back, he dragged her sweater up and over her head and tossed it aside. She wore lace beneath, a snow-white fancy that in a saner place, in a saner time, would have aroused him by its blatant femininity. He might have toyed with the straps, skimmed his fingers over her subtle peaks. Now he only ripped it apart in one jerky move to free her breasts for his greedy mouth.

  The flavor of that warm, scented flesh hit his system like a blow. And her response, the lovely arching of her body against his, the long, throaty moan, the quick, helpless quiver, drove him toward a summit of pleasure he had never dreamed of.

  He feasted.

  A whimper caught in her throat. She dug her nails into the naked flesh of his shoulders, needing to drive him on, terrified of where he was taking her. She clutched at him for balance, moved under him in sinuous invitation, arching once more as he peeled her slacks away, skimming those impossibly clever fingers down her thighs.

  The triangle of lace that shielded her tore jaggedly. Once again his mouth feasted.

  Her cry of stunned release rippled through his blood. She shot up like a rocket, exploding, imploding, feeling herself scatter and burn. But where the release should have peaked and leveled, he gave her no respite. She clutched at the blanket while he battered her system with sensations that had no name, no form.

  When he rose over her, every muscle trembling, he found her eyes open and on his. He watched her face, filled himself with it even as he buried himself inside her in one desperate stroke. Her eyes glazed, closed. His own vision grayed before he buried his face in her hair.

  His body took over, matching the fast, furious rhythm of her hips. They rode each other like fury, greedy children gorging themselves on forbidden fruit. Her final cry of dark pleasure echoed through the air seconds before his own.

  Strength sapped, he collapsed onto her, gulping in air as he felt her tremble beneath him from the aftershocks.

  “Who won?” he managed after a moment.

  She hadn’t thought it possible to laugh at such a time, but a chuckle rumbled into her throat. “Let’s call it a draw.”

  “Good enough for me.” He thought about lifting himself off her, but was afraid he might shatter if he tried to move. “Plenty good enough. I’m going to kiss you in a minute,” he murmured, “but first I have to drum up the strength.”

  “I can wait.” Althea let her eyes close again, and savored the closeness. His body continued to radiate heat, and his heart was far from steady. She stroked her hand down his back for the simple pleasure of the contact, frowning a bit when her fingers ran over a raised scar. “What’s this?”

  “Hmm?” He stirred himself, surprised that he’d nearly fallen asleep on top of her. “Iraq.”

  She hadn’t realized he’d been there. It occurred to her that there was quite a bit about him that lay in shadows. “I thought you’d retired before that started.”

  “I had. I agreed to do a little job—sort of a side job.”

  “A favor.”

  “You could call it that. Caught a little flak—nothing to worry about.” He tilted his head, nuzzling. “You have the most gorgeous shoulders.
Have I mentioned that?”

  “No. Do you still do favors for the government?”

  “Only if they ask nicely.” He grunted and rolled so that he could shift her on top of him. “Better?”

  “Mmm… .” She rested her cheek on his chest. “But I think we might freeze to death.”

  “Not if we keep active.” He grinned when she lifted her head to look down at him. “Survival methods, Lieutenant.”

  “Of course.” Her lips curved into a smile. “I have to say, Nightshade, I like your methods.”

  “That so?” Gently he combed his fingers through her hair, tested its weight with his hand.

  “That’s very so. How soon do we have to add wood to that fire?”

  “Oh, we’ve got a little while yet.”

  “Then we shouldn’t waste time, should we?” Still smiling, she lowered her mouth to his.

  “Nope.” He felt himself hardening again inside her, and prepared to let her take the lead. As his lips curved against hers, he was struck by a stab of love so sharp it stole his breath. He clutched her close, held on. “I know it’s a tired line, Thea, but it’s never been like this for me before. Not with anyone.”

  That frightened her, and what frightened her more than the words was the flush of warmth they brought to her. “You talk too much.”

  “Thea …”

  But she shook her head and rose up, taking him deep inside her, tantalizing his body so that the need for words slipped away.

  Chapter 9

  Colt awakened quickly. An old habit. He registered his surroundings—the pale light of dawn creeping into the tent, the rough blanket and hard ground beneath his back, and the soft, slender woman curled on top of him. It made him smile, remembering the way she’d rolled over him during the night, seeking a place more comfortable than the unyielding floor of the valley.

  At the time, they’d both been too exhausted to do more than cuddle up and sleep. Now the sun had brought a reminder of the outside world, and their duties in it. Still, he took a moment to enjoy the lazy intimacy, and to imagine other times, other places, where it would once again be only the two of them.

