Authors: Misty Evans
Her heart stuttered in her chest, her voice mute as he disappeared from view, becoming one with the shadows.
AVANNA HUGGED HER
knees to her chest as icy fingers of fear wrapped around her lungs, crept into her throat. The distant alarm buzzed in time with her pulse, the rest of the house completely quiet.
Seconds stretched into minutes. How had an intruder made it past the men stationed outside? Was he—or she—now stalking through the house? She strained her eyes, staring into the shadows, praying Coldplay was all right.
She was no stranger to fear, but it had been a long time since she’d felt such a visceral surge of it. Uncurling herself, she kept her attention on her surroundings while reaching up and over her head to feel for the silverware on the island counter.
Her fingers touched cool metal, and one by one, she pulled down a fork, a knife, another fork. Keeping one fork by her side, she clenched the other two utensils in her hands and went into a crouched position, ready to lunge forward.
A fork and a knife
. A trained assassin would laugh at her, but hell if she was going to sit on the floor, paralyzed by fear, and do nothing if someone came after her.
A hard shudder went through her.
I’m not a victim. Never again
The alarm ceased. An eerie silence descended. Savanna held her breath, listening.
Without warning, a form emerged in the doorway and she startled, falling backward and hitting the island.
“All clear,” Coldplay said, coming forward and reaching a hand down to help her up.
Her heart played hopscotch in her chest. Her breath exhaled on a hard whoosh. “There’s no breach?” she managed to say as he took the knife from her hand and helped her stand.
“There is, but… Well, let me show you.”
He removed the fork from her hand, and made no comment about her choice of weapons. Then he threaded his fingers through her stiff ones and led her to the stairs.
The adrenaline in her veins continued to pump. There had been a breach. Someone had gotten through. Had he killed them like he had the assassin posing as a janitor?
His hand warmed hers—touching him was like touching a furnace. He generated enough heat to melt the polar caps. Her eyes adjusted to the dark, so she didn’t need to hang onto the stair railing, and she really didn’t need his guidance, but she clung to his hand anyway as they ascended to the second floor. The house continued to echo with near-silence, the only sound her soft footsteps on the carpet. Coldplay’s were completely mute.
How does he do that?
Following him down a hallway on the second floor, she felt herself relax. She didn’t want to need anyone, but she did. She needed Coldplay.
I don’t just need him
Her body’s response gave testament to that fact. Watching him, feeling his hand wrapped protectively around hers, following him into a part of the house she hadn’t explored yet, felt thrilling. Sexy. She wanted to pick up where they’d left off, like an adrenaline junkie ready for her next freefall.
What is wrong with me? I was crouching on the kitchen floor arming myself with stainless steel utensils five seconds ago and here I am ready to jump his bones
The feeling refused to leave, though, as he opened the French doors at the end of the hall and gently guided her by the elbow through them.
The room was huge and open, floor-to-ceiling windows facing the west garden. The furniture had been pushed aside, a folded towel placed on the floor to look out the windows. Coldplay’s boots and sat nearby, along with her laptop, still working at decrypting the USB.
The only light came from the partial moon, streaming in through the windows. It reflected on the expanse of snow outside, turning it a pale pewter grey.
“The windows are coated so no one can see in,” Coldplay told her as he drew her to the windows. “But we can see out.”
Peaceful. Mesmerizing. The quiet garden was bathed in soft moonlight, the trees and statues throwing short shadows over the ground. Coldplay pointed at the far south side of the garden. “Your friends who breached the infrared.”
Three deer grazed under a willow tree. A doe and two identical young ones. Twins.
As if the doe felt Savanna’s gaze, she lifted her head, looking toward the house. One of the young moved closer to her.
The way it should be. A mother should protect her child, not throw her under the bus.
Shaking it off, she refused to think about the past in this special moment. The mesmerizing sensation continued to fall over her like a warm blanket. The quiet, mixed with Coldplay’s presence and the beauty of the early morning…
Tears welled in her eyes for a completely different reason than they had earlier.
She was happy.
Crazy, apparently, too
Who would be happy in her shoes?
She was in deep shit and she knew it, but for this one moment, she felt safer and happier than she had since the night all those years ago at the Olympics.
“I never got to enjoy winter like most kids,” she said softly. “Building snowmen, having snowball fights, going sledding…I missed all of that.”
“Why?” Coldplay asked.
“I was up early to head to the gym every day, then school, then home and back to the gym until evening. Holidays were full of practice and traveling to meets. I didn’t have time, or the energy, for frivolous things like playing in the snow. By the time I quit gymnastics, I considered myself too old. Truth was, I didn’t really know how.”
The mother deer returned to grazing. The twins ventured a little farther from her, leaving small, dark tracks behind.
“Come on,” Coldplay said, grabbing her hand again and drawing her toward the door.
“Where are we going?” She hoped to his bed.
They went downstairs to a mudroom at the back of the house that led out into the garden they’d been viewing.
Coldplay flipped on the light. The mudroom held an assortment of boots, coats, snow pants, and ski equipment.
He eyed the assortment and started handing things to her. “Put these on.”
“Why?” She accepted a pair of boots. “Where are we going?”
“Why?” she repeated.
He tugged on a pair of snow pants and sat on the bench to put on boots. “To play in the snow.”
A grin teased her lips. “Is it safe?”
“I’ll make sure it is.”
