How ironic that the view in front of him—trees, snow, a star streaking through the darkness—resembled a picture-perfect scene worthy of any Christmas card, and yet it carried such deadly undertones. Just as that year had for her, only she'd been unaware of the lurking tragedy, something they shared in common after all.
He reached around the tree trunk to rest a hand on her arm. She probably couldn't feel the gesture through the layers of winter gear, but he couldn't keep his distance.
"The first Christmas without her was hard. I knew there was no way I could make things better for Dad, but I really wanted little Hank and Darcy to grow up with holiday memories, too. Maybe not as cool as the ones Mom would have made with us, but they would have their stories to tell."
"What did you do?"
"I had Dad take all three of us to a big Christmas mall. We shopped for hours trying to pick out a creche. Except I'd like the Mary in one, but the lambs were goofy. Darcy wanted a certain angel, but thought the Wise Men looked creepy. Then I remembered Mom crying over that perfect tree because she wanted her hodgepodge one back. So, we just played mix and match. We bought our favorite piece from each set to create a whole new set that was uniquely our own."
He could see her, so young herself but taking charge while recognizing the beauty of their individual tastes. How could this woman tempt him in the middle of a blizzard when he couldn't even see one inch of her luscious body?
Josh cleared his throat, if not his thoughts, that were tumbling faster than a plane in a barrel roll. "So that explains your clothes."
"No matched sets."
"Oh. No." Her laugh floated round, packing more of a punch than her sigh. "Actually, I just don't have any fashion flair since there wasn't anyone around to teach me. Hey, scratch that last part. It sounds un-PC and totally ungrateful to my dad. But he wore his uniform all the time and didn't have a clue about clothes. A couple of the other squadron wives tried to help, but, uh, you may have noticed I'm a bit prickly in the pride department."
"Smart-ass," she answered, but her tone was lighter, and damned if those two words didn't sound a little affectionate. "I knew they meant well. Maybe I didn't want to shop without Mom. Who knows? But those pity looks really bugged me. So next time we went somewhere, I deliberately mismatched. I found I liked it better than 'normal,' anyway. Now, after wearing a uniform all day, playing with colors is fun."
Fun. That described Alicia well. Dating her had been a wild ride, full of the unexpected. Like the time she'd called and insisted he put on his mess dress uniform before she arrived. She'd been wearing a hot-pink formal gown with ridiculous ruffles. Since he'd never had a senior prom, she'd planned to treat him to the whole experience...a few years late.
At the first sign of resistance from him, she'd threatened to make him wear a tux with a fuchsia cummerbund and bow tie to match her dress.
He'd relented—and had an uninhibited blast.
Ah, shit. He didn't want to remember falling in love with her. He needed distance from Alicia, a damned tough proposition considering they were stuck in a tree. "So back to your cotton panties. What color are you wearing under all those uniform layers right now?"
God, her husband could be such an ass sometimes. And right after being so sweet listening to her sappy childhood stories and distracting her from her numb toes.
Nothing to do but ignore him and his obnoxious question, try to forget the steady comfort of his hand on her arm while she'd talked about her mother.
Wind whistled through the trees even though the storm had eased. Thank heaven they weren't out in the open and only had to wait a few hours until daylight. Still, her hands shook from the cold. She ached all the way to her bones from sitting still so long.
She tapped her thumb against her pinkie in a quick check to make sure her fingers still worked. Which made her worry about Josh. While she wouldn't see her siblings for Christmas since they were all stationed at different Air Force bases, at least she had siblings to call, unlike Josh.
Sympathy tweaked harder than the bite of bark pressing through her protective clothing. "What holiday memories do you have?"
"More traditional ones, I guess. My mother collected menorahs, some really fancy like your mother's perfect tree and others that would probably fit in with your more eclectic tastes."
"Which one was your favorite?" The classic beauty or the eclectic surprise? And now, wasn't that fishing for a flipping reinforcement that maybe she'd been at least partially right for him during their short-lived, messed-up marriage?
"This one my nonni has that looks like a moose."
