Lois Cloarec Hart
My deepest thanks to my wonderful beta readers, for catching the mistakes, correcting the errors and polishing the prose. You’re all a joy to work with.
This story is for my wife, Day, who inspires and then edits my words. Happy Valentine’s Day, my love.
For those who wish to comment, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
"You want us to do what?"
Kris sighed. She didn’t blame Sandy for using her "are-you-out-of-your-mind?" voice. The words sounded insane as soon as they left her mouth. Still, she repeated herself. "I want us to make love at the top of a redwood."
Her partner stared at her from across a stack of spreadsheets. "Should I even ask where you got a hare-brained idea like that?"
Kris held up the book she had been reading. "From this."
Sandy peered through her glasses intently at the hardcover. "The Wild Trees. Huh. So this Preston fellow is in favour of dramatic methods of suicide?"
"No, of course not. In fact, he doesn’t particularly want outsiders to do what he’s done and climb the California redwoods." Kris eyed the book in her lap, trying to articulate what had fired her imagination. "Do you know that some ancient redwoods pre-date the fall of Rome? They can be thirty feet wide at the base and over three hundred feet high. At the top, the canopy of interlaced branches forms a whole other ecosystem. There are creatures up there that live and die without ever setting foot on the forest floor. Isn’t that amazing?"
"All very National Geographic, Kris, but what’s that got to do with us? And what’s this insanity about making love up there?"
"A couple of botanists did it. They disconnected their spider lines—"
"Yeah, their safety lines. Anyway, they used a hammock—"
Sandy shot Kris a dry look. "I’m guessing the action wasn’t exactly hard and fast."
"Probably not. But slow and easy is good, too, right?" Kris dropped her gaze, unwilling to meet Sandy’s eyes.
Kris heard the rustle of paper and knew she had already lost the attention of her workaholic partner. Unexpected tears filled her eyes and she breathed deeply in an effort to control them.
Setting the book aside, Kris stood, keeping her face averted from the dining room table where Sandy was toiling over her weekly paperwork. "I’m going to the gym. I’ll see you in a bit."
She had almost made good on her escape when she heard Sandy’s heavy sigh.
Kris stopped at the doorway, but didn’t turn around.
"Look...you know this is my busiest time of year, right? The new line has just come out and I’ve got a hundred sales presentations to do in the next few weeks. I’ve got the trade show at the end of next month, and I’ll be out on the road more than I’m home until then. But after the trade show, when things slow down, I’ll take a few days off. We’ll go away somewhere—maybe go see your family or something, okay?"
"Sure. Sounds good." Kris could feel Sandy staring at her, so she half turned, hoping the shadow of the hallway would obscure the tears on her face. She strove to keep her voice steady. "I’ll pick up Thai food on the way home from the gym. See you in a couple of hours."
Sandy’s answer was lost as Kris bolted from the house, grabbing her parka, car keys, and the workout bag next to the front door. Three blocks away, while waiting at a stop light, her emotions boiled over. By the time the light turned green, her steering wheel had taken a serious beating, her hand hurt, and the guy in the car next to her was regarding her apprehensively. When he accelerated away, Kris groaned.
"Get a grip, Kris! At this rate you’ll be committed before you can climb so much as an apple tree. Besides, it wasn’t like you actually thought she’d buy into the idea. Hell, it’s not like you really want to be 350 feet in the air clinging to a spider line yourself!"
Self-berating served as a distraction and by the time she arrived at the gym, Kris was under control.
Kris was pleased to see few people this early Sunday morning. There would be no wait for her favourite elliptical. After changing, she headed straight for the machine, but paused. On the far side of the large building, a small boy was inching up the climbing wall. His coach, an athletic looking young woman who stood at the base of the wall with a belaying line in hand, called out encouragement and instructions.
Giving in to impulse, Kris worked her way around the maze of workout machines. She sidled along the wall to where she was close enough to see the fear in the boy’s eyes when he looked down at the instructor.
"Above you to the right, Tyler. See it? Reach out and you’ll touch it. Don’t be afraid. I’m not going to let you fall."
Kris liked the calm, confident sound of the young instructor’s voice. When the boy successfully navigated to the top of the wall, the woman called out her congratulations.
"Well done, Tyler! You’ll be climbing the real thing before you know it! Okay, take a moment to catch your breath, and then rappel down."
When the boy reached the floor, Kris couldn’t help smiling in response to the huge grin on his face. A woman ran over from the treadmills and wrapped the boy in an enthusiastic hug.
"Did you see, Mom? Did you see me make it all the way to the top?"
"I saw, Tyler! I’m proud of you!" Tyler’s mother smiled over his head at the instructor. "Arden, thank you so much."
"Hey, it wasn’t me up there. That was all Tyler. He should be very proud of himself."
"Yes, he should," Tyler’s mother said, hugging her son again and undoing his helmet. "And his dad will be, too."
The two began to walk away, and Kris heard Tyler excitedly ask his mother, "Do you think Dad will let me go with him this summer, now?" His mother’s answer was lost as a voice sounded behind her.
"Kid’s been working on that wall since New Year’s. It’s the first time he hasn’t quit before reaching the top."
Kris turned to find the instructor smiling after her successful student.
"Ty’s dad’s is a climber, and he told Tyler he wouldn’t take him to the mountains until he’d mastered the wall." The instructor looked at Kris. "So, what about you? You interested in learning?"
Kris laughed softly. Despite her earlier suggestion to Sandy, she was well aware of her athletic limitations. "I think I’m probably too old. I’m not nearly as nimble as Tyler."
The instructor shrugged. "I’ve got a seventy two year old who took up climbing just before Christmas. You’re what, less than half his age?"
Good guess. "A little more than half his age, but I’m afraid I’m far too uncoordinated. I stumble over my own feet just going to get the newspaper."
