Cold Front

Chapter 4

The wine they'd forgotten to drink sloshed against the sides of the glasses when Billy scooped the pair of them from the floor with one hand. The near-spills went unnoticed as he grabbed the half-empty bottle of dark liquid and the aluminum pan that rattled with unpopped kernels in his free hand. His movements were hurried, but focused. He wasn't sure how much time he had and so used his feet to kick the twisted blankets and scattered pillows out of the way as he walked. The glasses and wine and popcorn he settled among the still-flickering candles on the coffee table, and with one last kick, he cleared the fireplace of all remnants from their picnic. Something crinkled at his feet, hidden in the quilted folds, a bag of puffy whiteness that made him smile, and for a moment, all sense of time and task was lost in her boldness and the burn of melted marshmallow, the heat of her mouth against his skin.

"You're all sticky."

"Yeah? So are you."

"And whose fault is that? Huh?" Billy poked her ribs through soft blue until she flinched and turned in his embrace, resting her hand on his chest, on top of her hand, her chin. Her blue eyes twinkling with playfulness and seduction were so close it almost hurt to look into them.

"Well, I thought you liked… what was it? The 'single…hot…sticky…fun stuff.'"

"Uh huh," he grinned and cleared his throat. "I knew it."

"Knew what?"

"You do listen to me. You just-you hang on my every word, don't ya?"

"Oh, please." She lifted her head so her hand could swat at his face and the shit-eating grin on display. "Maybe…maybe I have to listen to you. For legal reasons."

"Legal reasons?" he laughed. "Really? That the best you can do?"

"Yeah. See the last time I listened to you I went to Jamaica. And we got married."

"Jamaica was fun, though. Admit it. And the wedding wasn't legal. So…everything turned out fine."

"Yeah. Fine," she murmured. "And now you don't have to worry about boring marital sex. We can stick with the fun stuff. No strings attached."

She was smiling, but there was something in her voice that threatened to change the mood of the evening yet again. He felt it too and instantly regretted bringing up Jamaica and the drunken exchange of vows. He wanted to tell her that nothing with her had or ever could be boring, even in the confines of marriage, legal or otherwise. More than that, he wanted to touch her cheek and brush away the strand of hair that cast a shadowy river across her face and then in the candlelight say the three words he'd avoided until now, just loud enough for her to hear over the roar of the fire and the beating of his own coward's heart. But before his wants could manifest into action, Victoria reached across him to the bag of fat, fluffy marshmallows. She grabbed one and another and another, and all three she shoved into his open mouth before succumbing to laughter. 0nce again, the mood was light and playful, the moment had passed, strings remained unattached.

Billy wiped most of the grin off his face and pulled the bag of marshmallows from its hiding spot. He spun it closed, forcing all the air out and then tossed it blindly onto the coffee table while his eyes ventured down the hallway to see how much of his plan had been compromised by his daydreaming.

Victoria was in the bathroom, thankfully still in the bathroom in seemed. He had walked her there, to the door that was now closed, just a few minutes earlier, but then he'd left her alone with the pair of candles that had guided them in the dark and a joke about the working state of the doorknob. No matter how intimate you were with a woman, you gave her privacy. Another piece of advice from the great John Abbott that had trickled into his subconscious tonight. It was strange to Billy, strange but weirdly comforting, how much of his dad was coming back to him lately. Since New Year's Eve. Since Victoria. The connection had not gone unnoticed.

But he had been okay with leaving her alone. Giving her privacy had given him the chance to grab the mattress from the bedroom he had searched earlier, and drag it, sheets and all, to the living room. It was leaning against the wall, waiting, and with the mess cleared, Billy tugged at it again and let it fall with a thud in the place where he and Victoria had made love twice now. He adjusted it, straightened it, until it was even with the fireplace and then spread both blankets he had kicked out of the way on top, smoothing each layer as he went and tightly tucking the ends beneath the mattress. He then turned down the top layers and added pillows from both the couch and the bedroom for a finishing touch of comfort.

