Julie extended her foot to the stove, wiggling her toes to increase circulation. The duct tape she’d wrapped around her boot to hold it together after the bear attack hadn’t held. No surprise there, with how cold it was. Nothing worked well at forty below. Even though the few miles they mushed away from the bear hadn’t taken more than an hour, the cold had seeped into her boot and frozen her toes. She just hoped the white color of her little digits wasn’t frostbite setting in.
Her skin burned as it warmed, and she blew out a frustrated breath. There wasn’t anything she could do for it but wait. She leaned toward the food supply and set up the dinner pouches for hot water. They’d just plumped up and were ready to eat when Gunnar and Sunny climbed into the tent.
“Dinner smells good.” Gunnar’s rumbled compliment pooled warmth in her stomach.
Downright silly. It wasn’t like she’d slaved over the stove or anything. Hot water in a pouch of freeze-dried food didn’t equate cooking.
Julie’s sudden obsession with homemaking was all Clark’s fault with his mom comments. Well, that and the fact that the man she wanted to make a home with smashed himself close to her every night to keep her warm. It wasn’t like it used to be, with him pulling her and her sleeping bag into his. Shoot, he didn’t even wrap his arms around her or anything. But the press of his body against hers had all kinds of thoughts of family and future twirling in her mind.
Only to tailspin and crash when reality set in.
She couldn’t have kids. Couldn’t be a mom, like Clark joked. Cancer had stripped that from her when it had taken all her reproductive bits and pieces. Over the years, she’d accepted her fate. Yet, being here with Gunnar and there being a possibility of a future had doubt cawing in her mind like a bunch of ravens.
What would he think when he found out she couldn’t have kids? He had to be ready for a family now that he was out of the military. Would the desire she caught in his eye when he looked at her dim when he knew the truth?
She squared her shoulders. If it changed his love for her, then he wasn’t the right man for her. It would suck, but they both deserved the future they wanted, even if it wasn’t together.
Gunnar plopped beside her and reached for her boot. He scowled as he examined the gaping hole and ripped duct tape. Setting it down, he shifted his position and grabbed her foot.
“We’ll have to fix your boot.” His hand cupped her heel, and he gently moved the toes around.
“Yeah. I have a spare, but they aren’t as warm.” Her leg jerked at his tickling touch.
“Hold still.” He glared at her. “I think you might have frostbite.”
“A little hard to hold still when you’re tickling me.” She twitched again, her exasperation shifting to a giggle.
“Interesting.” He lifted her foot closer to his eyes, his expression shutting down her laughter.
Would she lose a toe?
“What?” Her question was barely more than a whisper.
“You’re still ticklish.” His devilish smile was the only warning she got before his fingers raced over the bottom of her foot.
She shrieked and tried to yank her foot away. He held on tight, never letting up on his assault. His low chuckle bubbled happiness from her. He could torture her for days if it meant she could hear that sound.
“Geesh. Knock it off, you two.” Sunny swatted her brother, then reached for a dinner pouch. “You’re worse than a couple of kids.” She sounded grumpy, but her smile gave her away.
Gunnar stopped tickling. He pressed his fingers into Julie’s feet in a massaging motion. Had she ever felt anything as relaxing or intimate before? Not since before he’d left. She opened her eyes that she had closed in bliss and found him staring at her, a satisfied smile hitching that one side of his mouth up.
Determination exploded in her chest. When she got him alone, she was kissing the living daylights out of him. She’d deal with the doubts later. Having people constantly around both in the camp and at the checkpoints made finding privacy hard. The only time they’d been alone was when they sat with Pax, and she had been so overwhelmed with what would happen to her dog, she hadn’t had one thought of taking advantage of the moment. Since then, opportunities for kissing were nil.
“That bear was something else.” Sunny blew on her chowder, jolting Julie back to the present.
“Yeah.” Gunnar gave Julie’s foot a squeeze and set it near the stove. “Keep it there for a while. I don’t want that spot getting worse.”
She nodded and handed him his dinner. “Definitely don’t want to lose a toe.”
“Might lessen your chances with the fellas?” Sunny wagged her eyebrows and took a big bite.
“Nah. With winter nine months out of the year and mosquito season the other three, a fella wouldn’t know until I already hooked and reeled him in.” Julie poked her spoon at her dinner, keeping her gaze off Gunnar.
He growled low, eliciting a snort and a giggle from Sunny.
“You’re right, Jules.” Sunny played along. “The poor soul wouldn’t know until your wedding day.”
“I couldn’t care less about how many toes you have or don’t have.” Gunnar stabbed his spoon at his dinner. “You’ve already got me on your line, no use casting for another.”
Julie’s cheeks hurt from her smile as Sunny gave Gunnar a hard time. When he finally peeked up at Julie, the vulnerability in his eyes did her in. She leaned in, not caring that Sunny watched with rapt attention.
Julie kissed him on the cheek, his beard tickling her lips, then whispered low so only he could hear. “No way I’m throwing you back.”