Eclectic, sure, but not quite the complementary analogy she'd been seeking. Still, his quirky answer warmed her frostbitten feet that just happened to be sporting quirky reindeer-patterned toe socks under all the other layers of socks. "A moose? How so? I'm having trouble picturing it."
"With candles on each antler."
"Ah. Okay, now I can envision it." Why had they never taken the time for this before when she could have fully enjoyed it, when she wasn't a frozen ice sculpture? Drawing her knees up to her chest, she tucked her face down, arms inside. The bough held. "Sounds like something a boy would enjoy. What else?"
"I had a dreidel to play with, but, man, did I ever want to play with Nonni's old one up on the mantel.
Mother said no, but Nonni said I could if I helped her make potato latkes."
"You in an apron? Now, there's an image."
"Hey—" his deep bass growled from the other side of the pine "—I make a mighty damned good potato latke."
"I'll trade you some for my grandma's fruitcake recipe." She tried for lighthearted, except she knew better. They would never swap squat again, and the knowledge wedged itself in her throat like dried-out leftovers. "It's about time to climb down, isn't it?"
"Soon," he agreed, his voice sobering. "We need to make tracks the minute daylight breaks. We have to put space between us and whoever sicced these Cujo spawn on us. If we stay in the woods, covering our tracks should be easier. Of course, that also makes it tough as hell for anyone to rescue us."
"Well, don't those options all suck."
"Pretty much. Someone will have stayed at the pickup point. We'll just keep trying to make our way there."
"How far off do you think we ran?"
He stayed silent. Not good.
All right, then. One problem at a time. She pointed down at Fluffy still sharpening his fangs on their radio.
"Do you have any ideas on how to make the big guy there abandon his favorite new chew toy?"
"I've been praying for another killer icicle for the past hour. Doesn't seem to be working."
Her low laugh spiraled out into the horizon glowing orange and purple with a cresting sun. Not how she'd planned to spend the dark hours with him, and oddly somehow as intimate as sleeping in his arms.
And now their last night together had ended. "Any ideas on how to get them to scatter?" "I've been thinking about it. We could use the gyro-jet flare gun on them, but that could also signal
whoever set them loose in the first place." "Flare gun, last resort."
"Yeah, which takes me to plan B. How about break off one of those branches to your left. The less snow and more pine needles the better."
She heard him rustling on his branch. Clumps of snow thudded, rousing Fluffy and Cujo to glare up with ice-blue eyes. "Uh, okay, but do you mind if I ask what you have planned?"
"Should work and won't be nearly as visible as launching a flare. But how do you plan to kindle a spark up here in the tree? And without burning us out?"
His arm extended with a Bic lighter in his fist.
Shock stunned her silent. But only for a second. "You had this all the time even though we're in an official training course?"
"Duh. What are you? New?"
So he was back to being an ass, sensitivity long gone, probably only generated to keep her occupied, anyway. "You snuck a lighter into survival school? Omigod. I can't believe you did that. What other contraband have you stuffed in your pockets?"
"Hey, back off. I checked the rules and nowhere did it say I couldn't bring one." "Well the rules don't say I can't have a pup tent, but you don't see me shoving one up my parka." "Somebody's mighty cranky without her morning coffee." At least he wasn't talking about her underwear anymore. "Damn it, Rose-Bud—" "Do you want out of this tree or not?"
"Light the damned branch." Lack of coffee? More like frustration from hanging out with the tender, funny Josh all night until even smart-ass Josh couldn't erase the warm glow swelling inside her.
Rustling sounded behind her, followed by the flick, flick, flick as he worked the lighter. Alicia scanned the endless horizon, hazy purples and blues banding the skyline like one of her mismatched outfits that somehow went together. So many cold miles they had left to walk, and they were undoubtedly more than one degree off their original plan. If they even hit the river in one piece, would they turn right or left?
Making it home in time for Christmas calls was now the least of her worries.
Josh took a navigational heading off the sinking sun, wondering where the hell they would end this day.
Home? Pickup point?
Alone in the elements again?
There'd been no sign of anyone—good or bad. Their flaming-branches trick had worked like a charm.
