/ Language: English / Genre:love_contemporary

Apocalypse Cowboy

Eve Langlais

Brody never forgot his first love, the one his pride made him lose. When the world dies almost overnight, he finds himself drawn back to his hometown and the love he left behind. Hannah never thought the expression, ‘Not if you were the last man on earth’ would ever come back to haunt her, but when the world’s population is decimated by a deadly virus, she regrets her words, especially when Brody comes riding back into her life. Against all odds they survived the plague, but will the mistakes of the past continue to tear them apart?

Eve Langlais

Apocalypse Cowboy

Prologue

“If you leave, don’t ever come back. I won’t wait for you.” Hannah tilted her chin up obstinately, even as she hugged her breasts together to form a shadowy cleavage. Any tactics from threats to seduction were fair game in her battle to make him stay.

For a moment his eyes glittered with interest, but he shook his head, casting off her alluring attempt. “I can’t. If I don’t leave now, I never will. I have no intention of ending up like my dad and everyone else in this town.”

She wanted to ask for the umpteenth time why that bothered him so; after all, his father ran a successful business as the town's mortician, even if it happened to be one that dealt in death. And if the funeral business wasn’t his niche, there were other things Brody-short for Broderick-could do.

“Your dad happens to be happy. What’s wrong with that? You don’t have to leave.” Her lower lip trembled, and tears flooded her vision. Sneaky, but damn it, she had to make him see reason.

A calloused thumb wiped the tear that ran down her cheek. For a moment, he wavered at her evident distress, his face clouding with confusion. Determination made it harden again, and he shook his head.

“I love you, Hannah, and I want to be with you, but I can’t stay here. I know I can make something of myself if I leave. Come with me.” He held out his hand, inviting her to ditch everything she cared about, everything she knew to start from scratch with only the clothes on her back. And, much as it broke her heart to lose him, she couldn’t go. No, make that she wouldn’t go.

“No. Unlike you, I’m not afraid to stay and make a place for myself. If you loved me, you’d stay too.”

“Don’t be this way. You know how much I love you.”

“Yes, I do know. Not enough.” Her voice cracked, and her vision wavered.

He recoiled. “I do love you and when I make it, I’ll come back for you. You’ll see. I won’t forget you, kitten.”

Hysterical laughter threatened even as she swallowed salty tears. “If you leave now, the end of the world would have to come before I’d ever consider forgiving you.” She turned her back on him, making her final stand.

But her ultimatum didn’t stop him. The rumble of his motorcycle starting and the sound of it receding as he made good on his words masked her harsh sobs.

I’ll never forgive you for this, Brody. Even if you were the last man on earth, I’d never take you back.

Turned out she had a gift for prophecy.

Chapter One

Six months after Brody left, the world ended with a sneeze.

Well, at least, that was Hannah’s theory. Kind of like that butterfly effect people talked about, except this one killed off most of the human population.

She’d been sitting down to dinner with her sister and uncle in the living room-their habit, since the death of her parents in a car crash-when the news came on. The announcer, in a grave tone, spoke of a new epidemic that had broken out. Hannah barely listened to the report. After the previous year's overrated swine flu scare, she put little stock in what the media sensationalized for ratings. The WHO-the World Health Organization, always one to hog attention-immediately clamored to any news source that would listen. They claimed the world was about to experience a deadly pandemic. But, kind of like the boy who cried wolf, people scoffed, no longer believing the officials after seeing their previous panic about a flu that did not come close to living up to its expectations.

When the nightly news started posting the number of deaths caused by this super flu, Hannah and her family began following the daily reports with morbid fascination. Those who had initially mocked the WHO fell silent, in many cases permanently. In her little town that had not yet been touched by the fatal influenza, it was all they could talk about at the diner where she worked full time since dropping out of college to support her sister and uncle.

The H5N1, more commonly known as the avian flu, cut a deadly swathe through the world. No one knew where it had started because it sprang up in several countries at once. Within just a few weeks, several million people worldwide were dead and millions more sick. They’d finally encountered the big one, a flu strain that mutated and proved resistant to all drugs and infected quicker than wildfire. The most frightening part? Everyone who caught it died. No exceptions. Hannah began taking their temperature daily, watching herself and the little family she had left.

A month after the pandemic began, they sat riveted watching the president make an emergency address, urging people to quarantine themselves to avoid the spread of the virus and to not panic. Shaken, she’d held onto her sister and uncle’s hands-tightly-reality and fear finally making themselves known.

Will we all die? For one weak moment, she wished Brody were back, his solid arms wrapped around her, hiding her from the horror unfolding throughout the world.

Hannah didn’t bother going to work; there was no point. Patrons stopped coming either from self-imposed quarantines or, even more dreadful to contemplate, death. Besides, fear of catching the virus and infecting her family terrified her.

Being summer time, they had plenty to eat from their garden, and the chickens they kept provided eggs and meat. She and her family hid on their small property outside of town, the news their only contact with the outside world. The newscasters kept changing, more and more inexperienced folks being put in front of the camera to relay reports that offered not one shred of hope. Then, one day, none of the channels had anything to say; all of them displayed the emergency broadcast screen. Hannah hid in the bathroom that day and cried, terrified but determined to be strong for her family who now needed her more than ever.

At the beginning of fall, when the electricity failed, Hannah finally ventured forth. She had to know, silence and need making her crazy.

She drove into town, her hands, white-knuckled, clutching the steering wheel of their old Jeep Cherokee. As she cruised the barren streets, she saw and heard nothing.

Parking the SUV in the middle of the road, she looked around. Surely my family and I can’t be the only ones alive? Pretending a courage she didn’t feel, she got out of the Jeep, meaning to knock on some doors, find other survivors. She didn’t even make it one step. The perfume of death filled the air. Overpowering and vile, it made her fall to her knees. Even worse, it had a sound: the buzzing of flies. The sick humming made her retch uncontrollably on the pavement. Before her body had a chance to stop shuddering, she jumped back into her SUV and drove home like the devil himself chased her.

Her sister and uncle took one look at her ashen face when she walked in and asked no questions.

Winter approached quickly though and while they had a wood stove and cords of wood, they needed food. Their summer stash of vegetables had dwindled even with the canning they’d done.

Hannah skipped breakfast and made another trip into town. She stopped her Jeep in the parking lot of the grocery store then closed her eyes, looking for courage. The faces of her uncle and sister floated into her mind and gave her motivation. I can’t let them starve because I’m weak. She prepped herself by smearing Vaseline under her nose then wrapped a bandanna around the lower half of her face.

The fumes from the Vaseline made her eyes water but, blinking back tears, she clambered out of the Jeep and to the entrance of the store. The main door hung drunkenly, its clear panes smashed. She stepped gingerly through the shards of glass into the gloomy store. She grabbed a shopping cart and began throwing nonperishables into it. Every shadow she encountered made her jump and start. I wish I’d thought to bring a flashlight.

Loading her pilfered supplies into the SUV, she made several more trips inside, determined not to come back more often than she had to. She was concerned that the winter might ruin many of the items. She wondered for an insane minute as she stacked and crammed food in every available space in the SUV, if tin cans exploded when their contents froze.

A noise broke her visions of split cans of peas and corn. She whirled, her heart racing. A figure dressed in a robe shuffled down the road, his hair long and straggly. Another survivor?

Hannah, frightened by the scarecrow of man that shambled toward her, went to jump in the Jeep when recognition struck. "Mr. Connor?" She approached Brody’s father slowly, shocked by his ghastly appearance.

Vacant eyes looked at her then through her. “Have you seen my Marie?” he mumbled. “I need to find her. I can hear her calling.”

“Is she still alive?” asked Hannah. “Have you heard from Brody?”

A horrible wail came from Brody’s father, and he clutched at his hair, pulling it as his eyes rolled madly. Hannah took a step back, but she needn’t have feared. Mr. Connor whirled. With an unsteady gait, his ragged robe flapping, he went back up the street toward his house.

Disturbed by her encounter, Hannah brought the supplies home and, once out of her sister’s hearing, told her uncle what had happened.

“He’s gone mad,” her uncle Fred said sadly. “Probably thought he was the only one left.”

“I can’t leave him like that,” said Hannah. “I’m going to ask him to come stay with us.”

“Before you do that, you need to arm yourself. He might not be the only one to have lost his marbles.”

Hannah protested, but her uncle, a former military man, insisted. “People who’ve been traumatized can do crazy things, girl.”

Uncle Fred wheeled his wheelchair into the bedroom, his paralyzed legs a gift from the time he’d served overseas. He returned with a lock box and opened it to reveal a gleaming black revolver.

Hannah knew how to use a gun. Her father had taught both his daughters young, saying the best way to respect firearms was to know how to use them and see firsthand what they could do. She stuffed the gun in the glove box of her SUV and drove to Brody’s house.

Heart hammering, she knocked on the front door and waited for an answer. When none came, she entered. Minutes later, she raced from the house and fell to her knees in the long grass.

She’d arrived too late.

She told her uncle of what she’d found, the tears rolling down her face as she dealt with yet more horror. One that could have been prevented.

Her frequent trips to town yielded no more sightings of people. She brought back food and filled gas cans with fuel, thanking the gods that the pumps hadn’t been converted to the newer electric ones. She picked up spark plugs for the generator along with kerosene lamps and all the full propane tanks she could find for their camp stove. The list of supplies she and her uncle thought of boggled the mind, but fear of what the winter might bring made them want to be safe rather than sorry. While they stored the food in the house, cellar, and every empty room they could spare, fuels and gases were stored in an old weathered barn at the far end of the property. Even then, she kept a wary eye on it, expecting it to spontaneously combust in a huge ball of flames.

Tiny flakes of snow began drifting down the first week of November. By December, the roads were impassable, and they huddled in, their wood stove pumping out the heat, keeping them from freezing. Cooking became the chore no one wanted. To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, they had to shut the door that led from the kitchen to the rest of the house and open the kitchen window and outside door. Talk about freaking cold. They often made do with canned soup warmed on the wood stove.

The winter passed slowly. For entertainment they played cards, board games and, once a week, they fired up the generator and watched a movie. Oddly enough, flicks like Mad Max and Waterworld became favorites. They would laugh at the primitive conditions those heroes lived in and pretended to thank their lucky stars. But in the dark of night alone in her bed, Hannah cried. How she wished she’d left with Brody and enjoyed a few more months of passion and happiness before everything ended.

Spring arrived, the world waking refreshed and full of signs of life, plant life, that is. The roads eventually cleared of the snow and ice. Hannah prepped herself for some new scavenging trips. She installed a hitch on the Jeep and, using a trailer a neighbor no longer needed, she drove to the next township.

Nervous, she’d kept the gun in her lap the whole time, her eyes darting and searching the derelict buildings. She only saw stray cats and dogs. Apparently the deadly flu had not affected the animals. She briefly wondered if they’d ever get desperate enough for meat that they’d eat cat or dog like some overseas countries did.

She shuddered. Not while she had some chickens she wouldn’t. If she had any cowgirl skills, they could have beef. Cows now roamed the fields while horses whinnied as they galloped, their manes flowing behind them. If the animals talked, it would be like living in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Pulling up in front of the Wal-Mart, her one-stop shop for all the supplies they’d need, she hopped out and initially tucked the gun in her waistband, but the heavy, cold metal made her uncomfortable and kept sliding down. Uncle Fred is too paranoid. She opened the glove box and shoved the weapon in.

Unlike her hometown, the door of the store here remained intact and locked. Not for long. A large rock helped her in entering and, after she’d widened the space so she could get a cart in and out, she pulled her list from her pocket and went to work. With the aid of a large spotlight, she went back and forth ‘til her Jeep and trailer groaned under the weight of the goods. She’d return but with gas dwindling, she had to make each trip count.

Driving back through the town on her way home, she spotted a bookstore and stopped. She had little room left, but a few paperbacks would be welcome to wile away the long hours. Arms laden with books, she emerged from the bookstore with a smile and began cramming them into the open spots she found in the Jeep.

The arm that snaked around her waist and yanked her backward made her scream. “Help!”

Chapter Two

Flailing, Hannah rammed an elbow back and heard a grunt. The grip around her loosened, and she broke away, whirling to see a vagrant. He leered at her through the wild hair that hung in his face. As he came toward her, the stench of his unwashed body and the clear intent in his eyes made her cringe.

Oh my god. Fumbling at her waist, she realized she’d left the gun in the glove box. Her eyes darted around looking for something to use as a weapon. Seeing nothing, she turned and ran.

A heavy weight hit her from behind, and she fell to the ground hard. Momentarily stunned, she didn’t initially react when her attacker flipped her onto her back and pulled at her clothes. Her initial shock wore off, and she fought like a mad woman, thrashing and bucking underneath him.

“Get off me, you bastard!”

Her assailant said not a word, his eyes alight with a maniacal gleam. The sound of cloth tearing made her blood run cold. She screamed.

But of course no one heard her.

A glint to the side caught her attention, and she grabbed the shard of glass, slicing her fingers in the process. Without time to think, she jabbed wildly at her assailant’s face.

Her would-be rapist screamed and rolled off her, clutching his bloody face.

Horrified at what she’d done but thanking her lucky stars, she ran for the Jeep and jumped in. Gunning the engine, she roared out of town, the haunting screams of the man ringing in her ears.

After that incident, Hannah never wanted to leave the house. But the thought of her sister going out for supplies in her place goaded her into action. She made several more trips to other nearby towns, and she never left her SUV without her gun. But her precaution proved unnecessary as she never saw another living being.

Spring passed and so did summer. Unable to figure out how to get more gas when the pumps stopped flowing, her trips out of town stopped. Their house was packed to the rafters with supplies. They kept the remaining gas for things like the generator and the chainsaw she hadn’t yet managed to start, but she kept trying.

Their new life while not horrible made her ache with loneliness. Sure, she loved her sister and uncle but, if she’d been alone, Hannah doubted she would have fought to survive. What did she have to look forward to? The world had died. The only two other living people she’d seen apart from her family had gone crazy. Years of being alone stretched in front of her. Never again to be loved or touched. She dreaded the day her battery stash ran out. Her handy-dandy pocket rocket wouldn’t last forever. A hysterical giggle bubbled inside her. How could she think of pleasuring herself when billions had died?

Masturbation became her last escape, sometimes the only thing that reminded her she was still alive. In the quiet of the night, she let her fingers dance over her flesh, and she remembered better days. Or, more specifically, days spent with Brody, her first and only love. Rugged, dark-haired, and blue-eyed. Just looking at him had always made her breath hitch and her panties damp. His face still dominated her dreams and erotic fantasies even though she continued to hate him for what he’d done. When she touched herself, she would pretend he lay in bed with her, his mouth and hands pleasuring her.

But his phantom actions would never give her the family she longed for.

Part of her now wished she’d thrown responsibility to the wind and enjoyed those few blissful months with him before tragedy stuck, but who would have taken care of her family?

