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[Day 048] Moving Day

Izzie had brought her the labs and it wasn't good news at all. However there was a shift in store for most of them. Off the Hyrdra Island and back to the mainland. It was a good shift, something Juliet welcomed. Her dolphins had been released a year ago, and even now all she needed to do was keep an eye on their tracking. Going back to what she could at least consider more home than this place was a positive thing. She hoped it would instill more trust for Jack, but she knew he was already having his doubts. Even the few conversations she had with him hadn't seemed to go exactly as she'd planned.

It wasn't going to be immediate, and she hadn't expected it to be any other way. He was stubborn and that challenge was just built into who he was. In a way she had to admire that about him, trapped on an island with no apparently way off and he was still resistant to anything he couldn't control. Making her way to the temporary housing they'd put him into Juliet knocked first before entering. It was a courtesy she didn't need to extend to others, but since she was trying to make a connection she offered it to him.

Moving into the main section of the room she smiled at him, "I'm sorry if you've gotten comfortable here, but we're moving back to the main island today. Housing arrangements will be made for you there."
He was still trying to decide whether or not to trust these people, given their total lack of caution...but Michael couldn't help but enjoy himself for just a little while as he awoke the next morning from his makeshift bed by the main fire and eventually set to work in building himself a shelter. The rest of the survivors were generous, if a little cautious, but by the time Michael had gathered his building materials, most of the suspicion among the others had dissipated, for the most part. The countless offers of help he received were proof of that.

Michael, however, turned them all away politely. He had what he needed, and he could basically do the job alone...in an odd way, he was almost looking forward to the arduous task ahead. Though the money Linc had given him for school had covered everything, Michael had still spent a couple of summers doing a few weeks' worth of time in construction. It was hard labor, and nothing he truly needed to get his degree...but he wanted more than just the knowledge to design a building, he wanted to know more than what went into it. When he drafted a new complex, he wanted to feel the coarse nodules on a steel girder. He wanted to touch the threads of every screw, know the weight of every handful of rivets in his palm. He wanted to smell the wood and cough as the acrid scent of fresh stucco and paint stung his lungs.

It was the same now as Michael got to work, finding a relatively flat expanse of sand near the edges of the camp, just a few feet from the treeline. It was unfortunate, but the sand was packed solid and level as he was going to find. Plus the location was close enough to a cluster of neighboring shelters to maintain privacy, but be missed if something happened.

He started with a few lengths of bamboo, planting them as deep as he could in clusters of three before he started on the walls, utilizing some pieces of scrap metal and some skillfully bound pieces of leather and cardboard...remnants of ruined suitcases and luggage that had been modified for patching shelters, but with a little effort actually reinforced the structure he was working on.

After a while he stopped to take a breather, knowing the truth but unwilling to face it: he couldn't keep going like this in the heat. So far, he'd gotten few remarks from his fellow tail survivors at the glimpses of artwork that had come into view thus far, and Rachel had seen most of his tattoos at least once without asking questions...and, apparently, she was in a position *to* ask.

Biting the bullet, Michael unbuttoned and peeled off his dress shirt, sighing in relief as the ocean breeze cooled his skin. Tossing the shirt aside, he got back to work for a short while, making enough progress to complete all three necessary walls of his shelter before he finally decided to head over to the water collection trough for a drink.

All in all, it was shaping up to be a fairly productive day.

[Day 48] Spatial Differences

It had been only thirty six days since Miss Parker found herself back on the island that was the main research compound for what was now still considered the Dharma Initiative. Mittelos Biotech had put their finger into it as well, and the tainting was seen across the boards. Times like this though Parker wished she had paid a bit more attention at those briefings when directive came down from The Tower, or even better when memos got slipped to her from unknown sources regarding the Triumvirate. Anything would have been better to what she had been put through in the last thirty six days.

Parker herself barely had much recollection of the program that had build Jarod into the Pretender that he was today. She remembered being tested and the blocks and all of that, but once her mother found out what Raines had been doing... she always was told that her mother asked to have her taken out of the program. That was always her understanding of it all.

She knew what Raines thought though, that if she had stayed in... she'd be better equipped to capture Jarod. Yet here she was, trapped on the same island as him... and they didn't even want her to bring him in.

Instead she sat in rooms built for simulations and refused to participate. She paced like a caged animal waiting for someone to just give up and get her. Just like she was right now... waiting for someone to realize she wasn't going to become anyone... not today not ever.

