Soldier's Christmas Page 8


What was taking her so long? Damn, but he hated not knowing what to say to her. He scooped his hands through the lukewarm water, splashing up on his face and over his head until he saturated his close-cropped hair and admitted to himself he'd delayed thinking as long as he could.


Finally, he let his mind settle on what she'd told him. She didn't still love the other guy after all. The bastard had hurt her. How much, Josh couldn't even let himself think about yet or he would go crazy from inaction.


Why the hell hadn't he considered it before? The reason for her reticence made perfect sense. He wanted to pound his head against the wall for his own idiocy.


He watched her reindeer socks shuffle until he couldn't wait any longer to do something for her.


"Are you all right back there?" he asked, for now and the past.


"Yeah." Her voice drifted over the line, husky from so long in the stark elements. Please God, not from crying. "Just trying to balance everything until I finish up."


Too easily memories of helping her bathe in the past came to mind. They'd lucked into a joint TDY, staying in a bed-and-breakfast with an incredible spa tub. She'd been so slick and hot and all over him.


He hadn't misread her desire, damn it.


The line of dripping green survival gear rippled from her movement, her feet padding to the end. His gut knotted. She stepped into view. He forced his eyes to stay locked on her pale face, the dim light of the fire throwing a candlelight glow all around her.


A sheepish smile played with her lips as she pointed to her matching bra and panties that he would not, would not look at.


"Red-plaid underwear. Flannel," she declared. Her toes wiggled in her Rudolph socks, a safer place to keep his gaze. "Mystery solved. Nothing near as sexy as a thong."


He disagreed.


So much for keeping his eyes on her face. Holiday plaid stretched across her generous breasts, dog tags dangling. The sports-bra style covered much while leaving nothing to the imagination. He didn't need to look further. Her every curve, the dip of her waist, slight flare of her h*ps stayed imprinted in his photographic memory. His hands remembered well the contrasting feel of her soft br**sts and toned muscles.


And damn it, but he was starting to become aroused. Starting? Hell, he was already there, and no way to hide it.


Way to be sensitive, dumb ass.


Wincing, he turned away to stoke the fire, the one in the woodstove, since the one in his boxers was roaring just fine. "Damn, hon, I'm sorry. You're just so—"


"Josh, please don't go getting all weirded out on me about this." Her feet whispered across the floor, closer, until the heat of her seared his back without their skin even touching. "I'm the same person I was four weeks ago when you walked through our bedroom na*ed with pretty much the same action going on then as now."


"Roger. No getting weirded out." He turned, an inch of crackling air between them. "And I'm not. I just don't know how you need me to react."


"I need you to be honest."


He wanted to note that honesty from her might have been helpful over the past months, but that didn't seem wise. He stuffed down residual anger at her, himself, and most of all at the bastard who'd hurt her.


"We have to talk about what you told me."


"I know we do, and we will. Soon. I promise. It's just not easy." The confident brace of her bare shoulders faltered. "I've never told anyone before."


No one? In eight years?


His momentary flash of victory over being the one she'd told faded as he realized how high walls eight years in the making would be. Unease dripped over him like the water plopping from their clothes onto the cracked wood floor.


He stared down, no answers scrolled on the planks. But he did discover a distraction to buy time until he could figure out what to do next. "Let me see your feet."


"Huh?" Confusion puckered her brow even as she grinned. "You're one sick puppy, Rose-Bud." "I need to check your feet for frostbite." "Oh, how are yours?"


He lifted his bare feet one at a time. "Doing well. I may have some skin peel off, but I'm not going to lose any toes."


In front of the woodstove, he unfurled the sleeping bags and unzipped them. He draped one for padding and insulation on the floor. He zipped two together to make a double bed—she would just have to live with that because sharing body heat was practical. Then he draped the final open bag over top, musty but


clean.


And too inviting. He stepped back. "Now, sit." "Yes, sir." Shooting him a half salute, she dropped onto the dark green beddings and rolled off her socks.


He crouched on his haunches in front of her. Sitting with her on their bedroll seemed to be crossing a boundary best left in place until after they talked more. He lifted her left foot, grazing his thumbs along the tender instep to check circulation.