And why did gardening always make her thoughts turn to her memories of the past?

She ripped at the weeds that had cropped up in more aggressive numbers than the vegetables, an ongoing battle she used to vent her frequent frustration. Why do I bother? We’ve got enough canned vegetables to last us a lifetime. Hannah shuddered at the thought of eating mushy peas for the next forty or fifty years. With renewed vigor, she hacked at the thick root of a dandelion.

It took her a moment to register the sound in the distance. Like an audio mirage, her ears didn’t believe what they heard and when she did clue in, her jaw dropped.

That sounds like a motorcycle.

Pulling off her gloves and with a rapidly beating heart, she strode to the front of the house to see Uncle Fred peering at a cloud of dust fast approaching.

“Get the gun,” Fred said, his eyes squinting in the sun. “And help me get into the house.”

Hannah wanted to protest that they couldn’t be sure whoever approached meant them harm, but the wild eyes of her assailant in the spring floated in her mind and she might have whimpered.

Wheeling her uncle’s wheelchair quickly into the house, Hannah bolted the door and called for her sister. “Beth! Get down here.”

The long, tanned legs of her sister, followed by the rest of her, came skipping down the stairs. “What’s got your panties in a knot?” asked her blonde sibling. “I thought you wanted that bathroom clean.”

“I still do, but someone’s coming. Quick, get into the cellar and take Uncle Fred with you.” She grabbed the shotgun from its spot in the corner by the front door.

But Beth didn’t budge. With bright eyes, she asked, “Why are we hiding then? Maybe they’ve got news of other survivors. Maybe it’s a man.” She clasped her hands together and bounced a bit in excitement.

Fred snorted. “You’ve got less brains than most blondes, Bethie. What if it’s a scout for some gang looking for gals to sell? What if-”

Hannah cut off her uncle before he listed all the possibilities that could befall two girls in a lawless land-it tended to be lengthy. “Just get your ass downstairs now. I’m not taking any chances.”

“That’s the problem,” Beth grumbled as she grabbed the handles to Fred’s wheelchair. “We finally find someone alive, and we’re going to hide like rabbits in a burrow instead of befriending him.” Even as she complained, Beth wheeled their uncle down to the cellar using the rickety ramp they’d built for emergencies.

With the door shut behind them and the sounds of the motorcycle closer, Hannah cracked open the shotgun and made sure it held some casings before she snapped it shut. Sliding the pump forward, she chambered a shell and then stood behind the front door, resisting an urge to go on tiptoe and peer through the half-moon window.

I hate to say Beth is right, but what if whoever is coming is friendly? It would be nice to see other people again.

Or the person coming could be a psycho rapist who would hurt her and Beth before killing them all. Hell, it could even be the man she’d maimed, looking for revenge.

Safety lay in staying here, undiscovered. She wouldn’t chance the well-being of her family, no matter how lonely it got.

The sound of the revving engine echoed loudly in the still house, and Hannah found her hands sweating around the stock of the gun. Taking deep breaths, she tried to calm down. The chances of the person stopping where small, infinitesimally so.

Hannah’s heart stuttered when the bike stopped right out front. What had they left lying around that had given them away? At Uncle Fred’s urging, they’d made sure the front of the house looked abandoned with the lawn growing wild. But, to her uncle’s chagrin, she drew the line at breaking windows for a more authentic look. When she’d taken the rock from his hand he’d claimed was for staging, he’d pouted until she let him trash the Jeep Cherokee that no longer had gas to run it.

Boards on the front porch creaked as someone stepped on them. Hannah’s breath came fast as she moved back and shouldered the shotgun, aiming it at the door. Silly, because the door was locked and whoever stood out there couldn’t get in.

She watched in terrified fascination as the handle turned, first one way then the other. A muffled curse and a thump sounded as the visitor kicked it. Hannah stifled a scream, her finger trembling on the trigger. More creaking was heard as the person went back down the steps and then silence.

Hannah let out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Safe. She hadn’t heard the sound of the bike starting back up. But why isn’t the stranger leaving? What is he doing?

The tinkling of glass breaking in the kitchen made her swing around to the doorway that led into the kitchen. Hannah had a clear view of the side door and the hand that came through the opening and turned the knob. She stared in frozen disbelief as the kitchen door swung open, the tall, dark figure entering her home. Suddenly terrified, not just for herself, but for her family in the cellar, Hannah pulled the trigger.

Chapter Three

The blast took him by surprise. He’d thought the house vacant, but he hadn’t survived the apocalypse by being foolish or slow. Ducking, he covered his face, even as splinters flew from the doorjamb above him. When a second blast didn’t follow, he peered around the edge of the door that had changed little since the last time he’d seen it.

He heard the slide of a shotgun click as someone chambered a shell. The barrel came poking through the kitchen archway, followed by a miracle he hadn’t expected and certainly didn’t deserve.

“That’s the only warning I’m giving you, mister,” said a voice he’d dreamed about and never thought to hear again. “Get out before I blow your fucking head off.” Her vulgar language made him want to laugh. The little kitten he’d left had grown into a tigress.

As he watched the nervous waver of the shotgun, it occurred to him he’d better declare who he was before he found out if she meant her threat. “Hannah, is that you?”

He heard her gasp of surprise, and he stood up slowly in the doorway, showing himself to the woman he’d foolishly left behind. A wide smile spread across his face, a motion so unfamiliar this past year, he could feel his muscles stretch even as his heart stuttered in his chest.

She’s alive! And she’s more beautiful than ever.

“Brody?” Uncertainty colored her familiar features, and she lowered the barrel of the gun.

Brody drank her in, from the golden curls forming halo around the face he’d never forgotten to her upturned nose sprinkled with freckles. Bright, brown eyes regarded him with confusion, and she bit one of her full, luscious lips. Lips that tasted sweeter than any dessert. His gaze flicked over her figure, still generously proportioned with a bosom he’d loved burying his face in and rounded hips he’d held onto to for many wild rides. A tightness in his groin showed that more than one part of his body remembered the passion they’d shared. He took a step toward her, wondering if he dreamed, aching to touch her but scared she’d disappear, leaving him to wake once again to dreaded loneliness.

“It’s me, kitten,” he said, using the nickname he’d given her because of her penchant for snuggling and making a sound like a purr. He took another step.

“I’m not your kitten,” she retorted, her eyes sparking with anger. The shotgun swung up. “Get out.”

Brody raised his hands and took another step toward the only woman he’d ever loved, hope blossoming in his heart, unafraid of the danger she posed with her shaking finger on the trigger. “I’ve missed you,” he said softly and thought, more than you’ll ever realize.

“Then you shouldn’t have left.”

He wanted to reply, but a commotion behind her took both their attentions.

A feminine voice squealed. “Hannah, are you okay?”

“I’m okay, Bethie,” said Hannah, turning around to speak to her little sister who had to be about nineteen now if Brody remembered correctly. The gun lowered at Beth’s appearance, and Brody briefly though of taking the weapon from her. Somehow this new, harder Hannah didn’t seem like the type who’d be happy about that. And the one thing he’d decided in the last few moments was that from this point on, her happiness and well-being were his new purposes in life. He’d made the biggest mistake of his existence once in letting her go. He wouldn’t make that error again.

Judging by his less than warm reception, it might take some convincing to get her to take him back, which was fine with him. He had all the time in the world to give her.

Damn is it good to be home.

* * * * *

Hannah turned to face her sister, trying to regain an equilibrium that had been shot out from under her when Brody showed up at the kitchen door. And I almost took his head off. She hadn’t been aiming to kill of course, just scare, but still, her body shook.

What is he doing here? Why is he back after all this time?

The coward had never contacted her once he'd departed and, too proud, she’d never asked his family if they had heard from him. The betrayal of his departure had run deep and left emotional scars that had never completely healed. He’d ruined her ability to trust men.

The irony of her last words to him didn’t escape her.

Of all the eligible men to show up in this new post-apocalyptic world, it had to be him. The one man she’d sworn she’d never take back, the one who’d broken her heart. He also was the only man she’d ever met who could make her tummy do flip-flops and her panties go wet.

How can he still affect me like this? I hate him.

Beth tried to peer around Hannah’s body, which blocked the entrance to the kitchen. “What happened, Hannah? Did you kill him? Are we safe? Are-”

Hannah held up a hand to cut her off. “Everything’s fine.” No, it isn’t, screamed her heart. “It’s just Brody.” She turned around to face him when she said this and enjoyed the look of consternation on his face as she relegated his status unimportant.

Beth squealed again as she shoved through the doorway and launched herself at him. “Brody,” Beth cried, jumping on him exuberantly. She hugged him enthusiastically, a hug which he returned.

Hannah stifled an urge to yank her sister away. She most definitely was not jealous. She’d gotten over Brody a long time ago.

So why am I digging my nails into my palm?

“What are you doing here?” Beth asked, her eyes shining bright in the familiar hero worship she’d relegated to him when he’d been a regular visitor in their home. Hannah’s irritation grew, especially when Brody smiled at Beth in obvious pleasure at her warm reaction to his arrival.

“I came back to see if anyone else had survived.”

“You’ve been elsewhere. Is it true? Is everybody dead?” Beth seemed suddenly subdued, giving voice to the question that had plagued the three of them since their section of the world had disappeared.

“Not everyone, but close,” he said, his eyes showing a bleakness and hardness that didn’t used to be there.

Hannah took a good look at his face now that most of the shock had worn off and noted the changes. His hair had grown longer and shaggier-self-cut due to an obvious lack of barbers-and his features appeared leaner as if he’d lost weight. Even given his mid-twenties, he had lines on his face that gave him a weary, travelled look. He’s seen things that have changed him, she thought almost sadly. Gone was the optimistic boy she’d once loved and in his place was a man.

An urge came over her to run her fingers down his new masculine face, to kiss away the lines he’d so harshly earned. Creases she knew would increase when he learned what else had happened. A secret she suddenly dreaded sharing.

A commotion and a bellow sounded, pulling her thoughts away from the past.

Brody’s body went tense, and Hannah hastened to reassure him. “It’s just Uncle Fred. I had him and Bethie go down to the cellar as a precaution when we heard the motorcycle.”

“That old coot’s alive?” Brody’s face lit up. “I’ll go give him a hand.”

Brody brushed by Hannah, his memory of their home apparently intact as he headed for the basement. Hannah’s breath sucked in at the brief touch of their bodies. He’d kept in shape and still felt hard as ever, a noticeable fact that made her flush with heat.

“Oh isn’t it wonderful? Brody’s back and more handsome than ever.”

Hannah frowned at her younger sister. “He’s not back for long. You watch, he’ll be gone before the day’s out. There’s nothing here for him now.” She didn’t quite believe her own words. She said them because she had to, anything to try and stop the hope that had taken root since she’d heard his voice and the tingles that even now ran through her body at the thought of being able to touch him again. She couldn’t allow herself to fall in love with him-she wouldn’t survive his leaving a second time.

For a moment Beth lost her smile, only to replace it with a sly one. “You’re just saying that because he left you. It’s a new world now, and a man like him is going to be looking for a woman to settle down with. You know you could get him back if you wanted to.”

Hannah looked at her sister in disbelief. Take him back? After what he did to me. Has Beth lost her mind?

“Not even if he was the last man on earth,” Hannah replied although her body and heart protested otherwise.

* * * * *

Brody caught her words as he wheeled Fred toward the kitchen to join the girls.

“Well, kitten, seeing as how few of us are left, you might want to rethink that stance.” He couldn’t resist goading her, and the flush on her cheeks and sparkle in her eye made it well worth it, even if he knew she was spitting mad. Folks always said love and hate didn’t lie far apart.

“You,” she said, pointing at him. “Outside. Now.” Off she stalked, that plump ass he’d loved and never forgotten swinging sassily in front of him. If she hadn’t been so pissed he’d have slapped it.

Out the front door they went to stand on the porch. Hannah crossed her arms over her ample chest and regarded him with a pinched expression, her full lips tight with ire.

Brody just grinned and leaned casually against the porch railing. He figured she had a right to vent. And besides, the way he saw it, she wouldn’t be so pissed if she didn’t still care.

“I want you to leave.”

“Why?”

“Because you don’t belong here.”

“Says who?” Brody enjoyed watching her, even though right now she exuded anger, an emotion which made her cheeks bloom with color. He wanted nothing more than to wrap his arms around her and kiss her ‘til her eyes glazed over.

“Says me. I don’t know why you came back, but there’s nothing for you here, so please leave.”

Brody detected a crack in her facade when she said the last. Proof to him she still felt something. He arched one brow at her. “And I say there’s plenty of reasons to stay.”

“Name one.”

“You.”

Her derisive laughter hit low. “Oh please. If I wasn’t enough to keep you a year and a half ago, why would you think I’d fall for that now? I realize the pickings are slimmer these days, but I refuse to be the last choice.”

Brody’s heart stilled at her words. Did she really think she could ever be his last choice? She’d always been his one and only. “I made a mistake. I know that now. I never should have left.”

It was Hannah’s turn to arch her brows. “Really? And it took you this long to figure that out?”

“I knew it the day I left.”

“I don’t believe you. Now go.” Her lips trembled, and her eyes brimmed with tears.

“No,” he said, taking a step toward her.

She took one back, trepidation on her face. “You don’t belong here.”

“I do, I was just too young and stupid to realize it at the time.” She crept away from him even as he drew closer, unable to fight the magnetic pull she exuded.

“You’ll just leave again.” She whispered those words, the pain in them stabbing him. It was his fault she wore this wounded look. I never meant to hurt you.

“I won’t leave you again,” he promised, his voice tight as he closed the distance between them.

She scuttled from him, stopping only when her rear came up against the far porch rail, but he invaded her space so she had nowhere left to go. He cupped her face and peered into her eyes where he could see confusion warring with desire. He leaned in to kiss her. Her lashes fluttered, and he felt her soft breath flutter over his hovering lips. Lightly, he pressed his mouth against hers, willing them to part for him.

For a moment, she relaxed and her lips softened under his. Brody reached a hand up and brushed the back of his knuckles across the downy skin of her cheek, which proved to be a mistake as she stiffened and shoved at him. While he didn’t move-he didn’t want to-the railing behind her did. With windmilling arms, she fell backward. Brody reached out to grab her, managing to grasp only the thin linen of her top. The sound of cloth tearing almost drowned out her shriek. He stared at the ripped blouse in his hand and then down at his plush kitten flailing in the tall grass in her bra and laughed even as she cursed him.

You’re not immune to me, kitten, and I think I might even enjoy those new claws you’ve grown while I was gone, especially if you dig them into my back.

On that thought-and with a painful erection-he hopped down to help his spitting mad kitten.

Chapter Four

Hannah fumed in her room, the sounds of revelry below making her hide. Brody hadn’t left-yet. She knew it was just a matter of time. If he’d found the town small and stifling before, then what would he think now when only Hannah and her family had survived?

