Carter has been in love with Mia for years, but it takes a Christmas miracle to throw them together...
This is the story I wrote for the CAW 14 competition on the Forum. I hope you like it! If you want to, I would appreciate it if you could go give it a vote.
It's a pretty long story, so if you're only here for thee sex, well, I supposed you can just scroll down to the bottom.
All comments are welcome, as always!
One Silent Night
Carter stood by his window, one eye on the watch on his wrist. It was just after eleven, that magical hour when most of the traffic died down and the neighbourhood in the old downtown area settled in for the night, the quiet creeping through the air with the mist from the small stream to the west of his apartment. Across the road he could see some early Christmas decorations, but he knew that the real lighting up would start in about two weeks.
She would be along soon.
He shifted the threadbare curtain a little to the side and tried to peer down the street, attempting to see her approach sooner, but he knew she would appear around the corner as always, and that he would have no chance to look at her neat little form until she does. He looked at his watch. Another minute had passed.
She would be along soon.
He fretted restlessly when the minutes continued to trickle away, like the incessant dripping of droplets in the back of his mind; a tap that didn’t quite close all the way.
She would be along soon.
And then, finally, she was there. His hands tightened around the folds of the curtain as he watched her round the corner, his very being tightening up in anticipation as his eyes followed her hungrily. She was wearing her dark, mid-thigh-length coat, and he could see her shapely leg taking carefully measured steps.
Her head was bent down, as always, obscuring her features, and he wondered once again what he would see if she looked up. He knew a little about her – her skin was milky pale in comparison to her dark coat. Her hair was also dark, cut in a straight, no-frills bob that reached her chin and was usually tucked away behind her ear. Her arms were always folded across her chest, as if she was trying to get away from her surroundings by climbing into herself. She was a picture of despondency and hopelessness as she walked down the pavement, the mist from the river swirling around her legs with ghostlike tendrils.
She was breaking his heart.
He followed her with his eyes, knowing her pattern well. Under the next streetlamp she would stop, bend over to adjust her shoe in the weak glow, and then continue around the corner to wherever she was going. And he would have to wait until tomorrow to see her again. What did it say about him, about how low he’s sunk, that these two minutes of watching an unknown girl walk down the street was the culmination of all his hopes and dreams? That his every day was spent in a state of endless waiting, waiting? He was forever waiting for something – for the night to be over so he can get up, for the shops to open so he can struggle down the stairs with his bad knee screaming in protest to buy coffee and a microwave dinner. For the afternoon to pass so he could sit on the small little balcony his apartment was outfitted with and watch the sun set over the dingy part of the city horizon he was privy to.
He watched her as she stopped on cue, her fingers busily tweaking at the straps of her shoes. More than anything, he was always, always waiting for her.
She got up after a few seconds and his eyes followed her as she proceeded down the street, her pace a little faster now, as if she was suddenly aware of the hour and the fact that she was a pretty girl, walking alone. When he could no longer see her, he pulled the curtains in place and turned around, facing the dingy apartment he owned.
And deep down, he knew, the longest wait of all was the countdown of years that would mark the end of his miserable existence.
“What can I get for you?” Mia asked the two men who were sitting in a booth in the back. They were both dressed in similar casual attire – jeans, dark jackets, sneakers – but she knew without asking that they were cops. They had that shrewd look in their eyes, the restless air of inquisitive minds.
Her shoulders tingled and she forced herself not to twitch nervously. They were just out for a meal, maybe discussing a breakthrough or a dead-end in a recent case. Nothing to worry about. Cops and officers came in here all the time for coffee and doughnuts and meals.
They are not looking for you. They are not looking for you. They are not looking for you.
She chanted her mantra repeatedly in her mind as her fingers scribbled down their order. It was never wise to allow cops – or anybody else, for that matter – to sense your fear. It gave them reason to start questioning things she preferred to remain unquestioned – what’s your name? Where are you from?
Her feet were killing her. Her swollen ankle was throbbing from her earlier slip on a wet floor, and she wanted nothing more than for the day to end so she could go home to Nikita. Her back was no longer aching as much as burning from carrying the heavy trays back and forth, the pain a constant companion in her lower back. She shot a quick glance at the clock on the wall behind the counter as she unloaded dirty dishes in the sink and swiped her tray down where a cup had left a ring. It was a few minutes to ten – closing time was ten thirty – so she had a while to go yet. Angelo had gotten one of the girls to wrap threadbare tinsel around the clock and cash register. Despite the fact that it was clearly older than the shop, it was still ugly and gaudy, a glittery, cheap string of false cheer that did nothing but highlight the shop’s worn-down visage.
She ended her shift at ten thirty with an argument with Angelo, the owner and manager, who wanted her to stay for ‘stock taking’, his term for sexually harassing the girls when there was nobody around to help them. She refused and, as a result, lost her job.
Her heart sank at the idea of finding something new, again. How much longer? she wondered as she packed the things in her locker over into her bag. How much longer was she going to struggle through life like this? Every day was a fight to survive. There were bills to be paid, a house to clean, a little sister to care for. Somebody needed to put food on the table, needed to make sure the police didn’t discover them and send them back to…
Not going to happen, she thought. No matter what happened, they were never going back to that dark, dark place they’d escaped from six years ago. She was twenty-three now, old enough by law to become her sister’s legal guardian, if they needed to take a legal route for any reason. She could only hope that would never happen. If there was ever any questions, any queries, she would pack up their things and they would leave. Again. They’d done it before, when it seemed necessary – it was so easy to disappear into the night, after all.
She clutched the black carry-all that held an extra shirt, some clean socks, a comb and a few tampons in case she ever needed them unexpectedly. The cheap second-hand cell phone was stashed in the pocket of her coat, where she could feel it vibrate if Nikita phoned her.
She was in a bigger hurry than usual, walking as fast as she could on her sore ankle and looking around her edgily. The shadows seemed denser, the streetlights dimmer, the air quieter.
She hated this part of the city during the night. It was dark and it smelled like old trash and the murky, filthy water of the little stream on the other side of the dilapidated railing.
She was being stupid, Mia decided. She has been walking this route every night for the past three years, and nothing has ever happened to her before.
She swallowed her fear and walked out from under the tree. The rest had not done her ankle good. It was cooling down and stiffening up and she winced each time she stepped on it. She limped around the corner that would take her down the semi-nice street with the old buildings. Most of them had been townhouses in their hey-days, but they had fallen into slight disrepair since. She imagined living in one of them. It would be warm, and the roof wouldn’t leak in eleven places every time it rained. In the winter, she would light a fire in the living room, and she and Nikita would sit in front of it.
And maybe the sky would rain money and Unicorns soon.
Carter managed to convince himself not to watch for her again. How much longer was he going to wait for a miracle that was not going to happen? His dark-haired girl was never going to do anything else except walk past his building. He’d considered going downstairs at eleven more times than he could count, but three guesses as to how she would react to a man waiting to talk to her at that time of night. He had tried to follow her a few times, but his knee was so bad that he couldn’t keep up, not without being seen. The last thing he wanted to do was scare her into taking a different route. She was his fantasy, his perfect vision of innocence and beauty and hope. No matter how the weather looked – whether it was a balmy spring evening, or an icy cold snowing one, she walked down his street every single night. He’d been watching her for close to three years now, and he knew that she was off one Sunday a month, always the last one.
He wished, for the hundredth time, that he knew more about her. He wanted to know where she worked, wanted to know her name. Was she married, maybe, with a kid?
It was a moot point, in any case. Even if she wasn’t married, she wouldn’t waste her time on somebody like him – jobless and injured beyond repair, with nothing to give her but his name and an old apartment that used to belong to his grandmother.
He forced himself to stay seated as the clock ticked closer to eleven. It was ridiculous, this fascination of his with a girl he’s never even met. He spent his time building fantasies around her in which she needed his help, and in his dream world, his knee was still in its pre-explosion condition. He was still fit and strong, a Navy SEAL who could do anything he set his mind to.
Forcing himself to be realistic, he took a swallow from the beer he rarely indulged in. She was probably married, or living with somebody. Probably had a kid, and took a night job so that she could spend time with the little one during the day. She was probably perfectly happy with her life, and this desire to rescue her was a left-over emotion from his SEAL days where being a hero was part of the job description.
He missed his team.
And there it was – the crux of the matter. He missed his team, his friends, almost more than he missed the mobility that had been stolen from him in that awful explosion four years ago. So far, he’d beaten the odds, but for the past couple years, he hadn’t made any progress beyond walking with the help of a crutch. After his time in the hospital and physiotherapy rehab centre ran out, he moved back to the city where he had grown up. It was as far away from the base as he could find, and he had needed the distance at the time, not to mention the rent-free apartment his grandmother had lived in until she passed away.
