This is a Gift Fic for debirlfan for all she put up with while helping me co-write “Common Ground.”
Caitlin slowly maneuvered her car up the incline, avoiding the wash out on the left side of the road. The road – although she was considering renaming it a trail – wound up the mountain at a steep angle. The previous spring runoff had damaged the road bed in some places and several sections needed a good re-grading. She could well understand why String preferred to take a helicopter into and out of his cabin. Thankfully, she had some good tires on her car and hadn’t had any real trouble.
When she began to see more and more blue sky above the trees, she let out a pleased hum. Just a few more minutes and she’d have almost an entire week to herself courtesy of String and his empty cabin.
She let out a sigh when the cabin finally came into view. She was tired, both physically and emotionally, and she was glad to finally arrive. Pulling her car around to the back, she turned off the engine and just sat for a moment, her eyes closed and her head resting back against the seat.
Silence worked its way into her. Then out from the silence she heard the sounds of wind through the trees, the rattle of falling leaves and the calling of birds. Smiling to herself, she opened her eyes. This was definitely what she needed. Grabbing her purse from the seat beside her, she exited the car and swung around to the trunk.
Popping it open, she grabbed the overnight bag she’d stuffed with her clothes for the week. Heading onto the porch, she put the items down beside the door before heading back to the car to grab the groceries. Just because she was going to be here by herself didn’t mean that she was planning on eating a cold turkey sandwich for Thanksgiving. She didn’t get to indulge her love of cooking much anymore so she’d taken this as an opportunity to do a little relaxation cooking, as her grandmother used to call it.
Keeping a tight grip on the three paper bags filled with assorted food and cooking supplies – because God only knew what String had in the way of pots and pans – she made her way back around to the front of the cabin. She could just barely see the worn pathway over the tops of the bags and kept her attention firmly down at her feet so she didn’t trip over a rock and end up breaking either the eggs or her neck.
The unexpected voice startled her into a jump and tiny screech, the bags starting to slip from her grasp.
“Whoa!” Another pair of hands caught the leading bag before it fell. “Easy there. Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Caitlin looked up into an amused expression. “Michael?” As he took two of the grocery bags from her hands, she was able to step back and get a better look at him. This time the question was incredulous. “Michael?”
He turned and headed towards the porch, stepping over the plain bamboo cane he’d obviously dropped when he leapt forward to catch her falling bags. “Now, Caitlin, you don’t have to say it like that,” he tossed over his shoulder as he headed up the stairs.
Caitlin watched as a blue-jeaned clad Michael Coldsmith Briggs made his way up the stairs. She idly noted that it was a very fine blue-jean clad ass going up those stairs before she realized that she was checking out Archangel. She gave herself a good shake and chalked it up to some kind of color shock as she followed him inside.
She couldn’t help the staring though as he put down the two bags on the bar top. She was still staring when he turned around. “Is it really that bad?”
“Michael, you’re wearing plaid.”
He looked down at the unbuttoned thick flannel shirt he had on over an off-white Henley pullover. “Do I not match?”
She ignored his question. “Oh my God, are those work boots?”
That surprised a laugh out of him. “Hiking boots, actually.” He stepped forward and did a slow pirouette in front of her. “Got your fill?”
She dropped her head in complete embarrassment and put down her own bag in an effort to hide the color suffusing her face. “I’m sorry. It’s just that you. . . I wasn’t . . . and . . . .“ She raised her head and frowned at him. “Wait, a minute, what are you doing here?”
He shrugged. “I asked Hawke if I could stay up here while he was gone. He said it wouldn’t be a problem. Sam dropped me here yesterday afternoon.”
“I’m going to kill him,” she groaned.
“Let me guess, he forgot that he also loaned the place out to you?”
“Other way around. I only asked him right before he left so he must have forgot that he loaned the place out to you. I am so sorry.”
“Caitlin, it’s not a problem.”
“I’m intruding. If you’ll give me a few minutes, I can head on back out.”
“Absolutely not. You brought food. Food is never intruding. Besides, it’s getting too late for you to be driving back down the mountain now.”
At his words, she glanced towards the window and realized that he was right. This late in the year, the sun would be down soon and she didn’t relish making the long and somewhat treacherous drive down the mountain in the dark. She gave him a crooked smile in defeat. “Fine. You win. At least for now.” She jerked a thumb towards the front door. “Let me grab my clothes and purse.”
At his nod, she hurried out the door into the fading light. Seeing his cane still lying on the ground, she grabbed that up as well and headed back inside.
Dropping her things by the couch she held up the cane. “Even your cane went casual?”
“Give me that,” he said in exasperation. “I do wear other things besides white, you know.”
She gave him a look over arched brows as he took the cane from her, but he just shook his head in feigned despair.
“If you are done mocking me,” he said while gesturing to the grocery bags, “why don’t we put this stuff away.”
Grinning at him, she went to grab one of the bags and took it into String’s small kitchen. The first bag was emptied mostly in silence, with Caitlin directing on which key items to leave out on the counter. But as she started putting away the refrigerated items, Michael asked the question she’d been hoping to avoid.
“Why are you here, Caitlin?”
Seeking a deflection, she shrugged. “Dom was going to visit his niece and String” – her face twisted and she swallowed down the taste of bitter disappointment – “String went to Cancun with Sandy or Bambi or whatever her name is this week. So the place was free. I thought the peace and quiet sounded appealing.”
She’d done her best to hide her attraction to Hawke, but she knew that she’d made more than a few slip ups over the years. Michael was the consummate spy, his ability to read situations and people honed to a fine art. She’d always figured that to him, she was an easily read open book. She’d gotten over the faint sense of embarrassment that brought her a long time ago. So she was pleased, but not the least bit surprised, when Michael didn’t look at her with any pity, but simply nodded in understanding.
“So why aren’t you down in San Antonio with your family?”
“How did you . . .” She let out a little huff of laughter. “Nevermind. Stupid question.” She reached for the last bag, pulling items out and setting them on the counter to avoid his too perceptive gaze.
Michael wasn’t having any of it. “Caitlin?”
She stopped, her hand grasping the loaf of bread. “I don’t suppose you’d let me ignore your question?”
He shook his head. “I don’t like seeing my people unhappy. Can I help?”
Her lips turned up in a smile, she gave him a pointed look. “Your people? Just because you know I can fly Airwolf now doesn’t make me one of your people. Not to mention I look horrible in white.”
“Cait, you became one of my people – and under my protection – the moment Dom hired you. Even if you’d never seen Airwolf or got involved with her, you’d still be one of mine.” His eyes caught hers as he repeated his earlier question. “Can I help?”
“Not unless you want to marry me, give me two point five children and a dog, and keep me in a style I could quickly grow accustomed to.”
Her laugh was genuine as she took in Michael stunned, and somewhat apprehensive, expression. “I’m just kidding,” she said before giving a one shouldered shrug. “Well, mostly kidding. My mother thought I was crazy when I left everything to track Hawke back to California.” She focused on putting away the rest of the groceries. “She couldn’t understand why I needed to do it. And she understands even less why I’ve stayed.”
“You can’t exactly explain Airwolf.”
“No, I can’t. And I can’t explain Hawke or Dom either. At least, not in a way that makes sense to her.” She sighed, frustration evident in the hiss of sound. “Add in an older brother and sister, both of whom are married with kids, and a younger sister who’s in the midst of planning her wedding right now and I just couldn’t do it. The thought of going back . . .” A delicate shudder shook her frame. “I couldn’t take the questions about my job and the lack of a love life and my history of picking the wrong man every damn time.”
