Vic Hill scowled and manoeuvred his coupe down the street to his office building, more concerned with the Honda in front of him than the dozens of protesters picketing his company.
Signs and shouts of protest. He'd seen this scene before, in countless cities around the world, wherever his company had holdings. The picket signs were always the same. SAVE OUR FORESTS. Save our resources, our water, our whatever. Those hippies had a sign for every project he headed. The CEO let them picket as long as they kept it peaceful.
A picketer crossed the line to go chest to chest with the lone policeman who tried to keep the unruly crowd on the sidewalk. The cop thus distracted, another protestor, wearing a creative costume of cut branches and red paint--a bloody tree? Really?--ran into the street. Stopping traffic, he screamed his righteousness at the faceless office building, pounding the cars when they tried to pass around him.
Peaceful, my ass. No way he's pounding on my TTS. He swerved to avoid another protester and rounded the corner. This wasn't the right time to walk through the front door. Damned. It's just a bunch of trees out in the middle of nowhere. It's not like I'm shaving the earth. The land is just sitting there, waiting for the right developer to come along and put it to good use.
And he was just the right developer for the job. So what if the land had a rider on it? Little details like that were the first to get lost once the paperwork began to flow. He'd gotten around them plenty of times. Helps to have experienced attorneys who knew how to close deals before people looked too closely.
As he approached the entrance to the parking garage, he noticed another crowd carrying the same green and white signs. Screw this. Today's a good enough day to telecommute.
He speed dialled his secretary as he drove away. "Judith. I won't make it in before heading to Lancaster. Can you just email my reservation confirmation?"
At least Judith had been able to find him a decent hotel, considering all the wide-openness and horse-and-buggy nonsense. The only thing rural Pennsylvania was good for was Dutch cooking and lots of room to build. He'd freshened up in his room before heading down to the hotel restaurant, hoping to be well-rested for the long day he had tomorrow. Hostile take-overs took a lot out of a man.
A woman approached him as he exited the hotel elevator. Pocketing his cell phone, he turned in time to take her in all at once--long legs under a prim short-skirted suit, blonde hair piled into a neat swirl, skin as pale as pink roses in moonlight.
Her eyes startled him--cerulean blue and fixed on him. He'd never seen such beauty before. She reminded him of a porcelain doll.
Until, that is, she parted her pretty lips and spoke with a voice as cold and as sharp as icicles. "I heard your speech last week. You really have a way with persuasion, don't you?"
"I'm sorry. You are…?"
"I am one of the few you haven't fooled, Mr. Hill. There are actually people out there who do their research and know the laws."
He drew up his shoulders without thinking, his automatic guard to any perceived threat. It seemed a ridiculous reaction considering she was such a petite thing. "We bought the land from the previous owner's estate with the provision we'd apply for Green and Clean status." Which was truth, for at least the first five years?
"Or until timber runs out. Isn't that right?"
Several people had gathered to watch the pretty blonde David face off to the Goliath. She raised her voice, including them in the confrontation. "Clean and Green isn't an environmental protection program. It's a tax relief program. The owner pays lower taxes on land such as this listed as a forest reserve as long as it's capable of producing at least twenty-five cubic feet per acre of timber per year. You'll see to it that it does, won't you, Mr. Hill?"
He smiled in apology and waved to the crowd before turning to his latest opposition. He slid his hand around her elbow and tried to steer her toward a quiet corner before the tree huggers could start up. "Excuse me; this isn't the place to--"
"And then what happens once the forest is gone?" She wrested her arm away. "Oh, wait, I know the answer to this one. A mall. No? A housing development? A few hotels?"
He rocked back on his heels and exhaled through his nose. It would take more than that to rattle him. "And you are?"
"Ash Raymond." She smiled. "And I'm here to take you down."
"Here I thought I was stuck watching Jersey Shore all night." He tilted his head toward the lounge. "Well, might as well be comfortable while you, ah, take me down. Shall we discuss this over a drink?"
Crooking his elbow, he offered his arm.
She surveyed his gesture wearing an expression of faint disgust. "No. Thank you."
"No reason why we can't be civil."
"Civility doesn't extend to linking arms and skipping into a bar, Mr. Hill."
"It could if you wanted it to."
