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The publications and research of Catherine Holder Spude.
Disastrous Love: A Fantasy Romance by Cate Duncan

Becca Tucker has lived in a loveless marriage for the sake of her teenage daughter, wondering always if she was wise to stick it out. Now that Chelsea is fifteen, she's ready to strike out on her own.

Then everything changes.  Geologists have long predicted the eruption of a super-volcano in the Yellowstone National Park region. Ed won't listen to her when she brings home a report that it is ready to blow and they must find shelter.      Consequent-ly, he dies. The man who saves her life? None other than the one person who stole her heart years ago, during long, sultry afternoons while watching their children play in the neighborhood park.

Levi Martin loves children, but in his long quest to have a family, has never found the right mother for his sons and daughters. Now, with civilization at an end, he finds himself in the same house with the one woman who he always wanted and who always was forbidden to him. Yet they must both mourn the loss of their spouses -- and a way of life -- before they can begin anew. Can he find love and a family when the world is falling apart around him?

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            CHAPTER FIVE
                       THE VISITOR

Levi cursed as his dart swung wide and skidded across the surface of the ground.

“I’m sure we have the concept down right, Becca,” he grumbled as he walked back with the short, light spear. “I just can’t seem to get the hang of how to throw it.”

Josh, Levi and Becca stood at the end of the small meadow in front of Jeb’s house, about fifty feet from a stack of dried grass. They had come up with an atlatl, a spear-thrower of sorts, hoping to learn to kill some game and have something better to eat than canned goods. After all, it would be awhile before that baby sow grew up and had piglets, and they were focusing on fresh eggs, not roasting chickens in the coop. Although Jeb had a rifle, and David Martin had made his sons bring four of them, hell, even Chelsea and she had a shotgun and a .38,  none of wanted to dip into their limited supply of ammunition. And for some reason, none of them liked bringing attention to themselves. She couldn’t explain it. The sound of the rifles didn’t seem right. The men had used them a few times, but they wanted something they could replace easily.

None of them knew how to make a strong enough string for a bow. While they had laid some string traps for rabbits and squirrels, none had worked yet. And none of them had ever before seen an atlatl in operation. Oh, she’d seen pictures, even a film or two. That’s not the same as actually doing it.

“I think you need to release it earlier in your swing,” she suggested. “Maybe a sideways motion would work better than over your head. And the film I saw showed the men running. I don’t know if that’s necessary or not.”

“Okay, okay,” he muttered, impatiently. He looped the leather over his middle three fingers again, snapped the leather straps in place on his upper arm, and positioned the dart into the thrower. Walking to the tree line, he rocked on the balls of his feet, feeling his balance and opening his senses to the wind and the sounds in the air. Then he stepped forward with his left leg, took five running steps, pulled back his right arm, and let the atlatl dart fly. It soared true and straight, landing squarely in the small pile of dried grass sixty feet from where he stopped, amazed.

She whooped and jumped at Josh, almost knocking him over. Both of them clambered all over Levi, threatening to snap either the suddenly precious spear-thrower or Levi’s arm in the general adulation of their hero. He finally extricated himself and begged them to let him try again. He hit the grass pile squarely three more times.

Josh demanded a try, so the sudden expert became teacher. Three tries later produced a second expert. Then it was her turn. It took a little longer with her, her shoulders being made differently than theirs. A dozen tries and some probing to figure out how she should swing the atlatl finally resulted in a solid cast. Two more tries introduced a degree of accuracy that she knew would improve. She couldn’t wait to start teaching Chelsea and begin making more darts and throwers.

“You’re pretty good with that thing. Whatcha’ call it?” The man’s voice came from the edge of the trees to the left of them, near the creek.

They all turned. They hadn’t heard or seen another person since they’d left the parking lot outside Los Conejos six weeks before. She beamed to see another human being. While she tried not to let her expression change, she knew she had made a mistake immediately. The man’s smile did not extend to his eyes. Tall and lanky, his hair hung long and greasy. The hungry look about him did not come from need of food alone, nor even of mere human companionship. This man was the very sort of parasite she warned Chelsea of daily.

