FIERCE

A full-length, stand-alone romance.

Chelsea Anderson is fleeing a violent past into the anonymity of backpacking around the world. In Iceland, she hooks up with best friends Olivia and Madeline, and heads for Venice. When the group is stranded by an explosion in the Alps, they’re forced to detrain and camp out in a tiny mountain village, where the group spills their stories. And Chelsea can’t. No way.

Defending her is the broad-shouldered Scottish Alec McRae, whose fierceness hides a kindness Chelsea has never known. He has secrets of his own, an unimaginable past and a sin he carries without hope of redemption. In Chelsea he spies something he’s never had, never had hope of having in his life, but how can he ask her into his dark life?

When the train finally moves, Chelsea and Alec share a magical week in Venice, where the lovers are confronted with everything they’ve tried to leave behind…and must either take a stand, or run forever.

Read an Excerpt

 Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter ONE

Chelsea

      I’m drinking beer and playing gin rummy with my travel buddy Madeline when our train grinds to a halt. We’re sitting by the big windows of the bar car, but it’s been snowing insanely all afternoon and all I can see is a big pillow fight of a snowstorm. 

      Madeline makes a glare-block with her cupped hands and peers into the dim flurry. It’s nearly sunset on a late January day. The world is blue and purple and white, without detail, like a painting of snow in a kid’s book. “I’m pretty sure there’s no town,” she says. “Only a valley.” 

       Alec, one of the guys we met in Iceland, is sprawled across the aisle, arms crossed over his chest, earphones trailing from his pocket to his ears. He stirs, lazily, and says in his thick Scottish accent, “It’s the snow. Nothing to worry about.” 

       Madeline, her shiny black hair swinging exactly at her shoulders, gives him a half-smile. “That accent! Would you run narration on my life, dude?”

       He doesn’t bother with so much as a smile, just tucks himself back into his hoodie and leans against the window. 

       Unflappable Alec, who moves at his own pace, deliberately and without hurry, as if he’s a lion and the world is his jungle. He takes up a lot of space when he’s sprawled, too, powerful shoulders and legs filling up both seats. I realize that I’m eyeing his thighs, wondering idly what he might look like naked, and firmly pluck the rubber band on my wrist to remind me of my resolve to stop sleeping with guys for the hell of it. I use them like a sleeping pill, a way to block the things I can’t stand to think about. In Peru, I kind of broke a guy’s heart, like really broke it, and although I fell off the wagon with a brooding artist named Tyler in Iceland, I’m back on. 

      I discard a three of hearts. “Your turn,” I say to Madeline, but she’s frowning at something over my shoulder. 

      “What?” I turn around to look. Coming down the aisle are three burly policemen, uniformed in battle-level gear with helmets and flak vests and automatic weapons in their hands. It makes my chest ache. As they approach I’m already shrinking into my seat, a fine trembling starting to shimmer in my limbs.

       Don’t freak, don’t freak, don’t freak.

      “Le passporte,” one says, stopping in front of us. My hands start to shake so much that I can’t hold the cards. I’m not looking at the gun even as I’m looking at it, that long black barrel, the trigger. My breath disappears and the edges of my vision start to go black— 

       Alec is suddenly beside me. “She’s an American,” he says adding a wry smile.  “Afraid of guns.” He reaches for the inside zippered pocket of my coat, where it is true I keep my passport, though I didn’t realize he knew that. A loose group of us have been traveling together—we lost Alec in London, but ran into him again in Paris and now we’re all headed for Venice. He hands it to the police. “Can you blame her?” 

       The policeman does not smile. “Merci,” he says brusquely, handing it back, looking over Madeline’s, moving on to the next group. 

       I take in a deep breath against the threat of falling to pieces, remember to find a focal point. I hold my passport like a talisman. Alec stands beside the table, his fingertips resting on the surface. They’re right in front of me, a neutral point of attention. 

      Focus.

      Trying to breathe in an even pattern, one, two, threeone, two, three, I notice that his hands are as enormous as the rest of him, the nails clean ovals. Three freckles dot the index finger right above his knuckle, and on his inner wrist is a stylistic tattoo, maybe Celtic, with knots and words. It’s elegantly rendered, with touches of watercolor splash, and without thinking, I reach for his hand, turning it so that I can get a better look. 

