“Please, please, please, please, please, please—”
Chuckling softly as he sat back in the padded leather office chair, Gavin shook his head and tapped his pen on the open folder atop his desk. “Hey, Jillian. What do you need?”
Jillian Zelig drew a deep breath and let it whoosh out of her in a pronounced sigh. Gavin didn’t have to see her face to know that she was very likely pouting, her pale blue eyes wide and sad. He knew the expression far too well. It had gotten him in his fair share of trouble in the past, and he had a feeling that whatever she had on her mind would probably end up that way again. “Funny you should ask that . . . I need for you to hop on a plane and fly down here, PDQ.”
He nodded slowly. He’d figured it was something like that. “Are you still in Cancun?”
“Yes . . .”
“And why do you need me?”
“Because . . . I’m bored—horribly bored, and you’re the only one who can save me.”
Glancing dolefully at the stack of files littering his desktop, Gavin stifled a sigh and slowly shook his head. “Jilli, as much as I’d love to just get up and go, I’ve got a ton of stuff here that I have to take care of, and—”
She snorted indelicately, effectively cutting him off as he could sense her pout deepening. “And weeks and weeks of vacation time that you—workaholic that you are—refuse to use—ever.”
Grimacing as much from the truth in her words as well as because of the plaintive tone she had reverted to using, Gavin rubbed his left eye and sighed. “How much longer do you have to be there?”
“Another whole week.”
He shook his head. “Jillian . . .”
“You’re losing hero points, you know.”
“Well, that’s hardly fair, don’t you think?”
“Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please—”
Grimacing when she resorted to using the one plight that never failed to work in her favor, Gavin dropped his ink pen and shook his head. “All right; all right . . . calm down, okay? Let me talk to my boss, and I’ll see what I can do, but I swear this is the last time I rescue you. Do you hear me, Jillian?”
He could hear the smile in her voice. She obviously thought she’d won. “That’s what you always say, Gavvie, and you never, ever let me down.”
“Maybe I can get a day or two toward the weekend,” he mumbled almost to himself.
“But it’s only Monday!” she complained. “I’ll die by then! Did you know? They won’t let me have real food, and it’s killing me!”
Gavin rolled his eyes but smiled. “Cut the histrionics, okay? Let me see what I can arrange.”
“I love you.”
“So you’ve said.”
“But I do!”
“And you’d better.”
She giggled, completely undaunted. “Anyway, you’re already packed, and there’s a ticket in the front pocket of your suitcase.”
He shook his head. Somehow the idea that she’d packed his suitcase before she’d left two days ago didn’t really surprise him at all . . . “You already packed for me?”
“Of course I did . . . someone has to take care of you. What would you do without me?”
He chuckled. “So you had this planned all along?”
“I believe in being prepared for all contingencies, yes.”
“I’m not sure whether to thank you or be scared of you.”
“You can’t be scared of me! I’m your future mate!”
“Jilli . . .” he began in a warning tone.
She giggled. “Kisses, Gavvie.”
He wrinkled his nose and opened his mouth to tell her just what he thought of the shortened, cutesy version of his name that she insisted on using since he knew damn well that she was able to say his name just fine—the main reason she’d started calling him that to start with—but she’d already ended the phone call.
The trouble with Jillian was that she tended to act first and regret it later. She’d done that for as long as he’d known her. He should have known that first day . . . she had been almost four at the time, and he was nearly nine. It was the first time he’d gone to Cain Zelig’s house in Maine for training. His father was one of Cain’s top hunters, and when Moe Jamison had asked Cain—the tai-youkai—to train Gavin, Cain hadn’t had to think twice about it
He’d fostered with Cain all through his youth, spending his summers running around the Maine countryside. The oldest of Cain’s sons, however, was five years older than him, and by the time he’d first made the trip from Montana to Maine, Bas Zelig was spending his summers in Japan, training with his grandfather, InuYasha and his uncle, the Japanese tai-youkai, Sesshoumaru. In fact, Gavin hadn’t actually met the future North American tai-youkai until he was thirteen.
Cain had another daughter—an older daughter—named Bellaniece. She lived in Japan most of the time, though, with her mate, so the only other children in Cain’s house were Evan, who had just turned four, and Jillian, who was almost four at the time. Back in those days, Evan spent most of his time shadowing his mother everywhere she went, but Jillian . . .