"Well, I wouldn’t throw you up on the wall without an intro course. But I am a certified instructor, and I’ve never run into anyone I couldn’t successfully teach. If you’re interested, come find me."
The instructor turned away, and Kris stared at the wall for a long moment. "Wait!"
Looking back, the self-assured instructor grinned at her.
Kris took a deep breath. "Okay. I want to try. Teach me what I need to know."
The instructor walked back to her and held out her hand. "Congratulations. My name’s Arden Heath and you’re about to get an education."
Kris shook the woman’s hand, stunned at to what she had committed herself. "Kris Brysan." She followed Arden to the office and filled out paperwork, hesitating for only a moment before she signed the liability waiver.
Arden began Kris’ introduction with an equipment fitting, a fifteen minute warm-up, then careful instruction on the basic skills of climbing, belaying and rappelling. When Kris had satisfied her instructor that she understood these skills and could put them into practice, she was allowed her first attempt at the wall.
Oh, my God! I am going to feel every muscle tomorrow! But the excitement Kris felt far outweighed the knowledge of how badly she was going to pay for her impetuosity the next day. Arden’s calm voice from below and the knowledge that she was secured by the harness and lead steadied Kris’ nerves as she inched higher and higher. Damn, Tyler, I know just how you felt.
Kris paused to catch her breath, shifting her weight carefully as she clung to her holds.
"You’re doing great, Kris. Tell you what, you make it all the way to the top and down again, and lunch is on me."
Kris glanced down at her instructor. "As long as you’re not talking about the gym’s vending machine, you’ve got a deal."
Arden’s amused voice floated up to her. "Sheesh, whaddaya take me for—a cheap date? I know better than to treat a lady that way."
A lady? Huh. Kris didn’t feel particularly ladylike in the web harness with a helmet crushing her hair and sweat dripping in her eyes, but she appreciated the light-hearted compliment. Ten minutes later she triumphantly slapped her hand down on the top of the wall.
"Woo hoo! Way to go, Kris!"
Kris couldn’t remember the last time she had been so exhilarated. Wish Sandy could see me now! Elated with her achievement, Kris tried to launch into a rapid rappel to the floor, but Arden’s grip on the rope kept her descent to a slow, careful pace.
"Whoa there, Tiger. Let’s just take it easy this time around, okay?"
Safely on the floor again, Kris gave Arden a crestfallen look. Her instructor chuckled.
"Somehow I just knew you’d take to this, Kris, but you still have a few things to learn. You’re not exactly ready to take on Mount Assiniboine yet." Arden busied herself unfastening Kris from her gear. "Work with me a while though, and I could have you up on some pretty challenging climbs by the summer."
Kris glanced back at the wall. Mountain climbing—me? Despite having lived her life surrounded by mountains and wilderness that people travelled thousands of miles to enjoy, Kris had never been an outdoorswoman. Sandy was perfectly willing to take day trips to the mountains, but there had to be a good restaurant or cozy lodge as their destination.
Arden finished her task and draped the harness over her shoulder. She held out her hand for the helmet, which Kris cheerfully handed over. "So—about lunch?"
Kris glanced at the clock. She had told Sandy she’d bring Thai take-out home, but she knew her partner would work right through the lunch hour. When she did eat, Sandy would barely notice what she was putting in her mouth, let alone that it had arrived an hour late. "Yeah, lunch sounds good. Let me just go get showered and changed."
"Okay, meet you at the front door in ten?"
"Make it fifteen. I think my arms have earned some extra hot water." Kris trotted away, half-wishing she had time to take advantage of the gym’s sauna. Maybe I can sweet talk Sandy into a massage later on. She snorted at the thought, knowing that at this time of year, she would be lucky to coax her partner into bed by midnight.
Kris glanced from her salad to Arden’s rapidly disappearing hamburger and fries, envying the younger woman’s metabolism and obvious enjoyment of her food. Sighing, she took another bite as she focused on her companion’s story.
"...and that was the final straw for my ex. Mount Hood in November was a no go for her."
"Is that why you two broke up?"
"Not the main reason, no." Arden shot Kris a grin, both sheepish and cocky in equal parts. "She was ready to grow up and I wasn’t."
"Yeah, the whole: settle down, have kids, white picket fence thing, you know?"
Kris envisioned the tall wooden fence around her and Sandy’s home. At least it’s not white pickets. "I take it you weren’t keen on that plan?"
"Not right now. I’m not saying never, you know? But I love my life just as it is. I instruct for the gym and guide for Mountain Adventure Tours while I’m climbing locally, but come summer, I’m off again. There are fourteen mountains in the world higher than eight thousand metres. I’ve done three, and I plan to stand at each summit before I’m forty."
"I can see how that wouldn’t be conducive to a long term relationship."
"What about you?"
Kris smiled dryly. "I’d have to climb five of those mountains a year if I was going to make it by age forty."
Arden laughed. "No, that’s not what I meant. You have your own dreams, right? So what are they? What do you most want to do?"
"Nobody’s ever asked me that before."
Kris shook her head. "I...I really don’t know how to answer." She toyed with her napkin. "Sandy used to talk about us buying a cabin at a lake some day."
"Okay, that’s Sandy’s dream. What’s yours?"
"Have you ever heard of...no, never mind."
Arden reached across the table and tapped Kris’ hand. "Have I heard of what? Tell me."
"Sandy." Instantly feeling disloyal, Kris clarified. "Well, she never said that out loud, but I know she thought I’d gone off the deep end."
"So who wants to paddle around in the shallow end all the time? Tell me."
Kris glanced at Arden shyly. "I told Sandy this morning that we should go climb a California redwood." She blushed as she omitted her other objective.
