It's never warm in Wisconsin. Not really anyway. Sure there are days, days when you thank God for air-conditioned coffeehouses or a cold beer and the family pool at your brother's. But they're nothing compared to the steaminess of Hong Kong as you gamble away your trust fund. Or the sweltering heat of New Orleans as you try your hand at something charitable for once. Or sultry summer nights in Manhattan, hot, sticky air filling your lungs as your life moves aimlessly from one debauchery-filled party to another.
Or Jamaica, Billy thought as knelt in front of the empty fireplace, its cold, dark opening taunting him with memories of a campfire on the beach and tingly warmth kindled from deep within. No, he thought, as he shivered and wiped raindrops from his face with the wet sleeve of his shirt, Wisconsin had nothing on Jamaica. It had only been a few weeks since that impromptu trip and though the calendar had marked the beginning of summer a couple of days ago, here he was soaked to the core, freezing his balls off and wondering how in the world he was going to turn ashes into fire.
With only the dim glow of candlelight and the occasional flash of lightning, he set to work, drawing from buried memory a set of instructions drilled in over time, with patience and love. He checked the flue first, made sure it was open and then using the poker, he spread the ashes from the last fire into an even bed. He crumpled the business section of an old newspaper for kindling, and despite the miserable conditions, smiled at the thought of Victor's face and a headline proclaiming him 'Business Tycoon of the Decade' going up in flames. On top of the newspaper he made a crisscross of small pieces of wood to support the large logs he placed on top. It was perfect, a thing of beauty, as long as it worked. The first match he lit fizzled out before it even reached his construction, so he moved closer to his target before striking the next.
"C'mon," he muttered to himself as he inched the tiny flame painfully slowly to the base of his pyramid. The newspaper smoked on contact and accepted the offering in a hot, thoughtless explosion. It spread slowly at first, then quick, engulfing the logs, well on its way to transforming a fast flame into a long, slow burn.
A strange sense of pride filled him, and Billy sat back on his haunches to admire his accomplishment. And for the first time since seeking shelter in his family's cabin, he hazarded a glance behind him. She was still there, still in the same spot just inside the door, her stance still defensive and angry, her arms still crossed against her soaked blouse like a petulant child, her eyes planted anywhere other than on him. Her stubbornness was usually a turn-on for him, a catalyst for thoughtless explosions of their own, but not tonight. Tonight it was frustrating. She was angry, and some of her anger was directed at him. But there was something deeper, had to be something deeper. What it was, however, the cause, the source, the solution, he wasn't sure of. The only thing he did know for certain was that tonight it was going to take a hell of a lot more than a little fire to thaw the ice princess.
"Here's your damn jacket."
The screen door slammed behind her, announcing her arrival, and Billy turned from his beer and ballgame just in time for the promised article of clothing to smack him in the face. It was wet, and so was she, proof of the storms, the cold front that the scrolling bar at the bottom of his TV kept warning about.
"Aw, thanks, baby," he grinned and stood, abandoning the jacket as he sauntered towards her, "but you didn't have to come all the way out here for this."
"That's not…what you said…on the phone," Victoria retorted with measured hostility. "It's my lucky jacket," she mimicked, "and I really, really need it for my meeting tomorrow."
It was true, all of it, and Billy couldn't help but smile at both her predicament and her imitation. He had indeed called and left a long message asking her if his jacket was by any chance in her car. He knew it was; he'd planted it there when she'd given him a ride home from the airport after Japan. It was part of their game, though, he had figured. Since learning that their Jamaican nuptials weren't legally binding, it seemed they were taking turns inventing silly reasons to be in the other's company, to guarantee that whatever this was would continue. He had hoped all day that his plan would work, that she would come over tonight, but once the rain started, he had almost given up on the possibility. She was here now, though, wet, mad and sexy as hell. Billy's night had just gotten infinitely better.
"So, what?" he smirked and narrowed his eyes at her, intentionally changing the subject. "Don't you Newmans believe in umbrellas?"
"Don't you Abbotts believe in paved walkways?" She gestured down, past her nearly sheer white blouse speckled with raindrops, past the hem of her skirt and her bare legs to her feet and the six-inch heels caked with mud. "These were $600 shoes, Billy. Now, they're crap."