      He allows it, looking down at me without speaking as I brush my fingertips over it. I look up. His hair is thick, the color of autumn leaves. It falls down around his face, touching his high prominent cheekbones. Around his mouth is a glaze of unshaved whiskers, blond and red and black, all catching the light. 

      “‘Remember,’” he says, the Rs rolling like water over rocks. 

      I frown. “Remember what?”

      “The tattoo.” 

      “Oh.” I drop his hand. “Mine would say ‘forget.’”

      “Aye.” His smile is sad. “Never as easy as we’d like.” 

      A sudden blast explodes into the car, knocking me backward. My head smashes into the window. Cards fly everywhere.  Alec looses his footing, and his body slams into mine before he catches himself on the glass. I taste his hoodie, and his knee lands hard on my thigh. Somebody screams. 

      I can’t breathe. 

      A hand on my arm, hard. “Stay with me, lass,” he yells and gives me a shake. “Stay with me.” 

      But I can’t get any air. Can’t even gasp. 

     His hand is hot on my face, so huge it covers the whole of my jaw, my cheek, my temple. “Look at me, Chelsea,” he barks.

     Around the edges of my ears is a strange, sucking noise and I want to retreat into darkness, into the comfort of nothingness, but I look up and our eyes tangle. His are a vivid blue, the iris ringed with a black line. His lashes are the same mix of ginger and black and blond as the faint growth of beard on his chin. Behind the colors, I see something I recognize— a sense of lostness, desperation. Nothing to lose. 

       “We need to get off the train. Now,” he says, and tugs me to my feet. Madeline scrambles up next to me, pulling on her coat and hat, grabbing her purse. She shoves my backpack at me and robotically, I grab it and hold it against my chest. Alex shrugs into his coat, and takes my hand. 

       “Where’s you’re bloody coat?” he yells, and I realize distantly that it’s very noisy. People are screaming. Also dim. The lights have gone out and the world is cast in a purply-cold glow from the snow outside. I blink at him, holding my pack against me, unable to think of what his words mean.

      “Here.” Madeline flings it around my shoulders.

      “It’ll do.” Alex ties the arms around my neck. “Let’s get out of here.” He pushes Mattie  in front of him and hauls me behind, his fingers tight around my wrist. 

      Smoke is pouring out of the car behind us and I hear someone scream “fire!” before a surge of people wells up behind us. Alec swings my body in front of his and holds me close to his waist. “Stay with me, Chelsea!” 

      Some lost instinct of preservation urges me to lean into him. Then we’re shoved off the train and free falling through the blue and purple snow. 

 

Chapter TWO

Chelsea

      I come to a halt in a snow bank with my coat over my head and somebody’s hand in my face. It’s shockingly cold and wet, which is maybe what shakes me out of the panic state. Sitting up, I wipe snow off my face and neck, looking around. 

      “Get your coat on,” Alex says, standing to brush packed snow from his shoulders and thighs. A hard violin case lies in the snow beside him, and the sight of it makes me nauseous. Looking away, I shove my pack off my belly and untie the coat sleeves around my neck. I’m shivering, my fingers so cold I can barely make them work. 

     From behind me, Madeline says, “Wait,” and brushes snow off my back and butt. “Go ahead.”

      Tugging the coat on and huddling into the luxurious warmth, I ask, “Are you all right?”

       She shakes her hand, the hood of her parka framing her pale face and red lips with fake fur. “I might have sprained my wrist but I’m okay otherwise. You?”

      I nod, but it’s only when she asks that I run the check over my limbs. Everything is fine. “How bout you, Alec?”

     “Good.” He’s picking up a bunch of stuff that tumbled down the hill with us—shoes and scarves and various other debris. The violin is flung over his right shoulder, his small pack over his back. “We were lucky there’s so much snow.”

      I turn and realize we rolled a long way. I’m no good with measurements, but imagine a good sledding hill. That far. People are milling around. A big plume of smoke is pouring out the windows of one of the cars, and farther up the track, two other cars have come loose. One fell over on its side and the other has rolled down the mountain about halfway. People are climbing from the windows, and cops are already directing other figures toward a level spot below the tracks.  