Needing something to do with her hands, she pulled the stock pot out that she’d brought along. Her original plan had been to make a simple beef vegetable soup for her first night here, something that could be made easily and would provide lunch the following day. Feeding Michael would cut down on the leftovers but she’d brought plenty of food.
Pulling out the carrots and the potatoes she set them on the counter and began hunting through String’s cabinets for a cutting board and a kitchen knife. She noticed Michael watching her with interest.
“Can I do anything?”
Finally spotting the cutting board, she pulled it out of the cabinet. “Sure. If you can wash and cut those up into bite sized pieces that would be a help. I was just planning on making a simple soup.”
“I should be able to handle that.”
They fell into silence as Michael chopped up vegetables and Cait started to work searing the beef chunks that would go into the soup.
“So what about you?”
There was something just a tiny bit too bland about his expression for Caitlin to buy his evasion. “Oh, no. I shared. It’s your turn. Why are you here?”
Michael concentrated on his chopping. “Like you, I felt I needed a small bit of peace and quiet. Staying at home would have put me to close to Knightsbridge and I would have been called in for some half-assed emergency or another.”
She fought to hide a grin at hearing him swear. “And if it isn’t ‘half-assed’?”
“They know where I am and I have the sat phone.”
Deeming the beef done, she added a combination of beef and vegetable broth and stewed tomatoes before sweeping the cut up vegetables into the pot. “So why not go somewhere?” Although what she really wanted to ask was why not go somewhere with someone.
Again that tiny shrug. “To much trouble.”
There was something else there that he wasn’t saying, but Michael’s life revolved around secrets and evasions and Caitlin decided to let it be. If he had no family, she didn’t want to poke too deeply.
His part of the cooking done, Michael pulled one of the bar stools around so that he could sit at the edge of the small kitchen, watch Caitlin and still remain out of the way. She was now rummaging through String’s small pantry, muttering to herself about the man’s lack of any domestic skills.
Given her directions to him earlier and her actions now, Michael was a little confused given what he’d been told by both String and Dom on several occasions.
Caitlin peered around the open cabinet door. “Yeah?”
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for the cinnamon. I know String has some. Somewhere. Because I left a small bottle up here for my hot chocolate.”
Maybe, he decided, Dom and String hadn’t been wrong about their warnings.
Again, she peered around the door. “Can you keep a secret?” Both her voice and her expression were decidedly serious.
“Big secret or a small secret?”
Her eyes twinkled in amusement. “Oh, a big secret. Top Level. Eyes only kind of stuff.”
Now it was his turn to be amused. “I think I can be trusted.”
She hesitated for just a split second longer. “I can cook. I’ve been cooking since I was six or seven. And a tiny pinch of cinnamon brings out the tomato flavor in the soup.”
He frowned. “Then why do Dom and String-”
“Think I’m a horrible cook? Probably because I made them think that.”
He made a “go ahead” gesture. “So, you lied about being able to cook?”
She swung the cabinet door back and forth absently. “Not lied. More misdirected. I invited them over for dinner one evening. I may have salted the beans just a tad too much. The rolls got a little crispy. There was the hot sauce incident.”
Michael couldn’t help it and begin to laugh. “Why?”
“Because I learned early on that men expect women to cook. And when they realize that you can cook, then that‘s all you ever seem to do.” Finally swinging the door closed, she leaned one hip against the countertop so she could face him. “In college, I was the only woman enrolled in aviation classes. I was the only woman in my class at the Police Academy. I had enough trouble trying to convince men that I was good enough. I refused to be the one that was always tapped to handle the office potlucks or get the coffee or get the danishes.”
“Cait, sixty five percent of my operatives and staff are women. I’ve heard the complaints before. I understand.”
She blew out a breath. “It’s not so bad now, but sometimes Dom and String-” She shook her head. “Well, they both have some old-fashioned views sometimes, not to mention that annoying streak of over-protectiveness. It’s hard enough convincing them that I’m capable and strong and not the weak link on the team so I continued the charade.”
“Well, for my part, I heartily commend your deviousness and your secret is safe with me, especially since it is beginning to smell wonderful.”
She made a face at him. “You would.” Then she paused. “What a minute. They told you I couldn’t cook and yet you were in here helping me. If I was a horrible cook, what were you going to do?”
“Eat it, of course.”
She was staring at him in amazement. “You would wouldn’t you.”
“Cait, you were kind enough to cook. Your actual skill notwithstanding, I wouldn’t have refused to eat what you presented. Of course, I would have offered to prepare the next meal.” He grinned at her. “As the gentlemanly thing to do, of course.”
She chuckled. “You are devious.”
He inclined his head slightly. “It takes one to know one.” He was rewarded with a slight blush on Caitlin’s part as she turned back to stirring the soup, although he also caught the pleased smile she tried to hide. “I have been meaning to ask – you came up here thinking you were going to be alone and you brought enough food to feed an army. Why?”
“I cook to relax. I always have, but I don’t get to do it very often. So I figured I’d take this opportunity and do something I enjoy.”
“This is excellent.”
They were both sitting at the bar. Caitlin had made cornbread to go with the soup. Smeared with butter, moist and crumbly, it was the perfect complement to the soup.
Caitlin flushed in pleasure. “Thank you.”
“You are very welcome. So, I’ve been thinking. Why don’t you stay?”
Her head snapped up, eyes wide. “I couldn’t.”
“Michael, you came up here to be alone and for some peace and quiet. I’ve intruded enough on you. I can leave in the morning.”
“Caitlin, I did come for some peace and quiet. But I also came up here to escape being Archangel for a while. You call me Michael. You don’t call me Sir. You haven’t questioned my loyalty, my allegiance, or my sanity.” He grinned at her, blue eye twinkling in mischief. “Besides, no man in his right mind would turn down the company of a beautiful woman, much less a beautiful woman whose plans for the week included cooking a veritable feast.”
“Oh, now you’re just being ridiculous. I know perfectly well how Dom and String carry on about my disturbing their manly quiet time.”
He shook his head in exasperation. “Sometimes, I do not understand those two. Stay. Your company is welcome.”
Her expression was a mixture of doubt and hope. “Are you sure? I promise I’ll try to stay out of your way.”
“It’s five days, Caitlin. I think we’ll get along just fine.”
The full-blown smile he received was one that he’d only ever seen turned on Dom or Hawke.
“Now that that is settled, I’ll start the cleanup.”
“Oh, you don’t have to.” She glanced over towards the stone fireplace. “Why don’t I clean up, it’s really not that much anyway, and maybe you could steal one of Hawke’s bottles of wine and start a fire?”
Michael’s choice of wine, combined with the warmth of the fire and her book, soon had Cait drowsing on one end of the couch.
“If you’ll give me a few minutes I can get my things from upstairs and you can have the bed.”
She blinked sleepily at him a few times before his words sunk him. “I am not taking the bed from you.”
“No.” Sitting up straight she stretched and yawned. “You were here first, Michael. I’m the interloper. It’s bad enough that I’ve intruded on your solitude. I’m not taking your bed as well.” She patted the couch cushion. ”Besides, it’s not the first time I’ve slept on this couch. Probably won’t be the last.”
“You are sure?”
“Positive. I know where Hawke keeps the extra linens and pillows. I’ll be fine if you want to go on to bed.”
He nodded. “Very well.” Using his cane, he leveraged himself upwards.
She watched him, sinking slightly back into her dozing state as he re-corked the half-emptied bottle of wine and then set about banking the fire. Her thoughts muzzy and more fanciful than her normally practical nature allowed, she noted just how gracefully and quietly he moved, even with the limp.
