Rachel stared out of the living room window, watching John’s form come closer in the distance. She craned her neck as he neared their small cabin astride his gelding, then spotted an empty fishing net sticking out from one side of the horse’s bags and a large bucket hanging from the other. The bucket was full, which meant it would contain water as well as whatever he had caught. John had been successful – as usual. He wore hip waders with a snug fitting thermal shirt and an ugly, large brimmed hat, and yet the entire ensemble somehow managed to heighten his attractiveness; the clothing showed off his broad, muscular, frame and the hat accented the hard, sculpted lines of his face. She bit one of her fingers. She had never thought she would be drawn to a man like John – older, hard, terse – but living in such close proximity had swiftly changed her views. The fact that he was so handsome and masculine didn’t hurt. Although she didn’t know exactly how old John was, she was confident with her estimate of mid thirties, making John about ten years older than she was.

His cabin, she corrected herself mentally, pausing. She was only a guest – even though he told her repeatedly that she was welcome to remain for as long as she wanted. She had been there for weeks and weeks now, and Rachel still only remembered bits and pieces of the events that had left her injured on the riverbank and curled up in a thick stand of cattails.

She remembered that a large, hostile group had raided their camp, a big abandoned farm that they had worked hard to make liveable and productive. The alarm bells had rung, they quickly discovered that they were outnumbered and fled. She remembered parts of the escape and getting separated from her friends, one by one, as they ran. Verre had been the last. They had both been injured by then, and had jumped into the river as a last ditch attempt to escape their pursuers. When Rachel had last seen her, the other woman had been heading to shore, her strokes straight and sure.

She remembered waking up on the bank alone – if coming to in a state of semi-consciousness could truly be considered waking – and feeling as though she was being watched. She had called for Verre as she pulled herself up on unsteady legs, trying to disentangle the strap of the bag that was somehow still wrapped around her from the thick brush. She had been almost overcome by dizziness as she tried to gather herself to run. And suddenly there were two man-shaped blurs in her peripheral vision, coming from two different directions, too fast to respond to in her injured condition. She remembered seeing one of the blurs racing toward her, a weapon in hand, and then a larger blur tackling the first. Helplessness, a flood of relief, then blessed unconsciousness.

She remembered the screams.

When she finally roused to full consciousness, one of the blurs was sitting beside the bed she was in, looking up from the book he had been reading. The blur gradually resolved itself into a tall, very handsome and well-built man with dark hair and a few days of stubble before her head started to spin. I must have a concussion. She swallowed, breathing in. He probably wasn’t really as good looking at her first impression, Rachel told herself. The green flannel he wore looked vaguely familiar, and she thought she recognized him from her ‘dream’….but her head was pounding too much to keep her eyes open.

Rachel closed her eyes, feeling dizzy. She was fighting the urge to panic. Strong though it was, she was entirely certain there would be no point to it. If this man had nefarious intent, she had likely been at his mercy for some time and not yet suffered at his hands. The sound of birds and the river outside seemed familiar; she was sure this was not the first time she had woken up here, and she thought that the man had been looking after her, acting as a caretaker. Her long, dark brown hair had been pulled back into a looped ponytail at the nape of her neck, and she was wearing clean clothing that was not her own…. a t-shirt and what felt like a pair of soft, oversized sweatpants?

She breathed carefully, slowly flexing from her toes and fingertips under the blanket. Her ankle had been wrapped and was elevated on a pillow, quietly throbbing, and the cuts she had sustained on her arms had been bandaged – or stitched, where needed. Her skin felt slightly itchy, the kind of tightness that comes with healing. Although her ribs felt sore and bruised, she was fairly sure nothing was broken. She imagined that she likely had an array of bruises, though nothing hurt as much she expected. She breathed a sigh of relief. She struggled to speak; it seemed that she hadn’t used her voice in some time.

“You do that every time you wake up,” the man said in a deep, patient voice. He shifted forward in his chair. “Nothing’s broken, Rachel. Your ankle was twisted, swollen up pretty badly, but it’s healing up.”

He knew her name. “Where am I?” She croaked. “How long-?”

“You’re at the Eastern Delta of the Blue. Six days,” he recited. His manner was patient, but he had the air of one who had been giving her this information for some time.