      At the edge of my memory is the sound of sirens and crying and the frantic cries of survivors. My leg aches below the knee where the cold always hurts. Gritting my teeth, I shove the memories away. Focus on now. This second. “What should we do?”

      “Can you both make it up the hill?”

      Madeline snorts. “Can you?”

     He lifts his hands in surrender. “I won’t offer to carry your bag then, lassie.”

     She hauls it over her shoulders, but the weight nearly topples her backward. She’s strong, but tiny, and the slope is extreme. I press a palm against her back to even out her balance. “Maybe put it on your chest.”

      Alec takes it as she starts to move it around. “I’ve got it. You’ll need your hands to scramble up.” 

      My pack is smaller, and I’m used to mountains and hiking and hills. When he looks at me, I pat it, strapped to my front. “I’m good.”

      But it’s not an easy climb. Not even for Alec. The mountain is steep and slippery with snow, which is deep enough that it’s hard to find vegetation or even rocks to grab onto. I suppose that saved us on the way down and I try not to pant too much. Halfway up, I’m sweating hard, struggling to take the next step, and Madeline’s face is bright red. “Take a break,” I say.

      We stand there huffing, or at least Madeline and I are. Alec is like one of those Bernese mountain dogs, big and sturdy, wading through the knee-deep snow with webbed paws. He waits without judgment. I reach down and scoop up a handful of snow to quench my thirst. Madeline’s face is still the color of cherries and I offer her some. 

      “Eww. Totally filthy,” she says. 

      “Whatevs.” I dip my mouth into my palm and suck another mouthful in. At the top of the hill, there’s wailing and people are milling around. A hot chemical smell hangs in the air.  “What do you think happened?”

      “A bomb,” Alec says.

      I flinch. “Really?”

     “How do you know it wasn’t a gas leak or something?” Madeline asks, shoving hair out of her face. 

      “You can smell it.”

      I look up at him. I want to know how he knows what a bomb smells like, but his profile is hard and I think better of asking. He didn’t ask me why I totally flipped out on the train, though as we start slogging our way uphill again, it occurs to me that he acted very quickly and very appropriately both in terms of a person with PTSD and getting us off the train quickly and efficiently. Was he a soldier or something? He doesn’t seem old enough—not much more than my own nineteen. Maybe twenty, twenty-one? 

      My breath disappears in the climb and I forget everything but focusing on getting one foot in front of the other. The snow is deeper and we keep sliding. My foot hits an icy rock beneath the snow and slides off in a whoosh, sending me face down on my backpack, which smashes my boobs and makes me bang my chin, which slams my upper tooth into my lip and I taste blood. 

       Before I can scramble up, Alec is there, hauling me upward like I weigh as much as a snowflake, and he’s offering me half a snowball even before I’m upright. “Thanks,” I gasp, and press the cold against my mouth. He’s already heading toward Madeline, struggling to get her foot out of a snowdrift. 

       Mr. Good Guy, I think. Boy Scout. Team leader. 

       Exactly the wrong guy for a girl like me. 

       We make it to the top of the hill and Madeline collapses in a snowbank by the tracks. “Holy shit,” she gasps in her husky voice and falls backward. Her long down coat protects her from the cold and I’m sure she’s overheated anyway. 

       Snow is still falling all around us, piling up on my shoulders, on Madeline’s belly, on Alec’s stocking hat. He’s staring toward the knot of crying people on the tracks, his jaw hard, and I wonder again—how does he know what he seems to know? 

      A cop comes out on the lip of the last car and starts yelling in German. “Can you understand him?” I ask anxiously. 

     He shakes his head, but a man in front of us turns. He’s wearing a suit and a woolen coat and he has to be freezing, but shows no sign of it. Calmly, he translates, “They are sending cars down the tracks to pick us up and bring us back to Neushnee.  A blizzard has closed the pass so you will all be taken to the town hall, and we will distribute rooms by lottery.”

      “But what happened?” I ask

      “A bomb on the tracks,” the man says without emotion. His gray eyes meet mine, expressionless. 

      “Is anyone injured?” Madeline asks.

