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She didn’t appear too discomfited by his comment. “Still…you got it to work.” Her gaze shifted, moving toward one of the windows in the far wall. Outside, the snow had continued to fall, still not thick enough to coat anything, although Kamal could tell the temperature was cold enough that the precipitation should stick. “That’s more than I’ve been able to manage.”

  He did not wish to see her deprecate herself. After all, he hadn’t managed any great technical feats of his own, had only made her believe that what he had done with his powers was the result of scientific knowledge rather than inborn talent. “You managed a lot,” he said. On impulse, he reached out and took her hands in his. Her fingers felt small and cold, and he wrapped his hands around hers, hoping he could warm her — and also hoping that she wouldn’t try to pull away. If she did, he wouldn’t stop her, for he would take such a gesture as a signal she was not quite ready for any sort of physical contact, even something as innocuous as holding hands.

  However, she didn’t pull away. She stood there, her slender body quite still, as though she wasn’t sure what she should do.

  Encouraged, Kamal went on, “You’ve survived here for two months, all on your own. You’ve kept yourself safe. That’s a lot, even if you don’t think it is.”

  Her eyes met his. Such a clear, beautiful color, like purest aquamarine. “No, I’m a coward. I should have left. I should have gone to look for other survivors — ”

  “There aren’t any,” he broke in. “I’ve looked, too. I’ve found no one except you.”

  She seemed to falter then, her gaze moving away from him to focus on the slow-falling snow outside the windows.

  “And if you’d left,” he continued, “I would have come here and found this place empty. If you’d gone down the hill into Tularosa or Alamogordo, if you’d continued to White Sands and on through the mountain passes into Las Cruces…I probably would never have met you.”

  A long pause. Her hands were warming within his grasp, coming to life. She looked up at him, mouth set. When she did speak, her voice was so low, even his djinn ears had to strain to hear her words.

  “Would that have been so awful?”

  “Yes,” he said, knowing the word was no more than the truth. “It would have been terrible.”

  This was the time. He bent, and touched his lips to hers. Gently — oh, so very gently, because he could tell that she was on the edge, might bolt if he was too forceful. But oh, how he had wanted to kiss her in that moment, her eyes wide and tragic, face pale but no less beautiful for all that.

  And she accepted the kiss. She did not pull away, did not tear her hands from his and go running for the sanctuary of the suite she’d claimed as her own. She stood there, mouth warm and welcoming, and allowed him to taste her at last, to put his arms around her so he might pull her close.

  They stood that way for a long moment, and then he did let her go so she could try to recover herself. She pushed her heavy brown hair away from her face and stood there in silence for a moment. At last she gave him a lopsided smile and said, “Wow, that was fast. I thought we’d at least make it two or three days before that sort of thing happened.”

  “Do you mind?” he asked, genuinely curious.

  “Do I…?” She chuckled, although there was something forced about the sound. “I’m not sure ‘mind’ is the right word. I mean, it’s probably silly to get hung up on ‘should’ and ‘would’ when it’s the end of the world, right?”

  “Right,” he echoed. “You just — you just looked so happy then, when the water came out of the tap. And then you looked sad, as though you thought you were somehow lesser because you hadn’t been able to do that hack on your own. Don’t put yourself down, Sarah. You don’t deserve it.”

  One hand went up to play with the thin silver chain she had around her neck. It wasn’t a cross she wore, which might have been expected, but a small, stylized version of the Zia sun symbol that had once adorned New Mexico’s flag. A powerful sigil, with its four rays multiplied by four — the points of the compass, the stages of life, the seasons of the year, the times of day. He wondered why she had chosen it, rather than a more obvious symbol of faith.

  “I guess,” she said after a long pause. “Or at least, I’ll try to tell myself that I shouldn’t think that way. I suppose I’m shaking my head at the universe. Here the world’s ended, and everything is awful, and then…and then suddenly Mr. Perfect shows up on my doorstep. My borrowed doorstep, anyway.”