Six days? Rachel’s amber eyes shot open as she forced herself to sit up, bringing on a fresh wave of severe dizziness and nausea. “The- the others,” she said, shoving it down as she carefully laid back against the pillow. His words played through her head again. Every time you wake up. He reached near her head, and there were a few clicking noises. The soft lights that were built into the headboard went out, dimming the area significantly. She blinked, taking in the room. Her pack was sitting on the dresser and still looked full and intact, Rachel noted with absent-minded relief. The handle of her hunting knife was visible in its side pocket; even the small, sun-bleached wooden charm that Verre had made for her was still tied on. “My friends…”

The man shook his head. He had vivid blue eyes, and was staring at her in concern. “I haven’t seen anyone other than your attacker. The man I killed.” He paused, searching her face. “Do you remember my name?”

Rachel blinked at him. There had been a lot of blood to accompany the screaming. She remembered seeing red spattered plants as the man in front of her had carried her to safety. Rachel inhaled, furrowing her brow as she closed her eyes. She felt much less dizzy that way. “John. I think….You told me that your name was John?”

“Yes. That’s good. Your memory is getting better,” John murmured. He sounded pleased. “I’m glad that stuck.”

Yes. I remember that. “Mmmm,” she groaned quietly. “I think I’ll be sick next.”

He quickly handed her a bucket, then afterwards a cloth to wipe her mouth and a tall cup of water, half for rinsing, half for drinking. “You should have some of this soup. It’s most broth,” he urged in a whisper, holding up a bowl and a spoon of something savory smelling. “I’ll have to wake you in a while to give you antibiotics, but you need to stay hydrated.”

Rachel liked his voice. It was deep, masculine, and managed to be commanding and soothing all at the same time. “Okay,” she murmured. She was very thirsty, now that she thought about it. “But please – I can’t open my eyes again.”

“It’s okay,” he said, his voice quiet and reassuring. “I’ll take care of you.” He spoonfed her broth, along with some rice and a few bites of scrambled egg. Rachel felt full quicker than she would have thought possible, considering the fare. But within a few minutes she could feel exhaustion taking her again. He urged her to drink some tea from a straw. Mint. “Hopefully the nausea and dizziness will be gone soon….I’m not sure if it’s from your head injury. It’s also a possible side effect from the medication.”

Rachel worked to collect her thoughts, trying to ignore the lightheadedness. “Thank you,” she mumbled. Her parents would be disappointed, if she didn’t remember her manners. Even if they had been dead for years. Everyone is dead. Again.

The next morning, he brought her a basin of warm water, soap, and a washcloth, leaving her alone in the bedroom to wash. She felt much more coherent this morning than she had before. After breakfast – fried eggs, apple bread, and a mix of sauteed greens – he prepared to do outdoor chores, and Rachel begged him to take her with him for some fresh air. “Please,” she said. “I need some sun. ”

He was reluctant, but agreed – under the stipulation that if Rachel wanted to make the journey to outdoors, she would have to be carried. “I’ll be damned if you’re going to bust that ankle up again.” John chuckled at the expression on her face. “I’m not going to drop you, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’ve carried deer that weigh as much as I do. Besides, I carried you all the way up from the river and you were dead weight then.”

The thought of allowing him to carry her rankled, but Rachel saw his point. And her ankle was still quite tender. She nodded. “Agreed.”

Moving with care, he bent down to scoop her into his arms, one under her legs and the other cradling her back. She was suddenly very aware of how warm, and large and strong John was….and how good he smelled.

“Are you alright?” He asked, looking into her face.

Rachel nodded, resting her head on his shoulder. “Mmmhmmm.” She hoped he wouldn’t notice the way she was inhaling him. He smelled good enough to eat.

John sat her on his wrap-around porch in the old-fashioned swing with a thick blanket, a hot cup of lemon verbena tea and a few paperback books from the cabin’s small library. “You’ll let me know at once if you need to go in and lie down,” he said in a stern voice, and she agreed immediately. He frowned, then locked the swing to keep it immobile before moving to the wood pile in the yard where he could keep an eye on her while he worked. Rachel smiled, delighting in the rays of sun that she could feel on her face. Sunbeams were one of her favorite things. A collie ran up to greet John, then sniffed at Rachel excitedly.