He pulled open the door and held it open for her. She walked past him without comment. She wasn't all women's lib and hippie protests now. A glance at her shapely backside and long legs, the way she moved with the grace of a swimmer, were enough to convince him to endure her torture a bit longer.
He was only human, after all.
He selected a corner booth behind the pool table and signalled to a waitress. "What's your poison, Ms. Raymond?"
"I don't drink poison. But I will have a kamikaze, if they can handle one here."
"Kamikaze. Huh. I had better reassess the level of threat you pose."
"Regardless of your perceptions, I'm going full out. This land is too precious to let you rape it."
He sighed, anticipating a long, familiar fight, a lot of droning and whining about the land and the green and the blah blah blah. "First of all, I don't rape land. Anything I do to it is entirely consensual. Second, I don't need to take. Anything the land gives up is completely voluntary."
Crossing her arms, she tilted her head. "So. You just persuade the land to lay down its trees and bare its roots and succumb to the plows and the augers?"
Something about the way she said it made him a little dizzy. Was this a come on? He laughed and stretched out his arm along the top of the booth, glad for the waitress's sudden appearance. It gave him time to refocus.
The waitress set down a marguerita glass in front of Ms. Raymond, who didn't even blink at the monstrosity of it. "I don't want to mislead you, Vic, but I'm a 'hit it and quit it' kind of girl. I have all night, if that's what it takes, but I never stick around past dawn. Think you can man up to the challenge?"
Hill licked his lips and leaned forward. "I can take anything you want to dish out."
"Good." She smiled and leaned to the side, spilling a view of her cleavage. She caught him looking and cleared her throat. When that didn't distract him, she dropped a thick folder on the table.
Ms. Raymond sipped it and smiled her approval at the waitress to dismiss her. Flipping open the folder, she began shuffling through the papers. "Now, Vic, let's see…"
"Miss?" Vic called out to the waitress, who by now was halfway back to the bar and turned around with a put-look look on her face. Oh well. At least she would get a tip for her trouble. "Keep these coming, will you?"
An hour passed and Ms. Raymond showed no sign of relenting. Hill had eventually resigned himself to keeping their drinks refreshed and let her talk herself out.
She was good, Hill thought. She knew all about that stupid protection rider and knew exactly who to tell about it. She also produced a stack of documents an inch thick that detailed similar land protection agreements going back to the early eighteen-hundreds. That folder was a major chunk of trouble.
"Those things are meaningless." He drained the last of his lager and set the glass down with a thump.
"But give me a chance to finish. I said they're meaningless because it's a defence that you're mounting for no reason. The land is protected and will be. I've already requested Clean and--"
"Yes, Mr. Hill. I already heard that. You repeat it ad nausea as if it's the answer to our prayers."
"It's all that matters. Look. You know a bunch of stuff. Big deal. Even you die one day. It's just woods. There are other forests in the world."
She slapped the table, making the glasses rattle. "Then take one of them. Not this one."
"Why? Why not this one?"
"Please, Mr. Hill. It's…" Tears welled on her lashes and she dabbed them with the cocktail napkin. "It's special."
He loved this moment, the precise moment when the opposition broke. It's wasn't just about winning. It was about defeating. He loved ultimate, undeniable, mushroom-cloud-sized defeats. He grinned, open-mouthed, a predator, ready to devour the spoils. Leaning forward, he pushed her on, wanting to see her dissolve. "What makes it so special?"
Her voice was a tiny whisper. "It's my home."
He barked a laugh. "No, it's not. There are no residences listed. It's undeveloped. It's been surveyed."
"I--I know." She reached out and touched his arm, briefly, before yanking her fingers away. "But I grew up there, playing in the forest, swimming at the glen spring. All my life--"
She broke off, looking over her shoulder and making darting glances around the room. Leaning forward, she lowered her voice. "There are…legends. Stories about water fairies. This land is their--"
"Fairies?" Vic choked on a laugh. "Oh, I can't believe this. That's what this is all about? You want to save the fairies?"
Desperation simmered in her eyes. A sob strangled her voice. "Fairies or not, that land is sacred. You can't possibly understand how precious that land is."
"Oh, yes, I can." He stretched and pulled out his wallet, counting out several bills before dropping them on the table. This is where he drew the line. Emotional pleas. What a waste of breath. Hill slid out of the booth and tugged his jacket down into place, intending to leave.
