She closed her eyes and relaxed. Kanita sang ‘S’jemi ne,’ the N.O.A.H Remix. She was safe. Her breathing relaxed, and the stress drained from her body. His hand was still resting on her thigh, his right thumb rubbing in assurance, lightly, absentmindedly. It was a personal connection both of them wanted; her because of her ordeal, him because of his. Six months before, he made a mistake that cost one of his teammates his life. Six months before that he had seen a horror beyond comprehension. He had not been able to get past those dark experiences, but perhaps he could help her get past hers.
Her eyes closed, and she reached her hand down, trapping his hand against her thigh in permission and folding her fingers through his from the top. She smiled and said with amusement. “Yep, two Libras.”
They were both comfortable with it, and she drifted off to sleep. He left his hand there until they turned north onto Hwy 97.
As they headed north off Hwy 84, he used his phone to check his emails. There were a few miscellaneous messages from clients who could wait until tomorrow. There was nothing more from needsomehelp, so he checked his Signal account.
John had sent a message. He was in Mexico and wanted to know if his birthday present had arrived. Gary answered back, “Yes, it will look great in the pool.”
There was also a message on Signal from needsomehelp; all it said was: “My name is Don. Fred Cooke referred me to you.” Gary sent a message back using voice recognition. “I’m on the road. Can chat in four hours or in the morning. What did Fred tell you about us?”
He set the phone down and relaxed. Paige was sleeping next to him, her face calm. He studied her damage more closely, taking inventory. The eyebrow did look like it was going to need some help. It had been too long since she was beaten to stitch it now. If needed, a plastic surgeon could clean it up after it healed. The rest, at least what could be seen, would be ok in a week or two. For now, she needed rest, nutrition, a chiropractor, and some acupuncture. Those were things he could take care of, he thought. The emotional healing would take longer, but she would be ok once she got to the house and felt secure. Carla’s mothering was going to help too; he smiled at that image.
Finally, satisfied he had an idea how to help her, he returned his attention to the drive ahead. Gary liked this part of the country, mile after mile of vineyards, rolling desert hills, and small farms. He liked how it smelled in the morning and the way the heat felt in the evening, at least in the summers. The barren, frozen winters he did not enjoy as much, which was why he spent as much time as possible in the Caribbean and The Philippines. Thoughts rolled through his mind as he drove. He probably should not have bought the place in the Philippines, a boutique dive resort on Dinagat Island. During his last visit there four months ago he was so relaxed and enjoyed the people so much, that when he found out the owner was looking to sell and return to Europe, he decided to buy it. He liked the idea of having a base of operations in Southeast Asia. So now he owned a place in Washington State, two homes in St Kitts, the cute little resort in The Philippines, and the yacht in Belize.
As they approached Yakima, the traffic started picking up. Approaching Union Gap, where 97 merged into 82, they passed a semi, and the sound woke Paige. She blinked a bit, disoriented, then as she looked at Gary, she smiled. “Hi there, hero!” she purred warmly as she stretched and straightened in her seat. “Ouch! Oh, that hurts. Thanks for letting me sleep. I think that is the best I’ve had in a week,” she combed her fingers through her hair as she looked around. “Where are we?”
“We’re about ten minutes from Target,” he replied with a smile. “You’re adorable when you sleep. You don’t even drool much.”
Her hand moved instinctively to her mouth. She looked at him, trying to figure out if he was serious. “I didn’t, did I?”
He laughed. “No, not at all, but I couldn’t resist teasing you. Paybacks, and all that.”
“You!” Her face pulled back in mock outrage. “You are so bad!” She slapped his arm playfully.
“You don’t know the half of it.” He was enjoying their playful banter. It was smooth; no feeling of being contrived; he was not used to being with someone who played with him like this. “Speaking of bad. Maybe we should cover some housekeeping items before we get to the house.”
She looked at him with caution and curiosity.
“First, there are no drugs or smoking on the property. I can’t stand it in the house, and outside, this is a dry country, so we avoid fires, and I’m not into the drug scene.” He looked straight at her for confirmation.
Paige nodded sincerely. “I don’t smoke or do drugs. I have smoked pot a few times with friends, but it’s not a big deal to me.”
She didn’t seem the druggy type to him, she seemed more of the athletic, organic food type, but he didn’t really know much about her yet. He found himself very relieved to hear she didn’t smoke, knowing he would have been very disappointed if she did.
“There is some alcohol around, mostly beer and wine. You are an adult. We aren’t heavy drinkers” He thought about what he just said. “Well, that’s not true but I can’t remember the last time any of us were drunk. I’m just letting you know because if Carla catches you drunk, you’re on your own. I’ll fight a grizzly for you, but Carla is a force of nature.”
