Winter Jacket 3: SNEAK PREVIEW


There are signs everywhere if you know what you’re looking for—signs that tell you you’re doing something wrong. Go back. Detour. Choose again. Do not collect two hundred dollars when you pass Go. But I hadn’t paid attention to the warnings, too blinded by ambition and the desire to experience something new. Simply put: I was making a terrible, horrible mistake.

It was at an off-season ski resort in Colorado where Hunter began to second-guess my decision to move to California.

Her pale blue eyes were watching me when I woke up. A window was cracked open in the hotel room, and the translucent curtain fluttered from an outside breeze, struggling to block out the early morning sun.

“G’morning, love,” I said groggily.

Her mouth twitched in one corner. "I keep hoping you'll change your mind."

I sat up in bed and rubbed roughly at my face. The bed was serviceable, but far from the luxury resort I had been expecting when we’d checked in. I hadn’t made any reservations or done any research on places to stay along our route from Minnesota to southern California. Not having a schedule allowed us to stop periodically and take in things like the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, but we also risked staying at underwhelming hotels like the one we currently found ourselves.

We’d stopped in the ski resort town the previous night. Because it was the off-season for the mountain town, rooms and rates were reasonable even at the fanciest of ski lodges. I had been hoping for ski resort luxury, but the section of the hotel where they’d put us looked as though it hadn’t been updated since the 1990s. The room description called it a junior suite, but it better resembled a king dump. I hadn’t seen any bugs, but that wouldn’t have surprised me. The cream-colored carpeting was worn and stained. The formica countertops in the kitchenette were peeling at the edges and a foreboding scent was coming in the direction of the refrigerator. I hadn’t been brave or foolish enough to seek out the foul-smelling culprit. Our patio had no furniture, unless you counted the two metal folding chairs I found propped against the wall, not that we had a mountain view to tempt us outside. It was probably the only room in the whole resort that didn’t look out onto the mountains that surrounded the quaint town.

"We've been over this," I said.                   

"I know we have. And I know I said I'd support you either way," she sighed, "but I think I underestimated what that would mean for us with you in California."

"We'll only be apart for a short while, Hunt. It's just a few months." The words I spoke were for myself as much as they were for her. I was giving Troian from the end of August through December—the entire length of my sabbatical—to see if I had a future in writing for television.  "I want to be scared," I said. "I want to be challenged. I'm not saying teaching is easy, but it's too easy to dial it in now that I'm tenured."

She threw the comforter off her side of the bed, and I watched her pad away. “I’m going to take a shower," she called over her shoulder.

I stared at the doorway through which she’d disappeared with knots in my stomach. Even if I had been invited to conserve water with her as was our tradition, the shower was too small for the both of us. I'd probably have a hard time washing my own hair later without bruising my elbows.

My cell phone was on the bedside table. Despite the early hour, Troian answered my call after one ring.

“Are you here?” she demanded, the excitement audible in her tone.

“No. I’m in Colorado.” We’d been on the road for two days. Another day and a half of driving and we would reach Los Angeles.

“Hurry up.”

"I need more time with Hunter. I'm not ready to give her up."

“What does that mean?" Troian asked. "Are you still coming out here?"

"Yeah, I am." I glanced in the direction of the bathroom. "We're just taking a few days detour if that's okay."

"As long as those 'few days' don't turn into a week."

It was going to be very strange having Troian as my boss, but I knew our relationship was solid enough to withstand any boss/minion conflicts—or at least I hoped it would be.

"Remind me why she's going back to Minnesota?" she asked.

I shoved the hair off my forehead. "Because that's where her life is," I explained. "Her work, her family, her friends."

"But not her girlfriend."

I didn't need this from my best friend, too; Hunter had made the same argument too many times.

"I've gotta go," I said. I didn't want to have this conversation for the umpteenth time.

"When are you getting here?" Troian pressed. “I need to give human resources a heads up so they’ll have the keys to your apartment ready.”

I quickly did the mental math. "Four days."

