Summary: Six months after the Quinn case, Tessa and Steve find themselves back in Oakdale, but this time there's no dead bodies to investigate…
Rating: PG-13 (T - suggestion of adult themes)
Disclaimer: I do not own the characters, the setting or the world of Tessa Vance. The copyright lies with Jennifer Rowe, and the TV-show belongs to Southern Star and Hal McElroy.
Outside, the rain was pouring down heavily against the pavement, the umbrellas hurrying along the sidewalk in thick crowds and the yellow taxis crawling up and down the street. Shrill car horns knifed through the organised chaos on the floor of Central Homicide, overly surpassed by the loud ringing of phones, buzz of conversations and people walking back and forth between the desks.
It was a big day at the office, and not in the positive way. The latest case had involved a series of murders inside an upper class society, causing a big havoc when the killer was revealed to be one of the most famous front figures of a charity program. All sorts of newspapers and television stations wanted information, gossip, whatever they could lay their hands on. With the lack of information given from Thorne's office, most news had begun to make up their own theories, which caused the Inspector to practically go off the walls in irritation.
Stalking the investigators outside his office door, almost steaming like a boiling kettle, Thorne snapped and ran his hand tediously through greying hair. He was gritting his teeth whenever receiving bad news, and smiling faintly when some problem or other was solved. At the moment, he was standing by the whiteboard near the interrogation room, glaring at the slightly italic scribbling and pictures fastened there by small magnetic pins.
Tessa shut the connection with a quick 'bye', fishing out a clean patch on her notepad to jot down the facts just acquired. Although it was positive response, she hesitated in calling her boss' attention. He had been in a dangerous mood since the nine o'clock news this morning had revealed important information that indicated a leak within the department. However, it needed to be said, and the quicker it was over with, the better.
"Malcolm?" He twirled around, lips drawn in a thin line as he waited for her update. "Steve called in. Wallace's mother confirms her son was absent from the dinner party between 7 and 8 am Saturday night."
The elder man's face was drawn in a ghost of a smile. "Finally. I'll get the judge on the phone. He can't escape this time." And with that he disappeared into his office.
Tessa let out a breath she wasn't aware of holding. Perhaps she would see the end of this day after all. She glanced at her watch. It was seven-forty-nine in the evening. She'd been up for sixteen hours straight.
Leaning back in her chair, she allowed herself a short break and sighed heavily. The whole case, now going on day nine, had been hectic from the moment she received the call about the first murder. The victims were all members of a high-standing and famous society, enjoying the limelight with as much vigour as Steve enjoyed apple pies. "They're irresistible," he'd said once, which the media also thought about the victims.
In either case, the journalists – presumably tipped off by other members of the society – had hounded them during the past nine days, always on the brink of disrupting the investigation despite Thorne's countless warnings. This was also one of the reasons her boss was ready to go off the hinges. And it had frustrated herself and her partner to unexplored limits as well. It had almost led to a big argument between the two of them, though they had managed to avoid it by a stray hair's length.
Closing her eyes, Tessa tuned out the chaos of sounds around her. Her nerves were standing on end, her muscles stiff with tension, and suddenly – and surprisingly – her mind conjured up the picture of a place she'd not seen for nearly half-a-year. A main street lined up by shops and restaurants only busy three days a week – Friday through Sunday. Tight-knit society, where everyone knew everyone and learned of new events through the village network only minutes after they occurred. It was hard to stay private in a town like that, but one family had managed to do that. Three girls…
Stop thinking about them. Think of something else. Think of him.
But her mind stayed by the threesome, remembering how stupid she had been, how inexperienced and obsessive. Her colleagues had doubted her skills at a time, near the end. No, not quite correct. Steve had still believed in her, even though he had questioned her beliefs silently in his mind. He had not said so directly, but she had gotten to know him better since their first case together. She knew. She also knew she was getting to him – at least Tootsie had hinted at it. It had made her heart skip a beat.
Sighing again, she opened her eyes and sat straight in the chair. Better to get the reports out of the way so she could get the weekend off. Perhaps Steve would hold true to his word then and invite her to the house in Oakdale. It had caught her off guard when he'd mentioned going through with his plan to buy a house there, but now, after being given some time to think about it, all she wanted was to get out of town for some rest and relaxation.
Involuntarily, her thoughts wandered back to a comment Rochette, an Oakdale constable, had made to Steve as they were leaving after the Quinn case. "You better bring Tessa, I reckon. Get some colour into her cheeks, eh? Get rid of the tension." The attentive constable had been on to them from day one, always hinting she knew something they didn't. She'd been unwavering in the task of playing matchmaker and a part of Tessa wanted to admit Rochette had been successful, but another part…
She was uncertain of his feelings, even now after six months. You'd think they would have learned more about each other during that time, or even gotten more used to one another's touch. It had taken them another two months after the Quinn case to be comfortable touching hands and shoulders. Of course, there was the occasional hug, but it was rare and had only happened at times when she was down.
Tessa sighed, rubbing her eyes. The time was crawling by, dragged out by the remaining stress and tension. And if she wanted to admit it, the waiting for her partner to stroll inside the office made it even longer. When they'd spoken on the phone, he was about to leave the manor-sized home of Elizabeth Wallace, mother of serial killed Edward Wallace. It would take about thirty-five minutes to drive from there. Possibly more now with the bad weather and all.
I hope it won't be this bad in the weekend.
You don't know if he'll invite you yet.
Are you sure?
Focusing on the screen, she returned to typing. She had to get her mind on something else. Stop thinking about him every minute. Though, it had grown more difficult the past few months. Being partners probably weren't the best thing if you wanted to forget someone. Not when you practically saw each other every day.
Some time later, Tessa was finishing the last report when the man in her thoughts arrived out of the blue behind his desk. She looked surprised up at him, not having heard him enter. His eyes twinkled as if he saw right through her, and she schooled her features.
"Just finishing up," she explained unnecessarily. He'd known that. Why was she being so weird? "How did it go?"
"Traffic was a killer. If this weather continues to the weekend, I might have to cancel the trip to Oakdale." He slung the jacket over the back of his chair and sat down. The laptop screen was up and he was about to start typing when he stopped and looked up at her. His eyes were warm as they met hers.
"About that…Want to come? It'd be great with some company. The house is too quiet as it is, and it would be nice to get out of town for a while. Ease up on those knots in our necks, or what?" His voice was challenging, though a flash of uncertainty crossed his features. Tessa felt her heart drum faster, her breath caught in her throat.
Feeling reckless, she smiled brightly and said, "That'd be nice." She hoped it had not sounded too hasty and quickly moved on, "I almost feel tainted after going through mob upon mob of journalists during the last few days. It's like they've been integrated into my skin, and a wee shower at home won't be enough to get it off."
"My thoughts exactly," Steve returned her smile along with a small twinkle. "Some country R&R will do us both some good, perhaps you even more, city girl."