"Yeah, well, you're rich. You can buy new ones." That earned him a fresh flash of anger, and she pushed past him, stomping off towards the bathroom, a trail of mud marking her path. "Okay," he laughed, "so I'll buy you new ones."
He followed her to the bathroom and watched with a mix of confusion and amusement as she slammed cabinet doors and searched every inch of the tiny space for something she clearly wasn't finding. "What are you doing, woman?"
She stopped her search and huffed, staring at his reflection in the mirror instead of turning around and facing him. "I am looking for the towel. You know the one towel you own. But let me guess, it's in the washing machine? Yeah, that's just great."
"Wait, wait, wait." He stopped her as she tried to push past him, her escape blocked by his arm stretched across the open doorway. She accepted her confinement with a loud sigh, and Billy took a step forward, moving his hand to fill the narrow space between their bodies. With his eyes glued to hers, he slipped a finger in the opening between two of the buttons of her blouse and tugged at the material gently, rubbing the wet silkiness between his fingers until she looked away. "Why don't we get you out of these wet clothes? I'll get out of mine. We can go in the other room. Dry off together. Or not. What do you say?"
"Or you could just be a grown up for once and buy another towel, Billy."
"Yeah," he growled in a low, suggestive tone, "but where's the fun in that?" He saw his opportunity, the proximity, the shift in tension, the perceived notion that she was caving to his charms. He moved to kiss her, but before his lips touched hers, she ducked beneath his arm and was gone.
"Are we—are we fighting?" he asked from the doorway of the bathroom. "I mean…it feels like we're fighting, but I'd like to know so I can properly prepare."
"Isn't that what we do, Billy?" She laughed then, but it wasn't the sound he had come to crave. It was fake and laced with defeat and a touch of sadness. "We fight. And then we have sex. That's it, right? That's what we do. That's why you called, isn't it?"
It surprised him that her words stung. It wasn't the first time they had argued, not even the first time they had argued about the status of their…whatever it was they were doing, but this time felt different. She felt different. They had been getting closer, at least he had thought they were getting closer, but this sudden change had him questioning it all. Suddenly, it felt like they were at the beginning all over again.
"Have I done something?" Billy lowered his voice and approached her again, placing his hands on top of her shoulders before she could protest or stop him. She tried to avoid his eyes, but ultimately there was no other place to look. "Naw," he said, studying her, "this has your dad written all over it. What is it? What did the moustache do now?"
"Why is it always about my dad?"
"Because it usually is."
"This was a mistake," she whispered and shook her head.
"What? What was a mistake?"
"Coming here." She broke away from him again as the two little words tumbled from her lips and marched towards the door. "Coming here was a huge mistake. I just really don't know what I was thinking."
"Where are you going? Would you just stop? Tell me what's wrong. We can …I don't know…talk. Or not talk. I won't mention your dad again. Just stay?"
"No," she answered without looking back at him. "I've had enough fighting for one day."
"What does that mean?" he called after her. "Vick? Vicky? Victoria?"
It was too late. The door slammed behind her again, and he heard her car start and the rush of tires over low thunder and pounding rain. On the television, a weatherman had interrupted the bottom of the fourth to warn about dangerous driving conditions, strong winds, downed power lines, the potential for flash flooding. Billy sighed and took one more long drink of beer before grabbing his keys and heading out into the storm.
Her taillights glowed red in front of him, blurry and then clear with the rhythmic swish of his windshield wipers. She was driving fast, not erratic, but fast enough that there was a safe distance between them. He had assumed she was going home, to the ranch, but at the intersection where she should have turned right, she kept going straight, away from home, away from him, away from town even. That concerned him more than had she been driving erratically. She was headed for the middle of nowhere, to roads that only lead to other places.
"Where are you going?" he asked out loud and wondered if even she knew.
He tried calling her, but her phone went straight to voicemail, probably because she was ignoring him, possibly because they were already so far outside the city limits that cell service was spotty at best. He sped up, closing in on her bumper and honked his horn in an effort to get her to stop. Or at least slow down. Or acknowledge him. It worked against him, and she went faster, the spray from her tires forcing his wipers to work overtime. He backed off and lost her for a minute around a curve, but just as quickly as the red glow disappeared, it reappeared, blurry and then clear, blurry and then clear.