“An atlatl.” Levi stepped between them, extending a welcoming hand, but clearly putting himself between her and the stranger. She handed the spear-thrower with its dart to Josh, so he could show it to the man, if it came to that. He wouldn’t have to approach her to inspect it. Shit, she thought to herself. It’s come to this so soon. The first stranger we meet, we can’t even be civil.

“Name’s Leo. Leo Culver.” He grinned that false grin and stuck out a grimy hand towards Levi. The shorter man hesitated only a breath before taking it, setting his legs sturdily under him, as if he didn’t trust the guy to let him keep his feet.

“Levi Chekov. This is my nephew, Josh Martin.”

Josh obligingly shook the dirty paw. She guessed his love affair with the dogs made him less squeamish than the rest of them.

Culver turned towards her with a humorous glint in his eye, one she didn’t much like. “And you must be his niece.” They all knew he meant to flatter her. The wrinkles on her face made her Josh’s mother, if she should be so lucky as to be related.

“Becca,” Levi jumped in before she could open her mouth. He let the “a” at the end of her name drag out a little, almost as a threat. Again, he positioned his body between Culver’s and Becca’s. He let his actions indicate relationships. Culver should have no trouble understanding she was off limits. Her feminist instincts bridled. Her good sense made her relax.

“An atal- what?” Culver looked towards the atlatl in Josh’s hands. Levi took it from him.

“Atlatl. A spear-thrower. The throwing stick increases the power, so this spear can have a chance at going through some ribs, not just bounce off like a hand-thrown spear would do.” Levi looked at the man’s rib cage as he explained the force behind the device, turning his clarification into a veiled threat. “We don’t have the right wood or sinew for a bow, so we thought we’d give this a try.”

He didn’t relinquish the weapon. It would have done the man little good, but it had taken Becca several hours to construct it, and the dart was sharp. She’d made the point from the thick bottom of a beer bottle, chipping it out like an arrowhead. It could be lethal by itself.

Culver didn’t try to take it from him, apparently noting not only Levi’s reticence, but his obvious threatening posture. If he’d been Levi's black lab, Aretha, the fur ridge along his backbone would have stood up two inches. Culver peered at the atlatl curiously, and then lost interest.

“You folks have any food to spare?” he asked plaintively. The first apparently real emotion sparked into his eyes. “I ain’t had much to eat in the last couple of weeks. I’m afraid to head down canyon yet. I can’t catch any rabbits or squirrels.”

His hunger radiated palpably. As wary as all three of them were of him, they couldn’t turn him away. Levi’s muscles seemed to soften a bit, and he glanced in Becca’s direction with an apologetic look on his face. He motioned the man towards the house.

“Come on up. We have plenty of beans and rice.”

Yeah. More than enough, Becca thought, knowing how tired they all were of those particular canned goods.

                                    * * *

Later Becca wished she could have thought of a way to get to the house ahead of the men and chase Chelsea into the mine, make her hide until Culver filled his stomach and moved on. Now she decides to sit in the living room, she thought, when she spied her daughter lounging across Jeb’s favorite reading chair, not wearing much but a tank top and tiny shorts, treating Levi and Josh like the uncle and big brother they pretended to be. She was moping around, absorbed in some video game when they entered the room. Jeb might as well be a eunuch, as far as she was concerned. She’d never adjusted to having breasts or curvy hips, or if she had, she always pretended to be totally unconscious of them. Becca nagged her about her attitude constantly. It’s a mother’s job to nag. It’s a daughter’s duty to ignore her mother. Chelsea went into full mother-ignore mode as soon as she saw another male in the group. She turned on all her pheromones, the ones that said, I’m single and forget the male relatives.

“So this is your sister,” Culver grinned and winked at Josh when he saw Chelsea. All three of them bristled, but he didn’t catch it, as he only had eyes for the teensy cut-offs and the fact that she wore no bra. If Josh hadn’t noticed her state of undress earlier this morning, he did so now. Quicker than the starving stranger, he moved to Chelsea’s side.

