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Sacrament

by CRB and Ladyhawk Baggins

9 July 1420sr

When Frodo woke he noticed his hands were tightly fisted; one clutched some of Lily’s heather-coloured travel skirt at her hip, and the other clung to a handful of her burnished tresses. He carefully tested his hold to be certain he was not pulling her hair. Then he painfully flexed his fingers from their cramped position. How did I not wake you, my love? Or did I?

Why can I not bring myself to speak to you of what happened? he brooded. My letters to you in March revealed much of it in detail, but speaking of it now, with the place so near, is so much more difficult... I recite over and over what I would say to you, and yet it feels wrong -- and still I say nothing. There is something I must tell you. I know it in my heart. How may I tell you what I am unwilling to acknowledge to myself? I feel myself growing warm, with shame...

I feel you stir in my arms, beloved, knowing you are waking, and I hastily bury those ugly thoughts once more. I know I must tell you, but not today... I’ll endeavor to give you unmarred beauty for one more day -- mayhap two -- then...

Lily nestled deeper within Frodo’s loving embrace, wishing to sleep a little longer, but her husband’s disquiet worried her. I know not how to help you, beloved, if you’ll not share your burden with me. She rubbed her cheek against his shoulder, knowing this always brought him some measure of comfort, and felt him tremble slightly in response. It still amazed her to think her nearness could affect him so. She wondered if she would ever grow accustomed to it, and hoped she would not.

“Frodo,” she murmured, smiling up at him with sleepy eyes. She kissed his cheek once, still only half-awake, and then she stretched within his embrace. “Dearest Frodo -- mmm, good morning -- How warm you are, dear husband... how grateful I am for you...”

She took in his gaze, full of love, but slightly troubled. He was attempting to hide it, but he could not circumvent her gift of sight. She watched his expression change; he had, just now, been able to read her thoughts. There is much hesitation within his heart, she mused. He’s not yet ready -- he’s not yet able -- to tell me what’s troubling him so...

She started on a new tack, and one corner of her mouth curved in a lazy smile. “Dearest Frodo, tell me of Rivendell... Do I remember rightly -- they do not live in trees? Not like the Elves who gave you your cloak in Loth -- Loth...”

“Lothlórien,” Frodo smiled. “Yes, you remember rightly... good morning, my beloved Lily.”

“Lothlórien,” she repeated slowly. “The Golden Wood?”

“Yes! It’s been months since I told you of that!” he beamed, and kissed her cheek.

“True,” Lily grinned, and met his eyes for a moment. “But every time I look at the ceiling in our bedroom, I’m reminded.” She felt the tension in her husband ease, and saw the light deep within him shine more brightly, through the blue of his eyes. She closed her own briefly, in an effort to gather her thoughts.

When she opened them again, Frodo was still smiling; he knew why she had found it necessary to close her eyes, even though he did not understand it. He kissed her forehead, releasing her from his gaze.

She found her voice after another moment, nestling against his breast once more. “But tell me of Rivendell... Yesterday, you called it the Last Homely House?”

Their talk of Rivendell gradually merged with talk of their friends, and of their conspiracy, just before Frodo left the Shire. Another lazy hour, filled with conversation and occasional laughter, gave them something of a late start to their day, but they did not care.

---------

As they continued their journey, Frodo spoke more of those last days in the Shire before departing for the Quest. In speaking of the conspiracy, with Sam at the center, Lily understood now why Sam did not want to know what would happen at the wedding, when he learned he would need to keep anything a secret from his master. She still did not regret hiding the truth from Frodo. I shall tell him, when the time comes...

Lily felt a restlessness, even in Merry, her pony, and worked at keeping him tightly reined in as she spoke.

“Frodo, would you truly have left the Shire alone -- without even Sam along?”

“That was my intention, from the start. I wanted to visit Bilbo. I fiddled with the idea of going to see him from time to time, before the Quest, but could never find the right opportunity to leave.”

Watching him, Lily saw his face change. Whenever Frodo spoke of the Ring, it was painful for him. She felt it, and yet she knew it was nothing like the daily and nightly torment he suffered before they took their vows. She shuddered, remembering that pain in her body and her spirit from those days of their courtship, and recalling the evil within herself, just as they finished their vows. She remembered Gandalf, after he lifted the darkness from her. She wrenched her attention back to her husband.

