Authors: Suzanne D. Williams
She blew out a frosty breath. It did no good to recall those memories. She
must concentrate on the very real dangers of the present and the man who’d taken up residence with her. He wasn’t Nathan, and it’d do her best to remember that.
Sight of the cabin came
welcome on the horizon. A thin trail of smoke escaped the chimney, dissipating in the snowy air. Parking the sled outside the front door, she unlocked the latch and pushed it open.
at her down the barrel of the gun she’d left him. He smiled and lowered it to his lap. “I was beginning to wonder if you’d abandoned me.”
“It was a long way,” she replied. “I have to hang the meat still. But if you’re hungry …”
“Bored,” he said. “Food can wait.”
She nodded and reached a hand down to pet the dog. “I’ll return.”
Completing her task took the better part of an hour. She brought a portion of meat indoors and laid it in the pan. But no sooner had she begun to cook it, than her house guest interrupted.
“Unfortunately, I have to get up,” he said.
She brought her gaze to his face.
“I’ve brought you the pail.”
He hesitated. “Dignity’s a tough thing for a man. If I can stay off the leg, I think I can manage it.”
She set the frying pan aside. “The outhouse is too far. But if you wish, I’ll set the pail outside the door and fashion you a crutch.”
Leaving the cabin, she walked toward a section of trees a couple hundred yards away. She eyed the brush for a suitable limb that might support Ezekiel’s weight. He wasn’t a big man. Nathan had been taller, but Ezekiel was perhaps in better shape. She rubbed one hand across her cheek, the remembrance of his body suddenly fresh in her thinking.
She should not struggle with this. Nathan was gone, so she broke no rules noticing Mr. Knapp. But then Nathan wasn’t gone
very long, and that made her interest guilt-ridden. She shouldn’t want to move on and certainly not with a perfect stranger.
Her unruly thoughts having distracted her from her task, she looked up to see she’d walked further than intended. Revolving on one heel, she angled herself toward a fallen limb that seemed the right structure. But
the grunt and chuff of some creature’s breath halted her in place.
She eyed the distance and spotted the brown shape and a pair of beady eyes. Her pulse took up a pace that captured her breaths. She was unarmed, and despite the late season and his bent toward hibernation, he’d be faster. She risked a glance toward the cabin. There wasn’t any option but to make a lot of noise and hope the bear would flee.
Raising her arms over her head, she stretched
to her tallest and clapped, making a yipping noise at the same time. The bear swung himself left, his head lowered. She repeated the gestures and stepped back.
“Go, bear,” she said.
Her feet fumbling over the icy ground, she back-peddled further.
The bear emerged and rose on powerful
hind legs. She shifted her gaze, avoiding any eye contact that would anger him, then speaking calmly, stepped away one foot at a time. At the edge of the trees, she paused.
The bear lo
wered himself onto his front paws, seeming to contemplate his next action. A noise from behind sent him skittering into the forest.
Clementine glanced toward the cabin and the figure leaning on the door post. “Mr. Knapp.” She scampered t
o his side and wrapped herself around his waist. “I told you to wait.”
“Sorry, Clem, but nature’s not waiting.”
His voice was throaty and hoarse. “You took too long.”
“I encountered a bear, which fortunately decided you were too much of a threat.”
Ezekiel gave a short laugh. “Imagine that, ‘cause my leg feels a bit like it’s falling off. If you could get me that pail …”
She released him and reentered the cabin.
“You don’t have to sleep down there,” Ezekiel said.
Clementine turned her gaze upward. “I’ll be fine.” She nestled harder into the pallet she’d made on the floor, but a steady ache arose in her spine. She gritted her teeth in an attempt to ignore it.
“You’re not fine. What’s hurting?”
She exhaled and rolled flat.
He leaned out over the edge of the bed
, and his face appeared over her head. “I’m not Nathan.”
She chewed on her lip, unspeaking.
She’d told herself that already. Hadn’t she?
And I have no designs on you,” he added.
“I cannot,” she replied softly.
“It’s only us sharing warmth and comfort, Clem. You’re in pain, and I’m in your bed. It’s that simple.”
She stared into his eyes, her determination wavering.
“Come up here, and let me massage your back.”
With a sigh, she
pulled herself from the floor. But she hesitated, staring down at the bed space he’d made for her. This was wrong. She shouldn’t. But the floor was far worse.
She sat at last, and he brought one hand to her spine.
“Whereabouts is it?”
“Lower,” she said.
His palms took up a gentle knead of her flesh. “Tell me how you injured it.”
“My sister and I were playing on
the stairs. I was seven.”
A sister? Older or younger?”
“Younger. Annalise.” She shut her eyes and soaked in the
rhythmic working of his fingers.
He shifted them downward, rol
ling his knuckles back and forth. “This’d be easier without the shirt,” he said. “Just the tail of it.”
She nodded, and he rolled the hem of her shirt upward. The heel of his hand pressed warm on her skin.
“So you were playing on the stairs and then what?”
“She wouldn’t let
me past her, so I tried to force my way but fell. It was a pretty good fall. The house being high off the ground because of the mountains I impacted hard.”
“Where was this?” He stopped his massage, and taking hold of her shoulder, tapped her
flat onto the bed.
She gazed up at him. “North Carolina.”