“Chelsea Tucker,” Levi spoke up, indicating with the name that she wasn’t a blood relation and therefore either he or Josh might be claiming her. His tone held a challenge.

Culver’s grin never wavered. Becca hurried into the kitchen to the pot of beans and rice she’d set out to cool, meaning to dish them out for lunch, knowing there were more than enough for the five of them for that meal. She spooned out a generous bowlful for him and rounded up a couple of tortillas as well. She carried them into the living room, handing the food to Levi, letting him play host. She had no idea where Jeb had got to.

Then she whipped into the nearest room to find a long-sleeved shirt for Chelsea, one that might cover her little butt, too. She scooped up one that Josh had left lying in the middle of the floor. She practically threw it at her when she got back to her.

“Put that on, then get to your room and change into something decent,” she hissed in a barely laudable whisper.

“What?” her daughter asked, her voice far too loud to suit her mother.

Becca knew she’d been heard. The kid just chose to misunderstand.

“Cover yourself up!” she repeated in her ear.

“Fuck you!” she hissed back. “I wanna’ hear what he has to say. I’m not a child to be hustled off the first time some news comes to town.” She ignored the shirt, crossed her arms defiantly over her chest, tossed a leg over the other one and stuck her pert little nose in the air.

Well, Becca guess’d that was a slight improvement. At least the behind was seated on the chair and the boobs were covered up. She wished Chelsea had Josh’s shirt on, but she knew that obstinate look in her daughter’s eyes, and short of Levi picking her up and hauling her out of the room, nothing was going to move her.

 Josh looked their way, saw that Chelsea wasn’t going to move and decided he’d lounge on the wide arm of her chair. As Levi and Culver began to exchange what limited information there seemed to be available on the state of affairs out in the world, he slipped over beside her and took on the role of jealous boyfriend. For the first time since the two had been introduced, he laid a possessive hand around her shoulder, as if it were something he did often throughout each day.

Chelsea stiffened, eyes wide. He didn’t look at her, or offer one word of explanation. The whole situation was much too complicated to spell out to her in whispers, although Becca had been trying to drum this very scenario into her daughter’s head for the last nine days, every time the kid had complained about how they didn’t need Josh Martin, Levi Chekov, or Jeb Dalton.

Becca leaned closer to her and hissed once again.

“As you loved your father, Chelsea, go along with him. You’re his girlfriend. You have eyes for no one else. You’re a good actress. Now’s the test. Can you pass it?”

She huffed once as she leaned back, still not believing either one of them.  Why should she? She’d never encountered a bad person in her life, and Becca’d been careful to tell her all the wretched things that happened in the movies and video games constituted sick fantasies dreamed up by warped minds. Chelsea thought violence existed in the entertainment industry alone.

Leo Culver seemed to be growing bored with Levi’s assessment of their dire straits. His gaze began to wander, taking in the comfortable living room and the apparently well-stocked shelves through the kitchen door. Becca mentally made a note to lock all the outer doors and windows as soon as Levi got rid of him. It didn’t take long for his eyes to work their way to where the three of them clustered around Jeb’s chair. They settled on Josh’s hand where it rested possessively on Chelsea’s plump shoulder.

“So you and the girl went together before the bombs, huh?” Culver asked Josh, conversationally.

Josh fingered Chelsea’s hair, confidently, like it was something he loved to do. Chelsea stiffened. He managed a pretty good leer, one that Becca would have killed to have been on the receiving end of just two months ago.

“I baby-sat her when she was just a little kid. Then one day her old man had to run me off. Didn’t like the way I was looking at her. I haven’t stopped looking since. And since this plague thing? Well, no old man.” He glanced at Becca apologetically, even as Chelsea started to stiffen.

Then she wowed them all by snuggling up close to him, resting a hand on his thigh, and actually purring. She could imitate animals well, Becca’d known that for a long time. But when had she learned that sexy women would purr for their men? Wish I could do that, Becca thought with a vengeance. I’ll have to get her to teach me. Oh, yeah, like it’s something I’d have any use for right now. I can’t be  seducing Levi, and I don’t want to  play sex kitten to Jeb. Funny how she’d lost all lust for Josh somewhere along the way, what with the sudden appearance of a man out of a dream, albeit one grieving for a lost love.