  Gently he tugged the blanket over her bare shoulder and let his fingers trail down over her hair, where it lay pooled across her cheek and throat.

  She shifted, her eyes opening and locking on his.

  “Good reflexes, Lieutenant.”

  She ran her tongue over her teeth, letting her mind and body adjust to the situation. “I guess it’s morning.”

  “Right the first time. Sleep okay?”

  “I’ve slept better.” Every muscle in her body ached, but she figured a couple of aspirin and some exercise would handle that. “You?”

  “Like a baby,” he said. “Some of us are used to roughing it.”

  She only lifted a brow, then rolled off him. “Some of us want coffee.” The moment she left his warmth, the chill stung her skin. Shivering, she groped for her sweater.

  “Hey.” Before she could bundle up in the sweater, he grabbed her around the waist and hauled her to him. “You forgot something.” His hand slid up her back to cup her head as his mouth met hers.

  Her body went fluid, sweetly so, and her lips parted in invitation. She could feel herself melting into him, and wondered at it. All through the night they had come together, again and again, each time like lightning, with flashes of greed. But this was softer, steadier, stronger, like a candle that remained alight long after a raging fire had burned itself out.

  “You sure are nice to wake up to, Althea.”

  She wanted to burrow into him, to grab hold and hang on as though her life depended on it. Instead, she flicked a finger down the stubble on his chin. “You’re not so bad, Nightshade.”

  She moved away quickly, a little too quickly, to give herself the time and space to settle. Because he was beginning to read her very well, he smiled.

  “You know, once we’re married, we should get ourselves one of those king-size beds, so we’ll have plenty of room to roll around and get tangled up.”

  She tugged the sweater on. When her head emerged, her eyes were cool. “Who’s making the coffee?”

  He nodded thoughtfully. “That is something we’ll have to decide. Keeping those little routines straight helps a marriage run smooth.”

  She bit back a laugh and reached for her slacks. “You owe me some underwear.”

  He watched her pull the slacks up her long, smooth legs. “Buying it for you is going to be pure pleasure.” He shrugged into his shirt while Althea hunted for her socks. Knowing the value of timing, he waited until she’d found them both. “Darling, I’ve been thinking… .”

  She answered with a grunt as she tugged on her shoes.

  “How do you feel about getting hitched on New Year’s Eve? Kind of romantic, starting out the next year as husband and wife.”

  This time she hissed out her breath. “I’ll make the damn coffee,” she muttered, and crawled out of the tent.

  Colt gave her retreating bottom a friendly pat and chuckled to himself. She was coming around, he decided. She just didn’t know it yet.

  * * *

  By the time Althea got the fire started again, she’d had more than enough of the great outdoors. Maybe it was beautiful, she thought as she rummaged through the small supply of pots they’d found on the plane. Maybe it was even magnificent, with its rugged, snowcapped peaks and densely forested slopes. But it was also cold, and hard and deserted.

  They had a handful of nuts between them, and not a restaurant in sight.

  Too impatient to wait until it boiled, she heated water until it was hot to the touch, then dumped in a generous amount of instant coffee. The scent was enough to make her drool.

  “Now that’s a pretty sight.” Colt stood just outside the tent, watching her. “A beautiful woman bending over a campfire. And you do have a nice way of bending, Thea.”

  “Stuff it, Nightshade.”

  He strolled to her, grinning. “Cranky before your coffee, darling?”

  She knocked aside the hand he’d lifted to toy with her hair. He was charming her again, and it was just going to have to stop. “Here’s breakfast.” She shoved the can of nuts at him. “You can pour your own coffee.”

  Obligingly he crouched down and poured the mixture into two tin mugs. “Nice day,” he said conversationally. “Low wind, good visibility.”

  “Yeah, great.” She accepted the mug he offered. “God, I’d kill for a toothbrush.”

  “Can’t help you there.” He sampled the coffee, grimaced. It was mud, he decided, but at least it packed a punch. “Don’t you worry, we’ll be back in civilization before much longer. You can brush your teeth, have yourself a nice hot bubble bath, go to the hairdresser.”

  She started to smile—it was the bubble bath that did it—but then she whipped her head up and scowled. “Leave my hair out of this.” Setting the mug down, she knelt and began to rummage through her purse. Once she found her brush, she sat cross-legged on the ground, her back to Colt, and began to drag it through her tangled hair.