Troian's sigh rattled in my ear. "Make it five. Come find me at the lot on Saturday to get your keys. We'll start you bright and early on Monday."

"Thanks, Boss," I smiled into the phone.

The shower turned off in the bathroom, but I had one more phone call to make.


Hunter tossed her duffle bag into the backseat of my car. My trunk and most of the backseat were filled with all the belongings I anticipated needing over the next few months. Most of my life remained in Minnesota, however.

“How many states are we tackling today?” she asked. She had been uncharacteristically quiet after her shower as we'd both gotten ready for the day. The knots in my stomach had intensified with each passing moment.


Her eyes squinted as she regarded me. “What? Why?”

“I thought we could hang out in Colorado for a little longer. I called Troian and told her not to expect us for a few more days.” I paused to lick my lips. “Unless you want to keep on going until we get to Los Angeles?”

Hunter glanced in the direction of the hotel where we’d spent the previous night and chewed on her lower lip. I could tell she was weighing staying additional nights there into her reply; I could practically see her internal struggle play out on her facial features. Getting to Los Angeles sooner meant her leaving. But staying in Colorado, if I intended on making her stick it out in this relic of a hotel, might not be preferable. But Hunter was too polite to tell me she thought this hotel was a dump.

I started to laugh at her indecision.

She put her hands on her hips. “What’s so funny?”

“I love you, that’s what.” The grin on my face made my cheeks hurt. “Get in the car.”


We drove out of the small ski town that morning, happy to have the resort area in the rearview mirror. The terrain became progressively hillier and a thick fog settled on the county highway. Visibility was limited, and Hunter, sensing I was having a hard time concentrating on the road in front of me, stayed cautiously quiet. Her curiosity about where we were headed next couldn’t remain stifled forever, however.

She peered through the passenger side window at the clusters of evergreen trees beyond the car’s window. “Where are you taking me, Ellio?”

“Why? Are you nervous?”

“People disappear out here.”

“Just trust me,” I smiled, flipping on my blinker and turning onto an unpaved road. The in-car navigation system turned on and off as we ventured deeper into the woods and far off the grid.

A few miles in, the canopy of evergreen trees parted to reveal bright blue skies. It was almost as if we’d gone through a magic portal to another land. There was no sign of the fog that had earlier plagued our drive.

I heard Hunter's quiet murmur of approval as she craned her neck to get a better view of the horizon. We’d seen plenty of mountains in our drive across Colorado, but nothing like these purple mountains majesty. It was almost enough to make a cynic like myself feel patriotic.

We passed a few mailboxes that appeared unaffiliated with any houses before we came upon a small log cabin set a few hundred feet back from the road. When I slowed down in front of a driveway, Hunter turned away from the view outside. “Who lives here?”

“We do. For the next few days at least."

“You rented a house for us?”

“I rented a cabin with a mountain view,” I corrected.

"When? How?" she marveled.

"When you were in the shower I called the rental place that manages the house we had last Christmas in Malibu. It was a long shot, but it turned out they had an available property not too far away."

Even though we had another hundred yards until we reached our destination, I stopped the car in the road. I hadn’t seen another vehicle in the past half an hour, so I assumed it would be safe. Hunter unfastened her seatbelt and scrambled out of the front seat. I turned the key in the ignition to stop the car and joined my girlfriend outside.

“You look like you’re about to burst into song,” I noted with a wry smirk. She was slowly spinning in the center of the gravel road with her arms spread out like wings and her chin tilted towards the sunny, clear blue sky.

“Can you blame me? This view is straight out of The Sound of Music. I expect Maria Von Trapp to run across the field any second.”

“It is quite the view," I smiled.

Hunter dropped her arms at her sides and turned to me, her face lit up with happiness. It made my heart flutter inside its cage of ribs to see her so happy and to know that I was the reason behind it.  It honestly still seemed improbable, if not impossible, that we’d made this relationship work.