Turning her mind back to the present problem, Becca sent out a pointed mental command to Josh and Chelsea to not get carried away with the act. It wouldn’t do to get the hormones flowing too freely, or to suggest too much to a man who obviously was letting his imagination run wild. In fact, as she glanced back at him, she saw that his eyes had riveted themselves to Chelsea’s plump little hand caressing Josh’s bare thigh, right below the cut-off hem of his shorts. Not good.

Becca jumped up and walked over to the gun rack where Jeb had placed their small armory. She noted with relief that he had taken the .38, the one they usually used when hunting for deer. No one had yet been successful, but it meant that he was hoping to get them some real meat for a change.

“I see Jeb’s out hunting,” she noted, trying to draw Culver’s eyes away from the teenagers. “It’s getting late in the morning. Hunting will be poor. He should be home any time now.”

Levi took the hint and joined her at the armory. He took down the shotgun, cocked it open and stuck in two shells. He handed it to her, and then reached for the other .38, pulling open the chamber. Satisfied that it was loaded, he snapped it shut.

Chelsea,” he suggested calmly. “Why don’t you grab a half dozen cans of beans for Mr. Culver, and as many cans of hash? I saw some plastic bags in the pantry. I’m sure he’d appreciate some food on his way down the canyon.”

He didn’t look at Becca’s daughter as he talked to her.

“Oh, yeah. Don’t forget your shirt,” he added.

She shot him a fierce glare of the type only fifteen-year-olds can muster, and usually reserved for mothers. Becca kept the shot gun hovering somewhere between the floor and Culver’s groin, but it was ready to zero in on the latter target. Levi had the rifle slung up casually on his shoulder. He’d put it there so quickly that Leo had no doubt how fast he could point it at his head.

When Chelsea returned with the sack full of cans, Becca noted that she wore Josh’s blue, long-sleeved, cambric shirt. Instead of traipsing right over to Culver, like Becca expected her to, she handed the plastic bag to Josh and then promptly curled up on the chair again, sticking her long legs under the shirt tails. With an inaudible sigh of relief, Becca realized she had finally begun to get the picture.

“Set them on the coffee table, Josh,” Levi directed him, his voice turning hard as steel. He lowered his rifle off his shoulder, obviously wary that Culver might try a trick now that Josh could step into the line of fire. Becca moved off to one side, covering the two of them. Culver noted the strategy and stayed back.

When Josh stepped back towards Chelsea, she grabbed at him, and he put both arms around her comfortingly. They had him fooled. Leo Culver would have no problem believing the two of them were sweethearts. With a look begging permission of Levi, he held his arms wide and stepped cautiously towards the coffee table. He slowly picked up the bag of canned goods and then backed towards the door.

Levi and Becca followed him onto the porch. As Culver started down the driveway, Levi turned to her.

“What do you say, Becca? Maybe we should give Mr. Culver a ride down the canyon? I don’t like the idea of him hanging around here.”

“Yeah, Levi. Good idea,” she agreed. They hadn’t used any of the vehicles since the trip to Los Golandrinas, not wanting to waste the gas. This seemed like an emergency, though.

She backed into the house for the keys to her Bronco. It had the most room.

“You drive,” he instructed, so she got behind the wheel as he strode after Culver. The two were waiting for her at the end of the driveway. They both got in the back seat, Levi never letting his eyes or the barrel of the rifle wander far from the tall, lanky man. She drove slowly and avoided all the bumps and potholes, a hard job considering the road hadn’t been graded for over six weeks.

They let him out at the paved highway near the Pecos River. Levi warned him not to come back. “The women are ours, Culver. You tell that to any man you see.”

He followed the wanderer out the back door and stood by the side of the SUV until Leo disappeared into the forest’s edge, glancing over his shoulder with a narrow, shifty-eyed look. Then Levi came around to the driver’s door. Becca slid across the gear knobs to let him in. Something about the fierce look on his face told her he needed to let off some of that testosterone.

