McCall awoke when the sunlight filtered in through her living room blinds and caught her across the face. She held a hand in front of her eyes, forcing them open even though they still felt cracked and dry with fatigue. Hunter had dropped her off near two a.m., and it was just past seven now. She had slept four hours at the most, and he was due to show up shortly so they could go do Round Two of Christmas, this time at her parents' home.
Although this schedule didn't leave her much time to complete her new battle-ready morning routine, she was unable to muster any sense of urgency. She lay on the couch, staring at the ceiling, and thought about what Hunter had said to her the previous evening. I think you should see someone. A doctor.
Because he thought she was sick, or more aptly, crazy. This was the message. All the work she had put in, all the effort to present a stiff upper lip and do her job like always, never offering any hint of the churning terror she hid behind her eyes, it had fooled Hunter not one iota. He'd made it sound so easy—just call up some shrink and get her head screwed on right again. She could only imagine what Anita might say if she'd explained what happened. What was the definition of insanity again? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?
She pushed herself slowly off the couch, grimacing as her ribs shifted, but at least now she was able to breathe through the quick burst of pain. She trudged up the stairs, careful not to touch the railing. It had been repaired, and no one else would even know it had been broken. On the outside, everything was perfect again. No one knew the details, the pieces of the story she had never said aloud. How heavy he was when he fell on top of her. The stink of his breath through the stocking mask. How she had been dizzy, unable to breathe, her strength slipping away as she realized she was going to lose the fight. Maybe he'll kill me this time, she had thought, and the thought was a comfort, because at least then it would be over. She wouldn't have to survive on the other side.
But then the sirens wailed and he ran off, leaving her stunned and broken on her living room floor. Reprieve. It didn't happen. It didn't have to be. Almost only counted in horseshoes and hand grenades, right?
So she wasn't going to sell her house and move this time. She wasn't going to take a leave of absence and sit around sobbing in her bathrobe. And she sure as hell wasn't going to call up a doctor and have him or her say it didn't matter, that almost raped was just as bad, or near enough to count. She simply had to put one foot in front of the other until she had enough distance between herself and that awful night so that it could no longer touch her. The past, she was determined, would be left where it belonged…assuming Hunter was willing to cooperate with her on this.
She showered and changed without really looking in the mirror, and put on a black pin-striped shirt paired with a cheery red cardigan. She had told Hunter that dress was casual, but he showed up in a gray suit and subdued black-and-silver tie. He wasn't holding coffee this time, although he looked like he could have used some. "Two a.m. is later than it used to be," he informed her as he smothered a yawn against his forearm.
"You don't have to come," she told him as she gathered up the two sacks of presents for her family. "It's really okay."
She'd invited him because she'd thought he was on her side. He was supposed to help her hide what happened, not try to drag it out into the light for everyone to see.
"Nope. Fair is fair," he replied as he relieved her of one bag. "You got to meet all my crazy relatives, so now I get to meet yours."
She shivered and hunched deeper into her coat as they walked to the car. Winter never truly settled on Los Angeles, but this was the coldest Christmas in years. The current temperature was only in the 40s, and the filtered sun felt very far away.
"You've met my family," she told him as they got into his car. She knew even as she said it that a few tense handshakes in the ICU didn't really count as a proper introduction.
"Yeah, but this way I get to observe you in your natural habitat," he said, squinting over at her. "See where you came from."
She was hoping to be reminded of this herself, so she said nothing in reply. It was a quiet drive, and she spoke up again when they neared her parents' house, guiding him with directions through the hills until they arrived at the spot she had once called home. Hunter made a show of leaning over her and peering out the window at the large two-story Mediterranean-style home. At least it was winter, so the fountain was turned off.
"What does your father do again?" he asked her.
"He's retired," she said, pushing him back toward his side.
"From the oil industry? Loan sharking? Running a small island nation in the Pacific?"
"Banking," she told him, with a pointed look. "And the house is not that big."
"It has columns," he replied as they walked up the path from the circular driveway.
"They're structural." She was already feeling defensive and they weren't even in the doorway yet.