But now, after months of seclusion, the truth was finally sinking in. He was never going to be able to run through jungles and over desert dunes again. His days of scaling mountains and hiding out yards away from the enemy camps were over. No matter how hard he worked, his leg was never going to be up to it again. He was going to have to consider those options the psychologist had tried to talk to him about.
His mouth thinned. Private security: where SEAL careers go to die.
He managed to avoid the window until just after eleven, when he couldn’t take it anymore and he stood up, cursing himself for his weakness.
A few minutes later, the girl came around the corner. Carter felt the familiar constriction of his heart as the streetlight casted a dull glow around her dark hair. She was limping tonight, favouring her right leg, and carrying a black bag in one hand. He frowned, watching her progress with concern. She was definitely stepping gingerly, and she was moving much slower than usual. So much so that he would probably be able to keep up with her if he followed her.
Carter made the decision in less than a second. Grabbing his crutch and a jacket, he left his apartment.
It happened in the darkness under the overhanging branches of a gnarled old tree, where the searching fingers of light could not reach. The gap in the pavement where two slabs of concrete had pulled away from each other snagged at the sneaker on her injured foot and she pitched forward with a sharp cry of pain. She landed awkwardly on all fours, and the sting of scraped palms joined the pain in her foot. She gave a tearless sob and uttered a few choice swearwords. She must look a sight indeed – down on all fours with one leg elevated in the air behind her at an awkward and unattractive angle.
“Are you all right?”
The voice behind her came from absolutely nowhere. Mia swung around as much as was possible for a human in the dog-near-a-fire-hydrant-position and ended up landing on her butt. She scrambled back and saw the man limping closer. From her position on the ground, it seemed as if he was a giant, rising out from the mist, leaning heavily on a crutch and yet managing to walk without making a sound.
“I don’t have a lot of money on me,” she said, holding her black carry-all up like an offering. “But take what I have. Just please don’t hurt me.” Panic tightened her voice.
“I don’t want you money,” he said, stopping at a safe distance from her and holding out his hands to show he was unarmed. “And I’m not going to hurt you.”
His voice was deep and soothing, somehow managing to calm her nerves.
“Let me help you up,” the stranger continued. He came closer and held his hand out. She hesitated a few seconds before letting him haul her up. She dusted her palms on her jacket, felt the sting of asphalt cutting into her skin like pieces of brittle glass. The enormous man held onto her elbow as she balanced on one leg.
“Thanks,” she said stiffly. “I hurt my ankle earlier tonight and I tripped on the pavement. I’m fine now, thank you.”
He didn’t reply and for the first time, she looked at his face. The faded street lights were casting mysterious planes over his face, highlighting his features. He had dark hair about a week overdue for a cut, and from what she could see, a strong nose and chin. His eyes appeared to be dark and intense, and his cheekbones were just high enough to make him pretty. His lips, however, looked soft and full and like an exotic dish, one you needed to serve up with strawberries and chocolate sauce and whipped cream and what on earth was she doing, thinking about his mouth like she wanted a taste?
A sudden, unexpected dimple made its way to surface when he gave a small crooked smile, and suddenly he looked much younger.
“My name is Carter,” he said, as if it was important to him that she knew who he was. “I live in that building over there. See the balcony? That’s my apartment. I hurt my knee a few years back and it was bothering me tonight, so I decided to take a short stroll around the block. Saw you falling down. Why don’t you let me have a look at your ankle? What’s your name?”
“Mia,” she said.
“Mia,” he murmured, and for a single moment, it seemed as if he was tasting her name on his tongue, rolling it around his palate like a fine wine he wanted savour and appreciate. He led her over to the railing, and she balanced against it as he got down with some difficulty to examine her foot.
“Do you have first aid experience?” she asked when he started to prod lightly at her swollen ankle. He held her heel and rotated her foot slightly. She gasped, instinctively yanking back when pain shot through her leg.
“Easy,” he soothed, softly stroking. “It’s a really bad sprain. I used to be a hospital corpsman for the Navy SEALS, so I’ve seen my fair share of injuries.”
“You were a SEAL?” she asked and closed her eyes as the touch of his fingers on her leg sent tingles dancing over her skin. His hands were so soft, so gentle, as he tested the tightness of her shoe around the swelling.
“Yeah, but I screwed up my knee in an explosion so I’m no longer active. Listen, you need to get off your foot. It must be killing you.”
“It’s painful,” she admitted. “But I’m not too far from home.”
“Is there anybody who can fetch you?”
“No, only my sister and she’s too young to drive. Not to mention that we don’t own a car. Ouch, dammit, that hurt!”
“Sorry,” he said and got up. “Look, how far do you live?”
Mia looked at him. How far could she trust this man? She didn’t know him, but he seemed… kind, somehow. Gentle.
“About two miles,’ she admitted, and at his glower, looked down at her hands. She got the sense he was angry with her for some reason.
“I’m not letting you walk that far on an injury like that. Why don’t you let me drive you home?”
Trusting somebody to help you up after a fall was one thing, but getting into a car with a stranger, leading him to her sister… that would be stupid, and reckless, and many other things she couldn’t afford to be.
“Thank you, but I’ll just call a cab.”
He nodded once. “Come wait inside, at least,” he said. “I’ll give you some ice and painkillers.”
She hesitated as the logical part of her mind warred with the part that was in pain and wanted nothing more than to get off her foot, have some painkillers and let somebody else make the decisions for once.
“All right,” she said after a few seconds. “Thank you very much.”
He tried to see his apartment through her eyes, and wasn’t sure what to think. It was small, with an open plan kitchen and living room that was separated by a breakfast counter that held stacks of books on the one side. There were three doors leading from the sitting room. Though it was reasonably clean and neat and didn’t scream ‘poverty,’ it was a clear exhibit of his lack of funds.
She was glancing around anxiously, her eyes darting from his TV to the front door and back to the kitchen, where the dishes were piled neatly in the sink. He saw them linger for a few seconds on the three doors that lead out of the living room and sensed her fear of being trapped. She reminded him of a little animal, cornered and shivering, waiting to be attacked by a predator.
“The bathroom’s through there,’ he said, pointing. “Those two doors lead to the bedrooms. Don’t worry, I set up the torture chamber in the basement.”
He expected her to laugh at his lame joke, wanted to lift her mood, but she just gave a small, tight smile and clutched her tote bag closer to her body.
“Sit here,” he said, cupping one hand under her elbow and leading her to a comfortable wingback chair. “You have an interesting accent,” he said as he went into the kitchen to switch on the coffee machine that was his only indulgence. “It’s very faint, but I have an ear for languages. Are you from Europe?”
She was silent for a few seconds before replying. “My family came to America when I was very young. But yes, I was born in Europe.”
“Your accent is almost Slavic,” he said. “But not Russian. Not quite.”
She didn’t offer any further information, so he pressed. “Are you from Poland?”
“No,” she said, reluctantly. “Georgia.”
“It borders Russia and Turkey, doesn’t it?”
“I… yes. Yes, it does. You’re good with this.”
“Simple matter of geography. So how old were you when you left?”
“I was five.”
He did the quick maths. “So you must have left in the time of the civil war in the early nineties.”
She nodded her head and he watched the movement play with her hair. “We first went to Poland, and from there made our way here. My stepfather had some… business associates that helped us.”
He could read between the lines as well as anybody, and guessed it to mean they didn’t follow the legal route. Which probably meant she was still an illegal immigrant.
It explained a lot, but he wasn't going to call her out on it.
“Would you like some coffee?” he asked as the rich scent filled the apartment. “To take the painkillers.”
“I would love coffee, thank you,” she said. He poured her a cup and added sugar generously. He handed it to her with an unopened bottle of strong pain medication.
“You can have that,” he said. “It’s prescription. It’s what I drink for my knee, but I try to avoid it over the long term because it can be addictive. But you should be fine for a few weeks. Just take one now, and another before you go to sleep. These pills will make you sleepy, but it should help for your ankle. Will you let me put a bandage on?”
She looked up at him from under her dark lashes. “I will, thank you.”
Carter stood on the pavement, watching the taxi’s red taillights disappear around the corner. It felt all wrong, letting her drive off after finally meeting her. He pressed the heel of his hand against his chest, as if he wanted to rub away an ache. He’d given her his number, but what were his chances of getting a call?
“Idiot,” he muttered to himself before turning around and limping up the stairs. Why on earth would she call him? Even if she was the type of damsel in distress who called for help, he was probably the last person she would ask. What kind of help could he offer her, in any case? Without his mobility, who was he?
No-one. He was no-one.
The call came three weeks later, after he had finally given up hope. He still waited by his window every night, and though the disappointment was no less intense each time she didn’t show up, he couldn’t seem to stop himself.