Goose bumps prickled over her very bare skin.


His gaze jerked up to hers. She was watching him. Intently. Aware. Her br**sts rose faster. Only shrieking wind and groaning metal rivets filled the silence between them.


He returned his focus to her feet, safer territory. Sort of. He rifled through his survival vest in search of the salve for blisters. He shuffled aside the magnifying glass, two pressure bandages, an eye patch, fishing hooks, until he found Band-Aids and the tube of disinfectant.


After tending one foot, he lowered it and lifted the other, careful to keep his touch firm this time. "I'm sorry you won't get to call your family on Christmas Eve morning."


"That's pretty much the least of our worries right now."


Okay, that caught his attention. Until he realized she meant whoever set up that mini-mining operation and not the fact that he could barely keep his hands off her. "We're okay for the next few hours at least until the storm lets up again. I added an extra wedge in the door while you were bathing. The flare guns are loaded. That's the most we can do for now."


She forked her fingers through sweaty locks swirled into loose curls around her face. "What a way to spend the holidays. Maybe I should start singing again or something. There were these two people in my sister's squadron who got stuck in the desert for Christmas Eve. They put together a whole survivalist celebration with a scrub-brush tree and cactus-slice cider."


Her story told him more than perhaps she intended. She wanted easy. Normal. Not weirded out. He could do normal, funny. For her, he would do damned near anything. "Is that a hint for me to hump my butt back outside and start gathering up pinecones to rig decorations?"


"Hey, we could string them over the stove with snare wire, like a garland." He laughed. She didn't. His humor faded. "You are joking, right?"


She blinked back at him. Already his skin chilled over just the thought of tramping outside again. Had she gone unhinged from the stress? But shit, if she wanted pinecones then he'd get them. He started to push up from the floor. A wicked smile split her face. "Gotcha." His laugh burst free, tangled with hers. "Yeah, you sure did."


In more ways than one. Laughter faded. He needed distance to make it through the night. He tugged out two packs of dried apples and tossed one to her. "It's about the closest I can come to apple cider."


"It's great. Thanks."


Silently they tore open the packets and reconstituted them with melted ice. He ate, trying not to watch her fingers scoop out the sweet fruit and suck the syrup off her fingers. Ah, hell.


What was it about this woman that grabbed hold of him and wouldn't let go? A woman who didn't need a damned thing from him and would only be open about her feelings when pressed to the wall. A woman with pain in her past he didn't have a clue how to heal.


Failure didn't sit well with him. "What was it you were having trouble with behind the screen?"


"Oh, um, I wanted to wash my hair." She set aside her empty fruit packet. "Ridiculous vanity, but I still feel gross. Probably silly to risk catching a cold."


Well, hell. There was something he could do for her after all. He may not be able to address her deeper wounds, but he could damn well wash her hair. And right now he needed action. He needed to feel like a man taking care of his wife.


A sexist thought? Probably. Especially considering his warrior wife could protect herself. But hey, he'd keep the words to himself. "Why not go for it? There's enough melted ice. It's warm in here. Storm's going to last through the night. You'll be well dry by morning."


She chewed her bottom lip but didn't say no.


Two long strides took him to the clothesline. He ducked behind to retrieve the extra metal washtub and place it in front of her. "You can lean over this. I'll pour the water from the other one over your head. No big deal."


Suddenly, an image of washing her back in that European hot tub splashed across his mind—a mighty damned big deal. But after months of her keeping such a crucial piece of herself away from him, he needed this sign from her. He may not ever have her love again, but he needed her trust.


She was only trusting him to wash her hair. No big deal, right? She wasn't giving him her heart again.


Just lean over that tub and let him pour some water over her head. It wasn't like they had anything else to do while snowbound in a rusted-out Quonset hut. Nope. Nothing else to do—except get na*ed together or talk.


Washing her hair sounded like a fine idea.


Alicia folded her hands in her lap to conceal the fact that they shook more than before her first solo flight in pilot training. "You really want to wash my hair?"


She watched him heft the water-filled tub from the stove, muscles rippling across his back, bulging along his legs. How unfair he had such a great butt that even Scooby-Doo boxers looked macho.