"Perfect," he sighed as he stood and admired his work, work that more than a little reminded him of that Ryokan hotel in Tokyo. He smiled, but as his eyes took in the bigger scene, the candles, the fire, the wine, his confidence waned. "Maybe too perfect?"

What would she think? Was it too romantic? Was that them? Would she like it or roll her eyes and start a fight about feelings and intentions? It was too late and impractical to take the mattress back, so Billy set to work making the scene a little less perfect. He scattered the pillows again and rumpled the covers until they didn't look like something out of a hotel ad. What was left in both glasses of wine he downed in two gulps and then crossed the make-do bed like it was a river to get to his fire.

He planned to stay there and seem busy, adding more logs to the fire, stirring life back into the ashes until she emerged from the bathroom, but outside, in the world that hadn't existed in hours, a noise rumbled overhead, a noise loud enough and close enough to make the window panes rattle in their casements. It wasn't thunder. The rain had stopped long ago, when the taste of marshmallow and her still mingled in his mouth. This noise waned and then came back, louder, closer. Billy abandoned the fire and went to the door to investigate. A rush of cold air forced its way inside uninvited, and he folded his arms across his bare chest as he stepped out onto the cold, wet porch. The sky was lighter than night. The full underbelly of the clouds glowed with the moonlight they held hostage from earth. The rain had indeed stopped, but the air was still heavy with moisture, and raindrops clung to every railing and every branch like tiny drops of silver.

All was quiet once again, and there was no sign of the noise's source except for tiny blinking dots of light that grew even smaller between tree branches. A helicopter. A search team or a medic. There must have a wreck due to the storm. Or maybe it was a news crew surveying the damage. Nothing to concern him. Nothing to do with them at all.

Satisfied, Billy turned to go back inside to the warmth that waited for him, but another noise stopped him, a low earthly rumble and the crushing and spitting of gravel. Headlights blinded him. He raised an arm to shield his eyes as a dark SUV barreled towards him. He didn't recognize the car, but the three shadowy figures that emerged from it he knew right away.

"No," he said to the night and rolled his neck in anguish. "You've got to be kidding me."


Victoria stared into the wood-framed mirror that spanned the length of the counter. The reflection that stared back was a stranger. Part of it, undoubtedly, was her attire, the blue hockey jersey so unlike her. And then there was the smudge of mascara under her eyes. And the hair made wild by the rain and the lovemaking. But it was her smile, that giddy, involuntary grin that confused and surprised her the most. She tried to hide it, to cover it with her hands, but it was still there, stretching to her eyes like sunlight to the ocean, blossoming in the rosy fullness of her cheeks.

There was no denying it. She was happy. Happy. That elusive, distrustful emotion.

Just a few months ago, it had seemed impossible. After J.T., after another failed marriage, she had been convinced that love was out of the question for her. Men, she decided, were either attracted to her because of her genetic link to the great Victor Newman, or repulsed by it. There was no middle ground where she was the deciding factor. So she accepted it as fact and fate and was ready to let that part of her life go, determined to focus on Reed and business, give her heart a rest. Then he came along. Billy Abbott. The last person in the world she should be involved with, he was responsible for her standing in the middle of a bathroom in a cabin in the middle of nowhere with the goofiest grin across her face. Happy. She could get used to this happy.

"It stopped raining."

Billy's mouth was full of marshmallow, the other half of which was in hers. "Yeah?"

"Mamma. I think so anyway." He sat up and peered into the darkness that covered the windows. She followed suit, pulling a blanket into her lap as she bit another marshmallow in half. "Maybe it won't be too bad in the morning," he said. "Getting my car out of the mud."

"Or maybe you could just leave it there." He raised an eyebrow at her and opened his mouth wide. She complied, tossing the uneaten half for him to catch and then nervously pushed her hair away from her face. "It's just...it's been kinda nice being stuck here. You know, not having to deal with my dad. Or our exes. Or any number of family members with unsolicited advice."

"Can't argue with that."

"Kinda makes you wanna hide out here forever, doesn't it?"

He smiled and scooted closer to her. "I'm game. But, um, there's a couple problems with your little plan."

"Yeah. Like what?"

"Like…work."

