Authors: Alysia S. Knight
Digging through the backpack she wasn’t surprised to find a change of clothes for Zan in a sealed bag. With only a second’s hesitation, Marley stripped out of her wet clothes and pulled on his dry shirt. Even with his belt cinched up his pants bagged on her, but she was warm.
Marley laid out their clothes to dry then followed the directions and made up her own MRE, this time chicken and dumplings. She found it passably good. With the dart gun in her lap, she settled down next to Zan to keep watch as the sun set.
Marley jerked awake. It took several seconds for her eyes to adjust to the darkness and reality to slip back in.
Fear crept in with it.
She listened. Afraid to breathe, but the only noise that reached her ears were the sounds of frogs, cicadas and the chorus of other night bugs, and she relaxed.
A shifting on the ground by her feet made her jump, and she knew what had disturbed her.
“Zan.” She turned, barely able to make him out in the moonlight breaking through the cloudy sky.
Marley crawled to him. Reaching out a hand, she lay it on his forehead barely getting time to determine there was no fever when the blow caught her. She never saw it coming. One moment she was on her knees, the next thrown back three feet. Pain sliced through her side even though she knew it was a glancing contact.
Zan continue to thrash as she gulped in air to replace what had been knocked from her. After a minute, Marley righted herself and reached for him again, instinctively trying to keep him from hurting himself. She pulled back at the last instant to miss another strike that would have likely broken her nose.
“Zan, Zan, it’s Marley. It’s Marley,” she repeated his name and her name until he began to still. “It’s all right.” She touched her fingers to his arm, ready to dodge.
He jerked, but as she said his name again, he relaxed.
“It’s all right.” She ran her hand up and down his arm, caressing his brow with her other hand. His breathing became more even.
“Zan, do you know who I am?”
Her name sounded like it was drawn out over rough gravel but never better. She was shocked and pleased at the possessiveness of the tone. “Yes.” She stroked her hand down his cheek, a smile coming to her lips.
She had thought he’d gone back to sleep when he spoke, clearer this time. “What happened?”
“Here drink this.” She reached for the water she’d left beside him and raised his head up a little to take a couple swallows. “Not too much. We don’t want you to get sick.”
He took a second swallow and sighed. He seemed more alert. As if to prove the point, he repeated the question. “What happened?” This time, his voice was much stronger, and he shifted, trying to sit up.
“No, stay down. You were shot. I got the bullet out. It didn’t do too much damage, but your body’s had a shock. You fell into the water and hit your head at some time.”
“You took the bullet out?” He locked on the first thing she said.
“Yes, it wasn’t deep, fortunately. It was just tissue and a little muscle damage. It went through your knife in your backpack strap.”
He nodded and grimaced.
“Easy, do you need some more pain medicine?”
“No. How long have I been out?”
“About f-four hours.”
He pulled up. “Where are we?”
“A couple hundred yards down r-river, I’d guess. I’m not sure how far you f-floated from where we were.”
“You got me out?”
She couldn’t find the words to answer because the image of him bleeding on the bank was too clear, along with the sound of the men moving above them. His hand came out of the darkness to catch her arm.
She couldn’t believe she felt steadier just having him touch her. “You drifted q-quite a ways before I could get ahead of you and down the bank. I was afraid you’d drown. Mills and Jansen, the lab’s security, showed up. It was Jansen who shot you. I’d covered our trail l-like you had.”
“Marley,” he said her name again, sliding his hand down to take hers. “You’re cold.”
“I’m fine. We sh-should get you something to eat if you feel up to it.”
“I could eat.” Zan caught a good look at Marley as his small light flared to life. She was dressed in his clothes. Her hair was a wild mass around her head. It made him realize he didn’t have a comb in his pack. It wasn’t something he worried about with his hair so short.
She looked untamed, an all-natural woman. He wondered what she’d think of that. He figured that was not an image she’d ever apply to herself but he liked it. Then again he figured she would deny how incredible she did on rescuing and taking care of him. She’d taken out a bullet.
He shifted his arm and felt a stab of pain, but he could handle it.
“Here.” She was back beside him. “Just Ibuprofen.”
She dropped four in his hand and waited for him to take them. Zan did so without any complaint. She turned back to get the food, and he started to shift up. Pain ripped through his shoulder. A faint hiss escaped his lips before he could stop it.