She paused in her internal ranting. Did he know about his family? He must. She couldn’t see him not going to his home first. But he had to have expected it or part of it, at least. The plague had spared so few. Hannah knew it had to be something in their genes that allowed her small family to survive. She wondered which of their parents had given them the lifesaving gene, one that most of the world lacked.

All those protests and fears over bioweapons and nukes ending the world. Ha. Humanity met its doom in the form of a sneeze-or was it a cough? Didn’t matter, the result ended up the same.

The guy on the corner of Main and Queen was the only one who saw it coming with his sign raised high saying, "The end is nigh!" He’d been preaching that for fifteen years, so maybe that was why nobody listened. Of course, even had someone had believed, it wouldn’t have made a difference.

Sometimes she wondered why she’d been spared. Her life wasn’t a bad one, but it lacked…sparkle. It needed that something that made a person want to get up in the morning and say today would be a beautiful day.

Brody could keep me company and be that something I need. An insidious thought that had no merit. Brody hadn’t been able to stay when things were going good; why on earth would he stay now that things had gone to hell?

It pissed her off a part of her wanted to believe his words on the porch that he would never leave again. She hated that she longed to feel his strong arms around her, hugging her tight, telling her things would be okay. Touching her… Oh how she missed the secure feeling that came with knowing someone loved her.

But it had taken so long for her to get over his leaving the first time. If he did it again, she didn’t think she’d have the strength this time to survive. Her heart had been battered enough.

Finally the house quieted, and she lay on her bed listening and, truthfully, waiting to hear the sound of his bike as he left her-again.

She fell asleep to uninterrupted silence.

The sunlight woke her, slanting across her face with its brilliance, signaling the start of a new day and the chores that came with it. Remembering the events of the previous day, she sat up and listened. The chirping of birds were the only apparent sound.

The window of her bedroom faced the front yard. Holding her breath, Hannah peered out of her lace curtains into the front yard, the empty yard. It wasn’t disappointment she felt when she noticed his bike gone; after all, he’d done exactly what she expected. And what you told him to do.

Telling herself she had dust in her eyes-no way am I shedding another tear over him-she dressed in ragged jeans and an even worse shirt, clothes that matched her wretched mood. A quick brush and she caught up her jagged curls into a sloppy ponytail. Exiting her room, she jogged downstairs to the surprising smell of breakfast.

Beth is up already and cooking?

A surge of warmth filled Hannah. Her sister must have finally realized how upset Brody’s visit had made her.

She stumbled when she walked into the kitchen and found herself presented with a black t-shirt stretched over a broad back. And the jolt of pleasure that shot through her had nothing to do with the fact he’d stayed.

“What are still doing here?” she asked crossly. “You’re supposed to be gone.”

* * * * *

“Morning to you too, kitten.” Brody didn’t turn to face Hannah, even though he wanted to. He’d been disappointed when she’d fled to her room the day before and not come back down, but her absence had given him a chance to pump Beth and Fred for information, most of it hard to listen to and increasing the guilt he already felt. Not even six months after he’d left, Hannah’s parents had died in a car crash, leaving her alone to fend for her younger sister and invalid uncle. His gut had tightened when he’d heard of how Hannah had stopped attending college to work full time in support of her family. She’d been so close to finishing her degree in business when he left.

The news that made him glad, even as he knew he should feel guilty, was hearing she hadn’t dated anyone since he’d left. When he’d been away, just thinking of another man touching her had always been enough to put him in a foul mood. He wondered if, like him, the thought of being with someone else had left her cold. He hadn’t been able to feign interest in any other women. None of them were Hannah.

The previous night, after Beth went to bed, Fred had told him of how Hannah had taken care of them all. He’d also told him of the attack she’d survived in the spring when fetching supplies. Brody had clenched his fist at hearing of how his kitten had been forced to stab a man to prevent a rape. He should have been here protecting her. He thanked god she’d escaped unscathed but for some mental scars. From now on, she’d have nothing to fear. He would protect her and her family. Nobody would touch a hair on her head. I’ll kill them first.

He heard a chair being dragged behind him. The object of his thoughts sat down heavily, the glaring heat from her stare boring into his back. Brody grinned but still didn’t turn around, staying instead at the Coleman stove, cooking the omelets he’d whipped up using eggs he’d fetched from the coop. He’d been only moderately surprised at how well set up Hannah and her family were. Trust her to find a way to ensure she survived and stayed well fed.

Knowing her penchant for good food, he’d gotten up early to surprise her with breakfast. In the past, her good moods had often been linked to eating. What a shame that his previous method of kissing her ‘til she smiled wasn’t yet feasible. He’d spent a restless night thinking of her-how they’d touched and kissed. Brody wanted to curse when his cock got hard; somehow he didn’t think Hannah would be impressed at his lack of control.

Pity I can’t just slap my prick on a plate and offer it to her to eat. It would solve two problems at once.

* * * * *

Hannah watched his broad back shake as if in silent jest and resented the easy way Brody had slipped into her life in less than a day. He moved around the kitchen like he owned it, cooking on the Coleman stove with the window above it and the side door open for venting-and the food smelled heavenly too, the jerk. Leave it up to him to prepare something she hadn’t truly eaten since the power had finally given out a year or so ago.

She had yet to master the art of camp stove cooking without burning their meal. Thank god for the propane center in town they could use for refills. She just hoped she never saw it run out or they’d have to resort to a true firepit. The only thing she knew how to cook on those was marshmallows.

At least running water had never been as issue as they’d always had a well, but she did worry about the septic system one day overflowing out in the yard, a problem she hoped lay many years in the future. That and running out of toilet paper.

Watching him cook-a skill he’d acquired since his departure-she wondered what other things he’d learned while he’d been away. If Brody had actually been serious about staying, which she highly doubted, there were many things she could use help with, as much as it galled her to ask. Even if she had no interest in hooking up, it wouldn’t hurt to milk him for all the practical knowledge and muscle he had to offer in the meantime. And he definitely has a lot of muscle to offer, she thought, licking her lips in hunger, and not of the consumable kind.

“Oh my god, Hannah. Did you finally learn to cook?” Beth came in looking fresh and cute in short shorts with a blouse tied at her midriff that made Hannah gnash her teeth. Since when did Bethie come to breakfast dressed like a tart?

“Hope you’re hungry,” said Brody, turning to face them with two steaming plates. With a wink for Hannah and a smile for Beth, he laid the plates on the table and turned to fix a third.

Hannah hopped up to grab the plate from Brody to take Fred who found mornings hard, but Beth beat her to it. With a simpering smile, she took it from Brody and sashayed away, her pert butt swinging in shorts that Hannah could have sworn were longer last week.

To his credit, Brody didn’t watch Beth’s little show; instead he dumped the rest of the food he’d made into a pile on his plate and sat down at the table-a table which suddenly seemed too small.

Hannah tried to ignore him, shoveling the delicious eggs into her mouth with enthusiasm, but she couldn’t help the awareness that crept through her body, causing her to flush. She refused to look at him though, even when she felt his curious gaze upon her.

Beth flounced back into the kitchen and flopped into her chair. In between forkfuls, she chattered inanely, and Brody, seeming preoccupied, answered her. Hannah did her best not to react to his rumbling tone, but tingles ran up and down her flesh, sensitizing her.

Annoyed, she rudely interrupted their pointless conversation. “If you’re going to be sticking around then you’re going to need to pitch in.” She finally looked him in the face when she said this and saw his blue eyes twinkle with mirth. What does he find so funny? she thought crossly.

“I fully intend to do my part. I told you, I’m here for the long haul. Anything in particular that you’d like me to start with?”

“Chain saw.” Hannah blurted the word out and then blushed at his puzzled look. “We need wood, and I can’t start the damned thing. We’ll need several cords for the winter.”

“What have you been doing up ‘til now?” he asked.

“We had enough to make due the last winter since we’d stocked up before everything happened. When we exhausted it in the spring, I started raiding other homes for firewood and furniture,” she admitted. “But I had to stop ‘cause the Jeep died and our gas supply was getting low.”

“Then cords of wood you shall have. I promise to keep you warm while I’m here.” He grinned wolfishly. Hannah felt her blush deepen at his words, the sexual innuendo clear and, to her annoyance, titillating. She’d be burning through some batteries tonight.

Not feeling in control, Hannah excused herself and went to check on her uncle, but she couldn’t stop thinking very naughty thoughts of Brody. She couldn’t hide for long though. Brody came looking for her.

“Why don’t you show me the chain saw that’s been giving you problems?”

Hannah led him to the bane of her existence, a brand-new, gas-powered Ryobi she’d taken from the local hardware store. It was actually the third one; the first two hadn’t survived her frustration.

Brody turned the stupid thing over in his hands, opened the gas compartment for a sniff, then looked at her with a smile. “It’s a two cycle.”

Hannah pursed her lips, annoyed at his vague statement. “And?”

“You forgot to mix it with oil.”

With deft fingers, he dumped the gas reservoir into an empty oil container and then mixed up what he called a ratio fuel mixture. He spoke words like “priming the carb” and “setting the choke,” jargon Hannah couldn’t quite follow, but the result when he’d done his prepping and gave it a few pulls was a growl as the machine started, it’s chain whirring.

Hannah made a face at the ease with which he’d started it and walked away to take care of other chores. But like the planets that circled the sun, she kept revolving back into his vicinity, unable to stop herself.

By late morning she finally admitted something to herself-she still wanted him. Who in their right mind wouldn’t?

The day had turned really warm, and Brody had been hard at work. He’d lost his shirt at one point, and his tanned and corded muscles rippled as he handled the chain saw. His hard abs also glistened enticingly, slick with sweat, making Hannah almost go cross-eyed with desire. His jeans hung low on his lean hips, drawing attention to the vee of hair that arrowed down his chest and disappeared beneath the waistband. Hannah licked her lips more than once and drank way too many glasses of water trying to ease the slow fire burning inside of her every time she saw him.

As if he could read her mind, he kept glancing over at her and giving her lazy smiles, the kind that made her panties wringing wet. Hungry but settling for food, she made him a plate of edibles and carried it out to him. Partially burned biscuits, canned tuna tossed with celery, onion, and green pepper, and homemade ice tea sans ice. Not exactly a feast, especially since the tuna salad could have really used mayonnaise, but a lack of creamy flavor always won over food poisoning. They had a small fridge that ran on propane, but their biggest problem with things like mayo was they’d all gone past their “best by” dates.

Brody stopped the rumbling saw and, grabbing his discarded shirt, mopped at his brow and chest. Hannah stumbled with the tray of food and would have fallen had he not grabbed her arms to steady her. The instant heat made her knees sag. With a knowing grin that encouraged her tummy to perform gymnastics, he helped her sit on a stump.

She hated how he still seemed to read her like an open book. How am Isupposed to hide the effect he has on me? And a better question, did she want to?

They didn’t talk while they ate and when Beth came bouncing over in her still too short denims, Hannah both resented and welcomed her sister’s cheerful intrusion.

“It is so nice to have a man around here,” gushed Beth, batting her lashes at him. “We appreciate your hard work ever so much.”

Hannah wanted to roll her eyes at Beth’s poorly disguised attempt at flattery.

“Just doing my part,” said Brody. “Listen, do you mind if I go to town this afternoon. I’m going to need more oil to keep this baby running, and I thought I’d see what other supplies I could grab.”

“Want me to go with you?” The words came out of Hannah’s mouth and surprised her.

“No, it’s okay. I thought I’d swing by my parents’ place while I was there too.”

Hannah froze. “You haven’t been there yet?”

“No. I came here first.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Hannah blurted.

Brody frowned at her as did Beth. “Why not?”

But Hannah couldn’t tell him in front of Beth. “Listen, I’ll go with you. I need to pick up some stuff. Okay?”

Jumping up and grabbing the tray, she quick walked back to the house in an attempt to forestall questions. She should have known it wouldn’t work.

* * * * *

Brody had put it off long enough, and Hannah’s odd reaction puzzled him while lighting a curious fire. What secrets lay hidden at his parents’ house? What did she fear he’d see?

The time had come to pay a visit to place he’d called home for over twenty years. And he intended to do it alone.

It had been obvious that Hannah wanted to come with him, but he couldn’t be sure what his reaction would be. He had no intention of letting her see him as less than strong, especially knowing there was a chance he’d break down. The guilt he felt over abandoning his parents-not just the first time he'd left, but when his dad had called and told him his mother had caught the sickness-still presided. Brody had fought an inner battle, wanting to fly to his mother’s side but at the same time too scared to watch her die. He’d had a long time to regret that choice. It didn’t matter she’d died faster than he could have made it back. The fact remained; he never should have left and hurt the two women he loved most: his mother and Hannah. A hurt he compounded by never bothering to come back even for a visit.

Downshifting the gears on his bike, he coasted up the weed-choked driveway to the battered green vinyl house. Brody’s gut clenched as he braced himself for the memories already assailing him, like the one of his dad playing catch with him on the front lawn and the crooked mailbox he’d crashed into while learning to ride his bike, a feat accomplished with both his father and mother cheering him on. His steps echoed loudly on the wooden risers that led up to the wide porch where his mother had served lemonade to him and a more carefree Hannah. God, it seems like a lifetime ago.

The screen door sagged and creaked when he pulled it open. He expected the thick, green door to be locked, but the knob turned in his hand. Sucking in a deep breath, he took a step into the musty interior and fell into the past.

And when he found out why Hannah had tried to stop him, guilt crashed over him like a tidal wave, sinking him to his knees.

I’m so sorry, Mom and Dad.

Chapter Five

Hannah heard the sound of his bike leaving and dropped the dishes she was rinsing to run outside in time to watch his bike as it got smaller and smaller in the distance. She knew where he’d gone, and she cursed a blue streak as she bolted for her pink mountain bike. Even as she pedaled she knew she’d be too late but, knowing what he faced, she pumped faster.

Out of breath, she rode right up onto the lawn of his old house and hopped off the bike, letting it fall to the ground as she raced up the steps and through the open front door.

“Brody!” She called his name in the dead silence. He didn’t answer. She knew where she’d find him and though her heart stuttered, she whipped up the stairs to his parents’ bedroom and stopped in the doorway. She’d found him and the secret she’d tried to hide from him.

Brody knelt on the floor, head bowed and shoulders heaving. Hannah approached quietly and, dropping to her knees behind him, hugged him tight.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he whispered hoarsely.

Guilt twinged her. “I didn’t know how.”

His laughter sounded bitter. “I guess it’s not the easiest thing to say, ’Hey Brody, your dad killed himself.’” Hannah winced at his blunt words. “It’s stupid, it never occurred to me he might be immune too. How long after my mom died did he off himself?”

Hannah swallowed at the misery and intense guilt she heard in his voice. “I don’t know. I ran into him the first time I came to town for supplies after everyone was gone. He didn’t make much sense.” Brody shook in her embrace. “I wanted him to come stay with us but when I went to go get him the next day, this is what I found.” With a hole in his head and blood staining the sheets. She didn’t tell him how she’d screamed and cried when she’d seen Brody’s father lying beside his wife, a peaceful look finally crowning his face even amid all the horror.