"Easy. Work from home. Or better yet, no more work."

"No more work? You? Um…Ok." He laughed and inched closer still until his pajama-clad knee hit her quilt-covered one. "What about food? Cause I don't think we'll make it very long on marshmallows and wine."

She pulled another marshmallow from the bag in her lap and rolled it between her fingers while she contemplated his question. "We're rich," she finally shrugged. ""We'll figure something out."

A look of victory swept over her face, and she threw the marshmallow at him. It hit Billy on the nose and rolled down his chest until he caught it in his hand, in a grip so threatening she turned away fearing retaliation. But while she wasn't looking Billy leaned into her and touched the marshmallow to her lips, tracing her mouth with it until she turned back to him. He teased her lips apart, and she moved to take a bite. But just as she did, he pulled the marshmallow away and began a journey with it over her jaw line, down her neck to the rise of her breasts and the "v" of the jersey.

"And clothes?" he asked in a voice so low and deep she felt it reverberate inside her at the point of contact, where the marshmallow he held met her chest. "What will we do about clothes?"

"Clothes? Oh, I don't think we'll need clothes, Billy. In fact, clothing will be strictly…optional."

"Uh uh," he smiled, placing his lips against hers. "Clothing will be strictly…forbidden. You got that?"

She laughed, and he tossed the marshmallow into the fire so he could grab her face. He kissed her soft and then hard. She felt herself drowning and willing to be swept away once more when the only real hindrance to the plan entered her mind.

"The kids," she said breathlessly, pulling away from him. "What about our kids?"

His initial confusion transformed quickly to understanding. She felt sorry for ruining the mood, and cast her eyes down in apology. They were only playing, they were always only playing. They both knew that, but for a minute it had felt real and possible and wanted.

"Hey," he said and tilted her face up. He was smiling, a smile impossible not to return. "We're rich. We'll figure something out."

Her happiness faded a bit, and the reflection in the mirror became a little more familiar. Except for her very un-Newman-like appearance. Victoria laughed at herself and turned her attention back to the reason she had asked him where the bathroom was in the first place. In the small closet next to her, she found shelf after shelf of towels, all clean and perfectly folded. She smiled, relieved to discover that the one-towel maximum wasn't an Abbott trait.

She grabbed a washcloth from a stack, wet it and began wiping away the black marks under her eyes. The truth about her and Billy was complicated she realized as she gazed at herself. Part of what they were doing was irresponsible. Running off to Jamaica had been irresponsible. Getting married had been irresponsible. And since then, they hadn't exactly been careful, not that pregnancy was likely given her history. Besides, despite the joking, they were exclusive, and nothing they had done was harmful to anyone else. They were having fun, and it was easier to pretend that that was all it was. But their kids were real, and the growing feelings were real, and so no matter how much they tried to pretend otherwise, things between them could never be simple or without strings attached. Hiding from the real world forever was not an option.

Her face clean again, Victoria sighed and tackled her hair next. She raised her arms and twisted the length into a tight spiral that she coiled into a bun on top of her head. As she tucked the loose ends in, the hem of the jersey rose, and she caught sight of the marshmallow trail still on the inside of her thigh and the red marks the heat and Billy's mouth had made. She blushed at the memory and stuck the washcloth under the running water again, wetting it more than before. The warmth of the running liquid surprised her, and she realized Billy was wrong about not having hot water. She was glad, though. Hot water would make removing the sticky residue easier.

It also sparked other ideas. Behind her reflection, the largest claw foot bathtub she had ever seen called to her. Things with Billy might indeed be complicated, and maybe they couldn't hide here forever, but tonight, for the next few hours, the only things that existed in the world were inside the Abbott cabin. Tonight she wanted fun. She wanted to feel irresponsibility race through her blood, scalding and unapologetic.


"No, no, no, no, no," Billy warned the three fast-approaching figures. They ignored him, continuing their advance, and one by one pushed past him in their rain jackets and self –appointed authority until they had fully invaded the cabin "What the hell?"

"Where's my daughter?" the most ominous of the three asked.

Billy followed them inside and quickly cut them off, relegating them to the entrance. "None of your business."