The heavy front door swung open before she could knock, and her older brother Jonathan stood on the other side, with each of his young sons pressed against his legs. "It's about time," he groused, although he was smiling. "You couldn't have run the siren?"
"The siren!" Her nephew Mark's face lit up. "Can we run it? Can we?"
"Maybe later," McCall told him as she ruffled his head. "We don't want Santa to have to take the presents back because we were disturbing the peace." She turned to glance at Hunter. "John, you remember my partner, Rick Hunter."
"Of course. Merry Christmas." The men exchanged handshakes while her nephews craned their heads up to get a better look at Hunter.
"These are my nephews," McCall explained. "Mark is…eight?"
He nodded, and she pressed on, emboldened now.
"Evan is four."
"Five and a quarter!" he shouted in protest.
McCall spread her hands in apology, but Hunter crouched down to Evan's level. "The quarter makes all the difference," he agreed solemnly as he pulled a shiny one out from behind Evan's ear. The boy laughed in delight when Hunter handed him the coin.
"Watch out—it probably has two heads," McCall muttered.
John elbowed her lightly on the arm. "I hope you have more casual attire in one of those bags because the game is on for this afternoon, and your team is going down this year." He flexed his bicep. "I've been working out, see?"
"I get to play on Daddy's team," Mark declared proudly.
"Me, too!" Evan jumped up and down, and Mark shoved him.
"Nah, you're still a shrimp."
McCall touched the top of Evan's black curls. "You can watch with me," she told him. "I'm sitting this one out." The annual family backyard football game was competitive enough that people ended up on the ground, and her ribs had barely been stitched back together.
"What?" John frowned. "What are you talking about, sitting this one out?"
She cleared her throat. "I pulled a rib muscle at the gym a few weeks ago," she said. "Just overdid it, I guess." She felt Hunter's eyes on her as she said the lie, but she knew he would never give her away. This was her family, her play; he would back her up.
The rest of her relatives swept into the entryway at that point: her mother and her father, who hugged and kissed her and welcomed Hunter with their usual manners—friendly, if not entirely warm; her Uncle George and Aunt Elizabeth; their grown sons Robert and Kenny, and daughter, Ellen. Ellen had been Dee Dee's playmate at these family functions growing up, given their closeness in age. Then as adults the two had both married a man named Steve within a year of one another. It had been funny and charming, a great source of family amusement at first, and then it suddenly became awful the first Christmas there was only one Steve. Ellen and her husband had practically hidden from her back then, shrinking in their seats, leaving rooms as soon as she'd entered just so she wouldn't have to see them and how happy they still were.
It was funny, McCall thought as she hugged them now and admired their new baby daughter. She could remember how terrible that year had seemed but that particular pain had long evaporated.
Her mother relieved her of the bag of presents as they walked toward the family room. As usual, her parents had a ten-foot tree decked out with white lights and red bows. McCall stopped to check out a few of the more familiar ornaments nestled among the greenery: a popsicle and cotton-ball Santa Claus made by John several decades ago; a lead crystal Christmas tree handed down from her great-grandmother; and a red clay elf she had made in nursery school. It was old and delicate now, but her tiny fingerprints were still visible along the edges.
"Are you staying the night?" her mother asked her as she finished adding McCall's presents to the stack beneath the tree.
"I haven't decided. Maybe."
"I see." Her mother paused and fussed with one of the branches. "And Rick?" she asked with forced casualness. "Is he staying tonight?"
McCall shot her mother a look. "We're not sleeping together."
Her mother was annoyed to be called out snooping. "That isn't what I asked."
"Oh, yes it was."
Her mother made a sniffing sound as she dropped the branch. "Well, I hope you're ready to play with your brother, at least. He's been so looking forward to it—he brought his violin all the way from New York."
McCall suppressed a groan. She and Jonathan had been playing Christmas music for the family since they were children, a tradition she had alternately loved and loathed through the years. "Oh, Mom, I don't know. Maybe we can just skip it this time?" She hadn't touched her piano in months now, hadn't felt the least bit like music-making. She had no songs to sing.
