Saturday, October 11, 2008

Before You Say Goodbye by Christine London

Spice and resinous tang, he breathed her in, cascading kisses across her face. Hands cradling her head, he couldn’t stop consuming the reality of her. Overwhelming relief flooded his chest, threatening to smother him in its intensity.

Her cheeks were wet. He drew back from her, engaging her eyes. Jesus…those eyes. Red-rimmed with emotion, smudged with melted mascara, they were beautiful.

“Aubrey, don’t cry. I’m okay.”

“God, I thought I’d never see you again,” she breathed in short, laboured gasps.

He hooked his arm around her shoulder and brought her to his chest. “They’ve let me go. It was all a huge cock up.” He felt her wedge clenched fists between them.

“Who’s they?’ her voice quavered, potent with imagined horrors. He captured her upper arms in a firm grasp, her fists now pressing into his sternum.

“I don’t know. Americans.”

“Americans?” Her forehead furrowed in anxiety.

“They thought I was some bloke named Steele.”

“Mistaken identity?”

“Apparently.”

Fists relaxing, her hands dropped to her sides. “What did they want?”

“The contents of my carry-on bag…oh, and my mobile.” He patted the side pocket of his coat in well-rehearsed gesture of cursory search.

The starch melted from her posture. “So we buy you a new toothbrush and some underwear.”

“I’m afraid it’s a bit more complicated than that.” The brick was back in his stomach. A line of concern appeared between her brows, mirroring his. “They sort of made away with—” He paused, unable to say it.

“What?” she questioned, her agate eyes burning with intensity.

“With a rather important package.”

“We’re not on Mars, Benn. We can get it replaced”.

He cursed his open book face. Biting his bottom lip, he tried to change what was already written in his eyes. “I can’t.”

She curled her fingers around his forearm. “Why not? What could be that rare?”

He drew in a deep breath and sighed. “Gems. My father’s.”

Her mouth opened in surprise mixed with commiseration. “Oh…Benn.”

“Well there’s no point crying over spilt milk, is there?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. We’re not gonna take this lying down.”

He stared at the yellow-orange striations that swirled through her irises. Her eyes looked as though they would self-combust. “I refuse to expose you to any danger.”

Her hand tightened around his forearm. “I appreciate the sentiment, I do…but I can take care of myself.”

“These guys may have bungled who I am, but they meant business.” He jutted his head forward, eyes lasering sincerity into hers. “I’ll not have you in harm’s way.” Fear welled up in him. He hadn’t been with her more than five minutes and already he knew he’d lie in front of a bus for her. “No.”

She dropped her hand from his arm and turned away. The sight of her back felt glacial.

“Come on, Aubrey. I’m just being reasonable. Neither of us is equipped to handle—” He cut himself off and blew out a puff of frustration. “So I suppose this qualifies as our first fight?” Sensing the tension radiating from her, he instinctively kept his hands to himself. Tentatively, he moved around to face her. Before he entered her peripheral vision, she whirled, sending him recoiling in astonishment.

“I’m a fucking mystery author. I’ve written at least a hundred such scenarios. I’ve done research with dozens of criminal justice professionals and gotten my characters out of more circuitous plot twists than a snake on steroids.” Her face was flushed with anger, her body puffed up in animal charade.

Benn tried to contain it, but an explosive chortle escaped his lips. Aubrey’s eyes widened even further.

“Don’t take this wrong, woman, but you crack me up.”

She struck his shoulder, packing quite a wallop. He reached for the spot with a reactive hand. “Owe!”

“Come on…give me a break. I barely touched you.”

Rubbing the offended muscle he retorted, “If that’s your soft touch, remind me not to get on your bad side.”

“I never should have had that cab follow you. If I’d ‘ov known you were gonna resume the chase after they’d let you go Scot free—”

“Don’t be insulting…I’m a colonial, not a bleedin’ Celt.”

A brief questioning look flashed across her face before she made the connection. “Ha ha. Very funny. I’m glad you’re taking this so lightly.”

“I’m not. It’s just that you have to keep your sense of humor through life or you’ll die of some cardiovascular malady.” He studied her. “Aubrey? Come on…stick with me here.”

Reprimand and mirth warred on her face, finally melting into a reluctant smile. “Okay.”

She reengaged his eyes. “We know they thought you were someone else. That they are American and that they were carting you across London.”

“To City Airport would be my guess.”

“How do you know that?”

“I heard the planes taking off right overhead when we stopped.”

“You stopped?”

“Yes. They took me into some sort of warehouse. I could smell the coffee.”

“Coffee?”

“Yeah, must have been used to store beans. It permeated the air.”

“What did it look like?”

“Don’t know. My head was covered throughout. Right until they booted me into an alley just across the way.”

“Yes…of course.” She turned from him, gazing at the pavement in thought.

Hooking her elbow, he steered her toward Bankside. “Look, love, I’m as fond of tourist locales as the next bloke, but can we get out of the weather?”

* * * *

Dodging under a green awning, they made it through the heavy oak door of a bakery just as the heavens opened. Cinnamon and sugar assaulted the senses as the waft of warm air hit her. A bell tinkled as Benn pushed through just ahead. While he was looking around the cozy establishment, she studied him. Beads of moisture clung to his classic-cut charcoal coat. His hair—a riot of damp curls—danced over his collarbone, skimming broad shoulders. Now that they were out of harm’s way, she could concentrate on him. She’d not thought to really look at him until now. They were safe inside this throwback to the forties, with heaps of rolls, sweets and breads stacked beneath the glass of a display case. She ignored it all to focus on him.

“Could we have two sticky buns and a pot of tea?’ The depth of his voice penetrated her cloud of concern. It blanketed her in the fabulous reality of the man at her side. God, he was gorgeous. His online photos did not do him justice. She’d been attracted to him from his very first communiqué. His MySpace icon was alluring, showing his dark-haired good looks, the light blue of his eyes and the strength of his jaw line. The other photos in his pics file were all snapshots; self-generated, and at odd angles. What would a real photographer be able to do with the man?

She felt the muscles of her face slacken, lips parting to draw in air that suddenly seemed more urgent. He turned from the clerk behind the counter, ice blue eyes engaging hers.

“Would you rather have a scone?”

His words might as well have been Swahili. She flipped her focus switch to “on” for receptive language, quickly retrieving at least the last few words.

“Scone? Uhh…no. Whatever you’re having.” Under the loose wrap of her scarf, her neck seemed ablaze, sending radiant heat to her face. She tugged at the long end that looped over her shoulder until it dangled freely. His hand wrapped around her wrist and he leaned in to kiss her. The gentle touch of his lips at the corner of her mouth sent adrenaline-laced lust through her, like the shockwave of a nuclear blast. She felt his grip tighten, his other hand pressing against the small of her back. The churning of blood in her ears competed with the pounding in her chest. Invading her nostrils, damp wool mixed with the earthy spice of his cologne. The heady scent of him assailed her senses as it vied with the cinnamon and coffee for her attention. It was one of those moments suspended in time, lingering like a haunting refrain. If only she could press the sustain pedal in her mind and stay in it forever. What mixture of ingredients, what combination of ephemeral qualities opened the floodgates of emotion, confirming what the logical brain had suspected? As fire consumes its fuel, the reality of the man in physical form now consumed her.

Yes. She loved him.