It occurred to her that there was power there, more so than his somewhat dandified white suits hinted at. Misdirection. Camouflage. She wondered when he’d started wearing white and why. She was slightly amused as he offered Tet a chance to go out, which the hound refused, before he circled the inside perimeter of the cabin checking the locks on the windows and door. Although, she supposed she couldn’t blame him. Spies didn’t get to be old spies unless that they were cautious, and from what Caitlin had been able gather, Michael had been in The Game for a long time.
His rounds done, he bid her goodnight and disappeared up the stairs.
Caitlin woke to a cold nose being pressed against her cheek. “Ah, Tet.”
At the sound of his name, Tet woofed before trying to insinuate his big nose further into the cocooned warmth of her blankets. Grumbling, she pushed the dog away before sitting up and yawning. Seeing that she was up, Tet happily sat back, tail swishing against the wood floor.
“You want out?”
A whine answered her.
“Great, now I’m talking to the dog,” Cait mumbled as she headed towards the door. She opened it just far enough to let Tet out, shivering as the early morning November air swirled in around her bare legs. It was still dark outside, but she could just see the sky beginning to lighten in the east. She figured that it was probably around six in the morning. Knowing that she was well and truly up now, she headed back to the couch and began folding up the blankets and sheets she’d used to make up the couch. Task complete, she headed towards the small half bath, trying to be as quiet as possible.
She was surprised to see a rumpled looking Michael, dressed in sweat pants and a cotton t-shirt, coming down the stairs as she exited the small bathroom. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you up. I was trying to be quiet.”
He waved her off. “I’m a light sleeper and to tell you the truth, this is sleeping in late for me. I’m typically pulling into Knightsbridge right about now.”
She sent him a sympathetic smile. “I suppose defending the fate of the free world can’t wait until a decent hour.”
Caitlin headed towards the kitchen to make breakfast, giving him a “shoo-ing” gesture when he offered to help. At odds with what to do with himself until breakfast was ready he wandered over to the bookcase holding String’s eclectic choices in reading material. Scanning the titles, nothing really leapt out at him.
Turning, he spotted the book that Caitlin had been reading the night before sitting on the table next to the sofa. From this angle he could just see lurid splashes of pinks and purples across the dust jacket. Curious, he went to pick up the book and almost laughed out loud. It was a romance novel entitled “My Lord Pirate,” the pink and purple he’d seen across the room, the lady’s somewhat disheveled and artfully rumpled dress. This was not what he’d have expected of Caitlin to be reading, but then again, she was on vacation.
Tossing the book down on the couch, he frowned when the paper cover shifted, revealing another cover beneath the first. Curiosity, spurred on by old spy instincts, had him reaching for the book again. He slid the first cover completely off to reveal what he realized was the real book underneath – “Fighter Combat: Tactics and Maneuvering.”
“Breakfast is ready,” Caitlin called from the kitchen.
He headed towards the bar where Cait was busy dishing out the food into two plates. As he sat down, he placed the book between their plates. Caitlin stilled, pan of eggs hovering over her plate. With a small sigh, she finished scooping out the eggs before disappearing back into the kitchen. When she took the seat next to him, she was careful not to look at him.
He was puzzled by her behavior, almost as much by why she was trying to hide the book she was reading. “Cait, you haven’t done anything wrong.”
She made a noise. “Of course, I haven’t. I just didn’t want to get teased by you too.”
He took a bite, savoring the creaminess of the perfectly cooked eggs. “These are excellent. And what do you mean teased?”
She murmured a quiet “Thanks” before she stabbed at her own eggs but didn’t take a bite. “I’m a good pilot.”
“You’re an excellent pilot. Caitlin, the Firm went through some sixty different test pilots in the Airwolf simulator training. They were considered to be the best of the best. We pulled pilots from every branch of the Service including six civilian pilots. All but five of them failed in the end. You didn’t.”
She shrugged slightly, but tilted her head up to give me a shy smile. “Thank you for saying that.”
“Not just saying, Caitlin.”
She nodded but he didn’t think she really believed. “I can tell you why those pilots failed.”
“What?” That startled him. When pilot after pilot has washed out of the program, Michael had set the engineers and scientists to trying to discover what the problem was so they could fix it. In the end, all anyone had been able to say was that it was hard to fly Airwolf, an analysis that had never sat particularly well with him.
“Pilots – we’re all a bit picky. We tend to fall for particular types of aircraft, either fixed wing or rotary. And it’s easier for a rotary pilot to learn fixed wing than it is the other way around. But the Lady, because of her design, she flies like both, oftentimes at the same time. Flying her is . . . well, I guess you could say she’s a very technical fly. It’s exhilarating, but also tiring holding that focus for long.”
Michael thought about that, turning over some of the more spectacular simulator failures during the early Airwolf days. “So as a pilot, if you overcompensate for one flying skill-“
“The Lady, she doesn’t like that. You have to balance and keep your touch light.”
“That makes a lot of sense and explains a few things I’ve always wondered about.” He reached over and tapped the book between them. “That doesn’t explain this.”
“It kind of does. I’m a good pilot and I can fly Airwolf, but sometimes in certain situations, it gets brought up that I’m not a combat pilot so I can’t fly her to the best of her abilities. Both Dom and String were combat pilots. I’m not trying to take that away from them or belittle what they’ve done, but anything could happen. I need to be better and I need to be prepared. Just in case.”
“Caitlin, that’s commendable.” Then he remembered her remark about teasing. “Dom or Hawke saw you reading this and gave you a hard time.”
She nodded. “Not that particular book, but another one. “Fighter Pilot Tactics. I enjoyed that one. I thought it had some good information and I tried to start a conversation with String about some of the information. I wanted to check it against his knowledge since the book was focused on planes rather than helicopters.”
Michael had a feeling he knew exactly how that conversation had gone. “He shut you down.”
She nodded, a bit glumly. “I could understand if he didn’t want to talk about his experiences. I know that a lot of his memories of Vietnam are painful for him. I get that. But-”
“Basically, he told me to quit wasting my time and then he stalked off and didn’t talk to me beyond grunts for two days. Dom caught the tail end of the conversation and tried to turn it all into a joke. I know he didn’t mean anything from it, he was just trying to jolly String out his mood. But after that, I started putting the romance covers on the books I was reading.”
“Books. What else have you been dipping into?”
“History of Aviation. Geo-political history. A lot of war novels – first person accounts and things like that.”
Michael pushed his now empty plate away. “I’m so sorry, Caitlin. It would seem as if I’ve failed you.”
That startled her. “What are you talking about? You haven’t failed me.”
“I have. I knew you were flying Airwolf and made the assumption that Hawke was training you.”
“He has been training me.”
He shook his head. “Yes, how to fly her. But not to the best of your or her capacity.” He brought his hand up and brushed a finger against his mustache, the habit an old one as he thought through the orders and authorizations he’d have to set in motion. “Do you think you can be free on Sunday evenings for a couple of hours?”
“Suurre.” She drew the word out in obvious puzzlement. “Why?”
“Because Hawke might have Airwolf, but I have the training simulator. Obviously it won’t replace the real thing, but it will supplement your skills.” He tapped the book again. “It will also give you a safe environment to test out some of the knowledge you’ve been learning from these books.”
Again, he was gifted with that wide, delighted smile. “I’d like that, thank you.”
After breakfast, Michael gave Caitlin first shot at the bathroom upstairs as he cleaned up the kitchen. As he’d pointed out to her, if she was going to continue to feed him, the least he could do is clean up any resulting mess. Not, he’d discovered that it was any trying task. She was a remarkably neat cook, unlike himself who always seemed to create havoc in the kitchen whenever he got the urge the make his own meals.
It didn’t take long for either clean up or her shower and she soon joined him back in the main room. “The bathroom is all yours.”
Nodding his thanks, he headed up the stairs.