"Billy, we saw her car on the road. It looked pretty bad. We just want to make sure she's okay. That you're both okay."

Billy glared at his Judas brother, the second in the line of three, and wondered what series of events had led to him joining the witch hunt. "She's fine," he spat. "She's fine. I'm fine. So you can just turn around and head back down the mountain."

"Not until I see my daughter. If you would kindly get her."

Victor spoke over him as usual, barely acknowledging him as more than a servant even though it was his family's cabin the older man stood in making his demands. The look on Jack's face suggested Billy just do as he was told, while the third one, the youngest of the three, remained silent, his small, beady eyes fixed on the fireplace, his lips pursed in some strange, familiar combination of hurt and jealousy. He might have felt sorry for him, for any of them, if the things Victoria had told him earlier weren't clear in his mind, as clear as the memory of her almost freezing to death in the spot where they now stood. Her hurts had become his, and he was determined to spare her any more.

"Hey, Billy." Her sweet, playful voice filled the room before she did. Panic squeezed tight in his chest, turning his warrior's fury into fear and concern for her. He wanted nothing more than to stop her, but it was too late. "The water's hot. You want to join me in the …"

She froze at the sight of them, and Billy watched her transform right in front of him, first her face and then her entire stance. All of her warmness solidified into an icy statue. He understood and didn't try to fight it. She was standing half-dressed in a strange place, confronted in a surprise attack by more than one of the reasons she was here in the first place. It was natural to be defensive, in self-protection mode, even her extreme form of it, but still, Billy couldn't help but feel a sting of sadness, the looming sense of something lost as her warm smile clenched into a hardened stare, her eyes steely with determination. It felt a lot like that morning Rafe called with the news their marriage wasn't legal.

"What's going on here?" Her voice was as composed as she appeared, but beneath it, Billy heard the shakiness she tried to mask.

"We have company," Billy answered with an exaggerated clearing of his throat.

She didn't look at him, didn't look at the fake smile plastered on his face or the desperate plea in his eyes, begging her to let him be on her side. No, her eyes stayed on her father and Jack and J.T., calculating their presence, determining a strategy for handling this unexpected turn of events. "Reed," she said suddenly and rushed towards the group, stopping when she reached Billy. "Is something wrong with Reed?"

For the first time since entering the cabin, J.T. showed signs of life at the mention of his son. "No," he said quickly and looked directly at Victoria. "Reed's fine."

Her shoulders relaxed a little, but the tension and discomfort in the room grew with her new proximity. It was harder for them now to ignore the nature of the setting, the candles, the wine, the crackling fire, the disheveled mattress, the two half-dressed people standing in front of them, one with a trail of dried white substance on the inside of her thigh, the other with matching clumps still on him too, in the wisps of hair in the center of his chest and at the waistband of the snug pajama bottoms. This is what seemed to cause the most discomfort for their visitors. It would have been funny, this situation, any other time, and Billy would have loved torturing them with what seemed to be. But tonight his concern was Victoria.

"Awe, c'mon," he said and moved in front of her, to block her. He reached for the couch and his nearly dry shirt, which he offered her as a cover-up. Her confusion turned to embarrassment at the realization, but she accepted his offering and wrapped it around her waist with the surprising hint of a smile. "It's marshmallow, okay. It's just marshmallow."

"Billy," he heard Jack say behind him. "What happened? Your back. It's all scratched…"

The room once again became uncomfortably still as Billy reached across his shoulder and touched the tender skin that bore her marks. The corner of his mouth turned up as his fingertips smoothed over the raised lines, and she pulled her bottom lip between her teeth.

"Sorry," she mouthed.

"I'm not," he said and turned back to face the speechless trio.

"So Reed's okay?" she asked her ex again. He nodded in response. "Then why are you here? Why are all of you here?"

"The three stooges here found your car," Billy answered. "Seems there was a full-on search. Helicopter and everything."

"We, uh, we got worried when we couldn't find you," J.T finally explained. "See, Reed, he uh, he changed his mind about the sleepover when the storm started, and I thought you might want your night back. I called your parents looking for you. I called Billy, too."