Josh crouched beside the two washtubs, beside her. "Consider it my Christmas present to you since we're stuck out here. And hey, a little secret between you and me." He winked, his best Josh-charm smile in place. "I really stunk at arts and crafts when I was a kid. I failed Paper Chain Making 101, so it's a fair bet any pinecone garland I string would suck."


He ripped a sheet mixed with the bedroll into towel-size strips, his flexing chest broad with dog tags nestled between toned pecs, bare, inviting. "I think we're better off if I give you the rustic salon treatment."


Even through his jokes and keeping things light for her, she could see his need for her trust. He was talking about a lot more than a hair wash right now and they both knew it. As much as she believed she had a right to her secrets, she also should have been honest with him. Or cut him loose.


She'd married this man while holding herself away. Their marriage might not be salvageable, but she still owed him something in honor of the love they had once shared.


The shaking in her hands spread to her insides until she feared she rattled as much as the Quonset hut against the roaring winds. But she wasn't a coward. She would start with the hair first, secrets later.


"Thank you. Since I can't have the pinecone trimmings, I'll graciously accept the hair wash."


Shifting her legs under her, she sat on her feet and leaned her head over the tub on the floor by the one full of clean water. Her dog tags clanked against the metal. Smoke from the fire drafted surprisingly well up the pipe until only the sweet scent of burning wood remained, almost sweet enough to cover the musty smell of bedding and damp clothes.


She gripped the sides of the basin, trying not to feel silly and oh so vulnerable with the back of her neck bare as if for an executioner. Her spine arched right there for him to see, curved in such a submissive pose.


Come on, Josh. Talk. Or do something other than tempt her with the warm whisper of his breath across her shoulders. The fire snapped and popped like the nerves inside her.


He cupped his hands in the water and trickled it over her head. Lukewarm, but still she shivered.


"Do you want me to heat it more?"


And wait longer? Or explain why now she suddenly didn't mind having grungy hair because the mere thought of being so exposed to him left her feeling weak and hungry? "No. Thanks. Go ahead and finish."


His hands continued to scoop until her hair was saturated. He reached for the bar of soap and lathered it in his hands. Not a salon-quality shampoo, but she would settle for clean.


Soon, please.


He palmed the crown of her head, slowly working over her hair to spread the suds. Strong fingers from an even stronger man massaged gentle circles along her scalp. Lethargy spread through her exhausted body. Against her steely will, her head lolled forward.


As long as she was doing the vulnerable gig, she might as well go for broke and finish spilling her story.


At least this way she didn't have to look him in the face when she talked. "When I told him, Ben, that it was over, he seemed so surprised."


Josh's fingers slowed, then picked up pace again while he stayed silent.


"He just sat there behind the steering wheel, staring stunned out the windshield over the city. I thought all the signs were there that the relationship needed to end, but he seemed clueless."


And what were her instincts telling her now? That she wanted to climb all over Josh and lose herself in his arms. In him. She yearned to forget everything and roll with him on the sleeping bag, bathed in the warmth and light of a crackling fire and his equally hot touch. But even if she trusted him, she wasn't so certain she trusted herself.


Stay strong. Hold it together.


Even if that meant being alone? Losing the incredible feel of Josh's hands, so conversely comforting and


stimulating.


Her hands clinging tighter to the metal rim, she rested her forehead against her knuckles. "Then he started crying and begging me not to leave him. I actually felt sorry for him—until I realized he was playing me. When the tears didn't work, he got angry." An understatement. Her jaw ached at the memory. "He hit me. I still don't understand how he gained control over the situation so quickly. I guess he caught me by surprise. And then I was dazed. My head hit the dash pretty hard."


His fingers twitched against her skull. Veins stood out along the tops of his feet. His hands fell away and she almost cried out at the loss. Then she heard the swirl of water, caught a flash as he scooped through.


Water trickled over her head and into the basin, parting murky suds. If only the past could be that easy to clean away, but she knew otherwise. "Eventually, he realized what he'd done."


After more blows than she could count or even fully remember. She couldn't begin to explain her mad scramble trying to get the hell out of the car. Every one of her nails breaking as she scraped her hand across the door, her vision clouded from a swollen eye, snarls of her hair, tears born of terror.

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