Twice Off a Log
Robert walked rapidly through the woods, his heart pounding, unsure of
everything but that he should retrieve his axe and hatchet. Arriving at the spot
where they lay, he picked up the axe and began chopping down the nearest tree.
It wasn't that he needed the wood, just that he needed the action of the
chopping. Damn! *Chop!* Damn!* Chop!* He didn't want to be so attracted to
her. She was nothing more than an unwelcome intruder into what he'd desperately
hoped would be an entirely private space. And she was English, too! She might
put two and two together someday and then what? How could he have come so bloody
blasted FAR and end up with an Englishwoman just past the copse? Damn! *Chop!*
He hadn't put on his woodsman's gloves and the axe sliding through his palms began to rub his flesh. Pausing, he looked up at the canopy. He'd picked a much larger tree than usual. Well, he couldn't leave it half-chopped. It would be dangerous that way. Taking off his green shirt, he returned to the matter at hand, swinging the axe with an easy rhythm. At last the trunk cracked, began to splinter on its back side, and one last swing sent it toppling. It fell across the stream, not blocking it, but balanced across sections of rocks on either side. Wiping the sweat off his brow with the back of a forearm, he dropped the axe again and walked to the stream. He was hot, his shower completely undone.
The trunk was wide and he hopped up atop it, walking out to the middle of the stream. The stream here was almost completely shaded by the closely-knit canopies of the trees along either of its banks. It was getting on in the afternoon and he stretched himself out on the trunk, folding his hands on his chest, and watched the movement of the leaf patterns above him. They whispered forest secrets from branch to branch in the rustle of their leaves and the stream rippled its water song as it passed beneath the trunk. This was good. He was comfortable here, alone, him and the forest. After a while he closed his eyes, internalizing the forest sounds, merging them with the beating of his heart. He fell asleep.
Julie watched his back as he strode to the forest path, soon lost to her sight behind the undergrowth. Her fingers went to her lips, still warm and tingling from his. He had taken her utterly, utterly by surprise. He was formal, leaving after clearly indicating her presence was not welcome, then...this? In all seven of her books, she'd never written something quite like this.
Quietly closing the door, she went slowly back to the table and carried the tea things into the kitchen. She set the tray on a counter and stared at his cup a long while. A fingertip came out and ran along the rim of his cup where his lips had touched, then she moved the fingertip across her lower lip. The cups were a very thin, delicate china and she never put them in the dishwasher. She took her cup and the teapot to the sink, carefully washing them, but left his as it was, not yet ready to remove the traces of him from it.
She didn't even know his last name. And he didn't know hers. But...Robert...yes, solid. She liked his first name. Robert. He would never be a Bob. No, not ever. He was a Robert. Nicknames were not meant for some men. Sitting at her computer, she wrote for a while. Even though she was not using the day's events right now, they had, in some mysterious way, unlocked the flow of her words and her fingers flew over the keyboard.
Around four o'clock, she realized she hadn't eaten and went to the refrigerator, slicing off a piece of cheese. She stood leaning against the kitchen sink, nibbling it, looking out the window at the copse of trees he'd said his house lay beyond. What would it look like? It would not be white and smothered in roses. That much she knew. Perhaps she could take a peek? Not get really close, just enough to get some concept of its appearance?
Her mind was so full of that she knew it would be useless to return to her computer. Changing into slacks and tennis shoes she went out her door, heading across the small lawn toward the copse. Half way there she stopped. No, if he saw her...no, that wouldn't be right. She looked back over her shoulder at Rose Cottage, not really in the mood simply to go back there. Her oxfords were still in the mud. Maybe she could fish them out with a branch or something and clean them off? They were, after all, her favorite walking shoes and the surrounding forest simply did beckon one to...walk. So she passed by her house and began to follow the path she had earlier in the day.