When his phone rang, he was halfway through a brutal workout on his living room floor. For a moment he considered letting the call go to voicemail, but his muscles were burning in protest and he hardly had enough breath to put the weights in the holder. His heart was beating furiously, trying to escape the torture through his rib cage.
“Carter,” he said, his voice sounding like it had been through a cheese grater.
“Carter?” The voice on the other end sounded very young and scared. “This is… you don’t know me, but… My name is Nikita. You met my sister a few weeks ago. I don’t know if you remember her. Mia.”
Carter sat up, his heart stopping for a second before pounding even faster than before.
“I remember her. Is everything all right?”
There was a muffled sob. “I… I don’t know. Mia told me somebody has been following her home from work for a few days, so I’m not allowed to leave the apartment, but now she’s over four hours late and I am really scared something happened to her. She told me you helped her last time and I don’t know who else to call.”
Ah, hell. Carter pressed his palm on the floor and pushed himself up. “You did the right thing,” he said. “Exactly the right thing. Where do you live, Nikita? I’m coming over there to see what we can do. I’m going to help you, ok? You can trust me.”
The apartment was about the size of his living room. It had one room that functioned as bedroom, living room and kitchen. He felt appalled when he looked around at the obvious poverty around him. There was on small twin bed against the one wall, with a mattress on the floor. Since the little girl with the same dark hair as her sister headed right back to the bed after opening the door for him, Carter could guess easily where Mia slept. It was also freezing cold. Winter had finally set in, but they clearly didn’t have extra money to heat the small place up. The bed was piled high with blankets, and Carter was willing to bet that not many of them ended up on Mia during the night. He took in the water-stained walls and dingy linoleum floor, the meagre contents on the grocery shelf. Mia had tried to cheer the room up with some homemade Christmas decorations, but it was about as effective as putting jewellery on a pig and calling it a bride.
A small radio on the bedside table was blaring out equal amounts of ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and static buzz. The girl – she looked about eight and if she was healthy, he was a horse – was reading a book that had clearly been through the mill a few times. The lighting was very poor, and the small window across the room over the kitchen sink would probably not let in a lot of light, even during the day. Now, at nearly eleven in the evening, it was pitch black outside, except for the sycophantic blinking of a red ‘motel’ sign across the alley. It was close enough to the window to light up the room with a faint crimson glow every few seconds.
Nikita gave him a wary, distrustful look so like her sister’s that his heart clenched in his chest.
“Where does Mia work?” he asked her, sitting down carefully on the only chair in the room. Nikita sat up, pulling the blankets up over her shoulders and covering the sweater she wore over her nightgown.
“At a restaurant. She used to work at another one that was closer, but she hurt her ankle and the boss fired her ‘cause she couldn’t walk as fast as he wanted her to.”
So she had stopped walking past his house because she’d lost her job, not because she was avoiding him. Carter didn’t know whether to be relieved or upset about that.
“Do you know the address of her job?” he asked the little girl who didn’t look old enough to be left alone for an hour, let alone a day.
Nikita shrugged. “There’s a number against the fridge. I didn’t want to call it. Mia said I must not phone her at work unless there’s something wrong here or I get sick.”
He watched the tears brimming in her eyes.
“I didn’t know who else to call,” she said in a small voice. “I don’t know why she’s so late. She’s never this late.”
“I’m going to find her,” he said, fear clenching in his gut. What if something had happened to her? She walked alone in the dark, through a very unpleasant part of the city. The mere thought was harrowing. “Let me phone the restaurant. Perhaps she just needed to stay late today.”
Half an hour Carter had worn a path through the linoleum floor from his pacing.
Nikita had fallen asleep about ten minutes ago, but he was still trying to find out where Mia was. The diner’s owner said she had left around six, when her shift ended. It was nearing midnight, and there was still no sign of her. And to make matters worse, Nikita said she mentioned somebody following her a few times.
He had phoned the police, and the all the hospitals in the area, but with no luck. Nobody had seen her. He thrust the phone in his pocket and buttoned up his coat, winding his scarf around his neck as he looked for a piece of paper to write a note for Nikita. He didn’t want to leave her alone, but he needed to go look for Mia.
Just then there was the sound of footsteps outside the door, and a key jingling in the lock. Carter put his hand on the butt of the gun he carried in a hip holster under his coat. The door opened slowly, and relief made him breathless when he recognised Mia in the low light. She looked up, saw him, and gave an involuntary gasp and a step back.
For a moment, it was Mia’s worst nightmare, come to life. There was a man in her apartment; a big, hulking shape of a man standing between her and the bed where her sister was lying motionless. Fear clawed its way into her throat and stole her breath.
They found Nikita.
And then she recognised the man who had been haunting her dreams for three weeks.
“Yeah,” he said, holding his one hand up in a non-threatening position and taking a step back, using his crutch to help him keep his balance. “It’s me.”
“What are you…? How did you know?”
“You’re sister phoned me when you didn’t come home. She was scared and she didn’t know who else to call.”
“Thank you for staying with her,” Mia said. “I appreciate it. I was… mugged, and the man got away with my phone and my bag. I couldn’t call her to let her know I’d be late, and I took a different route home.”
Carter didn’t say anything, but his silence was unnerving, so she hurried through the story she’d fabricated on her way home to placate her sister.
“I was halfway home when he grabbed my tote bag. I let him have it since it doesn’t have much in it. He ran away with it, but I was scared, so I took a long way home. I didn’t want him to come after me when he realised it was pretty much empty. “
“I call bullshit,” Carter said calmly. “I don’t think it was a grab and run at all. Tell me, was it the same man you told your sister was following you?”
Mia could feel the last blood leave her cheeks. Fooling a sick thirteen-year-old was one thing, but then, he wasn’t a sick thirteen-year-old, was he?
“Yes,” she said, sticking as close to the truth as she could. “But in the end, I’m fine. I got away, and he got nothing. There’s no ID or address or anything in my tote, so…”
“How much pain are you in?” he asked brusquely. “And please don’t try to lie to me again,” he added.
“He kicked me in the side,” she said, touching her hip where one of the smaller bruises sat, aching. She didn’t need a mirror to know she was a mess of blue and black. The three men had spent about an hour, slowly making sure she remembered exactly who was in charge.
She might not have been living with her father anymore, but he still controlled her life. She had a bitter taste in her mouth. For six years she had been thinking she was clever enough to outwit her him. She had taken such pride in the fact that she could live without him, had drawn so much inner strength from the knowledge that she managed to evade him.
Now she realised, anew, how very useless it was too fight against him. He would always find her, always remind her of the power he had over her. The only reason she was alive and unraped after the beating she’d taken tonight was because her father had wanted to send her a message.
Next time, she knew, she would not be so lucky.
A small sound made her look up. Carter was still standing there, his eye on her face, his brows furrowed as if he had been reading her mind.
“You should…” her voice broke and she cleared her throat. “You should go home. I thank you for looking after my sister, but we’ll be alright now.”
“Like hell you will,” he said. “Pack some things. You can come stay at my place. Even if it’s just for the night. I’m not letting you stay here alone. And for the last time, where did he hurt you?”
She stared at him and let her stubborn streak kick in, tired as she was. “That’s really none of your business,” she said. “And thank you for the offer, but we’ll stay here. We’re perfectly safe.”
He pointed his finger at the bed. “What would have happened if I wasn't the one to come to Nikita? What if it was some rapist, or a thief, or a murderer? You say you took a long way home. Can you be sure you weren’t followed? What if they come back during the night and rape her? If you don’t want to come for yourself, at least come for her. She’ll be safer with me, and you know that.”
“You son of a bitch,” Mia said softly. “Don’t tell me what’s best for my sister. I’ve been looking after her for thirteen years.”
“I thought she was about eight,” he said, surprised. Mia shook her head. “She’s thirteen, but she… she has cancer. The last doctor I took her to told me she’s not going to see the next spring. She has gone into remission twice, but her body simply can’t take another round of Chemo. He said she’d probably be more comfortable at home.”
She looked around her at the shabby disrepair and shook her head. “He was wrong, wasn't he? I can’t even give her a warm room.”
Carter held out his arms and like a kid, Mia stood up and walked into his embrace. He said nothing as he held her, stroking her back with one big palm. Mia allowed herself to lean into him, to take the comfort he was offering her, to draw some strength from his closeness.
Finally she stepped away. Carter had no idea how right he was, how risky it would be to stay where they were. He knew only that she’d been mugged, not that the men had been hired by her father, or that her body was covered in bruises that ached as if she’d been in a train accident.
“Come home with me tonight,” he murmured. “Or let me stay here. I’ll sleep on the floor, or the chair. Just… Just don’t ask me to leave you for the wolves. Because I can’t do that.”