“That’s Clark,” John told her as she carefully extended a hand to pat the dog. “He prefers to live outdoors, but if it gets cold he’s got a place inside. Dog house works most years though.” The dog settled down in a patch of sun near the swing.

“John,” Rachel said at once. “Were you a doctor?”

“No,” he shook his head. “Nothing nearly that official.” John paused, then continued when he saw genuine interest. “This area’s always been isolated, even Before. I learned a lot of basics from my family during my summers up here. When I was in high school, I did some wilderness medical courses, read lots of books. When I moved here for good, I spent a lot of time volunteering out at the clinic, helping the medical staff. I had a very laid-back internship of sorts., I guess you could say. I’ve had lots of practice with breaks, sprains, and stitches.”

“Lucky me,” she said. John nodded at her in return, inclining his head deeply as he turned for the steps. Rachel studied him as he walked away. He reminded her of a cowboy from an old Western – direct, manly and rough, yet chivalrous. Her gut told her he could be trusted, but still…experience had given her an abundance of caution. She bit her lip, thoughtful as she watched him walk out into the grass.

It was sunny but cool, and she wondered why John was dressed so lightly – he wore no jacket, only a open blue flannel over a ribbed, sleeveless gray cotton shirt. He started by taking water and feed out to the chicken coop. He returned with a basket of eggs and another with greens, vegetables and herbs from his garden, setting both on the porch once he had finished and then moving to tending the garden. Before long he was mopping his brow, and Rachel felt unreasonably guilty. By the time he came back from checking his fishing traps he had removed his warm flannel shirt. After several minutes of chopping wood, his undershirt had joined the flannel on the porch rail. Her eyes widened. John seemed to think nothing of standing shirtless as he worked, his muscles rippling down his core as he swung the heavy axe. His broad chest had a light covering of short dark hair across it, and a thin line ran down the center of his incredibly well-defined stomach, disappearing into jeans that sat a bit lower than his hips. A perfect amount, Rachel thought, biting her lip behind her teacup.

Each time he brought the axe down, his pants shifted and Rachel caught another glimpse of his exceptional Adonis belt. “Jesus fucking Christ,” she murmured, trying not to look as though she was gawking at him. She was annoyed. It had been distracting enough before he’d removed the undershirt – John was a very good looking man, if harder-featured than she usually liked. He had bone structure that could cut marble and bright blue eyes that were both gorgeous and intense, accented by by the dark stubble that covered the lower half of his face. Historically, she didn’t even like white guys – she had always been much more attracted to ethnic or multi-racial types, like herself. But John was a specimen. What else was she supposed to look at? She hadn’t seen anything nearly as captivating and fun to watch in ages. Besides, she had tried to read while he was gone, but she had quickly grown dizzy. John took a break from chopping to lug pieces of wood to the small storage shed near the porch, his arms flexing while he did so. Fuck it, she thought, drinking carefully from the fragrant cup of tea and staring openly. John pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his face before sauntering over.

“How are you feeling?” John asked, looking into her eyes.

“I feel fine,” Rachel replied. “Other than feeling guilty about not being allowed to help.”

He raised an eyebrow, smirking in amusement. “Give it a few more days,” he said. “If you push yourself, you’ll only make your recovery longer.” He took a long drink of water from the large mason jar on the table, and Rachel exhaled carefully. He was even more attractive up close.

A few days passed, and they agreed that she was recovering well. She was delighted to be able to shower, particularly as John had thoughtfully given her access to his full stock of toiletries – as well a small plastic tub of tightly packed women’s clothing, roughly her size, that had belonged to his younger cousin Katie years before. Rachel had asked him where the girl was now. “I don’t know,” he had responded in a quiet, sorrowful voice, and she had immediately dropped the subject.

Most of the clothing was very practical, if rather brightly colored for Rachel’s preferences, and consisted mostly t shirts, socks, jeans, and leggings. The clothing sizes indicated that Katie was a little bigger and much taller than Rachel; the clothes were loose on her, and the pants would needed to be cuffed, but that was easy enough to work with. Excellent, Rachel thought. It even smelled nice – someone had placed several rose sachets among the carefully folded clothing. She had grown used to making due with much worse. John had even laundred the things she had been wearing when she arrived, adding the lot to the armoire in the corner.