Marley spun back, reaching for him. “Let me help.”
He felt her soft hands against his skin and realized he didn’t have his shirt on. Of course, for her to tend him, she’d have to have taken it off. Cut it off. He grimaced with the thought.
As he shifted he also came to the fact he didn’t have his pants on. It made sense, if he went into the river he’d be soaked. Still, he was almost shocked his timid little Marley had managed that.
He wondered what she thought of his body then flinched, thinking of the assortment of scars he carried. He’d lived a tough life and had the marks to prove it though he was still in good physical condition.
Her hand slid over his skin, and he took a deep breath, catching the gentle scent that was all Marley.
“Easy.” She sounded almost breathless as she shifted his pack behind him to lean against.
He looked up to meet her eyes and could’ve sworn she was blushing, but the tint of the glow made it impossible to tell. On impulse, he reached up and brushed back her hair with his good hand. “You did good, Doc.”
Her shoulders dipped almost imperceptive and her eyes closed. When she opened them again, she gave him a weak smile. He could make out moisture in the corners.
“Thanks,” she whispered. “I thought I’d lost you.” Her voice wobbled, but there was no stuttering. “Don’t ever do that to me again,” she added forcefully at the end.
“Yes, ma’am,” he shot back and a smile cracked her lips. “You said something about food, or was that just to taunt me?”
She held the food while he ate. He felt better when he’d finished, though fatigue slipped back over his body.
“Lay back down now,” she said, as she eased him up to remove the pack from behind him. She settled him back to the ground, and pulled the sleeping bag up, tucking him in.
He caught her arm as she started to move away. He didn’t speak until she looked at him. “You need rest, too.”
He was already shaking his head. “Get the gun and come lay over here.”
“I’m fine. I have your clothes.”
“They’re not enough. You’re still cold.”
“Don’t argue. You want me to sleep, you come lay here.”
“You don’t…” This time she broke off on her own, but he knew what she was going to say.
“But you do.” He tried but couldn’t hold back the comment. “And how did I get my clothes off?”
She bristled, but this time Zan knew for sure she was blushing.
“There was no choice, and I am a doctor. I even did a rotation in a hospital.”
“Get the gun, Marley, and come lay down.”
She waited a full minute before complying. Timidly, she stretched out beside the sleeping bag, close enough to receive some warmth, but he wasn’t satisfied.
“Place the gun on the ground above our heads.”
The instant she released it, he reached out his good arm pulling her inside the bag. Pain spiked. He tried to ignore it but lost his hold.
“Stop. You’ll hurt yourself.” She rolled over him, her hand going to his shoulder, running over his skin an inch above the bandage.
“Then settle down.” He sighed with relief when she eased her feet inside the bag and snuggled down along his side. The bag was tight, not made for two. He knew she wasn’t covered all the way, but at least she would be warmer.
The next thing Zan knew, the sun was just spearing rays of light over the mountains. Pain sliced through his shoulder. He pushed it back, compartmentalizing it like he’d learn to do years earlier. Instead, he focused on the small hand that rested squarely on the center of his chest. He could feel each fingertip and the heat that radiated from them. The heat matched and melded into the warmth that ran along his side where Marley lay snuggled.
Her breath tickled a line across his chest. Looking down, he could just see the mahogany crown of her head. Carefully, he bent his elbow, raising his right hand to run his fingers through the fine strands. Light caught the locks and they burned with radiance. Zan marveled at the color and feel. He never knew anything could be so soft and beautiful.
Becoming conscious of the slight chill still in the air, he eased the sleeping bag higher on her shoulder. He was rewarded with the slight stroking of her fingers on his chest. He remained still, letting his eyes close, absorbing the pleasure, tempted to return to sleep. He knew they should get going, but when Marley shifted, aligning along him, Zan gave in to the simple pleasure of her and the need for more rest. He drifted back to sleep, snug and warm, with Marley at his side, where he could dream of her there forever.
The sound of a squirrel chattering in the tree overhead brought Marley awake. She became aware of the chill in the air on one of her cheeks, but the rest of her was heavenly warm. She basked in it until the memory of Zan being shot filtered back to her. She started to move, but the arm along her back held her in place.
“No, just a minute more.” Zan’s voice was gravelly, but she detected no hint of pain.
“Zan?” she said his name as his hand made delicious, little stroking motions on her back.
“How are you?”