She thought for a moment; the drinking didn’t pose a problem for her either. “You have Grizzlies?” she teased him again.
“We did have one, but Jax ate it.” He did not smile.
“Bad dog, huh?”
“Not to you,” he assured her. “He loves women.”
She smiled flirtatiously. “Like his owner?”
He looked at her. Lord, it is smooth with this woman, he thought. The tussle between them was not competitive like it was with Layla. More like blending than contrasting, it was like watching cream as you swirled it into coffee, eventually both disappearing into each other.
“The other thing is, I don’t wear a lot of clothes around the house. I like heat, and I’m not very modest. I’ll do my best to remember to keep my shorts on.” He looked at her, and she looked at him. Her mental wheels were turning.
“You mean naked?”
“Well,” he started. “Usually only when I’m lying in the sun. Around the house, I usually wear a pair of boxer briefs. Keeps my ass and balls from sticking to the chairs.” He was trying to shock her, looking for a victory in their battle. Without missing so much as a heartbeat, she came right back.
“You should try baby powder; it solves that problem,” She grinned, her expression clearly saying, “Check and Mate, I’m the winner!”
Fuck! he thought to himself, Sparring with this girl is like boxing with your shadow. He laughed, “Libras, huh?”
She smirked, “Yup!”
“Am I going to get a win here?”
The sparkle in her eyes shifted to warmth. “If I decide to let you.”
“So, what, I’ll just wait for the memo?”
She laughed, “Oh no, you have to keep trying. That is what builds it up and makes it fun. The only way you lose is if you quit.”
“So, if I keep losing then eventually, I win?”
She looked at him and nodded, then she said, simply, “Perfect.”
The friendly, slightly flirty banter relaxed her. She perceived no threat from this man, just sexy fun as he allowed her to be in control of the pace. He liked that she liked it. She liked that he liked that she liked it.
“So, back to the naked thing; you don’t just get to drop a bomb like that without more explanation. How does Carla handle that?”
“Well, she’s used to it, and other than the occasional risqué comment, she is mostly immune by this time.”
He looked at her again and she could tell he was being serious, “I am always careful if her daughter Cristal is around, and now with you around, if I don’t change, I’ll catch hell. Carla makes my life easy, she’s family, and I don’t like to piss her off. Besides, she talks to my mom.”
Paige laughed. “I guess we know how things stack up then! I can’t wait to meet her.”
“Carla is definitely the momma type. You should expect it. She means well, and she knows her place and also her power. You’re probably going to be her new project. I’m actually excited about that because it will take her focus off of me!”
He laughed again, and she joined in, wincing when she stretched her mouth. “I can handle it,” she smiled. “I never had that, actually. I always thought it would be better if I had a real mom.”
Soon they were turning into the parking lot at Target. The temperature readout on his dash said 85°, but they knew when they opened the doors it would feel like 100°. Neither of them felt like walking a block across the superheated asphalt parking lot, so Gary took a few turns through the lot before a space opened up right near the door.
Smiling, he said, “Oh yeah, God loves me.”
He turned the car off and smiled at Paige. “Are you ready for some retail therapy?”
She smiled as big as her broken face allowed. “I’ve heard about that. How does it work?”
“It works fantastic!” he chuckled. “We go inside and buy the place out. John’s paying.”
She looked at him with a question in her eye. “Is he really paying? I don’t have any money to pay him back, and that’s not right.”
“He probably won’t pay me back, but I’m going to get my money’s worth spoiling you and giving him a bad time about it. It will be a source of argument for months.”
“Are you sure you can afford it?”
He had commented about his wealth, but she did not know what he meant; there was no reason she should. He really liked her reluctance to spend money. “Well, we might not make the rent this month, but it will be worth it.”
She knew he was teasing. “Thanks, Gary. I’ve never known anyone like you.”
There was dampness in her eyes. He smiled and casually squeezed her hand. He was very aware he touched her at every opportunity; she was not objecting.
“Ok, sweetheart, let’s get going and get home. We don’t want to keep dinner waiting!”
He got out of the car, and she met him at the quarter panel. It was hot, and the withering heat radiating up from the asphalt was brutal. The key fob button locked the car with a beep as they walked to the store. Crossing the parking lot, she was looking at him oddly.
“What?” he asked.
“You called me, sweetheart.”
“Did I? Huh, imagine that. Is that ok?”
She smiled. “It’s perfect.”
Reaching down, he took her left hand and folded it into the inside of his right arm. Co-conspirators, they headed inside as she snuggled close. This is going to be fun, he thought, grabbing a big red cart.
To Be Continued!! As we finish the third chapter, Gary and Paige have fun shopping, and Paige defends her new found territory!