“I’m going to climb that tree,” Jillian had announced bravely, pointing at the very tall, very old white ash tree that stood in the middle of the back yard. One hand wrapped in the folds of the pastel pink sundress, she glanced over her shoulder, pale blue eyes coming to rest on him as she blinked solemnly.
Gavin glanced up from the comic book he had been reading. Gin was in the kitchen making dinner. Cain was in his study working on paperwork. Jillian had been following Gavin around since his arrival. He looked past her out the plate glass doors at the huge tree and shook his head. The lowest branches were a good ten feet off the ground, and he doubted that the tiny youkai girl could jump high enough to do any real climbing. He turned his attention back to the comic once more.
“Come wif me, Gavvie? Come wif Jilli?”
Gavin made a face, burying his face deeper in the cover of the comic. The idea of hanging out with a nearly four year-old just wasn’t really something he wanted to consider. “No, thanks.”
Jillian sighed. “Okay . . . Jilli play alone.”
The second he peeked around the comic, Gavin knew he was making a mistake. She tugged at the heavy sliding door; he watched her pad out onto the deck, her tiny feet skimming across the warmed stone. Her legs carried her so quickly that he couldn’t help but think that her movements flowed like water. She stopped at the edge of the patio and glanced back at him, her pale face brightening in a warm smile as she lifted her hand and waved.
He watched as she ran down the steps and across the lawn to the tall tree. Standing below the canopy of leaves, she tilted her head back, staring up at the nearest branches that were well out of reach. She stood up on tiptoe, catching the stumpy end where a branch used to be, and using it for leverage, she managed to pull herself up off the ground. Using whatever handholds she could find and bracing her bare feet against the tree bark, she worked herself about five feet off the ground before she slipped and fell, landing flat on her back. Gavin tossed the comic aside and ran out the door, his heart thudding painfully in his chest as he closed the distance between himself and the child.
“Jillian? Are you okay?”
She blinked, her gaze almost bewildered, and she slowly turned her head as he dropped to his knees beside her. “I falled,” she whispered.
“Did you break anything?” he demanded, tentatively feeling her arms and helping her to sit up.
“No,” she said, her eyes still round, as though she couldn’t really understand how she could have possibly fallen off of the tree. She stood up slowly, moving her arms and legs gingerly. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, she giggled suddenly and threw her arms around him, pinning his arms to his sides in her exuberance. “Jilli climb Bassie’s tree,” she exclaimed. Letting go and careening around, she sped toward a row of trees near the edge of the yard.
‘Bassie’s tree?’ Gavin wondered, scowling as he darted after her.
He caught up to her at the base of a huge old American elm and winced. Jillian was already climbing up the tree, and he watched as she shimmied her way onto an old, moaning branch. “Come down, Jillian! You’re going to fall again . . .”
She giggled, her childish laughter ringing in the air like the wind chimes that Gavin’s mother adored. That sound reminded him of home, and a sudden pang of homesickness washed over him with a brutal abandon. Back home he’d have been riding his horse or helping the ranch hands mend fences, doing odd chores around the ranch. It was the first time he’d been away from home, and the distance between Montana and Maine seemed insurmountable in his nearly nine year-old mind.
“Climb, Gavvie? Climb?” she called down to him.
“No, Jillian . . . that branch is gonna break . . .”
He couldn’t see her very well. She’d climbed higher in the tree, and his view of her was obscured by the lush green leaves. The slight cracking sound registered in his brain seconds before Jillian screamed. It felt as though his body froze. He didn’t remember leaping off the ground, didn’t know how he’d managed to catch her. He was shaking when he landed on the ground again. Jillian didn’t seem to weigh anything at all, but he fell back, landing hard on his rear, his body trembling as Jillian held onto him, her arms wrapped so tightly around his neck that he almost couldn’t breathe.
“No more climbing trees,” he told her, his voice husky, catching. His throat ached; his eyes stung, and he told himself that he must have gotten dirt in them because suddenly he was blinking furiously, trying to stave back the moisture that gathered in his eyes and spilled down his cheeks.
“Jilli’s hero,” she mumbled, her heart beating so hard that, for a moment, he worried that she was going to pass out. “Gavvie Jilli’s hero . . .”
“Don’t do that anymore, Jillian, okay?”
She nodded, burying her face against his shoulder. “Gavvie takes care of Jilli?”
Gavin sighed and stood up as Jillian’s arms tightened just a little bit more. “Yeah,” he promised, setting her feet on the ground but unable to get her to let go. “I’ll . . . I’ll take care of you.”