“I never knew. I would have come back sooner if I’d known.”

Hannah’s heart ached for him. Would the outcome been different if Brody had returned? Maybe, but then again Harold had been married to his sweet Marie for thirty-five years and known her for almost fifty. His heart had died when she had. The idea of a love that strong both appealed to and frightened Hannah. Especially since she’d thought of death a few times when Brody had left her.

“I’m sorry, Brody. I should have warned you, but I didn’t know how.”

He turned in her arms and wrapped himself around her, his body shuddering as he grieved. She hugged him tightly, her own eyes leaking as she shared his pain.

Together they knelt, both finally crying for a past they could not change. Hannah’s barriers fell at his obvious pain, his vulnerability, a side of him she’d never expected to see.

And she couldn’t help herself from falling in love with him all over again.

* * * * *

Brody finally controlled himself, appalled that he’d cried like the biggest of sissies and in front of Hannah no less. Unable to look behind him and see his parents again in their makeshift tomb, he grasped Hannah tightly and stood with her, his knees protesting after having knelt on the hard floor for so long.

He walked Hannah down the stairs, his hand clasping hers tightly. Out they went, through the front door of the house to the fresh air outside. He gulped deeply to erase the scent of death. Nothing, however, would ever remove the horror and guilt of what he’d done to his parents through his selfish absence from his mind. But he’d learned one thing very important thing since the apocalypse. He couldn’t dwell on what could have been. He had to move on and look to the future. While he couldn’t atone to his parents, he could make sure he didn’t repeat the mistakes of the past with Hannah. The future started with taking better care of her and the family she had left. She didn’t protest or move away when he folded her into his arms and hugged her tightly.

His arms loosened from her finally, and she leaned back to look at him.

“Are you okay?” she asked timidly, her eyes still red from crying.

“I’ll live,” he said with a crooked attempt at a grin. “How did you get here?”

She pointed to a bike sprawled on the grass. The thought of her riding it, she who’d hated biking growing up, made him want to cry again. This time in joy. She could deny it all she wanted, but she still cared.

Walking their bikes the few blocks into town, she finally talked to him and asked the questions Beth and Fred had already bombarded him with.

“What’s it like outside of here? Did many survive?”

“The whole planet is like a ghost town. There are survivors, but in my travels across America, they’ve been scarce. Many have hidden themselves out of fear. Others have gone mad. But I’ve heard of some gathering to form a new society. Once I left here, I was going to check out rumors about an Amish village that’s been taken over.”

“An Amish village? That’s brilliant.”

No kidding. What place would be better set up to survive than one that didn’t rely on any modern conveniences like electricity?

“Yup, course my visit to check it out will wait now that I’ve found you.” Hannah ducked her head, but he could see the hint of a smile as if his reaffirmation that he would be staying pleased her.

“Do you think they might have some people Beth’s age? I worry about her.”

“Only one way to find out. If we’re going to travel though, we’re going to need more than just my bike. I’ll take a poke around town and see if I can’t find any more motorcycles that can be fixed up. I’ll give you and Beth lessons if you want.” It was a pity so many of the roads were blocked. A car would have made things much easier, but as the panic had spread, people had tried to escape, as if they could outdrive the disease. Some had died in their cars, others had fled when the roads became impassable, and nature had overtaken the rest of the arteries that had once linked the towns. It was surprising how quickly society crumbled with nobody around to tend it. Motorcycles made a decent choice for travel, once you learned how to ride one and if you took it slow. Potholes were common along with debris.

Actually now that Brody thought of all the hazards that could happen on a motorcycle, he wondered if perhaps he should look into a different mode of travel. He refused to take chances with Hannah’s safety.

“Beth can already ride. She had a dirt bike for a while ‘til she wrecked it doing stupid stunts.”

“What about you? Did you want to learn?” Personally, he would prefer her as a passenger holding onto him nice and tight.

“No thank you. Motorcycles are dangerous.” She went silent for a moment as if thinking. “Will humanity survive?” she asked, looking him in the face with a serious mien.

“Of course we will. We’re a stubborn bunch. Tell you what. We can get started right now on repopulating the species if you’d like,” he said with a naughty grin, stopping in front of the wide display window for the mattress store.

With a shriek, Hannah came after him, and Brody skipped out of her reach. While she pretended outrage at his comment, the flush on her cheeks and sparkle in her eyes told him the idea had merit. And his jest had done the trick and chased the shadows from her face.

When she slowed down her chase, with a mock growl, he U-turned and stalked her.

With her chest panting and her lips moist from running her tongue over them, she watched him come. While she said a halfhearted, “No,” she didn’t stop him when he caught her in his arms and lowered his lips for a kiss.

He meant it to be a light caress, a gentle reminder of the passion they’d shared, but he’d dreamed of her for too long. When she moaned softly, he crushed her soft body to his and slanted his lips forcefully across hers.

She tasted as sweet as he remembered and when she opened her mouth and let her tongue delve into his, Brody groaned against her mouth. His hands slid down her back to cup her full bottom, and he squeezed those cheeks, their rounded weight making his cock throb. He pulled her hard against his groin, letting her feel his erection but, to his confusion, he felt her hands push at him. Reluctantly, he let her go.

She panted, her eyes heavy lidded and lips swollen. “I can’t. It’s too soon.” Her face crumpled a bit as if she would cry.

Brody clenched his fists, angry at himself for pushing her too fast. “I can wait.” For her, he would do anything.

She looked like wanted to speak again, but instead she rubbed her eyes and turned away to walk briskly toward the hardware store.

Brody followed, hating he’d hurt her, but unable to stop the euphoria at having had her even if briefly in his arms.

I will make her love me again.

* * * * *

That evening when they’d all gathered for dinner-with Hannah studiously ignoring Brody lest she throw him over the table and have him for supper-she brought up the Amish visit.

“Brody was telling me today about the possibility of some survivors taking up residence in that Amish parish.”

Uncle Fred’s eyes brightened. “It makes sense. Everything a person would need in this new world would be there from livestock to homes that work without electricity to barns and churns and…”

Fred rambled on for several minutes ‘til Beth with the impatience of youth interrupted him. “So when do we leave?”

“Well, we can’t just leave,” said Hannah, taken aback by her sister’s eagerness. “Remember these are just rumors.”

“Then why mention it?” cried Beth. “Or do you just not care about me? You’ve got Brody now, so who cares if I’m all alone, right?”

“I don’t have Brody,” Hannah said more sharply than intended. “And don’t be silly. Of course I don’t want you to be alone. But the nearest Amish village was at least an eight-hour drive when the roads were clear. Now we’ve got figure that with detours and stuff it could take twelve hours or more. Not to mention we don’t exactly have a vehicle to take us all, or had you forgotten that?”

Beth opened her mouth to retort but burst into tears instead.

Hannah, immune to her sister’s melodramatic habits, fought an urge to roll her eyes. Brody, however, had never had a little sister used to getting her way.

“Listen, I’ll get to work on finding a way for us all to get there okay? And if we don’t find people at that Amish village, then we’ll keep searching. I promise you, we’ll find survivors, Beth. Nobody wants you to be alone.”

With glistening eyes, Beth beamed at Brody, and Hannah tried to ignore her discomfort. Brody shouldn’t make promises he couldn’t be sure of keeping. What if they didn’t find anybody?

What if Brody is the last man left on earth? I don’t think I could share, even with my sister.

The rest of dinner passed with idle chit-chat. It wasn’t until Hannah prepared for bed that she could really think about the kiss she and Brody had shared. She’d spent the rest of that afternoon in town looking for supplies in a state of heightened awareness. Every movement made her clothes chafe against her sensitive skin, and each time she accidentally caught his eye, she’d relived that brief moment of pleasure. Worse, she wanted to do it again without stopping him. Her body ached with longing.

Pulling out her vibrator, she tried to muster enthusiasm, but how could she enjoy herself when what she really craved sat just downstairs? The cold plastic of her toy could not match the thickness of his cock.

With a snort of disgust, she threw the vibrator back into the drawer and slammed it shut. Stripping, she prepared to go to bed, but once under her sheet, she tossed and turned, too restless to sleep-too hot and horny.

She hopped out of bed and went to her window, opening it wider, hoping for a cooling breeze. Instead she heard the strains of music and a weird ticking sound coming from below her window on the front porch. Intrigued, even as she knew who the culprit had to be, she padded barefoot down the steps in her night shorts and tank top.

The front door gaped open with only the screen door shut. Looking out, she saw Brody sitting on the front step holding a long stick.

Curious she stepped out. “What are you doing?”

Tilting his head to look back at her, he smiled. “Preparing to go fishing tomorrow. I thought you might enjoy a change in fare.”

Hannah’s mouth watered at the thought of fresh fish fillets. She hadn’t had meat other than chicken in forever. They’d never taught trapping skills in home economics.

“You know how to fish?” she asked, coming to sit beside him.

Brody chuckled. “Who doesn’t?”

“Will you teach me?”

“Sure, but I warn you, we’ll be leaving at the crack of dawn. That’s when the fish bite best.”

“I’ll be ready.”

When they fell silent, she heard once again music. “What the hell is that?” she asked, not recognizing the tune.

Brody grinned, his teeth glistening white in the deepening night. “That is a classic from the eighties called “Armageddon It” by Def Leppard.”

Hannah listened, tapping her foot. “It’s kind of catchy. Where’d you find it?”

“When I was travelling, I picked up quite a few MP3 players. It makes the time pass quicker when you’re on the road.”

“Why did it take you so long to come back?”

“Biggest reason? I was chicken. I didn’t know if I could handle knowing everyone I grew up with died. And on the way, I ran into delays. The bike would break down. I’d find a survivor who needed a hand. Winter forced me to hole up in one town for a while. Then I ran into trouble a few times with some folk who thought they could order the rest of us around. It’s a shame violence and ignorance didn’t die along with the rest of the world.”

Hannah shivered at his words. She knew firsthand violence hadn’t died. With the world decimated, it boggled the mind that anyone would even think about it.

Brody saw her shudder and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “Don’t worry, kitten. I’ll never let anyone hurt you.” The dark menace in his words frightened her but, even more shocking, they thrilled her. Brody would be her knight in shining armor if she let him. But that would mean trusting him. How could she when she still couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t leave her again? What if he got bored or thought the grass was greener elsewhere and just took off?

Like a cold shower, these plaguing thoughts woke her from the comfortable zone she’d allowed to sink over her while in his presence. It would be all too easy to forgive and forget.

As if he read her mind, he spoke softly. “I’m never leaving you alone again, kitten. I wish you’d believe me. I still love you.”

With a strangled cry, Hannah jumped up from the step and tore into the house like the bats of hell chased her.

She fled to her room, hiding from the fact she loved him. Loved him so much it scared her.

And where will fear get me? Alone. I’ve been given a second chance. How stupid would I be to turn that down? This is a new world. A fresh start. Maybe I need to stop being a fraidy cat and learn to live again. I can’t hide forever.

Chapter Six

Brody waited for her out front, barely sleeping the night before, so excited to finally find himself spending a few hours alone with Hannah, if she hadn’t changed her mind. She’d taken off so quickly the night before after he’d confessed his love to her. But he wanted her to believe him and love him again.

Unable to stand still, he fidgeted with the straps on the luggage rack attached to the back fender of his bike. He had a cooler and the fishing poles strapped to the back fender. Good thing he’d been able to break the rods down into smaller segments or else they’d have had to carry them on the bike jousting lance style.

With a yawn, Hannah finally appeared dressed in loose track pants and a hoodie, her hair back in a tight ponytail. She looked so soft and still asleep that he wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her ‘til her blood rushed through her body with sexual awakening. Damn, he needed to stop these thoughts. Hannah would come to him only when she was ready.

But I wish she’d hurry up, ‘cause if my balls get any bluer, they’ll probably fall off.

Coming down the steps, she approached the bike, and he could smell the clean scent of soap. “Where did you get all this stuff?” she asked looking over the mound of equipment.

“On one of my raiding trips into town. Good thing I picked up more than one pole. Ready?” Brody swung his leg over the bike and started it, tensing only a little when she clambered on behind him, her arms wrapping tight around his torso. He swallowed hard when her full breasts pushed into his back. Brody closed his eyes for a second, savoring the feel of her body pressed so intimately, his instant erection straining in his jeans. The only way this could have felt better would have been if she’d been plastered against him naked.

With a fierce twist of the throttle, he took off. Hannah’s arms tightened, crushing him like the coils of an anaconda-and he loved it. Brody took the familiar roads and dirt paths to the river, wishing it lay farther away so he could enjoy the feel of her molded against him a little longer. Hannah would notice if he detoured though, so reminding himself he’d be spending the day alone with her, he turned onto the rutted track leading to his favorite fishing spot as a kid. He slowed down only when they hit the grassy embankment just past the thin line of trees. He’d no sooner stopped than Hannah hopped off, her rounded tush, even in her loose clothes, swinging sexily as she wandered to the river’s edge.

Brody kept an eye on her as he unpacked the fishing gear. She looked so beautiful in the early morning light, her hair shining and her face soft with pleasure as she dipped her toes in the water, her shoes already discarded on the bank.

Spreading a blanket, he sat down cross-legged with the poles and threaded them back together, clipping bobbers, hook, and bait on their ends. Hannah wandered from the water and sat beside him.

“Where’s the worms?” she asked, lifting one of the baited hooks and wrinkling her nose at the hairball on the end.

“This is not the Stone Age, woman. Real fishermen use lures. That furry one you’re looking at is a Murdish minnow streamer.”

“Looks like something I pulled out of my hairbrush.”

“Yeah, well, for the bass we want to catch it will hopefully look like lunch. If those don’t work though I do have some plastic worms as backup. Now here, this is yours.” He handed her one of the poles, and she stood up with it, the hook swinging.

“Whoa! Watch where you’re pointing that thing.”

Her cheeks blushed a becoming pink, and she held the rod away from him while he stood too. Gesturing for her to follow, he went down to the water’s edge.

“Now watch what I do.” He instructed, exaggerating the movements required to cast the line. With the ease of years of experience, his lure flew across the water, landing with a little splash, the current pulling the line taut.

Hannah adopted his stance and flicked her rod. Nothing happened, and she scowled at him and her fishing pole. “Why didn’t it work?”

“Remember to click that button just as you fling it forward.”

She pulled back again and whipped the rod forward. The hook and lure ejected a few feet and stopped dead.

Brody held in a laugh as she cursed. “Stupid thing is broken.”

Wedging his pole into the soft ground and bracing it with rocks, he went over to give her a hand.

“Let me show you how it’s done.” He wrapped his arms around her, placing his hands over hers. Her lush bottom tucked into his groin, making him forget for a moment what he meant to teach her. But he had a hard-on that knew exactly what it wanted to do, and apparently she felt it nudging for she turned her face toward him with a gasp.

