She was altogether too aware of him and her longing for him intensified. Longing was too weak a word. Perhaps it was all the nights of fantasizing about him, dreaming of his touch, his hands on her, her hands on him, heated kisses in the dark, the feel of him thrusting between her thighs. Moisture had gathered there when she was simply sharing the cab with him and she felt as if she might explode from the throbbing ache.
Trying to distract herself, Trudie stared out the window, absently noting the enormous evergreens, their branches hanging heavy with snow. They simply looked sad to her.
Knox tapped his finger against the steering wheel and then reached over and turned on the CD player. The sound of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash filled the air. At least Knox was staying true to the music he liked. Elsa must approve. Trudie knew it was a catty thought. It’d be one thing if she thought Knox was happy, but he wasn’t. Trudie had seen it in his eyes.
Once again she thought she’d made a mistake coming with him when she was fairly humming with want, but she was committed. They’d have their burgers and beer and he could take her back to get her SUV and that would be that.
She wasn’t quite sure why the thought didn’t cheer her up.
KNOX PULLED UP to the front of the cabin and killed the engine. They let the silence and dark adjust around them.
“Hang tight,” he said, opening his door and stepping out into the freshly shoveled area, the snow beneath his boots hard and compact. He rounded the truck and opened the passenger door for Trudie.
She slid out of the cab. Jessup reluctantly followed. It was a helluva note that a dog born and raised in Alaska didn’t like the snow. All the malamutes and huskies wanted to romp in the snow—Jessup just wanted to get the hell out of the stuff.
“I see Petey’s been here,” Trudie said.
Knox handed Trudie the take-out boxes. “I knew it’d be dark by the time I got Elsa settled and then got out here.” He grabbed the soft-sided cooler out of the back seat. “And you know how much I like shoveling snow.” For twenty bucks Petey, the part-time prospector who also ran the closest thing to a taxi service in Good Riddance, had come out and cleared a path to the front door. It had been worth every cent.
Trudie laughed. “Yeah, it’s not high on my top-ten list of ways to spend my time.”
Knox unlocked the door and reached inside, flipping on the light switch. Jessup pushed past them—he was a good dog even if he was a wimp. Knox motioned for Trudie to precede him. Her arm brushed against him and heat flashed through him. He entered behind her, closing the door, leaving the dark and snow on the other side.
He simply stood still for a moment as memories and Mormor’s absence washed over him. He’d thought he was ready for this, but he wasn’t so sure now. He was glad Trudie was here.
Ironically, while everything in his life and his world had changed, nothing had changed inside the cabin.
It remained one big room with a small half-bath off to the side. A pullout sofa and armchair upholstered in a worn plaid dominated one half of the room. The kitchen, with a scarred oak table and mismatched chairs, sat on the other. A loft ran across the back of the cabin, a ladder granting access. Up top was a double bed where Knox had always bunked down. Below, tucked beneath the loft area, was another double bed that had been Mormor’s sleep spot. A pot-bellied wood-burning stove sat between the sofa and the bathroom. A Big Mouth Billy Bass singing fish was mounted on the wall over the sofa. The Knudson brothers had always had a sense of humor.
Memories of laughter and Chrismooses past crowded him. He sprang into action, which struck him as a far better plan than drowning in nostalgia.
“I’ll get the stove started.” It was so cold inside the cabin, their breath formed smoke rings. “It’ll warm up in no time.”
Petey had also laid a fire in the stove. Knox just needed to light it. Within minutes warmth began to dissipate the room’s chill.
He sat on the sagging plaid sofa and Trudie perched in the matching chair. So much for her sharing the sofa with him but it was just as well because Trudie had become temptation incarnate. He laughed as he eyed the take-out containers on the scarred coffee table. “Now that the burgers and fries are cold...”
Trudie laughed in return. “Hey, they go with the beer.”
They spoke simultaneously.
“You ran out of gas?” Trudie said. They’d planned to go fishing and picked up some burgers, figuring they could make the trip there and back without gassing up. They’d been wrong.
Knox nodded. “Yep. The burgers were cold in the cab...”
“And the beer froze back in the truck bed.”
“I know,” Knox said. “That’s when I started using a cooler and putting it behind the seat.”
For a few seconds their awkwardness disappeared in the shared memory. Knox bit into the burger. As always it was cooked to perfection. One of Lucky’s signature touches was topping each burger with grilled onions—grilled but still crunchy. “Even cold Lucky’s burgers are good.”
“I know,” Trudie said, speaking around a mouthful.
The firewood popped and snapped merrily in the stove and a contentment he’d not known for a long time stole through him. An awareness he’d never had before was present—an awareness of Trudie as not just a buddy but a woman. The lamp on the end table between the chair and couch etched her features against the shadows beyond.
Her straight nose had the slightest tilt at the end and her chin came to a cute point. Her hair curved slightly toward her cheeks and he noticed how her cheekbones defined her face. She was beautiful in a way he’d never noticed before—not the in-your-face coiffed beauty of Elsa, but warmer, less manufactured. Elsa was like a flawlessly groomed Persian cat while Trudie was a short-haired Siamese.
As with any other animal, the Persian and Siamese were both great breeds, it was just a matter of what suited your taste.
“So, I’m actually participating in Chrismoose this year,” Trudie said, as if grasping for something to say. She looked slightly uncomfortable. He supposed he had been staring.
“Well, it’s gotten bigger and Merrilee asked me if I’d work in some floral arrangements. One of the things we discussed was keeping it true to the area. Tomorrow I’m on the hunt for materials.”
“Need any help?”
Trudie paused and he could practically see the wheels turning in her head. Finally, she spoke. “Look, I want to keep things smooth and calm in my life. I don’t want you coming with me if it’s going to stir up tension with Elsa. That’s not why I’m here and that’s not what I want.” She looked past him to the stove. “It took me some time to work through missing you, not having you in my life. I don’t want to go through that adjustment again.”
“You’ve already apologized and I’ve accepted. I’m not looking for another apology. I’m just saying I don’t want to argue over Elsa again, I don’t want Elsa giving you ultimatums and one day you’re in my life and the next day you’re not.”
“It sounds as if you’re giving ultimatums now.”
Trudie shrugged. “Maybe, although I don’t think so. I’m just being straight-up with you.”
It was Knox’s turn to pause. He wanted to tell Trudie the deal—that he was only here with Elsa for appearance’s sake, that he and Elsa were on the exit plan—but that didn’t quite seem right. He also wanted to tell her that Elsa wouldn’t make it an issue, but she would. He was beginning to see things a little more clearly than he had in a long time.
However he could handle Elsa. As for Trudie’s other concern— “So, I’m not doing another disappearing act again. What time do you want to get started tomorrow?”
* * *
TRUDIE DIDN’T KNOW how she felt. If someone were to peer through the window, things would look the same as they had for years—she and Knox chatting and sharing a meal. Yet, everything was different. Who was he? Who was she? What did she want?
“Did you bring the tree?” she asked.
It was an artificial tree. As children, she and Knox had made salt dough ornaments for it. They’d sat at Mormor’s kitchen table and cut shapes with cookie cutters and afterwards painted them with craft paint. Every year, when they came to Chrismoose, they set up the tree on the first night of their arrival so they could enjoy it the entire time they were in Good Riddance.
Knox offered a quick nod. “It’s in the truck.”
She inwardly heaved a sigh of relief. If he had let the tree and those ornaments go in the estate sale or donated them to a charity, she would’ve lost it with him. “I could help you set it up...or would you rather do it when I’m not here?”