She strode purposefully toward me and wrapped her arms around my neck. She leaned in, her soft mouth just centimeters from my own. “Can’t get enough of this view,” she murmured. Her sweet breath felt warm on my face.

I closed the short distance between our mouths and hungrily took her bottom lip in between my upper and lower teeth. I sucked the pouting lip into my mouth and heard the quiet growl that radiated deep in her throat.  I pressed my lips solidly against Hunter’s upturned mouth and darted my tongue out between my teeth to swab at her bottom lip.

My wandering hands found themselves in the small of her back and they toyed with the bottom hem of her pastel-colored top.  My fingertips felt the heat of her pale skin, and I wanted nothing more than to feel the expanse of that heat, naked and pressed against my own body.

I paused when I heard the wolf-whistle.  I reluctantly pulled myself away from Hunter’s addictive mouth and looked past her head to see a group of hikers, about four or five of them, standing at a distance and collectively giving us two thumbs up.

“We have an audience,” I groaned under my breath. We were in the middle of nowhere and we'd still managed to attract a crowd. “I think we’d better invest in some curtains.”

“And a fence,” she added.


The cabin was modest in size, but more than enough room for the two of us, with a generous loft upstairs populated with overstuffed furniture and a ping-pong table. On the ground level was an open concept kitchen, a dining room table with four chairs, and a living room complete with a potbelly woodstove. The first floor was also equipped with two bedrooms, one which I assumed was the master because the double bed faced a walk-out deck. 

Hunter flopped down on the bed in the master bedroom, and it made a terrible groan. "I guess this means no acrobatic sex," she laughed.

I sat down on the edge of the mattress and held my breath as I sank deeply into its uneven springbox mattress. "Not unless we want this thing to break." I gave a few experimental bounces, and the springs shrieked and groaned in response. "But there's plenty of other surfaces in the other rooms," I grinned.

Her clear sapphire eyes sparkled. "You know I love a good challenge." Her voice was rich with warm, honey tones.

She hopped up from the bed before I could vocalize my own challenge. "I need to lay down for a bit," she announced. "I didn't get much sleep last night." She unfastened the button of her jeans and pulled the zipper low enough that I could see a hint of the red lace underwear that hid underneath her pants.

“That’s not fair,” I groaned.

She looked to me, eyes round with confusion.

“You can’t parade around here looking so edible,” I clarified.

The confusion softened on her face, and she gave me a knowing grin. “It’s almost like I’m doing it on purpose.” 

While I contemplated the knotty pine ceiling of the lofted cabin, Hunter napped beside me in the master bedroom. Her hand had snaked its way under the waistband of my pajama pants, and her fingers were curled around the top of my underwear. Her warm fingers rested against my hipbone. It was an innocent gesture, and I tried not to think about how good it would feel if her hand just happened to shift and touch me in a more intimate place. It took all of my willpower not to roll my hips or wiggle in such a way that would relocate her hand.

I hadn't been in too many relationships much longer than the one I currently enjoyed. This was the sweet spot of the relationship. I never understand those love songs that promised the listener that it would feel like "the first time." My first time had been awkward and uncomfortable. Familiarity was what I craved—when you no longer felt self-conscious being naked in front of your lover—when you no longer stressed about if she liked the way you touched her, or if it was too much, or not enough, or just plain not good at all. The honeymoon phase might have been over, but that didn't mean I still didn't get butterflies when she did something adorable or that my body temperature didn't spike when I admired the gentle swell of her backside in a pair of skinny jeans.

After Hunter's nap, we found a small convenience store on a county highway and bought enough groceries to last the few days we'd be staying at the cabin. That night I cooked dinner on the gas grill outside—chicken breasts smothered in a spicy BBQ sauce and steamed vegetables in an aluminum pouch.

Long after the sun had dipped behind Mount Meeker in the distance, Hunter and I sat outside on a wool blanket and stared up at the complex swirls of distant galaxies sprayed across the inky black sky. I didn't take the view or my girlfriend's hand in mine for granted. Like Hunter, the night stars would soon be taken away from me when I arrived in Los Angeles.