Other than the fact that they couldn't recover the radio, since Cujo made off with it before they could even reconsider using the flare gun on him.
Now it was just the two of them, met only by a herd of musk ox in the distance, the occasional snowshoe hare. At least they hadn't run across any bears. A bear could down a moose with one swoop.
Alicia walked beside him now since they were both so damned cold and brain-numbed he was afraid he might lose her if she walked behind. Progress had been slow due to covering their tracks and frequent stops to warm up with a fire. Thank goodness his trusty Bic was holding out. Still they would have to take shelter soon.
Intellectually he understood that soldiers died in training.
Training hard kept combat casualties substantially lower. But he'd never expected to be a statistic.
Damn it, he wouldn't let the cold defeat him with negativism.
If they could just make it to the river. He was certain they were heading that way at least. They were more likely to stumble on help the closer they were to water.
People did live out here. The place wasn't totally abandoned. With some luck—or another miracle— maybe they would stumble onto a cabin, or at the very least a rustic Quonset hut, erected by the military or abandoned by some ice fisherman.
And if they found one?
Wait. Scratch that. Not if. When.
He must be colder than he thought if he was allowing doubts to creep in. Strange. He never worried about Alicia in the air. That wife of his had grit, focus and invincibility to spare in the clouds. But right now, he was scared as hell of being stuck out here watching her die.
"Talk to me," he demanded.
"Talk," she huffed, "to yourself, Rose-Bud." Apparently she had some grit left in reserve. "Still need that caffeine?"
She stomped ahead. Pissed?
"You're mad?" "What would I have to be mad about?" she snipped.
Alicia high-stepped around a drift. She walked along their zigzag path close to trees where branches blocked the bulk of the snowfall. God, she was hanging tough when he'd expected her to collapse long ago. His own muscles shouted in protest, but he was starting to realize Alicia was a wingman who held her own on the ground, too.
Why couldn't they apply that synchronicity to their home life as well as the workplace?
"You know what really torques me off, Rose-Bud?"
"Haven't a clue." But no doubt he was about to learn. He liked that about her, her take-no-shit attitude.
He liked a lot of things about her, such as her grit.
That grit also made it hard as hell to resolve anything. If he wanted to try. Which he didn't anymore.
She ducked around a tree, her foot landing on a fresh patch of snowfall. "You let me work my butt off starting that fire in the cave and all the time you had a lighter."
Scooping up a branch, he knelt to sweep away her tracks. "Wouldn't want you to break rules."
A snowball thunked him on the head.
Well, he'd claimed to like her unexpectedness. Just about as much as he liked surprising her right back.
Slowly, he rose, finding Alicia waiting with another arm arced back, snowball missile aimed and ready.
"Watch it, my love. You start surprising me too much and I'm going to get turned on."
He waited for the explosion.
Instead, she laughed, surprising him again.
"Good God, Josh. It's fifty below. I can barely feel my toes. How in the world can you feel your...uh...well... you know."
Yeah, he sure did know, and damned inconvenient timing it was. Shouldn't his body be focused on survival? Instead, it was screaming for him to procreate before he died.
Back to her question and off thoughts of procreating. "I trusted you could start a fire in the cave, so I figured it was best to conserve the lighter fuel for an emergency."
Her arm sagged to her side. The second snowball splatted to the ground, icy missile and anger diffused.
"For trusting me to pull my own weight."
Her sincerity knocked him off balance as much as her unexpected anger. He couldn't afford to have his concentration shaken, especially not now. Time to regain distance. "No problem. And, hey, that's a mighty fine butt you were working off anyhow."
Her laugh echoed again, hoarser this time. "Good thing you're my husband or I could write you up on sexual harassment charges for a statement like that, Colonel."
Except he was only her husband for a short time longer, which made her joke fall flatter than the abandoned snowball.
A holiday miracle sometime soon sure would be nice. But he'd given up counting on miraculous rescues when he was fifteen years old watching people bleed out all around him.
These days, he knew if there was any saving to be done, he could only count on himself.