* * * * *

Hannah’s frustration with the whole fishing thing faded as her body interested itself in the pole poking against her backside. Even through her thick cotton pants, she could feel his erection, and it made her wet in response. A part of her knew she should move, but another part-the one that had spent so many nights aching for this-wouldn’t let her. She barely heard him as he told and showed her how to cast the fishing line.

Her body clamored for her to turn in his arms and kiss him. She knew he wouldn’t turn her away. But her practical side, the one that had helped her get through his leaving her, prevailed-barely.

Moving away from his disturbing presence, she took a breath to try and clear her head, even if it did nothing to cool her crotch. “Okay, I think I get it. Let me move downstream a bit and try again.”

Unable to face him ‘til her hormones cooled, she walked away, as if distance would aid in what ailed her. Finding herself a new spot, she flailed and cranked her fishing pole ‘til she managed to cast the lure a few feet from her into the water.

“I did it,” she crowed, looking over at him triumphantly.

“Good job. Now try catching one of these.” He flashed white teeth at her as he held up a plump fish.

Show off. Her competitive side emerging, Hannah watched him unobtrusively and mimed his actions. It wasn’t until he’d caught his third fish around mid-morning that she felt a tug. She reeled her line in a bit, wondering if she’d imagined it, but a stronger pull finally signaled something had taken the bait.

Reeling faster, the rod pulled in her hands as the fish fought her. Strong arms wrapped around hers, helping her hold the pole steady, and Brody’s encouraging words came to her ear.

“That’s it, kitten. Don’t let him win. You’ve caught a strong one. Come on, baby, reel it in.”

Excitement coursed through her as she fought against this evenings dinner, ‘til finally, with a pull up on her pole, her scaled foe exited the water.

She turned her face, her lips a hairsbreadth away from Brody’s, and her eyes met his. “I did it,” she exclaimed.

“Yes, you did,” he murmured before he touched his mouth to hers. Hannah’s lips parted, responding cautiously to his embrace. His tongue licked her lower lip before he captured it and sucked it, a move that had her knees trembling. A jerk on the pole in her hand made her pull away, but she couldn’t find the breath to castigate him for the stolen kiss, not when she wanted to chuck the fishing pole and throw herself in his arms.

As he showed her how to unhook her catch, she watched him and mused. Who am I kidding? I want him-bad. Why am I denying myself this pleasure? Sure, he might leave tomorrow or next week, but really, what do I have left to lose. He could be my only chance for happiness. Or a baby.

The thought of a child, his child, made her chest go tight. If she got pregnant and had a baby, then even if he left, she wouldn’t be alone.

But in order to get a bun in the oven, she’d need to have sex with him. She felt like rolling her eyes-as if sex with him would be a chore. Licking her lips, she wondered how to seduce him. She couldn’t just tell him, “Hey I’ve changed my mind. Let’s fuck like bunnies.” Of course, being a man, he’d probably drop his pants quicker than she could say “fuck.”

Judging by the smoky looks he kept throwing her, and the bulge he kept shifting to conceal in his pants, Hannah figured she wouldn’t have long to wait before he made his next move.

Especially if she goaded him.

* * * * *

Brody put Hannah’s catch with the others in the cooler filled to the brim with water and turned around. Suppressing a groan, he took in the sight of Hannah shrugging off her track pants in the now warm, late morning sun. She wore cut-off jean shorts that showed off way too much thigh and a snug t-shirt that hugged her full breasts, unfettered by a constricting bra.

His mouth went dry, and all the blood and sense in his body went to his cock. Rigid as a steel beam, he turned from her, trying to control the lust that swept through him.

A soft touch on his back had him turning around to find her standing close. “Brody,” she said huskily. “I’m hungry.”

Those innocuous words put him over the edge. Grabbing her in a rough embrace, he slanted his mouth hard over hers, expecting at any moment for her to push him away, but unable to resist her appeal. To his surprise, her hands crept up and curled around his neck and clung to him tightly.

Completely undone by this sign of acquiescence, he groaned against her mouth, a sound he repeated when her mouth opened and her tongue tentatively probed the inner edge of his lip.

He immediately met this timid exploration with his own tongue, twining it around hers and tasting her unique sweetness, a flavor that he’d never forgotten.

She sagged in his arms, an action he remembered that signaled her desire, and he tightened his arms around her, the feel of her lush body against his driving him insane. Needing more, and not trusting himself to be able to hold them both upright, he scooped her up and brought her to the blanket. He laid her down, expecting her protest at any moment, but she held out her arms to him. Needing no further invitation, he covered her body with his own, her thighs spread and welcoming his hard body between them. Even through the material of his jeans, he could feel the heat of her calling to him. He ground his hips against the vee of her thighs, and she pushed back, her hot mouth panting against his.

Her hands slid under his shirt and rubbed against the muscles of his back. She tugged the fabric up and mewled against his mouth. At her signal, he left her lips long enough to pull off his shirt. Before he could cover her again, she’d placed her palms flat against his chest and he heard her murmur. “So strong. Sexy.”

“All yours.” He leaned down to capture her lips again, even as he braced himself on one arm so his other hand could inch her shirt up, his fingers tracing the smooth skin up her rib cage to the fullness of her tit. Cupping that heavy globe, he squeezed, and she gasped against his mouth. His calloused fingers found her nipple. He rolled it, the erect nub becoming even more prominent.

Leaving her full lips, he pulled her t-shirt up and, with her aiding, stripped it from her. He bared her beautiful breasts to his view-and mouth. Swooping down, he caught an erect nipple in his mouth. She arched her back in pleasure. Her reaction drove him wild, her sexy wantonness making him even more frenzied. He sucked her areola and bit it gently. She urged him on by digging her fingers into his hair and offering her chest, her pants and mewls of pleasure making his cock swell so hard, he feared coming in his pants.

“I want you so bad,” he said, pausing in his ministrations, trying to control himself.

“Please, Brody,” she whispered.

Leaning up for a moment, he looked at her. So gorgeous. Her face had flushed becomingly with passion, and she eyed him with heavy lids, her lips swollen from his kisses.

“Are you sure?” he asked, cursing himself for asking, but more afraid she’d regret and hate him if he didn’t stop now before it was too late.

“I need you.”

Three simple words that meant the world. With trembling hands, he unbuttoned her shorts and slid them down her legs, his hands caressing her smooth skin. The white expanse of her thighs beckoned him and he laid a kiss on the soft skin.

“Brody.” She arched, her legs spreading wide in welcome. He could see how wet she was for him. Quickly he divested himself of his clothing and, cursing his frantic state, he nestled between her legs.

Later, when I’m less likely to blow, I’ll taste her. His mouth watered at the thought, but his cock twitched impatiently. Arms braced on either side of her, he claimed her lips, even as the head of his cock nudged at her nether lips. Slowly he slid himself in, her tight moistness almost making him instantly come. Her hands clawed at his back, and she thrust her hips up, taking him deeper.

Brody groaned in her mouth. She felt so damn sweet. He tried to move slow, to make sure she came with him but, denied this pleasure for so long, he couldn’t control himself and pumped her faster and faster, the brink quickly approaching.

But she kept up with him, her fingers digging deep, her body spread wide. She screamed when she came, and he felt her pussy convulse around his shaft, the quivering muscles squeezing him tight. Yelling as well, he came inside of her, hot spurts that drained him.

Keeping their bodies joined, Brody managed to roll so she lay on top of him. He hugged her tight, wishing he could see her face which she’d buried in the hollow of his shoulder.

When he felt her shaking, he feared the worst. “What’s wrong, kitten? Did I hurt you?”

She raised her face, her eyes shining with mirth and her lips twitching with giggles. “You might not find it as funny.”

“Let me be the judge.”

“I was just thinking that you’re way better than my pocket rocket.”

Brody blanked for a second. When he grasped the joke, he laughed too, although he pretended to scowl when he responded. “I should hope so. I’ve got a hell of a lot more power than a pair of AA batteries.”

“Size too.” She grinned, grinding her pelvis against him.

“And stamina,” he said, thrusting back, pleased at her wide-eyed look when she felt him harden inside of her.

Burying himself in the sensual softness that was all Hannah’s, he made love to her again, more slowly. He left her on top, his hands cupping her heavy breasts, his eyes watching her as she tilted her head back and rode him like a cowgirl. Her hips rocked back and forth, the motion pushing him so deep.

He loved watching as she got closer and closer to her pleasure: her eyes closed, her small white teeth gnawing at her lip as she strived to stay in control. But Brody remembered how to make her lose it.

Letting his hand drift down to her curls, he found her clit and rubbed it even as she rode him. With whimpering cries, she ground herself against him, her moist flesh squeezing him tight. Moments before her orgasm hit, she opened her eyes and looked at him.

“Hannah,” he cried out, his cock jerking inside of her as he came, followed seconds later by her own scream as she found her pleasure.

She collapsed on him boneless, and he stroked the smooth skin of her back as she panted.

I’ll never leave you again, he thought, wishing he could tell her how he felt, but afraid words would ruin this most precious of moments. But he intended to show her as many times as it took.

* * * * *

Hannah ducked her head shyly when Brody handed her the clothing they’d frantically discarded. Her body ached pleasantly, sated for the first time since he’d left. She could see his eyes shining with love whenever she looked at him, and the urge to tell him she still loved him sat on the tip of her tongue. But once she did that, she’d be vulnerable to him again. She’d give him the power to hurt her. A stupid argument, since she knew how she felt, but voicing it aloud somehow seemed more risky.

If she wanted to be aloof when he decided the grass was greener elsewhere then she had to act like all she wanted was sex. Really good, heart-pounding sex.

“What are you thinking?” he asked, interrupting her thoughts.

“About how hungry I am,” she said, suddenly realizing it was the truth.

“Then it’s a good thing I brought a picnic.” Brody whisked some fruit and biscuits along with some jam out of the saddlebags on his bike.

They ate in companionable silence and, when done, Brody tidied up while Hannah lounged dreading going back to the real world, and Beth. Beth who wants a man of her own. She is not going to be happy about Brody and I hooking up. Unless…

“Brody, what happened doesn’t change anything.”

She saw his hands still, and he didn’t turn to face her when he spoke. “I would have thought our making love changed several things.”

“I’ll admit, I enjoyed that and I’m not adverse to the idea of doing it again. But I’m not ready to be a couple just yet. And I definitely know that we can’t let Beth know about what happened, or we’ll have a serious meltdown on our hands.”

“You want to keep it from Beth for now, that’s fine. I have no problem with waiting to tell her. But you need to believe I’m not going anywhere, kitten. So you’d better get over this idea of yours that I’m going to leave.”

Hannah opened her mouth to retort but before she could, he turned to her, his eyes blazing. “Don’t even think of saying anything,” he said. He gripped her hard, pulling her to him, silencing her with a fierce kiss.

When he finally let her up for air, it was to say, “I love you, Hannah. I always have. I might have been stupid once, but I’ve changed. You’ll realize that eventually.”

Hannah stayed quiet as they packed up the bike for the ride back home. His declaration tumbled through her mind, and she found herself seesawing wildly, her heart and common sense in a full out war. Her introspect lasted through dinner. Brody kept shooting her glances which she ignored. Fred regarded her thoughtfully, but Beth chattered, oblivious to the storm brewing. She still hadn’t made up her mind on what to do when later that evening her bedroom door opened and his dark shadow slipped into her room then her bed.

She stopped thinking and allowed herself to just surrender when his hands and mouth set her on fire.

Chapter Seven

The next few days they snuck around like teenagers scared of being caught by Mom and Dad, although in their case it was the fear of being caught by temperamental Beth.

Every night Brody visited Hannah’s bed and, with his mouth swallowing her cries, pleasured her body. Even after several days of him sating her, Hannah still wanted more. Her plan to get pregnant so she’d have something to love when he left faded as he lavished her with attention. She began to believe that perhaps he spoke the truth about staying this time. He certainly seemed content with their simple life. She found herself softening to him and, despite her vow to the contrary, trusting him.

It ended up being a good thing else she might have misconstrued what she came across.

The sound of voices made her creep quietly along the side of the shed-more specifically, Beth and Brody. Hannah didn’t announce her presence, instead opting to listen. She refused to consider it spying, more like information gathering.

“If you’re looking for Hannah, I think she’s up at the house.” Brody’s deep voice sent a longing shiver down her spine.

“You’re the one I wanted to see,” replied Beth coyly. “It’s been so nice having a man around here even if Hannah doesn’t seem to appreciate it. I for one sure do. It must be lonely for a hot guy like you. I’d be more than happy to take care of that loneliness.”

Hannah’s gut twisted-rage at her sister for unknowingly hitting on Brody making her jealous beyond belief. But even in the midst of her anger there was hurt that her sister would hit on the one man, the only man Hannah had ever and still did love.

Maybe we should have told her the truth.

“Listen, Beth, you’re a nice girl but-” Brody’s words seemed to be abruptly cut off.

She couldn’t stop herself. She whipped around the corner of the shed and caught them kissing or, more accurately, Beth trying to kiss Brody. To his credit, Brody was shaking his head and attempting to push her gently away, but Beth kept trying to wrap herself around him.

Hannah gasped. Instantly Brody’s eyes met hers and filled with panic as he finally and firmly pushed Beth away, causing her to stumble.

“Bethany Anne Winters, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Hannah's voice was low with shock. She knew who the guilty party here was. It’s my fault for letting Beth think Brody and I weren’t involved.

Beth turned around and brazenly smirked at her. “Just because you don’t want him doesn’t mean I don’t. I have no intention of being an old maid like you. I want a family, and I want to get out of here. Brody can take me.”

“I’m sorry, Beth. You’re a nice girl, but you’re like a little sister to me. I love Hannah still, and I haven’t given up hope that she’ll return that love.”

His words turned Beth back into the young girl she was. “But she hates you,” said Beth petulantly.

“I’m hoping to change her mind about that.”

Beth’s eyes filled with tears, but her words were scathing. “I hate it here. And I hate you!” she screamed, running back to the house.

Brody shrugged and Hannah, biting her lip, followed her sister. They needed to clear the air.

She caught up to Beth at the house. “I think we need to talk,” she said to Beth’s rigid back.

“There’s nothing to say.”

“Oh really.” Hannah felt the ire from seeing her sister mauling Brody all over again. “How about we start with your behavior with Brody?”

“That’s none of your damn business,” said her sister, whirling around. “You’ve made it pretty clear you don’t want him. And I meant what I said. I want out of here, and he’s the only person who can do that ‘cause you sure as hell aren’t in any hurry.”

“It’s dangerous out there, Bethie.” Hannah wondered if they’d done the right thing hiding the violence she’d faced from her sister. Perhaps if Beth knew what Hannah had been through she would understand that they just couldn’t leave the safety of their home without preparation.

“You’re just saying that ‘cause you’re scared to leave.”