“I’m sorry, Frodo-love. Please do go on...”

“Of course, Lily.” He cleared his throat nervously. “The -- the Ring would have gone with me regardless, so accustomed I was to having It with me. Then Gandalf came, and told me of Its true nature. I knew -- I knew I must leave, and thought it as good a time as any to carry out my plan to visit Bilbo. Gandalf insisted Samwise accompany me.”

---------

They were well past the Midgewater Marshes, and had been traveling in silence for over an hour.

“Shall I tell you of my first pet?”

Frodo eyed her, surprise clearly written on his face. “How old were you?”

“I was seven at the time, and finding just the right pet was no easy undertaking, I soon discovered... I didn’t want a chick, as I knew what happened to them. Helping my mum pluck chickens was a task I was given as young as four. When I turned five, I was old enough to gather eggs, so I understood chickens were for laying eggs and for eating. I’d also seen my da skin coneys and mum cut it into stew. And I’ll never forget being chased by a goose from our neighbor’s yard! When my da talked of getting one, I begged him not to. In truth, Da didn’t want me to get attached to anything we might end up eating or selling... The pony we had belonged more to Will and Daisy, since they rode...”

Lily could feel Frodo relax as he lost himself in the story.

“I persisted in my desire to have something of my very own to care for. Da finally gave me a corner of the garden, hoping it would be enough, but I complained about how long it took things to grow. I put in work with my da every day, and saw only small changes. It was then I decided coneys were only good for eating when one found its way into my garden and ate most of my little crop of carrots, and they weren’t even big enough to pull... I found the creature’s hole not two feet from my little plot. I was thrilled when Da trapped it, and we had it for dinner, certain my troubles were over...”

She sighed once, lost in the memory. “Then the slugs and snails came round, and finished off what little the coney left me, and it was barely the end of May!”

Frodo smiled, knowing Lily was distracting him from his own worries, and offered a silent prayer of gratitude for her.

“What did you do, dear Lily?”

She heard the appreciation in his voice and smiled in return.

“I cried.”

“What?!”

“I didn’t know what to do, so I did what every seven-year-old lass does when she’s frustrated beyond words, running into one dead end after another. I cried.”

“They truly do that? Little lasses, I mean?” Frodo searched his childhood memories of Brandy Hall as he studied his wife’s expression.

Lily smiled indulgently, then giggled at the surprise showing plainly on her husband’s face. “Yes. But it didn’t last long. Da encouraged me to be patient. He promised, with enough time, just the right pet would find me.”

He grinned. “And did it?”

“Indeed. A week later, I discovered a hedgehog had moved into the coney burrow.”

“A hedgehog?!”

“And she had a litter of three, a week later.”

“Ah! -- but how did she become your pet?”

“In truth, she did not... One of the little ones didn’t live out the first week, but the other two survived. Then when they were but three weeks old, something happened to the mother. She must’ve gone out for food, but never came back. Da told me she simply got lost, though I guessed what really happened -- a fox probably caught her. I was grateful for Da’s efforts to protect me from one of the less pleasant truths of life, if only for a little longer.”

“What became of them -- the litter?”

“I tried to care for the remaining two, leaving them in their burrow, but lost one the first night. They were still too young, so with my mum’s help I put the last one in a flowerpot with grasses and such from its nest. I fed her milk from our goat. Then Da told me they eat snails and slugs, and I knew I had plenty of those in the garden.”

“I seem to remember the Gaffer telling me once he wished he could find a hedgehog for the Bag End garden. They had them before I moved from Buckland, but had to get rid of them when they started eating the chicken eggs.”

“Yes, they do resort to eggs if they can’t find enough bugs and the like... Da was quite pleased with the idea of having the creature.”

“What did you name it -- name her, I mean?”

“I fear I wasn’t very creative,” Lily sighed. “Prickles.”

Frodo laughed. “I think it was probably a fine name for a hedgehog.”

“It did seem to suit her,” she smiled.

“So she survived?”

“Eight long years I enjoyed Prickles’ company, and she kept our garden quite neat and tidy and safe from coneys.”

“Had you not considered some other kind of pet, like a cat?”

“We had a cat, but it belonged to Daisy, and Mum wasn’t too keen on dogs.”

“Like me,” Frodo chuckled, completely immersed in her story.

