Deputy Ken Ito gave a soft groan as someone put a cup against his split lip. It bled as he pursed it. Hurt. Every part of his five-foot-seven-inch frame felt bruised; his forearms and hands burned, shredded from being dragged over sand and rock.
He shook his head, trying to turn away, but a gentle hand was implacable, holding him steady, lifting him so he could swallow without choking.
The water felt like life, cool and soothing. He licked his lips and then drank thirstily.
Life. Bring me back to life.
His body, his thoughts were weighed down like a rock resting on a note with his name on it. He couldn’t shift the stone to read the writing, to grasp…. Why was he hurting? Where was he?
So hot…. His hands and feet were swollen from the fever, so they felt huge and pulsing. When the shadow caring for him eased him back onto a hard pallet, Ken groaned at the pain from his bruised ribs creaking together like shredded rattan.
A hand as easy on his flesh as the water he’d tasted smoothed over his bare chest. “Sleep,” a voice ordered him. “You sleep.”
Before his eyes closed, Ken felt the brush of something silken against his lips. Long black hair that smelled like cedar-wood smoke.
Ken dreamed. At first he dreamed he was in his studio, creamy porcelain clay foaming under his hands as the wheel turned. Although at heart he was a craftsman, a simple potter, he had taken the job as a county deputy to support himself and he liked being of service to others. Doing the work wasn’t especially demanding since the part of Washington State he patrolled was pretty deserted, yet not long after he’d begun doing his circuits of the lonely stretch of woods on his route, he’d heard of several people who had disappeared in the area over a ten-year period.
So there was a mystery.
Cracked asphalt and cedar and fir trees and tall grass flashed past him in a cop’s vigil, the yellow line blurring the many days he’d mulled over this mystery. After talking to people in the two small towns connected by Forest Grove Road, he’d discovered that the missing people had all hitchhiked. Excepting the case of one woman three weeks ago, teacher Andrea Harper, who left her vehicle because it ran out of gas. Presumably she’d tried to walk back to town, but no one knew for sure as she’d not been seen since.
After talking to her sister at the diner in April Falls, Ken wanted more than ever to find her. He’d taken to driving extra hours on his patrol, stopping places near where Andrea’s Buick Regal had been found.
Now he shifted, uneasy, and the dream shifted with him, like an hourglass tilting…. Dizzy…. Yet he could hear the regular drum of a heartbeat against his cheek. When he flicked his tongue, he tasted firm skin. A hand in his hair, stroking him…. Reassured, he floated back to his studio in the woods, pressing down with his thumbs, forming a pot, watching it rise like yeast making bread rise, elemental magic…. His studio door was open, and the cool spring air came inside like a draft of clean pine-needle incense, and he was focused and serene.
But then he saw her. He shook, sick, chilled by the vision. Andrea Harper, it had to be. Just twenty-three years old. Her body in gravel and thick clay mud, set in a shallow grave, pale, bloated face, white skull, blond hair wet against rock. Please bring her home to me, Deputy Ito, Andrea’s sister Karen Harper had pleaded, reaching out to grip his hand over the Formica diner table. I know she’s dead, she has to be dead, but I need to bring her home.
Heart thudding, primal awareness tickling his back like a sodden feather, because he could almost feel the miasma of the killer lingering like oily smoke at the scene. Grief moved in his gut as he crouched beside her body. Ken had to fight to remain composed—he’d dealt with his fair share of the aftermath of accidents, but this was different.
Someone had murdered Andrea.
He had to call it in, so he reached for his radio, catching the crunch of rock behind him, turning his head—
Ken’s eyelids lifted, heavy, like they were weighted down by fast-moving flood water. He licked cracked lips, feeling as if his body had been burned to ash in the heart of his kiln. His skin actually ached. “Ummmm.”
“Sleep,” the voice commanded him again.
Ken frowned, remembering hearing that voice before. A man’s voice, soft and almost guttural, as if he had difficulty speaking English. It reminded him vaguely of his parents, who were first-generation Japanese Americans. Some words they cut off like a knife slicing through fresh salmon.
“No, I must…” Duty. He had to….