      I want to turn away but he answers before I can. “Many. A few are dead, I hear. We are the lucky ones today.”

      The lucky ones. This time I do turn away, so I can barf in the snow. 

     

 

      Because none of us are injured, we are among the last people to be picked up. Carts like something out of a cartoon come down the tracks, fill up with people, take off. The first carts are filled with people on stretchers who’ve been dragged out of the overturned cars. The next ones are the ambulatory injured. I try not to look at ones on the stained, churned up snow, covered with coats.  

       Right below the edge of my calm is a roaring freak-out, barely controlled by the emergency Xanax I swallowed with a gulp of whisky out of a wineskin Alec produced as we waited. I find some cookies in my bag, slightly crushed by the roll down the hill, and Madeline shares her bag of gummy bears. Better than nothing. 

       There’s no cell service at all. No bars. No wifi. Nothing. Periodically, Madeline takes out her phone and checks. Nothing.  

       All three of us are a little drunk from sipping on whiskey by the time we make it to town.  Madeline is giggly and leaning on Alec. I wonder if they’re going to hook up in all this. Something about that bugs me but my emotions are a long long way away, tucked tightly beneath the fog of the pill and the warmth of the whiskey.  I just want a place to crash. By morning, all of this will be far enough away that I won’t have to worry that I’m going to fall into full blown crazy person mode. 

       The town is a perfect little Alpine village with high pitched roofs and balconies decorated with Bavarian-style gingerbread. Snow and night obscure everything except what’s right in front of us, but I’m guessing there are mountains somewhere above the three story buildings and the quaint square.  We’re dropped at the town hall, where people are filing in and out.  “This place seems too small for a hospital,” I say, thinking of all the injured. 

       Gurneys, triage, blood. In my head, the echo of an alarm going and going and going, faint and far away. I stomp my feet to bring myself back into my body and it goes away. 

       “None of the villages here could manage all of you,” says a woman with a heavy accent. German, I think. Or is that Austrian? Is it the same?  She’s wearing a long down coat and a hat, and holds a clipboard.  “Your names, please?”

       We rattle them off. Madeline Wild, Chelsea Anderson, Alec McRae. 

       “No one is hurt?”

       We shake our heads. In the room behind her, someone is crying softly. I have to hum under my breath to shut it out. 

       “You’re all assigned to the young travelers’ hostel. There is no food served, but you can cook in the kitchen, and if you are hungry, you may go to the lodge for free soup and bread. They will be serving until 8 pm.”

       “Is there a place to buy groceries?”

       “No more food left,” she says apologetically. “Go to the lodge. There will be more supplies in the morning.”  She looks over us pointedly and we shuffle away. 

       “Do you want to eat before we settle in?” I ask them. My stomach is growling and I probably need something to ground me. I also need to call my mom, too, because she’ll hear about this and lose her shit. 

      “First sleeping real estate,” Alec says. “Then food.” He looks around as if he knows this place. “Come on.”

       His bossiness annoys me. “You know where you’re going?” 

       “No, do you?”

       “We could, oh I dunno, look at a map or ask directions maybe?” 

      “Or,” Madeline says in her throaty voice, “we could cross the street.” She points to a lighted sign with a small knot of backpackers standing outside. 

      “Good call.” Alec loops an arm around her neck and gives me a look under his eyelashes.

      Whatever. Irritably, I walk along beside them. He wordlessly gives me the flask. I’m not proud. I gulp down a hefty measure of heat and oblivion. 

      The people in the doorway are German, two big blonde guys and a girl with an amiable face who is wearing a toque over her long blonde hair. They’re smoking and greet us in German and French.  Alec gives a nod. “Any room left in there?”

       “We have a colony by the fireplace,” one of the guys say. “You can join us if you like.”  

       “Thanks,” I say, and my voice is ragged. 

       “Were you on the train?”

       We all three nod. 

       “Us, too. We are going to get very drunk.” The second guy, blonde and hearty like Thor, takes a drag on his cigarette and blows it out, turning to open the door for us. He meets my eyes, and I hold it.  

       Then snap the rubber band on my wrist. No hook ups. 