Lily giggled. “But for very different reasons. It seems they had a dog before I was born, and when it passed, Mum didn’t think any other dog was as good. Will and Daisy sometimes teased me that I was born to replace the dog.”

Frodo laughed out loud.

“Laugh if you like,” she replied with all the indignance she could muster, struggling to hide her own mirth.

“I can see I missed out on a great deal, having no brothers or sisters. I look forward to making up for all I missed, when we have our own children...”

Frodo’s voice failed him. Children! he thought, amazed. I believed it could not happen. It could never be. I never hoped...

His eyes focused again, and he smiled at his wife, endeavoring to remain calm. “I -- I imagine they’ll each want their own pet... That could turn into quite a menagerie, but I don’t mind. I wonder if one of them shall want a hedgehog? It matters not; we’ll sort it out...”

“Frodo?” Lily struggled to control the nervousness in her voice. “What if we don’t have a lot of children?”

“We’re hobbits, Lily...” He laughed, then noted the strain around Lily’s eyes, and spoke more slowly. “We agreed the day we were betrothed, we wanted as many as Ilúvatar would give us... Lily? What is it?”

“May we not speak of children right now?”

“Of course... What’s wrong, dearest?”

“I’m not entirely certain. I suppose I’m afraid, a little. My mum had only three, and her own mum and Da’s mum had only two children each, one of whom did not survive. Please -- may we not speak of it now?” She kept all traces of impatience from her face and voice.

Frodo blinked, and nearly pulled Strider to a halt, then decided against it as he watched her struggle to control her emotions. “Please forgive me, dearest. I did not intend to cause you distress. We’ll speak of it only when you wish to.”

“I’m sorry, Frodo...”

“No need, beloved.”

“Thank you.”

---------

Lily regretted her own reaction, but could not fully explain it, even to herself. She was pleased Frodo managed to snare a coney for their dinner, which she made into a stew, and was grateful for her husband’s appreciation for the meal.

By the time they turned in, the discomfort of earlier in the day seemed to have been forgotten.

---------

That night, Lily woke once again to Frodo’s fitful stirring and distressed murmuring. She wondered if she should wake him or let him sleep on, worrying about which course was best...

Lily took in a deep breath, letting it out slowly and endeavoring to calm herself. As she had almost every night since Bree, she touched his face, her fingers tenderly smoothing the crease in his brow.

As he had on each of the previous nights, Frodo calmed and drew her close, still asleep.

Five nightmares for him on this trip, Lily reflected, but still they were not bad ones. She was grateful they were nothing at all like those from his illness in March.

She wrestled with why the nightmares had returned most nights, but not every one. They had not said much at supper this night, or even the night before, but it was not as though they always needed to talk. That was something she loved; they enjoyed the long chats and the silences -- listening to the world around them. What was different today? He had spoken of memories, but he had done that the day they left Bree, and yet no nightmares came that night.

Lily asked herself again: what was different now? Was it that she asked they not speak of children? Her heart whispered no, but she had the niggling feeling there was something, some small detail, which she did not know. She nestled closer to him, wishing she could protect him from the coming storm. As she slowly drifted back to sleep, she whispered, “I love you.” She did not hear him reply.

Frodo’s insides knotted as his love for Lily and his fear of the past -- as well as what lay ahead -- battled within him. His heart told him she had been awake for a while. He knew her well enough now to know she usually slept through the night. Except if she were cold, he smiled to himself, but he had already provided for that. He mulled things over in his mind and wondered if he had awakened her. Would she tell him if he had?

He carefully remained very still, hoping Lily would sleep long enough to feel rested. The door to the past was growing more difficult to keep closed. He struggled to concentrate only on Lily; she had blessed him with so many wonderful memories of love and laughter and peace.

Frodo was suddenly upset with himself. Lily had given him so much; Sam had, all his friends had... why could he not simply live in the present and be happy for all he had been given? More than anything, he was aware of what a treasure Lily was to him. Every moment of every day was now made better by her presence. Why was it he could not let go of the past? He felt somehow ungrateful, then unworthy of her.

No; he could not think this way. Lily would never allow him to think such thoughts, and for that he was again grateful to her. She was like an anchor, he realized, and not for the first time. She will not allow me to be lost forever...

But the past would not let go of him so easily. Was there something else here he did not understand? Why had Gandalf suggested this trip? Didn’t he know what memories would be stirred?