"Dee Dee, it's Christmas! Your brother came all this way. You wouldn't want to disappoint everyone."
No, McCall thought as her mother left her alone with the tree. I never do.
After a round of presents and some cajoling by Mark and Evan, Hunter agreed to take them out to the car and show them the cherry light and the radio—no siren. McCall tagged along. "This is so cool!" Mark exclaimed from behind the driver's seat. "Do you chase bad guys in this?"
"All over town," Hunter said, looking down on him with an amused smile.
Mark scooped up the radio. "Dispatch, this is car 54," he said. "We're in hot pursuit of the suspect. Send back-up!"
Hunter looked at McCall. "Kid's a natural."
She rolled her eyes. "Don't tell my brother. He expects them to follow him into the scintillating world of finance."
Evan, the little one, clambered up so he sat backwards in the passenger seat. "Do you have a gun, too?" he asked Hunter through the open window.
"Sure. It's locked up right in there." He indicated the glove box, and Evan's eyes went wide.
"Can we see it?"
"Yeah, can we?" For once, Mark matched his little brother's enthusiasm.
"I don't know." Hunter looked uncertain. He glanced at McCall. "What does your Aunt Dee Dee say?"
Mark's face fell as he gave a deep sigh. "Aunt Dee Dee says you should only take out a gun if you absolutely need it."
McCall's chest tightened at the words, and she shoved her hands deep in her coat pockets. The last time she'd drawn her weapon was in her own living room. The echo of the gunshot still woke her every time she dared to sleep.
Hunter worried his lower lip back and forth for a minute before replying. "Your Aunt Dee Dee is very wise. You should listen to her."
Then the boys turned their big eyes and innocent faces to her, and she had to look away.
Back inside the house, more relatives poured in to enjoy the open space and packed buffet table. McCall made sure to take a big plateful of food in case Hunter happened to be watching, but he seemed deep in conversation with her cousin Dave about something she could not hear from twenty feet away. Cars, maybe. Or local politics.
McCall had some seriously local politics of her own to contend with when her mother nudged yet another stack of cookies at her. "You have to try the macaroons," she said. "Rachel made them."
McCall slid her gaze to her brother's wife, a willowy brunette who was at that moment trying to keep Evan and Mark from devouring the black forest cake. "I'm sure they're delicious," she said.
"Oh, they are amazing, so light and flavorful at the same time—Rachel is a whiz in the kitchen. Maybe if you ask her, she'll give you the recipe."
Dee Dee shook her head slightly in exasperation. Rachel was a sweet, agreeable sort of woman and the kind of daughter McCall's mother probably would have picked for herself, if she had been given the option. Rachel baked cakes that didn't stick to the pan and threw dinner parties to charm Jonathan's clients and colleagues. She'd produced two delightful grandchildren and never had a cross word for anyone, near as McCall could tell. She just wished she didn't find the woman so damn boring. Really, she liked Rachel just fine, as far as it went. They simply had nothing in common.
"Mom, what on earth would I do with a macaroon recipe?"
Her mother snatched one up and took a bite, closing her eyes in bliss as the taste hit her tongue. "Mmm. Well, you could make some delicious cookies, for one thing. Your partner would probably enjoy that, wouldn't he? A man that size must eat like a horse."
McCall grit her teeth. "We work together, Mom. I don't fix his meals or iron his shirts."
Her mother finished the cookie and dusted off her hands. "More's the pity. The one he has on looks like it could use a bit of starch."
McCall held back a retort. Instead, she picked up a macaroon and dropped it on her plate while her mother looked on. "There," she said. "Are you happy now?"
Her mother regarded with an inscrutable expression for a moment, and then she squeezed McCall's hand. "The question is, my darling, are you? Please excuse me, I haven't yet said hello to Aunt Mary."
McCall was mute as she watched her mother disappear into the crowd. What little appetite she'd had vanished entirely, and she set the plate aside. Jonathan materialized next to her, and he looked down at her food. "Rachel made the macaroons," he told her.
