Why the hell did she keep closing herself off from him? The thought that it might be because she still loved some man long in the grave made Josh want to pound the tree.
Blast something out of the sky.
He'd thought often enough if she would only be honest with him, he could have handled his gripping frustration better. He'd even reached deep to tell her about the holiday siege at his college in hopes she would open up. No dice.
And now here they were all open and chatty, and he didn't feel one damned bit better. "Don't the magazines all say a percentage of sex is in the woman's head? I figured the problem had more to do with how much we were apart. You needed more, hell, I don't know. Time. Time to be comfortable with me."
To forget about the other guy.
She stared down at her booted feet, not so much avoiding but seeming to absorb his words without having to meet his eyes. "Why didn't you say something before?"
"And willingly have this discussion? Shit. I'm screwed no matter what I say here."
Finally, she looked up, so much pain and remorse in her eyes, he had to restrain himself from gathering her against him—the fastest way he could think of to send her running.
And damned if maybe he might want to hear the rest of this conversation after all.
"It isn't you, Josh. It's me. I guess I'm one of those percentages of women who just don't—" "You could." And, man, he wanted a second chance to prove that to her.
"God, you are so arrogant. Where is it written that whoever has the most orgasms wins? Do you really believe cl**axing equates with love? If so, I'm not so sure I like what that says about you." Her pain swelled, mixing with typical Alicia fire and bravado. "What? You don't have an answer for that, genius?"
His momentary flash of hope at a second chance fizzled, replaced by a dawning sense of how much deeper their problems went than miscommunication in bed. Because still she wasn't being straight up with him.
He started to wonder if maybe he was hoping for too much from life. He could toss all the wisecracks out there and somehow there would still be a wall between him and the rest of the world.
Josh canted closer, his mouth hovering just over hers. "Maybe it's you who thinks coming equals love, otherwise why fake it? Why not be honest with me?" The answer unfolded too easily in his head,
stomping that ember of hope dead even as her chin tipped to bring her lips nearer. "You thought I'd walk.
And I'm not so sure I like what that says about what you think of me."
Her hand clamped around the back of his head. She yanked him down.
Josh jolted in surprise. He should have seen it coming, if for no other reason than it made zero sense.
Alicia was all about the unexpected, after all.
She arched against him, her mouth open, hot and needy under his just as he remembered from so many times before with her. The hot pulse of lust surged through him, lust and something else he didn't want in his life anymore. Her tongue met and tangled with his, stroking insistently with a moist heat that warmed him from the inside out. Little whimpers tore from her throat, vibrating against him and assuring him nobody was faking anything at the moment.
Plastering herself to him, Alicia locked her arms around his neck, her body flattened to his until he could almost swear their layers of clothes melted away. He pressed her against the tree, no clue where this was going but unable to scrounge the will to stop after weeks without the feel of her against him.
A fresh gust of wind battered his back, but he barely felt it. Rustling branches overhead sounded too much like rustling sheets for his comfort level.
Except sheets didn't dump snow on his head. The cold thud brought a needed splash of reality. His fogged brain cleared enough for him to sense the desperation and frenzy in her.
Josh eased away. "We need to stop and find cover for the night."
Alicia's hold stayed strong. "No. Later," she mumbled, tracing his bottom lip with her tongue. "Soon. Not now."
He backed away from the tree. From her. From the temptation to say screw it all and keep kissing her instead of talking, because he knew well the woman enjoyed the hell out of kissing him. "Come on. We are done with this topic of conversation. And anything else, for that matter. I'm going to find somewhere to camp and you'd damn well better follow."
He swiped aside a branch and forced his feet forward.
"You don't like what I'm thinking about you? Well you did walk, Joshua Rosen." Her accusation full of pain chased him on the wind. "You're walking now."
Huh? He stopped without turning. "Are you saying you didn't want me to move out of the apartment?"
When she didn't answer, he glanced back over his shoulder. "Well?"
Panic flared in her eyes along with poorly shielded hurt. "Um, you know, I think you were right earlier.
This isn't the time to discuss anything important. The one-in-four-decisions-sucking rule, remember?