The knock on the door came low and light and she almost cursed under her breath realizing who it was behind the door. Sure enough when she moved away against the back wall Jo opened the door greeting her with that smug smirk and blonde ponytail.

"Jo... nice to see that at least somethings never change around here."

"Shut it Parker. You're getting transported back to the mainland. Aren't you overjoyed." Jo shot back at her before raising her handgun and firing a tranquilizer dart at her. The tip pierced her shoulder and after a few moments of blurred vision she was on the floor.

***


Her head was killing her and she was pretty sure she felt a knot on the side of her head, "Morons can't even make sure I don't bang my head when you drug me?" Slowly getting up to a seated position she let her eyes adjust to find herself in what seemed like a pretty standard house. Yellow walls, lamps plugged in... but cords bolted to the ground and walls. Which wasn't exactly standard. It took her a minute or two but she managed to get to her feet and lean against the wall for a bit more support.

"Alright... it's real cute. Dope me up, drop me off in some suburban nightmare just because I don't play your little games?"

"Oh... I think they want you to play this little game now Miss Parker..."

Exhaling through her nostrils quickly she spun around as quickly as her equilibrium would allow to let her eyes meet the owner of the voice, "Oh really Jarod and what game might this be?"

"House."

[Day 48] A Simple Request

Izzie wasn't really afraid of Ben. It wasn't exactly easy to tell but she was pretty certain that it was from all the years of interning that had numbed her of that whole bigger and smarter than you concept. Doctors at Seattle Grace had a longer lasting impression on her so when she went to Ben for something she always had the mindset that she'd get it. After all despite using their research for Denny's heart... she had been more of an asset to them over the past few months and if she was only going to be there for six months total she wasn't going to let someone push her around.

Juliet asking her for help though made her feel a bit more needed around the complex. It wasn't just a case of her ushering people from building to building and even then she still was only doing minor exams. Checking blood levels for some toxin she'd never even heard of but thankfully they already had a screening process in place. Moving into the room that Ben had set up as his temporary office on this island Izzie knocked lightly before being called in by Ben.

"Dr. Stevens... is there something I can do for you?"

Licking her lips and tilting her head she met his eyes with a firm stare that she learned from Bailey, "Actually there is. We've all heard the rumors Ben, and I think by now it's no secret why we have Dr. Shephard here."

"You've been talking to Juliet..."

He responded just as calmly as ever as he turned away from her almost ignoring the stare down she was trying to give him. Feeling a bit defeated she continued, "Actually I have been talking to Dr. Burke..." she paused a bit still a bit weirded out by there being another Dr. Burke that she had worked with, "With Juliet. She says your films and blood work are out of date... with something that is close to your spine? I'd suggest keeping those films as current as possible. Any slight fluctuation in growth could damage you a lot more than I think you'd be willing to risk."

She could hear Ben sigh and the gentle click of him setting his pen down, halting whatever notes he was in the middle of taking. "With your permission? I'd like to do them myself. I worked with one of the best Neurosurgeons in the country at Seattle Grace, and I've done pre-op work on spinal reconstruction. I'd like the chance to help you Ben... after everything you've done for me."

Izzie always tended to let her own experiences in life bleed into her life as a surgeon, and even though most doctors felt it was a risk that she took unneeded, seeing the shift in Ben's shoulders she knew that Ben could accept her compassion and either use it for his own best interest, or just ignore it like everyone else did.

"We'll do the labs tomorrow... okay?"

"Thank you Ben..." she paused for a moment but Ben sensed it and turned around to face her.

"What is it Dr. Stevens?"

"It's Dr. Shephard. If you really want him to do this for you... you should try treating him like a Doctor that's capable of saving lives... not a prisoner."

Standing in the doorway she watched his face for a moment trying to get a reaction from him, but instead was met with the lack of expression as he thought it over. When she thought he was just waiting for her to leave she turned to exit, glancing over her shoulder she saw Ben turn back to his work. Shaking her head in slight defeat she moved to the doorway and stopped when Ben called to her.

"Dr. Stevens? After we do my labs and you take then to Juliet... tell her to move Dr. Shephard into the housing where Miss Parker has been. We'll have her relocated by then. Besides... she seems to dislike being where she is right now. Perhaps a change of scenery will be good for both of them."