The wind had picked up significantly since leaving the trailer, and it took a concentrated effort to dodge all the debris that littered the road. On either side of the two-lane highway, trees swayed like ghosts, waving their branches like arms warning or scaring all intruders away. Up ahead, the twin red lights of Victoria's car turned sharply and then intensified in brightness. Billy hit his brakes too and watched in panic as her tires spun and her car slid sideways, hydroplaning off the road. She was already out of the car by the time the incident fully registered in his brain, and Billy sighed in relief before racing through pounding rain to get to her.
"Victoria!" he yelled over the rain and his still-running engine. "You okay?"
She didn't answer him or even look at him. Instead, she continued pounding her fists against her car, kicking the tires in frustration at not being able to move it from the ditch it was stuck in.
"C'mon," he yelled again. "We'll get it towed first thing in the morning."
"No," she screamed back, finally acknowledging him.
"Okay, we'll get it towed tonight then. Just get in the car. I'll take you home."
"I don't want to go home."
The rain was coming down in sheets now, a white curtain in the headlights of Billy's car. He wiped his face with his hands over and over again like a windshield wiper, but there was no real protection from the cold, stinging rain or the wind that penetrated his skin through his soaked clothes.
"Then let's go back to the trailer. I'll stop and buy all the towels you want."
"No," she said again and finally turned to face him. "I don't want to go there either."
"Would you just…stop being so stubborn? We can go wherever you want, but honey, we can't stay here. It's freezing and storming. It's not safe, Victoria."
As if the universe were conspiring with him, the night lit up with a flash of lightning that spread across the sky, thin, wiry veins reaching to touch earth. In the split-second spark, Billy saw fear overtake fury in her eyes, and she jumped at the crack of thunder that followed.
"Get in the car," he pleaded again, too quiet for her to hear, but he didn't doubt she knew what he asked. She turned away again, and he feared he would have to drag her to the car, force her inside. But he was wrong. She retrieved her purse and keys from inside her vehicle and followed him obediently to his car.
She wouldn't look at him once inside, and he didn't try to make her talk. The tension was too high, and the interior of his sports car too small and drenched to handle an argument. He didn't know what to do, where they were going. It was a long way back to town, a long way back to everything familiar, and the storm was intensifying so much that staying on the road wasn't an option anyway. But he had to get them somewhere, somewhere with more heat than the lukewarm draft blowing from his vents. He surveyed their surroundings, trying to make a decision before she bolted again when he realized where they were, that they weren't on a road that led to nowhere. They were close, real close to a hidden drive that led to a place he was familiar with, a place a lot like home.
Billy turned back to his fire, stoking it proudly, basking in its warmth and the crackling sound of the wood as it broke under pressure. The cabin had seemed like a good idea at first, an answer to their problem, but when his car stalled halfway up the driveway, all four tires stuck in mud, and they'd had to run the last quarter of a mile in freezing rain, he questioned the decision. If her shoes hadn't been ruined before, they certainly were now.
"Fire's going," he announced and stood up, hoping to break the ice. "It should, uh, it should be warm soon."
Still, she said nothing, made no movement. Billy grabbed a couple of blankets from the couch and walked towards her. "Here," he said, holding the larger, warmer of the two out to her. "You should probably get out of those wet clothes." Déjà vu hit him, and afraid she would his statement the wrong, he amended it. "You can-you can wrap up in this until your, uh, your clothes are dry."
He stuttered, but he couldn't help it. Up close, it was easier to see her in the candlelight. Her hair was matted against the sides of her face, like when she first got out of the shower, and there was one perfect drop of rain on the tip of her nose that he wanted to wipe away. Like him, her clothes were suctioned to her, her blouse like a see-through second skin, the outline of her bra visible as were the darker tips of her breasts, hard and at attention. For one brief moment, Billy was thankful for the cold.