She pulled away. “I don’t expect you to take care of me,” she said. “I can’t ask it from you.”
His face blanched. “Is it because of my leg?” he asked. “I know I’m not… what I used to be, but I assure you, I’m still able to protect you from…”
“It’s not your leg,” she said and put a hand over his heart. “I can’t risk getting you involved in the clusterfuck that is my life at this stage.”
“I’m offering you one evening’s respite, Mia,” he said. “That’s it. I’m not asking you to move in with me forever.”
“You don’t even know me,” she whispered, touched. “Why would you want to do this for me?”
He gave a small, crooked smile. “How can I not?” he asked simply. “Helping you… it feels like breathing. I can’t not do it.”
Carter waited in the living room with two cups of coffee while Mia helped Nikita settle in the spare room they would be sharing while they were there. He had turned the heat up and the whole apartment was slowly getting warmer. Mia sat down on the couch across from him and took the cup he offered her.
“Why don’t you tell me where it hurts?” he said, leaning back and crossing his ankles, the perfect model of relaxation. “And please don’t tell me it’s just that one place on your side. I’ve been watching you all evening, and you’re in pain.”
“All right, yes, but I’m fine. It’s just some bruises.”
“Show me,” he said. “I’m a medic, remember?”
Mia battled with her will for a moment before she stood up and started unbuttoning her coat with quick, business-like movements. Carter had something good and pure about him; something sweet and somehow innocent. It went deeper than just offering his home to two strangers. He wouldn’t hurt her or her sister in any way. The goodness of him… It went all the way to his soul.
Oh, did she even have a soul anymore?
The thought made something fog over in her mind and her hands started to shake when she took the coat off and laid it over the back of the couch. Carter didn’t move from his position as he watched her fingers curl over the bottom hem of her simple brown sweater. She did not, could not, look at his face while she pulled it up and over her head, wincing when the movement pulled at sore muscles and bruised flesh.
Carter’s mouth was so dry he almost expected a sandstorm to originate under his tongue. Watching Mia as she took off her clothes was an exercise in self-control, though there was nothing sexual about the way she undressed. Her mind seemed to be elsewhere, her stare blank and empty, as she untucked the second sweater from her pants and pulled it up. He watched the way she held her arms close to her body, trying to minimalize the pain, and felt like the worst kind of man for wanting her so much when she was suffering.
She was wearing only a cream-coloured, long-sleeved button-down blouse, but her fingers were trembling so badly she couldn’t get the buttons through the holes. He watched her struggle with the bottom button for a while before he couldn’t take another second of the slow torture.
“Let me help you,” he said, keeping his voice as gentle as he could. She nodded and let her arms fall to her sides. Carter put his cup down and stood up slowly, hoping that there was no visible evidence of the stirring in his lap. He gave a single step, and then he was in front of her. He searched her eyes, but there was no sign of fear or distrust in them. He looked down at his hands as he found the first button at the bottom. They felt unnaturally small under his big, suddenly-clumsy fingers. He tried to keep his breathing even as he managed to slip it through the little hole. His fingertips felt the coarse, starched material of her shirt as they stroked upwards to the next button. He undid it with an equal amount of fumbling, trying to remember that this was not a prelude to the horizontal tango.
He was halfway with the buttons when it happened. His finger slid under the material of her shirt and his knuckles skimmed over her skin. They both hissed in surprise and he looked up at her face for the first time since he’d begun the unbuttoning. Her eyes were wide and dark, her lashes almost impossible long, casting little half-moon shadows over her cheeks. Her face was flushed a delicious shade of desire, her mouth slightly open. He watched the shimmering trail when she extended the tip of her tongue and wetted her lips unconsciously.
She wanted him.
Carter swallowed and forced himself to look away from her face. He tried to focus on the buttons, but saw only the little nubs of her hardened nipples swelling under her clothes.
Oh, dear …
He opened another button and realised that he had reached the one right under her breast. He swallowed convulsively and undid it. He felt her breasts pressing against the back of his hands. The material of her shirt strained very lightly against the swell of her breasts, and he had to pull the edges of the material closer to the middle to undo the button. It popped open, and then there was just one left. His fingers were trembling almost as much as hers had done, but somehow he got it through the little hole.
He pushed the edges of the shirt away, to the side, and braced himself for the sight of her body.
And then all thoughts of desire fled from his mind in an instant.
Bruises bloomed over her skin like an obscene painting of a tortured flower. Her torso was covered with them, and he could see the darker spots where they overlapped. Down her side was a trail of blue and black stains where she had been hit, repeatedly, by the same blunt object. Her lower abdomen looked better, but he was willing to bet there were a few cracked ribs under the welts that covered her skin.
“Mia,” he breathed, horrified. He sank down, mindless of his knee, and pressed his fingertips against the black bump on her hip. He tried to stay objective, willed his training to kick in, and waited for his heartbeat to calm down. He switched into medic mode, pressing against every bruise and testing her ribcage with care. She stood as still as a mouse, watching his movements with those big, sad eyes of hers. He asked her questions, peeled the shirt over her shoulders and off her arms. Her back looked even worse, if that was possible. It was a portrait, done in shades of agony.
But there was no sign of any broken bones, or ruptured organs. Whoever had done this had known exactly how much pressure and force to use, and had been careful to inflict only pain. There would be no lasting damage once the bruises faded.
Or not to her body, in any case.
“Mia,” he said hoarsely. “This was a punishment beating, wasn't it?”
“What are you involved in?” he asked, touching an unmarked spot under her bellybutton with one finger, as if he wanted to reassure them both that her body would heal.
“I can’t tell you,” she whispered.
“Is it drugs?” he asked, brusquely. There were no needle marks on her arms, and though she was too thin, her skin wasn't the sallow colour of a user.
“Nothing like that,” she said, and for a moment she rested her hand on his head, her fingers stroking his hair like a beloved pet. “It’s just… an issue from my past. But I’m handling it. I’ve been handling it for years. It’s under control.”
He looked up at her, at the tired defiance in her shoulders. “Who are you trying to convince?” he asked and stood up. “Come on, I’ll put some ice on the worst bruises and give you some pain medication. You should actually see a doctor.”
She lay down on the couch on her stomach, her arms forming a little nest for her face. “No doctor,” she said firmly, as he had known she would.
Mia swallowed the two tablets he gave her and winced when he put the frozen gel packs on her back. Her muscles seemed to tighten up in response. Carter murmured calming words and soft encouragements while he moved the ice packs around slowly. He was sitting on the couch next to her, and she shifted closer to the back to make a little more room for him. His hip pressed against hers and he delighted in the intimacy of it.
He admired the curve of her back, his gaze starting at the low-rise jeans she was wearing and ending at the nape of her neck, where little curls and wisps of baby-fine new hair covered her porcelain skin. His eyes were drawn again and again to the little dimple just above the hem of her jeans. One way or another, he was going to have his mouth on that little dip in her skin. When she was better. When she was better, and when she trusted him, he was going to make such sweet love to her that she’ll realise she can’t live without him.
“Turn around,” he said after a while, and moved so that she could do that.
“This will be even worse than your back,” he warned. “Ideally, you should take a cold bath.”
“Hell, no,” she said and jerked when the ice pack touched her skin. “Ouch,” she said in a small voice.
“Sorry, baby,” Carter soothed and put the second pack on the other side. “Just breath, it will settle down in a second.”
She put one arm over her eyes, and Carter couldn’t, for the very life of him, stop staring at her boobs. They were on the small side from being so underweight, but they were hers, and therefor they were perfect. The bra she had on had been designed for comfort and support, not seduction, but damn, if he wasn't feeling seduced anyway. Her skin broke out in goose flesh and like magnets, his eyes found her nipples. He watched them grow harder and wondered if she was aware of it, since she didn’t make a move to cover them. He wanted to feel them under his fingers, roll each between a thumb and middle finger, wanted to put his mouth on her and taste the unique flavour of her skin.
Mia took her arm away from her face and looked at him. “Carter, can I… Can I ask you another favour?” she asked, her voice hesitant. As if there was anything he wouldn’t do for her.
“Of course,” he said immediately.
“I’m afraid… I don’t know how easy I’ll sleep. I don’t want to bother Nikita. She needs the rest so much. Can I… Can I sleep with you tonight? In your bed?”
For a moment, all the wires in his brain seemed to fuse at the same time. He had never, not even once, allowed himself to hope for this. He imagined, for a second, how it would feel to go to sleep and wake up with her next to him. He would be a bastard and wait until she was asleep and then pull her into his arms, very careful not to wake her.
She seemed to misread his silence.