As Michael went upstairs, Caitlin pulled out the old worn notebook she kept for recipes. Flipping through the pages, she contemplated what she was going to make based on the food she’d brought with her and the things already in String’s cabinets. She’d had a rough of idea of her weekly menu but now with Michael here, some of her menu plans needed to be adjusted. It was nice having an appreciative audience for her cooking skills. The fact that he didn’t equate her skill with cooking as being just because she was a woman, made it all the more enjoyable and she admitted, if only to herself, she wanted to impress him just a little bit.
Hearing the water cut on, she looked up towards the loft, contemplating her new roommate. Michael had always been a bit of a mystery to her and slightly intimidating. He was undeniably handsome with an easy charisma and authority that made people follow his orders. He commanded respect not by fear but by being a natural leader. That was simple enough to see in the absolute loyalty that his people held for him.
He was also, as she’d learned, exceedingly intelligent, devious, and dangerous. She’d never got the full history on the relationship between String and Michael, but she often had the feeling that it went back further than just Airwolf. She was curious, but it was a history she was loath to poke her nose into. Dom respected String’s privacy too much to tell her anything and that history was too close to St John to get anything out of String. And she didn’t have the kind of relationship with Michael that could allow her to ask him.
But that brought her thoughts back to the spymaster. Michael – Archangel – was simply too powerful an individual to put up with some of the things that both Dom and String pulled, regardless of their hold on the Lady. She wondered why he let them get away with it. She always had the impression that if he’d wanted it, Michael could have taken the helicopter at any time. But he didn’t. He didn’t take the helicopter, he put up with Dom’s cheesy jokes and insults and he, more often than not, shrugged off String’s tempers and moods. All of which made the man fascinating to watch when he interacted with Dom and String.
And now, she was about to spend the next few days with him in a relatively small cabin. Not that she thought he would be less than the perfect gentleman, but she wondered about his reasons for wanting to get away. What had he said the previous day? He’d wanted to get away from being Archangel. She wondered if there was anything she could do to help him. If he considered her “one of his people”, could she in turn claim him as a friend?
They’d finished both dinner and dessert, a double chocolate torte that to her amusement had Michael licking the back of his fork and sighing in something approaching bliss.
After a day of doing nothing, which she decided agreed with her, Caitlin found herself ensconced on one end of the couch again with Michael at the other. They’d decided to break into String’s liquor cabinet rather than the wine, which was how she’d found herself two whisky sours into one of the strangest conversations she’d ever thought she’d be having with Archangel. She totally blamed the booze.
“Hawke needs someone to rail again. It helps to keep him grounded and focused. It’s both a strength and weakness for him.
“A fatal flaw, if you will. You’re the windmill to his Don Quixote.”
He took a sip of his drink. “Yes.”
“Don’t you mind?”
He tilted his head back against the cushion, exposing the long line of his throat. Caitlin swallowed at the sight of tanned skin gilded with gold from the firelight. The booze. Definitely the booze.
“It is tiring sometimes.” He took another sip and let out a soft chuckle. “Although, I do admit that I enjoy the verbal sparring with him.” Cocking his head to the side, he contemplated her. “So, if Hawke’s fatal flaw is his need to fight everything, what is your fatal flaw?”
She laughed. “That’s easy. I love the wrong men. No,” she corrected, after another sip. “I fall for men who can’t love me back.”
Michael winced. “I hardly think that evil men using you for their own agenda qualifies.” He hesitated and then plowed on ahead. “And Hawke is-”
She cut him off before he could finish. “They all fit the pattern.” She sighed. “Even Hawke. Regardless of how I feel about him, I can’t make him love me when he’s determined to run away as fast as he can. I like to think I’ve come to terms with that. It hurts, but it’s not going to break me. Even if there is never anything more, String’s friendship and trust is something I wouldn’t want to ever give up.”
There was nothing Michael could say to that as it was the truth.
Caitlin broke the silence. “So if I fall for the wrong men, what is your fatal flaw?”
“I-“ he paused.
“Oh,” she exclaimed. “If it’s something secret, it’s okay. You don’t have to say anything. That was probably a really rude question to ask someone in your line of work.”
Michael surprised her by laughing. She rather thought it was a nice laugh and decided he ought to do it more often.
“Actually, that’s exactly the problem. I have been Archangel so long that no one remembers Michael. And sometimes, the need to be just Michael gets the better of me.”
“East Germany,” she said quietly.
“East Germany,” he agreed.
He laughed again, though this time it held little mirth. “Maybe that’s another reason I put up with Hawke and Santini. Because really, the person who treats me the least like Archangel is actually Dominic, of all people.” He glanced at her with a curious expression on his face. “And you.”
“You are a curious mix – but for the most part you seem to have little regard for my . . . shadier aspects. You take them in stride.”
She ducked her head, flushing a bit. “You mean I don’t treat you like you’re evil the way Dom and String sometimes do.”
He shrugged. “They have cause.”
She shook her head. “No, they don’t. They ask you to use your resources and then look at you in contempt when you do.”
His expression turned serious. “Don’t mistake me for one of the good guys, Cait, regardless of all the white.”
She tilted her head to the side, giving him a long glance. “Maybe not good, but not bad either. Someone in-between, I think.” She grinned at him, trying to lift the mood. “But you’d look terrible in gray.”
He graced her with a ghost of a smile before getting up and refreshing their drinks.
It was the third whisky sour that did it, and she’d swear to that until her dying day. It wasn’t that she was drunk, but the alcohol combined with the warmth of the fire and the intimate nature of their conversation made her bold in ways she’d never have been without the drink.
He raised a brow in question when Caitlin set aside her half-finished glass and rose up onto her knees. Nothing prepared him for the shock though when she reached for him, tracing her fingertips across his cheekbone under the darkened lens of his glasses. “What if we were each other’s fatal flaw?”
He jerked slightly at her touch and words. No one had touched him since Airwolf had left him scarred.
Caitlin misinterpreted his actions, flushing a dull red. “I’m sorry. That was inappropriate.”
She made to sit back from him, but Michael caught her arm. “No, I’m sorry. That wasn’t a rejection. I was just surprised.” He looked away for a moment before meeting her gaze. “Women, in general, tend to be fascinated by my injuries but they don’t reach out to touch.”
As she absorbed the meaning behind the words, Michael hurried on. “What did you mean ‘we could be each other’s fatal flaw’?”
When she colored again in embarrassment, his curiosity was definitely piqued.
“It’s nothing, really. Just a stupid idea. Forget I said anything.”
Michael realized he still had hold of her arm and drew her closer to him. “A unique idea maybe, but I don’t believe a stupid one. Tell me.”
Like he had done a moment earlier, she looked away to gather her courage before bringing her gaze almost defiantly up to his. “What if we were each other’s fatal flaw? For . . . for the rest of the holiday, Archangel ceases to exist and only Michael, the man, remains. And –“ she paused to take a deep breath before continuing – “And maybe you could pretend, just for the weekend, to be Mr. Right. With no ulterior motives or cursed histories to get in the way.”
The silence was heavy between them and Cait’s gaze finally dropped. “I told you it was a stupid idea,” she muttered softly.
Michael, with a lifetime of calculated risk and measured caution behind him, did the unthinkable and leapt without thinking of the vast, and potentially deadly, consequences of his actions. He caught Caitlin’s mouth with his own.
He wasn’t sure what he was expecting – for her to push him away with the realization that this was crazy, or maybe that the kiss would be awkward and dispassionate like kissing a friend. Whatever he’d been anticipating, it wasn’t the rush of desire through his veins as Caitlin moaned softly into the kiss, or her fingers tangling themselves in the front of his shirt in order to pull him closer to her.