"And when they couldn't find Billy, J.T called me," Jack added. "We were worried, Victoria. That's all. But it seems like whatever happened, they're both okay, gentlemen, so we should be going."

The drama appeared to be over as two of the men moved towards the door. But Victor stayed, his arms crossed over the black leather jacket he wore, and his disapproving eyes leveled at his daughter.

"Get your things together," he ordered her. His voice surprised them all and stopped the two retreating men in their tracks.

"Excuse me?" she returned. "Get my things together?"

"Mmm. I'll take you home. To your son. He's at the ranch with your mother."

Billy watched her face. They were all glued to the exchange between father and daughter, the words said, the words unsaid, but he saw all the emotions cross her face, anger, hurt, love. Anger was winning, though, and he touched her shoulder gently to remind her he was there, on her side.

"C'mon," he whispered. "Let's just go."

"No," she snapped and flung his hand off her shoulder. His shirt too, she tossed as she moved closer to her father, holding his gaze just as stubbornly. She crossed her arms across the blue jersey, mirroring her father's stance. "I'm not going anywhere."

"Don't be ridiculous, girl. You'd rather stay here with this degenerate than be at home with your son? You are a mother. You need to act like it. Not running off with Billy Abbott every time you get upset. Making your mother worry. Why? To get back at me for some silly disagreement? Is that why you're here?"

"Stop. Just stop," Billy shouted over him. "This is all my fault. I'm the reason she's here. The reason her car's in a ditch. So if you want to blame someone, blame me."

"Billy," Victoria warned. He saw fear in her eyes, fear that he would tell what really happened, that she had come to him upset, that they had fought, that she had in fact run off and they both nearly got hypothermia from the rain. Mostly, that Victor wasn't so wrong. Billy looked away quickly, down at his feet before meeting Victor menacing glare for menacing glare. Trust had to be earned, and with her, he realized it was going to be a tough battle.

"Look, I called and asked Victoria to meet me here. So we could be alone without ...without our mothers or anyone else barging in. I didn't pay attention to the weather. If I had known, I never would have let her…I never would have asked her. This was no plan to make you suffer, Victor. Look around. I just wanted a nice evening alone with your daughter."

As expected, Victor didn't respond, not even to his goading, but Jack did on behalf of the trio. "That true?" he asked Victoria.

She uncrossed her arms and stared at her clasped hands. Billy knew she was contemplating the lie and her part in it.

"I was supposed to have Reed tonight," she finally said and looked up at J.T. "And…when that didn't work out, yes, Jack, I made other plans, plans that had nothing to do with my father. I did not intend to run off the road. I did not intend to make you all worry. It was raining, and there was water on the road. If Billy hadn't come along…..He saved me. You should be thanking him, not berating him."

She cut her eyes to Billy then, and for a minute it felt like they were alone again. Only the sound of Jack's voice reminded them they weren't.

"You sure you want to stay here? It's no problem giving you both a lift."

"I'm sure, Jack. Billy…Billy can go if he wants, but I'm staying. It's late. Reed's got to be asleep by now. And despite what J.T. may think, having full custody does not give him the right to dictate my visitation schedule."

She glared at her ex, who looked ashamed and apologetic. Jack turned to Billy, the same question he had asked Victoria, he silently asked his brother.

"Oh, I'm staying," Billy said automatically.

Disgusted and defeated, Victor headed for the door without a word. "One more thing, Dad," Victoria called after him. "I won't be at work tomorrow. I'm taking the day off. I always loved riding the day after a storm." The door slammed before she finished, but she smiled anyway and looked at Billy. There was an invitation in her eyes, and he accepted with a smile of his own.

"And after that, I'm going to pick up my son and take him home with me for the night." She shot J.T. a challenging look, but he didn't fight her, just nodded his understanding.

"Reed'll be happy," he said. "And I, uh, I'll make sure your car gets towed. Get you a rental til it's fixed."

"You don't have to…"

"Yeah, I do," J. T. said as he disappeared into the night.