  “You think I’m Mr. Perfect?” Kamal asked, amused. He supposed that, to a mortal, a djinn would seem perfect…although he doubted his fellow elementals would ever assign such an adjective to him.

  “Oh, God, that sounded terrible, didn’t it?”

  “I don’t know about terrible,” he responded, then reached out so he could take her hands and pull her close to him once more. “I kind of liked the sound of ‘Mr. Perfect.’”

  “Great. Now you have a swollen head.”

  He could have made an off-color joke in answer to that comment, but realized that would not have gone over terribly well. Yes, they had kissed, but they weren’t quite at the point where they could bandy ribald words with one another. He settled for saying, “Not yet,” before he bent and kissed her again.

  Sarah didn’t seem inclined to protest. She allowed him to hold her, to claim her mouth with his, and Kamal decided that was enough for now.

  Cam was acting so…normal, like they hadn’t just shared a couple of fairly intense kisses. Then again, what was he supposed to do? Go down on one knee and declare his undying love for her? They barely knew one another.

  No, he’d poured a glass of water for each of them, then led her out to the lobby, where they could sit by the fire and watch the snow float down gently, just beginning to cover the deck outside and the landscape beyond. This snow seemed more determined than the flurries she’d experienced so far this season, and she wasn’t quite sure how she should feel about that. On the one hand, there was something very cozy about being here by the massive fireplace with its gleaming copper hood, knowing that you were warm and inside and away from the weather.

  And not alone. She’d begun to think she would never see another human being, and then…

  …and then along came Cameron. Besides being handsome and smart and resourceful, he really knew how to kiss. Strong, yet tender. Passionate without being overbearing. He smelled good, too, like wood smoke and pine trees and all the things she liked.

  Even with all that, she wasn’t sure she liked the idea of the snowfall. Something about it seemed so final, as though they’d lost their last chance to get off this mountain before winter really set in. Sarah had been fairly sure she had enough food to support her through those long, cold months, but with two of them here? She’d have to redo all her calculations, and hope to hell she could make everything stretch.

  “Hey,” Cameron said, and she startled, realizing that she’d been staring at the fire and frowning fiercely. “Are you all right?”

  “Fine,” she replied, an automatic response. “Just thinking about winter.”

  “You’re worried?”

  “A little.”

  “Don’t be.”

  His arm went around her, pulled her close. There was something awfully comforting about having such a strong shoulder to lean her head on. That had been the worst of it — to grieve alone, to have to come to grips with such a change in the world with no one there to talk to, no one to comfort her during the dark, frightening nights, when the entire planet seemed to echo with its emptiness.

  Now someone was here…an amazing someone…and yet she was still worrying.

  “I don’t have to worry because now you’re here to take care of me?”

  “That’s not what I said.” He shifted on the couch so he could look down into her face. His dark eyes were intent, holding hers so fiercely, she didn’t think she could glance away, even if she wanted to. “It’s pretty clear that you’re able to take care of yourself. I just think…we
ll, it’s usually easier if you don’t have to shoulder the load all alone. That’s all.”

  How could she argue with a comment like that, when she’d just been thinking basically the same thing a few minutes earlier? “You’re right,” she said. “And it’s still early for the really heavy storms. Most of that seems to wait until after Christmas, even though we’ll get some before then. Which is good. It doesn’t feel like Christmas if it’s not snowy outside.”

  Cameron was quiet for a moment, his gaze moving around the large room where they sat. “Did they decorate a lot for the holidays here?”

  “Oh, yeah. Pine garlands on all the banisters, lights outside, a huge tree in the lobby.” Sarah could feel herself smiling as she recalled the Lodge in all its holiday splendor. “It looked like something out of a Hallmark Christmas special or something.”

  Her companion nodded, although something seemed a little hesitant about the smile he wore, as if he didn’t quite know what a Hallmark Christmas special actually was. Well, she couldn’t give him too much grief over that. Hallmark tended to be kryptonite for guys.