Tessa rolled her eyes at the jest, one hand creeping up to her tense neck. "No need with the name calling, farm boy." He chuckled, and then pointed at the hand massaging her neck.
"And if the fresh air in the mountains' not enough, I might have to treat you to one of my famous neck rubs." Tessa both blushed and grinned sheepishly, consciously removing her hand from her shoulder and down to the desk.
"I'd appreciate it."
At that moment, Thorne chose to emerge from his office, a triumphant twinkle in his eyes. She drew her eyes from her partner, looking up at their boss.
"We've got him," he said simply. Tessa felt a wave of relief wash over her.
"So the judge finally caved?" Steve asked.
Thorne nodded, "That he did. Apparently, he was tired of having people hanging on the bell all day long, me in particular." She tried not to smile at the indignant frown her boss put up.
"So when's the trial?"
"It's scheduled for starting up Wednesday next week. You're on leave till then. Get some rest before the media choir starts up again. Personally, I look forward to a nice and quiet weekend out of the limelight. How some people can enjoy that, I will never understand." And with that, he was gone again, leaving his detectives grinning at each other.
"That's Thorne in a nut shell," Steve said. Tessa nodded knowingly, shifting in her seat. Relinquishing the tight grip she used to have on the murder cases while they were on in her mind, she quirked an eyebrow.
"So it's Oakdale then?"
The smile he gave her gave her no doubts about his answer.
The car rolled into the driveway, slowing to a halt beside her. Tessa slung her overnight bag in the baggage room along with her coat, hurrying into the passenger seat and closing the door.
The rain was beating heavily down at them till, but they had opted for going anyway. It would keep them away from prying journalists and their quest for a hot shot story. At least they hoped to have a quiet weekend; who knew if some ambitious reporter decided to follow them up there and hound them until they gave him or her something to write about. Tessa hoped no such thing would happen, especially as the story of two partners going together to what the news would call a romantic hide-out, would not fall easy in the head of police department office. Though there were no rules about partners spending time together during the spare time, intimate relations were frowned upon, and the media was always quick to assume something like that in a situation like the two of them were going into.
"Got everything?" Steve asked her, releasing the park brake and turning for the exit. He was wearing a thick dark blue high-necked sweater and dark jeans. The green jacket lay discarded in the back seat. Tessa thought he looked gorgeous.
Opting for comfortable clothes too, she had decided for a woollen V-sweater in green shades and ordinary blue jeans. Her fair hair had been combed back, but she hadn't bothered to do anything else about it. She wanted to leave work behind, which also included all things visual: formal wear, hairdo and make-up, as well as the attitude.
"Yep," she said lightly and smiled, "All ready for an anti-stress weekend."
Steve chuckled, easing the car out on the street. "Well, I think we can get a country girl out of you in the end." He threw a teasing smile her way. She made sure to hide the blush on her cheeks.
"Whatever do I have to do to get that name tag off me?" she asked rhetorically, referring to his favourite nick name for her: 'city girl'.
"I'd guess you'll have to prove you're capable of living out of town and actually enjoy it. I was going to say 'be yourself', but as you've grown up here in town…" He let the comment go unfinished. She swatted him, earning an indignant 'hey, don't hit the driver' and a rueful grin on his lips.
"I'll have you know that my grandparents lived in Richmond until they died and we always went visiting there in the summers when I was younger. I've yet to bore myself to death in the country, so don't make assumptions, farm boy."
"Oh, I thought we stopped the name tagging?"
"I told you to stop, but so far, you haven't told me to," Tessa replied grinningly, eyes darting between the man beside her and the apartment blocks that were replaced by smaller blocks and neighbourhoods as they went eastwards to the outskirts of Sydney.
"Okay, I demand equal treatment," Steve said mock-seriously. "If you call me names, I will call you names. If you stop, I'll stop, and if you buy me a cup of coffee when we stop I will be forever grateful."
"Deal," she said in the same tone as him, not able to keep the smile off her face. He really could be funny sometimes, in a cute kind of way. Must be one of the things that had made her fall…
The atmosphere in the car became relaxed and comfortable, and they chatted amiably for a short time until the car eased out on the motorway and sped westwards. Tessa, overcome with tiredness after a week spent with minimum sleep, fell prey to the luring temptation of sleep and was soon surrounded by darkness.
Several hours later, Tessa was roused by Steve's gentle nudge.
"Rise and shine, sleepyhead," he said lightly, eyes on the road. "We're nearly there, thought I'd wake you up so you wouldn't miss the sights."
Surely enough, Tessa thought as she looked around her, seeing all the trees surrounding the winding road through the fat drops of rain, they could not be far from town.
"We'll have to stop for groceries," Steve continued, sparing her a quick smile. "Been a while since the last time I was up here, and I seriously doubt the food left in the house is edible."
Tessa chuckled. "I wonder how things are up here, if the city people still come up for the weekend. Seeing as most seem to travel west instead of east, I'd have to say there's more than us that have defied the weather."
"Things like that would take time to change, especially in small towns like Oakdale. The nature's too inviting for city girls and boys to ignore. I'd be surprised if there's anything at all that's changed since last we were up here."
"I'll bet our return will be discussed widely in the village network."
"Of course! We're celebrities after the Quinn case, don't you know that?" he replied half-astounded, half-teasing. "And you will be one of the hottest discussions, 'cause according to Rochette, we're two peas in a pod, and when I came up here alone last time… Well, let me put it this way – they kept asking me where I'd put you and when we'd get married. Many seemed to believe we weren't homicide detectives at all, and that the case was just a sham so that we could get some time out of the city." Steve began to chuckle as Tessa groaned, covering her face with her hands. She felt like ripping her hair out in sheer desperation.
"And here I thought I'd get a nice and quiet break away from newspaper guys and reporters," she moaned. "Instead I get the whole tight-knit village people package, topped with a dust of misunderstood gossips. If I had to choose, I would have chosen the first."
"Come on, Tess, it'll be fine," Steve assured her. "It's just gossips; they're most often rubbish that you needn't pay attention to."
"Comes from the guy luckily not having been subjected to an all-girls school where the main activity besides doing home work was gossiping about this and that. And in case you didn't know already, girls are the worst in that department."
"The teenagers I can agree on, but the women?"
"Sometimes worse, although in a lesser degree than high school girls. Nothing's like a gang of plotting sixteen-year-olds." He laughed at that, and she glared at him before staring gloomily on the road ahead as the outskirts of town came into view.
"I promise that if they get out of hand, I'll go talk to them, okay?" Tessa smiled.
"You could try, but I doubt you'd succeed. Once women have set their mind on something like that, they're rock hard at giving it up. Thanks for the sentiment, though. Nice to know I have a knight in shining armour," she couldn't help but tease him. He slowed the car down in front of the parking lot, easing it into a free space. He shut the engine, looking over at her.