Frodo knew part of the answer... he would trust his old friend’s wiser judgment. With that simple decision, though he could not fall asleep again, he was able to rest.

He chose to let Lily wake in his arms, when she would.

---------

10 July 1420sr

The morning dawned clear and bright. Frodo felt Lily awaken, and greeted her silently by gathering her closer into his arms. Nothing he had ever known matched the wonder of having her next to him at the start of each new day.

As Lily awoke to the welcome feeling of her husband’s tender embrace, all the unpleasantness of the previous night was, for the moment, forgotten. By the time she recalled it, she did not want it to cloud the fragile peace that was theirs.

Frodo meant to ask her if she had slept well, but the thought left him completely when she kissed his cheek and murmured, “Good morning.”

His answer was to kiss her, gently but deeply. He felt her response, then his own, a corresponding shudder running down the whole length of his body. Then she broke the kiss and lay back, inviting him to kiss her again, pulling him toward her.

He propped himself up on one elbow, his free hand tracing the curve of her ear, her brows, her cheek, before placing his hand on her waist. Drinking in her smile and her welcome, his mouth covered hers once more, and he felt the play of her fingers in his hair, and smiled through their kiss.

“Good morning. How I love you,” he whispered.

Her response was a warm sound of affirmation, and he kissed her throat, just at the opening of her chemise. She sighed, and he felt her tense under his hand. Then he stopped, breathing unevenly.

“Lily, you’ve -- you’ve no idea how good you smell... I don’t think you have any notion of how you affect me -- you needn’t ever wear honeysuckle again, and I would still be drawn to you like a bee to a flower...”

“I believe I’ve notions of my own, dear Frodo, about you,” she smiled, reaching beneath his waistcoat to rub his back. She reached up just enough to kiss his neck, and watched his eyes close.

“Oh, dearest, not there--” he protested, but only barely.

She knew how that kiss affected him, and he opened his eyes, smiling down at her.

Lily giggled, entering into one of their games. “I love you,” she began.

Frodo joined in, one corner of his mouth lifting in a crooked smile. “I love you more.”

“I love you more yet...” Her eyes twinkled, and she touched his mouth with her finger.

“All right,” he conceded, smiling broadly. “You’ve won -- this time.” He kissed her fingertip, then brought his right hand up to touch her cheek.

Lily became serious, taking his right hand in her left, and spreading out her own fingers, so that he did the same, much as in the wedding ceremony. She studied his fingers.

“You have such beautiful hands, Frodo. I love your hands... I have wanted to tell you for so long. Almost from the beginning.” She traced down the length of his fingers with her own, then kissed his palm and laid it against her cheek once more, closing her eyes contentedly, then opening them again, and meeting his.

Frodo was speechless. Not even taking into account his right hand being so marred... He was puzzled. He knew there was nothing special about his hands, so it had to be her love for him speaking, not any sort of objective statement of fact.

“Yes, they are,” she repeated, smiling as she read his every thought. “You’ll need to take my word for it. I love everything about your hands. They are strong, and warm, gentle, and loving. They’re beautifully formed.”

“My nails are too short,” he reasoned, laughing.

“Ah, dearest Frodo, but not nearly as short as they were before,” Lily countered. “You’ll need to think of something better than that.”

“Hmm. I admit you’ve kept me so busy I haven’t been able to attack my fingernails as I once did...” He brushed some curled auburn tendrils away from her forehead. “If I begin to list all the beautiful bits I love about you -- your glorious hair, for a start -- well, my dear Lily, truly, we should never reach Rivendell.”

He fervently wished to lose himself completely in her love. He sensed that Lily would acquiesce; he was even aware that by following his desires he could gain a temporary reprieve from all his fears...

How selfish can I be? he thought. Lily, as ever, would give herself to him completely; but in his current state he would be holding back; and she would know it. It dismayed him that he could even consider for a moment such a course of action.

“We must get the day started, sweet,” he smiled wanly.

“Yes,” Lily sighed, and accepted his hand up.

Frodo kissed her cheek and set to his chores. I must tell her, somehow, and yet some part of me wonders about this, for surely it is not the simple truth of the events which occurred that I stumble over. I fear... I am afraid there is more to express than the stark truth of what happened on the Quest. Yes, there is something more. I must tell her... He shuddered. What will she think of me once she knows?