  “After the snow lets up, maybe we can do something about that,” he said. “I mean, I know the solar panels I set up won’t be enough to power a lot of exterior lights or anything, but we could go out and gather pine boughs for garlands, at least enough to decorate in here. Would you like that?”

  Of course she would. Usually by now the decorations would have already been in place, but she really hadn’t been thinking about Christmas. Survival had consumed most of her thoughts. “I’d love it,” she replied. “God knows, the one thing we have plenty of here in Cloudcroft is pine trees.”

  “All right, it’s a date.” He brushed her hair away from her face and kissed her again, this time softly on the cheek. “We’ll just have to see how long this storm lasts.”

  Chapter Six

  As it turned out, the snow fell for most of the day. Kamal could tell Sarah was disappointed that she wouldn’t be able to go out and start gathering supplies for the holiday garlands right away. However, she told him that they might as well go down to the basement and begin going through the decorations stored there.

  “We won’t need to put up everything,” she explained as she led him down the cellar stairs, a Coleman lantern in one hand. “But if we go through it and stage what we need, then when we do have a chance to go out and cut the fresh boughs, we’ll have a better idea of how much to get.”

  That sounded like a practical plan to him. Also, it was good to see her animated and happy, thinking ahead. Although the djinn did not celebrate Christmas, they did observe the winter solstice, and the world’s return from the short, dark days of that season. It would be good to see the Lodge dressed up in its holiday garb.

  As Sarah began to go through box after box of decorations, he reflected that she hadn’t been joking when she said the hotel staff went all out with its holiday trim. It seemed there was enough stored down here in the basement to adorn every doorway in the hotel — which wasn’t all that far off from the truth.

  “We used to put little wreaths on all the doors,” she explained as she pushed a box filled with the little faux-greenery rings out of the way. “People thought it was a nice touch. But I don’t think there’s much point in going that crazy.”

  “No, probably not,” he agreed, relieved that he wouldn’t be drafted to hang wreaths on every door in the place. “And for the front door, we’ll have fresh pine.”

  “That’s the plan. Luckily, I’ve helped put those together, so I know what to do. I’m still looking for the florist’s wire, though. I know there are a couple of spools of it somewhere around here.” Sarah settled back on her heels and surveyed the boxes scattered on the floor around them, as though she had X-ray vision and could see inside each and every container.

  “I’m sure it’ll turn up.”

  “I hope so. Otherwise, I’ll have to see if I can dig up some in town. I don’t think the Family Dollar would carry anything like that, but Mrs. Ortega used to make and sell wreaths during the holidays. There’s probably some stored in her house.” Up until that moment, Sarah had looked happy, animated, but her expression darkened then. No doubt she was thinking of how the aforementioned Mrs. Ortega would have no further need of florist’s wire…or anything else, for that matter.

  Because Kamal didn’t want Sarah to dwell on such things, he said quickly, “I’m sure we’ll come across it. What about that box?” He pointed to a large container that hadn’t yet been opened.

  “No, those are the Christmas tree decorations. We won’t need those for a while.” She still seemed subdued, leading him to remark,

  “Well, at least not until closer to the holiday.” He had to mentally count out the days. Six to go.

  Sarah tilted her head at him. “Maybe it’s not such a good idea. I mean, have you ever actually cut down a pine tree?”

  “No,” he said. “But it can’t be that difficult.”

  “I don’t know.” A small pause, and then she added, “Doesn’t it seem sort of wasteful? Back in the day I really didn’t think about it — we’re surrounded by trees here, after all — but why cut a tree’s life short, just to hang sparkly things on it for a week or so?”

  Kamal guessed that she was talking about more than simply trees. His tone gentle, he said, “Possibly, but trees die all the time. Bark beetles, lightning strikes…there’s no guarantee they’ll be around forever. So I wouldn’t worry about it. If the time comes and you want a tree, then we’ll get one. Okay?”