Arden chuckled as she popped her last fry into her mouth. "You’re the same colour as a redwood right now, so I figure there’s got to be more to the story."
"And I told her we should make love at the top of a redwood." Kris’ blush deepened as her blurted words elicited a look of admiration from her companion.
"Wow! Now there’s a woman with a goal!" Arden got a far away look in her eyes. "Damn, what a rush that would be. I once had sex in a snow cave at the top of a mountain, but at the top of a redwood?" She whistled softly. "You are one wild woman, Kris Brysan."
"No, I’m really not. I mean there’s no actual chance it would ever happen. Sandy would never in a million years go for it, and frankly even if I climbed a redwood, I’d be too damned scared to ever disconnect the spider lines."
Kris felt Arden’s penetrating gaze on her, but it wasn’t an unpleasant sensation. It felt like the first time a woman had really looked at her in a long time. The fact that it was a very attractive, very fit, and much younger woman was balm for her ego.
"So you and Sandy go way back?"
Arden’s voice was casual, and Kris was grateful for the turn of conversation.
"We celebrated our fourteenth anniversary, last year."
"That’s really something, Kris. I can’t even imagine two years with one person, but I admire your tenacity."
Tenacity? "I love Sandy very much. It’s not like staying with her has been a chore or anything. I’m exactly where I want to be."
Arden held up her hands at Kris’ sharp words. "No, no, I didn’t mean it that way, honest. I really do admire people who can make and keep a commitment. Hell, I can’t even commit to a houseplant."
Kris’ pique vanished at Arden’s apologetic tone. "Sorry. I didn’t mean to come off like a—"
"Hey, no, I’m the one should apologize. I have the sensitivity of a freakin’ shellfish at times. Forgive me?"
Kris chuckled at Arden’s woeful expression. "Of course. After all, you’re picking up the tab."
"Absolutely. And I’m going to have dessert. Can I interest you in something sinfully delicious? I promise I’ll work it off you in our next climbing session."
"Did I commit to another climbing session?"
"Well, how are you going to be ready to climb that redwood if you don’t practice?"
Kris accepted the dessert menu from Arden. "Good point."
"You look great, Kris. Climbing is doing amazing things for your body."
Kris turned in delight at her partner’s soft words. "You really think so?" She couldn’t help preening a little.
"I really think so, hon. You look better than you did fourteen years ago."
A big grin spread over Kris’ face and she eyed her reflection critically in the full length mirror. Arden had commented on the same thing when they had shared the whirlpool after yesterday’s session, but having Sandy buttress the compliment meant the world to her.
Kris’ muscles had stopped aching weeks ago, though buying a membership at MAT’s specialized climbing gym had challenged her body further. Now she took pleasure pushing past her earlier limits during training sessions. The flat belly and crisp definition she saw outlined in the mirror was both reward and evidence of her dedication.
"Kris, I was thinking...we haven’t gotten to see much of each other these past couple of months."
Kris spun to face her partner, ready to defend her newfound passion for climbing, but Sandy held up a conciliatory hand. "I know it’s my fault, hon. My hours have been insane, and I haven’t been home much. But I promise, after the trade show next week, I’m all yours. And in the meantime, I thought maybe on Saturday we could spend the day doing something together before I leave on Sunday."
Kris shook her head. "I’m sorry, love, but I’m already committed for the weekend. Arden invited me to join her advanced group to do a winter climb on Sunday, and on Saturday we’re going to go pick out new gear together. But maybe we could go out for dinner Saturday night."
"Advanced group?" Sandy had been lolling on the bed as they talked, but sat up sharply at Kris’ announcement. "Kris, you’ve only been climbing indoors, and only for a couple of months. Do you really think you’re ready to go with an advanced group to actual mountains?"
Kris frowned. "Arden thinks I am. She says it’s not a difficult climb and she promised to keep me out of trouble. Sandy, I want to do this. It’s been great fun learning on the MAT equipment—they’ve got an awesome bouldering course, but Arden says there’s nothing like the real thing. The snow pack is still solid and the forecast is perfect for Sunday. There’s nothing to worry about."
Sandy gritted something between her teeth, and pushed herself off the bed. She stalked out of the room as Kris stared after her.
What does she mean, "Nothing but Arden?" What’s in heaven’s name put her tail in a twist?
Kris lay in bed, listening to the sound of Sandy’s car exit the garage and drive away. She had volunteered to take her partner to the airport, but Sandy turned her down, pointing out it was silly for Kris to be up before dawn, too. She also reminded Kris that the company paid parking fees so it was more convenient to leave her car in the parking lot.
Kris tried to focus on the upcoming day, but excitement over her first real climb had vanished when she brought the new gear home the night before. She had been showing Sandy everything she bought, explaining each piece as she set it out, when she caught the look in her partner’s eyes.
There was such sadness in Sandy’s expression that it took Kris’ breath away. Instinctively she reached for her, wanting to drive the bereft look away, but Sandy just forced a smile and picked up the fingerboard.
"So what’s this for?"
"Sandy, what’s wrong?"
"It doesn’t look like something you need on a mountain, but then what do I know, eh?"
"It’s a fingerboard. It’s not for the climb tomorrow. It’s for training at home. Helps build finger strength."
"I guess you can never have too much finger strength."
"I’ve got a six a.m. flight, Kris. I think I’ll go to bed early."
"But we haven’t eaten yet."
"I had a sandwich earlier." Sandy stood and leaned across the gear to kiss her partner. "I’ll try not to wake you in the morning."
Kris watched Sandy walk away, then stop and turn to face her.
"Be really careful tomorrow, okay, Kris? I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you." Sandy disappeared around the corner before Kris could answer her.
