There is no grief like the grief that does not speak.
~ Henry Wordsworth Longfellow
Punte Chame should feel like paradise on earth.
There are days - usually when the sky is cloudless and the water is clear and the air is scented with salt and flowers - when it almost does. After all, he’s no longer afraid that every breath might be his last, his son looks and sounds more like a well-adjusted teenager with every passing day, and his brother is finally planning for his own future rather than everyone else’s.
It should feel like paradise but it doesn’t, and Lincoln doesn’t need to pay a shrink a huge wad of cash to tell him that guilt and grief can fuck you up more than any other human emotions. Because fucked up is definitely what he is.
Every day, he forces himself to get out of bed and do what he has to do, and every day, he feels as though he’s drowning on dry land. During the day, he helps his brother build a house and spends every spare moment he can with his son.
At night, he dreams about Veronica.
On the good nights, her skin is smooth and fresh under his hands, her body warm and soft beneath his. On the bad nights, her pretty face dissolves into a screaming mask of terror, her hands now slippery with blood as they reach for him, her dark eyes gleaming with silent accusation. Every morning, good or bad, he wakes feeling aching and empty, wanting to rail at the world, angry with everyone who isn’t her.
No, he thinks as he stares out at the endless blue water that was supposed to be their sanctuary, he doesn’t need a shrink to tell him why he feels as though he doesn’t deserve to be here. It’s painfully simple. Every day he’s here in this paradise is another day Veronica isn’t alive. He’s here and Veronica is gone and nothing he says or does will ever be able to change that.
Maybe it would be easier if Veronica was the only woman stuck in his head, but whether he likes it or not, she’s not the only one. He rubs his hand over his newly shaved head, digging his thumb into the knots at the base of his skull. Thinking about Jane Phillips unsettles him on so many levels that he doesn’t even know where to start. He doesn’t want to do ‘complicated’, not again, and he suspects his feelings for her are as complicated as they come.
Jane calls at least once a week, seemingly happy to talk to whomever happens to answer the phone, and Lincoln finds himself both relieved and annoyed that she makes no effort to single him out. He gives her his new cell phone number, asking her to pass it on to Sara, knowing that it’s not Sara he wants calling him. She agrees readily enough, then asks after LJ and Michael before telling him about his father’s latest trip. Just like he does every time she calls, Lincoln listens to her calm, melodious voice with a growing fire in his belly, the longing to see her burrowing itself deep beneath his skin.
Jane Phillips, a woman that even now he can hardly believe actually exists. Former FBI agent, sharpshooter, unflinchingly loyal and utterly fearless, a straight-talking blonde Amazon who saved all their lives more than once. During the short time they’d spent together, they’d argued more times than he can remember, but she hadn’t wavered from her goal of keeping him and his family safe. A woman nursing an ancient, private grief of her own, she’d never once hesitated to risk her neck to save his.
He’d kissed her twice, both times fuelled as much by desire as it was by adrenaline, and sometimes he thinks he can still remember the taste of her mouth. He shouldn’t want her, shouldn’t want any woman who isn’t Veronica to be with him in this place, but he does, and he hates himself for it.
He hates himself for it, but it doesn’t stop him trying to beat his brother to the phone every time it rings.
He holds it together for four long weeks before giving into the urge to blot out the screaming in his head. Leaving LJ with his uncle, he heads for the tourist district and the brightest, loudest bar. The next morning, he wakes half-dressed in his own bed, his head pounding, his mouth sour, his body imprinted with the memory of raw, anonymous sex. He remembers dark eyes and small clever hands that needed no urging, his hands threaded through silken black hair as a hot mouth consumed him. He wonders if he called her Veronica. He wonders if he talked to her at all.
His stomach suddenly rebels against the onslaught of cheap bear, tequila and shame, sending him rushing towards the bathroom. Afterwards, he tells himself that he can’t do this. He has his whole life ahead of him, he has LJ and he has Michael, and that should be enough.
He does it four more times, desperately trying to lose himself in booze and sex, knowing that he’s fighting a hopeless battle. Despite the mess in his head, he sets himself two unbreakable rules. He never brings a woman back to the house and he’s always home before the sun comes up.
Neither LJ nor Michael say a word, but their conspiratorial silence is a reproach in itself. Sometimes he finds a cooked breakfast waiting for him, sometimes a note to tell him they’ve gone to the market. After the fourth time, there is neither a note nor breakfast left for him, and he knows he can either keep doing his best to obliterate himself or he can try to salvage the second chance he’s been given. The next day, his father calls to say he’s booked a flight to Panama City and would like to come and spend some time with his family. If Lincoln was looking for a sign, this one would be hard to beat.
Aldo stays for a week. After precisely twelve hours of listening to his sons bicker over everything from the width of the steps leading down from the balcony to the contents of the refrigerator, he takes Lincoln aside.
“Have you thought about what’s going to happen when Sara arrives?”
Lincoln watches as his brother sands an already smooth edge of the balcony railing. “If she arrives.”
“She will,” Aldo assures him, “and when she does, she and your brother are going to want some privacy.”
Lincoln raises his eyebrows. “Is there a point to this conversation?”
His father smiles. “All I’m saying is that sometimes a little family goes a long way.”
It’s all Lincoln can do not to roll his eyes. “You’re preaching to the converted, Dad, trust me.”
When his gentle efforts to dissuade his younger son from working twelve hours a day on the house fail – Lincoln could have told him it was pointless - Aldo takes Lincoln and LJ fishing. They explore the local haunts, and Lincoln grins at the sound of his son’s halting Spanish as he discusses bait and lures with the local fisherman. When he asks LJ when he’d started speaking Spanish, though, his son just looks annoyed.
“Uncle Mike’s been teaching me,” he says, the words faintly accusing. “I told you ages ago, remember?”
Annoyed with himself, Lincoln says nothing, then he feels the clasp of his father’s hand on his shoulder, the unspoken reassurance lightening his suddenly heavy heart. “Practice makes perfect, son,” Aldo murmurs, and once again Lincoln has to fight the urge to roll his eyes.
“Look who’s talking.”
Aldo grins. “I’m still working on it.”
Three weeks after his father leaves, Lincoln signs a six month lease on a two bedroom house a half mile from Michael’s place. Close enough to hang out, far enough apart not to want to punch each other every other day. LJ seems happy to have a room of his own in a house where he can track sand across the tiled floor and drape wet towels across the backs of chairs, both domestic habits frowned upon by his uncle. Lincoln’s just relieved not to have to watch his brother spend his every waking hour waiting for Sara Tancredi.
A few days later, he’s standing in the middle of Michael’s kitchen, trying to persuade his brother to come for a run on the beach. Michael gently brushes the suggestion away, his attention focused on the screwdriver in his hand. “Thanks, but I think I’ve filled my running quota for the year.” He glances up at Lincoln, his smile apologetic. “Why don’t you take LJ?”
Lincoln leans against the kitchen bench, running his fingertips through the fine grains of sawdust that cover the surface. “He’s still asleep.” His son, the typical teenaged boy, still asleep at noon. If it wasn’t so reassuringly normal, Lincoln might be annoyed, but he’s just glad LJ isn’t finger painting scenes of death and destruction.
When the phone rings, Michael looks at him over the top of a half-affixed cabinet door, his expression oddly unconcerned for a man who usually jumps two feet into the air every time he hears a ringing telephone. “Could you get that?”
The caller is Jane. As always, the sound of her voice makes Lincoln’s gut tighten. As always, she doesn’t seem to notice. She asks after LJ and Michael, then adds, “I saw Sara today.”
He blinks. “How is she?”
“She’s doing well.” She pauses. “I believe she’s recently spoken to your brother.”
He looks across the room to where Michael is working, belatedly realising that his brother has been humming cheerily under his breath ever since Lincoln arrived. He allows himself a few seconds to be annoyed that Michael hadn’t seen fit to share that particular bit of information with him, then he shakes it off. They’ve all got their secrets. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“I have some free time next month,” Jane announces without preamble. “I thought I might finally come down there and check up on all of you.”
He swallows hard, trying and failing not to picture her dressed for the beach, damp blonde hair plastered to the curve of her full breasts, long legs striding through the blue and white splash of the ocean. “Okay.”
She hesitates, making him immediately regret his unintentionally lacklustre response, then continues in a brisk, careful tone. “Well, perhaps LJ and Michael will appreciate a visit. Would you put Michael on the phone, please?”
He swears under his breath, despairing of ever being able to say the right thing to this woman. “Listen, Jane-”
“It’s fine, Lincoln,” she says calmly, as though she’s never once kissed him with a passion that made him feel as though his clothes might catch fire. “Is Michael there?”
“Sure,” he tells her, his voice dull. “I’ll get him for you.”
Moving to Michael’s side, he hands over the receiver without a word, then walks out onto the balcony. He stares at the sand and the water until his eyes begin to sting, his fingers gripping the wooden balcony tight enough to invite splinters. Fucking paradise on earth, he thinks darkly, and goes to wake up his son.
Two weeks after his conversation with Jane, the Governor’s daughter finally arrives, and his brother is transformed. Lincoln watches the hope ignite in Michael’s thin face, the delicate joy in Sara’s, and he tells himself he’s happy for them.
She’s barely there an hour before she looks at him with those dark eyes that always seemed to see far too much. “Have they visited you down here yet?” They’ve been discussing Aldo and Jane, but he has the feeling she’s not all that interested in Aldo’s movements.
“Dad was here a few weeks ago.” She keeps looking at him, an almost imperceptible smile playing about her lips, and he reluctantly admits defeat. “And Jane thinks she might come down next month.”
“Good.” She smiles as though she truly means it. “I think she’d like it down here.”
So do I, he wants to tell her, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t want to think about how Jane Phillips makes him feel. It’s much easier to turn the conversation back to Michael’s borderline manic behaviour over the last few months than it is to let her shine the spotlight on him. He knows how easy it is to talk to this woman – he’s cried in her arms, for fuck’s sake - and the last thing he wants to do is hear himself blurting out is how the guilt is eating away at his insides.
Instead, he tells her a few home truths about his brother, watching her deceptively fragile shoulders sag a little under the weight of his words. She takes a deep breath, then looks at him calmly, her eyes solemn, her words as measured as though she’s swearing on a stack of bibles. “I came here to be with him, and I have no intention of going anywhere for a long time.”
“Good.” He lets out his breath, only now realising he’s been afraid of having to pick up the pieces in her wake. “Maybe now you’re here, you can convince Michael to come surfing once in a while.”
She laughs, the sound breaking the tension between them. “Is he any good?”
“He’s not bad.” He glances towards the French doors through which Michael and LJ had disappeared a few minutes earlier. “I’m better.”
She smiles as she shakes her head, but her dark eyes are serious as she studies him. “You’ve told me about Michael, but how are you doing down here?”
He hesitates, pressing his tongue against the back of his teeth. The temptation to talk about Veronica, if only to say her name out loud, is suddenly overwhelming, but he’s afraid that if he starts, he may never stop. “I’m okay.”
She looks as though she wants to press the point, then she smiles warmly. “How’s LJ coping with the new lifestyle? I bet he’s enjoying the break from school.”
“You have no idea,” he tells her with a rueful smile, thinking of his son’s now entrenched routine of surfing, fishing and cycling. “Sixteen’s a brutal age no matter what your surname is, but after everything that’s happened, I wanted him to have some time to just be a kid, you know?”
“I do know.” She looks at him. “Will you take him back to the States when school starts again?”
He shrugs. “I’m going to leave that up to him. If he wants to go to school down here, that’s good enough for me.” He looks away from her concerned gaze, once again fighting the urge to dump his own problems onto her. She’s got a steep enough learning curve ahead of her without you adding to it, he tells himself. “There are more important things in this life than the name of your high school.” She lifts her can of soda to him in a silent toast, then Michael and LJ spill out onto the balcony, his son talking loudly about the scooter he wants to buy, and the quiet moment between them is over.
He finally manages to drag LJ home, doing his best not to notice the growing tension between the two other adults. Of course, he’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to notice the way they’ve been looking at each other for the last four hours, and he’s happy for them, he really is. It’s just been a long time since he slept with someone who loved him as much as he knows Sara Tancredi loves his brother, and the sudden memory of the last time he’d slept with Veronica – a blissfully frenzied reunion on the night of her graduation ceremony - makes him feel hollow and alone, too many sharp edges inside his head.
That night, with LJ safely tucked into bed at the other end of the house, he shuts himself in the bathroom. Standing beneath a scalding hot shower with his eyes closed, he wraps his hand around his aching cock, chasing a quick release as much as he’s chasing a memory. He desperately tries to think of dark hair and dark eyes, but his disobedient mind slides instead into visions of pale blonde hair and creamy skin, swollen lips and angry blue eyes.
Gritting his teeth, he gives up, letting himself remember that first, fierce kiss born of anger and lust, Jane’s body arching against his as he pressed her up against the still-running SUV. His hand pumping furiously, he remembers the way she’d kissed him back, as though daring him to take it further, and he’s done. Swearing loudly, he leans one shoulder against the cold tiles, shuddering as his cock pulses almost violently in his hand.
That night, he once again dreams of Veronica. The next morning, he wakes up feeling as though he’s back in his cell at Fox River, and he knows that something has to give, and soon.
LJ doesn’t talk about Veronica, at least not to him. Lincoln stumbles upon him once or twice in the middle of a hushed conversation with Sara, and the look on their faces makes it obvious whom they’re discussing. It’s not exactly pity, but it’s close enough to make want to put his fist through the nearest wall, and to make things worse, he has no one to blame but himself. If only his head were screwed on half as straight as LJ’s, he thinks darkly.
Michael and Sara do not – despite Lincoln’s earlier fears – appear to be joined at the hip. Okay, so they spend endless hours either walking along the beach or sequestered behind closed doors, but Lincoln still sees his brother every day, and Sara does her best to make it clear she has no intention of upsetting the family dynamics. He’d like to tell both of them that he’s grateful, but he doesn’t know how to say the words without sounding like an idiot, so he says nothing and simply enjoys their company as best he can.
“Jane’s arriving tomorrow,” Michael remarks casually as the three of them emerge from the water late one afternoon, and Lincoln feels his stomach clench. He certainly doesn’t need his brother to remind him of something that’s been weighing on his mind for the last month.
“Yeah, I know.”
Michael and Sara exchange a quick glance that only serves to remind Lincoln of everything he doesn’t have, and he quickly pastes a smile on his face. “Not bad out there today, Doc.” He glances at his brother. “Better than Michael, anyway.”
“Well, I do have all ten toes.” She grins. “That’s bound to make a difference.”
Lincoln rolls his eyes as his brother begins to pontificate on the subject of ‘hanging ten’ being merely a figure of speech, then gestures towards the boards at their feet. “You can leave the boards here if you like. Easier than lugging them all the way back again next time.”
“Thanks.” Michael wipes his sandy hands on the seat of his shorts. “You want a hand taking them up to the house?”
Lincoln shakes his head. “Nah, it’s cool. I need the exercise.”
Michael scoffs under his breath, then shares another quick glance with the woman beside him. “You and LJ coming up to the house for dinner tonight?”
Sara flashes him a smile as she squeezes the water from her tangled hair. “See you around seven, then?”
Lincoln nods, then Michael picks up their towels before they start the short walk back to their own house. He watches them as they walk away, and when they’re half-way down the beach, his brother flicks Sara’s backside with the end of his wet towel. Her laughter drifts across the sand as she digs her fingers into Michael’s side, just below his ribcage, right where he’s the most ticklish. Lincoln grins, impressed she’s managed to discover his brother’s Achilles Heel so quickly. He hears Michael’s voice raised in mock outrage, then the outline of their figures blends into the fading afternoon light, leaving him alone.
He looks up and down the beach, his gaze narrowing as he takes in the scattering of strolling couples. The whole damned world is going by two-by-two, and something tightens in his chest. He doesn’t want what his brother and Sara have – he tells himself he’s not interested in the flush of romantic love, not anymore – but he wants something. He just doesn’t know what that something is.
“Fuck this shit,” he mutters to the empty blue sky above him, then drops his towel onto the wet sand. He strides into the water, diving deep beneath the surface until the only sound in his head is the steady thrum of his pulse.
The next morning, he runs into LJ in the hallway, and is surprised to see his son out of bed and fully dressed so early. “Got a hot date?”
LJ grins. “I’m going with Sara to pick up Jane from the airport, remember?”
He belatedly remembers overhearing their conversation at dinner the night before. “Oh, right.” He hears the familiar toot of the horn of Michael’s 4WD from the driveway, and gives his son a tight smile. “Don’t ask Sara to let you drive again, okay?”
LJ looks at him with guileless eyes, as though he’d never dream of doing such a thing. “Are you going to be at Uncle Mike’s when we get back?”
LJ looks disappointed, then Sara beeps the car horn a second time and he’s grabbing his jacket and heading for the front door. Lincoln waits until his son slams the door behind him, then glances at his watch. He has two and a half hours, maybe three, to decide what the hell he’s going to do about Jane Phillips. Of course, he reminds himself, he might be worrying over nothing. Maybe Jane has no interest in starting anything as far as he’s concerned. Maybe all she wants is a cosy visit with Aldo’s extended family and a few days in the sun. The thought should come as a relief, but all it does is make him feel vaguely depressed.
He rubs a hand over his chin, feeling a week’s worth of stubble scratch his palm, then looks around him at the cluttered living room. If nothing else, he thinks, maybe he should use Jane’s visit as an excuse to clean up. Nothing to do with impressing her, he tells himself, then has to resist the urge to punch himself in the head.
His immediate problem is easily solved. He takes a shower and shaves, then gives the bathroom a quick but thorough once-over. He makes himself breakfast, then tidies the kitchen. He dresses, then shoves every piece of dirty clothing in the laundry and shuts the door. On his way out the front door, he picks up the scattered newspapers and magazines, making a mental note to tell LJ to at least try to keep his surfing magazines from taking over the whole house. Easier said than done, he muses. Something about this place makes you feel as though you’re on one long vacation, as though the normal rules don’t apply.
He takes one last look around before he leaves, trying to see it through new eyes, then he shrugs, suddenly irritated with himself. Jane would probably stay with Michael and Sara – they’re the ones with three spare rooms, after all. No reason to think that she’d end up here long enough to pass judgment on how tidy he was keeping the place. Shaking his head, he pulls the front door shut behind him, wondering just when he’d become a dithering idiot.
Michael is sitting on the balcony by himself, drinking coffee as he flicks through the newspaper. He gives Lincoln a wave as he walks up from the beach, then jerks his head towards the open French doors behind him. “There’s coffee if you want it.”
“Thanks.” Lincoln wanders through to the kitchen, ruefully noting that the house is as tidy as it was the day Sara first arrived. The only difference he can see is that the bookshelf is now literally groaning under the weight of twice as many books. Resisting the urge to check if one of the spare bedrooms has been made up for a guest, he pours himself a coffee and makes his way back to his brother. “Anything good in the paper?”
Michael smiles. “Nothing about us, if that’s what you mean.”
“Thank God for that.” He sips his coffee, then leans back in his chair, stretching his legs out in front of him. “What time does Jane’s flight get in?”
His brother gives him a quick glance of amusement. “Why? Want to know how long you’ve got to make your escape?”
Lincoln sighs. “Give it a rest, Michael.”
Michael purses his lips as he turns the page of the newspaper. “If you don’t want to hang out with her, that’s cool.” His mouth twitches, but Lincoln can’t tell if it’s with a smile or with disapproval. “We do owe her our lives, remember.”
“I’m well aware of that,” Lincoln mutters, “and I never said I didn’t want to hang out with her.” He winces at Michael’s choice of words, wondering why the two of them seemed to slide backwards into childhood every time they argued.
“No?” Michael looks at him. “Then why do you flinch every time anyone says her name?”
Lincoln frowns, struggling to find the words to explain. “Look, I like her, okay?” He gives his brother a stern glare. “I’m just not thrilled by the fact that all of you seem to think that she and I are, well, that we’re-” He breaks off and reaches for his coffee, needing to buy himself a moment to try and sort out the muddled thoughts in his head.
“No one’s thinking anything like that, Linc,” his brother says in a soothing tone that only serves to irritate him further.
“Of course you are,” he shoots back. “One of the first things Sara did when she got here was to ask me about Jane. LJ drops hints all over the place about how maybe Jane would like to visit that place or see this thing.” He eyes his brother. “And you -”
Michael looks at him with the same innocent expression LJ tried to palm off on him that morning. “Me? What did I do?”
“It would make you feel better if I hooked up with Jane, wouldn’t it?”
Michael looks puzzled. “Why do you mean? If you were happy about it, that would be great -”
“Look me in the eye and tell me you wouldn’t feel better about Sara being here with you if I was with Jane.”
Michael’s gaze narrows, but he doesn’t look away. “That’s not fair.”
Lincoln thinks of a long ago conversation on a train, his brother apologising because Sara was with them and Veronica wasn’t, and he knows damn well he’s not being fair. He also knows that he doesn’t really care. “Veronica’s dead, I’m alone and, from I can see, you’re all pushing me towards the most convenient warm body.”
Anger flashes in his brother’s eyes. “You’re incredible, you know that?” He splays his hands flat on the newspaper in front of him, and Lincoln wonders if it’s to stop himself from trying to reach across the table and land a punch. “In case you hadn’t noticed, you’re the only one who refuses to talk about Vee.”
They glare at each other for a moment, Lincoln’s fury reflected straight back at him from his brother’s eyes, then they hear the subtle roar of Michael’s 4WD pulling up in the driveway. Michael blows out a loud breath, then flips the newspaper shut, his gaze sliding away from Lincoln’s. He looks defeated, and Lincoln is suddenly swamped by the dull certainty that he’s being an asshole.
He reaches across the table to tap Michael’s arm. “Look, man, I’m sorry.”
Michael looks up at him, his eyes glittering. “You need to talk about her, Linc.”
“I know.” His throat closes over the words, as though trying to stop him from saying them, as though his body knows better than his head. “But I can’t.” He takes a deep, shuddering breath, wondering if he’ll ever stop hearing Veronica’s last horrified whisper in his head. “Hurts too much, man.”
The front door slams, and he knows that he has two choices. He can quickly vanish down the beach and literally bury his head in the sand, or he can suck it up and be a gracious host to the woman who’d saved their collective asses. He hears the soft lilt of female voices and the sound of footsteps on the wooden floorboards inside the house, then Sara appears in the open doorway. “We’re back.” She smiles at Michael. “Obviously.”
Michael grins as though she’s just made the funniest joke he’s heard in years, then gets to his feet to give her a quick kiss. “How was the traffic?”
“Not too bad.” She turns to Lincoln, her eyes sparking. “Just so you know, LJ didn’t ask this time.”
“Just as well,” Lincoln says, thinking of his son’s determination to learn to drive by any means available, then Jane appears in the doorway behind Sara and every thought in his head seems to slip away.
She’s dressed simply in a white t-shirt and a pair of linen trousers, her long hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail. Dark sunglasses are perched on the top of her head and, despite her obvious weariness, her blue eyes glow when she smiles. “Good morning.”
Michael is the first to react, leaning over to kiss her warmly on the cheek. “Almost afternoon, actually,” he jokes quietly, then smiles at her. “It’s good to see you.”
“You too.” Her gaze flicks to Lincoln, and he feels the impact of it like a punch to the gut. “Hello, Lincoln.”
“Hi.” He gives himself a mental shake and tears his gaze away from the soft lips he’s been fantasizing about for the last three months. “Uh, we’re just having coffee.” It seems like Sara isn’t the only one capable of stating the obvious this morning. “Want one?”
Jane raises an elegant eyebrow, then gives him a smile that sends a wisp of heat curling through the base of his spine. “That would be very nice.”
Behind them, Sara clears her throat. “Listen, guys, I’ve been a bit of an idiot and double-booked myself. I completely forgot that I made plans to check out two of the local health clinics this afternoon.” She gives Lincoln an apologetic smile. “Michael and LJ had planned to come along for the ride, too.”
Lincoln blinks, belatedly realising that his son hasn’t followed the others into the house. “But Jane just got here.”
“And I’ve already spent the entire trip from the airport apologising for having to run off for a few hours.” Sara smiles at him. “You’ll look after her, won’t you?”
In his head, Lincoln hears the sound of a trap snapping shut. “Uh, sure.”
Michael smirks at Jane as he passes her. “Whatever you do, don’t let him take you out and buy you a Jamaican Collins.”
A slow smile tugs at Jane’s wide mouth as she turns to gaze steadily at Lincoln. “And what, exactly, is in a Jamaican Collins?”
“That’s the thing,” Michael quips as he vanishes into the house with Sara. “No one can ever quite remember afterwards.”
Jane laughs, her eyes still locked with Lincoln’s. “Sounds deadly.”
Lincoln takes a long breath, feeling as though his blood’s already spiked with a dozen shots of rum. “How about a cheap beer at my place instead?”
She smiles. “That’s the best offer I’ve had all day.”
To Lincoln’s relief, the light-hearted exchange eases some of the tension zipping through the air between them. He manages to catch Michael before he leaves the house to tell him of their change in plane and, smirking, Michael tells him to make sure he brings Jane back in time for dinner. Rolling his eyes, Lincoln goes back to the balcony to find Jane gazing at the ocean with a wistful expression. “You okay?”
She shrugs. “I haven’t been to the beach since John and Catherine died,” she says in a matter-of-fact voice that twists his heart. “This is very different to Malibu, though,” she adds softly. “It’s very peaceful.”
He finds himself reaching out to touch her hand where it rests on the railing. “Sometimes.”
She tilts her head to study his face, her hand motionless beneath his. “How far is it to your place?”
“Not far.” He looks down at her slip-on sandals. “The quickest way is to walk along the beach.”
She smiles as she gently slides her hand out from beneath his. “Sounds good.” Obviously content to leave her luggage in Michael’s spare room, she picks up her purse and slips off her shoes. “Lead the way.”
He’s not surprised that they talk about Aldo while they walk. It seems odd that his relationship with an estranged father should be a more comfortable topic than anything else going on in his life, but he’s not about to argue. “He told me you and LJ have become quite the fishermen.”
Lincoln grins, watching her bare feet as she walks through the foam of the waves. She’s rolled up the cuffs of her trousers, and her ankles are pale and smooth. “Nothing tough about sitting in a boat drinking beer.”
She shrugs. “Patience is a skill all its own.”
“You’re talking to a man who spent almost three years on Death Row.” He turns to look at her. “I know a little something about patience.”
They study each other for a moment, then she smiles, gesturing towards the houses dotted along the gentle slope rising from the beach. “Which one is yours?”
“The one that looks absolutely nothing like Michael’s place,” he grins, and offers her his hand as they reach the ancient steps that led up from the beach. “Careful of splinters with your bare feet.”
She eyes his outstretched hand for a few seconds, then takes it in hers. Lincoln has to stop himself from gripping too tightly. She may have kissed him twice but it’s the first time she’s held his hand, and the fact that he finds the simple touch almost as arousing as the memory of her kiss is something of a surprise.
Unsettled, he releases her hand when they reach the top of the stairs, and she doesn’t seem to mind. She says nothing as he leads her to the back entrance of the house, waiting until he’s unlocked the door and waved her inside before she speaks again.
“You didn’t seem very happy at the prospect of me flying down here.”
“Don’t take it personally.” He shuts the door behind her, then drops his keys into the bowl on top of the nearby table. “I’m not all that happy about anything these days.”
She drops her sandals onto the floor beside the door. “If it helps, I don’t exactly know why I’m here.”
“That doesn’t sound like you.”
“I know. I’m not used to finding myself at a loose end.” She darts a sharp glance at him. “I’ve spent the last decade of my life chasing after shadows and ghosts, Lincoln.” Frowning, she lifts one hand to free her hair from the confines of its severe ponytail, letting it fall loose onto her shoulders. The effect is startling, her face suddenly younger, softer, and Lincoln stares at her, his gaze lingering on her lush mouth, his own mouth feeling dry, his words awkward.
“Sounds like you need a holiday.”
"I do." She looks at him steadily. “I’m not looking for happily ever after, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Her bluntness is both a shock and a turn-on all its own. He looks at the strong lines of her face, the sculptured curves of her body, and his pulse begins to race. “I’m not worried,” he tells her, and it’s suddenly the truth.
She studies him for a long moment, then nods. Putting her purse on the table next to his keys, she looks at him with a quite but unmistakable challenge in her eyes. ”It was a long flight from LA. Would you mind if I took a quick shower?”
There’s not the slightest hint of flirtation in her voice, but he has to clear his throat before he can speak. “No, no at all. It’s down the hallway, the second room on the right.” He’s half-hard already, and the thought of her using his shower isn’t helping. “I’ll have that beer waiting for you.”
She slips off her watch, then drops it into her purse. “Maybe you could bring it in to me?”
With that, she smiles and walks past him towards the bathroom, her bare feet slapping gently on the tiled floor. He watches her walk away, then leans against the closest wall, smiling as he shakes his head. “Holy shit.”
Maybe the most sensible thing to do would be to wait until she’d emerged from the bathroom before starting an earnest conversation about a possible relationship. When he hears the sound of running water, however, arousal tugs heavily at his groin, and he reminds himself that he never was the sensible type.
The bathroom is already filling with steam by the time he reaches the door. Jane’s clothes are draped over the closed toilet lid, and before he allows himself the pleasure of looking at her silhouette through the smoky glass of the shower stall, he takes a moment to smile at the decidedly ‘girly’ underwear lying on top of her crumpled t-shirt. Who would have thought that undercover anti-Government agents wore cream lace with red flowers? His gaze moves to the shower stall, and a jolt of raw lust streaks through him. If he’d known all that was hidden beneath those power suits –
Cutting off the thought, he puts the beers on the corner of the vanity (he’s trying to be a good host, after all) then strips off his t-shirt, fighting the urge to pinch himself. “You want your beer in there?”
She chuckles, a dark, throaty sound that makes his cock twitch. “Beer and soap isn’t the greatest combination, but it’s up to you.”
His body apparently making the decision for him, his hands shove down his shorts and throw them into the corner. When he wrenches open the door of the shower stall and steps inside, Jane looks at him expectantly, almost pleadingly, her hands hanging loosely by her sides. He sucks in a deep breath, trying to take in everything at once – the pale skin slick with soap suds and water, the jut of her full breasts, the dark rose of her nipples, the damp blonde strip of hair between her legs - then his mouth covers hers, his body pressing hers up against the tiles as the warm water sluices over them.
Her mouth tastes just as good how he remembers, and he feels a low groan rumble deep in his chest. Her hands slide down his back to cup his ass, urging him closer as she kisses him hungrily, her tongue sweeping his mouth, teeth bumping gently against his. He lifts one hand to touch her breast, squeezing gently, and she arches in his arms, wrapping her leg around his as she tucks her foot behind his knee. His cock presses against her thigh, then the soft hair between her thighs, and she gasps into his mouth.
He lifts his head, desperately trying to remember how to count to ten. This isn’t the first time he’s had sex since he’s been out of Fox River, but it’s the first time that it’s not just fucking. No matter he’s been trying to tell himself, this means something, she means something, and he’s suddenly afraid of getting it all wrong. When he finally manages to speak, his voice sounds as though it’s coming from a long way away. “You don’t think maybe we should talk first?”
She shakes her head, pressing an open-mouthed kiss to his throat. “No.” Her hand slides between them, skimming over his chest and stomach, then he’s rising up on his toes as she wraps her hand around him, her touch steady and slow. “We can talk later,” she murmurs, her long fingers sliding down to cup his balls, making him suck in his breath. “Right now, I think we need this more.”
“Works for me.” He’s not about to argue with her, not when heat is already licking along his veins, burning him up from the inside. Cradling her rounded ass in both hands, he bends his head to her breasts, feeling her shudder as he tastes one tight nipple, then the other. One arm wrapped around his neck, she strokes the aching length of his erection, her hand slick with soap as she gently draws him up towards the heat between her legs.
“Condom?” she breathes in his ear, and he’s stepping out of the shower stall before she has the chance to say another word, trying to marshall enough blood back into his brain in order to remember where he’d stashed the condoms when they’d unpacked.
Top drawer, his brain finally stutters, and he’s yanking open the drawer and ripping out the first plastic square he sees.
Slamming the shower door behind them, he encloses them once again in a haven of warm water and steam. He brushes away her unspoken offer to help him with the condom, then backs her against the wall, his hands exploring everywhere his mouth can’t reach. There’s nothing dainty or fragile about her, her firm breasts filling his hands, her muscled legs almost as long as his own. He kisses her, hard, then she pulls back, her eyes flashing blue fire as she wraps one leg around the back of his thighs, the slick flesh between her legs opening up like a flower against him.
He presses her hard against the wall, feeling the muscles in her thighs flex as she starts to lower herself onto him. “Jane-” He mutters her name unsteadily against her throat at the first feel of her around him, then he’s buried deep inside her. A hot wave of pleasure rips through him so hard that he feels as though he’s about to split his skin, and his legs almost buckle. Splaying one hand flat on the tiles behind her, he sucks in a deep breath, the soft weight of her breasts sliding against his chest. “Fuck.”
She wraps her arms around his neck as she jerks her hips against his, her reply little more than a strangled whisper. “Yeah.”
Mindful of the slippery tiles beneath his feet and the fact that his whole body feels as though it’s about to go up in flames, he moves into her slowly at first, his jaw tightly clenched, his eyes locked with hers. Her eyes grow darker with every thrust, her lush mouth falling open on a silent gasp every time he buries himself inside her. Her arms tighten around his neck, her legs around his hips, lifting herself up against him as though she’s trying to crawling inside him. Everything is slick and hot, her skin against his, his cock pressed deep into the tight, wet heat of her, her tongue in his mouth, and fuck he’s close, he’s so close, but he wants, needs, to take her with him.
Kissing her fiercely, he slides his hands under her ass, lifting her higher, arching his back as he buries himself deeper inside her again and again, slow, deep thrusts that set his every nerve ending alight and flush the pale skin of her breasts and throat with colour. Her legs tighten around him as she jerks against him, then he tastes her gasp of pleasure on his tongue, feels the slick warmth of her body flutter around him. Digging his fingers into the soft swell of her hips, he thrusts into her once more, everything drawing up tight and hard, then he’s coming, groaning out her name as he shudders in her arms, his body pulsing deep inside hers.
They stay like that for a long moment, wrapped around each other, breathless and shaky-legged. Finally, he gropes for the shower faucets, his hand brushing the smooth curve of her breast as he turns off the cold water. “You’re trying to cop a feel now?” she murmurs in mock indignation, and he starts to laugh, a low rumble of mirth bubbling up inside his chest, something he hasn’t felt for a very long time.
“I never was very good at prioritising.”
She blinks lazily, looking at him through wet eyelashes. “I think you’re doing okay.”
He lowers his mouth to hers, giving in to the temptation to taste the tiny beads of water on her lower lip. “Practice makes perfect.”
They’re very late for dinner, but no one seems to mind. LJ gives them a wave from the couch where he’s sprawled watching television, while Sara merely points him in the direction of the fridge and the microwave before pouring both of them a glass of wine. Jane quickly excuses herself with a smile, saying she needs to change into fresh clothes. Lincoln watches her leave, then looks at the two people sitting at the dining room table. “What?”
Sara says nothing, burying a smile in her teacup, while Michael merely shrugs. “Nothing.”
When Lincoln returns to the dining room a few minutes later, a plate of reheated dinner in each hand, he sees Michael slipping a twenty dollar bill into Sara’s hand. Catching his eye, his brother gives him a sheepish look, and Lincoln narrows his gaze. “What’s that all about?”
Sara looks up at him, the personification of wide-eyed innocence. ‘He lost a bet.”
Lincoln glowers, but the effect is immediately ruined by the fact that Jane has reappeared and he can’t seem to stop smiling at her. Besides, he tells himself, they’ll keep. Turning his back on two grinning idiots at the other end of the table, he slides a plate of chicken curry and rice in front of Jane, then drops into the chair beside her. She touches his knee lightly, the quick caress more than enough to make his groin tighten, then gives him a smile as she reaches for her glass. “How did your visit to the clinics turn out?” she asks Sara, seemingly ignoring the fact that Lincoln’s fingers are tracing the soft skin at the back of her knee.
“Good,” Sara says brightly. “I’m going to be working at the pediatric centre two days a week.”
Lincoln looks at Michael. “What about you?”
Michael smirks. “I’m going to be a kept man.”
Jane chuckles into her wine glass. “So that was the dream all along, was it?”
Lincoln barely hears Michael’s laughing reply. He eats his food and watches Jane, studying the curve of her jaw, the tiny lines at the corner of her bright blue eyes. The ends of her hair are still damp from their very long shower, and the memory of it twisted through his fingers is enough to make him shift restlessly in his chair. He watches her as she talks with Michael and Sara, watches them as they effortlessly draw her into a conversation of private jokes and ancient history, and he suddenly realises that he’s happy.
It’s an odd feeling, but definitely one he’d like to explore further.
Jane politely declines when Michael offers them coffee after dinner. She gives Lincoln a veiled yet heated look, then turns to murmur something quietly to Sara. Sara nods, then bestows a dazzling smile on his brother. “I’m going be the designated driver for a few minutes. Can you make sure that our overnight guest makes it into the right bedroom?”
Michael grins. “Sure.”
Lincoln’s heart sinks - obviously, he’s assumed too much – then Michael gets to his feet and walks across the room to where LJ is dozing on the couch. “You want to crash here tonight, bud?”
LJ looks up at his uncle blearily, nodding as he rolls onto his side and closes his eyes. “Cool.”
Lincoln grins, realising that once again everything is being organised without him even knowing it. Having thanked Michael and Sara for inviting her to dinner, Jane is wheeling her luggage down the hallway towards the front door and Sara is dangling Michael’s car keys from her fingertips. “Well, come on,” she tells Lincoln sternly. “Just because I’m nice enough not to make you walk through the dark carrying Jane’s suitcase doesn’t mean I’m going to wait forever.”
The twenty minute walk takes only five minutes in the car. Sara does most of the talking, joking about having to charge LJ board if he’s going to be sleeping on their couch on a regular basis. When she pulls up in front of the house, Lincoln impulsively leans across and kisses her on the cheek. “Thanks, uh, for everything.” He’ll get the full story out of one of them sooner or later, but he suspects she had something to do with Jane’s appearance in Punta Chame.
“Think nothing of it” He can’t really tell in the half-light, but he suspects she’s pleased by his words. “See you guys tomorrow, maybe?”
He grabs Jane’s luggage out of the backseat with one hand, his other arm tight around Jane’s shoulders as she leans against him. “I could sleep for a week,” she murmurs, and he grins.
“You’re on holidays, remember?” he points out as the bright red taillights of the 4WD disappear into the darkness. “You’re allowed to sleep as late as you like.”
She’s almost asleep on her feet by the time they get inside the house, and he once again feels the urge to pinch himself. If someone had told him yesterday that tonight he’d be undressing one of the most amazing women he’s ever met and tucking her into his bed, he’d suggest they make an appointment with a shrink, and fast.
He’s gentleman enough to leave her underwear on, but not enough of one to keep from running his hands over the enticing curve of her butt as he propels her towards the bed. Jane mutters something about taking a raincheck, then she’s literally asleep as soon as her head sinks into his pillow. Grinning, he strips off his clothes and crawls into bed beside her, sliding his arm around her waist. It’s been a long time since he’s slept like this with another person, but his body soon remembers the best way to mould the heat of his skin against hers. Her back warm against his chest as he tightens his arm around her waist, he breathes out a heavy sigh as he closes his eyes.
That night, for the first time in a long time, he doesn’t dream of Veronica.
The next few days pass in a haze of great sex, average surf and the growing realisation that while he’s not looking for happy ever after, happy for a while feels pretty fucking good.
There’s so much he doesn’t know about her, but what he does know, he likes. After that first afternoon of not doing very much talking at all, she does her best to let him into her life a little bit at a time. She tells him what happened the day her husband and daughter died, how she was so filled with rage and grief that she could barely see straight, how his father had literally saved her life by recruiting her into his organisation. She never once breaks down, but he finally recognises the loneliness in her voice, and realises that this holiday is as much for herself as it is to spend time with Aldo’s family.
He tells her snatches of his time at Fox River, never really sure how much she already knows. Sitting at the end of the small wooden deck at the back of his house, they drink beer while he haltingly tells her he’d felt when he’d first seen Michael on the inside, how he’d come close to losing it the day LJ’s mother had been murdered. He doesn’t mention Veronica, and to his relief, Jane never asks. If the thought of talking about her to his family is painful, talking about her with Jane feels like a betrayal.
Jane doesn’t press him to talk about anything in particular, seemingly content to let their conversations meander quietly from subject to subject. They don’t make any plans that involve anything further than the next day, sometimes the next week, and he finds it oddly reassuring to know she’s just as uncertain of the future as he is.
She spends every night in his bed and is curled up next to him every morning when he wakes, something he still finds hard to believe. She makes it quite clear that she enjoys his company and is very attracted to him, despite the fact that she’s obviously not comfortable with long, flowery speeches or declarations of affection. That suits him just fine, because he’s done with all that crap.
