Sofia figured she’d be followed, that German wouldn’t just let her go without tailing her. But so far, as she hiked back along their original trail, she had yet to see a single pewter strand of hair from his head.
Perhaps he’d given up on her, after all, and hitched a ride back to the farm. If he was smart, that’s what he’d do. Leave her to the mess that was her life and not try to rescue her.
A friend who would hire them without questions?
Too fishy even if he wasn’t lying about it.
Christ, she was roasting. And still hungry. As soon as her panic subsided, she realized she’d fled without eating all of her breakfast. Truly brilliant, considering she didn’t know where her next meal was coming from. She chalked up the roasting of her insides to stress, which made sense: she was still wigging out over the loss of her best friend.
Which German’s presence eased a little.
What wasn’t easing, despite the cool shade of the deeper woods, was the heat beneath her skin. Sofia felt feverish, consumed. Getting a little desperate, she stopped to dig a dirt shelf along the bottom edge of a boulder. It looked inviting as hell, what with the back of it draped with thick moss and damp earth. If she was lucky, the rock wouldn’t only hide her, but would help to cool her off. She squirmed into the hand-dug relief with…relief.
She didn’t realize she’d dozed until she came to. The fever was gone, but so was the sun. She’d been asleep for the better part of the day. What was wrong with her? She’d never slept so well and couldn’t fathom why now suddenly, she could. Unless it was because she was miles from anyone who could bother her.
Who was sitting with his back to a birch tree, looking harmless enough, but looking at her. Her hand groped for the .22 at her back, and she heaved a Hollywood sigh when she found it was still tucked into her belt.
“I didn’t think I’d need to take it this time.” He kept his elbows on his bent knees and his ass firmly planted on the ground. “Was I right?”
Sofia plucked a leaf out of her hair without taking her eyes off him.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” The chuckle rumbling out of his wide chest caressed her cooled skin. “You okay?”
She nodded as she planted her own ass into the dirt, her muscles going soft as her back molded to the smooth contours of the boulder behind her. Her tracker said nothing else, just watched her, his expression neutral, as though they sat on a park bench, absently throwing crumbs to the pigeons. It was Sofia who broke the silence.
“How’d you find me again?”
He looked from one side to other as if to make sure no one was listening. “I smelled you,” he grinned shyly, like he admitted a very absurd thing.
She didn’t smile with him. “You mean I stink, or you followed my, ah, scent?”
Of course, the answer he gave reeled her back to their conversation in the diner.
“I sniffed out your trail.”
He wasn’t lying. So, what did she say to that?
Oh. Right. The calm they were sharing evaporated with a poof. “Sure you did. Quit fucking teasing me.”
“I’m not teasing. I did.” His shy grin disappeared and he hardened his stare like she’d be able to see it in the darkening woods.
“You followed my trail with your nose?”
She latched her own hard stare onto his. The man’s grin returned, and it wasn’t shy.
“I knew you could see me.”
“Because I said I smelled a girl?” What uncanny leap of logic was it if that was the case?
“Yes. Among other things.”
I’m dreaming. Yet she plowed on. “Like what?”
“You were hot, right? Which is why you dug yourself a hole. To cool off.”
“Not exactly Sherlock Holmes, are you? It’s summer.”
“I wasn’t referring to the heat of the sun.”
“Who are you?”
“A friend who’s more like you than you know.”
Christ, he was quick with his answers. Direct. Honest.
Which aroused her. And left her uncharacteristically defenseless. She had no snappy comebacks, couldn’t even put him off with her cold stare.
So now what? She’d never been in a situation like this before, where the person she locked horns with held just as much sway as she did. Plus, she didn’t exactly mind getting locked, which was definitely a first.
“A friend you say, huh?”
God, that growl.
“I’ve never had a friend, except for Sol-Dog.” Shit. That sounded more pathetic than she intended. “What I mean is, I’m not really sure what’s next here. I mean, this is…weird.”
He chuckled again, and damn if it didn’t make its home under her skin. “Well, I’m probably not the one to ask what happens next.”
Huh. That was the right thing to say, because it eased her in the way his body language did. He still wasn’t lying.
“So, then.” Sofia looked around as if searching for a distraction. Hell, maybe she was, because she hadn’t been lying when she admitted the situation was weird. The silence between them lengthened, without growing heavy. Frogs started up their mating gronk, which meant there was a pond somewhere nearby. After listening to a few amphibious weddings, she let her voice whisper in the darkness.
“How are you like me?” She held her breath, waiting for his reply.
“I can see in the dark.”
“We know that already. Tell me something else.”
“I like meat. Prefer it, actually.”
“You’re boring me.” She pictured her breakfast plate and smiled after lowering her face to hide it. Man, but she loved this banter.
“I know when people lie.”
“That’s good. Not in that’s helpful good, but in you just hit a homerun.”
He grinned, his teeth catching the glint of the rising moon. Then he unfolded himself to stand on his two feet.
“Can I show you something?”
Her lips parted. “Uh-huh.”
German swallowed the distance between them so when he knelt in front of her, she could smell the birch resin from the tree he’d been leaning against. Then the air around them, no, that wasn’t right. The air around him heated up, like he was some kind of furnace.
“You’re hot!” Sofia reached out tentatively for his muscled shoulder, like he might actually burn her fingertips.
“Thanks. It’s not every day a pretty woman tells me that.”
They mirrored broad smiles at his joke.
“How do you do that?”
“It’s in me always. I just shiver it to life, like shaking the embers in a campfire.”
“Yes way. You can too, except not so easily. Yet.”
“You’re freaking me out.”
“I know. I can read body language, remember?” He backed off and returned to his tree. “Listen. You’re probably hungry, right? Why don’t you get us a small fire going and I’ll round us up something to eat.”
“Ah, so that’s it. You’re luring me in with the prospect of food and friendship because you want my gun.” She was only half kidding.
“Nah. I’ll do fine without it. Just get the fire going. I won’t be too long.” He tossed a packet at her lap.
Matches. He was serious.
Then, starting with his boots, he shed his clothes and laid them in a neat pile beside his tree. “I’ll be back.”
Without a sound, he disappeared as if the forest ate him in a single bite.
Okay, then. So she’d just met someone a lot stranger than she was. Imagine that. They did exist. Which should have scared her a little. Instead, she was oddly…happy to think he trusted her enough to reveal that side of him.
And what a side it was. Naked as he was, she could see the guy was built like an effing model for Healthy Living. He didn’t sport a Body by Jake. He’d earned his etched physique by using his muscles longer than reps in a gym would allow. His body was crafted by stamina.
For a virgin, Sofia found herself having some pretty brazen thoughts about what kind of food his body was going to provide. Without a doubt, she bet she could find sustenance in it.
Fumbling the matches, she figured she’d better hold up her end of things instead of mentally lusting, just in case he really did come back with something.
She scraped up enough dead leaves, twigs, and branches to keep a fire going for at least a few hours, scooped out a pit for the fire, arranged the kindling then struck a match.
Coddling the precious flame as she coaxed it to life.
~Installment #21 coming soon.