He drove up the road far faster than it was meant to be driven, not bothering to avoid the potholes or the rocks. He avoided her eyes.

“So I’m your woman,” she finally stated.

“You are,” he asserted. “As much as Chelsea is Josh’s.”

“What does that mean?” she asked, sounding more than a little defensive.

He drove a little farther, and then found a place to pull over. Habit, she guessed. Traffic didn’t exist any longer.

He looked at her in the eyes with an expression she couldn’t fathom. “We’ve become a sort of family. Family protects family. He made me furious, Becca, when he looked at you that way. He got my hackles up when he started talking about Chelsea, and I could see that Josh hated it even more. He’s never been more than an irritating big brother to her. Same with me, but suddenly we both knew we were a lot more. I didn’t feel like an uncle to her, this afternoon, Becca. I don’t know what that was that kicked in, but it wasn’t just taking care of my niece.”

He looked away from her, his hands shaking.

He took a deep breath. “And you know it’s never been about friends between you and me, Becca.”

She trembled, knowing exactly what he meant. She wanted very badly to take him in her arms. She knew it was far too soon to do it. He still didn’t know who or what he wanted or needed in his loneliness.

“Give me time to think this out, okay?” She took all of the blame on herself, holding back with all of her strength.

He turned to look at her hand, his muscles softening almost immediately.

“What you did was natural,” she suggested. “We’ve all become very close and we all depend on one another. We’re not related, so there are no family prohibitions to prevent us from feeling things maybe we shouldn’t. For Josh and Chelsea, its okay. They’re young, but times are hard and you grow up fast in times like this. For you and me, though, it’s a lot more complicated.”

She stopped, meaning to go on, meaning to explain how he needed the time to put Daphne and the girls to rest before he could give her what she needed from him. Surely he must see that. But her voice betrayed her. It shook so hard, she couldn’t control it. His eyes widened with dawning comprehension, one she had never meant for him to have. Before she could stop him, he gathered her in his arms and pulled her securely to his chest. She sobbed once, and then burst into tears, the first she’d shed since the day Ed came down with his cough.

She didn’t know how long he let her cry. Eventually she felt spent, as if wrung out, as if she had no sorrow left. She came back to him stroking her hair, keeping it out of her face.

“It’s too late, Becca. I do love you, and I won’t deny it. I’ll wait until you’re ready for me, but you can’t stop what’s already done. Like I told Culver, you’re my woman and I’m not giving you up.”

He pulled her in close for one more unbearable hug, kissed her lightly on her forehead, and then pushed her back into her corner with a commanding look that pretty much said “Stay, woman.” He turned the key in the ignition switch, revved up the engine and took off up the road, this time driving in a much more reasonable way, as if all the extra testosterone had leaked out onto the ground. Indeed, she suspected it had.

               CHAPTER SEVEN



Two nights later, Becca woke with a full bladder. It happened from time to time. It was her turn to cook that night and she had put too much salt in the stew, then had drunk too much water to make up for the taste. Knowing it would be a very long time before anyone would be pumping out the septic tanks again, Jeb had encouraged them to use the outdoor privy as much as possible. The walk outside in the cool night felt good.

She had forgotten about Leo Culver until a filthy hand covered her mouth and a sinewy arm pinned hers to her body. He picked her up off her feet. Kicking and struggling like a wounded rabbit, she tried to make it as difficult as possible for him to do anything at all, including keep hold of her. All she succeeded in doing is knocking them both to the ground with him on top.

As skinny as he was, he still outweighed her by a good thirty pounds because he was so tall. Being a total scumbag, he’d obviously dealt with women’s struggles before, and he anticipated everything she tried. Never having been attacked in her life, she was short on tricks. She didn’t know where to begin. It didn’t take him long to straddle her, expose her breasts, and start to tear off her panties, all the while keeping that filthy hand over her mouth in such a way that she couldn’t bite down on anything.

Suddenly the panic fled, and her brain engaged. She lay totally still, thinking. He was still clothed and would need his hand free to take down his pants. That would be her chance, her only chance.