"You always have, Tessa." His eyes locked onto hers, drawing her into his warm gaze until she felt lost. Feeling she was treading on uneasy territory, Tessa just smiled and broke the stare, turning to open the door. Getting out of the car, she let out a breath she had not been aware of holding. There had been such…intensity in that look…
Perhaps you now can guess his feelings.
Glancing sideways as he exited the car and locked it, Tessa inhaled deeply, her eyes closing at the fresh air streaming through her nostrils. If there was one thing Steve was right about the country, then it was that the air was cleaner.
"Ready to conquer the village, milady?" His voice broke through her mind. She opened her eyes to find him smiling and waiting for her at the parking lot exit with an umbrella suspended over him, and she walked over to him with a smile.
"Let's go get them," she replied stubbornly, determined to ignore the rumour mill for the time being.
"That's the spirit. I'd hate to think you would give in to silly village wives who have too much spare time on their hands to think of anything else to do but chit-chatting." He held the umbrella above them both, silently guiding her closer with a hand to her waist. Tessa felt warm, but chose to ignore it, instead focusing on her breathing as they walked side by side to the main street in companionable silence.
People were littering the street, covered in rain coats and umbrellas, carrying shopping nets full of purchased souvenirs, bottles of wine and champagne or groceries. Most of them looked out-of-townish, and she put them down to either tourists or those who owned house in Oakdale but only came up during the weekends.
As it was nearly midday, all the restaurants and diners seemed to be filled to the brim with people out to lunch. Feeling slight chills creeping up her spine, Tessa longed for Leo Martin's soup special, and voiced this for her companion. His closeness made her a little uneasy, but she forced it back into her mind as they entered Martin's just around the corner.
Stepping inside the diner's warmth, Tessa immediately noticed how their arrival attracted surprised stares from other guests, especially the small group of people sitting down in the other side of the room. It was the small gang which Rochette had said was the main centre of the village network.
She saw the blonde bob belonging to the energy-filled Freda Ridge, owner of Country Wise and wife to Charles Ridge, a hearty man with beer belly and a well-trimmed moustache. It was he who had sold Steve the house. There was also a pair of women Tessa had never been introduced to, but Lyn Weisenhoff and Michael O'Malley were familiar to her; the bookstore owner and the woman having been in love with him once.
"Tessa! Steve!" The voice calling out to them was familiar, and Tessa looked towards its source to find Rochette Williams, Oakdale constable, sitting by a table with her colleague Russell Ingres, eating lunch by the look of it. She gestured for them to come over, and Tessa put on a smile for the stocky built, sharp-eyed redhead.
"Hello," she greeted them both. Ingres nodded in return. Steve echoed her. "Nice to see you again."
"And you too." The young constable pulled two empty chairs closer, gesturing them to sit down. "I must admit, I'm surprised to see you here. Well, not Steve, of course, but you, Tessa…"
"I'm surprised to find myself here again, actually."
"The city became too much, eh?" Ingres asked, sipping his coffee.
"You can say that," Steve replied. "We've just been let off a big case, and thought some peace and quiet would be a nice break from the media circus."
"The Charity Killer?" Rochette asked wide-eyed. Tessa nodded. "Heard about that one. To think he was killing people from the very program he was funding. What a nutcase."
"You can say that again," Tessa said tiredly, feeling the tension returning to her muscles. The man had given her the creeps.
Juliette Martin came over and took their orders (soup for both), smiling brightly and looking as slim as always. Tessa felt a touch of jealousy at the neat figure of the waitress, but pushed it away from her mind.
"So how're things up here?" she turned to Rochette, ignoring the knowing glance sent her way from the attentive constable. The girl was too smart for her own good.
"Dull compared to the action you guys provided last time you were up here. Only had a few break-ins a couple of months ago, nothing serious. Caught the culprit red-handed when he tried the third time."
"The problem about the little thieves' they're too stupid to catch up on the fact they're busted," continued Ingres, a sardonic gleam in his eyes. "This one believed he'd got plenty of time before we got there – had made himself a cuppa and sat in the sofa sipping it when we came."
"Ah, makes you want to change department or what, Tessa?" Steve turned to her, eyes twinkling.
"I thought you knew homicide's my life, Steve, being my partner and all." She gave him an arched look. "I enjoy the puzzle solving; keeps me alert. Much more fun than chasing small thieves, no offence, guys," she added to the two constables apologetically. Rochette grinned.
"That's probably one of the reasons why you couldn't live in the country – you'd miss the dead bodies." He was smirking at her mock-offended expression, highly enjoying the banter.
"Hey, like you wouldn't miss all those pretty ladies going through the interrogation room day after day," she countered teasingly. "Admit it, you like it there as much as I do."
Steve laughed, holding up his hands. "Alright, I call a truce. But only because the food's coming," he added when she smiled victorious. "I haven't given up yet."
The bowls of soup were put down in front of them, and Tessa turned her mind from the wide smile of her partner to eating her lunch without embarrassing herself. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Rochette smiling that knowing smile again. She felt a slight blush creep onto her cheeks.
She's on to you, again…
The rest of the lunch passed in easy chatter about the weather, Tessa and Steve's plans and happenings in the town before the constables excused themselves and stood up.
"Duty calls," Rochette said, dropping a money bill on the table for Juliette Martin to pick up later. "Good to see you finally got Tessa up here, Steve. She could need some special country treatment for those tense muscles of hers." She smiled wickedly, wagging her eyebrows ever so slightly. Tessa felt like she could die of humiliation. And the warmth in her cheeks increased when Steve said,
"Why'd you think I brought her here?" The young constable grinned at him and left with a small 'behave' hanging behind ringing in Tessa's head. She picked up her glass of water and gulped it down as calmly as she could when her senses screamed for her to burst.
"That woman will never change," said Steve as he returned to scrape up the remains of his soup. "You okay, Tess?" She nodded quickly, draining the last drops of water before putting the glass down on the table. The village network group was chatting widely in the corner of the room, some sending them looks. They were probably talking about them.
"How about those groceries?" she asked, dying for an excuse to get out of here before more people wanted to comment on them being there together.
Groceries bought, conversations ended, Tessa and Steve ventured back to the car.
The car was silent as Steve took them down the lane and along the mazes until he pulled up in front of a one-story, ordinary-looking house. However, as Tessa got out of the car, she spotted the intricate carvings along the withered window panes and doorway, the small veranda overlooking a lake down in a valley behind the house, and immediately liked it. It had a very homey feel to it.
"It's beautiful. You must've paid a lot." She looked over to Steve who was busy taking the bags out of the boot.
"You'd think that, wouldn't you?" he chuckled. "But Charles Ridge cut off on the price – I got it a lot cheaper."
"Special treatment, huh?" Tessa smiled, taking her own bag and following Steve inside the house.
"One advantage of having contacts," Steve quipped, putting the shopping bags down on the kitchen table. She rolled her eyes, looking around the large room.