Kris spent the next couple of hours wondering if she should cancel, but ultimately the desire to practice her new skills won out. She went to bed, determined to get Sandy to see her point of view, but it had been for naught. Though Kris knew her partner was awake, Sandy feigned sleep and did not even roll over to wrap her arms around Kris as she normally did.
By the time Sandy rose to get ready for her flight, Kris doubted either of them had had many restful hours. It was still dark outside, and as Arden wasn’t picking her up until ten, Kris resolutely tried to get more sleep. When Sandy softly planted a goodbye kiss on her hair, it was Kris’ turn to fake slumber.
By the time Arden pulled up in her battered Jeep, Kris had worked herself into a state of anger. What the hell is Sandy’s problem anyway? What does she expect me to do when she’s gone all the time—knit? I’m entitled to my own hobbies and my own friends, and I don’t need her permission, either!
Defiantly, Kris tossed her gear in the backseat of the Jeep and climbed in beside Arden.
"So, you ready for the big day, Kris?"
"Absolutely! Let’s go."
With a whoop, Arden hit the accelerator. "Then let’s go kick some mountain ass!"
"Hey, they’re starting without us, Arden!" Kris gaped at the small knot of people already roped together and moving out of the base lot. "Quick, honk your horn! Maybe they don’t know we’re coming."
"Ease up there, Tiger. It’s okay. That’s Brendan’s group."
Kris heaved a sigh of relief at the mention of Arden’s co-worker. "Oh, okay." She peered around the base lot looking for other climbers. "Um, so where’s our bunch?"
Arden wheeled in beside the Mountain Adventure Tours van. "About that..." She left the engine running and turned to Kris. "Brendan is running this climb, and he wasn’t keen on having a beginner along, even though I told him you had more natural ability than anyone I’d ever taught."
"I do?" Kris grinned, then sobered. "So we’re not going up after all?"
"Oh no, we are, but Brendan’s got final say on his climb, so we’ll be taking an easier, shorter route."
"I guess that’s okay. You have to start somewhere, right?"
"Right. And with just the two of us, I can give you my full attention. You’ll probably learn more today than the last two months inside combined."
Kris shook off a vague disappointment at the unexpected change in plans, and nodded her acknowledgement. "Sounds great. Shall we get going then?"
Arden turned off the Jeep’s engine and pointed to the outhouse off to the left of the base lot. "After a quick pit stop."
In less than twenty minutes, both women were kitted out and tramping along a broken trail in the opposite direction from the other climbers.
Kris was delighted that the conditioning program she had been following allowed her to easily keep pace with Arden. She ducked under an overhanging branch and inhaled deeply of the cold, clean air, revelling in the peaceful silence that was broken only by the sounds of their footfalls crushing the snow.
Within fifteen minutes they broke out of the forest and arrived at the base of a moderately graded, but towering rock face.
Arden turned to Kris, and began to double check her equipment. "Now, we’re not going to do any dynos here, got it?"
Kris nodded. She hadn’t expected that they would be doing any speed climbing today.
"We may not even reach the top this time, and that’s just fine, okay, Kris?"
Kris nodded again, but inwardly she was focused on conquering the entire rock face. We’re going for the top, Arden. I’m not going to let you down. I’m not going to let myself down! She stared at the towering wall with a determined look in her eyes.
An amused chuckle drew Kris’ attention and she looked questioningly at her instructor. Arden’s gloved hands firmly cupped Kris’ face as she gazed at Kris intently.
"I’ve seen that look before, Kris. I know you’ve trained hard, and I know you’re in good shape. But it’s important to know your limits, too. If I say we’re going down, we’re going down. No arguments, no debate—you just follow my lead. Are we agreed?"
Reluctantly, Kris nodded, then smiled broadly. "You just love ordering women to go down, don’t you?"
Arden blinked in astonishment and laughed uproariously. "I cannot believe you said that, Ms Brysan!"
I can’t believe I said it either!
Still chuckling, Arden finished her inspection, then checked her own equipment. "Okay, we’re good to go. Now remember, Kris, the important thing is to not freeze up. We’re doing a sport climb today. My company uses this face for training and all the bolts are preplaced, so no worries. We’ll work slow and steady. You’ve got good dead hang times in the gym, so I don’t think you’re going to have any problems. Stop and rest when you need to, but also let me know what you’re going to do before you do it. We’re going to put into practice what we’ve been doing for the last couple of months." She looked searchingly at her student. "Nervous?"
"Excited. Okay, maybe a little nervous, too."
"Nervous is fine if it makes you a little more cautious. You’ll find that with all the vertical bouldering I had you doing in the MAT gym, this will feel pretty easy. But don’t get cocky, because if you do, the mountain will win. Got it?"
"Okay, now, remember what I taught you about reading the route."
Kris stared at the rock face again. Little snow adhered to the sheer wall, making it easy to visualize their route and the sequences of moves she would need to make.
"Anticipate your weight and balance, and each reach."
Kris nodded, deep into the mental exercise.
"You want to ensure your body is in the right position when you reach the crux."
"And remember to relax and not to over grip. You’ll wear yourself out that way, and once your forearms are beat, the climb is over. Let your back and shoulders stay loose and try to stay fluid."
Still focused on the rock face, Kris grunted an acknowledgement of the instructions she had heard time and again.
"What’d I tell you about your balance, Kris?"
"To centre myself in a forward-backward mode, as well as a right-left direction."
"And the basic two-part technique?"
Kris recited from rote. "Move limbs, shift body weight, repeat; move limbs, shift body weight, repeat."
"Good girl. Then when you’re ready, we’ll start."
Kris drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes. An image of Sandy superimposed itself on the rock face she had been visualizing. I promise I’ll stay safe, love. Don’t you worry.