       The hostel manager lets us into the common room where a group of packs and sleeping bags have been dropped. “You can have that side,” he says in English. “Coffee and tea in the kitchen, but no food. You’ll have to get your own. ”

       “Wifi?” Madeline asks.

       “Password right there.” He points at a much-fingered paper taped to the side of the door.

       Grateful for the heat and homey snap of the fire, I drop my pack by the wall and stand by the hearth, holding out my hands. The front of my thighs starts to melt, though it’s going to take awhile for my toes. Madeline has to be frozen solid in her tights and dress, but she’s pulling out her phone to test the wifi. “Thank God,” she says, texting furiously. “We’re connected.”

       Alec joins me. “You all right?”

      “Yeah, fine. You?”

      He looks at me in a kind of intense way, the light flickering over his irises. Something about him is so still, contained, and again it makes me think of a soldier. “Good,” he says shortly. Looks into the fire, hands in his pockets. “But I wasn’t the one about to pass out over a cop in the train.”

      “Problems with authority,” I toss off. 

      “Mmm.”

      “Were you a soldier or something?”

      “No.” The answer is short and sharp. “Were you?”

      I glance up at him. “Not even close.”  Over my shoulder, I say, “Mattie, let’s go. I’m starving.”

      “Okay, okay. Let me put on something warm. Shit. It’s cold.”

      “It’s winter,” Alec says.

      “Well, I didn’t exactly expect to be bombed.” She shimmies out of her tights right in front of us, showing her thin white legs, and digs in her pack for a pair of jeans. She smoothes her hair, slides her red lipstick over her mouth, and drops the tube in her pocket. “Ready?”

      We head back into the snow and cold to get soup. The lines have thinned and we eat like starved coyotes, fluffy white bread and butter and this amazing soup with tomatoes and beans and noodles and all kinds of things in it that settles my stomach and makes me feel like maybe I’m not going to die of starvation any time soon. 

       Madeline texts the whole time. Bite, text, bite, text. Alec and I just eat. The phone call to my mother is looming, and I tell myself I’ll call right after our meal. I kind of wish I hadn’t drunk the whiskey. She’ll hear the Xanax in my voice, too, but jeez—I’m twenty years old and my train was bombed. Even without my history, a person would be rattled. 

       Pushing my bowl away so I can lean on the table, I ask Madeline, “Are you texting Olivia?” Her best friend since high school and until a couple of weeks ago, the third in our trio. I met them in Ecuador and we’ve been traveling together awhile now.  We left Iceland, hung out in London for awhile but Olivia stayed behind when we went to France.

       “Yeah.” She makes a face. “I can’t believe she’s being so pathetic. She’s the one who always wanted to go to Venice, not me. Now she’s waiting for a guy.” She says the last two words like they mean “dick head.” 

       “Babes before boys,” I say, and we fist bump and blow it up.  

       “She seems to have forgotten that.” Shaking her licorice hair, she texts something. “It was all about Carnavale, and now we’ve missed it.”

       Alec buttered another big hunk of bread. “Is she hot for that toff?”

      “Toff?” Madeline echoes.

      “He means Simon.” 

      “Algernon,” Alec says. “That’s his name. Toff name if I ever heard one.” 

      I scowl at him. “Dude, don’t be a snob.”

      “She’ll get her heart wrecked. Guy like that won’t stick with a girl like her.”

     Madeline looks up. Her eyes narrow. “What does that mean, girls like her?”

     “Don’t get your panties in a twist. He’s the son of lord. She’s an American.”

     She narrows her eyes for a minute, then another text catches her attention. When she taps out an answer, she says, “It doesn’t matter. Olivia is meeting us in Venice.” She waves the phone, tilts her head. “So there.”

     Alec shrugs. 

     “I should call my mother,” I sigh, rubbing my hands on my thighs, then look at him. “Do you need to let somebody know you’re okay?”  

       “Nah. Me mum died eight months ago. She’s the only one who would have cared.”

       “Was it cancer?” Madeline asks, embarrassingly direct, halting mid-text to ask the question. 

       He takes a wolfish bite of bread. Nods. 

       “Usually is with a younger mom,” she says with authority. “Sorry, dude.”