And that, so far as Gavin could tell, had been the beginning of the end. He was her hero, and for years, she’d been telling him that he was going to be her mate, too. He never took that claim seriously, though. Jillian was his friend—his best friend—and despite the things that she might say, he knew that she lived in an entirely different world than he did.
Jillian Zelig was one of the most sought-after models in the world. Her face graced the covers of magazines and runways from New York to Paris to Los Angeles. She lived in front of a camera. He’d seen the paparazzi trailing her more than once. It used to horrify him, how the little girl he’d first met had become this icon. People thought they knew her because they’d seen her so often over the last few years. She laughed it off, maintaining that it didn’t really bother her. Gavin wasn’t so sure. It seemed to him that she was looking around more often, as though she were trying to stay one step ahead of the ever-vigilant cameras: the flashing lights of the falling stars . . .
She attended celebrity functions, was completely at home on the red carpets. He’d seen her stepping out of limousines in million-dollar dresses, on the arms of men who knew how to talk to women, how to schmooze the general public. Gavin watched her on television as she arrived at the Oscars or the Grammy Awards. He convinced himself that he didn’t mind; told himself that Jillian had always belonged in the spotlight. It was getting harder and harder to believe himself, though . . .
Glancing at the work on his desk, he made a face and stood up with a sigh. He wasn’t really sure if he could get away from work at all, but he’d promised her that he’d ask. ‘Might as well get it over with,’ he told himself. The worst that could happen would be that his boss said no . . .
Gavin headed for the door and grimaced. Hanging out in Cancun with Jillian as she shot a swimsuit layout? He groaned. ‘Then again, maybe it’d be worse if I’m given the time off, after all . . .’
Jillian wrinkled her nose as she scowled at the array of fresh vegetables and heaved a sigh. ‘Hurry up and get here, Gavin . . .’
Hans Grafer, the photographer, was busy grumbling under his breath about the sun, of all things. Apparently it was too strong and was causing too harsh shadows that had to be counteracted with harsh lighting that made Jillian feel as though it were at least fifty degrees hotter under the warm spring sun. “Jillian! Come over here, will you, darling?” he called.
Jillian stifled a sigh and pasted on a bright smile as she turned her back on the catered table and stepped out from under the canopy covering the makeshift dining area. “Where do you need me?” she asked.
“Stretch out on the beach over there, will you? I want to check the lighting.”
Jillian did as she was told, stretching out on her belly in the sand and trying to ignore the uncomfortable scratch as sand filtered into areas where she’d rather that it wasn’t. As ‘sexy’ as it might look on film, she had to admit that there was absolutely nothing at all that was even remotely romantic about getting sand stuck in areas where chafing was not welcome. ‘I hate swimming suits,’ she thought with a heavy sigh. ‘I hate them, I hate them, I hate them, I—’ she cut herself off, sitting up quickly seconds before she shot to her feet and broke into a sprint. Spotting the tall, hulking form of the man—her hero—she ignored the protests of the assembled crew in her hurry to get Gavin past the security blockade. “Gavvie!” she screamed, darting past the scowling security guards as she launched herself against Gavin’s chest. “You did come!”
“I told you I’d be here,” he remarked quietly, hesitating a moment before wrapping his arms around her shoulders to pat her back almost clumsily. “You didn’t really miss me that much, Jilli.”
“No, I did,” she argued. “I always miss you when we’re apart.”
“Is this guy with you, Ms. Zelig?” one of the guards asked, scowling at Gavin.
“Of course he is,” she said with a shake of her head. “He’s my husband. We eloped last weekend—didn’t you hear about it?”
The man blinked, and Gavin cleared his throat as he let his arms drop from Jillian’s back. “Jilli—”
“So you let him in, or else!”
“Understood,” the guard blurted before he hurried back to the little booth that had been set up as a security station. “Absolutely.”
Gavin rolled his eyes but couldn’t hide the little blush that tinged his skin. “You shouldn’t have lied to the poor guy,” he pointed out.
Jillian wrinkled her nose. “It’s just a matter of time, Gavin Jamison. You’ll marry me one day.”
Gavin sighed and shook his head, giving up on chastising her since it never really worked, anyway. “You don’t look like you’re starving to me.”
“That’s because you got here in time to save me . . . wait . . .” Eyeing him suspiciously, Jillian shook her head. “Gavvie, you didn’t bring me food!”
Gavin shrugged offhandedly. “Thought I should find out what you wanted, first.”