He followed her down when she leaned backwards until they were both stretched out on the couch, Caitlin pinned beneath his weight.
It was only long minutes later when Caitlin rocked her hips upwards to grind against his erection – God, he was hard already – that common sense returned. He pulled back enough to look down at her. The sight – eyes glazed, lips pink and swollen from his kisses, and a light flush staining her skin – almost sent him tumbling back into desire.
“Caitlin?” He waited as her eyes focused on him. He didn’t ask the questions, but they were there – Are you sure? Is this what you really want? Are you going to regret this?”
One hand reached up and traced his cheek again. This time he didn’t shy away.
“My part is easy,” she said, answering all those unvoiced questions. “You’ve always been more Michael than Archangel to me. You have the tough job. You have to pretend. Are you sure?”
He kissed her again, soft and sweet. “Caitlin O’Shannessy, pretending will not be a problem.”
She smiled up at him, before raising her hips again to a slow sensuous slide. “Take me to bed?”
He groaned. “Only Hawke’s is available.”
She gave him wicked grin. “We won’t tell him.”
“Oh, we won’t be telling Hawke a lot of things, especially if I don’t want to be skinned alive.”
He shifted backwards, almost immediately missing her warmth. Holding out a hand, he pulled her up from the couch, where he led her upstairs to the loft bedroom. Beside the bed, when Caitlin reached for him, he caught her hands.
At her puzzled expression he raised one of her hands and placed a soft kiss along the inside of her wrist. “My injuries-“
She stopped the rest of his explanation with a brief kiss. Pulling away from him, she went over to the window and very deliberately drew the curtains until they were almost completely shut before turning off the light. The sliver of moonlight shining in between the curtains, combined with the glow from the dying fire below, gave just enough light for Michael to make out Caitlin’s form. They both could still see but details had been blurred out by shadows.
As she stepped in close to him, he felt the knot of tension in his stomach unravel. If they continued this he knew that she’d see him eventually, but just by the simple act of turning out the lights, she’d given him a gift. He thought in that moment, that agreement or not, any man who threw away this woman’s regard was an idiot.
He skimmed her face with his fingertips, mapping what his eye could barely see, before leaning down to brush his lips against hers. When her mouth opened, he took that small invitation and deepened the kiss.
She’d asked him to be her Mr. Right. He wanted this to be slow lovemaking but like before, her kiss – the taste of her – overwhelmed him. Before he knew it, the kiss had turned hungry and demanding. Pulling back just enough, he rested his forehead against hers. As they both took deep breaths of air, he realized that his hands, cupped around the back of her head, both held her steady and held her captive. And even noticing, he couldn’t seem to make his fingers let her go.
“My apologies, Caitlin. I’m not usually so uncontrolled. My only excuse is that it’s been a while. Since-”
“No apologies.” She went up on her toes, hands curled against his shoulders as she gently nibbling along his jawline. “It feels good to be wanted for nothing more than being me.” She continued, now biting gently against the side of his neck. “This isn’t about Archangel’s fabled control and calculated decisions. This is about you and what Michael wants.”
He groaned. “This is also about you.”
“Do you hear me complaining?”
Then in a burst of that unaccustomed spontaneity she seemed to bring out in him, he swept her up, laughing at her startled shriek of protest. “What is it, Caitlin O’Shannessy about you, that makes me impulsive?” Even as he said the words, he realized that it was true. He’d allowed her to join the Airwolf crew, had stayed with her when that bomb had been strapped to her, he’s flown with Hawke during the siege. There were other little things he was beginning to realize – small accommodations, jokes and explanations that he’d made towards her and for her since she’d joined with Hawke and Santini.
He jumped as she bit down on his earlobe. “Stop that,” she said. “You’re thinking too hard.” Her own arms twined around his neck as she used her new height and position to good advantage.
Sliding her down his body, he reveled in the feel of her soft body against his own and decided that she was right. He’d worry about his own motivations later. “I promise, no more deep thoughts.”
Shifting her slightly, he kissed her again, his tongue sliding playfully against hers as each sought to take control of the kiss. In the end, he conceded victory to Caitlin, but it was a sweet surrender.
She reached up to him but he caught her hands in his bringing them back to her sides. “Let me, Caitlin.” She nodded slowly, her eyes fixed on his face. Tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear, he traced the curve of her cheek and down her neck until his hand hovered over the first button of the shirt she wore. With a twist of his wrist, he slipped it free. Part of him wanted to tease and tantalize but even as he slipped the second and third buttons free, he realized that he wasn’t going to have the patience for that.
He could feel her heart pounding, her quick breaths making the edges of the partially undone shirt rise and fall. He stopped and fingered a button, rubbing it gently between his thumb and forefinger, knowing that she was watching his every move as he gently twisted the small piece of plastic. He almost smiled when she let out a held breath when he finally freed the button.
He paused, leaving the last button for a moment to trail the back of two fingers up the exposed swath of flesh revealed by the undone shirt. When he reached her collarbone, he reversed direction. “So very beautiful. Last chance, Caitlin. We can still pretend this hasn’t happened. That I’m not going to lay you back on that bed and make love to you.”
He could feel her trembling beneath his touch.
He chuckled, low and soft. “I like the sound of my name on your lips.” He lowered his hand to the last remaining button. “So very few people say my name anymore.” With his words, he slipped the button free.
He slid his hands across the delicate bones of her shoulders and down her arms, taking the shirt with him. She lifted her hands to his shirt, but he once again caught her. Bringing them to his lips he kissed each knuckle then turned her hands over to place a kiss against each wrist. He could feel the tension in her beneath his lips. Hiding his grin, he decided it was time to speed things up.
Pacing around her, he trailed a finger across her skin, watching the goosebumps following in the wake of his touch. He circled her once, feeling very much the calculating predator he knew he could be. God, he knew he shouldn’t be doing this but she was such a delightful mix of strength and innocence, even after everything she’d seen and done. He couldn’t explain it beyond the idea that Caitlin was good, in ways that he hadn’t been in a very long time. He didn’t deserve this young woman in front of him. Her kind had always been beyond his reach. Yet, here she was, the fire burning in her kindled by his presence, stoked by his touch. There was a part of him that couldn’t believe his luck . . or his sanity.
“You’re thinking, again.”
He stopped his circling to stand behind her, nipping at the place where her neck met her shoulder. “Stop that. You are going to make me think you can read my mind.”
She squirmed at his bite. “Can’t help it that you think so loudly,” she said, laughter in her voice.
“Well, maybe we need something to distraction us both.” Smoothing his thumbs along her spine, he watched her arch into his touch like a cat, lithe and sensuous. “I’ll try to do better.” Moving up her back, he released the catch of her bra and slid the straps off her shoulders so it could join the shirt at her feet.
Leaning forward, he placed a kiss on each shoulder while his hands explored the expanse of her back from her sharp shoulder blades down her spine to where the waist of her jeans stopped his touch. Reaching around her waist, the zipper proved little hindrance. His hands slowly exposed the swell of her ass to his seeking gaze as he pushed both jeans and panties down past her hips where she kicked them aside.
She tried to turn then, but he stopped her. “No, don’t turn around.”
“I can’t touch you.”
He could hear the want in her voice and it only served to up his own desire. Brushing her hair to the side, he planted a kiss behind her ear, lingering on that spot when she sucked in a sharp intake of air. “I know.” His voice was dark and smoky as he continued. “You can’t see me. You can’t touch me. But I can see you, touch you, pleasure you.”
She gasped softly at his words. “Michael . . . “ Her voice trembled.
“Ah, there’s my name again,” he whispered against her skin. “Trust me.”