She believed him and sat on the bench next to him to put on the boots. “These are too big for me.”
He rifled through a basket of brand new socks. “Stuff these in the ends,” he said.
A few minutes later, they were outside in the still, cold air. Coldplay had notified the guards watching the grounds that they’d be outside and not to panic if they heard noise and yelling.
The doe stared from twenty yards away as Savanna and Coldplay stood immobile and watched her and her babies. She seemed more curious than frightened.
Coldplay exhaled a long sigh, his breath clouding white above his head as he dropped it back and looked up at the stars. His gloved hand found her gloved hand and he squeezed her fingers through the thick fabric. “This is when you know you’re really alive. In nature, alone.”
She followed his gaze, living in the moment, the continuing feeling of happiness pervading her body. The crystal clear air heightened her senses. The stars twinkled.
“You’re not alone anymore,” she told him. “I don’t know who or what you were before you took this assignment, but who you are now is the only thing that counts.”
Coldplay released her hand. She heard the swish of his nylon coat and the snow pants as he shifted away.
The doe broke into a run, her babies running after her. “Coldplay, I just meant…”
The next thing she knew, Savanna was eating snow. A snowball hit her in the chest, ice crystals flying into her face and making her gasp. A second one hit her in the stomach.
He stood a few feet away, grinning from ear to ear and kneading a third snowball in his hands. “You might want to take cover,” he said. “I’m a damn good shot.”
This man. Laughter bubbled in her chest and she reached down to scoop up her own handful of snow. “Yeah, well, since I haven’t done this before, I get a handicap, right? Like you just stand there and let me hit you?”
He twirled round and flipped the snowball at her over his head, taking off in the direction of the willow tree. “Nope!”
Even not looking at her and her dodging to the left, he managed to hit her in the shoulder.
. She fired her snowball at his back and barely managed to hit his lower leg.
He laughed and ducked to the right behind a statue. “That’s the best you got, Jeffries?”
Scooping up another handful of snow, she ran after him.
HIN STRIPS OF
peach and pink broke the eastern horizon as Trace lay on the ground, out of breath and laughing. His army of snowmen had taken a beating from Savanna’s in the last snowball fight, but he’d bested her in snow angels, making three perfect ones to her one.
“Who taught you to throw like that?” he asked her, staring up at the waning night sky as it gave way to sunrise.
“Parker. It took a minute for it to come back to me, but it did. Who taught you how not to disturb the snow when getting out of your snow angels?”
No one had taught him. The balance and ability to not disturb his environment was part of his training. He sat up, wishing the night never had to end. He’d debated about bringing her outside like this, but the estate was secluded, his team was the elite of the elite, and he knew his heightened perception would register danger even before they did. “You’re soaking wet.”
Savanna was grinning from ear to ear, wet strands of her hair, the result of a few snowballs to the face, stuck to her chin and neck. “This was the best night,
, morning ever.”
A warm sensation low in his gut agreed. Rising to his feet, he stretched out a hand. “Let me help so you don’t mess this one up.”
She giggled and the sound made the warmth spread to his chest. “Can I lay here and watch the sunrise a little longer?”
Nothing would have made him happier. “You’re shivering. We need to get you warmed up.”
She huffed out a cloud of breath and sat up gingerly, putting up her hood. “All right.”
He jumped out of his snow angel, then lifted her from hers, making her laugh again. Placing her on her feet, he turned her around so she could see their angels, side by side.
“I haven’t had this much fun in years,” she murmured.
. “We can still watch the sunrise.”
She looked up at him, the hood of her coat too big and hanging half over her face. “We can?”
At that moment, he would have done anything for her. “Absolutely. Follow me.”
One last look at their backyard handiwork and she gave him a nod. “We should make snow forts later and have another snowball fight.”
Later. Yeah, he hoped there was a later.
The south side of the house contained a covered in-ground swimming pool and sunroom. The walls and ceiling were five-inch glass that had been mixed with a high-tech polymer making them bulletproof. Like all the windows in the house, they were coated with a special film. People inside could see out; those outside could not see in.
He led Savanna through the side door to the sunroom. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
After stripping off his coat and snow pants in the mudroom, he found hot cocoa mix in the kitchen pantry. His grandmother had always made him a cup when he’d come in from playing in the snow. She always had marshmallows, the big ones, and he would cover the top of the warm cocoa with them, making her laugh.
His half-eaten pancakes still sat on the island counter. He cleaned up the plates, checked the security feeds, and grabbed the laptop while the water heated. All was quiet.
Back in the sunroom, Savanna had removed her outer clothes and sat on a wicker love seat watching the horizon. She’d pulled the seat and a coffee table over for the best view, propping her feet on the table. Trace handed her a steaming mug of cocoa and a towel, set the laptop on the table, then took the seat next to her.
She scooted closer to him, resting her thigh against his, her shoulder brushing his bicep. “I’ve said this a lot in the past couple of days, but thank you.”
“For what? Kicking your ass at snow angels?”
She punched him softly. “For this break from real life. For giving me something I never had as a kid.”
They sipped their drinks in silence as the November sun stole the shadows from the trees and bathed their snow soldiers with a golden light.
I should be thanking her
As a SEAL, he’d always felt connected to the land, had had to know the terrain. This was different. In the quiet of a winter night, he felt something inside him expand. Something that had been crushed and smothered for too long.