She waved her hands. “A cheeseburger . . . a big, fat cheeseburger dripping with mayonnaise and ketchup and mustard . . . extra pickle and just a little onion . . . and fries—lots and lots of greasy, fatty fries!”
He chuckled, crossing his arms over his chest. “So, the usual.”
She nodded enthusiastically, bracing herself against his forearm to kiss his cheek. “Yes! Oh! And a green Napoleon milkshake!”
Gavin chuckled though he was staring over her head in the general vicinity of the lights that Hans had ordered set-up. “I’ve told you a thousand times, it’s a green Neapolitan shake, and you do realize that the odds you’ll get that flavor out here is slim to none, Jilli. How about plain chocolate?”
She heaved a melodramatic sigh but shrugged. “Fine, fine . . .”
“I’ll be back,” he assured her, turning and ambling back toward his rental car.
Jillian watched him get into the vehicle and pull out of the small parking area of the secluded beach where they were doing the photo shoot. Her stomach growled, and she grimaced, hoping that it wouldn’t take him very long.
‘It makes no sense, really,’ she fumed as she shuffled through the hot sand toward the beach where one of the techs was busy arranging some sand where Jillian was supposed to be lying. ‘They want me to look healthy enough. They pay me to work out and to lay in a tanning bed three times a week, but heaven forbid I should gain so much as a pound . . . They don’t want models to eat; the just want us to look like we’re healthy . . .’
Ignoring Hans’ grouching about her unceremonious departure, Jillian stood patiently waiting as the makeup tech touched up her lip gloss while his assistant blotted powder into the cleft between Jillian’s breasts. “You were shining, doll-face,” Justin Kramer, one of the world’s most renowned makeup artists, crooned. “Not so heavy on the powder, Jay-Jay,” he admonished. The assistant blushed and quickly whipped out a clean white handkerchief to brush off the excess powder.
“Careful, Jay-Jay, careful! We don’t want her to pop right out of that bikini,” Justin grouched.
“They taped me in,” she pointed out patiently.
“Let me retie the strap,” Jay remarked. The tiny man hurried around Jillian, tugging the string around her neck and tightening it. Jillian winced as the double-sided tape that held the strip of cloth onto her breasts pulled against it. When the men were finally done fussing with her appearance, Jillian picked her way through the meticulously arranged sand to reassume her pose as Hans heaved a relieved sigh.
“Lights,” he demanded, staring through the lens of the camera on the tripod. It looked precarious at best, and Hans made a few minor adjustments before digging the remote control out of his pocket and lifting the smaller camera that hung around his neck with the other. “Pout for me, Jillian,” he commanded.
Jillian did as she was told, letting her mind wander as the gentlest breeze stirred her hair. She smiled to herself. So there were worse things than being paid to roll around in the sand all day . . . it wasn’t a horrible profession, she supposed, and she was good at it.
He’d come to rescue her . . .
She had hoped he would. Even after he’d called to say that he had been given the time off work, she’d still half-expected him to back out. It wasn’t that Gavin was unreliable. Quite the contrary, really . . . No, it was simply that, at nearly twenty-four years old, Jillian had spent the last twenty years of her life trying to convince the stubborn man that he was her mate—a feat that she had yet to accomplish and nothing but friendship to show for her efforts.
It used to be enough. For the longest time, she had contented herself with simply being Gavin’s best friend. Even now, she could talk herself into believing that it was only a matter of time until he came to his senses. Trouble was, while she could do that, she also knew that it was getting more and more difficult.
She’d met him the first time when he’d come to train with her father. He’d been nine that summer, and she was four. On the scrawny side, he was short and skinny and pale. He liked to sit in the living room, reading comic books and science fiction novels, messing around with his laptop computer and dreaming of the antique Star Wars figures he swore he would collect one day, and for some reason, Jillian had thought he was fascinating.
Tagging around after him all the time, she had crawled into his bed the first night after he’d arrived. Looking back now, she had to wonder just why he’d let her stay there, but he had, and she’d soon gotten into the habit of creeping into his room after everyone had gone to bed, curling up on her side and content to be near him. The only thing her parents had said was that Jillian had to leave the door open, though Gavin had alluded to the subtle and not-so-subtle threats against certain crucial parts of Gavin’s anatomy that he’d been dealt both by Cain, her father, as well as from Bas, her oldest brother, over the years.