"Legend has it," McCall grumbled back.
He didn't seem to notice because he was still looking at her plate. "Are you going to eat that?"
She sighed unhappily. "No, I don't suppose I am."
Jonathan devoured the cookie whole. "Mom said we're supposed to play for everyone," he said with his mouth still full.
"Yeah, she mentioned that to me too." She gave him a sideways look. "She said you've been looking forward to it."
His eyebrows shot up. "Oh yeah? She told me the same thing about you."
At this, McCall had to grin. "I think we've been had."
"Seems so." He considered and then shrugged. "I guess we know who has REALLY been looking forward to it. It can't hurt to run through some old chestnuts for her, I suppose. Beats anything I picked up at the store."
"Yeah, okay," McCall agreed reluctantly. "I warn you, I'm pretty rusty."
"Ha, I've got you beat," Jonathan replied as they threaded their way through the crowd to the music room. "I haven't played since last Christmas."
"Really?" She drew up short in the hallway and turned to face him. "That's a long time for you. What happened to your quartet buddies?"
A shadow passed over Jonathan's face, and he gestured at the room behind her. "Let's go inside, hmm?"
The music room was large and airy, with big bay windows, a beige tile floor, and a beautiful grand piano. Her mother had replaced the framed sheet music that usually hung on the walls with decorative holly wreaths, and red and white Christmas pillows graced the bench seating along the rear wall. Jonathan turned his back to McCall and busied himself with getting out his violin. "Well?" she asked, not making any move to take her seat at the piano. "What gives?"
He turned around with the bow in his hand. "It's been a bit of a tough year," he conceded, his eyes downcast. "Rachel was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in June."
"What? Why didn't you tell me?"
His gaze flicked over her. "Well, you may remember you had just got yourself shot in May," he replied darkly. "We didn't think you needed the drama—really, the family as a whole was rather still in shock."
She flushed but stood her ground. "We would still want to know. We would still want to help. How is she?"
"Better now. It comes and goes, apparently. The disease course is…uncertain. She's taking injections to try to stave off another attack. In the meantime, she's feeling pretty good. But we're looking around at another property that might be better suitable, just in case."
"I'm so sorry," she murmured. She crossed the room and gave him a hug, violin and all. He returned it cautiously.
"If there is anything I can do…"
"We'll let you know." He set her away from him gently, and looked her over with a probing gaze. "And you? Are you going to stick to that story about a gym injury?"
She opened her mouth and closed it again. "I—what do you mean, a story? I told you what happened."
He snorted. "You were always such a shitty liar. Look at you—you didn't touch your food. You've clearly lost weight. Hunter's been watching you like he expects you to fall over at any moment. What's going on? Mom and Dad said you were recovered from your surgery, that you were back to normal."
"I was. I am."
John's tone was reproachful but also kind. "Sweetie, it doesn't look that way from here."
"I'm fine, really." She stepped backward, putting some necessary distance between them as her heart rate picked up again. "I'll yell if I need any help."
He bopped her lightly on the head with his bow. "Yell soon, hmm? While someone can still hear you."
They located the holiday music, and the family gathered around while she and Jonathan ran through some familiar hymns and Christmas tunes. They were out of sync at times, and McCall heard every single mistake she made, wincing inwardly at each discordant note. But the family was smiling and clapping along as though nothing were amiss. Her mother beamed with pride and joy. Even Rachel, with her younger son on her lap, managed to find the beat.
She was tired, the late nights catching up to her to the point that she had trouble tracking all the different conversations around her. When she escaped the noise to stand near the Christmas tree, ostensibly to admire the decorations, Hunter sidled up to her, holding a club soda with lime. "So," he said as he took a sip. "When do I get to see your room?"
She smiled a bit. "It's a spectacle, all right. I'll show you if really want to see it."
"It's my fondest Christmas wish," he replied, deadpan, and drained the rest of his drink. "Lead the way."
She retraced the path she knew so well, up the stairs and down the hall to her old bedroom. She flicked on the light and let Hunter inside. "My parents don't really need the space, so it's mostly just sat here, unchanged."