“It’s ok if you don’t want to,” she said quickly. “I’ll just sleep here on the couch. This is fine. I just…”
“Mia,” he said, putting a finger on her lips to stop her. “I would love it if you sleep in my bed tonight. I’m not going to let you sleep on the couch. If you’re uncomfortable with me, I’ll sleep on the couch. But I would never let a guest do that. Especially not an injured one.”
She closed her eyes, as if in relief. “I just can’t stand the thought of sleeping on my own tonight,” she said in a small voice. “I’m always alone, always the one who needs to take responsibility. I’m so tired. I’m just so tired of being alone, Carter…”
He wasn't sure how it happened, or who made the first move. Either he had bent down, or she had reached up and pulled him down, but the next moment he was bending his upper body over hers, his one hand holding onto the back of the couch to avoid pressing against her injured body. Her one hand cupped itself around his neck, holding his face in place as they kissed.
The first touch of her lips were like a spring rain in the middle of the desert. Soft and honey-sweet, hesitant and unsure. He could taste her awkward inexperience in her fumbled movements, but it did not bother him in the slightest. He rubbed his lips against her, a back and forth movement to soothe and excite. Her breathing was loud, but he could still hear the frantic beating of his own heart over it.
He had been hoping for and dreaming about this for so long that he wanted to savour every moment in case he woke up and found it had been nothing more than a figment of his subconscious.
He pressed his lips against the corner of her lips and lingered there for a few seconds before trailing over her mouth to the other side. He touched the tip of his tongue to the little dimple there, and she turned her head towards him, anxious for more. He pulled away and comforted them both by rubbing his check against hers. His day-old beard rasped lightly against his skin and he loved the feeling of it. He held his face there, breathing in the fragrance of her skin and her hair, before touching his lips against hers in a chaste kiss. She murmured something and tilted her head to the side again. He took the hint and gave her a single soft, sipping kiss. He slipped his tongue over the seam of her lips once, twice, and then she opened them for him. He didn’t stick his tongue inside her mouth, instead teasing her further by taking her bottom lip between his and pulling it lightly. He sucked it into his mouth and slid his tongue over the smooth skin on the inside as he let it go.
She gave a soft moan and he awarded her with another lingering kiss. He tugged at her bottom lip again, this time using his teeth. Her fingers tightened around his neck, sliding up and into his hair. He changed the angle of his head and licked his way slowly into her mouth, swallowing her soft gasp when his tongue found hers. He stroked it once, and then used the tip of his tongue to explore her mouth. He slid his tongue out and tested her reaction. She moaned her dissent and he slipped it back in. She was ready for him this time, touching him back hesitantly. He advanced and retreated a few times, teasing her with an erotic display of what he wanted to do with her body. She whimpered and he could taste her urgency, so he deepened the kiss. He tried coaxing her tongue out of her mouth, but she was not experienced enough to know what he wanted.
“Give me your tongue,” he whispered against her lips. She didn’t respond immediately and he pressed his mouth against her ear.
“Your tongue,” he said again, feeling the shiver that shuddered through her body when his breath tickled her. “Put it in my mouth.”
He licked a little trail back to her mouth and kissed her again, waiting patiently. After a few moments, he felt her warm, soft tongue against his lips. He surprised and shocked her by sucking it into his mouth with unexpected urgency. He kept it there, suckling rhythmically for a while. Her moan was one of pure need, a sentiment that echoed in the blood coursing through his body, fuelling his desire for her.
They made out like teenagers in the backseat of a car for a while, and as her confidence grew, so did her proficiency. He taught her what he liked, and showed her things he thought she might like. He forgot about everything – the screaming pain in his knee from the twisted position it was in, her sister in the spare room, the fact that it had finally started snowing.
This was magic, he thought as she did something with her tongue that made him moan. His eyes were closed, but he opened them because he wanted to see her face.
She looked spectacular. Her hair was dishevelled and her face flushed. Her lips were swollen from his kisses, and she had a slightly red mark of beard burn on the side of her neck where he’d nuzzled her.
“Look at me,” he said and she opened her eyes with obvious reluctance. Her lips were parted, hoping for more kisses. He almost obliged, but they had the whole night, or what was left of it in any case. She struggled to focus on him and he couldn’t prevent the pure male smile of satisfaction. Her pupils were dilated by desire, her gaze glassy and impatient and dazed. He kept his eyes on hers when he cupped her ribs, ready for her to groan or gasp.
She did gasp, but because he was staring into her eyes at that second, not even he could mistake it for a sound of passion. Her eyes filled with pain and for the first time since his lips touched hers, he remembered about her injuries.
“Shit!” he said, pushing himself away from her and staring at her with horror. “Mia, I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I forgot about your bruises. I lost my head completely. I’m really sorry. Are you all right? How badly did I hurt you? Let me get new ice packs, I’ll be right back…”
“Carter,” Mia said. “Stop. You didn’t hurt me, and please don’t get me another ice pack. I’m begging you. It’s too cold.”
“I’m so sorry, Mia,” Carter said. “I shouldn’t have kissed you like that. Please forgive me, I… It won’t happen again. You’re just so lovely, and…”
“Its fine,” she said, slowly pushing herself upright, wincing slightly. “Look, it happened, and I can… I can understand if you don’t want to do it again, so let’s just… let’s just go to sleep, if you don’t mind.”
Half an hour later, Mia settled in under the thick warm duvet with an added blanket over her. Carter hadn’t come to his room yet, and she knew he was going to spend the night on his own couch. It felt strange, being in an empty bed that belonged to somebody else. She pummelled her pillow into a better shape and tried to lie down again. Her body was sore, despite the painkillers, and she wished Carter would come to her. She wanted to feel his heat, hear his breathing, maybe wait until he’s asleep and roll over to lie against him. She wanted to lean against him to ease the ache, wanted to feel his arms around her.
“Stop wishing for the moon,” she told herself and turned on her back.
It was going to be a long night.
A week later, they were still with him, and Carter couldn’t believe how happy he was. Mia’s wounds were healing slowly, but she refused to tell him what had happened. They haven’t kissed again after the first night, and she had moved back to the spare room with her sister. Every time she tried to mention the possibility of their moving back to their own apartment, he ruthlessly used Nikita as his winning argument on why they should stay.
Nikita was very sweet girl, but Carter could see her health failing with every passing day. He took her to another specialist who prescribed different medication that seemed to ease her pain. The doctor suggested a hospital, but Nikita cried at the idea, so they got all the necessary equipment to look after her at home.
He surprised both them by going out and buying Christmas decorations, something he had never owned in his life. For the first time in years, he felt at peace with himself. He loved Mia, and he had the patience to wait for her to fall in love with him as well.
“You can’t hang that ball there,” Nikita said, rolling her eyes at him. She was cuddled around a teddy bear hot water bottle that he had bought for her, a thick blanket around her as she sat on the couch. Her face was pale but her smile radiant as she laughed. “There’s another red one right next to it. It’ll look stupid. You need a golden ball. Right, Mia?”
“Definitely,” Mia agreed promptly and took the red ball from him. “Don’t you know anything about decorating a Christmas tree?”
“No,” he grumbled, secretly pleased with the way Mia’s finger lingered against him when she took the offending ball. “I’ve never done this before, just so you know.”
“Why not?” Nikita asked.
Carter was quiet for a few moments. “My parents weren’t big into Christmas,” he said. They did enjoy the sales on liquor that came with the season, but Nikita and Mia didn’t need to know the sorry tale of his abusive childhood.
“I can’t remember our mother,” Nikita said. “She died in an accident when I was a baby, right, Mia?”
“That’s right,” Mia said. Carter could hear the strain in her voice, but Nikita was oblivious.
“But I remember our father. He was cruel and mean and I didn’t like him. He also didn’t put up Christmas trees. But Mia and I have always decorated, since we left the farm six years ago.”
Six years ago, Carter realised, Mia had been about fifteen or sixteen. That was too early to leave home, and with a little sister in tow.
His gut clenched as more pieces of the puzzle fell into place before his eyes.
“Nikita,’ Mia said, clearly desperate to change the subject. “You’ll never guess what Carter bought this morning.”
“What?” Nikita asked, instantly diverted by the ideas of more goodies, as she referred to almost anything he brought home in a shopping bag.
“Sparklers,” Mia said. “To burn on Christmas Eve. We’re going to go out on the balcony and light them, what do you think about that?”
“It sounds like fun,” Nikita said and gave a big yawn. “I’m really tired. I think I’ll go take a nap. I’ll see you again a bit later.”
He kept hanging up random balls on the tree, waiting for Mia to come back from helping her sister.
When she did, he didn’t look at her, wanting to give her space. “Why do I get the feeling your father was behind your attack?” he asked calmly, still not looking at her. She was quite for a moment before sighing.
“He was. He wants me to come home and bring my sister with me. It’s a power thing for him.”