After our first night at the cabin, it rained our entire stay, which was fine with me. I hadn't envisioned us hiking to the top of Long's Peak or neighboring Mount Meeker. And the weather gave us an excuse—if we even needed one—to stay holed up in the cabin, sleeping late into the morning and not bothering to change out of comfortable pajamas. Warnings about potential flooding kept me from entirely relaxing, but I was mindful to enjoy our time together.

The mountainside cabin was a vast improvement over the ski resort straight out of the 1990s. The days were overcast, but the change in location was like sun rays poking through the most stubborn of clouds. There were no neighbors in sight, which simultaneously frightened and invigorated me. I made fires in the woodstove in the living room, and Hunter worked the French press when the antiquated contraption frustrated me. It was symbiosis at its best. 

The morning we were slated to leave and continue on to Los Angeles, I drank hot coffee outside on the deck. The wrap-around porch provided a stunning view of Mount Meeker. Fog rolled down the mountainside like thick puffs of smoke. There were two birdfeeders on the property and viewable from one of the picture windows. Birds of all sizes jostled for the prime real estate. The morning air was brisk, and I pulled up the high neck of Hunter’s running jacket that I wore just a little bit more.

I felt her presence behind me before I ever heard her soft footsteps. The wooden deck creaked beneath her feet.

"I could get used to this," she announced. Her arms wrapped around my waist, and she rested her head on my shoulder.

"No cell phone reception, no wireless, and no TV?"

She smiled and pulled me in tighter against her. "Doesn't it feel like we're the only people on earth? No responsibilities or commitments, except to each other."

“It is nice,” I hummed. “So what do you think? Did you like the Malibu beach house or the Estes Park mountain cabin better?”

“I think you spoil me.”

“It's nothing that you don't deserve, love."

“You should stop being so damn accomplished so I can treat you once in a while," she said, although her tone let me know she wasn't really cross with me. "Tenured professor and now television writer?"

I ignored her words. "Why do you always smell so good?" I twisted at the waist and nuzzled my nose in the hollow of her throat.

"You're imagining things."

"You smell like new." I pressed my lips against the sweet spot in the nape of her neck.

"New what?" she asked, a smile in her voice.

"Just new," I sighed into her skin.

After breakfast, we packed up our belongings and closed up the cabin for the next lucky couple. I took the first driving responsibility of the day, and Hunter returned to staring out the passenger side window. As we started down the long dirt driveway, I made furtive glances in the rearview mirror back at the cabin. I went over a mental checklist to make sure I'd remembered to pack everything like my toothbrush and my cell phone charger, never once considering that maybe we'd left our final happy memories behind.


The remainder of the road trip was bittersweet. We switched off driving responsibilities every few hours over the last day and a half of the trip so the other person could appreciate the scenery. The landscape changed dramatically as we drove farther southwest. The mountains remained, dominating the horizon, but wilderness and tall skinny pine trees were replaced with stratified red rocks and eventually the urban sprawl of Los Angeles.

Podcasts filled the extended silences, and when we ran out of things to listen to, we played games of willpower like who could last the longest listening to Christian talk radio on the AM dial. If it had been a regular vacation, I might have actually enjoyed myself after we left our Colorado cabin. But both Hunter and I knew what was going to happen when we arrived in California—she'd board a plane back to Minnesota, and I would stay behind.

If Hunter hadn’t accompanied me on this trip, I would have flown directly to Los Angeles where a chauffeur holding a sign with my name on it would have been waiting for me in baggage claim to take me to my new apartment. But because of the road trip, I had to look up Troian at the studio to get the keys and directions to my new home.

Pickfair Studios had been named after two of Old Hollywood's original movie stars—Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The production buildings sat on a twenty-acre lot set in the sprawling hills of Burbank, a few miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

The studio's mechanized gate was closed when we arrived, exhausted and sweaty from the second half of the trip. A large, barrel-chested man stood in the security booth, reading a book. He barely looked up from his novel when I stopped my car at the gated entrance.