A heartbeat in time, then two, and he felt her relax against him, giving him her trust. Moving slowly, so as not to startle her, he slid his arms around her waist. Tracing her ribs with just his fingertips he felt her relax even further with a soft sigh. Only then did he move his fingers up, brushing the soft underside of her breasts, teasing her with his touch.
“Like the finest silk,” he murmured against her shoulder.
She made an inarticulate noise at his touch, somewhere between a gasp and a groan. Michael thrilled to that sound -- a primitive part of him delighting in the knowledge that he’d done that to her.
Reaching higher, he pulled her closer so that she fit tightly between his legs, his erection resting snug against her backside. His hands traced lazy circles across her breasts, causing her to arch into his touch seeking more of the pleasure he could give her. He tormented her with his nearness to her nipples but never quite got close enough to the straining tips.
She arched her back again, thrusting into his hands while he teased and tantalized her. He chuckled when she growled softly in frustration. Sliding one hand over, he finally closed his fingers around one rosy tip, rolling it between thumb and forefinger, tugging gently. The other hand traveled downward, writing his name across the soft skin of her stomach only to dip lower to brush through reddish-blonde hair.
He felt her tense as he moved down her body, a subtle tightening that had little to do with his ministrations and a lot, he surmised, with the fears of the past. “Relax, Caitlin,” he said. “You don’t have to hold back. Let me love you.”
He felt her belly expand beneath his hand as she drew in a deep breath before blowing it out in an aggrieved sigh. “Sorry.”
He licked a path up the back of her neck to set her to squirming. “Nothing to be sorry about.” He raised his head, to whisper against her skin. “I’m not any of the others. I’m not going to hurt you.”
He barely saw her nod, but he felt her body relax again by slow degrees. “There we go,” he crooned, dipping down against her skin again.
Three years. Three years since he’d taken a woman to his bed. His injuries, the job, bad timing, he could point to any and all of them as reasons for his abstinence. He also knew that breaking that long span of years with Caitlin was asking for trouble but he found he couldn’t care as Caitlin sucked in a sharp breath as he stoked and circled her with the same rhythm that the fingers on her breast followed. While his fingers played upon her body he laved the skin of her shoulder and neck with his tongue. It didn’t take long before her gasps for air increased to steady pants. He could feel her body tensing. The moisture beneath his stroking fingers grew heavier as the pleasure built within her. Her hands tight around his forearms, she braced herself within his arms until he was the only thing holding her up.
The fine trembling of her body became violent tremors as the leading edge of her orgasm consumed her. Only then did he push the fingers he’d teased her with into her body. Using the pad of his thumb, he pressed hard and carried her through the waves of pleasure until she sank down heavily into his arms.
Her head rested back against his shoulder as she fought to catch her breath. Turning her around, he once more claimed her lips, stealing what breath she’d been able to get back before he lay her down against the pillows. He brushed her hair back from her flushed face before he stepped away.
Backing up, he moved until he stood at the foot of the bed, his gaze on her body as she lay sprawled across the bed. She looked like a woman well pleasured. Then she opened passion-glazed eyes and held out her arms to him in unmistakable welcome as her gaze raked his body.
“I want to touch you now.”
He gave her a wolf’s grin -- all teeth and dark promise. He stripped for her then, the shadows giving him courage. Slow removal of his sweater revealing more skin to her hungry gaze until he pulled it over his head and sent it to join her clothes. He removed his glasses, tossing them in the direction of his overnight bag, not particularly caring if they landed safely or not. He bent to remove his shoes and socks only to straighten to find Caitlin kneeling on the edge of her bed, directly in front of him. He moaned as her hot hands ran up his chest.
“I told you I wanted to touch you, if I couldn’t see you.” There was a note of sensual playfulness in her voice that sent a surge of electricity straight through him. She brushed her thumbs over his nipples until the small nubs stood erect. Only then did she move to trace the muscles of his chest and shoulders with her fingers. He threw back his head at the sensation and was caught unaware when her hot mouth replaced her questing fingers.
She chuckled against him and bit down, her teeth scraping the skin over his heart.
She stroked him through the cloth of his pants. The sound she made almost a purr to Michael’s ears. Then deft fingers were releasing zipper and buttons. Pants and boxers were replaced by warm hands that cradled him gently. He kicked both pants and boxers free. Throwing open his arms in invitation, he challenged her, curious as to what she would do. ‘I believe you wanted to touch me.”
A low hum was his answer as she shifted her grip on him, moving her thumb up to caress the tip of him in a gentle circular motion. “So, I did.”
Those words, combined with her touch, sent another jolt through him and he thrust his hips forward. She hummed that throaty purr again at his involuntary movements. Whether from amusement or satisfaction, he couldn’t tell.
Trailing the fingers of one hand down his cock, she stroked him. His movements and soft moans encouraged her. On her next stroke, the pressure was a little harder.
The words were all she needed as she grasped his entire length. Sheathing him in one hand and massaging gently she rubbed the palm of her other hand around the tip as her mouth continued to move across his chest. He shuddered at the sensation, feeling his control weakening. It had definitely been too long. Grasping her hands, he stopped her. The pout she sent in his direction made him feel as if he’d taken away a favorite toy.
Bending, he placed a kiss on those pouting lips. “No more of that, Caitlin. There are so many other things I want to do to you.”
Hands on her shoulders, he forced her back, climbing up on the bed to stalk her movements until he sank between her open thighs. He bent to latch onto one upturned nipple, the feel of his mouth pulling a deep groan from her. He decided that he liked that sound and worked for a few minutes to pull it from her again.
Her hands were beginning to move over him restlessly, pulling him towards her, while the sounds she was making begged for what only he could give her. He lifted himself up to position himself. She was hot and wet and he thought she’d incinerate him. And he didn’t care. Capturing her lips in a fierce kiss he drove into her as Caitlin moaned against his mouth. He was now sheathed to the hilt in her body. A low growl of satisfaction rolled through him. He’d never in his wildest thoughts imagined that sweet Caitlin would feel this good.
They stayed like that for a few moments until she moved beneath him. Drawing one of her legs up, he nestled it above his hip, allowing him greater access to her body. He began to move within her with small, shallow strokes that sent her arching helplessly against him.
Her arms tightened around his shoulders. “Faster,” she breathed.
Michael groaned. “Caitlin. . .”
“Faster,” she repeated.
So Michael gave her faster. His head bent as he thrust into her. Caitlin matched him move for move, so that his pubic bone ground into her clit with each hard thrust. She was gasping his name out now with every lunge into her body. God, he loved that sound.
“My name, Caitlin. My name.”
“Oh God. . . Michael!”
She shuddered around him, her contractions clamping down on his cock until he shut his eyes in an effort to control the pleasure. She clung to him while her body shivered in the aftershocks, his steady thrusts prolonging her enjoyment.
His own release was coming. He could feel the building tension even as he fought to control his body. His face buried against the curve of her shoulder, he shut his eyes tight against the pounding need. He was so close that shudders wracked his body but he refused that sweet release. Then like two burning brands that scorched his skin, he felt her blunt nails scrape down his back.
The sting set off the orgasm his body had been desperately straining for. With frantic thrusts he rocked her body beneath his. The shuddering of release left his body slowly. “You – ” He had no idea what he was going to say. You are amazing. You gave me more than I could have imagined. Or possibly, you are going to be the death of me.
She ran a thumb across his lips and smiled up at him – a Mona Lisa smile – mysterious, slightly distance, and with the secrets of the universe hidden behind its slight curve. “Me.”
He shook his head. Definitely the death of him.
Michael woke to sunlight slanting across his face, reflexively raising his hand to block out of the bright morning light coming through the open sliver between the curtains. When a shadow fell across his face, he chanced opening his eyes. Caitlin was propped up on one elbow beside him, partially blocking the sunlight.
Giving in to the urge of his body, he reached arms and legs in opposite directions, enjoying the stretch of muscle and tendon. It felt good. He felt good. In fact, he might even say better than good – warm, satiated and wholly satisfied in the way that only damn good sex and a good night’s sleep could provide.
He relaxed back onto the pillow, wondering about Caitlin’s intentions. It was obvious that she’d been watching him while he’d slept. He supposed that it should have bothered him, but she’d allowed him the darkness last night. He felt it was rather unfair to withhold the daylight now from her.
“Is there something I can do for you?” He made sure that his voice carried his amusement.
In response, Caitlin bit at her bottom lip, a slight blush working its way across her cheeks.
It was amazing what that hint of shy vulnerability did to him when she was normally so strong and confident.
“I wanted-“ Her hand raised toward the sheet that was draped across his ribs. “But you were asleep and you looked peaceful and I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“I’m not asleep now.”
“No, you’re not.” Her hand settled on the edge of sheet and swept it down his body. Her eyes though never left his face until the sheet was bunched up across his thighs. He watched her take in his body, her gaze starting with his clouded over eye and then tracing down along the web of scars that were concentrated along his left side. She reached out a tentative hand but paused to check his reaction first.
“It’s all right. I told you, I want you to touch.”
She held his gaze just a second longer as if to make sure he was really okay with it and then reached out to him.
She started at his temple, her thumb closing and smoothing across the fragile skin of his eyelid before skating across a scar high up on his cheekbone that the frames of his glasses normally hid. From there she moved to his shoulder, her warm fingertips brushing along his skin and mapping the finer tracery of lines that snaked down his forearm from where he’d thrown up his arm to instinctually ward off the flying glass of what had been RedStar’s giant viewing window.
Her touch was ticklish and her gaze, he noted, was curious but held no revulsion. In fact, if anything, she seemed almost admiring which confused him.
As her fingers rested against the back of his wrist she moved to sit up, her side of the sheet that had still been covering her naked form falling to her waist. She ignored it in favor of concentrating on him, now tracing the lines that branched across his ribs and chest. She frowned as her questing fingers circled around a dimpled pucker just under his ribs. “This one is older.”
“Bullet wound. Prague. A very long time ago.”
She nodded and continued her exploration, her fingers winding their way down before finally tracing the thick, jagged red one that wound across his hip bone and spiraled down to the back of his knee. “This is what causes the limp.”
“Not a pretty sight, is it?”
She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter.” Her hand, still resting against his hip moved inward. As lightly as she had stroked the scars, her fingertips caressed his cock from root to tip. “I have seen you walk and run and fight. You see the limitations. I see strength and perseverance.” She quirked a grin at him. “And probably sheer stubbornness too. The scars, the pain, they haven’t stopped you. Slowed you a little, maybe, but nothing more. I don’t think I ever realized just how strong you are.”
He closed his hand over her questing fingers, stilling them. “Thank you.”
His reward was a slow smile that set his blood to humming in his veins. It was different than the broad one she normally gave Dom or Hawke, the one she’d gifted him with when he’d told her stay. “Don’t thank me yet,” she murmured as she leaned forward, her lips going back to that first scar on his cheek to once again begin to trace the lines.
The second time Michael woke that morning, the sun had risen high enough that that it no longer slanted in through the loft window and he was alone in the bed. The clink of pans and the smell of bacon told him where Caitlin was and what she was doing.
Lying there, he let himself relax into the moment – the domestic sounds coming from below, the quiet contentment of his mind, and more importantly, the feeling of relaxation that suffused his whole body. He’d requested the use of Hawke’s cabin because he’d known he’d needed the break, not to mention the Firm’s shrinks had been hounding him about taking a real vacation.
Caitlin being here had been an unexpected surprise, but now was an equally unexpected pleasure and not just for the sex. He’d never really spent a lot of time with Caitlin. His knowledge of her came mostly from the initial background check his people had performed on her when she first showed up and from comments made by Santini and Hawke. He was discovering that those comments had created a somewhat skewed perception that didn’t quite match the reality of the woman. Not to mention his newfound realization that there was something about her that drew him out.
He shook his head. He wasn’t sure he was ready to think about that yet. For now, he’d enjoy his week and enjoy the young woman currently making breakfast for him. Sitting up he contemplated his day. Perhaps he’d go hiking and then wondered if Caitlin would like to join him. The day would be crisp and cold, but once they got moving, they would warm up quick enough.
Cocking his head, he listened to the sounds of Cait from below. There should be enough time for a quick shower and shave before breakfast was ready.
When he appeared around the bar, Caitlin glanced up, only to give him a second once over. “Brown today. You know, if Dom knew you actually owned this many colors, he’d be sorely disappointed in you.”
“What Dom doesn’t know,” he said, taking the opportunity to plant a small kiss on the back of her neck, “won’t annoy me later.”
She laughed at that and then turned back to the stove. “Hope you like French toast because it’s almost done.”
“That will be more than fine. The temperature’s dropping. We’re probably going to get some snow later today. But I thought I’d take a bit of a hike around the lake before it settles in. You up for joining me?”
“I’d love to.” She tilted her head toward the cabinet. “These are done. Grab us two plates?”
A few minutes later, they were both settled in at the bar. “So,” she asked suddenly, “what’s your favorite color?”
Caitlin grinned at him. “What’s your favorite color?”
“I would have thought that was obvious.”
She shook her head at him. “I don’t believe it. You have your reasons for all the white. I don’t doubt that. But those are Archangel’s reasons. What’s Michael’s favorite color?”
Then he understood. He’d asked to be Michael for the week and Caitlin was keeping up her part.
He must have hesitated to long, as she tried to give him an out. “Hey, it’s okay. You don’t have to-“
“Green.” The word came out sharper than he intended. Slightly embarrassed, he repeated the word, a little more softly this time. “Green. Dark green. The green of emeralds and the deepest parts of the woods, and forest pools.”
And there it was again, that smile of hers that said so much more than words. “Mine is green as well. But I like the other end of the spectrum. The color of new cut grass and frogs.”
He couldn’t help the huff of laughter. “Frogs?”
She gave him unrepentant shrug. “I was always a tomboy and there was a creek that ran through our property.”
Once breakfast was finished, dishes were cleaned and they had both changed into appropriate clothing, they headed outside. The hike was pleasant and just what he needed. Just enough of a challenge to stretch his leg, but nothing that was so difficult as to cause problems. Caitlin was more than happy to take the trail at his pace and seemed in no hurry. She’d also, Michael noticed, kept up a somewhat random stream of questions much like the one from this morning. Was he a fruit or a vegetable person? Dogs or cats? If you had to be trapped in the cabin for five days, which would you prefer – Dom or Hawke? That question kept them going for almost the entire hike as they debated the merits of each man, their respective prickly personalities, and determined the rules on whether anyone was armed.
The last question was asked as they came into view of the cabin once more.
“What was your favorite city that you’ve ever visited?”
Regardless of the bullet scar under his ribs, the answer was easy. “Prague.”
He noted as they climbed the steps that she didn’t ask the follow up question on what he’d been doing in that city or where the scar had come from.
It was enjoyable, he’d realized. Just being himself.
It was late afternoon on the fifth day when Caitlin raised her head from where it rested on his shoulder. Her head cocked to the side, she made a shooshing noise when he started to speak.
“That sounds like the Jet Ranger.”
Then he too caught the tell-tale sound of an approaching helicopter. “Hawke.”
“Probably. Good chance Dom is with him.”