Carter stopped the pretence of decorating and stepped closer to her. “Mia, its time you tell me the whole story. I know you don’t owe me any explanations, and I won’t push you on this, but I can help you. I have connections and friends. I can make it all go away. But I need to know what’s going on.”
“I was born in Georgia,” Mia said after a few minutes of awkward silence. “My mom was married to a good man. The country was in the middle of a civil war, and my father was murdered one evening on his way home from work. I was about four. My mom got married a few months later to an American who was visiting the country on a tour through Europe. She needed money, desperately, and he made all sorts of promises. He brought us here – my mom and I didn’t have passports or visas, but he had friends who helped him get us here. He turned my mom in a sort of slave, I guess. She cooked and cleaned after him and his three brothers who lived with us. I guess he raped her, but I didn’t know that until later. When I was ten, my mom got pregnant with Nikita, but she died from an accident a few months later.”
Carter knew better than to interrupt, even though he already knew how the story would end. His heart was beating slow and painful in his chest
Mia sat down on the couch and played with the packing material of the decorations. “I don’t want to tell you the rest,” she said quietly. “But I need to. It’s not pretty, ok? Its shit, and not pretty, and I’ll understand if you never want to see me again when you know. But you deserve to know. You see, after she died, he forced me to take her place. I had to do the cooking and cleaning and everything. It all sort of… escalated. He raped me the first time when I was thirteen, and after that at least once or twice a week. And when I turned fifteen, he started looking at Nikita, and I… I couldn’t let that happen. So, I waited till he and his brothers went out one evening, packed some things, grabbed my sister and ran away. We couldn’t go to the police – neither of us had any identification. I didn’t know what would happen. We went from one city to the next. I pretended to be eighteen and got jobs in restaurants, waitering and washing dishes.”
She twisted her fingers together in her lap. “I was scared that they would send her back to him if they got to us, because he is an American citizen, and she is his daughter. I thought I’d be deported back to Europe and never see her again. I just… I couldn’t.”
“When did she get sick?” Carter asked, letting the rest of the story go for the time being.
“About three years ago,” Mia said. “The doctor told me then she wasn’t going to live long, but she went into remission after the chemo. After a year she got sick again, and the chemo helped, but now…”
She shook her head, her voice a broken whisper. Carter didn’t know what to do. The specialist they took Nikita to had said the same thing as the previous doctor. There was no way her body could handle another round of chemo, and they should start preparing themselves.
It was hell on Mia.
He sat next to her and for the first time in a week, put his arm around her. She curled against him, hiding her face and her tears against the soft fleece of his sweatshirt.
“Your stepfather… Is he involved in anything illegal?”
She nodded. “He thinks I don’t know, but he is involved with a lot of smuggling.”
Carter smiled. “I’m going to need an address for that farm,” he said.
The morning before Christmas dawned bright with an almost cloudless sky for a change. Mia made pancakes and bacon while Carter entertained Nikita with a game of chess.
“I have an early Christmas present for you,” Carter told Mia once Nikita went to her room for a nap before the evening. He took the folded up newspaper article from his pocket and held it out to her. She looked mystified when she took it. He watched her expression while she read it. Her face grew whiter by degrees, and he watched her go back and re-read a few sentences over and over.
“How did you do this?” she whispered, her voice strangled. Her finger grew slack and he watched the cut-out article floating down to the ground, the photo of four men being arrested facing up.
“I told you I have friends,” he said. “I used to be a SEAL, remember? My team came through for me. They always do,” he added, feeling something in his chest lighten. His team would always be his team, no matter how crippled he was. Maybe it was time he moved back to the base and took up a teaching job.
Maybe it was time to start living again.
“I don’t know what to say,” Mia said, dazed. She sank down on the couch and picked the paper up. “I can’t believe you did this for me. What… how did you do this?”
“I phoned my old commander,” Carter said. “He knew how important it was to me, so he called a few of his connections. They got a warrant to search the farm and found illegal weapons that your stepfather had been hired to smuggle out of the country. It was enough for an arrest. They cited the source as an ‘anonymous tip’ and crumbled the whole organisation in a few days.”
“I don’t know how to say thank you,” Mia said. “I mean… There are no words for this.”
“I wanted to go kill the bastard for what he did,” Carter said. “I wanted to rip his throat out with my bare hands. But calling in for back-up was the best way to deal with it.”
“I can’t believe it’s over,” Mia said. “Will they need me to testify against him?”
Carter hesitated. “They might ask you to,” he said. “It might extend their sentence. It will definitely add years to your stepfather’s. Raping, especially the raping of a minor, is a big deal. But you have to be sure you can deal with it. I won’t let you do it if you don’t want to.”
“I’ll think about it,” Mia said. “I don’t want to be haunted by it for the rest of my life. He stole everything from me – my mom, my childhood, my innocence. When he raped me… He was usually drunk when he came to my room, and there was never any… any foreplay, or kisses or anything. It always, always hurt. You’re the first man I ever kissed, and…” she swallowed, her face bright red. “It felt good. And I want to do it again.”
Carter sat down next to her she all but crawled onto his lap. He let his crutch fall on the ground and folded his arms around her. These past few weeks have been his idea of paradise. He loved taking care of her and Nikita, loved that they needed him. They didn’t seem to realise how much he needed them in return, but he was working on that.
They sat like that for a long time, not talking. He rubbed her back and wished the clothes between them would melt away. He loved her so much it overwhelmed him. He was pretty sure she was in love with him too, but he couldn’t be sure she was ready for anything more than friendship. Between her stepfather’s abuse and Nikita’s cancer, she had a lot to deal with. But he could, and would, be patient, until she learned to trust her heart and love him back.
They ate dinner by the lights of the Christmas tree and a few candles. It was snowing at last; a light dusting that promised a white Christmas in the morning. Nikita convinced them to exchange their gifts after dinner, rather than wait for morning. Mia and Carter were both inclined to give her whatever she wanted, so they agreed after a teasing argument.
Mia gave Nikita some new clothes and a few books she had bought with what was pretty much her last money. Carter gave her a silver charms bracelet with different charms and a little flower-shaped watch hanging from it. She exclaimed over her gifts, and Mia had to fight against the tears. Her sister was so much braver than she was, and it humbled her to see the young girl fight for every single day. She could see the fear in Nikita’s eyes every time she went to bed, and knew her sister was afraid that she would not wake up again. But not once has Mia heard her say anything about her coming death. They all avoided the subject, as if talking about it would make it more real.
“I have a gift for you too,” Mia said shyly to Carter. “It’s not much, but I thought you might like it. I made it,” she added when she handed him the small packet that she’d hidden under the tree. He gave her a brilliant smile and seemed genuinely pleased when he opened it to find the scarf she’d knitted in secret in her and Nikita’s bedroom. She wasn't much of a knitter, but her mother had taught her when she was young and she had bought the wool and needles when she went shopping for Nikita’s present. It was pretty lopsided and uneven, but he wound it around his neck anyway. Mia knew he would wear it to please her, and she gave him a shy smile.
“Don’t you have something for Mia?” Nikita asked with the innocence of a child.
Mia blushed. “He already gave me something,” she said. He had given her so much more than she’d ever expected or hoped for. She wondered if he had any idea how much it all meant to her – the way he took care of her sister, the fact that he was going to so much trouble to make it a lovely Christmas, with the tree and the gifts and the laughter. He had given her the freedom she has never had before.
He had given her a reason to go on living after Nikita passed away, because she loved him.
Oh, but she loved him so much.
“I do have a gift for you,” Carter said. “Wait here. I’ll be right back. It is in my room.”
“’But you didn’t have to…” she protested, but he just grinned and grabbed his crutch, limping to his bedroom. He came back a few seconds later, his hand behind his back.
“Close your eyes,” he said and she obeyed him dutifully. She sensed him coming closer and then there was something on her lap; something soft and furry and light.
She opened her eyes and blinked. “Oh,’ she breathed. It was a little kitten, grey and playful and utterly sweet. Nikita squealed in delight from her position next to Mia.
“She needs a home,” Carter said. “And a name. I was thinking Faith or Hope of Love, but you can pick something else.”
“I like Hope,” Mia said and nuzzled the soft bundle in her neck. She handed her to Nikita and got up to go hug Carter, but he tripped her with a clever manoeuvre of his crutch and she fell against him, where he grabbed her and kissed her soundly before letting her go.
She blushed a little as she returned to the couch, but there was a warm spot inside her that somehow lighted up all the dark spaces she’s ever known.
“Can we take her with us to go light the sparklers?” Nikita asked.
“I can’t see why not,” Carter said. “Just keep her inside the blanket with you.”
He got the sparklers and a box of matches and they all went out on the balcony. Mia helped Nikita in the chair, first dusting off the snow that had covered it with her hands. The direction of the wind and the building at their backs was in their favour, and though it was cold, they managed to light the sparklers with little trouble.