Blue eyes blazed at him as he was shoved back onto something soft and warm. Ken blinked at the alien feel against his bare skin. It felt like….
He tried to sit up again and was shoved back.
Okay, then. He wasn’t going anywhere.
Panting, weak, he stared into the shadows at his keeper. He could make out the swing of long dark hair, and his gaze fell to a lean brown hand lying possessively on his chest, holding him in place.
“Fur…. I’m sleeping on furs?” he croaked. He could hear a dripping sound and feel the hush of cooler air over the parts of his nude body free of covers. It felt good, refreshing; it felt too cold, so he had goose bumps.
“Sheepskin,” the voice corrected, as if it were obvious. “Not fur.”
“Oh.” Ken blinked. He was getting hazy again, could feel himself drifting like an abandoned canoe on a river. “Why aren’t I in a hospital?”
“Because I found you.”
That didn’t make sense, did it? His head hurt. He closed his eyes.
The hand of his protector lifted some kind of stew to his lips, prodding him with the crude wooden spoon. Ken stared at it, oddly mesmerized. It looked like something he might see at one of the craft fairs where he purchased tables to sell his pottery. Like something carved by hand. Primitive, beautiful.
“Eat,” the voice ordered, implacable. “You eat now.”
Ken obediently opened his mouth, chewing gently since his jaw felt sore, lumpy. His cheeks were bruised, so he felt it when they stretched.
As he ate something creamy and warm that tasted like roots and fish and honey, he hazily remembered doing this before, off and on. Only sometimes it was water instead of stew he was ordered to drink.
Sober blue eyes regarded him, and Ken held their gaze, seeing as they dropped to his bare chest. When stew dripped from the spoon to splash him there, dark hair touched him, and then lips and then a tongue, licking away the waste.
When he opened his eyes, the blue gaze was fixed on his face, the strange man’s lips shiny from… from kissing Ken’s chest? No, it hadn’t been a kiss. The stranger had merely licked away some spilled stew.
After he ate to the satisfaction of his caregiver, the man turned away, breaking roots and honeycomb over a crude cup resting on a tiny fire. The flames lit the space but provided little warmth from the damp, and for the first time since he’d been awake, Ken recognized he was in a cave.
His eyes widened in wonder. How…?
The long hair of his caregiver brushed his skin again, his nipples, and Ken shivered at the primal sensation. He’d never been with a man with long hair. He stared at the offering stupidly until the stranger nudged him again.
“Tea,” he was informed.
Tea. Ken closed his eyes on sudden tears.
“You… okay?” An odd monotone, as if the speaker didn’t know or care how he sounded. Information without inflection.
“I nearly died,” Ken whispered. He was shaking, so the tea dripped in sympathy like tears onto his chest, hot, stinging. A sob lodged under his ribs. He couldn’t remember….
No, he could. Flashes. Some of them slowed down now so he could touch them, grapple with them. Finding a body he was sure was Andrea’s in a ditch beside the road not far from where her car had been discovered. Someone had buried her there, but this spring they’d had a record amount of rain, so he’d spotted something as he drove past, spotted something and stopped.
And now this long-haired young man with his bronzed skin and burning jewel blue eyes was caring for him. How was that possible? Ken felt as if he’d entered a strange world, like one of those stories where a mortal man fell asleep in a fey’s woods.
He studied his caregiver. The man’s arms were scratched, and there was a streak of mud on one lean cheek. His hair was pushed back from his face by a soft deerskin band that reminded Ken vaguely of a Native American headband. It was a practical design, lacking any embellishment.
“Safe now,” the stranger said in his flat voice. “Mine now.”
A tear rolled down Ken’s face. He squeezed his eyes shut, embarrassed by his lack of control. He took a deep breath, but his body betrayed him, shivering in spasms.
The man growled at him, as if he were displeased. And then he curled his muscled body behind Ken’s smaller one, spooning him, one palm flat on Ken’s bare belly. The stranger held him as he struggled to compose himself.
Ken’s muscles slowly relaxed, though hot moisture continued to well from his eyes and drip from his chin.
“I almost died, didn’t I?” he repeated a long time later.