Turning around to face him she was met with an expression that actually worried her as he spoke about the captives within the Hydra... and for the first time since meeting Benjamin Linus... she was actually scared of him.
It was a bit odd to just go back into the flow of things with everyone else in the camp. Just seeing how everyone else got along, the manner in which they all just existed in this cohesive unit was a bit unsettling to her. Spending all that time roaming through the jungle, trying to stay one step ahead of Them and never seeming to come out ahead of things... seeing everyone just living life still made her a bit more on edge than she felt comfortable with. She still hadn't told Frank about seeing Emma, let alone that it was more than just seeing her... it was talking and hugging and pretty much hanging out with her as if she had been on the plane with them. That wasn't as unsettling though as just seeing how no one seemed to really mind that they had suffered for all those days trying to get to the other side of camp... mostly because everyone was just happy to be together again.

They had built shelter and it seemed to be standing up to the test of winds off the waves of the ocean, which felt good. Shalimar had started to get to know a few more people, names matching to faces and that was also a good feeling to have. Not knowing you're alone in all this mess gave her a bit of peace of mind. Of course seeing the contents of the pantry in the hatch was another blow to her reality. They had been eating fruit for over a month and they had actual food. The blonde Australian kid assured Shalimar as she scanned the shelves that they had only recently discovered the Hatch called the Swan, and that he wasn't even sure if anyone really was taking full advantage of it yet. Shalimar could sort of understand it just from the looks of it there wasn't enough food to sustain everyone, unless it was just for a few days. No point in getting used to steak if you can't have it every night. It seemed to be the first thing this group was actually being smart about.

It still didn't stop her from browsing through the shelves and finding a few items that she hadn't had since she was a kid. Adam always had this thing about eating healthy, and their metabolisms and being active. Sugary foods and sweets weren't generally on the menu in Sanctuary. Laughing when she opened the box marked Dharma Pressed Strung Sugar she had a quick memory of being a little kid and eating all the sugary pieces of candy off the elastic in one sitting. Taking a few of them in her hand she wound them around her wrists and just kept laughing as she pulled a few more from the box, then finally with a wicked smirk just shouted to Chase that she was taking the whole box of them.

Frank had left her a note about heading out to go help bring fresh water back from the caves in order to also get to know a few more of the people from this side of the island and Shalimar opted to leave him a note as well on the outside of their shelter.

So I was digging around in the hatch this afternoon and I came across a box of Dharma brand Candy Necklaces. See it's been a long time since I've had one of these things. If I remember right it was second grade and I sat at my desk in school just gnawing them off until all I had left was a string of elastic that had a rainbow of color staining it.

Of course now that I'm older and much wiser... and way hotter I have a much better idea for the use of these. So I'm leaving you this one... I've got the rest and you come find me and we'll see if I've improved the concept or not.

Love ya - Shal


She left him one of the strung up candies to hold the note in place with his prior note that he left her and she headed out into the jungle. Every so often she'd hang one of the necklaces off a branch until she finally came to a small stream that she had passed a few times the night before helping hunt for boar. It was pretty secluded when she was there the night before, but she still followed the stream up until she found the source of the water. A waterfall that led to a rather deep looking pool of water and then a few sections of rock that too the run-off from the falls that broke off and headed down to form the stream. It wasn't a lake, but it still seemed deep enough, and she almost wondered if it came up on the other side of the island elsewhere. Underground caves with pockets of air seemed like something out of a movie but if she was going to find one anywhere she figured it would be here.

Curiosity got the better of her and she stripped down and got in taking a deep breath and diving down as deep as she could. The water was so clear and as she moved deeper down she was pretty sure she'd find something. Then she saw the opening in the cliff-like wall and almost wanted to laugh if she hadn't been holding her breath still. Pushing through the opening she kicked hard until she got to the other side and saw light coming from above. Moving to the surface she found herself on the other side of a waterfall. It wasn't really clear which falls this was because she hadn't seen it before, but it was a lot more private than anything she had wandered through. High tree lines, and a cliff wall that seemed to encircle the rest of the area around them. Satisfied she had found some little private area for herself she took another deep breath and swam back to the other side. Seated on the flat rocks where the stream started she wrung at her hair while opening the plastic packages and twisting some of the candy necklaces around her wrists and ankles while she waited for Frank to find her.
Chase had just gotten done checking the wound on Rachel's shoulder. He had reapplied the gauze that really was just there to make sure she didn't get anything on the newly healed skin, but she was still grateful for the concern.

"Thank you... for everything," Rachel glanced to Chase meeting his eyes to let him know that she really did mean what she was saying.