There was such magic in the moment – Nikita was laughing and drawing pictures in the air. There was a joy on her face that Mia had never seen before, and despite the cold, she looked so healthy, sitting there, covered in a blanket and with a little grey kitten poking its nose out from under the blanket. Mia turned to Carter and caught her breath. He looked magnificent, standing there with his feet planted firmly on the slippery floor, wearing a warm jacket and a poorly-knitted scarf, grinning at her while he twirled his sparkler like a martial-arts weapon. She looked him in the eye and, as clearly as she could, wrote ‘I love you’ in the air with her sparkler.
The golden light of their sparklers lit up the balcony, and the hiss and sputter and faint smell of lingering sulphur was a symphony for the senses. Carter reached for her, the light in his eyes burning brighter than any sparkler, and it was the most natural thing to step into his embrace.
They lit all the sparklers in the box, and when it was over, Nikita declared that she was ready for bed, as long as Hope could sleep with her. Since Mia was determined to spend the night with Carter, she agreed readily.
“Leave the cleaning up,” Carter said when she started picking up plates and wrapping paper. “We’ll do it in the morning.”
“Are you sure?” Mia asked, suddenly shy and hesitant. Carter held out his hand.
“Come with me,” he said. “Please, Mia. Come to bed with me.”
She looked at his face, and his eyes were still burning with that golden light.
“Yes,” she said and put the dishes in her hands on a little table. “I would love to.”
Carter’s heart seemed to be working overtime again as he led Mia into his room. He held her hand in his, and he was overly aware of how much smaller she was than him. Her skin was still slightly cold after being outside, and he threaded his fingers through hers in an intimidate gesture as he closed the door behind them and turned the lock, just in case.
He switched off the bright overhead light, so that the room was lit only by the softer glow of the bedside lamp. He sensed Mia’s nerves and wondered how he could make it easier for her when he put the crutch against the wall.
“Kiss me,” she said as if she could read his thoughts. He cupped her face in both hands and stroked her cheeks for a second, lingering over the softness of her skin. He looked into her eyes and then leaned his forehead against hers for a second, sharing the moment with her.
“I love you,” he said. “I’ve loved you for about two years.”
“But we only met a few weeks ago,” she said, clearly confused.
“I have a confession to make,” he said, one hand sliding to the back of her neck and down, tracing her spine to her lower back. “I watched you walk pass my house every night. I felt like I knew you after a while. I fell in love with you long before we met.”
“I wish I had known,” she whispered. “Carter, I love you from the bottom of my heart. You’ve given me so much.”
“You’ve given me hope,” he said. “And faith. And love. Will you give me yourself, tonight?”
“Oh, please, yes,” she said, and then he kissed her. Though he was gentle, his mouth was insistent, and she followed his lead, opening her lips when his tongue probed at her. He swept it inside, tasted her, teased her, caressed her. She put her arms around his neck, standing on her toes to get closer to him as they angled their heads to deepen the kiss. He could taste her breath in his mouth when she touched her tongue to his. She still tasted like the peppermint chocolates they’d eaten after dinner in lieu of dessert, and he made a little sound of approval.
He walked her backwards until her legs hit the bed and pressed his face into her neck. He could feel her skin breaking out in Goosebumps when she turned her neck to give him better access. He kissed her almost mindlessly; open-mouthed kisses that dragged over her while his tongue drew little patterns on her skin. He kissed his way slowly up to her earlobe. She gave a little gasp when he took it between his teeth and pulled it lightly. He let it go to flick it with his tongue, taking a break to lick at the sensitive little spot just under her ear, tormenting her.
She slid her hands into his hair and drew his mouth back to hers. They were both out of breath by the time he let go of her lips. He pulled at the zipper on her jacket and as soon as it was open, slid his hands under it to cup her breasts through her sweater. She pressed against him slightly, letting him know it was good. He pushed the jacket off her shoulders and down her arms. It fell on the floor, where it lay forgotten and ignored. Carter pulled her plump lower lip into his mouth for another burning kiss while he got his hands under her sweater and the white tank top she was still wearing. He dragged it up her body, his hands stroking her in a firm movement. She moaned a little and helped him by lifting her arms so he could pull it off.
“Oh, baby,” he whispered against her throat. Her bruises had faded to that sickly yellow-green colour, but they didn’t make her any less lovely. His hands rubbed her skin possessively while she reached behind her to undo her bra. It joined the scattering of clothes on the floor. Carter’s hands cupped her breasts again, and he moaned when he felt the warmth and softness of her skin. He squeezed them lightly and had the satisfaction of feeling her nipples pebble against his palm. He took his time, pleasuring both of them by rolling the hard little nubs between his fingers, rubbing, pinching, pulling, flicking, until she clutched his shoulders and kissed him pleadingly.
He pushed her lightly and she obeyed his touch, lying back on the bed. He leaned over her, bracing his weight on his arms while he kissed her. He trailed his mouth down and she shifted uncomfortably when his mouth found one breast. He licked a little circle around the areola, taking his time to enjoy the puckered texture of her skin on the tip of his tongue. He laved the little ridges generously, eliciting a quickening in her breath. Her nipple was a hard little nub and he tugged at it, using only his teeth and lips, until she arched into his mouth. He licked over it; a broad, flat stroke of his tongue that made her twist her torso.
She wound her fingers through his hair, holding his face against her when he finally relented and sucked her into his mouth. They moaned together, a perfect duet of passion and desire as he suckled at her, alternating between long, hard tugs and teasing little sips, taking the occasional nibble just to delight her.
He kept her other nipple happy by playing with it with his fingers, echoing the movements his mouth made, but he was all about equality, so he switched and repeated the whole process. By the time he was done with her breasts – for the moment – her nipples were a deep rosy pink that made him want to start all over. They glistened from his saliva and he took a primitive male pleasure from the fact that he had been the one to get them in that state of arousal.
He shifted her on the bed with ease, so that her head was on his pillow and she was lying down exactly on the same spot he slept every night before stretching out next to her and pulling her into his arms for another soul-deep kiss.
She sighed and moaned and turned on her side to press closer against him. He held her body against him, his hands exploring the ridges of her spine and the feminine softness of her skin, the scent of her arousal permeating the air in the room. He rolled her on her back, careful not to crowd her.
Her hands were pulling at his jacket, trying to get it off him. He reared up and pulled it over his head, taking the long-sleeved shirt and his new scarf with it in one movement before going back to her addictive kisses and eager lips. He gave a soft moan when he felt her breasts press against his chest. They were skin to skin, and he revelled in the contrast between their bodies. He was all hard muscles and rough skin, and she was… she was perfect. Soft and smooth and female and Mia and perfect.
The intensity of their lovemaking spiralled when he undid the fastening of her jeans and pulled them off her legs. She was wearing only a pair of socks he got rid of very quickly, and lacy panties he knew she had bought especially for him with money she really couldn’t afford to spend on fancy underwear. He made sure to show his appreciation by not ripping them off like he wanted to.
Carter propped himself up next to her on one arm. His other hand was tracing lazy circles on her belly, scraping her with his short nails to tease her. He focused on the area between her hipbones, and she responded with the expected arching of her hips and opening of her legs when the nerve-ends there sent tingles up her spine and to her breasts and the inside of her thighs.
He skimmed his finger over the edge of her panties, tracing the small, sexy little bow at the top. He followed the pattern of the lace and satin with one finger, noticing that she was very neatly trimmed. He slipped his finger under the lace and pulled it down very slowly, baring her mound with the small little triangle of curls for his viewing pleasure. He tested the soft, plump, pillowy area and just for a second, put his mouth on her. She gasped in surprise, her hips rising off the bed.
He rubbed her hip on the side furthest away from him and stroked his hand around and under her thigh. He moved his body in between her legs and hoisted her knees over his shoulders, stroking her thighs to soothe her when she made an agitated sound. She settled down and he pressed his mouth against the soft skin of her inner thigh, stroking her with his tongue and taking the occasional, small nip just to tease. He could smell her excitement much clearer in this position, and it made the bulge in his pants an almost painful experience when he hardened even more.
He pressed his lips against the warm, damp crotch of the panties and she gasped again. He had no trouble finding her clit with his tongue and he rubbed against it with small, hard, circular movements. Her hips started to strain against his hold, and he shifted his arms to get a better grip for the bucking he knew would come soon enough. Her hands pushed at her panties; clearly, she wanted them off.
And Carter was nothing if not willing. He slid three fingers under the satin crotch through the leg opening and felt the wetness of her against the back of his fingers before he pulled the panties off. He had to relinquish his position between her thighs and made use of the opportunity to peel his own pants off, revealing his stiff, hard cock. It sprang free, happy to be released from the confines of his pants.