He forced himself to look away and shoved the blanket even closer to her. She eyed his offering for a split second before refusing with a not-so-subtle cut of her eyes. He scoffed at her, at her epic stubbornness, but took it back by responding gently, laying the blanket across the back of the chair closest to her and walking back to the fire. He was determined to wear her down, even if it took all night and all of his tricks. He tossed the second blanket, the one he had kept for himself, on the couch and then ignoring the buttons, pulled his shirt over his head. Though it was wet, he used it to wipe the excess moisture from his face and his hair before letting it drop to the floor. His shoes and socks were the next wet objects to be discarded, and when his hands moved to the fly of his pants, he sought Victoria out of the corner of his eye. Still nothing. He moved the zipper down fast, for maximum noise, and in one quick move, peeled both his pants and boxers down his legs, leaving him naked as the day he was born. He stood that way for more than a minute, letting the fire warm him, all of him, but when his natural state did nothing to thaw the room, he grabbed the blanket and wrapped it around his waist, tucking the ends inside for mobility.
"I'm gonna go see what else I can find," he said quickly, pointing in the direction of the hallway that led to the bedrooms. He didn't want to leave the fire but hoped that a little privacy was what she needed.
As he roamed from room to room, Billy could tell that, except for a kangaroo court, no one had been there for a while. That made him a little sad as he walked through memory after memory, of summers spent swimming, fishing, racing on jet-skis and winters filled with skiing and skating and hot cocoa by the fire. And his father. His family. He pushed back that ache for something that was gone and never could be again, turning his attention back to the task at hand. Though he had little expectation of finding anything in the neglected drawers and closets, he searched them anyway, hoping the more time he spent among the ghosts of his family, the more time she would have to cool down, ironically enough.
The last bedroom he came to was the most familiar, the one he had called his own since he was a boy. It was exactly the same as he remembered, the same quilt across the bed, the same painting of a father and son fishing from a dock above it. In the dresser, he found a pair of pajama pants, flannel and probably too small for him, too large for her. He took them anyway and then searched the closet. All he saw in there, though, was a blue ski suit, but as he shifted the hangers forward, something else appeared, something he had forgotten about, something that made him smile. It was blue and nearly twenty years old, the cascading red letters that spelled out 'Rangers' slightly faded and tattered. It would do neither of them any good, but Billy grabbed it anyway and headed back to Victoria and the warmth of the fire.
"I didn't find a lot," he said upon re-entering. "But maybe you can…"
He stopped when he saw she was still soaking wet, only her mud-caked shoes removed, the blanket he had offered still on the back of the chair. She hadn't moved, and in that moment he realized that her stubbornness was greater than he had ever imagined. He held out his new findings to her, but when again she wouldn't look at him, he tossed them on the floor and shook his head angrily.
"Fine, princess. Freeze to death. See if I care."
He left her there, skulking back to stoke his fire, anger growing inside him. He wanted to yell at her, to shake her and ask what in the hell was wrong with her. He wanted to know why she was being such a bitch when all he was doing was trying to help her, all he had wanted to do since New Year's Eve was help her. His frustration had grown too much, and he swirled around to confront her, but stopped just as quickly.
He saw her then, saw all the things he had missed earlier. She had moved. Her hands were in front of her waist, the front of her blouse pulled from the confines of her skirt, but her fingers didn't move. She shook her hands once and then again, moving them closer to the bottom button, but the button remained in tact. She looked at him for the first time then, and for the first time he saw how pale her skin was, the blue tint of her lips, the fear in her eyes. She whimpered, the only sound she could make, and Billy's pulse quickened, fear of his on congealing in his throat. He rushed to her and took her hands in his. They were like icicles. He knew that kind of cold, the kind that snuck up on you and hurt until it didn't anymore.
Without thinking, without asking, he ripped her shirt open and pushed it from her body. Her bra was next, and he averted his eyes, working quickly and methodically. His hands fumbled for the zipper on her skirt, and when he found it, he stripped her completely, but left her exposed for only a second as he grabbed the blanket she had turned down and wrapped it around her. He half pushed, half carried her to the fireplace, pulling her with him to the floor, his arms wrapped tight around her as he rubbed warmth into her arms.
"You're okay," he breathed into her wet hair. "You're gonna be okay."
Then finally, in the golden glow of the fire, Victoria let go and shivered, her body shaking hard as Billy pulled her even closer, her head coming to rest against his warm, safe shoulder as his promise circled around them both.