She suddenly remembered a short course she had once had on rape prevention. A man’s most vulnerable spot is also the place he would most like a woman to touch. If a woman acted like she would cooperate with him, told him she wanted to touch him there, and then gave him a good, hard squeeze, she could incapacitate him.

So Becca pretended like she had begun to succumb to what he was doing to her breasts. She hated it, but she let him think it was pleasure he gave her. Without much personal experience, she called on her vast repertoire of romance novels and cinema. She moaned. He obviously couldn’t tell the agony from delight. She made a little thrusting movement with her pelvis. Once, twice, three times. The ploy worked. In the moonlight, she could see his greedy smirk.

“See, bitch? It’s not so bad, is it? I’ll bet Shortstuff up there doesn’t know how to make a real woman happy.”

As she expected, he removed his hand to unzip his pants.

“So you came back, Leo,” she said loudly. She squealed even louder as he twitched a nipple.

“Quiet, Bitch, or your boyfriend will be out here interrupting us. With his temper, he’ll probably beat you to a pulp before he thinks to look for me.”

She giggled as he expected her to, not keeping it as quiet as he wanted, but lowering the volume a little. She hoped Levi had heard the squeal and was just trying to hone in on direction at this point.

When she realized that his tight jeans would hinder her tactics, she suggested he get rid of them.

“Leo, Baby,” she crooned. “I can’t see you. I haven’t seen a big man for ages. Take your pants off for me, will you?” she begged.

His eyes gleamed in anticipation. She hadn’t dreamed this would work so easily. He backed off onto his knees and lowered his jeans, revealing a hefty erection sticking out above two sagging balls. She pretended to be impressed, letting out a piercing whistle like she couldn’t control her admiration.

Apparently he no longer worried about her noisy adulation. He lowered himself between her legs. She had a hand waiting for those balls. As soon as one was seated securely in the palm of her right hand, she gave a good hard squeeze, just like the nice police officer who had come to her college campus had taught her fifteen years earlier.

Leo Culver definitely forgot all about being quiet. He bellowed like a full grown bull being castrated without painkillers. He rolled to one side, and she scrambled to the other, as quickly as she could. She supposed she could have taken her sweet time. She thought he had forgotten all about her.

Still rolling, she bumped into something solid. Two solid somethings. She felt hands on her arms, and looked up into Levi’s wide, startled eyes. He pulled her to her feet and into his arms, ignoring her state of undress.

“Becca, are you okay? Did he hurt you?” he demanded hoarsely.

“I’m fine,” she assured him. “Watch it!” she added, as she caught the glimpse of shadow moving behind Levi’s back.

Levi whipped around, catching Culver around the waist as the man dived at him. Both men went down heavily, Levi grunting as Culver landed on top of him. The momentum rolled them both over, and they stopped on their sides, both scrambling away from the other. Before they could gain their feet, Levi dived for his enemy’s back. He was on top of Culver in a moment, worming his left arm under his opponent’s and then onto the back of his neck. Leo reached back to try and shake him off.

Levi clamped his legs around the taller man’s waist and thighs, gluing himself to the scavenger’s back. Culver shrieked his frustration and tried to buck Levi off. The smaller man, so recently called Shortstuff by the losing party, pushed his right arm under Leo’s, then up and over the back of his neck, joining his wrists in a powerful lock.

Levi froze then, as Culver bucked one more time, bellowing his anger at the helpless position in which he found himself.

“I doubt you will leave us alone,” Levi observed, calmly.

“Fuck you, asshole,” Culver swore.

“You do not understand that this woman is mine, do you?” Levi stated.

“You’re a pipsqueak. She needs a man.”

Levi, without letting up an ounce of pressure, looked over at her.

“Whose woman are you, Becca?”

She hesitated only a heartbeat.

“I’m yours, Levi. I have been since I met you,” she admitted, her heart pounding.

She wouldn’t call it a smile that suffused his face, only a look of triumph. He continued to look at her.

“He’ll never leave us alone, you know.”