“Can I see it?” Mia asked, lifting herself up on her elbows to get a better look.
“Ah, Mia, now might not be the best time,” he said. “I don’t know how long I’ll last and I want to make sure you cum first. If you touch me now, it might not…”
“Please, Carter,” she said. “I need to see that it’s not the same as… I need to see it, that’s all.”
“Of course, baby,” he said immediately, and he wanted to hit himself for not realising why she would want to get a closer look. He shifted up on the bed, allowing her access to his cock.
Mia put out one finger, tentatively stroking it with just the tip, as if it was a wild animal that needed to be tamed. Actually, Carter thought, that wasn't a bad description. He watched her fascination with the drop of pre-cum. She touched it with the pad of her thumb, and rubbed it between two fingers. Her smile was beautiful.
“It’s slippery,” she said. “I thought it would be more… watery, I guess.”
“Ah, Mia,” Carter said when she started spreading the moisture over his shaft. “That might not be a very good idea at the moment, baby. I don’t want to…”
But she was ignoring him. “You’re pretty big,” she said hesitantly. “Are you sure you’ll fit?”
“If you keep touching me like that, big won’t be a problem for much longer,” he said between clenched teeth when she wrapped her hand around him and stroked him, measuring the girth and length. His cock jerked in her hand and she let it go with a little jump. Carter pinched it between two fingers at the base, trying to hold back the need to cum.
“Let me take care of you,” he said. “I need to do that. Please, Mia.”
“All right,” she said, lying down on her back again. He resumed his position between her thighs, propping her open with his big shoulders and breathing in her feminine fragrance. He spent a few seconds, looking at her. Her outer lips were juicy and plump, the inner lips small, like the petals of a flower that had not opened yet. Her clit was already a little bit engorged, but he knew it would get much more so before he was done. He used the fingers of one hand to unfold her pussy lips as if it was a delicate present he wanted to unwrap.
He stroke one finger through the wetness pooled at her entrance. She lay perfectly still, but he could sense the mounting tension. He played there for a while, enjoying the sight of her glimmering lips. He painted a trail of her juice up to her clit and traced a circle around it.
Mia’s breath hitched in her throat when he started playing in earnest, rubbing her clit in little circular motions. He watched the little hood draw back as she got even more aroused. She was the most delicious shade of pink down here, and he wanted a taste. Ducking his head, he held open the love petals and sucked her clit into his mouth. He flicked it with his tongue, grazed very lightly with his teeth, and made her gasp when he brought her to the brink and held her there. Just before she came, he left her clit to go dabble in her little hole.
“No!” she moaned, her hand clutching her hair and trying to draw him back where she wanted him. He resisted and shocked her further by slipping his tongue inside her, feeling her smooth skin and tasting the proof of her desire.
So sweet, he thought when he started licking at her, first only with the tip of his tongue and then with broad strokes.
He moved back to her clit and started sucking on it again, moving his hand to slide first one finger and then a second inside her.
She hissed, he growled, and her walls tightened against him. He shifted his body and moved his hand, pushing his fingers deep into her well-lubricated hole and curling them upwards. He found the spongy area and pressed his fingers against it, rubbing her wet muscles. Her body started jerking and bucking against him, and he held her down with his other hand. She panted his name when he stroked his fingers in and out of her, pumping them fast and sure, stopping to rub at her g-spot every few seconds.
It was inevitable, really. As the orgasm built, Mia let go of his hair, her hands fluttering around, looking for purchase somewhere, She arched her back and cried out softly, and found the headboard behind her. She clutched it tightly while he flicked and suckled her clit, his fingers doing wonderful things inside her. Her eyes were shut so tightly that she saw little pinpricks of lights against the back of her lids.
Her breathing was a rasping sound in the room, her heart pounding faster and faster as the orgasm grew in intensity and magnitude. Her body was straining against his hold, the sensations sizzling through every nerve ending. She felt it in her toes, all the way to her fingertips, and electric zing that rushed from one nerve ending to the next like a wildfire of want and need and responses.
And when that torturous build-up finally reached the peak, it threw her off the cliff mercilessly. The pin pricks behind her eyes became little golden sparks that exploded like sparklers the size of fireworks. She was falling, and the sensations were so overwhelming that it threatened to ruin her pleasure.
But Carter was there to keep her grounded. His mouth and fingers carried her through the explosive orgasm that had her legs bucking and her toes curling. He eased her when she became too agitated, and when the grip on her senses finally let up he soothed her sensitive skin with slow strokes.
She was breathing like somebody who had been trapped under water for too long when it was over. She lay there with her eyes still closed, her one arm over her face as she waited for the room to stop spinning.
Carter shifted up, pulling her into his arms. She could sense the tension in him and shifted him so that he way lying on top of her. She cupped his cheek in one hand and dragged his mouth down for a slow, bottomless kiss. His tongue tasted strange, and it took her a second to realise she was tasting her own essence in his mouth.
She was shocked at how much she liked it.
Carter felt Mia’s shift from blissful to sated, and briefly considered letting her sleep. His cock, which felt like it could break steel boulders at that point, screamed in very loud protest. He was pretty much on the brink of an orgasm, so maybe he could go to the bathroom and…
She shifted her legs open under him, cradling him in the little nest of her body. He felt her damp skin and automatically thrust his hips against her, sliding his cock through her wet slit. It felt… unbearable good. He pulled back and did it again. And again, and was considering to just go on like that until he came, when she shifted her hips and he found himself poised at her entrance. He forced his eyes open to look at her. He would not, could not, take her without her permission.
She was achingly lovely, with her skin still damp and her hiar curling around her face in little tendrils, her face flushed and her lips swollen from his kisses. Her eyes were lazy pools of contentment, and when she nodded, he plunged.
That first sheathing was exquisite. Her body was so soft, so tight, so well and truly loved that he slid in without any trouble or difficulty. She opened up for him, her passage adjusting to his size and pulling him in flush against her. He braced himself on his arms and gave her a minute to get used to him, breathing through the primitive urge to start pumping.
Eventually he felt her push up against him and he pulled out until only the head of his cock was still inside her. Her body felt so perfect that he had to grit his teeth as he did so because he didn’t want to leave. He slid back into that slick, wet hole, feeling the way her muscles pulled at him and contracted against his hard cock. He repeated the process, the delicious friction rubbing between them building his desire.
He increased his pace stroke by stroke, heartbeat by heartbeat, until he was gasping for breath with every lush slide into her tightness. He could feel his balls tightening up, the tingle starting in the base of his spine a dead giveaway. He quickened his thrusts almost desperately, wanting it to last longer but simply unable to draw it out this first time. He trembled, lunged deep inside her held himself there when the orgasm claimed him for its own. He could feel the warm rush of semen in his cock, felt it explode out of him and into her hot wet pussy. Her body was helping him, the muscles milking his cock with hot, fluid contractions that pulled the orgasm out of orbit. He spun around helplessly for a second, straining to make it last, and when it crashed around him and inside him, he let himself press his face in her neck. He kissed the skin there, tasting her fine sheen of sweat as he tried to get control of his breathing.
It took a while for the ringing in his ears to subside, and he realised that he had slumped on top of her and was crushing her with his weight. He rolled off her and pulled her close, his arms trembling around her. He sensed it when she started drifting off to sleep, that lazy floating of the senses only a good orgasm could induce. With a grunt, he got up and worked the blanket loose under their bodies, pulling it over both of them. He gathered her close again and she shifted her head onto his chest. Her deep breathing tickled the scattering of hair and her hand settled over his heart. He took it in his and threaded their fingers together to deepen the emotional connection.
And only when he was sure she was asleep, did he let himself do the same.
The miracle happened the next morning when they woke to find Nikita in the kitchen, rummaging through the cupboards.
“I didn’t want to wake you,” she said apologetically. “But I’m starving. Why are you wearing Carter’s gown?”
“It’s warmer than mine,” Mia said. “Honey, why don’t you go lie down? You must be tired.”
“Actually, I’m not, not really. Or I am, but not as tired as I’ve been lately. I need to walk a bit, stretch my legs. Oh, and merry Christmas, by the way.”
Mia and Carter could only stare when she smiled and took the bowl of cereal to the couch, where Hope was playing with some discarded wrapping paper.
“The fever must have broken,” Mia said in a low voice. Carter shook his head.
“It’s more than that. I think we should take her back to the doctor.” He folded his arms around her and pulled her close, pressing his face into her hair and breathing in her scent. “Merry Christmas, my love,” he whispered against her. She made a sleepy noise and nuzzled against him.
“Merry Christmas,” she said, wrapping her arms around him and holding on like she was never going to let go. Her eyes caught sight of the snowy white world outside through the window, and she just knew: