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"You could always stay here with me," Salem Pearce whispered into the velvety night, his butter-soft voice a contrast to the chirrups of crickets in the tall grasses lining the road.
G. veletis. Spring crickets. Only the males sing. Like crickets, men had their calling, courtship and rivalry songs. Emily Jordan had heard them all. In her experience, men were full of bluster.
But not Salem. Not her friend of few words.
These words shocked her. Even more, they frustrated her because his timing couldn't be worse.
"I've waited years for you to ask me that," she said fiercely. "How could you do this to me now? The night before my flight out?"
"You're always catching a flight." The bitterness in his voice might have been justified if not for their history. She wasn't the only one who had turned away in the past. "You're always leaving."
The pale moon shone on hair as black as a cricket's back and sent his deep-set eyes, as dark as the night weaving through the woods beside them, into shadow. His Native American skin, honey-gold in sunlight, glowed darker in the moonlight. An intensity she hadn't seen before hardened his features.
"Of course I'm always leaving," she answered. "Because I don't work here. My livelihood takes me everywhere but here."
"You set a record this time." His voice hardened and cut through her defenses like an acetylene torch, the steel of the armor she'd spent years shaping useless against him when he used that harsh tone. She'd loved him for years, and then she'd learned to turn it off when he'd married someone else. "You didn't last even a weekend."
That set up her dander. "I'm returning to work."
"Work? Is that what you call it?"
"Yes," Emily shouted. Ooh, the man could make her so mad. "I'm a good archeologist. I do great work."
"Archeology. Yes. You're great." He touched her arm, sending a zing of pleasure through her. "But we both know that isn't why you go back, over and over again." His tension swirled around them like fog, separating them as much as age and distance ever had.
"I'm returning to my work,'" Emily insisted.
Salem stepped close so quickly, his long jet-black braid fell forward over his shoulder. "You're returning to him'" The heat from his body chased away the late April chill.
"No." She was involved with Jean-Marc, but her work called to her.
"He'll be there."
"Of course he will. He's working on the same dig. He's my boss. That doesn't mean anything, Salem. There are a lot of people there."
"You're going back to him," he repeated.
Relenting, she forced herself to answer honestly. "Yes." Jean-Marc drew her as relentlessly as her work did. As equally.
A car on its way into Accord cast its headlights across the Colorado night and the glare turned the landscape to black and white.
She and Salem had been driving past each other on the small highway and had pulled over to talk. She'd wanted to tell him she was leaving in the morning. How could she have expected his beautiful, terrible bombshell? Stay with me.
In the wash of the car's lights, Salem did his imitation of a sphinx, Native American-style. He closed up and set his beautiful lips into a thin line beneath his broad Ute cheekbones. Stone man. Lord, she hated when he did that.
This was so unfair. "You abandoned me first. Why?" Salem didn't answer. She knew he understood the question, the one he'd never answered years ago. "Why?" she pressed. "You could have waited for me. You wanted me."
"Not when we first met. You were so young. Like a kid sister. We had a bond, yeah. You were my little buddy. I couldn't believe a twelve-year-old actually got me, understood my love of nature and my heritage, of history."
He tapped his fist against his chin, a measured action, maybe judging how much to tell her? "I felt less alone because you were there. Why else would an eighteen-year-old hang out with a twelve-year-old? Why else would I pour my dreams out to you? I'd never known a kid who was so good at listening. I-I wished you were part of my family." He angled away, as though embarrassed to admit to the very thing she had felt when she first met him-an unprecedented affinity with another person. Her heart soared. He had felt the same way as her!
"Then you were fourteen, almost fifteen, and beginning to look like a woman, and things changed. I fell in love with you."
Her heart rate kicked up, did a song-and-dance routine in her chest.
"I found you attractive." He grasped her upper arms, expression intense. "Don't you get how young you still were? I respected both you and your dad too much to touch you. And myself, when it comes down to it. For God's sake, it wouldn't even have been legal. I tried waiting, but I kept on thinking about you, dreaming about you. I had to change how I dealt with you, to cut off the friendship, because it was becoming something it shouldn't have been until you got older."
All that time when she'd been dreaming about him, and he had started to turn away from her, he'd been doing the same with her. She'd had no idea. He'd hidden it well.