The living room was adjoined with the kitchenette, separated by a table for six. It was set in two different shades of green – the living room much darker with its forest green couch and armchair in front of the open fireplace and dark wooden table, whereas the kitchenette was painted in soft hues of light green. The walls were decorated by nature paintings, and Tessa saw with a laugh O'Malley's In Harmony with Nature calendar hanging above the kitchen counter.
From the living room there was a glass door leading out on the veranda, and a small hallway in the end of the kitchen led to what she presumed was bathroom and bedrooms. She shifted the bag hemp on her shoulder.
"So where do I sleep?"
Steve gestured for her to follow and went down the hallway to the door in the very end. He opened it to show a master bedroom, complete with double bed and chest of drawers. He went over to the window, drawing the curtains open and opening the air vent to banish the tight feel inside the room.
"Hope this' good enough," he said as she dumped her bag on the bed.
"Steve, I would've been perfectly fine with the couch. You didn't need to give me the master room."
"What kind of host would I be if I didn't? Not to mention, what kind of gentleman would I be to leave the lady on a hard, lumpy couch? Don't worry, there's a smaller bedroom across the hall where I'll sleep."
"Another bedroom?" she asked incredulously. "When you told me you'd bought a house, Steve, I thought it was just a small thing for yourself, not something big enough for four grown-ups." Steve only waved her off.
"As I said, I got a cheap offer. End of discussion. I'll go find you some bedding." Tessa felt effectively brushed off, and felt herself boiling a little at the thought. She heard Steve open a door and bustle around, presumably in the smaller bedroom looking for bed sheets and also inside the living area. She turned to the bag, hands curled around the hemp.
A chill crept up her spine as she put the clothes in the empty drawers, sending shivers coursing through her body from top to toe. It wasn't exactly warm here. There was a small radiator by the wall, and she walked over to turn it on. Just as she stood up again, Steve entered the bedroom.
"Here you go," he said after putting the bedding on the mattress. She smiled, the earlier discussion forgotten.
"Thanks. I'll sleep well tonight – like a queen."
"I certainly hope so." He winked. "You hungry? I know it's not long since we ate lunch, but I was thinking of making some ravioli."
"Sounds delicious, I'm starved. The soup wasn't too filling. Anything I can do to help?"
"You can cut the vegetables."
Tessa stripped off her jacket, following him back to the living area. "I'll have you know, I'm a killer with the knife."
"Not to humans, I hope," Steve retorted jokingly. The lights had been turned on, and the fireplace was cackling now and then. It sent a soft light on the sofa pushed up before it on the dark red rug. Another table stood near the door to the veranda, surrounded by three high-backed wooden chairs.
"Oh, you never know…" she said slowly, fishing up a knife from a drawer and twirling it between her fingers. "I might be Tessa's evil twin sister."
Steve gave her an once-over before bending to retrieve the ingredients from the fridge. "Well, you both certainly have the same pretty look."
It was said teasingly, but Tessa took it to heart nevertheless. Her cheeks warmed and she put down the knife. Not knowing how to reply to that, she instead searched the cupboards for a cutting board, drawing out time. Steve didn't seem to have noticed her change, even though she was sure he had. He always noticed things, especially those she herself did not seem to become aware of.
Nothing further was said while they prepared the dish. Only when the ravioli form slid inside the heated stove and Steve began to set the table, did she speak up,
"So what's the plan for the weekend? Hiking, strolling, or perhaps investigating a weird occurrence?"
Steve laughed. "Only you, Tess, would propose puzzle solving for a spare time activity. Either that, or rock climbing."
"Hey, don't ditch rock climbing, it's…challenging." She found a pair of glasses and cutlery, setting them down at the appropriate places.
"Challenging indeed, but nothing like a game of pool. I wonder if they have a pool table down at Swans."
"Oh no," Tessa said quickly, "no pool. No rock climbing either. It's been a stressful case; I just want to relax for a couple of days. Really," she added when he raised an eyebrow. Steve shrugged and smiled.
"Sounds good. Some R&R was in fact one of my main goals for coming here. That case has worn me thin round the edges, and I can't help but think about what the trial will bring…" For a stray second, he looked exhausted, but in the next he was smiling and full of life once more. "But I think a small hike would do us good if the weather's well enough. Tomorrow sound okay?"
"Yeah, I could live with that." She smiled, feeling a bit of the tension leave her shoulders. She had a feeling this weekend would turn out wonderful.
Well-fed and slightly more free in speech and attitude after a few glasses of wine, Tessa and Steve cleaned the table and washed the dishes. If anyone had seen them together – him washing, she drying – they'd think they were an old married couple, doing their domestic chores together for so long it had become a habit. It nagged her brain a little, but Tessa let it slide as she made her way over to the cosy sofa in front of the fire.
The warmth expelled from the red tongues wound their way into her body as soft, classical music spread through the background. Tessa closed her eyes, leaning as far back into the seat as she could.
Surrounded by a shroud of warm darkness, she started when her feet were suddenly lifted up by firm hands and put down on something soft. Opening her eyes found Steve standing above a footstool, eyes warm and gentle.
"Thanks," Tessa murmured with a smile, adjusting in her seat. "I got kind of drowsy. It was a lovely meal. I never saw you as a master chef."
Steve plopped down in the seat beside her, feet drawn up on the same footstool. They were nearly touching. Tessa felt warmer. He smiled at her. "I'm not. I'm still learning."
"Still, your ravioli beats mine by a tenfold. Even my mother hasn't made anything so good, and she's top notch."
He chuckled. "Sure you want to continue boosting my ego? I'd think I had enough to start with."
"You do," she teased, earning a mock indignant stare, "But if it can keep you making delicious dishes, then yes, I'd happily boost your ego till it reached the moon. Perhaps I'll somehow get you to cater to me. Whatever can I do to win you over?"
As soon as the sentence had escaped her lips and she saw how his face froze for a moment, Tessa half-regretted saying it. It was ambiguous, and he could think she was hinting at something she didn't know if she wanted to keep secret or not. However, she was spared the trouble as Steve's face resumed the teasing expression.
"I've heard some rather extraordinary things about your apple pies. Perhaps we could swap?"
Tessa slowly let out a breath she wasn't aware of holding, and then smiled brightly. "Not the recipe. I want to keep my trump card safely tucked in my pocket, thank you very much. But I'd love to bake you a pie sometime."
His eyes twinkled, and he leant back into the comfy sofa. Tessa never noticed their toes touching slightly.
The conversation turned to idle chitchat for a while, swapping stories of childhood and youth, particularly embarrassing stories which by mutual agreement would never be repeated. The bottle of wine bought at Carl Weisenhoff's shop was soon empty, loosening their tongues to reveal truths which had never seen the light before. Like the fact that Tessa – while in uniform – had once been involved in a serial aggressor case, a man who enjoyed beating young girls to a pulp, and had nearly fallen prey to him. Or that Steve's ex-wife had left him for a known womanizer and charity thief. Or that Tessa had never managed to say goodbye to her father before he died.
In the end, reckless after emptying a bottle of wine, she was snuggled into Steve's safe embrace, releasing tears softly onto his sweater. He did not mind, only holding her tightly as she cried. At one point, she thought he had kissed the top of her head lightly, but was too deep in her misery to remember. All she wanted was to stay in his arms forever.
And it was where she finally fell asleep.
The morning was grey and cold when Tessa woke up the following day, though thin rays of light streamed onto her bed from beneath the closed bedroom door. She couldn't remember how she'd ended up in bed. The last thing in her memory was Steve's arms and a feeling of security. She must've fallen asleep and then been carried to bed by him. She was still fully clothed.
Prissy Catholic, Tessa thought with a smile. Well, she would have done the same thing…except leaving him on the couch with a blanket over him as she wasn't strong enough to carry him to his bedroom.
Rising from the bed, she found her bag and quickly changed into a soft fleece pullover and matching slacks. A bath tempted her, but she decided to wait until later, after their hike. Combing her hair, Tessa studied her reflection in the mirror. She looked refreshed – not the pale, shallow face from the day before.
Must be the environment; both outside and inside.
Smiling, she made her way to the living room, finding it empty and scarcely lit. Feeling the cold creeping into her, she founds logs to the fire and started it up. Proud of herself when the flames began to eat at the wood, Tessa went to the kitchen for breakfast. She looked at the clock. It was around nine in the morning. She'd slept for the whole night.
That must be a first.
It's his presence. He's calming your nerves, your need to be on the move all the time.
I like it.
You like him.
She paused, hand on the fridge door. Tilting her head slightly to the side, Tessa let her eyes wander to the closed door on the opposite side of hers. Her stomach fluttered with butterflies and warmth crept onto her cheeks.
There's no denying that.
With a smile on her lips, she returned to breakfast preparations. She had the table set with bread, juice and tea, and the scrambled eggs and bacon were frying in the pan when Steve stepped out of the hallway. He was wearing dark corduroy trousers and a blue pullover. He sniffed the air.
"Ah…Nothing like the smell of someone else making breakfast. Especially when it wounds its way into my bedroom in the morning," he said as he walked over. The stubble on his face roughened his looks – Tessa loved it.
"I hope you're hungry," she replied. "I think I've made enough for a whole army."
"All the better; I'm hungry like a bear today." Steve sat down, watching her bustle around the small kitchen. She could feel his eyes on her as she scraped the eggs and bacon onto a plate, and struggled to keep the fluttering from taking over her stomach.
Setting the plate down on the table, Tessa found her seat as Steve poured orange juice into her glass.
"Sleep well?" he asked, taking in her looks.
"Like the dead," she replied, biting into her sandwich. "I don't think I've ever slept so long before."
"Must be the fresh air of the country," his eyes twinkled merrily.
She resisted the urge to protest just on principle, and smiled into her cup of tea instead, "Yeah, probably."
"You've been pretty stressed up lately. It's no wonder you hit the sack so heavily."
"I could say the same thing about you. It's not been an easy case to deal with. All that publicity, the suspects, the killer… That man gave me the shivers."
"I'll agree to that. He was a crazy egomaniac. Thanks to you he's off to jail."
"It was pure luck," she retorted.
"And it's helped us out of how many tricky situations before?"
"But that's different."
"I—I…" She sighed. "I don't know. God, even though it's over, I feel I'm not thinking straight. Everything's just a chaos." She rubbed her eyes with one hand, sighing heavily.
A hand suddenly covered hers. She looked up at him. "Well, it's over now, so you don't have to think about it yet. Didn't we come up here for a break? I say we forget about this, and focus on the R&R we promised ourselves. Let's put work behind, okay?"
"Okay," she agreed, smiling. The hand was removed, and she missed its warmth. "So have you scouted the surrounding area, know where we'll go?" They continued to eat as they started planning out the hike.
"You'd think it would stop raining soon," Tessa complained. She was seeking shelter in a gap in the mountain, being drenched to the bone and tired after the long climb. Mist was covering the ground below them in the valley, and the fat drops of water fell down on the earth like if they were drawn by a magnetic force.
Steve stood out on the ledge, not taking notice he was getting even wetter than she was. "It's the weather gods – they know you're a city girl." He looked at her over his shoulder, grinning.
"Oh, ha, ha, ha," Tessa replied sullenly. Rock climbing she could handle, but not in a weather like this. Though, it had not been a part of their program – which originally was to roam the forests around the property – she couldn't let the challenge go unanswered when she spotted this stony hill. Steve had followed diligently, muttering something about crazy women. She had paid him no heed, revelling in the physical challenge before her. However, half-way up it had started to pour down, and it certainly quelled her good spirits into moodiness.
Steve laughed, turning round. The way his clothes and hair clung to his body… Tessa pushed the thoughts and images appearing in her mind as far away as she could. Not what she wanted to think about right this moment.
"Come on, Tess, cheer up. Don't you find this relaxing? Being in harmony with nature, away from all things technological? Just yourself and the nature as it was created in the beginning?"
In a way, Tessa could see what he saw – the beauty, the balance – but she didn't want to admit it. In fact, her pride permitted her from saying another word. When she'd first taken on the moody attitude, she wouldn't let go of it until after she had had a really long, hot bath. But for Steve's sake, she softened her features so she didn't look too sour.
"I'm worried if there's going to be a storm," she said, her voice wavering slightly. "I can't stand storms. One time, when I was about four or five, I'd been out walking in the rain, just like this, when the clouds gathered and thunder wrecked the sky. I took shelter in an old shed, which I afterwards found was a really stupid idea. The wind picked up speed, and the lightening began. Before long, it'd made the shelter fall apart down on me. Luckily, my dad found me not long after that and brought me home. I just got a couple of bruises and scratches, but the fear has stuck onto me like glue. I've trouble sleeping during thunderstorms."
Steve gave her a look of understanding, stepping closer and putting his arm around her shoulders. "Well, I'm here to rescue you if it's necessary. I've learned my first aid. Just don't go hide in a shed, okay?" She smiled up at him, grateful for his nearness, his calm presence. He returned it before letting his eyes drift off to study the sky. "However, I think we should head back. I don't like the look of those clouds."
Tessa followed his gaze. "I agree with you. Let's get out of here."
"Don't slip on the rocks," Steve warned her as she edged down the ledge to where they had climbed up. "I can mend scratches, but not broken bones."
"I'll be careful. You just do the same."
"Sit still!" Tessa admonished, patting the sterilising onto the scratches. Steve quelled his retort, eyes twinkling. Predictably, he had not paid heed to her warning and slipped during the climb down, scraping his cheek and hand on the rough wall. Luckily, the ground was merely a few feet down and grassy, though his bottom was bound to ache for a few more days.
"You know, this wouldn't have happened had you put your foot where I told you to," said Tessa lightly. He made show of glowering at her. She decided it didn't suit him.