She nodded, reluctantly. Courts of law had disappeared, as had sheriffs and policemen and state patrolmen. Vigilante justice ruled now. A man took care of his own family.

Levi’s arms corded, bending down Culver’s neck. She heard the snap of the vertebrae, and then his body slumped under Levi’s arms. Leo moaned. Levi, still straddling the taller man’s body, pulled the seven inch knife from the scabbard he wore at his waist, and plunged the blade into the back of the scavenger’s neck, between two vertebrae. She supposed it caused his death more quickly than a blow to the heart or eye or any other spot, speeding the inevitable mortality started by his broken neck. Culver could not have seen it coming.

Still clutching the knife, but letting Leo’s body fall lifeless to the ground, Levi tried to wrench it from between the vertebra. With an inarticulate groan, he only succeeded in snapping the blade. Throwing the handle into the darkened forest  with all his might, Levi grabbed up an axe that lay on a woodpile nearby and swung it into the closest tree, bellowing in anguish as he did so. He tried to pull the axe out, and only succeeded in breaking off the handle.

Levi sat down on the ground abruptly, buried his face in his hands and began to sob.

Becca moved to his side, not sure how to comfort a man who had just deliberately killed another. To good people like them, such an experience lay outside all reasonable realms of possibilities. Like she had done in the Bronco, she laid her hand on his bicep, one carved from steel.

“What have I done, Becca?” he cried in a voice that did not sound like the man she knew.

“What you had to do to save your family,” she pointed out.

“How will I ever live with myself?” he rasped.

“You don’t have to save yourself. That’s what the rest of us are for. We all love you. We know why you did it and forgive you before you ask it of us,” she assured him.

He wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his head in her shoulder. “How can you be so sure of that?” he asked.

“I know them,” she asserted, hugging him tightly to her, rocking him like a child. “You’re their hero, just as you’re mine. It isn’t an easy thing to be.”

She stroked his hair. At night time, he habitually twisted it into a loose braid. The band that held it together had come out during the fight. She used her fingers to comb out the remaining braid. She hadn’t realized how thick his hair was, always pulled back in that tail behind his head. The touch soothed both of them. He calmed, his agitation seeping away.

Suddenly he sat up, his eyes boring into hers. His hand slid to her neck and up along the side of her face. He pulled her to him abruptly, covering her mouth with his, taking her almost violently, with a passion that could never have been expressed by mere words.

He rose to his feet, pulling her with him, never relinquishing her mouth, keeping her body captive in his arms, welding his every plane to her curves, making the two of them fit in a way that no man and woman had ever tried before. He plundered her mouth, taking possession of it. He made her know exactly what he had meant every time he had had told her she was his.

Then, just as abruptly, he stopped. He paused, their bodies melded, ready to join in an ecstasy that Becca could not have stopped had she wanted. Then he gently, with trembling arms, pushed her away.

“Oh, God, Becca. You make me forget my first crime by tempting me with another. We both know why it’s wrong, especially tonight, but I’ve never wanted you so badly. I’ve taken you from the clutches of a man attacking you, doing to you exactly what I’ve longed to do for years. My blood is burning with desire. I have just killed in the heat of that lust. We both know what most men would do right now.” His entire body felt as hard as iron, trembling as if he stood naked at the heart of a snow storm.

She couldn’t pretend she didn’t know what he meant. She felt his animal magnetism radiating from every pore. He had just fought for her. She could barely resist him.

“David’s a soldier. He’s talked to you about battle lust?” she asked.

“He’s not the only soldier I know. Knowing what it is doesn’t make it go away.”

“Knowing what it is won’t make the shame any less tomorrow,” she pointed out, trying to convince herself as much as him.

“We love each other, Becca. Why would there be any shame?”  he questioned, vacillating. He leaned closer to her, his hand reaching out, not quite touching her.

She closed her eyes, so close to being persuaded by him, wanting him as badly as he wanted her.

“Levi, I can’t think. Not like this. We have to think this out, without the testosterone or the pheromones thinking for us. Please, my Darling,” she begged him. She knew as soon as she said it that she had not meant for the endearment to slip out. She couldn’t encourage him. He was a grieving man. He should be thinking of his family.