When he said, "I hated that attraction. It drove me nuts," he shattered her blossoming happiness. "I had to distract myself with other women. Waiting was hard for a guy that age. What was I supposed to do? Wait four or five years?"
"Yes." It came out a sibilant plea. "Why didn't you?"
"You were a girl. I was a young man. I needed companionship."
"You needed sex," Emily said, still bitter sixteen years later.
"What was so wrong with that?" The sphinx was gone and Salem's anger slipped through. "I was a guy. That's what men do. They have sex with willing women. Annie was willing."
"You didn't have to get her pregnant." And break my fourteen-year-old heart.
"That was an accident. Failed birth control."
"You didn't have to marry her."
"Seriously, Emily? Leave Annie to raise the baby alone? Maybe let some other man step in? Don't you know me at all?"
Yes, she did. Through and through. Proud, ethical Salem would do the right thing. She expected no less. It had been only her vulnerable young heart that had been unreasonable. It had hurt to lose him.
To lose something you never had, Emily?
But we did have something, a connection. Everyone thought so, not just me. Salem just told you he felt it, too.
"Why were you distant after you got married?
We still saw each other all the time, but you treated me differently."
"Of course I did." The statement exploded out of him. "I was married and committed to making it work. I would have been a fool not to. I had children and was trying to create a strong family. My children had to believe I cared for their mother. Annie tried hard, too."
It all made perfect sense. Her own naïveté had wounded her, not Salem.
"Stay," Salem said again. "With me and the girls. Annie's been dead for four years. We could make it work now."
The age gap that had mattered when they were teenagers no longer did at thirty-six and thirty.
One big, big thing besides her career did separate them, though. Jean-Marc. She couldn't dump him, long distance, just because Salem asked her to. Out of the blue, she might add. Where on earth had this come from?
"Don't go back, Emily."
"I have to."
"Then this is goodbye." Her heart chilled. "What do you mean?"
"No more hanging together. No more contact. It's too hard on me. I need to walk away. I need a clean break."
The ice in his voice stripped her skin raw and opened a yawning pit where his presence had always been, dependable and there. She might see him only three or four times a year, but he was always present in her mind, like a beacon lighting a path through her dark times.
The thought of losing Salem, her rock, sent her into a panic. "You don't mean that."
"I do, Emily," he said, the sphinx back and unyielding. "The next time you come home, stay away from me. Leave me alone."
Bewildered, she said, "But-but you're my best friend."
"For the love of God, Emily, friend? Is that how you see me?" Before she realized he'd moved, he gripped her wrists, his shoulders blocking the spill of moonlight from overhead. He swore and pulled her against him. His lips hovered above hers.
He'd never- She'd always wanted- At last.
But he didn't kiss her. He moved his mouth to her temple but didn't touch her, simply breathed on her skin, raising goose bumps across her flesh.
Time stilled while his soapy aftershave wove ribbons of scent around her.
Lick me. Lick my temple, my cheek, my lips. Make love to me.
His breath swept her cheek, lingered on her ear and then trailed down her neck. He made no contact, but shivers followed in his wake. Her mind knew she couldn't give in, but her body, oh, her body wanted nothing to do with common sense. Her heart wanted to own his.
Fingers of cool air caressed her shoulders, but Salem's palms on her back were hot, drawing her closer to his hard chest and flat belly.
She'd always loved his height, his muscle. She touched him now, her hands flat against his chest and roaming his lean frame, measuring his dimensions for those nights when she would need memories, something, to hold close in the Sudan. Salem. Words, thought, fled. Only Salem. Only this and now.
Too soon, he set her away from him, his hands hard on her shoulders. "I'm not your friend, Emily. The next time that jackass hurts you, the next time he screws around on you, don't come crying to me. If you leave tomorrow, this will be our last time together."
She struggled to catch her breath. She wasn't this kind of woman. She didn't keep two men at one time. When Salem had been married, and since her relationship with Jean-Marc started, she'd been careful to not give Salem any sign he might construe as encouragement. She had put aside her youthful infatuation, had buried it deeper than the most elusive artifact, opting instead for only friendship and a shoulder to cry on. By the time Annie died, Emily had already become deeply involved with Jean-Marc.
Shaken that she'd almost lost reason, she stepped away.
Salem wreaked havoc with her good intentions. And he hadn't even kissed her. Lordy, Lordy, what if he had?