Following Arden’s lead, Kris began the climb, clipping her quickdraw double ended carabiner into each bolt and clipping her rope into the quickdraw. She found the incline no worse than a steep ladder, and her confidence grew as they climbed higher.
The wind picked up as they moved above the protection of the tree line, but the sun and steady movement kept her warm.
Misjudging a step, Kris slipped, but her Gri-Gri auto locked immediately and she quickly found her footing.
"You okay, Kris?"
Kris sucked in a deep breath. "Yeah, I’m good."
"Take a breather. Just relax. You’re doing great."
As it had done throughout the climb, Arden’s calm encouragement steadied Kris. She rested and glanced to her right out over the trees. It was the first time she had looked away from the rock face since they had begun the climb. Seeing the height they had already ascended startled her.
Jesus! That’s one helluva drop! Kris’ muscles instantly tensed.
"Yeah?" Kris’ voice was hoarse.
"I’m thinking that a steak dinner, followed by a long, hot whirlpool would feel good after this, eh?"
Kris had to force her response from a suddenly dry mouth. "I could go for that. Though MAT will be closed by the time we get back, won’t it?"
Arden’s teasing voice floated down to her. "So? I’ve got keys. There have to be some advantage to being the boss’ favourite employee, right?"
"Right." Kris allowed the image of hot, swirling waters to fill her mind, tamping down the fear that had momentarily threatened to overwhelm her. She drew in a couple of deep breaths. "Guess we’d best keep moving then."
"If you’re up to it." Arden’s voice was casual, but Kris sensed the underlying question. In response, she reached for the next handhold, moving carefully, but without hesitation.
Kris heard the approval in her instructor’s voice. She held that sound in her mind, grimly determined to earn Arden’s respect as she concentrated on the rock, and not the valley floor below.
When Kris reached the finish hold and pulled herself level with the edge, she felt a strong hand lock in the back of her harness to heave her up. She sprawled on the ground, then rolled over to see Arden’s grinning face looming above her.
"Way to go, Kris! I knew you could do it."
Kris sat up, peered over the edge of the cliff and whistled. "Damn!" She looked at Arden, an exultant smile growing on her face. "I did do it, didn’t I?"
"You did, Kris. You really did. You kicked some mountain ass!" Exuberantly, Arden tackled Kris in a hug, knocking her back as they laughed together. When the exhilaration subsided, they lay side by side, staring up at the cloudless sky and watching a bird circle down towards the tree line.
Kris turned her head at Arden’s words. "Yeah?"
"Pretty sure. They’re common around here at this time of year. They winter in the U.S. and we’re on the route they take north to the arctic for the summer. I think they like to nest on steep rock ledges, too."
"So we might’ve been climbing through his living room?"
Arden chuckled quietly. "Could be. If he wants to complain, he can talk to my boss." She turned her head to meet Kris’ gaze. "So, what’s the verdict? It wasn’t a redwood, but then it’s too damned cold for any carnal canoodling anyway."
"That’s what my mother always called it when she warned me against fooling around with the boys."
"And of course you paid strict attention to her warning?"
"Yup, I didn’t go anywhere near the boys."
"Good thing she didn’t say anything about the girls, eh?"
"Damned good thing!"
Kris quashed a fleeting sense of disloyalty over the underlying flirtatiousness of their conversation. It wasn’t like she had been or ever would be unfaithful to Sandy, but it felt good to indulge her bruised ego, however briefly.
I can’t even remember the last time Sandy flirted with me. Besides, there’s no danger. It’s not like Arden is going to take this the wrong way. I’m not exactly her romantic ideal. l bet I know exactly what kind of woman she goes for—the young ones who look like Olympic athletes and live for the next adrenaline rush. That’s definitely her, but it sure isn’t me.
Arden rolled on her side, propping her head on her hand. "So you didn’t answer me. Did it live up to your expectations?"
"Absolutely. It’s been wonderful, Arden. I’m so glad I ran into you that day in the gym. I’d never have had the nerve to try climbing otherwise."
"Well, darlin’, I am one incredibly inspirational teacher."
Kris laughed at Arden’s cocky drawl. Gathering a handful of snow, she tossed it at her instructor, who rolled away only to return with her own handful of snow.
The battle commenced, and only subsided when both combatants had laughed themselves into exhaustion. Kris crawled over to the edge of the rock face and sat, dangling her feet off the edge. Arden joined her, and they quietly watched the hawk as they munched on energy bars from the instructor’s pack.
Kris let the contentment that filled her wash away the last vestiges of irritation at her partner. "I wish I could get Sandy to try this."
"What did she say when you asked her?"
"She hasn’t been home long enough since I started climbing to broach the subject. Not that this is her kind of thing, anyway." Kris saw the hawk dive, and felt a brief pang for the small life that would be his supper.
"It wasn’t your kind of thing either until you gave it a try. What was it you first said to me—oh yeah, you fell over your feet just going out to get the newspaper." Arden nudged Kris and pointed down the length of the rock face they had climbed. "Pretty damned good climbing for someone with two left feet."
"It was, wasn’t it?"
"Yup, but now it’s time to head back. Do you want to climb, or you want me to go first and you can rappel down once I’m in position?"
Kris gave that some thought. She was tempted to rappel, knowing it would be faster and easier, but for some reason that felt like cheating. "I climbed up; I’ll climb down."
"Okay, then let’s go. We’ve got two or three hours before nightfall, but I want to be back at base well before we lose the light."
By the time they reached the base of the rock face, Kris was aware that the energy bars weren’t going to be enough to satisfy her hunger. The hike back to the Jeep was punctuated by her stomach’s growls, and they worked quickly to stow their gear.
"Do we have to go all the way back into the city for that steak you were talking about, Arden?"
"No, we could stop in the village. They’ve got a decent steakhouse, but it’ll make us later getting back to the city."
