CHAPTER 16

He stepped inside, closed the door behind him, removed his sunglasses and hat, and set them on the table beside the untouched basket of goodies the ladies from the Catholic church had prepared for her.

He smelled of sunshine and soap; he was freshly shaved.

He had on clean but well-worn Levi’s and a plain white shirt, a western tooled-leather belt, and cowboy boots.

If a team of mustangs had been pulling Tiel in the opposite direction, they couldn’t have stopped her from throwing herself against him. Or maybe he reached for her. Afterward, she didn’t recall who moved first. And anyway, who initiated it was unimportant.

All that mattered was that he drew her into an all-encompassing embrace. Her body was flush with his, and they held each other tightly. Her brimming tears flowed freely and were absorbed by the cloth of his shirt. He covered the back of her head with his wide hand and pressed her face into his chest to cushion the sobs that issued from her in short, noisy bursts.

“Did he die? Are you here to tell me that Ronnie is dead?”

“No, that’s not why I’m here. I don’t know any news about Ronnie.”

“I guess that’s good.”

“I guess.”

“I couldn’t believe it, Doc. That sound. That horrible, deafening sound. Then to see him lying there so still, amidst all that glass and blood. More blood.”

“Shh.”

Comforting words were whispered across her hairline, along her temple. Then the words ceased, and only his breath, his lips, drifted over her brow, touching her damp eyelids. Tiel raised her head and looked at him through tearful eyes. Reaching up to touch his face, she made a small sound of want, which he echoed.

A heartbeat later, his lips were on hers. Insistent and hungry, they rubbed hers apart. Their tongues flirted, stroked, before his dominated. It claimed and explored her mouth. Tiel’s hands met at the back of his neck. She threaded her fingers up through his hair and submitted to his kiss, which was symbolically, blatantly sexual.

As though boosted by a powerful stimulant, her senses quickened. Each sensory receptor was sharpened to a fine point. She had never felt more alive, yet she was also a little afraid. Like a child at her first carnival, she was dazzled and dazed by the sensual onslaught, enthralled by it, overwhelmed by it, apprehensive of it, and yet eager to experience it.

His belt buckle gouged her tummy, but it wasn’t an unpleasant sensation. The cold metal turned warm against the strip of bare skin between the hem of her tank top and her bikini line. Strong and confident, his hands settled on her lower back and pulled her closer.

He kissed his way down her throat. She angled her head to one side, and he feathered her earlobe with his breath, his tongue. Following the course of her head, she turned her body slowly, enabling him to kiss the side of her neck, her shoulder. Lifting her hair, he kissed her nape. The touch of his mouth there sent shivers of delight up her spine.

With her back to him now, she leaned against his wide chest while his hands smoothed over her front. He pressed her breasts beneath his palms, cupped them, reshaped them, before his hands continued down to her rib cage-which he was almost able to encase. At her hipbones, his hands rested.

Tingling with arousal, her movements against him were feline, shameless, inviting. He responded by slipping his hand into the front of her briefs, down, down deep into the vee of her thighs.

When he found her center, she murmured his name, turned her head, and sought his lips with hers.

They kissed while his fingers continued to caress, separate, penetrate. She came up on tiptoes, her body arching outward, straining toward his hand, until her shoulder blades were propped against his collarbone and her head was grinding into his shoulder.

She placed her hand over his, urging his fingers higher.

But that still wasn’t good enough. She wanted to be close to him. As close as she could be… and she wasn’t nearly close enough.

Turning suddenly, she molded herself to his front. The sound that rumbled from his chest was low, animalistic, arousing. He palmed her bottom and lifted her against his middle. They fit like two pieces of a puzzle. Perfectly.

Snugly. Breathtakingly. Tiel raised one leg and rested it on his hip. As they kissed lustily, he stroked the underside of her thigh.

Then he carried her to the bed. It was only a distance of a few steps, but to Tiel it seemed to take forever before she felt him stretched out alongside her. She readjusted her body beneath his weight.

He pushed his fingers into her hair and held it off her face. His eyes, practically liquid with desire, seemed to pour over her features. “I don’t know what you like.” His voice was raspy. Even more so than usual. She wished it were tangible so she could feel it abrading her skin like the sand that had blown across her earlier.

Her fingertip traced the shape of his eyebrow, followed the length of his straight, narrow nose, outlined his lips. “I like you.”

“What do you want me to do?”

For one dreadful moment, she feared she would lapse into another crying jag. Emotion made her chest and throat tight, but she managed to contain it. “Convince me I’m alive, Doc.”