"Wow," he said as he stepped over the threshold. "You're not kidding."
"Weird, right? It's like they expect me to come back—as a teenager from 1973."
The walls were the same pale blue they had always been, and the 1970s bedspread with the giant quilted flowers still graced the double bed she'd slept in for so many years. Hunter dove right in, touching all her things in turn, holding up the costume jewelry from her dresser, peering in at the high school snapshots the lined her mirror, sniffing the ancient tube of lipstick like he was an archeologist bent on excavating her past.
The room was rather like a layered history of who she used to be, with vestiges of herself at different ages, from the stickers she'd foolishly attached to the bedpost as a child to the teenage stylings like the Avengers poster on the wall and the go-go boots sitting in the closet. All the different selves she had tried on in the process of becoming who she was.
"Did you do those?" he asked of the black-and-white sketches of horses that were taped to her wall.
"Not bad," he admitted. Then he pointed at the photos of her friends from a former life. "Who are these people?"
She went to stand next to him so she could look too. "PJ, Dawn, Cindy, and Greg. That's me, obviously." She'd had longer, straighter hair back then. They all did, even the guys. "Michelle, Lisa, and Caroline. Frankie Boucher." She shrugged. "People I was friends with in high school."
Hunter picked up one photo to study it more closely. "You still talk to them?"
She bit her lip. "No. Not really." She fingered the edge of one snapshot, taking in their broad smiles and the way they all wrapped their arms around one another. If you had told her pack back then that there would come a day when they would all be strangers, they wouldn't have ever believed it, so certain they were of their constancy in each other's lives.
People disappear quicker than you think, she thought as she dropped her hand back to her side.
Hunter was still perusing the photographs. "So which one was your boyfriend?"
"Maybe none of them," she countered, and he regarded her with a "yeah, right" look. She smiled. "Go ahead then—guess."
He squinted in and appeared to ponder all the choices. "That one," he said definitively, poking his finger at PJ. She felt herself go pink, because of course he was right. He smirked when he saw her blush. "I knew it."
He sauntered over and opened her closet. The first thing he did was stroke his fingers over the pencil marks that marked her changes in height over the years. Jeez, the place really is like a shrine, she thought with some chagrin. Then he yanked out a purple miniskirt. "You model this for PJ?" he asked, raising one eyebrow at her.
She folded her arms. "He liked it well enough."
Hunter held it out as if lining it up on her body. "You could give me a demo."
"It's no longer 1971," she replied as she took the skirt from his hands and returned it to her closet.
"I think it's a timeless look, really." He went to the window and looked out at the view. "Hey, you can get out onto the roof over here." He glanced back at her. "Did you sneak old PJ in through the window?"
She laughed. "No," she said as she joined him by the glass. "You see those windows on the other side right there? That's my parents room. I wasn't sneaking anybody in my window." She paused. "I had a better spot for that."
Hunter grinned. "Well, now you've got to show me."
They put on their coats and went back outside, this time to the woods behind her parents' home. "If you go that way, there's a path that leads to the golf course," she explained. "But if you go this way, there's something better." She led him through the trees and out into a rocky clearing that required a bit of navigation around the largest of the boulders. The reward was a private, grassy bluff overlooking the canyons. It was a clear, sunny day with a heck of a view.
Hunter gave a low whistle. "Very nice." He lowered himself to the ground, fancy trousers and all, so she did the same and sat next to him. Hunter picked at the dried grass and cleared his throat. "So what's this nonsense about how I wanted to get rid of you?" he asked eventually.
She shifted away slightly and looked at the ground. "You know. A few months ago, when I got back from Quantico. You had Megan for a partner and you wouldn't even talk to me. I—I kept trying to get you alone so we could talk, but you'd run away if I even got near you. I figured…" She huddled into her coat and took a steadying breath. "I figured you were just done with me. You know, after what happened."
For a long, awful minute, he said nothing. Oh, my God, she thought, it's true.
When he spoke, his voice was strange and scratchy. "Is that when I screwed up?" he asked. "Is that why you won't talk to me now?"