"It's not a problem. Honestly, you're damn lucky to have had people looking out for you all those days. Could've been a lot worse."

Rachel nodded solemnly taking another deep breath inward trying to shake another wave of nausea. Closing her eyes she felt Chase's hand close around her wrist taking her pulse with his fingers. "I'll be fine... it's just the antibiotics I think. I've been just really queasy. Of course the non-stop fruit and junk food Tom brings me might not exactly be helping matters."

Once more she met his eyes, "I promise, I'll eat better."

"Rachel... the antibiotics haven't been in your system in four days... is there something that you aren't telling me? I'm a doctor, you can have patient confidentiality if you're concerned about something."

Furrowing her brow she wasn't sure she wanted to discuss those details of what happened after the crash with anyone... let alone someone she barely knew... before she even told Tom. Instincts told her to ignore it, that it would pass and she'd be fine... but there was this small part of her that knew if she kept quiet and something really was wrong... she'd regret it later on.

"Before the crash... I was pregnant. Three... four weeks at the most? The impact, the stress of the crash... I had spotting... I... I never told Tom. Well I haven't told him yet." Out of habit she glanced around the hatch, knowing that every time in her past when she had let out a secret like that someone was always waiting around the corner to run off with the intel. Relief washed over her when she realized they were still alone. "I want to tell him... I just... I don't know how to even bring it up."

Chase nodded and stood up moving around the hatch digging through the various bags that had been brought in over the days they had spent there. Rachel wasn't sure if he still wanted her to talk or not, but there wasn't much else to say.

"So, you're sure you miscarried?" Chase asked her as he continued fumbling through things. "The reason I ask... is your body survived all that... and you're still standing, and you're still having symptoms of being pregnant. I've seen stranger things... believe me far stranger things, but... found it."

Chase turned around and glanced at Rachel holding up the open box, "Now don't ask me who packs a pregnancy test, but we can be thankful that they only used one of them."

Rachel laughed beneath her breath, "I packed a pregnancy test. I took the test in Australia... on our honeymoon. I was going to tell him at dinner when we got back home. I only took the one because the first one came up positive. They say they're 99% accurate, so I went with the one result."

Pulling the second test out of the box Chase handed it to her still in the plastic wrap, "Pop quiz time. I'll give you some privacy."

Rachel still wasn't really sure why she was even doing this, or even thinking about it. Even if she was... she had been near death for almost a month walking clear across an island in the middle of jungle and people trying to kill them. She had an infection raging through her body for who knows how long... if she was still... it couldn't be a good thing. Still she peeled the plastic off the test and moved to the bathroom down the hall from the computer that thankfully still had another forty seven minutes left.

It's just a pregnancy test... you've done this before. You pee on the little stick and you wait and see what the little symbol turns to. When it goes to the negative sign, then you can go back to just knowing all about firewall securities and advanced quantum algorithms. It won't be a positive sign... because... well it just shouldn't be. Of course... if it is... then what?

In the time that it took Rachel's mind to race through all the possible options that she had left, and what she could do no matter the result she had barely noticed the time had slipped away. The sound of the beeping from the numbers startled her out of her daze as she picked up the test and moved to the other room to enter in the numbers. Setting the test on the edge of the table she keyed in the sequence.

>:| 4 8 15 16 23 42

The numbers ticked back to one hundred and eight and she breathed a sigh of relief as she picked up the test off the table glancing to it not even really looking at it as Tom walked in meeting her gaze from across the room with such love that in that moment she actually knew that even if she wasn't pregnant anymore... that she would be one day, and with that man.

Keeping her hand hidden behind the terminal as he headed over to her Rachel glanced to the test, almost already sure of the result before she saw it, but when she glanced at the small circle display she nearly couldn't swallow. Instead she just laughed lightly, knowing that her smile was going to give her away the moment he saw her. As Tom headed closer to her she just kept laughing, and smiling clutching onto the stick that she knew she had peed on, but that showed her... she was going to have Tom's baby.
His injuries were minimal...few cuts and scrapes, a sore shoulder and hip and that was about it. The doctors had already looked him over and told him he was fine...both of them, including the one that could have been his twin brother...

But Frank Taylor had bigger things to worry about. Like the pain.

It started shortly after he'd pulled himself out of the ocean, like so many others from the group that had survived the crash. His clothes were still dripping when the first drowned ghost had grabbed his arm and begged for help. Then another had shown up, and another.