When she came to the tangle of underbrush where she'd scratched herself that morning, she carefully took a more circuitous way around it, coming out at the edge of the mud. There was no trace of her oxfords. Damn! They were completely buried in mud. She began to search nearby for a long, thin branch she could use to poke down into the mud when a bright flash of green caught her eye. A shirt was draped over a small bush. It was his. She remembered it well. But why would his shirt be out here? Just a bit to her left, a large tree had been
freshly cut down and there was an axe lying near the stump. Curious. Turning, her eyes followed down the length of the trunk, noting it had
fallen across the stream. She didn't remember a tree across the stream this morning. Walking toward the stream, the green shirt still in her
hands, she came close to the bank, her breath hissing sharply in. Robert! He lay along the trunk over the stream and didn't seem yet aware
of her presence.
Leaning out as far as she dared, she tried to see his face, but the angle was wrong. She sat on the same rock he'd seated her upon that
morning, taking off her tennis shoes and socks, rolling up her slacks as far as they'd go. Trying not to make a splash, she waded gingerly
out into the water, coming quite close to the large trunk before she stopped. His hands were laced across his chest, his head tipped just
a bit toward her, his lashes fanned across his cheeks. She smiled. He was sleeping. She simply stood there a long time, absorbing the
picture he made in that setting. "You are better, Robert," she whispered to herself, "than anything I have ever written."
His hands rose and fell with his breathing. She had his shirt, so he was bare to the waist. "Voyeur," she scolded herself with a smile and no
intention of stopping her gaze. No, quite shamelessly she studied his parted lips, the straight line of his brows.
Perhaps her gaze was almost too tactile of a thing because he woke with a sudden start, jerking up to a seated position so rapidly he lost
his balance and fell off the far side of the trunk. She was so startled she lost her footing and sat down hard in the stream. Everything was
silent a long, long moment, then she could see his eyes peering at her under the trunk.
He cleared his throat. "Did we not already do this once today?"
"I...I...," she stammered, "I guess I wasn't...wet enough."
She had no idea what his response would be and her eyes widened when a hearty laugh rolled toward her from under the tree.
His jeans and a second pair of boots were sopping. At least his shirt was safe and dry on the bush where he'd left it. It was when he looked under the trunk and saw her sitting there, and his green shirt came floating toward him on the current, that he began to laugh. The whole situation, the whole day, had been utterly ridiculous, completely strange. His thoughts then ranged back to an earlier log across a larger stream. He'd ended up in the water that day, too. And he'd made a friend. A good and loyal friend. He smiled. Perhaps the similarity boded well for today's wetting? There wasn't space for him to pass under the tree, so he stood, rivulets coursing down his chest, placed both palms on the trunk and lightly vaulted over it, landing with somewhat of a splash at her side. Immediately his brow knit in concern. Silent tears dripped down her cheeks.
"Are you injured, Julie?" he asked, quickly kneeling.
She looked at him and hiccupped. "What is it?" he pressed. "Did you hurt yourself when you slipped this time?"
She hiccupped again. "N...no," she sniffed. "You laughed."
"I laughed? You weep because I laughed?"
She nodded. "I...I never k...know if...if you are going to grump at m...me, or l...laugh." Damn the man! He made her feel completely out of control! She was being a ninny and she couldn't stop herself.
He looked completely bewildered, trying to grasp the concept that his laughter had made her cry. She must be injured. That had to be it. He put his hands under the water and began to feel down her legs, looking for broken bones.
"Oh...God!" she moaned and he was certain he must have pressed on a break.
"I'm sorry, Julie," he muttered. "I didn't mean...."
She closed her eyes, knowing she was about to die on the spot. Every single nerve ending in her body had sprung to life.
He took the closing of her lids as affirmation she was in pain so he slid one arm under her legs, the other behind her back, and stood, lifting her out of the water. He'd get her to his car and...what? Coffs was too far. He'd have to take her into the Glen.
She slid her arms around his damp shoulders, her damn brain making sentences. He carried her, in them, to a softly-turfed meadow, sprinkled with wild poppies, and laying her on her back unbuttoned her wet blouse, making slow and marvelous love to her. Descriptive sentence after descriptive sentence of how that would be filled her mind.
Opening her eyes, she looked up his jaw line as he struggled to find a way up the slippery bank. Soon, she thought, it would all happen soon, the meadow, the poppies, the slow unbuttoning. "OOOF!" he gasped as he gained the top of the bank, a mossy rock turning under his boot. He toppled forward, Julie in his arms, straight into the deepest part of the mud.