"Hi, there," I greeted in a cheerful tone that belied my exhaustion. "Elle Graft to see Troian Smith? I'm a new writer on the—."

I stopped my introduction when the gate slowly lifted even though I hadn't seen the guard move a muscle. My car continued to idle as I awaited his instructions or if he had any questions for me to verify my identity. Instead, he curled two fingers and beckoned me to drive through the gate.

I shifted into drive and slowly pulled forward, expecting his lack of interest to have been a joke. But the gate didn't come crashing down on the hood of my car and the security guard didn't chase after me as I looked for a place to park.

"That was weird," Hunter murmured from the passenger seat.

"No doubt," I agreed, finding a parking spot in a visitor lot. Because it was a Saturday, the lot was relatively empty. "Remind me to ask Troian about this place's security procedures."

It was hot that day, and the mid-afternoon sun beat down on us as we walked from the parking lot in the direction of Troian's trailer. People on golf carts zipped by, talking loudly on their phones, and expensive-looking equipment was unloaded from the flat bed of trucks amongst the chaos of shouted directions. I had been on the lot once before, a few months prior, but I had been a visitor then. I saw everything with new eyes now that I was an employee.

Hunter's hand was slightly sweaty in mine. She had grown conspicuously quiet the closer we'd gotten to the studio. In a ponytail, t-shirt, and jeans, she was effortlessly beautiful, but the grim look on her face had me worried.

"Hey," I said, squeezing her damp hand, "is everything okay?"

"Just a little tired from the drive, I guess."

I slowed our gait enough so I could kiss her cheek. "We'll get the keys from Troian, and then we can relax the rest of the day," I promised. "We'll both feel more normal after a shower and some food."

She nodded tightly. "Yeah. Okay."

Troian's office was a trailer that had always reminded me of the modular classroom my grade school had utilized when there were too many kids in the 4th grade. Her name and the words “Head Writer,” were etched on the outside of the door. I knocked and heard my friend's muffled voice on the other side of the closed metal door. I waited and listened for a moment; I didn't hear a second voice, so she was either talking to herself or on the phone. I tentatively opened the door and popped my head inside.

Troian sat at her desk with her cell phone pressed to her ear. The scowl on her face lifted when she saw me in the doorway. She pressed a finger to her lips, but waved us in.

"No, I know, Jackson. I completely agree with you," I heard her say as we filed into the office. "The episode isn't where we want it to be. But you don't have to worry," she said to whomever was on the other line. "We're not scheduled to shoot that episode for another month." She stuck her tongue out at me and ran her palm over her face.

"End of next week? Are you sure?" She paused and grimaced. "She does? Well of course then; whatever Jane wants." Her free hand clenched into a fist, and she bounced it on her desk.

Hunter touched my elbow to cull my attention. She raised an eyebrow at me, and I shrugged in return. I had no idea who any of these people were or why my friend looked so stressed out.

"Uh huh. Yeah. Okay, I will." Troian ended her call and set her phone on the desk with a long sigh. "Took you long enough," she finally greeted us.

"It’s a big country," I said with a shrug. "It takes time."

"To fuck in every state, yeah,” she snorted. “I'm sure that does take time."

"We only did it in states that end in the letter A," Hunter deadpanned.

Troian grinned for the first time since we'd shown up. "It's good to see you, too, Hunter."

Hunter pressed her lips together and her body language grew rigid. “I don't know if I should hug you or punch you.”

Troian's eyes widened. "Why the hell would you do that?" I was sure she meant the punching part, not the hugging option.

"You're the reason she's staying in California."

Troian held up her hands. "It's not like I put a gun to her head. She's a grown ass woman who makes her own decisions. Don't take this out on me."

I laid my hand on Hunter's shoulder. "It's been a long day of driving," I said, trying to defuse the situation before the fists began to fly. "I just need my apartment keys and then we'll be going."

"But I made dinner reservations for us," Troian remarked with disappointment.