He began by removing her tank top and lowering his mouth to her breasts. He kissed them in turn, but lightly, teasingly, and he continued sipping at them until they were ready, and then he applied his tongue. Watching this was an incredible turn-on. She began to feel increasingly restless and hot. Pressure gathered in the lower part of her body.

Then his lips closed around her hard nipple. The silky heat, the tugging motion of his mouth, felt erotic and empowering.

She couldn’t keep her hips and legs still, and when her knee nudged his crotch, then stayed to prod lightly the fullness there, he grunted with a mix of pleasure and pain.

Suddenly he was off the bed. He undressed hastily. His chest had just the right amount of hair. His skin was taut.

Muscles were well defined, but not grotesquely so. His belly was flat. His penis jutted aggressively from the juncture of tapering hips and strong thighs.

Just as he placed one knee on the bed, Tiel sat up. Her fingertips followed the trail of silky hair that bisected his belly down to the fan of denser growth. The shaft was warm, hard, alive; the tip velvety in texture. Without a single nod toward shyness, he allowed her to study him.

Then she wrapped her arms around his hips and hugged him close, so that her head was pressed to his lower chest and his sex was nestled between her breasts. It felt delicious.

But after a moment, he groaned, “Tiel…”

Gently he eased her back onto the bed. He leaned over her and removed her underpants. He paused for a moment, his eyes focused on her with frank interest. Then he bent down and kissed her just above the line of her pubic hair. It was a lazy, sexy, wet kiss that prompted her to reach for him with unabashed longing.

He stretched out on top of her. Her thighs parted naturally.

He slid his arms beneath her back and hugged her to him.

And then he entered her.

They were twined together naked, without even the benefit of the bedsheet to cover them. The air conditioner was blasting cold air into the small room, but their skin was radiating heat.

Tiel actually felt feverish. She lay sprawled atop him, her head on his chest, one arm flung over his waist, one knee securely lodged in his crotch. He was breathing evenly and contentedly, idly stroking her hair.

“I thought I had hurt you.”

“Hurt me?” she mumbled.

“You cried out.”

Yes. At his initial thrust. She remembered now. She turned her head into his chest and nuzzled him. “Because it felt so good.”

His arms tightened around her. “To me too. That thing you do-“

“What thing?”

“That thing.”

“I don’t do a thing.”

He opened his eyes and smiled. “Yeah you do.”

“I do?”

“Hmm. And it’s bloody great.”

Blushing, she returned her cheek to his chest. “Well, thanks.”

“The pleasure was mine.”

“I’m exhausted.”

“So am I.”

“But I don’t want to sleep.”

“Me either.”

Several moments passed, a time of sweet reflection.

Eventually Tiel stacked her hands on his sternum and propped her chin on them. “Doc?”

“Hmm.”

“Are you asleep? Is it all right if I ask you something?”

“Go ahead.”

“What are we doing?”

He opened only one eye to look at her. “Do you want the scientific nomenclature, the polite phraseology, or will twenty-first-century vernacular do?”

She frowned at his teasing. “I meant-“

“I know what you meant.” The second eye came open, and he tilted his head on the pillow to look at her from a better angle. ‘Just what you said earlier, Tiel. We’re con vincing each other that we’re alive. It’s not all that uncommon for people to want sex after a life-threatening experience.

Or after any reminder of their mortality, a funeral for instance. Sex is the quintessential affirmation that you’re alive.”

“Really? Well that’s the most fan-fucking-tastic assertion of the survival instinct I’ve ever experienced.” He chuckled.

But Tiel grew quiet, introspective. She blew softly against the chest hairs brushing her lips. “Is that all it was?”

He placed his finger beneath her chin and lifted it until she was looking at him again. “Anything between us would be complicated, Tiel.”

“Are you still in love with Shari?”

“I love the good memories of her. I also hate the painful ones. But, if you’re suggesting that I’m fixated on her ghost, let me assure you that I’m not. My relationship with her-good, bad, or indifferent-wouldn’t prevent me from having another.”

“You’d marry again?”

“I’d want to. If I loved the woman, I would want to make a life together, and to me that means marriage.” After a moment, he asked, “What about your memories of John Malone?”

“Like yours, bittersweet. We had almost a fairy-tale romance.

Probably married too soon, aglow with passion, before we really knew one another. If he hadn’t died, who knows? Career paths might eventually have led us in different and irreconcilable directions.”