But the idyllic memories of her youth, of summers spent coercing Gavin into one escapade or another, had ended sooner than she’d expected. Everything had changed the year Gavin was seventeen. He was between his junior and senior years of high school, and Jillian was twelve at the time. She hadn’t realized during the summer that it was the last time she’d see Gavin in person for over three years. The next summer, he’d opted to start college early, taking summer classes to get a jump on his prerequisite subjects. He’d chosen to attend the University of Montana, and Jillian had been inconsolable. For the next two years, she’d held out the hope that he would come back to Maine for the summer. The few times she’d spoken to Bas about it, her brother had grumbled that it was time Gavin grew up, didn’t she think, and that Gavin didn’t really need to come back to Maine since his training was already completed.
Still Jillian emailed Gavin religiously, sending him snapshots over the Internet whenever she could. She called him, mostly on the weekends, but she got used to his half-answers and perpetual insistence that he had to study. Gavin’s responses grew more infrequent, and by the time she was fifteen, she’d almost given up hope that she’d really see him ever again, so it had been a complete shock when her mother told her in mid-November that Gavin was really coming back.
She’d taken the cowards’ way out. Insisting that she had to go to school because of a huge pep-rally for the varsity football team, Jillian hadn’t gone with the rest of her family to pick Gavin up at the airport, and then she’d accidentally missed the bus after school, opting to walk home instead of catching a ride with one of her friends. By the time she’d reached the mansion, she’d been unable to go inside. Unsure what sort of greeting she’d get from Gavin, she’d turned tail and run, heading for the one place that he’d know—that was, if he wanted to find her at all . . .
She sat on the rock extending over the water of the pond so lost in thought that she hadn’t even felt the bite of the chilly November air. Having lost track of time long ago, she wasn’t sure when she sensed the shift in the air; the unmistakable presence that she’d missed for far too long . . .
His voice had grown deeper in his absence. Strange, she’d not really realized that on the telephone. She straightened her back, squared her shoulders, but she couldn’t get herself to turn around. ‘Gavin . . .?’
“Your mom said you were probably out here,” he muttered as he sat down beside her.
She swallowed hard, careful to keep her eyes focused on the water. “I’m a cheerleader,” she said quietly. “I couldn’t miss the pep rally today.”
“I-I know,” he blurted. “I thought . . .” He sighed and shook his head. “It doesn’t matter what I thought.”
All too aware of just how much Gavin had changed over the years, Jillian scrunched up her shoulders, willing her thundering heart to slow before the unsettling emotions made her want to scream. Taller—impossibly tall, really—almost as tall as her father and her brother, both of whom were nearly seven feet tall—Gavin had filled out nicely, obviously the result of rigorous training—perhaps a regime of practicing as well as weight lifting. The scrawny, short boy she’d known so well seemed conspicuously missing, and Jillian was almost afraid to look him in the eye, lest she found that she really didn’t recognize him at all . . .
“How long will you be here?” she forced herself to ask, carefully trying to mask the anxiety in her voice.
“Well, that’s the thing,” he admitted. “I might be here awhile.”
He nodded. “I’m transferring to the University of Maine,” he informed her. “It’s too late to get housing on campus, though, so your father said I could stay here for the semester and commute.”
“Transferring?” she said slowly as her heart slammed to a stop for a dizzying moment. “Here?”
“Uh . . . yeah.”
“. . . For . . . me?”
“W—I—you—” he stammered.
“Gavvie?” she interrupted, finally daring to meet his gaze. The face was broader, stronger, but the eyes . . . Jillian recognized the clarity behind his pale aqua eyes, and she smiled hesitantly. “Are you transferring here for me?”
His cheeks exploded in a violent wash of crimson color as he quickly looked away. “The University of Maine has a really good school of finance,” he argued weakly as the already dark color deepened just a little more.
“You did, didn’t you?” she whispered, her tone full of incredulity. “You missed me . . .?”
“Of course I missed you, Jilli. You’re my best friend . . .”
She digested that in silence, flicking her feet back and forth in the frigid waters below. “Gavvie?”
“I think I’d rather believe that you’re transferring for me.”
He sighed then grinned, pushing himself to his feet and offering her a hand of assistance. “If that’s what you want,” he told her.
She slipped her hand into his and let him pull her to her feet, a bright smile lighting on her face at last. Gavin blinked and stared, holding onto her hand without a word. “Welcome home, Gavvie,” she said. “I really, really, really missed you.”
Final Thought from Gavin
… Hero points…?