I glanced between my girlfriend and my best friend. Hunter continued to stare stonily ahead, completely switched off. "We'll have to take a rain check," I decided.

I collected the keys and the address to my new apartment and guided Hunter toward the exit with my hand firm in the small of her back. Troian continued to look incredulous about the conversation. Hunter, however, looked deflated.


I hadn't known what to expect in regards to my new housing arrangements. When Troian had first moved out to California, the studio had set her and Nikole up with a multi-million dollar property. But Troian was the showrunner, and I was a lowly staff writer.

The apartment complex was conveniently located only a few minute's drive from Pickfair Studio. I had heard nightmarish things about Los Angeles traffic, mostly from Troian, so I was thankful I would be living relatively close to where I worked.

My apartment was on the third floor of a multi-unit complex, a cluster of smaller buildings with an outdoor pool and community gym on the grounds. The structures themselves lacked character, but the property looked clean and it was in a safe neighborhood, so I really had nothing to complain about except that I'd have to start saving quarters for the basement laundry room.

Beige carpeting and a blast of air conditioned air greeted us when I unlocked the door to my new home.

"Not exactly a palatial mansion, huh?" Hunter observed from behind me.

Immediately to the right was space just large enough for a square table and four chairs. To my left was the living room, crammed with worn, but serviceable furniture. Straight ahead was a small galley kitchen. It reminded me of someplace I might have lived in college.

I pulled my first suitcase inside. "Yeah, but it's free," I reminded her. "Can't be picky."

Pickfair was taking care of my housing just as they had done for Troian and Nik. I hadn't been concerned about paying rent, but knowing a furnished apartment would be waiting for me had been one less thing to worry about as I'd prepared for this new chapter of my life.

Hunter dragged a second suitcase inside from the hallway. "Well at least if you choose writing over teaching," she quipped, "I'll know it's because of the job itself and not the glamorous lifestyle that comes with it."

"Come here a second," I said. I wrapped my fingers around Hunter's wrist and pulled her to me.

We hadn't talked about what had transpired in Troian's office. I didn't want to make a big deal about it, but I also didn't want to let the moment pass without mention.

My hands rested lightly on her hips. "Are you okay?" It was the second time I'd asked her that question.

She chewed on her lower lip. "It's a lot to take in," she said somberly. "Everything is happening so fast."

"I know, love." I leaned forward and pressed my lips to her forehead. I didn't have the words to make it better; I was feeling the same way.

She sighed and her body sagged into mine. We stood like that in the foyer, crowded with suitcases and the apartment door still open, until she gently pulled away.

There was a smile on her face, but it looked out of place. "Let's finish unpacking your car."

Further exploration of the apartment produced a single bedroom and bathroom, both carpeted with that same beige carpeting found elsewhere in the apartment. A Venetian blind covered the solitary bedroom window, blocking out a view of the parking lot. The queen-sized mattress left little room for anything else than a wooden chest of drawers. On the bureau I found a stack of books on writing for television along with a note from Troian: I figured you'd break in the bedroom first. Gross.

"There's stuff in the fridge," I heard Hunter call from the other part of the apartment.

I left the bedroom, half worried she was referring to food that a previous tenant had left behind. Instead, I discovered Troian had left us a second surprise: a bottle of champagne and a charcuterie plate.

"Now that's more like it," I approved.

Hunter investigated the contents of the kitchen cabinets until she found something we could drink out of. They were narrow juice glasses instead of champagne flutes, but like the rest of the apartment, they would serve their purpose.

I popped the cork on the champagne bottle's and poured us each a glass of the bubbly beverage. It was a warm evening, so we brought our drinks and the tray of cheese and cured meats onto the balcony, which connected to the living room via a sliding glass door.

The balcony overlooked the apartment complex's parking lot which was filled with individual carports, one for each residential unit. There were two plastic chairs out on the platform along with a rusted coffee can, empty except for about an inch of rainwater.

