A Picnic – From “The Protectors”

Today, author Carolyn Wren is sharing a picnic scene from The Hostage, Book 4 in her “Protectors” series.  

First, a little background on the story.

Carolyn explains:

Our hero, James ‘North’ Northam is attempting to find out the identity of the woman who rescued him from a deadly hostage situation.  Is Meg, the schoolteacher, really the highly skilled covert operative who risked her life for his?

In this picnic scene he is trying to find out her secrets.  Meg is equally determined to keep them.

Enjoy!

Lying in the surprisingly comfortable bed in the early hours, and after formulating various scenarios in his head, North decided on something simple. Food.

He stepped in front of her as she exited the school the following afternoon, a large wicker basket in his hand. “I have a picnic basket.”

“That’s nice. I hope you enjoy it.” Meg stepped sideways to pass him.

He countered, blocking her path again. “It has enough for two.”

“Then I hope you’re hungry.” She took another step to her left.

North countered. “I’m asking you to join me, Meg.”

“Thank you, I have a lesson plan to write.” She made to take another step in the opposite direction, obviously hoping he’d take the hint.

Mrs. Jenkins appeared behind her. The headmistress was clearly unashamed by her eavesdropping. “That’s fine, Meg. There isn’t any rush. You should go along, have some fun. You spend way too much time on school work.”

North had the distinct feeling Meg wanted to roll her eyes and couldn’t, because he was watching her. He resisted the urge to grin.

“Gee, if you put it that way, I don’t see how I can possibly refuse,” she replied, her voice the personification of cheerful.

North offered her his arm. She refused with a shake of her head.

“You’ll have to drive,” he reminded her, “unless you want Martin to sit in the car and wait. I figured you’d have a better idea of the area, know of somewhere nice to go.”

Meg looked down at the basket he held. “Two people you say? That’s big enough to feed an entire family, for a week.”

“What can I say? I’m very hungry.”

“I wasn’t aware Mrs. Harrison’s grocery store had branched out into gourmet hampers?”

“It hasn’t. I have a very efficient London express courier company on standby.”

“Does everything always fall into place when you snap your fingers?”

He tilted his head and regarded her steadily. “Apparently not, but I keep hoping,”

* * * *

Meg drove them to a local park. At her instructions, North carried the basket to a giant oak tree. A stream tinkled and gurgled over rocks nearby. This was her place, a place she liked to sit and ponder, to unwind after an assignment. However, North didn’t need to know that.

He cleared an area of twigs and other fragments of nature and laid down the large woolen blanket. The food was beautiful, of course, succulent chicken, crisp salads, fresh fruit and a variety of gourmet accompaniments. North poured her a glass of white wine.

“Unseasonably warm weather,” he said, handing her the long stemmed glass with an innocent look.

“Exceptionally so,” she replied, not trusting him for a moment.

“Lovely here though, under the tree. Nice shade.”

“Yes, trees are shady,” Meg suppressed a grin. He’s up to something.

“How long have you lived in the village?”

Here we go, the interrogation begins. “A while now.”

“Have you always been a teacher?” North took a sip of his wine, his expression open and curious.

“No, but I’ve been doing it for a few years.” He watched her, not saying anything. It seemed like a safe subject, so she continued. “Children are so important.  I know it sounds cliché‚ I feel like they really are the future. It’s imperative they be nurtured and taught. The world isn’t always a safe place. When they’re with me, I try to make them feel like it is. School is a place to learn and grow, where everything should be perfect, the future an endless world of knowledge to explore.”

She stopped talking. North’s gaze had become intense. Meg wondered if it was such a safe subject after all. “What about you? Have you always wanted to be a multi-millionaire company director?”

His lips twitched at her obvious deflection. “It’s a job, a well-paid one. It has its good and bad points. Some parts offer more satisfaction than others. I like the chase. The drive. The perks.”

“Perks like Anika Sorrenson?” As soon as the words left her mouth, she cursed herself.

He raised his brows. “Have you been researching me, Meg?”

She had researched him, from a professional point of view. She’d needed all the information she could get after he’d been taken and had done an exhaustive, mostly illegal search into his life. Anika Sorrenson, an ice blonde actress had turned up as his most recent lover. Meg had quickly discarded her as a suspect as the woman didn’t seem to have any real power or any grudges concerning North.

“You were both in the newspapers a lot,” she said, explaining her knowledge. “I like the celebrity pages.”

He shrugged. “It was more of a business arrangement than anything. Anika approached me, said she wanted to break into bigger movie roles. To do that in today’s media hungry world you need to get noticed. She didn’t want scandal. So she decided three months on my arm would accomplish her goal nicely. She proposed a deal. I accepted.”

“Payment for services rendered?” Meg asked.

“If you like.”

“Not your usual type of deal.” Meg was curious, despite herself.

“It stirred my interest at a time last year when business was annoying and life was a little stressful.”

“So she got three months in your home?”