"I am talking to you," she replied with a flash of irritation. This was supposed to be about his silence, not hers.
Hunter shook his head vaguely. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry for which part? For sleeping with me? Or for ditching me afterward?" Anger was good. Anger she could use. It was a great defense for keeping the more difficult emotions at bay.
"Both? Either? I didn't plan either part of it, and I handled it badly, I know. I just…didn't know what to say."
She chuffed in disbelief. "I'd think you'd have all the lines down pat by now."
"That's not fair."
"Isn't it?" She regarded him. "I've been with one guy this year," she said, letting him work out the math for himself. "How many women have you taken to bed?"
Hunter's color heightened and he dropped his gaze. "That's not the point. This had nothing to do with Megan or any other woman for that matter. You're my friend. My partner. I didn't want to say the wrong thing and screw everything up, so I said nothing—which, I guess, turned out to be even worse."
She covered her face with her hands, suddenly exhausted by the conversation. All her emotions were overwhelming these days. "Forget it," she said tightly. "Let's just forget it ever happened, okay?"
Hunter was quiet. "I can't," he said finally. "I've tried. Believe me, I've tried. But I can't."
She risked a look at him, and he gave her a rueful shrug.
"It's all I thought about while you were gone."
She shook her head. "I don't believe that. You never said anything."
"Neither did you," he pointed out, and it was her turn to look away.
"You're the one with more practice at these things," she said as she squinted out at the houses and rolling hills below them. "I guess I was waiting to take my cue from you."
Hunter chuckled lightly. "Well, you were totally screwed then. Look, I had no roadmap for this. I kept waiting and counting down the hours until you got back, and then there you were, and I had no idea what the hell I wanted to say."
"So you ran."
"I was confused! I didn't know if you were going to say it was all a big mistake or that you wanted to…to start dating or something."
She blinked at him in surprise. "Which did you want me to say?" she asked finally.
"That was the problem. I didn't know. Both options kind of seemed equally terrifying."
"So now I'm terrifying," she said, but her tone was lighter now. "Thanks, Hunter. Thank you very much."
He blew out a frustrated breath. "Not you. It. This…this thing between us. I had it all planned out, truly. A lot of different plans. I was going to send you flowers, but I didn't know what to put on the card. Then I thought maybe I could pick you up at the airport. I would be standing there, waiting for you, and you'd come through the gates and you'd know by looking at me that—"
She held her breath but he didn't finish his thought. "That what?" she prodded after a minute.
"That I missed you," he finished softly. "That I care about you." He reached over and cupped her cheek. "That I was confused about a lot of things, but not about you. Never you."
Her heart squeezed painfully inside her chest as a choked noise escaped her. Hunter tugged the back of her head until she leaned over and he could wrap her in his arms. She buried her face against him and held on tight. "I'm sorry," he whispered into her hair. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
She shuddered. All the hurt she had clamped down inside, it was still too big. If she let part of it go, it might all come rushing out, drowning her right where she sat. She struggled to free herself, to breathe. "Rick, I—" Hunter shushed her and kissed her head, her cheeks.
She reached up to push him away but somehow ended up holding the side of his face instead. "I'm sorry," he murmured against her skin, the words like a caress.
She stroked his prickly cheek. "Me, too," she said in a small voice.
His mouth found hers, gently, a light kiss of apology. When she held his head in place, he did it again. They murmured nonsense words of reassurance to one another in between the kisses, which just kept happening. Somehow she was on the hard ground, but she wasn't cold, not with Hunter's arms around her and his mouth moving gently over hers. She had forgotten this part, or deliberately suppressed it, how good it felt to lie this close to him with the heat and weight of his body on hers.
To feel one thing risked feeling everything, but maybe this was worth it. Just a few minutes where everything wasn't terrible.
He was rubbing the backs of his fingers lightly over her cheek, as if coaxing her to open, and she obliged with a soft hum of pleasure. They kissed until she was dizzy, the blue sky spinning crazily overhead. Their legs tangled and her toes curled. They kissed with the same reckless abandon they had shown that summer night when everything went to hell.