He’s done with all that crap, but he misses her when she vanishes to the markets with Sara for several hours, and has to bite his tongue not to ask when they’ll be back when she announces she’s going for a walk on the beach with LJ. So, yeah, he thinks as he watches her striding up the path from the beach to the backdoor of his house, maybe he’s not as done with all that crap as he’d like to think.
“We’re invited to the big house for a few drinks,” she tells him, and he smiles at how quickly she’s fallen into the habit of using LJ’s nickname for Michael’s place. He lets his gaze wander over her lazily, from the lightly tanned legs that seem to go on forever to the pale blonde hair pulled back into a haphazard ponytail. It’s her fourth day in Panama, and already he’s having trouble remembering the suit-wearing Amazon he met in Gila.
He steps back to let her through the door. “When?”
She darts him a glance from beneath dark blonde eyelashes. “Whenever we’re ready.” Her smile is all soft pink lips and white teeth, like strawberries and cream teasing a starving man. He reaches out and curls his hand around the back of her neck, bringing her face to his for a slow, deep kiss. Her lips taste of lip balm, her throat of salt and vanilla soap, and he has to fight the urge to sink his teeth into her sun-warmed skin. Her hands skim down his back, then slip beneath his t-shirt, her fingernails lightly scratching his spine, and he knows they won’t be leaving for the big house any time soon.
They make it as far as the couch, hands tugging at zippers and fastenings, finally falling in a tangle of arms and legs, neither of them apparently willing to stop touching each long enough to bother with things like grace or finesse. Somehow Lincoln manages to pull his wallet from his back pocket of his jeans, throwing it onto the floor as soon as he’s retrieved the solitary condom packet he shoved in there months ago. Jane’s busy fingers make quick work of his belt and button fly and her own shorts, then she’s sinking down onto him in a slow, delicious slide of wet heat that almost has him arching off the couch.
Her mouth opens on a sigh, her head falling back, the sight testing his already tenuous grip on proceedings. Gritting his teeth, he tugs open her shirt, lifting his hands to cup her breasts, palming the soft weight of them as he gently pinches her nipples through the satin of her bra. They pucker at his touch, and he feels himself grow even harder inside her, the familiar tingle starting at the base of his spine. “Too fast,” he warns, but she shakes her head, her hands splayed on his chest as she rocks her hips against his.
“It’s perfect.” He watches her face, transfixed, as she closes her eyes, a tiny frown creasing her forehead as she moves against him, caught in a rhythm all her own, seeking and finding exactly what she needs. He counts to ten, then twenty, sweat prickling on his skin, every slow drag of her flesh over his driving him out of his mind. He’s a few seconds away from admitting defeat and letting go when she grows still, her whole body straining. “Oh God, Linc-”
She starts to tremble, her back arching as she pushes back against him. His hands tight on her waist, he lifts his hips to meet hers, thrusting into her helplessly, the soft pulse of her release pushing him over the edge, a rough groan burning his throat as he loses himself in her.
After a moment, she looks down at him with heavy-lidded eyes, her chest heaving. “Ready for that drink now?”
“When I can walk again,” he mutters, running his hands up her thighs, marvelling at the recuperative talents of covert operatives and wondering – not for the first time - what the hell a woman like this is doing with a guy like him. “Maybe gimme an hour or so.”
“Why don’t you want LJ to learn how to drive?”
Lincoln shakes his head, reminding himself that he shouldn’t be surprised that LJ would complain to Jane. After all, she’s the woman who showed him how to drive stick shift in her SUV on the long drive from Colorado to Gila. “It’s not that I don’t want him to learn how to drive,” he tells Jane calmly, then turns to address his son. “I just don’t want him to have his own car yet.”
LJ frowns. “But I’m almost seventeen.”
“What happened to the scooter you wanted to buy?”
His son sighs. “I can’t carry a board on a scooter,” he explains patiently, as though it should be obvious. “Besides, it’s not as though we don’t have the money to buy another car.”
“Exactly.” Lincoln reaches for his beer. “When I was your age-”
“When you were my age, you were hotwiring cars,” LJ mutters, and across the table Lincoln hears Michael snicker.
“He’s got you there.”
Lincoln starts to retort, but Michael holds up his hand, grinning at the sound of the ringing telephone coming from inside the house. “Saved by the bell.” Sara starts to rise but Michael is already on his feet. “I’ll get it,” he says, smoothing his hand over her windswept hair, then he vanishes through the French doors.
Lincoln eyes his son, waiting for him to start up on the driving issue again, but to his surprise LJ swiftly changes the subject. “I applied for a part time job in that dive shop on Thompson Street,” he announces casually, and Lincoln blinks.
“Yesterday, when I went into town with Uncle Mike and Sara.” He gives his father a hopeful grin. “That’s okay, isn’t it?”
Lincoln smiles. “Sure, as long as you don’t mind riding your bike to work.” LJ’s grin fades, and Lincoln has to bite the inside of his lip to keep from chuckling. He's about to tell his son he's proud of him for deciding to earn some money, but Sara's anxious voice interrupts his train of thought.
“Michael, what’s wrong?”
Lincoln looks up, following the line of Sara's gaze to where Michael is standing in the doorway. His face is pale beneath his tan, his eyes glazed with what looks like shock. “Cooper Green’s on the phone.”
Sara gives him a curious glance, and Michael shakes his head. “It’s not about the divorce.” He turns slowly to Lincoln, his eyes glittering with tears. “It’s about Veronica.”
Lincoln gets to his feet, vaguely aware of LJ’s suddenly white face across the table, Jane’s hand gently touching his arm. “What about her?” His brother looks as though he’s about to be sick, and Lincoln feels the bile rising in his own throat. “Michael?”
“Cooper’s office received an anonymous tip-off a few days ago. He didn’t want to tell us until they’d looked into it, just in case it was another crank call. But they sent someone up there and uh-,” Michael swallows hard, and Lincoln’s blood runs cold, knowing exactly what he’s about to hear. “They think they’ve found her body.”