“Listen, I want you to find someone you can be happy with, but we need to plan this and not go off halfcocked.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” said Beth, rolling her eyes. “Fine. You want to wait, then wait. But in the meantime, if I want to flirt with Brody, I will. Just because you don’t want him, doesn’t mean I do.”

“You can’t have Brody.” The words and their possessive tone slipped out without volition.

Beth opened her mouth to reply, then her eyes widened. “Oh my god, you’re fucking him, aren’t you?”

“Watch your language, young lady.”

“Stuff it. You’re not my mother. And you didn’t answer me. Are you sleeping with Brody?”

Hannah could see the storm brewing in her sister’s eyes, but she nodded anyway.

“Unfucking believable. No wonder you didn’t want me to hit on him. You’re already banging him. When were you going to tell me? Huh?” Beth raged and Hannah let her, knowing she had a right. “God, I am so fucking stupid.”

Beth’s foul language sounded so crude, and Hannah winced. She might be used to her sister’s temper, but she’d never seen her lose it like this.

“I’m sorry, Beth. I promise, we’re going to take a road trip as soon as we can find a way for all of us to-”

“Like I’ll believe you. You and this stupid house and town. We should have left as soon as we realized everyone was dead. But no, Hannah’s afraid of the big wide world.” Beth’s tone and words mocked her. Hannah cringed at the pent-up bitterness her sister spewed. “Let’s hide here in the house we grew up in because god fucking forbid you should leave your safety blanket.”

Hannah couldn’t help herself. She flinched. I am not afraid to leave. I happen to like it here. Why is it I’m the only one who does? “I’m sorry you feel that way. I promise we’ll find somewhere with people for you. I want you to be happy, Beth.” Hannah’s voice broke.

“Don’t bother. I don’t want your help.” Beth pushed past Hannah, almost running into Fred in his wheelchair.

“Whoa girl, where you going so fast?” asked their uncle.

“Nowhere apparently,” Beth said bitterly before disappearing from sight.

Fred turned to look at Hannah with his brows raised. “What the heck was that about?”

“Beth found out Brody and I are involved and freaked. I don’t blame her.” She ducked her head in sorrow, waiting for Fred’s rebuke.

“About time you and Brody patched things up. As for Beth, she’ll get over it. You always did coddle her too much. You’ve done the best you could, Hannah girl, and don’t you forget it.”

“She just wants someone to love. I can’t blame her. And I want to give her what she wants. She’s right. I am chicken to leave home. I don’t know anything else.”

Fred snorted. “Beth’s just impatient. She doesn’t understand that some things have to be taken slowly. The girl is young yet. A few more weeks or months ain’t gonna kill her. Don’t you let what she says bother you none. There’s nothing wrong with loving one’s home. Don’t forget, just because we go on a trip or even if we find somewhere that’s better for us, doesn’t mean we can’t come back.”

Hannah smiled at her uncle. He always had the right words. “Yeah, I know. I love you, Uncle Fred.”

“I love you too. Now stop this pity business and hold yourself straight. Beth will get over it.”

I sure hope so. I’ve never seen her this mad.

But Beth didn’t get over it. She acted impulsively as usual, something Hannah only realized when they couldn’t find Beth the next morning and discovered Brody’s bike missing.

Chapter Eight

“Calm down, kitten. I’ll find her.” Brody lied, not knowing what else to say with Hannah so crazed with worry over her sister’s disappearance.

“How?” wailed Hannah. “She could be anywhere. What if she’s hurt? Oh god. This is all my fault.” She collapsed on the couch, her face buried in her hands while her shoulders shook.

Brody wanted to shake Beth ‘til her teeth rattled for doing this to her sister. Ungrateful, little brat. “I am pretty sure she’ll have headed to that Amish settlement. I’ll hunt around for another bike and go looking for her. I’ll bring her back, I promise.”

Brody rode Hannah’s pedal bike into town, glad no one could see him on the pink bike. He had a vague idea about who might own a motorcycle and headed straight for Joe Franton’s home with its large two-car garage. Brody remembered Joe had talked about getting himself a Harley.

Bingo!

Opening the garage door with a noisy creak, Brody sent up a quick amen. Covered by a tarp, he found a motorcycle and not just any bike: a Harley Ultra Classic. He ran his hand over the fat tank and shook his head at the oversized seat for the driver and the just as comfortable one for a passenger replete with arm and backrests.

Brody couldn’t help grinning. While he loved his Harley Sportster, the Ultra Classic was a motorcycle made for two, and he knew who he’d like sitting behind him.

Grabbing a gas jug, he jogged down the road to the gas station only to find the pumps dry. But he had learned a trick or two on his cross-country trip, and he quickly found a length of hose he used to siphon the derelict cars that littered the town. Pouring the gas into the tank, Brody then faced a new dilemma.

Keys?

Bracing himself, he entered the tomblike home, dust motes floating in the air. Luck on his side, Brody found the bike keys on a peg board along with others. On the way out, he noticed a framed image of Joe, straddling the very same motorcycle in his garage, a big grin on his face. He felt a moment’s pang for Joe who hadn’t gotten to enjoy much of a retirement.

So many people had found their lives cut short and even now the world was not a safe place, something he should have stressed more to Beth. But, given her headstrong, spoiled nature, he doubted it would have had an impact.

The bike of course didn’t start when he turned the key, the battery long dead. Wheeling it out into the sunshine, Brody rolled it a few blocks to the one incline in town. He pedaled the ground with his feet, Flintstone style. When the bike gained some forward momentum, he pulled in the clutch and popped it into second.

With a coughing stutter, the engine roared to life, and Brody cranked the throttle, clearing dust from its workings. The growling sound of the bike brought Hannah running out of the house, and Brody’s groin tightened looking at her. He loved her so much even with her tear-streaked face.

“I’ve packed some food and clothes,” she said gesturing to some bundles behind her.

“You should go with him,” said Fred wheeling out onto the porch.

“What?” Hannah’s face creased in puzzlement. “I can’t. I’ve got to stay with you.”

“Oh for Christ sake girl, I been taking care of myself a lot longer than you’ve been born. Go with him. Find your fool sister and that Amish village. I can take care of myself for a week or so. Besides, if you stay here, you’ll just drive me nuts.”

“Are you sure?”

Brody could see Hannah’s need to care for her uncle warring with that of seeing her sister safe.

Fred snorted and when she flew into his arms hugging the old man’s frail body, Brody felt a lump. He sure as hell hoped they all came back. Fred would be all right for a few weeks on his own but, with winter approaching, they needed to get back before the snow made roads impassable.

“Let me just pack a few things.” Hannah bustled into the house.

Brody looked at Fred. “Are you sure, Fred?”

“Hannah needs to see the world outside of this town. This Amish village might be what she needs, what we all need. If things look good, then come back and get me. Beth is right about one thing, this town is dead. If we’re going to rebuild, we need to be around people.”

“We’ll be back,” Brody promised.

“Of course you will, son,” said the old man. “You got protection I assume?”

For a second Brody misunderstood and blushed thinking Fred was asking if he had condoms-an item that also had expiration dates, not that he wanted to use any. He’d love to see Hannah pregnant with his babe. But Fred meant another kind of protection. Brody opened the mini pouch strapped over the tank and pulled out the revolver he’d stashed in there, a more comfortable spot than shoved down the backside of his jeans. “Never leave home without one.” He also had another gun stowed in the saddlebags as a backup, although he fervently hoped they didn’t run into anything that caused them to need the protection of a gun.

Hannah came back out of the house, a knapsack dangling from her hand. Kissing her uncle and admonishing him not to overdo it, she approached Brody and held out her bag, which he stowed in the large, rigid side compartments.

Straddling the bike, he looked at her and waited as she gnawed her lip. With a creased face, she looked at her uncle and the only home she’d ever known.

“I’ll bring you back, I swear,” said Brody.

Taking a deep breath, she clambered behind him on the passenger pillion and wrapped her arms around his waist.

“Let’s go find my sister,” she said bravely, but Brody could hear the worry and fear underlying her words.

With a roar, he sped off on the bike without looking back, unable to shake the feeling that nothing would be the same again.

* * * * *

Hannah clung to Brody as he drove down the debris strewn road. Beth had hours on them and Hannah, looking around at the streaming landscape, really had to wonder if they’d be able to find her. This could be worse than searching for a needle in a haystack.

Brody hadn’t been joking when he’d said the roads weren’t car friendly. He spent a lot of time slowing down to detour and weave around vehicles abandoned on the road, some of which still had the remains of occupants.

Closing her eyes, Hannah leaned her head on Brody’s strong back. A sense of loss consumed her. Why does it feel like I’ll never come home again? Which was absurd. Even if by some miracle she decided to live elsewhere, she’d be coming back to pack up Uncle Fred and the house.

It didn’t matter what her head said though, her heart remained steadfast in its belief. Hannah tried thinking of Beth instead, a subject that worried her even more than coming home. Is she okay? What if she gets lost? Or runs into a psycho? Will I ever see her again? Oh please don’t let our last words to each other be angry ones.

A few hours from home, they entered the first decent sized city on their route. Brody took them to the center of the city, a thing of dead neon signs, some of which hung drunkenly. Slowing he stopped the bike by a gas station that looked like a derelict parking lot.

“Let’s stretch our legs for a few minutes and eat something,” he said, getting off the bike and stretching his body.

Hannah followed suit, her cramped muscles protesting as she unfolded herself from the hunch she’d adopted on the bike. She stared in morbid fascination at the buildings around her. It had been one thing to see her small town deserted with only the tumbleweed missing to mark it as a ghost town, but quite another to have towering skyscrapers and surprisingly intact storefronts lining the too quiet street.

Hannah did a three sixty, taking it all in. Nothing moved, a fact eerily compounded by the mournful whistle of a light breeze through the buildings.

“It’s like a tomb,” she whispered, afraid to raise her voice for surely ghosts hid in this haunted place. She almost expected the undead to come shambling out of this oversized tomb, their arms outstretched, moaning “Brains.” Hannah shuddered.

“All the cities are like this,” Brody said, barely sparing a glance to the surroundings, his nonchalance comforting her somewhat. “At least the smell is gone. At first you couldn’t come near the major centers for the stench and flies. I’ve heard a few survivors say that the buzzing of their wings was what almost put them over the edge.” His words gave her goose bumps, and she rubbed her arms. She still remembered the smell and sound of death.

“So nobody lives here?”

“Would you?” he said finally looking at her, his shadowed eyes belaying his aloof words. “I’ve yet to meet anyone who elected to stay in the cities. Those that survived have moved outside into the farming areas where they can live off the land. They still send out gathering parties looking for goods: clothing, canned food, weapons, and other items we can no longer make ourselves. Stockpiling them before nature claims these places back.”

At his words she noticed the grass trying to creep through the cracks in the pavement. Straggly vegetation doing battle with a concrete jungle. Like humans, it was determined to survive.

“Oh Brody.” Hannah’s eye flooded with tears. She’d spent the past year being strong, never stepping out of her secular world. And now that she had, she realized just how bad things were. The bubble she’d inhabited for so long suddenly burst and sorrow overwhelmed her.

Sinewy arms wrapped around her and held her tight. Brody rocked her in his embrace, rubbing his cheek over the top of her head and supporting her as she sobbed.

She didn’t know how long they stood there while she cried for everyone who had died. While she cried for the dreams that were lost. She also cried knowing her sister, the little girl she’d helped raise, was alone in this terribly dead world. And finally she cried because she realized Brody was her last chance at having love and a family. If he left, there was nothing and nobody to fall back on. She’d truly be alone.

Eventually her tears subsided to hiccups and, moving out of Brody’s embrace, she scrubbed at her red eyes.

“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice and eyes laced with concern.

Hannah nodded, not trusting herself to speak without breaking into sobs again.

“It’s getting late. Do you want to find a place to camp here for the night or do you prefer to get out of here?”

Hannah answered that instantly. “Anywhere but here please.” She didn’t want to sleep surrounded by this monument to humanities follies and death.

With a nod, Brody got on the bike. Hannah took a step toward him and stopped dead, suddenly struck by the image. Like some kind of apocalypse cowboy, he straddled his steel horse with his weathered leather jacket, snug jeans, and windblown hair. The only thing missing was a wide brimmed hat. His gaze held hers, and she could see the love shining in his eyes. She almost cried again.

Oh I love you, Brody.

They left the oversized graveyard, the miles flying by but never far enough to make her forget.

Twilight arrived early this time of the year, and Hannah clutched Brody tightly as the diminishing light made the drive even more treacherous. Finally, he pulled into a roadside motel and stopped the bike.

“Stay here for a second.” With long strides, he went into the motel office and came back out moments later dangling several sets of keys. Trying the doors of units with no cars parked out front, he went into two and exited, before entering a third and signaling her.

“Why don’t you go in the bathroom and see if there’s any water still running. I’ll bring some food and stuff in.”

Too exhausted to argue and with a sore ass, she went into the motel room and found it dusty but intact. Wandering into the bathroom, she turned on the tap and, after sputtering brown for a few minutes, the water ran clear if cold. Using the washcloth she found on the shelf above the toilet, she cleaned herself up, the abrasive, wet cloth making her feel alive again.

When she came back out, she found Brody stripping the top cover off the bed.

“What are you doing with the sheets?”

“I’m going to shake it out so we’re not hacking on dust all night.”

Ever thoughtful. How could she not love him? Hannah opened the pack he’d brought in and pulled out food, a meal he supplemented by raiding the vending machine in the office.

They ate in silence and almost darkness. When finished, as if by mutual accord, they stood and fell into each other’s arms.

Hannah needed to feel him. Taste him. With frantic fingers, she attacked his clothes and in moments they both dove on the bed naked. His heavy body covered hers, the hot, hard length of his cock, nudging her sex.

She threaded her fingers in his hair, holding him close to kiss. Her tongue curled and danced around his.

She broke off the kiss and panted, “Lie on your back.”

Brody obeyed. Hannah knelt between his legs, the darkness forcing her to feel her way around his body. He gasped as her hands skimmed his thighs and cupped his heavy sack. Having discovered her goal, she leaned forward and found his shaft with her mouth, the tip moist. She licked it, tasting the saltiness of his excitement. Laving his cock with her tongue, she explored all of him before she took him into her mouth to suck him. Even though she couldn’t see him, she could picture him. His head would alternate between going back with his eyes shut and facial muscles taut, to looking down at her with a smoky gaze that promised reciprocation.

Hannah shuddered, her pussy damp with the thought of what he liked to do to her with his tongue, that weapon of mass orgasm. She bobbed up and down on his hard length while her hand fondled his balls, squeezing and kneading them ‘til they grew tight.

He groaned. “Kitten, I’m gonna lose it.”

With a final suck, she let go of his cock and by feel again moved herself in position to straddle him. His hands helped guide her and when she felt his swollen head poking at her nether lips, she sat down.