  Still she seemed to hesitate. Then she gave a reluctant nod. “Okay.”

  Something else seemed to be bothering her. Was she regretting the kisses they’d shared? He couldn’t think of a way to ask without sounding as though he was questioning their newfound intimacy as well, and so decided it was better not to say anything.

  A few minutes passed as she sorted through the boxes, setting aside spools of ribbon in shades of red and gold, and pre-made miniature arrangements of silk and plastic flowers and leaves. A small sigh escaped her lips. “Are we stupid for doing this?”

  “Doing what?”

  She gestured toward the clutter of holiday decorations around her. “Getting all this out…pretending everything is normal. That snowstorm isn’t going to last forever, but there’ll be more to come. Maybe we should get down off this mountain while we still can.”

  “I don’t think we need to decide that now,” he said carefully. Of course there was no way he could tell her that they’d be gone by the first of the year. Or rather, he knew he would have to tell her the truth soon enough, but they still had time. For some reason, he found himself strangely reluctant to broach the subject. Insane as it sounded, he enjoyed interacting with her as if he was just another mortal. Would she treat him the same way once she found out that he wasn’t quite human?

  “Then when?” She pushed herself to her feet, brushed at the dusty knees of her jeans. “The weather won’t hold back just because we don’t feel like making a decision right now.”

  Since she had stood up, Kamal rose as well. He went to her and took her hand. Noting some resistance in her touch, he decided he wouldn’t pull her close to him. At least she hadn’t attempted to snatch her hand out of his grasp. This way they were still touching, even if an actual embrace didn’t seem like the correct thing to do at the moment.

  “If it looks like we’re going to get a truly bad storm…well, then we’ll make sure we’re ready to leave. Surely someone up here in Cloudcroft was equipped to plow the roads?”

  Sarah gave a reluctant nod. “Jeff Hansen. He lives…lived…at the far end of town. Made some extra cash every winter by getting one of those plow attachments for his truck and using that to keep things clear.”

  “So we have a way of getting down the hill,” Kamal said. “Even if the weather gets bad.”

  “I suppose so.”

  This time he did pull her close. She didn’t protest when he bent and kissed her. In fact, she l
et go of his hand so she could put her arms around him and press herself against his body. Even through the bulky sweater she wore, he could feel her breasts touching his chest, and a wave of desire passed over him, so intense that he had to force himself not to lift her from the floor, take her upstairs so he could make love to her right away. Somehow he managed to remain calm, even as he kissed her and held her, and breathed in the warm scent of her skin.

  She stepped away at last, and offered him a shaky smile. “Did I look that needy?”

  “I don’t know about ‘needy,’” he replied. “I just know that I wanted to kiss you.”

  “I wanted to kiss you, too.” This was said almost shyly, as though she was surprised by her own ardor.

  Kamal couldn’t blame her for that. She’d spent the last few months merely existing, probably ignoring the needs of her body, at least for anything beyond eating and sleeping and staying warm. “Then let’s go upstairs where it’s not so dusty and damp, and I’ll kiss you some more.”

  This time she laughed — a true laugh, with nothing forced about it. “Sounds like a plan.”

  Sarah hadn’t really expected to spend part of the apocalypse lying on a couch in the lobby of the Lodge and making out like she was still back in high school. But that was exactly what happened — as soon as they got back upstairs, Cameron led her out to the room where they’d sat and watched the snow, only this time he pushed her down onto the sofa, his body heavy and strong on top of hers, his mouth more insistent now. She responded in kind, wanting this.

  Wanting him.

  And when he slid his hands up under her sweater, bare skin against bare skin, she hadn’t tried to stop him. No, not even when his fingers moved across her breast. She was wearing a bra, but she could still feel the warmth of his flesh through the thin fabric. Her nipples went hard, and he probably felt that, too. He didn’t say anything, though, only removed his hand after a few caresses, as if he knew she wasn’t quite ready to go any further than that.

 
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