“As it is, he’ll remain in your memory as the martyred Prince Charming.”

“No, Doc. My memory isn’t clinging to a flawless ghost either.”

“What about that Joe?”

“That Joe is married,” she reminded him.

“But if he weren’t?”

She thought about Joseph Marcus a moment, then shook her head. “We probably would have had a thing going for a while, and then it would have fizzled. He was a diversion, not an affair of the heart. Nothing serious, I assure you. I can barely remember him.”

She levered herself up and combed her hands down his chest. “You, on the other hand, I’ll remember. You look exactly as I imagined you would.”

“You imagined me naked?”

“I confess.”

“When?”

“When you first came into the store, I think. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘Whoa. He’s yummy.’ “

“I’m yummy?”

“Very yummy.”

“Why, thank you, ma’am,” he said, speaking in an exaggerated drawl. Eyes moving to her breasts, he added,

“You’re right tasty-looking yourself.”

“Oh, I’ll bet you say that to all the girls who straddle your lap.”

Smiling, he reached for a strand of her hair and rubbed it between his fingers. Gradually his smile relaxed, and when he spoke, his tone was more serious.

“We’ve been through a lot together, Tiel. A birth. A near-death. Tense hours of not knowing how it was going to play out. Trauma like that does something to people. It binds them.”

His words echoed her earlier thoughts on the subject.

But it wasn’t very flattering that he ascribed their attraction solely to trauma, or that he could mitigate carnal desire with such a pragmatic, scientific explanation.

What if they’d met at a cocktail party last night? There would have been no sparks, no heat, and they wouldn’t be in bed together now. Essentially that’s what he was saying.

If this meant nothing more to him than illustrating a psychological phenomenon, there was no sense in prolonging the inevitable goodbye.

Congratulations, Doc. You ‘re my first-and probably last one-night stand. One-morning stand.

She moved to get up, but he used her motion to pull her fully atop him, so that they were belly to belly and her legs were lying between his.

“In spite of the danger to us-to everyone inside the store-I had periodic and incredibly vivid fantasies of this.”

She found enough voice to say, “Of this?”

His hands smoothed down her back, over her ass, and as far as they could reach along the backs of her thighs.

“Of you.”

He levered up his shoulders in order to kiss her. At first the kiss was slow and methodical, his tongue leisurely stroking her mouth while his hands continued sliding up and down her back from shoulders to thighs.

She felt like purring. In fact she did. When he felt the vibration of it, the kiss intensified. His hands covered her bottom and held her tightly against his erection. Provocatively, she rocked against it. He hissed a swear word, making it sound erotic. He slid his hands down the backs of her thighs and separated them.

Then he was inside her again, a full, heavy, desired pressure.

Filling more than her body. Filling an unacknowledged need she’d had for a very long time. Giving her more than immense pleasure. Giving her a sense of fulfillment and purpose that even her finest work had failed to provide.

They moved in perfect rhythm. She couldn’t get as deeply into him as she wanted, and he must have felt the same. Because when he came, he held her possessively in place, his fingers making deep impressions in her flesh.

She burrowed her face in the hollow beneath his shoulder and pinched the flesh there between her teeth.

It was a long, slow, sweet climax. The aftermath was as long, slow, and sweet.

Tiel was so totally relaxed, replete, that it felt as though she had melted and become a part of him. She couldn’t distinguish her skin from his. She didn’t want to. She didn’t even move when he pulled the sheet and blanket up over them. She fell asleep there, with him still sheathed in her softness, her ear resting on his heart.

“Tiel?”

“Hmm?”

“It’s your alarm.”

She muttered grumpily and pushed her hands deeper into the warmth of his armpits.

“You’ve got to get up. The chopper’s coming back for you, remember?”

She did. But she didn’t want to. She wanted to stay exactly where she was for at least the next ten years. It would take her that long to catch up on the sleep she had lost last night. It would take her that long to get enough of Doc.

“Come on. Up.” He gave her fanny an affectionate smack. “Make yourself presentable before Sheriff Montez gets here.”

Groaning, she rolled off him. Around a huge yawn, she asked, “How’d you know our arrangements?”

“He told me. That’s how I knew where to find you.” She gave him a misty look and he said, “Yes, he knew I wanted to know. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

“Yes.”

“He and I are buddies. Play poker occasionally. He knows my story, why I moved out here, but he’s good at keeping confidences.”

“Even from the FBI.”

“He asked if he could take my statement, and Galloway agreed. He had his hands full.” He threw his legs over the side of the bed. “Mind if I use the bathroom first? I’ll be quick.”

“Be my guest.”

In the process of bending down to pick up his boxers, he caught her with her hands far above her head, back arched, stretching lazily. He sat down on the edge of the bed, his eyes fixed on her breasts. He fondled the raised tip. “Maybe I don’t want you to get in that chopper.”

“Ask me not to and maybe I won’t.”

“You would.”

“I have to,” she said ruefully.

Sighing, he withdrew his hands. “Yeah.” He got up and went into the bathroom.

“Maybe,” Tiel whispered to herself, “I could convince you to come with me.”

She removed a bra and panties set from her suitcase, put them on, and was just about to step into a pair of slacks when she sensed Doc watching her.

She turned, ready with a suggestive smile and a saucy remark about peeping Toms. But his expression didn’t invite either. In fact, he was practically bristling with rage.

Mystified, her lips parted to ask what the matter was when he held out his hand. Lying in his palm was the audio tape recorder. It had been in the pocket of her slacks, which she’d left along with her other dirty clothes in a pile on the commode lid. He’d moved them, found the recorder.

Her expression must have been a dead giveaway of her guilt because with a vicious punch of his thumb, he depressed the Play button and his voice cut across the silence. “For instance, the hospital buckled beneath the weight of bad publicity. Bad publicity generated and nurtured by people like you.”

In a like manner, he stopped the tape and threw the recorder down onto the bed. “Take it.” Looking scornfully at the tangled bed linens, he added, “You earned it.”

“Doc, listen. I-“

“You got what you were after. A good story.” Pushing her aside, he picked up his jeans and angrily thrust his legs into them.

“Will you stop with the righteous indignation and listen?”

He flung his hand toward the incriminating recorder.

“I’ve heard enough. Did you get everything? All the juicy details of my personal life? I’m surprised you’ve tarried this long. I’d’ve thought you’d jog back to Dallas if necessary just so you could start assembling all the good material you’ve got on me.”

He buttoned the fly of his jeans and yanked his shirt off the floor. “Oh, no, wait. You wanted to get fucked first.

After Joe what’s-his-name turned out to be a dud, your ego needed reinforcing.”

The insult smarted and she reacted to it by striking back. “Who came to whose room? I didn’t track you down.

You came here, remember?”

He cursed when he couldn’t find but one sock. He shoved his foot into his boot without it.

“Nor is it my fault that you’re a good story,” she shouted.

“I don’t want to be a story. I never did.”

“Too bad, Doc. You are. You simply are. Once notori ous, you’re now a hero. You saved lives last night. Do you think that’ll go unnoticed? Those kids and their parents are going to talk about ‘Doc.’ So are the other hostages.

Any reporter worth his paycheck is going to be clamoring for the lowdown. Even your friend Montez won’t be able to shield you from the publicity. You would’ve made news no matter what. But since ‘Doc’ is the reclusive Dr.

Bradley Stanwick, you’re big news. Huge news.”

He gestured toward the recorder again. “But you’ve got them all beat, don’t you? Is there another recorder under the bed? Were you hoping to get titillating pillow talk?”

“Go to hell.”

“I wouldn’t put anything past you.”

“I was doing my job.”

“And here I thought I was speaking confidentially. But you’re going to use it, aren’t you? The stuff I thought I was confiding to you?”

“You’re damn right I am!”

His jaw flexed with rage. He glared at her for several seconds, then marched toward the door. Tiel barged after him, grabbed his arm, and pulled him around. “It could be the best thing that ever happened to you.”

He yanked his arm free of her grasp. “I fail to see that.”

“It could force you to face up to the fact that you were wrong to run away. Last… last night,” she said, stuttering in her haste to make her point before he stormed out.

“You told Ronnie that he couldn’t run away from his problems.

That running from them was no solution. But isn’t that exactly what you did?

“You moved out here and buried your head in this West Texas sand, refusing to accept what you know to be true.

That you’re a gifted healer. That you could make a difference.

That you were making a difference. For patients and families facing a death sentence, you were granting reprieves.

God knows what you could do in the future.

“But because of your pride, and anger, and disillusionment with your colleagues, you abandoned it. You threw out the baby with the bathwater. If this story draws you back into the limelight, if there’s a chance it will motivate you to return to your practice, then I’ll be damned before I’ll apologize for it.”

He turned his back on her and opened the door.

“Doc?” she cried.

But all he said was, “Your ride is here.”

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