  “Here now.” He sat behind her, snuggling her back into the vee of his legs. “Let me do that.”

  “I can do it myself.”

  “Yeah, but you’re about to brush yourself bald.” After a short tussle, he snatched the brush away. “You should take more care with this,” he murmured, gently working out the tangles. “It’s the most beautiful head of hair I’ve ever seen. Up close like this, I can see a hundred different shades of red and gold and russet.”

  “It’s just hair.” But if Althea had a point of vanity, Colt was stroking it now. And it felt wonderful. She couldn’t resist a sigh as he brushed and lifted, caressed and smoothed. They might be in the middle of nowhere, but for that moment Althea felt as though she were in the lap of luxury.

  “Look,” Colt whispered against her ear. “At three o’clock.”

  Responding instinctively to the direction, Althea turned her head. There, just at the verge of
the forest, stood a deer. No, not a deer, she realized. Surely no deer could be so huge. His shoulders were nearly as high as a man, and massive. His head was lifted, scenting the air, with his high crown of antlers spearing upward.

  “It’s, ah …”

  “Wapiti,” Colt murmured, wrapping his arms companionably around her waist. “American elk. That’s one beautiful bull.”

  “Big. Big is what he is.”

  “Close to seven hundred pounds, by the look of him. There, he’s caught our scent.”

  Althea felt her heart jolt when the elk turned his great head and looked at her. He seemed both arrogant and wise as he studied the humans who were trespassing on his territory.

  And suddenly there was an aching in her throat, a response to beauty, a trembling deep inside, a kind of wonder. For a moment the three of them remained poised, measuring each other. A lark called, a searingly beautiful cascade of notes.

  The elk turned, vanished into the shadowed trees.

  “I guess he didn’t want coffee and cashews,” Althea said quietly. She couldn’t say why she was moved. She only knew that she was, deeply. Relaxed against Colt, cradled in his arms, she was completely and inexplicably content.

  “Can’t say I blame him.” Colt rubbed his cheek against her hair. “It’s a hell of a way to start the day.”

  “Yeah.” She turned, impulsively winding an arm around his neck, pressing her lips to his. “This is better.”

  “Much better,” he agreed, sinking in when she deepened the kiss. He nuzzled, and was amused when she laughed and shoved his unshaven face away from the tender curve of her throat. “Once we’re back in Denver, I want you to remind me where we left off.”

  “I might do that.” With some regret, she drew away. “We’d better—what do you call it? Break camp? And, by the way,” she added, shrugging into her shoulder rig, “you owe me more than new lingerie—you owe me breakfast.”

  “Put it on my tab.”

  * * *

  Twenty minutes later, they were strapped into the cockpit. Colt checked his gauges while Althea applied blusher to her cheekbones.

  “We ain’t going to a party,” he commented.

  “I may not be able to brush my teeth,” she said, and crunched down on a mint she’d found in her purse. “I may not be able to take a shower. But, by damn, I haven’t lost all sense of propriety.”

  “I like your cheeks pale.” He started the engines. “Kind of fragile.”

  After one narrow-eyed stare, she deliberately added more blusher. “Just fly, Nightshade.”

  “Yes, sir, Lieutenant.”

  He didn’t see the point in telling her it would be a tricky takeoff. While she was occupied braiding her hair, he maneuvered the plane into the best position for taxiing. After touching a finger to the medal that rested under his shirt, he let her rip.

  They jolted, bounced, shuddered and finally lifted, degree by degree. Colt fought the crosscurrents, dipping one wing, leveling off, nosing upward. Finally they cleared the ridge and shot over the tops of the trees.

  “Not too shabby, Nightshade.” Althea flipped her braid behind her back. When he glanced over, he saw the awareness in her eyes. The hands that were currently uncapping a tube of mascara were rock-steady, but she knew. He should have realized she would know.

  “Boyd was right, Thea. You’re a hell of a partner.”

  “Just try to hold this thing steady for a few minutes, will you?” Smiling to herself, she angled her purse mirror and began to do her lashes. “So, what’s the plan?”

  “Same as before. We circle this area. Look for cabins. The one we want has a sloped drive.”

  “That certainly narrows things down.”

  “Shut up. It’s also a two-story with a covered wraparound deck and a trio of windows on the front, facing west. The sun was going down in one scene in the video,” he explained. “According to the other information we have, there’s a lake somewhere in the general area. I also saw fir and spruce, which gives us the elevation. The cabin was whitewashed logs. It shouldn’t be that hard to spot.”

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