Leave it to Lake to get himself stranded just miles from his first permanent post in years.
His old, battered, red Ford Ranger had carried him all the way from Pensacola, Florida, without incident, but after three hours of wandering lost in the backwoods of Northern Michigan, the faithful vehicle finally ran out of gas. The truck shuddered to a halt, the needle on the meter past red. Lake hadn’t seen a gas station in miles.
On either side of the snow-choked, one-lane road, trees stood like dark bones cloaked in white. The forbidding beauty of the forest drove home the fact that he did not belong here. He was a lake ecosystems specialist and a freshwater naiad, not a creature of the woods. If only he could find his new home, Gem Pond.
Pond was a bit of a misnomer. It was a two-hundred-acre lake nestled in the midst of virgin forest. He had to be close. This road should have led directly to the Gem Pond Nature Preserve Management Office. Only it hadn’t, and his efforts at backtracking had only gotten him more lost. Now, he was still deep in the woods with no “pond” in sight, no charge on his cell phone, and no transportation.
Lake rubbed his eyes and forced himself to take deep breaths. He looked out at the vast, snowbound forest, shining and silent in the moonlight. It was a clear night, and a cold one. The subzero temperature was already creeping into the cab of the truck. He retrieved his gloves from the passenger seat and put them on.
Gem Pond would still be there in the morning, and in the daylight, he’d be able to walk either to it or to a place where he could call the station. All he had to do was make sure he didn’t freeze to death in the meantime.
By the angle of the crescent moon, it was about ten p.m. He had a long wait for dawn. Fortunately, among his supplies in the bed of the pickup, he had the ever-popular blanket and candle in a coffee can. He hopped out to fetch them.
The cold stole his breath away. It reached through his clothes and skin and muscles and turned his bones to ice. He hurried to the truck bed, but as he reached for his duffel bag, a familiar fluidity rippled through his body, soothing him despite the frigid weather. He knew this sensation like he knew the beating of his own heart. It was the call of home--in this case, his new guardianship, Gem Pond. It tugged at him, awakening an insistent pulse in his belly. The lake was near. So near he could almost touch her.
He was a naiad, a water spirit, at home in deep ponds, shallow, sparkling streams, and frozen lakes. If he could merge with Gem, it would be a simple matter to wait out the night and the cold in the comforting arms of his new home. But Gem was a spring-fed lake. There were no streams to channel himself through to reach her.
Still, the thought of shutting himself back up in the cab of the truck now was intolerable. He couldn’t huddle around a candle all night while Gem tugged at every fiber of his being, calling him to join her.
He’d already waited so long.
He’d had a guardianship once, and he’d lost it. For years he’d wandered with no hope of finding a new one. And now, The Powers That Be had finally smiled upon him and sent him to Gem. And on top of that, a position for a conservation officer at the Gem Pond Nature Preserve had opened up as well.
Now here he was, mere miles from his destination, thwarted by an impenetrable forest.
A wave of despair rose up from the pit of Lake’s stomach. Tears had always come easily to him, and they sprang to his eyes now. Images of Wagner Reservoir in Indiana filled his mind, and the remembered sound of bulldozers filled his ears.
. This was not Wagner, and he was not a fifteen-year-old stripling facing insurmountable odds. He was a grown man who had learned patience the hard way. And now, there was no one to drive him away from Gem. He belonged to her. What was he waiting for? Was he really afraid of a little walk in the woods?
Lake’s senses grew sharp, and his pulse quickened. The tug in his belly intensified with his decision. She had to be near. No more than a few yards through the trees...that way.
He grabbed his gear and headed in the direction his yearning drew him.
* * * *
Conservation Officer Forrest Oakwood paced from one end of the little management office to the other. Where in the name of all that grew was his new partner?
On the wooded side of the office, all was still. No car lights or crunching snow heralded the arrival of Lake Clearwater.
But on the other side, that was another matter. Forrest paused at the window in the back room, staring at the little ice-fishing hut out on Gem Pond. He frowned. The voices of the fishermen, raised in drunken revelry, carried across the frozen lake.
Powers That Be, spare me from weekend outdoorsmen
. They might be having a good time now, but the temperature was dropping. They needed to get off the ice and find shelter before they froze to death.
And that meant he had to go out there and make them listen to reason. Forrest sighed, wishing his old partner were still alive.
By unspoken agreement, Tarn Riverbend had handled all the water stuff, leaving the woods to Forrest. As a dryad, Forrest could slip within the trees and move from one to another effortlessly, but put him out on the water and he became awkward, clumsy, and ill at ease.
But Tarn had died over a month ago. Forrest missed him, even though he hadn’t been much of a conversationalist.
It was nearly eleven. Tarn’s replacement should have arrived by now. If he’d bothered to be on time, Forrest could have sent him out to deal with the ice fishermen.