The jolt of unpleasant memory made her pull her mouth from his with a gasp. Her heart was pounding, and not entirely in a good way. Hunter looked down at her with concern. "You okay?"
"I, uh." She put a hand to her head. It was so hard to think anymore. "I just don't know where we go from here. What happens next."
"Hmm." He brushed her hair back tenderly. "Well, I think your brother said something about a football game, right? And then there's dinner."
"Hunter." She closed her eyes. "You know what I mean."
"Yes." She felt him lean down and kiss her forehead. "And I'm suggesting we take it one step at a time, okay? We don't have to figure out the entire future right this second."
She took a deep breath. "Right. One step at a time," she repeated, trying to convince herself. "I guess I can do that. Except…"
He looked worried again. "Except what?"
She sighed and gestured at her ribs. "I'm going to need you to give me a hand up."
Hunter grinned and sat up so he could help her to her feet. They walked back through the woods, careful not to touch each other, but she was warm and tingly in all the places his hands had been.
Participants had already gathered in the backyard, ready for the game. John came jogging up to her. "Where were you guys? We were starting to get worried."
"We, uh, we went for a walk," McCall told him as she avoided Hunter's gaze.
John narrowed his eyes at her. "A walk, huh? That's all."
"Yeah, you know." She coughed and gestured vaguely behind them. "Just around the neighborhood."
"Uh huh. So why is there grass in your hair?" He reached back and plucked it free.
She felt her face go hot again, but she nodded to where some guys were setting up cones for the end zones. "Better get going," she told John to force a change of subject. "The sun is starting to go down."
"Yeah, yeah. We've chosen teams so we're all set. I'm still sorry I won't get to beat your ass this year."
"That would be a first," she replied drily. "Enjoy the year off while you can."
"Can I take her place?" Hunter asked as he tugged off his tie.
"You?" John asked. "You ever play before?"
McCall thought of Patricia and her regret at how limited Hunter's after school activities had been. "Nah," Hunter said with a shrug. "But how hard can it be?"
"Okay, you're on Steve's team, then. Let's go!"
The game got underway, and McCall dragged her lawn chair into the dying sunlight to sit among the onlookers. She stopped when she reached the spot next to Rachel. "Mind if I join you?" she asked.
Rachel looked surprised but she smiled and shook her head. "Look at poor Evan, running along the sidelines. He wants to play so badly. Anything his brother can do, Evan is desperate to get in on it."
McCall smiled. "I remember how that goes." She had an older brother too. It had been years before she'd been able to beat him at anything. She took a deep breath. "Listen, John told me about your diagnosis. I just wanted to say how sorry I am, and if there is anything at all I can do, please let me know."
Rachel's face froze with her smile in place, but she ducked her head. "Uh, thanks. Thank you. It's not so bad right now. Earlier this year, when my left leg started tingling, and then suddenly I couldn't move my foot at all—that was pretty scary. I couldn't even walk for a couple of weeks."
McCall watched John running the ball into the end zone for a touchdown. He might work a desk job now but he maintained the easy grace of their athletic childhood. She thought back to the dread she had felt when she was lying paralyzed in the ICU. "I, uh, I know how that feels," she said to Rachel. "You're right, it's terrifying."
Rachel nodded. "It's the uncertainty that's the worst part. I could end up being mostly okay for a long time. Or I could be in a wheelchair within a couple of years."
McCall reached over and squeezed her hand. She tried very hard to remember what Hunter had said to her when it was not clear how much, if at all, she would ever recover. "Whatever happens," she said finally. "You won't be alone."
Rachel squeezed her hand in return, but then pulled away with a gasp. "Oh my gosh, look at that!"
Hunter was with the ball at one end of the yard, a bunch of people rushing at him, and McCall turned just in time to see him heave the football high into the air over everyone's head, deep down the field in a perfect spiral. It seemed to hang up there forever, until at last it dropped precisely into the waiting arms of little Evan, who was standing in the opposite end zone.