I shut the sliding glass door behind me to keep in the refrigerated air. "It's not quite the Colorado mountain cabin," I observed, "but this isn't so bad." In the distance, as if on cue, came the shrill howl of a police siren.

Hunter stood beside me and we peered across landscape in silence. It would be a few hours until the sun set. Instead of stars, I imagined the sky would be lit up with the neon signs of fast food restaurants and gas stations when it got dark.  

Hunter gripped the balcony's ledge in one hand and her glass of champagne in the other. "Are you sure about this?"


Everything about this place was foreign to me—the job, this apartment, even the weather didn't feel normal. And in the morning, the only thing that made sense would be going back to Minnesota. But I had to do this. I owed it to myself to at least give it a try.

Hunter turned toward me and raised her glass. "Here's to new adventures."

That night I stared at Hunter's peaceful features as she slept beside me. I didn't want to fall asleep and waste these final moments with her. I wished she could have spent more time with me in California, but we'd used up all of our extra days in Colorado. I started work on Monday morning and she had to get back to the hospital. The road trip was over.

I stayed awake for as long as my body would allow, memorizing her beautiful face in the dark and listening to the evenness of her breath. Eventually, the time between each blink became longer and longer until the inevitable moment when I closed my eyes and they refused to reopen.


The next morning, Hunter was soft but solid in my arms. The blinds were drawn, but early morning sunlight crept through the vinyl slats. She shifted on the mattress, and when her backside pressed more firmly against my front, I felt a familiar warmth originate from my core and expand. I lightly raked my fingernails down the length of her arm.

“Don’t,” she quietly protested. “You’ll make it too hard to get up.”

I ran my palm across her front, detouring my travels at her underwear, dipping just beneath the elastic band. “Then you’d better get out of bed," I breathed into her ear, "because I’m starting to have other ideas.”

She laughed, and I felt it vibrate through my bones.

“I’m serious, Hunt,” I growled. “Move your body or you’re staying here with me.”

She arched her back, a subtle movement. “Move my body?” she purred. “Like this?”

I groaned low, deep in my throat. I clutched at the top of her underwear and pulled it upwards, making the material taut against her sex. She felt it; I heard the hitch in her intake of air.

“Don’t play with me,” I warned.

She spun in my arms so our noses grazed. If possible, her body had grown even warmer than before. If I didn’t let her go now, I would surely be burned.

"What time is your flight?" I knew the details of her flight, having memorized her return trip, but I felt like I needed to acknowledge what would be happening soon.

She tucked her chin to her chest and burrowed closer to me. "Too soon."

Soon after, we dragged our bodies out of bed and began the robotic routine of getting ready for the day. She had a late morning flight time that would have her back in Minnesota late that afternoon. The car ride to the airport was silent except for the sporadic directions from my in-car GPS. Sunday traffic was relatively light, and we arrived at Los Angeles International Airport more quickly than expected.

I parked my car in short term parking and escorted Hunter from the ticket counter to the airport security check-point--as far as I could go without buying a ticket for myself. We embraced, realizing there was nothing left to do but to say our goodbyes.

"I don't want to do this." Her fingers curled around the hair at the base of my neck. "Is it too late to change your mind?"

I leaned forward and pressed my forehead against hers. I breathed her in, memorizing how she smelled, how she felt in my arms. "I'll visit as often as I can," I promised with closed eyes, "and whenever you get time off, I can bring you out here. It's only a few months," I reminded her and myself. "And we can talk on the phone and on the computer all the time."

She released a shuddering breath. "Okay."

"I love you, Hunter. We'll make this work," I said with conviction.

She pulled back and gave me a watery smile. "I love you, too." She swallowed and looked more fragile than before. "I guess I should go through security; we're only delaying the inevitable."

I nodded because I couldn't say another word. It hurt all over. I was too afraid if I tried to speak I'd start to cry. I could fall apart later in private, not in one of the busiest airports in the country.

She hugged me tight a final time and whispered in my ear. "Go be great, Ellio."