"Mr. Hill." She grasped his hand, stopping him. Looking up at him, her eyes were dark, glistening pools of unshed tears. The vantage point gave him a glimpse of slender throat and shadowed bosom. "Please. Let me--"
Ms. Raymond took a deep breath and licked her lips. "Let me try to persuade you."
"And just how--"
"The old fashioned way, of course." She stood and collected her purse before turning up her face. A dark smile seeped across it. "The only thing we need to negotiate right now is: in whose room will we dictate the terms of your surrender?"
He smiled his cocky smile. This was even better than he'd hoped. Virtually no work at all--she practically seduced herself. Obviously Ms. Raymond thought she could buy his cooperation with a little action.
She could be the best damn thing that ever fell into his bed but it won't make a difference. He had a strict policy; it was always over by sunrise. Either he left or they left, didn't matter.
What Ms. Raymond didn't realize was that she'd be giving him exactly what he wanted--a chance to steal that troublesome file. He leered at her. "I don't surrender."
"Neither do I." She turned and began walking to the door of the bar. "Be careful, Mr. Hill. I am a desperate woman. This could get dangerous."
"Your room," he called out. "I'll give you the home advantage."
"I have it either way." She spread her hands. "It's my home I'm fighting for."
Four o'clock A.M.
The sky had that look it gets before dawn breaks--it wore a night-time darkness but something barely perceptible seeped over the horizon, a sense of something drastic. Although sunlight had long yet to arrive, it sent ahead a pallor that dimmed the stars. A harbinger.
Hill mused his sleepy, contented thoughts while he chased down his awareness. Ash's body lay long and warm against his bare skin; they'd fallen asleep against each other as if they'd collapsed in the heat of their lovemaking, sprawled on the bed together in a tangle of limbs.
Strangely, he didn't mind. A languor had washed over him, a content relaxation. He was in no hurry to leave this bed. She stirred against him, a fluid flexing of muscles that pressed against him where she lay. Her touch evoked memories of their intimate night together and aroused him once more.
Ash lifted her head, a blonde tousle of disarray, and looked out the hotel window. The sky had donned a pink glow over the horizon. "Wow. Morning already?"
Hill furrowed his brows at the sound of her voice. She sounded--sad? Disappointed? She'd hated his guts only hours before.
She kissed his chest, sliding her palm across his ribs, brushing his nipple. The sensation brought him fully aware. She nuzzled his shoulder and neck before creeping on top of him, like a wash of warm water. Her mouth was open, her eyes alight with urgency.
He couldn't resist her. He grasped her hips and settled her onto himself with enough force to make each of them gasp. Her muscles locked around him, tightening with a silky grip that he never wanted to end.
Ash craned her head and looked at the window. "Dawn approaches."
"Then let's ride into it."
"Oh, we will." She began to rock, her body a lithe whip. Her head rolled back, a sound of pleasure pouring from her mouth.
Slowly, her moans took the shape of words, words that made no sense to him.
"To my fathers, I pledge my life. To my people, I pledge my life." She shuddered and rippled against him when she took her pleasure. A sheen glistened on her forehead, between her breasts. When she locked her gaze upon his, her eyes were pools of desperation. "For my land, I give my life."
She grabbed his wrists and wrenched his hands over his head before lowering her head. She pressed her mouth on his, her perspiration dripping onto his body and making him slick with it. Her kiss was demanding, vigorous, and tasted like a mountain spring.
Saliva filled his mouth, making him gag. He tried to break the kiss, to push her off but her embrace was iron-strong.
The first light of dawn warmed the curtains with a rosy glow and when it lit against her skin, she melted against him. He reached completion just as her body dissolved into a spring of forest-fresh water, drenching him in an unstoppable wave. She became a flood and filled his mouth, his nose, his lungs and it never stopped, not even after he surrendered.
Housekeeping found his body lying in the drenched bed, mouth open, still brimming with water. Later, the coroner's report listed Mr. Hill's cause of death as drowning. Most likely a homicide, although no fingerprints or traces of another's DNA could be found. And why did he have two rooms registered in his name?
The forest with its spring glen still stands, protected, until another threatens the Asrai once more.
Vic Hill scowled and manoeuvred his coupe down the street to his office building, more concerned with the Honda in front of him than the dozens of protesters picketing his company.
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