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Kicking off my boots, I set them over by the fire to melt. Now the cabin had a new meaning to me. Not just a warm salvation from the snow and cold, or a prison without internet connection, but a home. It was our home. The vibe was different for me and I wondered if he felt it too. I peeled off my jacket, hung it on the hooks. I was humming. I realized it a good thirty seconds after I started doing it. I was filling the silence with my own music, a cheerful take on an Adam Levine song. That made me laugh under my breath, a soft chuckle that immediately cut out when I realized something else. The stranger was talking to someone. His voice was clear, strong, and it wasn’t the tone he used with the dogs.

Frowning, I looked out the window and my head spun a little, my hands reaching out to grip the countertop. Who the fuck was that? Two men, bundled up, rifles on their backs, just somehow there, in the yard. No one ever came to the cabin. I had only seen people once, out on the river, but never here, in our private space. Only Michael had invaded this sanctity. Fear and anger collided and I gripped the counter tighter, watching carefully. The interruption made me furious. No one belonged here with us and now the stranger was going to be on edge. He wouldn’t want to have sex, he wouldn’t smile. Why were they here? Would they stumble across the body in the woods? I felt fear sweat trickle down my armpits. I didn’t want to go to prison for the rest of my life. I wasn’t cut out for prison.

I wasn’t cut out for a lot of things, the least of which was prison. There were no men in prison and I was only good at manipulating men. Women didn’t like me quite as much.

The voices were getting louder. There was some gesturing on the part of the larger of the two men, and suddenly he glanced towards the house. We locked eyes. He nodded to me. Then he turned back to the stranger and said something. My lover just shook his head.

The man started to walk towards the cabin, but the stranger stepped in front of him, blocking him. What the hell? My heart was thumping from fear but I needed to hear what was going on. I pulled my boots back on and opened the cabin door. “Hello,” I called, trying to sound normal and confident. “Is everything okay out here?”

The stranger didn’t turn around. He just said, “Get back in the house, sweetheart. These men are leaving.”

But the taller one, with the dark eyes, shifted so he could see me. “Ma’am, are you okay? Are you Laney Turner? Because I saw on the news that a woman who looks just like you was in that plane crash and they never found her body. If that’s you, and you are being held here against your will, you can come with us and we’ll get you to safety. Don’t be afraid.”

It clicked then. These were the men from the river, when I’d fallen through the ice. They had seen me sprinting towards them, trying to escape the stranger. He had told them I was his wife and at the time, they had believed it. But then they’d seen pictures of me on the news and had thought about it, and here they were…

They hadn’t called the police, clearly. That was good. They were probably wanting to confirm their suspicions before they said anything and looked stupid. Yet this to me seemed very stupid. Confronting a potential kidnapper? I stood there, sweating, not sure what the right answer was. Did I tell them I was Laney? Did I lie? I couldn’t figure out the ramifications of either one quickly enough.

So I avoided the question. “What on earth would make you think that?” I said, injecting a healthy dose of astonishment into my voice. “I’m not being held against my will.” If they only knew I had killed to stay, they might not be so eager to assist me. “But thank you for your concern. I’m not afraid at all, I promise.”

Well, maybe I was a little afraid of the stranger. This was my fault, after all. I had brought these men right to our door by my little bolt across the ice. He couldn’t be too happy with me. In fact, I could see by the set of his jaw and the flare of his nostrils he was barely containing his anger.

“Are you Laney?” The man skirted the stranger and took a step closer to the cabin. He was only ten feet from me.

I tensed, instinctively.

The stranger reached out and took his arm, halting his progress. “Listen to me,” he said carefully. “If you take another step towards my wife, you will regret it.”

I shivered, the wind cutting through my sweatshirt.

“Relax,” the shorter of the two men said. “We’re not looking to start any trouble.”

“Oh, no? Then why are you on my property after my wife has told you she’s fine?” He didn’t let go of the taller man’s arm. “Do you have wives? Would you let total strangers into the house with her in the middle of fucking nowhere? My job is to protect my wife at all costs, and I think you can appreciate and understand that.”

With every word he spoke, my excitement grew, my panties turning damp. Wife. What an amazing label, one I wished in earnest were truly mine. I loved that he wanted to protect me, that he was strong enough to stand up to random men who thought they might know anything about me or who I was and what I needed. I knew they meant well and good for them. Gold star for looking out for a woman they had thought needed help. I applauded that, and appreciated it. I didn’t want the stranger to hurt them. But they didn’t know anything about the truth and they really needed to leave. It was far too dangerous for them to be around.

Dean had protected me from my mother and that’s why I had loved him. The stranger had protected me from death and it was part of why I loved him. But the attraction I felt for him, the primal, guttural, intense lust and desire I had for the stranger was unique, different. The two needs- the physical and the emotional- had never really manifested in one relationship for me before. I had wanted men I hadn’t loved and I loved Dean while not being hugely in lust with him. But this… this was an interweaving of both. Love and lust locked together in an embrace so intimate it felt elevated. Beyond the average. A great love story.

The greatest love stories begin with blood, after all.

If I wasn’t careful, more would be spilled in our yard right now.

“I get what you’re saying,” the tall man said. “But if you’ve got nothing to hide, what’s the big deal?”

“Because how the fuck do I know what you’re really here for? Maybe you saw her and thought she’s hot and want to knock me out and spend the afternoon raping her.”

“That’s really damn suspicious and frankly insane,” the shorter man said. “Hey, Clay, I think we should just leave.”

I stepped down off the porch, not sure if that would make my lover more upset or not, but realizing even though it made my pulse quicken, I couldn’t let him start serious shit with these men. “It’s okay, baby, I think they meant well.”

He turned back to look at me, and his gaze pierced me. He was furious. I didn’t know how much of it was directed at me. I did know that if the two men hadn’t been witnesses, he would have ordered me into the cabin and I would have gone. I wasn’t trying to be disobedient. I was trying to be normal. Surely he had to recognize that. The only thing more suspicious than a body in the yard was us acting like we had a body in the yard.

“Are you sure, Laney?” the taller man asked.

Hearing my name off the man’s lips was jarring, frightening. I didn’t want him to know who I was, though I wasn’t sure why it would be such a bad thing. It just felt intrusive. Too familiar. I just nodded, waiting for a cue from the stranger. He gave it.

“Her name isn’t Laney. I’m not sure why you’re calling her that.” The stranger released the man’s arm and took a step back. “Her name is Stephanie.”