But there was nothing for it, and the sooner he got out there, the sooner he could get back on solid ground. Forrest put on his cold-weather gear, got into his truck, and headed for the lake.
Forrest slipped on the ice getting out of his truck and said “Good morning” instead of “Good evening” to the three drunks in the ice-fishing hut. He also dropped his hat twice while explaining why they had to get off the lake. But for all of that, his uniform and the gun at his hip had their usual effect, and the men didn’t give him any trouble.
He drove them to a cheap motel on the edge of town and left them with the number of Heron Greene, a local fishing guide who would take them back to their vehicle tomorrow for a modest fee.
Driving back to the station through the snowbound woods, Forrest speculated about who he would find when he got there. Lake Clearwater. What would he be like? Forrest’s stomach tightened at the question.
The man was coming here all the way from Florida. What if he was some big-city sophisticate and he found Forrest’s rustic ways laughable? They had to share a small work space, and the living quarters at the back of the office weren’t exactly palatial either. What if they didn’t get along?
* * * *
Lake soon discovered that trekking through the forest was slow going. The snow was deep, the cold intense, and Lake was always a bit ungainly in the woods. Plus he hadn’t figured on hiking and his last post had been in Florida, so he didn’t have a lot of cold-weather gear. They were supposed to have that stuff for him at the station.
His jeans quickly soaked through. His legs and face turned numb. At least he’d worn his uniform boots--sturdy and warm, and he had gloves. He went as fast as possible, given the difficulty of the terrain.
The snow hid all manner of branches, rocks, pits, and other hazards. Twice he fell, picked himself back up, and plunged onward. But it couldn’t be far. Her pull was so strong. The woods would give way to shoreline any moment now.
But they didn’t. The trees went on and on, the dark trunks and white snow standing out in stark contrast to one another in the feeble light from the crescent moon. Sleepiness stole over him despite the insistent inner call of the lake.
In Florida he’d had very little access to natural bodies of freshwater. The ocean was something else entirely, and he’d quickly found that merging with it was both dangerous and painful for a freshwater naiad like himself.
So perhaps his long absence from his native element had left him more sensitive than ever, and once outside of the mechanical contraption of the truck, Gem Pond’s call had struck him with deceptive force. He’d assumed the powerful pull he felt meant the lake was close, but he was obviously wrong. It could be miles from here.
His foot caught on something buried under the snow--a root or a fallen branch. The world turned sideways as Lake pitched forward. The snow cushioned his landing, embracing him. This time, it was difficult to get up again. He was so tired. The idea of lying in the soft snow and taking a nap was tempting--and deadly. He displayed all the signs of hypothermia--the sleepiness, the lack of physical coordination, the numbness in his extremities. He should have stayed in the truck, with the candle and the tin can and the blanket.
His face, hands, and feet, numb moments ago, grew warm--a really bad sign. He stumbled again. He tried to push himself back up, but his muscles trembled, and he collapsed. A gentle heat spread up his arms and legs. So nice.
No! Not nice at all!
He was dying. He tried again to stand, but his arms and legs would not obey him. As his body shut down, his spirit cried out to Gem Pond. So close. She felt so close. With the last shreds of his awareness fleeing, he sent out a plea to any nature sprits nearby, a distress call. One word: Help!
* * * *
When Forrest arrived at the station, the parking lot was empty. He’s still not here?
He was about to go inside and phone Clearwater when a ripple of energy coursed through him and made the hair on his body stand on end.
A soundless cry echoed in his mind. Help!
Forrest took off one glove and rested his bare palm on the rough bark of a white oak. Releasing his breath, he allowed the false distinction between himself and the woods to fall away.
He shifted into his dryad form, and his awareness expanded to the entire wood. His perceptions encompassed sight, sound, smell, and touch, and went beyond them. He was a part of the land and all the creatures in it. He knew what the forest knew.
In the northeast, a yearling deer had been separated from its herd and was in danger of freezing to death. An owl feasted on a hapless mouse at the northern edge of the wood, and in the southwest, a raven perched high in a pine tree, waiting patiently for winter to leach the last of the life from the man lying in the snow below.
Forrest concentrated. The man’s life was nearly gone, no more than a tiny spark in the darkness. The same was true of the yearling. He couldn’t save them both.
But the death of a yearling fawn in the middle of winter was as much a part of the natural cycle as the blossoming of wild irises in the spring. Forrest sometimes aided animals who had fallen victim to accidents, but The Powers That Be forbade him from interfering in a predator-prey situation unless human technology was involved, and he was not supposed to help weak animals survive. Nature was not kind; it simply was.
He sent a wave of comfort to the dying fawn and headed in the direction of the man. In his dryad form, Forrest was incorporeal. He flowed from tree to tree, and in moments he emerged from a maple only a few feet from the man.