Outside, an engine started, but Jack made no move to leave. He approached Victoria instead, his eyes on the diagonal letters that covered her. "It's been a long time since I've seen this," he said with an air of nostalgia. He looked at Billy first and then back at Victoria. "My brother used to guard this thing like it was the Shroud of Turin. Wouldn't let anybody touch it. Said nobody was good enough to wear it except him. I guess things change."

Billy shot his big brother a death stare and rubbed at his head mortified. Victoria didn't see, though. She was staring down at the jersey she wore, a new appreciation for it, for the man who had loaned it to her.

"I'll have Mrs. Martinez put together a basket of food and have it dropped off in the morning." Jack was at the door, his hand on the handle, his body lit by the headlights waiting on him outside.

"Thank you, Jack."

"Not too early, though," Billy quipped.

"Not too early," his brother confirmed. "Oh, and the water is hot because it's solar-heated. I had it switched over a few years back…for storms. So...your plan for earlier…you're good to go."

The door banged shut one last time, the engine revved and gravel spit and spun beneath tires. Then it was over, and the room was silent again, empty except for the ghosts that remained and the unspoken words and tension left behind. Victoria sighed loudly and marched to the kitchen where she held a towel under running water.

"You didn't have to stay…" She spoke as she cleaned the marshmallow from her leg, without looking at him. The distance was too much, and he quickly eliminated it. Her back was against the counter, and he stood in front of her, trapping her, with only the towel she held in her hand between them.

"Neither did you. Home's a lot nicer than this. Warmer."

"I don't know about that." Her hand inched up his chest, and she touched the warm, wet towel to him, gently wiping away the white residue she was responsible for. "You didn't have to lie either. But thank you."

Her touch was soft and erotic as she dabbed and then stroked his chest, forcing the wet hairs straight and flat against his skin. He swallowed hard and touched her hair, loosening the bun until it fell in one big curl to her shoulders. "It's, um, sort of my job to spin facts into the story I want to publish. If it looks like the truth, you can sell it as the truth."

"The mattress. That was a nice touch."

"Yeah, well I thought if we were stuck here all night, we might as well be…comfortable. That-that's all."

"I have to admit," she breathed against his chest, "it does look very romantic. Very convincing. The wine. The candles. The fire. Only thing missing was music."

"Music? You want music?"

"No. Wait. Where are you…what are you…"

"You just reminded me," he said from across the room. She dropped the wet towel into the sink and watched him open a cabinet that revealed a record player. Below was a shelf of vinyls, and Billy thumbed through them all before choosing one. Victoria started to remind him about the electricity when the slow, sexy moan of a saxophone filled the room. "It's battery-powered," he grinned. "You wanna?"

He held his hand out to her, palm side up. His other hand he placed behind his back in a formal request. She laughed and shook her head "no," but Billy waltzed towards her and bent low, extending his hand closer. She was hesitant, but accepted, touching her fingertips delicately to his. It was all he needed to pull her close, his arm wrapping around her waist just as a deep voice joined the saxophone.

"My dad liked the classics," he explained as they began to sway and the crooner belted out velvety lyrics about moonlight and stolen kisses.

She smiled shyly and drew her arms up to his strong, bare shoulders. Her fingertips met at the base of his neck, that place where smooth skin met the coarseness of his hairline. They played there, running along that groomed boundary before plunging into the depths of his hair. She did this again and again. Each time he leaned more into her touch, his own fingers slipping lower down her waist. He was at her mercy, at her pleasure. This was a different kind of dancing for them, different from a masked encounter, different from drunken steps in the sand. They were sober. And they were alone. There was no one to see when their swaying slowed so that they hardly moved. Or when her foot slipped between his feet, making it hard to tell they were two separate beings. Or that they were so close, his breath on her cheek sent a shiver down her spine.

"You cold?" he whispered as the slow sax faded away and the needle scratched across the record.

"A little," she breathed against his ear, and before she knew it he was steering them towards the fireplace, fast and twirling to keep up with the beat of the next song.

He spun her out and then back into his arms, again and again. They danced wild and reckless on top of the mattress, its softness challenging them to keep their balance until finally a misstep, and they collapsed breathless on top on it.