More than ever, it was clear to him how much he wished to avoid what lay ahead. There was also the persistent feeling that they needed to move on; and yet, he knew he took more time than was necessary to prepare the ponies that morning.

---------

Shortly after they were on their way, the ponies pricked their ears forward and lifted their heads. Frodo quickly pulled up Strider, reached over and grabbed Merry’s bridle, and with Pippin in tow behind them, guided them off the road and out of sight.

Lily took a breath to ask what was wrong, but before she could speak, Frodo quickly shook his head and covered her lips with his fingers. They heard several horses thunder past, before silence descended all about them, punctuated only by the sound of the ponies’ breathing and their shifting from one hoof to another. Gradually the drone of insects, far off, reached their ears.

Frodo breathed a sigh of relief and dropped his hand from her lips to rest on the pommel of his saddle. He closed his eyes for a moment, opening them again when Lily spoke, but gazing through the brush toward the road.

“Who were they?” she whispered, confused.

Frodo glanced quickly at her. “I don’t know.”

“Then why are we hiding?”

“I must keep you safe.”

“Safe from what?”

“Safe from...”

Frodo’s eyes widened as understanding dawned within him.

“I am sorry, dearest. It’s -- it is nothing -- just an old habit.”

Lily gained some understanding of her own, and sighed inwardly.

Merry tossed his head and snorted, following a few paces behind Strider back onto the road, and within a few steps Lily caught her pony up to Frodo’s.

---------

As the day wore on, she watched helplessly as Frodo withdrew more and more into himself. One hour stretched into two, and he spoke not at all, and glanced at her only rarely.

Lily was stung, hurt by his isolation and seeming rejection of her. As they rode, she stared fixedly at the horizon, though she was barely aware of what was actually in front of her. Without realizing it, she prayed for understanding, and it crept into her heart that Frodo was not rejecting her; he was instead endeavoring to protect her.

She did not know when they would pass Weathertop, but she knew it was coming. It seemed that Frodo’s restlessness grew almost with every step the ponies took. He would slow the pace and then pick it up, as though undecided as to whether he wanted to avoid the place for as long as possible, or rush on.

Lily knew the memories were crowding in and might engulf him, if his illness in March was any indication. Although she knew this was not the same, she wondered how severe it would become. She also knew there was only one way to go: forward. It wasn’t as though they couldn’t turn back; they could, and she would be content. But after what happened at the meadow...

She had struggled with the idea of forgiving her father for that prank played on her so long ago; the memory of the giant, green grasshopper was still fresh, even after all these years. Now she found herself curiously thankful, for it had helped her in some small way to better understand her husband. She would never fully comprehend the depth or magnitude of what he faced, but she had now learned enough to know that whatever else happened on this journey, the past must be put firmly in its place: the past. She realized that Frodo had even taught her in small measure how to help him. She must take his fears to heart, and not try to brush them aside. It was a start, anyway...

After a brief stop for afternoon tea, Frodo prepared to help Lily up onto Merry again. Lily paused and turned to face him. She reached up and cupped his cheek with her left hand and then she laid her right over the place where the scar was on his shoulder.

Lily held back tears as she watched him struggle not to flinch. She looked him full in the eyes, and hoped he could see once again the unwavering love she held for him there.

She could not have said what made her ask. “Frodo, when shall we pass Weathertop?”

“Tomorrow.” His eyes pleaded with her to understand.

Lily did not try to hide her concern, but smiled to reassure him, and gave a brief nod of her head.

He relaxed a little and again offered her a lift up onto Merry. Once she was settled, his hands lingered for a moment on her waist. She saw him shake himself free of some reverie he was in, and then they were on their way.

---------

Weathertop loomed, and though they could not yet see it, Frodo held it in his mind’s eye with perfect clarity. The battle within him raged as he endeavored to contain the memories and concentrate on the present. He knew he was losing, wholly unable to stop his downward slide into the past.

Frodo struggled to keep the nightmare images at bay, but they haunted him relentlessly, every one. He had concealed them in a dark corner for so long, and was surprised at how vivid they remained -- how much detail still burned there within his mind.

When they halted for the evening, they had shared only a few words since afternoon tea, hours before. Lily prepared a simple supper, which Frodo barely touched. She felt him far away from her, and very far away from where they were now.