Then more...souls that hadn't been on the plane.

Salt water choked him. Noxious fumes filled his lungs and stung his eyes. Screams rang in his ears, and voices carried through it all.

He was huddled in on himself, trying to push through the shock already setting in when cold lips touched his ear and an all too familiar voice filled with venom drifted through the screams.

"Looks like you're in a real mess this time, Frank. So many people...so little time."

"Not my problem." he managed to get out through chattering teeth as he watched the rest of the survivors a distance away, slowly coming out of shock and into the realization that survival was priority number one. Lucky dogs...the lot of them.

"Now, you don't really believe that. You gotta save everyone...couldn't save your own son, now you gotta fix it. You gotta fix everything."

"Don't gotta fix you, do I?" he shot back as he rolled onto his back, staring up at the crystal-clear blue sky. Not a cloud to be had. Warm air, balmy ocean breeze...but he was cold to his core. The gas was going to suffocate him, and the water was ice in his lungs and throat...

"Listen to those voices, Frank...listen to them." Simon laughed, laying behind Frank with his head propped up in his hand. "And just smell that fresh air! Nice, ain't it?"

Frank shut his eyes without answering...and fought to take a single deep breath while the voices of the dead raged on.

By the time the sun set, he was up and sitting indian style in the sand...yoga and meditation were a couple of tools for focus he'd picked up over the years, but he was just a little too old and a little too worn down to be able to sit comfortably in a real life Lotus for any long period of time.

The notion brought a snort of laughter, and the moment of self-deprecating humor did more to quiet the voices than meditating for the last several hours had. Inward focus...that one moment of clear, introspective thought brought back a measure of control...and while the voices still weren't quiet, he could finally breathe again.

"You're kidding yourself, Frank."

"You're full of shit, Simon." he replied quietly, opening his eyes slowly. Off to the left, he could see the pale shape in the corner of his eye. He knew the ghastly smile and the large, empty eyes intimately.

But Simon wasn't his problem now...he had more important things to worry about.

Getting to his feet, Frank finally took a good look at his surroundings, a little startled that the light had gone so quickly. He took stock of himself...searched for that warmth at his core, the stillness that told him he was alone...at least for the moment. There was cold there...but he was no longer freezing, meaning that at the moment the dead were pushed back.

Including Simon.

Taking a deep breath, Frank started walking, shedding his jacket and grimacing at the way the ocean-water soaked fabric clung as he removed it while moving over to the fire he saw burning up ahead.
She was exhausted.

Enduring the crash had been hard...not taxing, but simply hard. It was all a matter of control, and control was something she desperately needed. Using the power meant tapping that beast, and she simply wasn't strong enough to curb that dark hunger completely. Not yet.

People died...a lot of them. Still, she fought as the plane went down...she held it together for as long as she could until the turbulence became too great and she let go in order to save the passengers.

She couldn't save everyone, but control the descent of the plane's pieces as they fell...and she could feel each and every person on the plane as they died.

It was the chill of death that made her shiver even now before the comforting blaze Logan had gathered wood for and Jean had ignited simply by quickening the molecules of the wood to generate the necessary heat. A cautious handling of those primordial building blocks, manipulating them just so...

The daze she was wrapped in had nothing to do with shock and everything to do with the cacophony of minds around her, singing with pain and numbness that beckoned to her...and an evil that called to the darkest parts of her soul.

Something was out in the jungle.

She knew Logan could sense it, too...that base, feral instinct that told him things just weren't right, that made his nostrils flare for the scent of darkness and the hair on his body stand on end as he sat beside her, one arm wrapped so securely and protectively around her shoulders. He was worried about her...he feared that she was hurt, that she was in shock, that any countless other things could be wrong with her in her raw and tenuous state of psychological and spiritual healing. He feared that the dark, agonized newlywed he'd steered her away from earlier might have somehow unsettled her...even now, the face of the man she knew to be Thomas Grace filled his mind, a puzzle he had to solve in order to be of some help...

Shutting her eyes, Jean tried to soak up the warmth of the fire as she burrowed a little closer to the heat of Logan's body as she sat beside him, sighing deeply. "He was hurting." she explained quietly to his fierce, methodical thoughts. "He can't find his wife. I was only trying to comfort him."
She hated submersibles, and even worse than that she hated the naseauated feeling that went along with them. The pings of sonar that she tried to focus on as it resurfaced. She had refused the tranquilizer, opting only for a few shots of Jack Daniels to get the edge off. The blonde girl with the shotgun nodded toward the main section, where Parker knew the ladder led to the top.