Besides, the longer we stand around, the longer we're cold."
He started to snap right back, then hesitated. He'd seen his wife face enemy fire without flinching, yet now her voice trembled from fear over...what? Not the cold, but something else that apparently he'd been too wrapped up in his own bruised ego to notice before. If he ever expected to move on with his life, he needed to bank his anger and settle things with her one way or another. He couldn't live in this limbo any longer.
Turning, he planted his boots and stood his ground. "I asked you a question. Were you just pissed and not serious when you told me to get the hell out and don't come back?"
Tears pooled and crystallized in the corners of her eyes. Tears—holy hell—from Alicia?
"I'm sorry, Josh. And I really do mean that. I thought that..." She paused, struggling for words. "That what we had would be enough. That I could get past— That I could be—"
Tipping her face to the sky, she blinked fast.
He stepped closer. "Alicia—"
"Stop." She held up a shaky hand as if to place fresh barriers between them. As if there weren't enough already. "This isn't going to get us anywhere."
"Were you or were you not serious?" "I meant every word." "Do you still mean them?" She hesitated a second too long. "Yes. Of course."
Not buying it. "Maybe we should—"
"No," she insisted, both hands up, palms facing out to stop him this time. "I know you. You resent not being able to decipher something. Figuring me out has become a challenge to you. That's all."
Apparently she understood him pretty well. "I'll admit to that. But it's not the whole picture."
"Regardless, how about I clear up the mystery for you? This isn't something you can fix. The problem is mine and it's not fixable," she insisted with a strength that suddenly seemed brittle.
"Why are you so damned sure? Maybe I might have an answer for you, but we'll never know for sure since you're holding out on me, and I don't mean in bed."
She stilled. "I don't know what you mean."
"I think you do. Even if we end up in divorce court, we meant something to each other. I do not want to spend the rest of my life wondering where the hell I screwed up."
"How many times do I have to repeat myself?" Her voice cracked. "It wasn't you. You need all the facts?
Fine. Eight years ago, I was dating a man. Ben. We were thinking about getting married. But I imagine my blabbermouth sister has already told you that much."
He didn't bother acknowledging the obvious.
"What my sister didn't know was that over Christmas break, I turned down his surprise gift of a two-carat solitaire engagement ring."
He definitely hadn't seen this twist coming. "So why does this guy still have such a hold over you?" "His possessiveness had become smothering." She forced the facts out on labored wafts of air, but with
shoulders braced. "He didn't take it well. But I was prepared for that and it didn't worry me. After all, I was only a semester away from being a commissioned officer. A warrior. I could protect myself. Or so I thought."
The answer he'd been waiting for roared to life inside him ahead of the rest of her words. He knew what would come next. And no. Hell, no! He wanted to back up this conversation, somehow roll back time eight years to wipe out what he was now certain had happened to his wife.
Bilious rage burned up his throat, only to be frozen into a choking chunk of frustration.
Alicia met his gaze dead-on, warrior strong even when wounded, her face as wind-raw as her words.
"When I told him it was over, he attacked me."
Alicia held herself still and tall, so brittle inside she feared the building winds might shatter her. Even more than the storm winds, she feared Josh's reaction.
Her gaze raked from the hard lines of his stoic face to his fisted gloves, all the way down to his mukluks planted in the snow, while she waited for him to absorb the words she'd never told anyone. Snow pouring from the sky collected on his shoulders while he waited for her to finish.
Whoever said confiding heartache lessened the burden had been a big, fat fraud. She didn't feel one bit better. In fact, the burden so overpowered her right now, she longed to sink into a drift or climb up one of those towering trees again and hide.
Not behavior worthy of her uniform.
She didn't want to remember that night from eight years ago, much less talk about it. But somehow Josh slipped past her defenses, pushed her buttons, pushed her until the words had spilled free.
Apparently she hadn't kept him in the dark after all. A mortifying thought. She wasn't totally inexperienced. She knew enough to realize Josh was good in bed. Really good. Generous and sexy.
She just wished she could fully benefit, that they both could.
He deserved an explanation. But why did it have to be now? Although something about this stark, ends-of-the-earth landscape echoed the rawness inside her.