“I’m holding you, I’m perfect.” After a second, he continued. “I could handle waking up like this forever.”
“You got shot.”
“Okay, we can skip that part. You did a good job tending it, Doc.”
Marley thought she felt him press a kiss into her hair. “You haven’t seen it yet.”
“I can tell.”
“Are you in much pain?”
“Nothing I can’t handle.”
“I should get you more pain medication.” She couldn’t bring herself to pull away.
“Just Ibuprofen, I need to be alert.”
Marley started to protest, but when she raised her head, his lips brushed her forehead.
“It’s okay,” he growled out. “I can handle it. I’ve had worse.”
Her mind went to the scar on his shoulder just below where he was shot. It would have been dangerously close to his heart. She traced her fingers over the edges of it. “What happened to your shoulder?” She wasn’t sure he’d answer, but his reply came easily.
“I got shot about six months ago. We were jumping into a spot that I can’t admit to.” There was almost a touch of humor in his voice. “We weren’t as stealthy as we were supposed to be. Actually, it just so happened a guard looked up at an inopportune time. Getting me out was a little rough, but my guys completed the mission and did it.”
He fell silent. Marley knew what he was saying. He owed his men, and they were in danger because of the Gladiator drug.
“I never asked what you were in the military.”
“Army Ranger.” He released her abruptly. “We need to get going.”
Marley turned, practically rolling over him, pinning him down with surprise. “Not until I check your wound.” She gave him her sternest look.
He lay still in obvious shock then a smile crested on his lips.
“You’re beautiful, Doc.” His right hand slid up her back, spearing into her hair. Before she could stop him or even think, his hand clamped on her neck, urging her head down until their lips met. He kissed her deeply, drawing her out, savoring her.
Marley returned it with pleasure. Her hand coming up to caress his stubble roughened cheek. Nothing had ever been so intriguing or right.
When the pressure eased, she drew back several inches, looking down into his eyes. Heat burned there for her to see.
“Good morning, Doc.”
His words rumbled through her heart. He was right. She could get used to waking up like this.
Marley scooted out of the sleeping bag, her face warmed from his kiss and the thought that she’d actually slept there beside him. She’d never done anything like that before, especially kissing him that way. She couldn’t get her mind off it. Ignoring the satisfied look on his face, she got him the Ibuprofen and checked his shoulder, pleased at how it looked.
Marley hurried to her clothes. Fortunately, they were mostly dry. She snatched them up and went behind the tree to change. She knew her actions were silly as she folded his clothes into a neat pile, but she had to have something to do while she fought to calm her racing heart.
It was one thing to know she’d fallen in love with Zan, now she was thinking of forever. She tried to convince herself that it was because he’d said the word first. He wasn’t serious. He couldn’t be. They’d known each other two days, and guys just didn’t think that way. She was just being her foolish, nerdy self.
Drawing in a deep breath, she let it out slowly. Steadying herself, she walked back around the tree. Her gaze immediately went to Zan, and all her efforts for calm shattered. Forever came right back to her mind, and she wanted it more than she’d ever wanted anything else.
“H-here.” She laid the clothes beside him. “You’ll n-need these. I-I’ll be in the trees.” She turned and fled.
Zan knew he flustered her but, with the heat blooming on her face, he couldn’t feel remorse. Marley was such a sweet package, a gift just for him. One he planned to treasure for the rest of his life.
That brought him pause. He’d have to be more careful to make sure they had a long life together. And that meant, get moving.
Pain stabbed as he sat up. He raised his hand to rest it over the bandage. Another scar and another too close call, but Marley had done a terrific job tending it. She was amazing, whether she knew it or not. It was just one more thing he wanted to teach her.
It took effort pulling on his pants, but he managed them. He halted at his shirt.
“Yes,” she answered from not far off.
“I need help with my shirt.”
A second later, she appeared through the bushes. She looked more composed. She’d tried to tame her wild hair by tying a piece of cord around it to hold it back, but without a comb or brush, it still had a hint of disarray.
She walked to him, taking the shirt from his hand. Her eyes flickered over the skin of his chest. He picked up the telltale sign of heat on her cheeks, satisfied she liked what she saw.
Marley eased his shirt up his injured arm, then held it out and helped guide his other arm in, accomplishing it with hardly any pain.
“One more thing, could you help with the socks and boots, too.” He gave her an innocent look that she returned with a smile.