They turned in shortly after supper. Frodo lay down beside her, kissed her on the cheek and wished her goodnight. He fell almost instantly asleep, wrapped up in his cloak.

Lily’s heart ached for him. He had been trying so hard to be a good guide for her, answering all of her questions and sharing so many memories of the Quest. She lay awake, unable to close her eyes, and saw her husband’s sleep was uneasy at best.

Then the nightmares began. Frodo was unaware of them since he did not wake, and Lily saw no reason to tell him anything she might see or hear. He would only worry and fret that he had disturbed her sleep.

Lying next to him on their bedroll, Lily felt him begin to shiver; not from the night air, which was less cool this night than any since leaving Bag End. This nightmare was much worse than those of previous evenings, the worst she had seen since his March illness. In his recent nightmares, he mumbled only, and stirred restlessly, but she had been able to calm him with a soft word and a gentle caress. This night, he actually recoiled from her touch, and his words were clear.

“Go!”

Lily started, at first puzzled and hurt that he would say such a thing to her. He became momentarily still. Then she wondered if he were possibly even awake. He began to toss and turn, as though endeavoring to escape some unseen adversary. She recognized words from his illness in March.

“O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!” he cried out.

Then, to Lily’s great surprise, he stopped breathing.

Lily was beside herself; he did not breathe for the longest time... should she wake him? No; in her own nightmares she had come awake each time she could not breathe -- Frodo would come awake if his body had enough need of breath. But --

Suddenly he screamed, a scream that rent the night and went straight through her soul. Lily sat up, clutching her blanket. The ponies spooked, pawing and snorting, moving restlessly where they were tethered.

Afraid to disturb him, and yet more afraid of leaving him to the terror he felt, Lily touched his arm. “Frodo?” she breathed.

He seemed not to feel or hear her, and then he cried out again, but his voice was softer, pleading and full of anguish.

“Oh, Sam!”

Lily’s heart filled with fear for her husband, as she listened to him relive the horror of that night. This could only be Weathertop, surely... For a moment, she bitterly regretted wanting to visit Rivendell. It was not worth causing Frodo such pain. Yet Gandalf had encouraged it.

Surely the wizard knew the torment this journey would cause! Understanding dawned once more in Lily’s heart, a sad remembrance... Gandalf had warned her clearly that although the darkness would be purged from Frodo’s soul when they wed, his memories of it and what it wrought were another matter entirely. He must somehow find peace with those. But could he?

She searched her mind for some idea of what to do next. She could not bear to continue to watch Frodo’s suffering. She prayed, asking Ilúvatar for guidance. It was not unlike the prayer Frodo had offered at the Shirebourn; suddenly that seemed only yesterday. Ilúvatar had granted their request; perhaps hers would be granted now also...

Lily had no more finished her prayer when she felt a calm envelop her; she knew what to do. She tenderly gathered Frodo close to her.

At first he tried to push her away, crying, “No! I must do this alone! Alone...”

Lily whispered in his ear. “Frodo, dearest, no. Not alone. I am here. I’ll always be here with you, and I shall share your burden.”

Moments passed like hours, and nothing seemed to ease his distress. Then gradually, before her eyes, Frodo ceased his shivering, curling slowly into her embrace. Her heart nearly broke in two as she realized he was sobbing in his still-fitful sleep. He had calmed a little, but was still trapped within the nightmare.

Slowly words formed in her mind, and she found herself telling him softly all he had taught her of Ilúvatar. Frodo calmed further, until finally his tears ceased. Lily slipped her fingers into his soft curls and continued to speak in hushed tones to him. Gradually he relaxed, the edges of sorrow smoothed from his brow, and he fell into a deep, peaceful slumber.

Her eyes welled with tears of relief; she blinked them away, breathing as carefully as she could to avoid waking her husband, or possibly sending him back into the nightmare.

Her husband... even the sound of the words made her spirit rise, threatening her again with tears, but this time tears of joy. She had managed to keep the others at bay a few moments ago, when Frodo had seemed near to breaking apart. She wished to be strong for him. His terrible ordeal was not over, she knew; he was not yet past all the memories which haunted him. Nowhere near it, she admitted to herself, and a chill went through her at the thought.

She listened gratefully to his steady, unfettered breathing. Softly, she kissed his tousled curls, still damp across his forehead from the perspiration that had beaded there. He relaxed more deeply into her embrace, allowing her to hold him closer to her heart.