Josh's silence left her fidgeting until finally she blurted, "He didn't assault me sexually, if that's what you're thinking. You can relax."
"Relax?" He shook his head slowly, still not moving otherwise. "I don't think so."
What was he thinking? She forced words up her throat, each one scraping like icy shards. "He was...be yond upset. But somehow I still didn't see the first punch coming—"
A rustling sounded from behind her, and how she welcomed the distraction as a chance to gather her thoughts. Her instincts kicked in, and survival thoughts took over.
Josh's head jerked up. He shoved past and ahead of her, predictably protecting. Rather than argue, she decided to watch his back. The man needed it whether he realized it or not.
She dipped her hand inside her parka to pull her flare gun from her survival vest. Steps stealthy, they dodged larger drifts, minimizing the crunching of snow as much as possible.
Her heart pounded in her ears, pumped in her chest so hard surely her jacket must be pulsing. Branches swayed and crackled ahead.
"Down," Josh ordered in a whisper.
She dropped to her stomach beside him. Birch boughs swept wide. She tensed, hand gripping the gun.
The ground trembled under her.
Caribou raced into sight.
She exhaled a gust of relief. The small herd loped past, kicking up a cloud of dusty snow behind them.
Tension seeped from her. Rolling to her side, she steadied her heart and studied her husband.
Oops, not the best way to steady her heart, but still she couldn't help but stare at him to reassure herself he was whole and not seconds away from meeting some illegal miner's rifle. "Josh? Are you okay?"
"Look." He pointed to the gaping tunnel formed by broken branches.
Dragging her eyes from him, she looked ahead, squinting. Slowly, the fragmented landscape came into focus to showcase a small clearing.
A rusty metal Quonset hut filled the area, apparently abandoned. Leaving her with no other excuses to avoid the rest of her discussion with her husband.
Josh rechecked his newly fashioned lock on the door inside the Quonset hut. Not exactly the Hilton in
Hawaii, but more welcome.
He wedged a piece of wood against the door, which was pounded by battering winds and sheeting ice that picked up force and speed with each passing minute. He'd managed the best he could with security and was fast running out of tasks to keep his mind off Alicia behind him preparing to wash. Taking off her ice-caked clothing and draping it over fishing wire strung across the lone room.
Focus on survival, not the sound of rustling clothes and water trickling into a metal basin.
Padding along the wood floor in his bare feet, he surveyed the twenty-by-ten-foot metal shelter, which looked more like half a rusty metal cylinder dropped onto the ground. But it blocked the howling snowstorm kicking back up full force. The single door also made guarding their backs from intruders a helluva lot easier, not that anyone would be coming their way until the renewed blizzard passed.
The woodstove already snapped with a fire, cranking the temp inside up to a balmy fifty degrees while melting a second basin tub of ice. The open grate allowed the flames to cast a low haze of light through the room, along with dwindling sun through the thick Plexiglas window in the door. They would be able to conserve their flashlight batteries.
Luckily law enforcement and other government agencies kept such buildings stocked with rudimentary survival supplies, a routine part of the state budget. Rarely were the places looted. There wasn't much to take, anyway, just a small box of dehydrated foods, a couple of aluminum washtubs, a woodstove
welded to the floor with stacks of wood beside.
And four sleeping-bag bedrolls.
He'd think about the bed part later.
The fishing line swayed under the weight of the drying winter gear, his parka and snow pants as well as hers, creating a makeshift curtain to conceal Alicia while she washed.
Except it didn't block all of her from view.
Her feet shuffled in a semicircle—in toe socks patterned with reindeer sporting neon noses. The festive garb seemed out of synch with the stark setting and yet so...her. Somehow that view of her tempted him as much as if the curtain vanished.
Exhaustion swamped him. He must be near dead on his feet, otherwise he wouldn't be standing around gawking at her socks.
Nothing left to do but strip down, too. Survival first. Clothes damp from snow and sweat were killers out here. He peeled off his flight suit, socks, thermal shirt and pants. Washed, shaved. Dumped in more buckets of ice to melt. And still Alicia hadn't come out.