“Never in my home. A tabloid rumor, unfounded. She did spend three months in my bed, a mutually satisfying side venture to the agreement.” He looked over at Meg.

She met his leveled gaze, giving him no reaction.

Putting his glass aside, he laid down on the blanket. When he stretched out, his long body spilled over the ends. Raising his arms, he folded them behind his head and closed his eyes, the epitome of male relaxation.

“Anika is a lovely girl. We got on remarkably well. Despite what you may be thinking, I would never have entered into such an agreement otherwise. She’s smart and highly intelligent. I feel she should be looking for a more productive career. I offered to put her through college at my cost, no strings attached. She had it in her blood though. Nothing would satisfy her, except acting.”

“She turned down your offer of an education?”

“She did. Anika’s very stubborn. She’s dating a director now. He should be able to help her with her dream. I sincerely wish her all the best.”

He’s one of the good guys. Ruthless, undoubtedly. But honest and upfront, with good morals and judgment. A life worth saving.

She followed his lead, laying down on the soft blanket and stretching out. It was large enough to provide enough space between them for her to be comfortable. The sun flickered through the leaves above, making her squint. Meg closed her eyes.

Sleep had been elusive lately. The last assignment had taken its toll, mentally as well as physically. She loathed having to admit it. Dreams plagued her in the darkness of the night, fractured, disturbing images, and memories. Meg forced herself to breathe deeply. Lying in the late afternoon with the sun and the bubbling stream nearby was relaxing. North had apparently given up on his interrogation for the time being.  She surrendered to the peace. The tension in her muscles began to relax.

The screech of an angry bird startled her. Meg woke, instantly and completely, without moving, just as she always did. God, she needed more sleep if she could just nod off at a moment’s notice like that, here in the open where anyone could penetrate her defenses. Glancing to her left, she saw North sitting up, staring into the distance.

The light moved through the trees, casting shadows over his face and body, almost like the first time she’d seen him. Then he had been dirty and unshaven, gaunt, injured, and exhausted.

He had a strong profile, a square jaw, and high cheekbones. His hair and lashes were as dark as his eyes, an arresting and handsome face. He’d put back what little weight his incarceration had stolen from him and looked strong and healthy.

Meg hadn’t seen any hospital reports. Her assignment had finished the second she’d handed him over to the transportation team. He looked well, despite his eye injury she still regretted. Is that why she’d agreed to coffee yesterday? Plagued by guilt over an injury she hadn’t known about? He’d been beaten long before she arrived. There was nothing she could have done. Still, it troubled her. Meg wanted to ask after other injuries. Of course, that was ridiculous. It would blow her cover. Physically, he’d made a full recovery. Meg felt sure the mental scars remained. Was that why he’d set out to find her?

She continued her perusal. Powerful shoulders, broad back, strong arms. He had one knee drawn up, and his arm rested on it. His other arm was by his side, and his hand was…holding hers. His larger fingers curled around hers like a form of protection. She tugged them free. To his credit he didn’t try to stop her.

“You haven’t been sleeping at night?” He turned to face her.

“It was just a little nap. I’m not used to drinking wine during the day.”

“Is it physical pain or do you have dreams?”

Damn the man was perceptive. “It’s nothing for you to worry about.”

“Meg, talk to me. Sometimes talking helps.”

“I have nothing to talk about. I keep telling you, it’s all in your head.”

“You have shadows under your eyes.”

“Are you always this complimentary with women you have picnics with?”

“I’m sorry I held your hand. It’s just that you watched over me while I slept, kept me safe from harm. I was simply returning the favor.”

He watched for a reaction. She gave him none, perhaps because his frank statement had surprised her into silence. A good man, a life worth saving.

Sighing, he rose to his feet. He leaned down and offered his hand. She ignored it and stood without his help.

“You’re much more stubborn than Anika,” he said, lips curving.

“Perhaps, we both think you get your way all too often. Come on. Let’s get you home. I have a lesson plan to write.”

 ~ ~ ~ ~

 More from Carolyn:

I was born in England. My parents loved to travel as my dad spent many years in the navy. By the time I reached the age of 12 we had traveled pretty much around the world on cruise ships.

This sounds fun and exciting unless like me you can get sea sick sitting in a bathtub. Lets just say boats do not feature highly in my books.

I still love to travel, but I use planes. All of my life I have written stories in my head. I would rewrite and add characters to TV shows, edit and change novels I was reading, invent scenarios and scenes to amuse myself on long journeys. But strangely I never wrote any of them down. About three years ago I woke up with a scene so clear in my head I knew I had to put it down on paper. Now, what should I do with this one page of prose? I know, I will email it to some friends. The friends approved, in fact they asked what book it was from. I shyly admitted it was my own work and the reaction was immediate…please write the next bit! I did and I have not stopped writing since.

~ ~ ~ ~

Check out Carolyn’s other books in The Protectors Series:

The Diplomat’s Daughter, The Actress, The Scientist, and The Widower’s Child.

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