"I would have seriously injured my holier parts if I'd done that dangerous leap."
She chuckled. "It was only a three feet gap, you wouldn't have injured anything. Athletes have done worse things, you know."
"Easy for you to say, you're a woman. You don't have trouble—" Whatever he had planned to say, Steve held it in, looking slightly embarrassed. Tessa looked up at him, curious at first, then starting to grin as she realised what he was talking about.
"We're what, Stevie?" she asked, trying to gauge the answer out of him.
"Don't call me that," her partner replied curtly, only brightening her smile. "And you're…you're…"
"We're flexible down there, was that it?" She was laughing now, making him blush furiously but not caring at all. The first aid kit lay forgotten beside them as she held her hand to her side. He tried to glare at her, but it didn't work.
"I never took you for a prissy," Tessa laughed, nudging him jokingly in the arm.
"I'm not a prissy! I just…sometimes…have troubles in saying things straight, unlike certain others I know."
"Oh, that really hurt." She put on a mocking wounded look, for about a minute. "I'm just teasing you, Steve. Question is: Why are you raising to the bait?"
"Because, Tessa Vance, I know that somehow, you will be my downfall," he replied dramatically, though an unexplored emotion flickered across his face for a split second. Tessa let it pass, hunching her shoulders in an attempt to ease down the laughter bubbling in her chest. She picked up a fresh sterilising pad, giving him a look to stay put.
"I need to clean that scratch too," she pointed to the red marks on his left cheek. Steve obediently turned his head to give her some leeway. She padded the marks, cringing when a gasp escaped her partner's lips. "Sorry."
"It's okay. It's the blasted sterilising fluid, nothing to worry about."
"Well, I'll try to be gentler."
She let her hand moved over the scratches as lightly as a feather, carefully easing out small grains of stone and earth. Her fingers accidentally brushed over the soft skin near his chin, the small stubble scraping against the cotton pad.
In the silence that came over them, Tessa thought she could feel – or hear – his pulse beating beneath her fingers, slowly increasing as she continued her ministrations. She had her heart in her mouth when his eyes closed and his face tilted ever so slightly to the side so she could reach the marks on his neck. It was these moments she cherished, she realised. Small, intimate moments where neither did anything they would later regret, yet moments which were still so personal it touched their inner centre.
She wanted to kiss him. In fact, she was leaning towards him, feeling the heat build between them until she thought she could no longer restrain herself. She could feel his heart beat softly against her fingers, and tried to ignore the fast beats of her own.
Steve turned his head, his eyes open and dark. Her hand froze on his cheek, her eyes locked in his. There was warmth in his eyes which she had only seen small portions of. Yet now, he was displaying it for her to take in and analyse before acting. Her breath caught in her throat, her hand slowly moving down his cheek…before falling down to the first aid kit, her eyes averted to what her hands did. The warmth disappeared and was replaced by coldness. Tessa knew it was a mistake, not rising to the occasion, but the truth was…she was afraid.
She put the first aid kit together, not looking at him as she scooted away. "There, all set. I think I'll go change out of these wet clothes." And then she disappeared into the sanctuary of her bedroom, leaning against the door when it closed behind her. She let out an angry sigh.
"You coward, Tessa. You had the perfect moment, second time this weekend. Damn."
After a quick, hot shower, Tessa exited the bathroom feeling refreshed, but still uneasy about what had happened earlier. She heard the radio being played inside the kitchenette and assumed Steve was there, so she stepped quickly across the hallway and inside her bedroom.
Finding clean underwear, socks and the fleece suit from earlier, she patted herself dry and got dressed. She combed her towel-dry hair, not bothering to dig forth the hair dryer, and went out to the living area.
Steve was nowhere to be found, and Tessa poured herself a glass of water before climbing onto the couch. She wrapped an afghan around herself, snuggling deep into the pillows with her feet drawn up beneath her. The fire was dancing wildly, boosted by the wind wounding its way down the chimney. She sat listening to the creaking in the walls as the storm raged outside the house. Somewhere, she could hear the shower being turned on, and burrowed herself deeper into the couch.
Why are you such a coward, Tess? You want him, you know that. Why keep running away? You're not really afraid…
How'll I know he's interested in me?
Have you not seen his looks? The way he stares at you, the way he touches your hand, your toes… He's even started to hug you without being uncomfortable.
But just jump the gun and kiss him? Wherever will I get the courage to do that?
You love him.
Her eyes widened as the realisation sunk in, and she was half-way up from the lying position on the couch. She loved him? Not just liked him, but actually loved him? Groaning, she fell back on the pillows with her hands covering her face.
"This is getting way too complicated," she muttered to herself.
The voice startled her, and Tessa burst up from the couch before she could think twice. Her eyes found Steve leaning against the frame to the hallway, his dark eyes levelled on her in an enquiring stare. She stuttered, not knowing what to say.
"Cat got your tongue?" he asked, walking over to the couch and sitting down in the other end. She pulled her feet closer, feeling completely lost. Should she come up with a lie? No, he would see through it. The truth? Well… She sighed, giving in.
"Us?" He gave her an unbelieving look. She nodded. "What about us?"
"Our relationship," she said, diverting her gaze to the dancing flames. "I'm getting confused." Beside her, she felt Steve shifting in his seat, possibly a little caught off-guard.
"What's there to be confused about?" he asked slowly. Tessa drew a deep breath, knowing there would be no beating round the bush this time. She looked up at him, locking her blue on his dark orbs.
"I'm not sure where we stand." The impact of her words hit base and Steve looked positively rattled. "We're clearly not just partners anymore. We're possibly more comfortable with each other than ordinary best friends, yet we haven't…" She sighed. "What are we, Steve?" He glanced at her, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, hands clutched together.
"To be honest, I'm not so sure either." For the first time in history, Tessa thought she could see the real Steve behind the façade of professionalism and stickler-for-rules. He had drawn his gaze to the fire, his shoulders tense in anticipation. "Something's changed, that's for sure…"
"…but what do we do about it?" Tessa supplied, now staring at the flames also. She felt her muscles tensing, her heart beating faster than it had ever done. There was a heat generating between them, and it did not only come from the fire. She knew it had always been there. Hell, he probably knew it as well. But they were both holding back, she realised.
"I suggest we take it slow," Steve said quietly, locking his open, honest eyes on hers. She gulped involuntarily, surprised by the evident emotions flickering across his face, but nodded and turned her head away.
They lapsed into an uneasy silence, neither moving nor withdrawing their gazes from the tantalising fireplace. The wind beat around the corners of the house, and she could hear it take hold of the trees outside, threatening to break them in two. Fear crept into her as the storm intensified, and she huddled unconsciously together, clutching the afghan round her.
She started when a hand was put on her shoulder. She looked up to see Steve gesturing her to sit down on the rug in front of her, and complied after a second of hesitation.