"You make me laugh," she squealed when she could breathe again. He was on top of her, sprawled against her as though still dancing. His eyes, in fact, still were dancing, twinkling with candlelight and warmth. She felt if she stared into them long enough, she would see every beautiful thing the world had to offer.

"Yeah, I'm a funny guy," he smiled.

"No," she said softer than before. "You. Make. Me. Laugh. On a regular basis. And that's no small thing." She smiled, and he dipped his head to avoid her unnerving gaze. "No, I mean it. If you're ever up for sainthood, that could be your miracle."

"And you love your family," she continued, and he looked back into her eyes, realizing what she was doing. "You're loyal to them. Even when they don't deserve it. You're a good dad. And a hard worker. Even if I don't really like your work. You don't judge people, and you see that…there's more to them than what's on the surface. You have honor, and you stand up for what you believe in."

She let one hand slide from his neck and touched his face, her thumb pressing against his mouth. She shifted her weight so that he could settle between her thighs and one scandalous foot could hook around his leg. "And you're really, really, really good in bed."

He laughed and blushed simultaneously, but when the laughter faded, his mouth stayed open. The words were there, on the tip of his tongue like something sweet he wanted to both share and keep for himself, like a fledgling teetering on the edge of a nest, ready to fly, but uncertain still. They were there, and he was as brave as he was ever going to be.

"What is it?" she asked so sweetly he stopped breathing and for a minute forgot that he wanted to tell her how she'd changed him, how she was all he thought about, that his dreams now consisted of Sundays and bare feet in a kitchen they called theirs. That lying next to her at night was as close to heaven as he ever wanted to be.

"You can say it, you know. Whatever it is," she smiled. "Vegas, remember? Anything you say tonight …it won't leave these four walls."

He did remember. He remembered all too well the promise he made her earlier. "Stays here," he repeated quietly.

"Yeah. Like it never happened."

"It's nothing then. Nothing." Her smile faded into contemplation, but there were no words he could use to explain his sudden change of heart. So he smiled, big and suggestive and kissed her thumb that still rested by his mouth. "It's just…I was wondering what my chances are for a hat trick tonight."

"I told you I'm more of a baseball fan," she sighed while her rogue foot massaged his butt. "I was thinking about a grand slam."

She knew. He saw in her eyes that she knew what he was going to say and why he didn't say it. And he saw in her lascivious grin that she was okay with it. Billy grabbed her thigh, the one nearly wrapped around him, and pushed his way beneath the jersey to her bare hip, lifting her so he press against her harder. She gasped, but pulled him closer against her, his lips just above hers.

"I love…the way you think," he said.

"Yeah? Me too."

They were the last coherent words of the evening, the last words before his mouth crashed down on hers. He wouldn't say them tonight, those three words. Not here, not under the circumstances. But he would say them. He was more convinced than ever. She would too. He saw it in her eyes, felt it in the way she touched him.

He didn't know who would say them first. Or where. They might come out planned and full of courage. They might be blurted in a moment of heat or passion or laughter. They might be whispered in the dark or in the light of day. His place or hers, some place neither had ever been. All of those things were still unknown, and there was a pleasure in that, something to hold onto, a promised gift only the two of them knew about. Right now, it was theirs, theirs alone. It didn't need defending or explaining or sharing. It just was.

And tonight, in the glow of the fire he had built, on the mattress he had dragged in front of it, he would use something other than words to tell her how he felt. He said it a thousand different ways, with a thousand different touches. His love was in the press of his lips against hers, the stroke of his tongue against hers, the way he peeled the blue jersey from her body without touching her. She was beautiful, every inch of her skin made golden by the firelight, every inch of her that rose beneath his touch, the delicate curve of her back, that dip at the base he claimed for himself with a fiery kiss. And when he finally entered her, fully and deep, those three words were in each breathy thrust, each passionate grab of flesh, and the sigh, that sigh that ended it all.

For a few more hours, all that existed in the world was wrapped up in sleepy blankets and each other, while outside, all that was left of the cold front, clung to the windows and whistled through the trees, just a ghost of the fury it had been.