She swiped beads of sweat from her upper lip and pulled herself together. Her hand shook. Salem, what you do to me should be against the law.
"I have to go back," she whispered. "There are things-"
"Fine. It's over."
She saw red. She didn't know that could be real, but holy relics, it was. "Over?" she asked, her voice dangerously quiet. "How can something be over when it never began?"
"Get on that plane tomorrow morning and consider us done. The next time you visit your family, stay the hell away from me."
He strode to his beat-up old Jeep, slammed the door and spewed gravel, leaving ruts in the side of the road.
Her best friend, her onetime crush, meant it. He never wanted to see her again.
The air around Emily became thin, leaving her dizzy. For too long, she had taken Salem for granted, had assumed he would always be here waiting for her. Now he was gone, as far away from her emotionally as Jean-Marc was physically, and it cut a dent into her heart, hacked out a hunk of it and left it bleeding on the road.
Exhausted, she got into her car to drive home to her father's house, in the opposite direction Salem had gone, and wasn't that freaking symbolic?
Hadn't they always been heading different ways?
Stay here with me.
Oh, Salem, and what would I do about my work? About my my what? My boyfriend? What a pale description for her relationship with Jean-Marc. And too simple. My lover? Yes, that, but more.
The following morning, although it made her sick in both heart and body, she boarded the plane to return to work and Jean-Marc.
"Stay with me," Jean-Marc said, bringing back memories of one year ago, when the words came from a better man. She'd made the wrong choice, and now it was too late. Too late to get Salem at any rate.
She could certainly dump Jean-Marc, though, and gladly.
"We can work everything out," he said, ramping up the charm with his too-easy grin and continental good looks-long tawny hair and ghostly pale blue eyes above high cheekbones in a rugged face. Over time, the elements roughened his skin and made him look even better, as though the sun's sole purpose was to serve this man. She'd grown tired of his looks and his arrogance. Other women hadn't. They flew to him like moths to a flame, but like a flame, Jean-Marc burned brightly but only briefly for any given woman.
Women envied her. Don't, she should tell them. He' ll only tear you to pieces, too, just as he has me.
Brilliant at getting governments and countries to open their borders and doors to him even in tumultuous times, when others couldn't, Jean-Marc had an enviable reputation in the world of archeology. He knew how to work the press, how to make digging in the dirt sound sexy and how to promote himself as much as any of the ancient ruins on which he worked. He brought glamor to archeology. With his daily tweets and constant Facebook presence, added to his raging good looks, he'd become a star.
Humans were a great lot for mythmaking. She got that. In her line of work, how could she not? But her job was to separate fact from fiction. It should have been Jean-Marc's, too, but somewhere along the way, he'd begun to believe his own press. He thought he was God, all-powerful and above reproach.
"We can work this out," he repeated.
"Stuff it, Jean-Marc." Yeah, she was being rude. Dad's wife, Laura, would be appalled. Dad, on the other hand, would applaud. He was a fighter like Emily. A scrapper. She'd held her tongue for too long, the result of being involved with one's boss. Foolish girl.
Two nights ago, she'd caught Jean-Marc in bed with the latest PhD groupie, another one drawn in by his charisma. Until now, she'd been able to deny these things happened. In a weird and wonderful way, she was relieved that it was all out in the open. She could end it cleanly. If only she didn't feel so lousy. If only her breakfast would stop playing hopscotch in her stomach.
Over the years, she'd endured whispered rumors about his affairs and pitying glances. She'd ignored it all. No longer. "I'm sick of it."
She lifted her backpack onto the bed to fill with her carry-on items. She had a flight to catch. Yesterday, she'd boxed up her tools and had arranged to have them sent home. She'd said goodbye to dear friends and colleagues.
A hot breeze blew the dust of the desert in through her open window. Local merchants hawked their wares four stories below. Inside, Jean-Marc tried to sell her damaged goods. "Come on," he said. "Be reasonable."
God, what an asinine phrase. Jean-Marc meant, Agree with me.
"Save your smiles for the young women you chase." She packed her cosmetic bag. "They no longer work on me."
Emily shoved a sweater into her backpack, ready to walk out of this man's life for good. It had taken her a year to come to her senses.
"You're running away." If one more man told her that, she would scream.