"It doesn’t matter. Like I told you earlier, Sandy left for the trade show this morning, so it’s not as if she’ll be wondering where I am or anything. I should call her to let her know I got down safely, though. I don’t want her to worry." Then Kris realized than in her annoyance with Sandy, she had forgotten to bring her phone along. "Damn! I don’t have my cell."
Arden shot her a sympathetic glance. "You can borrow mine if you like. I forgot to recharge it again, but there should be enough juice to make one call. It’s in the glove compartment."
Kris fished out the phone, unsurprised when it turned out to be an older, rather battered model. Arden didn’t strike her as much of a technophile, unless it was concerning new climbing technology. There was just enough battery power left to make the call to Sandy’s cellphone. It went to her voice mail, and Kris barely had time to leave a reassuring message before the cell went dead.
"Sorry ’bout that."
Kris shrugged and put Arden’s phone back. "That’s okay. At least she’ll know I’m off the mountain all right. She’ll be so busy setting up today anyway that she probably won’t check her messages until tomorrow."
"Okay, well, settle back and enjoy the scenery. I promise it’s only about forty- five minutes until you sink your teeth into one of the best steaks you’ll ever eat."
Kris braced as Arden swerved to miss a deep rut. "Pretty big promise there, Ms Heath. I’m going to be awfully disappointed if you can’t live up to it."
Arden glanced her way and grinned. "Hey, I don’t make promises I can’t keep, and I am so not in the habit of disappointing women!"
"Well, you certainly didn’t disappoint me today."
"I’m glad, Kris. I really am."
By the time the women left the steakhouse, the sky was dark and the temperature had plunged.
Kris patted her stomach with satisfaction as they walked to the Jeep. The service had been slow, but as promised, the food well worth waiting for. And being close to the massive stone fireplace warmed her aching body.
"You know what the best part was, Arden?"
"The wine, the fire, my company...?"
Kris chuckled as she slid into the passenger seat. "All of the above, but I was actually talking about the fact that I probably burned off enough calories today that I don’t even feel guilty about having that turtle cheesecake."
"Good. There’s no place for guilt in this near perfect day."
Kris stretched, yawned, and flexed her limbs. "Only ‘near’ perfect? What would it take to achieve perfection?" Sandy waiting at home with a big bottle of massage oil... Maybe I can pick some oil up this week and we’ll celebrate her homecoming in style next weekend.
Lost in her contented thoughts, it took Kris a moment to realize her question hadn’t been answered. She glanced over to find Arden concentrating on the road, her features barely visible in the dashboard light.
"The day—achieving perfection?"
Arden’s expression was unreadable. "I dunno, relaxing in that whirlpool would certainly put the icing on this day, that’s for sure."
"The whirlpool it is—if you’re sure you won’t get in trouble for being in there after hours."
The long drive back to the city was conducted in relative silence, and Kris was dozing by the time Arden pulled into the deserted parking lot at Mountain Adventure Tours.
Arden nodded at the company vans lined up on the side of the lot. "Looks like Brendan and his group got back all right."
Kris got out of the Jeep and stretched. "I hope they had as good a time today, as I did."
"Nah, they were just climbing."
Kris followed Arden to the front door. "Then what were we doing?"
"Blazing trails, communing with our higher natures—getting you in touch with your inner athlete."
Kris chuckled at Arden’s teasing tone as she followed her inside the building. "Wow, all that from one little climb." She was startled when Arden turned to her with a serious expression.
"It was way more than one little climb, Kris. Two months ago you thought ten-year-old Tyler could do something you couldn’t even dream of. Today you proved your boundaries are only limited by your imagination. It may not have been that redwood, but you released your life from the spider lines. I don’t know if you’ll keep climbing. I don’t know where this might take you. But I do know you changed your life when you pushed past your fears and physical limitations to stand on the top of that cliff today. You did that, Kris, and you should be incredibly proud of yourself."
Kris was deeply touched by her instructor’s words. "Thank you, Arden. That means more to me than I can say." She smiled to ease the solemnity. "But right now, my outer athlete could sure use that whirlpool."
"I think my outer athlete would agree with yours. Go ahead and get changed. I’ve just got to grab something from the staff room and I’ll meet you at the pool."
Kris nodded and headed for the locker room. She had taken out a membership at the MAT gym six weeks earlier so she could take advantage of their specialized climbing equipment. When she opened her locker, she wrinkled her nose. Geez, way past time to take my gear home and launder the whole lot. Luckily her bathing suit was clean, and she slipped into it quickly.
Without waiting for Arden, Kris eased into the steaming, swirling water, and exhaled blissfully. "Oh, my God, that feels great."
Her exclamation was met with laughter from behind. Kris opened her eyes to see Arden carrying a bottle and two glasses towards the pool.
"I thought we should celebrate your achievement in style. I put this on ice before I left this morning."
Amused, Kris watched Arden sit on the edge of the pool and efficiently twist open the bottle. "That looks like champagne. You must’ve been pretty confident I’d make it."
"It is champagne, and yes, I was confident. I’m just a confident kind of girl." Arden poured the champagne, set the bottle aside, and slipped down into the water. She walked slowly over to Kris, holding the glasses high. Handing one to Kris, she offered a toast. "To mountains yet to be climbed."
Kris smiled as she touched her glass to Arden’s, then drank. The cold wine contrasted nicely with the heat surrounding her. "Thanks, Arden. This is great." She teasingly inclined her glass at the sign on the wall above them, which sternly prohibited any glasses near or in the pool. "You are a rule-breaker, aren’t you, Ms Heath?"
Arden turned to take a seat next to Kris. "I figure we’re two grown-ups. We won’t break anything, and if we did..." She shrugged. "Life’s a lot more fun when it involves a little rule breaking."