Impaled on his thick length, she finally gasped and threw her head back, not moving for a second, just enjoying the feel of him inside her. Leaning forward to brace her hands on his chest, she rocked, each motion sending a jolt of pleasure through her, bringing her closer and closer to ecstasy.

But Brody had no intention of letting her cum that quickly.

Before she knew it, Hannah found herself flat on her back with the cock in her cunt replaced by his tongue. His hands holding her thighs wide, he licked her, spreading her wet folds and lapping at her core. Finding her clit, he flicked it with his tongue and sucked it, driving Hannah wild. Arching on the bed, she clawed at the sheets.

Incoherent at the torture he inflicted, all she could manage to say was “Oh” as he brought her to the brink and then stopped ‘til she calmed enough so he could start again with his torturous tongue.

When Hannah thought she would die, he finally slid into her. The fullness of his throbbing cock inside of her, she came with a loud scream. Her pussy trembled around him as he drove himself in and out, each thrust hitting her G-spot inside and making her orgasm go on and on. Hannah moaned, her body boneless and shuddering under him. And still he fucked her, driving his penis into her over and over ‘til finally he went rigid and shouted her name, his cock spurting hotly inside of her.

Collapsing on her, they clutched each other tightly, overwhelmed.

“I love you,” Hannah said, suddenly deciding it was stupid to deny it.

“And I never stopped loving you,” he said, softly rolling to his side and snuggling her into the crook of his arm.

Hannah knew she shouldn’t, not after the moment they’d just shared, but she finally had to ask, “If you loved me, why did you leave in the first place, and why did it take you so long to come back?”

* * * * *

Brody could hear the pain in her voice. Hell, he could still remember how lost and hurt she’d looked when he left. A pang went through him at the agony he’d caused her. It had all been his fault. He never should have gone and left her alone. It was a wonder she could forgive and love him again. He still hadn’t forgiven himself.

“I knew it was wrong to leave even as I drove away.” Brody started to talk, needing to explain himself so they could start fresh. “But I was so angry and proud that I didn’t stop. I wanted to prove to my dad that I could be something, and I wanted to show you that I was worth loving. That I could give you all the things you deserved.”

“All I wanted was you,” she said in the darkness, her voice small.

“You know what they say about hindsight. Well there I was, cocky and determined to make it big. I’m still not sure how I figured that would happen. I didn’t have all that many skills, and I’d never finished college. A fact I sadly regretted as the only jobs I got offered were menial grunt work. I wanted to come home when I realized the world was a much more cutthroat place than I’d expected. I was one of thousands of young men looking for work. But I couldn’t come back a failure-”

“So you kept looking?” she finished his sentence.

Brody traced her spine with fingers calloused from the manual labor he’d done over the past year and a half. “I kept moving every few weeks, desperate to find something, anything to justify why I’d left, but it was the same thing everywhere I went. I just wasn’t good enough.”

“You were good enough for me. And I know your father was always proud.”

“Again that hindsight thing. So many times, I gassed up the bike and picked up the phone, ready to quit and come home. I wish I had.” Brody fell silent as he bitterly recalled the dreams he’d had. A dream he’d followed westward, chasing a rainbow that never ended in a pot of gold, or Hannah. And then it was too late. He’d woken up one morning and found the world dying. As the death toll mounted, Brody had realized, to his horror, that he’d spent months chasing fool’s gold and lost everything that meant anything to him.

“I waited for you, you know,” she admitted. “Every time the phone rang or I heard a motorcycle, I thought it was you finally coming back to me. Then the flu hit and everyone died, and I think that’s when I finally admitted to myself you were never coming back.” Her voice choked, and Brody could feel his eyes dampen, glad she couldn’t see him.

He had to swallow hard before he trusted himself to speak. “I was coming back to you, I swear. Then the virus hit, and it was chaos everywhere.” She had actually been his first thought when the plague hit. Terrified for her, he’d begun travelling back, diverting around roadblocks that soon manned empty streets as the world faded with a cough and a sneeze. “I started for home, but as I travelled, I kept slowing down.” Fear had grabbed him. What if he returned and found her dead? Or worse what if she’d survived and moved on with someone else?

She didn’t ask him why, she just snuggled him closer and again he felt that stupid moisture in his eyes that he’d found her again. That she loved him, even if that love was tempered with hesitation. I’ll never hurt you again, he silently promised. He’d die first.

Brody had never gotten over Hannah. He’d never even tried. Offers from other women had been there, but he’d never been able to muster interest. All he’d ever wanted was his golden kitten.

He just hoped he could make her believe in him fully again so they could be the family they’d always been meant to be.

Chapter Nine

Hannah woke before Brody the next morning, and she watched him as he slept, the new lines he’d gained from the hardships he’d face smoothed out, leaving him looking like the boy she’d fallen in love with a lifetime ago. The boy and now the man she loved still.

Easing out of bed, she threw on some clothes and exited the room, heading for the front office and the vending machines Brody had said he’d found inside. With no coffee, she needed to get a caffeine fix in the form of a cola. She opened the glass paned office door, the sun rising still at her back. The pop machine stood, a sentinel of a bygone time, at the back of the room. Two steps in, just enough for the door to swing shut, a hand clapped over her mouth, while something sharp and pointed pricked the skin at her back through her shirt.

“If you move or scream, you die.”

* * * * *

Brody awoke alone with a sense of something not being right. Hopping out of bed, he pulled on his jeans as he checked the bathroom for Hannah. Tucking the gun he’d put under the pillow into his pants, he left the room, his feeling of urgency increasing.

Where could she have gone?

The bike still sat in its spot, untouched. His eyes scanned the area around the motel, but nothing moved. A flicker of motion in the corner of his eye caught his attention from the office. He pretended not to see it and wandered around the backside of the building. He ran quickly once out of sight ‘til he reached the rear of the office then he inched quietly up the side. Scuffing sounds ahead had him holding his breath and peering around the corner. His hearth clenched at the sight of Hannah being marched with a knife at her back.

Aiming the gun, he called out, “Let the girl go, or I’ll blow your fucking head off.”

The ruffian whirled, one hand tangled in Hannah’s hair, the knife moved to a point below her chin.

“One move and she dies,” threatened the bastard who had dared touch Brody’s woman.

The absolute look of terror in Hannah’s eyes twisted like a knife in Brody’s gut. “I am not telling you again. Let her go, or I’ll cut you apart piece by fucking piece.” Brody cocked the gun, stilling his breath, waiting for his shot.

Hannah, as if sensing her captor’s distraction, slammed her foot down on his instep. With a yelp, his knife hand moved, and Brody fired.

* * * * *

Hannah heard the crack of the pistol, might have even felt the whizzing breeze as the bullet flew past her face and hit the vagrant who’d caught her. With a scream, the hand in her hair loosened, and she ran straight for Brody.

Thunderclouds brewed in his eyes, and his lips were taut with anger. He reached an arm out to curl around her and tuck her face-first into his chest. She heard another crack of the gun and the screaming stopped.

Shaking, she let him lead her to their room. Tenderly, he lifted her chin and, with antiseptic and bandages from a kit he kept in the saddlebags, he cleaned and covered the nick on her neck. Then he engulfed her in a huge hug, a bone-crushing one.

“Don’t you ever go out on your own like that again,” he said with a tight voice.

Hannah, still in shock, just nodded. She’d even do one better. Once they found Beth, she’d go back home and never leave again.

Brody packed their things in silence and signaled to her it was time to go. Hannah kept her eyes averted so not to see the body in the parking lot. Death in this case had been inevitable and justified. Scum like that couldn’t be allowed to live and prey on others. She only hoped Beth hadn’t run into him as well.

Had all the men left in the world gone crazy? Why did they all want to hurt and rape? She thanked god that Brody hadn’t turned feral. She also prayed with all her might that Beth hadn’t been waylaid.

After checking their route on a map he’d brought along, Brody drove, only stopping for gas. Hannah found herself getting more and more tense the farther they went without seeing any signs of Beth. Oh god, please let her be all right. She knew they had to be getting close to the old Amish village. Signs of people in the area were glaringly obvious from the road that had been cleared of vehicles allowing them to make good time, to the smoke spiraling in the sky which pulled at them like a beacon.

Trying to ignore her anxiety over Beth, she found herself thinking back on Brody’s confession of the previous night. He never stopped caring, and he wanted to come back. She didn’t have a hard time picturing his pride standing in the way of common sense. Brody had never been the type to tuck tail and admit defeat. But his stubbornness had cost them both a lot. Hannah wished she could trust in him completely. The pain of the last year and a half was still an ache in her heart, and her skeptical side couldn’t help wondering if he’d leave eventually looking for greener pastures again.

Brody cursed and downshifted on the bike, startling Hannah. Lifting her head from where it rested on his back, she peered around his wide shoulders to see two men dressed ruggedly in jeans and ball caps, standing in the middle of the road, rifles aimed menacingly.

“What do they want?” she asked, fear making her voice come out high.

“Just let me do the talking,” he said, slowing the bike down, then pulling the gun from the tank bag and putting it in his lap.

Brody stopped about fifteen feet from the two men, one of whom had his rifle pointed at them. The other had lowered his gun and held a hand up in a stopping motion. When Brody killed the engine, he spoke.

“Howdy, folks. You wouldn’t be Brody and Hannah, would you?”

Hannah knew her jaw dropped even as her heart sped up. If they knew their names and expected them, that could only mean…

“Beth!” she cried. “Is she here?”

The one pointing the gun lowered it and smiled, and Hannah noticed how young he was. “She sure is. When we heard she’d run away and that you’d probably come looking for her, we stationed some guys to keep any eye out for you.”

“Why the guns then?” asked Brody, his body still tense.

“It always pays to be safe. We’ve had run-ins with a few dickheads who seem to think that no cops means they can do what the hell they like.”

Brody relaxed. “Fair enough. A shame the virus didn’t target assholes.”

“No kidding. My name’s Joel by the way,” said the older one, holding out hand which Brody shook. “And this here is my son Mike.”

They shook hands all around, and Hannah bit her lip so as to not scream. She didn’t care about their names. She wanted to see Beth.

Impatient she blurted. “Where’s Beth? Can I see her?” And shake her for scaring the crap out of me! Hannah couldn’t believe they’d actually found her. A part of her had thought their search would be fruitless.

“She’s back at the village. Why don’t you follow us?”

Boarding some dirt bikes of their own, they followed Joel and Mike down the road, passing farms with tilled fields and livestock grazing. They eventually entered a bustling town-an extremely outdated one with clapboard and stone buildings.

Brody parked his bike in front of a house that Mike claimed was his, and they all got off their bikes, Hannah rubbing her sore posterior.

“Hannah!” Beth squealed as she came running out the front door. She promptly burst into tears.

Hannah squeezed her little sister tight and closed her eyes as tears leaked in relief. Then she shook her sister. “What did you think you were doing? Do you have any idea how dangerous your road trip was? Or how worried we all were?”

Beth ducked her head. “I know it was stupid. I ran into some nasty guys the next town over. I was lucky Mike was on a supply mission. He and Joel heard me screaming and managed to scare them off.” Beth darted a look over at Mike, who talked with Brody, the hero worship in her eyes evident.

“Oh Bethie,” said Hannah. “I’m so glad you didn’t get hurt. You were damned lucky.”

“I know that now. Mike lectured me pretty good. I’m sorry, Hannah. I shouldn’t have run off like that.”

Hannah couldn’t have been more stunned if she’d been slapped. Beth apologizing? “Yes, well, at least you’re safe.”

“Oh Hannah, this place is so amazing. I only got here last night, but Mike gave me a tour this morning before he went to wait for you guys. Can we stay please? There’s all kinds of things I could do here, and they’ve got extra houses and…”

Hannah held up her hands. “Whoa, Bethie. We just got here. I guess if you really want to stay, then I can’t stop you. But, just so you know, I am going back. We had to leave Uncle Fred alone while we came after you.”

“So that means I can stay?” Without waiting for confirmation, Beth clapped her hands in glee and turned to Mike who had approached. “Did you hear that Mike? I can stay.”

Looking at the smiles they exchanged, Hannah felt like sighing. It would seem Beth had found more than a new community. Hannah was happy for her. Beth deserved to have someone to love her and give her the family and home life she craved.

They spent the rest of that day touring the Amish village. As with the rest of the world, everyone in the Amish village save one family had died. That family had welcomed the newcomers as they straggled in and shown them how to live off the land.

The village seemed very self-sufficient with a windmill and waterwheel for a limited amount of power and for the grinding of wheat into flour. They had a smokehouse for curing meats, a general store for people to gather in and exchange produce, and even a schoolhouse with a half dozen children. The community itself had gathered over forty people and, as Joel confided, they expected that number to swell as some of the young men had gone out on scouting trips and brought back not only goods but survivors.

“We could use a healthy couple like you,” Joel said as they sat around that evening playing cards by the light of an oil lamp.

Brody looked over at her, and Hannah realized he wanted her to answer. “I appreciate the offer, but my uncle Fred is back home and well, I don’t think I’m ready to leave my family home quite yet. But we’ll definitely be back to visit.”

Hannah expected Beth to protest but, wrapped up in Mike’s presence, she barely glanced at Hannah. Brody, however, had a crease between his brows. Does he want to stay?

But that night as he made love to her in the pillowy bed, the mattress fluffy with stuffed feathers, he said not a word to her about her decision. Instead he buried himself between her thighs, his tongue dancing with hers eagerly.

And Hannah lost herself to the pleasure.

* * * * *

“So what time are we leaving?”

Her question took him by surprise. He knew she was worried about Fred, but he’d thought they’d stay at least one more day to make sure Beth was settled, and he kind of wanted to check things out some more. Surely even she could see how much better off they would be moving here.

“You don’t want to stay and make sure Beth’s going to be all right?”

“Beth’s a grown girl, something I need to accept. Besides, it looks like she and Mike have hit it off, and he seems like a decent sort. He’ll make sure she’s okay.”

Biting his tongue but determined to work on her once they got back, along with the help of Fred whom he knew would side with him, he prepped the bike for their return trip.

Amid a tearful good-bye, where the sisters promised to visit soon, Joel pulled him aside. “Watch yourself, son. Some of the boys ran into some dirtbags last night. Last thing you need is them following you back. They tend to run in packs, and I’d hate for you or Hannah to get hurt.”

Brody looked at Hannah, and his gut clenched. If anything were to happen to her…

“Thanks for the warning. I’ll be careful. If I can convince her, we’ll be back soon. I like what you guys got going here.”

The good-byes over with, Brody straddled his steel horse and inwardly smiled when Hannah wrapped her arms around him. The feeling would never get old.

The trip home went quickly, but twilight hit before they made it all the way back. Finding another roadside motel, Brody stopped for the night.

As soon as Hannah got off, she turned quickly to the side and threw up.

“Jesus, kitten, are you okay?” he asked.

“Must have been something I ate,” she mumbled.

The next day she still looked queasy, but they made it all the way home without her getting ill.