His caregiver only licked his neck, tasting Ken’s tears.
He woke up again because he was cold except where his wild man was pressed against him, his front against Ken’s back, one thigh thrown over Ken’s legs, as if to keep him close, under control. The sheepskin had fallen away, and his tears had dried and coated his skin, making him feel like he wore an old cocoon of his past self.
He wasn’t sure what roused the young man—a change in Ken’s breathing, the restless shift of his thigh.
He was still so weak, though he didn’t feel like something that had been shattered like a dropped eggshell on granite anymore.
He was healing.
His guardian’s hand was cupped over Ken’s sleeping sex.
He turned his head and in the yellow light from the fire, he met those lake blue eyes. He remembered his caregiver’s words: safe, mine.
The stranger sat up, shoving back his long hair. He studied Ken from under his brows, as if assessing whether this time he’d stay awake.
Helpless to do anything more than lie there, Ken studied the young man in return, seeing he had stripped off his leather shirt and leggings and was wearing nothing but a loincloth, also made of the soft leather. It cupped his penis, which was hard, the plummy head poking out to the side like a rebellious stalk of rhubarb.
Ken smiled faintly at the thought. He’d grown rhubarb in his garden as a child when his family had lived in the prairies.
The young man reached for the same cup he’d offered previously, resting again on the coals. He leaned down and tasted it and then he held it with dirty hands for Ken to drink.
“Tea,” he said. His flat tone said, drink it now.
“Arigatou gozaimasu,” Ken said, for some reason using the Japanese of his childhood. It seemed appropriate when being given tea.
But the young man frowned, dark brows lowered so that despite his dark hair, he suddenly reminded Ken of a young god Thor from Norse mythology. A displeased Thor. Ken remembered then he didn’t seem very handy with English. “Thank you very much,” he repeated very slowly.
The frown wasn’t lifted. “Not stupid.”
“No!” Ken shook his head. “You took care of me.” He cleared his throat, meaning to raise the subject again of why he wasn’t in a hospital….
The stranger grunted and gestured peremptorily with the tea. Drink, his actions mimed. Stop talking and drink now.
Ken obediently sipped, tasting root and honey and something that tasted like tree. He could see a swollen lump on the back of one hand holding the little cup, which might explain the source of the honey. His benefactor had been stung. Raiding a beehive? There was also the faint aftertaste of fish. The pot was the same one used to cook the stew. It was wooden, charred on one side, crudely carved like the single spoon.
Ken drank, nourished by the warm liquid. After he finished the contents, he was lowered back to the sheepskin bed, and then the young man caressed his hair, as if bestowing approval on a pet.
“What’s your name?” Ken asked. Finally the fog had lifted and he felt more like himself, though his emotions seemed as fragmented by his close call as his body did.
Ken raised his brows. “Appropriate,” he murmured.
The expression didn’t change on his caregiver’s face. He simply watched Ken, seemingly oblivious to the thread of humor.
Ken cleared his throat. “I am Ken Ito. Deputy Ito.”
Still the expression didn’t change, as if this young man felt no disquiet about having a law enforcement officer lying nude and helpless on his forest bed.
“That’s not you.”
Ken frowned. “What do you mean?”
“When you dream….” Wylde cocked his head.
Ken’s eyes widened as enlightenment struck. “Oh. My Japanese name is Kakumi. Only my parents call me that.” Color heated his cheeks. He wasn’t sure why, but saying his real name seemed significant, as if it had a kind of power.
Wylde frowned. “Ka-coom.”
“Ka-koom-ee,” Ken repeated.
Ken’s lids were already heavy, and he had the sudden thought that maybe the tea had more than honey. Some kind of natural pain reliever?
“What are you?” he asked. How was it this young man was living in a cave, sleeping on sheepskin? There was nothing here that he could see from the modern world, not even Ken’s uniform, radio, gun…. He frowned. “Uh.”
“Sleep.” The callused palm against his chest, between his nipples.
This time Wylde didn’t spoon him, but removed his loincloth and then partially covered Ken, bare skin to bare skin. His erection was hard and hot between them. Wylde wrapped his arms around Ken, protective, and Ken closed his eyes.