Suddenly Kris was acutely aware of how close Arden was. She considered shifting, but didn’t want to make her unease apparent. Don’t be an idiot, for God’s sake. You’re making something out of nothing—
"Kris, you know when you asked me what would make this day perfect?"
"Uh...yes, I remember."
Arden slowly moved out from the wall and turned to face Kris. She reached past Kris to set her glass on the tiled edge. As her hand pulled back, it stopped to rest on Kris’ flushed face. Arden’s eyes smouldered as she whispered, "Making love to a beautiful woman is the way to end this day perfectly."
Kris shivered. The desire in Arden’s eyes was overwhelming. "I never—"
"You want to." Arden’s fingers trailed down Kris’ neck, slipping under her left strap and pushing it off her shoulder.
Kris swallowed hard. Do I?
Standing tall, Arden stripped off her suit and tossed it aside. Kris’ eyes were drawn to exactly where Arden intended and she nearly stopped breathing. Oh God...
Arden took the glass from Kris’ nerveless fingers, and set it on the decking behind Kris’ head. Her fingers traced down the other side of Kris’ neck and slowly slipped the right strap off. Kris made no move to stop her as Arden gently eased the top of the bathing suit down to her waist.
Expert fingers caressed Kris’ breasts, lingering on erect nipples as Arden repeated, "You want to."
It was a statement of fact. Kris was deeply aroused and she knew Arden knew it. She could not remember the last time she’d felt a longing so powerful, and her body responded instinctively to Arden’s touch. But when Arden leaned in and their lips touched, Kris jerked away.
"No?" Arden stopped, but her hands remained on Kris’ breasts. "You don’t want this?"
Kris sucked in a deep breath, grasped Arden’s wrists, and firmly moved her hands away. Pulling her top back into place, she shook her head. "No. I won’t do this to Sandy."
Arden smiled slightly. "She doesn’t have to know. No one has to know. I certainly wouldn’t tell, and it’s not like I’m looking for a long term connection here. You can’t deny there’s something between us. What harm is there in exploring that attraction, even if just for one night? I promise I’d make it unforgettable."
Kris laughed shakily, then rose and levered herself out of the pool. Looking down at Arden, she saw the physical perfection of the young woman and the undiminished desire in her eyes. "I don’t doubt that for one moment, Arden."
"Then let go of the safety line, Kris. You can spend the rest of your life with Sandy, but for tonight, live a little. Do exactly what you want to do."
"I am." Kris turned away and headed for the locker room.
By the time she finished dressing, Arden, fully clothed, joined her. "I’ll give you a ride home, Kris."
"I can call a cab."
"No, that’s just silly." Arden gave a dry laugh. "I won’t try anything. I can take no for an answer."
They drove in silence until Arden pulled up in front of Kris’ house, and Kris reached for her gear.
"I really don’t understand, Kris."
Kris looked at her and sighed. "I know you don’t, Arden, and I pity you for that."
"Pity me?" Arden’s eyebrows shot up. "Why? I’m living exactly the life I want to. I mean obviously I’d have preferred this night to end differently, but—"
"But it’s not exactly breaking your heart that I turned you down." Kris smiled at Arden’s expression. "I know that, and I also know that the next woman you turn your charm on will probably end up in your bed without a second thought."
"But not you."
"But not me, no. Arden, I’m not sure if I can explain it to your satisfaction. Yes, for a few moments I wanted exactly what you did. It felt great—it felt incredible, to be admired and desired like that again. But even if Sandy never found out, I’d know and remember always. And that would inevitably have frayed the connection between her and me. That connection may be a little time worn, but it’s strong and beautiful, and I can’t live without it. When you urged me to let go so we could indulge ourselves without consequence, you didn’t understand that Sandy, our love for each other, is my spider line. If I did anything to unfasten it, I’d fall so far and so fast that I’d shatter everything that makes my life worth living."
"Maybe you’d just land on your feet, ever consider that?"
Kris shook her head with a knowing smile. "If you’d ever felt what Sandy and I feel, you’d know what I mean. Thank you, Arden. Thank you for introducing me to climbing and showing me what I’m capable of. I wish you—well, I wish you someday what Sandy and I already have. Goodnight."
Kris watched Arden drive away as she whispered into the frigid night. "And goodbye." She walked up the path towards the dark house. Wonder if Sandy’s back in her hotel room yet.
Unlocking the front door, Kris shed her coat and boots, and tossed her gear aside. She had emptied her MAT locker so she took her gym bag to the bedroom, dumped it into the laundry basket, and clapped the usually neglected lid on the basket. "Ughh, laundry after work tomorrow, that’s for sure."
Kris picked up the bedside phone and walked down the hallway, absently punched in Sandy’s cell number. She was startled to hear a phone ring from the living room. "What the hell?"
She rounded the corner and stopped short in surprise. "Sandy? What’s going on...is everything alright? Why are you home already?"
The figure huddled in the corner of the couch with her arms around her legs jerked as Kris snapped on a light. She covered her eyes, but Kris had already seen the tears on her partner’s face.
"Sandy? Sweetheart, what’s wrong? Why aren’t you at the trade show? What happened?"
Sandy’s voice was cracked and weary. "I told Jackson I had to fly home for a family emergency, and that he and Dougie were going to have to handle the show on their own."
Kris gently tried to tease the desolate woman. "Your partner climbing a mountain was a family emergency?"
Sandy raised her head and met Kris’ eyes. "No, but my partner falling in love with another woman is."
"Oh, Sandy, no..." Kris crossed the room and dropped to her knees. "No, Sandy. You’re the only one I love. Believe me, sweetheart." She held steady while Sandy searched her face.