Before she had settled in, his hands were on her neck, gently massaging her sore muscles. Tessa tensed for a minute before letting herself drown in the wondrous feeling. A sigh escaped her lips as thumps and palms kneaded the muscles, methodically working their way from her neck, out to her shoulders and down her spine. She tilted her head to give him more access, the worry about his perception gone from her mind. She agreed to his proposal: they would take it slow. Let it go as it goes.
A little by little, the stress withered away, leaving her drowsy but relaxed, and she sank back against the couch, head laid on Steve's knee.
"Thanks," she murmured against his leg. His hands moved up her spine, stopping to rest on top of her shoulders. A stray thumb caressed her skin below her ear, making her heart go wild racing.
The "jump the gun thing and kiss him" sounds very tempting now, or what?
And thus they sat for a long while, Tessa sometimes gripping his trouser leg whenever the wind got too rough. However, even in the company of her self-proclaimed protector, she felt restless with fright, so in the end she stretched and called for dinner. Steve followed obediently, carefully keeping a distance yet at the same time being near enough for her heart to beat fast.
Dinner was a calm, yet a little strained, affair. Neither was quite sure of what to say now that both were vaguely aware of one another's feelings and thus tried to make small talk but didn't quite succeed. Nevertheless, Tessa felt there was a slight flirtatious drift in the air; the way their feet would brush past, the contact of fingers when both tried to take the water jug, the warm eyes gazing into one another.
Her heart beat against the walls of her rib case by the time they cleared the table and she told him she would go for an early night. See if she could nip some sleep before the storm got too worse for sleeping restfully.
He smiled at her, "If you can't sleep, my door's open. I'll make you some hot chocolate if you'd like." Slightly befuddled, Tessa only nodded with a smile and disappeared into her bedroom. She secretly hoped that scenario would come to pass, even if it meant little sleep on her part.
The wind threw itself against the walls, creaking in the windows and cutting through small gaps in the wall even spiders could not go through. Howls tore at her ears, but if was just the wind or animals also, she did not know. All she did know was that it spooked her. Thunderstorms always did.
She had her heart in her throat, lying huddled together on the bed, but deep down she knew it was not just the storm which frightened her. It was also the magnificent need to walk into Steve's warm embrace, the last place where she had felt safe since her father died. The thought of what might happen both thrilled and scared her, but no matter what she did, she could not free her mind of his face.
After the conversation they had had earlier, she had thought of nothing else but what his words might implicate. And she had churned her mind for answers to her million questions, but had so far found none. However, she knew where the answers could be found, and that was in the room across the hallway. Only, she was hesitating, again.
Doesn't the saying go "All things good are three"?
Tessa clamped her knees tighter to her body, curling into a ball under the blankets, feeling small and little in the big, wide world.
Outside, a tree suddenly split in two in a flash of lightening and fell hard down on the ground. She jumped in the bed, sitting up straight, shivering. The items on the nightstand clattered shakily, some falling down on the floor. Her breath came in short, rapid heaves for air, blood pumping through her ears until she felt dizzy.
She couldn't do this anymore. The storm was worsening, and on top of that she was torn in several and opposite directions. The bottom line was that she wanted only to climb under the covers of the man she loved…
Yes, she loved him. Tessa had realised that after the revelation earlier. At least she was in love with him, but as she was unsure of how he felt – despite a strong feeling – she could not bring herself to loose her heart completely. Yet at the moment she was clinging on to it by her fingertips, a part of her still holding it back when it threatened to soar into the smaller bedroom. Warm arms were waiting there. Shelter, security, and possibly love.
A streak of lightening flashed behind the blinds, lighting up the room in the briefest of seconds like if she was in a horror movie. She gulped.
Go to him. Don't stay here. Remember what he said?
I can't go there. He's probably asleep.
In this storm? He's worrying about you.
You don't know that.
What does your stomach tell you?
He's worried about me.
Go to him. Tell him. Take a shot.
Clutching the pyjamas tightly to her body, trying to grasp some ounce of warmth from the thin fabric, Tessa scrambled out of bed, trying to draw deep breaths in hopes of calming down. Her toe crashed on the nightstand, making her cry out. Cursing, she tried to hop over to the door, only to step on a pointy item of some sort with her other foot. Crying out again, she fell against the door, swearing loudly.
Standing on shaky feet, she opened the door and stepped out into the darkened hallway, sometimes lit up by the lightening outside the windows in the living area.
Before she had even reached his door, it banged open, revealing a tousled, dark-haired Steve, wearing only his T-shirt and boxers, although looking very worried. If she hadn't been too busy thinking about her sore feet, she would have thought he looked drop dead gorgeous.
"Tessa, are you alright?" He stepped out, one hand on the door handle. His eyes took in her state, sending the information up to his mind for a complete analysis before he came to the conclusion of her interior based on the exterior. She could almost see how the wheels churned in his head.
However, she did not particularly care about it, flinging herself into his arms, clutching his shirt, forgetting her hurting feet as she drew herself close to his chest. His arms embraced her almost automatically, holding her shivering form tightly. Her breath came in short gasps, almost like if she was hyperventilating. His hand stroked her back, his lips murmuring soft, calming words to her.
Somewhere in her haze, she could feel him urge her further down the hallway, through the kitchenette and towards the couch. He loosened his grip for a stray second while seating themselves, then held her closely as she slowly managed to calm her heartbeat. She lay nested in the crook of his arm, her ear pressed against his strong chest, listening to the rhythmic beat within as his hands stroked her back, her hair, her shoulder.
The afghan from earlier was found and laid gently over her still shivering form, and Tessa soon managed to breathe normally in the nest of security Steve formed. The steady beat of his heart and the lull of his hand through her hair were calming her senses, easing the tension out of her back and shoulders.
But the remembrance of what she wanted to tell him lay on the front of her mind, and she propped herself up on her arms, eyes levelled with his.
"I'm not sure I want to take it slow," she whispered simply, her words carried through the sounds of storm with surprising strength. Heat brushed her cheeks when his stare became more intense as the meaning behind her words dawned upon him.
He opened his mouth to say something, presumably, and Tessa decided in the blink of an eye to take the shot and sprung forward to claim his lips with hers.
His eyes widened for a short moment, his lips stiff beneath hers, and she withdrew dejectedly, thinking she had committed a crime. But his hand reached up to cup her cheek, bringing their faces so close their noses brushed against each other.
"I'm not sure I want to either," Steve spoke quietly, his breath warm on her already flamed skin. She thought her heart had stopped completely before it began to thump loudly against the walls of her chest, blood rushing through her veins. Tessa wanted to smile, to grasp his face in her hands and kiss his lips soundly until they turned blue, but restrained herself.
"I've been a chicken," she breathed, inching a little closer to him. The dark pools of his eyes were flashing in different emotions, all warm and fuzzy and making her knees weak. Both his hands were cupping her face, gently massaging her scalp in chaste caresses. He smiled faintly.