Both McCall and Rachel leapt to their feet in a spontaneous cheer. John stood on the field, looking perplexed and out of breath. Hunter grinned and winked at her.
Evan's touchdown celebration dance was one for the ages.
It was late, dark and quiet. Most of the family had left or gone to bed. McCall was trying to work up the energy to tell Hunter that they should be on their way. Instead, she sat at the piano, picking out the notes of a Christmas hymn.
"What's that one?" Hunter appeared beside the piano, startling her into silence. "It's pretty."
"Lo How a Rose E're Blooming," she said. "It's German."
"I don't know it," he replied. "But it sounds nice."
"It's about a rose that shows up in the middle of the harsh winter, and blooms despite the long odds." She waved her hand. "It's supposed to be a metaphor for Jesus's birth or something."
Hunter said nothing, and she bowed her head. She was determined now to survive her winter, too. "I'll call Anita after the new year," she said quietly. She twisted her hands on her lap, still torn up at the very thought.
"Good. I'll go with you, if you want."
She kept her head down. "I think this is something I have to do myself."
He rested his hand on her shoulder gently until she looked up. "No, it's really not." She tried to smile but utterly failed. He jerked his head back toward the family room. "Come on, I have something for you."
She followed him into the family room, which was dark now except for the white lights on the tree. Hunter reached into it and pulled out a small velvet box. "It wasn't something I could give you in front of everyone else," he explained as he handed it to her.
Her stomach seized up. No, surely he couldn't have done something this rash.
Hunter grinned as he sat next to her on the couch. "Oh, if you could see your face right now. Just open it, will ya?"
She lifted the lid and then blinked. What sat inside was not jewelry, but an…evidence container? It had been filled with a hard clear substance—leucite, maybe. In the center was a bullet. A spent, deformed round. "Um…" she said as she held it up.
"The doctor cleaned it up and gave to me after your surgery," he explained, and she almost fumbled the thing when she realized what she was holding. Hunter continued, "He said he kept it because he thought it might be evidence. But the guy who shot you was dead, and so we didn't need to log it or anything. I kept it because I didn't know what else to do with it." He took a breath. "But lately, I've been thinking. It is evidence. It proves you are the strongest person I know. I thought maybe you could use some reminding of that fact, and so I had it put together like that."
"Hunter." Her eyes welled up and she sniffed hard to hold back the tears.
He looked pleased with himself. "I did good?"
She gave a watery laugh and reached to hug him. "Yeah, you did good." He rocked her gently back and forth, the bullet trapped between them. She twisted her fingers in his shirt. "All I got you was some socks."
"I like socks." He rested his chin on the top of her head. "But mostly, I like you."
She curled into him. She hadn't been liking herself very much these days, and his words were a balm to her soul. They were quiet for a long moment, and she started to feel very sleepy. Then he nudged her.
"I've been working on that math," he said, his voice low and gruff somewhere above her head. "You know, the one about how many women I've been with this year."
She gave a tired smile but did not move. "Did you have to take off your shoes and socks to count that high?"
He squeezed her closer. "None," he said in a low voice. "None since you."
She shifted to look up at him, searching to see if this was the truth. "But that's like a half a year," she protested.
"I know! Tell me about it!"
He tugged her back into his arms again and kissed the top of her head. "But I figure, that's the number that matters—yes?"
She turned her face into his shirt and inhaled deeply. "Yes."
It had been so long since she'd slept, she found it impossible to keep her eyes open. Hunter felt her drowsing and rubbed her back. "If you actually want to sleep, I can take you home. Or I understand there's a bed upstairs that literally has your name on it."
She held him back when he tried to move. "Can we just stay here a minute?" She had found it again, this perfect pain-free moment, when she was warm and content, with her eyes shut and only the light of the Christmas tree on the other side. If she could have one moment, she might discover others. Maybe she could even string a few of them together, somewhere down the line, and in doing so, find her way into a future just a sweet as this.
I get a little twitchy when I am not writing something. So I decided the holidays weren't crazy enough and wrote some fic. I've no patience for my website at the moment, so here it is. Merry Christmas!