"Really." Kris took Sandy’s cold hands firmly in her own. "Arden may have thought otherwise—"
A flash of anger crossed Sandy’s face. "She did?"
"So I discovered, but, sweetie, I set her straight. You’re the one I love; the woman I want to make love to for the rest of my life."
"Me too, you."
Kris smiled at the familiar response and rose to sit beside her. She took Sandy in her arms, warming to the comforting feel of her partner’s embrace.
For a long time they sat entwined, without speaking, until Sandy’s words broke the silence.
"I’m sorry, Kris."
"For what, my love?"
"For so many things. I knew we needed to talk. I knew I was taking the easy way out and spending all my time and energy on work so I didn’t have to deal with your unhappiness."
"I don’t know that I was unhappy, Sandy."
"You were. Don’t deny it, Kris."
"Okay, maybe, but it wasn’t your fault."
"Not entirely, but it was to some extent."
Kris tightened her grip and felt Sandy do the same. "I know how demanding your job is, love. I know that early in the sales year, you don’t have many free hours."
"Maybe it’s time I got a different job."
Startled, Kris glanced down at her partner. "I wouldn’t ask you to do that. I know how hard you’ve worked, and how much your reputation and standing mean to you."
"They don’t mean a damned thing next to you." Sandy sat up, facing Kris. "When I flew home this afternoon, I was sick with worry. I was convinced I’d lost you to that gorgeous young thing you’ve been hanging around with."
"Why?" Kris was genuinely curious.
"Oh, Kris, if you could’ve seen the way your face lit up when you talked about Arden and her climbing lessons. God, even your voice mail message today radiated excitement. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you so happy—about anything. It was always Arden this, and Arden that. I grew to hate that name!"
Kris considered Sandy’s words. "I don’t think...it wasn’t so much Arden that excited me, but the world of possibilities she opened up to me."
Sandy shot her a sceptical look. "You’re seriously telling me that long blonde hair, big blue eyes, and awesome body had nothing to do with it? And all those exotic stories of the countries she’s seen and the mountains she’s climbed? How on earth could I possibly compete?"
"Sweetie, she’s a dozen years younger than me, and apt to fly off to parts unknown at the drop of a hat. In other words, she’s not exactly relationship material." Kris held up a hand at the worried look in Sandy’s eyes. "Not that I’m looking for another relationship. You’re stuck with me, love."
"I saw the way she looked at you, too, Kris." There was pain in Sandy’s quiet voice. "She wanted you."
Kris drew a deep breath. We need to talk this out. She took a firmer grip of Sandy’s hands and regarded her seriously. "You’re right. She did want me, though I was pretty oblivious to it until tonight."
"Uh huh. We had a good day climbing, but I’m sore as hell. So after getting something to eat, we went back to MAT for a whirlpool."
"But they were closed. I drove over there looking for you when it got late and you weren’t home." A look of pain flashed across Sandy’s face. "The parking lot was deserted except for her Jeep."
Kris regarded Sandy compassionately. "Oh, love. Why didn’t you just knock on the door?"
"I was afraid of what I might find."
"Yeah, well, your suspicions were well-founded. She had the whirlpool going and the champagne on ice."
"She tried to seduce you?"
"Yes, she did."
"But you’re here..."
"It’s where you are."
"You didn’t know that. You didn’t know I’d come home from the trade show."
"No, Sandy, I didn’t. But this is our home. Even when you’re not here, you’re here—in every piece of furniture we’ve chosen together, in every wall we’ve painted, in every room we’ve made love in. I won’t ever do anything to risk what we share." Kris’ mind flashed on how close she had come to doing exactly that. Time to come clean. "Sandy, I won’t deny I was tempted. It was...hard, to resist. It was exciting for a moment. Arden looked at me like I was—beautiful, desirable."
"And somewhere along the line I stopped looking at you like that."
"I think we both stopped looking, Sandy." Kris released Sandy’s hand and stroked her face. "I think maybe we’ve been taking each other for granted, taking our relationship for granted, and our love means way too much to treat it like that."
Sandy kissed Kris’ palm and held it to her cheek. "I do know what you mean, Kris. There has been the odd occasion when I’m at yet another in an endless line of hotels and a woman will look at me that way. It does feel good."
Kris wasn’t sure she wanted to know, but she had to ask. "Did you ever..."
"No." Sandy met Kris’ gaze squarely. "But I know what it is to be tempted."
"I guess we both do, love."
"So where do we go from here, Kris?"
"We go on—together."
"Together." Sandy nodded and smiled, as if the echoed word had eased every heartache. She leaned away from Kris and reached into her large purse next to the couch, coming up with a travel folder. She held it out to Kris, who accepted it with a puzzled look. "I bought these at the airport when I left the trade show."
Kris opened the envelope and read the enclosed itinerary. "San Francisco? You got us tickets to fly to San Francisco?"
"If you can get time off work, we leave Wednesday. I’ve reserved a car, booked us a room at an adorable B&B up the coast, and we’ll be at the foot of those redwoods by Thursday."
"Oh, my God!"
Sandy laughed and held up one hand. "I’m not saying I’m going to climb them, or even let you an inch off the ground, but I think that us taking a little holiday is a good idea." She grew serious. "This whole thing scared me, Kris. I don’t want you ever thinking I take us for granted. You’re way too important to me. I love you so very, very much."
"I love you, too, sweetie." Kris leaned forward and let her kiss tell Sandy how deeply she was cherished. Then with a grin, she rose to her feet, bringing Sandy with her. "Hey, do we have any of that massage oil left?"
"Mmm, we might. I can’t remember the last time we used it, but I don’t think it would go bad, would it?"
Kris led Sandy toward their bedroom. "If it did, we’ll improvise. Did I mention how sore my muscles are? I climbed a mountain today, you know..."
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