She knew she was right. But the torture on his face stirred all of that generous, nurturing part that was Becca. He needed comforting. His children had died. His wife was gone. And now, he had killed a man, for a greater good, but the guilt would wrack his soul. He needed her. Becca had always been there for her friends. For that old man down the street, Wally, when he he broke his ankle and she took him a casserole every three days. For Susie, her friend at work, when she had that operation and needed someone to feed the dogs. For the neighbors, who traveled so much and always forgot to stop the mail. For Sam, Ed’s brother, and his wife Louise, who took a trip twice a year to New Orleans and asked her to watch after their hellish eight-year-old son, who was finally learning just to knock it off because Chelsea would…Oh, yeah, no more Tyler the Terror.

The bright moonlight had turned Levi’s intense blue eyes a startling gray. Becca looked into those eyes and saw nothing but pain. She suddenly knew she could deny him nothing, no matter what the cost. She stepped forward once again, slipping her arms beneath his, pulling his chest into her breasts. He surrounded her with his strong arms, pulling her in close. She didn’t protest. She would let him make all decisions for them from this point on, yielding herself to him. She had stated her position, but she would do what he wanted.

He melded his body against hers. She could feel his arousal at her belly. A movement of her hips and she could run her harder pelvis against it, giving him pleasure, starting them on a path they couldn’t stop until satiation. She could feel his warm breath on her face, and she looked into his intense blue eyes so that he wouldn’t have to turn her chin up to meet his. He bent down and covered her mouth with his, a sensuous kiss this time, of the kind she’d longed for since she’d first seen that glorious smile. She felt it to her toes, a surge through her body and back again, one that would start a harmonic resonance with other kisses as soon as he began to repeat them.

But he didn’t. He leaned back and broke forth with the smile that always made her heart pound, this time breaking apart the waves that crashed through her body. She smiled back, and told him of the simile. He chuckled.

“We’ll try the resonance later,” he promised. “I will have you, Becca. But you’re right. It can’t be tonight. You said you love me. That’s twice now, two nights in a row. That’s enough for now.”

He took a great breath, let it out slowly, and then kissed the top of her forehead, sending only a little chill down her spine. Pushing her hair back, and with eyes unbearably soft, he took command.

“It’s getting light. Go wake up Jeb and Josh. We have a grave to dig. You and Chelsea start some breakfast. We’ll be hungry.”

“That sounds rather sexist. Men dig the grave. Women cook the food.” She quirked an eyebrow.

“You got a better idea?” he asked, his mouth twitching as he tried not to smile.

“Jeb is a better cook.  You’re a carpenter, not a ditch-digger. What’da’ya say we all have breakfast, you make a coffin, and we haul that guy down to the Pecos cemetery? There we find a backhoe, figure out how to use it, and bury him there instead of up here where we all have to think about him every time we have to see the grave?”

Levi shook his head and chuckled. “Okay, as long as I’m giving the orders, though.”

Becca started to walk towards the house, but he caught her hand and pulled her back.

“How’d you know I need the hard work?” he asked.

“What?” she asked, turning back.

“The coffin. You told me to make a coffin. We could just dig him a hole and dump him in the ground,” he pointed out.

Becca smiled back at him. “If we’re going back to traditional roles around here, I’m in charge of the spiritual health of the family. This is your penance for killing the man. You build him a coffin. Then you come up with some words to say over his grave. Something other than ‘Damn him to Hell.’”

Levi narrowed his eyes, not sure he cared for this turn of events. Then he offered her a self-mocking grin. “I’m terrible with words of contrition. You’ll be sorry.”

“You’ll come up with something fitting. I’m sure of it.”

He took her in his arms one more time. “Taking care of my soul, huh? That will take some doing.”

He leaned forward and drank deeply of her lips.

“Mmmmm,” she murmured when he backed away.  “I feel up to the job, with encouragement like that.” Then, before he could take hold of her again, she turned from his grasp and sashayed off to the kitchen, to muster up some breakfast for the hungry family.








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