"We've surfaced... might want to watch your head."

Parker glared at the girl, who couldn't be older than twenty. Shaking her head she set the toe of her heel against the metal rung of the ladder and climbed up, the slit of her skirt allowing for a bit more leverage with each step until she could walk the top of the metal submarine.

"Jo, was it? Little tip... don't underestimate me," she sneered as she pulled a pack of cigarettes from her inside pocket the second she could suck a breath of island air into her lungs. She hated this place. Had ever since she was a child, but really of all of the Triumverate's holdings... this was the least creepy, even with all the incidents that had occurred before they were able to take control of the facility.

Sparking her ligher she brought the flame up to meet the end of her cigarette halfway, pulling that first wave of smoke into her lungs and making her nearly sigh with relief. Exhaling out in a dragon like display she tipped her head skyward and laughed, "Even the mighty shall fall huh Jo?"

"Whatever lady, look... Ben's waiting."

"I'll bet he is." Miss Parker muttered under her breath as she made her way off the submarine and onto the docks. Heels clicked in time as she followed Jo toward the station that was at this end of the island. Ben came out of the jungle, barefoot wearing what appeared to be nothing Parker would ever get caught dead wearing, and a proud smile on his smug bug like face.

"Ben," Parker replied letting the 'n' in his name draw out a bit longer than she needed it to. "Jo here tells me you actually have something of interest this time. I know Raines funds your little... cult here, but maybe you might want to invest in something more... fashionable."

Ben glanced at Parker and smiled, "Miss Parker... don't tell me that you're actually one to judge a book by it's cover."

Setting her cigarette between her lips she replied hastily, "I don't read."

"Of course, regardless... he's this way. We're pretty certain he's yours."

Parker raised an eyebrow as she followed Ben toward the Hydra station. She remembered watching the polar bears as a young girl, but the cages were long empty now. She didn't want to wonder what had happened to them, but instead followed Ben down another ladder into the medical station that they used for the aquatic life. Her hands had smoothed across a shark as it died years ago, and now she was walking down that hall again, not sure who was going to be on the other side of the glass this time.

Ben pushed the door open in front of her and stood aside, "He should be able to hear you... control's on the table. Oh and... he's... tempermental."

"Aren't we all." Parker replied as she stepped in over and into the room not exactly sure what to expect. Her eyes still slightly adjusting to the darkness. The man had the right frame, back turned away from her, staring at the steel wall. If this was a trick... she'd make Ben pay with every ridiculous strand of hair on his head.
She wasn’t here.

He’d long since stopped looking...had no choice but to stop once shock really set in and threatened to knock him flat on his ass. So he sat now, by the light of the fire to warm his body and little else. The flames were too bright in his line of vision, the darkness too black to his shocky sight.

And in the jungle heat, warmed by the fire, he was still too damn cold.

As he swore to himself yet again that he’d renew his search for Rachel in the morning, he felt a sudden surge of warmth, starting at the core of him and bleeding into every pore...like a fire lit from the inside, cheerful and bright. It was almost enough to make him smile, almost enough to make him forget his loss.

It was then he noticed the woman, a statuesque redhead with blood red hair and the eyes of an old woman set in youthful, angelic features. She was devastatingly beautiful, and oddly enigmatic, but even seeing the knockout figure and exotic hair, he found she tugged at his heartstrings more than his hormonal interest. She was pleasant to look at, but not enough to kill his aching wish that the blood red hair was soft gold, and that the tall figure and knockout looks were instead a smaller figure topped with a sunny smile and bedroom blue eyes...

And as their eyes met, the warmth in him crested, consumed...and suddenly he didn’t feel the sting of solitude anymore. If he focused on the feeling and tried really, really hard, he could almost feel Rachel right there beside him, could almost hear her soft laughter...

A stocky, well-built man stepped into sight and laid his hand on the woman’s shoulder, diverting her attention. The moment she looked away from Tom, the spell was broken and ice filled his veins again.

Tom blinked, shaking his head to clear out the cobwebs. He watched as the walking wall of muscle led the woman away with surprising gentleness, despite the possessive way he pulled her against his side.

For a moment, Tom had almost been able to see Rachel’s face again.

And he had the strangest urge to thank the redhead for that.