Fred came wheeling out of the house, his face sober. “Beth, is she…”

“She’s fine,” said Hannah rushing over to hug her uncle. “She just decided to stay behind at the Amish settlement.”

“You found people then?” said Fred, his face cracking a smile. “Marvelous. So when’s the big move?”

“What do you mean?” asked Hannah, her face creased in confusion.

Brody restrained himself from smiling. It looked like Fred would be on his side in this argument.

“We can’t stay here by ourselves forever, Hannah girl.”

“Why not?”

“Because they’re equipped to survive,” said Brody, jumping to Fred’s rescue.

“We’ve been doing just fine ’til now. I don’t see why we suddenly have to up and leave.”

Fred shook his head. “Well, I for one wouldn’t mind being around people again. I love you, girl, but a man gets lonely.”

“Fine, then leave,” she said, looking almost like a child with her lower lip jutting in a pout. “Go and live with Beth. I’ll be just fine here.”

“Hannah, don’t be like that.”

But Hannah had already fled to the house she refused against all reason to abandon.

Brody sighed. “It’ll take more than one day to convince her. I thought for sure once she realized Beth wasn’t coming back she’d come to her senses.”

“I meant what I said though. I want to go. Will you take me, Brody?”

Looking at the old man, Brody knew he couldn’t say no. Problem was, in order to take Fred, he’d have to leave Hannah behind for a few days. Not an idea he was crazy with.

As if reading his mind, Fred said, “Maybe if she’s by herself for a few days, she’ll come to her senses. Realize just how lonely it is out here.”

“Yeah, but what if something happens?”

“I hate to say it ‘cause I love her, but short of a calamity, that girl ain’t gonna budge.”

Fred said aloud what Brody feared to think. What’s it going to take to get her to move on?

He thought he found the answer the next day. Boy was he wrong.

Chapter Ten

Hannah lurched out of the bed she shared with Brody and barely made it to the bathroom before she heaved into the white porcelain. When the convulsions stopped, she sank to the floor with her head resting on the seat and closed her eyes.

Oh fuck.

She couldn’t deny the evidence of her missing period and new nauseous state. I’m pregnant. Hannah dared not tell Brody yet. She knew what he’d say. He’d immediately want to pack her up and move them to the settlement where there was both a doctor and midwife, not to mention medical supplies. The worse part? Hannah knew she should go but, opening her eyes and looking around at the peeling wallpaper, so familiar because she’d helped her mother hang it, she knew she couldn’t.

How can I leave the only home I’ve ever known? Not to mention all my memories of Mom and Dad. Hannah sobbed silently, afraid to wake Brody. Her mind and emotions spun; she felt scared and confused.

A shadow fell over her and a moment later, strong arms wrapped around her and carried her back to bed. Brody snuggled her under the sheets and spooned her, stroking her hair back from her forehead.

“When were you going to tell me you were pregnant?”

His words shocked her. How did he figure it out so quickly?

“I might not be. It could just be a tummy virus.”

Brody jumped up from the bed, and he paced the room, his body taut with anger. “Dammit, Hannah. Don’t screw with me. I know you’re pregnant. You know what this means, don’t you?”

“It changes nothing,” she said mulishly.

“Changes nothing?” He stopped pacing and gave her a stunned look. “Are you out of your fucking mind? This changes everything. Hannah, you’re pregnant. You can’t stay here and expect to birth a baby with just me to help you.”

“I don’t see why not. Women used to do it all the time.”

“And the infant mortality rate used to be stupidly high. What, you’d intentionally kill our child because you’re too stubborn to leave this goddamn house?”

Hannah got mad, despite knowing he was right and she was wrong. “If you don’t like it, just leave then. It’s what you do best, isn’t it? I knew you could never stay. First sign that things might be better elsewhere and off you fucking go again. Well, good-bye. I don’t need you. I don’t need anybody.”

“I’m taking your uncle to your sister,” he said his voice quiet, but his eyes blazed. “And when I get back you and I are going to have a long talk. I meant what I said. I won’t leave you. But dammit, I am going to prove to you that staying here is foolhardy. I won’t put you or the baby in jeopardy.”

And with those parting words, he left. Hannah refused to go downstairs and see her uncle and Brody off. She was not in the mood to listen to either of them.

Stupid men, think they know everything. I don’t need them. I’ll do just fine on my own.

A part of Hannah didn’t expect him to return, the angry words they’d exchanged had been ugly, but even as she thought that, she fervently hoped he’d come back. Please let him choose me this time.

One lonely day stretched into two. The pump on the well broke, and she was reduced to hoisting buckets up by herself, a chore that made her back ache. She burned her dinner and ate alone with only a dim candle for light and companionship. She ruefully thought of the Amish village where she’d played cards and conversed for the first time in years with someone other than Fred and Beth. I don’t believe it, but I actually miss it. It was fun.

Needing distraction, she flipped through the photo albums of younger, happier days. She wasn’t really paying attention when she had a sudden revelation. Oh my god, it’s not this house that made me happy, it was my family and friends. Stunned, Hannah put the photo album down and walked through the house she’d called home for over twenty years. For the first time, she wasn’t comforted by its solid presence. She missed the love and laughter that used to echo within its walls, and she finally realized that by staying, she wouldn’t get that happiness back. Her family was gone for good, unafraid to start a new life, a better life, and if she wanted the joy that came from being with them, she needed to join them. And even more, she needed to trust in Brody. He would give her all the love she needed if she’d only let him.

Amazed by this revelation, Hannah waited impatiently for Brody to return, her anxiety of earlier so foolish. Of course he’s coming back. I’m his family, me and the baby. And he loves me no matter how dumb I can be sometimes.

On the third day of Brody’s absence, she packed some special photos of her family to take with her when she heard the sound of bikes.

He’s back, and I’ll bet Beth’s come with him to help convince me. Smiling she went out to the front porch eager to see their faces when she told them of her decision. Shading her eyes, she peered into the distance and counted three bikes approaching. And judging by the flags fluttering from their tails, none of them was Brody’s.

Cursing herself for being stupid, she ducked into the house and slammed the door shut. Grabbing the shotgun, she ran into the kitchen and thumbed the lock there too, glad Brody had repaired the door after she’d blasted it. She prayed the strangers on the bike hadn’t seen her.

With sweaty hands, she checked the shotgun chambers and waited. The sound of the bikes approaching got louder and louder, then faded, as they drove on past the house.

Hannah sagged with relief and remained inside for the next few hours, just in case. Around dinner time, she finally unlocked the kitchen door to make a run to the well. Good thing she’d decided to move, this no running water problem was getting annoying real fast.

When she got back to the house, she locked the door behind her again and started chopping up veggies for her supper. A sound from the living room had her pausing. What the hell was that?

Clutching the knife, she inched out into the hallway quietly. She didn’t hear any more noise. Chiding herself for being jumpy, she strode to the living room and then stopped dead in shock as a scruffy man looked over at her from the photo album he was flipping through.

“Hello there, pretty girl.”

Hannah swallowed her fear and in a voice that trembled just a little said, “Please leave. My boyfriend will be back any time now.”

“Ooh, Look at me I’m shaking in my boots.” The stranger leered at her. “You know how long it’s been since I’ve had a woman?”

Hannah felt panic clawing at her and waved the knife at him in shaking hands. “Don’t come near me. Please just go. Brody will hurt you if he finds you here.”

Moving quickly, the thug knocked the knife out of Hannah’s sweaty grasp. She watched with horrified eyes as it spun off out of reach. “Well, since your boyfriend is coming then we’d better leave quickly. Oh and to make sure he doesn’t follow…” With a nasty smile, the scruffy man flicked a lighter and lit the edge of the photo album. Hannah, in the grips of an intense terror, whirled to run only to smack into another intruder who smelled like he hadn’t bathed since the end of the world.

Brody, help me!

Chapter Eleven

A sense of foreboding had Brody driving fast and hard, weaving through the obstacle course that led home.

The trip with Fred had taken him longer than expected having to go slower with the old man and making more frequent stops. Fred had been welcomed by a tearful Beth. Joel had also promised to watch over him. Brody had wanted to return to Hannah then but had been further delayed in the hunt for a new wheelchair for Fred, unable to leave him until he knew the old man was mobile.

Brody had finally left first thing that morning, anxious to return to his stubborn kitten and unable to shake a feeling of dread.

A dread that turned into horror when he saw the smoke billowing in the sky where Hannah waited.

Accidental fire or intentional? The question plagued him as he had to choose between stealth and speed. Knowing how careful Hannah was about all things flammable, he opted for sneaking in. He stashed the bike and hot footed it into the fields that led right up to the house, the long stalks offering him concealment.

He held his handgun in one hand with the safety off and as he prowled through the forest of corn, the rustle of his movement masked by a breeze, he mentally prepared himself for what he might find.

When he reached the edge of the field, he crouched down and crept forward. The smell of smoke drifted thickly here, and he could see the orange and red flickers of flames as they hungrily devoured the old farmhouse. An icy hand squeezed his heart, and he almost ran out into the open, but common sense prevailed. Hugging the edge of the field, he kept moving and was rewarded with the raucous sound of laughter. His eyes scanned the trio of men as they passed a bottle and pointed at the burning house. A lump on the ground moved, and one of the men reached down. Brody heard a whimpering cry.

Hannah!

With no thought for his own safety, he charged at the bastards, determined to save the woman he loved.

* * * * *

Hannah saw him first, like a dark shadow flowing from the corn field, one who stalked with a determined purpose, for her. A cowboy born of the apocalypse taking the law into his own hands.

Brody aimed his hand gun and fired. With a gurgling sound, one of the scumbags who’d accosted her dropped. Hannah scrambled backward on the ground as the leader reached down to grab her.

“Stupid fucking bitch.” Those were his last words as Brody’s next shot took him out too.

The third attacker fled into the deepening twilight, but Hannah only had eyes for one person.

“Brody,” she breathed, so happy he’d come back and saved her from a fate worse than death.

He tucked his gun into his waistband and swooped her up into his arms. Only when he’d marched a fair distance from the burning house did he unclench his jaw enough to speak. “Did they hurt you?”

“No. You arrived just in time.”

Brody didn’t respond. He just kept walking, and Hannah wondered where the hell they were going but, exhausted and in a bit of shock now that the danger had passed, she just lay her head on his shoulder and let herself relax in his embrace.

His destination turned out to be his bike.

“Can you hold on?”

Nodding, she clambered on behind him and held him tight as he carefully drove ‘til they reached the town’s only motel.

He said not a word as he led her into the room, but his hands and mouth spoke for him as soon as he shut the door. He took her into his arms and kissed her with urgency.

Just as frantic, she clung to him, her hands pulling at his shirt. But he was too impatient and, to be honest, so was she. He unbuttoned her pants and pushed them down ‘til she could step out of them.

“Brace yourself,” he whispered, turning her so her backside was spooned into his groin.

Shuddering with desire, Hannah placed her palms on the wall and bent forward, pushing her ass against his hard shaft.

He reached between her legs, and she heard him grunt when his fingers ran across her already slick cleft. Spreading her nether lips, he guided his cock into her, his thick pulsing length making Hannah sigh.

His hard length stroked her, pumping into her silken folds. Hannah loved the feel of his hands on her hips as he pounded her faster and faster. His rapid breathing was more erotic than any spoken words. His lips latched onto the back of her neck and sucked the tender skin making her shudder. And he pumped her faster and harder, his velvety length slamming into her even as his fingers dug into her soft flesh. Knowing his pleasure lay just a few thrusts away, Hannah took one hand off the wall and, licking a finger, found her clit and rubbed it. When he came with a bellow, driving himself to the hilt inside of her and holding it, Hannah followed, her orgasm rippling around his pulsating length.

His hands moved from her hips to turn her around so he could hug her and bury his face in her hair. They embraced tightly for several moments.

Finally he spoke. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to take you so rough.”

“It’s okay. In case you didn’t notice I like it too.”

“When I saw the house on fire and saw you in danger…” His voice trailed off and he hugged her chokingly tight. “I can’t lose you, Hannah. I love you too much.”

“I love you too, Brody.”

“I’m sorry about the house. I wish I could have gotten there sooner and saved it too.”

“Who cares about a stupid old house. At least we’re both safe.”

Brody pulled back. “Who are you, and what have you done with my kitten?” he asked incredulously.

“Yeah, well, I had an epiphany when you were gone. Turns out it wasn’t the house and stuff that I loved so much. It was my family. Without Beth and Fred and you, well, it was just a house. I was going to tell you when you got back, but then shit happened.”

“So we’re moving to the settlement where Beth and Fred are then?” he asked almost timidly, as if afraid he’d misunderstood.

“I will follow wherever you want us to go. Except for a major city,” she amended shivering. “They’re just creepy.”

Hannah’s ribs were crushed again, and he burned her with a scorching kiss, an embrace that turned into a much slower bout of lovemaking.

And after cradled in his arms, Hannah smiled. This is home.

Epilogue

Three years later…

Hannah smiled as she watched Brody chase Duncan across the front lawn, his shrieks of laughter the most beautiful sound in the whole world.

After an easy pregnancy but a hard labor she’d thanked the stars she’d had a midwife for, she’d birthed her nine and a half pound baby boy. She and Brody had spent a terrified year waiting to see if he’d succumb to the virus or other childhood illnesses they no longer had vaccinations for but, at just over two and a half, Duncan was a sturdy little boy with a smile brighter than sunshine.

She and Brody had been welcomed into the settlement with open arms. A house had been found for them with plenty of bedrooms for children-hint, hint. Fred had elected to stay in the boarding house with other “folk closer to his generation,” as he liked to say. Beth had lived with them for a little while before getting engaged and marrying Mike. The happy couple had been blessed with a little girl just the year before.

After her year of solitude, Hannah had found to her surprise that she quite enjoyed the community they’d joined. Everyone chipped in to take care of the chores that needed tending from farming, to livestock, to blacksmithing, the early results which had been laughable. Their village had grown as other survivors had made their way to them. Even more fantastic, they’d made contact with another thriving group a few days’ drive from them. In a joint effort, there were work crews going out every few days, intent on clearing the path between the two colonies for quicker movement.

The world might have died with a sneeze but through hard work and plain old stubbornness, people were recovering and adapting. Gone was the stress of money and working for faceless corporations. Now everybody worked for themselves and the neighbors they lived and shared with.

And even better everyone was happier. Smiles and laughter were the music that replaced the hustle of the old world.

Rubbing her distended stomach, Hannah walked down the porch steps to join her two favorite people in the world. Life had never been better, especially since she had her very own apocalypse cowboy there to remind her every day of why she was so blessed.

Author Bio

Eve lives in Bowmanville, Ontario, with her family consisting of three kids, two cats, one guinea pig, and her hubby. She’s a homebody at heart who loves reading, video gaming, swimming, and spending time with her family. She hopes you’ll visit her home on the web at http://www.evelanglais.com and drop her a line, because she loves to hear from readers.

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