The tension eased from her.
After a quick breakfast, they stowed their gear. When he went to reach for the pack, she stopped him.
“No, I’ll carry it.”
The objection was on his lips but he conceded. Nodding, instead he picked up the knife that had been in the strap sheath. He turned it over studying the punctured blade.
It truly had saved him. Maybe not his life, but from an injury that would have kept him from being able to keep them safe. He took a rock and with a couple carefully placed blows tamped down the jagged edges then worked it back into its sheath.
“It still might come in handy.”
Marley struggled getting the pack into place but it took a hand from Zan to settle and adjust the straps until it rested comfortably.
“Ready?” she asked with gusto.
“Lead the way.”
She led through the bushes to the river.
“Nice job.” He studied her camouflage efforts. “You learn fast.”
“That’s what they always said.” She paused. “I’m not quite sure where we are.”
He laughed. He couldn’t help it. It just rolled out of him as he pulled out his GPS.
They paced their hike much slower than the day before, with frequent breaks for rest and to give Marley time to check his wound, which she insisted on doing regularly. It was late afternoon when Zan lead them through the trees where it opened into a park in a residential section of town.
Since there were hiking trails off the park, Zan wasn’t too concerned about causing a disturbance as they walked through the neighborhood. He did insist on taking the backpack, though, because it would draw attention if she was carrying one and he wasn’t. Slinging it on just his good shoulder, they walked casually along as if deep in conversation after an ordinary day on the trail.
They’d only gone a block and a half when Zan stopped. “I think we’re in luck.”
“What?” Marley looked around.
He nodded across the street and down the block. A white and blue motorcycle rested on the lawn.
“The motorcycle?” Doubt filled her voice. She couldn’t keep it back.
“It’s all right, Marley. Just let me go check it out first. Why don’t you take the backpack and go wait back at the park out of sight?”
There was hesitancy in her but she nodded, taking over the backpack.
Zan caught her hand, pulling her around to him. “I won’t be long. Just stay out of sight until I get there.” He leaned down and kissed her, one swift kiss.
Zan watched her make it most of the way back to the park before he headed across the street and up the sidewalk to the door. He rang the bell. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman a few seconds later.
“Hello, ma’am. I saw the motorcycle on your lawn and was wondering about it.”
“Oh.” The woman picked up a pleased look. “It’s my son’s. Just a minute, if you don’t mind.” She motioned to the lawn.
“Not at all.” Zan stepped down as she closed the door.
Behind him, he heard her call, “Dennis, there’s someone to look at your bike.”
Zan walked over and looked at the machine. It looked in pretty good shape. It was a little old. The price on the sign was reasonable, especially if it ran well.
He crouched down looking over the tires and ran his hand over the forks making sure they weren’t bent.
“Hi,” a young man called as he bounded off the porch.
Zan stood and turned to greet him. “Hi.” Doing a quick survey, he figured the boy was about eighteen or nineteen. His hair was slightly long but otherwise he looked pretty clean-cut. Zan reached out his hand, and the young man took it easily, giving it a shake.
“My girlfriend and I have been up hiking and I noticed your bike. How’s it run?” Zan nodded to the bike.
“Real good. I’ve done a lot of the work on it myself. Put in a new clutch about two months ago.”
“You any good with machines?” Zan looked over at him.
“Yes, sir.” The boy straightened, puffing out his chest a little. It was funny that even though he was out of the military, young men still seemed to address him as sir.
“Why don’t you start it up, so we can have a listen?”
“Sure.” Dennis straddled the motorcycle and started it. The engine kicked right over and settled into a nice smooth sound. Several times, Dennis revved it up then let it idle back. He watched, and when Zan nodded, switched it off. “Do you like it?” There was no missing the hopeful tone in the young man’s voice.
“Yes. It reminds me of one I used to have when I was about your age.”
About a million years ago.
“So, why you selling it?”
“I’m going to school up north and need a car more than a bike.” There was also no missing Dennis wished he could keep the motorcycle but was resigned to what needed to be done.
“Is the tank full?”
“Not quite, but I have a jug in the garage. I can top it off.”
“Good. Do you happen to have two helmets you could sell with it?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be right back.” He ran to the garage and reappeared a second later with two real decent, full-face helmets.
Zan nodded. “One last thing, how about a leather jacket?”