       “Thanks.” He finishes the bread, looks at me. “How about you?” The accent is starting to thicken after such a long day and the whiskey: “ha ‘bout yoooo?”

       “I’m good,” Madeline says, and waves her phone. “My mom & I have a pretty chill relationship.”

       I snort. I’d like mine to be chill. “I have to call my mine, but she’s in surgery early mornings.”

       “Your mom’s a doctor?” Madeline asks with a bewildered shake of her head. “How did I not realize that?”

       “Orthopedic surgeon, to be exact.” 

       “Dude,” she says. “You don’t seem like the kid of a doctor.”

       I shrug. “Not sure what that means, but ok.”

       “She means,” Alec says distinctly, his eyes level on me, taking another swig of his whiskey, “That you don’t come across like a rich girl.”

       “I’m not a rich girl. But you have a problem.” My cheeks are burning slightly. I let down my guard too much. Let them see too much of me. Fuck. Standing up, I add, “I better go call her.”

       “Oh, sit down,” Madeline says, dragging on my sleeve. “Nobody cares. It’s just that you don’t go around acting like you’re all that.”

       All that. All that. All that. The words rustle and whisper up the back of my neck, runs beneath my skin, set all the nerves alight so they’re buzzing and burning.  “I have to go.”

       And I blaze out of there, into the snow where the cold falls on my face, cools my skin. So quiet out here. I focus on the way light shines upward to the impossible pitch of a roof, breathe in. Breathe out. Only now. This minute. 

       It doesn’t always work. This time, it does. 

 

Chapter THREE

       It’s nearly ten before I feel like I can call my mom. I duck into the kitchen so I can hear better—the Germans are exploring the board games on the shelf and by the shouts of approval, I guess they found something good. 

       In Santa Fe, it’ll be after lunch. My mom’ll be going over her surgery notes, drinking a big cup of crazy-strong coffee. Black. I can see her in my imagination, tall like me, her dark hair pulled into a tight chignon, her face tastefully made up. She’s not pretty—her jaw is horsey and her eyes are small—but it doesn’t matter. She’s hella smart and loves her work more than anything. Not more than me, exactly, but as she says, kids grow up. 

       The phone rings just once and I know she’s been waiting. “Chelsea! Thank God. Am I correct in thinking that was the train you were on?”

       “I’m fine, but yeah, that was my train.” I had not particularly wanted to keep her posted on my wanderings, but she said it would be worse for her if I didn’t send her itineraries—every time anything happened from London to Auckland, she’d wonder if I was in the middle of it.  So I send her an email once a week with updates and she is not allowed to call me. Ever. 

       “Thanks for calling,” she says politely. “Do you need anything?”

       “I’m good, thanks.”

       A silence lands and spreads. I can’t think of anything else to say that won’t loop us back around to the elephant standing between us, and maybe she can’t either because she says with forced calm, “Well, you know where to find me.”

       “Yep, thanks. Tell everybody I said hi.”

       “You could call them yourself once in awhile. Your siblings miss you.”

       My throat nearly closes, but I choke out, “Yeah, I’ll try.” 

       I hang up and hold the phone in my hand for awhile, looking out at the milkshake sky. I have three younger siblings, all much younger, my mom’s kids with the husband she met when I was in fifth grade. He’s a nice guy as stepfathers go, but he doesn’t approve of this trip, either. He says I’m running away. 

        Duh.

        But I miss my brothers and little sister. I make a mental note to send them some postcards pretty soon.

       A body comes in behind me. Alec, who offers me a mug. “Schnapps.”

       Although there’s a howling emptiness in the middle of my chest, I wave my hand. “I’ve had enough.” 

       He takes my hand and wraps it around the mug. “We’ve got nothing to do tomorrow.” His accent is musical, easy to listen to.

      I hold it but don’t sip. There’s a fine edge between too much and not enough, especially with my history and the day we’ve had. I’m walking right along the edge of the knife right now. Nobody wants me waking up screaming in the middle of the night. So far, I’ve been lucky, but today was pretty bad. A lot of echoes. 