He smoothed a hand down her naked back. “I guess that is our cue to get up and get dressed.”
As he went to sit up, she brushed a hand along his chest, halting him. “Before we go back to being ourselves, I- well, I mean . . . was it okay?”
He did sit up then, catching her mouth is a short, but fierce kiss. “You were nothing of what I imagined Caitlin O’Shannessy and everything I could have wanted. You more than fulfilled your end of our bargain.” Catching her hand, he brought her wrist to his lips. “And what about you? Were you satisfied?”
“I don’t think anyone has ever made me feel more beautiful or loved. Thank you.”
“You are very welcome. And now, if we don’t want to get caught, we best be moving.”
Caitlin scrambled off of him, grabbed up her clothes from the floor and dashed naked to the bathroom as he enjoyed the view for one last time. Grabbing his own shed clothing, he gave one last look around to ensure nothing was out of place before he switched places with Caitlin. He started to put his clothes back on, before he realized that with Hawke’s return, Sam would also be coming for him. It really was time to return to reality.
“Hey, Dom. Hey, String.” Caitlin greeted the men as they came in the door. She was just wadding up the sheets – the ones she’d originally used for the couch and the ones she’s hastily stripped off Hawke’s bed – so they could be tossed into the washer.
Hawke frowned at her before looking up as Michael came down the stairs. Caitlin couldn’t help her intake of breath as he descended. He was once again dressed head to toe in white. Granted, he was in what Michael considered casual attire – white pants and a sweater – but he still looked jarringly out of place amongst the rustic wood of the cabin and the casual clothes the rest of them were wearing.
“What the hell are you doing here with Cait?” Dom was looking suspiciously back and forth between the two of them. “Did he try anything?”
Cait resisted the urge to sigh. “Michael has been the perfect gentleman. There was a mix-up in communications.” She shot a look at String.
“Oh,” came the somewhat guilty reply.
“Oh, what?” Dom asked.
String shrugged. “Just remembered. Michael asked to borrow the place a few weeks ago. I forgot about it and Cait asked just before I left. I didn’t think anything of it.” The frown came back. “Are you telling me you both stayed here?”
“The couch is comfortable.” Which she decided wasn’t a lie, she just didn’t mention that except for that first night, she didn’t stay on the couch.
Dom jerked a thumb in Michael’s direction. “I thought you said he was a gentleman. Making a lady sleep on the couch. What kinda gentleman would do that?”
“My choice, Dom. He was here first and he did offer to switch with me.”
It was then that Dom raised his nose into the air and took several deep sniffs. “What’s that cooking?”
Her eyes widened in panic. She’d forgotten about the Garlic Roasted Chicken in the oven. There was no way she’d be able to explain the chicken much less the blanched asparagus.
Michael came to her rescue. “You do know that I’ve been a bachelor for many years. I can cook when I need to.”
Dom was wandering into the kitchen, following his nose. “You didn’t let Cait near this, did you?”
She narrowed her eyes at him in annoyance but neither man saw as Dom and String where now both in the kitchen.
“Caitlin prepared the salad.”
“Hard to hurt lettuce,” String’s voice called back.
She growled under her breath, but stopped as she felt Michael’s hand against hers, his thumb brushing against her pulse point.
“Nice shirt,” he said softly.
She glanced down at the flannel shirt she’d tossed on over her t-shirt. It was the red plaid that Michael had been wearing the day she arrived.
“Is that a permanent addition to your wardrobe?”
She sent him a brilliant smile in answer.
December in Los Angeles brought temperatures in the mid sixties. Cool enough to need an extra layer but not cold enough to need a heavy coat. Caitlin had taken to wearing her new favorite plaid flannel shirt around Santini Air when she was working in the office. She knew she was being slightly ridiculous, but she didn’t care. The shirt was warm, comfortable and carried good memories.
She’d only seen Michael twice since they’d parted ways at the cabin, the first time for a mission debrief and the second time when he and Sam met her at Knightsbridge to get her the promised clearance to use the Airwolf simulator. He’s been polite and friendly, no more or less than he’d been before they’d spent a week at String’s cabin.
She brushed a hand down the flannel sleeve. She wished . . . but then she shook her head. That way led to madness and more complications than she could fathom.
She glanced at the clock – it was just past two. Dom and String wouldn’t be returning until close to four. There was plenty of time for her to finish the stack of receipts and invoices, get the books in order and start tackling the storeroom. She’d been putting off that chore for a while.
Turning her attention back to her paperwork, she was interrupted by a knock sounding from out in the hanger and a voice calling out. “Hello? Santini Air?”
Curious, she went out into the hanger. A man in the uniform of a courier service was standing there, looking with wide eyes at the helicopters.
“Hello? Can I help you?”
The young man brightened. Consulting the clip board he carried, he asked, “You Miss Caitlin O’Shannessy?”
Curious and suspicious. She wasn’t expecting any packages. “Yes.”
“Great.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the hanger door. “I got a package for you. Hold on and I’ll get it.”
Before she could say anything else, the man turned and jogged back out. He returned a few minutes later carrying a flat box about the size and shape of a shirt box. Caitlin took a step back when the box was thrust in her direction. Too many people had tried to get Airwolf by all kinds of nefarious means. There was no way she was accepting any packages that she wasn’t expecting.
The young man looked puzzled for a moment before he grinned at her. “Oh, I almost forgot. I’m supposed to tell you that this” – he raised the box up – “it from some guy named Michael.”
Her wary stance softened even as her confusion heightened. What on earth could Michael be sending her? And not only that, she heard String talking to one of Michael’s people on the phone just yesterday. Michael was in DC and was scheduled to be there for at least another three days.
Finally accepting and signing for the package, she took it back to Dom’s desk. It was extremely light and she couldn’t imagine what was in it although she could feel something sliding around in the box.
Staring at the brown paper wrapped box, she considered again that it might be some trick. But it seemed too light to be a bomb. Wait for Dom and String or open it? She glanced at the clock again. Then again, if it really was from Michael, did she want Dom and String around when she opened the package?
Deciding, she reached for Dom’s letter opener and carefully slit the brown paper along one edge. As the paper parted, she saw that there was additional wrapping beneath the utilitarian brown. The second layer was a heavy and obviously expensive wrapping paper – sleek, shiny and a pristine white.
Laughing at herself, she shook her head. Whatever was in the box, it was definitely from Michael.
Finally taking her seat, she used the letter opener to once again cut open the paper. The box, she discovered to her amusement, was also white.
Taking a deep breath, she lifted the lid. Inside was an envelope, a small green velvet bag and a piece of paper with Michael’s unmistakably elegant writing across it.
While in Washington, I ran across a small antique store. I saw these and knew that they belonged to you. I hope you enjoy them.
She frowned down at the paper then realized that these must be whatever was in the small green velvet bag.
The envelope contains airline tickets. It is presumptuous of me to ask, I know, but I enjoyed our time at String’s cabin. It lacks the ambiance of his place, but I own a small apartment in Telluride, CO. If you have no plans for Christmas, I would greatly enjoy your company.
I would have preferred to ask you in person, but I do not believe I will be able to leave Washington for some days and I wanted to give you time to think about your answer. Either way, the choice is yours.
Her breath caught in throat. He was asking her to spend another holiday with him.
Regardless of your decision, enjoy the gift.
Caitlin’s hands were shaking as she dropped the note and reached for the little bag. Pulling at the drawstring, she tipped the bag into her hand.
Oh my God.
There, nestled in her palm, was a pair of what were very obviously antique earrings, probably from the Twenties. The posts were made up of dark square cut emeralds, so green they were almost black. Dangling from each post was a long jade teardrop the color of new mowed grass . . . or maybe frogs.