This time, Dennis looked puzzled, then thoughtful. “I have one, but there’s no way it would fit you.”
It was Zan’s turn to laugh. “I suspect your right. I want it for my girlfriend until I know for sure if she likes riding or not. Would you be willing to sell it for an extra, say, hundred and fifty for jacket and the helmets?”
“Oh yeah, sure. The jacket’s old and a little beat up, but it’s clean,” he said honestly.
Zan knew Dennis was afraid he’d take back the offer. “Sounds good. Why don’t you get me the gas can, and I’ll fill it up while you grab the jacket, title, and a paper, so we can write up a bill of sale?”
“Yeah, sure.” The young man brightened.
Five minutes later, Zan straddled the motorcycle, and it roared to life. The motor sounded real good. He figured the kid really was a pretty fair mechanic. Again, he reminded him of himself. Zan touched his fingers to his helmet as he pulled away. Dennis waved back, the money clutched tight in his hand.
For a moment, Zan was tempted to goose the motorcycle into a wheelie but decided that his shoulder, though less painful than it probably had a right to be, was in no condition to do the stunt.
When he pulled into the park and saw no sign of Marley, he was proud of how well she’d followed his directions, but when she didn’t immediately appear, he felt a stab of fear. A second later, she moved from the shadow of the trees to the right of him. Zan drove over to meet her.
“You bought it.”
He heard the underlying trepidation in her words. “Yes, it will be easier for us to move around.” It was then he realized she’d probably never been on a motorcycle before.
He swung his leg over the bike and stepped toward her. “Don’t worry, Marley. I’ll teach you. Trust me?” He extended his hand.
There was no hesitation in her nod or her reaching out her hand to his. “What about your shoulder?” she asked in concern.
“It’ll be all right. I’ll mainly only need it for working the clutch. Now we need to disguise you a little until we can get you some different clothes. So let’s put your jacket in here, and you wear this.” He held out the kid’s worn leather jacket.
Marley slipped it on. The fit was good, better than he’d hoped. “Good. Now can you pull up your hair so it doesn’t show under the helmet?”
She held her ponytail on top of her head while he helped work the helmet on. “That’ll work. You’ll have to carry the backpack. There’s no way I can carry it with you on back.”
He removed the sheath from the strap and placed it and the knife inside. “That’s better. Packs are common enough that, hopefully, it won’t give us away.”
“Give us away?”
“If anyone’s searching, they might have a description of us out. I’m not wearing my fatigues, so that helps. But until we can put some more distance between us and here, I’d rather keep it so they don’t link us with a motorcycle.”
“They think you’re dead.”
He picked up her shiver and reached out, giving her hand a squeeze. “That’s also to our advantage.”
“So what do we do?”
“Avoid security cameras like those around banks that might pick us up. There’s a shopping area on the east side of town. We’ll head there. Park about a block away. Then I’ll go buy a disposable phone, while you go into the clothing store and buy yourself a pair of jeans, a couple shirts, and whatever else you need for a several days. Nothing flashy that’ll stand out. ” He turned and swung his leg back over the bike, then looked back to her waiting.
“I-I thought you were going to t-teach me?”
“I am, come on.”
Cautiously, she stepped forward, swinging her leg over like she’d seen him do, settling on the seat behind him.
“Good. Now these are your foot-pegs. Keep your feet on them at all times. Don’t worry, I’ll balance us. Whatever you do, don’t put your feet down and don’t touch this.”
“The exhaust pipe.”
“Very good, Doc. Yes, it will burn you.”
“Good. Wrap your arms around my waist. Just relax your body and let it follow mine.” He reached back, tipped down her face shield then his own, and started the engine.
Marley clamped her arms around him then tightened down in a death grip as they started to move. After several blocks, she eased a little. Still, he was conscious of every curve of her pressed along his back.
Zan kept their route to the neighborhoods, avoiding the main section of town. As he said, he stopped a block from the shopping center in the end parking space of a fitness club.
“How’d you do?” he asked Marley as he turned to her.
Her face sparked with excitement. “It’s kind of fun.”
He smiled. “It gets better. I’ll teach you to drive it when this is over.”
“I’m turning you into a wild woman.”
She just grinned back happily, and for a moment, the danger was forgotten. Unfortunately, it came right back.
“We’ll leave the helmets, leather jacket and backpack here.”
“You’re not worried about someone stealing them?”