       Something in the way he tilts his head tells me he’s already fallen over into too much booze. No slurring of his words or anything. Just a softness around his mouth, eyes shining. He’s standing close enough that my head is filled with the spicy, fiery scent of his skin. We all need showers but he doesn’t smell funky, only male. It’s weird how some guys stink and other guys smell better and better the hotter they get. Chemical soup, my mom would say. 

       To distract myself, I say, “What do you play on that violin?” I sip from my mug without thinking and the schnapps are cool and bright, like drinking stars. 

       “I don’t,” he says, the lilt in his voice more exaggerated. Do-ant. Cold winter light falls on his mouth and neck and I find myself noticing the dip at the base of his throat. A bar of blueish light glitters on the sparse hair at his chin.  

       “Why do you have a violin if you can’t play?” 

       “It was my mother’s.” Twas.

       Taking another sip of starry schnapps, I tell him recklessly, “I used to play.”    

       He blinks slowly, stepping closer, and looks at me beneath half-lidded eyes. “Did you now?” A finger trails up my arm. “What did you play?”

      “Everything,” I say, and it’s arrogant, but I don’t care. Everyone says arrogance like it’s a bad thing, but you can’t be the best at anything unless you believe it. I was the best. Suddenly, I feel the loss of it, all at once, like an avalanche falling all around me, cold and unforgiving and— 

       I upend the cup and drain it. The peppermint stars burn all the way into my stomach. “Is there more?”

       He meets my eyes, then lifts his cup and pours schnapps from his cup into mine, clinking the ceramic before he says, “Sláinte.” 

       I watch his throat move as he swallows and think about putting my mouth there, tasting him.

       Snap the rubberband.

       “What was your favorite?” he asks. “Did you fiddle? I’d like to learn that.”

       Suddenly, I’m standing on the dais in a church, the violin in my hands, my bow moving over the strings in a dancing whirl. And I’m not a person, not human at all, only the bendable, movable instrument of the spirit of the music, carried off into some other—

       The edges of my vision start to go black and I realize I can’t breathe. In terror, I look up at Alec, putting a hand to my throat, reaching for him. My eyes are wide with panic, as if I might be able to breathe through them. Instantly, he bends his knees, clasps his hands around my face.  

      “Stay with me, lass,” he says. “You can breathe. You are breathing.” The Rs roll through the words and it’s like the purr of a cat, somehow calming. 

       Such giant hands. I feel tiny next to him.

      Focus. 

      His eyelashes catch the light, the tips going the same blue white as the snow outside. One iris is illuminated, colorless except for the black pupil, which is more wide open than the light would suggest, and I remember that it’s a sign of sexual arousal. The factoid comes back in the voice of my eleventh grade science teacher, who was a lizard and stood too close to the girls, and always tried to brush your breast. 

       Focus. Large pupils. 

       Alec says, “That’s better.”

       I realize that my lungs are beginning to operate. The edges of my vision start to clear. The panic dissolves into something else. 

       I become aware again of his scent. His hands around my face.   My body sways toward him, and I lift a hand to touch his chest. Not to push him away, but to gauge the shape of his muscles, which are rock hard under my palm. It’s a lot of muscle, but I already knew he was strong. 

       Stepping closer, he lifts my hair with his hands, and piles it into a messy knot against the back of my head. His thumbs brush the edges of my ears and our lips are only inches apart. The taste of his breath crosses my tongue. I’m finding I don’t care about my resolve. Sex will help. It will beat back my demons, help me sleep. 

       What the hell.

       The moment stretches and he has to kneel a little more to brush his mouth over mine. Just a brush. I open my eyes and find him looking down and we hang there for an endless moment. A sudden tumble of memories tells me that I’ve been paying attention to him for weeks, all the way back to Iceland. Noticing his laughter, his beautiful big hands, those powerful thighs. He isn’t a big talker, just watches everyone else, like I do. His fingertips slide on the back of my neck and my lips part in–

      “Here you two are!” Madeline says, then halts. “Oh, shit. Sorry, sorry!”

      I jump down from the table, sliding out of Alec’s grasp. “Nothing to be sorry about. What’s up?”

      She looks from me to Alec and raises her hands palms out. “We’re starting a board game, that’s all. You two might have other games you want to play.” She raises one black eyebrows and backs out, fluttering her fingers.