He lowered the blanket over her. “You grew up there?”
He tilted his head. “Did she have red hair?”
Blonde. My mother’s is red. And to answer your next question, my parents are still alive and still live there.”
“Alaska is a long way from home. You came here with Nathan?”
She nodded. “He built all this, the cabin, the furniture.”
tugged her against him, and she made no protest, but laid her head in the nook created at the base of his throat.
“He was talented,” Ezekiel said. “I can see you loved him very much.”
She said nothing to that. She
loved him very much. He’d come into her life, sweeping her off her feet, and she’d followed him to the end of the earth, literally. Anywhere she could go to be near him, to have one more moment with him, she’d been willing to do. But her devotion had killed him. Her eyes burned, and she shut them to prevent crying. However, a tear leaked out anyhow.
The swipe of Ezekiel’s thumb flicked them back open. “It’s okay to cry over someone you loved, Clem. I know he should be here and not me, but I’m grateful for what he’s left behind.”
She studied this stranger leaning over her. He was a long way from being Nathan. In some ways, he had what Nathan had not—patience, tenderness. Nathan was mostly harsh. Not with her, he’d loved her and treated her kindly, but everything he did had been focused more on what he wanted to accomplish.
“Where are you from, Mr. Knapp? Since I have told you mine.”
He lay back on his pillow. “Juneau.”
Her gaze widened. “Alaska? But you have so little experience.”
He laughed. “What makes you say that?”
“You were in the woods, ten miles from any shelter. It’s not safe in the winter. You could have frozen.”
“Teepees,” he said.
He nodded. “Yes, I have several built along the
way. They’re quite warm. An Eskimo named George showed me how.”
“So your family lives here?”
“No.” He shook his head. “My mom moved to Minnesota with my brother and sister. I stayed behind. Alaska was dad’s heritage, not hers.”
“It’s hard being solitary,” she said.
He seemed to contemplate that and raised himself onto his elbow again. “I know I’m not Nathan, but …”
We are strangers.”
“Not anymore and not ever again, I hope.”
The warmth of the bed and their mingled bodies calmed the tension battering her mind, and her questioning thoughts eased.
“You want me to be him,” he said.
Yes, she did, and that was unfair. Ezekiel was his own man, with his own feelings and opinions. It was unfair to compare them like this.
“I can accept that,” he continued.
“He’s what you’re used to, and now, I’m a substitute.” He brought his face closer. “Tell me, what would he say right now?”
“Right now?” she asked.
Ezekiel nodded. “What would Nathan call you at this moment?”
Clementine considered his question, reaching into her memories for the sound of Nathan’s voice.
It came weak, faltering, washed thin by time. “He wouldn’t have spoken at all,” she said, after a minute had passed. “He would have kissed me.”
closer. “Then close your eyes and see his face.”
She drew her brow tight.
“Just do it, Clem.”
She obeyed. The sounds grew louder—
the pop and crack of the fire in the grate, the swish of snow through the window glass, Timmy’s even breathing at their feet. Ezekiel’s mouth on hers sent a tingle racing up her cheeks. Her own eager response, the parting of her lips, the begging for release, followed by the supple feel of his tongue made her tears fall afresh.
Nathan hadn’t kissed her like that, but Ezekiel would have no way of knowing it. His overtures had been bold, like he was, daring. N
ot sensitive and giving like this.
Ezekiel pulled back and unspeaking, tucked her head to his chest. One of her hands
raised, almost involuntary, scooping beneath his shirt to a place in the center. “I’m not Nathan,” he said quietly.
No, he wasn’t, and she understood that now. He was different and deserved to be seen on his own terms. “Who are you then?” she asked.
“Ezekiel Knapp. Right now, the luckiest man on the planet.”
Her head bent over his wound, Clementine swabbed Ezekiel’s skin then rewrapped the bandage. “I don’t like the look of it.”
His hand on the back of her head turned her face upward. “Meaning what?”
“I have nothing here to prevent infection. The nearest town is some twenty miles or more.”
His fingers shifted to her cheek. “Do you have a radio?”
“No. The battery died long ago.”
His face said he wasn’t happy she’d been living here without any means of support.
Yes, it was foolish, but traveling into town had become more and more of a hardship after living so long alone.
He lowered his arm. “I have one.”
She pulled the bed covers around his body and made to rise, but the weight of his hand on her sleeve tugged her down. She capitulated and lay back beside him.
“My cabin’s only ten miles, and with your snowmobile, we could make it in a day.”
“A long day for you.”
He’d risen twice, once yesterday and once that morning. Both times he’d collapsed afterward, his skin washed of color and his breathing erratic. “I can do it.
She rolled onto her side, her back facing him
. “Then what? They take you away.”
He rose up on his elbow. “Why, Clem, I’m starting to think you like me.”
She pulled away with a huff.
Scooping her hair off her neck, he pressed his lips at the base. The warmth of the gesture swept through her, a tingle going down to her toes.
“I like you fine enough,” she replied.
He tipped her face back around with his fingers
. “How long have you been out here by yourself?”
She moistened her lips, and his gaze followed the motion of it.
“A little over a year.”
His brow creased.
“And you’ve seen no one in that time?”
“I am self-sufficient, Mr. Knapp.”