"Then I've been one too." And with that, he pushed forward, meeting her lips in a tantalising kiss which definitely made her knees collapse beneath her, her body falling down on his. The warmth between them intensified by the multiple touches, her arms sneaking around his neck as the kiss deepened.
Kissing Steve in her dreams was nothing compared to the way he kissed in reality; the way his bottom lip softly nudged hers to open, the slow, circling motion of his tongue against her sensitive skin, the gentle urging to open up so that they could continue the seductive game of tongue twister.
Drawing back to catch their breaths, they studied each other's eyes, trying to get a grasp on some of the fleeting emotions in the bottom of those pools. Tessa knew the dark lust on his face was mirrored on her own.
One of his hands strayed from her hair, moving down her sleek neck, caressing the sensitive spots beneath her ear and the joint between her shoulder and her neck. She let her arms move from around his neck and down his torso, brushing lightly over the muscular form beneath the T-shirt. How she wanted to rip those clothes apart!
She took hold of him once more, hauling him hungrily towards her, kissing him lavishly until she feared strangulation. He followed her every step, matching her rhythm as the passion flared up, burning their bodies from within. Animalistic growls and moans escaped their lips, adding fuel to the fire.
His lips left her mouth, working his way down her jaw bone, past her ear and down her neck until they latched on to the right spot. She moaned, clutching his shirt in her fists, pulling him up from the half-lying position on the couch. His hands slipped down beneath her pyjamas jacket, fingering the waistline of her pyjamas bottoms before trailing up her back.
She gasped, turning her head in search of his lips. He met her halfway, his mouth open, inviting and hot. She drowned in his arms, her hands exploring the strong chest underneath his shirt. As her hands made contact with the sides of his stomach, she learned he was incredibly ticklish and could not help herself to exploit the new-learned weakness.
"No dirty tricks," he growled, taking her by the shoulders after he had finally overcome her sneaky fingers. She grinned at him, and was then caught off-guard when he suddenly rose from the couch, lifting her up in his strong arms and carrying her down the hallway.
She yelped at first, the nervousness and hesitancy returning, but when he laid her gently down on the bed and leaned over her in question, the answer was simple: she grasped the hem of his shirt and pulled him on top of her.
The storm had passed and the birds were chirping happily outside the window. Tessa lay on her side, propped up on an elbow, staring down on the wonder beside her. Steve looked more peaceful than she had seen him in a long time, and she was sure the same went for her. Her muscles were completely relaxed; she felt like she could stand on the rooftop and scream out her joy. Rochette Williams had once again been proven right.
"Get rid of the tension," she had told Steve, talking about the stressed partner all knew he had. Tessa had been embarrassed at that time, but she did not regret anything now. If there had been something to regret, then it would be that she had not confessed her feelings and acted on them earlier.
She stared at her partner, her friend and now lover. His lips were curved in a slight lopsided smile, his tanned body covered from the waist and down by the blankets, leaving her to gaze on the muscular chest. Had she known that chest had hid behind the dark suit at work, she would possibly have thrown him into the reviewing room, locked the door and shagged him senseless. Well, perhaps not exactly that, but she would have done something drastic.
Here and there, small patches of dark hair covered his skin. Not too much, but enough to make him masculine in an ordinary way. Tessa did not like it when the men shaved off most of the body hair. Though she did not want her man to look like a hairy pig, she did not want a skin-head either. But she did not need to worry: Steve was in-between.
Reaching out with a finger, she traced the curve of his shoulder, his arm, and his torso before moving up to gently caress his sharp nose, curvy lips and strong jaw bone. Gently brushing her hand through his hair, she watched as he stirred, but did not stop her motions. His eyelids fluttered, finally opening fully and taking a minute to focus on her face. He smiled.
"Mornin'," he said, his baritone lower in the morning, and a little raspier after last night's activities. He leaned into her hand, taking it with his and kissing her palm. She smiled brightly.
"Good day would be more appropriate. It's almost noon." Tessa closed her eyes as he placed small kisses on the inside of her arm, working himself up towards her shoulder. Steve drew her to him, nuzzling her nose and giving her a soft peck on the lips.
"Noon, eh?" he asked, wiggling his eyebrow mischievously. She chuckled, guessing where he was going and fully willing to play along.
"We've covered most of the day," she said, giving him the chance to continue the thought. She stroked him lightly across the back.
"Mm…" Steve kissed her neck, his hand guiding her closer. "How about," he kissed her earlobe, "we do the same," he sucked tenderly on the spot beneath her ear, "for the rest," he moved down her jawbone, kissing her breathless, "of the day?" He reached her lips, deepening the kiss before she had a chance to reply, withdrawing only when she was gasping for air. She stared into his loving dark orbs.
"How about the rest of our break?" she retorted, earning her a grin before being drown yet again in his safe embrace.
"My, my, you look positively beaming, Tessa!" Rochette looked her over, giving her that knowing smile yet again. Surprisingly, it did not bother her, and she only returned it secretly.
"The mountain air has done me good. I'm not as stressed as before." Which was the truth, in a way, and the young constable knew it very well. She read Tessa like an open book.
"I'd say there was more than air in the picture, if you catch my drift…"
Tessa raised an eyebrow, but did not get to reply as Steve suddenly appeared beside her, silently putting his arm protectively around her waist. She smiled up at him, receiving the grin which seemed to be fixed permanently on his face these days.
"All set?" she asked him, fully intending to let Rochette watch the show without being bothered by it.
It had seemed lethal to learn that skill as hers and Steve's relationship was bound to have reactions back at the office. However, they had by mutual agreement come to the conclusion of keeping it quiet and professional during work. What they did on their spare time was no one's business than their own, so as long as the intimate relations did not interfere in their working relationship, things would not end up on Thorne's desk.
"I just finished loading the bags into the boot; only waiting for you, dear." His eyes twinkled, making her blush faintly. He leaned down and gave her a small peck on the cheek. The covert smile on his lips told her he was aware of the slightly gawking constable beside them, and intended to play along. Tessa turned to Rochette.
"It was great to see you again. I do believe it won't be the last time I'm up here, so I won't say a final goodbye." She received a wide smile and a wink in return, and lost control a stray second, letting it bother her.
"Have a nice trip home," Rochette waved them off, disappearing into the post office while shaking her head. Tessa frowned a little. Steve noticed and urged her towards the parking lot. Pausing by the door, she looked around herself, as if seeing the town in a whole new perspective.
"Any regrets?" Steve asked her from the other side of the car. She drew her gaze from the main street, now empty after the weekend's end, looking into his eyes with a grin.
"If I had, you wouldn't have that bite mark next to the bruise on your shoulder." With that he laughed and they got inside, the engine already running. And soon the car was on its way back to Sydney.
Author's Notes: Not my usual Wheel of Time story, but it was something I wrote a couple of months ago, when things were rough and I needed a break. If there's any Murder Call fans out there, read and review:)