Chapter Nine

The next morning, the sun was not given the time needed to heat her out of her tent. It was beaten by a knock on a nearby tree. A tall figure’s shadow draped over the canvas dome. Extending an arm from out her sleeping bag, Denise accessed the tent pocket hanging above her head, pulled down her can of pepper spray.

After unzipping, she flipped the sleeping bag open, and a shiver passed through her as the morning air washed over her entire length.

Apparently, the figure did not think its shadow was proof of presence remaining; it took to rapping on the tree again.

She went for the tent opening, dragging the zipper free a few bumps in order to peak out with one eye and saw him. She had started with the lean legs wrapped in denim which had fallen into view first and then her gaze climbed higher; trying to ignore the nice, firm rear end and strong back, she’d made it to the back of his head. If the body wasn’t enough, the dirty, light brown hair clearly gave way identity. Richard was knocking near her tent.

She focused back on his shirt, waiting for him to turn and then never lifting her gaze higher. She squinted like her eyes had not adjusted to the sun. In that way, she was able to dam up her tears. When her eye first alighted on Richard, they had still held the haze of sleep. Therefore, her first waking image was of him, the one she lost. Maybe, she had thought, it was all a dream, a very long dream and here he was, real and true…. True was a matter of timing. She blinked and her one-second fantasy had ended, and she had taken to squinting.

She rubbed at her eyes as she asked, “Can I help you?”

“Too hot in the room?” he asked.

She shrugged, “sure.”

“Sven offered that I have at his continental breakfast this morning. Mind if I join you?”

She eyed him as she withheld an answer. Would refusal even work? Why was he here? Hadn’t she shown how terrible company she was last night?

“After which, I will escort you to the nearest rest area.”

She returned to the t-shirt as she shrugged, repeated her reply, “sure.”

She re-zipped the door and flopped back on the ground to pull on her boots.

At her re-entry to the world, a callused hand entered her sight as she prepared to step up. She grasped the offer and found it warm and gentle but firm as he pulled her to standing. Yet she quickly discarded his grasp, not open to reliving old sensations, even if he stirred something new in her.

She turned back to pull up a tent peg, slide out a pole.

“Leave it,” he said. “It will be there after breakfast. And besides you should let the sun dry off some of this dew so you don’t have a moldy scent when you climb in tonight.”

“Alright. But my pack stays with me.”

“Of course.”

They crossed the parking lot. She pushed his presence out of her mind and allowed the scenery a grand performance of distraction.

It was the first wisp of daylight she observed touching the roofs of the town. The sun alighted on mist trails. She saw a ballet of flowing particles inside the angled rays. Following the rays back, mountain peaks were given a sharp black silhouette. Birds offered light, but brief, song.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered.

“Yes,” he answered.

Oh, she thought, that’s right; she had company. But he seemed as eager as she to get her out of this town. She couldn’t blame him although the morning felt a tad colder.

* * *

Richard held the door and then followed her in, nodding at Sven behind the desk. Yeah, this would cost him, he knew. Sven would talk his ear off when next Richard took his boat out, but it was all part of the bargain.

As she waited for the waffle dough to creep out from between the iron, her slender hands encircling a ceramic coffee cup, she sipped without conscious thought at the mug’s contents. As far as he could tell, she was just as closed-off as last night. But it wasn’t going to stop him; it only propelled him forward with his plan.

Once seated, her gaze darted about the room, streaming past him, though snagging for a moment.

“What?” she snapped, giving up and finally acknowledging his obvious interest.

“I was just wondering how many times I would have to ask before I got the truth from you? About what happened?”

“Probably too many, because I don’t see how it’s any of your business anyway.”

Maybe it hadn’t been. Maybe it still wasn’t, but he wanted to change that. She was pushing him away at every turn, building up walls, but she couldn’t hide everything in her round, doe eyes. He saw the fragility, the hurt. She was broken, and he wanted to fix her. She couldn’t keep running under her current condition.

“Besides, what does it matter?” she continued after his thought-filled silence. “I’ll be out of here before noon.”

Not if he was driving she wouldn’t. “Exactly,” he said instead, “What does it matter if I know?” It mattered to him on a more selfish level than merely helping her to stand a little stronger. He enjoyed her closeness, the briefest touches, and meeting those brown eyes, finding green flecks in them when they hinted at her spark, her spirit. He’d had a peak of it and wanted to see the release of more, of her.

“It’s not fit for a morning chat,” she replied.

She left her chair and walked over to flip open the waffle iron. With syrup and a banana in hand, she re-claimed her seat. They were alone in the lobby.

When she sat back down, he started again. “You’re right.”

She looked up from her banana slicing.

“Your life changing event can wait until later. Until then, how about a discussion on hobbies?”

She considered the option. Her eyes narrowed, shadowed in memory.

“Maybe not,” he replied. “How about … any food allergies?”

She raised a brow and around a bite of waffle she asked, “Are you kidding me?”

“What?” He spread his arms. “You can’t come up with a lie for that one?”

“Alright, that’s it.” She put her fork down, the green glittering in her storming gaze, life anew. “Why are you doing this? I don’t want to be the person you are making me out to be.”

She wasn’t and proving it to him only stirred his interest further. “So don’t,” he replied. He had to dig deeper, had to.

“You’re forcing me to,” she fired back, threw up her hands then let them land in her lap. “I was doing just fine until you came along–a little light conversation with mere acquaintances. That was it. On to the next stop and the next ride down the road. All of it was distraction and a way out. That’s me. That’s what I’m after and there is nothing else.”

He considered the energy aflame in her eyes and the rush of warmth to her cheeks. Sure, that’s it, he thought sarcastically, but she had seen the futility in engaging him with anything but honesty. She gave him more and would leave it at that, for now. He nodded at her. “Okay.”

She slung her pack over her shoulder as she stood. “Okay, so let’s go.”

“Don’t you want to go freshen up first?”

“No,” she replied. “I just want to get the hell out of this town and its interrogative inhabitants.” She turned and headed for the exit as he stood there a moment. Sure, he would get her out of town, but she’d have to face some sort of interrogation sometime, and delaying it was not of use to anyone, particularly him. Sensing her absence and the ensuing need to rectify the distance between them, he strode after her. It was best for both of them.

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