It was Clearwater. Forrest knew by the standard-issue DNR boots.
The new conservation officer lay facedown in the snow, motionless. Forrest returned to his human form, fully clothed once more. He took off a glove and felt at Clearwater’s neck for a pulse. It was there, though faint. More troubling was the clammy texture of Clearwater’s skin. He was deep in hypothermia, and Forrest had no choice but to move him. It was dangerous. Chilled blood could circulate to his heart and cause cardiac arrest. But there was nothing Forrest could do for him without turning him over.
Slowly, gingerly, he rolled Clearwater onto his back. The man had a fine, aquiline nose and full lips, an even brow, and wide-spaced eyes. Those eyes were closed, the skin deathly pale, and his long blond hair was soaked with the snow. All the same, Forrest could see he was beautiful, which made what he was about to do all the more difficult.
Suppressing the inappropriate thoughts that flooded his mind and stirred his body, he tilted Clearwater’s head back and pressed his lips against the man’s mouth.
Without an actual rebreather, this was the best chance Clearwater had for surviving. The warm air Forrest forced into his throat and lungs would warm his chest cavity and his blood. Unbidden thoughts of Clearwater awakening, moaning in appreciation, and slipping his tongue into Forrest’s mouth tortured him as he forced himself to concentrate on exhaling with enough force to make Clearwater’s chest rise.
He rested his free hand on Clearwater’s rib cage and felt it expand. He imagined unzipping the parka and working his fingers in between the buttons of the shirt to play with Clearwater’s nipples, which were surely rosebud pink. He was getting hard.
With a barely suppressed groan, Forrest lifted his mouth and took a deep breath. What was wrong with him? His own behavior made him flush with shame, dampening the burgeoning erection prodding at the front of his snow pants.
He felt for Clearwater’s pulse. It was stronger, and a faint pink was now visible in his skin. He was still unconscious--perhaps a mixed blessing given the poor control Forrest seemed to have over himself tonight--but it would be safe enough to move him now.
Forrest lifted the man, grunting at the effort. Clearwater’s slender build belied a sinewy muscularity. Forrest couldn’t take him inside the trees. He’d have to be carried.
With the crunching of his boots in the snow as background music, and the cold, starry sky above as witness, Forrest’s thoughts returned to their previous course. He and Clearwater were back at the quarters, on Forrest’s bed, tearing the clothes off one another with wild abandon. Clearwater latched on to one of Forrest’s nipples with his mouth and sucked it, the sensation sending bolts of fire straight to Forrest’s groin.
. He forced himself to focus on his surroundings. Up ahead was the road, and once he reached it, the station was only a few yards to the north. He quickened his pace, focusing on each step, each breath, to keep the delicious, unwanted thoughts at bay.
He went through the back, where the living quarters were, and directly to the bathroom. He laid Clearwater on the floor and ran a tub of tepid--not hot--water. He prepared the other bed, pulling the blanket and sheet down and getting two more blankets out of the linen closet. Then he returned to the bathroom and got to work getting Clearwater’s clothing off.
If keeping his urges at bay had been difficult before, doing so now was next to impossible. His hands shook as he unbuttoned Clearwater’s shirt. He cradled the man’s shoulders in one arm as he pulled both shirt and undershirt off. He eased Clearwater back down, unable to tear his gaze away from the flat, broad planes of the perfectly formed chest. Clearwater’s nipples were
rosebud pink. Blond hair dusted his pecs, and, adorably, sprouted in a little tuft on top of each shoulder.
Forrest’s mouth went dry. He restrained the impulse to reach out and run his fingers over the golden tan skin. He’d probably spent a lot of time in the sun down in Pensacola. It must be a harsh contrast to find himself up here in the frozen north.
Forrest took a deep breath and turned his attention to getting Clearwater’s jeans off. Oh brother
. He shook his head, trying to get hold of himself. Well, there was nothing for it but to just get it over with. Maybe if he did it quickly...
He unfastened the button of Clearwater’s jeans and drew the zipper down. He pulled the jeans off Clearwater’s hips. The man’s underwear--blue boxers--came along for the ride. Everything was bunched at the top of Clearwater’s thighs.
Forrest tried not to stare at his new partner’s cock, soft in repose, nestled in its springy thatch of blond curls. What would it taste like? He blushed.
What was wrong with him? He hadn’t always been this horny, had he?
Definitely not, but Forrest hadn’t spent much time around men his own age. Maybe he had more pent-up desire than he’d realized. Whatever the reason, undressing Clearwater left him rock hard and leaking. He desperately needed a cold shower or a quick jerk off, but he wasn’t going to get either at the moment. Forrest steeled himself to finish what needed to be done.