Voices crying, carousing, and calling faded to a distant roar like an ancient waterfall buried deep in the forest. She instinctively moved to cinch her pack tighter, but only found the cord of her coat to grip to. The bitter cold struck the naked skin on her remaining hand, causing Kristen to cram it back into her pocket. The prosthetic left dangled free in the frosty weather. It could withstand the chill.
“Where are we?” she called. Even with her gaze focused straight ahead, her eyes kept slipping to the side noting every blind spot between the unending rows of foliage. Anyone could be hiding in there.
“It’s…” he began, before turning fully in his tracks to face her. A furry hat with adorable ear flaps hid away his dusky blond hair. He’d bundled his strapping body up in a coat that belonged on a mechanic fixing tractors in the field. And, draped around his neck, was a scarlet and cream scarf with massive holes and dropped stitches on nearly every row.
He didn’t have to wear her very first attempt at knitting from part of her physical therapy. But he did anyway, which made her flush every time she saw it.
To his other shoulder, Colton hefted the axe he’d been carrying since they left the car. “I was about to tell you, but you already know.”
A tree farm ten miles out of the city. Advertisements for it lined the highway and a cringe-worthy jingle filled the radio station that switched to all Christmas fare two days before Thanksgiving. They sold hot cocoa and pumpkin pies out of a stand beside the entrance to the maze of pines.
Simple information she gathered out of habit. Over a year out of the game and Kristen couldn’t stop concocting full dossiers on movie theaters they’d visit, or small drugstores he’d stop at for cold medicine. It didn’t give her peace, but she could pretend it did.
Breath puffed from her lips, the steam crystallizing as it struck the unholy cold of late December. Trying to hide her shivering, she walked closer to Colton. “I meant why are we out here? In this bleak midwinter.”
The hand not cradling his axe handle swept across the small of her back and he tucked her tighter. At home, she’d greedily stretch across his naked body, lapping up his heat with nothing between them but a smile. But even his natural male furnace couldn’t compete with the sharp sting of a wintry forest.
She felt his chin graze the top of her head and he tried to half envelop her in his arms. “I thought you…delivery types were trained to handle every situation.”
It was a silly code. Anyone who knew she was a spy wouldn’t be fooled for a second. But it made her feel better, as if she could pretend that in her previous life she did nothing more than move freight from one place to another.
Another blast of wind blew up her coat, sending Kristen scampering deeper into his arms. “J-j-just because I can survive in this cold, do-doesn’t mean I wish to.”
“Well…” Colton dropped the axe to the frosty ground. He used his two good arms to wrap her fully up and his lips placed a kiss to her shivering forehead. “I’ll be sure to heat you up later,” he whispered as if nothing more than the scent of his body, the comforting embrace of his muscles, and the low rumble of his voice could start a fire in her veins.
Kristen risked a glance up into those whiskey amber eyes and a sigh slipped from her. All right, that would be enough if it weren’t for the bitterly cold wind rolling through her marrow. Her shivering took her out of his arms and she bent down to pick up the axe. “The sooner we get whatever we came here for…” she said and hauled the maul up to place against her shoulder.
Hungry eyes watched her. The small reminders of her past, of what she was, always seemed to both repel and excite him. With each passing month, the excite part grew, leaving Colton nearly scampering to drag her back to the truck. But he wiped away the hunger and a quick escape. Instead, a knowing smile rose upon his lips.
“We’re here for a tree.”
“We live in an apartment,” she explained cautiously.
“A Christmas tree.” He laughed at her then pointed to one of the dozens of pines. “What about this one? Branches are a bit thin.”
She stared in confusion at the tree minding its own business growing in the dirt while Colton moved to inspect another. Slowly, Kristen drew the rounded needles through her fingers. Frost cracked off the edges, the pristine crystals melting to sludge in her palm as she returned for another round.
Her lover paused in his declaration of the best tree to watch Kristen slowly paw at the unacceptable one. “You’ve celebrated Christmas before. Right?” The statement shifted quickly to a question.
“Yes,” she said, wanting to leave it vague. But that wasn’t how this relationship worked. It couldn’t work if she kept everything hidden in the shadows. “Always on a job, anyway. I mean, I’m not even…”
“That doesn’t matter. Lots of non-religious people celebrate Christmas.”
It was different for her. She learned about tinsel and holly, gingerbread and chestnuts, presents and stockings not in the loving embrace of a grandmother’s kitchen, but to survive. To infiltrate. From an old VHS video droning on about what to expect from each country during the winter season. She could probably teach Colton more about Christmas and its traditions around the world. But it wasn’t the same.
She experienced the holiday without living it. When the infiltration of an office party was finished, she’d return to an empty apartment or stripped hotel room every December 25th. She’d decorated a tree and hung stockings to keep up appearances, but there was nothing except empty boxes to unwrap on Christmas morning. It was always a farce, another lie until she moved on to the next job.
“I guess I’ve never…” Kristen frowned at the full weight of her old life bludgeoning its way into her new. She didn’t want to dwell on it, to play the pity hand over and over. To find yet another vast cavern between them when they’d built so many bridges already. “I’ve never had a real tree. They were always the plastic ones.”
“Oh,” he called, his eyes bright as stars. “You haven’t done it proper then. It’s not Christmas without that fresh pine scent and needles covering every damn surface of your house.”
“That’s a good thing?” she asked while he paused before a tree.
“It is for Christmas. How about that one?” Colton pointed to one of the numerous evergreens threading through the winding woods.
Kristen shifted the axe off her shoulder and into her good hand. The other hung on precariously, wires straining in the cold to grip fake fingers around the handle. It was a tree. Plain. Forgettable. Unnoticeable.
She spun in place and sliced the axe through the trunk of the tree directly behind them. “Never pick the first one you want,” she intoned.
“It’s not…” His complaint broke as he watched her take two more whacks at her tree’s trunk. It was harder than it looked, Kristen panting against the chilled air leeching into her lungs.
A warm hand gripped to her shoulder assuringly to pause her next attack. “Mind if I give it a go? It doesn’t feel like the season if I don’t throw out my back trying to cut down a tree.”
She laughed at his kind lie and passed him the axe. Standing in place, Kristen watched the tree shake, needles raining to the barely snow-dusted ground below. Was that what made Christmas special? A mess from nature?
“Timber,” Colton called. He pushed on the last scrap of the trunk and the tree tipped over to land onto the walking lane beside them. Dusting off his hands, he said, “You know. I think this tree looks better. It’s got more fill to it.”
She picked it because she didn’t pick it. Because, since she was fourteen, they trained her to never be predictable. Predictable could be used, could be poisoned, or assassinated from a window on high. Never take the first one you wanted.
Unless he had amber eyes, an open heart, and a delectable scar cut across his upper lip.
“This is going to be a great Christmas,” Colton declared.
“I have another question.”
“Hm?” He finished in dusting off his palms and hooked the axe on his shoulder.
Kristen stared along the lanes, the parking lot nearly a half-mile away. “How do we get the tree back to the truck?”