The bathroom was the only modern part of the place, done mostly in blonde hardwood with glass and other accents. The shower had transparent glass walls and four showerheads, two at each end. Rachel took a look inside. Each end had one handheld showerhead and one wall-mounted, and could be operated with any number or combination of heads. There was also a huge shelf built into the glossy, pebble mosaic bathroom wall that served as the shower’s fourth wall; the other three walls were glass. John had also set a plastic chair in the shower, in case she learned that she “wasn’t up to standing for the full duration after all”, as he had put it. She grinned. Rachel couldn’t even remember the last time she’d had a shower.

The bin of hygiene items that John had thoughtfully left for her to look through was luxurious enough even at first glance – boxes of real toothpaste, pristine toothbrushes still in their plastic cases, miles and miles of dental floss, several different scents and varieties of soaps – but when she discovered the shampoo, conditioner, and razors Rachel had nearly wept with joy. When she unearthed the unopened containers of moisturizer, hair pomades, mousses, and assorted oils, she thought she was delirious. Washing her hair with bars of homemade soap had been a high point on more than one occasion.

By this point, Rachel had also recovered to enough to ask him, multiple times per day, to take her out to look for any signs of the others from her group. He finally agreed, although he clearly thought it was a bad idea. “Fine,” he growled. “We’ll take the truck. Two hours, tops, and if you start getting dizzy we go home right away.” She persuaded him to stay out longer, but when even their continued search yielded nothing, Rachel quickly grew distraught. He wrapped her in a thick blanket for the drive home, politely ignoring her muted, anguished sobs. He parked in front of the cabin and waited for her in silence.

“I don’t….” She pressed her face to the cold glass of the window, her eyes closed. There were still visible tear tracks on her cheeks. “I don’t know what to do now.”

“Rest. Heal,” he replied simply. “No matter what you do next, you need to be whole. The world is even more vicious than before.” John cleared his throat. “You need to eat,” he said gruffly. “You can’t get weak.” John handed her the wide silver thermos from the center console. “I meant what I said yesterday, Rachel – you can stay as long as you want.”

She drank down the chicken soup from the thermos’ attached container, pausing to chew the chunks of meat, rice and vegetable. “I’m tired,” she said quietly.

John nodded, coming around to help her down from the truck. “It’s been a long day. And you really shouldn’t have been out and about yet anyway,” he added with a frown. “You at least need to fully recover from the concussion, if nothing else. ”

“I know,” Rachel agreed in a murmur, gratefully resting her weight on him. “But I- I couldn’t just lie in bed without knowing. Or at least trying to know.”

John helped her into bed for a quick rest before moving to the kitchen to prepare their dinner. She hadn’t expected to actually sleep, but she woke two hours later to John gently tapping her shoulder. “Food’s ready. I’ll bring you a tray,” he said, before turning away.

“No,” she said hoarsely, clearing her throat. “I want to come out.”

He had cooked trout and pasta, with a generous side of fiddleheads and a smaller helping of cooked mushrooms. There was even a honey-fruit-nut brittle for dessert. Rachel insisted on helping to set the table, but she almost thought it might have been better if she had sat down and waited for John to do everything; he seemed very concerned, keeping a close eye on her as she slowly moved about.

She was feeling awful, but she was determined to push through it. “These plates are pretty.” Rachel pulled out two of the old-fashioned yellow plates in the cabinet. They had scalloped edges and sprigs of white lily of the valley across the center. She placed them on the table, then took a drink of water and a deep breath. I’ll just finish setting the table and then I can sit down, she thought, taking a handful of cutlery from the drawer. As long as she closed her eyes for a moment every so often, it was fine…

“How are you feeling?” John asked, staring at her with narrowed blue eyes.

Rachel bit her lip, frustrated. “Not well,” she admitted, swaying slightly as she grabbed the countertop.

“I knew it,” John nodded, his jaw clenched. “You’ve been looking pale, and- ah, damn it,” he muttered under his breath as he pulled out a chair for her. “Sit,” John ordered in a firm voice, gently taking her elbow and guiding her to the seat. He pressed a cup of warm mint tea into her hands moments later. “Drink, slowly,” he said, his voice cross.